The Dharma; practising wisdom and compassion


massive diamond

In this series of articles of the Dharma, we have looked at it from many different perspectives: Dharma in 21st century Japan; Dharma at O Bon time; the Dharma Stream past, present and future; the Dharma Protectors; Dharma Crisis; the Dharmakaya; Dharmata or Tathata; and on Hearing the Dharma. For the final article, and as a preparation for the next series based on Bodhi (the aspiration for enlightenment), I would like to write about what it means to actually practise the Dharma.

After the Buddha’s Parinirvana and the demise of his physical body, his disciples and followers split into two basic factions. The first was completely satisfied with the Buddha’s teaching, and deeply interested in the different doctrines he had taught them. For these Buddhists, the Four Nobel Truths, the Eightfold path, etc., all the verbal teachings, were the Buddha Dharma. But the other group, though they totally accepted the Buddha’s verbal teachings, thought there was more to the Dharma than that.

They considered the actual life of the Buddha was an important aspect of Buddhism. They had personally witnessed his constant equanimity in any situation, his unconditional compassion for everyone, and his tireless generosity and kindness, as a human. So, it became important for Buddhists to possess both wisdom – the ability to debate and understand deeply, and compassion – the selfless concern for the sake of others.

The Dharma is packed with compelling wisdom, but if it remains simply in the form of concepts and ideals, then who will benefit from it? It can only be of benefit intellectually and conceptually. We will never reach Enlightenment, reach Nirvana – the extinction of all delusions – if we stay only in our heads, in a way seeking enlightenment on our own terms. This is not what the Buddha intended. He was a brilliant debater and an eloquent speaker, but he lived out the wisdom he advocated with his words. His words and his actions were completely congruent.

So, this second group, concerned with the compassion of the Buddhist teachings, later became what is known as Mahayana Buddhists. They vowed not only to become enlightened themselves, but for the sake of all sentient beings. This sentiment, this vow, of putting others before yourself, or of aspiring for enlightenment exactly to help others to find their own enlightenment, is the most glorious thing of all.

The vow to spread the Buddhist light in the world is such a thrilling mission. It is called Bodhicitta in Sanskrit, and it is possible to generate this deep wish, this commitment to all sentient beings, leaving no one or nothing out. We must strive until all beings find perfect happiness in their time as human beings. So, we could say that the Dharma is both the elegant theory developed by the Buddha during his long ministry as a teacher, and the practical compassion, kindness and tireless generosity he extended to all beings in practice.

The Buddha was a living Bodhisattva (enlightenment being). His wisdom functioned in the way he related to all beings around him. His mind was engaged equally with his body and his speech in extending kindness to all beings unconditionally. Bodichitta first arose in Prince Siddharta of the Shyakya clan when he felt so uneasy about his privileged life behind the palace walls. Then, when he witnessed human life outside the walls for the first time, and saw the suffering being human entailed, he aspired to find true enlightenment for the sake of all living beings. He put his own desires aside and found a way of dealing with human suffering.

Bodhi literally means awakening, but it is often translated as enlightenment. It is the awakening of supreme knowledge as experienced by the Buddha as he sat under the Bodhi tree. The Bodhi tree is also known as the tree of awakening. Bodhisattvas, those who vow to never cease to practice until all sentient beings are brought to true happiness, walk a special path. It is both glorious and humble. Perhaps in the acute suffering of our times, in the most dreadful times of samsara, choosing to take this pathway is the only true way we can help, calling on invisible powers.

This deep urge to be enlightened, the arising of transcendental Bodhicitta, is something that all Bodhisattvas share. It is not unique to individuals. Sangarakshita, one of my esteemed teachers, calls it,

a sort of cosmic will, a universal will to universal redemption.

(‘What is the Dharma,’ 1998, Windhorse Publications)

So, in the midst of the all-encompassing Dharma, the suchness of all existence, using the skillful tool of meditation, we can all create the conditions for this cosmic force of pure goodness to well up inside us. We are each blessed with a Buddha Nature, an innately good and innocent nature. We can choose to allow it to become sullied or buried beneath ignorance, greed or anger, or overcome by evil and spiritual interference. Or, we can use the Buddha’s wisdom to polish that nature to create exactly the right conditions for Bodhicitta to arise in us as it did in him.

My Nirvana guru sculpted many exquisite images of Buddha, including the Nirvana Buddha reclining on his deathbed. As he sculpted, he strengthened his vow with each tap of his chisel to bring all beings to enlightenment. He sculpted the Buddha into the heart of each of his disciples out of pure compassion. These works are a constant reminder of the unsurpassed compassion and wisdom of the Buddha, and the ever-presence of my guru attests to this. I am protected and deeply loved by all enlightened beings, who strive to bring me to enlightenment at the expense of their own physical lives.

The Bodhi mind, the awakening mind, is the most precious thing of all. This priceless gem, the sum of all the Dharmas, is inside all of us. We cannot easily control outside events unless we join the arms race or befriend the drug barons, things have come to such a stage. But we can control and train our own minds to revert to their pure state, and to be empty of delusions, taking the middle way. If we undertake such training, we can live with a transparent heart as the Buddha Shyakyamuni and other great spiritual leaders did and do.

What an incredible opportunity this is, and if you are reading now, remember it is not accidental. You can reach out and take refuge in the Buddha and Dharma, take shelter from the perpetual wandering through the hell-realm of samsara, a world in which our massed delusions are manifested.

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