The Way of the Bodhisattva: Working Calmly for the Happiness of Others

I hesitate to comment on the Dalai Lama’s teaching this week in Sarnath. I was under the impression that supreme enlightenment would be granted to me as part of the price of admission and was bitterly disappointed to find that this was not the case. After reading The Way of the Bodhisattva and listening to the Dalia Lama speak for three days I may be enriched but I am, unfortunately, far from enlightened. With that disclaimer I will try to share some of my experience.

The atmosphere at the teaching was carnival-like – a dusty, joyful, spiritual, Tibetan carnival. Which makes sense when you think of it as both a religious teaching and a community gathering for Tibetan Buddhists from around the world – thousands of Tibetan exiles from India, Europe and America, pilgrims from Tibet – and hundreds of non-Tibetan Buddhists, seekers and curious tourists like me.

During the teachings, which lasted for about two hours each morning and afternoon, the Dalai Lama sat on a high dais at the front of a vast tent filled with maroon robed monks and pilgrims of every description sitting cross legged on the ground. As the Dalai Lama entered, the sessions would begin with a blessing, a deep throated Tibetan chant, and the monks and pilgrims would make their prostrations – standing with hands in prayer, touching their hands to their heads, to their hearts, bending at the waist, kneeling to the ground, and finally, touching their heads to the ground before His Holiness.

The Dalai Lama’s teaching style could be described as conversational. He was full of analogies and anecdotes and often related a lesson through a story of someone he has met during his decades of service and travel. His tangents might bring him to a discussion of the practice of Chogdu (liberation through sexual union, I think…) or George W. Bush, both of which he seems to disapprove, though, of course with much subtlety and diplomacy. (The DL on the GW: “A very straightforward man and a good friend of mine. But when it came to Iraq, he did not consider all the effects of his actions on other people.”) At another time, the Dalai Lama pointed out that Americans are generally a straightforward people: we get too excited when something good happens to us and too depressed when something bad happens to us. Meditating on the impermanence of everything in this world might help even things out, he advised. It was hard to tell if these asides were planned or spontaneous. Often, usually when speaking of himself, he would punctuate a comment with mirthful, contagious laughter.

Listening to him speak, I got the sense that the Dalai Lama, as a man, embodies a seamless blend of modern sensibility and ancient wisdom and perhaps that is part of what draws so many to him. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get close enough to him to feel the gentle, inspiring presence that others have described to me. That distance was increased by not actually being able to listen to him speak directly. He taught in Tibetan for the benefit of the mostly Tibetan audience while a simultaneous translation to English was available via radio.

The main topic of the teaching was the The Way of the Bodhisattva, which was first recited by the Buddhist monk Shantideva in the 8th century. It’s a lovely text of four-line verses, poetic and often profound in their depth and acuity. Though I am definitely not one for the casual reading of 1,200 year old spiritual verses, I was surprised to find The Way of the Bodhisattva engaging and often even enjoyable as I sat with it over pots or chai, bundled up in a cold café in Varanasi last week.

The Dalai Lama’s teaching consisted of reading passages from the text and offering comments along the way. The main message (and again, I hesitate to distill ideas that sometimes appear simple but are incredibly complex) is that to attain enlightenment one must not only achieve the “wisdom of emptiness” but must simultaneously work to deliver all beings from suffering. Okay, maybe that’s not so simple, but Shantideva sometimes makes it seem so:

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.

(Chapter 8, verse 129.)

For me, not inclined to the spiritual, but more in tune with the philosophical and political aspects of any message, these passages could serve as the mission statement or campaign promise for something beautiful. These ancient instructions somehow seem novel and no less urgent today:

With perfect and unyielding faith,
With steadfastness, respect and courtesy,
With modesty and conscientiousness,
Work calmly for the happiness of others.

(Chapter 5, verse 55.)

Shantideva covers vast spiritual, philosophical and psychological terrain in about 1,000 such verses and I can’t begin to do them justice here. More thorough knowledge of Buddhism would certainly be helpful and for that I look forward to consulting my sister, Laura, who is a practicing Buddhist and a big part of my inspiration for coming to hear the Dalai Lama.

For now I will leave you with a few of my favorite themes and passages from Shantideva. Perhaps they will inspire you to pick up a copy. I liked the translation by Padmarka, published by Shambala, and Laura tells me that Pema Chodron has written a good commentary.

Before reading on, you might wish to grab yourself a cup of rich, steaming, salty butter tea. One of my favorite moments of each teaching session was when dozens of teenage monks would rush down the aisles and wade into the crowd to pour salty (morning) or sweet (afternoon) butter tea from large, long-spouted tin kettles into thousands of proffered cups and bowls, accompanied by another deep throat-chanting blessing for the tea, of course. I’m glad someone told me to bring a cup.

So, when your tea is hot and plenty buttery, here are some highlights from Shantideva.

On deep empathy, the “exchange of self and other”:

Those desiring speedily to be
A refuge for themselves and other beings,
Should interchange the terms of “I” and “other,”
And thus embrace a sacred mystery.

(Chapter 8, verse 120.)

On the source of anger and its futility:

Anger, lust – these enemies of mine –
Are limbless and devoid of faculties.
They have no bravery, no cleverness;
How then have they reduced me to such slavery?

I it is who welcome them within my heart,
Allowing them to harm me at their pleasure!

(Chapter 4, verses 28-29)

On looking upon your enemies with compassion and at conflict as an opportunity for growth and purification:

Their weapons and my body –
Both are causes of my suffering!
They their weapons drew, while I held out my body.
Who then is more worthy of my anger?

(Chapter 6, verse 43.)

On loving and caring for others:

The goal of every act is happiness itself,
Though, even with great wealth, it’s rarely found,
So take your pleasure in the qualities of others.
Let them be a heartfelt joy to you.

Speak with honest words, coherently,
With candor, in a clear, harmonious voice,
Abandon partiality, rejection, and attraction,
And speak with moderation, gently,

And catching sight of others, think
That it will be through them
That you will come to buddhahood.
So look on them with open, loving hearts.

(Chapter 5, verse 77-80.)

And finally, a reminder for all of us who talk the talk:

But all this must be acted out in truth,
For what is to be gained by mouthing syllables?
What invalid was ever helped
By merely reading in a doctor’s treatises?

(Chapter 5, verse 109.)

For those of you who mostly check this space for photographs of goats in fancy dresses, my apologies for getting all heavy on you with this posting. I promise more goat antics coming soon. My travels tomorrow bring me far to the south for a much needed defrosting in Kerala, where I will spend my final three weeks in India.

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1 Response to The Way of the Bodhisattva: Working Calmly for the Happiness of Others

  1. Omar says:

    mmmm…. Ben the butter tea sounds delicious… I’d try making it here in London but I’m not quite sure where to get the Yak butter from…..

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