The Bodhisattva’s
Life

by Katherine Thanas, Teacher of the Santa Cruz and Monterrey, California Zen Centers

[Note: The Bodhisattva vows to lead all beings into nirvana and to enter nirvana only after all beings have been liberated.]

Some time ago, as I was driving in town, doing my usual driving practice of skimming and snaking in and out of the flow of traffic, taking advantage of every opportunity so as not to have to slow down for traffic signals, the following thought arose, "The Bodhisattva doesn’t try to get ahead of anybody, even on the freeway."

Insights, when they arise, are so obvious. Our practice seems to be always to arrive at the obvious. When Master Dogen (founder of the Soto tradition in Japan) returned from his pilgrimage to China, he described his realization as: "My eyes are horizontal, my nose is vertical." Pretty obvious maybe, but the depth of his realization was bottomless. I don’t claim to have realized this traffic practice as deeply as Dogen, but it was clear to me that this insight about driving arrived with a great force because I needed to learn how to co-exist with every other driver on the road.

The Bodhisattva is willing to be stuck in traffic, is willing not to get the advantage in traffic. The Bodhisattva is willing to be in situations without an advantage. That was a big realization for me.

The Bodhisattva’s way is to realize we are one body – to deeply realize that condition. The elbow cannot get ahead of the stomach; the hand cannot go ahead of the foot. If a wart develops under the big toe, the whole body limps. The idea that I can get ahead of anybody is a perverted view. Each of us exists absolutely, on our own absolute unconditioned nature. There is no comparison between being in my dharma position – exactly where I am in my life – and everyone also being in their dharma position, exactly where they are in their lives. There is nothing to compare. You are you, yourself. I am exactly me, myself.

You and I are not in competition for insight and wisdom. We complete each other. If I have any understanding that you don’t resonate with, it’s of little use to me. Notions of "ahead" and "behind" are simply relative to our point of view. The foot behind is relative to the foot in front.

Another point about freeways is that we collectively create the freeway. Master Dogen, in the Genjo Koan, said something like: "The bird makes the sky and the sky makes the bird." The freeway doesn’t exist outside of your participation in it. That’s a Buddhist truism. The freeway creates us, brings us forth, and we bring forth the freeway, we create the driving conditions, the other drivers, the whole event, by our perceptions, behavior, state of mind. And by our understanding and willingness to join that collective event we can actually make a difference in what happens on our highways.

Since I decided to include driving as a real part of my life, I have developed more respect for driving. I have opened my life to it in a different way.

When we are willing to open our lives to what we are already doing, real time arises. We have real time and "unreal" time in our lives. For instance, going to a lecture or giving a lecture is real time. Doing zazen is sometimes real time. Going to work is sometimes real time, as are eating dinner out or going to the movies. And unreal time is something like getting dressed to go to work, stopping for gas, stopping to make a phone call to say we’re going to be late; going to the toilet (sometimes real time). All things we don’t want to do, aren’t interested in, or have become automatic and unconscious for us I am categorizing as unreal time.

When we open ourselves to what we actually are doing, that activity becomes real time. It is real that I am in this car and that somebody is passing me. I have the option of being generous and making space for them in my lane, or closing them out.

Thich Nhat Hanh says something about his in a discussion of parenting. Frequently parents begrudge time with their children because it takes away from the parent’s own time to do other things. (We don’t include the time spent with the child as our time.) Maybe that is the time we rush through in order to get to our time. When we do that there’s tension, irritation, a problem for us.

Consider the time spent with your child as your time, he suggests. When we can see that time given to being with our children is our own time, that time becomes real time. When we turn to that event – not just being with children, but also cooking, cleaning, whatever – when we turn to it with attention and interest, our life opens up. Our body feels softer because muscles and blood vessels can release the tension of trying to avoid doing whatever it is we are doing.

We spend many hours on the freeway: How we accommodate to other drivers and how they accommodate to us makes a big difference in how we live. The Bodhisattva Vow isn’t something we chant and think, "Someday I’ll figure out how to save all sentient beings." But in the moment of driving or of standing in line, there arises the willingness and acceptance of the situation. And that willingness to be there and breathe there is actually liberating. Breathing in place actually liberates us from our frustrations, irritations, and tensions about being in a situation we define as uncomfortable and undesirable, not our real life.

This practice of not having any special advantages in life and being willing to accept what arises is a koan for us. We come to zazen to "improve" our lives. But the improvement we realize is the openness to what our life actually is – to the obvious, to our breath, to our tensions, to continuous irritations, to our continuing unwillingness to be present in and live our actual life. To continuously want our life to be something else. In the midst of that, the Bodhisattva is willing to continually live this one life she actually is. We accept, with humor, that we are continually wanting another life and that we are simply always living this one.

Katherine Thanas, 1995

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