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The great aspirations of bodhisattvas

The great aspirations of bodhisattvas

Part of a series of short talks given on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland of Advice for a King during the Manjushri Winter Retreat.

  • What it means for bodhisattvas to “remain in samsara”
  • Parinirvana from a Mahayana perspective
  • The purpose of expansive aspirational prayers to strengthen our love and compassion
  • Imprinting again and again on our minds the bodhisattva ideal

We’ll continue along with these verses of Nagarjuna. Verse 485…. The previous two verses we did were all about dedication and bodhicitta and so on. This verse follows along with it. They’re in sequence in Precious Garland.” So it says,

As long as even one sentient being has not yet been liberated may I remain in the world for that being’s sake, even if I have attained unexcelled awakening.

This is the same as the Shantideva prayer:

For as long as space endures
And for as long as sentient beings remain,
Until then may I too abide
To dispel the misery of the world.

It’s the same kind of meaning. We’re not walking out on sentient beings. We’re not saying, “I got enlightened, ciao, good luck everybody. Wish you well. See you later.”

There’s often some confusion amongst certain people because sometimes it says in the sutras that bodhisattvas will remain in samsara until it ends. So people gather from that that bodhisattvas don’t want to attain full awakening and that they don’t attain full awakening. Because if they attain full awakening then they would no longer abide in samsara. Here when it talks like that it doesn’t mean that bodhisattvas stay in samsara forever. I mean, already the arya bodhisattvas are no longer in samsara. The idea is that the bodhisattva’s compassion is so strong that if it would be better for them to remain in samsara and forgo their own enlightenment in order to benefit sentient beings, they would be happy to do that. But remember, these bodhisattvas have incredible renunciation of samsara. For them the third kind of dukkha, the dukkha of pervasive conditioning, which we don’t even notice or think about, to them they say it’s like having a hair in your eye, that’s how painful it is. So clearly they want to get out of cyclic existence. It’s just this kind of statement is indicating the strength of their compassion, the strength of their cherishing of others.

If you look at it, if a bodhisattva’s goal is to benefit sentient beings, are they going to be of more benefit to sentient beings after attaining buddhahood or before? So clearly they want to attain buddhahood as quickly as they can for the benefit of sentient beings. But this way of saying that they stay until in samsara until it ends, it’s indicative of their compassion. Doesn’t mean they don’t attain full awakening.

And also when it speaks like that, there it’s talking about the samsaric universe of other sentient beings. It’s not talking about them remaining in their own samsara with their own five polluted aggregates. They want to get free of their own five polluted aggregates. And by doing that then they’re able to manifest in the polluted world of sentient beings in order to guide us and help us.

So what we’re doing is making that pledge, too. “As long as even one sentient being….” Even one. Even the person you can’t stand. Even Jihadi John. (I found out he had a name. The one that chops off heads.) Or even the ones who… They burned alive one of the Jordanian pilots they captured. ISIS did that. I mean just burned the guy alive in a cage and put the video…. And the whole Muslim world is aghast at this. But it’s just unbelievable that people would do something like that. So even somebody like this, who you just like…. “Where are they coming from? I don’t understand….” You know? We have the privilege of not understanding them. Imagine if you were captured by them. Then you’re terrified out of your mind … if you don’t have the Dharma. Even if you do have the Dharma I think it would be pretty scary. But as long as one sentient being, even somebody like that, has not yet been liberated, we’re not going to just label them something and throw them out the window and ignore them and let them, say, “Yeah, go to hell, that’s where you belong.” We’re not going to do that. But we’re going to, it says, “May I remain in the world for that being’s sake even if I have attained unexcelled awakening.” So it means that we will continue to manifest as bodhisattvas in order to benefit all of these sentient beings no matter who they are.

So attaining parinirvana, from a Mahayana perspective, it’s not that your five aggregates cease. Again you have five aggregates, but they’re unpolluted aggregates. Your body becomes the sambhogakaya. Not this body, but your enlightened body is the sambhogakaya, the enjoyment body or resource body. Your mind becomes the dharmakaya, the truth body. You still have the five aggregates but they’re purified, and in that way you use everything about yourself for the benefit of sentient beings.

We always have these kind of bodhisattva prayers that sometimes when we read them they just seem, like, unimaginable to us. It’s like, how can I say that even for one total ignoramus I’m going to stay in samsara? It’s like, how can I even think of that? Or the previous one, “May all their negativities ripen upon me and may I give them all my virtue.” It’s like, what? You know? They seem outlandish. Yes? It’s like, “Well I can never…. According to the law of karma, I can’t take on anybody’s karma. So why am I praying like that? And I can’t give them my virtue, so why am I dedicating like that?”

The purpose of these verses is to strengthen our compassion, to strengthen our love for sentient beings so that when we do encounter situations where we can help there’s absolutely no hesitation on our part. And when we do get to the point of the path where we’re real close to realizing emptiness and a thought comes in our mind like “Oh, I’m close to the path of seeing I can attain my own liberation now and be done with it.” If that thought arises…. First of all by praying like this now and dedicating like this now it will prevent that thought from arising. And even if it does arise, immediately these verses will ring in our mind and we’ll say to ourselves, “No, I can’t do that. I can’t do that. Even when I was an ignorant sentient being I prayed not to do that. So now when I’m somebody who’s further advanced along the path I cannot walk out on sentient beings.”

So you see a lot, like the different verses we say, the recitations we do—like I was saying the other day—they always give us the highest standard, and the ultimate way we want to be. And we usually compare ourselves to that and say, “It’s too much, how can I possibly get there?” But those verses are not said so that we can think about them that way and compare ourselves and say it’s useless. That’s our wrong way of thinking. Those verses are put that way so that we imprint on our mind again and again and again the bodhisattva ideal. And again and again and again this commitment to work for the welfare of sentient beings until all sentient beings are liberated. And by the force of imprinting that in our mind again and again and again, then it makes it much easier as we go along the path to adhere to that aspiration and not get sidetracked.

It’s similar to how we keep on hearing about emptiness and dependent arising being complementary. And we hear about it and we scratch our heads and like “what’s going on here? I don’t understand.” But just the force of thinking about that, hearing it again and again and again, it plants the seeds so that when we do have a realization of emptiness, when we come out of that meditative equipoise, then we’ll think, “Oh, but that emptiness means that things still exist. It means they dependently exist,” and that will enable us easily to have the illusion-like meditation in post-meditation time. Whereas if we don’t plant those seeds in our mind it becomes much more difficult.

In the same way you know how the teachers tell us many times regarding shamatha, “Yes, shamatha’s very good but don’t get blissed out in the bliss or the equanimity of shamatha….” Well, shamatha you still have the bliss, but when you go up the jhanas, the dhyanas, at one point you get equanimity which is supposedly a much better feeling than even bliss, (this is talking paramitayana), so don’t get stuck in that. So this isn’t meant to discourage us from meditating on shamatha, but it’s planting the seed in our mind so that when do come close to actualizing it, and when do realize shamatha, then we won’t get stuck in one of the form realm concentrations or formless realm absorptions because we’ll have imprinted in our mind (due to the kindness of our teachers saying it many many times) be careful don’t get stuck, because otherwise you’ll just be reborn in the concentrations or formless absorptions and you won’t attain awakening.

So we see that there are many things that we want to become familiar with now although we may not totally understand them now, because it puts that imprint, that seed in our mind so that when we need that guidance the imprint is there and it will surface, and it will make it much easier to go in the right direction in the future.

So we pray like this. We dedicate like this. “As long as even one sentient being….” Some fly. Some cockroach. Maybe a scorpion. Or that snake in the corner. “…has not yet been liberated may I remain in the world for that being’s sake….” For that being’s sake. Not only for my own benefit. It doesn’t benefit me at all. What? I don’t get any benefit? I’m doing it just for their sake? Yes! Just for their sake. “…even if I have attained unexcelled awakening.”

So it’s quite important to dedicate in this way. I mean, that’s why Lama Zopa Rinpoche in his dedications his famous phrase, “I will get fully enlightened and manifest in the hell realms with bodies as innumerable as the sky for eons as long as the number of grains of sand in 10 million Ganges rivers to liberate sentient beings by myself alone!”

“By myself alone? But … Rinpoche, I want some company.” [Laughter]

He goes “By myself alone!” He doesn’t let you off the hook at all. You know? And why? So that we develop that strong determination and imprint that on our mind now so that we develop this kind of internal courage and internal strength. Okay?

Of course, we can’t even liberate ourselves “by myself alone” right now. You know? It’s like, we needs the buddhas, we need our teachers, we need the sangha, we need help. But when we’re at that time when we can really be of the greatest benefit to others may we not shy away from it, and may we say “by myself alone I will manifest in the deepest hell realms for those sentient beings that are most out of control, and most obscured, but I will manifest in those hell realms to benefit them.” [Chokes up] I mean, it’s just incredible to think like that. Isn’t it? So let’s do it.

[In response to audience] Okay, the Abhisamayālaṃkāra, when it talks about bodhicitta, it talks about three kinds of bodhisattvas. There are the “shepherd-like bodhisattvas,” the “oars-person-like bodhisattva,” and the “queen bodhisattva.” It’s giving three examples of how bodhisattvas progress along the path according to their disposition. So the shepherd-like bodhisattvas, the shepherd goes behind the flock and it gets the flock there first, so you get everybody enlightened and then you become enlightened. The oars-person, you’re sitting in the boat together, you row, but you all arrive on the other shore at the same time. Queen-like, you lead and they follow you. Okay? So actually the queen-like is better because you get to nirvana first and then you have all the abilities to go back and get everybody else, to lead them there.

They always describe these three and then they always say the queen one is the best. I think that’s because the people who might feel more comfortable with the shepherd-like or the oars-person-like, to motivate them in a stronger way to really take the initiative “by myself alone” I’m going to do it.

[In response to audience] When I’m giving the example it seems like “Well I’m here and I would never do something like burn people alive.” So one way to do it is to say “I’m just going to go and rescue them anyway, despite this conception of ‘I’m a little bit superior to them.'” Or a lot superior to them.

But it’s very good, as you’re saying, to see that actually we’re not so different, and that if you look in this country when they dropped the bomb many people cheered. And some of our actions in Iraq have been really abominable, and so on. And so to think, if I were born in a certain situation I could easily think like some of these people think. And to not put ourselves separate.

It’s quite interesting. Yesterday there was a big national prayer thing and China made a big hoo-hoo about Obama and the Dalai Lama both being there. They didn’t want Obama to meet the Dalai Lama. So Obama didn’t invite the Dalai Lama to the White House, but he saw him at this national prayer thing which was very public. And then when he gave a talk he offered a special welcome to “my friend the Dalai Lama who’s a perfect example of compassion and peace in this world.” So he did it in a very public way, you know? But he also said (which I thought was very good): he was talking about how religion is often misused and how people misunderstand their own religion and use it for violent purposes to harm others. And so he specified what’s going on with like ISIS and some of these people misusing Islam. And then he said, but you know in the Crusades the Christians did the same thing. They were burning people at the stake and so on and so forth. And he thought he was just giving a history lesson or something.

Well, the Republicans and the Christian right blew up and said “how dare you say that about Christianity, we never do anything like that. And what you’re doing is you’re just giving an excuse and making it easier for all those Islamic militants by not saying it for what it is.” It was unbelievable to me, because all you need to do is study the Crusades and it’s unbelievable what the Church did. Even during World War II, which wasn’t so long ago, they didn’t stick up for any of the people being persecuted. They just went right along with it. Even in South America. I mean, all throughout Catholic history in South America, under the rule of the Church, what’s happened. But all these people: “We never do that!”

[In response to audience] When you really think about it, if somebody’s born in a certain situation where all you hear around you is a certain way of thinking, and you don’t have any access to anybody else who thinks in a different way, then of course that conditioning is just going to take over your mind. I mean just imagine yourself, how you were before you met the Dharma, and if you hadn’t met the Dharma. How would you be thinking? What would you be doing right now? Yes? Who knows?

I find that terrifying. So if you’re in certain circumstances and you don’t have the fortune to meet somebody else who can provide you with a more virtuous alternative, then….

So there’s no reason to be haughty or smug. Because who knows what we’ll be reborn as in the future.

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.