Bodhisattvas in Our Midst
Since a detailed account of the Buddha’s teachings is featured for the Buddha Poornima celebration in 2016, this year, a personal experience of Buddhism is offered by Alvin Leo, a SSIO member from Western Australia.
There is a strong bond between the Buddha and the community of monks (sangha). Such relationships are reminiscent of Jesus and the Apostles, Krishna and the Gopis, and more recently, Sathya Sai Baba and His students. Having dedicated themselves to a simple life, the monks are upheld as role models of spiritual endeavour. Chinese Buddhism reveals an even more inspiring community of Divine renunciants – the Boddhisattvas.
Boddhisattvas feature heavily in Pure Land Buddhism, the main doctrine of Chinese Buddhism. This school of Buddhism reveres not only Gautama Buddha, but also Buddhas and Boddhisattvas from many eons and realms of existence. Boddhisattvas shun nirvana because they make a vow of compassion to help all beings overcome suffering before they themselves accept nirvana. It is due to the nobleness of such a vow that Buddhists worship them with such high esteem.
Chinese Buddhism was popular because it successfully integrated with local customs and traditions, often incorporating Taoism and Confucianism in its practice and philosophy. Pure Land Buddhism eventually became the key doctrine for Chinese Buddhism, and this is where my story begins.
I was born into the Chinese Buddhist tradition and chose to be baptised before I was ten. Like so many before me, the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan (Guan) Yin (Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara) was my introduction to Buddhism. There is a custom that a new-born is sometimes ‘gifted’ to a Divine being as a godchild for protection and blessing. I am Kuan Yin’s godson, so I grew up with an affinity to this Divine being.
There are many origination stories of Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara. While Chinese Buddhism venerates this Boddhisattva in the female form, this Boddhisattva also appears in Vajrayana Buddhism as a male. Everyone praise this Boddhisattva as an example of compassion and mercy.
According to Chinese legend, there was a princess named Miao Shan. The youngest of three princesses, she was well loved for her gentle manners. During a clandestine scheme by sinister ministers to usurp power from the emperor, it was declared that a medical concoction comprising the eyes and hands of a princess was the emperor’s only cure from an ailment. Although Miao Shan’s sisters were horrified by such a prospect, Miao Shan herself volunteered without a second thought. Shocked by her selfless filial piety, the ministers set fire to the emperor’s chambers. As the flames engulfed the royal chambers, the blind and limbless Miao Shan was transformed into a Divine being, dressed in white, with a thousand eyes and arms. The flames were miraculously doused and Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara was revealed. This “thousand eyes and arms” form of the Boddhisattva represents her compassion, to see all suffering and save all from harm. God is described with similar features in the Purusha Suktam. This is the origin of the salutation Guan Shi Yin Pu Sat (the one who responses to the cries of humanity), who is also known as Guan Yin or Goddess of Mercy.
Guan Yin is considered primus inter pares (first among equals) in the realm of Boddhisattvas. She delivered two seminal sutras that are widely recited nowadays: Great Compassion Mantra and Heart Sutra. As the titles suggests, the Great Compassion Mantra extols the virtues of compassion and seeks to alleviate the suffering of living beings. Kuan Yin delivered this mantra during a discourse at a grand assembly of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Divine beings. The United Nations General Assembly is the closest semblance to this gathering that I can suggest.
The Heart Sutra is the shortest sutra in Pure Land Buddhism. It chronicles Kuan Yin’s contemplation and realisation of the impermanent nature of the world. It affirms Gautama Buddha’s final advice shortly before attaining nirvana, “Impermanent are all things created, strive on with perfection!”.
Sathya Sai Baba’s seminal teachings of love all, serve all, placing a ceiling on desires, and reducing worldly attachments all resound with the teachings of these sutras. His teachings provide further practical ways to achieve these outcomes.
I remember an episode from Kuan Yin’s life that was recounted at my baptism ceremony. She counselled a farmer to show kindness to a buffalo by reminding him of the benefits the buffalo had provided humanity. This reminds me of the incident where Sathya Sai Baba stopped to specially thank a buffalo that carried the entourage’s load up a hill, during a visit to the hillside. Because of Kuan Yin’s counsel, most believers avoid consuming beef or observe a vegetarian diet every full moon. Thus, I think Kuan Yin fully deserves her mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” (Hail the Diamond Lotus Wisdom).
Pure Land Buddhism is filled with stories of many such inspirational Bodhisattvas. Royalty as well as monks have earned such Divine status with their acts of kindness. There is Ji Gong, the one nicknamed the Mad Monk for his unkempt appearance and unconventional manner. He is the antithesis of monkhood. His earthly sojourn was an interesting wanderlust all over China. While he was mostly rejected by the monastic community, he was loved by commoners as he upheld justice. While Ji Gong does not have an official title, or is widely worshipped, stories of his exploits are enduringly popular.
On the other hand, there is the king, who upon experiencing the suffering of beings in hell one night, became a monk and vowed to liberate the suffering of those in hell. According to Pure Land Buddhism, this is a nearly impossible undertaking because all souls start their afterlife in hell, where they are then judged – to enter heaven or suffer further punishment in hell. This king, named Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, wanders freely among the inhabitants of hell, and counsels them and provides relief where he can. His statue stands at the entrance of Buddhist columbaria. Like Kuan Yin, he too delivered a discourse detailing his vows and describes the suffering experienced by souls in hell, as well as the cause of their suffering. Such suffering results from the action of people tempted by the undesirable qualities of desire, greed, jealousy, attachment, anger, and pride.
In addressing Buddhism, I shared my understanding of some Bodhisattvas who have influenced my life. To me, Bodhisattvas are our living guides through the ocean of life because figuratively speaking, they have crossed the ocean, but elected not to end the journey until everyone else has had the chance to do so. That is why they continue to be relevant, adored and worshipped. The stories of their origin may be legend, but all over China, people readily worship the great souls who uphold human values. People also revere their promise that we can realise our Divinity, and know that we can trust God as our dearest friend. Growing up knowing that my godmother Kuan Yin was ready to receive me was comforting. I realised that all those tender years of childhood prepared me to accept my Divine encounter with Sathya Sai Baba. I continue to share stories of Bodhisattvas, for I cannot deny that they are inspirational. Every so often I wonder, if I can embody an iota of their selfless love, I know that I would have lived my life well and their sacrifice would not be in vain.