Myth-busting the bodhisattvas


Adam Savage, star of TV’s popular Myth Busters, gave an impassioned speech at the recent Reason Rally in Washington, DC. At the conclusion of his talk he had the following to say:

I have concluded through careful, empirical analysis and much thought that somebody is looking out for me, keeping track of what I think about things, forgiving me when I do less than I ought, giving me strength to shoot for more than I think I’m capable of.

I believe they know everything that I do and think and they still love me, and I’ve concluded after careful consideration that this person keeping score is me. (Source)

This is very much the take I have on the bodhisattvas of the Mahayana. (See “What is a Bodhisattva.“) Some people evidently regard Avalokiteshvara, Tara, etc., as actually existing entities, qnd in fact in Tibetan Buddhism they’ve been coming to blows over whether one of these figures is in fact a force of good or otherwise. But to me they are symbolic archetypes through which experiences of compassion, wisdom, etc., can manifest themselves to us.

To give a mild flavor of this, psychology experiments have shown that if someone is asked to thinking about a professor before they take a quiz, they perform better. The idea of a professor seems to help people get in touch with their own intelligence. Similarly, I believe, the archetypal bodhisattvas and Buddhas can help us get in touch with our own wisdom and compassion.

I’ve had bodhisattvas appear to me in my dreams, but I don’t take that as a “visitation” from a actually existing entity. I’ve even had “communication” from bodhisattvas, but again I take that as being one part of my brain communicating with another through an imagined image and voice.

As Roshi Bernie Glassman says, in Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen, “Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is the manifestation, or embodiment, of both prajna wisdom and compassion. Who is this Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva? It is nothing other than us, it is nothing other than who we intrinsically are … We must realize that Avalokitesvara is not separate — it’s us!”

So I love Savage’s reframing of the language of theism, and of the notion of “someone looking out for us.” One reason for reflecting on, growing to love, and developing a devotional relationship to the bodhisattvas is that it makes it easer for us to hear from that part of us that is doing the looking out.

I’d recommend listening to the whole of Savage’s talk. It’s rather lovely.

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • thebuddhabride
    April 1, 2012 4:36 am

    I like your take on the bodhisattvas being part of ourselves rather than something separate. For me this has at times caused resistance (‘there goes my mind again!’) but when we can relax into these images and visions it surely allows us to progress along different paths.

  • My teachers have taught me to regard visualizations and dreams as being no less real than “waking reality” because it’s all empty and all of this springs from mind. I don’t think of bodhisattvas as being a manifestation of *my* mind because *I* don’t have a mind. There is just mind, not mine and yours. Distinction is only imputed out of confusion. So we can agree that bodhisattvas, like everything else, spring from mind. And I certainly agree with their usefulness as representing archetypal qualities of sentient life and providing a means for one to associate and basically bootstrap their way to enlightened body, speech and mind. I just think it’s a fundamental mistake to relegate them to the status of being a manifestation of one’s individual mind, which is itself a complete fallacy.

    • I’m afraid the statement that “visualizations and dreams [are] no less real than “waking reality” because it’s all empty” strikes me as being very poor logic. The fairies a child may imagine living at the bottom of the garden are not existent entities in the way that, say, Bill O’Reilly is. A dream that I have dropped a brick on my foot is rather different from my actually dropping a brick on my foot. Yes, both Bill O’Reilly and the imagined fairies (and the dream brick and the real one) are empty of self-nature, but there’s clearly a difference in the ontological status of Bill O’Reilly and the child’s imagined fairies (and the dream brick and the real one). If you disagree, you could always try dropping a brick on your foot repeatedly, while telling yourself it’s exactly the same as a dream.

  • Metta Bhavana
    April 2, 2012 10:24 am

    Of course what is really “looking out for us” is 350 million years or so of evolutionary success. Every living being today comes from about a billion generations of survivors. Creatures like us, and not so like us, who survived and prospere…d and who, through so many varied twists and turns and false starts, accidents and advantage seeking, coincidences and collaborations, eventually created us. That’s the real extent of unarisen and arisen wholesome kamma at work. Remember the first thing the Buddha contemplated on the night of his Enlightenment was the unfolding of the many varied generations of existence he had experienced. We all share that endless heritage. The only thing that prevents us knowing this is our avijja, our un-knowledge, our ignorance.

  • Evolution has certainly given us the tools to take care of ourselves, but it’s up to us whether or not we cultivate and use those tools. Rick Hanson is very good at showing how the brain’s evolution leaves us ill-adapted for a modern lifestyle. To give one example, when a predator enters a hunter-gatherer’s camp, a response of anger and shouting and behaving aggressively may well scare the predator away. The same response when you’re driving a car and another driver comes too close is maladaptive. So we need to cultivate the ability to take care of ourselves by developing wisdom (seeing the consequences of actions) and compassion (responding intelligently to the emotions that arise in daily life).

    We need to learn to become our own protectors. As the Dhammapada says,

    42. Whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, or a hater to a hater, an ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself a greater harm.

    43. Neither mother, father, nor any other relative can do one greater good than one’s own well-directed mind.

  • James Mosonyi
    April 16, 2012 8:06 am

    Hello Bodhipaksa,

    How are you doing? It has been along time since we talked last. I miss speaking with you. I have enjoyed looking at your websites. They are pretty impressive impressive. How the kids and your wife? Well I hope!

    For me I am finishing up my first semester of college at Hesser College. I am studying Business Management working through toward an associate degree. I work in Hampton falls at a high end furniture store. I take care of the warehouse. the name of the store is American Traditions Inc.

    Please contact when you can you now have my e-mail address.



  • Hi, Jim!

    It’s good to hear from you. I’ve sent you an email.

    All the best,


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