Today on my usual morning trip to the local coffee shop, I talked with the morning barista, and he expressed frustration about the influx of drug addicts who come to use the bathroom where he works. A local McDonald’s had closed down recently and the addicts who would use the bathroom there now go this coffee shop instead. Then the barista expressed his frustration about working a part-time job he hates, and the frustrations of living on the West Coast (he’s from the East Coast). Listening to the barista, whose always been nice to me, I felt his frustration and really felt bad for him. He obviously wasn’t happy with his job or his life, and did not have much to look forward to.
Later while pondering this, the Four Vows of the Bodhisattva came to mind:
- I vow to save innumerable sentient beings.
- I vow to eliminate endless afflictions/delusions.
- I vow to learn innumerable doctrines.
- I vow to accomplish the unsurpassed Buddha Way.
I thought of the first two in particular, though the third has been my modus operandi for some time now. These vows are pretty deep and serious, but don’t let that frighten one from making the effort. Master Yin-Shun wrote about what a Bodhisattva is in his book “The Way to Buddhahood“:
Generally people associate the term bodhisattva with the great bodhisattvas such as Guan-Yin (Kannon), so they do not dare to call themselves bodhisattvas. Although bodhisattvas with the initial resolution do not yet have great virture, they preside over all sentient beings…For example, they are like the newborn prince who is respected by the elderly ministers or the newborn lion who is feared by all animals.
Earlier he writes:
Once the resolve to attain bodhi [enlightenment] has arisen, it will always be the cause and condition for one to become a Buddha and will not be lost — this is described in the Lotus Sutra’s analogy of the pearl that has been tied on. But this resolve cannot be said to be originally possessed; it is formed from making the resolution and from being influenced by the universal teaching of the Buddha…Gradual practice causes the pure function of the Buddha-seed to grow from the bottom grade to the middle and then to the top…After much practicing one brings forth faultless and pure virtues.
Much of this sentiment above is expressed in the famous Bodhisattvas that people know well. Kannon (Guan-Yin in Chinese, 觀音), sometimes called Kanzeon (觀世音) in Japanese, is named so because he “hears the cries of the world” and strives endlessly to alleviate the suffering of others. Sometimes in Japan you’ll see statues of Kannon with 1,000 arms and/or 11 heads. These express the many efforts Kannon makes to help other beings.
Then there is the Bodhisattva named Jizō (地藏) whose name means “Earth Treasury”. This Bodhisattva vowed to save beings from the Six Realms of Existence*, and is said to journey into the Hell Realms over and over, teaching and helping beings get out. Imagine someone who journeys into the slums and helps junkies and criminals get some relief from their daily sufferings, this is Jizō Bodhisattva in essence.**
The list of Bodhisattvas goes on and on, but the point is is that when one has awakened this desire to help others (called bodhicitta in Sanskrit), this is the beginning of the Bodhisattva path. The person doesn’t have to be a saint; the resolve is what matters. In time, through gradual, gradual changes, the person develops greater virtue, and their compassion and wisdom grow as well. So even the simplest, most ordinary person, will in time become a great Bodhisattva. It may take many lifetimes, but each little effort, however small, is not wasted. It all adds up, like drops of water, to one becoming a great Bodhisattva. Enlightenment is just a forgone conclusion for such a being. 🙂
Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo
* – The six realms are:
- The Heaven Realms (devas)
- The Human Realm
- The Realm of the Fighting Spirits (asuras)
- The Realm of Animals
- The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts (peta)
- The Hell Realms
** – While visiting Dublin on my last trip, I remember walking across the famous Ha’Penny Bridge at night near my hotel. There I saw many of homeless kids begging for change among the tourists and people going out to party. Although I see this in Seattle quite a bit, given its relatively high homeless population, seeing it in Dublin for some reason affected me more. I spent the rest of the night brooding on the thought of Jizō journeying into the darkest realms to help the suffering. We do indeed live in a world of great suffering, even if we’re blind to it by our own selfish ego. Seeing it in its totality can be quite disturbing, but very educational as well.