Something I’ve seen often in Buddhism, certainly for myself, perhaps it is common in other traditions as well, is an orientation and bias towards ‘supreme’ teachings. If a school teaches methods for just stilling the mind and for Supreme Enlightenment, we’ll go directly to the latter. Four Noble Truths? Kiddie stuff, let’s talk Emptiness!
This was part of the appeal Zen Buddhism had for me. It cuts right to the core of awakening and doesn’t bother with any of the ancillary stuff. In Zen, it’s enlightenment or bust.
Once you get soaked a bit in Buddhist perspectives on liberation and the counterpart to that – “worldly happiness”, it gets easy to adopt a kind of elitist stance about all this. I remember in my earlier Buddhist days, when reading the Mahayana Sutras and there were things in there that didn’t impress me. Stuff like people making offerings to Buddhas or making a noble aspiration that lead to them “being reborn in the presence of Buddhas for numerous lifetimes” and so forth. I saw it as kind of patronising. Why aren’t these Buddhas teaching these ‘fortunate’ ones about awakening in this lifetime? Why are they letting them settle for less when there are higher teachings they could be giving them? How can a good rebirth compare to enlightenment? I thought these sutras were sending the wrong kind of message compared to something like Zen Buddhism.
Not too long ago, I was somewhat surprised to find how much my view has changed. I was reading the Gandhavyuha Sutra wherein the youth Sudhana seeks out 52 different teachers to obtain Buddhahood in this lifetime. As many of those teachers did, one bodhisattva, the night goddess Vasanti, recounted her path towards her current profound stature. Starting one night, “as many eons ago as atoms in the polar mountain” ago, when she was having sex and then fell asleep, a Buddha became fully enlightened that night. Another night goddess back then woke her up her by tingling her jewellery and told her about the event, what a Buddha was and how they became Buddhas. At that time, she resolved to become a Buddha right there and then.
As a result of that aspiration, she then spent the following aeons “as many as atoms in the polar mountain” never “born in a bad state, always achieving human greatness among humans and celestial greatness among celestials, never with defective faculties and with little suffering, never apart from Buddhas and Bodhisattvas” and… not giving a damn about the wisdom of awakening for all this time!
Well, that is how I would have read it formerly. But actually that latter thought never occurred to me this time around. Thought that occurred to me reading this was not one of whether Vasanti should or could have done more or better, or why all these Buddhas she hung out with didn’t spur her on to Buddhahood, but rather: “How wonderful, that she should enjoy such a long string of lifetimes enjoying a good life content with how she lived.” And recounting this, the night goddess does in fact note that she passed all these aeons “happily, peacefully, safely, and rightly” planting roots of goodness, even though after all this time she did never develop the faculties of awakening.
To wrap up the story, eventually, a mere ten thousand aeons ago, she did attain awakening and set forth on the stages of Bodhisattva-hood which is how she ended up capable of instructing Sudhana on some of the way towards the Buddhahood he sought.
But the point in all this is that I don’t think I really believe any more that there is such a Buddhism (or any path) as the highest/best/supreme path for living beings towards happiness.. It’s a supposition that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny for me any more in terms of how people live their lives. On the ground level where people live out their lives and laugh and cry, having this sort of view doesn’t seem capable of acknowledging and according suitable dignity to the quest for happiness we are all engaged in. Happiness is not a matter of tenet system and it comes in many flavours and forms. And no matter what or how, it is at its core a most noble wish.
Some may be more refined and plentiful than others, but really it seems to me that life is generally about being about as happy as you want to be. If there are beings who aspire to Buddhahood or liberation and making good work towards that, well… That’s wonderful. For where they are in life. If there are people who use this life make just a seed of goodness worth of progress, that is really wonderful too. For where they are in life.
It seems to me more a case of having to fully acknowledge, since this is the case at any rate, that all beings walk their own way in life and find their own way to happiness and then honouring this fact and the dignity of their wish for happiness. There is no universal or inevitable movement or obligation for any ‘supreme’ happiness or path. Any such ‘supreme’ happiness is just one of the offerings on the table we have the option of taking up in our own quest for happiness if we so desire.
When I took Bodhisattva vows (“beings are numberless; I vow to liberate them all”) I didn’t take them just to lead others to liberation alone (I’d have to get there myself first of course). I took them out of a wish to support all beings I can in all good endeavours. My path is just a path of goodness in any shape or form, worldly or otherwise. I practise Buddhism because it strikes me as one the most refined expressions of that. But first and foremost, we are all together on the same path of goodness, albeit perhaps with different ideas of what is good and how much we want of it. But these differences are quite trivial to our shared aspiration for goodness.
The great celestial Bodhisattva of compassion Guanyin is generally portrayed as working tirelessly for the liberation of all beings. I recall someone telling me once how, when walking his dog and caught in the rain large mosquitoes would gather under the same shelter as them. His dog in particular would be greatly annoyed by this. So he prayed to Guanyin for relief and soon after, the mosquitoes would go away. Whether the story is true or not is less important than the morale: For someone who allegedly devotes all her energy to the salvation of all beings, taking time out to relieve a guy and his dog from the annoyance of mosquitoes seems like a pointless use of time and energy. But for someone who simply cares and wishes to see others happy in any way possible, no gift is too small, is it?