Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Personal tools
You are here: Home Articles Mind, Mo Duk, and Buddhist philosophy Bodhisattvas

Bodhisattvas

Bodhisattvas

Interviewer: Sifu, thank you for your time to give this interview. May I speak with you on a Buddhist topic?

Sifu: Yes, certainly. Although I note that what I say may need to be corrected by a lama if I am in error.

Interviewer: OK. May I ask you about bodhisattvas? What are bodhisattvas?

Sifu: In terms that a Christian might relate to they could be considered as saints, or as angels. They are those beings who have taken an oath that says on attaining enlightenment they won’t sit back and enjoy a Nirvanic state but will deliberately seek a re-birth of their mind-stream to help all suffering sentient beings escape the sufferings of samsara. Bodhisattvas are those who have seen the light - and I’m making a little joke here! (Laughs).

Interviewer: Your answer raises more questions for me! (Laughs)

Sifu: Good! That’s a good way to have a chat. What questions have been evoked?

Interviewer: Several. One is: are these bodhisattvas able to be seen?

Sifu: A bodhisattva may have differing levels of accomplishment. Those who are embodied in forms other than human ones may not necessarily be seen by our human vision. Others can certainly be seen.

Interviewer: Do they walk among us? Sounds like sci-fi! (Laughs)

Sifu: Bodhisattvas are inspired by compassion. Many do walk, as otherwise ordinary human beings, amongst us. I personally believe that more highly enlightened bodhisattvas can also appear to us as normal human beings to comfort us. Perhaps even as friendly animals.

Interviewer: How can we recognise them?

Sifu: (Laughs). Look around you! A diamond has many faces! (Laughs) Every sentient being is a potential bodhisattva. Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists may choose to take bodhisattva vows, but not our Theravadin brothers and sisters. They don’t take these vows, I’m told. They take a different view of the process. Those who have taken the Bodhisattva vows become bodhisattvas. Some of those who haven’t taken such vows act like bodhisattvas, though. Even many non-Buddhists can be like bodhisattvas. They are kind; they pursue goodness and eschew evil. These people can be thought of as like bodhisattvas. But, a bodhisattva really has to have the conscious design to help all suffering sentient beings escape samsaric illusion and suffering. It is more than doing good. It includes an effort to awaken the mind to ultimate reality. Bodhisattvas don’t try to be missionaries though or to forcibly coerce people to convert them. That would be wrong. They model behaviour and teach if asked. Otherwise they don’t disrespect the individual by trying to make them think as they do. That’s spiritual assault and spiritual abuse.

Interviewer: So you’d have views on missionaries?

Sifu: The standard missionary hopes and usually acts with this idea foremost - to capture the allegiance of those they help. They act to conscript, to cajole, or to coerce their targeted person to believe as they do. In doing so, throughout history, there has been enormous suffering, cultural abuse, even genocide. This is different to a bodhisattva.

Interviewer: Yes, I see. What’s the difference between a Christian saint and a bodhisattva?

Sifu: The Christian saint will not have encountered the notion of purifying the mind-stream so as to attain enlightenment. They have not encountered, or have rejected the Dharma. Most likely I would hazard a guess that, by far, it is most likely that they did not encounter it. Those who genuinely are saints, of any religions, are nonetheless people worthy of respect. Not all those designated as saints after their deaths were necessarily holy or good people. I think that there has been a lot of politics involved in designating many people saints.

Interviewer: I see. Do you like any of the Christian saints?

Sifu: Oh yes! I especially like Saint Francis of Assisi. There are several others who did a lot of good to alleviate the suffering of sentient beings. St Vincent de Paul, for example. He was a very kind man, by accounts. Those who work in his memory do a lot of good to help a lot of people. I deeply respect that.

Interviewer: Saint Francis, yes, of course! (Laughs) What do you know of the Bodhisattva vows, sifu?

Sifu: I took the vows. So, I have been initiated into them and taught about them.

Interviewer: Oh!

Sifu: Many people have taken them.

Interviewer: Maybe - but I’ve never met any of them! Apart from you, of course. And I only just found that out!

Sifu: You may have and may not have known! Isn’t it wonderful, eh? Just think that anyone might be a bodhisattva! How do you treat people? Anyone might be a bodhisattva! So, treat everyone as if they are - because I can say this - if they are not now - one day they will be!

Interviewer: That’s hard to imagine of some hoons!

Sifu: (Laughs) Yes! I do struggle with that, I must admit! But I persevere!

Interviewer: I was thinking of bodhisattvas as bald monks, spirits, standing on clouds sort of thing.

Sifu: Well, I can’t do that! Today’s living bodhisattvas, can’t do that! (Laughs) Not even Kundun! Wouldn’t it be fun, though! (Laughs)

Interviewer: Awesome! Sifu, can you explain what samsara is?

Sifu: Yes. It’s easiest thought of as the world of things that never turn out to always and unendingly be satisfactory. It is impermanence. Samsara means the cycle of birth, death, re-incarnation.

Interviewer: Can I ask about re-incarnation, sifu? So I’ll be reborn?

Sifu: (Laughs) Not exactly! The “you” that you are now, is not re-incarnated, neither is your mind. That’d be a silly notion. But your mind stream itself - the blackboard on which all your experiences and thoughts and feelings and deeds are noted down - this is like that. The mind stream is reincarnated - re-cycled. Samsara can mean a place, a set of our possessions. It is really the process of the unending pursuit or flow of our life. It’s our dream of our life, if you like. When we become enlightened we wake up, see?

Interviewer: OK. Yes, sort of. It’s opposed to nirvana. What is nirvana?

Sifu: (Sifu holds out his hand and turns it over). Like this. Palm up, this is my hand. Palm down this is my hand. The way I see it differs but it is the same hand. Nirvana means "blowing out". Freeing oneself from suffering, from individual existence that is inwardly focused. What is suffering? Misperception. Misinterpretation. It is the blowing out of the fires of the three evils - greed, hatred, and delusion. Samsara and nirvana are states of perception. They’re not different when viewed from the ultimate nature of the Dharmakaya.

Interviewer: “Dharmakaya”?

Sifu: (Laughs) Sorry! This is a bit esoteric. Padmasambhava, Guru Rinpoche, a great Tibetan bodhisattva, said that the dharmakaya is the ultimate nature or essence of the enlightened mind (not your mind, not my mind - possessive adjectives have no meaning here). This is uncreated, free from the limits of conceptual elaboration, empty of inherent existence, naturally radiant, beyond duality and “as spacious as the sky” - which means without dimensions. When someone becomes a buddha they enter the dharmakaya. They become the Dharmakaya. Some people can have some sort of conceptual imagining of this without, or with a limited, experiential encountering of it. We can attain nirvana only by following the Buddhist path.

Interviewer: So there’s a connection between samsara and nirvana?

Sifu: From our human perspective it is like yum yeung. But, the duality between nirvana and samsara is only true on this conventional level of perception we all share. Samsara, suffering is never necessarily inherent in any situation. So, freedom from suffering and its causes is not a metaphysical shift of any kind. Nagarjuna tells us that Lord Buddha’s teaching of the Dharma is based on two truths. These are the truth of our worldly conventional ways of experience and an ultimate truth. People who don’t understand the difference don’t understand the Buddha’s teaching. We have to have a foundation in this world’s level of experiencing to understand the ultimate truth. Unless we understand the ultimate we cannot be enlightened. I think it’s a bit like quantum physics at times. You have to have a base in normal physics to get to quantum physics.

Interviewer: Can you tell us a bit about the bodhisattva vows?

Sifu: OK. A little. Once someone agrees to follow the way of a bodhisattva way, their mind must become enlightened. Training for this begins by generating the “six perfections”. These are: generosity; ethics; patience; right effort; right concentration; and wisdom.

Interviewer: Can you tell us a bit about each of these, please, sifu?

Sifu: OK. Generosity. We might foster this by providing for people by starting a business and then working with or hiring those who need to do the sort of work you do. Volunteering your time and talents to those who need them is also a way of cultivating generosity. Also, sharing Buddhist teachings so people are able to help themselves and others they know. This is a great gift. We must give selflessly without thought of thanks, recognition or compensation of any sort. Just give. Then Ethics. Knowing the basic difference between right and wrong is imperative to generating the Six Perfections. To practice the perfection of ethics we must refrain from doing harm to ourself, and all those around us. Killing, sexual misconduct, consuming harmful substances such as alcohol or drugs, being deceitful, and using hurtful language must be avoided. We must be mindful of all our thoughts so as not to generate wrong behaviours. Patience. This is the antidote to anger. Anger hurts. It is that simple. If we are patient, tolerant and not angry we will be happy and much further along the path of the bodhisattva. Effort. Enthusiastic effort is necessary if you want to achieve anything. This definitely includes becoming a bodhisattva. Laziness cripples effort. Tomorrow never comes - so be diligent! Our effort must be now! Concentration. Meditating to develop a calm mind sharpens our concentration. Being able to focus single-pointedly on one subject with an unwavering mind is a huge advantage. Actually, the calm-abiding mind develops clairvoyance and abilities to heal ourselves and others. When radiating inward and outward calm, we become like a lighthouse on a stormy night. Others will want the inner peace that they may see. So they may come to the Dharma. Concentration is a form of mindfulness. When we pay unflinching attention to what we’re doing, we avoid error, time-wasting and frustration. Lack of mindfulness can lead to harm and cause accidents. Wisdom. Wisdom is the mother of all great qualities we can cultivate in our life. As the Sixth Perfection, it is the sum of the other five. Meditation on wisdom is essential for entering into the stages of bodhisattva-hood. Buddhist texts emphasize two vital subjects when it comes to knowledge—selflessness and impermanence. We are the results of our past actions, so is the world we live in. Since there are places on earth that are heavenly realms, those places where so much virtue has settled that people will travel great distances to see such wonderful locations. In my experience, Singapore is one such place. Old Tibet was - but that has passed now. On the flip side, hell realms are places where dense accumulations of non-virtue and evil thrive, keeping people captive to the negative states of consciousness. South Africa is such a place. A neighbouring suburb to mine here is too. It’s a terrible place!

Interviewer: (Laugh) Yes, our gwoon is there! Where can I find out more about the bodhisattva path, sifu? Is there a book?

Sifu: (Laughs) So, you’re interested? Yes. I think there might be some if you did a search. A very beautiful book is one by Santideva, the eighth century bodhisattva, called “Bodhisattvacharyavatara” or “A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life'”. It is only ten chapters. He says this - a most beautiful thought: “For as long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain, until then may I too abide, to dispel the misery of the world.” How kind eh?

Interviewer: Beautiful! Thank you sifu!

Sifu: My pleasure