“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein
Who knew? Einstein was a Buddhist. Not that he identified as or practiced Buddhism, but what is clear in reading such a brilliantly insightful exhortation is that he embodied the intent and spirit of Buddhism – he was an “awakened” being. That this great awakened scientific mind capable of intuiting deep and subtle characteristics of the physical universe was also an awakened psychological, historical, and spiritual mind was an inspiring revelation to me. Of course, Einstein was an enlightened being. He could see the underlying intelligent unifying essence of the Universe and understood the natural ethics that arose from this insight. An awakened mind sees things as they are in their deepest subtlety and how the future will play out given the circumstances of the present. They therefore see what present conditions and actions will lead to which varieties of possibilities in the future and the responsibility that comes with this insight.
I read an article recently in a Buddhist publication addressing the question of whether Buddhists ought to concern themselves with the future. In the article it noted that as the philosophy of “be here, now” mindfulness, Buddhism is often understood and practiced as a philosophy that emphasizes staying mentally out of the past and future; rather, it teaches to hold awareness firmly in the present moment. Yes, this is true. But because Buddhism is a philosophy of paradox the article went on to note that concern for the future within the Mahayana traditions of Buddhism, which include Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, is included in the mindscape of an awakened being. Such a person is called a bodhisattva and has a commitment to all life which requires concern for the well-being of all beings not only in the present, but into the future as well. This, of course, is achieved by paying exquisite attention to the quality, the wisdom, and compassion we bring into the present moment, so there is no contradiction.
A bodhisattva is a person who has achieved sufficient enlightenment to extricate themselves from the cycles of suffering typical of the human condition caused by one’s sense of identity being trapped in the ego – with all its cravings, fears, judgmentalness, insecurities and need for drama and hyperstimulation. The bodhisattva, however, realizes that this freedom carries a responsibility. With their awakening into liberation from ego bondage, the bodhisattva realizes they have a duty to bring wisdom and compassion into all the world, for the bodhisattva realizes there is no real freedom from suffering for themselves until all are likewise free. One’s compassion would not be genuine otherwise.
An awakened being is freed of the whiplash mental time-travelling of the ego-bound mind, rehashing the past and anxiously anticipating the future, so there is no anxiety about the future, nor regret or nostalgia over the past, but rather a knowing and understanding of karma, the principle of the flowing cause and effect of actions. A bodhisattva realizes the need for a firm grasp of the past conditioning factors that have created the states of both goodness and suffering in the current timeframe. They must also have a sense of how actions in the present will bring about the variety of possibilities for the future. They, very importantly, need to have a sense of what to leave as it is – for the what-is represents the Universe unfolding in its own reference. Yet, there is within that unfolding the understanding of oneself as an agent of that unfolding. We will act, and it is important that our actions are guided by wisdom and compassion in the here-and-now to affect the unfolding of circumstances into the future in the direction of wisdom and compassion for the sake of all beings.
A bodhisattva must be deeply intuitive, feeling their way through the present moment, alert for what the moment needs to move toward a more evolved and awakened state in the future. They need to sense what can be done presently to contribute to a world in which all individuals, as well as human society, become sufficiently conscious to realize compassion towards all life. A bodhisattva sees the false prison created by ego-identification and the suffering it creates. They live within the interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings, awake to the impermanence of all things, and all this is at the root of their compassion and wisdom. They live in full awareness of the beauty and ugliness of humanity, sensing what actions bring about which results, and this adds to the preciousness and fullness with which they experience their existence. A bodhisattva is aware at all times of the underlying intelligent energy that is the substrata of the Universe and is our true source and destiny, and knows that as human beings we are agents of that Universal intelligence. As is often said in a variety of ways throughout mystical traditions – we are the Universe expressing itself as humanity.
Bodhisattvas certainly do not have to be Buddhists. This article begins with a quote from a great non-Buddhist bodhisattva, Albert Einstein, and I often make reference in my writing and teaching to other non-Buddhist bodhisattvas such as Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Rumi, Jesus, or one of the many individuals within the various spiritual, philosophical, literary, scientific, psychological, or political traditions who have, through their own personal development, transcended egoic small-mindedness to be visionaries of what can and what needs to be if humans are to transcend being agents and victims of great unnecessary suffering in this world. Yes, this is a very generous, perhaps even heretical, interpretation of what constitutes a bodhisattva from a traditional Buddhist perspective, but I believe it is a true and helpful expansion of this important Buddhist teaching into its intention to save the world. Afterall, among the vows of a bodhisattva is to “liberate all sentient beings, limitless in number, from the ignorance that causes suffering, and to extinguish the egoic delusions, which are numberless.” Note that this vow says “beings, limitless in number,” not merely those I identify with or are of my faith, race, nationality, or even species. It says, “all sentient beings.”
Buddhism is not an evangelical religion, quite the opposite. The bodhisattva vow is not about becoming a missionary to convert unfortunates who have not seen the light. If the word “missionary” can be applied at all, it is as an agent of a mission – the mission to move humanity toward enlightenment through one’s own accountability and as inspiration for others. Albert Einstein, while not a Buddhist, did recognize Buddhism as unique among the world religions, seeing its potential as a vehicle, an agent, for bringing about the necessary “widening our circles of compassion” to take the human species into the consciousness he believed necessary to advance into the planetary harmony necessary to not descend into violent decay. He noted: “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity.” Einstein then goes on to single out Buddhism as having the very qualities he has outlined – “Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.”
The present has been built out of our actions and understandings in past moments and the future will be built from this present moment. This is karma. Here we are in a great unfolding, and it could be said that the unnecessary suffering that Buddhism addresses as its mission to overcome arises out of our failure to perceive and address the present moment in its absolute truth. Unlike other creatures who live solely in the present moment as-it-is, humans create virtual realities in their ego-minds that are a limited and distorted sense of the present moment generated out of distorted memory of the past and distorted anticipation of future. The awakened person sees regret, nostalgia, hope and despair as obstacles to our availability to meet the present moment fully, skillfully, compassionately as it is. So Buddhism’s fundamental teaching is to stay fully anchored in the present moment as awareness focused on generating with our actions and attitudes the conditions for our own and all humanity’s movement toward enlightenment in the future.
The last Einstein quote I wish to share is this: “Problems cannot be solved on the same level of consciousness that created the problems.” A bodhisattva vows to extinguish egoic delusions because in their compassionate capacity for deep presence in the here-and-now, they see that it is the false stories of past, present, and future spun by the human ego-mind that are the source of humanity’s countless sins of cruelty and harm. They see that egoic consciousness based in self-centeredness, ignorance, insecurity, greed, callousness, dishonesty, and divisiveness coming out of the past has created the karmic debt, the continuance of cruelty and harm that are with us today and will be passed on into the future, unless there is a shift, an evolution, beyond the consciousness that created our present problems. Our future must go beyond the existing religious, political, social, and cultural states of consciousness that fail to see and honor the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life. We must evolve the consciousness described by Einstein that embraces all of life in our circle of compassion. We must look deeply into our present state of affairs and take responsibility for the egocentric consciousness that got us into our present unhappy circumstances and guarantees only an exacerbation of our predicament into the future unless we wake up. Without having to become Buddhist, it might be well for us all to look to the principles of karma, compassion, wisdom, interconnectedness, and interdependence that Buddhism teaches to reform our ways and state of mind in the present. This is how we can build a future for our children which will represent an entirely new age, an awakened and enlightened age, where the needless suffering that has marked human history is a thing of the past.