In Mahayana Buddhism (practiced in Tibet, China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and Indonesia), a bodhisattva is someone who intends to become awake in order to liberate others. While most of us wake up wondering, “What can I do to make myself happy?”, the bodhisattva begins each day wondering what he or she can do to make others happy.
To do so, they don’t sink into self-hood (or ego), which they recognize as a false creation of the mind. It’s a state of “me-ness” that goes against the natural condition of oneness. Trying to hold the self apart and protected causes tension and pain. When threatened, the “me” gets angry. Observing “me’s who present more successful façades causes envy.
I was sure that this “me” obstacle would disqualify me for even baby bodhisattva status. Like many people working on spiritual awareness, I was always bumping into a stubborn ego. In the midst of wondering, I came across this quote by Thich Nhat Hanh:
“A bodhisattva doesn't have to be perfect. Anyone who is aware of what is happening and who tries to wake up other people is a bodhisattva. We are all bodhisattvas, doing our best.”
That opened new possibilities. I recognized that being mindful of my habitual negative (ego-driven) thoughts ultimately means accepting them instead of trying to bury them. The way to selflessness is not around the troublesome self but through it.
Developing deeper self-esteem satisfies the need for attention of an entity I have come to see as a lonely and generally unhappy three-year-old who built an ego to clothe her naked needs.
Self-acceptance provides a better wardrobe. The warmly dressed and deeply loved child who has assumed ego form can retreat to become the inner child who supports one’s joy, creativity, and faith. With that foundation, it becomes possible to turn one’s attention to the needs of others.
When we clear out space to accept ourselves as we are, we learn to accept others as they are. That kind of acceptance teaches us kindness and generosity.
We can say, “Just like me, this person suffers, feels guilty, has made mistakes, and wants to experience love.” Every time we recognize ourselves in another, we expand our capacity for mindful compassion.
This is surely the path of a bodhisattva.