Embrace of the Bodhisattva

To our modern ears the word “embrace” might seem a bit sentimental.  But I like that Dogen used it back in 1243 to talk about the four ways a Bodhisattva caringly engages with suffering in her midst.To embrace something means to encircle, surround, and to wrap your arms around. How do we wrap our arms around our families and community, our workplaces, our enemies, politicians, the nation, the planet, and even our own minds and hearts? Many people like to wrap themselves in the American flag these days. But as aspiring Bodhisattvas, what do we wrap ourselves in and what do we wrap around each other?  Bodhisattvas are always learning how to widen our embrace, to include more and more.

Dogen says there are four ways to conduct ourselves that constitute the Bodhisattva’s embrace: Giving, Loving Speech, Beneficial Action, and something he calls Identity Action.

The first and most essential practice of the Bodhisattva is Giving – material aid, our attention, friendship, our acts of service, giving the building of community to others. We even give fearlessness as a way of facing the challenges of life. He writes: “Giving means not being greedy…Even if we rule the continents, in order to offer the teaching of the True Way we must simply and unfailingly not be greedy. We give flowers blooming on the distant mountains…offer treasures accumulated by past lives.” 

No matter how much power we have, no matter how far we have to reach for gifts, we always have something to give away: money, time, skills, attention, care, our good luck, even our power. At the highest level, true giving gives and receives the gift of zazen mind – the fearless mind that is not cut off from others, and we offer it freely in our actions. We are embraced by and we embrace all beings in this way – by giving experiential reasons for people to trust their sense of belonging and connection, and trust in their sense of their natural and true selves.

Dogen writes, “To provide a boat or build a bridge is offering as the practice of giving. When we carefully learn the meaning of giving, both receiving our body and giving up our body are offerings (birth and death). Earning our livelihood and managing our business are, from the outset, nothing other than giving. Trusting flowers to the wind, and trusting birds to the season may also be the meritorious action of giving.”

The second practice is Loving Speech: Buddha suggested that before we speak we consider whether our words are true, useful, and timely. All three have to be present. Will my words be heard, and will they have a good effect? Classical teachings remind us that words once spoken can’t really be taken back. They have the capacity to wound, or to heal, so their use calls for great care.

Dogen says, “Loving speech means, first of all, to arouse compassionate mind when meeting living beings, and to offer caring and loving words. In general, we should not use any violent or harmful words…. To speak with a mind that compassionately cares for living beings as if they were our own babies is loving speech.”

And he leaves us with this provocative thought:  “We should study how loving speech has the ability to turn the destiny of a nation” and transform the world.

The third embrace is Beneficial Action. This is the work of harmonizing self and the whole world through acts of service. Beneficial action means looking, listening, and helping without thinking about what we will get out of it. Dogen says, “Ignorant people [those who don’t realize that we are truly connected to one another] may think that if we benefit others too much, our own benefit will be excluded. This is not the case. Beneficial action is the whole of the dharma; it benefits both self and other widely.”

Martin Luther King Jr. once preached: “Discover the element of good in one’s enemy. And every time you begin to hate that person, realize that there is some good there and look at those good points which will over-balance the bad point….” Dogen similarly says: “We should equally benefit friends and enemies alike; we should benefit self and others alike. If we attain such a mind we can perform beneficial action even for grass, trees, wind and water.”

Zazen itself is beneficial action – although it is often said that it is activity that exists beyond the limitations of good and bad. We are not adding to or taking away from the facts of life or the way things unfold. We are simple bearing witness to life, naturally. In this way, we touch and even rest in the natural inner peace and silence from which everything else ripples out.  Zazen harmonizes our body and mind, and in doing so, it harmonizes the world.

Dogen’s Fourth embrace is Identity Action. Alan Senauke Sensei writes: “A great bodhisattva lives in the suffering world with a vow to save all beings. She may appear as a street person, a soldier, a politician, a bank teller, a mechanic, a prostitute, a short order cook, a musician, preacher, mail-carrier, or monk. The practice of identity action means that we are in continuous re-invention of self – skillful means – to meet suffering people where they are, as them, within their lives.” We have an identity that we share with others, and we act from the place of common identity to benefit them.

Dogen says: “Identity action means not to be different – neither different from self nor from others. For example, it is how, in the human world, the Tathagata [Buddha] identifies himself with human beings. Because he identifies himself in the human world, we know that he must be the same in other worlds. When we realize Identity Action, self and others are one suchness.”

And finally, our Dharma Great-Grandfather Maezumi Roshi captured it like this: “To see everything else as part of ourselves is wisdom. And when wisdom is truly realized, then compassion and lovingkindness spontaneously arise as the functioning of that wisdom.” 

If Dogen was a 21stcentury dharma teacher and technology geek, I wonder if he might have considered calling this essay the Four Disruptive Technologies of the Bodhisattva. Disruptive technologies transform global processes. Do Giving, Loving Speech, Beneficial Action and Identity Action disrupt th economy of suffering, the politics of inequality and injustice, and the culture of common-enemy intimacy? Can these four practice bring about joy, justice and happiness? Disruption awakens us from our collective slumber, shakes us out of our blind habits, and out of the status quo, in order to help all of us, individually and collectively to flourish. Do these practices offer something disruptive to your own habits of mind? 

Here is a set of questions you might consider for a meditation on the Four Embracing Dharmas. Get comfortable, feel into your breath and the natural stillness of your body, and consider each of these carefully:

  • Giving: What would you give to yourself and to others if you thought that what you could give would change the course of human suffering?
  • Loving Speech: What words would you speak if you knew that what you said would never be forgotten by those who heard it? What would you say if you knew that what you said could change the destiny of a nation?
  • Beneficial Action: What would you do if you truly believed that everything you do is an act of oneness, benefiting self and others together?
  • Identity Action: How would you walk through this world and your life if you could let go of everything that separates you from others, from nature, and from the realities of our world, and feel completely connected? No difference from self and no difference from others? How would you act if this were so?

May it be so.


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