illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
in response to « Does it make sense as a modern bodhisattva to uphold the intention to support every sentient being to free themselves until the end of time? In the sense that from a modern, critical perspective, such an attitude could be seen as unrealistic, overly utopian, maybe even counter-productive. »
The vows are described at gplus.wallez.name/Asnsd7UxggZ
I previously wrote about "Bodhisattva ideal: impractical, or merely ambitious?" at gplus.wallez.name/2Q5j3jM1oGC. However, as we progress on the path, each one of us needs to 'personally' find how to embody the teachings. So here is another perspective, which might support additional practitioners.
« Does it make sense as a modern bodhisattva to uphold the intention to support every sentient being to free themselves until the end of time? In the sense that from a modern, critical perspective, such an attitude could be seen as unrealistic, overly utopian, maybe even counter-productive. »
It makes as much sense today as it did earlier.
Given the depth of analysis one might find in the sūtras and the Abhidharma, given the depth of works (e.g. by Nāgārjuna) on logic that influenced Mahāyāna's development, it's unlikely that only the modern practitioner sees a 'practical' difficulty in cultivating bodhicitta (gplus.wallez.name/b78HsaBqyxw). I suspect that a few practitioners among the present Theravādins chose Theravāda precisely because they don't particular 'gel' with this 'impracticability'… but it's not a 'modern' challenge.
And no, the desire to save all beings (including future beings) doesn't make any sense as long as you're still clinging to a 'self' separate from 'others'…
But such clinging is commonly seen as "ignorance" in Buddhism, and there's a beyond dualism, there's a possible realisation of selflessness.
Can we hint at this beyond?
Selflessness primarily lies in dropping views of the world based on 'entities', and in adopting views based on co-dependent 'processes' or 'causal flows'.
Once you start seeing into selflessness, you notably realise that you can help 'others' indirectly, e.g. you help someone helping someone else. At the end of the day, 'you' are the one 'triggering' the causal chain and taking the responsibility to do so, so in a sense 'you' are the one helping the "someone else" but it's indirect, it's beyond the usual 'self' separate from the intermediary 'other'/'someone'.
Once you see this, you realise that actually maybe you can, today, plant the seed that will help all beings until the end of time, simply because 'you' don't have to be present (in your current form / identity —identity is a delusion!) for the seed to grow and the consequences to unfold. Just like the Buddha helped many more beings than just those who could meet him 26 centuries ago…
But then what do 'you' need to do, here and now, to plant such a seed? That's a tough question and a huge responsibility!
And, unsurprisingly (given selflessness), it's about intention and act, rather than about 'you'… so when 'you' vow to support every sentient being to free themselves until the end of time, what 'you' really do is
• being mindful of what you do here and now (which will have an unending cascade of direct and indirect consequences),
• choosing to lead by example (which, as an 'inspiration', might last and reach way beyond your current 'identity'),
• considering the future and global consequences of your present choices…
It's not about 'clinging' to coming back.
Chapter 15 of the Lotus sūtra explains that the Buddha doesn't ask 'you' to vow to come back because he already has in mind all the bodhisattvas he needs:
At that time the bodhisattvas who had come from other lands, numerous as the sands of the eight Ganges, arose in the great assembly, and with folded hands saluted and spoke to the Buddha, saying: "World-honoured One! If the Buddha will allow us, after his extinction, diligently and zealously to protect and keep, read and recite, copy and worship this sūtra in this world, we would preach it abroad in this land."
Thereupon the Buddha addressed all the host of those bodhisattvas: "Enough! My good sons! There is no need for you to protect and keep this sūtra. Wherefore? Because in my world there are in fact bodhisattvas [numerous] as the sands of sixty thousand Ganges; each one of these bodhisattvas has a retinue [numerous] as the sands of sixty thousand Ganges; these persons are able, after my extinction, to protect and keep, read and recite, and preach abroad this sūtra."
In a sense, realising selflessness, 'you' can be one of these bodhisattvas, here, now, a protector and diffuser of the Dharma… and 'you' do so by your intentions and acts, by how 'you' function in the world. The endless 'return' to help others is here and now, moment after moment!
In another sense, you don't need to cling to a view that you'll come back forever, that's just a view, let go of the view…
What matters is that, moment after moment, you do come back to the intention to help, i.e. to bodhicitta…
What does not matter is a mental proliferation about the future. Don't postpone the 'return' (gplus.wallez.name/Gnbsbi5Bmgy): bodhicitta can only be embodied now.
photo: "Berlin Buddha" installation, by Zhang Huan.
From what most people would call "a modern, critical perspective", the Buddha is long dead… but his message and his influence endure… Without permanent 'self' (i.e. beyond a root-delusion which remains strong in our "modern, critical" world), whether a tathāgata exists or doesn't exist after death is an un-answerable question (Sariputta-Kotthita sutta, SN 44.6; Cula-Malunkyovada sutta, MN 63).