In Buddhism, a Bodhisattva is sort of like a Western saint, a spiritually-evolved person of some stature. The comparison breaks down, however, because while saints are basically agreed upon to be in “heaven,” it is a bit more difficult to pin down a Bodhisattva’s whereabouts. No heaven, y’know, and all that.
Saints are supposed to keep an eye on things Earthly, interceding with God and facilitating the odd miracle — celestial ombudsmen, sort of. Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, are supposed to have deferred Nirvana in order to remain and help other beings to attain enlightenment. Since it has been taking a while, reincarnation becomes an issue.
If you don’t believe in reincarnation, saints, intercessions and so forth, things get a bit dicey in the area of both saints and Bodhisattvas. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, for example, is reputed to be the 9th incarnation of the 5th Dalai Lama, and has had ample time to get some work done. But what if (like me) you believe he’s just a Tibetan kid named Lhamo Thondup, who happens to have had greatness thrust upon him?
Don’t get the idea that I’m putting His Holiness down. You’ll note, I hope, how I refer to him — and it’s not tongue in cheek. He is an exceptional man by anyone’s standards, and if anyone alive deserves the title more, I don’t know who that might be.
But I digress.
Let’s call folks like me, who consider the Four Noble Truths and the Precepts to be ends in themselves (as opposed to leading to anything beyond a life well-lived), “secular Buddhists.” Are there, then, secular Bodhisattvas and, if so, who are they?
In order to decide that, we need to ask if there is such a thing as secular enlightenment. Obviously there can be, in the sense of Buddhist teachings, and also in the sense of helping others to see more clearly the rights and wrongs of ordinary living — helping them to find a system of ethics, in other words.
HHDL, to continue the example, has taken few formal students in his life. Nonetheless, his unique combination of mystique, visibility, charisma and — above all — approachability, have created a worldwide appreciation for Buddhism and Buddhist teachings that would have been nearly impossible under other circumstances. Just as importantly, he has opened the world’s eyes to political and human rights issues that their governments would have much preferred to ignore in favor of more practical matters.
People like the Dali Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Nadine Gordimer, Wangari Maathai and their like are indeed Bodhisattvas — for what more can a Bodhisattva do than help people awaken? What is enlightenment, in any useful sense, beyond seeing clearly and, through empathy and compassion, developing the determination to make improvements for the betterment of all?