Category Archives: Spiritual Heroes

The Effortless Benevolence of Heroic Figures in Buddhist Traditions

90510941_oBy Richard Mercer

History, tradition, and legend have it Siddhartha Gautama, Shakyamuni, the Buddha, achieved enlightenment at about the age of 35 during the course of one night after renouncing the life of severe and life threatening austerity which he had followed for six years.  This grand moment of cognition happened somewhere around 450  BCE in what is now northern India and was accompanied by feelings of happiness, confidence, concentration, and equanimity.  From it has grown the immense belief system called Buddhism.

At that time the Buddha said he recollected his manifold past lives–one birth, two births, three births, and so on up a hundred thousand births; there he was so named . . . such was his experience of pleasure and pain, such was his lifespan; and passing away from there he was reborn elsewhere; and there too he was so named . . . .   The orthodox and the faithful believe this literally; a modernist might interpret this in  psychological terms as being able to go back in memory to all the events of one’s infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, and so on–to all our own developmental lifespans, and view it as an exploration of the unconscious and the forgotten leading to a life marked by an understanding of causes rather than one driven by unconscious, semi-conscious, and mysterious forces.

Next he understood how beings fare according to their actions stretching back into the timeless past.  This amounted to a verification of the principle of karma and led to the complex concept of causality known as dependent origination. We are rewarded and suffer by the results of our actions, not how they stack up against commandments.  The orthodox and the faithful think here of monkauspicious or painful rebirth; a modernist would take a shorter view and think once more of gaining a large understanding of causality and contextuality in one’s personal life–that is understanding and accepting how one got to where one is by one’s actions–for better or worse–at this very moment.

Finally, the Buddha achieved knowledge of the destruction of defilements–a new, original discovery that emerged from the familiar and traditional doctrines of rebirth and karma.  His recollection of earlier lives destroyed the past as a source of identity and replaced it with the happy experience of release from all that.  In the eternal present he saw that human identity is an illusion–the cause of suffering and the key to its remission.  In the chain of dependent origination there is no person, no agent, no self.  He reworked the human condition dramatized by the memory of past lives into the core of early Buddhist dharma–the four noble truths.  Siddharta awakened.

He then asked himself if he should undertake the wearying and troublesome task of teaching what he had just learned to others who might not understand or should he remain alone enjoying this new state of mind–concentrated, bright, malleable, steady, pure.  In the early Buddhist tradition it is here the Brahma Sahampati appears to him and says,

            Arise, victorious hero, caravan leader,
            Debtless one, and wander the world.
            Let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma,
            There will be those who will understand.

When Sahampati realizes the Buddha has consented to his request to instruct others, he departs; the experience of enlightenment has been completed by the promise of practice and activity for others.

Throughout the long course of Buddhist thought and practice after this, two role models  dominated the landscape—the Arhat and the Bodhisattva.  For the early Buddhists, the consummation of a human lifetime derived from a withdrawn, often monastic, existence marked by poverty, chastity, and obedience.   The successful monk or nun who realized nirvana became an Arhat.  For the later Mahayana Buddhists the ideal life evolved into one marked by heroic involvement in the world, an engaged life infused with wisdom and compassion—the latter often spoken of as highly skillful teaching of the Mahayana way. The man or woman achieving this enlightenment became a Bodhisattva and potentially a veritable Buddha.

But what is Enlightenment?  What is this idea that causes many to look longingly in the direction of Buddhism?

9781590306338In the Mahayana tradition, one answer to the question is sunyata (emptiness), open space in a paragraph implying an answer that cannot be put into words, an answer which clears the ground and prepares the way for a second answer.

It is Bodhicitta (awakened mind), the crucial, momentary experience of which awakens one to the possibility of becoming an enlightened being and motivates one to undertake the  arduous journey to that end.  Shantideva, the great 8th century Indian monk, poet, and scholar likens the experience to seeing a flash of lightning that rends the night, and in its glare shows all that the dark clouds hid; like lightning, he says, good and virtuous thoughts are brief and transient, but bodhicitta, like a hero, protects them.  It is a state of mind, an invaluable attitude, a jewel of the understanding that inspires a promise, a vow to advance step by step to help others.  This is the original vow.

William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, describes a similar state of mind and experience which causes “a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong, inferior, and unhappy” to experience a turning around or tipping over of these negative qualities.  There is great happiness, a sense of wellness and health.  Mysteries are cleared up, replaced by a sense of truth beyond words.  The world is fresh and new.  Equanimity replaces anxieties and there is an opening up of new reaches of fortitude and patience.  Motives to antipathy are reduced; there is a shifting of emotional center, an increase of tenderness and charity for fellow creatures.  This alteration of attitude carries charity with it, resulting in a feeling of jubilation, an expansive condition engendering self-forgetful and kindly sentiments.

Perfected enlightenment is implicit in that moment, but is only fully realized after a long period of cultivation leading to a state where one’s actions enact an understanding of dana (generosity), sila (morality), ksanti (patience), virya (effort), samadhi (meditative calm and insight), and prajna (wisdom).  The point where knowledge and behavior are integrated is the consummation, the point where doing the right thing becomes effortless and rewarding.  This condition is the perfection of the original vow.

Shantideva once more:

For all those ailing in the world
Until their every sickness has been healed,
May I myself become for them
The doctor, nurse, the medicine itself.

Raining down a flood of food and drink
May I become a treasure ever plentiful,
And in the ages marked by scarcity and want,
May I myself appear as drink and sustenance.
            
For sentient beings, poor and destitute,
May I become a treasure ever plentiful,
And lie before them closely in their reach,
A varied source of all that they might need.

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This essay is Richard Mercer’s second analysis of heroism from the Buddhist perspective. His first essay focused on the Bodhisattva. Mercer has been a Visiting Instructor of English and Core (especially Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Beckett) at the University of Richmond. He has studied Buddhism since the early 1990s. Only recently has he realized that the Bodhisattva ideal is a wonderful and practicable model to follow.

The Bodhisattva: Buddhism’s Hero of Wisdom and Compassion

9781590306338By Richard Mercer

Throughout the long course of Buddhist thought and practice, two role models have dominated the landscape—the Arhat and the Bodhisattva.  For the early Buddhists, the consummation of a human lifetime derived from a withdrawn, often monastic, existence marked by poverty, chastity, and obedience.   The successful monk or nun who realized nirvana became an Arhat.  For the later Mahayana Buddhists the ideal life changed into one marked by involvement in the world, an engaged life infused with wisdom and compassion—the latter often spoken of as highly skillful teaching of the Mahayana way.  The man or woman achieving this enlightenment became a Bodhisattva and potentially a veritable Buddha.

The popular and famous Vimalakirti Sutra, written in India around 100 CE in Sanskrit and translated into Tibetan in the 8th century and into Chinese seven times between the 2nd  and 7th  centuries, tells of a miraculous episode in the life of a legendary Bodhisattva living in the city of Vaishali.

Vimalakirti is a rich man, not a monk,  He has a home, a wife, children, relatives, and servants.  He dresses fashionably, eats and drinks like others.  He visits gambling parlors, listens to discussions about other religions, knows secular literature, conducts all kinds of business transactions and reaps profits.  He visits government offices and courts of law. He enters brothels and wine shops.  He is familiar with every level of citizen.  In all of this his motive is to use skillful techniques and expedient means best suited to the people he meets to bring them the relief that is the goal of the Mahayana Buddhist way.

To accomplish this on what quickly becomes a grand—even cosmic—scale Vimalakirti makes it appear that he has fallen seriously ill.  This gambit is very apt because the fact of illness, and the goal of health, is central to the Buddhist view of the human condition.  The first noble truth articulated by Shakyamuni Buddha on the night of his enlightenment is that human life is marked by suffering, perhaps better thich-nhat-hanh-quote-a-bodhisattva-is-someone-who-has-compassion-withput as disease or dis–ease.  The remaining three Noble Truths spell out for early Buddhists the way to cure this dis—ease.

For Mahayanists the cure is not the monastic way of the early Buddhists.  Vimalakirti counsels Subhuti, a famous early disciple of  Shakyamuni Buddha, on what constitutes real merit far beyond begging for one’s meals.

“Subhuti, if you cannot cut yourself off from lewdness, anger, and stupidity and yet not  be a part of these . . . ;  if without wiping out stupidity and attachment you can find your way to understanding and freedom from attachment; if you can seem to be a perpetrator of the five cardinal sins and yet gain emancipation . . . ; if in this manner you can master all phenomenal things and yet remove yourself from the ways that mark them, then you will be worthy to receive food.”

The Bodhisattva way is to be in the world but not of it, to know this, and to work toward understanding the implications of this truth.

Later Vimalakirti instructs Manjushri, a cosmic Bodhisattva representative of perfect wisdom, that illness springs from deluded thoughts, the upside-down thinking and desires of  one’s human past, remembered and forgotten,

“Manjusri the ailing Bodhisattva should go about regulating and controlling his mind.   By doing so he cuts off the suffering of old age, sickness, and death. . . .  A person who has overcome a sworn enemy deserves to be called a hero in the same way one who has overcome old age, sickness, and death may be called a bodhisattva.”

The Bodhisattva is an enlightened hero whose essence is skillful teaching by word and example that leads people to emancipation from the ever accumulating anxieties, errors, and stress of the human condition.

As a final note, however, it’s important to say that the Vimalakirti Sutra adds spectacle, humor, and drama to edifying doctrine.  The primary climax of the work is a stunning pause known as the thunderous silence of Vimalakirti, his non-response to a flood of abstruse observations by 31 members of the vast multitude of beings, cosmic and human, housed miraculously in his little room.  It is a powerful reminder that the most profound truths are beyond words.  Silence here is eloquent.

But wait there’s more.  Immediately following this Shakespearian moment, Sariputra, a very well-know early disciple of the Shakyamuni Buddha, provides wonderful comic relief when he thinks to himself, “it’s almost noon, what are all these Bodhisattvas going to eat?”   His mind is on lunch.  This is not the first time he fails to grasp the profundity of what is happening around him with great comic results.  There are other wonderful moments like this throughout the work that explain the great popularity that accompanies the fame of the Vimalakirti Sutra’s edifying lessons.

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Richard Mercer has been a Visiting Instructor of English and Core (especially Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Beckett) at the University of Richmond. He has studied Buddhism since the early 1990s. Only recently has he realized that the Bodhisattva ideal is a wonderful and practicable model to follow.

5 Reasons Why Jesus Is A Hero To So Many

By Scott T. Allison

Regardless of whether you believe in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, there is no denying his unparalleled impact on western thought and culture. Jesus is the spiritual leader and hero to more than 2 billion people around the world. What accounts for the enduring power of his heroism? An examination of his life reveals five important clues.

1. Jesus Was A ‘Born Hero’

In our studies of heroism, we have found that the “born hero” is a rare breed. Extraordinary situations typically bring out the heroes among us. But in every Sunday Christian service, and especially during the Christmas and Easter seasons, much of the world honors the most powerful story of the born hero in the western world. Being endowed with divine DNA makes Jesus an especially revered hero.

2. Jesus Was A Revolutionary

Jesus was, and is, a polarizing figure. During his lifetime, his followers witnessed him perform miracles and believed in the new morality that he preached: a message of love, gentleness, generosity, and forgiveness. These values conflicted with Roman values of power and strength.

People admire the courage of a revolutionary. In his day Jesus was a rebel who violated Jewish customs and defied Roman law. Like Socrates of ancient Greece, Jesus could have spared his own life by offering some defense of the social disruptions he caused. But he did not. His threat to the status quo was deemed too great by Roman authorities, and he was gruesomely executed.

3. Jesus Suffered On The Cross

Our research on heroes indicates that people especially honor heroes who experience pain and suffering during their heroic acts. The more that heroes suffer for their cause, the higher the pedestal on which we place them.

The Romans made sure than anyone who died by crucifixion would suffer horrifically. Jesus was violently flogged before his crucifixion. Iron balls and sharp sheep bones were fastened near the ends of the whips. The iron balls caused deep bruising and the bones lacerated the skin. There was ample blood loss and Jesus’ level of pain would have put him a state of shock.

Jesus was then forced to carry the heavy cross to the crucifixion area, where his wrists and heels were nailed to the wooden beams. After hours of agony on the cross, Jesus would have succumbed to a combination of asphyxiation and blood loss.

4. Jesus Died To Save Others

Christians believe that Jesus died to save the world. The circumstances surrounding his death are largely responsible for the formation of the Christian faith. The Gospels tell us that three days after he died, Jesus rose from the dead and was lifted to heaven. The story of the resurrection is a central part of Christianity because it signifies to Christians that God approved of Jesus’ work on earth and that Jesus lives forever.

After Jesus died, many of his followers were burned, stoned, or crucified by Roman authorities. This persecution backfired. As martyrs, these Christians were the source of inspiration for millions of people who began practicing the faith.

5. Jesus Transformed Society

Jesus was, and is, a transforming leader, inspiring people and elevating them to new levels of morality. Historian and author H. G. Wells wrote, “I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.”

Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, had nothing but praise for Jesus, describing him as “a man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world.” Referring to Jesus’ sacrifice at the cross, Gandhi said, “It was a perfect act.”

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In summary, there are five reasons for Jesus’ heroism: his birthright, his revolutionary beliefs, his suffering, his mission to save the world, and his transformation of the western world. Will he still be worshipped as a hero 2,000 years from now? We cannot even begin to conjecture. As with many transforming heroes, the legend is compelling, the message is powerful, and there are iconic institutions in place to ensure significant staying power.

References

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What they do and why we need them. New York: Oxford University Press.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2013). Heroic leadership: An influence taxonomy of 100 exceptional individuals. New York: Routledge.

Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. New York: New World Library.

Franco, Z. E., Blau, K., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2011). Heroism: A conceptual analysis and differentiation between heroic action and altruism. Review of General Psychology, 15, 99-113.

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2012). Making heroes: The construction of courage, competence, and virtue. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. San Diego: Elsevier.

Smith, G., & Allison, S. T. (2014). Reel heroes, Volume 1. Agile Writers Press.

Jesus of Nazareth: The Born Hero

Oops!  We had to remove the hero profile you’re looking for because it will soon appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals, to be published by Routledge in 2013.

Our contract at Routledge required us to remove many of our profiles on our blog at this time.  But we do have other hero profiles and information about heroes on the menu bar located on the right side of this page.  Check it out!

In the mean time, please accept our apologies.  Here is more information about our new book.

You can click here to return to our HERO home page.  And thanks for visiting!

— Scott Allison and George Goethals

The Dalai Lama: “My Religion is Kindness”

Oops!  We had to remove the hero profile you’re looking for because it appears in our  book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals, published by Routledge in 2013.

Our contract at Routledge required us to remove many of our profiles on our blog at this time.  But we do have other hero profiles and information about heroes on the menu bar located on the right side of this page.  Check it out!

In the mean time, please accept our apologies.  Here is more information about our book.

You can click here to return to our HERO home page.  And thanks for visiting!

— Scott Allison and George Goethals

Mother Teresa and The Call to Love

Oops!  We had to remove the hero profile you’re looking for because it will soon appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals, to be published by Routledge in 2013.

Our contract at Routledge required us to remove many of our profiles on our blog at this time.  But we do have other hero profiles and information about heroes on the menu bar located on the right side of this page.  Check it out!

In the mean time, please accept our apologies.  Here is more information about our new book.

You can click here to return to our HERO home page.  And thanks for visiting!

— Scott Allison and George Goethals