Twitter feed responded with an HTTP status code of 403.

Dharma, Social Action and Bodhicitta Beyond Buddhism

January 5, 2010

By Mae Lee Sun

“When Chogyam Trungpa taught in the West, he made a distinction between Buddhism and Buddhadarma.  Preconceptions behind calling things Buddhism is about studying a philosophical system as a religion with basic principles to be learned and categorized in an understandable and intelligent way.  Trungpa emphasized this was not a complete understanding of what the Buddha taught which was ‘Buddhadarma’- awake to the truth of things as they are…

“Bodhicitta is the essence of the Dharma, everything that arises is Bodhicitta and comes from our ‘soft spot’ like anger- as a wound where we are helpless.  It’s what the human condition is and we are vulnerable to this experience.  The discipline is to be able to recognize this soft spot under the anger and we can feel our own suffering so we can see others suffering more clearly.”  –  Frank Berliner, Religious Studies Faculty, Naropa University

“The desire for enlightenment is the mind which performs the function of seeking that unsurpassed state for the sake of releasing all sentient beings from suffering.  This desire for the welfare of others is in essence a form of great compassion.” – Venerable Lobsang Gyatso, excerpt, Bodhicitta: Cultivating the Compassionate Mind of Enlightenment


Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand- Photo by Mae Lee Son

Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand- Photo by Mae Lee Sun


From the above statements, we can surmise that the word of the Buddha is promoting the notion of a spirituality that directs one toward service to all forms of life.  Embracing such an approach is obviously not a path that one would potentially embark on without good intention and seeing the value of enduring and also transforming one’s own pain and suffering in the process of bearing witness to other beings.   What it does not imply is that although no one can clearly define what it means to live the true model of the Buddha, the means to achieve this awareness of awakened heart lies beyond the societal and spiritual identification of being ‘Buddhist.’

There are many historical and contemporary spiritual warriors from non-Buddhist traditions who have been able to transcend any obscuring spiritual distinctions to access the word of the Buddha in ways that embody the Bodhisattva ideal: St Francis, Chief Joseph, Ghandi, Albert Schweitzer, Thomas Merton, Victor Frankel, Maya Angelou, Dorothy Day, Nelson Mandela, and countless others.  In the past, personal dialogue with other Buddhists around this universal outlook has not always been met with the openness and equanimity I expected my practitioner friends to embody.  Perhaps by now however, their views have changed.

The subject initially arose, and came to be debated, out of a passage written by Chogyam Trungpa in his book, Training the Mind:

“Theistic traditions tend to build up an individual substance of some kind, so that you can then step out and do your own version of so-called bodhisattvic actions.  But in the nontheistic Buddhist tradition, we talk in terms of having no being, no characteristics of egohood, and therefore being able to perform a much broader version of bodhisattva activity altogether.”

This is not to say that Trungpa necessarily meant this literally.  It raises an interesting question for me however, as a practitioner and person who has worked on behalf of animal welfare, the environment, for social justice and as a spiritual caregiver in the emergency room of a Level I trauma hospital. Most of these roles required an interfaith perspective as we who choose these vocations are offering our presence to people with diverse spiritual backgrounds.

It seems essential to have an understanding of and reflect on the diversity of spirituality in this context both to avoid the trap of spiritual materialism and also to ensure alternative sacred ways of knowing are honored.  Otherwise, we alienate people, especially those confronting the experience of death and dying (a major focus of work in Engaged Buddhism).

There are certainly many non-Buddhist Bodhisattvas free of ego, who have been spoken of as such by Buddhist teachers, who manifest a broad spectrum of Bodhisattva activity and who need not be discounted.  There are also many Buddhists who operate out of what Sulak Sivaraksa referred to as the “goody goody” place of ego to prove what great Buddhists they are, and do more harm as a result.  Perhaps this exploration will be too short to comprehensively explain such an understanding of Dharma, Bodhicitta and so many extraordinary traditions and lives.

At the core, what makes such an exploration challenging is the inexpressible nature of experience that comes through deep connection to spirit, and the limitation of language and conditioned mind to accurately convey that which motivates and opens the heart.

In my observation and experience, the manifestation of what I understand as Bodhicitta does take place across spiritual and religious traditions.  What is key to understanding this may best be approached by dropping the the identification as ‘Buddhist’ and looking at what His Holiness the Dalai Lama refers to as “the authentication of all religion- the realization of a ‘good heart’, a human being’s innate qualities of compassion and tolerance.”  In other words, there is no single way to the TRUTH.  There are universal values and beliefs uniquely  embodied in each tradition and the differences do not have to mean divisions or subordination.

It is more pragmatic to discuss the notion of a good heart and Bodhicitta through comparing Buddhist and non-Buddhist spiritual models of social action who engaged the world along the lines of ‘interbeing’ rather than to challenge the merits of the respective traditions themselves.  I’d like to being with reflection on two Native American warriors of peace- Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and Eagle Cruz of the Lakota.

Eagle Cruz, a Sundancer and Pipe Holder for the Lakota, was a teacher of Native American Studies at Naropa University.  He is no longer there.  It’s been years since he left or was asked to resign. I’m not quite sure what the legal details were.   Eagle was accused of engaging in cultural genocide by a non-native student (who was married to a Native American) and some Lakota people for introducing native teachings to the non-native community at Naropa.  An important aspect of this condemnation of Eagle teaching was that some felt native culture was being appropriated by whites, resulting in the assimilation and ultimate demise of it.  The real time issues of poverty, broken treaty agreements, etc., were said to be unconsidered and even swept under the rug.  Vine Deloria Jr., a Native American professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, called this oversight ‘skimming’- the act of whites taking only the cream of Native culture and discarding the rest of Native life.  It became a very politically and legally sensitive situation for myriad reasons.

One of the main reasons is that some tribal elders in this particular case, felt that any impartation of this knowledge was a violation of sacred precepts.  Other tribal elders, according to Eagle, gave Eagle permission to present the curriculum he taught at Naropa while concurrently insisting he not reveal other teachings.  In dealing with this, he said to me at the time that ‘everything begins within- creating discrimination, introspection and finding a place where we’re willing to consider other possibilities.

According to Eagle, being a ‘spiritual’ being doesn’t exist conceptually in native culture.  There are no words to define or explain it as something separate from daily life.  To look at someone as ‘spiritual’ for engaging in prayer but not for being on the front lines of activism is to not properly value everyone’s contribution.

Eagle stated that it was easy to go through life and be ‘spiritual’ by staying in ceremony all day, and that the challenge for him as an activist was coming to terms with what we refer to in Buddhism as ‘walking the razor’s edge.’  He found himself continually having to decide whether or not to continue on with the commitments he’s made and seeing the obstacles as food to help him along the Way.  In the 1800s, Chief Joseph did this as well, continually and non-violently, even after the U.S. government banned him from the land of his ancestors.  With treaty after broken treaty with the U.S., the result was near genocide of the Nez Perce Nation.  Sulak Sivaraksa’s response to this statement, referring to Eagle, was that a Bodhisattva would confront anything and any criticism to overcome suffering in society.

“It is resting like a tiger, then when the time comes, you go out to get the prey, only non-violently.”  –  Sulak Sivaraksa

Faced with the dilemma of  having to move from the sacred land of his ancestors and the burial ground of his father or face war, Chief Joseph broke the promise he made to his father of never giving up the Wallowa Valley in order to save the Nez Perce from genocide.  What is interesting to note in this action is that native people’s relationship to land was central to both their identity and connection to ‘Great Spirit’.  To be separated from it was tantamount to the death of the their own soul because of the deep responsibility and identification they felt to it, the creatures, and the plants who inhabited it.  Yet Chief Joseph seemed to have felt a unique responsibility to both his people and whites to not allow the sacredness of place to be denigrated by  violence, even at the cost of losing it- and in spite of the extreme hardship his people would face in the process of moving to a reservation.

The sacred view which Chief Joseph held appears no different than that which Thich Nhat Hanh states in Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism:

“To be in touch with the reality of the world means to be in touch with everything that is around us in the animal, vegetal and mineral realms.  If we want to be in touch, we have to get out of our shell and look clearly and deeply at the wonders of life..and also the suffering..once we get in touch with the source of understanding and compassion, all our actions will naturally protect and enhance life..without calm and peaceful mind, our actions will only create more trouble and destruction in the world.”

The historical account of Chief Joseph’s actions are really an expression of the notion of Interbeing and I would argue, is inclusive of all 14 precepts put forth by the Order of Interbeing.  Without going into great detail, the most obvious ones include finding whatever means possible to protect life and prevent war, being open to receive other’s viewpoints, living simply and sharing resources with those in need.  The Charter of the Order of Interbeing includes four principles as the foundation of the Order which I believe Chief Joseph embodied:

  1. Non-attachment from views– to be free from dogma, prejudices and habits- Chief Joseph was familiar with and practiced both Christian and Native spirituality.
  2. Direct experimentation– direct experience of reality, not speculative philosophy as an instrument through which we experiment with truth- Chief Joseph lived as he believed and worked with Anglos according to each situation and adjusted his view where necessary.
  3. Appropriateness– a teaching, in order to bring about understanding and compassion,  must reflect the needs of people and the realities of society- Chief Joseph  gave up the land he promised to hold and was able to integrate that into native view.
  4. Skillful means– images and methods created by intelligent teachers to guide people in their efforts to practice the Way in their own particular circumstances- Chief Joseph wanted to avoid genocide and to maintain peace and did this through flight over treacherous yet well known territory, to ensure that the Nez Perce people and anglos would survive.

Chief Joseph was able to penetrate the intent while anticipating the outcome of the white man’s words, yet continued in negotiations despite the hopelessness of the situation.  One might ask “Why pursue it then?”  I can surmise from my own practice and insight, that it is not the futility or apparent success of a situation or cause that motivates the spiritual warrior.  As one of my former Naropa teachers Dale Asriel said, “It is the dawn of Bodhicitta in us, the awakened heart of clear seeing, gentleness and willingness to allow enough room for everything (wisdom, compassion, emptiness), our soft spot of wanting to make sense of confusion.

Peace activist Robert Aitken Roshi at 91 years old- photo provided by the Diamond Sangha

Peace activist Robert Aitken Roshi at 91 years old- photo provided by the Diamond Sangha

It is a greater aspiration that calls to us in life.  The pain of this process- if it becomes a source of discovery rather than despair- is what enables us to feel connected to other beings and to embrace the world as we find it.  Who could dispute the fact that Chief Joseph was willing to do this, and from the ground of Bodhicitta?

One of my all time favorite Bodhisattavas has been St. Francis of Assisi.  As a Christian monk, he was able to touch upon the essence of Bodhicitta in ways that recognizably indicate the unity of Interbeing between the natural world, self and spirit:

“Once when Francis was offered a large fish which had just been caught in Lake Piediluco, he simply looked at it, called it “brother” and then put it back in the water near the boat. And it did not swim away until Francis had given it leave and a blessing.”                                                                                                          -Bonaventure IX, 8

St. Francis worked to unite and protect all elements of the creation of the spirit.  He was connected to the wisdom aspect of the Bible, where the earth was looked upon not merely as lifeless matter, but rather alive with sensitivity to feelings of pain and suffering.  So that he could alleviate the suffering, Francis, who came from a wealthy family like Siddhartha Gautama, subscribed to a life of poverty, simplicity and meditation in serving the Spirit.

As he roamed around the countryside and taught, he did so with regard to all of creation in mind, including the lowly worm.  I imagine him to be more of a Thich Nhat Hanh kinda guy and Bodhisattva, possessing a gentleness of presence and telling stories filled with references about nature.  Many people however, during his time, thought of him as ‘God’s fool’ for his extraordinary enthusiasm in communing with the natural world of plants and animals.  There is the noteworthy Canticle of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, where Francis speaks to the notion of Interbeing:

“All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made, And first my Lord Brother Sun who brings the day: and light you give to us through him.  How beautiful he is, how radiant in all his splendor.  Of you, most high, he bears the likeness.  And praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and stars.  In the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.  And praise be yours my Lord, through Sister Earth, Our Mother, who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces fruits and colored flowers and herbs.”

His Holiness the Dalai Lama asserts that this type of thought in Christianity relates to recognition of Buddha-nature in everything.  If St. Francis was able to notice this in simple forms of creation, one could surmise that he was also able to dissolve the barrier between self and other, and see the quality of Interbeing from his awakened heart, like so many other Bodhisattvas were able to do.

Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche wrote that:

“all creatures seek happiness; they are seeking it day and night…those birds living in bushes and also the butterflies…they are all the same- desiring happiness, not desiring suffering.”

Clearly, the aforementioned Bodhisattvas understood this and lived in ways to benefit the beings experiencing this.  Perhaps they had spiritual practices that we may not agree with or understand.  However, they clearly participated in life from a place of awakened heart.  The path that creates the opening is any one’s guess.  Nelson Mandela’s path ran the gamut- from embracing non-violent protest against apartheid to advocating guerrilla warfare, spending 27 years in prison as a result, then receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, becoming president of South Africa while continuously being surrounded by controversy yet is held in high esteem around the world.

Dr. Reginald Ray, a former teacher of mine at Naropa and spiritual director of Dharma Ocean Foundation in Crestone, Colorado, said to me on our first meeting at Naropa that sometimes Bodhisattva’s are born in hell realms so that they can better help those beings that are there.  At the time, I certainly didn’t have the clarity or compassion with which to accept his insight.  What I do have is a strong meditation practice and incredible teachers both Buddhist and non-Buddhist who constantly challenge the notion of “I”, “Me” and “Mine”.  With that, I’ve discovered that there is no ground, no security which I can grasp onto.   Every moment is ever more precious, raw and we all face them in very different ways.  On the Bodhisattva path, we are reduced to nothing.  And from there, we become very real, very human, without labels and often open, broken hearts.

Written by maeleesun

Comments (One comment)

  • Bill
    June 25, 2010 at 7:19 PM

    Enjoyed reading your piece. It was a shame how Eagle Cruz was treated and what happened. I met him through Vernal Cross while he was helping up on Pine Ridge and then ran into him again at Naropa. He and I had many talks about the difference between studying a religious ritual and teaching it. I never met the wannabe who took issue with his religious studies class, but I’d be curious about her particular motivations. I hope he is doing well where ever he is now.

  • Leave a Comment