Green Koans Case 16: The Great Being

Clark Strand

In the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines Sutra, Subhuti asks the Buddha, “Why do you refer to the Bodhisattva as a ‘Great Being’?” The Buddha replies, “The Bodhisattva is called “Great Being” because he will cause a great mass and collection of beings to achieve the highest."



“Earthrise” photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts on December 24, 1968


The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines, composed around 100 B.C.E., is generally regarded as the first Mahayana Buddhist sutra. Its primary object is to answer the question “How does the Bodhisattva, that ‘Great Being,’ go forth into Perfect Wisdom?” That question is asked at the beginning of the sutra by Shakyamuni’s disciple Subhuti.

Great mass and collection of beings probably refers to those beings occupying a major world system—what today we would call a “planetary ecosystem.” In Mahayana Buddhism, a “buddha” is the being responsible for liberating all species-beings in such a world system. In ecological terms, such beings would be one with, and therefore indistinguishable from, the systems in which they appear.


Buddhas…bodhisattvas…great masses and collections of sentient beings—once you slice the pie of the universe, there is no end to ways it divvies up! Who can restore the circle of the world?

Zen masters can take up their brushes and make circles all they want—unless we meet the Great Being there is no hope of being whole. And what is the Great Being? Shakyamuni said it was the one who caused all beings “to achieve the highest.” But he didn’t say highest what!

All beings attain
The highest—how could they not?
Whoever says Earth
Doesn’t know what she’s doing,
Let him make rain on his own!


Read all the Green Koans.

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Dominic Gomez's picture

"If there are living beings who attend the Buddha, the World-Honored One, hear the Law, believe and accept it, and put forth diligent effort, seeking comprehensive wisdom, Buddha wisdom, wisdom that comes of itself, teacherless wisdom, the insight of the Thus Come One, powers and freedom from fear, who pity and comfort countless living beings, bring benefit to heavenly and human beings, and save them all, they shall be called 'those who ride' the great vehicle. Because the bodhisattvas seek this vehicle, they are called mahasattvas."
Lotus Sutra, chapt. 3

'Shakyamuni said it was the one who caused all beings “to achieve the highest.” But he didn’t say highest what!'

Perhaps Subhuti turned and left before he could fully answer?

ClarkStrand's picture

This is one of my favorite passages from Chapter 3. The Lotus Sutra, which used to be read primarily by Nichiren Buddhists in the U.S., is now making in-roads with Zen Buddhists and other practitioners. I've even seen Insight Meditation teachers use it as the subject for a talk. Given it's pride of place in Asian Buddhist culture, I'd say it's about time.

As an alternative to Subhuti turning and walking away, maybe Shakyamuni thought nothing could be more obvious.

prisca10's picture

"Who can restore the circle of the world?"

A puzzle needs every piece in order to be complete.

" Zen masters can take up their brushes and make all the circles they want--unless we meet the Great Being, there is no hope of being whole."

Brushes can only imitate. What is cannot be drawn.

"And what is the Great Being?"

It is not a human being, nor a transcendent one.

" All beings attain The highest—how could they not?"

All beings have no choice but to participate in the great sharing - the eternal giving and taking. No one can escape returning to the soil from which we came.

"Whoever says Earth Doesn’t know what she’s doing, Let him make rain on his own!"

Whoever thinks he can have mastery over the earth, is deluded. Nothing can be done apart from or outside of its blessings.

ClarkStrand's picture

Priscilla, you write: "A puzzle needs every piece in order to be complete." Allow me to expand on that a bit.

The wonderful thing about a puzzle of planetary proportions is that it is constantly evolving, the pieces fitting together in new and interesting ways. Much depends, however, upon how they have fit together for long ages past.

We tend to believe that Nature is all-resilient. The idea here is that we can mix and match all we want, modifying the larger system to such an extent that human selection effectively replaces natural selection in determining the overall picture of the jigsaw. But the time frame for natural resiliency is considerably longer than we imagine. It simply can't be measured in human thought-time.

Given the demands being placed on the planetary ecosystem at present, the elasticity of nature is being pushed to the point where many of its systems now stand at the tipping point. True, if they tip over the edge, Nature will rebalance eventually (or, more likely, simply find a "new" balance), but the puzzle might not look so pretty from a purely human point of view.