Published in Sunday Midday on 3 August 2008.
Everybody knows the story of the prince who was sheltered by his father from all the problems of life. He had a prosperous kingdom, a beautiful wife and a lovely child. But one day, as he wandered through the streets of his mountain kingdom he saw people who were old, diseased and dying. This is what will happen to all. There is no escape, he was told. A sense of gloom overpowered him. He wondered how he could be happy again. So he left his palace, his wife, his child, in the middle of the night, and wandered through the forests, amongst sages and sorcerers, seeking answers. Some told him, happiness can come through magic. Others told him it can come through spiritual power obtained through self-mortification. He tried all the paths but none worked. Finally, he sat under a Pipal tree and contemplated on the nature of life and realized, Desire is the cause of suffering! With this realization he became the Buddha, the enlightened one. Vasuki, king of serpents, rose from under the earth to spread his hood over his head. The hood of the serpent, spread out like a parasol, was a symbol of his intellectual and spiritual achievement. Buddha went from city to city sharing his newfound wisdom to all. He then set up an order of monks and nuns, the Sangha, who went around answering two very basic questions: why are people unhappy and how can they be happy?
But not many people know what happened after this event, which took place 500 years before Jesus Christ, and 1200 years before the Prophet Muhammad. People wondered why was the prince so blessed – why was it that of all the unhappy people in the world only he was able to solve this great mystery of life. It must be his fate, said some. But how does one create such a blessed fate? By doing good deeds, said others. What were Buddha’s good deeds? And when did he do it? Acts of compassion in his past life, was the reply. And with that a set of stories came to being, collectively known as Jataka, which tell how Buddha was compassionate and generous in each of his past lives until he had accumulated enough merit to be born as Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan who eventually became the Buddha. So there is the story of the monkey who stretched himself across the river helping his troop cross over and breaking his back in the process. And there is the story of the large tree that begged the woodcutter to cut him in small pieces so that his fall did not destroy the smaller trees around him. And there is the story of the elephant who killed himself so that he could feed the starving travelers. Buddha in these previous lives was called Bodhisattva – the compassionate one, who was on his way to become the Buddha. People where encouraged to be as compassionate and generous as the Bodhisattva if they wished Buddha-hood for themselves.
As the centuries passed, there were many who felt that Bodhisattvas were superior to Buddha; they were not just Buddhas-to-be. Buddha was the enlightened one – the one who showed the path and then walked away without turning back. Bodhisattva, on the other hand, was the one who showed the path to all, but one who refused to walk this path until all creatures on earth had walked that way. The Bodhisattva by delaying his own Buddha-hood for the sake of others was more compassionate, hence greater. Bodhisattva was the one who sprouts many eyes to shed more tears for the suffering of all creatures, the one who sprouts many ears to hear the cries of all, the one who sprouts many mouths to speak comforting words to all, and the one who sprouts many arms to hug all and make everyone feels secure. Bodhisattva did not make people feel guilty about wanting things; he helped them cope with the unhappiness that followed when desires were not fulfilled.
For many, Buddha was highly intellectual in his approach while Bodhisattvas seemed more emotional. Buddha was all head; Bodhisattva was all heart. Buddhist schools where Buddha was more valued that Bodhisattva came to be known as Thervada or the primary school while Buddhist schools that valued Bodhisattva over Buddha came to be known as Mahayana or the greater school. Thervada Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand and other parts of South East Asia. Mahayana Buddhism spread through Central Asia to China and Japan.
In art, Bodhisattvas can be distinguished from the Buddha by the presence of many hands and heads. Buddha has one hand and sits serenely with eyes shut – his hands may be in a posture that symbolically represent knowledge. Bodhisattvas are more dramatic with dozens of heads and arms. The most popular Bodhisattvas are Avatilokeshwara and Amitabha and Manjushri (who will be born on earth in the future). In China, Avatilokeshwara is even visualized as a woman, Guan-yin, who understands the human condition and, with empathy, fulfils everyone’s wish.
This transformation of Buddha to Bodhisattva, from teacher to angel, suggests that as humans we prefer affection over wisdom; more than knowledge, we need love.