Now I will discuss two more Bodhisattvas: Avalokiteshvara and Samantabadhra.
The most common image of Avalokiteshvara is one in which he has many eyes to witness the suffering of all beings and many arms to help each of them. In my book Nothing Holy About it, I add, “He sits on the lotus that grows in muddy water with roots deep in the mud. The beauty of the lotus depends on the quality of the mud. Is the mud well composted? Does it really include all beings? If so, it will be a beautiful lotus, and Avalokiteshvara will do wonderful things.”
Avalokitesvara is continually changing forms and also changes gender; sometimes with two arms, or four, or a thousand... as many as they need and sometimes with as many as ten heads. In Zen, Manjusri is on the main altar either accompanied by Avalokitesvara or by himself, reminding us that if we return to the stillness of beginner’s mind, we can give ourselves away both naturally and freely.
Manjusri shows us how to deconstruct our beliefs about who we think we should be, so we can be wholeheartedly present, responding to the cries of the world as Avalokitesvara does. Without Manjusri energy, there are often two problems with our compassion: 1.) We become co-dependent, needing to take care of others’ pain to feel okay about ourselves; 2.) Our compassion is mixed with anxiety and worry.
We may start off being open. Then we start to worry, “Is she okay? Did I show my compassion correctly?” In extreme situations we even stay awake at night worrying.
When we do either of these, it might be time for us to go to our place of meditation and hang out with Manjusri. In my first book I talked about my friends Jim and Sharon:
“Sharon is quite needy, and Jim constantly indulges and excuses her behavior. I came to realize that Jim’s co-dependence was getting under my skin. I found myself thinking, Well, this is curious. What’s going on here? Recognizing my own reactivity was Manjusri’s wisdom. Then I needed to evoke his energy to turn my eyes inward and look deeply at my own negative reactions—at my own shadow. I saw how deeply I was caught by Jim’s situation. If we focus our kind attention on our shadow, there is the possibility of becoming enriched by it. When I saw my negative reactivity clearly, it dissolved. My heart opened completely to both Jim and Sharon, and I felt deeply connected.”
With Manjusri’s courage, we can draw our own negativity toward us with an invitation. We can charm our shadow into a relationship and see that it is just pent-up energy. Once energy is flowing freely, our shadow is no longer a shadow, and compassion naturally flows out to those who are suffering around us.
The Lotus Sutra states, “If a living being needs to be saved, Avalokitesvara will appear in the body of a buddha.” Then it lists more than thirty different bodily manifestations according to what is needed: male, female, young, old, varied by class, station, occupation, divine, human, nonhuman. This is the bodhisattva of compassion, available to whoever is crying out.
The final bodhisattva I want to touch on is Samantabhadra, known as the bodhisattiva of great activity based on his interconnectedness with everyone and everything. He appears in the Flower Garland Sutra, exclaiming, “If the mind makes no discrimination, the 10,000 things are as they are, of single essence.” Dignity, vibrancy, and light emanate from each of his pores. He shows us that everything in the universe is present in every cell in every being, even an ant, even a piece of dust.
As an expert meditator, he rests in two types of samadhi. The first is “ocean mirror samadhi.” When the ocean is still, it mirrors everything: the sky, the clouds, birds... with an awareness that each thing is connected to everything else. The second is “ocean seal samadhi.” Not only is all life reflected in this great ocean of being, every being is completely itself and also the whole ocean in its individuality, undivided from everyone else. Within the ocean the sparrow’s existence is sealed, just as it is. When our mind is still, we don’t need to look anywhere else for validation, because we experience Samantabhadra’s ocean seal samadhi.
Samantabhadra manifests this interconnectedness by riding on an elephant, which symbolizes his calmness, deliberateness, and unyielding action. The past year or so since COVID began running rampant, I have watched a pulmonologist neighbor of mine leave for the hospital before dawn every morning and get home late at night, often going a couple of weeks with no days off, calmly and deliberately, day after day. When I said to him, “Aren’t you exhausted Tom? How do you have energy to continue in this way,” he responded simply. “I am doing what I most deeply what I want to do, saving lives. This is why I became a doctor.”
Most people who know Tom have no idea that he is working these kinds of hours with such wholehearted commitment. Samantabhadra is often hard to see. When we are completely engaged in something, we disappear within the activity itself, as Tom seems to have done.
Since every pore in body includes the entire universe, by helping one being, he helps everyone. And we can actually transform the world!
As the bodhisattva of environmentalism, Samantabhadra views each bird, each rock, each tree as precious and brilliant. As the bodhisattva of social justice, like Martin Luther King, Samantabhadra has an indomitable spirit, acting calmly and deliberately without yielding regardless of threats and arrests. Since George Floyd’s death several months ago we have seen Samantabhadra’s power in galvanizing so many, many people to peacefully protest or volunteer to help distribute food here in the Twin Cities.
I want to end this piece by a statement from my first book about how bodhisattva work may progress:
“We start with Maitreya, who helps us develop inspiration and out of that tap into a deep aspiration. Then Manjusri keeps us steady, cutting away expectations, desires, worries, and anxieties. Next comes Avalokiteshvara to open our heart so we can radiate authentic compassion. Finally, Samantabhadra, inhabiting every pore of our body with vibrancy and light, so we can manifest great activity.”
We need these bodhisattvas for guidance as we open to and bring alive our dreams, our flowers in the air. They instill with us both a radical optimism and an energy to bring that optimism alive.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher