An Interesting Question

The Tien Tai patriarch Chih-I (also spelt Zhiyi, 538-597), who lived a century before Shan Tao, was asked the following question. A bodhisattva is supposed to be unselfish and altruistic. Yet bodhisattvas go to the Pure Land. Is it not selfish to want to go to the Pure Land? Is this not, therefore, a breach of the bodhisattva vow?

Chih-I said that we can consider two cases. In the first case, we are talking about a bodhisattva who is fully enlightened. This person does not need to go to the Pure Land, but, in any case, is indifferent to where he goes. Wherever he goes he will continue to act as a bodhisattva. Then there is the second case of a person who aspires to be a bodhisattva but is not enlightened. This person is subject to attachment, seduction, and influence. Wandering in the mundane world he is vulnerable to corruption. Although he means well, he is strongly advised to stay as close to the Buddha as possible so that the primary influence he receives is the best possible. That is the best way for him to fulfil his bodhisattva aspiration. To be close to the Buddha is to be in the Pure Land. Therefore this type of bodhisattva should definitely wish to be in the Pure Land whenever possible. There are no other cases.


I think that this exchange is a valuable reflection upon the issue of ideals and actuality. We might want to be bodhisattvas, but we are still deluded beings. The aspirations of a deluded being are deluded. We do not really know what it is to be an enlightened bodhisattva. Probably there are a number of aspects to our aspiration. We do sense intuitively that this is the best thing to wish for. At the same time we probably want to be something important. We want to be approved of by the Buddhas and do not really trust that they love us just as we are. We have read that being a bodhisattva is what we are supposed to want, so part of us is pretending that this is so so that we can think of ourselves as doing the right thing or being a good student. There is still something immature and dependent in our choice, some elements of distrust and desire for status and security. All these deluded elements make us vulnerable. The Buddha said that everything in the world is burning for such a person, burning with the fires of greed, hate and delusion.

Because Buddhism is very strong on ideals it is easy to start to fool ourselves into thinking that we are closer to such ideals than is really the case. One wants to be respected and feel secure and from that position to graciously help others, and this is quite understandable. We are all human. Whatever fragments of genuine altruism we have are a direct function of whatever slight enlightenment we may have and that, in turn, has come to us through the inspiration of others. Nothing is our own. Yet, we cling to whatever we can. We do not see how this clinging actually makes us more vulnerable not less.

When somebody frames a question such as the one put to Chih-I, are they not thinking of themselves as perfectly capable of being totally altruistic, never being selfish, and so on? This is not realistic. We all need help. Actually, if a person were enlightened they would be completely independent because they would realise that they have nothing and in having nothing they are completely secure spiritually, but how many of us truly live in such a way? With the ideal comes the actual. We are as we are and as we rely upon the Buddhas and yearn to be closer to them we shall grow and become more enlightened and one day shall all be Buddhas ourselves, but in the meantime it is better to be realistic.

Of course, there are many interesting paradoxes here too. The person who is more realistic about their own deluded nature is to that extent already more enlightened. The person who realises her own vulnerability to worldly corruption already thereby becomes better able to help others with theirs. The person who yearns to be close to the Buddha, thereby, incidentally, helps many beings by example. True realism is enlightenment so being realistic about delusion is more enlightened than being deluded about enlightenment.

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Replies to This Discussion

Does this mean that we're realistically deluded!!?? (I shoild probably speak for myself!(  ,)

Namo Amida Bu!

Thanks. Being realistically deluded must be less deluded than deludedly deluded. At a practical level the adage "I could be wrong" is often helpful. In a certain way, this is scientific. Real science - as opposed to the popular notion of "Science says that...." - real science is based on a fundamental acceptance that we do not know. We can disprove some things, or at least demonstrate their inherent contradictions, at a practical level and that leaves other stuff as more probable, but what do we know? Especially this is true in relation to our judgements of other people and all that derives from that - politics, history, social issues, etc. We tend to fall into good guy vs bad guy thinking when reality does seem to be a whole lot more complicated. There is a lot to be said for the Pureland perspective of accepting that we are deluded beings doing what we can and Chih-I's notion that that works a whole lot better the closer one stays to the Buddha makes perfect sense..

Yes. Good guy bad guy wrong, stay close to the Buddha. Great teaching, thanks again! Namo Amida Buddha(  ;

This life is giving me everything : All that I see, love,reject, recognize or feel is being given to me through many factors…and still my response to all that grace is so poor that I feel that I am not honoring all that which has been given to me freely. In some sense I am starting from scratch once and again… I would like to offer my life to the Buddhas but at the same time…what do I have to be offered?...



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