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in Buddhadharma

On the Bodhisattva

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"May I be an island for those who seek one
And a lamp for those desiring light,
May I be a bed for all who wish to rest
And a slave for all who want a slave."
Śântideva : A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, III:19.

The Bodhisattva, "bodhi-being" or "enlightenment being", the ideal of the Mahâyâna replacing the Hînayâna ideal of the Arhat, seeks Buddhahood for the sake of the enlightenment of all sentient beings or Bodhicitta. In the Lesser Vehicle, the designation "Bodhisattva" is given only to Siddhârtha before his enlightenment.

The Bodhisattva practices the perfect virtues ("pâramitâ") or Six Perfections. The sole intent for his or her skillful methods & actions is compassion supported by the wisdom realizing emptiness.

The Bodhisattva provides active help, and is ready to take the suffering of others upon himself, transferring merit to other beings. To be able to really benefit as many sentient beings as possible, he or she wants to attain full enlightenment, awakening or Buddhahood.

The Bodhisattva is committed to or intent upon "Bodhi", "enlightenment". In the Hînayâna, the goal was the state of the Arhat, membership of the Ârya-Sangha. Then the "Pratyekabuddha" appears, one who enters "nirvâna" on his own and for himself alone. But this Buddha does not teach and so does not benefit anybody except himself. Embryonic in the teachings of the Buddha, the Mahâyâna ideal received outer form some five centuries after his "parinirvâna". This was not a separate lineage, code or "vinaya", but an "extension" of the Lesser Vehicle, both qua method, merit & wisdom.

Someone pursuing the goal of perfect (full) enlightenment for the benefit for all sentient beings is a "Bodhisattva Mahâsattva". "Bodhisattva" refers to their personal aspiration to Buddhahood and "great being", to their wish to help all possible sentient beings, not only themselves. Technically however, this title also refers to Great Bodhisattvas (beyond the Seventh Stage). This wish is aspiring Bodhicitta, sincerely intending the happiness of all sentient beings. If such a wish can not be generated, the Mahâyâna cannot and should not be entered. More renunciation is then required.

The creation, mental fabrication or conceptual generation of this wish is not easy, for all possible sentient beings must be included. After having extended this aspiration to those we love, we turn to those we hate and to those we could not care less. Upon simple analysis, the authenticity of aspiring Bodhicitta needs to be (self) established. In that sense, an active summary of the Lesser Vehicle should be presupposed. When at a given point, enough equanimity is part of the mindstream, producing aspiring Bodhicitta leads to genuine minds actualizing (materializing) the happiness of sentient beings. Imagining one has generated Bodhicitta while immersed in self-chershing, is like swimming in mud after having taken a shower. Pointless.

At the core of the Bodhisattva ideal is the generation of "Bodhicitta", the mind, consciousness or will towards enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. It is a force or urge entirely outside the five "skandhas" and thus supramundane. Various methods were developed to generate it, but the most powerful one is the cultivation of compassion.

In order to help sentient beings to the full of his or her capacity, the Bodhisattva wishes to attain full enlightenment as soon as possible. Without Buddhahood, no omniscience and so no best possible help ! The popular idea, prevalent in the West, saying the Bodhisattva vows to postpone his own enlightenment until all sentient beings attain theirs, is a misrepresentation based on two admirable but mainly devotional forms of the Bodhisattva intent (called the shepherd-like & boatman-like Bodhicitta). Monks & nuns, who need to serve, are naturally attracted to these devotional forms.

In terms of the Buddhadharma, Bodhicitta must be called "king-like". The Bodhisattva first does all to become enlightened and then uses his or her enlightened resources to help others. One suffering sentient being cannot bring another suffering being to the other shore of wisdom, the core insight of the teachings of Buddha. To oversee conventional reality and therefore the universal interconnectedness between all phenomena, the mind of a Buddha is necessary.

The Bodhisattva vows to generate Bodhicitta, the "mind of enlightenment for all" and to complete the Ten Stages of the Bodhisattva training, involving deeper probing into the real, ultimate nature of phenomena, eliminating innate self-grasping. He or she vows to become a Buddha. Nothing else. Meanwhile, compassionate activity is ongoing.

Before being able to begin truly understanding & seeing emptiness, the Bodhisattva has to accumultate merit (compassion) & wisdom (insight into emptiness) and prepare conceptually for the direct perception of emptiness. Mind training, ritual actions, devotion, Calm Abiding, Insight Meditation etc. based on the Perfection of Wisdom Sûtras make the mind pliant, supple, fresh, clean and clear.

The Sutric Bodhisattva understands how the texts reveal the crucial role of wishing true happiness, Bodhicitta & emptiness. Aspiring & engaging Bodhicitta have to be spontaneous ! The path of the Sutric Bodhisattva is said to demand many lifetimes.

It is pursued by two major methods : (a) training in the Ten Stages ("bhûmis") and (b) practicing the "pâramitâs" or Six Perfections : (1) generosity ("dâna"), (2) ethics ("śîla"), (3) effort ("vîrya"), (4) patience ("ksânti"), (5) meditation ("samâdhi") and (6) wisdom ("prajñâ"). To correlate these perfections with the Ten Stages ("bhûmis"), four perfections are added : (7) skillful means ("upâya"), (8) vow to achieve Buddhahood ("pranidhâna"), (9) power ("bala") and (10) knowledge ("jñâna"). The first five perfections are sealed by wisdom. Hence, the Bodhisattva realizes the ultimate reality (or conventional unreality) of the beings he or she saves. This is "mahâkarunâ" or "Great Compassion".

The Six Perfections also explain the two "accumulations" ("bodhi-sambhâra" or "equipments for Bodhi") : the accumulation of merit ("punya-sambhâra") or the generation of the first five perfections, while the accumulation of wisdom ("jñâna-sambhâra") is achieved through the perfection of wisdom, the sixth perfection. Because wisdom is perfected by understanding and seeing emptiness, giving, morality, joyous effort, patience & meditation can be perfected.

Relative Bodhicitta is based on wishing the suffering of all sentient beings to cease. This may be aspiring and engaging, or both, and is wholly turned to otherness. Absolute Bodhicitta, like the wisdom understanding emptiness, understands & directly perceives the true nature of all conventional events & happenings, of all phenomena inner and outer, namely their dependent-arising and absence of inherent existence. This is full-emptiness, all things being empty of itself but full of otherness. Absolute Bodhicitta is an ultimate wisdom because it reveals the true nature of the mind of enlightenment manifested for and dedicated to the benefit of all sentient beings, namely true cessation of (a) emotional afflictions & (b) gross, subtle & very subtle mental delusions, both intellectual (acquired) & innate.

The absence of own-nature, of an entity devoid of inherent existence ("nihsvabhâva"), is the ultimate nature of all possible phenomena. It is not another nature or another phenomenon. It is the same (conventional) phenomenon devoid of inherent existence, viewed in terms of fugal & functional interconnectedness. Absolute Bodhicitta is the ultimate nature of relative Bodhicitta, allowing every action done in the spirit of the latter to be dedicated to interrelationality, holism & continuum-thinking, seeing every thing done as an empty but functional form emerging out of the emptiness of this form. Although form and its emptiness are nominally not identical, i.e. different, they are the same entity (and so two epistemic isolates of that entity). This view is the heart of wisdom (cf. Heart Sûtra) of the Consequence School.

Absolute Bodhicitta brings to the fore the importance of mind. The last step in the process underlining the stages of the path to enlightenment always involves a radical rethinking of oneself, the others and the world. An epistemological turn pertains. To prepare for the radical thinking of the Consequence School, emptiness is first touched upon in the lower tenet systems.

These incomplete views allow realist or idealist "exits". Such metaphysical groundings always shape ontological illusion and its antinomies. Because of the conflicts between the tenets, the intelligent mind continues to seek answers. When all of this has matured by study, reflection & meditation, the whole conceptual field is addressed and emptiness is comprehensive and defined as "absence of inherent existence" (cf. the Mâdhyamaka-Prâsangika). At this point, both the "I" and outer phenomena no longer exist "from their own side", as substantial ontic entities, but they "arise from emptiness" as a gold coin arises from its gold. Emptiness is not some "ground", "fundamental nature", "immortal me" or "Supreme Being" outside conventional realities (and so the emptiness of emptiness pertains), but the same interdependent & impermanent subcontinuum (the gold coin) understood & seen as devoid of inherent existence, i.e. fully, completely and inexhaustibly interrelated and process-like (the gold). This view is in accord with Western Process Philosophy.

Kamalaśîla (ca. 700 - 750 CE), integrated the "pâramitâs" & "bhûmis" in five "paths". These form the basis for the understanding of the Path of the Bodhisattva in Tibetan schools like the Gelugpas. The smooth integration of these various complex insights evidences a high scholastic level. This classification proves the point made, for the process involves the epistemology of emptiness and the excellent sublimity of mixing the mind with it until both finally merge.

  • Path of Accumulation : entered upon the arising of the mind of enlightenment for all sentient beings (Bodhicitta), the practice of the perfections (paramitas) causes the two baskets (of merit and wisdom) to be filled, thereby producing favourable conditions to study, reflect & meditate on emptiness. Understanding of emptiness is gross & conceptual, but self-cherishing is abandoned. As a yogi, one is able to analyze emptiness without leaving meditative equipoise (the fruit of Calm Abiding), i.e. "superior seeing" or "special insight". Self-cherishing is halted ;

  • Path of Preparation : as soon as "superior seeing" is acquired, a deep conceptual insight into emptiness, the fundamental nature of all phenomena, is on its way. Then, the complete conceptual understanding of emptiness is irreversible. The subtle conceptual aspects of emptiness (related to the reification of the higher self) are integrated. The supreme Dharma mind nearly completely mixes with emptiness, prompting the highest inferential (proximate, categorized, contrived, indirect) realization of emptiness possible with the conceptual mind. Thus acquired self-grasping stops and the conceptual mind can be halted and reflected (made aware) ;

  • Path of Seeing : after full understanding, the direct experience of emptiness in meditation is at hand. Then the Bodhisattva enters the first "bhûmi" & the Ârya-Sangha and eliminates all remaining intellectually based conceptions  of inherent existence. Because innate self-grasping is not yet removed, this Superior Bodhisattva has valid cognitions while meditating only ;

  • Path of Meditation : here, thanks to continuous meditation, this direct experience is developed and stabilized by going though the remaining nine stages. The experience of emptiness of the Hînayâna Arhat is identified with the Sixth Stage. Beyond the Seventh Stage dwell the Mahâsattva Bodhisattvas and Dhyâni Bodhisattvas. When the last innate delusion is removed, Buddhahood is nearly at hand ;

  • Path of No More Learning :  the simultaneous experience of conventional & ultimate truth, of "samsâra" & "nirvâna", of compassion & wisdom offers complete insight into the relative and ultimate nature of all possible phenomena, leading to the state of Buddhahood.

Taking into account the accomplishments of linguistics, philosophy of language, geneto-cognitive theory, system-theory, cybernetics as well as anthropology, history, archeology, economics etc., my criticism (epistemology, ethics & esthetics) conjectures a spectrum of seven strata, planes, levels or modes of cognition, called : mythic, pre-rational & proto-rational (forming together ante-rationality, as exemplified in Ancient Egyptian thought) and formal, critical, creative & nondual cognition (cf. Critique of a Metaphysics of Process).

Together, formal & critical thought constitute scientific knowledge, whereas creative thought is an immanent metaphysical inquiry, but one staying within the boundaries of conceptuality. Moving beyond this, nondual thought is non-conceptual. When the Buddha urged us to inquire into the ultimate nature of things and discover their emptiness, i.e. their lack of inherent existence, nondual cognition was the cognitive mode called for. Because Yoga was part of India's culture, the possibility of directly perceiving reality-as-such was not a priori rejected. Although Indian thought and Kant both agree conceptual cognition cannot move beyond its own categories, yogis knew from experience nondual thought was possible. Kant was not oblivious of this fact, but because "intellectual perception" (the Western name for intuitive, direct, non-conceptual knowledge) was not given to everyone, he rejected it altogether.

Moreover, in the West, intuition had been largely recuperated by the Roman Church, identifying it with the "grace of the Holy Spirit", an identification hardly lauded by Protestants like Kant. It took another two centuries before Western intellectuals no longer identified "intuition" with a church-bound religious dogma. Only then was a secular approach of "higher states of consciousness" possible (cf. psychic research at the end of the 19th century, parapsychology and transpersonal psychology in the 20th). However, the impact of this remained rather shallow.

In all vehicles of the Buddhadharma, a direct, non-conceptual, nondual cognition of emptiness, or the ultimate nature of phenomena is deemed possible & necessary. The noumenon is known by a valid yogic perceiver, i.e. one discovering emptiness directly. These minds are beyond conceptual, discursive, analytical thought, but also beyond the emotional, totalising, synthetical mode. They express themselves bi-hemispherically, allowing for multiple transferences between analysis & synthesis (between analytical Insight Meditation & Calm Abiding). They perceive without conceptualization and so are called "direct" (without means). Although beyond conceptualization, some yogis consider them as non-cognitive (Gorampa, Shentong, Dzogchen), while for yogi-scholars, like Tsongkhapa, they are cognitive. Indeed, the highest mode of cognition !

Because Great Bodhisattvas finish the Paths of Seeing & Meditation, they develop all possible mundane & psychic abilities to help others, and so their resulting accomplishments are progressively less different from those of a fully awakened Buddha. Hence, they are worshipped to the same degree as a Buddha. Since they have been practicing for countless lifetimes and have been reborn in more refined realms of "samsâra" numerous times, these Bodhisattvas are no longer common humans or ordinary Bodhisattvas.


© Wim van den Dungen, Antwerp - 2017
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.


initiated : 29 XI 2008 - last update : 12 XII 2011 - version n°1