PARAVRITTI (Part 6): The bodhisattva

[ <- Part 5}

The bodhisattva, having turned back, lives life as a gift, not a trade, in mercy rather than justice.


We have seen how turning back from involvement in the conditioned life of samsara leads one to go forth on one’s spiritual quest, as did Siddhartha Gotama himself, and how that quest itself culminates in a turning back from satisfying even one's spiritual need in favour of complete dependency upon grace, which generates a second, and greater, going forth.

Thus, the path begins with a recognition of the unsatisfactory state of things and, especially, the unsatisfactory state of oneself. This is dukkha. Until it is genuinely faced, we live in various degrees of escapism that always lure us back into the spin of samsara. Yet to face it is also to be repelled by it and thus compelled to live in a new way.


Having recognised one’s bombu nature, one is then open to a turning toward the Buddhas who have vowed to do all they can for our sake. This is salvation: to live in a freely giving relationship with all the Buddhas. One's life becomes a giving - a dana paramita. One makes an offering of everything, even of one's foolishness and wayward passions, and one receives whatever the Buddhas bestow, which ultimately is great peace.

The idea that one is not alone spiritually complements the fact that by facing dukkha one becomes alone in a more conventional sense. By choosing an authentic life, one parts company with everyone who is living a worldly life. This does not mean that one necessarily physically rejects them, but one knows inside that one now occupies a different space from them, a spiritual space; however, in that spiritual space one is not alone, for the Buddhas commune. In this way, even in this life, one becomes a participant in the Pure Land and in the life to come one naturally gravitates to the welcoming light of Amida.


However, although entering the Pure Land is a gift, and one may be inspired and spiritually refreshed, still, because of compassion, one again turns back. One returns to the world of conditions equipped with whatever gifts the Buddhas have endowed one with. This is the ideal of the bodhisattva who turns back even from nirvana in order to assist all sentient beings. So the spirit of paravritti applies even here.

This is a truly wonderful image that speaks to us in a deep way. Some people ask if we should take these teachings literally or symbolically. They want to know if the Pure Land is a physical place. In fact, we have no idea what the answer to these questions is, but it does not matter because they are not really the most helpful questions. The great Mahayana scriptures are full of amazing imagery with Buddhas throughout the ten directions and bodhisattvas who spring up out of the earth and so on. It is pointless to debate whether this is literally true. What matters is to let the message sink into one’s unconscious and inform us at an archetypal level. The spirit of it must enter one’s dream, one's right vision. The eightfold path unfolds from there.

The image of the bodhisattva who, rather than enter nirvana, returns from the Pure Land to bring solace and aid to suffering beings is an inspiration that carries us across the torrent of samsara and keeps us safe from the thousand devils who might otherwise devour us. It is an other power, coming from outside of one’s ego, that enfolds and supports. That is Dharma.

[To be continued]

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