Since I am going to offer a perspective that may raise hackles with some in the Buddhist community, including self-identified secular Buddhists, I need to be very clear about my purpose in writing this article.
In critically interrogating the path of the bodhisattva and proposing an alternative model that resonates more with me, I am in no way denying or denigrating the value and inspiration that many Buddhists have found in the figure of the bodhisattva (whether understood in real or mythical terms). Instead of aiming just to achieve his or her own complete liberation from suffering, the bodhisattva works ceaselessly to achieve the liberation of all beings. In that sense, he or she is the ultimate embodiment of universal compassion and love. For many Buddhists, their highest aspiration is to live a life infused with bodhicitta, the mind of the bodhisattva that strives toward awakening, empathy, and compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings.
For many Buddhists, this aspiration has been at the core of efforts to bring Buddhist values and insights off the cushion and into our interpersonal lives and in social engagement with the problems that we face. Although the bodhisattva is a central aspect of the Mahayana tradition – some would say it is the distinguishing feature of Mahayana beliefs and practice – modern day meditation teachers in Insight and other Theravada lineages also put forward the bodhisattva as an ideal or model for practitioners.
In recent years, David Loy has argued that the bodhisattva path provides us with essential resources to respond wisely to the climate and ecological crisis that we face. He calls for us to take up the work of being ‘ecosattvas’, committed to saving the world from ecological disaster and thus stopping the suffering this crisis imposes on all beings.
I recognize the power of the bodhisattva model and the positive effect that this model has had on many people. But I have always found myself somewhat distanced or put off by the invocation of the bodhisattva as an ideal way of engaging in the path. While for many Buddhists, the beginning line of the boddhisattva vow – ‘The many beings are numberless; I vow to save them.’ – is inspiring and aspirational, that line for me has always seemed somewhat hyperbolic and hollow. Why?
There are two reasons why the path of the bodhisattva does not resonate with me: 1) the path presupposes an ultimate realm of complete freedom from suffering and 2) the bodhisattva is based on a heroic model of spiritual attainment. In my view, both are inconsistent with a secular, radically engaged approach to the dharma which seeks to promote human flourishing in this life by connecting individual transformation with the creation of a mass, democratic movement for social change.
The essential task: reduce suffering and promote flourishing
Although the bodhisattva path is often discussed in terms of how we can live skillfully and compassionately in the world, this path is still integrally connected to the view that complete freedom from suffering, nirvana, can be obtained. The bodhisattva’s ultimate goal, after all, is to help all beings attain nirvana and the complete release from suffering. As a secular Buddhist, I believe that the goal of realizing such a state, or even aspiring to achieve such a state with the knowledge that one is unlikely to attain it, takes us away from what I see as the goal of the path – human flourishing and the well-being of other sentient beings in this life.
I was recently rereading Albert Camus’ The Plague and a passage about a third of the way into the book struck me as offering a vivid contrast between the traditional, religious goal of achieving ultimate happiness and freedom outside the conditioned, interconnected world in which we live and the goal of promoting human flourishing in this world. While the novel brings out this difference in terms of orthodox Christian faith versus a secular perspective, it illustrates my first concern about the bodhisattva path.
Camus’ novel is about a bacterial plague that suddenly strikes Oran, a town in Algeria, and how individuals in the town respond to the crisis. Written during World War II, the book is clearly, in part, an allegory about the evil and suffering caused by Nazism.
The protagonist and narrator of the book is a physician, Dr. Rieux. Throughout the plague, he works tirelessly to ease the suffering of his patients. Other characters in the book also engage in these efforts in their own way, including a Catholic priest, Father Paneloux. The priest views this crisis from the lens of an orthodox religious believer; and his efforts to help the sick as part of his mission to save human souls even in the midst of an inexplicably terrible event.
At the height of the plague’s destructive phase, Rieux and Paneloux – both exhausted by their unceasing efforts – discuss the horror of seeing children suffer and die from the plague:
‘I understand,’ Paneloux said in a low voice. ‘That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.
Rieux straightened up slowly. He glanced at Paneloux, summoning to his gaze all his strength and fervour he could muster against his weariness. Then he shook his head.
‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’
A shade of disquietude crossed the priest’s face. He was silent for a moment. Then, ‘Ah doctor,’ he said sadly, ‘I’ve just realized what is meant by “grace”.’
‘It’s something I haven’t got; that I know. But I’d rather not discuss that with you. We’re working for something side by side that unites us – beyond blasphemy and prayers. And it’s the only thing that matters.’
Paneloux sat down beside Rieux. It was obvious that he was deeply moved.
‘Yes, yes,’ he said, ‘you, too, are working for man’s salvation.’
Rieux tried to smile.
‘Salvation’s much too big a word for me. I don’t aim so high. I’m concerned with man’s health; and for me his health comes first.’ (pp. 192-193)
Rieux’s goal, his vocation, is about bettering the condition of human beings in this life. It’s not about finding salvation in another realm or explaining the horrible suffering that humans experience in the context of the possibility of salvation.
Rieux’s response to Paneloux seems to me to capture the essential difference between a secular Buddhist ethics and a traditional, religious approach in terms of their ultimate goals. For Rieux, it is working with others to reduce suffering and promote human flourishing in this life; for Paneloux, it is ‘saving souls’.
If we replace the term ‘salvation’ with ‘enlightenment’ or ‘nirvana’, which is the goal of traditional forms of Buddhism, we can apply Rieux’s response to the Buddhist who embraces the bodhisattva’s vow to help all sentient beings reach nirvana. To a traditional Buddhist interlocutor, Rieux would say: ‘Enlightenment’s much too big a word for me. I don’t aim so high. I’m concerned with human flourishing; and for me flourishing comes first.’
Solidarity, not heroism
Second, the bodhisattva represents in my view a kind of heroic model of spiritual attainment which I think is problematic. Despite the unfathomable enormity of the task, the bodhisattva is eternally committed to do whatever it takes to save all beings, irrespective of the obstacles. This super-human effort is similar to the heroic story of the Buddha’s enlightenment. According to the early texts, the Buddha went through all sorts of ordeals to attain liberation. At one point, he was close to death from practicing an extreme form of asceticism. After rejecting this approach, he engaged in a different approach but one that was nonetheless equally arduous; he decided to sit under the bodhi tree and meditate for however long it took to gain full realization. And, of course, as these same texts tell us, he ultimately prevailed, even in the face of Mara’s strategies to defeat him. This successful, heroic pursuit stands at the center of Buddhism.
I understand the appeal of this heroic struggle, yet it is deeply problematic as a primary model for both spiritual transformation and engagement in the world. As a political activist and a radically engaged, secular Buddhist, I believe that, in combination with individual efforts to become more mindful and compassionate, we need to challenge systemic forms of exploitation and oppression to reduce suffering and promote human flourishing. But to challenge these systems and create what Stephen Batchelor calls a ‘culture of awakening,’ a society in which all human beings have the opportunity to flourish, the way forward is not to find heroes who can lead us to the promised land, but to develop a movement in which thousands of committed, mindful and compassionate activists work together to address the social crises that we face. In short, our model for spiritual transformation and social engagement should be the solidarity of brothers and sisters co-creating a new world.
The model of the hero is, in the first place, deeply gendered. The heroic striver for spiritual attainment or leader of movements is typically associated with qualities and virtues purportedly possessed only or mainly by men, such as strength, vigor, courage, and rationality. Women, who are supposed to lack these qualities, are thus relegated to secondary, supportive roles.
The patriarchy and misogyny found within traditional Buddhism, other spiritual traditions, and political movements reflects, in part, this diminution of women. Interestingly, among contemporary Buddhists there is growing recognition of the limitation of the heroic model and the need to envisage an alternative path of spiritual attainment more grounded in connections and relationships. Thus, Janet Surrey and Samuel Shem’s imaginative biography of the life of Yasodhara in The Buddha’s Wife attempts to offer ‘….the symbolic possibility of a complementary path that leads to a doorway of profound spiritual maturation and the awakening of wisdom and compassion, often through living deeply with others – beyond the solitary heroic journey’.
In addition, the historical record reveals the potential problem of emphasizing the role of heroes in the context of spiritual traditions and politics. The tendency of religions and political organizations to become dominated by a charismatic leader often has resulted in the degeneration of these movements into top-down, hierarchical, and dogmatic institutions. In the political realm, the extreme version of this process is when a radical movement becomes dominated by a dictator, a Stalin or a Mao, who becomes the embodiment of revolution, the Great Leader and Hero of the People.
But what about great leaders like Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela? These individuals are revered in the Buddhist community and among political activists as exemplars of peace, courage, compassion, and a deep commitment to social change. And rightly so. But while they are an inspiration to us and had an incredibly important and positive impact, I would argue that they should not be the primary models for our practice, our life path.
While charismatic leaders are crucial, the success of any movement which has helped to expand human rights and create a more just society depends on thousands of people who work behind the scenes as key activists and organizers. Mostly unrecognized, they are the ones who do the vital work of recruiting and developing others to join the movement and take action for social change. Using their organizational, education, and communication skills, they build and sustain the organizations and movements which can challenge exploitative and oppressive social systems. Without this broad layer of activists, no organization or movement can achieve its goals.
In this context, I think of people like Ella Baker and Robert Moses who played key roles in the U.S. civil rights movement to mentor individuals and foster their leadership skills. Through their words and actions, they both promoted a democratic movement to challenge racism and poverty in the U.S. And for every Baker and Moses, there were dozens of others who were essential to building a strong civil rights movement.
The same is true for all other struggles and movements for social justice. Whether it is the labor movement, women’s rights, LGBT equality, etc., the broad layer of activists in these movements have been essential to their success.
Let’s face it. Very few of us can be charismatic leaders, heroes of spiritual attainment or political movements. But all of us can contribute in our own ways to help build a culture of awakening which promotes the flourishing of all human beings. And it is precisely by working together, in solidarity with others, melding our strengths and weaknesses, that we can find the way forward.
‘Making the road’ through solidarity
What I’m urging here is a shift in our aspirations and orientation – from an individualistic, leader-centric model of spiritual attainment and political change to a process in which we co-create individual and social transformation. One expression which captures this sense of co-creation is ‘we make the road by walking’. In essence, our path is not predetermined and the end is not set in advance. Together, we figure out the direction in which to head and what our goals should be.
This shift highlights the primacy of sanghas or communities on the path. One of our most revered meditation teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh, always emphasized the vital role of sanghas. In closing remarks to over two thousand people attending his Day of Mindfulness at Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California, in October 1993, he said:
It is possible the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community, a community practicing understanding and lovingkindness, a community practicing mindful living. And the practice can be carried out as a group, as a city, as a nation.
For sanghas or communities to have a transformative impact, they need to be democratic and based on mutual respect. While recognizing that there will inevitably be differences among us in terms of the breadth and depth of our practice, sanghas must be based on the equal participation of members, each sharing their knowledge, life experiences and meditative practices. How sanghas are structured and how we relate to each other has to reflect the very values and practices we are trying to create in a society which promotes human flourishing for all.
It would be a mistake to assume that a focus on building sanghas and making the road through solidarity would be at the expense of the development of the qualities and virtues we need to develop for individual transformation. Far from it. In fact, when we connect with each other deeply, as comrades and spiritual friends, in sanghas and movements, we develop and reinforce precisely the qualities and virtues which meditation and other individual practices promote: a deeper sense of our common humanity, the ability to weaken or loosen the hold of ego-centric tendencies, a clearer understanding of ourselves and the world, and a greater capacity for compassion and love.
So, yes, we can take inspiration from the Buddha, the bodhisattvas, and the great leaders of our times. But our path, our aspirations must be rooted in the ongoing effort to co-create the transformative changes that we seek.
 See David Loy’s article, ‘How to be an ecosattva’ – https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/how-to-be-an-ecosattva/
 Albert Camus (2004), The Plague, The Fall, Exile and the Kingdom, and Selected Essays, [originally published in 1947], New York: Alfred Knopf.
 Winton Higgins discussed the relationship between Camus’ novel and dharmic ethics in his ‘Dharmic existentialist ethics in a time of pandemic’ – https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/dharmic-existentialist-ethics-in-a-time-of-pandemic/
 Janet Surry and Samuel Shem (2015), The Buddha’s Wife: The Path of Awakening Together, Atria Books, p. xv.
 Barbara Ransby’s excellent biography of Ella Baker highlights her role in mentoring and developing leaders. Barbara Ransby (2005), Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, University of North Carolina Press.
 This was the title of a book published in 1990 which was based on a dialogue between two advocates of democratic, participatory education, Myles Horton and Paolo Friere. Myles Horton and Paolo Friere, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change, Temple University Press.
 Thich Nhat Hanh, ‘The Next Buddha May Be a Sangha’, Inquiring Mind (Spring 1994), https://www.inquiringmind.com/article/1002_41_thich-nhat_hanh/ . I want to thank Karsten Struhl for suggesting the relevance of this aspect of Thich Nhat Hanh’s perspective for this article.