Enter... the Bodhisattva
DAVID LOY on why the bodhisattva ideal is what the world needs now.
you’re on long retreat in a Himalayan cave, it’s becoming more
difficult to overlook the fact that our world is beset by interacting
ecological, economic, and social crises. Climate breakdown, species
extinction, a dysfunctional economic system, corporate domination of
government, overpopulation—it’s a critical time in human history, and
the collective decisions we have to make during the next few years will
set the course of events for generations to come.
the more we learn about our situation, the more overwhelmed and
discouraged many of us become. The problems are so enormous and
intimidating that we don’t know where to start. We end up feeling
powerless, even paralyzed.
those inspired by Buddhist teachings, an important issue is whether
Buddhism can help us respond to these crises. As Paul Hawken points out
in Blessed Unrest,
there are already a vast number of large and small organizations
working for peace, social justice, and sustainability—at least a million
and perhaps over two million, he estimates. the question is whether a
buddhist perspective has something distinctive to offer this movement.
churches and churchgoers have played an important part in many reform
movements; for example, the antislavery and civil rights campaigns. But
much, perhaps most, of the impetus in the West for deep structural
change originates in socialist and other progressive movements, which
traditionally have been suspicious of religion. Marx viewed religion as
“the opiate of the people” because too often churches have been
complicit with political oppression, using their doctrines to
rationalize the power of exploitative rulers and diverting believers’
attention from their present condition to “the life to come.”
critique applies to some Buddhist institutions as well—karma and
rebirth teachings can be abused in this way—but at its best, Buddhism
offers an alternative approach. The Buddhist path is not about
qualifying for heaven but living in a different way here and now. This
focus supplements nicely the customary Western focus on social justice
and social transformation. As Gary snyder put it half a century ago,
“The mercy of the West has been social revolution. The mercy of the east
has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.”
need both because when we do not acknowledge the importance of
individual transformation, social transformation is repeatedly subverted
by powerful elites taking selfish advantage of their position.
Democracy may be the best form of government, but it guarantees nothing
if people are still motivated by greed, ill will, and the delusion of a
self whose well-being can be pursued indifferent to others’ well-being.
need both personal and social transformation so we can respond fully to
the Buddha’s concern to end suffering. The Buddha emphasized that all
he had to teach was suffering and how to end it. This implies that
social transformation is also necessary in order to address the
structural and institutionalized suffering perpetuated by those who
benefit from an inequitable social order.
there something specific within the Buddhist tradition that can bring
these two types of transformation together in a new model of activism
connecting inner and outer practice?
According to the traditional definition, the bodhisattva chooses not to enter the state of perfect peace, nirvana, but instead remains in samsara,
cyclic existence, to help all sentient beings end their suffering and
reach enlightenment. Instead of asking, “How can I get out of this
situation?” The bodhisattva asks, “What can I contribute to make this
situation better?” Today, more than ever, we need to understand the
bodhisattva path as a spiritual archetype that offers a new vision of
and compassion are the two wings of the Buddhist path, and we need both
to fly. Wisdom is realizing that there is no “me” separate from the
rest of the world, and compassion is putting that realization into
practice. Although not a buddhist, the neo-Advaitin Nisargadatta made
this point very well: “When I look inside and see that I am nothing,
that’s wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that’s
love. Between these two my life turns.”
vision of socially engaged Buddhism is to help develop an awakened
society that is socially just and ecologically sustainable. It seeks to
open up new perspectives and possibilities that challenge us to
transform ourselves and our societies more profoundly. This brings us to
the bodhisattva’s path as a new archetype for social activism.
activism has some distinctive characteristics. Buddhism emphasizes
interdependence (“We’re all in this together”) and delusion (rather than
evil). This implies not only nonviolence (which is usually
self-defeating anyway) but a politics based on love (more nondual)
rather than reactive anger (which separates us and them).
basic problem in our society is not rich and powerful bad people but
institutionalized structures of collective greed, aggression, and
delusion. The bodhisattva’s pragmatism and nondogmatism can help cut
through the ideological quarrels that have weakened so many progressive
groups. And buddhism’s emphasis on skillful means cultivates the
creative imagination, a necessary attribute if we are to construct a
healthier way of living together on this earth and work out a way to get
those attributes do not get at the most important contribution of the
bodhisattva in these difficult times, when we often feel overwhelmed by
the magnitude of the challenge and are tempted to despair. the
bodhisattva’s response? To quote the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: “The
difficult we do immediately. The impossible will take a little longer.”
According to the classical formulation, the bodhisattva takes a vow to help liberate all living beings.
Someone who has volunteered for such an unachievable task is not going
to be intimidated by present crises, no matter how hopeless they may
appear. That is because the bodhisattva practices on both levels—inner
and outer—which enables one to engage in goal-directed behavior without
attachment to results.
T. S. Eliot put it, “Ours is in the trying. The rest is not our
business.” The bodhisattva’s job is to do the best one can, without
knowing what the consequences will be. Have we already passed ecological
tipping points and human civilization is doomed? We don’t know. Yet
rather than being intimidated, the bodhisattva embraces “don’t know
mind,” because Buddhist practice opens us up to the awesome mystery of
an impermanent world where everything is changing, whether or not we
notice it. I grew up in a world defined by a “cold war” between the U.S.
and the Soviet Union we all took for granted—until communism suddenly
collapsed. The same thing occurred with south african apartheid. Tf we
don’t really know what’s happening, how do we really know what’s
possible, until we try?
equanimity of the bodhisattva-activist comes from non-attachment to the
fruits of one’s action, which is not detachment from the state of the
world or the fate of the earth. What is the source of this
nonattachment? That question points to the fruits of the bodhisattva’s
inner work. The Diamond Sutra says that we save all living beings by realizing that there are no living beings to save. The bodhisattva realizes shunyata,
emptiness—that dimension in which there is nothing to gain or lose, no
getting better or worse—but is not attached to that realization. As the
Heart Sutra emphasizes, forms are empty, and emptiness is form.
Emptiness is not a place to dwell that is free from form; it is
experienced only in the impermanent forms it takes, the forms that
constitute our lives and our world.
the buddhist activist, these are the two dimensions of practice—form
and emptiness, personal transformation and social transformation,
opposite sides of one coin. As Nisargadatta might put it, “Between these
two the bodhisattva’s life turns.” Our world needs both.
David Loy is a leading theorist on the intersection of Buddhism and social activism. His groundbreaking books include A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack; Money Sex War Karma, and The World is Made of Stories. Loy is a teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition of Zen. A professor for twenty years, he now leads workshops and retreats nationally.