Part of our bodhisattva path is embracing our uniqueness and finding our own particular, special bodhisattva gift – a capacity, talent, or calling. Each of us has our own unique way, or ways, of serving in this world. It just takes some imagination to discover them. Teachings from Avatamsaka Sutra can help stimulate our imaginations in this regard. In this episode I tell five more bodhisattva stories and reflect on how they might manifest in real life.
What the Avatamsaka Sutra Can Teach Us about Bodhisattva Gifts
In Episode 154 I introduced the Avatamsaka Sutra and talked about how we can use it to stimulate our imaginations with respect to what kinds of gifts we may have to offer as bodhisattvas. In Buddhism, Bodhisattvas are both ideals and real people. We are asked to practice as bodhisattvas, aiming to help free ourselves from suffering along with every other living being. So we are “real people” bodhisattvas, far from perfect and limited in our capacities. Ideal bodhisattvas are creations of the human imagination: Radiant, compassionate, disciplined beings who commit themselves to endless, selfless practice and service. It doesn’t matter that ideal bodhisattvas aren’t literally real; they reflect a deeper truth of our existence, and in some ways the principles and possibilities they embody are more real than our mundane everyday lives.
In the Avatamsaka Sutra, a boy named Sudhana goes on a spiritual journey, visiting a total of 53 ideal bodhisattvas. He asks each bodhisattva to teach him “how an enlightening being is to learn and carry out the practice of enlightening beings.” Each bodhisattva explains his or her impressive gift, but then tells Sudhana their understanding and abilities are limited, so the boy should go visit so-and-so bodhisattva to get his question answered.
In Episode 154 I shared the stories of four of the first bodhisattvas Sudhana visits, and suggested ways these ideal bodhisattva gifts might manifest in the real world. In this episode I’ll share five more stories.
It’s not helpful to compare ourselves to these ideals and find ourselves wanting, what’s important is to allow the ideals to stimulate our imagination. Often we’re very unimaginative when it comes to evaluating our own capacities and gifts in order to decide what to cultivate or emphasize in our lives. We might take some pride in being friendly to strangers, fundamentally ethical, hardworking, or supportive of our friends, and these things are wonderful, but I propose that each of us has unique bodhisattva gifts we are uniquely positioned to offer. After our five Avatamsaka stories, I’ll discuss why it’s valuable for us to learn what these gifts are.
Note: When I suggest ways the ideal bodhisattva gifts might manifest in the real world, for the sake of simplicity I’m going to speak as if you should reflect only on whether you might have some of those gifts. However, go ahead and consider…
♦ Does this gift/talent/insight manifest in you? In someone you know? In someone you admire?
♦ What ways might this bodhisattva gift manifest in the world, in addition to the ways I suggest?
♦ Are you used to seeing this particular manifestation as a gift – that is, as something of value that can be shared to benefit others?
♦ If it manifests in you, is it something you value and cultivate, or is it something you tend to dismiss as a gift?
5) Laywoman Asha’s Bodhisattva Gift: Sorrowless Well-being
Laywoman Asha, seated on a golden throne, explains, “I have attained an enlightening liberation called ‘characterized by sorrowless well-being.’ It is definitely beneficial to see me, hear me, attend me, live with me, remember me. I am not visible to those who have not developed the bases of goodness, who are not under the tutelage of spiritual benefactors, who are not in the care of the perfect buddhas. Those who see me thereupon become irreversible in progress toward supreme perfect enlightenment.”[i] The Sutra describes people who are afflicted physically, mentally, emotionally, as being freed from their afflictions just by seeing Asha.
Again, we might immediately think this is a supernatural power, or at the very least, describing someone so perfect and spiritually developed that we ordinary mortals can never possibly manifest some of what Asha does.
Think of people you know who are perhaps inexplicably comforting to be around. They seem calm, confident, content – but without denying any hard realities, without clinging to a shallow optimism because they are trying to avoid the truth. They just seem deeply rooted, sympathetic to the sufferings of those around them but also untroubled.
♦ Do you have the ability to recover from sorrows and setbacks relatively quickly?
♦ Are you able to take calm action in stressful situations that may debilitate others?
♦ Is there a deep well of sorrowless well-being within you, no matter what is going on around you?
♦ Are you happy to listen to, bear witness to, the sufferings of others, and do you seem to benefit them just by doing so with openness, compassion, and calmness?
♦ How else might sorrowless well-being manifest?
6) The Priest Jayoshmayatana’s Bodhisattva Gift: Fearlessness
Sudhana finds the priest Jayoshmayatana “practicing an ascetic exercise of enduring fierce heat, with his mind on omniscience; on four sides were huge bonfires like mountains ablaze.” When he asks the priest how to learn and carry out the practice of enlightening beings, the priest says, “Climb this razor-edge-path mountain and jump from there into the fire—thus will your enlightening practice be purified.” Sudhana immediately worries that Jayoshmayatana is actually a demon, or possessed by a demon, and is actually out to prevent him from attaining buddhahood. But the deities encourage Sudhana to listen to the priest, because after all Jayoshmayatana was recommended by another reliable bodhisattva…
After much (many pages!) of convincing, Sudhana climbed the razor-edge mountain and threw himself into the fire. “As he was falling he attained an enlightening concentration called ‘well established.’ On contact with the fire he attained an enlightening concentration called ‘mystic knowledge of the bliss of tranquillity.’ He said, ‘How wonderful is the pleasant feeling of this fire and this razor-edge mountain.’”
Jayoshmayatana explains, “I have attained the enlightening liberation in which one is not overcome.”
This ascetic practice is extreme, of course, and we are right to be skeptical about anyone who recommends such a thing (just as Sudhana was!). However, what is going on here?
Not being overcome… our core fears have to do with our own survival and physical well-being. What would it be like to be freed of those fears, or at least mostly freed? That is, without losing all sense what’s necessary to live?
♦ Do you appreciate the value of pushing yourself physically, to (or even past) the point of discomfort, or taking physical risks that your body recognizes as risks – pushing the boundaries of fear, facing down fears, emerging safely on the other side more confident, less anxious about your physical safety?
♦ Do you have a deep conviction that the meaning in life isn’t dependent on physical comfort or pleasures, but in fact may be even more apparent in moments of physical stress or deprivation?
♦ Are you unafraid of physical illness or injury or even death – taking reasonable care of yourself but otherwise not overly concerned, stressed, or obsessed with protecting yourself?
♦ How is such fearlessness of value to others?
7) The Girl Maitrayani’s Bodhisattva Gift: Seeing the Divine Reflected in the Mundane
When Sudhana arrives and asks his questions, the girl Maitrayani – surrounded by a retinue of 500 girls – says, “Look around at the adornments of my palace.” Sudhana does, and “in each wall, each pillar, each mirror, each figure, each formation, each jewel, each golden bell, each jewel tree, each girl’s body, each jewel necklace, he saw reflected images of the buddhas in the cosmos, with their first inspirations, spheres of practice and vows, manifestations of emergence in the world, mystical transformation on attainment of enlightenment, turnings of the wheel of teaching, and displays of ultimate extinction. This he saw in each and every object. Just as the sun, moon, and stars in the sky are seen reflected in a clear, limpid pool of water, so did all the buddhas of the cosmos appear reflected in each object of the luminous jewel palace, this as a result of the girl Maitrayani’s past roots of goodness.”
Maitrayani explains this as “the means of access to perfect wisdom from the arrangement of the totality.”
♦ Do you have the ability to see in the infinite, the divine, reflected even the most mundane thing?
♦ Do you sometimes sense something greater at perfectly mundane moments like watching the steam rise up from your tea, or watching leaves fall from a tree?
♦ Are you able to arrange or work with mundane material things such that they reflect something greater?
♦ Are you just as inspired in the middle of a marketplace as you are in the middle of a great cathedral?
♦ How might this kind of vision be communicated to or shared with others?
8) The Boy Indriyeshvara’s Bodhisattva Gift: Higher Knowledge of Arts and Sciences
Indriyeshvara said, “I have taught writing and mathematics by Manjushri, and have been led into the door of knowledge encompassing higher knowledge of all practical arts. So I know all the various arts and crafts and sciences in the world dealing with writing, mathematics and symbols, physiology, rhetoric, physical and mental health, city planning, architecture and construction, mechanics and engineering, divination, agriculture and commerce, conduct and manners, good and bad actions, good and bad principles, what makes for felicity and what for misery… and behavior linking reason and action. I know all these sciences, and I also introduce and teach them to people, and get people to study and practice them, to master and develop them, using these as means to purify, refine, and broaden people.”
This one doesn’t take as much imagination to understand, but of course the fact that one boy knows it all is symbolic… all of these things are of value, most of us are only going to master one area.
♦ Have you dedicated considerable time, effort, and/or expense to study and master some particular subject, area of expertise, skill?
♦ Do you benefit people by using or teaching your knowledge or skill?
♦ Does (did, if retired) your work tangibly benefit people in the world? Does it heal, support, correct, build?
♦ Does sharing the power and freedom of knowledge with others bring you joy and purpose?
9) The Lay Devotee Prabhuta’s Bodhisattva Gift: Bringing Delight to Sentient Beings
Prabhuta explains, “I have attained an enlightening liberation which is an inexhaustible treasury of manifestations of good. From this one vessel I satisfy sentient beings of various tastes with food conforming to their wishes, with various sauces and spices, of various colors and aromas. From this one vessel I satisfy even a hundred beings with whatever food they wish, even a thousand beings, a hundred thousand, a million, a billion; I satisfy untold numbers of sentient beings of various tastes with whatever foods they wish, gratifying and pleasing them and making them happy—and yet this vessel does not diminish or run out… And as with food, so also would I satisfy and please them with various kinds of drinks, …delicacies, …couches, …clothing, …flowers, …fragrances, …jewels, …conveyances, …banners, …and various kinds of utensils.”
She also mentions that all beings who go on to attain enlightenment have eaten her food.
♦ Do you love “gratifying and pleasing [people] and making them happy” with food, physical comfort, music, art, humor, gifts?
♦ Do you enjoy hosting people in your home, or finding ways to take care of people and support them in their times of difficulty?
♦ Do you find it easy to be generous when you know something will bring someone else joy or comfort?
♦ Do you find yourself focusing on the various ways you can create more beauty and enjoyment in the world?
Reasons to Learn What Bodhisattva Gifts You Have to Offer
You may wonder what the value is of reflecting on what bodhisattva gifts you have to offer. Many of us, despite our hidden arrogance, aren’t used to consciously thinking of ourselves in a positive light
But here are four reasons I think this practice is valuable.
1) If you identify a gift you have, you can focus on cultivating and sharing it, rather than wasting your time and energy trying to attain other gifts that may be someone else’s to give. As I talked about in the last episode…
2) Recognizing a capacity, talent, characteristic, or tendency of ours as a gift can dignify it. When we see how the gift benefits self and other, we may be able to appreciate something in ourselves we previously dismissed or even disparaged.
3) Recognizing a capacity, talent, characteristic, or tendency of ours as a gift can make us grateful for it instead of merely proud of it. Who knows why we end up with the capacities and characteristics we do?
4) Accepting that we have certain gifts but lack others helps us appreciate our interdependence with all beings. The ideal bodhisattvas Sudhana visits are certainly amazing, accomplished practitioners! Many of them are described as being extremely powerful and far-seeing… but each one readily admits they only offer one particular kind of gift, and point to other bodhisattvas as offering gifts every bit as essential and valuable as their own.
Keep in mind that discovering and cultivating our bodhisattva gifts is a life-long process!
As I’ve mentioned, Sudhana visits and learns from 53 bodhisattvas in the Avatamsaka Sutra, and I’ve only talked about nine of them in this episode and episode 154. I’ll share and reflect on more of these bodhisattva stories at a future date, which include a bodhisattva who is able to intuit exactly what each being really needs and then give it, a bodhisattva who can diagnose the maladies of any being and cure it, and a fierce king who skillfully scares criminals straight.