Hi Everyone, onward ho, I am enjoying writing these blogs. This next set of Blogs will be on the Bodhisattva ideal and the Bodhisattva vows. Lets begin.
If you are reading this you probably know Buddhism is divided into two primary schools. Hinayana and Mahayana. Hinayana means "small raft" and Mahayana means "large raft." Within these primary divisions there are and were many many subdivisions. Today there is one surviving school of the Hinayana called Theravada Buddhism, and many surviving schools from, Tibetan Buddhism to Zen, of the Mahayana. The primary difference between Mahayana and the Hinayana is that the Mahayana schools teach the Bodhisattva ideal and the Hinayana does not.
The most difficult barrier on the Buddhist path is the conception of a small self the "I". No- self is a fundamental teaching of Buddhism but how do we transcend the self when the self is so deeply ingrained in our thinking and seems to be the motivator even for our practice of Buddhism? The Buddha said to use fire to put out fire, fire being the the concept of self, The Buddha gave many a talk in which he equated the concept of self with a fire which is burning us causing immeasurable suffering. Usually the concept of self is translated as "ego" and this has lead to a misunderstanding by many Buddhist practitioners in the West because we do not think of ego as so much the concept of self but rather as thoughts of exaggerated self importance and specialness. These people do not want to give up a concept of self, just their egotism. This is a wrong reading of Buddhism because the non-atman doctrine tells us that the self does not exist. But it does not exist in the way that all things don't exist. Things don't exist because they are impermanent, ever changing. Even a rock is not the same rock moment to moment. Forces are changing it and wareing it away. Wind and rain carry off atoms, The sun and rain transform atoms and there are internal atomic and subatomic processes that are also constantly changing the rock. Humans are impermanent ever changing, constantly replacing atoms, aging, healing and breaking down . Our minds and our bodies are in constant motion. If a rock is ever changing we are certainly ever changing. In some ways we are more like a river then a rock. Can we say we are the same person moment to moment? There is a second way in which all individual things don't exist. Individual things don't exist as truly separable from the single whole that is the Universe. We might say that all things are part and product of an almost infinitely complex web of causation which stretches from one end of the Universe to the other. Which is why all things are impermanent and ever changing. This is an intellectual and mechanistic reason but our non-separableness can also be experienced and without this experience our understanding of Buddhist Teachings will never be complete. And it is this experience which is so difficult to manifest
We humans carry around a deep sense of our individuality our separateness, our specialness. We obsess over it and we intellectually justify it. Many of us believe we each have something inside us which we call the soul which is permanent and does not die, which confers upon each of us individual specialness. The Buddha categorically denied this. He understood our sense of self to be nothing more then a way of thinking, an internal response to external stimuli.
The Twelve Fold Chain of Interdependent Origination, one of the more obscure of the Buddha's teachings was his attempt to show that through our ignorance a whole chain of thought in response to stimuli is constantly reinforcing an ignorant idea of the self. The Twelve Fold Chain deserves it's own blog but not now.
Though I have to say that a complete denial of things and ourselves is not quite correct because there is a certain recognizable continuity in time and space to ourselves and other things. And it may even be natural for us humans to divide the world up into individual things and individual beings but in Buddhism we believe that this tendency to divide reality up has created a deeply flawed way of thinking and understanding of ourselves in relation to that reality. And in Buddhism we don't want to destroy any idea of self but rather experience and understand its illusory nature because the individual self is a useful distinction, just not fully accurate
In the Hinayana schools the emphasis has always been on individual effort in the search for individual liberation. This was emphasized by the Buddha in several Sutras. Shortly before his death in the Paranirvana Sutra he says that each individual must be a "light unto your self", individuals attain liberation through their own discipline and effort. The Buddha believed in the self as a useful fiction in our motivation to practice. But this is a double edge sword. We come back to the original problem. If Buddhist liberation is to experience selflessness how can we do that with such a strong emphasis in practice on our own individual selves? Already in this country we have many people who have been practicing meditation for many many years and many of these people have never had a deep experience of selflessness, why? Maybe most of these people practice with a selfish attitude. They want to attain something. "I want to be happy." "I want to discipline my mind so I may be better at work." "I want to attain enlightenment." How can you let go of the "I" if the I is always in your thoughts.
The Mahayana was a response to this issue. In the Mahayana the ideal is the Bodhisattva who selflessly practices so that all beings may attain liberation. The Bodhisattva path is to practice selflessness. The Bodhisattva path is to drop thought of self in both meditation and the other activities of life and function for the good of others. The ideal of the Bodhisattva is one who delays one's own liberation until all other beings are also liberated. And yet if one completely and truly practices the Bodhisattva path for even a few moments then that person is already liberated because Buddhist liberation or enlightenment is to be liberated from the self. And if one truly understands this then they will discover that with one person's liberation the whole Universe becomes liberated.
Even the Bodhisattva path has problems because though it embraces selflessness it misses the other side of the equation. True selflessness can only exist in non-duality where neither an individual or a Bodhisattva exists