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The Bodhisattva Vow

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by Sangharakshita

Aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal

Lecture 67: The Bodhisattva Vow Mr. Chairman and friends: Some of you have been coming along for quite a while, not only to lectures, courses of lectures, but also to quite a number of other functions. And you might have noticed that, in the course of these functions, in the course of these meetings, there are several different kinds of talk, or different kinds of lecture. They may all be called 'lectures' but if you look a little closely, as some of you no doubt have done, you will have observed I'm sure that they aren't always quite of the same kind, or quite of the same type, and you might also have noticed, if you were very observant, that these different kinds, or different types of lecture are productive of different kinds, or types, of effect.

For instance one has what we may call just the single talk, the single lecture, that is to say one which stands by itself, which doesn't constitute part of a series. And this lecture, or a lecture of this kind, of this type, may be compared to a pool of water, inasmuch as one can draw upon it, draw from it, and it remains complete in itself, it has a definite boundary. Also, there are of course the series of lectures, one coming after another, in one single stream as it were. And the series of lectures we may say, can be compared to a river. A river which flows on and on, especially when the lectures, or all the lectures in the series are on a single theme as at present. Now we all know that when we get into a river, in the literal sense, at first we don't feel very much, especially if it's a nice warm day and we've just got down into the water, at first we just feel that we're in the water, nothing much more than that, and there isn't all that difference at this stage between being in the waters of a pond and being in the waters of the river. But as we get further out into the water, as we get further out into the river, into the current, as we begin to entrust ourselves to it, then of course something begins to happen. We start feeling something. We feel, slowly at first, but ever more rapidly, we feel the grip and the pull of the current. And we find ourselves, we feel ourselves, pulled along, carried along irresistibly, by that.

I think we can say at this point that we are now beginning to be fairly in the current, as it were, of these lectures.

And perhaps some of us already have felt, as it were, in the grip of the Bodhisattva Ideal. We've already had two lectures in the series and today's is the third. The first lecture was on 'The Origin and Development of the Bodhisattva Ideal', and in the course of this lecture we saw that the Bodhisattva was the ideal Buddhist. We saw that he was one who lived for the sake of Enlightenment. But great as that is, we saw that that wasn't all, or rather that the expression had a significance that the actual wording does not at first suggest. We saw that the Bodhisattva technically, traditionally, is defined as 'One who seeks to gain Enlightenment, but who seeks to gain it for the sake, for the benefit, for the welfare, of all sentient beings'. And this addition, this rider, this addendum if you like, 'for the sake of all sentient beings', this brings out most powerfully, most emphatically, the Compassion aspect of this teaching and this tradition and this ideal.

Buddhism we saw, has two great sources: one source is the Wisdom, the transcendental knowledge and insight of the Buddha as revealed in his teaching, especially his verbal teaching. But the second great source is the Buddha's Compassion, as revealed, as manifested in his life, in his deeds, in his activities of various kinds. And the Bodhisattva Ideal, this great spiritual ideal of the Mahayana does justice, does, we may even say, full justice, to both of these sources, to both of these aspects: that of Wisdom, and that of Compassion. The Bodhisattva we saw is inspired, is motivated, if you like is enthralled, not just by what the Buddha said, but also by what the Buddha was, what he was in his fundamental being, and also what he did.

Now our second lecture in the series was devoted to the Awakening of the heart. And in the course of this lecture last week we saw that one becomes a Bodhisattva upon the arising of what is called the Bodhicitta, very often translated as 'the thought of Enlightenment', but that we saw was almost precisely what it was not - it isn't just a thought of Enlightenment, not just an idea, not just a concept. The Bodhicitta, we saw, is not even a conditioned mental state or function at all. In traditional terms, as was pointed out last week, the Bodhicitta is not included in the Five Skandhas. It isn't anything worldly, it is something, we may say, transcendental, something out of this world, which arises in us. We also saw that the Bodhicitta is not anything individual there's only one Bodhicitta, and individuals participate in, or manifest, that one Bodhicitta in varying degrees.

We saw further last week that the relative Bodhicitta is not static, but active. We saw that it constitutes what may be described as a sort of cosmic will to universal redemption. And that those of whom it takes possession, in whom it arises, or in whom it manifests, or through whom it manifests, these beings become, or are called, are known as, Bodhisattvas. Now transcendental though the Bodhicitta is, it nevertheless arises, it manifests, in dependence on certain conditions, and these conditions are represented firstly by Shantideva's Supreme Worship, which we saw consisted in a sequence of profound spiritual experiences of worship etc., culminating in transference of merits and self-surrender, and also by Vasubandhu's 'Four Factors'. According to Vasubandhu the Bodhicitta arises in dependence on: (1) the recollection of the Buddhas; (2) seeing the faults of conditioned existence; (3) observing the sufferings of sentient beings, and; (4) contemplating the virtues of the Tathagatas.

And these two sets of conditions in dependence upon which the Bodhicitta, the transcendental Bodhicitta, can arise are not, we saw, mutually exclusive, but complementary. So that if we only can create or induce these conditions within ourselves, these conditions as represented by the Supreme Worship and the Four Factors, then the Bodhicitta inevitably, in due course, will arise, will manifest within us, and not in any other way.

Now tonight we're concerned with the Bodhisattva Vow. And the Bodhisattva Vow is one of the most important practical aspects of the Mahayana tradition. Now in a sense, tonight's talk is a direct continuation of last week's.

Last week we saw that the Bodhicitta has two aspects. There's first of all the Absolute Bodhicitta, identical with Enlightenment, identical with Reality, above and beyond time, above and beyond space; and then we saw there was the Relative Bodhicitta, the Bodhicitta which manifests within, as it were, the stream of time. Now the Relative Bodhicitta, in turn, has two aspects, and these are known respectively as the vow aspect of the Relative Bodhicitta, and the establishment aspect of the Relative Bodhicitta. The second of these, the 'establishment aspect', refers to what are known as the six paramitas, or the six transcendental virtues. The six great virtues, the practise of which carries the Bodhisattva on his way to supreme Enlightenment. And these are of course Giving or generosity, Uprightness, Patience, Vigour (or Energy), Meditation and Wisdom. These six transcendental virtues, these six perfections, will be dealt with in the next three lectures. This evening we're concerned with the first of the two aspects of the Relative Bodhicitta, that is to say, with the vow aspect.

So the question which arises of course is: What is the Bodhisattva's Vow? What do we mean when we speak of - what does the Mahayana mean when it speaks of - the Bodhisattva's vow? Now the word in the original, in Sanskrit, is pranidhana. And pranidhana means of course 'vow', it means 'inflexible resolution', it means 'determination', it means 'pledge', and so on. And it's understood to be something very solemn, something very special, also something public, not private; and something irrevocable, something which when it has been given, when it has been made, never, under any circumstances can possibly be withdrawn. We may even describe the Bodhisattva's Vow as a sort of promise made by the Bodhisattva upon the arising of the Bodhicitta within him, or the manifestation of the Bodhicitta within him at the commencement of his career. And it's a promise, a pledge as it were, made to or given to the universe at large, or to all sentient beings.

Now this is the word meaning, this is what the word pranidhana or vow means, but the word meaning, as usual, does not help us very much in understanding the truth of the matter, so let us now look into it a little more deeply.

We saw, last week, that the Bodhicitta represents a sort of cosmic will to universal redemption. And its manifestation in the individual in dependence on the appropriate conditions, is what is known technically as the arising of the Bodhicitta. Now as we also saw the Bodhicitta itself is not individual, the Bodhicitta itself is universal: There's only one Bodhicitta in which all Bodhisattvas participate. But this one Bodhicitta, one though it is, manifests in the individual, or rather manifests in individuals. Not only does the one Bodhicitta manifest in individuals, but it also expresses itself through them. So this expression, this expression of the Bodhicitta through the individual, this individual expression, as it were, of the Bodhicitta, this is what is known as the Bodhisattva's Vow. The vow therefore may be defined as the concrete practical expression of the Bodhicitta in the life and work of the individual Bodhisattva.

Now this expression is not single; it's ...

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