I’ve tried long and hard to come up with some way to translate the Buddhist term “bodhisattva” into something familiar, secular, and English, but I haven’t had any luck. It takes whole sentences to describe what a bodhisattva is: A being who is devoted to the welfare of all living things. Someone who sets her sights impossibly high but then does not make her subsequent effort contingent on measurable success. A person who recognizes the need to cultivate wisdom, compassion, and loving action throughout the course of his life and beyond, never surrendering to complacency or consoling himself with conclusion, “Good enough.” Someone motivated by boundless love who is willing to perceive the cries of the world and respond accordingly without concern for self. But, at the same time, a being who understands that her “self” is merely a convenient conceptual construct and is empty of any inherent, enduring self-nature, so therefore does not get caught up either in pride at her accomplishments or generosity, or in beating herself up because she isn’t perfect. The bodhisattva knows it’s the intention and effort that count.
A bodhisattva might remind you of a saint, but there’s are important differences between these concepts. Saints are often held up as super-human examples of perfection that few can emulate, while everyone is encouraged (exhorted, really) to become a bodhisattva. Some saints are revered for their moral restraint or spiritual insight more than for their loving concern for others, while bodhisattvas are defined by caring for all beings as a parent would care for their only child. Sainthood is a special status that is achieved only after long struggle (and documented miracles), while bodhisattvahood manifests in anyone as soon as the aspiration to be a bodhisattva arises in them. Of course, it is understood that bodhisattvas vary in the degree of their selflessness, skillfulness, and wisdom, but struggling with our human imperfections is all just part of the bodhisattva’s path so those imperfections don’t disqualify us.
I hope that our culture and language adopts the concept of the bodhisattva, because we’re facing problems that will require everyone to step up to the plate with everything they have to offer.The best thing about adopting a bodhisattva aspiration is that it challenges me to dream big, and to avoid limiting my own potential by thinking only about what “little old me” can do. Instead of just doing what’s obvious and easy and waiting for the world to knock on my door and ask for more, I proclaim my willingness out loud and actively watch for any opportunities to serve. I can try to save the entire world without it being an arrogant ambition or a recipe for burnout because it’s not about what my little self achieves. It’s about loving the world, which is why the four traditional bodhisattva vows go like this:
Beings are numberless; I vow to free them
Delusion (the three poisons of grasping, aversion, and ignorance) are inexhaustible; I vow to end them
Dharma Gates (opportunities to cultivate and enact wisdom, compassion, and loving action) are boundless; I vow to enter them
The Buddha Way (the path of complete awakening and liberation) is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it
In his book Living by Vow, Shohaku Okumura explains how wonderful it is that these vows are impossible. They’re always there to guide our life. There is no way to measure how we are doing against the infinite. And yet, when we dream big, we may be surprised by what possibilities open up before us.
It’s important to know that this is not about what people should do. The concept of the bodhisattva is not a new way to measure whether someone is good or not. Instead, it’s about each of us aligning ourselves with a selfless love that does not distinguish self from other.
When I align myself thus, I feel so much better – alive, connected, meaningful. So the whole thing benefits me as much as it benefits anyone else. The fear that concern for others will jeopardize our own well-being is a sad delusion that sustains misery in the world.
What if the concept of the bodhisattva – or something like it, by another name – became our new cultural ideal? There would be no stopping us.