Mechanical bodhisattva sculpture by Wang Zi-Won.

Awakening the Bodhisattva

Venerable Pannavati, Anne Klein, and Ejo McMullen on the possibilities and challenges of the bodhisattva path. Introduction by Taigen Dan Leighton.

By Taigen Dan Leighton

Mechanical Avalokitesvara, 2011. Sculpture by Wang Zi-Won.

Bodhisattvas are beings dedicated to helping relieve suffering for all, realizing universal awakening, and leading all beings to that same awakening. Such practice cannot be merely about self-help or personal salvation. Bodhisattva practitioners are those who realize their deep interconnectedness with all beings. Such realization might start from hearing teachings but then becomes viscerally affirmed through meditative or devotional practices. Bodhisattva practitioners do not see all the suffering beings as “other” or separate. We are all in this together. What are the implications of this for modern practitioners amid the many challenges we now face?

Among many other traditional lists of bodhisattva practices, we have the classic four vows: to free or save all the innumerable beings; to destroy all the numberless delusions, deeply ingrained in ourselves and our society; to enter all the boundless gateways to reality and teaching, to see all situations as opportunities for learning and practice; and to realize and express the way to buddhahood. Such vows are inconceivable. They might seem abstract or even irrelevant compared to the practical problems involved in our everyday lives, not to mention all the issues in the world around us. Even as we take on pragmatic everyday projects, including noble helpful ones, what could such inconceivable aims have to offer us? How could they be applicable to our lives?

Bodhisattvas commit to staying open to the suffering in the surrounding world, but they must include themselves among the beings worthy of care. As individuals, we are beset with the personal problems from our habits of grasping and craving, anger and frustration, fear and confusion. How does one practically balance self-care with a deep commitment to be helpful rather than harmful? Everyone has aspects of their lives worthy of gratitude. To do this work, we must somehow sustain a practice of caring for suffering beings while also finding the joy and contentment to celebrate all that is wondrous in our lives.

Our world also includes multitudes of systemic sources of suffering. We face the challenges of climate damage seriously imperiling our habitat, the deep karmic legacy of racism, and the rampant injustice and inequality destroying many lives. Although these issues can seem overwhelming, Buddhism and history show that change does happen; we do not know the outcomes. Just in the United States, popular movements going back to abolitionists before the Civil War, women’s suffrage a century ago, the civil rights movement, and more recently Occupy, the gay rights movement, the climate movement, and Black Lives Matter, human beings have made a real difference in the world again and again. We have the ability to respond, and we have bodhisattva responsibility.

In the dialogue that follows, three teachers from different traditions explore the ideal of the bodhisattva, the path that it offers us, and the challenges and possibilities we might meet along the way.


Buddhadharma: We often speak of bodhisattvas and the bodhisattva path as being outside of Theravada practice and tradition. We pit bodhisattvas against arhats and leave it at that. How do you understand the notion of the bodhisattva in terms of the Theravada?

Venerable Pannavati: We shouldn’t think in terms of Theravada versus Mahayana or Vajrayana, or arhat versus bodhisattva. When we start dividing in this way, we get into dogma. But the Buddha was talking about actual organic experience. He said, how do we know a baker? A baker bakes. How do we recognize a bodhisattva? A bodhisattva shows concern for the world and responds to that concern with powerful words and actions. Throughout the Theravada teachings, the Buddha is showing us how he responds to suffering in the world. He asks his disciples, “For what reason do you leave your home and go into the homeless life?” Then he answers his own question: to be a refuge. You’re a bodhisattva when you embark upon the bodhisattva path; that’s what the Buddha taught. There’s no way to be enlightened without recognizing our universal nature, our interconnectedness with everything. In that interconnectedness, we experience the pain, confusion, and neediness of others, and as we develop our skillfulness, we automatically respond to that suffering as we would respond to our own, with compassion and with power.

Buddhadharma: How would you define a bodhisattva?

Anne Klein: A bodhisattva is someone whose purpose is to benefit others in every possible way, especially to free them from ignorance and from bondage to a sense of self. In the early Buddhist tradition, the arhat known as Gautama Buddha was of course a bodhisattva, so Mahayana absolutely recognized that bodhisattvas are very important in the early foundational Buddhist traditions. The four immeasurables, the boundless states that are a key means of cultivating bodhicitta in the Mahayana, were deeply practiced in the early Buddhist traditions and are part of Theravada to this day.

About five hundred years after the Buddha’s time, two seemingly contradictory ideas of buddhahood developed. The Buddha becomes a more mythological figure with powers of extraordinary perception and the ability to appear in many different places at once. At the same time, the belief that anyone—male or female, monastic or layperson—could attain buddhahood arose. This democratized the potential for practitioners in relationship to these increasingly superhuman depictions of the Buddha. The Mahayana idea that everyone can become that kind of buddha—or a bodhisattva, someone who is capable of benefitting all beings—is a different idea about what human beings actually are and what consciousness actually is.

You’re a bodhisattva when you never waiver from your powerful aspiration to be of benefit to everyone, not just in meditation but throughout daily life, whether walking, standing, sleeping, or lying down, and that aspiration is not vitiated by people’s bad behavior toward you or others.

There are levels, or bhumis, of realization; you can be a bodhisattva who hasn’t yet understood the ultimate. But even as you know you are not yet a full-on bodhisattva, everything in your life and in your practice is motivated by this aspiration: you want buddhahood for everyone. And—importantly—you believe it’s possible for you.

Ejo McMullen: The classical definition of a bodhisattva is a being who is on the path to awakening and who dedicates that path to the welfare of all beings. But how do we carry that textbook definition into day-to-day life? The power that an image can hold for spiritual practitioners, as a sacred carrier of our intention or a place where the path can be realized, is so crucial. Bodhisattvas are both archetypal and actual beings beyond our grasp. They offer an image that not only inspires us but also mirrors our life back to us. This is kanno-doko, or sympathetic resonance. We are moved by the image of the bodhisattva, and in being moved, we respond. Their way of walking becomes our way of walking. We live out the bodhisattva life in which all beings participate; the suffering of beings calls forth the response from bodhisattvas.

Is meditation about trying to get our lives together? Or is it the practice of awakening every being inside and outside of us? Every image, every idea in meditation can be considered a being that is also on the path. Our path is to be liberated with them. In this way, the profundity of the bodhisattva path is alive within the practice of meditation. Bodhisattvas don’t practice alone; not practicing alone is the definition of practicing together with all beings.

The whole world is constantly ablaze with the suffering of impermanence and no-self. As we grab it, we are burnt by it. But if we can open our hand and recognize that the fire is us, the vitality of life can come through without that suffering. Unless we’re fully invested in the welfare of the beings of this world, we’re not going to be able to have that insight; otherwise, the desire to escape the world will always remain.

You’re a bodhisattva when you never waiver from your powerful aspiration to be of benefit to everyone, not just in meditation but throughout daily life.
—Anne Klein

Buddhadharma: Most of us enter practice hoping for some kind of improvement to our own lives. How do we make the shift from practicing for ourselves to practicing for others?

Venerable Pannavati: We don’t really make that shift from me to other; the shift is made for us in the cultivation of practice. It’s like being on the shore and entering the ocean. As you wade into the water, the action of the waves begins to take over, and soon your feet aren’t even touching the bottom as the current begins to lift you. The qualities that begin to arise as a result of practice are what take us to the path of hearing the cries of others and having the courage and desire to respond. You come to realize that when you’re serving others, you are in fact serving yourself. But there’s no thought of I am serving or I am doing; there is just the doing that is the fruit of right cultivation.

Anne Klein: The main method of the Mahayana is compassion. And the very essence of wisdom is compassion. This compassion has a dissolving effect on our overly ramped-up sense of “me-ness”; once we finally see that we are not the center of the universe—and that’s a relief—we simply don’t focus on ourselves in the same way. Indeed, all our practices in all Buddhist traditions—wisdom, compassion, attention—are oriented toward dissolving the sense of self that obstructs us from benefiting others. The Tibetan traditions also emphasize that this same exaggerated idea of me-ness prevents us from recognizing our potential to become full-on buddhas.

With this in mind, it’s important also to recognize that benefiting ourselves is not in any real sense an opposition to benefiting others, and vice versa. The benefits of the path—confidence, energy, joy, freedom from habits that limit our potential—are both important for us personally and just as important for growing into someone who can be of benefit to others.

The qualities that begin to arise as a result of practice are what take us to that path of hearing the cries of others, and having the courage and desire to respond.
—Venerable Pannavati

Mahayana practitioners pray to complete the enlightenment that is our own purpose as well as to further the purpose of others—their enlightenment. That means we pray to realize that all of us, self and other, are waves in the same ocean. Once we stop clinging to the one wave that we call self and open up to the whole ocean we’re all in, the tension between benefiting oneself and benefiting others can begin to release.

Ejo McMullen: Believing that we need to get rid of our self is a spiritual trap. Practice is really a matter of admitting that there is no self to begin with and then living in such a way that we’re not putting our self-concern at the center. In the Soto school, the emphasis on practicing with others asks us to leave behind our inclination to do what we want in every moment. But that’s different from saying, “I’m trying to get rid of my self.” The self has to show up for a shared place of practice to emerge.

When I first entered the Soto Zen path formally, I wanted to get down to business—I wanted to meditate all the time, not deal with any of that fluffy taking-care-of-community stuff. I was fortunate to be among long-term practitioners from the beginning and have my bluff called on my idea of true practice. The whole of my life—my work as a schoolteacher, my role as a father and husband—all had to be included, which I most likely would have tried to turn from without that kind of guidance.

I think for most people, right from the beginning, we need a teaching and practice that asks us to consider the fundamental problem of dividing the world into self and other. We may mature into being able to help others or care for ourselves, but this maturation comes from walking the path with both feet, not trying to hop on one or the other.

Buddhadharma: The decision to take up bodhisattva vows is often framed in almost heroic terms or as a call to otherworldly effort. But it seems you’re all describing something more relaxed and organic than that.

Ejo McMullen: I think that heroic aspect is very important, not only because of the superhero element that we gravitate toward in the bodhisattva that we see as separate from us but also because that quality of a great being is a quality we possess. An image that activates these parts of ourselves and asks us to step into the realm of myth is foundational to the power of the path. How are people going to be inspired? What’s the inspiration to live a radical life of generosity, of vow, in this buy-and-sell world? Without these images, we can be limited by the confines of our narrow ideas about what is possible. So I want to keep the hero piece. The problem of the hero is not the hero but how we orient around it. If it just remains an external object, that misses the point.

Anne Klein: Initially, the vow to save all beings can seem kind of insane, and potentially ego-inflating. But the practice does have power. A natural unfolding gradually occurs where, out of our effort, the practice itself develops the power and becomes the teaching. My teachers have certainly emphasized effort a lot, and yet particularly the more esoteric traditions—Nyingma, Mahamudra, highest yoga tantra, and so on—all agree: we have to let go of effort. The task moves from conceptual to nonconceptual and from effort to ease. It’s a paradox—we have to make effort to learn how to relax.

Buddhadharma: Venerable Pannavati, do you think it’s important for people to explicitly take up the idea of the bodhisattva?

Venerable Pannavati: If people are practicing the true path, they don’t have to take up something particular; they are transforming, they are becoming something. You can call it by some name or by no name. You don’t even have to take a vow. You just do. A Mahayanist can get caught up in pride, thinking, I’m seeking the enlightenment of all beings, right? On the other side, Theravadans don’t talk about it at all. But whether you call yourself by any name, sect, or lineage, or by no name, sect, or lineage—if you’re on the path, the path takes you there. It’s the Buddha’s path. As we move more deeply into the heart of the practice, where we shed all of the limiting views that beset us, this becomes an organic process. Do your practice, and in the practice, there’s an outcome. There is a fruit, and we can look at that fruit. We know a baker when he bakes.

Machinery Yamala Vairocana.
“Machinery Yamala Vairocana,” 2011. Sculpture by Wang Zi-Won.

Buddhadharma: As practitioners, how can we skillfully relate to traditional bodhisattva representations such as Avalokiteshvara or Manjushri?

Anne Klein: Initially we see bodhisattvas as great beings and as inspiring symbols of wonderful qualities. They inspire us; they open us to a sense of wonder. By admiring them, we gain a very personal relationship with compassion and wisdom. Then, as we enter Dzogchen, Mahamudra, or tantric teachings in the Tibetan tradition, we become increasingly oriented to seeing that the bodhisattvas and buddhas are not external. They have always been part of us. They are not external; the externality is only skillful means until we get to a point where we’ve dissolved enough of the musculature that’s holding on to an ordinary, limited sense of self. It’s like the ice cracking and the ocean seeping through, and the ocean is infinite, and you realize that Manjushri is really you and your compassion is Avalokiteshvara. That discovery is a very important development in our practice. Perhaps it’s the Tibetan way of saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”—extinguish the sense that you are not a buddha.

Ejo McMullen: The practice of veneration is central and vital. How do we become intimate with what it is to take up the path of liberation if we don’t have ways to conceive of it? Human explanations tend to keep things too contained. So the idea that we should just get rid of the “hocus-pocus” is a problem. When I encounter images of the bodhisattvas, I light a stick of incense and press my forehead to the ground.

In front of the Buddha here at our temple, we have a small mirror. People tend to interpret that as meaning I’m bowing to the Buddha but I’m also bowing to myself. I don’t like that explanation very much. It’s a bit too precious, like the Buddha is another chance for privileged white people to talk about privileged white people’s problems. When we approach veneration not as a way to ignore our life and try to become some sort of ideal but to bring our broken selves to the altar, then a true call and response can take place.

Venerable Pannavati: Images of the bodhisattvas can be valuable, but as I understand it, they were developed to get a person’s imagination going. The object, of course, is not to see them as the bodhisattva as much as to see them as the embodiment of certain qualities and then impute those onto yourself. As a Theravadan, I can develop devotion around the quality itself, so I don’t really need an image. When I’m arousing metta, I bring to mind an experience of when I felt someone’s friendliness toward me or when I felt the joy of that kindness myself. Once I have recall of that event, the feeling comes with that to arouse devotion around compassion or around giving someone something without considering my own need.

The Buddha said, “My dharma is hard to see, it’s hard to understand, and it cannot be understood by mere reasoning alone,” so when we try to focus our practice efforts on the intellect, we’re missing the point. He is talking about the mind of the heart, the aspect that is readily touched by the infirmities of others. If we stay with that feeling, the heart widens. And then, in relieving the suffering of others, we forget about ourselves. That’s an easy way to meet nonself, because when you focus on the other, you’re not thinking so much about yourself.

Buddhadharma: Venerable Pannavati mentioned earlier that perhaps we don’t even need vow in order to actualize this path, but of course, in the Mahayana tradition, we associate bodhisattvas with vow, and in particular, we associate bodhisattvas with the vow to save or free all beings. How are we, as human beings, to understand a vow of that scale?

Ejo McMullen: How do we understand something that’s so vast? I’d say we don’t; that’s the whole point. We can’t. The awakening of Shakyamuni Buddha is beyond our ability to fathom. The truth is we don’t know the world. We don’t even know our own body, much less the edges of what we call our self. The vow is asking us to deeply investigate the world in each meeting between ourselves and another being. That meeting can be a meeting of liberation or it can be a meeting of co-opting or capitulating; getting someone on board for what we want, or at least our idea of how things are, or giving in to theirs. But that’s the engine of samsara. Right in that meeting, the truth of awakening is also present. That’s where this vow of all beings doesn’t sound impossibly huge to me; it sounds like the immediacy of this life.

Anne Klein: In Tibetan, the noun “vow” is rooted in the verb “to bind.” Vows bind us in the sense that we commit to behaving in ways that are consonant with the urgent compassionate aspiration we cultivate. Rousing our bodhisattva intention begins with a sense of awe, effort, and wonder. We think, Can I really do this? Am I crazy? How is this going to be possible? In order to believe we can do it, we have to feel that there’s something in us that’s not constrained by our ordinary sense of self. The binding of chosen vows serves to free us from the unconscious cage of habitual behavior patterns. Some people can go on faith and just say, “The Buddha says I can do this, so I will.” But here is where I think many modern practitioners may feel doubtful. But there are ways to move through doubt. We can try to find this self that so limits our possibilities.

Venerable Pannavati: If I make a vow, who am I making it to? Am I making it to the Buddha? No. I’m making it to myself. It all boils down to me. With or without precepts, as I start moving toward thoughts, speech, and actions that are wholesome, my wholesomeness will grow and expand. Although in the beginning it can be necessary to train with the mind exerting itself toward aspiration, compassion will naturally arise and we will be a bodhisattva in fact, with or without the label.

Buddhadharma: Is that benefit to others solely the result of our virtuous actions or does compassion benefit others on an unseen level as well?

Venerable Pannavati: We could say it’s metaphysical, but the Buddha didn’t talk about the metaphysical much. He said that you have to have the experience to know for yourself, otherwise there’s no point in talking about it. For example, the Buddha talked about unification of mind. The simple practice of taking an object of meditation is designed just for that. The longer you stay with that object and become totally concentrated, there comes an experiential unification where it’s no longer you and an object. But how do you explain that to somebody? They have to experience that to know what it is. Similarly, creating the energy that has the power to release burdens and oppressions and to change the course of things through our actions is one of the skill sets that arises in developing qualities of the enlightened mind. But it’s hard to explain how we can be around certain people and just feel better. It’s like trying to define space—space is nothing in and of itself, yet things can be placed in it. That’s how you know space exists, because of what it can contain.

Buddhadharma: What does the path of the bodhisattva look like in our ordinary lives?

Anne Klein: It’s important to keep asking ourselves, Where is my bodhisattva attitude? Did I forget it? Today, for example, I was preoccupied about what I should say at a meeting. In fact, I was so self-absorbed, I forgot the larger scope of my concern. But when I can see, Oh! It’s not all about me, I can remember. In our daily life, we return to our vows over and over.

I’ve got to trust that my understanding of what needs to be done is reliable and also realize that I won’t do it perfectly, that I’ll screw it up.
—Ejo McMullen

As long as we have an ego, there will be tension around the question How can I continually be concerned for other people? Our best response to this question is to be keenly observant without being judgmental. We practice this on ourselves so we can be present to the gap between our aspirations and what we can manifest in this moment.

In short, we try to be as kind as we can and to understand what kindness really means. It doesn’t mean self-abnegation; it doesn’t mean letting people run all over you. We try to keep our hearts open and to recognize when they shut down; we try to recognize what makes them shut down, which is usually fear. Part of the bodhisattva path is looking at the fears that make us clam up, shut down, and collapse around our own concerns. The other part is being inspired by the possibility of dissolving them.

Venerable Pannavati: The path is totally spontaneous. You don’t decide I’m going to do good today and make a list of what you’re going to do. There is a knowing that arises and an attention that is commanded in the present moment, and you give whatever you can to offer help. Some approaches are almost contrived, as if we’re trying to make ourselves a bodhisattva. But when there’s a natural opening of the heart, we simply know that there is a need and respond to that knowing.

“Open your heart”—we don’t tend to use words like that in the dharma. But maybe we should! We use words like “be mindful.” In being acutely present wherever you are, you can know what the need is before you and respond without thinking. When I encounter someone in need, I go with whatever my original impulse is before the thinking mind that protects me says, Don’t do something or Only do this much. Let’s say I pull up at a stop sign and there’s someone there holding out an empty can. I get this little voice in my head that says, Give them twenty dollars, but by the time I get my wallet out, I’m thinking Twenty dollars is too much and I’m fishing to see if I’ve got three ones. The critical-thinking mind has taken over: They’re just going to use that to buy alcohol. But if I really look, I can see that that mind kicked right in to protect Pannavati. So I offer the first thing that comes up for me, to counter the mind that would always justify doing less. Often, it’s just to make someone’s day special.

Ejo McMullen: Everything is alive. So it’s not just a matter of doing good in a conventional way. It’s that when I’m touching something, I’m touching it in a way that reflects the truth that it’s also touching me back. That means when I see a person, I’m not just holding them in my idea of who they are. When I encounter students at school, for example, I can hang all my ideas about who they are on them and treat them accordingly. But, as a discipline, every time I say, “Good morning, how are you today?” I actually listen to the answer and don’t just overlay my idea of who that student is on the experience.

We can equally apply that attitude to material objects. When you’re sewing a robe, first you just see a piece of cloth, but if you really stay there, stitch after stitch, there’s something about every little piece that is not just your idea of it; it’s the meeting of fingers and eyes and needles and thread and cloth and dye that comes alive in that place. Abandonment of the subject-object way of encountering the world is a constant practice. It’s not just something that we decide to do and then we’ve done it.

Mechanical Avalokitesvara Ver. Sun
“Mechanical Avalokitesvara Ver. Sun,” 2015. Sculpture by Wang Zi-Won.

Buddhadharma: Sometimes, even with the deepest of intentions, people see that something needs to be done but still don’t know how to be skillful in that moment. How do we get unstuck so we’re actually doing something?

Anne Klein: We don’t always know what’s right. Our focus has to be on our intention, which includes cultivating as much wisdom of all kinds as possible. My teachers have said that the bodhisattva is a true cosmopolitan—comfortable with everyone, interested in everything.

The super-delicious secret is that bodhisattvas enjoy tremendous intimacy with their own and everyone’s lived experience. In this way, a more intuitive orientation to what we can do arises. Although we can’t always figure out the best thing to say in a situation, something comes to us, and we say it and then work with what flows from that. Skillful spontaneity may surprise us. And even when we’ve guessed wrong, we can always hone our intention.

Ejo McMullen: One of the things I really like about the paramitas is they encourage us to simply do the practice, not to do it perfectly. We have to be willing to make mistakes, even really big mistakes. That’s not license to just do whatever we want; it’s encouragement to do the best we can and then, in doing it, be ready to receive the karma of our action. Because if we don’t receive the karma, or if we think that we’re going to do it perfectly, the path disappears. I’ve got to trust that my understanding of what needs to be done is reliable and also realize that I won’t do it perfectly, that I’ll screw it up. If I don’t make that leap, I can’t really meet other beings.

When we take the leap, we actually do become more skillful, our responses become more immediate, and things that once seemed impossible become part of our life. We rarely learn without goofing up.

Venerable Pannavati: That situation is why we need to have well-rounded training. The Buddha talked about the eightfold path—it’s one path, but we have to develop in eight areas. Our learning is something like a slinky—we think of it as vertical, step by step, but it’s not. We keep going around and around, examining these eight petals of a flower, and little by little, change occurs. We have to look at our thoughts, at the things we say, at the things we do, at our livelihood. As we do this, skillfulness begins to develop. It is possible to know what to do or what needs to be done. Sometimes it’s just a question of making yourself available.

The Buddha taught by precept, but he also taught by example. When I look at this man—teaching people for decades, walking all over on foot, not taking any possessions for himself—as a Theravadan, there’s no way I could think that I don’t have to be concerned about other people. The Buddha could have gotten enlightened and kept to himself. But he didn’t. He shared the dharma with the world according to his particular talents and skills. Right there is the bodhisattva path. Whatever our talent, whatever our skill, we learn how to be a bodhisattva with what we have. Start right there.

Taigen Dan Leighton

Taigen Dan Leighton is the Guiding Dharma Teacher at Ancient Dragon Zen Gate, Chicago and the author of Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression.