Transcribing the oral tradition...

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Endlessly Fascinating Cry - Complete Text

by Sangharakshita


The Bodhisattva Ideal is one of the sublimest spiritual ideals that mankind has ever seen. As
the literal meaning of the word itself informs us, a Bodhisattva is a being (sattva) who has
dedicated himself to the attainment of Supreme Enlightenment (bodhi) for the sake of the
material and spiritual welfare of all living beings, and who is prepared to undergo any
hardship, and make any sacrifice, in order to achieve this end. In the more colourful and
concrete popular versions of the ideal he is indeed sometimes represented as postponing his
own entry into NirvÅ’na until such time as all other beings in the universe have succeeded in
arriving at that ineffable state, wherein all suffering is forever transcended, and perfect
knowledge - the knowledge of ultimate reality - attained. Yet although such formulations
have their own value they should not be taken as literally true, and it should not be thought
that the Bodhisattva Ideal is literally an altruistic as opposed to an individualistic or selfish
ideal, or that the Bodhisattva devotes himself to the spiritual good of others to the actual
neglect of his own - that he helps others along the path which he himself does not follow.
What he does, rather, is to adopt an attitude in which the terms ‘self* and ‘others* have
become meaningless, or rather, in which they have become indistinguishable in the sense of
being not ontologically identical but dialectically related, so that in doing good to oneself one
does good to others, and in doing good to others one does good to oneself - the one
continually passing over into the other in such a way as to suggest a state ‘beyond* both self
and others.
Bodhisattvas are of four different kinds, which is to say, the Bodhisattva Ideal - or
Bodhisattva Principle - manifests within four different contexts, or at four different levels: (1)
Ordinary human beings who, even without knowing it, are in search of the unchanging peace
and everlasting happiness that cannot be found in any form of conditioned existence, but only
in the Unconditioned. Such are Bodhisattvas in much the same way that the foetus is a human
being, that is to say, they have the capacity for Enlightenment and will realise it provided the
necessary conditions are fulfilled, i.e. provided they come into contact with the Dharma etc.
(2) Buddhists, especially Mahayana Buddhists, who accept the Bodhisattva Ideal but who
have not made any real progress towards its realisation. They may have received the
Bodhisattva ordination. (3) Those in whom the Bodhichitta, the supra-individual Thought of,
or Will to, Enlightenment has actually arisen, and whose lives are increasingly dominated by,
or transformed in accordance with, the Bodhisattva Ideal. Among the Bodhisattvas of this
kind are great teachers like Nagarjuna, Milarepa, Tsongkhapa, Hui Neng, and Kukai, some of
whom may be so advanced as to be virtually indistinguishable from Buddhas. (4)
‘Archetypal* Bodhisattvas like Manjusri, Avalokitesvara, Samantabhadra and Kshitigarbha,
who are not historical personages, or even individuals in the ordinary sense, but so many
different aspects of the one Cosmic Will to Enlightenment, that is to say of the Buddha-
principle Itself as this is present and at work within the temporal process, eternally leading all
beings to perfection.
The Bodhisattva Ideal was fully exemplified in the historical life of Gautama the Buddha, the
founder of Buddhism, who after attaining Enlightenment at Bodhgaya at the age of 35 (or 29according to some accounts) out of compassion devoted the remainder of his long life to
showing the Path to Emancipation to the various people whom he met in the course of his
travels throughout Northern India. After the withdrawal of his physical presence, however,
there was an increasing tendency, among some of his followers, to concentrate on his
Teaching - or certain aspects of his Teaching - at the expense of his personal example, and
this eventually led to the goal of the spiritual life, and indeed the spiritual life itself, being
conceived of in predominantly individualistic terms. This movement of spiritual
individualism comprised a number of different schools, collectively known to their opponents
within the Buddhist fold as the Hinayana or ‘Little Way*, i.e. the way of emancipation from
suffering for oneself alone rather than for all. According to the Hinayana the Bodhisattva
Ideal had been followed by Gautama the Buddha himself in his previous lives, and could still
be pursued by the exceptionally gifted and heroic Buddhist who wished to become a Buddha
at some time in the remote future when all knowledge of the Dharma had been lost and then,
by his own efforts, rediscover it and proclaim it anew to the world. Ordinary Buddhists
(which in practice meant the bhikshus or ‘monks*) should follow the shorter and easier, but
still sufficiently arduous, way of spiritual individualism and aim at the lesser goal of
Enlightenment for self alone, which could be attained within a single lifetime. A Bodhisattva
needed hundreds of thousands of lifetimes, spread out over three whole aeons, to prepare
himself for his great mission, and in any case within a given world system there was room for
only one Bodhisattva - and one Buddha - at a time. The individualism of the Hinayana was
countered by the altruism of the Mahayana or ‘Great Way’, as it styled itself. According to
the Mahayana the Bodhisattva Ideal was a universal ideal, and all Buddhists (both monks and
laymen), indeed all living beings, should aim at Buddhahood, or Enlightenment for the
benefit of all. On the ‘philosophical* side the Mahayana consisted of two schools, those of
the Yogacharins or ‘Practitioners of Yoga (i.e. Meditation)’ and those of the MŒdhyamikas or
‘Followers of the Mean*. Popular Mahayana tended to go as much to the extreme of altruism
as the Hinayana had gone to the extreme of individualism. As already observed, the
Bodhisattva was sometimes represented as actually postponing his own entry into NirvÅ’na,
while doing everything in his power to facilitate that of others. He was represented, if only by
implication, as an almost ‘Promethean* figure, who aimed at the attainment of Buddhahood
by means of an exertion of will power on a gigantic scale, and who saw the great task of
cosmic salvation as something which could, quite literally, be undertaken and carried out by
the individual.
Thus there were two equally one-sided approaches to the Bodhisattva Ideal. The Hinayana
thought that, though the Bodhisattva Ideal was the highest ideal, it was beyond the reach of
ordinary Buddhists, and that human effort should therefore be directed to the realisation of
the admittedly lower ideal of emancipation from suffering for self alone. The Mahayana (in
its more popular formulations) thought that, though the ideal of emancipation from suffering
for self alone was well within the reach of ordinary Buddhists, the Bodhisattva Ideal was the
highest realisation of Buddhahood for the sake of all. The Hinayana was right in thinking that
the Bodhisattva Ideal could not be realised, in its fulness, by the efforts of ordinary
Buddhists, but wrong in thinking that the only alternative was to direct those efforts away
from the Bodhisattva Ideal towards a spiritual ideal of a lesser kind. The Mahayana was right
in thinking that the Bodhisattva Ideal was the ideal for all, and that really there was no
alternative to it, but wrong in appearing to suggest that it could be realised by the efforts of
ordinary Buddhists, i.e. by ordinary human will power. The Hinayana saw that the means
could not work for the goal, so changed the goal; the Mahayana failed to see that the means
could not work for the goal, but at least kept the goal. The key to the resolution of the
conflict, as well as to a more balanced approach to the Bodhisattva Ideal, lies in the word
receptivity. One should neither turn away from the Bodhisattva Ideal because it cannot be
realised by ordinary human effort, nor keep to it under the impression that it really can be
realised by such means. Instead, there must be a radical change of attitude towards the
Bodhisattva Ideal. The Bodhisattva Ideal is indeed a universal ideal, but one in truth becomes
a Bodhisattva (in the third sense of the term) not directly but indirectly not by any egoistic
exertion of the will but rather by making oneself receptive to the one Cosmic Will to
Enlightenment and allowing it to take possession of one, as it were, and work through one.
This does not mean that there is no place for the exercise of the will, but only that its true
function, in relation to the realisation of the Bodhisattva Ideal, is that of removing the
obstacles to receptivity and creating, within the individual life-continuum, the best conditions
for the Arising of the Bodhichitta.
If the Bodhisattva Ideal is one of the sublimest spiritual ideals mankind has ever seen,
êŒntideva*s BodhicaryŒvatŒra or ‘Entry into the Life of Enlightenment*, is one of the
sublimest statements of that ideal. It was to the study of this great work that we addressed
ourselves on the first FWBO study retreat in 1973. Since the beginning of the year I had been
‘on retreat* in Cornwall, and apart from a brief appearance in the New Forest that summer
this was my first extended contact with the Movement ...

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