The Bodhisattva ideal in popular Western culture

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somehopesnoregrets
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The Bodhisattva ideal in popular Western culture

Post by somehopesnoregrets » Thu Apr 16, 2009 10:14 am

Hello;

I'm working for a paper on a class on Buddhism I am just right now taking. The topic I'm planning to pick to write about is similarities between Mahayana Buddhist ideas of "the Bodhisattva" archetype and similar arisings in Western, particularly U.S. American, pop culture. It is something I've been thinking of a lot long before taking this class, and this is merely a welcome opportunity to sort through my thoughts.

A Bodhisattva is a being who has attained enlightenment but voluntarily commits to returning into the world of messy causes and conditions, in order to save other beings. A Bodhisattva's vow is to not rest on his or her laurels until all beings are saved. It has an air of crazy foolishness to vow such a thing, because as Buddhist sources themselves state "beings are numberless, [...] Dharma gates are boundless [...]." This vow means wholeheartedly committing oneself to the impossible, pouring oneself into a bottomless pit of a cause, not in a self-deprecating martyr kind of mindset but out of a sense of joyful wisdom, loving kindness, and deep caring for the world. Loving one's neighbor as oneself, as Jesus would say (who of course fully qualifies for the above). I am at this point more interested, though, in characters out of the non-religious realm, who would fit the above description. A Bodhisattva may not know that he or she is one. Bodhisattvahood seems to have some things in common with the Campbellian hero who, after fighting his or her way through caves and personal abysses, comes out on the other end, no longer needing the approval and the handholding, but returning to the market place anyhow, to share the gifts and the treasure without asking for anything in return.

The ones I can think of right now are:

Mary Poppins -- comes out of nowhere to faciliate other folk's enlightenment, lovingly and wholeheartedly practices compassionate non-attachment

Many cartoon heroes, such as Superman, Wonder Woman, and many of the X-Men (and women) -- They could simply use their superhuman powers to have a fun ride, but for some reason they care for a world that often doesn't care about itself enough it seems. They are also outsiders, misunderstood and sometimes even shunned or persecuted.

Not sure about Batman, since he has an air of wounded frustration around him, it seems. I expect a Bodhisattva to tirelessly clear up human messes but not in order to escape his or her own trauma but out of a sense of joyful connection with all that is, no matter how messy or confused its expressions might come across at times.

Yoda from Star Wars? But then, looks as if he actually enters Paranirvana (a fancy way for saying "he dies") and doesn't come back.

Any others you can think of? Movie characters, literary figures, etc.? Again, I'm mostly thinking pop culture mythology, but any mythological character that pop culture heroes might be based on or draw from is interesting to me as well.

Thanks in advance for any ideas you feel like bouncing into my general direction.

Love,
:-) Julia
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Post by boringguy » Thu Apr 16, 2009 4:41 pm

Hi somehopes,

This should stir up some controversy.

I never was a big fan of Jim Morrison, singer for The Doors, although I have heard some of their music over the years. He was just a little before my time, at that age I spent much of my time literally wandering around the backwoods. My point is that I am by no means an authority, but sat and watched the movie The Doors the other night with a friend, and wonder about his qualification as Bodhisattva.
A Bodhisattva is a being who has attained enlightenment but voluntarily commits to returning into the world of messy causes and conditions, in order to save other beings. A Bodhisattva's vow is to not rest on his or her laurels until all beings are saved
Which begs the question of course as to what is or qualifies as enlightenment, but Morrison did seem to resonate a message of truth of spirit to people beyond the institutions of 'the man'. Of course, as with Campbells work, some take more than others from it.
It has an air of crazy foolishness to vow such a thing,...

... no longer needing the approval and the handholding...
And Morrison's story seems all that.

Perhaps a trip point here might be that I'm not sure I would see the Bodhisattva's journey as tirelessly cleaning up human messes, so much as tirelessly promoting others finding their own enlightenment.

Well and then there is the participation out of love part. But isn't loving oneself rather prerequisite to truely loving others, and even without recognition, refusal to conform can be a step in that direction?


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Post by manjuprabha » Wed Apr 22, 2009 9:11 pm

I am not sure of the qualification of Jesus as a Bodhisattva figure. It is highly unlikely that a Bodhisattva would assault the buyers and sellers in the temple - even as "skillful means". Further, Jesus was all too self-conscious of his mortality and subsequent self-sacrifice. In principle, the Bodhisattva whilst taking the vow would also be beyond the very notion of self and giving, this being the very nature of a Bodhisattva. Identification with an eternal Godhead figure would also be extremely unllikely.
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Post by Neoplato » Wed Apr 22, 2009 10:17 pm

Welcome manjuprabha!

This is an interesting point of view.
I am not sure of the qualification of Jesus as a Bodhisattva figure. It is highly unlikely that a Bodhisattva would assault the buyers and sellers in the temple - even as "skillful means".
There are many sources that suggest that Jesus was an emotional person, but let's take this example in point. Here is a man who is witnessing a deliberate violation of life itself in a place that is dedicated to it's worship. The hypocracy of the situation angered a man because this was a sin against his Being. Now maybe a Bodihisattva figure wouldn't lose control, or would he?
Further, Jesus was all too self-conscious of his mortality and subsequent self-sacrifice. In principle, the Bodhisattva whilst taking the vow would also be beyond the very notion of self and giving, this being the very nature of a Bodhisattva. Identification with an eternal Godhead figure would also be extremely unllikely.
Yes...but in the end he chose death. How could he do that without recognizing the "Godhead" in himself?
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Post by noman » Thu Apr 23, 2009 2:34 am

Hello SomeHopes and all,

When it comes to Star Trek I’m only familiar with Star Trek Original, The Next Generation, and a few of the movies. But one persistent theme in Star Trek philosophy is that all creatures in the galaxy are on an escalator so to speak. It’s an idea that echoes the ‘great chain of being’ in European mythology of the Middle Ages, or the Indian philosophy of reincarnation to a higher or lower state of being. But the ‘escalator’ motif in Star Trek is also taken from a warped understanding of evolution. The idea is that all species are advancing up the scale of life. Rats were once insects, and we were once rats. In Star Trek there are beings much, much higher than us. And there were episodes where the higher ups would give us a bit of advice or tell us there may be hope for us yet if we are willing to make the right decisions.

There is never really any talk of an ultimate goal in this scheme. Just that some beings are more advanced than others and that there is this movement of all species up the scale.

Mr. Q, in the Next Generation, strikes me as a bodhisattva. He is a higher up. He’s a great trickster, and he causes trouble. But often he is teaching Captain Picard or humanity an important lesson. Behind all his trickery, there is a sense of caring. Also, the bartender, played by Whoopie Goldberg may also qualfy as a Boddhisatva. I believe she is superbeing, psychologist, bartender with a lot of compassion.

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Post by somehopesnoregrets » Thu Apr 23, 2009 12:05 pm

In Star Trek there are beings much, much higher than us. And there were episodes where the higher ups would give us a bit of advice or tell us there may be hope for us yet if we are willing to make the right decisions.
You're right!!! How could I forgot about Star Trek? Yes, that's actually the problem I've always had with the "prime directive" -- I keep thinking, if I ever meet a "higher" being, I hope she won't be unable to share ideas with me, due to some misguided attempt at protecting my ignorant innocence.

What about Commander Data? He seems kind, not an evil bone (or piece of silicone) in his body, and a model of perfect equanimity (to a fault, almost, since he keeps being curious about what all the intense emoting is about that the folks around him do). There is something childlike about him, but I do remember one mythologically rich episode, in which he turns into some kind of Solar deity.

Is it important for a Bodhisattva to have a sense of humor? Most of the Zen one's do, it seems, but is it a requirement? Because that could leave Data out... Oh, yes, I always loved that Whoopie Goldberg character! And Q is funny.

Hugs.
:-) Julia
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Post by Clemsy » Thu Apr 23, 2009 12:57 pm

Hmmm. Trickster as Bodhisatva....

There's something compelling about that...

I've always thought that the 'Q' character was inspired by an episode in the original series titled 'The Squire of Gothos' in which "A powerful alien named Trelane abducts crewmembers for his amusement, but when Kirk refuses to play his games, Trelane puts him on trial and prepares to execute him."

At the end of the episode, Trelane's parents, advanced noncorporeal (sp?) beings, scold him for treating the lower life forms like toys.

'Q' certainly is a trickster. His character evolved over time from a very Trelane like arrogance to one of tricksterish poking and testing.

Bodhisatva and trickster... anyone know of a reference that examines a relationship between the two?
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Post by noman » Thu Apr 23, 2009 6:27 pm

hit and run post...


At the end of the Trelane episode, Kirk and company compare him to a child tearing the wings off insects and such. What child has never thrown a fly into an active spider web, poured salt on a snail, or burned an ant with a magnifying glass.

But in the three episodes I can think of with ‘Q’, there was a lesson to the teasing and taunting. I think ‘Q’ is the closest thing we have to a deity in Star Trek. He’s a caring and malicious deity, not unlike the Greek gods. But in this modern age we have not to obey or worship. We just deal with him as best we can without knowing what he’s all about – or what the ‘escalator’ system is all about.

Now about Data. I just don’t know how to fit him into any traditional mythology. He is more than a machine and less than a human. Somewhere in between. I think he represents our species special faculty for logic and reason and technology in sharp contrast to ESP female officer who’s special faculty is intuition and hypersensitivity to feelings. But religion or spirituality doesn’t seem to be a factor with either one of them.

About the ‘prime directive’. I think that is a carry-over from European imperialism, cultural and value relativity. In the 60s we Euro-whites really had to come to terms with what in the world we had done in contact with all these ‘less advanced’ cultures. For the most part it’s not a pretty picture. And who are we to say that they are ‘lesser’ in any way. On the other hand the goddess of progress has to be respected. So we say, okay, our policy is not to interfere with another culture’s natural progress. (But you’ll notice, very often, Kirk and Co. does interfere when he deems it is good for them.) It mimics the policy of industrialized nations to non-industrialized nations. One of respect and hands off but occasionally we will help you if we can. (or if we happen to need your raw materials and labor)

But this same theme will explain why the ‘higher ups’ of the galaxy don’t get more involved with us. Beings must develop naturally and on their own terms, advancing ever onward toward – toward who knows what.

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Post by Neoplato » Thu Apr 23, 2009 7:27 pm

noman wrote:
But this same theme will explain why the ‘higher ups’ of the galaxy don’t get more involved with us. Beings must develop naturally and on their own terms, advancing ever onward toward – toward who knows what.
"Childhood's End"? :wink:
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Post by pedme84 » Thu Apr 23, 2009 8:26 pm

What an entertaining thought! The Shi'ite idea of the Hiddem Imam reminds me of the Boddhisattva, but that doesn't sound like what you're looking for.

What about Bono? :lol:

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Post by noman » Sat Apr 25, 2009 3:13 am

Had a little time to think about this. Data is an extremely good person as was Spock in the original series. But these are beings who are on fairly equal terms with humans and all the other human-like creatures in the galaxy. But in one episode Q and Woopie Goldberg meet and there was this certain recognition of two beings on a higher level of existence compared to the other characters around them. Woopie didn’t have as much power as Q but she showed her defiance with a cat claw stance when they met.

There was another episode I saw in Next Gen where a higher being destroyed an entire race of beings because they had killed his wife. At the end of the episode Captain Picard figured out what happened and told him ‘we are not qualified to be your judge.’

In most of Star Trek, there’s a certain moral structure to the universe. The whole shebang is like a secular religion with a strong moral compass, a celebration of self-sacrifice, and an appreciation of the value of discovery and progress and battling for what is right. But there are no grand stories to justify any of it. And death is faced rather casually and easily.

The Star Ship is really a modern secular utopia where good things happen to good people and bad things are usually corrected by the end of the episode. But I think Woopie makes a pretty good modern Bodhisattva.

Nuff said.

Welcome to the forums Emily

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Post by somehopesnoregrets » Sun May 03, 2009 11:14 am

What child has never thrown a fly into an active spider web, poured salt on a snail, or burned an ant with a magnifying glass.
I never did. I guess some kids develop empathy earlier than others. I did go to the other extreme, though, it seems. I remember watching nature shows and being outraged that the person behind the camera didn't rescue the gazelle from the lion. Yes, on some level I understood that this simply is the cycle of life, but I still strongly felt that, when witnessing horror, we have some obligation to try and do something, no matter how nobly futile that may be in the grand scheme of things. And, of course, now that I'm older and a tad more cynical, I can see how human history is full of cases, during which individuals tried to provide help but created hurt instead.

I did spend some time giving bits and pieces of food to the inhabitants of an anthill, but I don't think I killed flies for that. I had a strong and rather moralistic conviction at the time that this would have been “wrong” to do. But I loved watching them carry their finds off and working together in doing so. I also made little graves for dead birds I found, with tiny make-shift wooden crosses and wild flowers on top (making sure to only touch them through a tissue, since my parents had told me about germs and such things). I was a weirdly sentimental child then, and I guess I'm a weirdly idealistic adult now...
:wink:
The Shi'ite idea of the Hiddem Imam reminds me of the Boddhisattva, but that doesn't sound like what you're looking for.
Hi Emily! Guess right now I'm actually looking for all kinds of input, even if it seems to move away from the original question. That's one of the fun things about this forum, that I sometimes ask one thing but the universe (in form of “y’all”) decides to answer an entirely different question. This place is really cool in that way. Interestingly enough, I'm right now taking a comparative religion class about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and we are currently studying the Islam part. I love the teacher. She is from the Middle East, and her perspective is exceptionally kind, scholarly, and even-keeled. It turns out there is so much I don't know about Islam, and I'm fascinated. She mentioned the Shiites’ hidden Imam, but she considered him more of a Messiah figure.
Had a little time to think about this. Data is an extremely good person as was Spock in the original series. But these are beings who are on fairly equal terms with humans and all the other human-like creatures in the galaxy.
I wonder, though, if that isn't exactly the idea of Bodhisattva in the Mahayana tradition: A human being with all her or his weaknesses, including but not limited to mortality, who then transcends them. Instead of feeling selfrighteously angry at her or his impermanence (like I and so many other human beings do at times), she makes the best of it. (S)he still gets upset but notices her upset fully like one would notice a storm and not take it personally and doesn’t use it as justification to hurt others. (S)he has all the different human ailments (including anger, impatience, etc.), but notices them as something not worthy of much of her time and energy but treats them as mere challenges to maintaining steady awareness and compassion, challenges that can be worked through and overcome on a moment-by-moment basis. Maintaining awareness and being fully in the here and now can appear to an outside observer as if there is something “magic” or “supernatural” happening, but in fact there isn’t. I believe it is our nature to be good, kind, and aware, and, when we aren't, we simply took a wrong turn somewhere (doesn't mean that some beings can't get permanently lost and be really dangerous, mean, and brutal in their being-lost-ness, though). The Bodhisattva simply lives out to the fullest what is the potential of each and every human, I feel, rather than being of a different species or a magically transformed creature. It may be tempting to think of the Bodhitsattva as essentially different or magically transformed, because if that were the case, we simply can't get "there" (which, of course, ironically isn't "there" as much as "here"), so we won't have to do the work. What a splendid excuse! It seems to me that many myths about beings who hover between divinity and humanity (the Greek Hercules is one that comes to my mind) are fanciful, later interpretations of such humans, not superhumans, but simply full of humanity at its best.

So, here is a follow-up question:

I do see some parallels between the myth of the Messiah, the myth of the Bodhisattva, and the hero myths Campbell describes in the “Hero with a thousand faces” and elsewhere.

What are the similarities, and what are the differences?

The Campbellian hero goes out on a quest, often in solitude, faces inner and outer demons, risks health and life, and, if lucky and supported by fate (or God, depending on world-view), returns from the abyss to the market place, sharing gifts. To somebody who stayed home, the transformation might seem miraculous and supernatural, but the hero knows that she or he worked for each of the scars that end up badges of honor or marks of a Buddha.

A Messiah, depending on the attitude of the person describing such creature, is somebody awaited, who saves us from our own inadequacies. Most Messiah-figures aren’t all sweet and nice, but tend to have a strict and harsh side to them, too, uncompromising towards circumstances that cause suffering, but there is an overall tendency to love rather than hate. Just the way that love expresses itself can be very different from person to person.

Is one person's hero another person's Messiah, with the point-of-view simply shifted a bit?

It seems to me that the Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva pushes both the above hero and Messiah further but at the same time makes them more human. Instead of hiding on some distant Mount Olympus, (s)he doesn’t mind walking the grime and dirt of everyday lives, because (s)he strongly believes in freely sharing the merits bestowed rather than greedily saving them up for some fancy future rebirth.

If I look at stories, myths, and legends (old or modern, pop-culture ones), then I need to keep reminding myself that those are metaphors, not point-by-point descriptions of somebody actually running around. So, the interesting question to me is, what do those myths point towards? Which human conditions, experiences, hopes, fears do they evoke or appeal towards? Which part of what makes us tick do they describe? Literalism is so compelling, waiting for some dude or dudette in spandex pants flying towards my rescue rather than trying to find the heroic mind in my own life and being.

Sorry if some of what I write here seems contradicting some of what I write further upthread. I’m just playfully bouncing ideas back and forth, not trying to come up with some cemented, eternal, absolute truth here.

Ideas? Comments?

Love,
:-) Julia
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Post by Neoplato » Sun May 03, 2009 11:55 am

Julia wrote:
The Campbellian hero goes out on a quest, often in solitude, faces inner and outer demons, risks health and life, and, if lucky and supported by fate (or God, depending on world-view), returns from the abyss to the market place, sharing gifts.
Remiinds me of Santa Claus. Is it possible?
Is one person's hero another person's Messiah, with the point-of-view simply shifted a bit?
That's my take. To me it all depends on the interpretation of the metaphor.
So, the interesting question to me is, what do those myths point towards? Which human conditions, experiences, hopes, fears do they evoke or appeal towards? Which part of what makes us tick do they describe?
Oh boy! :shock: I'll give it a try. :wink:

Myth is a metaphor that attempts to show us "the way" in the form of stories. Myth tries to teach us how to be "human". It represents our place in the universe and how to live in accordance with the Earth. It gives us a map, it's a "How To" guide for life.

It also tells us the consequences if we choose to do otherwise. But of course (according to some) this is all a bunch of nonsense? Isn't it? :wink:
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Post by somehopesnoregrets » Sun May 03, 2009 3:20 pm

Myth is a metaphor that attempts to show us "the way" in the form of stories. Myth tries to teach us how to be "human". It represents our place in the universe and how to live in accordance with the Earth. It gives us a map, it's a "How To" guide for life.
I like it, and what fascinates me most about the mythological way of wisdom preservation is that it can even jump a generation or more and be transmitted by literalists or people who consider it simple story telling, until it again hits a fertile mind-heart, puts down roots, grows, and bears fruit. That's pretty cool, isn't it? Like a powerful message hidden in a toy.
of course (according to some) this is all a bunch of nonsense
Well, social and cultural diversity is part of what makes us human, and what is one person's wisdom will always be another's foolish madness -- and vice versa.

Hugs.
:-) Julia
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Post by Neoplato » Sun May 03, 2009 6:43 pm

what is one person's wisdom will always be another's foolish madness
And obviously I'm Coo-coo for Coa-coa Puffs! :D
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