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Bodhisattva Ideal - Questions and Answers with Study Leaders 1986

by Sangharakshita

Study Leaders Question and Answer Sessions
Aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal - January 1986Those present: Sangharakshita, Dharmacharis Ratnaprabha, Virananda,
Ratnaguna, Kuladeva, Tejananda, Sudhana, Susiddhi, Kulamitra, Dharmavira,
Dharmapriya, Vairocana, Chakkhupala, Devamitra, Sthirananda, Saddhaloka,
Tejamitra, Prakasha, Dharmadhara.
Lecture One: The Origins and Development of the Bodhisattva
Devamitra: Today we have been studying the lecture on the origins and
development of the Bodhisattva Ideal. First of all we have got a question from
Ratnaprabha on the meaning of the word sattva.
In the lecture you defined the ‘sattva’ part of the term Bodhisattva in
a fairly straightforward way as meaning a living being. I was looking
at Har Dayal’s The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit
Literature and I would just like to read a paragraph from it and ask
for your comments on it. ‘One is tempted to believe that Pali satta
may really be rendered by Sanskrit sakta, as this interpretation
seems to define the chief quality of an aspirant for Bodhi. But the
safest way is always to go back to the Pali without attaching much
importance to the later lexicographers and philosophers. Now
Bodhisattva in the Pali texts seems to mean a Bodhi being but satta
here does not denote a mere ordinary creature. It is almost certainly
related to the Vedic word sattva which means a strong valiant man,
hero, warrior. In this way we can also understand...’ (he refers to the
Tibetan translation of the word, which translates as a hero or a
strong man). Satta, in Pali Bodhisatta, should be interpreted as
heroic being, spiritual warrior. The word suggests the two ideas of
existence and struggle and not merely the notion of simple
Sangharakshita: I have alluded to this somewhere, I can’t remember where. I
have mentioned that some authorities do hold that when the Pali term bodhisatta
was Sanskritized it should have been Sanskritized as bodhisakta, that is to say,
one who is making an effort towards Buddhahood. But nonetheless it was
Sanskritized as Bodhisattva and sattva does have the [2] meaning of being. As
for instance when one speaks of sarvasattva, that is to say al beings, one is not
thereby suggesting that all beings have got those heroic qualities that Har Dayal
mentions. But nonetheless it may be that originally bodhisattva did convey
something of that sort, which was in a way lost, to some extent, later on.
There’s no doubt that, however one translates or understands bodhisattva, the
ideal is an heroic ideal. It is as though the term sattva probably has different
levels of meaning. A general meaning, no doubt as being in the most ordinary
sense and perhaps Being with a capital B, as we would say, which you can’t quite
reproduce in Pali or Sanskrit. So the Bodhisattva is the being par excel ence, one
might say.
Perhaps it raises the more general question that we perhaps need to rethink our
standard English versions of a number of terms. Because these versions did
attain currency quite early on in the history of Buddhist studies in the West. For
instance I have myself translated bhagavan, which is usually rendered as ‘Lord’,
as ‘richly endowed one’, which I think gives the meaning better, and doesn’t have
all the connotations, the theistic-cum-authoritarian connotations, of the word Lord.
So perhaps there’s a case for reconsidering al our more generally accepted and
standard renderings. Even ‘the Enlightened One’, for Buddha.
Ratnaprabha: Would there be a better term than the Enlightened One?
S: Well, it isn’t easy to render Buddha because buddha, again, has got different
levels of meaning, as I have suggested the term sattva has. Buddha clearly
means in many passages, even in the Pali Canon, simply something like ‘a wise
man’, in the most ordinary sense. But again it clearly means one who has
realized the ultimate goal, one who has realized the transcendental state. So any
general translation of the term would have to do justice, presumably, to those
different levels of meaning if one possibly could find such a term.
Though to come back to Har Dayal, he mentioned that the Tibetans usually
render sattva as vira. I think one would need to check up on that, because in a
number of texts there is a double expression, bodhisattva mahasattva.
Mahasattva is understood in the sense of hero. So if one understands
bodhisattva already as hero then Mahasattva would be, so to speak, redundant.
So that the fact that one can speak in Sanskrit of bodhisattva mahasattva
suggests that, at least in the case of certain texts, bodhisattva doesn’t quite
convey the sense of maha. You have, as it were, to add to it.
Sometimes, of course, it is said that the Bodhisattva Mahasattva is an irreversible
Bodhisattva, as distinct from one who is not irreversible, but that is probably a
rather technical refinement.
Perhaps we shal never know what exactly Bodhisatta meant for the people who
originally used the term. One could say again that one can distinguish two kinds
of Bodhisattva: those who are bent on the realization of the Bodhisattva Ideal, the
Bodhisaktas, as it were, and those, let us say from the irreversible Bodhisattva
upwards, who have actual y realized at least a measure of supreme
Enlightenment and whose consciousness, therefore, is saturated, one might say,
with the [3] experience of Supreme Enlightenment, at least to a great extent. And
they are Bodhisattvas in the sense of ‘Beings of Bodhi’, beings who have been
born or reborn from that Bodhi experience. Not that they don’t continue to make
an effort but in their case the effort is not an effort in the sense in which we have
to make it, it is so to speak more spontaneous. Anyway, enough about
Devamitra: The next question comes from Dharmadhara and concerns the
meaning of the term Bodhisattva also.
Second Edition Unedited Question and Answer Sessions on the Aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal Lecture

With the term Bodhisattva you distinguish the denotation (seeking
Enlightenment) and the connotation (seeking Enlightenment for the
sake of all living beings) My question is, has the connotation always
been implicit in the term, in which case the term perhaps could have
been more accurate originally, or was the connotation added later to
counteract the one-sided Arahant Ideal? If it was added later how
was it possible to apply it to the Buddha himself, who was so other-
S: Let’s take that stage by stage.
Dharmadhara: So the question - Has the connotation always been implicit in
the term?
S: In the term Bodhisattva? Wel , it must have been, inasmuch as original y the
goal, Bodhi, was both other-regarding and self-regarding. Was both other-
regarding and self-regarding in the case of the Buddha himself, as shown by his
actual life and example. So even though the connotation wasn’t, as it were,
spel ed out in so many words it was certainly implicit from the beginning , as the
Buddha’s own example demonstrates. So that means that the other questions
don’t real y fol ow on, or do they?
Dharmadhara: I was asking which possibility, or was there another one and
how was it that it wasn’t more accurate originally then?
S: I think I have touched upon this in the lecture itself when I speak of the
importance of the Buddha’s own personal example. Because if you had the
example of the Buddha before
Second Edition Unedited Question and Answer Sessions on the Aspects of the Bodhisattva Ideal Lecture

you you could hardly doubt that there was an other-regarding aspect of the
spiritual life. It wouldn’t need to be spel ed out, perhaps, in so many words. That
was only necessary, as again I have suggested, when a certain deformation of
the spiritual ideal had set in and when the self-regarding aspect had been over-
stressed. So that there needed to be a compensatory emphasis on the part of the
Mahayana on the other-regarding aspect.
Devamitra: The next question comes from Dharmapriya and concerns the
writing of your memoirs.
In the lecture you draw out the distinction between saying or writing,
on the one hand, and doing or being on the other. Although you
make the point especial y with respect to the Buddha several of us
thought that a similar distinction [4] applied to you, namely, that your
lectures, essays, and more scholarly books such as the Survey are
your sayings, so to speak, whereas your memoirs are an attempt to
communicate what you are, your being. Is this indeed the reason,
the main reason, why you devote so much of your time and energy
to your memoirs? And the second half of this, are there other
important reasons for writing them?
S: This requires a little consideration, though I think I should say first of al that I
don’t devote very much time to my memoirs, I wish I could devote more. I haven’t
actually worked on them for many, many months, I think not since last May or
perhaps June, but certainly not later than then.
But let’s have your question bit by bit again. Because it is something that I have
thought ...

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