Category Archives: Spiritual Heroes

Monkey Business: The Heroic Journey to the West of Hsuang-tsang

hsuan-tsangBy Dick Mercer

First published in 1582, The Journey to the West (Hsi-yu Chi) is one of the great classics of Chinese literature.  The fantastic tale takes as its core the real sixteen-year pilgrimage of the monk Hsuang-tsang (596-664) to India to collect and bring back to China Mahayana Buddhist commentaries and sutras.  Compiled and written most likely by Wu Ch’eng-en the 100 chapter novel comprises the adventures of the monk and his four animal disciples on their quest, a series of perilous adventures in which they overcome a variety of ogres, fiends, and monsters in dangerous and mysterious settings.

Throughout the story a question emerges–just who is the hero of this momentous journey, the monk Hsuan-tsang or his chief disciple Monkey? At the beginning of the novel Monkey is born from a stone egg; he bursts forth with great energy and is at once able to walk, run, leap about, and best of all enjoy life immensely.  Quickly he becomes the handsome monkey king of all the other monkeys in a wonderful cave behind a waterfall, but before long he becomes sorely troubled by the realization someday he will die.  He leaves his happy kingdom in search of immortality.  After traveling across the ocean he enters the school of the Taoist master Subodhi who gives him secret instruction and so Monkey gains huge powers.

With these powers come ambition and achievement and recklessness; he becomes a kind of Taoist Frankenstein.  Monkey ventures into the heavenly kingdom of the Jade Emperor where against all the rules he causes great disruption and even further adds to his potency, so much so that the heavenly ruler at the end of his rope can only call on the Buddha in India in hopes of controlling rebellious Monkey.  When they meet, Monkey explains himself to Shakyamuni the Buddha:

    Perfected in the many arts of ageless life,

    I learned to change in ways boundless and vast.

    Too narrow the space I found on that mortal earth;

    I set my mind to live in the Green Jade Sky.

    In Divine Mists Hall none should long reside,

    For king may follow king in the reign of man.

    If might is honor, let him yield to me.

    Only he is hero who dares to fight and win!

This is Monkey’s grand declaration–his mission statement. The Buddha is unable to persuade Monkey of the wisdom that is self-control so he proposes a bet–just the sort of thing that would appeal to Monkey.  If Monkey can jump out of the Buddha’s hand, he can become king of heaven, if not he must accept the consequences.  Monkey gleefully takes the bet.  In a justly famous comic episode he fails and the Buddha drops a mountain on him.  The powerful, immortal “hero” is helpless under a immense mound of earth and stone.

monkeykingThe story of Hsuan-tsang is very different.  An orphan found floating in a basket down a river, he is taken in and raised as a Monk at Hung-Fu Buddhist temple in the imperial capital Ch’ang-an.  As was the case with the Jade Emperor of heaven struggling with Monkey, the mortal Tang emperor is embroiled in troubles that literally take him to hell and back burdened with a heavy obligation to sponsor a grand religious ceremony.  He selects Hsuan-tsang to celebrate these rites.

In the meantime the Buddha, returned to his distant home in India, decides things have come to such a pass that it is time to intervene.  He dispatches the great Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin to China to select a pilgrim to travel to India for scriptures and then return to Ch’ang-an as a dharma messenger.  On her way to China she encounters three monsters with super-powers being punished for misdeeds; if they will agree to join the quest they can gain their freedom.  She makes the same bargain with Monkey under his mountain.

With dharma-quest set as the key to freedom for these incarcerated super-heroes, it remains for Kuan-Yin to select the essential human pilgrim to make the journey to the west.  Without much difficulty she discovers Huang-tsang who agrees to set out for India in search of Mahayana scriptures.  To mark the importance of the journey the Tang emperor gives the monk a new name–Tripitaka, the term used to designate the complete Buddhist cannon of monastic rules, sutras, and learned commentaries.

From the outset it is clear things will not be easy.  On the first day Tripitaka’s two human companions are eaten up by monsters.  Suddenly all alone, he is saved by an old hunter who guides him near to the border where they hear Monkey cry out, “the master has come.”  Tripitaka releases Monkey from beneath the mountain and the two of them cross the frontier to begin their adventures in search of wisdom and liberation through the dharma.

Almost immediately they are surrounded by six robbers identified as eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.  For Monkey who is used to fighting fearsome ogres and heavenly armies, these six (allegorical) banditti are not much of a challenge.  He finishes them off in the blink of an eye, but to his dismay Tripitaka admonishes him.  He should bring them to a magistrate, not kill them.  Monkey loses his temper and storms off, leaving Tripitaka on his own again; this conflict between the human pilgrim and his rash, powerful disciple is played out again and again to the end of the novel.

Kuan-Yin, disguised as an old man, appears to the Monk and gives him a coat and a cap for Monkey, the means to control him.  When Monkey cools off and comes back, Tripitaka convinces him to put them on.  Monkey and Tripitaka are together again, but with a difference.  Monkey’s new headgear can’t be removed and if he acts out, Tripitaka, using a little mantra, can cause the cap to shrink and Monkey to suffer a terrible headache.  Pain replaces confinement as the bitter fruit of rashness and anger.

Tripitaka and Monkey now go on to form the complete dharma posse. This entails encountering the two dragons and the great pig who, like Monkey, have agreed with Shakyamuni_Buddha_Mantra1Kuan-Yin to join the pilgrimage in exchange for freedom from bondage.  It soon is obvious to the new members, however, that Monkey is by far the most powerful member of the group.  In fact, Pigsy asks Monkey why doesn’t he simply carry them all to India in an instant and so avoid all the hard work and dangers that surely lie in front of them.

Monkey says:

    It is required of Master to go through all these strange territories

    before he finds deliverance from the sea of sorrows. . . . 

    We cannot exempt him from these woes nor can we obtain the scriptures by ourselves.

The human component of the quest is just as important, if not more so, than the great powers of the four super-heroes who not only overcome great barriers and dangers, but who must help Tripitaka surmount his very real human weaknesses.

Shortly after Monkey emerges from under the mountain the two suffer a setback and Tripitaka for the first time–but not the last time–becomes confused and despondent.  Monkey reacts with characteristic energy:

    When (he) saw him crying, he was infuriated and began to shout: 

    Master, stop behaving like a namby-pamby! .  .  . 

    Bellowing like thunder he said,  “You’re a weakling!  Truly a weakling!”

Tripitaka may have the main goal of the quest in view, but it is Monkey, with regular, timely help from Kuan-Yin, who keeps the dharma posse on the road day to day, even in the face of petty and comical but potentially serious conflicts between the super-hero pilgrims themselves.

After many trials and close to their goal the pilgrims arrive on the bank of yet another river, this one over 20 leagues wide.  Soon they are met by a man rowing a boat, but Tripitaka has very serious misgivings; the boat has no bottom.  Seeing Tripitaka hesitate Monkey takes him by the scruff of neck and pushes him on board.  The others join him on the gunwales, and they set off.

Suddenly they saw a body in the water, drifting rapidly downstream.  Tripitaka stared at it in consternation.  Monkey laughed.

    ‘Don’t be frightened Master,’ he said. 

    ‘That’s you.’  And Pigsy said, ‘It’s you, it’s you.’ 

    Sandy clapped his hands.  ‘It’s you, it’s you,’ he cried. 

    The ferryman too joined in the chorus. 

    ‘There you go!’ he cried.  ‘My best congratulations.’

When they reach the other side, Tripitaka steps ashore with a strange feeling of lightness and exhilaration.  Freed from the domination of the six senses–mortal flesh and bone–a fundamental spirit of mutual caring emerges. At this time he begins thanking each one of the dharma posse for helping him to reach his goal, but Monkey interrupts:

    ‘Every one of us,‘ said Monkey, ‘is equally indebted to the other.

    ‘If the Master had not received our vows and accepted us as his

    disciples we should not have had the chance to do good works

    and win salvation.  If we had not protected the Master and mounted  

    guard over him, he would never have got rid of his mortal body.

Through a beautiful landscape they all set out for their meeting with the Buddha. After collecting the scriptures they have come for, they begin the return journey to China.  Along the way, however, they experience several further crises that indicate theirs is an unending quest.  The process is as important as the achievement, but there is a difference now.  Monkey controls his temper, Pigsy is no longer a fool, Sandy attains perfect discretion, Horse is well able to see the point of a discussion; Tripitaka becomes the Buddha of Great Merit.

To be a hero patient cooperation and watchful self-control are essential.  The Dhammapada, a very old collection of Buddhist proverbs, puts it this way:

    Just as the farmer irrigates a field,

    An arrowsmith fashions an arrow,

    And a carpenter shapes a piece of wood,

    So the sage tames himself.

At the very end of the novel when Monkey is named Buddha Victorious in Strife he asks Tripitaka why he must still wear the terrible little headache cap that he can’t take off.  Tripitaka explains it was put on Monkey’s head when he was impossible to control, but now that he has become a buddha it is no longer needed.  Monkey raises his hand to touch his head and indeed the migraine cap has vanished!

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This essay is Richard Mercer’s fourth 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.

No-Mind: A Zen Buddhist Pathway to Heroism

William_James_b1842cBy Richard Mercer

Let’s begin with a lecture given by William James toward the end of December, 1907, in New York City.  Printed later under the title The Energies of Men, James identifies a serious, wide-spread malaise:

Most of us feel as if we lived habitually with a cloud weighing on us, below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding.  Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half-awake.  Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked.  We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources. 

Our natural vitality is constricted, something is missing.  Many realize how much freer their lives might be, but find they are bound in, confined by only partially understood inhibitions, routines, and habits.  Where are the keys that unlock and release our stifled energies?

James first mentions crises.  Consider this description of Lieutenant Henry Ropes of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteers at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 written by Captain H. L. Abbott:

(His) conduct in this action . . . was perfectly brave, but not with the bravery of excitement that nerves common men.  He was absolutely cool and collected;  . . . (his normal) slight impetuosity and excitability . . . sobered down into the utmost self-possession, giving him an eye that noticed every circumstance . . . ; a judgement that suggested in every case the proper measures, and a decision that made the application instantaneous.  It is impossible for me to conceive of a man more perfectly master of himself, more completely noting and remembering every circumstance when the ordinary man sees nothing but a tumult and remembers nothing but a whirl.

canvasLieutenant Ropes’ actions embody conduct out of the ordinary; a new way replaces the old way of doing things with a decisiveness appropriate to the moment.  His bravery is intriguing and inspiring.

James also mentions ideas — “ideas set free beliefs, and the beliefs set free our wills.”  This young soldier’s experience can be seen as illustrating a state of being summed up in the Chinese neo-Daoist concept no-mind (wuxin).  The person who experiences this is not mindless, but rather loses awkward self-consciousness and acts with appropriate and apparently effortless decisiveness.  When such an idea, like any energy releasing abstract idea, is at work in an individual’s life, its effect is often very great.  It acts as a kind of exhortation, something to inquire after, something to learn about.  It is edifying.

In the context of Buddhist thought, connected to no-mind is another animating idea–the majestic concept of Enlightenment (anuttarasamyaksambodhi).  Enlightenment in the Mahayana Buddhist view can be gradual or sudden.  It can be the result of a lifetime of good behavior marked by restraint, study, and meditation or it can be instantaneous.

Sudden enlightenment is at the heart of the Lankavatara Sutra, compiled in Sanskrit in India somewhere between 300 and 450 CE.  Brimming with invigorating ideas, it presents a remarkably modern looking psychological system suggesting enlightenment to be a healthy, human mind freed from countless abstractions and cumbersome habits.

Early in the sutra the Buddha warns Mahmati about the dangerous and delusive power of habitual reactions which are the source of greed, anger, and suffering.

So long as people do not understand the true nature of the
objective world . . . .  they imagine the multiplicity of external
objects to be real and become attached to them . . . .

CQMNbo2WEAAmHhMAnd a little later:

False imagination teaches that such things as light and dark,
long and short, black and white are different and are to be
discriminated; but they are not independent of each other;
they are only different aspects of the same thing, they are terms
of relation not of reality . . . .  Mahamati, you and all Bodhisattvas
should discipline yourselves in the realization and patient
acceptance of the truths of emptiness . . . .

Freeing oneself from stale habits of thinking and the illusions of language games, a sudden and intuitive turning about takes place in the deepest seat of consciousness.  At this moment, born from a state of mental concentration, one’s old, mortal mind is given up.

When the intellectual-mind reaches its limit . . . its processes of thought . . . must be transcended by an appeal to some higher faculty of cognition . . . .  There is such a faculty in the intuitive mind, which is the link between the intellectual mind and Universal mind.

With egotism greatly diminished and gradually disappearing, the Bodhisattva becomes master of himself and of a life of spontaneous and radiant effortlessness.

The Diamond Sutra, compiled in India in Sanskrit perhaps around 300 CE, provides a dramatic illustration of a sudden enlightenment experience.  In it the Buddha teaches Subhuti, a well-known disciple and Arhat, lessons in the perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita) and emptiness (sunyata).  Throughout the short sutra a wide variety of important, traditional elements in early Buddhist and Mahayana thought are subjected to a pattern of deconstruction.  They are declared to be empty–not eternal verities, but relative.

Take for example the Jataka tales which were extremely popular and influential.  These are tales of the Buddha’s many, many previous lives before he became the Buddha Shakyamuni.  In a number of these he is in the form of an animal that sacrifices itself to provide food for someone who is starving.  In others he is in human form performing prodigious acts of sacrifice that include giving away possessioprajna6 ns and even family members.  Suicide to save others figures in a number of the stories.  These tales provided an hyperbolic ideal of selfless behavior for early Buddhists and Shakyamuni undoes them along with other Buddhist mainstays.

The Buddha said:  If some woman or man were to sacrifice
as many of their own bodies as there are grains of sand in
Ganges River, Subhuti, and if someone were to learn just
four lines from this sutra and teach it to others the merit of
teacher would exceed that of the others by an immeasurable amount.

At this moment, in a flash, Subhuti comprehends the new ideal.

Venerable Subhuti, listening to this was shocked into a deep
understanding of the meaning of this teaching; bursting into tears
and wiping them away as he continued to weep, he said how
well the Buddha has taught these lessons.  A new level of
cognition has been produced in me.

It is not unusual for sutras to conclude with a general enlightenment experience accompanied by universal rejoicing, but this is different–it is one disciple moved to tears.  And we’re not finished.  The explosive power of prajnaparamita’s doctrine of emptiness is frightening.  BOOM!  Everything crumbles into the rubble of paradox and relativity.

The Buddha said to Subhuti:  .  .  .  If there is a person who,
listening to this sutra, is not frightened, alarmed, or disturbed,
you should know him as a wonderful person.  Why?  Because
what the Buddha has taught as parjnaparamita, the highest
perfection, is not the highest perfection and therefore it is called
the highest perfection.

Immediately out of the ruins, however, arise two virtues that have escaped the general collapse, patience and charity.  True to form Shakyamuni says the perfection of patience is really no perfection and that’s why it’s called the perfection of patience.  The same holds for charity.  This realized, the result is wonderful.

The Buddha said to Subhuti:  When a bodhisattva practices
(patience and) generosity without depending on form, he is like
someone with good eyesight walking in the bright sunshine
–he can see all shapes and colors.

The experience is expansive.  The whole world opens up becoming fresh and new.
The idea that sparks conversion in the Lanka and the Diamond Sutra is emptiness (sunyata)–a radical relativity.  There is no Truth and that’s the Truth.  This is the perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita).  Both sutras declare that awareness of MB-20111206-DSC_0111-530x800relativity is liberating and energizing, but at the same time a power drawing people together.  We simply see the world as it really is.  William James echoes this:

Truth happens to an idea.  It becomes true, is made by events.
Its verity is in fact an event, a process.  We say our ideas “agree”
with reality when they lead us through acts and ideas . . . to other
parts of experience . . . .  The connexions and transitions come to us from point to point as being progressive, harmonious, satisfactory.

James expresses an idea Mahamati and Subhuti might well understand but never put the way he puts it.

True ideas lead to consistency, stability, and flowing human
intercourse.  They lead us away from eccentricity and isolation,
from forced and barren thinking.

Our energies are unbound.   We arrive at the paradoxical condition of no-mind (wuxin) in which our thinking is free from attachment working smoothly at liberty to come and go en rapport with every circumstance and to render help to every person in the most appropriate way.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

This essay is Richard Mercer’s third 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 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

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— Scott Allison and George Goethals