What is a Bodhisattva?
Fearlessness is the underlying principle of the Bodhisattva vow and the Mahayana path. In this sense, fearlessness refers to the organic, in born courage that is characteristic of human nature. This sort of courage may not be visible on the surface, but, as Alexander Hamilton suggested, it does exist as a sort of potential energy just waiting to be liberated: “There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty, that makes human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism.”
Organic fearlessness involves no pep-talk, nor is it something that we create or obtain through effort. It is discovered when we let go of effort and begin to relate with the rawness of our human condition. When we look beyond the veil of our thoughts—our limited self-image—we discover a limitless presence. This presence, in all its vastness and immediacy, is the totality of our being, and it knows no fear.
The fearlessness of the Bodhisattva is an expression of shunyata or emptiness. Initially, we sit in the practice of meditation and observe the mind. We watch as thoughts arise and pass away. Eventually, we begin to notice that there is something going on beyond the thinking mind. However, we are confronted with a problem: The thinking mind, which at present we strongly identify with, is incapable of accessing that which is beyond it. So, we begin to investigate this tendency to identify with thought. Then, like a “flash of lightening in a dark sky,” a discovery is made: The ego or our limited self-image is revealed to be nothing more than the personification of thought. We realize that the ego is incapable of observing anything without thought, because the ego is nothing more than a collection of thoughts. This is the realization of egolessness—insight into the empty nature of the ego concept.
The experience of egolessness is very spacious. We begin to sense that the totality of our being is far too big to be pigeonholed into some concept. We could say that our insight into the empty nature of small self simultaneously reveals the vastness of our true Self. The poverty mentality that has dominated us for as long as we can remember is destroyed in a single moment of insight. Since the ego was the source of fear, insight into the empty nature of the ego brings with it a revelation. The realization of selflessness is also revelation of courage, and as a result, fear begins to slip away.
Getting the opportunity to glimpse the vastness of Mind is like realizing that you are holding a winning lottery ticket. In that moment, we realize that we are whole or complete—in need of nothing. So in this case, space or emptiness, is not dead, lifeless space—it is awake and courageous. It is a very generous state of mind that is constantly looking to open up.
Fearlessness is forever looking to express itself, and this expression is often referred to as compassion. The discovery of compassion is the birth of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is mesmerized by the truth of egolessness, and vows to guide each and every individual into this abode of freedom.
Where does Jesus enter the picture?
Well, let’s start by putting things into perspective.
Jesus was no Buddhist. He did not travel to India. Nor was he a Christian. According to Jesus, Christianity is the fruition of the Jewish path (“I come not to abolish but to fulfill” Matthew 5:17). Jesus was a Jew, in the fullest sense of the word. But the Buddhist, Christian, and Jewish traditions are all concerned with what it means to be fully human.
So, from a Jewish point of view, what does it mean to be fully human?
In the beginning, there was God. So, when God began His creation the only material he had to work with was Himself. Therefore, His creation—the heavens and the earth—poured forth from himself. So, as Genesis 1:27 says, “God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
The Upanishads beautifully describe this principle of creation as follows: “Then he realized he was this creation for he had poured it forth from himself. In this way, he became this creation…” Interestingly enough, this is the natural process of creation. In mathematics it is referred to as fractals. Fractals are figures that are generated by successive subdivisions of similar figures in a repetitive way. In the same way that a tree limb bears the image of the tree from which it has sprouted, man bears the image of its source, God.
In Genesis 2:25, the Bible continues, “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Adam and Eve were originally “free of shame” or pure. This purity is symbolized by their nudity. The image of both God and man is “naked.” But what does naked mean?
In Exodus 3:14, God, having been pestered by Moses, defined nudity as simply, “I am.” This “I am-ness” is the experience of being free of elaboration. It is vulnerability, but not in the pious sense. It is auto-conformation—neither confirmed nor denied by anything, and therefore limited by nothing. So the image of God and man, in his natural condition, is an image of simplicity. I am describing this image as “simplicity,” because it is whole or complete from the beginning. It need not be subsidized by anything. The experience of being is very straight forward or direct–it is sanity.
Well, as we all know, in the Jewish narrative, man replaces this simplicity with complexity. And having forgotten this simplicity, humanity became “lost in multiplicity.”
So how did man misplace the image of God?
Well, the answer to that question is obvious: We began to elaborate on everything. So, now we need to better understand what it means to elaborate. In Genesis 3:6 it says, “They realized they were naked.” In other words, they became self-conscious. In the Jewish narrative, Adam and Eve misplaced the simplicity and spontaneity of being with a limited self-conscious mind that censored their experience. This was precipitated, not by the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but by listening to the serpent. The serpent represents the deceptive nature of dualistic thought—the serpent was the fruit! Essentially, Eve was responding to internal stimuli.
To say that we replaced simplicity with complexity is to say that thought replaced reality as the supplier of content for thought. This created a pattern of thought, which was cyclic and detached from reality. This is insanity. Sanity or simplicity, as we have already mentioned, is the original image of man. Sanity is recovered when reality is revealed to be the sole supplier of content for thought. Insanity or self-consciousness is a pattern of thought where we think about what we think. This created an obsession. We began to obsess over ourselves, which is commonly referred to as self-consciousness.
In a self-conscious mind, all aspects of our self that do not conform to our conscious identity must be rejected. This is confirmed by the next line in the story: “So they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” They became embarrassed and began to cover those aspects of themselves that were not in agreement with their self-conscious image.
This is how Adam and Eve and, in the Judeo-Christian world, all of mankind is said to have fallen. But what does it mean to fall?
In Genesis 3:8, the story continues: “God called to man, Where are you?” So to fall from Grace is to lose yourself. This is the doctrine of Original Sin. Original Sin does not, as it is commonly suggested, mean that some authoritarian law has been broken and God is mad at everybody! Rather, Original Sin refers to the ignore-ance of a cosmic principle. Sin is “to miss the mark,” and original sin refers to the first time this happened.
When you are balancing your check book, if you get one number wrong the final calculation will be off base. And so it is with Original Sin. Man has been working on the basis of a false assumption—the belief that we are some solidified idea about ourselves, and subsequently separate or other than God. As a result, all of our calculations end up missing the mark.
Adam and Eve replaced simplicity with insanity, as they began obsessively clinging to their idea about themselves. In this way, Humanity was lost. By lost, I mean to say, we forgot the simplicity of being—our true self—and began to wander around aimlessly in a self-conscious world of our own creation. As Thomas Merton suggested, “Hell consists of nothing more than alienation from God.” In short, man-kind is imprisoned in his own imagination.
Yeshua ben Joseph and Christ the Messiah.
For hundreds of years the Jewish people waited for someone, a Messiah, to deliver them from this lifeless separation from God or simplicity. This Messiah was prophesied—not hallucinated by some wacked out Jewish sage, as it is commonly suggested. The Jewish sages knew that God would once again express Himself through Humanity. They knew, as St. Augustine so eloquently said, “My heart was made for you my God, and it will be restless until it comes to rest in thee.” The sages of Judaism knew that man would have to inevitably return to God, as it was his true nature.
This is the story of humanity that produced, not only Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, but also Jesus. Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of this narrative. He claimed to be the Messianic figure prophesied by the sages of old. In “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis says:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.”
Mr. Lewis makes an interesting point. However, in my mind, this argument only begs the questions: 1) Who did Jesus actually say he was? 2) What does it mean to be the son of God?
At times, Jesus was finicky about answering these questions. He would say things like, “I am the light of the world,” or some esoteric riddle that would muddle the intellect of the questioner. In that respect, he is very reminiscent of some of the eccentric masters found in Zen. However, there were a few times when Jesus made no bones about it. In John 8:58, he said, “Before Abraham was, I am!” In other words, it is not the ego that speaks to you, but the image of God that speaks through me—I am-ness. In fact, Jesus answers some skeptics in John 14:10 with, “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I speak are not my own, but my Father who lives in me does his work through me.” This is an interesting point. Here Jesus is saying that the ego or the small self has died, but defines death as nothing more than realizing that this small self is not the alpha or omega—it is not solid, but an opened medium through which something bigger is expressed.
So, through Jesus, the image of God is expressed. What does this look like in all its grandeur? Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me. He who has seen me, has seen the Father.” The experience Jesus communicates is one of complete integration. There is no division between him and the Father. He and Life are of one substance, as symbolized by the tree of Life. In other words, Jesus realized the small self to be an eternal process of opening up and pressing out. Jesus remember sanity, man’s true nature.
Jesus was both man and God, as the two are not different. However, he did not say that he was, as Alan Watts puts it, “The Bosses Son!” “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’?,” John 10:34. Not only does Jesus teach that we are all endowed with the same potential, he also suggests that we are equal in capacity: “These and greater works shall you do.”
Jesus was fully human, which, as I already mentioned, means an expression of God, or as Jesus puts it, “The Son of God.” But to better understand the depth of integration that Jesus is describing we might take this a step further. Like water and waves, man and God cannot be differentiated from one another. So Jesus says, “He who has seen me, has seen the Father.” But, perhaps no one has ever said it more beautifully than Meister Eckhart: “The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.” Sanity consists in realizing that “I”–small mind–and the Father–big Mind–are of “one substance.”
It is clear that Jesus realized the fluid or insubstantial nature of the small self, which enabled him to discover and express the vastness of Mind. This vastness, as we have already discussed, destroys any notion of a poverty mentality. It reveals the limitless nature of the human condition, which Jesus referred to as the “Kingdom of Heaven.” It is also interesting to note that Jesus teaches that it is those who are meek or vulnerable that will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:5).
The ministry of Jesus was concerned with nothing other than awakening in each and every person a living knowledge that the “Kingdom of Heaven is Within,” and empowering them to claim their inheritance as human beings. In Palestine, such an individual was called the Messiah. But in the Far East, an individual who has inherited the richness of the human condition and made it their mission to spread the wealth is called a Bodhisattva.
In Buddhism, the limitless nature of the natural mind is referred to as Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is the birth right of every human being. It is our spiritual inheritance. Enlightenment is the realization that it is not the limited self that lives, but the Buddha within, or as Chogyam Trunpga put it, “It is like the Buddha is in your brain talking.”
Christ consciousness is God consciousness, because God consciousness is the true nature of human consciousness. The realization of Christ consciousness is precipitated by the realization that the limited self is neither the alpha nor the omega. Having realized that awareness knows no beginning or end, the idea of a center is destroyed. As self-centeredness slips away, the simplicity of being is recovered, and you can rightly say, “It is not I that lives, but God within me.”
No small number of Christians have cited John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…) to bolster the greatness of their faith. And, to a certain degree, I do see the appeal of that passage. However, I think its abuse detracts from the true greatness of the story: the fearlessness of the Bodhisattva. This courage is so great that it conquers even death. For Jesus so loved the world, he gave up his own life.
Elephant Spirituality is an example of Elephant Journal’s commitment to the Mindful Life. We look to provide a fresh and practical perspective on traditional spirituality. If you would like to follow Elephant Spirituality on FaceBook click here and become a fan of Elephant Spirituality by clicking the “Like” tab at the top of the page.