Saturday, October 9, 2010

What does a Bodhisattva mean by 'saving'?

Recently I had a conversation with a friend online and the question came up, "What does the Bodhisattva Vow mean by 'saving'?" I've recited and read the vow so many times that the question took me aback. What does 'saving' mean in this context?

The most obvious example is the form that it has taken in Western Buddhism over the past several decades--social engagement. Charitable organizations spearheaded by such Zen pioneers like Bernie Glassman and Thich Nhat Hanh epitomize this kind of social altruism. There is so much suffering in the world, and we can all do out part to help alleviate it.

But while that may relieve people's physical or even mental suffering, is that what the Boddhisattva's vow mean by 'saving'? (Please don't take that as criticism of these very noble causes; I have the highest respect for anyone who dedicates themselves to helping others. I'm just trying to dig deep into the question.) Isn't there a deeper problem at root here, one that can't be relieved by any amount of charitable work--the source of suffering itself? As Buddhists, we find ourselves in a precarious situation, in that we know the real problem in most people's lives is grasping, attachment, whatever you want to call it. But how do you actually 'save' someone from their own self-inflicted suffering?

I know what the books say--cultivate bodhichitta, prajna, compassion. But what does a Bodhisattva actually do? What does this 'saving' look like? In some abstract sense, I know that sitting zazen and following the precepts helps others, but besides proselytizing (wouldn't it be funny to start a door-to-door Buddhist "salesman" movement? Sorry, I just thought the image was funny!), what does 'saving' mean?

Again, as in most of my posts, I genuinely don't know. I personally would love to become a dharma teacher to help others. It's something I feel passionately about, and think (hope is more like it) I would be skilled at. I guess that's one way of helping others in a dharmic sense. But how else? A kind smile to a stranger, a loving embrace to a loved one, being caring and compassionate to someone in need...sure. But how else can this vow manifest itself in daily life?

I guess what I'm really asking is, "What does Bodhisattvahood actually look like?" I suppose all I have to do is look at people like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalia Lama--men who have dedicated their lives to the Dharma, humanity, and global harmony--for the answer.

Wow, that sets the bar pretty high!

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Devil.Bunny

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