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Bodhisattvas Asks for Clarification

Chapter Ten


  1. The Profoundness of Dependent Origination
  2. The Profoundness of the Buddhas’ Teaching and Transforming
  3. The Profoundness of Sentient Beings’ Karmic Retributions
  4. The Profoundness of the Buddhas’ Speaking of Dharma
  5. The Profoundness of the Buddhas’ Field of Blessings
  6. The Profoundness of the Proper Teaching
  7. The Profoundness of the Proper Practice
  8. The Profoundness of the Aids to the Path
  9. The Profoundness of the One Path
  10. The Profoundness of the States of the Buddhas
  11. The Manifestation of Sentient Beings’ Situations Everywhere

What is meant by Bodhisattvas? Bodhimeans “enlightened”; and sattva means “one with sentience.” And so the word “Bodhisattva” can be explained in two ways: 1) One who enlightens all sentient beings”; and, 2) “an enlightened sentient being.”

He “who enlightens all sentient beings” enlightens himself and enlightens others; he aims to perfect his enlightenment and practices and realize the fruition of Buddhahood. “An enlightened sentient being” is a sentient being who has attained enlightenment himself and wants to enlighten others in order to perfect his enlightenment and practices.

“Bodhisattva” may also be translated as “a being with a great resolve for the Way.” The Bodhisattva, while still a sentient being, becomes greatly resolved on the Way. Being greatly resolved on the Way, to put it simply, means not being afraid of any difficulty, and not being afraid to do things that might cause personal suffering. The Bodhisattva’s every action, his every deed, is for the benefit of others. Does he gain anything personally? He pays no attention to that. The Bodhisattva only considers others’ welfare and does not consider whether there is any benefit in it for him. Because his resolve for the Way is great, the fruition he attains is also great. Naturally, without a great resolve, one could not expect to attain a great fruition.

Shakyamuni Buddha, when practicing the Bodhisattva Way in the past, spared neither his body nor his very life in teaching, transforming, and benefiting sentient beings. Anyone wishing to become a Buddha definitely must first practice the Bodhisattva Wayin order to do so. Although the Bodhisattva Way is not easy to practice, nevertheless, unless we practice it, we can never perfect it. And unless we are able to perfect the Bodhisattva Way, we have absolutely no hope of attaining Buddhahood. Therefore, if you wish to become a Buddha, you must first practice the Bodhisattva Way.

For example, in one of Shakyamuni Buddha’s past lives, he gave up his life in order to let a tiger eat his body. Tigers are the fiercest of animals. Yet when he saw a tiger about to starve to death, he was able to sacrifice his own body, mind, nature, and life to help the tiger. Nowadays, if one were to sacrifice oneself for even an evil person, others would ridicule, saying, “Why help out that wicked person? He’s terrible.”

But, think it over, the worst person in the world does not come anywhere near a tiger in ferocity. Tigers are not the slightest bit polite toward any other sentient being. Anyone who touches a tiger’s whiskers knows that his life is about to end. Even more would that be the case if one dared to pull a whisker out of a tiger’s beard!

But as evil as that tiger was, Shakyamuni Buddha still wanted to save its life. The common view would be that the Buddha was mistaken to do that. The reasoning being that if one person gives himself to a tiger to eat, that tiger only remains alive to go on and eat more people, and had the Buddha allowed the tiger to starve to death, it would have had no further opportunity to eat other people. However, if you allow a single tiger to starve, there will still be many other tigers around. Similarly, if you kill a spider, there will be other spiders around.

In this world, we become deluded, create karma, and undergo the corresponding retribution, over and over again. That is what this world is all about. If you are confused, you will create karma, and once you do that, you will have to undergo the retribution. Once that process begins, there is no end to it.

How is it that the Buddha was able to sacrifice his own life to the tiger? It is because he did not make discriminations. His only thought was to rescue sentient beings. Shakyamuni Buddha saw the Buddha nature in even a tiger. And he wanted to make that sacrifice in order to cause the evil tiger to have a change of heart—to change from being evil toward being good, and to bring forth the resolve for bodhi. He also did it in order to realize the Way.

In another one of Shakyamuni Buddha’s past lives, he cut off his own flesh to feed an eagle. The eagle was chasing a pigeon, intent upon catching and eating it. The fleeing pigeon flew inside the Buddha’s sleeve, and the Buddha protected it so that the eagle was unable to snatch and eat it. What do you suppose the eagle said to the Buddha then?

He said, “You are supposed to be a cultivator, but you are being unfair. That pigeon is my sustenance. You should allow me to take my food. How can you protect the life of that pigeon and thereby let me, an eagle, die of starvation? It is not fair. You are protecting that pigeon, yet you deny me protection. That is certainly not being compassionate.”

When Shakyamuni Buddha heard the eagle’s plea, what do you suppose he did? He said, “How much meat do you want? I will cut a piece of flesh off my own body for you to eat.” Then he cut a hunk of flesh from his body and gave it to the eagle. The eagle ate it, but still was not satiated. So the Buddha gave the eagle another piece of his flesh to eat. The eagle still was not full. The Buddha ended up giving it the flesh of his entire body to eat, and even then the eagle still was not satisfied. Although the eagle never did get full, the Buddha was perfecting his own Bodhisattva conduct. That was just one instance in which the Buddha was more concerned about protecting the life and wellbeing of a pigeon than that of his own. He did not bother to protect himself, but protected the pigeon instead. That was truly a case of “benefiting others and forgetting oneself.” As the result of many such deeds, the Buddha realized the Way very quickly.

We should all reflect upon this: could we imitate that behavior? Would we be able to relinquish our own body to save a tiger? Could we give our flesh to an eagle? “Sure, I could do that!” you say.But you cannot just make that claim. You have to actually do it for it to count; merely saying that you can, does not prove that you would. As it is said,

Fine speech and wonderful words,
Without being put into practice,
Do not constitute the Way.

We must truly and actually put into practice the Buddha’s magnanimous spirit of self-sacrifice. It should not be that we would refuse to pluck out even a single hair from our bodies while knowing to do so would benefit all sentient beings under heaven. That would be to follow the way of Yangzi (楊子). He was only out for himself. If it would have taken merely his plucking a single hair from his body to benefit all under heaven, he certainly would not have done it.

On the other hand, there was Micius or Mizi (墨子). He loved everyone unconditionally. “I love everybody!”he would proclaim. He completely abandoned himself to others. He would have been willing to use an axe to split his body in two from head to toe if it would bring benefit to a single other person.

However, the esteemed teacher Mencius or Mengzi (孟子) saw that those two men were both mistaken in their views. He righteously denounced them both, saying, “Yangzi’s ‘every man for himself’ is simply a disregard for any government; there is not even an emperor in his eyes. And Micius’ ‘universal love’ is a denial of his own ancestry, as if he did not even have a father. Not to have a concept of one’s government, and not to recognize one’s own father, is simply to be like an animal.”

Mencius’ temper was even bigger than mine; whether it was the philosophy of “every man for himself” or that of “universal love,” he scolded both their proponents as being no better than animals.

You may say, “Ah, in this world, the truth is certainly not easy to find!”

You could say that Yangzi’s “every man for himself” is akin to the way of the “self-ending Arhat,” who just wants to do his own thing—the “withered sprouts and sterile seeds within Buddhism.” On the other hand, Micius, with his unconditional love, was like the Bodhisattvas in their practice of the Bodhisattva Way, and in their benefiting sentient beings. But his was not the genuine Way of a Bodhisattva. Micius’ “universal love” was like the “free love” of today’s hippies, with men and women getting all mixed up together. Their philosophy of “Love everybody,” is both indiscriminate and unconstrained. That is why the esteemed teacher Mencius was not the least bit polite when he criticized those two.

If there had been someone around in those days to point out the Bodhisattva Way, Micius could have quickly become a Bodhisattva. And the same is true of Yangzi; he, too, could have quickly realized the Bodhisattva Way. The two of them had fallen into two extremes; theirs was not the Middle Way. The Bodhisattva Way involves practicing the Middle Way and not falling into either of the two extremes of emptiness and existence. One who can refrain from being attached to either emptiness or existence is one who has true understanding.

This chapter is titled “The Bodhisattvas Ask for Clarification.” Bodhisattvas are called “beings with a great resolve for the Way” because they have a great ability to show people the Way. They are also called, “Great Knights Who Reveal [the Way]”; “Great Knights Who Dwell [in the World]”; “Lofty Recluses,” “Supreme Ones.” This is simply using different names to describe them. And there are numerous such names for them—too many to ever mention them all. But in general, a Bodhisattva is one who universally benefits sentient beings.

In the title of this chapter, Ask for Clarification refers to the Bodhisattvas’ asking questions. For example, if a Bodhisattva does not understand certain principles, he will ask the other Bodhisattvas for their explanations. Or, if a Bodhisattva already understands, he may still debate with other Bodhisattvas or deliberately ask them about a principle to see if they understand. Bodhisattvas have a good sense of humor.

“Let’s test your understanding; let’s see what you say.”

“Would you say a person eats to live, or does he live to eat?”

Someone might reply, “We eat to live, and we also live to eat. Since we’re alive, we eat because there’s nothing else to do.”

Not a bad answer. Such a person lives in comfort—just eating to live and living to eat. Each of you, consider that question: is there any meaning in that ultimately, if that’s what a Bodhisattva does?

Previously I said that “to be a Patriarch is ultimately meaningless.” Well, to be a Bodhisattva is that way, too, because they eat to live and they also live to eat. Think about it. 

Ultimately, is it that we eat in order to live, or do we live so we can eat? This is a worthwhile question for each of us to investigate.


Previously, we talked about how Micius was willing to have himself cut in half, from the top of his head to the soles of his feet, if doing so would benefit another person. In fact, he was even willing to be killed for the benefit of others. That sounds like a Bodhisattva, but actually, he had not understood the Bodhisattva Way. If he had, it would have been fine. However, he merely promoted universal love, so he did not discriminate between his own father and others. He told everybody to love everybody, doing away with distinctions between kin and strangers.

“The Bodhisattvas Ask for Clarification”; they ask questions. Since Manjushri Bodhisattva can penetrate every phenomenon without obstruction, why did he have to ask questions? He was asking these questions not for himself, but on behalf of sentient beings, because they do not understand the substance and the principle of the Dharma. Therefore, he was representing all sentient beings in posing these questions to other Bodhisattvas.

“Clarification” is an explanation; an answer. One who understands something is able to explain it and answer the question; whereas, one who does not understand it is unable to explain it. [As Confucius said,] “If you know, then say that you know. If you do not know, then do not say that you know.” If you say that you know when you do not know, you are lying. Likewise, if you do know, but say that you do not know, you are also lying. Therefore, in translating the title of this chapter, we should not use the word “answer,” but “clarification” here, because if one clearly understands, then one is able to answer the questions raised in this chapter. One who does not clearly understand is confused, and will not know how to answer these questions. Therefore, the title of this chapter is “The Bodhisattvas Ask for Clarification.”

This is a very important chapter; in this sutra, it is the tenth.

I The Profoundness of Dependent Origination 


At that time, Manjushri Bodhisattva asked Enlightenment Leader Bodhisattva, “Disciple of the Buddha, given that the nature and the mind are one, why then are there various distinctions perceived, such as rebirth in wholesome paths and rebirth in evil paths; perfect faculties and deficient faculties; different modes of birth; handsomeness and ugliness; and, differing experiences of suffering and happiness? 

“Why is karma unaware of the mind and the mind unaware of karma? Why is the experience (of karma) unaware of retribution and the retribution unaware of the experience; why is the mind unaware of the experience (of karma) and the experience unaware of the mind? Why are causes unaware of conditions and conditions unaware of causes? Why is wisdom unaware of states of being and why are states of being unaware of wisdom?” 

Then Enlightenment Leader Bodhisattva answered in verse.


At that time, as the Buddha was speaking the Flower Adornment Sutra, Manjushri Bodhisattva asked Enlightenment Leader Bodhisattva, “Disciple of the Buddha, given that the nature and the mind are one, why then are various distinctions perceived?” Why are there so many distinctly different kinds of karmic retributions and rewards, such as rebirth in wholesome paths and rebirth in evil paths? If all beings are uniform, then if one is reborn in a wholesome path, it should be that all beings are born in wholesome paths; or, the same could be said for rebirth in evil paths. Why, then, are some born in wholesome paths and others in evil paths?

Then there are perfect faculties and deficient faculties. Some people have eyes, while others lack eyes or eyesight. Most people are endowed with ears, but some are not. Most have noses, but some lack a nose. Most people have all their limbs, while others lack hands or feet. People’s faculties may be perfect and complete, or they may be deficient.

Moreover, there are different modes of birth. Some are born with imperfect faculties. What is the principle in this? Why is there handsomeness and ugliness and differing experiences of suffering and happiness? Why are some people miserable while others enjoy blessings and happiness? As to the undergoing of karma, why is karma unaware of the mindand likewise, why is the mind unaware of karma? They are mutually unaware.

Why is the experience of karma unaware of when retribution being undergone was created; and, why when the retribution is being created is it unaware of when the experience of karma will happen? Why is the mind unaware of the experience of karma, and the experience unaware of the mind? Why are causes unaware of conditions and conditions unaware of causes? Why is this wisdom unaware of those states of being, and why are those states of being unaware of, not cognizant of, this wisdom? What are the reasons behind all this?

Then Enlightenment Leader Bodhisattva, Mahasattva, answered all of Manjushri Bodhisattva’s questions in verse.


The Humane One asks about these principles,
In order to awaken the dull multitudes.
I will now answer according to their nature;
Would that the Humane One attentively listen. 


These verses are spoken by Enlightenment Leader Bodhisattva in answer to the questions just posed by Manjushri Bodhisattva about the principles in the sutra.

Enlightenment Leader Bodhisattva was the first to become enlightened; that is how he got his name. Does this mean that he became enlightened ahead of all the Buddhas? No. It only means that among his contemporaries, he was the first to become enlightened. For example, it is now the year 1975. If he had become enlightened at the very beginning of the year, he would have been the first to be enlightened in the year 1975, and could be called Enlightenment Leader. What about 1976? That is not taken into account, nor is 1974. This matter is relative in terms of time. His being first enlightened is not an absolute.

The Humane One asks about these principles. Sometimes a Bodhisattva is addressed as “Humane One.” A Humane One is an extremely benevolent and kind sentient being. He has a compassionate heart and a mind to cherish and protect all sentient beings.

Enlightenment Leader Bodhisattva is now speaking to Manjushri Bodhisattva. “The Humane One asks about these principles in order to awaken the dull multitudes.” He says, “I know that you, Humane One, are not asking about these principles because you do not understand them. But rather you ask on behalf of all sentient beings in all the worlds throughout the ten directions, as you wish them to understand and realize enlightenment.”

The multitudes in the text refer to all sentient beings. “Dull” means that they are obtuse and ignorant. He says, “By raising these questions, you wish to cause those sentient beings who are ignorant and unenlightened to understand and awaken to these principles.”

I will now answer according to their nature. Enlightenment Leader Bodhisattva is referring to himself as “I”. Even though Bodhisattvas basically have no self—no ego—he (expediently) borrows the name, “I,” to facilitate this discussion. “Regarding their nature--basing myself on these principles—I will answer your questions.”

Would that the Humane One attentively listens. Since you are standing in for all sentient beings in inquiring about Dharma, I now ask that you, Humane One, carefully listen to what I have to say. Please pay close attention, and treat this matter very seriously, for as you are representing sentient beings, if you do not seriously listen, those sentient beings whom you represent will do likewise. So now, you should be especially attentive, and listen as I tell you about these principles.”

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