August 1, 2012

Walking the Buddhist Path. ~ Fay Octavia Elliott

You are a bodhisattva.

I thought that I could escape from my life and my problems when I first began practicing meditation. I wanted to become enlightened since the moment I heard of enlightenment. I did not want to spend any more lifetimes in this world of suffering and unhappiness. I hoped to transition directly to a new world.

In 1995, my husband Michael and I were in a major automobile accident which resulted in my brain injury and his death in 1997. The following year a lump in my breast was finally diagnosed as breast cancer. Then, in 2005 my mother died. I attended both Michael and my mother for many months leading up to each death.

I decided to become a hospice volunteer to make sense of facing death and caring for dying family members. It was in hospice training that I learned about chaplaincy and decided to attend Naropa University’s Master of Divinity program to become a Buddhist hospice chaplain.

After my cancer diagnosis, on some level, I believed that would be my way out. Then I remembered that I would just be reborn and face the same issues again. So I decided I needed to stay long enough to become enlightened in this lifetime. The decision to become a hospice chaplain drew me towards taking the bodhisattva vow to keep returning to a human rebirth until all beings have attained enlightenment.

I came to realize along my path that I not only wanted to become enlightened for my own sake, but also for the benefit of all beings.

I attended an interfaith seminary program sponsored by a local church back in 1999. The first day of class we were in a room with a labyrinth surrounded by interfaith shrines from many different traditions. We walked around the room, stopped and prayed at each shrine and then walked the labyrinth.

I was walking the labyrinth and I heard what appeared to be the voice of Jesus say, “You are a bodhisattva.”

At first it seemed strange that this idea would be introduced to me by Jesus. The religious scholar Karen Armstrong gave me a context for this in her book on compassion when she describes how Saint Paul, the earliest extant Christian writer (quoting an early Christian hymn) presents Jesus as a bodhisattva figure. Jesus refused to cling to the high status befitting one made in God‘s image and lived as the servant of suffering humanity.

By then I had been praying the Prayer of Saint Francis daily for over five years. Something in me seemed to resign to what seemed inevitable. It would be many years before I found the Shambhala Buddhist path and took the bodhisattva vow.

What is the path of the bodhisattva and why do I refer to them as chaplains?

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche defined the word bodhisattva as “…he who is brave enough to walk on the path of bodhi.” He goes on to say, “Bodhi means awake, the awakened state.” This is not to say that the bodhisattva must already be awake; but he is willing to walk the path of the awakened ones. The bodhisattva vows to delay his complete and full enlightenment (Buddhahood) until all sentient beings attain enlightenment. She is agreeing to return over and over again to assist these beings.

I was delighted to hear Andrew Holocek say in a class on death and dying, that by attaining Buddhahood, we could be of even more benefit to beings.

So why delay?

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche reinforces this notion. Almost by giving up trying to attain something, but by continuing on the path, the bodhisattva arrives at Buddhahood. He always lives life thoroughly and fully and the result is that, before he realizes where he is, he has attained full enlightenment. His unwillingness to attain enlightenment continues, strangely enough, even after he has reached Buddhahood.

Then compassion and wisdom really burst out, reinforcing his energy and conviction.

By following the career path to become a chaplain we are choosing to be of spiritual benefit to the people we serve. We may serve in a spiritual community, hospital, prison, school or some other setting. As bodhisattva chaplains we are called to a more extensive role in the world.

The bodhisattva is in spiritual service to all sentient beings without exception and regardless of setting. Her chaplaincy includes not just service to a few human beings in a limited setting, but extends to non-human sentient beings as well. Lama Surya Das describes that a real bodhisattva has pure intentions toward everyone and everything. There is no selfishness, no neurosis, no rough edges, and no hidden agenda. This is the ideal we strive for and cultivate when we take the Bodhisattva‘s altruistic vow.

The key is to take Buddhism to the streets; to the places where people live and work. Throughout the western world Buddhism has found a foothold. Its notions of personal individual practice and liberation, combined with social action and deep compassion for the suffering of the world, has given Buddhism a new vigor and freshness. It has also brought a new way of being to the many activists movements such as peace, disarmament, and ecology.

This new Buddhism is bubbling up from the bottom and engaging the people in becoming the change they want to see in the world. Unlike the old notion of a benevolent monarch ruling the world and implementing change from the top down. In taking a vow to be of benefit to all beings the bodhisattva is called to practice, not just on the cushion, but to a practice of engagement in relieving all the forms of suffering in the world, a universal form of chaplaincy.


Fay Elliott recently completed her degree at Naropa University and is now heading off to Shambhala Mountain Center to be the first chaplain in residence there. For more information about Shambhala Mountain Center click here. For more information about the Master of Divinity program at Naropa University click here.



Editor: Carrie Stiles

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