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The Cosmic Significance of the Bodhisattva Ideal

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by Sangharakshita

... positive links already referred to. The negative way consists in destroying the first three Fetters, as they are called. We studied these Fetters, ten fetters in all, in some detail. The first three fetters we studied in greater detail than the others and we saw that they were: Self-belief, Indecision, and Dependence on Moral Rules and Religious Observances. So the context, we may say, of last week's lecture was that of the Hinayana, that is to say, of the first of the three great stages of the development of Buddhism in India. In other words, the context was that of Individual Spiritual Evolution and Enlightenment.

Now tonight, our context is much broader. Tonight our context is that of the Mahayana or the Great Way, which historically speaking is the second great stage of the development of Buddhism in India. Tonight we are concerned with The Cosmic Significance of the Bodhisattva Ideal and the Bodhisattva Ideal is, of course, the essence, even the quintessence of the Mahayana.

Next week in the concluding lecture of the series we shall be concerned with Buddhism, Nietzsche, and 'The Superman'. We shall still of course be concerned with the Higher Evolution of Man but our context on that occasion, next week, will be the context of Modern Western Thought.

---oOo--- However, it's time that we left this survey and got on with the subject of tonight's lecture: The Cosmic Significance of the Bodhisattva Ideal. Now the subject matter tonight falls quite naturally into two main sections:- - first of all we will elucidate the Bodhisattva Ideal itself; - after that we shall try to explore its cosmic significance.

This I hope will throw some light on the general nature of the Mahayana and also reveal something of the cosmic significance of the evolutionary process itself.

-----O----- First of all then, The Bodhisattva Ideal. Some of you know that last winter, in this very place, we devoted a whole course, a whole series of lectures to this particular subject. We had eight lectures on Aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal, and we haven't left that subject behind in the course of the summer. The tapes of these lectures were played, and not only played but discussed in some detail every alternate Friday evening. And it is hoped that we will be able to follow the same procedure with this series as well. Now at this point, in the interests of thoroughness, I ought really to give a summary of those eight lectures. This would give us a fairly good idea of the general nature of the Bodhisattva Ideal; but such a summary is out of the question because it would take far too long. I hope, nevertheless, to be able to cover some at least of the ground covered last winter in those lectures. Those who attended may remember that as we proceeded on our way week by week, we found again and again, more and more definitely, that there was one aspect of the subject which was assuming more and more importance. We came back to it again and again. We insisted upon it again and again. We saw it rising before us as it were again and again. And this was the subject of the Bodhichitta or the Will to Enlightenment. As we proceeded on our way, as we proceeded with the course, we found that all other aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal tended to group themselves, to arrange themselves, even organise themselves around this one. It was rather like, we saw, a number of foothills gathered around some great central mountain peak.

Now we dealt with the subject of the Bodhichitta, of the Will to Enlightenment proper, in the second lecture in that series, which was entitled "The Awakening of the Bodhi Heart". This was preceded by a lecture on the origin and development of the Bodhisattva Ideal and followed by another on the Bodhisattva Vow. So the points I am going to make, the ground I am going to cover tonight, are connected one might say, or derived from mainly these three lectures. And for a more detailed explanation of the Bodhisattva Ideal I must refer you to them. They are of course available on tape, and I hope also to be able to write them out in book form one day.

Lecture 81 - The Cosmic Significance of the Bodhisattva Ideal - Page 3 - Now the Bodhisattva, to begin with, is the ideal Buddhist. That is to say, the Bodhisattva is a Being (sattva) who lives for the sake of Spiritual Enlightenment (Bodhi). So the Bodhisattva Ideal is in general nothing other than a statement of the Buddhist ideal itself, the ideal of the attainment of Enlightenment. In other words, the ideal of what we have been describing in these lectures of the Higher Evolution, of evolution from a state of Unenlightened to a state of Enlightened humanity.

But it is even more than that: the Bodhisattva is further defined as one who seeks to gain Enlightenment not for his own sake only, not just for the sake of his own individual emancipation from suffering, from ignorance, from the wheel of life, but who seeks to gain it for the sake of all sentient beings. So this is the full definition, full description if you like, of the word or idea 'Bodhisattva', going far beyond the literal meaning of the term. One who seeks to gain Enlightenment, not for his own sake only but for the sake of all sentient beings.

Now the question arises, why the amplification? Why not just say that the Bodhisattva is one who seeks to gain Enlightenment, and leave it at that? Why add that particular rider, "for the sake of all sentient beings"? To understand this, we have to go back to the beginnings of Buddhism. The Buddha, we know, lived and taught for some five-and-forty years and then he passed away. And this passing away is traditionally known as the parinirvana, the attainment of supreme Nirvana, the ultimate peace, the ultimate rest, away beyond conditioned things, eternal and complete and self-illuminating. And after the Buddha's parinirvana, there arose or there developed somehow, among his disciples, two groups, two parties or two wings if you like, or two tendencies.

One group, one party, was on the whole quite satisfied with the Buddha's verbal teaching. They were deeply interested in the different doctrinal formulations of the teaching, interested in the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Seven Stages of Purification, the Five Skandhas, the Twelve Dhatus, the Twelve Nidanas, and so on. They concentrated more on the verbal teaching, were more interested in that, and in fact came to regard this - the verbal teaching of the Buddha, the doctrinal teaching of the Buddha - as being Buddhism, the whole of Buddhism in fact.

But the other party was not quite satisfied with this. They of course accepted the Buddha's verbal teaching, accepted all the doctrinal formulations - the Eightfold Path, the Four Noble Truths, and so on - but they maintained that Buddhism was something else, something more also. They maintained that above and beyond the teaching, or if you like behind the verbal teaching, the actual life and personality (to use a much abused term) and example of the Buddha had also to be take into consideration. They said, in effect, that what the Buddha himself was as a man, as an Enlightened man, as Enlightened Being, and what he did, was at least as important as what he said.

The verbal teaching, the doctrinal teaching, gave expression to the Buddha's wisdom, but his life, his person, his activity gave expression to his love, to his compassion. And this other party, this second party, held that Buddhism comprises both of these together and it maintained that both of these had to be taken into consideration in the formulation of the spiritual ideal. And they therefore said that the Bodhisattva seeks to gain Enlightenment - yes, here they agreed with everybody else, this gives expression to the Wisdom aspect of Buddhism - but they also went on to say, in addition, that he seeks to gain Enlightenment for the benefit, for the sake of all sentient beings and this gives expression to the Compassion aspect of Buddhism.

So in this way we see that the Bodhisattva Ideal is a balanced ideal. It derives its inspiration not only from what the Buddha said - the Teaching - but also from what the Buddha was and what he did, his person and his example. In other words the Bodhisattva Ideal incorporates both Wisdom and Compassion.

So much then for the origin of the Bodhisattva Ideal. Having understood what the Bodhisattva is, an important question arises: How does one become a Bodhisattva? How does one embark on the actual realisation of that Ideal? And of course the general Mahayana answer to this question is that one becomes a Bodhisattva by the arising of what is called the Bodhichitta, the Will to Enlightenment. Now at this point I must apologise for introducing yet another Sanskrit term. I believe I promised not to do so in this series but you must remember that we are still drawing upon material dealt with in an earlier course. Some scholars, of course, translate Bodhichitta as 'thought Lecture 81 - The Cosmic Significance of the Bodhisattva Ideal - Page 4 - of Enlightenment' but this is exactly what it is not. It is not a thought about Enlightenment but an urge if you like in the direction of Enlightenment, an urge of one's whole being. In fact, going even further than this, we can say as the great Mahayana teachers say, that the Bodhichitta, the Will to Enlightenment, is not a conditioned mental state or function at all. In traditional terms it is not included in the Five Aggregates, which between them make up the whole of Conditioned Existence. The Bodhichitta, the Will to Enlightenment, is something transcendental, something as it were belonging to the Beyond, something pertaining to the Unconditioned, if you like a reflection of the Unconditioned in the midst of the Conditioned. And also the Bodhichitta ...

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