Chapter 15 – Bodhisattva

The true masters of ancient times cultivated the art of the deep understanding of the subtle essence.  

So deep as to be unrecognizable, we can only describe their demeanor.  

Deliberate, as if crossing a frozen stream in winter.  

Alert, as if faced on all sides by enemies.  

Dignified, as if an honored guest in someone’s home.  

Dissolving, as ice when melted.  

As solid and simple as an uncarved block of wood.  

Open, like a valley. Obscured, like a muddy pool when you cannot see the bottom.  

Who has enough stillness to let muddy water settle?  

Who is able to stay at rest while generating the movement of everyday life?  

On this path of Tao, one avoids the fullness of things in order to be truly empty.  

Therefore, one is able to continually be refreshed.

bodhisattvaThe above translation of this week’s Wednesday edition of TaoTe Ching Tuesday is that used by Amy Putkonen (who initiated Tao Te Ching Tuesdays) on her web site,  Like my comments on Chapter 14, I intend to share a few brief thoughts about this verse rather than writing a more formal  essay.


It seems that we should be able to recognize the true masters among us by the way they communicate and the way they act.  Lao Tzu tells us that is not the case.  Rather, the masters are not easily recognized.  They do not seek publicity.  Their actions are based on the circumstances presented to them.

Our material world itself is not constant.  Nothing here is permanent.  The sage knows that the only permanence is change.  Following the Tao, the master flows with the changes that define each moment.  Because he or she is able to live in the flow of nature, his or her actions are simply appropriate – they do not stand out.  They draw no more attention than the passing breeze or the tree on the hillside.  This is a facet of acting through non-action. The acts of a sage may change from day to day and they may seem inconsistent to an observer; yet they are appropriate.


The actions of the sage are said here to be “as solid and simple as an uncarved block of wood.”  This image is repeated throughout Taoist writing to represent that which is simple, pure and genuine.  It is nature in full accord with the Tao before it has been acted upon by an outside force.

At least that is the easy explanation – but it is not quite right.  A tree would be the symbol of nature.  A block of wood is created after a tree has been cut down and is another representation of infinite potential.  From the block of wood a skilled carver can create a bucket, a bear, two lovers, a horse, a carriage; in short, anything that can be imagined.  First, however, it must be prepared:  the tree must become a block of wood.

A true master is the same and may appear anywhere, at any time, in any form.  Yet the master must also prepare.  I recently read some comments by  Soko Morinaga, a Japanese Zen master, who said, “This may seem incidental, yet the most important condition of all is to find peace oneself and to become enlightened before attempting to teach others.”

We all need to find that peace so we will have “the stillness to let muddy water settle” and to calmly “generate the movements of life.”


Teaching may come in many forms, however.  I wrote about the events behind this next thought in another post, but was reminded of them again as I read this chapter.

When our children, Michael and Suzanne, were perhaps 7 and 5, I took them to the Denver Art Museum one Saturday afternoon.  We spent some time looking at the Native American exhibit which they enjoyed; then we began looking at art from the other Indians – the ones from India.  The kids liked Ganesha with his elephant head and Shiva with his four arms standing on the back of a dwarf.  There were representations of various bodhisattvas and gods and goddesses.  As we passed by, I overheard a lady in her late 20s ask a museum guard, “Could you tell me what ‘bodhisattva’ means?”

The guard replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t know.  I don’t usually work on this floor.”

I approached and said, ‘Excuse me.  I overheard your question, and maybe I can answer it.”  I summarized what I understood of the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, with the ultimate purpose of reaching Nirvana and escaping the endless cycle of birth and death and re-birth.  However, I explained, some beings are so filled with compassion for others that when they reach perfection, they nevertheless choose to be re-born to help others move to higher spiritual levels.  Those beings are called “bodhisattvas.”

Another museum visitor, a young man, had stopped to listen to my explanation.  When I paused, he said, “Yeah, it’s like that ‘Bodhisattva’ song by . . . by . . .uh, who is that?”

“Steely Dan,” I said.

“Right, Steely Dan.” Everyone thanked me, and went their separate ways.  My children may have thought – at least for a few minutes – that I was pretty smart.  When those minutes had passed, Suzanne, acting as a bodhisattva, asked if we could go get ice cream.

As we left the museum, I mused on what I would say if the people I had spoken with had not thanked me, but looked with awe and asked, “Are you one of those bodhisattvas?”  Should I tell them?  Would they still like me?

Or, what would they have said if I asked if they were bodhisattvas practicing the Socratic Method?  They should have said yes.

Let’s go back to the definition.  If we say a bodhisattva is supposed to be a being that has reached perfection and is in the material world to help others recognize their perfection, the folks at the art museum were just that.

Would your husband or wife qualify as a bodhisattva?  There is no doubt about it.

What about your parents, children, siblings and neighbors?  Yes, yes, yes and yes.

How about your boss and co-workers, the pine tree outside the window, your dog, my cat?  Yes and yes, yes, yes and most certainly (she assures me).

I know that if any Buddhist or anyone who has studied Buddhism reads this, he or she will immediately see the folly in what I have written.  No being, I will be told, can become a bodhisattva without taking the necessary vows.  A bodhisattva must engage in the 37 practices.  In other words, my definition seems to have left out the requirement of volition on the part of the bodhisattva.

Of course that is true.  What I have written is folly.  I wrote as if there is a distinction between me or you and any bodhisattva.  The traditional Buddhist would also speak as if there were separation – again, folly.

This separation is quite real – when we observe the “fullness of things.”  However, if any of us can become “truly empty,” distinctions and delusions, which are quite real, dissolve into the emptiness, which is also real.

For now, I think that if anyone asks if you are a bodhisattva, don’t think about it.  It doesn’t matter if they will like you.  Just empty your mind for a brief moment and say YES.  In that moment, you will be correct.

[The photograph, which is a detail of a relief of a bodhisattva found in Jiuhuashan in China’s Anhui Province was taken by Nat Krause in June 2004 and has been released into the public domain.  Thank you, Nat.]

10 thoughts on “CHAPTER 15 – BODHISATTVA

  1. Yes! We are correct in that moment, and that moment is all there is.

    Yesterday I asked my bodhisattva what would happen if two enlightened, conscious beings encountered one another. The answer was, “They would laugh.” And I laughed.

    Folly is a good word and the way you use it is an inspiration to me When I read your insightful comment a folly of my own appears. A story, of course, and a memory and thought…

    “I meet myself everywhere. Once I met myself in the Dalai Lama. I watched myself sit down in a chair and casually adjust my robes, cast the sash over my shoulder, and rest. I beheld one thing. Then I saw that one thing split in two, and it was looking at itself. It was so odd and funny I laughed for several minutes, and then went on my way, laughing at what I see.”

    Our folly can be an amusing predicament.

    If we oscillate between sleeping and waking at a frequency of ten thousand cycles per second, are we awake? Or asleep?

    It boils down to what we know and what we think, what we behold and what we see, what we do and do not – to what we are attending to in the moment.

    The lotus has ten thousand petals, and is one lotus.

    Here, where the rubber meets the road and the blacktop splits the desert and is itself split with a dotted white line which resolves into a line itself at a hundred and ten and the air is as hot as your speed and your nose is full of redolent sage and your gut is full of joy and rage are we asleep or are we awake?

    On the ancient cliff in the badlands or on the austere, snow-burned crag above the glacier, are we asleep or are we awake?

    In the ordered library of mind where being is traced and shadowed and exquisite mandalas are created with 37 complex embellishments of yes and no and levels and labels surrounding the empty, whole and holy core of being, are we asleep or are we awake?

    In the body are we elaborations of carbon or a vessel of the soul?

    Is this a cacophony of myopic ego-chaos streaming from keyboard to monitor or a jazz riff of the soul rising up to join the ribbon of cosmic music winding through the cosmos?

    Is our folly and predicament and joy located in the thing Rumi says we want and have forgotten and will be forgiven for not remembering – love’s confusing joy?

    Yeah, we are. Yes, it is.

    Here endeth the riff. Wow, I didn’t think I had it in me… 😉

    *walks on joined arm-in-arm with Louis, and we are laughing*

  2. Thanks, Bob, for “getting” it. Yes, the moment is all there is. As I said in my comments on Chapter 14, “the Tao is now.”

    You remind me of a story, too. Several years ago I attended a talk by the Dalai Lama at Mackey Auditorium in Boulder. Those of us in attendance had the opportunity to submit written questions to be asked of His Holiness at the end of his formal remarks. My question was whether he, as a very spiritually advanced Buddhist who believes in reincarnation, was able to remember his past lives; and, if so, did those memories assist him in dealing with issues during his current life. Sort of like meeting himself.

    My question was not chosen to be asked. Most of the things he was asked dealt with some of the issues I was thinking of for this life, such as the Chinese repression of Tibet.

    If I happen to run into the Dalai Lama at the grocery store or down on the bike path, I think I will ask again. It would be sort of interesting to find out.

    • In the grocery store: “Hey, DL! Whatta ya know?” And if his attendees don’t gently bum-rush either you or him out of there I see three possibilities:

      • 1) He responds and says “Nothing.” Then I’d laugh.

        2) He responds and says “Everything.” Then I’d laugh.

        3) Hopefully he would say one of the first two and then inquire “How about you? What do you know?” And I could say nothing if he said everything, and I would say everything if he said nothing. Then I’d smile at him real big. And I’ll bet we’d laugh.

        On the bike path? I’d tell him the Heisenberg traffic cop joke about “I don’t know how fast I was going, but I know where I am. And I’ll bet we’d laugh.

  3. You two are so awesome. There is so much to respond to that I am going to write two comments. The first to Louis and then one to Bob.

    Louis – The tree on the hillside – your comparison of this to the unassuming life of a sage was perfection. Last night was a perfect night in MN, so when my husband and I returned from the movies I sat out on the deck and just soaked it in. It was this strange mix of supremely quiet and still and extremely noisy with the crickets and the night noises. I was in awe. I wanted the moment to last forever but eventually I went inside and went to bed. Our lives are as awesome as that night sky. We live so fast and furiously that we forget those night sounds. At least I do. Much of the time.

    Your story of the bodhisattva was great. I am sure that your cat believes that she is the SUPREME bohisattva, but then that would kind of defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it? Or at least would cancel itself out. Can one be enlightened and then come back to lord it over others? The thought makes me laugh out loud. Cats can. On the other hand, I so loved your concept that we are ALL bodhisattvas. Of course we are. We are all the same being – Tao.

    Bob – I must respond to your comment since it is really a post in itself. I have to say that it is an honor to know the two of you, if only through words typed on a page. This project that I started on a whim to inspire others to go through the Tao Te Ching and find their own meanings has been such a treat for me in getting to read what you two have to say. I love the banter between you two! Awake or asleep – who is asking the question? Ha. That depends on the moment – who are you?

    • Amy and Bob, Cathy and I are in Lake Tahoe for a few days. I
      just read your comments. I would add a thought or two, but I
      am not very competent working this iPhone.

      Instead, I am going to try to shoo some of the smoke from the
      Yosemite fire away so we can see the lake.

      • Try to avoid the 13 grillion cubic feet per second diesel-fired supercharged air blower and just see the lake through a pair of swim goggles instead. I think there’s a chapter in the Tao Te Ching about that. Just use a bit of the diesel after your dip to wash the soot off…

  4. Yes, yes, yes. Each of us in our own “strange mix” of supremely quiet and still, and cricket, and night noise, are an awesome One.

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