Friday, February 19, 2010

The Mega-Bus to Enlightenment

There is something that all genuine spiritual traditions seem to have in common. Invariably, they stress the importance of altruism: the necessity of realizing our interdependence with other beings, and acting from a heart of concern for the well-being and spiritual care of others. The individual self’s wants and needs are seen to be petty and insignificant next to the great ocean of suffering in which all sentient beings are bobbing helplessly.

In every religion (with the exceptions, perhaps, of Satanism and the philosophical cult of Ayn Rand), spiritually mature beings downplay self-centered concerns and place greater emphasis on the welfare of others. The “what about me?” attitude of the childish ego has been entirely replaced with a compassionate concern for other people’s happiness and well-being. The great spiritual leaders -- the Buddha, Jesus, the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and so on -- all seem to devote themselves single-pointedly and fearlessly to the path of altruism and compassion, with little or no residual traces of a self-seeking ego.

The further and deeper we go into the spiritual path, the more our lives become dedicated to relieving that suffering and helping others, and the more we let go of our own personal agendas and territories. This self-sacrificing love and compassion for others is the motivating force behind the crucifixion of Jesus Christ; it is the purpose of Tikkun Olam, the mystical Jewish principle of ‘healing the universe’ in order to return the Holy Spark that is each sentient being to the divine source from which it sprang; it is the vision behind the Buddhist archetype of the ‘Bodhisattva,’ the noble being who works for the benefit of others and strives towards enlightenment so that others may also reach that state.

Over the centuries, Buddhism evolved and split into different schools and sub-schools, in much the way Christianity, Judaism, and other religions have done. A few centuries after the Buddha’s death, a new kind of Buddhism sprang up alongside the old. It was a revolution on the scale of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, and it altered the face of the Buddhist religion forever. This new school was known as Mahayana, and from it descended many of the forms of Buddhism we know today, including Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. Maha- means “great” or “big,” and yana means “vehicle.”

If the older schools of Buddhism had produced a lot of individuals driving along the road of spiritual awakening in their own private cars, Mahayana was seen as the great, collective vehicle, the mega-bus that would carry all beings together along the path of awakening. As people today are becoming more environmentally conscious about driving, so the early Mahayanists came to see that there was something slightly amiss in the notion of driving, alone, in your own little spiritual bubble, focusing on your own needs first.

In reality, Buddhists from the older 'Hinayana' schools (including Theravada) are not at all self-centered, as this language would make them appear. It's merely a doctrinal distinction that the Mahayana school paints in order to make a point about the crucial importance of selfless compassion and the altruistic motivation.

The spirit of Mahayana is that we travel the path of awakening not just for ourselves and our own liberation, but for the sake of all beings. It’s a view that places compassion front and center, and emphasizes our interconnectedness — that fact that we need each other to do this work of waking up. When you embrace the Mahayana path, helping others becomes your primary goal, an end in itself — and attaining your own enlightenment is seen as merely a means to that end. When you, yourself, wake up, then you will know best how to help others wake up. Developing the strong intention to become enlightened for the benefit of all sentient beings, and then putting that intention into practice, is the way of Mahayana.

The Mahayana path of altruism is not an easy one. In some ways it would be much easier, and more convenient, to focus on your own needs, driving along the spiritual path in the comfort and privacy of your own personal car. Perhaps you’ve got your car tricked out with a nice paint job and special hub caps, and tinted windows so no one else can see you. As everyone who takes public transportation knows, to ride on a bus is less comfortable, and more insulting. To ride a city bus without losing your mind, you have to be able to set aside your own agenda and accommodate the eccentricities and annoying behaviors of others. Focusing first and foremost on the needs of others, and regarding your own awakening as a means to help them rather than an end in itself, turns your personal project of enlightenment upside-down. Making that commitment requires an unflinching allegiance to growing up and leaving behind the petty, selfish concerns of the childish ego.

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