Lately I happened to communicate with friends on the Bodhisattva path. For first, a dear friend, a most diligent lay person meditator, acknowledged that he is on the Bodhisattva path. I fully trust that it is really so and rejoiced, because this makes the world better. Then the wife of a wonderful couple I know told me her husband wants to be a Bodhisattva. And finally I was in a discussion about the differences between Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana. One of the main differences is that in Theravada the yogi strives for becoming an Arahant, a fully enlightened one, such as the Buddha’s many fully enlightened disciples like Ananda, Sariputta and thousends more.
In Mahayana Buddhism one might take the Bodhisattva vows along with the precepts or ordination. It is not mandatory to take the Bodhisattva vows but you are kind of a wimp when you don’t, to my knowledge. The vows are:
I vow to rescue the boundless living beings from suffering; I vow to put an end to the infinite afflictions of living beings; I vow to learn the measureless Dharma-doors; I vow to realise the unsurpassed path of the Buddha.
This is very beautiful, very strong. Germans have a tendency to take vows and promises serious…
When I was young and full of enthusiasm about Buddhism and had seen enough problems in childhood and enough difficulties in adolescence to acknowledge the presence of suffering, so some vows like this just came in right. It resonated with my grandmother’s (and mom’s): ‘Noble be a person, helpful and good.’ This, and the paramies, like unconditional love, compassion, empathy, seemed doable to me. They seemed to dispel the darkness of the first noble truth that there is suffering, a truth of which I didn’t want to hear at that time.
So I took the vows. And it started auspicious. But after a while I came to know – I can’t do it. This is far too big for the little girl and was somewhat disheartened. I saw things pretty much black and white at the younger age, no grey scale. No ‘I will try and do my best’. No room for failure. So I gave up the vows.
A Zen priest explained to me that one don’t have to take the vows by the letter, it is rather for the encouragement to do good and not to give up.
As for my part, I rather would take vows that I am able to keep. This is personal. I highly respect people who earnestly take the bodhisattva vows and I wholeheartedly rejoice with everyone who undertakes them. It does make a difference in the world, certainly, to have people who try their best to be a Bodhisattva. Just for this nun here it is too much. One day, when I looked at the ants, termites, critters, there are thousands in a square meter, so many flies, mosquitoes, moths at night, living beings in water… So, one silly nun decided to help the bodhisattvas and get herself out by herself so that they have one being less to care for. 🙂
Another and even more weighty reason for me not to take the vows is, the Buddha was a Bodhisattva for many, many lifetimes and neither as a Bodhisattva nor when he finally was the Buddha, he saved all beings. How would I dare then to claim that I could do it, then? The Buddha and earlier, when he was still an unellightened bodhisattva, saved those beings whom he was able to save. He did it without vows. The ultimate saving beings according to the Buddha is to teach them the Dhamma and help them to see clearly. That is doable – even for me to a certain extend.
Yesterday I went to a funeral in the valley village, family of one of our villagers here died. There were 2 funerals actually but I could only attend one. In the monastery down there was A.D’s dog. The good fellow had followed his boss down one day and then had been bitten almost to death by a pack of other dogs. I tried to arrange that someone would take him to see the veterinarian and someone to gather some money to pay the bill, but I could not do much more because the car was leaving and the other passangers gave me through looks to understand that I cannot take the dog. When I came down I found him locked in, in a garden of a home, screaming. A woman explained with a disgust in her face that is because his wounds are stinking. Which is true, his ear is kind of fouling off. Several people saw the dog not leaving my side and mentioned: The dog needs medicine, but none offered medicine or help. I was at the edge of tears when we left the monastery and I could not do much but have someone else promise to care.
When Termites wanted to move into my kuti the other day, I swept them away as carefully as possible and then kept the place where they wanted to enter wet, that helped but I again was close to tears because most probably I had hurt termites, my stomach jolts when I see someone injured etc. etc. There are far too many beings in suffering, in fact, all is suffering, indeed.
So the truth why I gave up the bodhisattva vows is, I am a wimp. 🙂