The Mahayanas say ‘You’re little vehicle just gets a few people who are very, very tough ascetics, and takes them across the shore to nirvana.’ But the great vehicle shows people that nirvana is not different from everyday life. So that when you have reached nirvana, if you think ‘Now I have attained it, now I have succeeded, now I have caught the secret of the universe, and I am at peace,’ you have only a false peace. You have become a stone buddha. You have a new illusion of the changeless. So it is said that such a person is a pratyeka-buddha. That means ‘private buddha.’ ‘I’ve got it all for myself.’ And in contrast with this kind of pratyeka- buddha, who gains nirvana and stays there, the Mahayanas use the word bodhisattva. ‘Sattva’ means ‘essential principle’; ‘bodhi,’ awakening. A person whose essential being is awakened. The word used to mean ‘junior buddha,’ someone on the way to becoming a buddha. But in the course of time, it came to mean someone who had attained buddhahood, who had reached nirvana, but who returns into everyday life to deliver everyday beings. This is the popular idea of a bodhisattva—a savior.
So, in the popular Buddhism of Tibet and China and Japan, people worship the bodhisattvas, the great bodhisattvas, as saviors. Say, the one I talked about this morning, the hermaphroditic Quan-Yin. People loved Quan-Yin because she—he/she, she/he—could be a buddha, but has come back into the world to save all beings. The Japanese call he/she Kanon, and they have in Kyoto an image of Kanon with one thousand arms, radiating like an aureole all around this great golden figure, and these thousand arms are one thousand different ways of rescuing beings from ignorance. Kanon is a funny thing. I remember one night when I suddenly realized that Kanon was incarnate in the whole city of Kyoto, that this whole city was Kanon, that the police department, the taxi drivers, the fire department, the shopkeepers, in so far as this whole city was a collaborative effort to sustain human life, however bumbling, however inefficient, however corrupt, it was still a manifestation of Kanon, with its thousand arms, all working independently, and yet as one.
So they revere those bodhisattvas as the saviors, come back into the world to deliver all beings. But there is a more esoteric interpretation of this. The bodhisattva returns into the world. That means he has discovered that you don’t have to go anywhere to find nirvana. Nirvana is where you are, provided you don’t object to it. In other words, change—and everything is change; nothing can be held on to—to the degree that you go with a stream, you see, you are still, you are flowing with it. But to the degree you resist the stream, then you notice that the current is rushing past you and fighting you. So swim with it, go with it, and you’re there. You’re at rest. And this is of course particularly true when it comes to those moments when life really seems to be going to take us away, and the stream of change is going to swallow us completely. The moment of death, and we think, ‘Oh-oh, this is it. This is the end.’ And so at death we withdraw, say ‘No, no, no, not that, not yet, please.’
But, actually, the whole problem is that there really is no other problem for human beings, than to go over that waterfall when it comes. Just as you go over any other waterfall, just as you go on from day-to-day, just as you go to sleep at night. Be absolutely willing to die. Now, I’m not preaching. I’m not saying you OUGHT to be willing to die, and that you should muscle up your courage and somehow put on a good front when the terrible thing comes. That’s not the idea at all. The point is that you can only die well if you understand this system of ways. If you understand that you’re disappearance as the form in which you think you are you. Your disappearance as this particular organism is simply seasonal. That you are just as much the dark space beyond death as you are the light interval called life. These are just two sides of you, because YOU is the total way. You see, we can’t have half a way. Nobody ever saw waves that just had crests, and no troughs. So you can’t have half a human being, who is born but doesn’t die. Half a thing. That would be only half a thing. But the propagation of vibrations, and life is vibration, it simply goes on an on, but its cycles are short cycles and long cycles.
Space, you see, is not just nothing. If I could magnify my hand to an enormous degree so you could see all the molecules in it, I don’t know how far apart they would be, but it seems to me they would be something like tennis balls in a very, very large space, and you’d look when I move my hand, and say ‘For god’s sake, look at all those tennis balls, they’re all going together. Crazy. And there are no strings tying them together. Isn’t that queer?’ No, but there’s space going with them, and space is a function of, or it’s an inseparable aspect of whatever solids are in the space. That is the clue, probably, to what we mean by gravity. We don’t know yet. So in the same way, when those marvelous sandpipers come around here, the little ones, while they’re in the air flying, they have one mind, they move all together. When they alight on the mud, they become individuals and they go pecking around for worms or whatever. But one click of the fingers and all those things go up into the air. They don’t seem to have a leader, because they don’t follow when they turn; they all turn together and go off in a different direction. It’s amazing. But they’re like the molecules in my hand.
So then, you see, here’s the principle: when you don’t resist change, I mean over resist. I don’t mean being flabby, like I said at the beginning. When you don’t resist change, you see that the changing world, which disappears like smoke, is no different from the nirvana world. Nirvana, as I said, means breathe out, let go of the breath. So in the same way, don’t resist change; it’s all the same principle.
So the bodhisattva saves all beings, not by preaching sermons to them, but by showing them that they are delivered, they are liberated, by the act of not being able to stop changing. You can’t hang on to yourself. You don’t have to try to not hang on to yourself. It can’t be done, and that is salvation. That’s why you may think it a grisly habit, but certain monks keep skulls on their desks, ‘momentomori,’ ‘be mindful of death.’ Gurdjieff says in one of his books that the most important thing for anyone to realize is that you and every person you see will soon be dead. It sounds so gloomy to us, because we have devised a culture fundamentally resisting death. There is a wonderful saying that Anandakuri- Swami[?] used to quote: ‘I pray that death will not come and find me still unannihilated.’ In other words, that man dies happy if there is no one to die. In other words, if the ego’s disappeared before death caught up to him.
But you see, the knowledge of death helps the ego to disappear, because it tells you you can’t hang on. So what we need, if we’re going to have a good religion around, that’s one of the places where it can start: having, I suppose they’d call it The Institution For Creative Dying, something like that. You can have one department where you can have champagne and cocktail parties to die with, another department where you can have glorious religious rituals with priests and things like that, another department where you can have psychedelic drugs, another department where you can have special kinds of music, anything, you know. All these arrangements will be provided for in a hospital for delightful dying. But that’s the thing, to go out with a bang instead of a whimper.”
— Alan Watts, “The World as Emptiness”