Thursday, September 27, 2007

Three Nephites, Nuclear War, and Bodhisattvas

Three stories, one idea. The stories are set, respectively, 2000, 25, and 1300 years ago.

* * *

Mormon scripture recounts that 2000 years ago, after his death in Israel, the resurrected Jesus Christ appeared to inhabitants of the Americas. During that visit, he taught the gospel, healed the sick, and called disciples to serve the people following his ascension. As a boon to those disciples, he asked what they desired. All but three asked to serve God until they were 70 years, and then to be accepted into heaven. But the three…

…[Jesus] turned himself unto the three, and said unto them: What will ye that I should do unto you, when I am gone unto the Father? And they sorrowed in their hearts, for they durst not speak unto him the thing which they desired. And he said unto them: Behold, I know your thoughts… …[Y]e shall never taste of death; but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory with the powers of heaven…. …[F]or ye have desired that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand. …

And they are as the angels of God, and if they shall pray unto the Father in the name of Jesus they can show themselves unto whatsoever man it seemeth them good.

3 Nephi, chapter 28, passim, The Book of Mormon

Though they seem to have gone out of vogue in an Internet-linked world, in earlier times of the LDS Church, stories of unexpected and fleeting visits by the Three Nephites, as they were called, providing divine and timely assistance were told, much as angel visitation stories have been told for millennia by Christians. As a youth, I was impressed not so much by the magical aspects of the folktales of the three living (seemingly) forever, but rather by the idea of caring so deeply about the welfare of others that foregoing heaven’s happiness seemed a good trade.

* * *

Fast forward to 1983. I’m a 21-year-old sophomore in college. I’ve returned from serving a mission to teach the gospel to Latin American refugees in the barrios of southern California. America is deeply embroiled in the Cold War. American military planners have developed plans for “battlefield use” of nuclear weapons – the idea was that “low-yield” nuclear weapons could be used in controlled numbers to win battles, without precipitating the kind of mutually assured destruction that had been the baseline assumption about nuclear war during earlier decades. I had grown up with nuclear annihilation as a peculiar commonplace, a kind of low, constant background noise. Though grim, the battlefield-use notion seemed no more delusional than the instructions I grew up with outside Washington, D.C., where government buildings bore “Fallout Shelter” signs, and grade school teachers instructed us, in the event of a nuclear attack, to crawl under the classroom desks for shelter.

In November of 1983, a movie airs on television – The Day After. It shows the story of people living in Kansas when a nuclear war erupts between the US and the Soviet Union. In such detail and horror as could pass FCC muster in the 1980s, the movie tells the story of handfuls of survivors in a post-apocalypse world, assuming, of course, that anyone survived at all. It shows a world of radiation poisoning, people dying for lack of infrastructure that we take for granted – hospitals, food supplies, law and order. It ends on a note of grim suffering and hopelessness. In hindsight, it was a movie designed to show what a “survivable” nuclear war might actually mean, designed to persuade its audience that surviving such an event might be well and truly worse than dying in it. I watch the movie in an apartment that I share with five other roommates. We are all pretty solemn during the movie, though when it ends, they all remark, as the director probably intended, that they’d rather die in the destruction than try to live in its aftermath.

I remain silent for a time, then walk out into the night, devastated. As it happens, the weather is a mix of drizzling rain and snow. At some point, I realize I am barefoot. I climb the sharp hill from my apartment complex to the night-darkened campus of the university. Despite high school teachers who had ridiculed the fallout-training they were supposed to provide (one recommended that if we heard a report that nuclear war had broken out, we should climb up onto the roofs of our homes so we could watch the fireworks before we were vaporized), I’ve never internalized such a thing. The movie drives home to me how awful human existence could be. While I’ve had the usual –perhaps more than the usual – amount of inner-city school kid adversity, I’ve never imagined a situation that I’d rather die than endure. I keep walking aimlessly. As falling snow soaks my shirt through, collects in my hair, I replay the scenes of utter hopelessness. At some point in the night, my heart changes. I realize that stronger than my desire to live the life of comfort and hope that I’ve lived, and stronger than my desire to be with God after death, and stronger than my desire to avoid the horror depicted in the movie, stronger than any of those things is my desire to alleviate others’ suffering. No matter how bad my experience might get, if there are people in need of help, then I’d prefer to stick it out. If a nuclear war leaves me in a world headed toward total death, but doesn’t put us all there all at once, then I choose to live while I can extend compassion to others.

While I keep that realization to myself, even after I walk back through the snow to my apartment, it moves deeply into my mind and heart. And, though I don’t recognize it immediately, that realization is a kind of vow.

* * *

Next, head back to the 8th century, CE. The crown prince of a region that is now in India renounces his position and takes to a spiritual path, living the life of a renunciate. As Pema Chodron recounts the story, he gets to Nalanda University, a large, powerful monastery that attracts students from all over the Buddhist world. At Nalanda he is ordained a monk and takes the name Shantideva, or “God of Peace.”

Contrary to what his later reputation suggests, Shantideva was not well liked at Nalanda. Apparently, he was one of those people who didn’t show up for anything, never studying or coming to practice sessions. His fellow monks said that his three “realizations” were eating, sleeping, and shitting. Finally, in order to teach him a lesson, they invited him to give a talk to the entire university. Only the best students were accorded such an honor. You had to sit on a throne and, of course, have something to say. Since Shantideva was presumed to know nothing, the monks thought he would be shamed and humiliated into leaving the university.

(Pema Chodron, No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambhala, Boston: 2005, p. xi)

As happens in such stories, Shantideva accepted the invitation and delivered a brilliant discourse that has been recorded and preserved ever since, called The Way of the Bodhisattva. In it, he teaches a path for developing bodhicitta – an “awakened heart” – the desire to alleviate suffering, to free oneself from ignorance and habitual patterns in order to help others to do the same.

Buddhist tradition teaches that we can become enlightened, a state that the Buddha described simply as “awake.” In Buddhist terminology, a bodhisattva is a person who has achieved, herself, enlightenment, yet who remains engaged in life on earth to bring others to the same state. Sometimes a person will adopt that role as the natural result of a conscious recognition of connection to others – one who recognizes that until all beings are brought to enlightenment, no one individual’s attainment of that condition is complete. Sometimes a person adopts that role as the natural extension of a powerful compassion.

As the Buddha discovered, as Christ taught, as Mother Theresa embodied, as Ramakrishna showed, as Rumi and Hafiz and Ranier Marie Rilke and Walt Whitman and Mary Oliver all saw and wrote, at the very core of each of us is a connection to all other beings. To be sure, we can spend our entire lives without discovering it or acknowledging it. It is not forced upon us, any more than stillness is forced upon us. But, like stillness, it is always present, behind and beneath the sounds and engagements of daily life. It is as discoverable as stillness, and it is as foundational as stillness. And it is revealed at the opening of a mind to the messages of the heart.

In Shantideva’s terminology, that path is bodhicitta. He urges us to see the problems and challenges before us not as problems of how to find or preserve a good for ourselves and for those with whom we identify, but rather how to heal the entirety of problem, a perspective that cares as deeply for those causing us pain as for those feeling the pain, that values one’s own pain neither less nor more than any other’s. This was Gandhi’s approach to racism in South Africa and to British dominion in India. It wasn’t enough for Gandhi to force the British to leave India – he wanted them to want to leave India because they would want the best for Indians. It was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s approach to civil rights in the United States, with his “I’ve been to the mountain” vision not of societal gains for African-Americans alone, but rather a world entirely transformed for the benefit of all.

There are many, many ways of labeling bodhicitta. Some simply call it “love.” Others, “the light of Christ.” Some call it “the Dharma.” Some call it the “true self;” others, the “no self.” Some call it “Yoga.” To my way of thinking, the label doesn’t matter much, so long as it provides us with a way to perceive the desire and honor its place, so long as the label doesn’t delude us into thinking that it is only a potential of a few, rather than one of all sentient beings.

Shantideva’s fully envisions the sacrifices entailed by this way of life, prefiguring the sacrifices of Gandhi and Rev. King:

For sentient beings, poor and destitute,
May I become a treasure ever plentiful,
And lie before them closely in their reach,
A varied source of all that they might need.

My body, thus, and all my goods besides,
And all my merits gained and to be gained,
I give them all away withholding nothing
To bring about the benefit of beings.
(v. 3:10-11)

The desire of a bodhisattva isn’t confined to Shantideva’s discourse 1300 years ago. A friend of mine recently recited Shantideva’s words as she aligned herself to the Way of the bodhisattva. She wrote about the experience here Her commitment led me to read and discover Shantideva.

* * *

And that leads me through these three stories to today.

In the years since I first wondered at (and felt the deep resonance to) the peculiar desire of the Three Nephites so to be of benefit to mankind that they’d forego heaven, in the years since I served as a missionary, in the years since I have stepped quite a distance from beliefs in a particular religion’s view of existence, my recognition on the snowy night in college continues. In my present, I seem to be as belief-deficient when it comes to Buddhist beliefs as I am with respect to Mormon beliefs. Yet my sense and perception of bodhicitta endures as a kind of essential alignment more elemental than belief.

Is a vow a promise or a choice of alignment or simply a recognition?

* * *

And now as long as space endures,
As long as there are beings to be found,
May I continue likewise to remain
To drive away the sorrows of the world.
-- The Way of the Bodhisattva, v. 10:55