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.”
This is my second piece inspired by Vimalakirti, the only layperson in the Buddhist scriptures who lives from and manifests the empty middle way which I described in my last piece. He does this in several ways. In this post, I will consider the first.
Vimalakirti is an iconoclastic critic of all spiritual pretension showing us where we get caught by subtle attachments, whether it be to some idea of “right spiritual practice” or some idea of Buddha or some other spiritual being from whom we seek help. Two stories, which I touched on last time, out of 9th and 10th century China, show the impact of Vimalakirti’s teaching on Chan which later became Zen. In the first, two monks approach an overflowing stream during a break from their practice in the monastery on the hill at the same time a nun approaches during a break from her practice in the nunnery on an adjoining hill. Seeing that the water is too high for the diminutive nun to cross, the first monk scoops her up and carries her on his shoulders across the stream. He then puts he down and the monks and nun go their separate ways. The second monk immediately says to the first “How dare you carry that woman across this stream, when you know that during practice period, we are not allowed to have any contact with women?” The first monk replies, “Oh, is she still on your shoulders? I put her down when she left the stream.”
The second story is even simpler: A monk asked Wumen, “What is Buddha?” Buddha replied, “A shit stick.”
These monks were both being chided for “spiritual bypassing.” The first one is so caught by an idea of how he should be that he is unable to open up to the nun’s need in the current moment. The second one is so focused on finding a transcendent being, in this case Buddha, who will free him of his suffering, that he fails to realize that so-called “Buddha” is present in each and all components of his life.
How’s this all relevant to our own meditative practice? In both cases we are being reminded that we should not bypass the immediacy of our current experience including whatever thoughts and emotions we have, to attain a so-called “spiritual” goal. Often we use spiritual practices as a defense mechanism to protect us from feeling something we don’t want to feel. Instead, it’s possible for us to be with whatever problem that comes up, and as a result, become liberated from it.
Let’s say we have a major problem that’s surfaced in our lives. How can we explore it? Here are two complementary ways:
First, if we have powerful resistance to an emotion evoked by the problem, we might explore what’s keeping us from feeling it. I call this “shining our flashlight in the cave.” It’s so important to replace our judgment about what should or shouldn’t be with kind and attentive awareness of whatever we are experiencing. If we do this, it’s inevitable the deep hurt which precipitates all strong negative emotions will begin to heal and a movement toward solving our problem spontaneously begins.
And, of course, there are times when sitting with our emotion related to a problem feels too big or too painful. When this happens, we should switch from bare awareness to a compassion practice like:
“I see my suffering. And I hold myself and my suffering in my heart with love and kindness. May my suffering be eased.”
As we become more aware of and tuned into our feelings, we begin to draw on the natural intelligence of our bodily processes. Whereas thought can only take into account one item at a time, our sensational experience is capable of integrating a wide array of feelings simultaneously.
But we shouldn’t “dis” our thoughts during our attempt to open to a deeper level of being. In addition to allowing your heart to open, consider what you preconceived ideas or beliefs you might hold about your problem. How rigidly are you gripping them? Can you open your mind to examining different perspectives? Can you exhibit curiosity instead of judgment as you look at what’s in the next cranny of the cave?
If the problem or situation you’re contemplating seems too complex or disturbing, instead of by-passing it, you might even hang out in not knowing what to do.
Often, we jump to spiritual bypassing because we can’t tolerate having an unresolved problem lingering. If we just say, “I’m not sure what to do with this” or “I need more information,” this allows us to come back to it, continue to learn, and remain open to solutions we haven’t even imagined.
But what’s all this have to do with Vimalakirti? Only that in emphasizing the importance of not separating the sacred from the mundane, his teaching becomes a guide for our spiritual quest. And when we stop bypassing our everyday thoughts and emotions to “get somewhere”, our mind descends into our heart. Then, quite naturally, we embody and bring alive heart-mind through our words, actions, and interpersonal relations.
The more honestly- and bravely- we shine our flashlight in the cave, the more clearly we see ourselves. When this happens we settle into an intimacy with what is. When this happens, we feel connected, secure, and at peace, supported by all life.
I’d now like to talk about the mythological Buddhist layman, Vimalakirti, who is considered an embodiment of a life based on the second middle way, which became important with the rise of Mahayana Buddhism a half century or so after Buddha’s death.
The first middle way, which is carefully articulated in the Pali Canon lays out the ideal life of a Buddhist meditation practitioner as a mid-point between indulgence and austerity:
“Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. There is an addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is an addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.”
Extreme spiritual austerities were highly valued in Buddha’s time and during his six-year spiritual quest, he practiced many forms of self-mortification which including activities like starving himself. However, these activities did not help him get any closer to liberation.
After he did attain enlightenment he taught about a middle way, but this middle way seems severely austere by 21st century American standards, although it was not during the time in which he lived.
This early middle way was passed on from generation to generation and adhered to by serious meditators, predominately monks, nuns, and priests. It included celibacy, wearing discarded rags sewed together as clothing, staying away from money, and not eating after noon, all to aid practitioners in letting go of attachment to the world.
It is true that lay people were not expected to do these things but starting in India and continuing into China and Japan, there was the sense that when householders reached a certain age, they too could take up this way of life.
We can assume the celibacy mandate was violated frequently over the centuries, as it was in Christianity. Nevertheless, it endured until the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s in Japan when both clerical meat eating and marriage were de-criminalized. Even my own teacher could never rise to a high rank within the Soto Zen lineage, because he had married.
However, this middle way is radically different than the middle way which developed 500 years later in early Mahayana Buddhism. It is personified by Vimalakirti, who had extensive wealth, as well as a wife and children.
This middle way, which was articulated clearly by the Buddhist teacher, Nagarjuna, is called the empty middle way, or the non-dual middle way. Its basic teaching is that the division that we make between good and bad, up and down, or any polarities, is incorrect and somewhat arbitrary, since all life is a flow of interbeing. Even the so-called “middle” is empty of a separate fixed identity, and consequently it includes all life within it.
While this teaching has been emphasized for the last 2000 years in Mahayana circles, the first middle way has carried such force that there are only a handful of examples after Vimalakirti of monks orlay people who are considered exemplary in their manifestation of this.
Nevertheless, there are many Zen stories which point to the importance of living from the empty middle. There is, for example, the encounter between Yumen and one of his monks:
“A student of the way asked Yunmen, “What is Buddha?”
Yunmen replied, “Dried shit stick.”
And there is the equally well-known story of one monk berating another one for violating the rule about not touching women by carrying a nun on his shoulders across a flooding stream. His fellow monk replied “Oh, is she still on your shoulders? I put her down when we left the stream.”
So, the teaching is there even though exemplars of it are few and far between. Vimalakirti is the first and only scriptural example of someone living and teaching from this empty middle. Since I have encouraged people I have ordained over the last twenty years to make their families and their careers part and parcel of their Zen practice, I find Vimalakirti’s life and teaching of special significance.
In my first piece on Black Elk and Buddha I talked about the importance of the circle, which includes all life within it, as both the Lakota and Buddhist traditions teach. The Zen teacher Dogen uses particularly beautiful imagery in evoking the circle. He says:
“All existence is one bright pearl…. One bright pearl contains the inexhaustible past, existing throughout time and arriving in the present. The body exists now and the mind exists now, but nevertheless it is one bright pearl. A stalk of grass, a tree, the mountains and rivers of this world are not only themselves — they are one bright pearl.,,, The whole universe is one bright pearl. There is neither beginning nor end, and all space and all time is condensed into this one point. This body is the one body of Truth. This body is one phrase. This body is bright light. We cannot help but love this one bright pearl that shines with boundless light like this.”
This reminds me of a Chinese Zen story from the Blue Cliff Record. A student asks his teacher, “What is the essence of prajna?” The teacher replies, “The oyster swallows the bright moon.”
The Sanskrit word prajna means wisdom in Zen, but a deep wisdom that precedes knowledge. Pra (like our prefix “pre,” meaning “before”) and knowledge, jna, which is a dividing up of things. The wisdom of undividedness.
This reminds me of the wisdom that the Lakota elders teach emanates from “the unbroken circle.” How is an oyster swallowing the moon being wise? Maybe that’s how it produces its pearl.
When I was a kid, we used to ride our bikes to the yacht harbor not too far from my house. Along the edge of the water were scores and scores of small oysters which we pulled out of the bay and tried to pry open. But their shells, were incredibly thick and difficult to open. Like us, oysters are resistant and strong. Yet, unlike us they have no eyes or ears to protect themselves, so they need to “clam up” just to survive. But something wonderful is happening inside that shell. As pieces of sand accumulate, the oyster can’t break them down or get rid of them, so instead she creates a beautiful case. She would like to get rid of them, because they are abrasive and cause her to suffer. But if she does absolutely nothing about them, just stays still, encasing them, they transform themselves into a pearl. Any of you who have sat for hours in meditation retreats, know how difficult it can be to do this without repressing or indulging whatever constellation of thoughts and emotions have lodged in your psyche.
We want to just cast off the shell of ego, just get rid of the abrasive piece of sand and open to the great interdependent circle of like the Zen and Lakota elders tell us about. But paradoxically, we can only produce “one bright pearl” by spending time doing nothing at all. The only way to grow the pearl is to quietly remain immobile in our shells. To transform sand takes grit; the patience and persistence of the second and third paramita, which are so important in meditation practice (or accomplishing anything, for that matter). Can we do this in periods of adversity like many of us are experiencing now?
Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania has been studying self-control and grit to determine how they might predict both academic and professional success. Her research suggests that grit is a better indicator of success than factors such as IQ or family income. This is not at all surprising to me. As I tell my students over and over, all you need is patience and persistence to grow your own bright pearl.
In her TED talk Duckworth says, “Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Angela’s research suggests that grit is not related to talent. She refers to the growth mindset, proposed by Carol Dweck at Stanford University which I have talked about in Dharma talks over the years. Growth mindset is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed. It can change with an individual’s efforts. Dr. Duckworth is saying that grit definitely matters much more than intelligence or any factor when it comes to succeeding at something.
The most important factor in success at anything is continuing your efforts without giving up even when you’re faced with failures, regardless of how many times you fall down.
I have supported many students at Zen center over the years. And each one who has an aspiration to open up to their still natures, I encourage to sit, sit, sit, sit. If someone attends even half of the eighteen retreat days that we have per year, or spends an equivalent amount time doing hanblecyas or vision cries, the rough piece of sand within them invariably loses its edges and becomes round and smooth. And at some point, the oyster swallows the moon! As Black Elk said, “I saw the sacred hoop of my people was one of the many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children.”
Or as Dogen said, “The entire universe in the ten directions is one bright pearl.”
Perfect, without corners, formed by fully digesting whatever suffering enters into our psyche. Can you do it? No, the pearl can only create itself as you quietly sit quietly and non-judgmentally, cradling the piece of sand.
As some of you know, I spent several years working with Elmer Running, who, like Black Elk, was a teacher in the Lakota tradition.
A key symbol, both in the Lakota and Zen traditions, is the circle. In Lakota tradition, the circle is considered a sacred space, where people meditate or pray. Within the circle, they touch the earth, as Buddha did when he was first asked to describe his awakening. Since the circle includes all life, their prayers always include reaching out to all beings from within that circle. Here’s what Black Elk says:
“You have noticed that everything an Indian does is done in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.
In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished. The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance.”
This is very similar to the enso in Zen, a circle drawn with a single ink stroke as a symbol of the interbeing of all life. And then we have the way we end of all of our chants at Zen center, bowing and giving ourselves away to, “all beings, bodhisattvas, mahasattvas.”
Lakota people do something similar when they make an offering and wish well-being to all creatures as they repeat “all my relatives” at the beginning and end of each ritual. Similarly, we end each chant with, “All buddhas ten directions three times.” These ten directions include all conceivable directions in the universe, the ordinal, the cardinal, and the sky and earth.
Here is Black Elk again:
“Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.
But they [Whites] put us in these square boxes. Our power is gone: we are dying, for the power is not with us anymore.”
In the Zen tradition, while meditating we hold our hands in the cosmic mudra position, forming a circle; while in the Lakota tradition, the pipe with its circular bowl, is the central spiritual icon. When practitioners load the pipe with tobacco, each piece is considered to be a different species of life and when we smoke it, the heat and fire melts the separateness of each species as an acknowledgment of their interdependence. When I brought Elmer a pipe, which an aspirant does when he wants help from an elder, he said to me “if you take care of this pipe and treat it well, you will be able to help many Whites” and then we smoked the pipe together. When I had my first meeting with my Zen teacher, Suzuki Roshi, he showed me how to sit on a circular cushion with hands in the cosmic mudra.
When I did a hanblecya or “vision cry” under Elmer’s supervision, I was instructed to hold the pipe which was full of tobacco for four days and four nights, being careful to not allow any tobacco to spill out of its circular bowl, since each included a species that needed to be cared for or it might perish.
Continuing with this comparison, intensive meditative retreats are key components of Zen practice and vision cries are key components of Lakota practice. In Zen retreats, we meditate all day keeping our hands in the circular cosmic mudra. In Lakota vision cries, the aspirant holds the loaded pipe with its circular bowl upright for up to four days and four nights, being careful to not let any pieces fall out. When I did this under the tutelage of Elmer Running years ago, he instructed me to ask the Great Mystery, which we might call “circle of interbeing” in Buddhism, to enter my heart. In a similar vein, when I lead Zen retreats, I suggest to my students that if they sit quietly doing absolutely nothing for an entire day or more, keeping their hands in the cosmic mudra position, their mind will quiet naturally fall into their hearts, and they will open up to heart-mind or Buddha nature.
Finally, here’s a quote from Dogen, demonstrating further how important the circle is in Zen teaching:
“On the great road of buddhas and ancestors there is always unsurpassable practice, continuous and sustained. It forms the circle of the way and is never cut off. Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap; continuous practice is the circle of the way.”
As you can see, both Black Elk and Buddha, as well as their followers, describe the path to awakening as an endless circle; a dynamic spiral which includes all life.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher