B is for Bodhisattva

The Buddhist concept of bodhisattva is quite complex and varies somewhat in different traditions. But this is a blog, not a dictionary, so I’m not getting into detailed definitions.


What I want to share is my experience of one of those moments when learning about another tradition suddenly sheds light the tradition I come from. I was reading Buddhism by Denise Cush (a book targeted at A level students when published in 1994) on the topic of the Bodhisattva. I read:


‘The infinite compassion of a bodhisattva means that he or she puts the happiness of all beings in the universe before his or her own, not resting until every being in the universe is saved. In order to accomplish this, he or she is willing to suffer anything, even if it means giving up his or her life over and over again.’


Suddenly, it occurred to me that if I viewed Jesus as a bodhisattva, this shed a new light on his crucifixion and, perhaps, his resurrection. A being of such compassion that he would suffer anything, even laying down his life. In that moment it showed me that there could be a reason for the crucifixion. It was another step on the way to a deeper understanding of who and what Jesus was and/or is, whether or not his story is historically true. I don’t necessarily think of Jesus exclusively as a bodhisattva, but I still find this way of viewing him helpful at times.


As a Buddhist I aspire to follow the path of a bodhisattva, as a Christian I try to follow the example of Jesus, as a Quaker I attempt to take heed of the ‘promptings of love and truth’ which I trust as ‘the leadings of God’. I find all these approaches compatible. I often find that one approach sheds light on another and helps me to see my way forward.

B is for Buddhist Beginnings

Buddhism began in India a few thousand years ago. You can easily look up the life of the Buddha, his basic teachings and the history of Buddhism, so I’m not going to attempt to recount that here, except to note that ,over time, as Buddhism spread to different places and different cultures, it adapted to those different situations. This led to a wide variety of different emphases. In the modern world, where many people have moved from one country or culture to live in another, Buddhists have moved around, just like other people, and have brought their brand of Buddhism with them. This means that, particularly in western countries, Buddhism is not only a relatively new arrival, but that it has arrived in many different varieties. Some of this broad spectrum has impacted on my own beginnings with Buddhism.


Years ago, when I was a student I read some books about Buddhism, most notably John Blofeld’s autobiographical The Wheel of Life, much of which I did not understand. Looking back, this reading was a bit like reading holiday brochures, flicking through, thinking ‘that would be a nice place to go, and so would that, or what about …’, but not actually booking a holiday at all.

Then in early 2006 a course at Charney Manor ‘Exploring Stillness (Quakers and Buddhists)’ rekindled my interest. A few days later in the bookshop at Friends House I bought several books including Teach Yourself Buddhism and Living Buddha, Living Christ. On the tube on my way home, I was reading one of these and noticed that the passenger standing beside me was reading a Buddhist magazine. I was intrigued enough to note the web address from her magazine and to look it up when I got home. It led me to SGI UK and after a quick read I decided that form of Buddhism was not for me, and went back to my choice of books.

The following autumn this email arrived in my inbox:

Dear Friends,

Here is an invitation from our local group of lay Buddhists, which is not to be missed! I hope some of you can attend.

With all best wishes,


Hi J.
I thought you (and WIFA) might be interested to learn that we local Buddhists are coming out of the closet and holding our monthly meetings in public from this month on. Our venue is the Newton Price Centre, Grosvenor Road (just off the ring road, opposite John Lewis in the Harlequin Centre), and we’re holding an introductory meeting there on Monday 18 September, 7.30-9pm. You and/or any member of WIFA will be more than welcome if you’d like to discover more about exactly what it is we do. If that date is no good, we’ll also be there on 16 Oct, 20 Nov and 18 Dec.
Hope to see you there one evening – or indeed, somewhere else!
Best wishes,

When I read that – I just knew that I was going to go to that meeting. I didn’t know how I would get there, why I was going or what would happen, but I had a very clear idea that I was going, which did not lessen as the weeks passed. When I went to that meeting, it turned out that this was our local SGI UK Buddhist group.


One thing that happened was that I was challenged, in the discussion, to speak from my own experience – ‘what can you say?’ (Quaker readers will realise what this meant to me). I still wasn’t clear for a long time why it was important that I be there, but it led to some good friends; to a lot a challenges to explain myself; to an increased confidence in speaking of God (not easy in a group of Buddhists) and to a regular informal interfaith discussion group, which seemed to fill a niche for some time.

So, having at one time rejected this brand of Buddhism out of hand, I came to value it. At first the chanting, prolonged and often loud, was very strange to a Quaker used to quieter ways, but I came to find that it was a way into stillness. The chanting calms almost all chance of following any those thoughts in my monkey mind. Done in company I am continually brought back to ‘nam myoho renge kyo’. The quality of sharing and listening in the discussion groups is impressive and I have learnt a great deal from other people sharing their experiences.


A weekend course at Woodbrooke in December 2009 brought me into contact with the Community of Interbeing, practicing Zen Buddhism in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. The emphasis on silent meditation was more accessible for me, as one deeply steeped in Quaker silence, and the walking meditation, in particular, was both a delight and a practical help with my MS symptoms. The tradition also includes opportunities for sharing experiences and for deep listening, as well as practices to help us deal with difficulties. For the present, this is the Buddhist tradition that I feel I want to join and explore further, while remaining firmly within my Quaker context1. But I am glad to continue occasional contact with my local SGI group, and very happy to sit and chant with them when the opportunity arises.


1 See also my earlier post ‘Z is for Zen‘.

A is for Aspiration

When I applied to formally receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings at the Nottingham Retreat in 2010, I was asked to fill in an application form. It requested the usual sort of details: name, address, etc. and then asked: ‘Would you like a dharma name (to encourage you in your practice)?’ and ‘What is your aspiration?’ I ticked yes to a dharma name, but what was my aspiration? It was a question than puzzled me for some time, and I only had about 24 hours before the form had to be handed in.

white iris

In the end I wrote:

“My aspiration is do what God wants me to do. In seeking to know what that is, I tried several denominations of Christianity and found my spiritual home among Quakers about 30 years ago.

My understanding of God/Love/Reality/Allah/the Ultimate and of what God wants me to do has developed over the years. I would currently say that I have an awareness of the Love of God within and around me and other beings, and that Love wants me and other beings to be what we truly are. I have long believed that the kingdom of God is available to us all, here and now, if we did but realise it. I was delighted to hear Thay express this so clearly during this retreat.

“In recent years I have had the opportunity to study at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, developing my knowledge and understanding of the Quaker tradition, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. This has enabled me to offer my skills to support Quakers, and those new to Quakerism in developing their understanding of our tradition and in their spiritual growth. I have also felt drawn to greater involvement in Interfaith work in my locality.

“My contacts with Buddhism have greatly nourished my spiritual life, I feel it would help both my own spiritual development, and my contribution to Interfaith work, to make a commitment to the Buddhist path, in the form of the Five mindfulness Trainings, at this stage.

“I would like to commit myself, in particular, to using the practices I am learning to help others develop along their own spiritual paths, to listen deeply to one another and, especially, to help people from different religious or faith backgrounds to understand one another better.

“Thank you for making this opportunity available.”

I share this now in the hope that it helps to explain how and why I come to be a Buddhist Quaker, who sometimes goes by the dharma name Brightening Spiritual Light of the Heart. I really like ‘Brightening’ – it’s both affirmative and aspirational.

dandelion clock

A is for Avalokiteśvara

I am about seven, certainly no older, walking home from school alone. I can still picture the road from the infant school in The Rutts, Bushey Heath. As I walk I am thinking about what the Sunday School teacher has been telling us:

‘Jesus is with you all the time. He is right there, holding your hand.’

I’m trying to understand how this can be: ‘He must have an awful lot of hands’ I reason ‘to have one for each child here, for each child in the whole world.’ I have a picture in my mind of a being with many hands ‘like an octopus (which I’ve heard of but haven’t seen), but more so’. This made sense to me and remained with me as a picture of God reaching out to everyone. I never related to the old man in the clouds, though I couldn’t say where my ‘octopus’ was located!

Along with this I had a sense of what the teacher was trying to tell us, that He was always close by, always ready to help, always loving each and every one of us.

Many years later I came across a picture of the Tibetan Bodhisattva ‘Chenrezig of the Thousand Arms’. I recognised that image. That is as close as I can get to what my seven year old self would have drawn that day walking home from school. That is the loving Jesus of my childhood.


Image courtesy of Osel Shen Phen Ling

I have since learnt a bit more about Chenrezig of the Thousand Arms. Chenrezig is the Tibetan name for the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (sanskrit), also known by the chinese name Quanyin.

A boddhisattva is a being who has achieved enlightenment, but vowed not to enter nirvana until all beings have achieved enlightenment. A bodhisattva is often held to be able to manifest in any appropriate form in order to help anyone who needs help. Avalokiteśvara is known as the boddhisatva of compassion and manifests in both male and female forms.

There is a story that Avalokiteśvara struggled so hard to understand the needs of so many unhappy beings that his head split into eleven pieces, so he was given eleven heads to hear the cries of the suffering beings. Trying to respond to all the cries he could then hear and understand, his two arms broke into many pieces. So he was given a thousand arms with which to help. I am struck by the way this story reflects my ‘childish’ reasoning that Jesus must have many arms to care for all the children in the world. These days I my understanding is the the hands, heads and arms that God has in this world are mine and yours, many thousands of us. It is for us to hear, understand and respond to the cries of the suffering beings while recognising that we, too, are suffering beings.