I want to talk about the place of the bodhisattva in Zen with a focus on four of the most well-known Bodhisattvas: Maitreya, Manjusri, Avalokitesvara, and Samantabhadra.
The bodhisattva tradition, which focuses primarily to reaching out to the cries of world, became a key feature of the development of the Mahayana tradition beginning in the first and second century in India and extending to modern times.
Bodhisattvas, as awakened warriors, knew how (and teach us how) to help people emerge from hells which are self-created. As we are ending one of the most difficult years in our nation’s history, we need the radical optimism, which bodhisattvas embody. Buddhist practice during the last several hundred years has included two complementary strains: other power (tariki in Japanese) and self-power (ji-riki). From the other power perspective, bodhisattva power is out there to be called upon. We call on these presences, these spirits, to help us. In Asia, pilgrims journey to mountains or other power places where energies of specific bodhisattvas are particularly strong. From the self-power perspective, these so-called Bodhisattvas are parts of our deepest self, which naturally reaches out support human suffering.
In Buddhist temples or practice centers throughout the world the 4 Bodhisattva vows are routinely recited. When we recite them, we are both vowing to become who we really are AND acting on the sense of interdependence which in a manifestation of our authenticity.
We commit ourselves to one or more of the heroic ideals of the Bodhisattvas, which at times seem extraordinary, but are as ordinary as Mr. Rogers’ refrain, “Won’t you be my, won’t you be my, won’t you be my neighbor?”
In our meal chants, and those of most Zen communities we visualize these four bodhisattvas, call them to mind, and evoke their energy in the following manner: "Maitreya Buddha, of future birth; Manjushri Bodhisattva, great wisdom; Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, great compassion; Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, great activity."
I will begin with Maitreya.
Supposedly, Buddha told Maitreya that he, too, would become a Buddha someday. Then Maitreya started envisioning himself as a Buddha: calm, compassionate, and wise. In subsequent centuries, Maitreya became an icon of, 1.) hope and of our intentionality to fulfill our own aspiration to settle into this same calm spaciousness; 2.) maitri or metta, which means loving kindness. Maitreya embodies the unfulfilled aspect of a bodhisattva who has not yet become Buddha. He also enables us to get a glimmer of the self we want to be and/or the world we want to create.
One Asian country which has venerated Maitreya for centuries primarily as an “other power” is Bhutan. When I was visiting that country about 15 years ago, our guide and translator pointed out to us huge rocks along the road inscribed with “come, Maitreya, come” in the Sino-Tibetan script used in that country. Our guide told us further that he and his wife both did visualization practices daily so they would be able to both join Maitreya and manifest him as he sits in what is called “Tusita heaven.”
And as far as “self-power”, in the west the simple phrase, “May I be safe, May I feel protected, May I be loved” has really taken hold; a Maitreya or metta practice. We begin with ourselves and extend all the way out to people we dislike and back to ourselves. Earlier in the year when George Floyd was murdered, I broadened my own loving kindness practice to include Blacks who live in fear of the police, store looters, the police themselves, our own president, and even rabbits eating our plants in the backyard.
Here’s a piece by Lew Welch which I am particularly fond of:
“At last, in America, Maitreya, the coming Buddha, will be our leader, and, at last, will not be powerful, and will not be alone. Take is as a simple prophecy. Look into the cleared eyes of so many thousands, young, and think: Maybe that one? That one? That one? Look out. The secret is looking out. And never forgetting there are phony ones and lost ones and foolish ones. Know this: Maitreya walks our streets right now. Each one is one. There are many of them. Look out. For him, for her, for them, for these will break America as Christ Cracked Rome. And just tonight, another one got born.”
He wrote this during another difficult time in our history, the 1960s. I appreciate his attempt to see everyone as a future Buddha in spite of the great dividedness in our society, which again seems to be dominant.
A few years after Lew wrote this poem, Zen teacher, Issan Dorsey opened the Maitri Hospice in the San Francisco area, the first of many hospices around the country to support and minister, folks with AIDS.
Not only is Maitreya the loving-kindness Bodhisattva, he is also the bodhisattva of rejoicing, jubilation, and play. Budai or Hotei, a jolly monk who lived in the 9th century China, is considered to be an incarnation of Maitreya. He carried around a sack full of oranges that he gave to kids he encountered. Budai is the fat Buddha who greets us in many Chinese restaurants. Supposedly, when he was asked about the fundamental meaning of life, he dropped his sack. When further asked but how to live this meaning, picked it up and walked away. This reminds me of a quote by George Bernard Shaw, “We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
Maitreya’s radical optimism can help us during difficult times. Once, many years ago, when I was on a break walking on the sidewalk on a foggy day during a retreat at San Francisco Zen Center and feeling very down, I slumped my head toward the sidewalk in front of me and saw a green sprout pushing up through a tiny crack cement in the cement. That sprout must have been emanating from Maitreya, because it gave me the energy to not throw in the towel, as I was ready to do, but both continue the retreat and my meditation practice with renewed inspiration.
In my book Nothing Holy About It, I quote Seng-ts’an: “Dreams, delusions, flowers of air,” and I add, “As human beings that’s what we are: deluded dreamers, flowers of air.”
It’s wonderful that we are flowers of air, that we have an ephemeral quality that allows for transformation. Because we’re flowers of air, we can become whatever we envision. When we get discouraged or feel despondent, Maitreya reminds us that in spite of, or possibly because of, our ephemeral, flowers-of-air nature, we can reignite our dream any time.
I want to finish by talking about Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. Manjusri is often the only bodhisattva to be present on altars. He is generally holding a sword and resting on a lion, a symbol of courage and equanimity. The Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) texts may be considered actions of his sword: instead of teaching us something new, he deconstructs all of our ideas and concepts. Manjusri’s words are considered turning words, which may penetrate and radically alter our consciousness.
One example is the statement in the poem “Faith in Heart Mind:” “Gain and loss, right and wrong; away with them once and for all.”
I remember settling into a deep silence reciting that phrase during a long retreat.
Manjusri is always portrayed as a youth not yet burdened by thoughts. The bumper sticker I saw recently Don’t Believe What You Think must have been written by or about Manjusri.
Suzuki Roshi used Manjusri’s sword with me on more than one occasion. For instance, when I was obsessing about finding a monastery in Japan which I felt good about, he pointed to the raku teacups on his shelf in the kitchen and said quietly, “If you try to find the best one, you will not appreciate any of them.” His sword of wisdom was so powerful that instead of going to Japan, I stayed and practiced with him for some time.
And of course, Suzuki Roshi is known particularly as a beginners’ mind teacher because of this adeptness at dispensing with old ideas, opinions, and patterns. Our beginners’ mind cuts away thoughts as they begin to solidify, which mine were doing, and the sword keeps coming down until the mind goes completely silent and there is a wonderful openness to what is!
Manjusri is also adept at using language to overcome the separation of the subject-verb-object. He encourages us to use meditation to help us pause so we can leap beyond our usual way of dividing our thoughts up. Here’s a statement of his in one of the sutras:
If a person, when cultivating the paramita of wisdom, does not see any paramita of wisdom, and finds neither any dharma to grasp or to reject, s/he is really cultivating the paramita of wisdom.
In spite of this, at times Manjusri is criticized by Buddha for being too verbose and too eager to use words to show us how to see through and be free from, all limited views. As my second teacher Katagiri Roshi commented about unexpectedly seeing a beautiful flower, “Wow.”
Then he said, “Wow may be too much. Let the flower speak for itself.”
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher