Our Definition of "Hero"

who-is-your-hero1By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

If you haven’t read our first heroes book, our definition of a hero is based on our work as social scientists. We’ve asked many hundreds of people to tell us who their heroes are, and from our data it’s pretty clear that heroism is in the eye of the beholder. Preferences for heroes are as varied as people’s taste in music, movies, and paintings. Defining a hero is like defining a good meal at a restaurant. It depends on your values, your personal experiences, and maybe even the stage of life in which you find yourself.

Cancer victims name cancer survivors as their heroes. Soccer players list soccer stars as their heroes. In short, your needs and motives determine whom you choose as heroes. Maturity and development play a role in hero selection, with younger people tending to choose heroes known for their talents, physical skills, and celebrity status. Older people tend to favor moral heroes. As we get older and wiser, our tastes in heroes evolve. Some have suggested that with age and wisdom, our choice of heroes improves — perhaps as we get older we become more discriminating and more respectful of the term “hero”.

The point we wish to make is that every person we have profiled in this blog is someone’s hero. We didn’t choose the heroes whom we profile on this blog — you did. Each hero may not be your personal hero, but he or she is somebody’s hero, and the reasons are valid and meaningful to the person holding them.

Even Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist and founder of the study of heroes, acknowledged that heroism is in the eye of the beholder. Campbell said, “You could be a local god, but for the people whom that local god conquered, you could be the enemy. Whether you call someone a hero or a monster is all relative….” (The Power of Myth, p. 156).

The World War II German soldier who died, said Campbell, “is as much a hero as the American soldier who was sent over there to kill him.” Campbell believed that the moral objective of heroism “is that of saving a people, saving a person, or supporting an idea.”

Although we agree with Campbell, and others, that heroism is in the eye of the beholder, we will never profile people such as Adolf Hitler in our blog, even if Hitler is considered heroic to small segment of society. There are some people whose values are so repugnant to us, and to the reasonable majority, that we will never profile them here.

We’ve found that people’s beliefs about heroes tend to follow a systematic pattern. After polling a number of people, we discovered that heroes are perceived to be highly moral, highly competent, or both. More specifically, heroes are believed to possess eight traits, which we call The Great Eight. These traits are smart, strong, resilient, selfless, caring, charismatic, reliable, and inspiring. It’s unusual for a hero to possess all eight of these characteristics, but most heroes have a majority of them.

As authors of this blog, we do have our own personal heroes. Our heroes combine great selflessness with great ability. In our second heroes book we call heroes of this type Traditional Heroes. One of us  (Scott Allison) identifies Roberto Clemente his greatest hero.  Clemente was a great baseball player who died helping earthquake victims. The other of us (George Goethals) calls Abraham Lincoln his greatest hero. Lincoln showed remarkable heroic leadership while healing a divided nation and freeing slaves.

When we were younger, a person didn’t have to be particularly moral or selfless to be a hero to us. The person just had to be a star athlete or great rock star.  We’ve outgrown this type of hero, which we call a Transitional Hero. Now our heroes have to accomplish far more than show great ability. They must also perform some exemplary action in the service of others.

We will certainly continue to welcome any debates about the validity of our inclusions in this blog. Critiques about the hero-worthiness of a particular individual may sharpen our thinking about who are the special men and women among us who deserve the term “hero” associated with their names. In the mean time, let’s honor the diversity of opinion out there about who our heroes are. We’re all in a different place in life, and our heroes shift and evolve as we ourselves shift and evolve.

And please, keep sending us your suggestions for heroes to profile.  We love receiving your emails and welcome your input.

References

Campbell, J. (1988). The Power of Myth. (with Bill Moyers).

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What They Do & 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.

Shavarsh Karapetyan: The Underwater Battle of the Champion

By Sharon Novikov, Matt Rosenthal, & Russell Pine

Shavarsh Karapetyan is a retired Soviet Armenian finswimmer. He is an 11-time World Record holder, 17-time World Champion, 13-time European Champion and 7-time Soviet Champion.

Despite his prolific accomplishments in the water, Karapetyan is much more well- known in the former USSR for his heroic, self-sacrificing actions on September 16, 1976. Just as he finished a 12 mile training run with his brother alongside the Yerevan Lake in Yerevan, Armenia, a trolleybus veered out of control, fell from the dam wall, and crashed into the reservoir, 80 feet from shore and 33 feet deep into the water. Karapetyan swam to the bus, and despite almost zero visibility in the dirty water, broke the back window of the bus with his legs and began pulling people out.

The trolleybus was crowded with as many as 92 passengers and Karapetyan knew he had little time, spending approximately 30-35 seconds for each person he saved. Karapetyan managed to rescue 20 people (he picked up many more, but 20 of them survived), before the combined effects of the freezing water and wounds from broken glass rendered him unconscious, where he remained for 45 days. The damages sustained from his selfless, heroic act included subsequent sepsis (due to the presence of raw sewage in the lake water), and lung complications, ending his athletic career. Today’s experts agree that no one but Shavarsh could have been physically able to do what did, and the passengers on the bus are lucky that he was there when the crash happened.

Karapetyan’s feat was not immediately and widely recognized. The photos from the accident scene were censored and released to the public only two years later, and the first newspaper article about this accident and Shavarsh’s heroic rescue actions was published six long years after the incident. The publication revealed that he was the rescuer, making his name a household name in the USSR. Subsequently, he received about 60,000 letters and was awarded a medal “For the Rescue of the Drowning”, the Order of the Badge of Honor, and a UNESCO “Fair Play” award for his heroism.

To this day, Karapetyan doesn’t consider his act as heroic or extraordinary. When asked how he managed to do what he did, he humbly replied, “I was simply closer to the crash than anyone else.” He also admitted that he would have rather died than not jump into the water that day. That was his only choice. He simply did what he knew was right, what he was supposed to do in such situation, no matter how difficult and dangerous it was.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Karapetyan’s feat is that he wasn’t satisfied with the number of people he managed to save. Later describing the incident, he said, “I knew that I could only save so many lives, I was afraid to make a mistake. It was so dark down there that I could barely see anything. One of my dives, I accidentally grabbed a seat instead of a passenger… I could have saved a life instead. That seat still haunts me in my nightmares.” Karapetyan managed to save the lives of 20 strangers in the dark, toxic waters, and he’s still haunted by the 21st he could have saved instead of the seat cushion.

Incredibly, Karapetyan found himself in another heroic situation nine years later. On February 19, 1985, he happened to be near a burning building with many people trapped inside. Without a second of hesitation, he ran into the building and began pulling people out to safety. Again, he suffered serious personal injury, this time in the form of severe burns to his body, and spent many weeks recovering in the hospital.

When his wounds healed and he felt better, Shavarsh got back to practices and managed to set yet another world record swimming with a scuba set for a 0.25 mile distance in 3 minutes and 6.2 seconds. This was his eleventh and last world record. He couldn’t proceed with his athletic career, as his injuries severely impaired his health, and he was forced to leave his outstanding sports career behind.

Karapetyan made a great moral contribution that was only possible through his exceptional swimming ability. His heroic act was one of incredible personal sacrifice and valor. While he doesn’t follow the typical monomythic hero path, his courageous behavior, coupled with an admirable sense of humility, exemplifies the heroic definition of someone who makes great contributions that require both great morality and great ability.

Throughout his life, Shavarsh never sought recognition and never claimed any credit for his super-heroic acts. After leaving his sports career he has been living a simple life, working as a school principal and raising his three children. Today he owns and operates a small shoe repair shop in Moscow called “Second Breath.”

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Sharon Novikov, Matt Rosenthal, & Russell Pine are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class.

Grace Kelly: A Friend Indeed

By Rick Hutchins

Movie stars and royalty are often considered heroes by those who find inspiration in their talent, perseverance, generosity and leadership. In those terms, Grace Patricia Kelly, who won an Academy Award at age twenty-four and became Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco at age twenty-six is twice a hero. However, the true heroism of this remarkable woman is both more personal and more profound.

In 1951, the Stork Club in New York City was a popular haunt of celebrities from both Hollywood and Washington. Grace Kelly, at that time, was a young actress of stage and television about to begin a career in film. As she dined with some friends and colleagues one night, she was witness to what was an all-too-common event in those days — a woman being refused service because of the color of her skin. That woman turned out to be Josephine Baker, an internationally famous singer and exotic dancer (herself a hero of WWII and the Civil Rights Movement), who, at that time, was a far bigger celebrity than Grace Kelly.

With no thought to the possible consequences to her own career, Kelly left her dinner, took Baker by the arm and departed for more welcoming pastures (to their credit, her companions followed suit). She vowed never to return to the Stork Club and she kept that promise. From that night onward, Grace Kelly and Josephine Baker were lifelong friends.

The next several years brought amazing changes for Kelly. She quickly became one of America’s most beloved actresses. In 1955, she headed the U.S. delegation to the Cannes Film Festival and there met Prince Rainier of Monaco. The prince knew a princess when he saw one and a few months later he made a reciprocal trip to the United States where he proposed marriage.

Josephine Baker’s fortunes, unfortunately, did not fare as well. Branded a communist by the HUAC, likely as a consequence of her charges of racism against the Stork Club, whose owner was a friend of J. Edgar Hoover, she was banned from the U.S.  Her luck went downhill from there, but her friend did not forget her. When her difficulties ultimately resulted in bankruptcy, Princess Grace gave her a villa for herself and the twelve multiethnic orphans she had adopted in better times, and offered financial support as well. In fact, Baker’s final show, a glowingly reviewed retrospective performance in Paris, given only days before her death, was financed (and attended by) the princess and her prince.

In 1982, Princess Grace suffered a stroke behind the wheel of her car; she died as a result of injuries suffered in the crash. Throughout her short life, she proved herself a true philanthropist, always using her fame and wealth and status to promote the betterment of mankind, work that still continues today through the Princess Grace Foundation. However, nothing exemplifies her heroic character more than that one selfless act of friendship to a stranger, in the days when that was all she had to offer.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and has been an avid admirer of heroism since the groovy 60s. In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

This is Hutchins’ sixth guest blog post here.  His first two, on astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, will appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

The Hero’s Journey of a Psychotherapist

clouds_sun_birds_children_chai_1280x960_wallpaperhi.comBy Jaime Grace

“Dad, will you tell me a story?” asked the kid with eager eyes being tucked in bed.

My father had a tremendous patience and love to offer, in the form of long and cozy bedtime stories. I used to hear them before slipping away into dreamland. Stories of heroes, suspense, drama and mystery in far away lands with deeds of great valour.

Those stories made a long lasting impression on my young mind and imagination, and opened the door to unsuspected future possibilities and adventures. As time went on and I grew up, those stories slipped into sweet childhood memories (also helped me to fill the gap of my father’s early departure from this life).

May The Force Be With You

Time went on. I was in my teenager years when something struck me hard and deep: I saw the first Star Wars movie. My young teenager mind could not explain but I could feel it. I left the cinema with wide open eyes, shining awe and adventure.

It was impossible to go to sleep or stop the mental storm of ideas that overlapped each other. The force was really with me.

― Ordinary World ―

Again time went on, I finished high school and went to university to study: psychology. When I got out of university life, my entrepreneur spirit kicked in, and after a couple of brief short jobs, I started my own consulting business of psychological assessments, profiling, recruiting and training for local and big multinational companies.

Life was good. Business grew and expanded to an office in Madrid and another in Lisbon with perspectives of further expansion to Africa or Brazil. At the time I could be considered prosperous with a beautiful girlfriend, nice apartment, a jeep, holidays abroad, appearance on radio and business magazines.

― Call to Adventure ―

Suddenly destiny struck. Success was no longer the driving force of my life. I was feeling uneasy, empty inside, like having a hole in my chest. My guiding direction was lost and the meaning with it. Very uncomfortable times.

My interests shifted from business to psychotherapy. It was like going back to the roots of my psychology course and I began to explore a more in depth, a more intimate and profound branch of psychology.

During this period I had a Kundalini Rising episode, characterised by boundless energy and insomnia. There was some bodily changes: higher temperature than normal, and a vibrating feeling all over my body. I could also feel fluxes of energy rising on my back, thorough my spine into my head. Gladly it was short lived and I could resume normal functioning.

The Therapy Call

At this moment in my life, I could not avoid the prospect of attending therapy (even my girlfriend was mentioning it) but nothing would do the trick. As a psychologist I was not eager to go with any other mainstream psychotherapist. I was too cocky but at the same time there was some truth in it. Most of the psychotherapists I found at the time where coming from a Behaviour Psychotherapy background, which I know is not the best approach in cases of existential or spiritual emergence. On the other hand the pure humanistic psychology ones lacked the spiritual dimension that I needed and wanted to embrace. What I sought would do the trick was a Jungian analyst, but there was none around. After a more thorough search, I finally found one, 135 km away, which was impractical for my needs. I surrendered then to the Transpersonal therapists that I could find on my town. The experiences varied, some ill prepared for the job, some too dogmatic in their spiritual agenda and some lacking the humanistic connection, relying to much on the techniques.

I reached the conclusion that I am going to learn what I need, and so I did: a year post graduation in Regression Therapy, in Lisbon, a year of Psychosynthesis, in East London University, and another year of Gestalt therapy in Lisbon again. During these years I met quite good therapists and learned a lot of what I was looking for and needed.

Some other courses would follow at Findhorn Foundation and others at the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.

The Wounded Therapist

I knew that my inner process was not over yet, but at least I was aware of it. I was still licking the old wounds, processing them, but having much difficulty with forgiveness, which was several times suggested by transpersonal therapists ignoring the fact that that doesn’t work for me. Only years later I made peace, touching ground with acceptance, and in a way forgiving myself.

The wound was still there and I learned from it. I became more in line with my heart, empathic and understanding. The wound made me more humane. This reminds me of a Jung’s quote about being a psychotherapist and being wounded:

Wounded Healer is a term created by psychologist Carl Jung. The idea states that an [analyst] is compelled to treat patients because the analyst quote-i-am-not-what-happened-to-me-i-am-what-i-choose-to-become-carl-jung-35-74-98himself is “wounded”. The idea may have Greek mythology origins. Research has shown that 73.9% of counselors and psychotherapists have experienced one or more wounding experiences leading to their career choice. [from Wikipedia]

It was no longer possible for me to embrace wholeheartedly the role of being the boss of my own company. I wanted to move and give expression to the need of doing therapy and being a psychotherapist. This led me to the process of selling my consultancy business and embark in being a full time therapist, but there was something still missing.

― Finding the Mentor ―

I continued to read a lot of Jung’s work and be fascinated by it. Along came Joseph Campbell with “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, the hero archetypes, and the knowledge of all the contemporary books and movies: Matrix, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Finding Nemo, Harry Potter, and others.

One day I was researching for a paper when I found an article called “Hero’s Journey: Ritualising the Mystery” by Paul Rebillot, part of a book written by Christina & Stanislav Grof. Rebillot’s article blew my mind. He had the audacity and courage to translate Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey into a psychological personal journey of transformation and awakening, that could be done by anyone. What Rebillot had done was creating an experiential therapy framework, in the format of a workshop, much akin to the rites of passage but to be run in today’s contemporary society. This was the psychological equivalent to the fission of the atom. I felt so excited and exhilarated while some part inside me was shouting continuously “I want to learn this!”

Just by coincidence or should I say synchronicity, Rebillot was coming to Europe, to run a two week workshop, in less than two months. I emailed him but all the places were full. I was sad but I had not lost hope. A couple of days afterwards a person dropped out and I could book my place in the workshop (another synchronicity?).

I did the two weeks workshop and I was marveled by it, although it was difficult to explain to others, friends even, the sort of experience I went through. Difficult because our western society, has lost the connection to the cultural heritage and the transformational psychology of rites of passage. The Hero’s Journey experience I had, was mystical and also grounded, not run by a priest nor a shaman but by an experienced psychotherapist with inclination to Gestalt, Jung’s Deep Psychology and the work of the great mythologist Joseph Campbell. We were talking the same language, the language of transformative experience.

― Crossing The Threshold ―

After a year and half, after I attended the Hero’s Journey with Rebillot, I found the courage to run my own Hero’s Journey workshop with the support and help of close friends. After the workshop the feedback surpassed my expectations but even more, was what happened to the lives of the participants: one left his steady job and started his own company, another accepted a job offer on the other side of the Atlantic, another went to Italy. Their lives were never the same, and the most interesting thing was going to happen to me.

One day I was watching TV (I used to watch TV then) and a documentary about Arthur C. Clark’s life was on. It showed his normal day to day: scuba diving in the morning (which I love doing) and writing books in the afternoon on his veranda overlooking the Indian Ocean. Clark was telling how his story happened. One day he went on holidays to Sri Lanka fell in love with the place, went back to England an sold everything and moved totally to Sri Lanka. It was obvious to me that Clark had found his place in life. I mean a real physical connection to place that would support and inspire his work. Realising this was like taking a huge punch in the stomach from life, which was asking me: “and you Jaime, have you found your place?” This question was haunting me day and night and I had to come up with an answer. It was unavoidable.

After long mental scrutiny Australia appeared as an interesting option but I have never been to Australia. Would this be a wild goose chase that I was convincing myself into? While talking to some friends about this idea, I knew that a couple friend of mine were guesting another couple from Sydney, Australia, in less than a month (it was the first time they were visiting them). Cutting a long story short, I meet them and after two months, I was in Australia for a two week holiday, a kind of scouting tour, to know if the place was the right place for me to start a new life. The most incredible thing was about to happen. Something that I couldn’t predict. On the exact day when I arrived to Sydney, Arthur C. Clark passed away. Wow! Looking back, I started all this process of finding a new place, when I first saw Arthur C. Clarke’s TV documentary, and I witness his death on TV on the precise day that I arrive in Australia. What were the odds of this?

Went back to Portugal and sold every thing. While preparing to move to Australia, another idea began to form. Instead of going directly to Australia, I could do a gap year and embrace the opportunity of visiting all the places I always wanted to go and never had the chance, a kind of Personal Bucket List This gap year turn into almost two years, and took me to: Egypt, India, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, East Timor, Hong Kong, Japan, US, Belize, Guatemala, Brazil, Turkey, and finally Australia where I stayed for 4 years.

More things would happen in Australia.

— To be continued —

 Jaime Grace, Psychologist —  www.heroiccounseling.com  www.jaimegrace.net

BIBLIOGRAPHY

2001: A space odyssey. Clarke A.C. Rosetta Books, (2012).

Spiritual emergency: When personal transformation becomes a crisis. Grof S., Grof C.JP Tarcher, (1989).

The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (1949) Campbell J. Princeton, NY (1972).

 

To Be a Hero, or Not To Be? On the Pursuit of the Heroic Life

Heroes blog OE 3By Olivia Efthimiou

Much attention is now being paid to the heights humans can achieve and the best of human nature. This is indeed a welcome and much-needed change, and heroism is in many ways leading the fold in this new wave of thinking. The hero is overwhelmingly seen as a symbol of triumph, overcoming the odds against him or her for some victorious end result. They defeat evil and order is restored in the world.

But reality is not as clear-cut. The burden and scars the hero can be left with as a result of what they have learnt and the trials they have undergone may leave them dispirited, calling for even greater amounts of courage to deal with the outcome of the journey. At other times there is no clear triumph as the journey might mean having to live with lifelong pain, as in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, injuries or brain damage.

Psychologists Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo (2006, p. 31) speak of the “subtleties” of heroism that have been lost. The common conception of heroism, which is more of an exaggerated, overemphasised ideal, is juxtaposed against ‘ordinary’ reality. An ordinary wo/man who as a result of a single noble act or acts of bravery (usually in sequence) rises to the status of hero or superhuman, sealed into this realm therein. As Franco and Zimbardo (2006) suggest we are all, under the right conditions, capable of both evil (as demonstrated in the Stanford Prison experiment) and heroism. Arguably it is most accurate to describe the life of a human as a combination of both, whether they are conscious of it or not.

Daily acts of reaching outside our comfort zone can be regarded as heroic – we are creatures of habit and comfort. But we are also curious creatures, with an innate thirst for imagining the impossible. An act of doing something that feels uncomfortable, however small, taps into this inborn adventurous spirit, bringing us closer to our innate heroic nature. It is these small subtleties that are indeed becoming lost in all the celebratory fan fare of ‘superheroes’ and celebrity culture. True heroism is likely Heroes blog OE 1to be a quiet, subtle thing, like a whisper in the dark that you can barely sense. But it is there. So let us begin to celebrate the small, the subtle, the unseen. For it is there that our true treasure lies.

Introducing the concept of the “banality of heroism” proposed by Franco and Zimbardo (2006) almost a decade ago, by no means denigrates the centrality of heroism in day to day life. If anything it escalates it, paving the way for a system where everyone is a hero. Acknowledging the value of heroism means acknowledging the value of journey and story, both our own and of others. We must begin to respect story as science, as episteme (from its Ancient Greek derivation), or as deep knowing – and knowledge as a journey itself – and dispel one-dimensional views of individuals, groups and the cosmos, recognising them for the rich tapestries that they are.

I believe that this type of science can provide answers to the enduring presence of heroism, which is arguably one of the few constants of not only the history of humans, but the universe itself. I believe we will also constantly fail to fully comprehend heroism’s function if we continue to look at it as a ‘higher’ ‘superior’ state of humanity (and indeed by not looking outside humanity), but rather as something innate and firmly embedded within life and physiology itself. I believe that rather than thinking of heroism as something ‘out there’, a magical quality associated with a ‘mythical’ past that left us, it has always been there. We just need to open our eyes to it in new ways. In describing this work as merely an initial attempt, Franco and Zimbardo (2006, p. 33) themselves emphasise that “at best, it allows us to propose a few speculations that warrant further investigation”.

Behind every crisis, there is a hero. Behind every life that shatters, there is the opportunity to put it back together. Heroism is a gift bestowed to all of us, which, if left unrealised, becomes a curse and the root of our Pandora’s box. Sometimes the cost is simply too high – so why be heroic? Because as the fictional character of Peter Parker says in the end of Spider-Man 3, “Whatever comes our way, whatever battle we have raging inside us, we always have a choice. … It’s the choices that make us who we are, and we could always choose to do what’s right.” And most of the time it is not about good or bad choices, but choices that were simply not good enough. Those are the ones that make the most impact in a world where heroism is banal.

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Note: This is a short version of the essay “The problem of heroism” appearing in the online commentary forum Heroism Today.

References

Franco, Z. E., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2006). The banality of heroism. Greater Good, 3, 30-35.

Olivia Efthimiou is a transdisciplinary researcher at Murdoch University, Perth and Associate Researcher at the Australian National Academy of Screen and Sound Research Centre. She is the website creator and administrator of Heroism Science – Promoting the Transdisciplinary Study of Heroism in the 21st Century and lead Editor of International Advances in Heroism Science.

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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.