Archive for the 'bodhisattva' Category

Binker and the bodhisattva

December 19, 2011

I know I’ve mentioned A.A. Milne’s poem “Binker” before, maybe in the context of imaginary friends and God.  I was thinking today more about its narrator — maybe I should have called this post “Binker’s narrator and the bodhisattva.”

I’ve wondered from time to time what distinguishes the concept of a bodhisattva from that of a really talented enabler in a dysfunctional relationship.  I got to thinking about this again after reading this week’s “Ethicist” column in the NYTimes, about siblings who bully, and the comments it inspired.

There’s this spiritual story about two sisters (probably actually half-sisters or maybe even step-sisters — different mothers, in any event).  The paterfamilias-type figure (the male head of the household) is told by some sort of fortune teller that one his daughters is destined to be a special personage, a princess of God.  He and the wife with higher standing don’t understand that this means something like “nun.”  They think it’s about being part of social and material royalty.  They then assume it must be about the daughter they conceived together, who is slender and graceful and beautiful, and also happens to lack empathy and a conscience.  The other daughter is a “little person” of some sort, and very gifted spiritually.  But they’re thinking of princes and bride price and clan alliances, not of service to God and enlightenment, so they choose the wrong daughter and marry her off to some more prominent clan.

The whole thing is a debacle.  The chosen daughter ends up married to an old man and then the (abused) wife of his sociopathic son after he (the old man) dies.  She implodes from the abuse and commits suicide.  The other daughter ends up being sold off in effect into prostitution and abused.  She copes by using some interesting techniques like dissociation.

Many reincarnations pass, and the “other daughter” manages to get back on her spiritual feet, but her sister remains in a state of regression and what we would call mental illness.  Since part of the genesis of the whole mess was the chosen sister’s being incorrectly selected and for the wrong kind of “marriage,” the “other sister” figures she can put things back to rights by merging spiritually with her troubled sister and then making spiritual progress for both of them — kind of like carrying a person who can’t walk on one’s back while hiking out of the wilderness.

Now, my question is, can this kind of maneuver possibly be one that could serve?  Can one person in this way live another person’s spiritual life for them?  And is this at all related to the concept of bodhisattva?  I think of Binker and his host because the host is telling himself and others that he is eating the second chocolate for Binker, that somehow this is effective.

I’m wondering what happens when, as would naturally occur, the healthy one, the “teacher,” makes progress and the regressed one doesn’t.  Then the “teacher” would have to go back again to pick up the next piece of the spiritual puzzle that needs to be polished, work on that, complete it, go back again, and so on, piece by piece, without the regressed one ever being affected by the progress.  The teacher would not have the benefit overall of any incremental progress, she would keep putting the finished pieces in the bank as she completed them and then going back to work on another unfinished piece of the puzzle.

In the story, the teacher accomplishes this unorthodox task.  She can perfect each piece against her already finished puzzle that she previously achieved for her own enlightenment, and she doesn’t mind going back into that burning building many times to carry out additional pieces.  She therefore often has the experience of seeing the same thing again, of repeating the experience of an understanding, and she contemplates a number of times that she knows that these are just stories we tell ourselves in a kind of a language that allows us to understand more abstract things, and that the story never ends, we just stop needing to tell it or to hear it.  She also wonders whether what she is aware she is doing is actually what everybody does on their spiritual journey, it’s just that she has conceptualized it using two distinct people, instead of thinking about two strands within the same being.

The regressed sister eventually has a full bank account.  I’m not sure whether she is ever aware of it or how it got that way, and she is still waiting for that fairytale version of her life with the “happily ever after,” instead of experiencing enlightenment and being able to live life as it is with a different perspective (something like compassionate detachment).  But the story within the story does end, and so the spiritual story does too, and so also this post.