The bodhisattva ideal begins with the smallest acts.
In early spring, I moved to a house in a village at the edge of Cambridge, England, where I work as a writer and administrator in a local Buddhist center. I share this small house overlooking cornfields with two friends, both of whom are also Buddhist. Though our living arrangements are not formally oriented toward communal practice, we take for granted that each of us will try our best to support the others; we know we can assume a certain vocabulary and a familiarity with shared ideals and approaches to our practice. So when one of my housemates upbraided me a few weeks back for not doing my share of the housework, he reminded me—without sanctimony—of the bodhisattva aspiration.
The bodhisattva, the great hero of the Mahayana, strives to reduce the suffering and increase the happiness of all sentient beings. He or she clearly sees that all beings long to be free from hardship and to experience contentment and joy, and does whatever is necessary to help them toward these goals.
In his Bodhicaryavatara, the poet-monk Shantideva speaks of bodhisattvas as beings "to whom the suffering of others is as important as the things they themselves hold dear." This is an ambiguous image: bodhisattvas are not only as concerned with others' suffering as with their own, but their concern for others' suffering is as important to them as are the things they hold most dear. The bodhisattva approaches the work of relieving others' difficulties with as much ardency as we might pursue or protect the things that we value most highly and desire most strongly. His motivation is more than heartfelt; it is urgent, passionate. Shantideva uses a delightfully exuberant image to evoke the energy and joy with which bodhisattvas respond to relieving suffering in the world, describing how they "plunge down into the Avici hell as geese into a cluster of lotus blossoms."
It was not willful disregard that stopped me from cleaning the bath. It was a failure of imagination, a failure of perspective: I simply was not seeing how the everyday tasks of housekeeping relate to my bodhisattva aspiration. I was going about my life, doing my best to keep my friendships, my meditation, my daytime Buddhist center work, my evening writing, my relationship with my lover, all in good order; I was involved in getting and spending, in the countless small acts that life entails. And along with this, I was thinking of the Great Matter of cultivating the bodhicitta—the "heart of enlightenment" or "awakening mind"—that drives the bodhisattva's desire to end suffering in the world.
But in my pursuit of the Great Matter, I had forgotten something I once knew well: that the bodhisattva ideal begins with the smallest acts motivated by concern for others. Geshe Sonam Rinchen has written that "hearing or reading about it should at least make us want to become more kind and helpful." This feeling, this wish to be more kind and helpful, is the beginning of the bodhisattva path itself, and the treading of this path—for most of us, for most of our practice-lives—will mainly consist of small acts of kindness and concern, brief moments of putting others before ourselves.
Cooking a meal for a friend, buying a cup of coffee or a gift for a workmate are small but significant steps on the bodhisattva path—as could be cleaning the bath, not just when you step out of the water and notice you've left a ring of dirt around its edge, bur also when you walk into the bathroom midafternoon and see that someone else has not washed it out. I have so often fallen short of my aspirations by just covering my own tracks, trying to clean up after myself and not leave too much wreckage in my path.
But the bodhisattva ideal demands more of us. Shantideva says, "All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others." I am sorry that my friend had to come to me one morning to ask me to wipe out the bath; sorry that he had to remind me to do the simple things that would make his life easier and happier. And I am grateful for his reminder that the bodhisattva aspiration is an everyday matter—everyday both in the sense of needing to be renewed as each day passes, and in the sense of applying to simple tasks, to ordinary actions motivated by a longing to reduce the difficulty and increase the happiness of those with whom we share our lives. ▼
Manjusura (Ian Tromp) is a member of the Western Buddhist Order. He writes regularly on poetry and art for several journals, including the (London) Times Literary Supplement, the Nation, and Boston Review.
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