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Lions Roar : May 2019
The Bodhisattva Attitude We all have an attitude, says Zen teacher NORMAN FISCHER, our own way of approaching life. You can start to take a bodhisattva’s attitude toward life by practicing generosity and appreciation. TRADITIONALLY, THE practice of the perfection of generosity (dana paramita in Sanskrit) is the gateway to the bodhisattva path. Why? Bodhisattva practice is radi- cal. It involves a fundamental shift in our approach to life. It begins with a serious exami- nation of our attitudes, where they come from, and how they condition the way we see, think, feel, and act. What is attitude anyway? Attitude is the climate of our lives. Everyone has some kind of attitude or set of attitudes. Probably we have never thought about them, never examined them, and don’t much experience our- selves as having any particular attitudes. A fish doesn’t know what water is because it sees and experi- ences everything through the medium of water. Like a fish in water, we swim in the medium of our attitudes. Or maybe attitude is character: We are this or that sort of person. We are kind, generous, animated, quiet, fear- ful, grouchy, stingy, “nice,” not very nice, relaxed, anxious. We think life is good, people are good. Or we think life is a struggle and people are not to be trusted. And so on. However much we haven’t examined them, all of us have fairly con- sistent attitudes that condition our lives. Our attitudes may be self-contradictory and confused, but we don’t notice. Few of us have the time or capacity for deep self-reflection, and even if we did, the more we looked, the more confused we’d get. It’s hard to see ourselves accurately. Our attitudes distort the picture. Attitude literally means “stance.” The way you hold your body, your posture; the way you stride forth into your life. We come by our attitudes honestly. We get them from our parents, communi- ties, and cultures; from our experiences, traumas, and triumphs. We assume our attitudes reflect reality. We assume they are fixed and unchangeable. But attitudes aren’t fixed. Neither is the world. Neither are we. In the bodhisattva path, we don’t assume anything is fixed and solid. And we don’t assume that our picture of the world is the way the world has to look. This is where imagination enters in. Imagination is a warm breeze that loosens up what seems rigid and cold. Bodhisattvas have imagination. They assume that anything can be fluid and warm, sub- ject to challenge and revision. They see that everything is provisional and open. Inspired by their imaginations, bod- hisattvas believe that there are always possibilities. The perfection of generos- ity confronts and softens our basic attitudes. To practice it is to appreciate the natural abun- dance of being, the inherent generosity of time and space, and the ongoing unfolding of life. These are exquisite gifts. Life itself is generous. Life is always making more life. Life is abundant and expansive, never stingy or small-minded. It keeps on going, bubbling up and expanding wherever it has a chance. You don’t need to create life; you just have to let it in. The grasses on the hill- side are ready to burst out green as soon as a little rain falls and a little sunlight peeps through. Weeds and vines tangle all over the place. Life stopped in one place pops up somewhere else. Nature is prolific. Even the falling apart of things is generous: big trees topple willingly in heavy winds; they provide food for insects, bacteria, fungi, and other trees and plants. It’s sad in our time to see so many species disappearing. More than sad. But species have always disap- peared, and new species have always arisen. When we say we are destroying or protecting the earth, we are express- ing our dismay and our love, but we are also being a bit arrogant: the earth is fine, and life on earth will continue in some form no matter what we do, because life is generous and fecund and it cannot be HOT OFF THE PRESS PHOTOBYLIZAMATTHEWS ZOKETSU NORMAN FISCHER is a Zen priest, poet, and leading Buddhist teacher. Author of more than twenty-five books, he is founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation. LION’S ROAR | MAY 2019 77