The Bodhisattva’s Path
Bodhisattva is the Sanskrit word for a being who is devoted to awakening and to acting for the benefit of all that lives. The way of the bodhisattva is one of the most radical and powerful of all Buddhist forms of practice. It is radical because it states that the deep fulfillment of happiness comes from serving the welfare of others as well as ourself. Our highest happiness is connected with the wellbeing of others.
The bodhisattva’s path is a striking contrast with the excessive individualism of our culture. Every wisdom tradition tells us that human meaning and happiness cannot be found in isolation but comes about through generosity, love, and understanding. The bodhisattva, knowing this, appears in a thousand forms, from scientist, to teacher, activist or nurse, from a caring grandmother to an engaged global citizen. Meditators often recite the bodhisattva vows when they sit, offering the benefit of their practice for the sake of others: “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to bring liberation to us all.” Like the ancient Hippocratic oath, the vow to serve the sick taken by every physician, the bodhisattva vows to serve the welfare of all. In a more poetic fashion, the Dalai Lama regularly recites bodhisattva vows based on the words of the beloved sixth-century sage Shantideva:
May I be a guard for those who need protection
A guide for those on the path
A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood
May I be a lamp in the darkness
A resting place for the weary
A healing medicine for all who are sick
A vase of plenty, a tree of miracles
And for the boundless multitudes of living beings
May I bring sustenance and awakening
Enduring like the earth and sky
Until all beings are freed from sorrow
And all are awakened.
Psychologically this is an astonishing thing to say. Does this mean that I am personally going to save seven billion humans and trillions of other beings? How can I do so? When we think about it from our limited sense of self, it is impossible. But when we understand that it is a deep intention of the heart, we can begin to fulfill it. To take such a vow is to set a direction, a sacred purpose, a statement of wisdom, an offering, a blessing. “We are not separate, we are interdependent,” declared the Buddha. Without understanding this, we are split between caring for ourselves or caring for the troubles of the world. When the world is seen with the eyes of a bodhisattva, there is no I and other—there is just us.
Poet Diane Ackerman has created a modern version of the bodhisattva vow with these lines in her poem “School Prayer”:
I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.
You can create your own Bodhisattva vow. Sit quietly for a time. Let your body and mind be at rest. Then, ask your heart, “If I were to make a vow, to set the compass of my heart, to give voice to my highest intention, what would it be?” And then listen for an answer. It need not be a poem. It might be as simple as “I vow to protect those in danger” or “I vow to be kind.” Your heart will instruct you.
As you quiet your mind and steady your heart, you can set your deepest intention. It will help you be strong for the long haul. Then get up and joyfully plant seeds for a more compassionate future. Educate yourself about social justice. Stand up against racism and hatred. Give voice, time, energy, care to alleviate suffering and tend our collective well being. Your freedom empowers you to contribute to the world. And your love will show you the way to do so.