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bodhisattva: master of paradox October 29, 2006

Posted by Brad Richert in religion.
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The concept of the bodhisattva in Mahāyāna text reads in such a way that may be confusing to many western readers. The bodhisattva is presented as an unidentifiable being as a result of ethical and cosmological necessities. The necessary attributes of the bodhisattva, however, demand the bodhisattva to be a master of paradox, often reconciling seemingly contradictory ideas that in turn complement the middle-way philosophy of the Buddha. The good and genuine bodhisattva balances emptiness with action, non-self with self, nirvāna with saṃsāra, and generousity with selflessness. Although some of these concepts may not seem contradictory, Buddhist philosophy demands the implications of emptiness, self, nirvāna, saṃsāra, and selflessness to be investigated, often resulting in conflicting ideas.

Perhaps one of the most mystifying concepts in Buddhism is the idea of śūnyatā (emptiness). Most western readers, even philosophers such as Nietzsche , often associate emptiness with a sort of nihilism: if everything is empty as the Buddha states , then surely there is neither meaning nor purpose to humanity. This nihilistic interpretation of emptiness comes from the western understanding of the lack of an independent reality: no comprehensible, essential truth. Nonetheless, the Kāśyapaparivarta firmly asserts that the good and genuine bodhisattva must be convinced of emptiness yet at the same time commit to vipāka (the fruition of karma). From a nihilistic perspective, this is a teleological contradiction: if there is no meaning or purpose as a result of emptiness, then why does the bodhisattva continue to act in accordance to some moral absolute? If persons are empty, as Kāśyapa learns, then how can persons grasp the results of karma, much less attain karmic merit? Nihilism cannot reconcile the ontological nature of emptiness with the teleological nature of vipāka. The bodhisattva resolves this, however, by understanding the true nature of emptiness: that emptiness itself is empty, thus emptiness itself is not an absolute entity or essence.

The self is empty, so the bodhisattva must acknowledge and understand non-self. The good and genuine bodhisattva recognizes that a misconstrued notion of the ātman (self) is the root of saṃsāra. The attachment of the self by individuals causes them to continue the cycle of suffering. The bodhisattva must not only see this, but according to the Kāśyapaparivarta, he or she must have karuna (compassion) towards impermanent beings that continue to erroneously believe they have a permanent self. One interesting aspect of compassion, however, is that its definition infers the idea of shared suffering. To be compassionate, a person must have a sense of the other’s suffering. The bodhisattva must therefore on one hand accept the idea of the non-self yet at the same time understand the plight of the self – suffering.

The dichotomy of self and non-self ultimate leads to a paradox in which a good and genuine bodhisattva must achieve a balance between saṃsāra and nirvāna. These two concepts are much more obviously contrasted, although the reasoning for the need to balance the two leaves a bit to be explained. As previously mentioned, saṃsāra is the endless cycle of suffering caused by attachments. Nirvāna, meanwhile, is a mode of being free from the suffering that so defines saṃsāra. A bodhisattva is required to be a liminal entity in between the two modes as a direct result of his or her spiritual status combined with his or her ethical necessities: a being destined for blissful nirvāna while compassionately attending to the needs of those continuing their cycle of saṃsāra. It is this paradox of saṃsāra and nirvāna that most exemplifies the emphasis that Mahāyāna Buddhism on the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva passes up nirvāna so that he or she does not slip become an arhat and does this through acting on his or her exemplary compassion for others. Thus, a bodhisattva does not revel in nirvāna nor participate in saṃsāra as he or she does not cease all earthly activity nor continue his or her attachments that earthly activity is associated with.

The final expectation of the good and genuine bodhisattva is not so much a contradictory paradox as found in the other requirements, but simply a moral paradox from an imperfect point of view. This moral paradox is the ability to be generous without expectation of return. It is arguably impossible to think of a selfless act – for generousity or good deeds in general may be a reward in themselves. Despite this logical obstacle, even the actuality of giving without expecting anything in return is extremely hard for most people to even comprehend. A bodhisattva’s motive for giving stems from his or her previously mentioned compassion for others, helping them grow and understand the dharma so that they too can end the cycle of suffering. Even the aforementioned act of delaying nirvāna for the sake of others is just one way that the bodhisattva gives without return. This is an example of perfected compassion, since even the ultimate goal, nirvāna, is set aside as an example of perfected selflessness.

The bodhisattva is someone who can balance not only between the extremities of permanence and non-permanence, self and non-self, existence and non-existence, but also someone who can turn possibly contradictory ‘truths’ into complementary ones. A bodhisattva is certain of the truth of emptiness, yet acts in accordance to karmic truth. A bodhisattva accepts the reality of non-self, but is compassionate towards beings still wrongly understanding the notion of self. A bodhisattva has one step in nirvāna while having one step in saṃsāra. Finally, a bodhisattva bestows the generous gift of his or her teachings and support with not only gaining nothing in return, but also in giving up the cessation of suffering in nirvāna.

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