I had the great privilege a week ago of watching six of my IDP sangha take the bodhisattva vow. The vow is a major step on the Buddhist path; in it, you vow to achieve enlightenment so that you can help others do so. Or, as it's sometimes said, you promise not to attain nirvana until all other beings have reached it. For all of your lifetimes to come.
Make sense, right? You can't help people get there unless you have some idea of where you're going.
But it's important to note that the vow is to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. You're not there yet. When I took the vow a couple of years ago, in the talks beforehand the teachers emphasized that it's an aspiration, an intention -- no one feels like they can really do this. It's too big. But you know in your bones that you want to, so you do it.
I have always know that this was my heart's aspiration, since the time I was a child, kneeling by bed and saying my Roman Catholic prayers. (So maybe I took the vow in a previous lifetime???) After reciting the prayers I'd memorized, I'd launch into a litany of requests that took just as long: Please, God, stop all wars. Give everyone enough food. Stop the riots, stop the racism. And on and on.
God, of course, didn't do that, and as a teenager I came to believe that it was up to humanity to do it. God helps those who helps themselves. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.
But the problem, for me, was that it was fueled by guilt. I took to heart the part of the Mass where the congregation said: "Oh, Lord, I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and my soul will be healed." I appreciated what I had, but I never felt worthy of it, not when so many others suffered without. (I left the Roman Catholic Church, for a multitude of personal and political and spiritual and sociological reasons, after having kids.)
Six years ago I started studying and practicing Buddhism. Auspiciously, that came through Shambhala, which teaches that all beings are basically good. My first meditation instructor was David Nichtern, at a Yoga Body/Buddha Mind workshop; that connection led me to Ethan Nichtern, his son and the founder of the Interdependence Project, and a journey of delight and challenge that has shown me ways to move toward living my deepest aspiration -- to be of benefit to all beings.
But part of the bodhisattva's journey is learning that that you have to care for yourself as much as you care for others. All beings -- including me -- have basic goodness or buddha nature or original nature or whatever you call it. The bodhisattva path asks us to recognize our own inherent richness.
And it doesn't demand that we devote ourselves to doing Big Important Things -- ending war or hunger or poverty -- constantly. It means that you brighten the corner where you are. You can always smile at someone.
During meditation in the morning before the afternoon vow ceremony, we did tonglen, a Tibetan compassion practice in which you take on others' suffering. You generally start with one person and expand to all beings in the same situation (which, let's face it, is all beings). My mind/heart looked around for some suffering that I could connect with. The big suffering seemed remote. And my mind kept coming back to something a friend who was taking the vow said to me that morning: It's nice to see a friendly face.
So I did tonglen for her and for all beings who felt in need of a friendly face to help them with whatever challenges they are facing. May you know that you are good and strong and kind and that you are surrounded by beings who are, at their core, good and strong and kind. May the world be a friendly place.
May I be a friendly face.
It might seem kind of petty when you think about war and famine and climate change and the other problems of the world. But if you bring it back to a personal level, it is huge.
Smiling is a practice of the bodhisattva.
… When you produce peace and happiness in yourself, you begin to realize peace for the whole world. With the smile that you produce in yourself, with the conscious breathing you establish within yourself, you begin to work for peace in the world. To smile is not to smile only for yourself; the world will change because of your smile. When you practice sitting meditation, if you enjoy even one moment of your sitting, if you establish serenity and happiness inside yourself, you provide the world with a solid base of peace.
If you do not give yourself peace, how can you share it with others? If you do not begin your peace work with yourself, where will you go to begin it? To sit, to smile, to look at things and really see them, these are the basis of peace work. Thich Nhat Hahn
For an aural experience, listen here. I'm in heaven when you smile. (Van Morrison. Jackie Wilson Said.)
Third photo is Ajahn Amaro, the most purely joyful person I have met.
Bottom photo is Mathieu Ricard, sometimes described as the happiest man alive.