153 - Kshanti, The Perfection of Endurance: Life's Not Always a Bed of Roses
155 - Avatamsaka Sutra - Each One of Us Has Unique Bodhisattva Gifts to Offer - Part 2

Part of our bodhisattva path is embracing our uniqueness and finding our own particular, special bodhisattva capacity, talents, and calling. Each of us has our own unique gifts to offer the world which will determine what kind of service we should devote ourselves to, it just takes some imagination to discover them. A teaching from Avatamsaka Sutra can help stimulate our imaginations in this regard.



Using Our Imagination about Bodhisattva Service

Book by Norman Fischer, The World Could be Otherwise, he emphasizes the importance of imagination in practice

We need to liberate ourselves from our limited views of self, other, world, possibility

Particularly important that we approach our bodhisattva practice with imagination

A Bodhisattva vows to save every last sentient being before retiring into the peace they are able to access themselves because of their practice

In Mahayana Buddhism, we all are aspiring bodhisattvas, no matter where we are on the path; it’s a direction that defines our practice and lives, not a goal we expect to achieve

When it comes to actual day to day bodhisattva practice though, our imaginations are usually limited. When we think of bodhisattvas benefiting sentient beings, our thoughts usually go first to people doing obvious, explicit work to help others, stuff where there’s direct interaction between the “helper” and the “helped” and the service is something recognized as beneficial by society: Service professions like nurse, teaching professions, those selflessly devoting themselves to social causes, etc.

When we think of our bodhisattva activities, if we’re not one of those involved in that kind of obvious, direct service, our imaginations are pretty limited – friendly to grocery store clerk, try to be there for our friends, patient with family, etc. Of course these are important – and may be very impactful – but again, not very imaginative.

Each of us is incredibly unique. I know “incredibly” is an unnecessary modifier in this case, but it conveys something important – it’s not just that each of us differs a little along one dimension, thus technically being unique, but that our uniqueness is determined by countless factors. My worldview, experience, impulses, thoughts, emotions, etc. are different from yours, sometimes profoundly.

Part of our bodhisattva path is embracing our uniqueness and finding our own particular, special bodhisattva capacity, talents, and calling. Each of us has our own unique gifts to offer the world which will determine what kind of service we should devote ourselves to, it just takes some imagination to discover them. A teaching from Avatamsaka Sutra can help stimulate our imaginations in this regard.


Introducing the Avatamsaka Sutra

This message is beautifully conveyed by the Avatamsaka Sutra, The Flower Ornament Scripture: One of the major texts of Buddhism, like other ancient scriptures no single author, no clear time of origin – emerged in Indian “cultural sphere” during 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

According to translator Thomas Cleary, “perhaps the richest and most grandiose of all Buddhist scriptures, held in high esteem by all schools of Buddhism that are concerned with universal liberation.”[1] Became center of a philosophical school of Buddhism, Hua Yen, but is also influential in Zen.

Lotus Sutra on steroids…

My beautiful copy: Translated by Thomas Cleary, 39 chapters, 1,627 pages. Extra thin, fine paper (lovely heft, beautiful smell…). Book on Amazon currently on sale for $100, usually $125.

Also available online, translation through City of 10,000 Buddhas (http://www.cttbusa.org/avatamsaka/avatamsaka1.asp)

One of my fondest practice memories, reading this aloud to one another with a small group of practitioners at Dharma Rain Zen Center – meditatively, not trying to grasp intellectually.

I will read some parts in this episode so you get some sense of it.

Although like many Mahayana sutras it is presented as having been taught or overseen by Shakyamuni Buddha, much of the material is presented by archetypal bodhisattvas, or – as Cleary puts it – “transhistorical, symbolic beings who represent aspects of universal enlightenment.”


A Bodhisattva’s Search in the Avatamsaka Sutra: Setting the Stage

Avatamsaka meant to stretch/blow your mind

Focusing today on Chapter 39, Entry into the Realm of Reality (383 pages in itself! Also “sold separately”). Begins as many sutras do, Thus have I heard (as if conveyed by Ananda or another direct witness). Translation by Thomas Cleary:

“THUS HAVE I HEARD. At one time the Blessed One was in Sravasti, in a magnificent pavilion in the garden of Anathapindada in the Jeta grove, together with five thousand enlightening beings, led by Samantabhadra, the universally good enlightening being, and Manjushri. The names were Endowed with Perspicacious Knowledge, Endowed with Essential Knowledge, Endowed with Unattached Knowledge, Endowed with Blossoming Knowledge, Endowed with Sunlike Knowledge, Endowed with Moonlike Knowledge, Endowed with Undefiled Knowledge, Endowed with Adamantine Knowledge, Endowed with Unemotional Knowledge, Endowed with Radiant Knowledge, Starlike, Mountainlike, Jewellike, Unattached, Flowerlike, Undefiled, Sunlike, Resplendent, Dispassionate, Radiant, Jewel Energy, Great Energy, Knowledge Thunderbolt Energy, Undefiled Energy, Energy of the Sun of Truth, Virtue Mountain Energy, Energy of the Light of Knowledge, Universal Glorious Energy, Universal Light Energy, Earth Matrix, Sky Matrix, Lotus Calyx, Jewel Matrix, Sun Matrix…”[1]

This is only about ¼ of the list, which also includes “Crest of the Lord of Dragons, Voice of a World Leader, Sound of Stopping the Sufferings of All Worlds and Giving Comfort, Preeminent Splendor, and Voice of Encouragement of All Past Vows.”

Then the sutra continues:

“Beginning with these, there were five thousand great enlightening beings, all of whom had undertaken the acts and vows of universally good enlightening beings and were unhindered in their sphere of action, pervading all buddha-lands. They manifested boundless bodies, going to all buddhas. The sphere of their unobstructed eye was pure, seeing the miracles of all buddhas. They had attained to infinity in revelations, ceaselessly approaching the entries into enlightenment of all buddhas… They had spacelike knowledge, pervading all universes with a net of lights.” [1]

The sutra says there were also 500 “hearers” there with great spiritual powers, along with world rulers. These beings think:

“It is not possible for celestials or humans to understand or enter into or focus on or know or cognize or think about or perceive clearly or distinguish or elucidate or establish in the body and mind of other beings the sphere of the enlightened, the realm of knowledge of the enlightened, the basis, the power, the fearlessness, the concentration, the state, the mastery, the body, or the knowledge of the enlightened, except by the support, the magic, the empowerment, and the past vows of the enlightened, by having the qualities of roots of goodness perfected by past buddhas, by being in the charge of spiritual benefactors, by purification of faith, liberative means, and knowledge, by attainment of illumination of higher devotion, by purification of the higher will of enlightening beings, and by the proceeding of the higher will on the undertaking of realizing omniscience.” [1]

Therefore the assembled beings beg the Buddha to teach, and he does – but not necessarily in the conventional way!

“Then the Buddha, knowing what the enlightening beings were thinking, entered the concentration known as ‘the coming forth of the lion,’ a world-illumining manifestation, of which the body is great compassion, the entryway is great compassion, the guide is great compassion, the means of access to the sky of truth is great compassion. As soon as the Buddha had entered this concentration, the magnificent pavilion became boundlessly vast: the surface of the earth appeared to be made of indestructible diamond, the surface of the ground covered with a net of all the finest jewels, strewn with flowers of many jewels, with enormous gems strewn all over… Also the Jeta grove and buddha-fields as numerous as atoms in untold buddha-fields all became coextensive, vastly expanded, by the power of Buddha. There appeared varied arrays of all kinds of jewels, plains variously set with untold jewels, fences of uncountable jewels set around, and palm trees of various jewels arrayed in rows…”[1]

It goes on! Through the Buddha’s powers, the assembled get a holographic, kaleidoscopic vision of the infinite universe like a drug-free acid trip…

Eventually a bunch of pious lay people – 500 men, 500 women, 500 boys, 500 girls, come sit next to the bodhisattva Manjushri for the teaching. Manjushri takes note of a boy named Sudhana (meaning “Good Wealth”). After Manjushri offers teaching and all assembled set their minds on perfect enlightenment and “made them remember their past roots of goodness,” Sudhana makes a further request. He says, “Noble One, please give me a full explanation of how an enlightening being is to study the practice of enlightening beings, how an enlightening being is to accomplish, initiate, carry out, fulfill, purify (etc.) the practice of enlightening beings?” [1]


A Bodhisattva’s Search in the Avatamsaka Sutra: The Journey

Manjushri responds to Sudhana, praising his determination and advising him to seek out spiritual benefactors to answer his question. To start with, he says: “South of here is a country called Ramavaranta; there is a mountain there called Sugriva, where a monk named Meghashri lives. Go to him and ask I how an enlightening being should learn the conduct of enlightening beings.”

Sudhana does this. He travels for a week, and finally finds Meghashri, who praises his search and explains that he, Meghashri, has through his practice attained the ability to see the buddhas in all the lands of the ten directions:

“That is, in the east I see one buddha, two buddhas, three buddhas, a hundred buddhas, a thousand buddhas, a hundred thousand buddhas, a million buddhas, a hundred million buddhas, a billion buddhas, a hundred billion buddhas, a quintillion buddhas—I see incalculable, immeasurable, uncountable, inconceivable, incomparable, incomprehensible, unlimited, ungraspable, inestimable, unutterable numbers of buddhas. I see as many buddhas as atoms in this continent…”[1]

However, although Meghashri has attained mindfulness of the buddhas, he says, “how can I know the practice, or tell of the virtues, of the enlightening beings who have purified the sphere of endless knowledge?” The monk tells Sudhana “Go, son—south of here is a place called Sagaramukha, where there lives a monk named Sagaramegha. Go to him and ask him how an enlightening being is to learn and accomplish the conduct of enlightening beings…”[1]

And thus it goes… Sudhana goes to a teacher who explains what their bodhisattva practice is, and then says their understanding and practice is limited, so Sudhana should go visit so-and-so. This goes on so that Sudhana ends up visiting 53 different admirable bodhisattva teachers. They include monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen, girls and boys, royalty and merchants, non-human beings including spirits and deities, and non-Buddhists.

Each bodhisattva has to offer a different insight, spiritual power, or other benefit. This is where the Avatamsaka Sutra can help stimulate our imagination with respect for the infinitely varying forms bodhisattva service can take. Every bodhisattva Sudhana visits comes along with a complete story of Sudhana’s arrival, his first interactions with and impressions of the bodhisattva, what Sudhana witnesses in the bodhisattva’s realm, and then the bodhisattva’s description of what it is they have awakened to or cultivated as their bodhisattva practice.

I’m going to simple share with you a sampling of the bodhisattva ways of service, and in each example suggest how this kind of service might manifest in our everyday modern life. I’ll share four examples and then continue in my next episode with more, as well as discussing some of the implications of the Avatamsaka message about how widely varying bodhisattva manifestations can be.


Examples of Various Bodhisattva Gifts and Service in the Avatamsaka Sutra


1) Monk Meghashri sees the reality of spiritual liberation throughout the universe

To backtrack a moment to the first bodhisattva, the monk Meghashri, who has attained the ability to see the buddhas in all the lands of the ten directions. First glance? What good is this to anyone, maybe just inspiring to Meghashri? But this is a deep and transformative insight not just into the possibility and reality of awakening and spiritual liberation in this lifetime, in the world we know, but insight into how this possibility of enlightenment appears throughout the universe in every direction. Imagine the attitude and manner of someone with this kind of perspective… great faith and patience, which would naturally be communicated to anyone around.

Do you naturally have a broad perspective and faith that you, and others, will always find a way? Do you have the ability to see the potential in every situation? Do you have a deep conviction that the universe is an amazing and beautiful place? How might others benefit from these abilities? Maybe you express them directly, or in artistic expression. More likely you simply manifest these abilities in a more subtle way, by being steady and patient and positive?

Are you used to seeing these abilities/perspectives/aspects of your character as gifts that you can share with others?


2) Monk Sagaramegha utilizes his great discerning intelligence

Monk Sagaramegha (next bodhisattva) – attained the universal eye

“revealing the practice of enlightening beings, showing the differentiation of the planes of all universes, showing the spheres of all truths together, the light purifying all lands, dispersing all challengers, crushing all demons and devils, making all beings happy, illumining the hidden recesses of all beings’ minds, communicating to all beings in accord with their mentalities, illuminating the turning of the wheels of the senses of all beings.” [1]

Now, instead of Meghashri’s vision of a universal enlightenment, Sagaramegha specializes in a vision of differentiation – clearly discerning the differences between things, recognizing and responding appropriately to beings that mean to cause harm, and adapting one’s approach based on carefully discerned capabilities and character of whoever you’re dealing with.

Do you have a natural intelligence and concern, causing you to look deeply at things, discern what’s really going on? Do you feel compelled to understand so you can solve problems for beings and see their lives go more smoothly? If you encounter an obstacle – whether it’s physical or technical or having to do with effective communication or teaching – do you become even more determined to overcome it? Then your bodhisattva capabilities are akin to Sagaramegha’s. At times we may dismiss these more “intellectual” interests and talents as not being bodhisattva gifts or service, but the Avatamsaka sutra makes it clear they count!


3) Monk Supratishthita freely travels and takes whatever shape is necessary

Monk Supra-tish-thita:

“I have attained a light of knowledge called ‘ultimate nonobstruction.,’ whereby I am free from obstruction in awareness of the mental actions of all sentient beings… comprehension of time divisions as being conceptual, and in noncorporeal pervasion of the buddha-fields in the ten directions, all by the attainment of nonbeing, nonabiding, and nondoing. By the realization of this mystic power of nondoing I walk, stand, sit, and lie down in the sky, disappear and appear, produce smoke and flame. Being one, I become many; being many, I become one. I become now visible, now invisible. I go through walls unhindered, as through empty space… whatever beings I see, small or large, underdeveloped or well developed, happy or unhappy, I adopt a corresponding physical form, in order to guide them to maturity and perfection in the appropriate time.” [1]

This may sound a little irrelevant to our daily lives if we assume this is a bodhisattva who has attained supernatural powers. However… think more symbolically of what these abilities mean. Non-obstructed in service, able to freely and physically come and go and take whatever form is needed, do whatever is needed. Perhaps able to physically perform tasks or endure things that other people find amazing – perhaps like wildfire fighting, or being a really good nurse, showing up at all the right times with whatever is needed, taking whatever role is needed most at that moment (firm medical guidance, shoulder to cry on, silent witness, bringing hot tea…)

Are you naturally rather brave and willing – physically, mentally, or emotionally – to go wherever you see need, whenever you see it? Are you able to pretty easily set aside consideration for your own comfort in order to take care of others? Are you able to change up your appearance or attitude or approach fairly easily when the situation calls for it, rather than being attached to how you want to be?

Finally (for today):


4) The grammarian Megha attains the light of the spell of eloquence

Grammarian named Megha: the light of the spell of eloquence

“I have attained the light of the spell of eloquence: I know the speech of all kinds of beings in a billion-world universe; I know the variety of speech of each kind of being; I know the unity of speech of each kind of being… I know the terms, speech, and concepts of all creatures; I know the ideas of all sages; I know the ideas of all ignoble people; I know the speech of enlightening beings, expressed according to the mentalities and languages of sentient beings; I enter into and focus on the oceans of utterances addressed to all sentient beings by the buddhas of past, present, and future.” [1]

Of course the descriptions in the Avatamsaka sutra are very grand and flowery. There are some people in the world who know many languages and are very knowledgeable and educated about everything that can be expressed in words, but the spell of eloquence can manifest in all kinds of different ways.

Are you good at explaining things to people? Really getting across some concept, or process, or set of instructions – so that the light of understanding goes off for people and they go, “Oh! I get it!” Do you have a way with words, writing or speaking clearly and concisely, or able to express your deepest heart through poetry or prose? Are you intrigued by words and concepts and reading, devouring the words of the masters because you crave the moments of liberation you experience when those words break you free from some limited view? Are you convinced that most people would do the right thing if only the case for it were made to them in a way they truly understood?


Accepting Our Own Bodhisattva Gifts

In the next episode I’ll discuss more about the process of identifying and cultivating your unique bodhisattva gifts and way of service, but because we’re discussing the spell of eloquence: Some people have told me I have some of this skill of eloquence. “Eloquence” sounds like an overstatement to me, as my writing and speaking style is very conversational, but one of the greatest compliments I’ve received was an endorsement blurb my teacher Gyokuko Carlson offered for the back of my first book, Idiot’s Guide: Zen Living: “Domyo Burk has a knack for putting people at ease by explaining things that are otherwise daunting.”

You might be surprised to know that this would not have been my first choice of bodhisattva talent. I mean, I don’t mind… we all like to be good at things, and it would be awesome if we were at least passably good at everything we wanted to do. But while I’ve always been drawn to words, reading, concepts, written and verbal expression, trying to explain things so people understand, etc., I’ve figured the bodhisattvas who really have it together don’t need to say anything at all. They radiate strength and inspiration from their very being. They are self-disciplined and spare with words, delivering brief, strategic, transformative messages at just the right moment. You’re drawn to hang out with them, willing to wait around for days or weeks for that moment when they don’t just explain something to you, they guide you skillfully to realize it for yourself. There is a part of me which believes the old saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” Of course, I don’t believe for a second that teachers in general deserve that statement, but part of me thinks if I was a real Zen teacher I wouldn’t talk so much. I wouldn’t need to explain.

But here we go: In this lifetime, I’m drawn to expressing and explaining things with words. I want to explain and celebrate everything that way. So if I want to be an effective bodhisattva, it’s best if I embrace the gifts I have and share them, rather than wasting time judging them or wishing I was someone else. After all, even the most amazing bodhisattvas in the Avatamsaka sutra tell Sudhana, “I’ve attained such-and-such, but that’s just one thing, there’s a whole lot I don’t understand and can’t do, you ought to go speak to so-and-so, she really understands bodhisattva practice.”

So I’ll leave you with that much to chew on for now… in my next episode I’ll continue with examples of bodhisattva service from the Avatamsaka sutra and suggest how they manifest in the lives of us ordinary beings. Then I wrap up with a discussion about how we identify, embrace, and cultivate our unique bodhisattva offering.



[i] Cleary, Thomas (translator). The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1993.


153 - Kshanti, The Perfection of Endurance: Life's Not Always a Bed of Roses
155 - Avatamsaka Sutra - Each One of Us Has Unique Bodhisattva Gifts to Offer - Part 2