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. 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.