Failing Bodhisattva

If you think Tom Cruise is the ultimate hero in Mission Impossible think again. It takes a lot more than massive explosions and looking bad ass on a motorcycle to save the world.

The Buddhist equivalent of Mission Impossible is called the bodhisattva vow. Where we vow to liberate all sentient beings from samsara. Mahayana texts tend to exaggerate a little, like a 15-year-old with a huge crush on, most likely, all members of One Direction. OMG SOOOOOOOOOOOOO CUTE. Throw in those extra O’s because in mahayana you will need them. Sutra’s and texts are full of big words and numbers like infinite, endless and one hundred thousand.

Innumerable sentient beings are suffering; I vow to them liberate them.
Samsara is endless; I vow to end it.

In short this means that these teachings can leave you feeling just a weeeeee bit inadequate a lot of the time. Because, simply put, it can’t be done. It is in fact impossible.

But let’s not be pessimistic, we are writing a screenplay for an action movie and according to the formula we will inevitably have a happy ending.

Why Buddha?! WHY?!

Hinayana (the smaller vehicle) mainly focuses on the realization of egolessness. It’s very simple and straightforward. As we move on the great vehicle (Mahayana) another element comes into play: twofold egolessness or the egolessness of both self and ALL phenomena, also known as emptiness (shunyata). Hinayana says: “Well, you are suffering, your suffering is caused by your attachment, so meditate a lot and realize that and you’re done.” Mahayana shows up and shouts: “PLOT TWIST! Nothing is what you think it is!” We get that impermanence is a thing, for example yesterday it was sunny and now it’s rainy. I get that my mother would have had a lot of trouble giving birth to me at my current size. I see baby pictures and graduation photos and can see that I am not the same height, my hair does not have the same colour and my general feeling of self has changed somewhat. We can at least imagine or mentally fabricate that we are not real or permanent. The problem with the statement that everything is devoid of an inherent self is troubling because we cannot conceive it. What better way to describe that thing that cannot be described with words than point out the inconceivability itself? Buddha, I got to hand it to you, that’s pretty genius. 

start here

Where to start

I think we have an option here. We could either get discouraged or try the best we can. It’s not like some cosmic power comes knocking on our door with bad news: “Ri, I want you to help one hundred thousand sentient beings get enlightened by Monday.” That would be a bummer, because frankly, I would not know how to do that! I don’t even know how to get enlightened myself. Heck, I don’t even know what it means! But luckily we have option two, which I personally prefer.
I think we need to start with setting an intention. I vow to not make matters worse. I vow to help whenever I can. It can be very small and simple. Maybe for a change, you can do your dishes and not piss off your flat mates by waiting until your moldy pots and plates decide to go for a stroll by themselves. Maybe you can take a deep breath instead of [insert immediate mindless response to any situation here]. Maybe you can look in the mirror and say: ‘DAMN, you sexy thing,’ (winking at yourself is not necessary but could add some extra flair) instead of telling yourself you’re fat, ugly and everyone hates you. Just to name a few suggestions.


Sometimes it’s really hard and painful. We have so many expectations to live up to and we are so hard on ourselves (or is that just me?) Not to mention the expectations we think other people have of us (they don’t really, just saying). We are conditioned to live samsaric lives and even though we have Buddha nature we often act and react from our samsaric shadow place. Then we start doubting ourselves. We think we’ve failed. We think we totally suck as bodhisattvas. We think we are not good enough. Which is very painful.

At some point I got terrified because I felt I was the worst Buddhist known in the history of mankind and I contacted a Meditation Instructor. He said: “Doubt arises because we have connected to the path, or else we wouldn’t take the time to doubt – we’d just be indifferent. Sometimes we can’t hold on to our experience of the path in the way we want. We still want to become warriors on our own terms, on the terms of the cocoon. We want to watch ourselves get enlightened, we want our ego and our egolessness together.”
And with that he was painfully accurate. We are not quite willing to give up the me-plan. We are not quite willing to go the extra mile. We want to be able to be enlightened without actually being enlightened. We want to stay in our comfort zone and feel safe, which is a natural reaction.


So what do we do?

We have compassion; toward our own coward-selves and to all sentient beings. Why? Because practicing meditation, working on ourselves for the benefit of others is hands down the bravest f-cking thing anyone could ever do. We get to know ourselves and see everything we desperately try to cover up. We look at ourselves and all of the sudden see all of our shit. But instead of trying to cover all of that up, instead of hiding from it we learn to befriend it. We look at our shit and say: “Oh, that’s interesting.”
We start to see that everyone else is just as desperately trying to cover up their own shit. We also really suck at it, but we keep trying. We’ve got that in common. So we open our heart to everyone. Everyone. Because we’re all in the same boat.
I think a big part of the path is staying present with whatever comes up without putting an extra layer of judgment on top of it. It’s okay to feel open and spirited and loving but the reality is that sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we are just stuck, depressed and feel completely closed off. Sometimes we feel like we can’t go out and be a superhero and that’s fine.
If we can stay with whatever we feel without judging it, if we can show up exactly as we are in that moment, and to the extend we are able surrender our self-aggression, we are making this mission possible.


3 thoughts on “Failing Bodhisattva

  1. Thank you for an interesting and thought provoking piece!

    So here’s a koan that my teacher gave me and has been occupying my mind for a while now:

    If there’s no ‘real’ separation between you and me, if what we truly are is one. Then ‘my’ enlightenment, ‘my’ seeing through separation, is by definition an enlightenment of all. That which realises enlightenment has never been fundamentally separated from anything so everything realizes enlightenment at the very same moment. As everything became enlightened when the Buddha realised enlightenment, then what is the difference between the large and small vehicle?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Of the 5 hindrances I think doubt is the largest because it becomes a weapon for ego/mara to assault and wound us. I also think you touch on an important aspect of modern western spiritual practice: The deluded set of impossible ideals.
    There is no place to go, no correct mala, no clothing or teacher or retreat to attend. in the end so many of these idealized states of reference becoming wounding ideals that do not service the cause of liberation from suffering.
    It seems odd to me, after 40 years in various sanghas, that the norm is more sense of heightened neurosis then integrated and applicable practice.
    So much that is taught is used as a way to separate and confuse. So many setups to feed the seeds of doubt.
    Trungpa talked about the “worst horse” practitioner in compassionate ways and Durckheim aptly points out that it si the polarizing tension between the innate knowing of ineffable states and the suffering of existential dilemma, that seeds the ground and allows the possibility to transcend to even exist.
    Spirituality should not be about comparative states or achieving anything, but i would hope it is the realization that the interconnection can be ameliorated and that the ripples of cause and effect can be shifted in a fundamental way that allows a significant and real change in the reaction/relation to phenomena as it arises in our fields of awareness. In simple language; that we could see things as they arise as what they are and respond, not react, with skillful means.
    The problem is that often the Path is used to setup idealized states and separating language, that not only confuses and alienates, but also wounds and causes despair. I think that spiritual certainty is the 6th hindrance. From my perspective the ideal possibility for lay practitioners is to foster true sangha that supports realistic integration of matters spiritual in daily life, not chasing some elusive state of being.
    Just my 2 cents…

    Liked by 1 person

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