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A Flash of Lightning or a Flash in the Pan? My Relationship To The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

Published January 27, 2010

Auckland, New Zealand

By Mae Lee Sun

Sunset at Piha beach, New Zealand- photo by Mae Lee Sun

Sunset at Piha beach, New Zealand- photo by Mae Lee Sun

“Find joy in doing what is good.” – H.H. Dalai Lama


Although Madyamika is often divided into various schools which were founded by a number of teachers, it is Nagarjuna who set forth a systematic method called ‘madyamika’ or middle way, to refer to things as they really are- avoiding falling into the extremes of existence and non-existence.  Buddhist scholar Paul Williams asserts that the Madyamikas (those who subscribe to this methodology) do not put forth the inherent existence of anything and they set out to refute the reasoning of those who believe there is.  However, it is not to infer that Madyamikas are nihilistic.  The methodology is used to understand emptiness, which allows one to cut through emotional obscurations of ego clinging and the conceptualizing activity of mind that creates dualism.

In Shantideva’s Bodhycharavatara, an understanding of the notion of emptiness is necessary for one to take and keep the bodhisattva vows.  Otherwise, we’d believe the “I” that we call ourselves is real inside of us and exists separately from everything else and subject to being affected by the aggregates (skandhas).  If that were true, we would not act from a place of purified heart.  The source of suffering and confusion will continue without being able to discriminate between the relative and the absolute (gross and subtle) nor comprehend dependent co-arising.

New Zealand Fern frond, a symbol of new life and growth- photo by Mae Lee Sun

New Zealand Fern frond, a symbol of new life and growth- photo by Mae Lee Sun

Believing in existence simply because we experience certain emotions, feelings, sensations and relationship with the world of form never gets us beyond conceptual mind- the cause of our suffering, because we grasp onto the five skandhas as real.  Consequently, if we do not practice and understand this technique offered by Madyamika, we can easily fall into wrong view, which is nihilism, not bodhicitta.  When there is no distinction from self and other phenomenon, one is able to open fully to situations of suffering.  So what then is suffering if phenomena are empty?

If we hold the view of non-existence, as if nothing is there at all, we ignore the fact that without form, there would be no emptiness and thus continue to miss the point.  Whether or not phenomena exist and are empty, suffering still occurs and the bodhisattva aspires to work toward alleviating it on the relative level because they understand the absolute nature of it and see that it can also change on that level.  Once one commits to the bodhisattva path however, one must believe that it is a practice not to be taken lightly.  The way of the bodhisattva is a process of knowing you will more than likely fail, yet you continue on with an attitude of openness, courage and compassion despite the hopelessness of situations.  The possibilities of liberation from suffering lie in the emptiness of them because you have trained in the skills enabling you to experience impermanence, no-self and even liberating the antidote as Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche said.

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to master them

The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it

Heart in Action- photo by Mae Lee Sun

Heart in Action- photo by Mae Lee Sun


With this virtuous understanding one is ready – or not- to embark on the bodhisattva path.  Our tendencies as conditioned beings is to move full steam ahead, full of emotion and self centered agendas, so efforts do need to be made to arouse, protect, maintain and intensify bodhicitta toward direct realization of emptiness.  If we do not pay attention to ego patterns, which can actually be quite valuable, and work with them through study, contemplations and meditation, obstacles arising out of ego will prevent us from understanding the teachings. Sensei Jan Chozen Bays cautioned that the worst thing that could happen is that we might actually become intoxicated with ourselves and how the world should be which she asserts is far worse than consuming alcohol or drugs. Examples of this include fixating on what makes sense to us and rejecting the rest, clinging to what we have discovered and finding others to confirm this without inquiring further, mistaking it for direct experience.

The bodhisattva vow itself is about the quality of awakened heart which is taking a great leap of faith in seeing the interconnectedness between ourselves and all other beings, etc. and transforming the path from the solution to the willingness to embrace the chaos (Hinayana to Mahayana).  We begin to realize in entering the Mahayana via taking the Bodhisattva vows, that what other choice do we have but to rely on ourselves and to ripen our practice so it becomes strong?  As we grasp this sense of emptiness so to speak, all possibilities are available for us to generate fearlessness and employ skillful means to situations of suffering.

Training our mind, we can change our way of seeing and our behavior resulting in less harm.  This is the first of the three disciplines in training the bodhisattva.  The second aspect of the path is adopting virtuous actions and the third is working for the benefit of beings, thus reaching Buddhahood- although the emphasis is not on fruition.  Within the scope of these are more exact instructions or paramitas of action (generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation and prajna) that point to particular responses that work in service to a situation in a direct way that is not based in ego.

Aitken Roshi protesting the war in Iraq on a street corner in Hawaii- photo provided by Palolo Zen Center, Oahu

Aitken Roshi protesting the war in Iraq on a street corner in Hawaii- photo provided by Palolo Zen Center, Oahu

May bodhichitta, precious and sublime,

Arise where it has not yet come to be;

And where it has arisen may it never fail

But grown and flourish ever more

– Nagarjuna

The Bodhicharyavatara is divided similarly, communicating not only the necessity and positive virtue of bodhicitta but includes the horrifying reality of suffering in general and the courage it takes to stay with it despite our own predicament.  The challenge I have consistently faced is knowing how to prevent the attitude of bodhicitta from becoming dissipated as well as fully understanding what the point is in continually putting myself in situations of suffering, i.e. there’s endless work to do in the world when it comes to addressing environmental devastation, animal welfare and human rights issues, etc.  The Buddha asserted that every being wants to be free from suffering and pain, doesn’t want to live a life of confusion and simultaneously has the potential to become enlightened without exception.  If our true mind is bodhicitta, we are capable of helping other beings beside ourselves through compassionate action and prajna once bodhicitta dawns in our mind.  The key is knowing how to work with this as Path even if it is inconvenient and our heart is bruised.

As when a flash of lightening rends the night,

And in its glare shows all the dark black clouds had hid,

Likewise rarely, through the Buddha’s power,

Virtuous thoughts rise, brief and transient, in the world.


Perhaps my expectation is that the struggle will disappear.  If it does not, what resolve must I come to in order to protect and maintain bodhicitta?  In the ‘Awareness’ chapter, Shantideva speaks to one’s decision to take the vows and then considers retraction after having done so.  He says it quite harmful because of the possible karmic fall to lower states for the person taking the vow and the place it leaves those who were to be the recipients of the bodhisattvas work.   We need to be appreciative as well, of the fact that as humans, we are in the unique position to free beings from other realms.  Will we not regret this if we do not do this while we have the chance?  It is our own minds that create discord and separation.  We must be able to recognize this as such and come to realize the lack of substantiality to our fear and not give in to this empty affliction.

Fearless- photo by Mae Lee Sun

Fearless- photo by Mae Lee Sun

In one way or another, much of my life has been spent working with defiled emotions.  Sometimes, they have been indulged- especially in the realm of activism.  As a matter of course, it rarely works for the benefit of others and can often make existing problems worse.  In the sixth chapter of the Bodhicharyavatara, Patience is most important in staying on the path.  The doubt in itself then is not necessarily an obstacle, nor is the questions and feelings.  Shantideva points to anger that can arise out of the doubt as something that requires our attention and patience.  As important as this paramita is to the path, it has personally been the most challenging for me- especially in situations that are emotionally charged like witnessing another person or an animal or child being harmed.

Pain, humiliation, insults or rebukes-

We do not want them

Either for those whom we love or ourselves.

For those we do not like, it’s quite the opposite!

Acting reflexively to situations with anger creates obstacles since we are short on prajna and upaya.  The workability comes out of the patience generated through sitting when we see that there is no ‘other’ to blame.  ‘Driving all blames into one’ as Chogyam Trungpa said allows for the space in which we can transform the suffering and can see that what is happening is destructive to everyone.  A direct way to know this through the practice of tonglen- the practice of sending and taking.   Tonglen has helped me to cut klesa activity and develop patience because the exchange of sending and taking digs up our own sensitivity to suffering.  It points out our own ‘self’ centeredness and attachment.

Lobsang Gyatso asserts that grasping to self is one of the most obscuring factors that prevent the attainment of wisdom.  To safeguard against this is to vigilantly and heroically persevere in developing qualities of “other cherishing” mind, lifetime after lifetime so we eventually engage spontaneously in altruistic action.  Shantideva says, “There is nothing which familiarity does not make easier.”  As frightened as we may be in taking on all of this responsibility, it is crucial that we remain committed or we will continue wandering in samsara in ignorance and helping no one, not even ourselves.  This is not an easy task considering the fact that we have been conditioned for lifetimes to react compulsively, aggressively and contrary to compassion.  In the Greater Stages of the Path, Je Tsongkhapa says:

Attachment to self has engendered self-centeredness, and it is this, which has in a beginningless process of cyclic existence up to the present day created all forms of everything undesirable.

If this is all we know and share, it is no wonder we are unable to overcome the problems we face and discount both others and ourselves by trying to safeguard this logic.  To mention emptiness, we somehow think we won’t exist and can fall into despondency and nihilism, carried away by attacks of the skandhas.  To understand it, we cannot merely conceptualize, we must do as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, which is:

“Anyone who would like to arrive at that kind of emancipation will have to look deeply in order to penetrate the true nature of emptiness.”

Absolutely Empty- photo by Mae Lee Sun

Absolutely Empty- photo by Mae Lee Sun


Penetrating phenomenal reality will free us from pain since we recognize its illusory nature.  Form is empty of a single independent point of origination and, emptiness is in essence, the containment of everything, the interbeing of entire existence.  Without it, how could anything exist and not exist as is expounded in the Prajnaparamita Sutra?  If we make distinctions between good and bad elements, this and that, we stay subject to samsara, birth, old age, sickness and death and fail to see the transformative quality of the Dharma and our teachers.  Reciting the Heart Sutra with the intent of a bodhisattva, the object of “I” cannot maintain itself as separate or intrinsically existent.  Therefore, we must not be disenchanted when confusion arises on the path so these realizations can come and bodhicitta can be realized.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama states in his book Flash of Lightning, that one must practice according to individual capacity.  If we are mindful of those moments of not acting in accord with the highest good, and we approach endeavoring towards awakening with joy, then we will not be disheartened. According to Chogyam Trungpa, this sense of cheerfulness has a lot of guts:

“You maintain a sense of cheerfulness because you are on the path; you are actually doing something about yourself.  While most sentient beings have no idea what should be done with themselves, at least you have some lead on it, which is fantastic.  That joy seems to be the beginning of compassion.  This kind of cheerfulness has a lot of guts.”

The path is actually quite practical.  Many teachers have stated that if you master even one of the precepts, you’ve mastered them all.  It doesn’t mean we don’t get angry or gossip ever again.  Sensei Bays suggests that when you’ve broken them, you can do something about it- apologize, and start over again.  We can also enlist the aid of others- our friends, sangha or teacher.  For example, “I’m really trying to do this as part of my spiritual practice and I really need help from all quarters so could you help me to not gossip?”  If that approach doesn’t work, Bays says to be quiet or say the opposite- say something nice about the person.

At the same time, scholar and Buddhist teacher, Sara Harding said joy is hard to come by.  We think somehow there is some sort of final solution to end suffering.  Shantideva gives us clear instructions however on how to not only come to a greater understanding on an intellectual level, but affirms that practical actions will support virtuous progress along the path, thus freeing us to experience a flash of lightening rather than becoming a flash in the pan.

Written by maeleesun

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