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The Bodhisattva and Nirvana... from a secular point-of-view

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Empiricism and the missing western term for 'bodhisattva'

(3rd edition - May 2007) by A.O. Kime
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Bodhisattva is a Buddhist term applicable to someone who has become highly enlightened (via nirvana) and, rather than selfishly hoard their profound spiritual knowledge, tries to share it with mankind before their (mortal) death. They feel duty-bound to share it even though it may jeopardize their own spiritual well-being. In sharing, one risks becoming disconnected from their spiritual self. Thence if they do become disconnected, any ability to translay would be lost. ‘Translay’ is an Catholic term (early-era) however, not Buddhist, which means ‘to convey to heaven or to a nontemporal condition without death’.

What? Jeopardizing their own spiritual self? A risk being disconnected? Are these Buddhist beliefs? Well no, they're mine... in fact, I possess very little knowledge of Buddhism... that's why I threw in the Catholic term 'translay' (but I'm not Catholic either). Nonetheless, for reasons I hope you will soon appreciate, I believe I can describe a bodhisattva better than a modern Buddhist. Perhaps though, it's really only the 'western version' of a bodhisattva I'm talking about. In order to make comparisons however, I had to do a little research... as little as possible however, lest drown in sea of esoteric jargon. I relish instead empirical knowledge... unabashed and not subject to institutional tinkering.

There are several Buddhist descriptions of what a bodhisattva is, how they become one, and what is expectant... and even what a bodhisattva believes. Yet, many of these opinions are surely modernized versions as compared to their ancient beliefs. Sadly, it seems modern-day Buddhists have forgotten what a bodhisattva is all about. This is nothing new however, invariably religions add to their original concepts over time... except, revised dogmas always grow further from the truth. In praise of this religion however, Buddhists recognized the existence of such people whereas the other major religions have not. Some Buddhists even believe Jesus Christ was a bodhisattva.

A quick review of Buddhists beliefs

First, in order to become a bodhisattva one must have been enlightened through nirvana... a belief unchanged over the centuries. Also, it is said, the bodhisattva is thenceforth motivated by pure compassion and love. It is also said their goal is to achieve the highest level of being… which is that of a Buddha. Perhaps for a Buddhist that goal might be true but for a non-Buddhist who might be the western equivalent of a bodhisattva, the desire to become a Buddha may not be true. While 'bodhisattva' is a Buddhism term, nonetheless it is the only term available to describe such a person... therefore non-Buddhists who embrace the concept would naturally adopt it, but not necessarily with all the trappings.

Before continuing to describe more Buddhist beliefs about the bodhisattva, I should add again that, in my opinion, many Buddhist beliefs about the bodhisattva were later additions to the original view. For example, an ancient bodhisattva surely would have never claimed it was necessary to undergo self-sacrifice and suffering as claimed today. Except for realizing material wealth is the greatest of all distractions, an authentic bodhisattva wouldn’t have looked at it that way. It is simply to continue on with life, whatever the circumstances are, without any thought about self-sacrificing. Nor is praise or notice sought for any such self-sacrifice… after all, almost everyone sacrifices and suffers. It takes no particular talent to sacrifice and suffer... a mother sacrifices and the poor and ailing suffer but that doesn't make them bodhisattvas. Neither is it the bodhisattva’s goal to instill happiness and relieve suffering… he has a greater purpose. Nor is he about love and compassion as the Buddhists now portray him. Well, I suppose Buddhists can portray him anyway they like, after all, it’s their term… it’s just not my idea of a bodhisattva.

Spiritual enlightenment first

In agreement with Buddhism, to become a bodhisattva is to first receive enlightenment, recognized as being the result of having experienced ‘nirvana’. It is Buddhist term used to describe a highly spiritual state of mind... but a state of mind otherwise indescribable. Commonly is it said to be ‘beyond all that which can be described or defined’ . In other words, being a metaphysical phenomenon, there are no words within any language which can describe it due to the lack of descriptive terms (see metaphysical semantics). It would be similar trying to describe the smell of a flower to someone… you can’t. Or imagine trying to explain to someone (who wouldn’t know), the smell of a baking cake, the taste of an onion or the sound of a musical instrument. It would require comparisons and even so, you’d be lucky if you imparted a ballpark idea.

And, because of the limitations of language, divine (profound) metaphysical knowledge can't be taught either, it must be experienced. Since it is beyond words, it cannot be fathomed through words. For some related information, see the sixth sense

To experience nirvana, I believe, is either similar to, or exactly the same as, experiencing the ‘nous’, a concept Plotinus (205-270), the founder of Neoplatonism, described… which I experienced once. Perhaps the only difference here is what this phenomena is called and the term 'nous' has no religious affiliation (more differences are listed further below). Today however, the nous is more commonly referred to as the Divine Intellect or divine intelligence... also non-sectarian terms.

As for a bodhisattva planning to become a Buddha, said to have the capacity to possess unlimited compassion and wisdom, the concept of it being a 'choice' seems wrong. It is not a matter of choice, no more than a choice exists to out-box Mohammed Ali (in his heyday). In most things, one cannot acquire by simply choosing to acquire. In order to obtain metaphysical enlightenment, it must be earned first. However 'striving' to become a bodhisattva, or striving to become a Buddha, is something else altogether. ‘Striving to be’ is different than ‘choosing to be’. Admittedly however, 'planning to become' may have been a poor choice of words in translation or perhaps 'earned' was taken for granted.

In further disagreement, I highly doubt ‘unlimited’ wisdom is possible... it is instead a matter of degree. As for ‘unlimited’ compassion, it would likewise seem inappropriate to define it in such a manner... you cannot 'measure' compassion, no more than being able to measure a certain taste or smell. The adjective is either wrong or again, something was lost in translation. I also highly suspect the later Buddhists also re-worked the compassionate nature of the bodhisattva. In contrast, I don’t think a bodhisattva necessarily frets over another's poverty and dire circumstances... being so overwhelmingly pervasive and endless. A bodhisattva's role, if he is to make good use of his time, is to impart his knowledge to knowledge seekers... that's it. While a bodhisattva wouldn’t ignore someone in a perilous situation if he happened upon them, he just wouldn’t seek out those situations.

One may do that of course, volunteer to serve one needy cause or another, to help the homeless and ailing, and while they would be doing some good, they will soon realize there is an endless sea of needs in this world, of hopelessness and despair… and usually made up of the same people, everyday, each year. They would, of course, be doing 'their part' and collectively these volunteers make a big difference. Such deeds are admirable but sometimes people can do more good by removing themselves from the field of common problems and common tasks. Billy Graham wasn't spending his time, for example, setting up chairs for his next event. While a bodhisattva would, if he could, make all suffering go away, it is an impossible task for a bodhisattva to tend to all these problems. His time is better spent, he feels, to impart knowledge to those in this sea instead. It is a matter of imparting knowledge to those who would rather swim as opposed to those bedeviled who do not… endlessly seeking help instead.

While giving someone a few bucks and a meal is benevolence, hoping they won't come back isn't. But because most people can't afford to fully support someone else, it is a (continual) moral dilemma for benevolent people everywhere. Benevolence means helping others but there is always a limit to one's ability. As a result, one must mete out what help they can. It is impossible to be fully benevolent, although a sign which says "get money and a free meal here" comes close. Yet, such a sign would only represent stop-gap benevolence. While stop-gap benevolence serves an immediate need, it can't go on indefinitely.

A cold-hearted bodhisattva?

While it might seem I have depicted a cold-hearted bodhisattva, it is only because benevolence exists in various ways. Perfectly well does a bodhisattva understand where he can do the most good... and it isn't by scouring the countryside looking for unfortunate people. In order for a bodhisattva to be productive, he must attend only to those persons seeking enlightenment, otherwise it is like force-feeding a dying dog. In short, bodhisattvas try to avoid tending to hopeless situations in a stopgap fashion. One must understand, a bodhisattva may not have any special skills like a doctor or nurse, or have food or money to offer, but he can offer spiritual guidance. While a bodhisattva could offer comfort to the ailing, spending time sitting at their bedsides as do many volunteers, but since spiritual guidance is the bodhisattva's forte, it would be unproductive, even a pity, for one to do anything else.

Moral dilemmas therefore exist even for the bodhisattva. Should one attend to host of hopeless situations at the expense of a solitary one with hope? Which to save from drowning? While battlefield doctors face a similar dilemma in deciding which wounded soldier to attend to next, in a sense it is playing God. Yet, while we're often forced to play God, and sometimes voluntarily, we quickly learn moral dilemmas come with the territory. The bodhisattva is not immune to hard choices.

As to achieving nirvana, and while that is the first step to becoming a bodhisattva, that doesn’t necessarily mean someone would become one. To be considered a bodhisattva, one must share their enlightened knowledge… and be willing to go to considerable trouble doing so if necessary. Otherwise, they're not a true bodhisattva. Furthermore, sharing information must be done intelligently by taking all things into consideration. Being productive is one such consideration... even if it smacks of being cold-hearted.

It is highly probable nirvana and the Divine Intellect (nous) are one-in-the-same because one must proceed in the same fashion to experience nirvana as to experience the Divine Intellect. This is put forth in different ways by those familiar with Buddhism however, one such list claims it is... having the right views, right intentions, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right-mindedness and right contemplation.

Another writer stated it is all about mindfulness, investigation, energy, rapture, tranquility, concentration and equanimity… but those don’t sound like a description of the same person. I don't like that batch of descriptions however… being overly vague. Along those lines you might as well add eating and sleeping.

From my experience, there are only four requirements... but all are absolutely critical in order to contact the nous (which I believe is the same phenomenon as nirvana)... they are:

All about habit...

While it won’t happen overnight or with an occasional effort, a lengthy sustained state of worthiness doesn’t mean self-sacrifice or hard work… it simply requires maintaining proper habits every day, every hour. After a few months, it not only would be considered easy... but peace-of-mind is the reward. Later, when one first tries to make contact, but is unsuccessful, that simply means they haven't proven themselves worthy yet. One should expect failure for some time and not get discouraged. It is a perfect system though, in judgment sits one’s own subconscious mind... you don't have to wonder whether some spiritual entity is paying attention. Anyway, not until this level of worthiness is met will contact be allowed… and then only for seconds. Mere seconds is enough time to acquire enlightenment however. For me, in order to get in the right frame-of-mind, writing poetry works best. There seems to be a spiritual connection to writing verse, especially metaphysical poetry. Writing poetry only opens the door however, just how far one gets depends on the four requirements above. As I said earlier, I’ve only experienced the Divine Intellect once... having fallen short countless other times. Still, though, I always seem to walk away with something worthwhile.

In order to get the ball rolling requires the proper frame-of-mind... although it cannot be explained other than it being 'totally spiritual'. When it happens, it is clearly recognizable. After a period of time this frame-of-mind becomes automatic provided the four requirements are met.

Differences between nirvana and the Divine Intellect

There are, however, a few major differences in how the Buddhists perceive nirvana and how non-Buddhists perceive the Divine Intellect. While both camps claim it is the source of enlightenment, nirvana is highlighted more as a way to escape earthly bounds whereas with the Divine Intellect it is simply a source of profound spiritual knowledge (divine intelligence). Nobody who writes about the Divine Intellect (nous), that I know of, ever mentioned the possibility of such an escape… nor did Plotinus, who has been credited with having discovered the existence of the nous. Nonetheless, I’ve sensed it is possible… as the Catholics once did. I could find no modern Catholic reference to ‘translay’ however, so it was probably a short-lived earlier belief. Translay is a derivative of ‘translate’ but even so, strangely, it is not referenced in most dictionaries.

According to Buddhism, the ‘training’ of a bodhisattva requires ‘six perfections’. They are: (1) generosity, (2) ethics, (3) patience, (4) effort, (5) concentration, and (6) wisdom. Now, while everyone can believe as they choose, two of these don’t seem necessary or apropos. For the reasons stated earlier, I don't believe ‘generosity’ is a characteristic. In other words, he doesn’t give money away or scours the countryside looking for people to help… at least not the bodhisattva I know. He does, however, struggle to find productive ways to deliver his message. He frets over his failures and works tirelessly hoping to make a difference. His motivation isn't out of love for people per se, rather out of love for children... future generations. He knows what humans are capable of and, also being pragmatic, realizes that except for the youngest, the older folks are a lost cause with few exceptions.

Nor should ‘wisdom’ be one of the 'perfections' since the only wisdom required beforehand is knowing them (the perfections). Spiritual wisdom comes after the fact. One doesn't need books to figure out what worthiness entails either. As to ethics, patience, effort and concentration, I agree they are very important. Elaboration on these points obviously isn't necessary.

No battling bodhisattvas here

It is also a Buddhist belief that bodhisattvas are fearless… that is nonsense, it is not (necessarily) a trait of the bodhisattva. Fearlessness would not exist any more among bodhisattvas than exists within the general population. Only if his back was against the wall might he fight... like most any man would. Most likely, he would walk away from most confrontations... effectively 'turning the other cheek'. This description is the worst modern version of them all. If, however, fearlessness was also one of the ancient descriptions, then it was because 'turning the other cheek' was not yet considered saintly or prudent. Yet, a true bodhisattva would have known better.

There are a few other descriptions of the bodhisattva, but, similar to the phenomenon which the muse of Greek mythology underwent, people started adding to the original concept to paint a more ‘darling’ picture. In ancient times, the creative genius of artists coming from ‘out-of-the-blue’ was just another unexplainable phenomenon. Soon, however, this phenomenon was given a name (muse), then it became nine muse who were then called goddesses, then they were given individual names, then each muse was credited to be ‘in charge’ of this or that, whether it was poetry or music. Through the acts of adding fairytale qualities to this phenomenon, it was degraded down to a cute story instead. As a result, many people stopped looking at it as a profound phenomenon. I believe the same thing happened to the Buddhist bodhisattva; he was 'restructured' over time to make him appear more endearing. All this about love, compassion, kindness and being fearless is nonsense. A bodhisattva simply wants to pass on how he learned that which he did, and how others can do the same. Importantly, he wants to do this before his mortal death. Furthermore, he would have no interest in making a religion out of it. Any phenomenon worth its salt can stand on its own; there is no need to wrap a religion around it for support. Buddhism isn’t the only guilty party however; all religions became convoluted and self-serving over time… including Christianity.

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Even though I portrayed the bodhisattva differently than a Buddhist would… there is always plenty of room for beliefs, with no need to erase one to make room for another. At any rate, Buddhism, to its credit, recognized the existence of nirvana and the bodhisattva, and responsibly embraced them. In summary, my intent was to explain the bodhisattva from what might be called a 'western point-of-view'. If a western term existed for that type of person, I wouldn’t have imposed upon Buddhism except for comparison purposes... but, alas, no such western term exists. So, since the term already does, we westerners might as well adopt it (perhaps to the chagrin of the Buddhists).

A.O. Kime

Matrix of Mnemosyne... the place of smoke signals from the spirit world

Last modified: 03/05/16