Lately I have been thinking of all the out of work Bodhisattvas wandering around smiling with signs saying, “ Will Gladly Share Merit” as people shuffle by with their heads down, some saying, “No thanks, I don’t need any.” Others just pointing at the goody two shoes, laughing at them, “them bleeding heart liberals” they say, “You gotta earn your own merit boy”, while they walk around dissatisfied, and hollow, singing, “ I built this! I built this!” scratching their heads because they still feel so unsatisfied.
I think I have always been attracted to the idea of a Bodhisattva. I appreciate the traditional concept of the vow taking and the rebirth back to everyday life, the suprahuman powers to take on a myriad of forms to guide us, help us, teach us and sometimes even pull us begrudgingly toward awakening and always willing to share with us the merit of their compassion. I also appreciate the more expansive everyday conception of the Bodhisattva as expressed by Taitesu Unno when he writes that the Bodhisattva can be, “anyone who meets the challenge and provides care for the needy…whether that person knows anything about Buddhism or not.”
In the more traditional Mahayana Buddhist view point there is the idea that our positive deeds, acts or thoughts generate a sort of spiritual energy or power that can be accumulated. This concept is fundamental to the idea of Karma and Buddhist ethics. This view extends to the idea that the merit that is generated by our skillful actions can be shared with other beings. In the early Theravada, it was with deceased relatives. In the Mahayana that was expanded to all beings. The Bodhisattva “shares” his merit with all sentient beings to help them toward enlightenment. Taking to its logical conclusion we see the life and career of Dharmakara Bodhisattva who becomes Amida Buddha. In the more expansive and less religious definitions, also seen in the writings of Gyomay Kubose and Thich Nhat Hahn, the more mundane merit generated by these Bodhisattvas can come in very concrete and everyday ways. Something simple as a hand up, a listen and a place to be safe. Both kinds of Bodhisattvas can be recognized by their practice of Ksanti, their practice of patience, patience with us and our struggle to receive their help. Patient and out of work until we accept their gifts. The awakened Bodhisattva knows as Sunada Takagi has written that life is, “as much about graciously receiving as it is about giving”.
The practice of receiving, let alone even asking for help is challenging for many of us. The first time I really, open heartedly asked and accepted help wasn’t until I was in my late 40’! All those Bodhisattvas in my life offering their merit and their compassion and me walking past them, sometimes with my head down, other times mocking them. In my delusional thinking I believed that to need help was to be weak and to be weak was to be unlovable.
I think at this point it is important to realize that receiving is different than taking. We take food, love, money all the time. The difference between the two is that when we take, our small-Self is saying, “ I earned this!” When we get love from our wife or our children, when we get kudos at work, when we eat a lovely meal, we aren’t receiving the love, acknowledgement or food; we see ourselves as earning it. We take it because it is ours. A similar strain of this construct is when we see ourselves as unworthy to receive anything. This can manifest as self-doubt and shame. In both strains we are stuck in seeing giving and receiving as economic exchanges but how could it be any other way? I was never taught how to receive. How about you? Most of us have been taught that it is better to give than to receive but how can that be since to give you need to have someone to receive? Proportionally it doesn’t add up.
Truly receiving is something different from taking. There is an inherent humility. There is an openness of heart, an acknowledgement of our interdependence and an awareness of our dependence on a myriad of things. Receiving is a place of openness and courage in that it implies a vulnerability; we may ask for something in that open space and not get it. Yet in realizing our lack of control, our inability to fix love, joy and peace in place by somehow earning them, those very things arise naturally. Everything I receive is a gift, a gift to me and a gift to the give. An ever expanding circle of giving, where in the end there is no giver, no receiver and no gift. A gift is not something earned and the “merit” offered by all the Bodhisattvas is a gift of love of boundless compassion as they watch on in our attempt to control the world. When we insist on ‘earning our keep” and we do not receive the gift , we miss out on the boundlessness of grace that is offered us by everything and by all of our patient Bodhisattvas waiting for us. I try to remember that even in the Dharma, what we receive from the teachings is so much greater, exponentially greater, than anything we put into the teachings.
In a previous paper I wrote about the Way of the Nembutsu is the path of gratitude. Before the path can open up there is the receiving; receiving the teachings and the compassion of the Buddhas and for us Pure Land leaning practitioners, receiving and entrusting in the compassion offered by Amida Buddha manifest in the formless form of his Pure Land. For me the Way of the Nembutsu is the path of receiving the grace of Amida and all the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, of setting aside calculations, schemes and dualistic and conceptual thinking, of sitting and chanting in an awareness of the abundance of the Buddhas and the Dharma and the Sangha. I challenge myself and you to make room in ourselves to receive, to receive the abundance the Buddhas have to offer us.
When we turn toward our Bodhisattva ready to receive, she turns around her sign and on the other side our no longer out of work Bodhisattva has written this line,
“The buddhas say come, come, and dance.”*
And we dance.
* a line from Sakyong Mipham’s poem titled Come, Come and Dance.