American Bodhisattvas and Engaged Buddhism

Disclaimer — this is an unedited version of a post.  I am going ahead and putting it up because I will be gone for the next 3 days.  I wrote it last weekend but haven’t had a chance to get back to it and refine it.  So it may come off more harsh than I intend for it to, and of course it will be filled with spelling, formatting, and grammatical errors.  Please forgive all of those.

This post loosely ties into a recent post at No Zen In The West that I encourage everyone to read.

American Bodhisattvas and Engaged Buddhism

Before you save the world you must first save yourself.

Before you try to save the world, learn to make an omelet. 

I couldn’t find the author to attribute the above quotes to.  I’ll get back to them in a minute.

What is a bodhisattva?  Wikipedia tells me a “bodhisattva is the Sanskrit term for anyone who, motivated by great compassion, has generated bodhicitta to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.” And without getting stuck in a Wikipedia hyperlink vortex, bodhicitta ‘may be translated as “awakening mind” or “mind of enlightenment”’  In every traditional explanation that I could find of what a bodhisattva is, it is always some variant of someone who helps save others and get them to enlightenment. 

So why in Zen circles do I constantly see and hear people refer to a bodhisattva as anyone that does any generous act?  See a person give a dollar to a homeless man? “Ah, what a great bodhisattva!”.  See a person rescue a kitten from a tree? “Ah, how wonderful!  What a bodhisattva!”  Are these actions true actions of a bodhisattva?  Or are they just people being nice to their fellow sentient beings?  Is there a difference?

I think American Zen is getting sidetracked.  I commented on a popular Zen blog the other day that I don’t know how much good we are doing by feeding the homeless.  I stopped there but should have completed my thought.  I promise I am not that inhumane.  I just come from the school that you should teach a man to fish.  You can feed him while you’re teaching him, but by just feeding him you are not helping him in the long run.  He will always be dependent upon someone else.

So that brings me to “Engaged Buddhism”.  Engaged Buddhism has taken a life of its own since being brought over from the West.  What started there as Humanistic Buddhism, which was a way for our Asian brothers to bring Buddhism literally back to life from the death rituals it had devolved into, has been turned into social charity work.  That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing.  But it seems the focus of American Zen is switching from the permanent cessation of suffering of all sentient beings (the original job of the bodhisattva) to the temporary alleviating of suffering of perceived downtrodden and political activism on behalf of those perceived downtrodden.  I think American Zen is the further watering down of the Dharma.

I believe a bodhisattva’s job is to help people learn how to fish on their own, not just to give them their next fish.  Both are important.  But there are plenty of people and organizations that can help you get that next fish.  How many can help you learn how to fish and cook for yourself?  And Heaven forbid I bring a Theravada point up, but shouldn’t we save ourselves first THEN save the world?  We have to make several omelets ourselves before we can become a chef and make them for others.  Pardon all of my mixed metaphors and parables. 

Zen is about attaining enlightenment.  Over and over again.  Then helping others do the same.  Don’t lose sight of this.

So am I wrong?  Just misguided?  Is a bodhisattva just a really nice person?  Or is a bodhisattva a person whose focus should be primarily on helping others realize enlightenment?