Many of us wrestle with our response to the sufferings of the country and the world. What can we do in the face of poverty, disease, war, injustice, and environmental devastation? With the torrent of news, it is easy to despair, to become cynical or numb. The Buddhist approach to this collective suffering is to turn toward it. We understand that genuine happiness and meaning will come through tending to suffering. It is here that we learn true compassion, where we can bring our courageous heart in response. We overcome our own despair by helping others to overcome theirs.
We might hear this and become afraid of being overwhelmed. But each of us can contribute to the sanity of the world. In doing so we discover the role of the bodhisattva.
Bodhisattva is the Sanskrit word for a being who is devoted to awakening and to acting for the benefit of all that lives. The way of the bodhisattva is one of the most radical and powerful of all Buddhist forms of practice. It is radical because it states that the fulfillment of our happiness comes from serving the welfare of others as well as ourself. Our highest happiness is connected with the well-being of others.
The bodhisattva’s path is a striking contrast with the excessive individualism of our culture. Everything can get focused around me: my fears, my happiness, my needs. We can get so caught in our own drama that we stop our own growth.
Reflective self-absorption can be valuable for a time, but we don’t want to stop there. Therapists talk about how clients eventually become sick of listening to themselves, which is actually a good sign. It means we are moving beyond the identification with our personal suffering. We are ready to care for a world larger than our own.
Every wisdom tradition tells us that human meaning and happiness cannot be found in isolation but come about through generosity, love, and understanding. The bodhisattva, knowing this, appears in a thousand forms, from a caring grandmother to the global citizen. Meditators often recite the bodhisattva vows when they sit, offering any benefit of their practice for the sake of others: “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to bring liberation to us all.” Like the ancient Hippocratic oath, the vow to serve the sick taken by every physician, the bodhisattva vows to serve the welfare of all.
Psychologically this is an astonishing thing to say. Does this mean that I am going to run around and save seven billion humans and trillions of other beings? How can I do so? When we think about it from our limited sense of self, it seems impossible. But when we make it an intention of the heart, we understand. To take such a vow is a direction, a sacred purpose, a statement of wisdom, an offering, a blessing. When the world is seen with the eyes of a bodhisattva, there is no I and other, there is just us. “We are not separate, we are interdependent,” declared the Buddha. Even the most independent human being was once a helpless infant cared for by others.
With each breath we interbreathe carbon dioxide and oxygen with the maple and oak, the dogwood and redwood trees, the pulsing of our biosphere. Our daily nourishment joins us with the rhythms of bees, caterpillars, and rhizomes; it connects our body with the collaborative dance of myriad species of plants and animals.
Nothing is separate. Biologist Lewis Thomas explains, “The driving force in nature, on this kind of planet with this sort of biosphere, is cooperation… The most inventive and novel of all schemes in nature, and perhaps the most significant in determining the great landmark events in evolution, is symbiosis, which is simply cooperative behavior carried to its extreme.”
Unless we understand this, we are split between caring for ourselves or caring for the troubles of the world. “I arise in the morning,” wrote essayist E.B. White, “torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it.” Recognition of interdependence helps to solve this dilemma. Through meditation we discover that the duality of inner and outer is false. Thus when Gandhi was lauded for all his work for India, he demurred, “I do not do this for India, I do this for myself.”