Buddhist monkaA FRIEND OF MINE ONCE SUMMARIZED THE Mahayana approach to Buddhism by telling a story about his lifeguard training. He said he’d asked his in­structor what he should do if there were several people drowning at once. Whom should he save first? The youngest or the oldest? The women or the men?

The in­structor didn’t bat an eye. Solidly and firmly he an­swered, “Save ’em all!”


“But what if that’s impossible? What if it can’t be done?”

“Save ’em all!” the instructor repeated with such quiet force that the dilemma was resolved, not rationally per­haps, but in a way that opened my friend’s mind to the reality of his new work.

This vital shot of refreshed commitment to the “whole catastrophe” is in a sense implicit in the Buddha’s origi­nal teachings. Periodically in Buddhism’s history, how­ever, that vitality has dulled into abstract ideas about the nature of reality instead of its direct and immediate ex­pression. To be sure, during the lifetime of any religion’s founder the spiritual practice evinces a special integrity and wholeheartedness that seem to dissipate after his or her death. As generations pass, power struggles flare up among those who differ about how the original teachings should be interpreted and implemented. The religion loses its power to transform as it becomes locked into ideology and structure. About five hundred years after the Buddha’s death, a wave of freshness began to re- emerge. This fresh blast of energy came to be known as the Mahayana tradition. Offering a paradoxical twist on tradition itself, Mahayana was that eternal rascal impulse to cut to the quick, insisting that each practitioner realize not just the doctrine, but the uncodifiable spirit of the teaching as well.

What is the “quick,” the nerve-rich center of Bud­dhism? There is a moment described in a Zen koan when a student who has just had a deep insight into reality is instructed by his teacher to “Go out now. Don’t hide yourself in the mountains or the temple. Build a big boat and carry people out of their suffering.”

Build a big boat. Over and over again in so many con­texts, that is the instruction: open up your heart-mind to the whole thing, take care of it all. That is the basic chal­lenge Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes. “Be big,” the teachers intone, “because that is who you really are: the whole catastrophe is nothing other than you.”

“Fine idea, but how do I do that?” the student asks. As we explore Mahayana as a path of practice, that question is at the core. As we look briefly at how Mahayana is distinguished historically and philosophically from other forms of Buddhism, the central issue that needs to be held close to the heart is: “How does it live?”

about Buddhism:
Zen traces its history back to an Indian monk named Bodhidharma, who sailed into the heady scholastic Bud­dhism of China and quite literally turned his back on it. Upon arriving,
How do you teach what fundamentally can’t be taught but can only be realized by oneself? How can students reach this place they have never been apart from? The path and the path
The spiritual conquerors have proclaimed sunyata to be the exhaustion of all theories and views; those for whom sunyata is itself a theory, they declare in­curable. Nagarjuna Suny
Mahayana means “Great Vehicle,” which indicates that this is a lifeboat so big that no one is excluded, smart or dumb, good or bad. Everybody is free, although few of us realiz

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