Many of us have been grateful for the erudition, imagination and heart expressed in the pages of Taigen Dan Leighton’s Faces of Compassion, which explores the bodhisattva archetype. This book opens a rich cultural ground that Buddhism in America has not often ventured upon, making available the images and lore of the bodhisattva.
When he was twenty, Leighton traveled in Japan, visiting temples where he was inspired by the Buddhist statues. The sculptures he saw on that trip offered him a strong introduction to images of the bodhisattva.
Faces of Compassion is an attempt to provide a modern way to classify Buddhist teachings in terms of the different bodhisattva figures. For instance, Manjushri represents wisdom teachings, prajña paramita and Madhyamika. Each of the other figures represents a different approach to a strategy for bodhisattva practice. Leighton was also exposed to the system of Jungian archetypes and found that the bodhisattvas represent archetypes of general bodhisattva spiritual practice, beyond even Buddhism. As such, he points out, they are both external forces, or beings that we can venerate or worship, and they are aspects of our own spiritual potential.
Leighton is a Soto Zen priest and Dharma successor in the Suzuki Roshi lineage, and is currently Dharma teacher at the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago. His next book is Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen, and the Spirit of Inquiry (Wisdom Publications, November 2011).
Inquiring Mind editors Sandy Boucher and Barbara Gates conducted this interview by phone in February 2011.
INQUIRING MIND: In your presentation of archetypes, you introduce Shakyamuni Buddha as a bodhisattva. This is an atypical way of classifying the Buddha.
TAIGEN DAN LEIGHTON: The historical Buddha is not a cosmic, archetypal bodhisattva, but the story of Prince Siddhartha Gautama has been a prime example for all Buddhist practitioners. He gives up his home for the sake of finding the way, for the sake of awakening. Most of what’s told about Shakyamuni is not what happens after he became the Buddha, but his journey, his path to buddhahood, during which he was a bodhisattva. That’s what people find most inspirational—his willingness to be caring, to make diligent effort and sacrifice, and to try things out—to just sit down under the bodhi tree and say, “I’m going to sit here until I awaken.”
The pivotal element in the story of Siddhartha as archetypal bodhisattva is his great home-leaving—abandoning family, position, fame and gain in order to seek spiritual truth. In the modern Western context, many have questioned the need of Shakyamuni to leave his wife and child. We do not have accurate historical records, but the usual story told is that he looked in on his wife and baby son and then just split. But there are a number of early alternate stories; one is that on the night he left, instead of just abandoning his wife and child, he actually made love to his wife Yasodhara and conceived his son Rahula before departing. In some versions, Yasodhara was in touch with him throughout the time of his wandering and she was doing the same practices as he was. His stepmother Mahaprajapati eventually became the founder of the order of nuns. His son Rahula became one of his ten great disciples and Yasodhara joined the order of nuns. So Shakyamuni’s enlightenment may be seen as more of a family affair.
Different versions of Shakyamuni’s departure from his family offer a chance for a deeper psychological understanding of the inner meaning of his home-leaving. In leaving home, he abandoned the conditioning of family dynamics. Inspired by dissatisfaction with the world and by the wish to enlighten all beings, bodhisattvas must leave the protective, comfortable psychological palace and enter the unknown wilderness of awakening practice. Siddhartha’s determination exemplifies this concern and the aspect of liberation that requires wrenching free from our unconscious deep conditioning.
In my book, I playfully select Muhammad Ali as a modern exemplar of this bodhisattva archetype, abandoning the “home” of his championship in order to express his spiritual values. As boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world, he risked his title by changing his name from Cassius Clay for the sake of his spiritual beliefs as a Muslim. He then renounced his version of the palace when he took a stand as a conscientious objector and refused to fight in what he considered an unjust war in Vietnam.
I give a second example from the Vietnam era. Daniel Ellsberg abandoned his “home” in the U.S. State Department to release the Pentagon Papers. He felt compelled to leave the palace of power, risking spending the rest of his life in prison in order to practice truth-telling, in the interest of saving beings from war.
Aside from celebrated cultural icons such as Muhammad Ali and Daniel Ellsberg, many ordinary people enact the archetype set by Siddhartha when they abandon concern with worldly fortune to work for the benefit of others, often in ordinary, unspectacular ways.
IM: What other bodhisattva figures particularly draw you?
TDL: Of the seven major East Asian archetypal bodhisattvas discussed in Faces of Compassion, Samantabhadra is one of my favorites. He is featured in the last chapter of the Lotus Sutra, and is the primary bodhisattva in the Flower Ornament Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra of the Huayan Chinese Buddhist School. Samantabhadra’s teaching is about interconnectedness. This is very important in terms of modern Buddhist environmental principles. The sutra is vast and flowery, the most psychedelic text I know of, but the visionary imagery pictures the universe as a hologram in which each and every particular piece completely expresses the whole.
Samantabhadra is not only the visionary who sees the interconnectedness, the beauty and wonder, the inconceivability of all things, but he also functions as a protector. He is the bodhisattva who practices actively in the world. Although he is not described this way particularly in Asian Buddhist writings that I know, including the Avatamsaka Sutra, to me he is clearly the social activist bodhisattva, the spiritual activist. Rachel Carson is a great example of this since she described the beauty of the world of the oceans but also pointed out the pollution of the oceans, really starting the modern environmental movement. Other exemplars are Dr. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.
Samantabhadra rides on the elephant, which represents the dedication required to meet the problems of systemic suffering, so relevant to us now when our whole government has been turned over to corporations who are destroying our economy and environment. To change that, we can find inspiration in the elephant’s steady, deliberate gait.
There was a twelfth-century Japanese courtesan who was considered to be an incarnation of Samantabhadra. In some pictures, she is depicted as a geisha sitting on an elephant like Samantabhadra’s. She is also the heroine of a Noh play in which, out of kindness, she refuses lodging to the famed monk-poet Saigyo in order to protect his reputation. And as a courtesan, she uses the passions and her charms to help awaken her clients and teach them impermanence. That’s a powerful example.
IM: Some bodhisattvas are represented as male, some as female. Is there any significance to the gender difference?
TDL: The bodhisattva of compassion who hears the suffering of the world, Kwan Yin in China, is usually female, as you know. But in terms of exemplars, historically in Asia there were female and male exemplars of some bodhisattvas. Jizo is particularly interesting in this respect. He is the bodhisattva who is a kind of earth mother. His name means “earth matrix” or “earth womb”. Ceremonies were dedicated to him for aborted fetuses and for dead children. Jizo is considered popularly a protector of women and children, but he always appears as a male monk. And unlike Kwan Yin, who has many, many forms and is a shape-shifter, Jizo is pretty set in iconography. However, Hank Glassman, a very fine Buddhist scholar, describes how in a nunnery in Nara where a Jizo is enshrined, some scholars took the clothes off the statue and found, underneath, female genitals. But the point is that the bodhisattvas are not archetypes of men and women in the ways that the Greek gods and goddesses certainly are. The bodhisattvas are archetypes of approaches to awakening.
IM: Is there another bodhisattva whom you think is important for us to know?
TDL: Maitreya is the bodhisattva of lovingkindness; in Pali his name Metteya means “loving one.” He’s one of the earliest bodhisattvas. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the first Buddhist statues were of Maitreya. As the bodhisattva who will be the future Buddha, he has been a Buddhist symbol of hope and the promise of a future age of awakened harmony. In China, Maitreya is nearly synonymous with the historical eleventh-century Chinese Zen monk Budai (Hotei in Japan), who represents a kind of divine foolishness. This fat jolly laughing Buddha of Chinese restaurants is Maitreya to Chinese people. Budai was very scruffy and walked around giving toys and candy to children—a Zen fool. Perhaps his foolishness fits with his practice of seemingly endless waiting.
Maitreya is predicted to be the next Buddha; he is now just a shadow of his future self. In a popular image of Maitreya, he sits waiting in the meditation heaven studying his own mind and the way consciousness works, trying to figure out how to free all beings. Maitreya knows that he will be the next Buddha, but he doesn’t know when, and it might not be for an extremely long time. So he sits and waits. I think this is an important practice for all of us, maybe the most important—how to develop patience.
Maitreya’s patience is not passive. It’s alert, ready, a kind of attention. This patience involves knowing, seeing, waiting for an opportunity to respond to the difficulties of one’s life, of society or the world. It is actually very dynamic. And it brings in the kinds of questions that Joanna Macy has asked about deep time and beings of the future. How do we come to understand that what we are doing to the planet now affects all future generations? The figure of Maitreya raises issues of practicing in time. Zen ideas of temporality, including Dogen’s view of “being time,” are illuminating for how we see our lives. Dogen proclaims that time is not merely some external, objective container, but that our own experience, awareness and activity is time. For example, we know that some periods of meditation seem to go on forever and some whiz past, even though the clock says they are the same.
Contemplating the extent of Maitreyan future time, Macy initiated the Nuclear Guardianship Project to help protect future beings from nuclear waste, our generation’s most lasting physical legacy to the planet, and to promote a long-term guardianship required for hundreds of thousands of years.
Patience practice involves not knowing. Take the case, for example, of the wonderful outbreak of democracy in Egypt—although we don’t know yet how that will play out. There are lots of examples—the Berlin Wall falling, apartheid ending in South Africa—when big changes happen relatively nonviolently in a way that seems sudden and startling. Egypt experts didn’t expect that mass uprising a month or even two weeks before it happened.
Our sense of conventional reality, and even situations of harsh dictators or great harm, can change in ways that couldn’t be predicted. Change can happen through patient work—the patient observation of Maitreya or people patiently responding to situations over many, many, many years. I am hoping that democracy will break out in America too. I don’t know when that will happen. It doesn’t look good now, but maybe what happened among ordinary people in Wisconsin is a good sign. Anyway, we don’t know how things happen exactly. And yet all of our little efforts toward being helpful and responsive to suffering in the world do make a difference, and at some point then, seemingly suddenly, there is a change. So the practice of patience is not just accepting things as they are. Acceptance in Buddhism is a very dynamic active practice of attention, willingness and readiness to respond when there is some skillful way to do that. Representing dynamic acceptance and patience, Maitreya suggests a vast future that is part of our present. Awareness of this future enriches and deepens our present experience.
IM: In closing, please describe any particular practices that you teach, or that you recommend, to support and strengthen the qualities of the bodhisattva.
TDL: I teach the paramitas and the bodhisattva precepts about patience, ethical conduct, and the complexities of generosity as giver, receiver and gift. One thing I talk about is how to transform the qualities of negative emotions, how to convert anger, for example. The point is not to get rid of anger, nor to harbor ill will, but to own it, to pay attention to it patiently when it arises. You can transform anger into penetrating insight and determined resolve or commitment toward helpful response through coming to know the underlying pain that brings forth the anger.
More fundamentally, the practices I teach are about helping people onto their own paths. The bodhisattvas are a way of seeing the range of possible approaches to beneficial spiritual activity in the world. I think of bodhisattva practice as being about expression. It’s not an intellectual inquiry, a way to get to some particular experience or reach a higher state of mind. That’s irrelevant to me. Buddhist practice itself is a form of expression, a kind of performance art. It’s how you, Barbara, and you, Sandy, express your own approach to how you are bodhisattvas in your lives. I know you’re both doing that.