The Bodhisattva as Compassion Warrior

In San Francisco's Asian Art Museum there is a stunning Chinese figure of a seated male Kuan-Yin (Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit), with a powerful, implacable, yet sympathetic expression. Whenever I see this statue I think, "Don't mess with this guy"; and then I think, "In a real pickle, I'd go to him." In Chinese Buddhism Kuan-Yin is more often displayed as a female figure of grace and beauty, but this male figure shows Kuan Yin's aspect as a warrior and protector. The "thirty-three armed Kuan-Yin" is another iconic portrayal of this Bodhisattva; many of its arms brandish a weapon such as a spear or a sword.

I think that one possible translation of the term bodhisattva (literally "enlightenment-being") could be "compassion warrior." Some may object to the term "warrior" but to me it expresses the courageous or fierce aspect of compassion. Mohandas Gandhi, our modern saint of ahimsa, or non-violence, likened the attitude needed to really practice non-violence with the courage of a warrior in battle, ready to face death.

In Mahayana Buddhism there are the 16 Bodhisattva precepts: the three refuges, the three pure precepts ("Do good, avoid evil, benefit beings") and the so-called ten prohibitory precepts ("Do not kill, do not lie, do not steal," and so on). I have practiced with these 16 precepts for much of my life, and given them ceremonially to others in lay and priest ordinations. But in my own life I have developed a parallel set of moral principles that I try to live by: 1) Stand up for what you believe; 2) Do what you say you will do; 3) Stand by your friends; 4) Fix a mistake if you can; 5) Don't blow your own horn; and 6) Protect the weak and vulnerable. These six feel to me like expressions of Bodhisattva life, especially its "compassion warrior" aspect.

Stand up for what you believe. During the Vietnam War I protested by becoming a draft resistor and risked prison. I never went to prison, though for many years I thought I would. It turned out that Lyndon Johnson gave a secret order to the Justice Department not to prosecute most of us -- a fact that only emerged decades later through the Freedom of Information Act. So I took my stand not knowing what would happen. Many people take such stands, sometimes publicly, sometimes privately.

Do what you say you will do. "I'll call you next week." I've heard that phrase so many times from people who never do. It's a seemingly small thing, but perhaps not so small. If you're not sure you can do it, why say it? There is a deception built into that dissonance that can grow if it is not tended to. Bodhisattvas tell the truth; that is one of their powers.

Stand by your friends. I have read that within many military units it is an inviolate principle never to leave a fallen colleague, even at the risk of your own life. For them that stance is heroic, but each of us can emulate it small ways. To me, what defines being a friend or having a friend is standing by them. The Bodhisattva is everyone's friend, so the Bodhisattva stands by everyone. That was the feeling I had seeing the powerful statue in the museum: "He will stand by me, I am safe." We all need such friends; we should try to be such friends to others.

If you make a mistake, make it right. Easy to say, tough to do sometimes. For a small mistake, the cost is not great. But for a big mistake it can be worth your life to own up and try to repair it. One of the qualities of growing older, I think, is that we have lived long enough to make some big mistakes, and have learned what happens when you do and don't own up to them. When I was young I thought "enlightened" people were those wise enough never to make big mistakes. Now I understand that what makes a person wise is the ability to face up to big mistakes and try to fix them, even if it seems hopeless.

Don't blow your own horn. This is one of the traditional Bodhisattva precepts. Somehow in today's America we have got it turned around to the point that we think we are supposed to blow our own horns -- the louder the better. I recently came back from a week in Hawaii, and my wife and I noticed that in traffic there almost no-one honks their horn. I asked about it and was told, "That's the Aloha spirit." One of my hosts commented that the Aloha spirit may be partly Buddhist. There is a lot of Buddhism in Hawaii going back a long time. Blowing your own horn seems to work sometimes in the short term, and in career it is sometimes necessary. But as an ego strategy, it fails us in the long run.

Protect the weak and vulnerable. This is why I think the 33 armed Kuan-Yin has swords and spears -- to protect the vulnerable. My father used to say, "The way to measure the health of a society is to look at how it treats its old people, its sick, and its children." How would our society today measure up to that? It seems there is an ideology afoot that says, "Every man, woman and child for themselves and let the chips fall where they may." Maybe this is Buddhism's time to say, "No, we have a different idea, the ideal of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva looks after everyone. The Bodhisattva will help you."

The Bodhisattva is one of the great treasures of humanity, a great vision, one we are rediscovering for today. But it won't be easy to make the Bodhisattva real and effective for the here and now. How can we do it?