Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Faces of Compassion - Foreword

Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression — An Introduction to Mahayana Buddhism

Foreword: Lotus in a Sea of Fire

When we consider the history of the bodhisattva archetypes, we touch the whole and long history of Buddhism. We also touch the present moment, and the suffering of all beings in the world today. And we are invited to consider the future and how we must live, with courage and love wrapping around each other that we and all beings may awaken from this rough dream of our present world to a world that is sane and kinder.

The bodhisattvas blossomed like fine and rare flowers in China some two thousand years ago—though their seeds are everywhere in the old Buddhism of India and we feel their presence in the four boundless abodes of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

With the advent of Buddhism to China and the opening of practice and devotion to the world of lay people, active and compassionate archetypes developed in the ground of everyday life and in the popular imagination. These archetypes have a very human feel to them. They are not remote or passive—but rather involved with the world, with you and me, with all beings.

The bodhisattva archetypes all manifest flavors of compassion, and each bodhisattva has delayed her or his departure from the world of saṃsāra until beings everywhere are free of suffering. Their sacrifice touches us and has inspired millions for thousands of years. And their presence is in our very time pointing to guiding principles for a more compassionate and sane world.

Though bodhisattvas are mythic figures, they also are functions within the psyche, archetypes of compassion; and myth and psychology fuse in the presence and activity of these compassionate beings.

Tibetan Buddhists call bodhisattvas “Awakened Warriors,” for they manifest great strength of character and virtue for the sake of others. And as all bodhisattvas forever practice the perfections of generosity, wholesomeness, patience, enthusiasm, mental stability, wisdom, steadfast dedication, skillful modes, powers, and helpful knowledge, they nourish these qualities in us as we study, practice with, offer devotion to, and emulate them; finally we may discover that we are they.

The heart of the bodhisattva is always turned toward other beings. Such a one chooses to place herself in the most difficult situations, and has the energy and natural commitment to harrow souls from the hells that they have created. And she does this with no attachment to outcome, with a spirit of radical optimism.

Indeed, the whole life of the bodhisattva is nothing other than helping others. Yet the bodhisattva is like a wooden puppet whose strings are pulled by the suffering of the world. There is a feeling of choicelessness and egolessness when the archetype of the bodhisattva is realized. The right hand takes care of the left without hesitation, not shining from praise or shrinking from blame.

Bodhisattvas also realize the great natural boundlessness of mind and heart, and are the exemplars of mother-wisdom. They cannot be burned by the fire of the world though they stand in the middle of it, a lotus in a sea of fire. They inspire veneration—whether we are Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, or just plain human—and remind us of what we can be and how we can be in the face of outrage and misery.

Faces of Compassion is a wonderful resource and source of guidance and teaching. I am very grateful to Taigen Leighton for his careful research and inimitable spirit. Both make this important work an invaluable companion to our lives.

Each night, the echoes of this chant, the Four Bodhisattva Vows, can be heard in many Buddhist temples around the world:

Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.
Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.
The enlightened Way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

This is we who are making the bodhisattva’s vows—and what are we vowing, other than to be who we really are?

Joan Halifax Roshi
Upaya Insitute, New Mexico

 

How to cite this document:
© Taigen Dan Leighton, Faces of Compassion (Wisdom Publications, 2012)

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