The Bodhisattva: Saving Nirvana for Dessert

In most religions there is often an important archetypal character, the savior. They are people in religious literature that resemble helpers of the divine. In western religions these helpers are seen as employees, or relatives of a divinity which is in some ways personified to be relatable by humans. In Buddhism this is not the case. Nirvana is never related to as a thing. That is not to say there are not archetypes in Buddhism however. The Bodhisattva is one such archetype, the ideal personality to propel mankind towards enlightenment. The Bodhisattva can most simply be defined as someone who has the ability to achieve Nirvana, but refrains in order to help others.

This draws quite a distinction from other religions as well. That is to say the enlightened one who achieves the highest degree of spiritual attainment, is still somehow second place. It is as if God himself handed you the keys to heaven and said “you’ve earned it, all those you expect to see are waiting for you” and you chose to hand them back and say “sorry. there are too many on earth suffering that need help. I’ll be back when the work is done.” It is this kind of person who is the Bodhisattva.

It is important to note that the Bodhisattva is not on some sort of mission. They do not do good deeds for others in hopes of converting them to their denomination of religious practice. They do good for the sake of itself and with no reward in mind. This is not even particularly a Buddhist notion, this same attitude is present in philosophy as well as other religions. There is a lot of trouble possible when people get caught in a helping mentality. When we deem that others need our help and we somehow grow in worth as we help more people, it is more likely that the help we think we are giving is actually doing harm.

In Zen it is most efficient to live on two levels at once. One foot in the relative and the other in the absolute. I think this is the point of the Bodhisattva. In the absolute there is no religion, no tradition, nothing needs to be done. Yet with the other foot in the relative, there are religions, traditions, and people suffer. It is so simple to Zen out and claim there are no problems and everything is perfect. These are the Buddhas who achieved it for themselves, those who made it to heaven and left it all behind because “all is well.” The Bodhisattva’s however, also knows this. The difference is they are capable of being ‘there’ while lending a hand ‘here’. They do not become complacent as a result of insight.

That the absolute is not necessarily religious gives the Bodhisattva a great advantage among traditional clergy. There is of course nothing wrong with the role of a clergyman, there are many honorable members of the clergy. But people are less likely to come across someone who is identified deeply with something such as a religion. A catholic will likely never go to the mosque, and an atheist will likely not willingly attend Sunday school. By virtue of the clergy being associated with such ideologies, their influence is in a way less influential. They’re reachable by less people. The Bodhisattva is personable, relatable, and may not even seem religious at all which is quite the point.

In examining the possibility of being too religious. It is like eating dinner at a friends house where the food is too salty, guests eat it anyway, but are too modest to state what is obvious to everyone except the cook who is biased of their own food. In Christianity, God is relatable to everyone and everything. It is primarily by virtue of God’s silence that makes it relatable. It’s a universal that everyone can understand, yet nobody really has to. There’s no prerequisite, and it is freely given. Some can deny, others can affirm, and it makes absolutely no difference to the actuality of it. How do those who affirm know they’re affirming the right thing? Are those who deny sure they aren’t denying that which is obvious, in turn presenting themselves as foolish? If those who do affirm, affirm the wrong thing, then it is quite correct for those who deny to do so. In this way the Bodhisattva has wisdom and is not attached to their work. They leave no trace as it were. They do not affirm anything, nor do they deny. It makes no difference to what is and no subscription is necessary.


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