Being Bodhisattvas

It was a dramatic gesture. A fat roll of white paper unfurled across the pale wooden floor of the meditation hall. A woman with sweeping red hair announced: “This scroll is covered with hundreds of signatures. They represent the voices of from students across the globe asking for our leadership and guidance on climate change. It is time for us to listen.”

Five years ago, I sat in a wide circle with one hundred International Vipassana Teachers gathered for three days of meetings, dialogue and education. Bob Doppelt, the Executive Director of the Resource Innovation Group, and a tireless climate change expert, educator and author addressed us. Bob’s calm demeanor and matter-of fact presentation belied the urgency of his message. He shared grim statistics, graphs and charts, photographs of polar bears adrift on floating ice floes, videos of clear cuts and tar sands.

“We’ve passed the tipping point, he said. ”We may be able to slow the onslaught, but we can no longer turn it around.” Then he offered a challenge.

“If anyone can transform this, you can. And you must. Changing lightbulbs, recycling, electric cars…none of that is enough. What is needed,” he said, “is a new narrative, a shift from ‘me to we,’ which Buddhist teachings are in a unique position to provide.”  


Almost three decades ago I lived for several years at Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery. While there, I was introduced to the image and archetype of a Bodhisattva. A Bodhi (awake, wise) sattva (sentient being) is someone who understands the radical reorientation needed to make this shift. Bodhisattvas are awake to the truth of our interconnectedness. They understand that no one of us can be truly free while others still suffer.

This is the same truth Dr. King described as the “single garment of destiny” that binds us together. It is the flip side of the experience of separateness Einstein called “an optical delusion of consciousness.” It is the essence of what Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh describes as our fundamental “inter-being.”

Based on this understanding, Bodhisattvas vow to remain in the world for the benefit and mutual awakening of all beings, everywhere. Instead of pursuing the peace of personal enlightenment, they willingly roll up their sleeves and dive into the fray.

For many years, I’ve carried the wish to bring the term “Bodhisattva” into our popular vernacular as a way to introduce a powerful, alternate perspective for how to meet the confusion, greed, and divisiveness that threaten human life and the life of the planet.

The path of engaging the world as modern Bodhisattvas begins by turning toward suffering, allowing ourselves to be touched by the pressing issues of our time—climate change, racism, misogyny and oppression—and then clarifying our heartfelt aspirations and commitments: What do I care about? What pains me most deeply? How can I meet the suffering of our wide, aching world with integrity, creativity and compassion?

Next month I’ll be offering a 4-week video and webinar program titled, “An Appropriate Response: Embodying the Heart of a Bodhisattva” to explore these questions.

You can participate from anywhere. All are welcome.

For more information go to: