Saturday, May 14, 2011

"enlightened beings"

When trying to explain in simple English the bodhisattva statues on the zendo altar here, I have always felt inadequate. I have a statue of Jizo and a statue of Kanzeon and a statue of Gautama Buddha and they all are meant to represent, in simple but meaningless English, "enlightened beings."

I get the same half-baked feeling when thinking about the Hindu triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva -- the creator, preserver and destroyer. And I suppose, if I let my mind wander even further, the same dis-ease would exist with God, Jesus, Mohammad and whatever other bright-light deities came along.

Certainly there is enough written and said about "enlightened beings" so that religions and belief systems are nudged along and people who espouse those religions can imagine they are all speaking in plain English. They can encourage and support each other as they point out authentic texts or other evidence.

But I still get this feeling -- for myself -- that there is some aspect that is missing, some nail-it-to-the-wall completeness in simple English.

I guess it is just that each of these "enlightened being" formats cannot afford to be anything other than what human beings themselves are ... aspects of my ten fingers and ten toes. I just don't think it can make much sense any other way. And if this is so, then the only reasonable thing to do -- assuming you wanted to speak in clear, plain English -- would be to investigate those aspects of yourself that adorn one altar or another. I mean really investigate, not just sing another hymn or send up another round of hosannas.

In Sanskrit, I think it is, there is the suggestion, "Om Tat Sat" -- "Thou art That." But who in his or her right mind, his or her simple, straightforward mind -- would nest in that thicket of thorns? Investigation is not for sissies.


  1. "Strictly speaking, there are no enlightened beings; only enlightened activity." -Shunryu Suzuki

    Winter wont go away here. Tomorrow we have a 90% chance of snow. Time will tell exactly what that means. But perhaps an enlightened being can be measured similarly? A buddha has a 100% chance of enlightened actions? As they say, actions speak louder than words... but who's counting?

  2. A man was once walking through all of China. While walking through one small village, he saw a burning building and heard the cries of a young girl inside. Without hesitation, he rushed inside and saved the girl. The townsfolk wished to thank the man, but he said there was no need and continued on his journey. Two years later his travels brought him back through the same village, and to the man's surprise the townsfolk had erected a statue of him and were worshipping it.

    At first glance, these actions seem very foolish. Rather than worshipping this projection, why not try to reproject it? But upon further reflection, who can blame them? This man embodied the enlightened altruistic attitude if even just for that one second. What better role model?

    I heard the proceeding story from a professor of Chinese popular religions while taking a class. I believe it is true, in as much as any story can be true. Like those villagers, I took this projection and added it to my hall of heroes. Language and even most thought can be described by choosing to enshrine a particular role model. Everyone does this, whether explicitly or implicitly. It's best to choose one's role models wisely, so that when possible, one can reproject the original projection directly. If done correctly, to take an enlightened being as an explicit role model is the best of all projections, since wrapped within the awareness of having taken that role model is the teaching that, like all things, the enlightened being is also simply a projection.