Tuesday, April 19, 2016


I'm teaching the Bodhicaryavatara in "Exploring Religious Ethics" again, a text I remember really enjoying working with last time. I'm no more qualified now than I was then, of course. My colleague C, who works in just that tradition, told me that nobody in Tibet thinks the  text (known in English sometimes as Guide to the Bodhisattva Way) can be read without several lengthy commentaries. I wing it, Great Books style (as the existence of a Oxford World Classics edition suggests). Focal point of today's class, was the bodhisattva vow, which starts may I allay the suffering of every living being. I am medicine for the sick. May I be both the doctor and the nurse, until the sickness does not recur. (3.6-7) and assumes its classic form As long as space abides and as long as the world abides, so long may I abide, destroying the sufferings of the world (10.55). I dwelt on the insanity of such a pledge, which nobody in her right mind could make. The text says as much:

I have promised to liberate the universe from the defilements, to the limits of space in the ten directions, but even my own self is not freed from the defilements!
At that time I was intoxicated, speaking without realizing my own limitations. After that I can never turn back from destroying the defilements. (4:41-42)

We explored the "intoxication" - the roller coaster rush coming from contemplating the wondrous work of enlightened beings as well as one's own abjectness, against the backdrop of the discovery of the extent of suffering needing release - but also how, in retrospect, the bodhisattva has found his "limitations" to be illusory. (The rest of the book shows how that was done.) Forced by an improvident (providently improvident!) promise to do the humanly impossible, a promise he finds he can't unmake, the bodhisattva has to unlearn what it means to be an agent, on the way to discovering a different kind of agency - one which can end the sufferings of the world...

The students aren't buying it. They think Buddhism doesn't traffic in intoxications of this kind. Revealingly, one recalled from the preface a story about Santideva the editor indicated looked to be no more than a trope - the idea he must have been of royalty, who renounced kinship for the religious life (the story told of Gautama the Buddha). She didn't remember the Tibetan tale the editor tells next:

Santideva - although he was an advanced practitioner who had visions of Manjusri and received direct teachings from him - seemed to the other monks simply to laze around and do nothing ... The other monks decided to humiliate him  by showing his lack of learning, and asked him to give a recitation before the monastery from the scriptures. Santideva initially refused, but assented when they insisted and agreed to erect a teaching-seat for him to sit on. The first stage of the humiliation was to erect the seat so high that he could not reach it. One can imagine the monks whispering and giggling as he approached, but it is said that with one hand - plus the magical powers which seem to descend on saints - he lowered the seat, sat on it, and asked what they wanted him to recite, something old or something new.At the request for something new he began to recite the Bodhicaryavatara. When he reached Chapter 9 ... it is said that he ascended into the air and disappeared, though his voice could still be heard. Santideva then refused to return to the monastery which had not understood that spiritual depth may not always be obvious, and that we can never tell who may or may not be saints working in their own way for the benefit of others. (ix-x)

No comments: