Interviewer: Sifu, thank you for your time to give this interview. May I speak with you on a Buddhist topic?
Sifu: Yes, certainly. Although I note that what I say may need to be corrected by a lama if I am in error.
Interviewer: OK. May I ask you about bodhisattvas? What are bodhisattvas?
Sifu: In terms that a Christian might relate to they could be considered as saints, or as angels. They are those beings who have taken an oath that says on attaining enlightenment they won’t sit back and enjoy a Nirvanic state but will deliberately seek a re-birth of their mind-stream to help all suffering sentient beings escape the sufferings of samsara. Bodhisattvas are those who have seen the light – and I’m making a little joke here! (Laughs).
Interviewer: Your answer raises more questions for me! (Laughs)
Sifu: Good! That’s a good way to have a chat. What questions have been evoked?
Interviewer: Several. One is: are these bodhisattvas able to be seen?
Sifu: A bodhisattva may have differing levels of accomplishment. Those who are embodied in forms other than human ones may not necessarily be seen by our human vision. Others can certainly be seen.
Interviewer: Do they walk among us? Sounds like sci-fi! (Laughs)
Sifu: Bodhisattvas are inspired by compassion. Many do walk, as otherwise ordinary human beings, amongst us. I personally believe that more highly enlightened bodhisattvas can also appear to us as normal human beings to comfort us. Perhaps even as friendly animals.
Interviewer: How can we recognise them?
Sifu: (Laughs). Look around you! A diamond has many faces! (Laughs) Every sentient being is a potential bodhisattva. Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists may choose to take bodhisattva vows, but not our Theravadin brothers and sisters. They don’t take these vows, I’m told. They take a different view of the process. Those who have taken the Bodhisattva vows become bodhisattvas. Some of those who haven’t taken such vows act like bodhisattvas, though. Even many non-Buddhists can be like bodhisattvas. They are kind; they pursue goodness and eschew evil. These people can be thought of as like bodhisattvas. But, a bodhisattva really has to have the conscious design to help all suffering sentient beings escape samsaric illusion and suffering. It is more than doing good. It includes an effort to awaken the mind to ultimate reality. Bodhisattvas don’t try to be missionaries though or to forcibly coerce people to convert them. That would be wrong. They model behaviour and teach if asked. Otherwise they don’t disrespect the individual by trying to make them think as they do. That’s spiritual assault and spiritual abuse.
Interviewer: So you’d have views on missionaries?
Sifu: The standard missionary hopes and usually acts with this idea foremost – to capture the allegiance of those they help. They act to conscript, to cajole, or to coerce their targeted person to believe as they do. In doing so, throughout history, there has been enormous suffering, cultural abuse, even genocide. This is different to a bodhisattva.
Interviewer: Yes, I see. What’s the difference between a Christian saint and a bodhisattva?
Sifu: The Christian saint will not have encountered the notion of purifying the mind-stream so as to attain enlightenment. They have not encountered, or have rejected the Dharma. Most likely I would hazard a guess that, by far, it is most likely that they did not encounter it. Those who genuinely are saints, of any religions, are nonetheless people worthy of respect. Not all those designated as saints after their deaths were necessarily holy or good people. I think that there has been a lot of politics involved in designating many people saints.
Interviewer: I see. Do you like any of the Christian saints?
Sifu: Oh yes! I especially like Saint Francis of Assisi. There are several others who did a lot of good to alleviate the suffering of sentient beings. St Vincent de Paul, for example. He was a very kind man, by accounts. Those who work in his memory do a lot of good to help a lot of people. I deeply respect that.
Interviewer: Saint Francis, yes, of course! (Laughs) What do you know of the Bodhisattva vows, sifu?
Sifu: I took the vows. So, I have been initiated into them and taught about them.
Sifu: Many people have taken them.