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Most Venerable Bhikkhuni Dr. Shi Zhiru
Popular Scholar, Author, Professor of Religious Studies, Pomona College, Claremont, California, USA, Awardee, 2016 Global Bhikkhuni Award and Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award 2010

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From Family Love to Universal Compassion….
From Family Love to Universal Compassion – “When Dizang Bodhisattva was a filial daughter”. The Sūtra on the Past Vows of Dizang Bodhisattva, a popular scripture in Chinese Buddhist circles for death and dying practices, offers important insights to the tension of familial love and kinship affections with the Buddhist ideal of renunciation, be it monasticism or the bodhisattva’s all-embracing compassion for living beings. The sūtra narrates two past lives of the bodhisattva Dizang (Skt., Kṣitigarbha) as a filial daughter who sorely missed her recently deceased mother. Given her beloved mother’s misdeeds, the daughter fretted over the plight of her deceased mother and assiduously sought to free her from rebirth in hells and other evil paths.  Beyond gender implications for Buddhist filial piety, the stories offer practical insights into how familial affection and kinship relations like the love for one’s mother can impel and formatively shape the bodhisattva’s aspiration to behold and relieve the sufferings of all living beings in the spirit of universal compassion.

In the first story, the Brahman daughter, grieving deeply at the loss of her mother, prayed earnestly to a Buddha image in the local temple. In a vision, she sojourned through different hells where she witnessed the gruesome tortures of the hell beings. Eventually, she learned that the merits of her earnest devotion and alms-giving had enabled her mother and her peer inmates to be delivered from their retributive sufferings and to be reborn in fortunate realms. Returning to the world of the living, she aspired to deploy expedient means to free living beings from their suffering of retributive punishments.  In the second story from the Sūtra on the Past Vows, the filial daughter, named Luminous Eyes, received help from an arhat to locate her deceased mother in the different paths of rebirth. Luminous Eyes then uttered the following aspiration: May all the buddhas in the ten directions, please compassionately commiserate with me, and listen to the great vow I make for the sake of my mother. If my mother obtains eternal release from the three evil paths, from inferior status, and also from a female body, and never have to undergo them for endless kalpas, then I aspire, before the image of Pure Lotus Eyes Tathāgata, from now until thereafter for hundreds of thousands of tens-of-thousands of millions of kalpas, should there be living beings suffering for their wrongdoings in the hells and evil paths of various worlds, I aspire to rescue and free them from the hells and evil realms of animal or hungry ghosts. Only after such beings who are undergoing retributive punishments have all attained buddhahood, then will I attain complete awakening.

Luminous Eyes boldly declared her deceased mother’s welfare as a precondition for her undertaking the bodhisattva’s aspiration to attain buddhahood for the sake of all living beings. At first glance, this prioritization of one’s family, that is, the extended self, over all other living beings appears contrary to the universality and equanimity of compassion at the heart of bodhisattva practices. How should we understand this explicit statement of self-interest in the context of the bodhisattva’s altruism?  Luminous Eyes’ aspiration is worded as an “act of truth” (satyakriyā), a formulaic utterance typical of the bodhisattva vows in Indian literature (“If XXX, only then will I attain complete awakening”). The act of truth, which occurs most frequently in Pure Land literature, is a kind of oath resting on the premise that when words are truthful, the words will have the power to set into motion a causal chain of actions. A famous example is the forty-eight vows of Amitābha Buddha which he uttered as the monk Dharmākara. Since Dharmākara has become the Buddha Amitābha, this naturally implies that the preconditions for his buddhahood stated in the forty-eight vows have all come true.

Luminous Eyes has two preconditions in her aspiration.  First, her undertaking the bodhisattva aspiration and path to buddhahood is premised on the condition that her mother be eternally freed from rebirth in the evil paths. Second, she will eventually attain buddhahood only after the living beings in hells and the three evil paths have all been freed and become buddhas. Since the sūtra introduces Luminous Eyes as one of Dizang Bodhisattva’s past lives, this means that the result of the first level of causal action is already in progress:  she has made the aspiration and is now Dizang Bodhisattva who is deeply committed to saving beings from rebirth in the three evil paths.  This in turn implies that the first causal precondition –– that her mother be eternally free from bad rebirths –– must have come true. But the immediate precondition for the second event, Dizang’s attainment of buddhahood, has not been realized. That is why Dizang Bodhisattva is still a bodhisattva and has not yet attained Buddhahood.  Dizang has to work incessantly to free beings from hells and the evil paths of rebirth, and ensure that they all attain awakening.  Dizang is thus a model of the bodhisattva who postpones their own buddhahood for the sake of helping others to attain awakening first. Hence, in Chinese Buddhism, he is hailed as “Bodhisattva of Great Aspiration.”

In both stories of the filial daughter, personal grief over a mother’s death was the root cause propelling her to undertake the bodhisattva’s aspiration to relieve the suffering of all living beings.  In other words, the emotional intensity of the loss of a blood relation can cathartically transmutes a child’s deep affection for the parent into the universal compassion of the bodhisattva that regards living being equally and seeks to free them all from suffering. The mother is a symbol for this catharsis that potently triggers the universal compassion of the bodhisattva. Buddhist altruism here is prompted not by detached renunciation of family ties; instead, in a paradoxical turn, the deep bond to one’s mother becomes the ground for cultivating equanimity and compassion for all. On account of her mother’s plight, Luminous Eyes was able to commiserate fully with those trapped in hells and evil paths of rebirth. Her bodhisattva aspiration and practices were directly molded by the death of her mother and the mother’s suffering in retributive rebirths. Filial love for the parent becomes the causal mechanism that activates and nurtures the bodhisattva’s heart of universal compassion which cherishes all living beings as if they are one’s family.

For a modern audience, the hells and evil paths of rebirth can be read to imply the downtrodden and marginalized rungs of society. Although this may be dismissed as a “modernist (re)reading,” the sūtra itself does contain a small but explicit cue for such a reading.  It is Luminous Eyes herself who expressed a deep wish to ascertain that her mother be eternally free from inferior social and gender forms. If the hells and evil paths of rebirth are understood as inequitable social spheres and geographies, Dizang then represents the ideal of a bodhisattva who has given up their privileges to descend into the abysses of society, to work for the welfare of living beings. The basic human emotion of familial love is not shunned, but fully acknowledged and even fostered to its utmost expression to encompass all living beings. Family feeling, especially love for the mother, when harnessed to its full potency, produces true compassion that contemplates, commiserates with, and cherishes all living beings as one does for the family.

Least one concludes that Dizang devotion is necessarily a form of householder Buddhism, let us not forget that the most common iconography of Dizang in East Asia depicts this bodhisattva as a shaven-head monk. In fact, this iconography is attested in the earliest scriptural description of this bodhisattva.  Dizang’s embodiment of the two roles, filial daughter and renunciant monk, has important implications for Mahāyānist understanding of true renunciation, the full implications of which must be explored another time.

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