Anyone who is familiar with Mahayana Buddhism, in general, and Soto Zen, in particular, is also familiar with the term Bodhisattva. But what does it really mean?
In Soto school, the term Bodhisattva applies to the lay disciples who have taken the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows (Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all. Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to end them all. The Dharma Gates are infinite; I vow to enter them all. The Buddha Way is unexcelled; I vow to attain it completely) and received the sixteen precepts, which are the Three Treasures (taking refuge in the Buddha, taking refuge in the Dharma, taking refuge in the Sangha), the Three Pure Precepts (do good, do not do evil, actualize good for others) and the Ten Grave Precepts (translation by John Daido Loori, rōshi at the Zen Mountain Monastery):
These precepts, formulated in this particular manner by Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, are received during a ceremony traditionally called jukai – the formal commitment to the practice of the Middle Way, and rather than being just a moral and an ethical code of conduct, they reflect how an enlightened being lives in this world, thus their very essence being inseparable from our own Buddha Nature.
In the larger context of Mahayana Buddhism, however, Bodhisattva is the central figure, the ideal that depicts the one whose highest aspiration is to save all sentient beings by diving wholeheartedly into the playing field of everyday life and by experiencing all its aspects and situations with a mind of equanimity – clear, unbiased, undisturbed and full of compassion. Although he achieves Enlightenment, he refrains from entering Nirvana, the highest liberation, in order to return to Samsara and help every single one of us on our paths to Buddhahood.
But how does this ideal manifest? In Western culture in particular, due to its Christian background, one would be tempted to compare the Bodhisattva ideal to the saint archetype: a humble man or woman who has relinquished all material possessions and worldly desires in order to practice a life dedicated to compassion, charity, and preaching the True Teachings. And the history of the world is abundant in such examples, from monks, nuns and disciples of the Way to laymen and volunteers dedicating their lives for the benefit of those in need.
What about the Bodhisattvas of our time? How do they look like and how do they behave? Are they among us at all?
The world has changed a great deal in the past few centuries, and with it, our minds have developed into complex “mechanisms” capable of analyzing, scrutinizing, and creating what would have once been deemed as impossible. And, even if our needs have stayed pretty much the same, the way one can fulfill them has also changed. Our eagerness for love, kindness and spiritual fulfillment is still there, today maybe more than it ever was, but its expressed and fulfilled in different ways compared to, let’s say, 500 years ago.
In this context, how would a modern-day Bodhisattva help us on our spiritual journey? Are we capable of recognizing them and their guidance? Because -and I’ll make an analogy here- it always seemed funny to me how we often say ” I love you so much, I love you infinitely” but, by infinite, we actually mean intensity, and not form, since we “squeeze” and fit this “infinite” love into the forms we are capable of recognizing and we are used to giving and receiving. We pretty much do the same thing when it comes to compassion. But real love and real compassion do not always come in the form that pleases us or our imagination. The reason we fail to see this is simply because we are very intelligent but not wise enough. And wisdom is not something one can achieve over night – it takes patience, openness and experience. In other words, we need practice to become able to see something for what it really is and not what we think it might be.
Truth be told, a Bodhisattva can manifest in a myriad of ways, many of them unusual and even downright eccentric when analyzed through the lens of our conventional thinking, and the Zen history is rich in parables and stories that reflect this.
One of them is The Cucumber Sage – The Record of The Life and Teachings of Wu-Ming, and its main character, a monk named Wu-Ming seems, at the first glance, more interested in sleeping and eating pickles than practicing the Way. Or maybe that was his way of practicing the Way…
The Cucumber Sage:
The record of the life and teachings of Wu-Ming
As told by Master Tung-Wang Abbott of Han-hsin monastery in the
Thirteenth year of the Earth Dragon period (898)
My dear friend, the most reverend master Tung-Wang,
Old and ill, I lay here knowing that writing this note will be my last act upon this earth and that by the time you read it I will be gone from this life.
Though we have not seen each other in the many years since we studied together under our most venerable Master, I have often thought of you, his most worthy successor. Monks from throughout China say that you are a true lion of the Buddha Dharma; one whose eye is a shooting star, whose hands snatch lightning, and whose voice booms like thunder. It is said that your every action shakes heaven and earth and causes the elephants and dragons of delusion to scatter helplessly. I am told that your monastery is unrivaled in severity, and that under your exacting guidance hundreds of monks pursue their training with utmost zeal and vigor. I’ve also heard that in the enlightened successor department your luck has not been so good. Which brings me to the point of this letter.
I ask that you now draw your attention to the young man to whom this note is attached. As he stands before you, no doubt smiling stupidly as he stuffs himself with pickled cucumbers, you may be wondering if he is as complete a fool as he appears, and if so, what prompted me to send him to you. In answer to the first question, I assure you that Wu-Ming’s foolishness is far more complete than mere appearance would lead you to believe. As for the second question, I can only say that despite so benumbed a condition, or perhaps because of it, still more likely, despite of and because of it, Wu-Ming seems to unwittingly and accidentally serve the function of a great Bodhisattva. Perhaps he can be of service to you.
Allow him sixteen hours of sleep daily and provide him with lots of pickled cucumbers and Wu-Ming will always be happy. Expect nothing of him and you will be happy.
After Chin-mang’s funeral, the supporters of his temple arranged for Wu-Ming’s journey to Han-hsin monastery, where I resided, then, as now, as Abbott. A monk found Wu-Ming at the monastery gate and seeing a note bearing my name pinned to his robe, led him to my quarters.
Customarily, when first presenting himself to the Abbott, a newly arrived monk will prostrate himself three times and ask respectfully to be accepted as a student. And so I was taken somewhat by surprise when Wu-ming walked into the room, took a pickled cucumber from the jar under his arm, stuffed it whole into his mouth, and happily munching away, broke into the toothless imbecilic grin that would one day become legendary. Taking a casual glance around the room, he smacked his lips loudly and said, “What’s for lunch?”
After reading dear old Chin Mang’s note, I called in the head monk and asked that he show my new student to the monk’s quarters. When they had gone I reflected on chin-mang’s words. Han-hsin was indeed a most severe place of training: winters were bitterly cold and in summer the sun blazed. The monks slept no more than three hours each night and ate one simple meal each day. For the remainder of the day they worked hard around the monastery and practiced hard in the meditation hall. But, alas, Chin-mang had heard correctly, Among all my disciples there was none whom I felt confident to be a worthy vessel to receive the untransmittable transmitted Dharma. I was beginning to despair that I would one day, bereft of even one successor, fail to fulfill my obligation of seeing my teacher’s Dharma-linage continued.
The monks could hardly be faulted for complacency or indolence. Their sincere aspiration and disciplined effort were admirable indeed, and many had attained great clarity of wisdom. But they were preoccupied with their capacity for harsh discipline and proud of their insight. They squabbled with one another for positions of prestige and power and vied amongst themselves for recognition. Jealousy, rivalry and ambition seemed to hang like a dark cloud over Han-shin monastery, sucking even the most wise and sincere into its obscuring haze. Holding Chin-mang’s note before me, I hoped and prayed that this Wu-ming, this “accidental Bodhisattva” might be the yeast my recipe seemed so much in need of.
To my astonished pleasure, Wu-ming took to life at Han-shin like a duck to water. At my request, he was assigned a job in the kitchen pickling vegetables. This he pursued tirelessly, and with a cheerful earnestness he gathered and mixed ingredients, lifted heavy barrels, drew and carried water, and, of course, freely sampled his workmanship. He was delighted!
When the monks assembled in the meditation hall, they would invariably find Wu-ming seated in utter stillness, apparently in deep and profound samadhi. No one even guessed that the only thing profound about Wu-ming’s meditation was the profound unlikelihood that he might find the meditation posture, legs folded into the lotus position, back erect and centered, to be so wonderfully conducive to the long hours of sleep he so enjoyed.
Day after day and month after month, as the monks struggled to meet the physical and spiritual demands of monastery life, Wu-ming, with a grin and a whistle, sailed through it all effortlessly. Even though, if the truth be told, Wu-ming’s Zen practice was without the slightest merit, by way of outward appearance he was judged by all to be a monk of great accomplishment and perfect discipline. Of course . I could have dispelled this misconception easily enough, but I sensed that Wu-ming’s unique brand of magic was taking effect and I was not about to throw away this most absurdly skillful of means.
By turns the monks were jealous, perplexed, hostile, humbled and inspired by what they presumed to be Wu-ming’s great attainment. Of course it never occurred to Wu-ming that his or anyone else’s behavior required such judgments, for they are the workings of a far more sophisticated nature than his own mind was capable. Indeed, everything about him was so obvious and simple that others thought him unfathomably subtle.
Wu-ming’s inscrutable presence had a tremendously unsettling effect on the lives of the monks, and undercut the web of rationalizations that so often accompanies such upset. His utter obviousness rendered him unintelligible and immune to the social pretensions of others. Attempts of flattery and invectives alike were met with the same uncomprehending grin, a grin the monks felt to be the very cutting edge of the sword of Perfect Wisdom. Finding no relief or diversion in such interchange, they were forced to seek out the source and resolution of their anguish each within his own mind. More importantly, and absurdly, Wu-ming caused to arise in the monks the unconquerable determination to fully penetrate the teaching “The Great Way is without difficulty” which they felt he embodied.
Though in the course of my lifetime I have encountered many of the most venerable progenitors of the Tathagata’s teaching, never have I met one so skilled at awakening others to their intrinsic Buddhahood as this wonderful fool Wu-ming. His spiritual non-sequiturs were as sparks, lighting the flame of illuminating wisdom in the minds of many who engaged him in dialogue.
Once a monk approached Wu-ming and asked in all earnestness, “In the whole universe, what is it that is most wonderful?” Without hesitation Wu-ming stuck a cucumber before the monks face and exclaimed, “There is nothing more wonderful than this!” At that the monk crashed through the dualism of subject and object, “The whole universe is pickled cucumber; a pickled cucumber is the whole universe!” Wu-ming simply chuckled and said, “Stop talking nonsense. A cucumber is a cucumber; the whole universe is the whole universe. What could be more obvious?” The monk, penetrating the perfect phenomenal manifestation of Absolute Truth, clapped his hands and laughed, saying, “Throughout infinite space, everything is deliciously sour!”
On another occasion a monk asked Wu-ming, “The Third Patriarch said, “The Great Way is without difficulty, just cease having preferences.” How can you then delight in eating cucumbers, yet refuse to even take one bit of a carrot?” Wu-ming said, “I love cucumbers; I hate carrots!” The monk lurched back as though struck by a thunderbolt. Then laughing and sobbing and dancing about he exclaimed, “Liking cucumbers and hating carrots is without difficulty, just cease preferring the Great Way!”
Within three years of his arrival, the stories of the “Great Bodhisattva of Han-hsin monastery” had made their way throughout the provinces of China. Knowing of Wu-ming’s fame I was not entirely surprised when a messenger from the Emperor appeared summoning Wu-ming to the Imperial Palace immediately.
From throughout the Empire exponents of the Three Teachings of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism were being called to the Capitol, there the Emperor would proclaim one to be the true religion to be practiced and preached in all lands under his rule. The idea of such competition for Imperial favor is not to my approval and the likelihood that a religious persecution might follow troubled me greatly. But an order from the Emperor is not to be ignored, so Wu-ming and I set out the next day.
Inside the Great Hall were gathered the more than one hundred priests and scholars who were to debate one another. They were surrounded by the most powerful lords in all China, along with innumerable advisors, of the Son of Heaven. All at once trumpets blared, cymbals crashed, and clouds of incense billowed up everywhere. The Emperor, borne on by a retinue of guards, was carried to the throne. After due formalities were observed the Emperor signaled for the debate to begin.
Several hours passed as one after another priests and scholars came forward presenting their doctrines and responding to questions. Through it all Wu-ming sat obliviously content as he stuffed himself with his favorite food. When his supply was finished, he happily crossed his legs, straightened his back and closed his eyes. But the noise and commotion were too great and, unable to sleep, he grew more restless and irritable by the minute. As I clasped him firmly by the back of the neck in an effort to restrain him, the Emperor gestured to Wu-ming to approach the Throne.
When Wu-ming had come before him, the Emperor said, “Throughout the land you are praised as a Bodhisattva whose mind is like the Great Void itself, yet you have not had a word to offer this assembly. Therefore I say to you now, teach me the True Way that all under heaven must follow.” Wu-ming said nothing. After a few moments the Emperor, with a note of impatience, spoke again, “Perhaps you do not hear well so I shall repeat myself! Teach me the True Way that all under heaven must follow!” Still Wu-ming said nothing, and silence rippled through the crowd as all strained forward to witness this monk who dared behave so bold a fashion in the Emperor’s presence.
Wu-ming heard nothing the Emperor said, nor did he notice the tension that vibrated through the hall. All that concerned him was his wish to find a nice quiet place where he could sleep undisturbed. The Emperor spoke again, his voice shaking with fury, his face flushed with anger: “You have been summoned to this council to speak on behalf of the Buddhist teaching. Your disrespect will not be tolerated much longer. I shall ask one more time, and should you fail to answer, I assure you the consequence shall be most grave. Teach me the True Way that all under heaven must follow!” Without a word Wu-ming turned and, as all looked on in dumbfounded silence, he made his way down the aisle and out the door. There was a hush of stunned disbelief before the crowd erupted into an uproar of confusion. Some were applauding Wu-ming’s brilliant demonstration of religious insight, while others rushed about in an indignant rage, hurling threats and abuses at the doorway he had just passed through. Not knowing whether to praise Wu-ming or to have him beheaded, the Emperor turned to his advisors, but they were none the wiser. Finally, looking out at the frantic anarchy to which his grand debate had been reduced, the Emperor must surely have realized that no matter what Wu-ming’s intentions might have been, there was now only one way to avoid the debate becoming a most serious embarrassment.
“The great sage of Han-hsin monastery has skillfully demonstrated that the great Tao cannot be confined by doctrines, but is best expounded through harmonious action. Let us profit by the wisdom he has so compassionately shared, and each endeavor to make our every step one that unites heaven and earth in accord with the profound and subtle Tao.”
Having thus spoken the Son of Heaven concluded the Great Debate.
I immediately ran out to find Wu-ming, but he had disappeared in the crowded streets of the capitol.
Ten years have since passed, and I have seen nothing of him. However, on occasion a wandering monk will stop at Han-hsin with some bit of news. I am told that Wu-ming has been wandering about the countryside this past decade, trying unsuccessfully to find his way home. Because of his fame he is greeted and cared for in all quarters with generous kindness; however, those wishing to help him on his journey usually find that they have been helped on their own.
One young monk told of an encounter in which Wu-ming asked him, “Can you tell me where my home is?” Confused as to the spirit of the question. The monk replied, “Is the home you speak of to be found in the relative world of time and place, or do you mean the Original Home of all pervading Buddha nature?”
After pausing a moment to consider the question, Wu-ming looked up and, grinning as only he is capable, said, “Yes.”