Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Nurturing the seed of enlightenment

Now we turn to Shantideva’s explanation for how we nurture the seed of the bodhisattva vows which has been planted on our mind.  When we received the vows, we received on our mental continuum a very special seed which will eventually ripen in our enlightenment.  Now we learn how to cultivate and nurture this seed.

Everything that follows in Shantideva’s Guide is an explanation of that.  We can say that the rest of Shantideva’s Guide is an extensive explanation for how we nurture this seed of enlightenment within our mind, but the next couple of verses in particular summarize the mental attitude with which we should improve our bodhisattva training.

(3.25) The wise who have sincerely taken up
The mind of enlightenment in this way,
So as to maintain it and increase it
Should encourage themselves as follows.

(3.26) Now my life has borne great fruit,
My human life has attained great meaning;
Today I am born into the lineage of Buddha
And have become a Bodhisattva.

(3.27) All my actions from now on
Shall accord with this noble lineage;
And upon this lineage, pure and faultless,
I shall never bring disgrace.

The purpose of these two verses (26 & 27) is to encourage ourselves to take to heart our bodhisattva’s way of life.  Nothing in this world will encourage us to make the bodhisattva’s path our life mission, in fact everything points in the opposite direction.  Besides our guru, our Sangha friends and the teachings of Dharma, who or what will encourage us?  We must do so ourselves.  Up until now, we have led an ordinary life.  Why?  Because we haven’t made the choice to live differently.  But now we have that opportunity.  What we do with this opportunity is our choice.  We can continue to live an ordinary life, perhaps enjoy a few pleasurable moments, and then we will lose it all at death.  Or we can take up the mantle of a Bodhisattva and proceed from joy to joy for eternity.  We all want meaning in our life.  Well, here it is.  But it will require us to work at it.  It will require sacrifice.  But all those who have taken up this path have never regretted doing so.  Those who have failed to take up the path, all have come to regret it.  Many of us retake the bodhisattva vows and recite these verses every day in the context of our Dakini Yoga practice.  But how many of us emerge from meditation thinking, “from this time forth, my life will be different.”  Maybe today is the day.

These two verses are helping us to see/feel ourself as an actual Bodhisattva and to behave as an actual Bodhisattva. Shantideva is encouraging us.  We might think “this doesn’t apply to me because I’m not an actual Bodhisattva.”  But we need to feel like now we are! We’ve made a promise.  We’ve generated Bodhichitta, aspiring and engaging, in our mind.  We should feel like we are a Bodhisattva.  At the very least, we should feel like we have actually embarked upon the bodhisattva path.  This is not just something we did one weekend because we had nothing better to do, we should feel like the trajectory of our life (and all our future lives) has permanently changed.  We now walk in the footsteps of all the Buddhas.

One of our problems is we feel ourself to be ordinary. Perhaps the way that we relate to ourself in this sense is not much different from the way we related to ourself many, many years ago.  We need to ask ourselves, do we see ourself as someone who has actually embarked on the Bodhisattva’s path?  If not, why not?

We actually have no real identity.  We are only the person we think we are.  If we identify with ourself in a different way, then over time naturally we’ll see change.  We’ll see change in the type of person that we are.  We need to ask, how do we view ourself?  As a Bodhisattva?  Do we feel ourselves to be someone who is bound for enlightenment?  Do we think, “that’s who I am.”  If we think like this, we can see we’re not ordinary.  Instead of an identity based on past experience, we have an identity based on our potential.  We need to think about this deeply.

We need to wake up to what’s happening.  Our guru has chosen us to be the Bodhisattvas of this world, in which case we’d better behave ourselves.  Overtime, we will come to genuinely see ourselves as someone who is dedicating ourself to the welfare of others.  That’s how we will see ourself and our activities.

What does it mean to bring disgrace to this noble lineage?  Quite simply, it means to be a hypocrite with our practice of Dharma.  We may put on a good show, say all the right words, but when nobody is looking we remain as ordinary as ever.  We tell everyone else that they need to be virtuous, but we remain, usually when nobody is looking, as negative as ever.  We pretend to be better than we are, we hold ourselves up as a representative of the tradition, but then act in contradiction with its teachings.

How do we prevent ourselves from bringing disgrace on this noble lineage?  If we could behave perfectly, there is no danger of that; but few amongst us can.  Therefore, we prevent ourselves from bringing disgrace by eliminating every last trace of pretention from our mind.  We present ourselves as nothing more than what we really are – somebody doing their best to become a better person, but we still have a long ways to go.  When we make mistakes, we admit them, learn from them, and try again.  We don’t tell others what they need to do, we recall that Dharma is personal advice for how we ourselves need to change.  We don’t pretend to be a representative of the lineage, rather we present ourselves as somebody sincerely trying to live up to its ideals.

I asked Imam Tahir (a famous Imam from San Francisco) once, “in three words, what is Islam?”  To my surprise, and without hesitation, he gave me an answer in only three words, “Islam is sincerity.”  It is simple:  if we are sincere with our practice, we will never bring disgrace, no matter how much we make a mess of things and no matter how many mistakes we may make.  If we are not sincere with our practice, we will inevitably bring disgrace, no matter how many good results we may bring into the world or how much faith we inspire.

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