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  • Karl Thunemann

Ever Seen a Crusty Bodhisattva?

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

When I met my friend for breakfast, he eyed my red corduroy shirt and said, “You’re wearing red. That means you’re a Rajneeshee.” I glanced at my shirt and answered, “No it doesn’t. Groups can’t appropriate colors. This shirt no more demonstrates that I’m a Rajneeshee than it outs me as a Commie or a


But my friend was resolute. The color of my shirt made me what I was. He used to be a Rajneeshee and lived for some time in the group’s sprawling commune in Oregon. For all I know, he still may consider himself a Rajneeshee. He has several friends from his ashram days, I believe I have heard them refer to themselves as Sannyasins, the term the group applied to adherents. (§)

Perhaps I was feeling a bit crusty, because I had brought along a book that completely undercut my perception of a bodhisattva. I have always thought of bodhisattvas as somewhat mythical creatures as exemplified by Kwan Yin, sometimes referred to as the Buddhist goddess of compassion. And it’s not exactly that I had it wrong, considering the Merriam Webster online definition: a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others and is worshiped as a deity in Mahayana Buddhism.” Fits Kwan Yin to a T.

Compassion is ordinarily understood as an emotion, but the compassion of a bodhisattva is not a sentiment. It is not pity. It is a quality of awareness itself, the knowing that is at the core of our humanity.

Lately I had been re-reading a book by Ken McLeod, Reflections on Silver River, which examines the work of a 14th century Tibetan monk, Thirty-seven Practices of a Bodhisattva. I had brought the book to my friend’s attention a few years ago. In his introduction, McLeod writes (p. 6), “What is a bodhisattva? One answer is that a bodhisattva is a person that lives and breathes compassion. Compassion is ordinarily understood as an emotion, but the compassion of a bodhisattva is not a sentiment. It is not pity. It is a quality of awareness itself, the knowing that is at the core of our humanity. Most of us have had experiences of this kind of compassion, moments when the mind and heart are crystal clear, and we respond to the needs of the moment.”

This might mean that someone like me could aspire to be a bodhisattva. It’s not as unattainable as it seemed when one of my tai chi teachers introduced Kwan Yin to our practice. As we prepared for the form, we should picture ourselves attached at the head to a strong golden cord, with Kwan Yin in heaven, holding the opposite end. But I don’t mention this.

My friend, warming to the topic, declared that he is a bodhisattva. I’m sure I curled an eyebrow. We have been friends for many years, and I could hand him quite a list of ways in which I think he falls shy of this ideal. In the event he is too compassionate to return the favor, I could draft such a list for myself, perhaps starting with my judgmental attitude toward those who present themselves as bodhisattvas. Among the 37 practices, the monk, Tokme Zongpo, even drafted one expressly for me (No. 16), as if he could foresee my plight some 600 years down the road. Still, when I first picked up this book, I formulated a plan to work through all the practices, one a week.  I didn’t get very far: No wonder my mind stubbornly reverted to holding onto the mythical definition of bodhisattvas!

Neither do I mention that the idea of becoming a bodhisattva has crossed my mind. McLeod points out that this path is an ideal, impossible for anyone to follow perfectly. I would benefit from becoming more compassionate. Could I ever learn to banish the boundary between compassion and pity? Just to think of that razor’s edge reminds me of the horror I felt as a boy, going weekly for physical therapy to the county school for handicapped children. I couldn’t bear to think that people would lump them and me together! But I gave this no voice. I tried instead to cover my fellow students with a thick slime of Christian pity. Well, not that I understood this very well, but I was certain that any good Christian would receive a quiver of pity-tipped arrows.

Later, talking with Adrienne, the friend who is my de facto meditation adviser, I mention that woe must betide those who declare themselves to be bodhisattvas. The very assertion struck me as an act of vanity. Far better to pursue this path in mild silence and leave others to discern whether it bears any fruit. Adrienne disagreed. This is a formal, recognized path: People can affirm in all humility that they are dedicated to following it. We didn’t pursue the question that far, but I’m certain my adviser would remind me—as she did when I was adding the wish to be forgiven to my meditative quiver—to remember to have compassion for myself.

This is difficult terrain to navigate. I doubt there is a ministry of bodhisattvas to help would-be followers to chart their way. But if there were, I would be certain to ask whether there were any specific rules for part-time practitioners. I’d like to mark out a couple of hours daily for crustiness, even longer on weekends so I can follow my favorite athletic teams on television.

(§) Hindus use this term to describe mendicants and ascetics.


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