The eighth-century Indian monk Shantideva was the author of The Way of the Bodhisattva, an in-depth look at the bodhisattva path through the lens of the ten paramitas, or perfections. It’s an amazing text. But spelling out what it means to be a bodhisattva, to take up that practice of total generosity, doesn’t take a whole book. As it happens, Shantideva pretty much captured it in a single poem, “Bodhisattva Prayer for Humanity”:
May I be a guard for those who need protection
A guide for those on the path
A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood
May I be a lamp in the darkness
A resting place for the weary
A healing medicine for all who are sick
A vase of plenty, a tree of miracles
And for the boundless multitudes of living beings
May I bring sustenance and awakening
Enduring like the earth and sky
Until all beings are freed from sorrow
And all are awakened.
I imagine that anyone who reads this poem will read it differently. Even if all these aspirations—which are really just one aspiration—resonate with us, they also raise questions we might have about our own capacity. We can just be honest about that.
Just to start, I don’t always know how to be “a guard for those who need protection,” and I certainly haven’t always been one. I do see, though, how I could be, and how in the past I could have been (and failed). It’s a great place to start because, at least in many cases, I think I know what that looks like.
But a guide? That implies that I know where I’m going, well enough to lead someone else to that same place. Even for those of us who sort of play that role (in our sanghas, in our friendships, in our broader communities), saying, “I’m a guide” can feel like a bit much. And that’s okay, because we can also be a boat.
How to be a boat? The beauty of this image is that a boat, unlike a guide, has no direction—it doesn’t have to know where it’s going at all. It just holds someone up on their journey and keeps them dry. We can do that for each other. We don’t have to know everything about the bodhisattva path. We don’t have to have navigated these waters before. To be a boat, we just trust the person we’re supporting. We trust that they know where to go, and we also see that they could use some help in getting there. In friendships—if they are good friendships—we are often the boat for the other person, and they are the boat for us. It takes some commitment, but it isn’t all that hard. Just don’t overthink it.
For a while, it goes like this, one thing that may seem out of reach, another that doesn’t. I’m not sure I know how to be a lamp. But I can be a resting place—just as with the boat, to be a resting place, I just have to be available, be present, stick around. I wouldn’t dare say I’m qualified to be a healing medicine (though I would love to be). But a vase? Again, this is the task of being a receptacle, of agreeing to be strong for others in a particular way.
I don’t know what a “tree of miracles” is, but I know what a tree does, and it’s pretty simple: a tree doesn’t move. If there’s anything we learn from meditation, both in the body and in the mind, it’s how to not move—even when pushed, even when pulled, even when everything inside of says to go anywhere but here.
The rest of Shantideva’s poem is about time, about sticking around until everyone is free. If we think of forever in human terms—in human years—it’s immediately overwhelming. Freeing all beings is overwhelming. The good news is, we don’t have to get stuck there. A boat is just a boat. It doesn’t have an idea of who it serves, or why. It doesn’t wonder how long it will last. It just floats. It’s just ready. A tree stays where it is. It doesn’t even have a sense of function; it’s just supposed to be there, always there, and nowhere else. Time isn’t the point. Utility isn’t the point. It’s the not moving that’s the point.
If you don’t know how to save all beings, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Do what you know how to do, and just keep doing that. In time, you become something, something that always does that thing. That matters. I’m not sure we need to know much more than that.
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 Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.