Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on the Mahayana Buddhist path of the bodhisattva.
The great tradition of Buddhism begins with the simple experience of looking at our minds and seeing that we want some kind of contentment. In a way, it is no more abstract than that. We look at our mind and we see the turmoil and we say, “How am I going to get out of this situation?”
In the Buddhist path we respond to our experience of samsara, the painful cycle of endless existences in which we are caught, with revulsion. One morning we get up and say, “That’s enough. I’ve been doing this for a couple of billion lifetimes, and I think that’s enough. I’ve been the highest of the high, and the worst of the worst, and everything in between, and I think that’s enough!”
But in order to break from samsara, it is necessary to understand samsara. That is what the arhats have done, those who have completed the path of personal liberation. Those of us within samsara would view them as incredible, heroic beings, because they have dared to look at samsara fully. They have not just dared to leave it; they have dared to stop and really see what is going on. It takes tremendous courage to do that, because when we look at samsara we are looking at ourselves—it’s hard not to take it too personally. It takes a strong mind, a courageous mind, to look at samsara and say, “I will learn this lesson. I will not flinch. I won’t try to manipulate it. I will just look at it.”
However, from the point of view of the Mahayana, the path of the bodhisattva, the arhats are taking only a small step. Certainly it is an heroic step, like the first step of a child, and a very important step that one has to take. But it is still said to be only a small step towards liberation.
The bodhisattva is different from the practitioner of path of individual liberation in several ways. First, the understanding of truth, of reality, is very different in the Mahayana. According to the bodhisattva, the Mahayana teachings are the real words of the Buddha. Because of the students’ capacity the Buddha mostly taught path of individual liberation—and very sensibly so, because people were suffering—but he also asked, “Do you just want a release from suffering, or do you want to understand the truth?”
When we get to Mahayana, it is the truth. The truth of the Mahayana is the most profound truth there is. When the Buddha—the one who sees the whole of the truth—speaks, he speaks about emptiness and luminosity, form and emptiness, emptiness and form. As practitioners, we find ourselves going back and forth between the view in the path of individual liberation and that of Mahayana.
The other key aspect that separates Mahayana from the path of individual liberation is motivation. The practitioner of the path of individual liberation feels the pain of samsara and says, “I can’t take it anymore. What can I do about it?” And having understood what samsara is, we can all sympathize with this practitioner. It is a worthy approach. We are not belittling it.
But the Mahayana practitioner takes a more radical approach. The Mahayana practitioner wakes up one morning and realizes, “Sentient beings from endless time have been roaming in samsara.” Here, we not only understand the pain of samsara and how we have been involved in it; we are also able to see what samsara is doing to all sentient beings.
The person who has this motivation is called “the great bodhisattva,” the warrior with the mind of enlightenment. Why? Because that person has transcended their own painful experience of samsara and has woken up to how all sentient beings are suffering.
Mahayana practitioners are inspired not just by the idea of forsaking their own enlightenment so they can help others; they actually drop what they are doing so they can go help somebody else on the spot. When they see somebody who is hungry, they want to take the food they are about to eat and give it to them. The other person’s hunger is overwhelming, their sense of compassion overcomes them, and they want to give their own food away.
Through truly understanding the nature of suffering, the basic fabric of mind becomes loving-kindness and compassion. This is the mind of enlightenment, the basic core of enlightenment. Usually our first thought is, “What can I get for me?” But the mind of enlightenment is actually our fundamental nature. It is said that compassion and love are much more in accord with our true nature than jealousy, pride, and so forth. Therefore, developing compassion and love is an avenue to understanding reality.
Motivation is an essential factor on the bodhisattva path. Sometimes we become preoccupied with wanting to discover the true nature of things, the ultimate reality. But if you look at the writings of great teachers such as Nagarjuna or Chandrakirti, persons of great intelligence who have pointed out the nature of reality, you will see that they also wrote long and beautiful compositions about compassion. This was the inspiration behind their teachings on emptiness—to give bodhisattvas a way to go about saving all sentient beings intelligently. The bodhisattva doesn’t run around randomly trying to help everybody. Intelligence and wisdom are involved.
The bodhisattva says, “For the benefit of all sentient beings, I will achieve liberation.” It is for the sake of others that the bodhisattva vows to achieve their own enlightenment, because then they will be able to help sentient beings in manifold ways. Sometimes people think the bodhisattva vow means that all the other sentient beings should achieve liberation first, but that’s not really right. We do have the view that we want everybody else to achieve liberation; however, the most practical thing we can do to make that happen is to achieve liberation ourselves. The more profound our realization, the more we are able to help sentient beings.
But can all beings in fact achieve enlightenment? When we begin to do the practice of raising compassion, we inevitably come to a point where we ask ourselves, “Is it really possible for all sentient beings to achieve enlightenment?” After all, sentient beings are endless.
So we use our intelligence to look into it. In the beginning we are concerned with the diversity of sentient beings, not their ultimate nature. We contemplate how they end up in different situations through the nature of cause and effect. Then we come to understand that fundamentally all samsaric realms are the same, whether painful or pleasurable. We begin to see that the fundamental nature of all sentient beings is buddhanature—luminosity and emptiness. So of course all sentient beings can achieve enlightenment.
Having established that all sentient beings have the capacity for enlightenment, we contemplate whether we ourselves can liberate all sentient beings. We ask ourselves, “Can I—not anyone else—liberate all sentient beings endlessly?” That is really what the bodhisattva vow is about.
This is why the mahayana is called maha, “great,” because the conclusion the bodhisattva comes to is, “Yes, I can save all sentient beings. Even if I’m the last person left in the universe, I will work tirelessly. I will commit the rest of this life and every life from now on to saving all sentient beings—no holds barred, no insurance, no retirement plan.”
Mahayana is great in two ways. It is great in view, because we begin to see the true nature of things. It is great in motivation, because we dedicate ourselves to working tirelessly for all sentient beings. As a bodhisattva, our whole approach to life has changed. We no longer get up in the morning thinking, “What’s in it for me?” Instead, we get up thinking, “I am a servant, a shepherd, a vehicle, a bridge for all sentient beings to cross over.” What started out as, “I need to get out of here,” has become, “I’ll be the last person here, no matter what.”