A group of people was once
traveling through a desert, when it so happened
that three of them strayed away and got lost.
Tired and thirsty this trio wandered around the
desert in the hope of finding some respite. Finally
their quest came to an end when they discovered
a high well. The first man rushed to it, looked
over the wall and found it full of delicious ambrosial
water. He immediately exclaimed in a gesture of
frenzied euphoria and jumped into it never to
come back. The second too did the same. The third
man finally walked over quietly over to the well,
peeped over its high wall and then turned around
and went back, returning to the desert to search
for his other fellow travelers, to help guide
them to this paradise.
The life of a bodhisattva too
is made of similar stuff. In strictly canonical
terms a bodhisattva is defined as an individual
who discovers the source of the Ultimate Truth
better known as nirvana, but postpones his own
enlightenment until he has guided all his fellow
beings to this same source of fulfillment. A formidable
task to say the least. The path of the bodhisattva
is thus one of extreme self-denial and selflessness.
According to the Lankavatara sutra (4th century
" A bodhisattva wishes
to help all beings attain nirvana. He must therefore
refuse to enter nirvana himself, as he cannot
apparently render any services to the living beings
of the worlds after his own nirvana. He thus finds
himself in the rather illogical position of pointing
the way to nirvana for other beings, while he
himself stays in this world of suffering in order
to do good to all creatures. This is his great
sacrifice for others. He has taken the great Vow:
"I shall not enter into final nirvana before
all beings have been liberated." He does
not realize the highest liberation for himself,
as he cannot abandon other beings to their fate.
He has said: "I must lead all beings to liberation.
I will stay here till the end, even for the sake
of one living soul."
The word \'bodhisattva\' itself
is prone to a rich etymological analysis. It is
composed of two words \'bodhi\' and \'sattva\' both
of which connote deeply spiritually meanings.
Bodhi means "awakening" or "enlightenment,"
and sattva means "sentient being." Sattva
also has etymological roots that mean "intention,"
meaning the intention to enlighten other beings.
Thus the composite word bodhisattva signifies
the very essence of the divine beings it refers
Buddhist aesthetics, very much
like its literature, brings home spiritual truths
in the simplest manner graspable by all. The various
bodhisattvas too dominate the spectrum of Buddhist
art, illustrating this abstract conceptualization
in as hard hitting a manner as do the various
myths surrounding them. The most prominent bodhisattva
in this regard is Avalokiteshvara.
The word \'Avalokiteshvara\'
is derived from the Pali verb oloketi which means
"to look at, to look down or over, to examine
or inspect." The word avalokita has an active
signification, and the name means, "the lord
who sees (the world with pity)." The Tibetan
equivalent is spyanras-gzigs (the lord, who looks
with eyes). The text known as Karanda-vyuha (8th
century AD) explains that he is so called because
he views with compassion all beings suffering
from the evils of existence. It is interesting
to note here that a dominant feature in the description
of Avalokiteshvara is his capacity to "see"
the suffering of others. No wonder then that he
is often represented with a thousand eyes symbolizing
his all encompassing ability to view with compassion
the suffering of others, thus sharing in their
sorrows, a first step towards their ultimate alleviation.
Not only that, he further has a thousand hands
too which help in the mammoth task of delivering
innumerable beings to their ultimate spiritual
The mythology associated with
Avalokiteshvara is as interesting as his iconography:
Once by his sustained efforts,
Avalokiteshvara was eventually able to deliver
all sentient beings to enlightenment, managing
salvation for everyone. Enthused, he reported
the success of his efforts to his spiritual father,
Amitabha. Amitabha asked him to look behind himself.
Turning back, Avalokiteshvara saw the world again
being filled with new sufferers who awaited their
escape from the constant cycle of birth and rebirth.
Sinking into despair, the eyes of Avalokiteshvara
shed tears of compassion. He wept so pitifully
that his head burst. Amitabha attempted to assemble
the pieces but did not entirely succeed. In the
ensuing confusion he put together nine complete
faces, each with a gentle expression. Above this
he placed the demonic head of Vajrapani that functions
to ward off evil, and finally at the very top
he placed his own head to ensure that in the future
such a happening did not recur.
He thus sits on guard at the
top of the rows of heads of Avalokiteshvara making
definite that Avalokiteshvara in his infinite
compassion doesn\'t get carried away, leading to
his own destruction.
In addition to Avalokiteshvara
two other important bodhisattvas are:
at a meeting of numerous bodhisattvas at the house
of Vimalakirti, the lay disciple of Buddha, a
debate developed on the meaning of nonduality,
an essential precept of Buddhist thought. After
many bodhisattvas had finely expressed their opinions
on the subject and their success at understanding
its essence, it came to Manjushri\'s turn. He got
up and announced that all the previous speeches
were themselves conditioned by linguistic limitations
and were subtly dualistic. When Manjushri turned
to Vimalakirti and asked for his views, Vimalakirti
just maintained silence, thus demonstrating the
truth of Manjushri\'s statement.
This story is a beautiful reflection
on the irony of scholarship attempting to express
itself through a medium (speech/language), which
contains within itself a contradiction of the
very fundamental ideals which it proposes to expound.
In this particular case Manjushri identifies this
sublime and intrinsic inconsistency. An exalted
individual may wax eloquent upon the virtues of
non-duality and his grasp of this abstract concept,
but the very language used to expresses these
views is inherently dual as it is composed of
word and it\'s meaning, two exclusive entities.
This subtle, nonetheless significant gradation
brings home a profound truth taking the wind out
of any sense of achievement derived out of purported
scholarship. Verily thus Manjushri carries in
his two hands a book and a sword.
This sword is there to cut
of fetters born not out of ignorance but those
which arise through knowledge, signified by the
book. This is not a negation of bookish knowledge,
but only an assertion of the realization that
unless we gain it we cannot know the futility
of it in the quest towards ultimate spiritual
truths. Manjushri appropriately suggests not the
path of renunciation but that of righteous karma.
A Zen story illuminates this aspect:
Once the chief cook of a temple
on Mount Wutai (the favorite mountain of Manjushri),
was busy making lunch. Manjushri repeatedly appeared
sitting above the rice pot. This chief cook, who
later became a noted Zen master, finally hit Manjushri
with his stirring spoon and drove him away, saying,
"Even if old man Shakyamuni came, I would
also hit him" In Zen temples the position
of chief cook is highly esteemed. This story denotes
the priority of taking care of everyday life,
beyond attention to high-flowing rhetoric. Caring
for the details of daily life is sometimes seen
as more important than spending time in studying
sutras or in concentration in the meditation halls,
and indeed many monks perhaps including this chief
cook, have been encouraged to abandon any preference
for meditation over ordinary work.
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