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The Bodhisattva Hierarchy

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by Sangharakshita

Aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal

Lecture 71: The Bodhisattva Hierarchy Madam Chairman, or perhaps I should say Sister Chairman, and Friends, In the course of the last few weeks we have been on what may very well be described as a journey. Not the sort of journey on which we usually go, not a journey by rail, not a journey by car or underground. Not even a journey on foot. It's been, we may say, a journey - sometimes a rather strange, a rather mysterious journey, through the undiscovered, perhaps the uncharted, regions of our own mind. During the last few weeks we've been travelling - perhaps I should say climbing; perhaps I should even say clambering through the very mountainous terrain of the Bodhisattva Ideal. Climbing perhaps, sometimes, from plane to plane and from peak to peak. Now on a journey of any kind it sometimes happens that we may look forward, may look ahead; and at other times we may look back, we may cast our eyes behind us. Sometimes we look forward, sometimes we look ahead, to see how far we still have to go, if indeed we are able rightly to judge that at all. We look ahead, we may say, to encourage ourselves, to inspire ourselves, by fixing, by fastening our eyes, just for a few moments, on the last , the final, the ultimate snow peak, perhaps which is our destination, our goal, as it discloses itself in the midst of the blue sky when the clouds momentarily part. And we look back sometimes just to see, just to try to estimate, how far as yet we have come. We look back to see something of the nature, something of the appearance of the country through which we have been passing, because when we look back, we can sometimes see the country through which we've just passed, especially if we look from a higher altitude, more clearly and more definitively than when we were actually passing, struggling, through it.

And as we look back over the road that we've traversed. As we look back, perhaps from this higher altitude, we may see that here and there, behind us, certain landmarks tend to stand out. And this, we may say, is particularly true of mountainous country, when we are journeying, when we are travelling through it. And certainty the country through which we are still at present even passing, we may say, nothing if not mountainous. To me, as I look back in thought, retrospectively, over the lectures of the previous weeks, there is something that stands out, one thing perhaps that stands out, something that dominates, as it were, the entire landscape through which we have been passing and through which we are still passing. And that is the Bodhicitta - the Will to Universal Enlightenment.

In retrospect, looking back over the lectures of the past few weeks, all the other aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal seem to group themselves quite naturally around this one, around the Bodhicitta, the Will to Enlightenment. They seem to group themselves around it just as lesser mountain peaks group themselves around one great, one particularly lofty peak that towers above all the rest.

The Bodhisattva we saw, at the beginning, is the ideal Buddhist. He is one who lives for the sake of the Enlightenment of all sentient beings. But then how does the Bodhisattva become a Bodhisattva? He becomes a Bodhisattva, we saw, only by virtue of the arising of the Bodhicitta, which is not just a thought, not just an idea in somebody's mind, however refined an idea, however elevated a thought. The Bodhicitta is something much more than that. It's something, we saw, Transcendental, something cosmic, something universal, something which sweeps through the whole of existence. And we saw also that it has two great aspects, this Bodhicitta. It has what is traditionally called a 'vow aspect' and what is similarly called an 'establishment aspect'. The first, the vow aspect, consists in the formulation by the Bodhisattva of certain vows, the import of all of which is universal. For instance the Four Great Vows, which we studied in some detail. And this vow aspect of the Bodhicitta represents the expression of the one universal Bodhicitta in terms of the life and the work of the individual Bodhisattva. And the other aspect of the Bodhicitta, the establishment aspect consists, we saw, in the practice by the Bodhisattva of the 'Six Paramitas', the 'Six Perfections', the 'Six Transcendental Virtues'. And these, as we saw over a period of three weeks, are made up of three pairs. First of all there's the pair of Giving and Uprightness. These represent the altruistic and the individualistic aspects of the spiritual life. Then there's the pair of Patience and Vigour. In other words the 'masculine' and the 'feminine' approaches to the Spiritual life. And then again, finally, there's the pair of Meditation and Wisdom, and these represent, we may say, the internal and external dimensions, as it were, of the Enlightened mind, the Buddha mind. And all these pairs of opposites, altruism and individualism; the 'masculine', the 'feminine'; meditation, Wisdom - all these pairs of opposites, we saw, are synthesized and balanced by the Bodhisattva. In his life, in his spiritual life there is no one-sidedness whatsoever; everything is balanced, harmonized and integral.

Now today we are still concerned really with this same Bodhicitta, the same Transcendental, this same cosmic Will to Universal Enlightenment, but we are concerned with it today in a somewhat different manner. Formerly, in previous lectures we were concerned with it more by way of general principles, as it were, but today we are more concerned with the concrete embodiments, the different concrete embodiments, of those principles. Today we are dealing with what has been described as the 'Bodhisattva Hierarchy'.

Now the word 'Hierarchy' isn't a very popular one nowadays - it isn't one of those sort of 'in' words which are on everybody's lips. According to the dictionary, it is generally used in the sense of 'a body of ecclesiastical rulers', which has, you may agree, a rather unpleasant sort of ring about it. For instance you read in the newspapers that the Roman Catholic hierarchy has issued a statement condemning, say, divorce, or condemning birth control, or condemning something else - they usually seem to issue statements condemning something! Now I am not using the word 'hierarchy' quite in that sense. I am using the word hierarchy in something which is perhaps more like its real, its true, its original meaning. This evening I am using the word 'hierarchy' in the sense of an embodiment, in a number of different people, of different degrees of manifestation of Reality. Inasmuch as a great deal of the lecture depends upon an understanding of that definition, let me just repeat it. That I'm using the word 'hierarchy' this evening in the sense of an embodiment, in a number of different people, of different degrees - higher and lower degrees - of manifestation of Reality.

And in this sense - using the word 'hierarchy' in this sense - one can speak, for instance, of a hierarchy of living forms. Some living forms being lower, expressing, manifesting lesser Reality. Other living forms being higher, expressing, manifesting, more of Reality. And in this way one has a hierarchy of living forms, from the lowliest, one might even say from the amoeba right up to the unenlightened man. A continuous hierarchy of living forms.

The higher level, the higher form, all the time manifesting a greater, a more abundant, degree of Reality than the lower one. And this what we call the 'Lower Evolution', this hierarchy of living forms, from the amoeba right up to the unenlightened man.

But there is another hierarchy of living forms, which people don't usually take into consideration, and that is the hierarchy from the unenlightened man right up to the Enlightened man, and this hierarchy of living forms corresponds to what, in other contexts, we have described as the 'Higher Evolution'. Just as the unenlightened man embodies, we may say, manifests, we may say more of Reality, more of truth, than the amoeba, in the same way the Enlightened man himself embodies or manifests, more of Reality in his life, in his work, in his words even - more of reality than the man who is unenlightened. The Enlightened man manifests Reality more clearly, is more like a window as it were, through which the light of Reality shines, through which it can be seen almost as it is, without any diminution, without any stain. Just like light, just like the light of the sun coming through a window, through a sheet not even of glass but of pure, transparent crystal or diamond, as it were.

Now in between the unenlightened man and the Enlightened man - the Buddha - there are a number of intermediate degrees. And these degrees are embodied, as it were, in people, different people, at various stages of spiritual progress, spiritual development. These people are, we may say - the majority of them - not completely Enlightened, they're not full perfect Buddhas, they are still short of Enlightenment, to a greater or to a lesser extent. But at the same time they are not wholly unenlightened. They are some way in between. And it's these people who stand, as it were between the unenlightened state and the state of full Enlightenment, who make up the spiritual hierarchy, and it is the higher ranges, the higher reaches of this spiritual hierarchy which is known as the 'Bodhisattva Hierarchy'.

Now this principle of spiritual hierarchy is a very important one for Buddhism. And it's important therefore that we try to understand it right from the bottom up, should try to understand it radically, as it were. We can do this perhaps by remembering that we, that human beings, are related to Reality, to Ultimate Reality, in two different ways. In the first place we are related directly. In the second place we are related indirectly.

So how are we related to Reality ...

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