In response to a question raised in a reader’s comment on the previous entry, I’d like to offer an explanation of what I mean by the word « bodhisattva. » Note that these words reflect my experience, and therefore they are not necessarily what a dictionary definition might say.

Strictly speaking, the Sanskrit word bodhisattva means enlightenment (bodhi) being (sattva). But the term refers not to a god or a deity or to some rarified, exalted state; rather, it points to a way of being in daily life that is accessible to each of us at every moment. A bodhisattva is not by any means a missionary; rather, a bodhisattva is simply a person who is truly open to the world because he or she is not focused on the preservation of his or her own « personal » territory and thus functions freely among his or her fellows accordingly.

This openness results naturally from the direct experience of one’s self and others just as they are, here and now. What is « experienced, » in fact, is the true nature of the self and all things: The existence of a permanent, solid « I » with a limited, or separate, identity is seen for what it is – a delusion. I am not who I think I am, nor are you.

The « self » can be likened to a rainbow, the result of a number of convergent yet temporary circumstances. This inherent fragility of our being, we see, applies as well to everyone and everything. Seeing through this illusion of solidity, one directly faces the extreme vulnerability of life – one’s own life and that of all beings and things – yet this experience also frees us from the false « I » that binds and blinds. This is called « awakening. »

One « awakens » as if from a foggy sleep to the boundlessness of his or her being, of all being, and is thus liberated from the futile grasping and endless struggle to be « someone. » « I, » we see, is no one; everyone, we see, is « I. » Our notion of « self-importance » thus loses its hold. And what naturally follows is the compassionate action of the bodhisattva, who seeks to « help » others experience this same awakening.

Although a common definition of the bodhisattva is, « one who puts others before himself, » this does not imply an altruistic attitude of « denying the self for the sake of the other, » but rather, as the religious scholar Huston Smith notes, refers to the bodhisattva’s realization that self and other are one, that self is other. It is not that I no longer take care of myself; it’s that I no longer take care exclusively of myself.

As such, the bodhisattva is the most renowned ideal of Mahayana Buddhism, the fearless, tireless hero of innate basic goodness.