Practicing Joy on the Path of Service

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Dear Still Water Friends,

Since October I’ve been in many discussions with Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers. For years they have been striving to bring reconciliation and peace to the region. Sometimes, listening to them share their dedication, their struggles, and their joys, I am reminded of Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of Great Action. Samantabhadra is one of the great inspirational figures of East Asian Buddhism. In the Mahayana tradition a bodhisattva, a “great being,” is someone who has awakened their bodhicitta. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching Thầy (Thích Nhất Hạnh) describes bodhicitta as “the desire to cultivate love and understanding in ourselves in order to bring happiness to many beings and to relieve them of their suffering.”

In the Mahayana sutras a great panoply of bodhisattvas are named, with each of the bodhisattvas having a particular energy or power. Samantabhadra’s heroic powers are described in the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, and other Mahayana sources. In the Plum Village tradition we often recall Samantabhadra’s qualities during ceremonies. In the “Invoking the Bodhisattvas’ Names” recitation, Samantabhadra’s attributes are remembered along with those of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion; Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Great Understanding; Kshitigarbha, the Bodhisattva of Great Aspiration; and, Sadaparibhuta, the Bodhisattva Who Never Despises Anyone. During the ceremony we say:

We invoke your name, Samantabhadra. We aspire to practice your vow to act with the eyes and heart of compassion, to bring joy to one person in the morning and to ease the pain of one person in the afternoon. We know that the happiness of others is our own happiness, and we aspire to practice joy on the path of service. We know that every word, every look, every action, and every smile can bring happiness to others. We know that if we practice wholeheartedly, we ourselves may become an inexhaustible source of peace and joy for our loved ones and for all species.

Invoking Samantabhadra came to mind this week because I believe his way of practice blurs the lines between seemingly real dichotomies that often show up in Dharma discussions, such as between deep meditation practice and engagement in the world, or between healing ourselves and healing others. We can emphasize one or the other side for a while, in our thinking and in our daily life, but really, as I see it, the healing we want for ourselves and others always involves both. If we devote ourselves to achieving only one side, we attain neither.

Samantabhadra is clearly deeply committed to relieving the suffering of others. As Thầy notes in Teachings on Love, in the Avatamsaka Sutra Samantabhadra declares, “My only vow is to remain here in the land of utmost suffering through countless lifetimes in order to benefit all living beings.” And yet, at the same time, he is practicing “joy on the path of service.” Although he is engaged with suffering, he is not overwhelmed by it. Samantabhada’s practice seems to energize him, and seems to lessen his burdens and worries.

Thầy often reminds us that bodhisattvas exist not only in sutras but also in the world around us, if we have eyes to see them. In Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet he explains:

To become a bodhisattva is possible. Bodhisattvas are not people who don’t have difficulties. Difficult moments may come, but bodhisattvas are not afraid because they know how to handle them. Every one of us has to find our own lamp, our own light, and offer it to the world. Mindfulness is a kind of light, an energy, that helps us know where we are, what is happening, and helps us know what to do and what not to do for peace, compassion, and happiness to be possible. We know this is a very important moment to be alive on this beautiful planet. With the light of mindfulness we become a bodhisattva; we provide the world with light. You let awakening shine around you. You look with the eyes of the bodhisattvas; you act with their hands. And, if we do that, there is no reason to be pessimistic about the situation of the world. A bodhisattva with such deep intention is free from despair and can take action in peace and freedom.

You are invited to join us this Thursday evening. During our sitting meditation we will contemplate the invocation of Samantabhadra’s name. Then, we will begin our Dharma sharing by exploring

  • what touches us when we hear the invocation of Samantabhadra’s name,
  • people we have known who have embodied Samantabhadra’s spirit, and
  • ways we are bringing Samantabhadra’s spirit into our lives.

A related excerpt on Samantabhadra by Thầy is below.

Sending warm wishes and many blessings,
Mitchell Ratner


From Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet by Thích Nhất Hạnh

Bodhisattva Samantabhadra is “the bodhisattva of great action.” There are many kinds of action we can take in the spirit of Samantabhadra to help relieve suffering in the world, including the practice of generosity, giving. Our daily life should be an offering. You don’t need a lot of money to make an offering; your own peace and happiness are already a big gift for others. You may feel generous, but you must also find specific ways of developing your generosity. Time is more than money. Time is life. Time is for being deeply present with the other person. Time is for bringing joy and happiness to others.

Your presence—your way of being—is what you offer every minute, every hour of the day. Samantabhadra is not an abstract figure. Samantabhadra is flesh and bone all around us. Samantabhadra is there in each one of you who is doing something to bring relief to people around the planet. Even in my own community, I see many bodhisattvas working tirelessly to help others, and I feel very grateful to them. Some are young, some are less young. They are all arms of the bodhisattva of great action. When we help, we don’t feel forced to do it; we’re glad to do it. Our practice is to live our daily life in such a way that every act becomes an act of love. We serve all beings with our understanding, compassion, and action—and we can have happiness right while we are acting.