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Spiritual Formation of the Bodhisattva

February 19, 2017

‘Estatuas en Hasedera’ by Carlos Alejo via

Around the 8th century CE, a monk at Nalanda, one of the largest Buddhist monasteries and universities to ever exist, composed a text called the Bodhicaryāvatāra or The Way of the Bodhisattva. It’s actually a great story. Basically, all the monks had become convinced that he was a lazy do-nothing, so they challenged him to give a public lecture. They expected him to embarrass himself. Instead, Śāntideva expounded what is now considered on of the greatest works of Buddhist literature.

Whether the story is true or apocryphal, the Bodhicaryāvatāra has been used for hundreds of years to guide the spiritual formation of aspiring bodhisattvas. According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a “being intent on enlightenment.” Pema Chödrön calls them “spiritual warriors who long to alleviate suffering, their own and that of others.” In other words, a bodhisattva practices in the path of the buddhas, to obtain enlightenment and liberate beings from suffering.

That sounds like a tall order. Especially when one considers the great mythic figures like Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with a thousand ears and a thousand eyes to hear and see the suffering of the world and a thousand hands and feet with which to reach out and help them all. Or like Ksitigarbha who vowed to aid suffering beings trapped in the hell realms until such realms were entirely emptied.  That sounds like a lot. One might think “So when we talk of bodhisattvas, we’re not really talking about me, right?”

Śāntideva was speaking about aspiring bodhisattvas just like you and I. In fact, he was speaking for himself, from his first-person very human experience, and speaking to his very human audience of fellow monks, not without some tongue-in-cheek, too boot. He laid out a clear path for how a normal person becomes a bodhisattva in this very lifetime. Of course, the story then asserts that after expounding this clear path he floated away into the sky, so make of that what you will.

I have recently completed my first thorough review of the Bodhicaryāvatāra with an eye towards its implications for my practice as a Buddhist chaplain. My conclusion is that this is a rich text entirely applicable to our lives and work today, especially in relation to the spiritual formation of Buddhists on the path of the bodhisattva.

Spiritual formation, briefly defined, is how one’s spiritual practice or religious beliefs inform one’s everyday life and work. Formation is an ongoing developmental process related to how we see ourselves as persons and how that changing self-perception informs our thoughts, speech, and actions throughout our lives. Spiritual relates to questions of ultimate concern, that is, what is most important in this life and/or the next. For a practicing Buddhist, ultimate concerns tend to relate to liberation from suffering in this life and/or the next through following the path of the buddhas to enlightenment. (Of course, many practicing Buddhists have much more mundane ultimate concerns such as making a living and raising a family. These are laudable as stages in the path and not to be denigrated.)

As a professional chaplain, spiritual formation relates to several clinical pastoral education (CPE) outcomes (ACPE Outcomes 311.1, 312.1, and 312.9) and standards of professional practice (APC Standards TPC1 and IDC1-4). Chaplains are expected to pursue their own spiritual formation consciously and proactively throughout their lives. In other words, on the path towards developing Right View, we need to start by figuring out just what is our view? And how does that inform what we do?

Śāntideva starts in exactly the same place in the Bodhicaryāvatāra. He begins by examining how one forms the intention to become a bodhisattva. This concern accounts for almost a fifth of all the verses in the Bodhicaryāvatāra. It is especially prominent in  chapters 2 and 10, and is also found in every single chapter within the work. What characterizes the intention of the aspiring bodhisattva?

The bodhisattva will not tame the mind or achieve wisdom unless she cultivates a pure intention to do so for the sake of all beings. A selfish intention, that is, one that clings to the notion of “I,” is the very antithesis of wisdom and arises from a mind overrun by sensual desires. Śāntideva, therefore, encourages the bodhisattva to develop bodhicitta, or the awakened mind/heart.

Those who wish to crush the many sorrows of existence,
Who wish to quell the pain of living beings,
Who wish to have experience of a myriad joys
Should never turn away from bodhichitta.

In both cases, the first part of the word, bodhi, comes from the same root as the word buddha, the “awakened” one, so it is the same kind of awakening for both. Citta is commonly translated as “mind,” but also connotes “thought,” “attention,” “desire,” “intention,” and “aim,” leading Francis Brassard, author of The Concept of Bodhicitta in Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, to describe bodhicitta was the “will of enlightenment.”

The great bodhisattvas, through countless rebirths, are motivated by māhakaruṇā or “great compassion.” Any motivation aside from compassion simply will not work for the purposes of enlightenment. Having a good intention, in this sense, is the only way to achieve an ultimately good result. Therefore, verses on the formation of proper intention are commonly accompanied by an exploration of the fruition of the Buddhist path in complete, total enlightenment and liberation from suffering, also known as nirvāna.

With joy I celebrate the virtue that relieves all beings
From the sorrows of the states of loss,
Exulting in the happy states enjoyed
By those who yet are suffering.

Only a purely altruistic motivation can abandon the “I” delusion and realize all phenomena as empty – ultimate wisdom. Likewise, good intention involves the fate of other beings, so intention is related to how one should regard those other beings, as either equal to or more important than oneself, and treat them accordingly. Through study, meditation, and our work as a chaplain, we begin to apprehend the relationship between prajñā, śūnyatā, and nirvāna.

Understanding begins with intention. Chapter 2 of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, which is called “Confession of Sins” or “Offering and Purification,” is about forming a strong intention to become a bodhisattva for the sake of all beings. According to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the purpose of the entire text is “to further his [Śāntideva’s] own spiritual practice and that of those who are at the same stage as himself.” In other words, Śāntideva explores the aspiring bodhisattva’s purpose from a first-person perspective, an ordinary human perspective. His Holiness elaborates:

Driven by the desire to help beings, one thinks, For their sake, I must attain enlightenment! Such a thought forms the entrance to the Mahāyāna. Bodhichitta [sic] then, is a double wish: to attain enlightenment in itself, and to do so for the sake of all beings.

Chapters 3 and 4 continue to build on the intention of the aspiring bodhisattva while also introducing the various virtues the bodhisattva will perfect along her path. Chapters 5 through 9 are dedicated to those virtues. Chapter 8 focuses on the development of meditative concentration as a necessary prerequisite for the exploration of wisdom in chapter 9. Chapter 10 forms the final dedication of the book and contains of of the most poetic recapitulations of the bodhisattva’s intention.

And now as long as space endures,
As long as there are beings to be found,
May I continue likewise to remain
To drive away the sorrows of the world.

This intention forms the root of our practice. We should train gradually to build a stable foundation. According to His Holiness, we need to start with a “clear, overall view of the path,” so we know when we’re making progress, then practice regularly to profoundly change our minds through long sessions of meditation. Later these changes carry off the cushion into our daily lives. We then start accumulating good merit. We then reach the “path of connection with its four stages of warmth, climax, endurance, and supreme realization.” Then we move onto the path of seeing and gain wisdom and eventually Buddhahood, helping countless others along the way. This path begins with the will to walk it.

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