[DC notes to self and others in brackets]
THE BODHISATTVA'S VOW
"I'm gonna get a friggin' baseball bat and smash him in the head with it till he's bleeding from his ears," Norman muttered as he sat working at his table on the chanting book he was trying to put together.
"Anybody I know?"
He looked up. "Forget it. The brain weevils made me say it."
Norman was correct about there being a need for new books to chant by. It's one of the most annoying problems here. I have the two he gave me which are incomplete. One is handwritten. I frantically leaf through them trying to keep up with some of these seemingly interminable chants. He asked Shuko and Koji one day if it wouldn't be all right for him to put some time into getting one legible sutra book together for me and those gaijin that come after, but Shuko said that there was too much to do right now and Koji went along with it. Norman was all turned around about that but is going ahead on his own, and is doing a paste up which looks like it's going to be adequate for the time being. I wish they'd let him put some time into it and do it right, because, in addition to the practical aspects, I feel it would be beneficial for his mental health.
Norman's interest in making these books isn't just a desire to do busy work, nor is it merely an interest in efficient and harmonious group recitation. He also loves the message. He is wedded to Buddhist sutras and commentaries, with Chinese poetry as a lover on the side. Sutra means "discourses of the Buddha," but we use it loosely to mean Buddhist writings or anything we chant. There's been a lot created since Buddha's day (much of which is questionably attributed to him) and Norman's gobbling it up as time permits. In contrast to his sometimes rough and colorful use of language, the man's an egghead. You name it, if it's a Buddhist text and if it's translated into English he's read it. He knows a great deal about the background and early writings of Buddhism. Sometimes I ask him to tell me stories from the old days, twenty-five hundred years ago, and he always comes up with a good one. After I've heard it I think, I should study this stuff more. Then I forget about it.
He was particularly happy with a Pali text translated into English that he'd just received from a special Buddhist book store in Bangkok. It was cheaply printed and bound with a paper cover and had all sorts of details about the life of Buddha that he'd never found before. Among other things it described a version of Buddha's schedule. There were a couple of hours for sleeping and periods for different types of meditation. There was even time set aside for teaching beings in other realms. They never talk about that sort of thing in the Zen that I'm used to. It's all no-nonsense here-and-now stuff.
I asked Norman if he thought there were truly beings in other realms or if that was just frosting derived from Hinduism and folk tales - much as I'd asked Koji and Maku when we were doing dishes.
He said that over and over in Buddhist texts from India, China there is mention of countless beings in countless world systems, of endless universes, buddha-fields and dimensions all overlapping, coexisting and independently co-originating with each other every instant. "Not your flat earth approach," he added. "Dogen wrote of myoka, mysterious influence, which could be help from higher beings, guardian deities. If this realm is full of beings why would other levels not be? And now, since you have broken my concentration, I'll stop here and make us tea," he said pleasantly. While he did so he went on talking. "All the weirdest stuff you've heard about - psychic phenomena, astral traveling, ghosts, intelligent life from other star systems or dimensions, channeling, you name it, it doesn't catch Buddhism by surprise." He opened a package of sencha, a high quality green tea and put a pinch of leaves in a teapot. "It's all included and it's all one big family so to speak." He went on to say that while Buddhism recognizes different, maybe infinite realities it doesn't encourage fascination with them. Buddha and the teachers that followed said that all we had to do was to make the most of our human life - that there is no need to look outside of our own body and mind, which includes the whole cosmos anyway. "Being born on the physical plane with a body like ours is, according to Buddhism, the most precious opportunity in the cosmos. Maybe they're just encouraging us but they say we're built right to see through the whole shebang, escape the wheel of rebirth, attaining enlightenment, Christ consciousness, or whatever you want to call it. And polytheists, animists, people with no religion or who don't use names like buddha and God are not excluded in any way from realization. There's a big basket of options. This is not an exclusive trip." He poured hot water from a thermos into his small porcelain tea pot.
"That's why I like the bodhisattva's vow," I said. "Our practice automatically includes all beings in all realms. It eliminates racism, sexism, sectarianism, speciesism...."
"At least theoretically."
"I have only one problem with the ideal of the bodhisattva," I told Norman. "There's a fatal flaw."
"What's that," he said.
"Well, in terms of entering Nirvana, if we look at it in this crude historical space-time way, all the beings but the bodhisattvas would have to go first, right? She or he as the case may be has vowed to be last."
"Let's imagine then that the wonderful moment has come when there are only these bodhisattvas left. All non-bodhisattvas have gone first. What do the bodhisattvas do now?"
"Well, if we pretend that they're really separate beings, we can say that they enter Nirvana then."
"Exactly - there's a problem. They've vowed to let all others go first. They'll probably stand around and congratulate each other for a while and then one of them will inevitably say to the others with a sweeping gesture, 'After you everyone.' And then all the other bodhisattvas, probably an infinite sea of them will answer in unison, 'Oh no, after you.' And Norman, this could go on and on forever with no resolution, a countless number of bodhisattvas trapped in a double bind of unconditional love and generosity."
"Ah, but since everything changes, it could not remain static. I see three possible outcomes."
"I knew you'd be able to solve this one for me."
"Well, the first one which was worked out long ago is that they'd all go together."
"But what if the door is too narrow to permit more than one at a time?"
"In that case, another possibility is that one by one they'll sacrifice their vow to enable others to be closer to keeping theirs."
"How noble. Of course. And the other?"
"If the door is too narrow and their vows are too strong to give up, things could get ugly. They could get into insisting, name calling and foot stomping and before they knew it, chaos could once again be created out of which the multiverses would form with infinite beings on infinite levels and the cycle of birth and death with all it entails would be back in full swing."
"Oh gosh," I shook my head.
"And then,"Norman's eyes looked up almost shining, "A buddha would arise, and an Avalokiteshvara, Moses, Mary, Christ, Mohammed, Lao Tsu and the endless saints, the Earth Mother, shamans and witches. And beings throughout the cosmos would endeavor to find their inner light and share the good news with all others."
"Why that's inspiring."
He picked up his tea cup and took a sip - I followed suit.
Norman looked down at the sutra book he was working on. "And I will have another opportunity to pick up a baseball bat and bash Shuko in the head till he starts bleeding from his ears."