A guest post by Jill Salahub
A Bodhisattva is an “enlightened being,” having an open, awake heart motivated by deep compassion.
One of the origin stories of Bodhisattva is that she was a woman of noble standing who at the moment of her death heard someone crying. She was supposed to be headed straight for Nirvana, a state of perfect peace and happiness, but because she was so touched by the pain of that one being, she instead vowed to be reborn into the human realm as many times as it would take until there was no one left suffering.
In some Buddhist practice lineages, one can take a Bodhisattva vow, committing to that same path. The version that the Dalai Lama often uses when facilitating a vow ceremony ends with:
As long as space remains,
As long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain
And dispel the miseries of the world.
We understandably may be reluctant to offer that level of commitment. We might not all experience that same depth of conviction. However, the way of the Bodhisattva is something we can all aspire to – it is simply this: to ease suffering, in ourselves and in the world.
We all just want to be happy and safe, to be free from suffering. It is the one thing we have in common with every other being, the thing that motivates everything we do.
We all have the ability to ease suffering. In individual moments and in small ways, we can be of benefit. Sometimes easing suffering is a spontaneous kind act. It can be as simple as holding the door open for someone or saying hello while looking directly into their eyes. We run into these opportunities multiple times a day.
For example, the other day I was at the grocery store, and there was a woman with full cart wandering the parking lot. She had a worried look on her face and as she got closer to me, I heard a car horn beep behind me and saw that she was repeatedly clicking her keyless entry remote. I realized she couldn’t remember where her car was, and that she was clicking the remote so the car horn would go off, hoping that would help her locate it. As I passed her, I said, “I heard it go off just back there.” Her face immediately relaxed, she smiled and said, “Thank you.” It was the simplest of things, but that small kindness I offered gave her a moment of relief, calmed her anxiety, eased her suffering.
The magic of such a moment goes beyond offering respite to another, because after our interaction I felt better too. To help someone else reminds us that we are connected, that we are not alone, and that things are workable. As Ram Dass says, “we are all just walking each other home.”
When we are suffering — feeling left out, depressed or sad, lonely or lost — we can ease our situation by becoming the love that we are missing, by offering love to ourselves or others. Anytime we follow the call of love, we are walking the path of the Bodhisattva.
While there is much about practicing the way of the Bodhisattva that is easy, it also requires some measure of responsibility and wisdom. We need to be sure that we are fully prepared to help, and that we are truly helping.
It’s common to confuse the way of the Bodhisattva with being solely focused on the wellbeing of others, of serving their needs and easing their suffering, but as Buddha said, “You, yourself, as much as anybody else in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” When being kind, practicing compassion, we must remember to include ourselves in that equation. We need care, nurturing and soothing as much as anyone. And this self-care, self-love, self-compassion only serves to fuel the way of the Bodhisattva, by ensuring that we are well and strong so that we can be of benefit, putting on our own oxygen masks before we help someone else with theirs.
It’s also easy when walking the path of the Bodhisattva to fall prey to “idiot compassion.” Pema Chödrön defines it this way:
It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s what’s called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering. Basically, you’re not giving them what they need. You’re trying to get away from your feeling of I can’t bear to see them suffering.
Anyone who has experience with an addict or a toddler understands how this goes, how we sometimes give in to the demands of someone suffering in the moment in a way that doesn’t help at all in the long run. To give an addict drugs or money for drugs doesn’t actually ease the suffering generated by their addiction, but rather continues the cycle. In the same way, giving in to the demands of a small child who might be overwhelmed or tired or hungry, who is having a tantrum and demanding candy or a toy at the checkout line in the grocery store, doesn’t actually help them to learn to deal with their experience, and usually doesn’t address the real, underlying need. And yet, it can be so tempting in those situations to give in to the impulse of the moment and thus avoid any immediate discomfort.
Sometimes, we get confused and our actions actually end up generating suffering, and some beings can get caught up in this delusion their whole lives. When we are trying to help them, it can be hard to accept that our kindness and generosity, our genuine attempts to help may not be met with equal kindness or results. And yet, we must remember as Anaïs Nin said, “You cannot save people. You can only love them.”
I would like to invite you to join me in trying out this practice, the way of the Bodhisattva. It really is as simple as asking yourself, “Where do I see suffering?” and then, “Is there anything I can do to ease this suffering?” If you don’t think you can ease the suffering, at the very least do what you can to not generate more suffering, or as the Dalai Lama says, “If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.”
Place your attention on where there is suffering, and focus your effort on attempting to ease it. Try it and see if you don’t feel the tiniest bit better, if you don’t feel happier, safer. Go ahead. I dare you.
Jill Salahub is an Introvert, INFJ, Highly Sensitive Person, Scorpio, and Four on the Enneagram – in other words, a passionate mess. She’s a wholehearted practitioner of writing, yoga, meditation, and dog (she’s been rescued by three, so far). Her superpowers are generosity and gentleness, and she loves to laugh. Her mission is to ease suffering, in herself and the world. Jill writes about the tenderness and the terror, the beauty and the brutality of life, and of her efforts to keep her heart open through it all on her blog, A Thousand Shades of Gray.