For the full archive of Middle Way articles, click here.

Bodhisattva Practice in the Great Way

Eric Cheetham, Middle Way (Volume 69:1 p. 3) May 1994

All forms of Buddhism focus strongly on the practical means by which its goals are to be achieved. Now, the goals themselves are carefully described and explained, but that is only part of the scheme. These goals are held out as really attainable - indeed it is vital that they are attained! However, all forms of Buddhism agree that because we are all enmeshed in ignorance, ingrained habits, fears and self-delusion, it is impossible for most of us to reach out and gain these goals unaided from where we are. In the first place, it required a Path Finder to actually find the Way to the goals and to realise them fully; to live them completely and to speak about what that attainment reveals to those who are willing to follow him. That Path Finder is the Buddha Himself and those Great Teachers who came after him.

The Buddha and those Great Teachers all say that our ordinary world of suffering and fleeting happiness is, in reality, not at all as we imagine it to be. But there is a state of being which opens to humankind where there is no suffering; there is no death and destruction; there is no turmoil and loss. A state where the Real can be known in its fullness and without limitations. That real state is the substance of the Buddha's full and perfect Enlightenment. To gain that we have to shed our own limitations which are derived from ignorance and false views, and we also have to purify and upgrade all our faculties and acquire some special qualities. Hence, a training programme, of one kind or another, is a central proposition of all the various forms of Buddhism.

As we all know, the Buddha was at first uncertain as to how he could teach the profound truths of reality, which he had realised for himself in, and at, his Enlightenment. What he eventually taught in the first instance, and with great success, was a progressively graduated process toward the goal of freedom from suffering. That teaching is enshrined in the Four Noble Truths. That progression was not, and is not, an intrinsic part of the Supreme Truth. In fact, it is quite the contrary. Gradual progress toward the Ultimate is necessary simply because we are as we are. It is all our fault, you see! We are, so we are told, sunk in internal and external conditions which blind us to what actually is there all the time.

This is well illustrated by the old Indian story of the Blind Men and the Elephant, where several blind men, with reputations as Sages, were confronted with an elephant. One, unable to see the whole animal, then took hold of his tusk and said, "Ah! An elephant is long, curved and smooth." One of the others, equally defective in vision; , took hold of a leg and said that the elephant was thick, round and upright like a tree. There is no question about it. I have got hold of it! Another, holding the tail, said an elephant was thin, movable and with a hairy tuft! Then reaching for the under-belly one other said the elephant was large, rotund with a horizontal area of wrinkled skin. I suppose he got closest to it!

The point of this story is that no amount of verbal description to such impaired people could accurately and convincingly convey the true image of the elephant. Indeed, any explanations, which contradicted what they believed, would only give rise to arguments and more wrong views because those men were reliant on the evidence of the senses that they had. Similarly, the True Nature of the world, including our own True Nature, is like the elephant. Understanding it is not within the grasp of those with defective vision. The only way is to heal or cleanse the vision so that what is really there can be seen whole and without mistake, and not in its separate parts. Hence the Path!

Using a Western analogy, it is similar to the general view of the world that was common in and before the fifteenth century in Europe. Then, all sensible and orthodox people knew for a fact that the earth was flat - perhaps a flat disc - which was the centre of the whole Universe. The sun and all the heavenly bodies revolved around the earth. One only had to look up into the sky to see that this was so. It was indisputable! After all, the world had to be flat, otherwise we would all fall off! Now all this was held to be self-evident, as indeed in certain respects it was. And some who taught otherwise, at this time, had a fiery death for their pains. In that situation, the fact that the earth is a revolving sphere and travelling in a regular orbit around the sun is not only incredible, it cannot be demonstrated. All the evidence is to the contrary! Yet whatever these learned churchmen believed in those days, and whatever the seamen and the ordinary people thought; the earth never stopped being what it is and doing what it does. Their convictions about it had no impact on, or connection with, the real state. For those people, of that time, there was no way that the real state of affairs could be shown to them because of how things stood then and how they themselves were at that time. A long development of science and of instrumentation had to take place before the possibility of understanding the real situation could even be contemplated. And the real state of the earth, as it is in fact, could only be directly perceived by means of space flight.

The situation between us, as we are, and the goals of Buddhism is rather similar. The True Nature that the Buddha and the Great Bodhisattvas know, and are part of, eludes us completely, in the state we are now. Their reports of how things are, seem alien and even nonsensical to us. Like the idea of living on a rapidly spinning ball with nothing to hold us up! Each of us has to pass through a special kind of growth before the real situation comes even within reach. And yet at all times the real state is there and we are part of it, and it is completely unaffected by our false views and opinions. However, there is a vital difference between our capacities for realising True Nature and the almost total incapacity of mediaeval people to know the physical world aright.

In the case of Buddhist ideals the necessary growth to realisation can be rapid or slow, and that depends on our inherent qualities when we start. But, quickly or slowly, all the stages of that growth have to be traversed in order to achieve the ideal. And it is just those stages which are set out in the great teaching expositions of the Buddhist texts. Some of these stages vary in character, according to whether the times are helpful or not. Whether people are of one type or another. Whether the goal aimed at is total or partial. And, the last factor, the partial goal, accounts for much of the differences between Mahayana and Mainstream; also between various schools and cultures. But in all cases, one way or another, the primary requirement, as for the Blind Men and the Elephant, is for the apparatus of the senses and our very heart of awareness to be cured and cleansed of their various diseases and restrictions.

It is just this cure of disease that characterised the earliest phase of Buddhist practice guidance. Our perceptions need to be refined and clarified so that all our habitual and ingrained false views about ourselves and our surroundings can be laid to rest. Only after that is done can the elephant be seen for what it is. At that point, explanations are superfluous, one can see clearly for oneself. That is the whole thrust of all the preliminary instruction and practice of all schools, whether Hinayana, Mainstream or Mahayana. Their methods may differ but the basic intention is always the same.

Here, as an example of the original form of the exhortation, are the Buddha's recorded words, taken from the Digha Nikaya of the Pali texts.

The Disciple's Conversion

"In this case, O King, a Tathagata arises in the world; an Arahat; an All Enlightened Buddha, endowed with knowledge and conduct; a Happy One; a Knower of the World; a Supreme Charioteer of men to be tamed; a Teacher of gods and men; a Buddha; a Lord. He, of himself, by higher knowledge, having comprehended and realised this world with its gods, Mara, Brahma, its beings with ascetics and Brahmins, gods and men, preaches. He teaches the Doctrine: good in the beginning; good in the middle; good in the end - in the spirit and the letter. And proclaims a perfectly complete and pure religious life.
A householder, or a householder's son; or someone who is reborn in a certain family, hears that Doctrine. Having heard it, he acquires faith in the Tathagata. Endowed with the faith he has acquired, he thus reflects. Encumbered is a householder’s life: a place of dust. Going forth from home is in the open air. It is not easy for one who dwells in a house to practise a perfectly complete and pure religious life polished as a pearl. What if I remove my hair and beard, put on yellow robes and go forth from a house to a houseless life? Later, he gives up his small, or great wealth. Gives up a small, or large, circle of relatives, and removing his hair and beard, puts on yellow robes - and goes forth from a house to a houseless life... Having thus gone forth, he dwells restrained with the restraint of the Precepts accomplished in the practice of right behaviour, seeing the danger of even minute faults, he adopts the rules of training and becomes trained in them; exercising good actions of body and speech; getting a livelihood by pure means. 1. being accomplished in morality. 2. having the door of his senses guarded. 3. being endowed with Mindfulness and self-possession and 4. being content...
And how, Oh King, does the monk have the door of his senses guarded? In this case a monk, when with his eyes he sees objects, does not occupy himself with their characteristics or minor features. Whatever bad or evil thoughts might flow into him on account of his not being restrained in the use of the organ of sight, towards all that he exercises restraint. He guards his organ of sight and applies restraint. When with his sense of hearing, smelling, taste, touch; when with his mind he perceives internal impressions, he does not occupy himself with their characteristics or minor features. Endowed with this noble restraint of the senses, he experiences, internally unimpaired happiness. Thus, O King, a monk has the door of his senses guarded...
With his mind thus concentrated, purified and cleansed; without lust; free from the depravities; subtle; ready to act; firm and impassable, he turns and directs his mind to the knowledge of the destruction of the asravas, he duly understands 'this is pain', he duly understands 'this is the cause of pain', he duly understands 'this is the cessation of pain', he duly understands 'this is the Path that leads to the cessation of pain'. He duly understands 'these are the asravas', he duly understands 'this is the cause of the asravas', he duly understands 'this is the Path that leads to the destruction of the asravas'. As he thus knows and thus perceives, his mind is released from the asrava of sensual desire, from the asrava of desire for existence. From the asrava of ignorance. In the released is the knowledge of his release. Ignorance is destroyed, the religious life has been led, done is what was to be done,there is nothing further for this world".

Samannaphala suttanta of the Digha Nikaya, 1. 47. Extracts only from: 'Early Buddhist Scriptures' by E. J Thomas. Kegan Paul London 1935.

There are some rather technical expressions in that extract, but the gist of it is clear. You will have noticed that at the start of the training, the candidate in that situation leaves the household life and enters the Order of Monks, or Nuns, which is the Sangha. This was because many of those first disciples (and remember that all these extracts from the scriptures are talking about a situation of the Buddha's time and not our time) were already capable of rapid progress (that is rapid progress toward the goals of the destruction of suffering). And the Sanha, or the Order of Monks, was formed for that express purpose: as an intensive training environment, which enables suitable persons to do what was necessary quickly, or comparatively quickly, without any other distractions.

That is still the case today, in theory. Although with the passage of time and the wider variations in the types of people drawn to this Teaching, the entry into the cloistered Order was judged to be (is judged to be, especially in Mahayana) no longer an indispensable condition in every case.

As an increasing number of the early Buddhist practitioners, who followed detailed and very precise training, began to gain clearer vision. In stages, then the Buddha's ultimate intentions were more deeply understood. Having then seen the elephant, it was realised that the initial cure that actually enabled you to see the beast whole was only a means to size it up! Only when you sized it up could it then be seen how the elephant was capable of use as royal transport. And that is where Mahayana came in with its aspect of a Further Teaching.

Back to index of articles