Midweek Mysticism: Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?
Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? wrote poet Alexander Pope about the use of overwhelming force against a defenceless person.
Everyday life often seems like that, especially for the elderly and infirm facing an implacable death in the not too distant future.
In this piece I want to discuss reincarnation, the re-emergence of the butterfly from the wheel of life; in particular as applied to possibly the most charming and attractive figures in all world literature: the bodhisattvas.
The word can be rendered in English as enlightening being. They are found liberally sprinkled through the pages of Mahayana Buddhist texts. Here’s a description from the radiant Flower Garland Sutra:
Some appear in the form of mendicants, some in the
form of priests … some in the form of scholars, scientists,
doctors; some in the form of ascetics, some in the form of
entertainers, some in the form of pietists, some in the form
of bearers of all kinds of arts and crafts — they are seen to
have come, in their various guises, to all villages, cities,
towns, communities, districts and nations … They are
lamps shedding light on the knowledge of all beings … for
the purpose of leading people to perfection.
They can be of either sex, and are definitely ranked among the good guys.
Bodhisattvas are said to be trained in their previous lives for higher states of being but, out of universal compassion, they choose to return to this world to help all beings to the enlightened state.
In the text, there does seem to be rather a lot of them. But bear in mind that this is a celestial overview. In practice, they are thin on the ground. If you have one in your street, you are very fortunate, although it’s doubtful you would know unless you have the “all-seeing eye” of knowledge. Not many people have.
All spiritual literature is full of examples of, and speculations about reincarnation. Early Christians believed in it until it was razed from the record by politically-motivated priests and bishops. Christian politicians have a bad record of burning books they didn’t like or threatened their powerbase.
India still accepts its reality, which is burnt into the culture, as do many eastern countries. Tibet even picks its leader, the Dalai Lama, on the basis of the reincarnation of the last one.
The essential idea is that in any one life we have the opportunity to develop our portion of consciousness into a vehicle capable of lifting us to a higher plane of being after death. If we fail to make the effort, or are not ready for it, we simply return to this life in a different identity until we reach escape velocity, so to speak.
Some advanced beings come back to help us make the transition. They are the bodhisattvas, the enlightening beings. Consider this further excerpt on the work they do:
He saw countless enlightening beings on the
promenades or sitting on their seats, engaged in
various activities. Some were walking around, some
were doing spiritual exercises, some were practising
observation, some were projecting universal compassion,
some were working on various sciences having to do with
the welfare of the world, some were instructing, some
were reciting, some were writing, some were asking
questions, some were engaged in ripening conduct,
concentration, and knowledge …
In the Flower Garland Sutra, the whole universe, with its teams of enlightening beings busy within it, is a vast workshop where everyone is brought to enlightenment in one way or another.
The diversity is immense as befits the adornments of the Universal Consciousness, whose concentration maintains it. But the small details and individual acts of kindness and compassion are no less important, for, in the magnificent Flower Garland vision, each minute grain of sand contains the universe without end.
The world, the supernal manifestation of the Great One, constantly brings into itself countless clouds of forms and sentient beings, each with its own distinctness; but not even the most insignificant speck is refused participation in the vibrant life of the cosmic consciousness.
Within this framework, the enlightening being, who may appear as anything from a doctor to a wandering mendicant, is shown as the progenitor of change and the catalyst of enlightenment:
Then the Buddha extended his right hand, rubbed my head,
and revealed to me a teaching called universal eye, which
is the sphere of all Buddhas, revealing the practice
of enlightening beings, showing the differentiation of the
planes of all universes … communicating to all beings in
accord with their mentalities …
Unfortunately, our western science and materialistic metropolitan existence knows little of this, despite a mass of subtle hints and steers contained in our own spiritual literature. As a culture we have lost touch with the most powerful form of storytelling ever developed: the allegory.
Many of our most famous books exist on two levels: as a simple story, plainly told with a literal meaning, and as an allegorical tale disguising a mystical thread with immortality as its inner core. Much of Renaissance religious art conceals a preoccupation with an afterlife and a strong sense of upward movement.
The butterfly on the wheel has two choices: be broken and fall back to earth, or lift up the head and stretch the wings and soar into eternity.
The bodhisattvas exist to serve that purpose.
… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.
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