Ascending and Descending Bodhisattvas

Ascending and Descending Bodhisattvas

We usually translate the word bodhisattva as “enlightening being”. Bodhi means to enlighten or to wake up, and sattva means being – and it is important to note that these words are both active verbs. Apparently, the word sattva also implies a wish to do something great or even heroic: bodhisattvas have a grand desire to awaken everyone. Although Buddhism teaches us to let go of desires, it has never been the plan to drop them all, and there is one particular desire that we are encouraged to foster. Or, you could say, we are supposed to funnel all our desires into one: the desire to wake up ourselves and others.

For most of us, it will take time to do so, partly because it is difficult to admit that we have been sound asleep for so long. On this aspect, Buddhist teaching is pretty uncompromising. We may wake up every now and then, only to go back to dreamland again a few minutes later. According to the scriptures, it requires countless lifetimes of practice to really get out of bed and enter reality. The Zen tradition goes by this principle too but claims that we are fortunate enough to be in our final lifetime – because of extraordinary good karma, we have received a priceless opportunity to suddenly rise to the occasion.

Still, the question remains whether we use that opportunity to the full. It apparently takes a strong desire to do so. There are many stories about Zen masters who went through all kinds of trials and tribulations to attain the Way. Dogen Zenji went on a perilous journey to China. It took him a month at sea, and his teacher who accompanied him passed away not long after. Without a deep wish to be enlightened, he would never have left Japan and all the ideas and notions he was brought up with. Are we ready to leave our comfort zone and prepare ourselves for the unexpected?

Ascending bodhisattvas are heroic beings who dare to let go of familiar ground and climb the ladder of infinity. They are Buddhas in the making who vow to pass through the door of Nirvana only after everyone else has entered first. The crux of Zen meditation practice consists of turning our own light inward. It is the most direct way to forget the self, but this can be done successfully only if it is based on the aspiration of an ascending bodhisattva. We bore deeper and deeper through layers of delusion until we get to the essence of our being and the whole world suddenly lights up in all its true colours.

But then there are also descending bodhisattvas. These are fully realized buddhas who come down to our deluded regions to fulfil their vows to save all sentient beings. They may look rather deluded themselves, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to communicate with us. Kanzeon can appear in any shape or form: as a woman to a woman, a man to a man, a king to a king, a beggar to a beggar, a genius to a genius, a dullard to a dullard –  or as a woman to a man, and a dullard to a genius, etc, if that would work better. This can be so convincing that one might even wonder if these personifications of Kanzeon still remember who they really are!

It raises an interesting question. What about my neighbour or my boss? Could they perhaps be unexpected forms of Kanzeon? And what about myself? Whenever I have some real insight, it does feel as if I suddenly remember something that I had forgotten. Who knows how much more there is to remember? In other words, although I usually identify with ascending quality of bodhisattvas, it may be time to start identifying with their descending quality as well. Ideally speaking, we go both ways and balance out the aspiration to attain Buddhahood with the wish to benefit others.

Ascending and descending are activities that are supposed to reinforce each other. The more insight we receive, the more gratitude arises and, with it, the wish to return the favours of the buddhas and bodhisattvas: the more we engage in compassionate action, the more we realize our limitations and feel the need to clarify our insight. A good training programme accommodates both sides. In some traditions, practitioners take years to cultivate insight in solitary retreats before entering the world to cultivate compassion. In our school, we try to ascend and descend on a daily basis, with time reserved for zazen as well as working together – enough for a lifetime of inspiration!

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