Becoming Bodhisattvas

Recently, my mother gifted me any course of my choice from the Great Courses catalog. The timing was perfect, as I had just finished reading Pema Chodron’s edition of The Way of the Bodhisattva, which she has titled, Becoming Bodhisattvas: A Guidebook for Compassionate Action, Living the Way of the Bodhisattva in Today’s World. (Extremely long title aside, the book is wonderfully accessible for beginners like me.)  I was so excited to choose a course on Buddhism, which includes 24 lectures, a guidebook, suggested readings, and more. I’m still waiting on the course to arrive, but after finishing Chodron’s book, I await it most eagerly.

About the Book: The Way of the Bodhisattva has long been treasured as an indispensable guide to enlightened living, offering a window into the greatest potential within us all. Written in the eighth century by the scholar and saint Shantideva, it presents a comprehensive view of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition’s highest ideal–to commit oneself to the life of a Bodhisattva warrior, a person who is wholeheartedly dedicated to the freedom and common good of all beings. And it has inspired many of the tradition’s greatest teachers, providing a remarkable source of insight on the means by which we may heal ourselves and our troubled world. These essential teachings present the core of the Buddhist path, from cultivating deep-seated confidence to infusing one’s life with selflessness, joyfulness, kindness, and compassion.

This particular edition is in fact a “guidebook,” as the title suggests. Almost every verse or section of verses is supplemented by Pema Chodron’s wonderful insight into what the verse means, both in context of the time it was written and for practitioners today. I found myself wondering, sometimes, if I could have just read the original Way of the Bodhisattva, which is much shorter than this guidebook, by itself. While it’s true that some of the verses are straightforward, others require a much deeper understanding of the intentions behind some of the guidance Shantideva gives, particularly when it seems to conflict with contemporary understandings about Buddhism. For example, in some verses he writes about excluding women; without Chodron’s explanations, I would have taken great offense to that kind of instruction, but she explains that part of a Buddhist’s practice is to respect the culture while trying to live that compassionate and joyful life; at the time Shantideva was writing, and in the particular place he was sharing his message, he would have caused enormous offense by suggesting certain (Buddhist appropriate) modifications to customs, such as educating women. To do such would be to lose the audience entirely and thus make no progress in educating any of the people in the ways of the Buddha. A tricky needle to thread.

So, I am very grateful to have picked up this guidebook as opposed to the original text because, in this publication, I get the best of both worlds. The original text is there, beautifully translated, and can be read with or without the commentary; but, for those like me who are just entering into this practice, Pema Chodron’s expert knowledge and wonderful voice are there to help. She also treats the text from a contemporary perspective, which means she is straightforward, precise, direct, and even funny in her explanations. The original tackles issues of sexuality, greed, betrayal, love, hatred, nutrition, exercise, and pretty much every other imaginable part of human life, and Chodron’s elaborations on them all are thoughtful and beautiful.

Some of my favorite ruminations are on the verses that deal with “the klesha urges;” in other words, vices such as addiction. One such verse is as follows:

Therefore, from the gateway of awareness

Mindfulness shall not have leave to stray.

And if it wanders, shall be recalled,

By thoughts of anguish in the lower worlds.

It would be easy to think that “the lower worlds” might refer to a Christian vision of hell, particularly for a western reader raised in and surrounded by Christianity. But Chodron provides context here, as in so many other places, that help a western reader understand what Shantideva really meant. “Emotional chaos,” she writes, “can do us more harm than any ordinary bandits. With mindfulness, however, we can catch the klesha urges while they’re small and disarm them before they harm us.” The lower worlds are essentially states of mind, times when our lack of awareness causes us to get swept up in momentary pleasures that cause eventual pain, rather than acknowledging the pull of some enticement and choosing to create for ourselves a different world, one where we will not cause ourselves to suffer for our own poor decisions.

At least, that’s my understanding of this one small portion of the great text. I’m still very new to the philosophy, but the more I read, the more eager I am to learn and the more right it feels for me, personally. To live a life of joy and service, of mindful action, that seems the summation of anything I’ve tried to articulate about myself in the past. My reading is thus far limited, however, to this text, as well as The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching and Living Buddha, Living Christ. I’m looking forward to the Great Course in Buddhism to help me understand some of the history and context, and terminology, better, and to guide me toward additional readings.

About the Author: Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist nun in the lineage of Chogyam Trungpa and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in North America. She also wrote When Things Fall Apart and Living Beautiful, both of which I hope to read soon.

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