Reflections on “Adopting the Awakening Mind”

Reading “Adopting the Awakening Mind,” the first chapter of this week’s reading, I was concerned that our narrator, in his own awakening, was inadvertently contributing to the suffering of others. I may be interpreting his language more critically than one should, but it was my view that Santideva, in his discussion of the Awakening Mind, was undermining the principal aim of the Mahayana bodhisattva: the introduction and teaching of “the Path” to others. 

In the Mahayana tradition, it is the responsibility of bodhisattvas to delay their attainment of nirvana; they use their knowledge of the Path and the Awakening Mind to guide other sentient beings away from suffering. In “Adopting the Awakening Mind,” Santideva writes that he “rejoice[s] at the deliverance of embodied beings from the suffering of cyclic existence.” (20) He goes on to commend the bodhisattvas for their role in this deliverance, describing them as “saviors.” Here, Santideva appears to appreciate the responsibilities of the bodhisattva, and he supports the altruistic intentions of Mahayana Buddhists in their pursuit of nirvana. On the following page, however, Santideva makes several assertions which – in my reading of the text – contradict his aforementioned appreciation for the work of the bodhisattvas. 

“Enlightenment is my heart’s goal,” Santideva says. (21) To achieve enlightenment, he believes that it is necessary that he abandon all things, leaving them to the Earth’s unenlightened sentient beings. Santideva announces that he will leave his body to the world, and he encourages the world to use and punish his body as harshly as they desire. “Let them continually beat it, insult it, and splatter it with filth,” he writes. “Let them be derisive and amuse themselves. I have given this body to them. What point has this concern of mine?” (21) In later verses, Santideva reiterates his intention to share his Awakening with all sentient beings, as every bodhisattva should. He wishes to become “the boat, the causeway, and the bridge” for those who long to reach the further shore. (21) In my view, these latter expressions of altruism are undermined by Santideva’s encouraging of sentient beings to inflict their rage and desire on his abandoned body. In doing so, he is allowing the unenlightened to engage in behavior which will only prolong their suffering and attachment. These verses struck me as antithetical to the bodhisattva mission, and I was curious how Santideva might reconcile these points with his broader inclination to help others achieve their Awakening. Did anyone else share in my concern or have a different/more charitable interpretation of this chapter?

The Guarding of Awareness

In these times, the mind certainly has an astonishingly powerful ability to wander. In chapter 5, Śāntideva establishes the foundation of addressing this problem in the very first verse, “one who wishes to guard his training must scrupulously guard his mind. It is impossible to guard one’s training without guarding the wandering mind.” This is critical, as to aspire for Awakening, one must first be Aware. As such, the goals and “perfections” of generosity, morality, forbearance, vigor, meditative absorption and wisdom all require this as a basis. In keeping with the extension of intent of the bodhisattva to work hard for all beings, this sentiment is seen in the sustained and focused concentration of a surgeon, an airline pilot or aspiring buddha. The subsequent one hundred and nine verses go into detail in a comprehensive and instructional way. Yet, chapter 5 ends as it began, ” In brief, this alone is the definition of awareness: the observation at every moment of the state of one’s body and one’s mind.”(verse 108). In modern psychology, this is analogous to what is termed a “flow state” is the “mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time.”(Wikipedia) Our current times are such that this state might be accessed by many of us if we focus. Time slows. Every moment is completely perceived. In medicine, this is what one tries to cultivate as a way of embodying the science of medicine. I believe that this is what Śāntideva in the last verse(109) is referring to, “I shall express this by means of my body, for what use would there be in the expression of words? For someone who is sick what use could there be in the mere expression of medical knowledge?” This is a compelling insight in light of the coronavirus challenge. Paying attention to oneself and one’s action is the starting point. Being there for others in the “now” is the opportunity for us all.

Chapter 1: Praise of The Awakening Mind

In The Bodhicaryāvatāra’s chapter 1, “Praise of The Awakening Mind”, Śāntideva began the first four verses by explaining his motives for writing this. He then pointed out that there are two kinds of awakening mind: mind resolved on awakening and mind proceeding towards awakening (verse 15). This distinction is recognized between a person who desires to go and the one who is going. The awakening mind never dies, and it continues to produce. Verse 25 talks about the virtues of those beings in whom the Awakening Mind has arisen, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The Buddha discovered the truth and taught us the Dharma and ways to spread love, compassion, and kindness towards the others. The Dharma is the way things really are: impermanence, no-self, emptiness, and nothing to hold on to. The Sangha is the ones who determine to practice what the Buddha had taught with the goal to reach nirvana. Thus, the definitive act that people declare themselves to be Buddhists is the act of going for refuge to the Three Jewels, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

A Change in Perspective

In The BodhicaryāvatāraŚāntideva discusses the importance of cultivating altruism now. He discusses that “everything is like an image in a dream. It is gone and not seen again” (17).  I feel as though people are embracing this sentiment in this time of uncertainty and quarantine. While the unfathomable fragility of human life is being brought to the forefront of the human mind, I am finding that humans are being forced and inclined to embrace the present. People are reflecting and cherishing each moment—no matter how mundane it is.  

Though, I, like Śāntideva, would not regard this new frame of mind as the end; one should not be complacent. Rather, people should act, and I believe they are. People are recognizing that they are just like those who are gone and those who have been touched by evil (17). 

People are acting and altruism is blossoming. I feel touched by the people who work on the frontlines of this pandemic—doctors, nurses, grocery store clerks, truck drivers, etc.— but I am also gracious to those who decide and who have committed to remaining in quarantine to protect our community. I see communities, establishments, countries, and people reevaluating their frame of thought and acting across the globe. Many are acting for one’s own health, but a multitude are acting for the sake and the health of others.  

In this pandemic, I believe that humanity is seeing the world—as Śāntideva describes— in a completely different way (17). On this note, I will provide the following excerpt by Kitty O’Meara. A friend shared this excerpt with me, and I find value in the perspective it presents. It describes how a change in perspective can incite altruism.

“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently. And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal. And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.” 
~Kitty O’Meara 

CBCT Compassion Training online

Emory University is the site for the development of CBCT, Cognitive Based Compassion Training. During the coronavirus pandemic, the CBCT team is offering free online instruction in compassion training. This training grows out of a Tibetan tradition known as “mind-training,” which itself looks back strongly to Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra. I strongly encourage you to check it out. Here is the link. The message is also pasted below.

CBCT® Response to COVID-19

Feeling stressed, anxious or disconnected in the face of the uncertainty brought about by the novel corona virus is both incredibly common and completely understandable. This invisible adversary is challenging us to think simultaneously about self-care and the greater good while our routines are being upended. The only way we can confront the problem and slow the transmission of COVID-19, however, is by practicing kindness toward self and others. Through a recognition of our common humanity and our deep interconnectedness to all people, we can summon the courage to not give into despair over the things we cannot control, while focusing on what we can do.

Humans have remarkable resiliency and a tendency in times of great difficulty to respond with cooperation, compassion and generosity.  Whether assisting those in need through medical treatment, material assistance, or simply a comforting word or thoughtful gesture, we can all make a positive contribution—and by doing so, increase our own sense of connection and wellbeing.

Although we’ve had to suspend all live CBCT® classes for the time being, we wanted to create a place where we can meet together in community to remind ourselves that “social distancing” is about creating physical space, not about disconnecting from the family, friends and communities that help us feel anchored in the midst of turmoil.  We will be offering free, live, online compassion practice and fellowship sessions. All are welcome.

Beginning Sunday, March 29, we will hold these sessions twice per day:

Daily Morning Session: 9:00-9:45 am (Eastern US Time Zone)

Daily Evening Session: 7:00-7:45 pm (Eastern US Time Zone)

Accessing Live Stream:

To access the live CBCT stream, you can simply click on the follow link or copy and paste it into your internet browser:

Community CBCT®

Once entered, you will be directed to the zoom site.

If you already have the zoom application downloaded to your device, you will be given a prompt that states, “Do you want to allow this page to open ‘zoom.us’?

Please select the option “Allow” and you will be automatically connected to the live stream.

If you do not have the zoom app already and/or are not automatically connected, you will see a message that reads, “Your meeting should start in a few seconds… If Zoom does not run in a moment, Download & run Zoom. Then click here to join the meeting. If you cannot download or run the application, join from your browser.

If you would like to download the zoom app, please click “Download & run Zoom,” and you will be redirected to installation instructions.

If you want to just connect to the meditation without downloading the app, please click “Join from your browser,” and you will be redirected to the live stream.

If you want to just connect to the meditation without downloading the app, please click “join from your browser,” and you will be redirected to the live stream.

To join by telephone, please call +1 470 250 9358

If you are asked for a meeting code, please enter “276 440 184”

One professor’s approach

One of my colleagues alerted me to an article about one of her former colleagues, a professor of religion at UNC, whose social media post about how he redesigned his course in the face of the coronavirus pandemic has gone viral. You may be interested in the story, which you can find here. Or you might just like to see this image of the first page of his new syllabus (below). I’ve tried to take a similar approach but he expressed himself so much more clearly than I was able to do.

Creating Suffering by Escaping Suffering

The first two chapters of the Bodhicaryāvatāra have made me reflect on my own escapes from suffering during this time of extraordinary suffering. Like many upon hearing the news that Emory would be closing campus amidst the escalation of COVID-19, I chose to spend the remainder of my time here visiting friends before we all went our separate ways without seriously considering the implications of my actions. As Śāntideva exclaimed, “I did evil in many ways on account of friends and enemies. This I did not understand” (2.35). While my actions made me happy and temporarily alleviated my own suffering, I failed to see that they created undue stress for my parents, who worry about my safety, and roommates, who worry about their own safety. Perhaps due to our humanity, it seems that in times of crisis such as now, we tend to put our own needs above all else and become selfish, but selfishness during crisis simply creates more suffering. Although it is incredibly tempting for people to visit friends and loved ones in hopes of escaping suffering, in times like this “it is to suffering that they run. In the desire for happiness, out of delusion, they destroy their own happiness, like an enemy” (1.28).

The most we can do right now is remain at home and find other avenues to escape suffering. I found this CNN interview with Bill Gates very helpful in understanding the importance of self-isolation and adhering to statewide shutdown regulations:

Understanding Self and Others

One of the quotes that really stood out to me was the following: “All those who suffer in the world do so because of their desire for their own happiness. All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others.” (8.129) Often, I have found myself wondering what else I can do to make myself happier while at the same time finding something that would allow me to make those around me happier. Time and time again, I have realized that my happiness is tied to helping others, to fulfilling their happiness. In a sense, I desire to make others happy, with the side effect of satisfying my own happiness. It can seem a bit chaotic at first, and to an extent it kind of is, though I have learned to manage my happiness and not rely on others to fulfill my own happiness. If personal happiness is dependent upon the happiness of others, then suffering will surely prevail when others are nowhere to be found.

Covid-19 has forced me out of my natural habitat, surrounded by loving and caring friends that always bring something new to the day’s activities. Without them, I suffered, though even an electronic connection has helped me during this pandemic. I suffer not because I a, isolated from friends, but because I am attached to the idea of my personal happiness that has resulted from attachment to friends. I realize it is selfish and destructive. This time has certainly done wonders for self-reflection, and many of the Buddha’s dharmas on suffering have held true. Though it may sound dark, perhaps we should detach ourselves from the world as we knew it and evolve to this situation we are facing. Perhaps after relinquishing our obsessive desire to return to pre-covid times we can finally move past the disease and get it under control.

A Few Words of Adoration for Our Doctors and Nurses

Having spent some time reflecting on the sentiments expressed by Śāntideva in the first chapter of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, I was brought to thoughts of all those in my life who have expressed a depth of compassion, those I find praiseworthy and admire for doing “good without obligation”.

Yesterday, at 8pm BST, the UK celebrated the continued efforts of those who work for the NHS – the National Health Service here in the UK – and other care workers across the country who are treating those affected by COVID-19. It was a moment of solidarity for the nation, and an expression of adoration from all of us who benefit from the work that they do.

My mother, my uncle, my aunt, and a close friend of mine all work for the NHS. Every day that they go into work, they go with the aim of alleviating the physical and emotional suffering of those that come to the hospital (including those who are now afflicted with COVID-19). Of course they get paid for the healing they provide, but quite frequently the amount of backbreaking, heartrending work that they have to do does not match the compensation they receive. In a way reminiscent of the Bodhisattva, they have made a vow to help others, as many as they can, for as long as they can, for no other reason than because they care.

I’m sure we’ve all seen or read about the tireless work that doctors, nurses, and other care workers have been doing all around the world in these strange and troubling times. To me, they are the ones who best express the power of good, of why the desire for the welfare of others is so important. So I thank them and celebrate them.

A mild Awakening of Mind

In what seemed like a truly unfathomable turn of events yesterday (actually during our class time), my apartment actually flooded with sewage from our bathrooms. Given the previous struggles in adjusting to life post-virus and the added endangerment of being exposed to unsanitary conditions, it seemed things could not get any worse. And based on my previous life experience, I wasn’t wrong, it’s about the worst situation I’ve been a part of. Unfortunately as well, the inability for insurance companies to look at us like humans at this time was potentially the most disturbing of all. But on a car ride last night, the thought of life’s absurdity popped into my head. Not from a Nihilistic or depressed frame, but simply the idea of my situation and how ridiculous it sounds once removed from it. In truth, and as Buddhist tradition maintains, this situation is only temporary. I’m lucky enough that among other things, I have a place to live now, my health is still good, and family and friends were there for me in this dire circumstance. When things that I’ve held most dear, like a living space or fulfilling social life and personal development in school, were taken, the initial reaction was of course sadness and worry for the future. However, if this is truly as bad as it can get, then I’ve already experienced that, and going forward once the situation changes for the better, that will feel all the sweeter. I also realized that in fact, my social life and personal development had not been stripped of me by the virus the way I had thought. While they look different now, for example, my friends came to my aid when most needed, what more could I ask for there? And what have I craved most in personal development over the last year, but experiencing the real world? What’s more “real” than dealing with real crises of health and living space? As we’ve read in chapter 1, the awakening of mind only requires the movement towards development and the mental steps to achieve that, not a circumstance that creates the perfect environment, but simply an internal ability to move forward.

As of my current situation, I and my apartment mates are doing well now, sorting through a move and endless logistics, but we’re making it fine. So for now, I’m happy to do that, and happy to embrace change forthcoming.