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Fellow Travelers – Part III: The Bodhisattva

May 29, 2011

'Bodhisattvas' by h.koppdelaney via

The Bodhisattva


And that I might rejoice the buddhas’ hearts,

I will be master of myself, and be the servant of the world –

And not respond though others trample, wound, or kill me.

Now let the guardians of the world rejoice!


The great compassionate lords consider as their own

All wanderers – of this there is no doubt.

Beings, then, are the Buddha’s very self.

Thus how can I not treat them with respect? (Chödrön, p. 221)

These verses are from the Bodhicharyavatara composed by the Indian sage Shantideva sometime during the eight century. (Chödrön, p. ix)  In these two short verses from the very middle of that text we see many overlapping ideas (only a few of which will be explained in this work): mastering oneself, serving others, nonviolence (ahimsa), compassion, non-self, identity of self as other, and a will to follow the example of all the buddhas.  Naturally, I chose these particular verses because of the care given to wanderers.  The notion of the spiritual traveler was not unknown even twelve-hundred years ago and it was seen as part of the bodhisattva’s duty to care for such beings.


May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,

A guide for those who journey on the road.

For those who wish to go across the water,

May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge. (Chödrön, p. 65)

We must be able to meet people where they are on their path and provide them with what they need in order to continue their journey.  This is particularly important in the work of a chaplain, who often comes across people in hospitals, hospices, prisons, police stations, and war zones who are dealing with some of the most traumatic moments of their lives.  We must aspire “to benefit beings in any way that works,” according to Pema Chödrön’s commentary on this verse.  What works for that person will depend on where they are; we must go to meet them.

As elegant as the Bodhicharyavatara is, it is only one of a vast array of Mahayana scriptures (sutras) dealing with the role of the bodhisattva.  Raoul Birnbaum discusses a number of classic Mahayana texts not only dealing with bodhisattvas, but with the ways in which they engage with the people of the world.  Often in sutras an individual will ask the Buddha or some other bodhisattva a question.  In the Diamond Sutra, Subhuti asks Shakyamuni “…as to good men and good women who have given rise to the thought of complete and perfect awakening, how should they abide, and how should they tame their minds?”  The Buddha tells him those who aspire to such enlightenment should think “I will cause all living beings to enter into complete nirvana; I will rescue all of them completely.  In this way I will liberate numberless, limitless beings of every conceivable type.  And yet I will maintain the awareness that there are no living beings that obtain liberation.” (Birnbaum, p 28-29)  Here we see many of the same themes as in the verses above: serving others, non-self, emptiness, nirvana.

In its most basic sense, the bodhisattva vow begins not with action, but with motivation.  One can think of motivation in terms of understanding, committing, and remembering.  Before the Bodhicharyavatara was even written, the Chinese teacher Zhiyi (538-597) had already composed a text laying out in precise detail how motivation drives the outcomes of one’s actions and which motivations were suitable for an aspiring bodhisattva.  “Zhiyi makes clear that one does not start with ‘practice;’ one starts by clarifying one’s motivations.” (Birnbaum, p. 30)  Vows play a key role in solidifying one’s motivations and many Mahayana sutras record the numerous vows made by the pantheon of bodhisattvas, often vows made in past lives that aided them in achieving the enlightened state of a full bodhisattva.  The Lotus Sutra states “The bodhisattva dedicates all his or her merits for the benefit of all beings.” (Birnbaum, p. 31-32)  Finally, there is remember the intention.  A core part of Chinese monastic Buddhism has been the daily fifty-one mindfulness verses derived from the Avatamsaka Sutra.  Through repeating them during activities as mundane as washing one’s face, one constantly remembers and renews his or her motivation and “wishes to aid others [which] becomes a mental foundation from which all activities spring.” (Birnbaum, p. 30-31)

Birnbaum discusses a number of other sutras and textual sources for the practice of engaged Buddhism, in whatever form it may manifest, whether as social or political activism or something as simple as holding someone’s hand while they cry.  He reminds us, “The bodhisattva may start in a small way,” (Birnbaum, p. 35) so as chaplains we should not become discouraged by the perceived limitations of our work, previously discussed, or the seemingly daunting nature of the bodhisattva’s task.

Birnbaum also points out that these forms of motivation do not restrict one to actions that operate only on some transcendental, spiritual plane, but “address resolutely practical forms of aid.”  The above mentioned ‘merit’ can be understood as putting one’s useful qualities, such as intelligence, physical strength, technical skills, and economic resources, to work for the sake of others.  “Because no one person’s merits are the same as another’s a wide range of types of constructive engagement become possible.”  The chaplains’ merits will include an ability to provide “emotional comfort in times of trouble,” (Birnbaum, p. 32-33) amongst other things.  Efforts such as these make “the guardians of the world rejoice!” (Chödrön, p. 221)

A Note on Theravada

The bodhisattva vow is not the only basis on for the work of a Buddhist chaplain, particularly as the bodhisattva ideal is practiced in only two of the three major streams of Buddhism: the Mahayana and Vajrayana.  But what of the Theravada, the ‘Way of the Elders’?  Theravada Buddhists do not take the bodhisattva vow or, in some cases, recognize it as a genuine teaching of the Buddha.  What theology then can transcend all forms of Buddhism?  The Dalai Lama might suggest compassion, which he holds is the shared foundation of all religion, not just Buddhism. (Dalai Lama, p. 167)  However, there is another contemporary, growing movement within all branches of Buddhism from which we can draw – socially engaged Buddhism.

Bhikku Bodhi, an American monk in the Theravada tradition, defines socially engaged Buddhism as “the application of Buddhist principles and practices to the task of instigating systemic changes in social, political, and economic institutions and policies so as to further the well-being of the people (and other beings) affected by them.”  This he contrasts to “classical Buddhism” which aims to “directly [alter] the views, attitudes, and values of individuals in the expectation that such ‘micro-changes’ will result cumulatively in positive large-scale changes in society.” (Bodhi, p. 2)

Raoul Birnbaum defines engaged Buddhism similarly, as a “social and political movement” with “a concern for social justice, a concern for helping the economically disadvantaged, a concern for aiding the unfortunate, a concern for the environment.”  As a prime contemporary example, he cites Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whom he states was influenced by the work of the Chinese monk Taixu in the early twentieth century. (Birnbaum, p. 27)

Both Bhikkhu Bodhi and Birnbaum agree that engaged Buddhism has a historical and scriptural basis.  Bhikku Bodhi points out that the Nikayas (Pali scriptures) contain many discourses in which the Buddha often spoke with householders about the concerns of daily life, rather than being solely a teacher of reclusive monastics.  He identified three major strands of ethical consciousness within these early teachings, restraint (varitta) embodied by the precepts, virtue (caritta) embodied by the cultivation of good qualities, and also an “altruistic ethic.”  For this third ethic he provides the example of the four “sublime qualities,” or the four immeasurable, the brahmaviharas: loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy (sympathetic joy), and impartiality (equanimity).  “[T]hese qualities inevitably shape behavior and social attitudes” and are shared by all schools of Buddhism. (Bodhi, p. 10)

Bhikkhu Bodhi has a great deal of wisdom to offer on the practice of engaged Buddhism and how it simultaneously recalls the foundations of Buddhist teachings and adds a new element not found in “classical” Buddhism.  He references the work of Theravandan teachers such as A.T. Ariyaratne in Sri Lanka, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Sulak Sivaraksa, and Phra Payutto in Thailand, and Maha Ghosananda in Cambodia as seminal examples of engaged Buddhism in Asia, in addition to many other examples in America. (Bodhi, p. 18)  He believes “Their innovations may well mark a commendable step forward in the ethical evolution of Buddhism.” (Bodhi, p. 20)  Therefore, although I speak primarily about the practice of a chaplain in relation to the bodhisattva vow, I believe the metaphor of the fellow traveler is equally applicable to Theravada chaplains and anyone engaged in ‘pastoral care’ from that perspective.


Bays, Jan Chozen.  Jizo Bodhisattva: Gaurdian of Children, Travelers, & Other Voyagers.  Boston: Shambhala Press, 2003.

Birnbaum, Raoul.  “In Search of an Authentic Engaged Buddhism: Voices from Ancient Texts, Calls from the Modern World,” Religion East & West, Issue 9, October 2009, p. 25-39

Bodhi, Ven. Bhikkhu.  “Social Engaged Buddhism and the Trajectory of Buddhist Ethical Consciousness,” Religion East & West, Issue 9, October 2009, p. 1-23

Chödrön, Pema.  No Time To Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva.  Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2005.

Dalai Lama. Towards a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together.  Random House, 2010.

Leighton, Taigen Daniel.  Bodhisattva Archetypes: Classic Buddhist Guides to Awakening and their Modern Expression.  New York: Penguin Group, 1998.


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