the five fears of the beginning bodhisattva

Sprout discovers The Thing.  It doesn’t fill him with as much fear as the Five Fears that assail bodhisattvas.  I found this a fascinating tidbit about bodhisattvas in Red Pine’s commentary (and there are innumerable delicious morsels in his translation of the Heart Sutra).

First a bit a backtracking.  The problem with studying, learning, and  writing is the time for consolidation isn’t always available.  After Rohatsu in December, I committed to taking on the various commentaries on the Heart Sutra and have been delighted by some I didn’t know about.  Coincidentally (or not), a copy of Red Pine’s translation arrived from Counterpoint Press and that just sealed the deal to dive into the sutra.  (I have Ken McLeod’s contribution on the shelf but may not get to it until later this year!)

Second, a bit of history.  The first book on the Prajnaparamita I tackled was Lex Hixon’s Mother of All Buddhas.  The outcome was the same as I would have had as a fair-to-middling Elementary School student trying to read about Quantum Physics.  Then came Thich Nhat Hanh’s work, The Heart of Understanding from which I extracted the magical nature of the mantra: gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.  That seemed to suffice with regular chanting of his translation of the sutra and admonishment to simply let it seep into my bones.  Unfortunately (or not), I’m not much given to blind belief and kept returning to and becoming discouraged by Hixon’s tome.

Over time, I think I fell into the common experience that the Heart Sutra is one part faith healing, one part penetrable only by advanced scholars, one part confounding of terms and language, one part apostolic creed, one part…  You get the idea.  It seemed to be the elephant many blind wise persons were trying to describe to equally blind audiences.

Before you buy my version of the elephant, do listen to Kaz Tanahashi’s commentary on the Prajnaparamita.  The recordings are from Rohatsu at Upaya Zen Center and are in the first 20 minutes of each dharma talk.  Listen to rest of the talks too but Kaz’s description of the origins and the intent of the sutra are invaluable to clarifying this tangle that arose out of scriptural, doctrinal, and cultural contacts.

Now to Red Pine.  This translation and commentary is painstakingly written and expresses the tangled history with luminous clarity.  You can read various tidbits from it in the previous posts of this week.   However, what really stands out for me is the way Red Pine puts into perspective the historical backdrop and the doctrinal intent of the sutra – with a dollop of rollicking Buddhist mythology.  As he walks through the sutra, we learn about the intentional way it is set up to deconstruct (as a deconstruction itself!) the teachings of the ancients which lay stuck in objectifying experience.  He takes us through to the meaning of being a bodhisattva and the challenges.  That was worth the price of admission.  And finally, there is a lovely flourish that draws the circle of going inwards into practice so we can emerge from the womb of the Prajnaparamita as buddhas (hence the sutra’s epithet, Mother of All Buddhas).

Back to the teaser: what are the five fears of the beginning bodhisattva?

We fear survival – what if I give all and that generosity depletes me?

We fear criticism – what if we are censured, undermined by the dis-ingenuousness of others?

We fear death – what if we back away from that ultimate sacrifice, of giving up our life for another, for all others?

We fear a bad existence – what if the teachings are not available just as we come into being and need them to guide us?

We fear speaking before others – what if we fail in relaying the urgency of practice if we are all to realize being buddhas?

This is the holding back in the early stages of bodhisattva-hood.  When we cannot extend our practice beyond these fears, it gives birth to a refusal time and again to engage in this very life that is our own.

9 thoughts on “the five fears of the beginning bodhisattva

  1. what wonderful teaching! thank-you. I haven’t looked at the Heart Sutra in a long time. I can remember chanting it with the Zen group I belonged to. I think you have tempted me to go have a peek and a listen to it again.

  2. I haven’t read Red Pine’s book yet, but I’ve heard it’s good. I am curious as to how you came to the conclusion that the Heart Sutra is one part faith healing.

    My own take on the Heart Sutra is that by having Shariputra ask for guidance from a Mahayana Bodhisattva, and by putting the Buddha into the background, the compilers of this work were making a subtle, but very radical, statement about enlightenment. What I think they were trying to say is that enlightenment is actually a bit of an illusion and not the main goal. Bodhisattvahood is the real goal, a conclusion I’ve come to from pondering something the Dalai Lama said many years ago, “Whether or not [a] person becomes enlightened . . . it doesn’t make any difference, because the purpose of existence is to be of service to others and if the person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose.”

    When you change the persona of Avalokitesvara to a feminine Kuan Yin, it becomes even more radical, by having the Buddha’s foremost disciple asking guidance from a woman!

    • Hi David!

      In one of the Zen group I attended for many years, the dharma teacher insisted that chanting the Heart Sutra would cure cancer – among a number of other ills. My statement is an observation of the way I’ve experienced the Heart Sutra used more than what I experience it to be for myself.

      Red Pine, Conze et al. see the presence of Shariputra (and Avalokiteshvara’s insistent ‘Iha, Shariputra’) as a means to showing how the Abhidharma is limited and establishing the Mahayana doctrine. Red Pine calls it a “jab in the ribs (of the Savastivadins).” :-D

  3. The elephant & the blind wise ones is one of my very FAVorite stories — so rich!

    I think you are right about the Heart Sutra being as the elephant to the blind wise ones — something a bit different to each of us, according to our level of understanding. Isn’t that what makes them such great teachings over time??

    Maybe it applies to any kind of wisdom teaching……….

  4. Pingback: Miscellaney…. | Full Contact Enlightenment

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