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The Bodhisattva's Vow and The Heart Sutra. What is the nature of compassion? Barry Magid July 7th 2012

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Since we’re going to be talking about Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, in our Heart Sutra seminar later, I thought I would complement that with some discussion of the Bodhisattva’s Vow and talk a little bit about the nature of compassion, the nature of what it means to be a bodhisattva in that text and balance that later with what we see in the Heart Sutra. Bodhisattva’s Vow is a relatively late text that’s composed by one of Hakuin’s disciples, which puts it towards the end of the 18th century.

When we think of a bodhisattva of compassion or think of what compassion means, it’s easy to get confused by Western models of that word and think of somebody like Mother Theresa as an embodiment of compassion, someone who’s devoted to a life of service, a life of charity or caretaking. Christian orders, like the Franciscans, are organized as service orders. But compassion in the Bodhisattva’s Vow and in the Heart Sutra doesn’t refer to anything like that. There’s really no mention at all of anything we would call charity or service.

Charity, actually, in a traditional Buddhist context, is a layman’s virtue. A layman gives charity to the monks; the monks are at the receiving end of it, not the giving end of it. And there are certainly cases in which, as you see in Japan after the tsunami, the Buddhist temples would open themselves up to the people who were made homeless by the disaster and do everything they could to share what they had and help the community. They do that as part of belonging to a community, but they’re not primarily organized around community service. They don’t see that as their mission except in the performance of a ritual. Their community service is doing things like performing funeral services.

When we look at these texts about bodhisattvas, it means something very different, particularly when we look at the opening of both the Heart Sutra and Bodhisattva’s Vow. Heart Sutra begins with “Avalokiteshvara doing deep prajna paramita saw the emptiness of all the five conditions.” Saw the emptiness. Bodhisattva’s Vow starts “When I, a student of the Way, look at the real form of the universe.” Look. Looking. In both cases the primary activity is seeing or looking at the world in a certain way. It’s not about doing. It’s having a certain insight into the nature of reality, into the emptiness or interconnectedness of all beings, having a vision, a perspective that then, as a bodhisattva, one seeks to share with others. The primary activity, compassionate activity, is to awaken all beings, to share a perspective, share an insight.

The Bodhisattva’s Vow begins with the sense, “When I, a student of the Way, look at the real form of the universe, all is the manifestation of the mysterious truth of the awakened life.” It is articulating and attempting to share a vision of the completeness of life as it is. It’s primary stance towards life as it is, is one of appreciation, awe, gratitude. It’s not looking at life and saying, God, what a mess! I’d better clean this up. There is a way in which it looks at delusion where delusion is a shame: What a pity not to see life from this perspective. The whole way the Bodhisattva’s Vow is organized, is around the idea that we need to maintain a sense of our common humanity, interconnectedness and the perfection of life, even in the face of all the things that would make us think just the opposite, in the face of suffering and particularly abuse and persecution, where it looks like life is devolving into self and other, into doer and done to. And the act of the bodhisattva is to heal that split, to heal that sense of separation induced by suffering. So I would say we have to see that the main activity here of the bodhisattva and compassion, is not one we normally think of as selfless giving. It has much more to do with sharing and manifesting a vision of non-separation and healing suffering through a sharing of that vision.

Many people, East and West, come to practice with a picture of compassion as a selfless giving and many forms of practice are organized around that, where the monastic owns and has nothing, lives a life of service, a life of giving. The dilemma is that there’s often an underlying psychological maneuver taking place, where such a person feels unentitled to their own needs, their own wishes, their own desires, does not know how to come to terms with their own wants and needs, but instead essentially projects them onto the world and will devote themselves to the needs and suffering of everybody else. As you know, I’ve written about that as taking a vow to save all beings minus one. In that kind of condition, we project all neediness out into the world, and the world becomes a kind of bottomless pit of need and suffering, and we don’t realize that that image is actually a better representation of what’s going on inside us that we don’t know how to own, that we feel ourselves to be this bottomless pit of neediness which we deny, disown, project and try to somehow solve outside rather than inside.

Now, none of this is to say that our practice should not include or even be based on service or charity. I think it’s probably one of the things that’s emerging for the good in contemporary Buddhism and socially engaged Buddhism, that suffering, poverty are being engaged in a much more direct level, not just at a metaphorical level. This is probably an improvement. But it’s also important to see the way in which this practice is not, at its deepest level, a goal-oriented practice like that. It doesn’t even have the goal of charity or service at that level.

The Heart Sutra, Bodhisattva’s Vow, are primarily about seeing the world in a certain way. That way of seeing is based on a vision of joy and wholeness. That’s what we share. That’s how we heal the world. It’s a very different model than the one we’re used to, and it takes some stretch to see compassion in those terms. But that’s the challenge of those texts and what we’ll discuss more this afternoon.

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