As Buddhism moved out of India, encountered different cultures, and began to take on new forms, a powerful concept arose—that of the bodhisattva. For most people, the first description they hear of a bodhisattva is of a being who, despite having realized awakening, forgoes the release of nirvana in order to stay behind and free every other being first. It’s a powerful image, this person standing at the door of liberation and saying, “You first, you first, you first,” until they are the last one.
In ordinary, less mythological terms, a bodhisattva is someone whose center of gravity is generosity—everything they do is motivated by a drive to benefit others, to offer themselves. These people exist. You may have met a few.
One of the clearest encapsulations of the bodhisattva path is captured in a prayer written by Shantideva, a scholar–monk who lived in eighth-century India. The most famous part of the prayer is these last four lines:
For as long as space endures,
and for as long as living beings remain,
until then may I, too, abide
to dispel the misery of the world.
This is a beautiful description of the mindset of perfect generosity—it captures that idea of staying, whatever it takes, to serve others. But what I find most moving is the language about time: “For as long as space endures / and for as long as living beings remain.”
So much of Buddhism rests on impermanence and the certainty that whatever is here now will eventually change or die or fade; without that understanding of arising and passing away, there’s no Buddhism. Anytime we encounter something that feels solid or safe, we should remind ourselves: this, too, shall pass.
But here, Shantideva is talking in terms of incalculable aeons—essentially, of choosing a path and sticking with it forever. It may seem like a paradox—and maybe it is—but the bodhisattva path rests on these two understandings: (a) everything has an end, and (b) this work is endless. How do we hold both?
I think a first step is applying this sense of forever to the things we wish would change. I’ve noticed in my own life how, when I feel discomfort or pain, my suffering isn’t limited to just that one thing—I also have the desire for that pain to go away, my visions of how things will be when/if it does, my replay of the moment when the pain began, my ideas of what I need to do now in order to be comfortable. I’m holding all of it, not just the pain. And it’s exhausting.
What if, in the moment when you stub your toe, you were to pause, take a breath, and say to yourself, This pain will never go away, ever, under any circumstances, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s not true, of course, but feel how different that is, how in surrendering so totally to the pain, in eliminating the possibility of escape, you are freed from the extra burden of hope and regret and fixing it—you have just that one thing, and if you breathe that way for a while, you find that you can handle it. You may not like it, but it isn’t as heavy as you might have thought.
Once, at the monastery where I was training in Japan, a middle-aged man new to Zen came for a weekend program. Meditation was painful for him—his knees hurt, and his back was stiff—so after the first period, he found a little cushion to support his knee. That left him lopsided, so after the next period, he found one for his other knee. Then he added another to sit on, so he was high in the air. And he kept going this way, nesting, for the better part of a day, until finally no part of his body was touching the ground, and he had to hold his body tight just to keep the whole thing from collapsing. He could have stuck with just that first cushion and accepted that sometimes, whether we like it or not, things hurt. (He would have had a much better weekend.)
Next time something arises that is so big or so hard that you can only think of the end of it, try the opposite: let the end go. I don’t mean you should give up on your life or simply surrender to something negative. That’s not the point. But try this on. There’s something to it.
We can do this every day, both with what we resist and what we feel is meaningful to us. Try this: next time you meditate, sit down, find your posture, take a breath, and just for a moment imagine that this is the last thing you will ever do—you will meditate here forever, past when the bell rings, past breakfast, past tomorrow, past next week, into eternity. Take away the ending. Stay where you are, with what is, whatever it is. Know, without doubt, that nothing can move you.
That’s the stance of the bodhisattva. It’s the view from the beginning of the path—a path that’s always at the beginning.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
Balanced like a fine sculpture, this gong evokes the sounds of temples near and far. Hang in the breeze wherever you would like to enjoy its deep, resonant tones. Made of ash wood with natural finish and brass gong.
The low wide-mouthed body of this traditional tea ceremony bowl called matcha chawan in Japanese makes it ideal for offering incense on your home meditation altar. It is hand painted by well-known Japanese potter, Eichin Kato, and bears his signature mark – two slashes – on the bottom of the bowl. Made of stone and earthen clay mix.
Place the bodhisattva Kuan Yin as the focal point of your home shrine or in your contemplative garden as a reminder to practice love and compassion in your daily life. Kuan Yin is the manifestation of Great Love and Great Compassion, and is most often represented as a female deity. She has the power to assume whatever form is necessary to fulfill her vow to save all beings from suffering. Depicted here in the posture of royal ease, this exquisitely detailed statue of Kuan Yin captures the serene dignity of this well-loved goddess.