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Altruism and Individualism in the Spiritual Life

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by Sangharakshita

Aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal

Lecture 68: Altruism and Individualism in the Spiritual Life Last week I said something about the absolute Bodhicitta, but in reality there is very little indeed that can be said about the absolute Bodhicitta. The absolute Bodhicitta, we may say, in its ultimate essence is beyond thought, and beyond speech. Some of the great teachers, some of the great Acaryas, do, very provisionally, have something to say about it. They say, for instance that the Absolute Bodhicitta is of the nature of sunyata, of the nature of the voidness, of the nature of emptiness. That is to say that it is identical with absolute, with ultimate reality. They say further that the absolute Bodhicitta is endowed with the essence of Compassion, that it is not a blank, as it were, featureless, as it were, inert, absolute, but, as it were pulsing with life, spiritual life, and spiritual activity, which we call, which we denominate, as Compassion.

Further still they say that the absolute Bodhicitta is like unto pure light, that it is radiant, that it is immaculate, that it cannot be touched, cannot be soiled, cannot be shaken, and that furthermore it transcends space and transcends time.

The relative Bodhicitta on the other hand is more comprehensible, as it were more accessible. It is, we may say, the reflection of the absolute Bodhicitta in the cosmic process, in the web of conditioned existence. If you like, in the stream, in the process, of time. This relative Bodhicitta therefore may be described, is in fact described, as a sort of 'cosmic will', a cosmic will to universal salvation, universal redemption, universal Enlightenment.

And this relative Bodhicitta, this cosmic will to universal salvation, manifests itself in different individuals. It manifests itself, we are told, in those who have created within themselves, in their own minds, in their own hearts, in their own lives, the conditions for its manifestation. And these beings, these individuals in whom this Bodhicitta manifests, in whom it reveals itself, through whom it works - these are known as Bodhisattvas. The Bodhisattva is the ideal Buddhist, the Bodhisattva is one who lives for the sake of Enlightenment - not just for his own Enlightenment, not just for his own emancipation, but for the Enlightenment of all sentient beings, of the whole of life. The Bodhisattva is the embodiment of Wisdom and Compassion. He is inspired, or she is inspired, not only by what the Buddha said, but by what the Buddha was, in his intrinsic being, and by what he did in the activities and affairs of his daily life.

So so much, as much as this, we saw in our first lecture, on 'The Origin and Development of the Bodhisattva Ideal'.

One becomes a Bodhisattva by virtue of the arising of the Bodhicitta, and this Bodhicitta, though often translated as the thought of Enlightenment, is very far from being just a thought, just an idea, in somebody's mind, even in a Bodhisattva's mind. The Bodhicitta as it arises, as it manifests, is something transcendental, something not of this world, something which does not belong to any individual, which is in fact not individual, but which is universal.

There is in the world, in the universe, only one Bodhicitta, and individual Bodhisattvas in whom the Bodhicitta arises, participate in this one transcendental, universal, Bodhicitta. And this Bodhicitta arises within the heart, within the mind, within the life, of the individual Bodhisattva, in dependence upon certain necessary conditions.

And these conditions are represented by Santideva's Supreme Worship, a sequence of seven religious, spiritual, devotional, moods and experiences, as well as by Vasubandhu's Four Factors, that is to say: recollection of the Buddhas; seeing the faults of conditioned existence; observing the sufferings of sentient beings; and contemplation of the virtues, the good qualities, the transcendental qualities, of the Tathagatas, the Buddhas.

So much we saw in the course of our second lecture, on 'The Awakening of the Bodhi Heart'.

Now the Bodhicitta is universal, common to all Bodhisattvas, but the Bodhisattva himself, or the Bodhisattva herself, is individual, and this one, this universal, Bodhicitta, therefore expresses itself in the life and work of the Bodhisattva in an individual manner, and this expression, this individual expression, is what we call the Bodhisattva's Vow. It's not just a verbal expression, not just something you say, not just a promise you verbally make. It represents the reorientation of the Bodhisattva's whole being. Traditionally one speaks of the vow, the Bodhisattva's Vow in the singular, but it is in fact really plural, and there are several, quite famous, sets of vows.

The forty eight vows of Bodhisattva Dharmakara, for instance. But possibly the most famous set is that known as the Four Great Vows, which recited daily throughout the Buddhist lands of the Far East. Firstly, May I deliver all beings from difficulties. Secondly, May I eradicate all passions. Thirdly, May I master all Dharmas, and fourthly, May I lead all beings to Buddhahood. So much we saw last week, in our third lecture, "The Bodhisattva Vow" Now tonight we break, or begin to break fresh ground. Tonight we're concerned with "Altruism and Individualism in the Spiritual Life". You may recollect that last week we saw that the relative Bodhicitta has two aspects. We saw that there is a vow aspect and an establishment aspect. The first, the vow aspect, refers of course to the Bodhisattva's Vow itself, and it is with this that we were concerned last week. The second aspect refers to the practice of the 'Six Transcendental Virtues', these 'Six Perfections' as they are also sometimes called, in the course of the next three weeks. And tonight we are dealing with the first two. We are dealing with dana or giving, and with sila or uprightness. And we are dealing with them, we are dealing with these two as expressions respectively of altruism - dana being the expression of altruism, and individualism - sila being the expression of individualism. Dealing with them, in other words as the other-regarding and self-regarding aspects of the spiritual life.

First, however, let us just go back a little and make, to begin with, a few general observations. Let us go back to the first lecture on 'The Origin and Development of the Bodhisattva Ideal'. Those who were present will remember that the Bodhisattva Ideal originated, historically, in an attempt to do justice to two great, to two main, or two major aspects of Buddhism. First of all, the Wisdom aspect, as expressed in the Buddha's verbal teaching, teaching about the Four Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, Twelve Nidanas and so on, and the Compassion aspect, as expressed not in the verbal teaching so much but more - more abundantly at least - in the life and activity - the actual work and deeds -of the Buddha.

And the Bodhisattva Ideal, we saw in that lecture, represents a union of opposites - to begin with, a union of Wisdom and Compassion. And this, that the Bodhisattva Ideal represents a union of opposites, is true of the beginning of the Bodhisattva's career; it's true of the end of the Bodhisattva's career (where Wisdom and Compassion are united in their highest power, in Enlightenment itself); and it's true of all the stages in between.

So much is this the case. So much in fact is the Bodhisattva a union of opposites, so much is his life, his very spirit, a union of opposites, that we can perhaps describe the Bodhisattva himself as a sort of living contradiction. And this is one of the reasons why the Bodhisattva and the Bodhisattva Ideal are so very difficult to understand.

Generally speaking, we may say that the Bodhisattva, or the Bodhisattva Ideal, synthesizes the heights and the depths of existence - the sublimest heights, the profoundest depths. Synthesizes the mundane and the Transcendental, synthesizes samsara and Nirvana. Synthesizes, as we've just seen, Wisdom and Compassion. But more specifically the Bodhisattva Ideal or the Bodhisattva Himself synthesizes altruism and individualism, synthesizes the 'masculine' and the 'feminine' approaches to the spiritual life, and so on, and tonight it is with the first of these that we are more especially concerned. In other words with altruism and with individualism, especially as embodied, respectively, in dana, or giving, and sila, or uprightness.

But before we go into these there's just one little misunderstanding to be cleared up. If you read books about Buddhism, especially popular books, and especially perhaps books or articles about the Mahayana, you will find it is sometimes said that the Bodhisattva is not concerned with his own salvation, but is concerned with the salvation of other beings. You may sometimes read - people sometimes put it rather poetically - that the Bodhisattva postpones his own entry into Nirvana: he sees, as it were, the gates of Nirvana shining afar off, and he says, "No! I am not going to pass through, I am not going to enter. I want to help others to get there first." And very often the Bodhisattva Ideal is presented in this quite appealing and quite attractive poetic form - that he is postponing his own Enlightenment so that he can help others to get to Enlightenment first. And in this way you will find in some works on Buddhism, in some literature on Buddhism, the Bodhisattva comes to be contrasted with the Arahant. The Arahant is the perfect man, the realized man, if you like, of the Theravada. The Arahant is said to be concerned only with his own salvation, with his own emancipation, and the Arahant Ideal is said, therefore, to be selfish. And in contrast to this, the Bodhisattva Ideal is said to be unselfish. And the Arahant Ideal is said to be individualistic, ...

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