Mahayana Buddhism is sometimes called the Great Vehicle. It’s also called the Bodhisattva Path. Bodhisattva means Enlightenment Being or Awakened Being.
The path that I advocate, the path that I teach about, is the Bodhisattva Path. It’s a powerful and difficult journey. The ideal of the Bodhisattva is what we are trying to live up to.
The Bodhisattva Path is founded on the idea of Buddha Nature. The idea of Buddha Nature is that it’s not “out there” as something we have to go get or some state we have to attain. It’s here and now already. We have some delusions we’re carrying that stop us from realizing it, but it’s always here beneath all the baggage we are carrying. This whole idea turns some of the other ways of looking at Buddhism around. There was a time when most Buddhists thought that Enlightenment was some sacred state we were trying to get to, something in the future, not something that is with us already. Not something you can attain in some future life, if you’re both very virtuous and very lucky. It’s something that’s here with you already, something that you can see and experience right now, in this very life.
What’s the importance of the idea of Buddha nature? To me it points to one thing, above all else. Potential. If we all have Buddha Nature then we all have potential, we all have the seed within us to awaken to our true nature. If we all have that, then there’s no reason to think we can’t attain what the Buddha attained. There’s no reason to think “I’m not good enough” or “I’m not wise enough.” The Bodhisattva’s Journey is something that you can do.
The Bodhisattva’s Journey begins with discovering the heart of awakening. This means the sincere desire to help others. Generally we say it’s about helping others with their journey on the path too, but there are all sorts of ways we can help others.
To me the Bodhisattva’s Journey is reflected in paramita practice, cultivating the six perfections. The cultivation of generosity, virtue, patience, diligence, concentration, and transcendent wisdom is the fundamental action of the Bodhisattva. Cultivating these six things is what brings us to the other shore, from the world of suffering to the world of Enlightenment. That said, we aren’t cultivating these things with Enlightenment or some other goal in mind. We’re really cultivating them because we know that is the best way to live our lives, to walk in the footsteps of the great teachers and masters. We don’t engage paramita practice to attain Enlightenment. We engage paramita practice to engage paramita practice.
Paramita means going beyond. We’re engaging this practice to go beyond the ocean of suffering that we are stuck in, and to help others go beyond it too. It means crossing through the barrier of greed, hatred, and delusion that keeps us from seeing our true nature, our Buddha Nature that is fundamentally good and one with everything around us. Paramita practice is really based on non-duality, getting us to dwell in a place where we realize that we aren’t separate from the world around us, that we don’t have a self in the way we traditionally think of a self. The things guiding us on this journey are our innate senses of wisdom and compassion.
Paramita practice is the way to be a Bodhisattva. As Bodhisattvas we want to walk this journey of helping others to awakening, to challenge the idea that we are separate from the world around us, and to overcome suffering and dwell in Enlightenment.
The first paramita is Generosity. This is in the sense not only of giving, but also of opening ourselves up, of being open with the world around us. It represents not only giving but also not being attached to gain. In the modern world we often think about attaining more and more things. I had a Garfield poster on my wall as a kid that said “he who has the most toys wins.” That kind of attitude is the opposite of Generosity. In Mahayana Buddhism our goal is to be generous, to give, without expectation of some reward. We don’t give to build a good reputation or to generate good karma. We want to cultivate a Generosity that is free of attachment to outcomes or gain. Being generous helps us deal with our great attachment to things.
The second paramita is Virtue. This immediately brings to mind ideas about right and wrong. I don’t think that’s the best way to think about the paramita of Virtue. Virtue is based on being aware of the world around us. When we are aware of the world around us, this can help us to appreciate things and to have proper conduct. This kind of Virtue does mean that we grind our teeth and avoid taking pleasure in things. Rather, it means that we take pleasure mindfully, that we not be carried away by our attachments. Once we begin to notice and manage our lack of discipline, we can being to see that underneath that we are basically good. It’s Virtue that helps us to realize that we have so much to offer.
The third paramita is Patience. Sometimes this is called Forbearance. That might be a better word for it, but I think it’s a word that a lot of people just don’t know. This is essentially equanimity, our ability to weather life’s troubles. It’s the cultivation of our antidote to aggression. It’s our ability to manage our annoyance when we’re stuck in traffic, or when our kids won’t stop shouting, or whatever else comes up. Patience means not flying off the handle and not letting little things ruin our day. Or ruin the day of those around us. How many times do we react badly because something put us in a bad mood? Too often.
The fourth paramita is Diligence. Essentially it means that we’re trying really hard. Some say it’s the most important of the paramitas because if our practice is casual it might not go very far. It means not giving up when things get hard. There are plenty of obstacles on the path and it’s only our diligence that keeps us going. It’s also about having a sense of delight on the path. By that I mean getting excited about the journey. It shouldn’t be a chore to practice. We are walking the path of awakening to become Enlightened, serene and free of suffering. This is something to be excited about.
The fifth paramita is Concentration. This is our mindfulness, our ability to stabilize our minds and manage our thought processes. This is where we cultivate stillness and attention. This consists of watching our thoughts as they enter our minds and cultivating an understanding of how our minds work. This is where we tame our minds from the relentless deluge of distractions and preconceptions that continuously assail us. Generally when people are practicing meditation, cultivating the paramita of Concentration is what they’re doing.
The sixth paramita is Transcendent Wisdom. This is described as the wisdom that cuts through ignorance. This is really where things get deep and serious. It’s in cultivating Transcendent Wisdom that we practice dwelling in our true nature. This is where we can step beyond the delusion of duality and dedicate ourselves truly to compassion. Our understanding of deep Buddhist concepts like Emptiness and Buddha Nature comes from our cultivation of the sixth paramita. This is where we are overcoming our delusions. This is engaged through deeper meditation styles, often on retreat, and a deep study of Buddhist texts. When we dwell in our true nature, we bring a little bit of it back with us every time.
These six perfections are fundamental to the Mahayana Buddhist Path, the Way of the Bodhisattva. Engaging them is a way to catch a glimpse of our true nature and to attain Enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhism is called the Great Vehicle because it was designed to be a path that many people can practice, instead of a select few.
You can take the Bodhisattva’s journey yourself. Take it with me.