What is the Mahayana path? To attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings. What exactly does “for the sake of all sentient beings” mean? Hopefully this talk will provide some illumination.
One fundamental aspect of the Mahayana path is the cultivation of the mind of bodhicitta.
What does “bodhicitta” mean? The literal translation from Sanskrit is “Awakening Mind”
What are the two aspects of the mind of bodhicitta?
- The sincere aspiration to attain enlightenment and
- The altruistic intention to do so for the sake of others
These have been compared to the two wings of an eagle, where both are needed equally in order to fly.
Geshe Tashi Tsering in his book “The Awakening Mind” (From the Foundation of Buddhist Thought course) writes : “The mind that wishes to benefit others always precedes the mind that wishes to attain enlightenment. Benefitting others as skillfully as possible is the aim, and placing ourselves on the path to becoming enlightened is the means of realizing that aim.”
I see in the two aspects of bodhicitta a dynamic tension: We realize our own suffering and wish to rid ourselves of this suffering, and we also want to benefit others. So we follow the path because we both want to give and receive support. It’s the interaction between supporting ourselves to develop our wisdom mind and doing so for the benefit of others that both frees us and gives us the ultimate power to free others from their suffering.
Lamala has been talking a lot lately about the importance of feeling a sense of support in your practice, that you are not going it alone. We need to feel the support of others. But that support needs to go both ways. We can’t just see the realization of the path as coming from taking in teachings and meditating. Our support to others is as crucial to our path as receiving support.
So here’s another dynamic tension within Mahayana: Without nirvana, we can only help a limited number of beings, so it behooves us to work hard at attaining the awakened state in order to benefit all beings; yet we can’t ignore the suffering of others while we focus on our own practice along the way.
Geshe Tashi writes about this tension: “I can ultimately help all beings by getting enlightened, but I get enlightened by helping as many beings as I can, on as vast a scale as I am able. The end product of enlightenment is not the sole reason for our actions. ”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said: “No matter how important an individual is, the interest of that individual is the interest of only one being, whereas the interest of others is the interest of an infinite number of beings. Others are vital to our well- being and survival, and are the source of all our happiness.”
The Four Immeasurables speaks to Bodhicitta:
May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May all beings be inseparable from the joyful happiness that is free from suffering. May all beings abide in equanimity, free from holding some close and others distant.
Some versions of this prayer explicitly state that “I will take the responsibility to bring all beings that happiness.”
This can certainly feel like a tall order, right?
Or how about this one? :“I will lead all living beings without exception into that enlightened realm.”
That’s a pretty big goal, isn’t it? Are you feeling overwhelmed, yet? On top of this, some days it can feel pretty hard to cultivate the equanimity for ALL sentient beings when you are feeling frustrated or worse toward certain of those sentient beings. Remember what Linus in the Peanuts cartoon said? “I love mankind. It’s PEOPLE I can’t stand!”
We have to ground our desire to benefit all sentient beings in those around us, not simply the general “all beings.” This includes the people we interact with on a daily basis, not just an abstract “all sentient beings.” It can become too tempting to generate our abstract wish to benefit all beings in our prayers but then tacitly discount certain other sentient beings with whom we are interacting in our daily lives.
Geshe Tashi again: “Although our main goal is the cultivation of mind that genuinely wishes all beings to have complete happiness and to take personal responsibility to bring this about, when it comes to actual training, instead of taking ALL living beings we choose a particular person or group of people and focus on them initially.
We connect to that person: ‘May he, she, or they have happiness. I will cause he/she/them to be happy.’
All sentient beings is just too general and our meditation could easily collapse if we tried to encompass the whole of the universe in our love at this stage, so it’s good to begin with the limits that work for us and then slowly expand it out.”
Lama Tsongkapa wrote: “Following his discourse on wisdom, Kamalashila laid out the method to gradually develop equanimity, love, and compassion while at the same time distinguishing specific objects of mediation. This is an extremely important point. If you train in the methods of equanimity, love, and compassion using only a general object of meditation from the beginning rather than a specific one, you will only seem to generate these qualities, but when you try to apply them to specific beings you will be unsuccessful. However, by cultivating such attitudes in your meditation toward one person, as I have explained, you can gradually increase the number of beings you visualize until you can ultimately take all beings as the object of your meditation.”
At the same time, it’s important to remember that Lamala says bodhicitta isn’t about being “Cosmic Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.” We have to maintain an awareness of what we are capable of at any point in time. He talks about only giving 49% to others. Sometimes we need the support of others to help us to maintain awareness of where we are along that balance.
When we think about benefitting others we should also realize that aspiring to benefit others to end their conventional suffering e.g. food for a hungry person benefits them temporarily, but they are still suffering from the defects of samsara, as are we. To ultimately help ourselves as well as them, we must attain enlightenment and “lead each and every being without exception into that enlightened realm.” Still, if the person starves to death it’s pretty hard for them to attain enlightenment, at least within this lifetime. We still have to engage with the conventional world on the path. Lamala talks about the two rails that we are riding along: the conventional and the ultimate worlds.
Recently I began reading “The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, ” which is basically a transcript of a series of conversations with psychiatrist Howard Gardner and the Dalai Lama.
When Dr. Gardner asked His Holiness “what is the feature of society that acts as a major obstruction to the full expression of human happiness? Is there a particular area that contributes to the problems in our modern world?”
What the Dalai Lama said sparked in my mind a powerful series of reactions that led to my desire to present this talk to you today.
His Holiness’ answer: “I think it could be best characterized as a lack of a sense of community.”
“You sometimes find these communities of societies where there is no spirit of cooperation, no feeling of connection. Then you’ll see widespread loneliness set in.”
Dr. Gardner quotes several statistics to support His Holiness’ point:
In the past 20 years the number of people in America who report they have NO ONE with whom they can talk about important matters has nearly tripled.
The percentage of individuals with no close friends or confidants is a staggering 25% of Americans.
Most people only have two close friends or confidants.
More and more people are relying on family members as their primary source of social connection.
We are especially seeing the fractiousness of our modern society in the divisive election process that is currently occurring.
Clearly forging a deeper sense of connection to others and building a greater sense of community is a good place to start in terms of healing the ills and sufferings of our society. In addition, these actions serve to ground our bodhicitta in those around us while working to benefit the world at large, a.k.a. all sentient beings. “Think Globally, Act Locally.”
How does His Holiness suggest we go about this?
“You need to have awareness of the seriousness of the problem itself, how destructive it can be, then you need greater awareness of the ways that we are connected with others, reflecting on the characteristics we share with others.
And finally, you need to translate that awareness into action.
It means making a deliberate effort to increase personal contact among the various members of the community. So THAT is how you increase your feeling of connecting, increasing your bonds within the community.”
How does Sangha fit into this? Sangha means community. OUR community. How much do we connect to this community and value it?
This is from Thich Nhat Hanh from just last month:
“Our civilization, our culture, has been characterized by individualism. The individual wants to be free from the society, from the family. The individual does not think he or she needs to take refuge in the family or in the society, and thinks that he
or she can be happy without a sangha. That is why we do not have solidity, we do not have harmony, we do not have the communication that we so need.
The practice is, therefore, to grow some roots. The sangha is not a place to hide in order to avoid your responsibilities. The sangha is a place to practice for the transformation and the healing of self and society. When you are strong, you can be there in order to help society. If your society is in trouble, if your family is broken, if your church is no longer capable of providing you with spiritual life, then you work to take refuge in the sangha so that you can restore your strength, your understanding, your compassion, your confidence. And then in turn you can use that strength, understanding and compassion to rebuild your family and society, to renew your church, to restore communication and harmony. This can only be done as a community—not as an individual, but as a sangha.
In order for us to develop some roots, we need the kind of environment that can help us become rooted. A sangha is not a community of practice in which each person is an island, unable to communicate with each other—this is not a true sangha. No healing or transformation will result from such a sangha. A true sangha should be like a family in which there is a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood.
“In my tradition we learn that as individuals we cannot do much. That is why taking refuge in the sangha, taking refuge in the community, is a very strong and important practice. When I say, “I take refuge in the sangha,” it does not mean that I want to express my devotion. No. It’s not a question of devotion; it’s a question of practice. Without being in a sangha, without being supported by a group of friends who are motivated by the same ideal and practice, we cannot go far.
“If we do not have a supportive sangha, we may not be getting the kind of support we need for our practice, that we need to nourish our bodhichitta. Sometimes we call it ‘beginner’s mind.’ The mind of a beginner is always very beautiful, very strong. In a good and healthy sangha, there is encouragement for our beginner’s mind, for our bodhichitta. So the sangha is the soil and we are the seed. No matter how beautiful, how vigorous our seed is, if the soil does not provide us with vitality, our seed will die.”
How are you taking in the soil of the Sangha? What do you do to till the soil of the Sangha?
What are you doing to cultivate community in the Sangha? In your other communities?
Thich Nhat Hanh’s imagery of soil and seeds reminds me of an apt quote by Gordon Hinckley: “You can’t plow a field simply by turning it over in your mind.”