This article outlines a path for the Military/Police Boddhisatva. There are many Buddhists who believe that it is a contradiction to serve in the military or in law enforcement while being a Buddhist. With loving kindness, I would direct them here. Anyone care to debate this Boddhisatva?
Skillful Means In Any Path
The bodhisattva, the ultimate master of skillful means, is not limited to one way of doing things, but takes many forms: child, adult, man, woman, artist, politician, musician, teacher, police officer, CEO. In practicing skillful action, we need to be ready to emerge in many guises, able to adapt to whatever the circumstances require.
Buddhism speaks of the four skillful means of a bodhisattva. The first skillful means is making the three kinds of offerings: material gifts, the gift of the dharma and the gift of non-fear. When you offer good things to people, they have sympathy with you, they regard you favorably and their hearts are open. Giving someone a book on the dharma, or a CD of some beautiful music that can help them relax – this is the practice of giving, dana. But the offerings of a bodhisattva should not be only material things or dharma teachings. The best, most precious gift we can give someone is the gift of non-fear, abhaya.
People live in fear of death; they are afraid of losing their selfhood, their identity, afraid of disappearing and becoming nonexistent. So when you offer the kind of teaching, practice and insight that helps someone touch their ultimate dimension and get free of the fear of being and nonbeing, that is the greatest gift you can offer them.
The second skillful means of the bodhisattva is to practice loving speech. You can be very firm and uncompromising, but you can still use loving speech. You don’t have to shout or become hostile to get your idea across. Loving speech can convey your feeling and idea to the other person in a way they are able to hear it and take it in more fully. The third skillful means is to always act to benefit others. You do whatever you can to help the other person in any situation. That is the action of the bodhisattva. The fourth skillful means is the practice of “doing the same thing.” This has to do with the bodhisattva’s ability to take on the appropriate form in order to be able to approach others and help them. You look like them, dress like them, do exactly what they do; you become one of them so that they will trust and accept you and have the opportunity to learn the path of understanding and love. These are the four skillful means by which the bodhisattva embraces and serves living beings.
The action of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is to be present everywhere at all times and manifest in innumerable forms. In many Asian Buddhist temples, there is a statue of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva with a thousand arms. Each arm holds an instrument or object that represents a different sphere of activity in which the bodhisattva can manifest compassion and understanding. In one hand he holds a book – it might be a sutra text or a book on political science. Another hand holds a ritual instrument, such as a bell. Another holds a musical instrument. A modern version of the thousand-armed bodhisattva might hold a computer in one hand. Perhaps the bodhisattva holds a gun in one of its thousand hands. Is it possible to carry a weapon and yet remain deeply a bodhisattva? This is possible. At the gates of temples in Vietnam, you often see two figures: on the left is a statue of a very gentle bodhisattva, smiling, welcoming, while on the right is a figure with a very fierce expression, brandishing a weapon. In Vietnamese the name of this figure means literally “burning-face bodhisattva” – his face is burning, his eyes are burning, fire and smoke are coming out of his nose and mouth. This is the archetype of the fierce, guardian bodhisattva, one who has the capacity to keep the hungry ghosts in check. When we offer ceremonial food and drink to the hungry ghosts, we evoke this bodhisattva to come and help, because the hungry ghosts bring so much noise and disorder with them. We need the burning-face bodhisattva; we need his ferocity to help establish order, because only he can tame the wild hungry ghosts. He is a kind of police chief bodhisattva.
You can be very firm and uncompromising, but you can still use loving speech. You don’t have to shout or become hostile to get your idea across. Loving speech can convey your feeling and idea to the other person in a way they are able to hear it and take it in more fully.
Yet this fierce-looking character is a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, who takes various form – as a gentle, motherly bodhisattva, or as a fierce guardian bodhisattva, even as a hungry ghost – in order to better understand and communicate with those he or she has come to help. Some of these manifestations may not look to us like our usual idea of a bodhisattva. If we look for Avalokiteshvara only in a nice, gentle appearance, we may miss him. We have to look deeply in order to recognize the bodhisattva of compassion in his or her many forms – as a child or adult, as a man or woman, as an artist, politician, musician, judge, gardener, police officer, dharma teacher, the head of a big corporation, or a gang member.
In order to approach others to help them transform, you have to become a part of their world so that they will recognize and accept you. Then you can begin to help transform their hearts. This is the fourth skillful means of the bodhisattva, the practice of “doing the same thing.” In a gang, you may look, act, and speak like any other gang member, but really you are a bodhisattva. In a prison you manifest yourself as prisoner and become a bodhisattva among prisoners. This is the action of Avalokiteshvara.
Just as burning-face bodhisattva carries a weapon and is a manifestation of the bodhisattva of compassion, when we see someone who carries a gun we cannot automatically say that he or she is evil. Society needs some people to serve as guardians, because there are those who will behave in harmful and destructive ways toward others if there is no one to embody discipline, security, and order. So someone who carries a gun, such as a policeman or prison guard, can also be a bodhisattva. He or she may be very firm, but deep within there is the heart of a bodhisattva. Our task is to help prison guards and policemen, as well as prisoners and gang members, recognize and cultivate their bodhisattva nature.
I have learned a lot from a friend, a police officer who took the mindfulness trainings some years ago, about the suffering of members of the police force in America. It is very difficult for them to do this job. The constant exposure to threat and violence, and the negative way many people react to them, cause the hearts of police officers to harden day by day. They feel isolated, disrespected, and uncared for by society. If police officers do not have skillful means, if they don’t have enough understanding and compassion, then a lot of anger, frustration, and despair build up in them. They feel that no one understands how difficult their work is, because they are seen only as oppressors. Communication between the police and the community they are supposed to serve becomes stifled. And in such an atmosphere of hostility and mistrust, some members of the police abuse their authority and actually do become oppressors.
So you can manifest yourself as a policeman or policewoman, and play the role of bodhisattva in order to bring about better communication that will lead to more understanding and compassion. A police bodhisattva might help organize a community meeting and invite people to come and hear what the life of a police officer is like. When officers go to work in the morning, their families do not know if they will return home safely. Their task is to protect others and preserve order, but they know that they might also become the victim of violence. So the job of a police officer is filled with fear and uncertainty, and when you do your job with fear and anger, you cannot do it well. We should understand the immense suffering of members of the police force, prison guards, and others who serve in this capacity. Many people in these professions don’t enjoy their jobs, yet they continue. Avalokiteshvara must appear in their midst and try to open their hearts.
A police bodhisattva can work to reestablish communication between the police and the community, so that they can talk to and listen to one another with understanding and compassion. Communication is possible. Police officers can help non-police officers, and non-police officers can help police officers. There can be collaboration between them. There is a way through any situation, no matter how difficult. And the way that is prescribed by the teaching is to practice deep listening, listening with compassion and using loving speech, one of the skillful means of the bodhisattva. Once communication is restored we have hope, and suffering will be lessened.
Avalokiteshvara shows us that even if you must be very firm, even when you have to carry a weapon or impose authority, at the same time you can be very compassionate. You can serve as a fierce burning-face bodhisattva with a tender heart and deep understanding. This is how you can be a bodhisattva in that form. But to serve as any kind of bodhisattva – a tender, motherly bodhisattva or a fierce guardian bodhisattva – you have to really be a bodhisattva. You can’t just act the part, merely appearing to be a bodhisattva outwardly while inwardly your heart is closed. You must have real understanding and compassion in order to be worthy of being called a bodhisattva.
If you look closely at the figure of the thousand-armed bodhisattva, you will see that in the palm of each hand there is an eye. The eye symbolizes the presence of understanding and wisdom, prajna. We need both compassion and wisdom to progress on the path. Understanding and wisdom help to bring about love, kindness, and compassion. Avalokiteshvara has so many arms because love needs to express itself in many different forms and through the use of many kinds of instruments. That is why every arm is holding
a different instrument, and in every hand there is the eye of wisdom.
Sometimes we may believe that we are acting from love, but if our action is not based in deep understanding, it will bring suffering. You want to make someone happy, and you believe very strongly that you are doing something out of love. But your action may make the other person suffer very much. So even though you believe you are acting from love, you cause your son or daughter, your partner or spouse, your friend or coworker to suffer deeply because you do not have enough understanding of that person. That is why you need the eye of understanding, of wisdom, to be an effective instrument of compassion.
If you don’t understand the suffering, the difficulty, the deep aspiration of another person, it’s not possible for you to love them. So it’s very important to check with them and ask for help. A father should be able to ask his child, “Do I understand you well enough? Do I make you suffer because of my lack of understanding?” A mother should be able to ask her child, “Do you think I understand you? Please tell me so that I can love you properly.” That is the language of love. And if you are sincere, your daughter or son will tell you about their suffering. And when you have understood their suffering, you will stop doing things that make him or her suffer, things that you believed you did only for her happiness and well-being. Deep understanding is the substance of which true love is made. The hands of the bodhisattva symbolize action, but our actions must be guided well by the eyes of understanding.
Some of us serve as bodhisattvas with several arms. We take care of our family, and at the same time we are able to participate in the work of protecting the environment and helping others in the world. All of us are capable of being present in many places in the world. You can be here and at the same time, through your compassionate action, you can be in a prison, or in a remote country where the children suffer from malnutrition. You don’t have to be present in those other places with your physical body, because you have many transformation bodies that can serve everywhere.
When I write a book, I transform myself into a multitude of forms – the ideas and words in the book – in order to go everywhere. Every book I offer is one of my transformation bodies. I can go into a cloister in the form of a book or inside a prison in the form of an audiotape. Each of us has many transformation bodies, and that is why it is so important to learn to recognize our transformation bodies. Being a bodhisattva is not abstract but is a very concrete practice that we can do – just like Avalokiteshvara, we manifest ourselves in many bodies, many forms, in order to help as many people as possible.
You have to be very awake to recognize the bodhisattva in his various forms. Avalokiteshvara may be very close to you right now. You may be able to touch him just by reaching out your hand.
Compassion does exist, understanding does exist. It is possible for us to cultivate the energy of compassion and understanding so that Avalokiteshvara can be with us at all times, in our daily life, and we will be well protected with understanding and compassion.
Excerpted from In the Face of Fear, edited by Barry Boyce, © 2009. Published by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston: shambhala.com.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who is a prolific writer, artist and compassionate teacher. Deer Park Monastery (deerparkmonastery.org), in Escondido, California and Plum Village (plumvillage.org), in southern France, are inhabited by monks and nuns in his lineage.
Many of his books are published by Parallax Press (parallax.org).