The Bodhisattva’s Vow

Three: The Bodhisattva’s Vow

The Buddha said to Subhuti, “All the bodhisattva-mahasattvas, who undertake the practice of deep-samadhis, should cherish one thought only: “When I attain Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi, I will liberate all sentient beings in every realm of the universe, whether they be egg-born, womb born, moisture born, or miraculously born; those with form, those without form, those with perception, those without perception, and those with neither perception nor non-perception. So long as any form of being is conceived, I must allow it to pass into the eternal peace of nirvana, into that realm of nirvana that leaves nothing behind, and to attain final awakening.”

“And yet, after I have thus delivered immeasurable beings, not one single being has been liberated. And why? If, O Subhuti, a Bodhisattva had any conception of (belief in) a being, he could not be called a Bodhisattva (one who is fit to become a Buddha). And why? Because, O Subhuti, no one is to be called a Bodhisattva, for whom there should exist the idea of a being or non-being, the idea of any form of living entity, or the idea of a person. Thus there are no sentient beings to be liberated and even no being-ness who attains Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi.”

all sentient beings in every realm of the universe: Buddhist cosmology is indeed vast and all-inclusive of elucidating the six realms of samsaric existence. Mu Soeng does an excellent job in breaking all of this down:

“Birds and reptiles are egg-born; mammals and humans are womb-born; worms, insects and butterflies are moisture-born (generated from humidity); the miraculously-born are those who appear all at once, without conception or embryonic growth. This last category includes the deva (gods), preta (hungry-ghosts) and other infernal beings, naraka (hell beings), and beings in the intermediary worlds.” (Mu Soeng: The Diamond Sutra, transforming the way we perceive the world, pg. 80)

I remember over the years how Tozen emphasized again and again the vital significance of one being thankful of finally being reincarnated as a human; since it establishes the best avenue of transcending (and thus final liberation) the excessive karmic layers of samsaric confinement in possibly million’s of existences. Mu Soeng fine-tunes this notion:

“The only difference among the various modes of existence is the degree to which the karmic process is being purified (in the sense of residual defilements being uprooted). Life is without limit in any of these modes. Each human being has been animal, ghost, hell being, and god in the past, and is likely to be so again in the future if the karmic process is not totally extinguished. The human realm is considered the most fortunate because it is only in this realm (emphasis mine) that there is an awareness of the urgency to work on one’s karmic residue and strive for awakening. (ibid, pg 81)

those with form, those without form, those with perception, those without perception, and those with neither perception nor non-perception: the aforementioned were form realms, but there are also realms without form—pure energetic agencies. This is known as the ārūpay-dhātu; this formless realm is totally devoid of materiality and even suffering (dukkha). The formless agencies enjoy a totally boundless existence and consciousness and are not cognizant of either perception or non-perception. In spite of this, these boundless agencies are still “bound to samsara” and eventually will reincarnate in one of the lower form realms at some junction in samsaric-time.

Into that realm of nirvana that leaves nothing behind: this is most profound and constitutes a heightened sense of what nirvana is all about. The Lankavatara Sutra describes nirvana as being that which no longer arises or ceases; indeed nirvana is the very Noble-Seeing of the Tathagatas themselves that transcends all phenomenal projections. As was stated in an earlier blog post of our study of the Lanka: The meaning of nirvana is thus: Annihilation of the false, abstracted, no-self and giving full recollection to the undivided awareness power of the unborn mind. Or as Tozen’s Dharmakaya Sutra states, it is the undivided awakening into the nirvanic kingdom of Self: the Dharmakaya. In this sense, as the Diamond Sutra states “nothing is left behind” since all is consummated as Bhutatathata: Absolute Suchness.

*And yet, after I have thus delivered immeasurable beings, not one single being has been liberated: this is a salient realization that will be revisited again and again in this sutra and elsewhere within the Mahayana. Why does the Bodhisattva make the vow to liberate all sentient beings if, as the sutra states, there are no sentient beings to be liberated in the first place? This is a great bane for all intellectuals who cannot even begin to fathom this supreme apparent paradox. The answer is soon forthcoming as the Buddha further elucidates:

And why? Because, O Subhuti, no one is to be called a Bodhisattva, for whom there should exist the idea of a being or non-being, the idea of any form of living entity, or the idea of a person: classic, perhaps the most pivotal line in all sutra literature and all forms of Buddhist Thought in general. If a Bodhisattva should “even begin to conceive” of any kind of sentient reality (as being innately perfect in itself) existing of its own accord is in grave error. The Lankavatara Sutra really fleshes out this whole business as well. There is no being or non-being or any form or formless entity, and certainly no idea of a skandhic “person” that has any innate self-nature; they are all totally devoid of Substance—of the Mind-Stuff that alone constitutes Reality (Dharmadhatu). They are all just phantasmagorical creations of Mind when entrapped in Pluralized-Modes of Perception. The faculty of Perception itself is thus false. There is really nothing to perceive since it’s all created through this Mind-obstruction to begin with. Now, what does all this have to do with Compassion—that highly emphasized notion in Modern-Day Buddhism that holds it up as the highest premium for Bodhisattvahood? What is this Compassion stuff really all about? Well, the Diamond Sutra should lay to rest once and for all the false perception that it’s all about comforting and saving some kind of sentient being-ness. There is no-one to save since there is no-one there to begin with, only highly metastasized misconceptions of “personhood”. You see, this also goes to the very root of the problem of “self” as misconstrued in Material Buddhism. The Buddha never claimed that salvation was needed for this skandhic-person thing (that is falsely conceived to be a self-person); indeed, this is falling into the territory of the no-self, just a coming together of fluids (form, sensation, thought, volition, mortal consciousness). Hence, True Compassion is not about a person-thing, rather it is about a Mind-thing; yes, empowering Mind to awaken from the mad pluralized dream of its own making—to pull back the curtain of Mara’s nightmare and to reveal the Real looking at the real and No-thing else. Just Light from Light; Pure Mind from Pure Mind.

Thus there are no sentient beings to be liberated and even no being-ness who attains Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi: here’s the real clincher. Since, therefore, there are no sentient beings that need to be liberated, then even more so does the Bodhisattva need to let-go of any notion of a separate being-ness who attains Supreme Enlightenment. The Unborn Mind Alone is sufficient. All else is mere chaf blowing in the wind. The Unborn Mind is totally devoid of all nominal, as well as any anthropocentric characteristics. It is Pure & Perfect Imageless Actuosity. There is no-thing attained since the Absolute Mind Substance is already complete in Itself. Huang-Po really summed it all up quite nicely:

“Even if you go through all the stages of a bodhisattva’s progress towards buddhahood, one by one; when at last , in a single flash, you attain to full realization, you will be realizing the buddhanature which has been with you all the time, and by all the foregoing stages you have added to it nothing at all. You will see that all those aeons of work and achievement are no better than unreal actions performed in a dream. That is why the tathagata said, “I truly attained nothing from complete, unexcelled enlightenment.”

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