Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression—An Introduction to Mahayana Buddhism
by Taigen Dan Leighton
(Wisdom Publications, 2012)
©2012 Taigen Daniel Leighton
From: Chapter 1. The Bodhisattva Ideal: Benefiting Beings
Bodhisattvas as Archetypes
It is the premise of this book that we can gain insight and guidance into how to engage in spiritual practice and live wholeheartedly, in accord with the light of the bodhisattva tradition, by studying seven bodhisattva figures as psychological and spiritual models. Some of these bodhisattvas are mythical figures; others are based on actual persons in human history. Most appear in a variety of forms. Many specific historical personages traditionally have been designated as incarnations or representatives of these primary bodhisattva figures.
The bodhisattvas presented in this book are considered as archetypes, fundamental models of dominant psychic aspects of the enlightening being. They certainly overlap in their qualities as bodhisattvas, sometimes considerably, but each emphasizes particular aspects or modes of awakening, and each reveals an overall character and style that practitioners may identify or align with at different times or phases in their practice. As they work together for universal liberation, as archetypes all of these bodhisattvas have their own psychological approach and strategy toward practice and their own function as spiritual resources. They exist as external forces to provide encouragement and support, as internal energies to be fostered, and, above all, as examples of modes of awakened practice to emulate and incorporate.
Archetypes are crystallizations of components of the psyche, and catalysts to self-understanding. In Western psychology Carl Jung and his followers have studied this way in which humans externalize and project certain unconscious, instinctual patterns of their own character onto others. Much of the world's mythologies reflect these psychological patterns and potentialities. By examining such common patterns we can recognize and understand aspects of ourselves. If all beings have the capacity for clear, open, awakened awareness posited by the teaching of buddha nature, then by seeing the bodhisattvas as archetypes, patterns or approaches to awakening activity, we may learn models with which we can each express the elements of our own enlightening and beneficial nature.
From: Chapter 5. Manjushri: Prince of Wisdom
The Young Prince of Wisdom
Manjushri is usually depicted as a young prince, about sixteen years old, reflecting purity and innocence. He is sometimes referred to as Manjushri Kumarabhuta; the latter name, meaning "to become youthful," has been interpreted as "chaste youth," and is also a term used for monastic bodhisattvas. The youthful aspect of the archetype signifies the fact that striking wisdom, and insight into the essential, often are seen in child prodigies. While still a child, Mozart was already composing and playing sublime music that still moves and inspires audiences. There are many cases of youthful brilliance, of children sparkling with insight into some particular realm of art or intellect.
Unusual child prodigies aside, many "ordinary" children often have refreshing clarity or express insight into familiar situations. As we all know, "Kids say the darnedest things." They can amuse or astonish us with their interpretations of the world's goings-on, while adults stagnate in their set perceptions. In Hans Christian Anderson's popular story, "The Emperor's New Clothes," the unaffected child is the only one who sees through the vanity and emptiness of the emperor's illusory garments to the naked truth. Moreover, the child is not timid about declaring what he sees. Similarly, the youthful Manjushri perceives and declaims the essential emptiness of all fashioned appearances and pretensions, no matter how fancy or hyped such fabrications may seem.
Manjushri's youth signifies that his wisdom is not acquired based on experience or long years of study, but is immanent and ever available. As we will see later, his archetypal youthfulness can also become a source of humor, as Manjushri has been mocked in some stories for his cocky cleverness, sometimes viewed as arrogance.
Manjushri as Sacred Monk of the Meditation Halls
Manjushri sits enshrined on the center altar of Zen meditation halls, encouraging deep introspection and the awakening of insight. Thus he represents a primary aspect of Buddhist meditation, penetrating into the essence and cutting off all distractions and delusions. Meditation can be the context in which insight comes forth, and Manjushri embodies the samadhi (concentration) that is not separate from arising wisdom. Strictly speaking, Buddhist meditation is not done in order to acquire wisdom as a goal. Rather, settling into the self and deepening awareness of physical and mental phenomena as they already are is itself an expression of this wisdom, and allows it to emerge and become more evident. . . .
Working with Language to Untangle Delusions
One of Manjushri's foremost roles is as bodhisattva of poetry, oratory, writing, and all the uses of language. Manjushri has an intricate relationship and involvement with language, one of the foremost catalysts of human ignorance and delusion. The patterns of our conventional thought processes are established and learned through our languages. Our sense of alienation is strengthened and inculcated through the syntax that separates subject and object. Mentally absorbing this subject-verb-object grammar, we come to see ourselves as agents acting on a dead world of objects, or we see ourselves as dead, powerless objects being acted upon and victimized by external, sovereign agents. We fail to recognize that the whole world is alive, vibrant, totally interconnected, informed and dancing with prajna. Manjushri works to reveal our enslavement by language, and to liberate language and use it to express the deeper realities.
Exemplars of the Manjushri Archetype
In looking for familiar exemplars of Manjushri, we can note central features of the archetype he presents. Manjushri exhibits penetrating brilliance or intellect, with insight into the essence of existence in general or insight into the heart of some particular mode of expression. One of his main tools is eloquence and the skillful use of language, although he may sometimes verge on verbosity. Always he shines with energetic, youthful brilliance. With his focus on the teaching of emptiness and the obstructions we face from holding on to fixed views or doctrines, Manjushri avoids being pinned down to any given form and takes on new shapes to dispel attachments. He readily covers his brilliance in humble appearances to guide and test beings.
Albert Einstein is a classic example of the Manjushri archetype. Perhaps all atomic physicists might be included here, seeing into the elemental nature of matter, but Einstein's theory of relativity is particularly resonant. The teaching of shunyata, or "emptiness," expounded by Manjushri has also been translated as "relativity." The emptiness or absence of any isolated, inherent, self-identity in all things may be expressed in terms of seeing into the fundamental interrelatedness, or relativity, of all things. Einstein's famous theory, and most of his central work showing the interrelation of matter and energy, was produced when he was young, further fitting the model of Manjushri's youthful insight.
In his later years, "pilgrims" often came to visit Einstein at Princeton. They often found the great man dressed shabbily, with tattered clothing, reminiscent of Manjushri as a beggar. He once received an award at a ceremony and was noticed to be wearing different colored socks. My father has a framed photograph on his study wall of Einstein wearing an old gray sweater, with a ribbon across the bottom corner of the picture. When framing the picture, the photographer had seen fit to use the ribbon to cover up a large hole visible in the sweater, considering it inappropriate for Einstein to be seen in a ragged garment.
Einstein was a deeply spiritual man, who saw "cosmic religious feeling" as "the strongest and noblest incitement to scientific research." We may hear echoes of Manjushri's emptiness teaching in some of Einstein's perceptive writings about "cosmic" religion, which he considered the highest development of all religions: "The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. He looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole." Manjushri too looks for the underlying principle, and sees the illusion of isolated "individual existence" as the main obstruction to the experience of open, unified awareness.
Einstein's oft-quoted remark after the first use at Hiroshima of the atomic bomb that he helped create was that "Everything has changed except our way of thinking." It is precisely the changing of beings' ways of thinking that might be defined as the essence of Manjushri Bodhisattva's work, cutting through attachments to reified modes of thought about our lives and the world.
Bob Dylan, the rock singer/ songwriter/ poet has exhibited the brilliance and eloquence of Manjushri by writing powerful, penetrating lyrics expressing the problems of injustice in society, as well as the personal pains of love and loss in the human condition. He is especially known for his early work, the brilliant complex and evocative lyrics of his twenties, reminiscent of Manjushri's youthfulness. Dylan sang about staying "Forever Young," and in his mature and later work he has continued to produce brilliant songs, albeit less prolifically. The quantity of his masterpieces and the range of their content are awesome. Dylan's frequent radical shifts of style and subject matter show his unwillingness to be tied by audience or critics to any particular expectation or preconception of some limited "message," just as Manjushri cuts through all cherished views and doctrines in the Buddha's assembly.
Although Dylan may be considered a great poet, the poignancy of his work is oral as much as written. Despite his oft-caricatured, sometimes nasal voice, Dylan's brilliance is often keenest and most evocative in the phrasing and intonations with which he sings his lyrics. Similarly known for the verbal nature of his discourses and inquiries in the sutras, Manjushri is called the "melodiously voiced one."
Like Manjushri, Dylan often uses the rhetoric of negation to cut through psychological and social delusions. In an interview in 1965, one of his early periods of peak creativity, when asked about how one can live amid the madness and cruelty of the world, Dylan said, "I don't know what you do, but all I can do is cast aside all the things not to do. I don't know where it's at, all I know is where it's not at." Many of his songs employ this negating method, whether describing a failed relationship as in "It Ain't Me, Babe," or when portraying a successful relationship in "If Not for You," in which love negates and overcomes an assortment of anguishes. Even "All I Really Want to Do," a song about the friendship Dylan seeks with an ideal lover, is basically a catalogue of the exploitative interactions he does not want. "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" powerfully evokes the experience of awakening and letting go, leaving "stepping stones" behind, when Manjushri's flashing sword cuts through all assumptions about the world and the very sky is folding under you. Manjushri and other masters of emptiness teaching such as Nagarjuna warn about the extreme dangers of attachment to emptiness. So, too, does Dylan sing of the perils of excessive immersion in emptiness in his song "Too Much of Nothing."
Dylan's religious concerns have been continuously expressed in his use of Judeo-Christian symbolism in his work as well as in his personal Jewish and Christian practices, and clearly he has explored, and articulated in his songs, the profound depths of his own spiritual inquiries. Manjushri's concern with ethics is exemplified by Dylan in his many songs about contemporary injustices, whether of persons wrongfully imprisoned, or "masters of war" not held accountable for true crimes.
Dylan's intuitive understanding of fundamental spiritual dialectics, also elaborated in the Mahayana path that Manjushri expounds, may be gleaned in many lines from his songs. "The country music station plays soft, but there's nothing, really nothing, to turn off," is an incisive expression of the reality of every form as empty and open, with no fixed reality "to turn off" or avoid. The clear, open truth is ever present right in the background voices and laments. Forms need not be obliterated to find their emptiness. Another Dylan line, "Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?" is a haunting, Zen-like utterance, appropriately phrased as a question, penetrating the gossamery web of causation and mutual conditioning in which we are enmeshed, even while we hear the "chimes of freedom."
From: Chapter 7.
Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin, Kannon): Heart of Compassion
Hearing the Cries
One meaning of Avalokiteshvara's name is "Regarder of the World's Cries or Sounds," indicated in the Japanese name Kanzeon. A shortened form of this is Kannon (or the Chinese Guanyin), "Hearing or Regarding Sounds." Avalokiteshvara is the one who calmly hears and considers all of the world's sounds of woe. This name implies that empathy and active listening are primary practices of compassion. Just to be present, to remain upright and aware in the face of suffering without needing to react reflexively, is compassion. Kanzeon acknowledges beings and their cries, and responds when appropriate or when it would be useful. Often, when we are troubled, what we most yearn for is this acceptance, to be heard and have our pain recognized. Such attentive presence may be more the essence of compassion than our attempts to problem-solve, to manipulate the world or our psyches in order to "fix" difficult situations.
This careful observation of the words and cries is the compassionate practice of counselors and therapists, empathetically giving their presence and paying attention to the conflicts and confusion of others. Considering all the many manifestations encompassed by Avalokiteshvara, however, we might also remember to carefully regard our own cries, the suffering of all the beings included within us. We cannot offer compassion to others if we cannot be compassionate, accepting, and forgiving of ourselves. We can hear and acknowledge our own feelings of fear, frustration, and anger with calm uprightness, rather than needing to react externally and act them out inappropriately.
Avalokiteshvara uses implements effectively as needed and responds with awareness and skill, but she also has a strong receptive component. We might see Avalokiteshvara as less of an activist than Samantabhadra. Thinking of the majestic stately pace of his elephant, we can see Samantabhadra as deliberate, imbued with intention, using his knowledge to systematically change the conditions of the world when it would be beneficial. Avalokiteshvara is instead responsive without deliberation, simply meeting the immediate cries and needs of beings as they appear before her.
Folklore and Miracle Stories
. . . A story from early thirteenth century Japan tells of a medicinal hot springs in a town called Tsukuma, in old Shinano Province (modern Nagano Prefecture), where a townsman had a dream in which a voice announced that Kannon would come to the town square the next day. The dreamer asked how he would know it was Kannon, and the voice described a scruffy, thirtyish warrior on horseback. After the townsman awoke and told his friends, everyone in the village was excited and gathered at the appointed time. When a samurai fitting the description arrived, everyone prostrated themselves to him. The astounded warrior demanded an explanation, but the townspeople just continued their prostrations until a priest finally told him about the dream. The samurai explained that he had fallen off his horse and injured himself, and simply had come to the medicinal springs for healing. But the townspeople continued making prostrations to him.
After a while it finally occurred to the perplexed warrior that perhaps he actually was Kannon, and that he should become a monk. He discarded his weapons and was ordained, later becoming a disciple of a famous priest. This former warrior is not otherwise noted in history. Just to become an ordinary monk was enough to allow him to consider himself as Kannon.
This story shows the strength of popular belief in dreams, as well as the power of Kannon. Such willingness to be guided and to change one's life because of someone else's dream may seem like gullibility, but it also expresses an aspect of compassion that trusts in hearing when the world calls to us and that responds without hesitation. The samurai had come to the town for healing, and he was finally able to hear and receive the healing gift that was offered him, relinquishing his previous idea of his identity. We may note that intercession and guidance from the bodhisattva figures often is said to occur through visions in dreams.
Exemplars of Avalokiteshvara
. . . Another exemplar of the Avalokiteshvara archetype in my personal experience is Mrs. Mitsu Suzuki, the widow of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. Mrs. Suzuki, who in 1961 moved to San Francisco to be with her husband at his Japanese-American temple, is herself a quietly important figure in the still short history of American Zen. For more than twenty years after her husband died in 1971, Mrs. Suzuki stayed on, living at the Zen Center he had established with his American meditation students. Although she did not finally return to Japan for more than thirty years, America remained a strange country to her and English a difficult language. But she amiably remained as a quiet presence and much-loved guide and example to several generations of Zen students.
Mrs. Suzuki would never have thought of trying to impose her views or opinions, but kindly and clearly embodied simple principles of compassion and generosity, even through difficulties that embroiled the Zen Center community. Her example helped many of us stay focused on the real work during stressful times. Throughout, she remained cheerful. I recall her daily vigorous walking exercises down the halls of the residence building, widely swinging her arms and smiling at the bemused students as they passed.
Mrs. Suzuki has a keen sense of the Japanese aesthetic, a contemplative sensibility that is inextricably linked to Zen practice, and which she expresses as a fine haiku poet. Some of her haiku, which have appeared in Japanese journals, have also been translated and published in English. These short poems are concentrated distillations of immediate experience. The following examples might be seen as descriptions of Avalokiteshvara, simply but carefully observing the sounds and doings of her world and herself:
Disturbing matters continue
I hear bird songs
Clear winter day
sound of waves
my grandchild's love story
I cut a huge melon.
Mrs. Suzuki expresses the strict side of Zen compassion. She helped train and refine Zen students while acting as a teacher of the Way of Tea, commonly referred to as Tea Ceremony. Suzuki Roshi had suggested she take up tea practice, and it became a vehicle for her to share the background of his teaching after he was gone. Mrs. Suzuki used tea and the sensitive handling of its many traditional utensils as skillful means, frequently demonstrating "tough love" in her sharp-tongued criticism of students' lack of attentiveness to the details of the tea-making forms and choreography. Her lessons helped many Zen students expand their sense of presence, and learn to care for their everyday surroundings.
This tea practice has evolved over the centuries in Japan to foster awareness and respectful consideration for others in the simple act of kindly preparing, serving, and drinking a cup of tea. Along with the tea itself, the Way of Tea encompasses the practice and appreciation of many everyday handicrafts, such as flower arranging, garden design, pottery, and calligraphy, which have been widely absorbed into Japanese daily life as gentle expressions of spirituality.
In addition to tea, Mrs. Suzuki taught some students the Japanese way of sewing formal tea ceremony garments and meditation robes. One student especially recalls Mrs. Suzuki's hands as "small and very well kept. When she picks something up, even if it's as seemingly insignificant as a pin, her hands and the object seem to know each other. The way a pin or a piece of fabric is held becomes a teaching in such hands." Just in the dimension of such ordinary activities with traditional implements, Mrs. Suzuki was able to teach her students the heart of kindness, and with (Kannon-like) supple hands of compassion, assembled an ocean of blessing.
From: Chapter 11. Beyond the Archetypal; Sustained Awakening
Unpacking the Archetypal
. . . Beyond all the archetypal patterns, the life of the bodhisattva is in ordinary, everyday activity. In simple acts of kindness and gestures of cheerfulness, bodhisattvas are functioning everywhere, not as special, saintly beings, but in helpful ways we may barely recognize. The bodhisattvas are not glorified, exotic, unnatural beings, but simply our own best qualities in full flower.
The people I have cited as the bodhisattvas' exemplars are actual human beings. They are not archetypes. They provide illustrations of some aspects of the various bodhisattva figures. But we can see in many of these people that sometimes the greatest deeds and virtues also cast deep shadows, for example, with the brilliant Jefferson's slaveholding, as well as in the unmentioned human failings and foibles of many of the others. Archetypes give us the opportunity to study the projections we make from our own internal dynamics, our innate bodhisattvic qualities. The point is not whether Mother Teresa is or is not worthy of being called a bodhisattva, or canonized as a saint, but that her story is unquestionably a focal point that attracts our own projections and aspirations toward goodness, toward bodhisattvahood.
Bodhisattvas are not merely archetypes. Bodhisattvas are great cosmic beings, helping us all to become bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are not who we think they are. Bodhisattvas are simply ordinary beings, making their way back to Buddha. Bodhisattvas appear in the nooks and crannies of your life; soon you may start seeing them more clearly. Bodhisattvas are just around the corner. Bodhisattvas are extraordinary wondrous beings, bestowing blessings on all wretched, confused, petty
creatures. Bodhisattvas are living in your neighborhood, waiting to say "Good morning" to you. Bodhisattvas are just like you and me. Bodhisattvas are kind and gentle. Bodhisattvas are not who we think they are. Bodhisattvas are tough and indefatigable. Bodhisattvas are not limited to a handful of amazing figures or famous people. Bodhisattvas are not limited by what we say they are or are not. We are all bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are not who we think they are. We cannot understand how
wonderful bodhisattvas are. We are all bodhisattvas.