The Practice Of Bodhisattva Dharma

In the Buddha's teaching, the Sutra collection and the Vinaya collection comprise  two kinds of Dharma. The Sutras are the collection of the Buddha's discourses given over a forty-year period in the Ganges valley, in India, nearly 2,600 years ago, and they are concerned with the nature of mind and experience and the reality of the suffering, unsatisfactoriness, and frustration of conditioned existence. The Vinaya is the collection that sets forth the discipline of body and speech that Bhiksus and Bhiksunis (Buddhist monks and nuns) must practice. This monastic code of discipline is undertaken upon ordination, when one formally leaves home life, and Vinaya of this sort is primarily the concern of the Sangha (monastic body). An expanded version of this Buddhist training is the Bodhisattva ordination, wherein one undertakes the practice of the fundamental Bodhisattva Dharma of body and mind. This Bodhisattva Dharma encompasses many levels and degrees of practice, both worldly and transcendental, and it is truly wondrous and inconceivable.

Many people are familiar with the term Bodhisattva,but the genuine meaning of the term could stand some clarification. The average person perhaps considers images made of clay, wood or gold or portraits and paintings of saintly personalities to be some manner of substitute Bodhisattva. Indeed, through Asian national customs and traditions, we have come to associate religious statuary of this sort with the term Bodhisattva.Needless to say, this is incorrect. We should understand that there are Buddhist images portraying a higher degree of practice than Bodhisattva and also images of lesser sages, patriarchs, and even demons with bodies of oxen and serpents. These images should not be indiscriminately lumped together under the designation Bodhisattva. Actually, men and women cannot look like the representations of Bodhisattvas that artists have created. However, we are human beings with minds; and if we vow to practice Bodhisattva behavior, then we can gradually become Bodhisattvas. The Sanskrit term Bodhisattvais composed of two words: Bodhi,which means enlightenment or awakening, and sattva, which means living being.

The designation Bodhisattvaoriginally meant a living being who had developed or had determined to hold the Bodhicitta. Cittais a Sanskrit word that means mind or heart; in the East, the two words heartand mindare synonymous. To search with great perseverance for the Supreme Bodhi and to develop a compassionate heart in order to effect the liberation of all sentient beings from their states of conditioned suffering--such is the authentic meaning of the life and path of one who has taken the Bodhisattva vows. Therefore, if we can resolve determinedly to develop the Bodhicitta, to search above for the Tao of the Buddha and seek below to convert all sentient beings to the right path--not simply in theory but in genuine practice--then we are practicing realBodhisattva Dharma. Only one who urges all beings to strive upward and penetrate the region of Great Enlightenment can validly be recognized as and be called a Bodhisattva. Thus, it should be clear that images of clay or gold are not the real thing; and only those who have determined the Bodhicitta are genuine Bodhisattvas.

To initiate the Tao of the Bodhisattva, one need not already stand in the highest regions of sanctity. By the same token, when we observe our own natures closely, we see that pure-mind realms are not so very far away. Starting from our worldly state, we march, step by step, toward the highest, holiest region and create purity and freedom. Starting from the shallow and progressing to the deep, we transform inferior into superior beauty. Beginning as worldlings, with the Bodhicitta we shall eventually enter the blessed stage of the Final Diamond Heart. This is the condition of the superlatively enlightened Bodhisattva.

Most people who have confidence in the Buddhadharma and consider themselves Buddhists do not vow to develop the Bodhicitta. Thus, they remain mere worldlings if they do not choose to add to themselves the dimension of Bodhisattva mind. Genuine Buddhists who have determined the Bodhicitta are as rare as the feathers of a phoenix or the horn of a unicorn.

Another kind of Buddhist are those who, after encountering the Buddhadharma, imagine the accomplishment of Buddhahood to be so lofty as to be virtually unreachable. Because of their inadequate self--confidence, such people fail to realize the real goal and cannot complete the Buddha Tao. They grasp the expedient teaching which was revealed gradually by the Buddha--i.e., wholesome karma in this world and the subsequent reward of heavenly bliss. Learning this very shallow Dharma, they wish only to satisfy their desire for bliss and blessings in the present life. They can be said to have learned some Buddhadharma, but they are still quite far, in reality, from any genuine, profound understanding of the Teaching. In short, they are merely grasping expedient teaching as absolute truth. Buddha was to censure this kind of understanding as icchantika,that state of being unable to make spiritual progress.

Yet another kind of Buddhist is the sort who is personally aware of the suffering of birth and death and so learns the void Dharma of the Middle Way beyond the two extremes ofisand is not.Always grasping the extreme of is notand in quest of liberation, he wishes to attain the non-active stage and Nirvana for himself alone. However, in practicing this Middle Way, one should not cling to the extremes of isand is not, and then one can enter the stage of void samadhi. Even though this is considered a superior position and can lead to the practice of Mahayana, it is, however, notthe Bodhisattva Tao leading to the Supreme Buddha Fruit. Thus, this approach was censured by the Buddha as having the nature of a spoiled seed.

We are concerned here with the promotion of the practice of Bodhisattva Dharma, never allowing aspirants to indulge in the bliss of men and devas or to cling to the attainment of void samadhi. The practice of Bodhisattva Dharma, whether high or low, worldly or transcendental, starts from the human level and proceeds until the complete Tao of Bodhi is won. This characterizes that practice which goes all the way through from top to bottom, and it requires nothing apart from determining the Bodhicitta and vowing to act as a Bodhisattva. This development is analogous, by way of example, to a person beginning kindergarten and proceeding until he eventually reaches the research institute and earns his doctoral degree; at all stages of his academic career he is called a student. Similarly, in developing Bodhisattva practice, one begins by vowing to determine the Bodhicitta and progresses to the Final-Diamond-Heart stage. The beginning stages of practice are still at the worldly level, but eventually one approaches the Buddha Fruit. All stages are termed Bodhisattva, and practice is an ongoing matter. The Bodhisattva stage immediately preceding the Buddha Fruit is termed the Final Diamond Heart. Though it is not easy to carry through, by not letting go of Bodhisattva Mind even for one instant, one will gradually complete the work and achieve the goal.

The Practice of this Bodhisattva Dharma is easily initiated by accepting the Three Refuges of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Because it is feared that a person might stray onto wrong paths, one, after accepting the Three Refuges, is encouraged to determine to hold the Four Great Vows. These are:

1. Sentient beings without number I vow to enlighten; 
2. Vexations without number I vow to eradicate; 
3. Limitless approaches to Dharma I vow to master; 
4. Supreme Bodhi I vow to achieve.

The purpose of taking the Three Refuges is to enable people to disentangle themselves from erroneous views; and the Four Great Vows are used to teach people to hold to no desire for the bliss of men and devas or the void samadhi of Dviyana (the two yanas of Sravakas and Pratyekabuddhas). This path can be termed the direct road of the Bodhisattva Tao that leads one to the Supreme Bodhi. After accepting the Three Refuges and thus inaugurating the Bodhisattva-Dharma training, it is very important for one to practice everywhere, continually turning the Wheel of the Dharma and aiding all sentient beings. Relative to this view, The Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra says: "The Bodhimandala (place of spiritual practice) of the Bodhisattva is everywhere."