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Verse 15-1: Plunging into cyclic existence

Part of a series of talks on the 41 Prayers to Cultivate Bodhicitta from the Avatamsaka Sutra (the Flower Ornament Sutra).

  • Bodhisattva can be of more benefit if they can escape from cyclic existence
  • Escaping from cyclic existence does not mean abiding in self-complacent peace

41 Prayers to cultivate bodhicitta: Verse 15-1 (download)

We’re back to the 41 prayers to cultivate bodhicitta from the Avatamsaka Sutra. Number 15 says:

“May I plunge into cyclic existence for the sake of all beings.”
This is the prayer of the bodhisattva when going down a staircase.

The previous one, number 14, had said “May all beings escape from the prison of cyclic existence.” In the previous verse we’re wanting to get out of cyclic existence ourselves and with all others, and then the next one we’re plunging into cyclic existence for the sake of sentient beings. There might be a little bit of confusion here. Are we coming out, going back in, what’s the deal?

There’s also some confusion I notice in people’s mind about what exactly a bodhisattva is doing and what a bodhisattva’s about. Because some people say that a bodhisattva will give up their own enlightenment and not attain enlightenment in order to stay in samsara for sentient beings, and that’s not correct. Because as a limited being, an unenlightened being, a bodhisattva can help but can’t help fully. The idea is for bodhisattvas that their compassion for sentient beings is so intense that if it were beneficial for them to stay in cyclic existence for the benefit of all beings they would do that. However, they can be of more benefit if they can escape from cyclic existence.

But escaping from cyclic existence does not mean abiding in self-complacent peace—the nirvana of an arhat, of a hearer or solitary realizer arhat. Instead the bodhisattva always all along is saying I’m working for my enlightenment for the benefit of others, and a key part of that, the most important part of that is to be able to continue to manifest in cyclic existence for the benefit of sentient beings.

It talks about bodhisattvas plunging into cyclic existence for the benefit of sentient beings, but actually their mind is trying to be free of cyclic existence but they’re sending out, the higher level bodhisattvas (the arya bodhisattvas), are sending out emanations that remain in the world of us ordinary beings in order to guide us. Is that clear, do people understand that?

This is quite important, because if you think, “Oh a bodhisattva doesn’t aspire for enlightenment because they want to help sentient beings,” then that’s saying the bodhisattva doesn’t have bodhicitta, which is contradictory. They have to have bodhicitta. At the same time that you’re working for enlightenment it’s for the benefit of sentient beings so that you can develop all these abilities to be able to manifest in the world of ordinary beings and lead them to enlightenment also.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.