Saturday, January 27, 2007

A good start is saving all sentient beings from yourself

You may have heard about the generic vows of the Bodhisattva. Even if you do not study or practice a form of Mahayana Buddhism, if you have spend much time looking at Buddhism in the West you likely have come across something about saving all sentient beings. Now, specific archetypal Bodhisattva's may have their own unique expression or extension of these vows, but they still get back to the same concern. But is there a way we can do this? I mean, sure, if you are in a position of fame or power, you can focus the media and public consciousness on issues that will help people by going on record in the media or showing up at various fund raisers. If you have a suitable amount of disposable income, you can send a check or two or three to such fund raisers or to other outlets for charitable contributions. If you are a gifted writer or speaker or motivator and if you have the time, you may be able to form or help lead a local branch of some socially-conscious group working to fight violence or poverty or illiteracy. So, what if instead you are just getting by, don't have much in the way of free time, and can't contribute in any of these ways?

I think that describes a lot of people. Maybe some could, if they worked at it, find a few extra dollars or minutes now and again, but is that it? And even if you are famous or rich or have the free time, is there nothing more to be offered? Is the path of the Bodhisattva only for those who are on the one hand famous or wealthy or on the other hand who are renunciates who leave the ordinary world of work and family and rely on the contributions of others to fund their cultivation? I find this to be an absurd proposition, and it is true, then the path of the Bodhisattva is equally absurd.

But is charity the only form of salvation with which we are familiar in the West? Hardly. In fact the term itself conjures up the notion of Abrahamic religion, in particular evangelical Christianity. Rather than take a run a the superficial and profound similarities and differences between different denominations and sects of Buddhism and Christianity and theology and the dharma, suffice it to say that proselytizing to get people to believe a particular mytho-historical account of human existence and subsequently recite a prayer affirming this belief to avoid eternal damnation and be reconciled to a specific depiction of a Creator-Deity is not a meaningful or suitable approach for Western Buddhists.

So, that does leave the question wide open - what is salvation in Buddhism? What does it mean for people practicing Buddhism in the West? What does it mean for those encountering practicing Buddhists in the West? How does a person of no great means go about the business of saving even one other sentient being, let alone all of them?

If you think I am going to give a comprehensive and detailed exposition on the answer to this question, I am afraid you are going to be awfully disappointed. But it isn't a rhetorical question, either. As the name of this essay suggests, a good start is saving all sentient beings from yourself.

No matter how busy or isolated you may be, you DO encounter other people, both directly and indirectly. Your intentions as well as your resulting actions, speech, and thoughts do have an effect on other people. Hence, even if it may seem to be the smallest possible offering or contribution you can make, having the spirit (here referring to gusto or enthusiasm or embodying certain qualities) of bodhicitta is important. The exhibition of patience, equanimity, compassion, and other qualities displaying an utmost concern for the welfare of others is the embodiment of the Bodhisattva path.

But I am not just talking about refraining from unskillful speech or helping the elderly lady next door take out her garbage. Though to be honest, even in that kind of boyscout way, to consistently be honest, kind, and helpful all the time is a standard that would overwhelm most of us. And it is certainly a good place to start. But then there is also the way that we hide from others. We hide the truly warm, enriching, inspiring parts of ourselves from general view. Because we are shy. Because we fear being teased or mocked. Because it isn't the fashion. So that even kind gestures can be done with a kind of cold distance. But to share that glowing aspect, even if we don't say a word, is truly a blessing to all we meet.

Pardon me, I need to go on being a complete hypocrite on this issue now.

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