A Bodhicitta Dream
Those of us who consider ourselves spiritual in nature may wonder from time to time how we came to be walking the path that we’re on. Is it simply a natural manifestation of what we naturally are, or was the process far more happenstance than destiny? Did a beautiful gift somehow fall into our lap, or was it a hard-fought struggle to become the spiritual being that we are today? Christians often speak in terms of the grace of God when considering such questions; which may explain how one person can hear the gospel and thereafter become a lifelong Christian, whereas another may hear the very same words and remain steadfastly aloof and unmoved. Buddhists, similarly, speak in terms of bodhicitta – awakened mind, or awakening mind (see Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, for instance). The workings of bodhicitta may explain how one individual can be moved to practice on behalf of all beings by whatever understanding of sunyata (emptiness) they may have been fortunate enough to glean, even as another discerns no particular wisdom at all in any of the Buddhist teachings to which they’ve ever been exposed. Are such differences purely accidental in nature, a function only of the vicissitudes of this life, or are they dependent instead upon whatever good or bad karma the individual may have accumulated in previous lives?
Whatever the case may be, bodhicitta seems to act on both a conscious and unconscious level in order to guide us toward making the bodhisattva vow – the vow to practice on behalf of the liberation of all beings – and indeed to make such a vow in the first place. I see this in my own life when I think about how I was “guided” to discover the Antaiji style meditation retreats held at Sanshin Zen Temple on a regular basis, and the compulsion that I feel to take part in them as often as is practicable – intense though they may be.
So why did I not sit rohatsu sesshin there this week as I have in years past? After all, what better way to affirm, renew, or fulfill one’s bodhisattva vow than by sitting in meditation for a week as the historical Buddha is said to have done just prior to realizing complete enlightenment. It’s not like I forgot about it. It’s been in the back of my mind for months. I was actually still contemplating being there up until the registration deadline came and went just prior to the start. It’s just that some personal issues have gotten in the way for me at the present time. Which brings me to an example of bodhicitta working in my life in an unconscious way.
You see, I had a dream the other night. It was on the eve of the first day of rohatsu, in fact, although I didn’t make the connection until after a couple of days of consideration. I was sitting with my mother in the living room of one of my childhood homes. She appeared in the dream as young as she was when I was just a child, despite the fact that I was the age that I am right now. The moment was strangely somber and upbeat all at the same time. A great weight had just been lifted from our shoulders. The terminal illness from which I wasn’t expected to recover had been found to be misdiagnosed. I was going to be fine after all!
Nonetheless, my mother began reading to me a poem that she’d intended to read to me on the day of my impending death. Under the circumstances, however, she was reading it to me on the first day of my new life. And as she read, my gaze became fixed on a piece of woodwork that I happened to be holding in my hands. I wasn’t sure what it was, because in my dream world my field of vision only allowed me to focus on a small part of the larger whole. The part that I could see, however, was comprised of a few turned wooden dowels that connected to other points of the larger construction. They were darkly stained, and covered with a film of dust that I gently wiped away with my finger as the words of the poem sank deeper and deeper into my consciousness.
Who can forget such a dream? Quite to the contrary, they stay with us until we’ve sufficiently plumbed their depths for meaning, or for the rest of our days for that matter. And so it was that as I recounted the dream for a second time to a family member, the importance of it began to become clear. In describing once again the turned dowels of the piece of woodwork that I held in my hands, it occurred to me that it was much like a small version of an old ship’s wheel. And then the dream began to make sense. The wheel was, in fact, a Dharma wheel – with spokes representing each of the steps of the eightfold path. That I was forced by my constrained field of vision to focus only on a spoke at a time signifies that I need to look again more deeply at how I’m living my life in accord with the most fundamental tenets of Buddhist practice. I need to dust each of them off with my fingers – with the very being that I am.
It seems obvious to me now that the overarching message is one of renewal. The time has come for me to renew and rededicate my practice. Sure enough, I’ve maintained my practice this past year of meditating each day. I was even fortunate enough, along with my spouse, to form and co-facilitate a meditation/contemplative prayer group here in our new hometown. Still, though, all of the external and internal changes related to our long-distance move have kept me from settling as deeply as used to be routine. Breaking into a new job market has required an abundance of energy. My writing patterns were disrupted and, as you may have noticed, these blog posts – a huge aspect of my spiritual practice and wellbeing – have become less frequent than ever before. New social and family meal routines have prompted me to backslide from the stricter and more compassionate dietary habits of my bachelor days. Likewise, some of my more environmentally-minded routines now require revision or re-creation. I need to start a vegetable garden once again! I need to begin taking stock of how to reduce my carbon footprint in this new house and new town. In other words, now that I’ve rooted more permanently in the soil of my new home, it’s time for my bodhisattva vow to blossom forth anew. This is what bodhicitta was trying to tell me, I think, working via the medium of dream consciousness.
But what was I to make of the elaborate context of the dream: my impending death and subsequent new life, and the poem read by my mother? Is this not just a little bit melodramatic given the meaning of the dream as I’ve been discussing it thus far? Did this merely invest the dream with emotional immediacy? No, I think not. Quoting loosely from Ajahn Sumedho (1987) of the Thai Forest Tradition: “Mindfulness is the path to deathlessness.” With everything going on this year, my mindfulness practice was at risk of becoming rote, and nothing that is rote can truly be said to be mindful. What can start out being a matter of “chopping wood and carrying water” can imperceptibly slip into a more habitual “going through the motions.” Imperceptibly, my practice had slipped into a holding pattern. Without renewing my awakening, without a reinvestment of energy and a rededication of effort, I was at risk of slipping into death – figuratively, if not literally.
Of course, readers familiar with Tibetan Buddhism will be aware that passages from what is commonly referred to as the Tibetan Book of the Dead are read to dying individuals in order to guide them on their journey through the bardo realms and on to their next destination. My mother’s reading of a poem that she had selected or composed is an obvious allusion to this practice. But I don’t think that the woman in my dream was really “just” my mother. I think she represents both my mother and the universal nurturance of all that lives and strives toward liberation. Perhaps in my dream she is the very embodiment of bodhicitta.
With this post, then, I rededicate this blog, as I’ve already rededicated my practice. Given that my writing here is and has been such an integral part of my spiritual practice, this will benefit me even as it benefits whatever wayfaring seekers might happen upon it as they make their way through darkness into light. May we all become enlightened altogether and as one! That is my bodhisattva vow.
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Sumedho, A. (1987). Mindfulness, the path to the deathless: The meditation teaching of Venerable Ajahn Sumedho. Amaravati Publications.
The Wheel of Life at Sun Temple Konark, Orissa India by Ramnath Bhat via:
The Buddhist Eight-Fold path illustrated in a wheel by Krisse via:
Copyright 2017 by Mark Robert Frank