I vow to help all beings overcome their suffering.
I vow to understand and overcome delusion and egoic confusion.
I vow to deepen my understanding of The Way to Awakening (The Dharma).
I vow to attain Awakening into the truth of existence (Enlightenment).
In Buddhism there is an ancient tradition of the Bodhisattva, an enlightened being who chooses to use their own experience of what it is to be liberated from ignorance and suffering to continue the work of bringing all into enlightenment and out of suffering. These are beings that could walk away from the world of conflict and confusion in perfect equanimity, capable of realizing themselves in samadhi, oneness with all that is. Yet, feeling the suffering that still exists in the world and knowing they are not separate from the human collective, they dedicate themselves to remaining in the world as teachers, as healers, as visionaries, as beacons of what it is and can be to live in peace, harmony and wisdom.
We don’t have to be Buddhists to find wisdom, inspiration and hope in this tradition. Buddhism is, I believe, increasingly leaving behind the confines of religion to be simply an approach to life that is the embodiment of the Bodhisattva Vow without any trappings. This would seem inevitable as Buddhism has none of what are considered traditional religious declarations of faith in some anthropomorphic deity that “reveals” absolute laws through prophets and priests; rather, it looks to what is called dharma, or “way,” meaning the natural, psychological, and metaphysical laws of the Universe to which its adherents are dedicated. It looks only to truth, discovered in the fullest application of human capacities for intelligent observation, analysis, contemplation and meditation. In a sense, religious dedication, meaning that which we religiously bring conviction and intention to, concerns being awakened into the realities of the human condition and its place and responsibility within Creation. Unique among religions, the only faith Buddhism emphasizes is faith that we have within us everything we need to realize truth and the nature of existence, just as did Siddhartha Gotama, who became known as The Buddha – The Awakened One. The Buddha, therefore, is not to be worshiped, but rather seen as the example of what is possible for every human.
And so, here we are, two decades into the 21st century in very difficult times. Modern human society, in its quest to liberate human beings from the dangers and discomforts of Nature, has created an artificial reality society in which this antagonistic relationship with Nature brings us to the place where all our arguments over political, economic, racial, and religious differences are about to be eclipsed by the consequences (Buddhism calls it karma) of our alienation from Nature and its laws of balance, interconnectedness and interdependence. The imbalances in Nature and our socioeconomic systems brought about by human industrialization and the relentlessly competitive and materialistic philosophy of the contemporary world are causing increasing disruptions in our lives and economy through two parallel imbalances; the first, increasing crises brought by our exploitive relationship with Nature, and the other, the failure of our economic system to serve the complete community of citizens as wealth coalesces increasingly around the already wealthy. And now we are faced with society brought to its knees by a microbial pathogen, a virus crossed from the animal kingdom, for which we have no acquired immunity, and our social, political and economic systems are being laid bare as inadequate to the challenge.
What is becoming increasingly obvious is that our hierarchical social and economic organization is failing to address these threats and is rather creating impediments to the true task ahead of us of coming together in harmonious unity to effectively confront these challenges. We are discovering that the economic and political organization of the previous centuries is failing us, for it is not based in dharma, in wisdom, yet we continue to hold to it as if class-system capitalism with its economic Darwinism are religious truth. We are finding that as these entirely new circumstances confront us, there is required entirely new thinking to address the challenge, and we are flailing about not knowing how to reorder our priorities to adequately address these times. Again, without becoming a Buddhist, it might be that we can look to a very ancient source of wisdom in The Bodhisattva Vow as an excellent way to conceptualize the challenge we face and see in its teaching the core of an answer with its direction to awakened wisdom, compassion and courage.
At the core of the Bodhisattva Vow is the recognition that human suffering is caused by delusional thinking and egoic confusion, the mistaken notion that each of us is a struggling individual quite separate from the collective of humanity and Nature. We feel insufficient and so seek to make more of ourselves by living a life of taking and consuming. We are obsessed with the idea of “me,” then pluralized to “mine,” as exclusive in importance to all that is “other.” If we are to address the issues of psychological, spiritual, economic, and social suffering that the challenges of this century place before us, we must address the delusional causes that are generating the suffering.
Humanity is a web of interconnection within the web of Nature and the well-being of all is interdependent. Can this be disputed? Yet, we generally fail to function within this truth. Thus, it cannot be denied that we have established our societies and our economies on the fiction of human superiority over Nature and levels of hierarchical human value within the human community. This has been the course of human society for thousands of years, and it has also been the source of massive amounts of suffering for those thousands of years in the form of wars, criminality, human and natural resource exploitation, unnecessary poverty, and the ill that Buddhism directly sought to first address 2500 years ago, spiritual and psychological suffering.
And so, humanity has stumbled along making some progress in addressing the ills of the delusion of human differences according to class, race, religion, gender, nationality, sexual preference, etc., while remaining mostly blind to the delusion of human separation from Nature, and it is this blindness that is catching up to us. We are faced with an escalating number of environmental-related crises of monumental challenge presented by the consequences of the growing imbalance between humanity’s artificial reality and Nature’s absolute reality. What could be more telling than having our mighty economic juggernaut societies brought to a stall by the tiniest of natural phenomenon, a virus?
Yet perhaps Nature is being kind with us, tapping us on the shoulder, telling us to wake up. This virus is only a small indicator of how vulnerable we are. Just as scientists have warned of this pandemic threat to a power structure that does not wish to listen to any suggestion of the need to dramatically democratize our society to include not only all people, but all of Nature, so too have we been warned of the complete devastation that awaits our societies through massive dislocation brought by climate change. There can be no doubt that societies based in exploitation cannot survive the challenges that the century before us presents, yet our governing social institutions doggedly resist the shifts in thinking that are necessary.
Here, I return to the vow of the Bodhisattva. After all, the word “Bodhisattva” means, “Awakened Being,” and can we really be awake to the realities of this world and not pledge ourselves, vow, to do what is within our capacities to help alleviate the suffering that awaits us if we remain mired in delusion? For the interconnectedness of our situation is undeniable. No amount of wealth or power can insulate anyone from the consequences of a virus released, or the rising of the seas, or the droughts and famines and dislocations that will send the entire world-order into panic and collapse. We are all in this together or we will all go down together. This is Dharma.
Thus, the first vow, to help all beings overcome their suffering, arises from the state of being awake and leads directly into realizing that we are in the situation we are in because we have lived in a manner that celebrates human ego, the very capacity unique to humans that generates delusion and confusion, that prioritizes individual power and significance over community well-being, and with it, an inability to see that the human community MUST include all of Nature. And so, we must commit and vow to deepen our understanding of the Way of Nature, the Dharma, as the guide to the resolution of our social, economic and environmental challenges while realizing that only an enlightened society, comprised of individuals who are dedicated to continual humility in the face of the unfolding Truths of the Universe can create and sustain such a society. The Way of the Bodhisattva and the vow that comes with it may be an ancient tradition, but it arises from a time when humanity prized wisdom over cleverness and humility over egoic arrogance. It is a reminder that the time surely has arrived for humanity to place wisdom rather than power at the center of its civilization, or there will be no civilization worthy of the name. It is a time for Bodhisattvas not the narcissists and sociopaths, the purveyors of egoic delusion that now run our society – to step forward and to fulfill the vow – while there is still time. The only sustainable society possible must commit, must vow, to also being an enlightened society.