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Self-Reliance and the Bodhisattva Path

When I was a young Marine the call came down that they needed volunteers to go to Bridgeport, CA for Mountain Warfare Training.  I was highly-motivated and not very bright, so I jumped at the chance to go.  

I'd done the summer package with my unit the year before, but this was going to be different.  It was the winter package, which meant that I'd be doing all the same things that I'd done previously; hiking, camping, survival training, etc.  But I'd be doing it in 4-6 feet of snow.

Base camp was located at Pickel Meadows in the Sierra mountains, and the elevation was around 7,000 feet.  The first week there was a blur of classes on everything from first aid to the intricacies of establishing radio communication in the mountains.  We also learned how to pack a sled, walk in snowshoes, and cross-country ski.

The second week, however, was when things got interesting.  That's when we hiked to one of the training areas to put all of our new found knowledge to the test.  There was only one problem.  The training area was a 12 mile hike up a mountain with an ending elevation of 11,000 feet above sea level.

On the day of the hike each Marine was tasked with carrying his rifle and a fifty pound pack as part of his combat load. Snow fell from the sky in flakes the size of quarters.  It melted when it fell on our gear and then refroze as ice; making our packs even heavier as we moved along the trail.

The trip up the mountain was long, cold, and miserable, but I saw something along the way that inspires me to this day.  Occasionally, a Marine would struggle to keep up the pace, and start falling behind.  When this happened a member of his fire team would perform a "buddy drag" to get him back in formation.

The stronger Marine would stand in front of the guy who was struggling and jog in place.  The Marine who was having a hard time would take a moment to catch his breath, grab the pack of the Marine in front of him, and then yell, "Go," at the top of his lungs.

At this point, the stronger Marine would run to the front of the formation, "dragging" the other Marine behind him.  Once they made it to the front, he'd deposit the weaker Marine there where everyone could keep an eye on him, and ensure that he didn't fall behind again.

Marines pride themselves on never leaving a fallen comrade, and it was terrific to see that ethos in action.  However, as I look back at that hike through a Buddhist lense, I realize that there was also a much bigger lesson involving the Bodhisattva path.

In Mahayana Buddhism a Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who has sworn that they won't enter into Nirvana until all sentient beings can come with them.  They devote themselves to ending suffering, and helping their fellow travelers on the road to awakening.  In fact, the first Bodhisattva vow states:
Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them all.
It's a noble sentiment, but this vow is a bit overwhelming on the surface.  However, it seems a more reasonable in the context of what I saw during the hike.

For example, the Marines that were doing the buddy drags were all in fantastic physical condition.  They'd spent thousands of hours running on road sides and lifting weights in the gym.  As a result, they were strong enough to carry their own packs AND help others at the same time.

This suggests that the key to Bodhisattva action is having a strong personal practice.  The world can be a hurtful place, and each of us has our own "pack" of suffering that we carry each day. However, a daily practice of meditation and sutra study helps us carry that suffering more effectively, and eventually let some of it go.

Practice gives us the strength to help others who are in pain.  

Remaining calm when everyone is panicking and showing kindness when everyone is vengeful are powerful methods for creating equanimity in the world.  But we can only do these things if we prepare ahead of time by being diligent in our training.

Another thing that jumps out at me is the method the Marines used for helping each other up the mountain.  They didn't try and save everyone all at once.  Rather, they saw one person who was in need, and they pulled that person to the front of the formation.  Then they went back and dragged another.

They did this until they reached the end of their endurance, and then they fell back into formation; allowing other Marines to take up the task.  This was a smart move as working themselves to exhaustion would've made them a danger to the rest of the unit.

The Bodhisattva vow to save all beings can seem overwhelming because people often assume that they have to save everyone and everything all at once.  But this isn't the case.  Rather, we only need to save who we can.

This can be as simple as making healthy decisions in our personal life like getting enough rest or meditating daily.  This may seem small, but practicing self-care puts us in a position that we can benefit others.

Once that's done, we can look around and see who needs a bit of help that we can provide.  A smile or a kind word can do wonders in helping people carry their pack of suffering, and it's something we can provide to everyone we meet.

Finally, we must have great faith in order to walk the Bodhisattva path.  Specifically, we must have faith that when we reach the end of our endurance, other practitioners will step up and continue to help.

This is important because if we allow ourselves to burn out, then we're of no use to anyone; including ourselves.  But if we have faith in our fellow humans, and trust that they'll pull the load when we can't, a rhythm will develop.

We'll perform Bodhisattva action when they're tired, and they'll do the same for us.  In this way, we ensure that everyone makes it up the mountain, and no one gets left behind.

Namu Amida Butsu

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Self-Reliance and the Bodhisattva Path


  1. Outstanding piece, brother. Maybe this will help bridge the gap between Marines and civilians. Units functioning as units still have to have those road guards and rescuers who stand apart and yet help preserve the integrity of the unit. That kind of compassion and cohesiveness must be trained, and of course not everyone can be a Marine.

    A lack of understanding these principles, particularly in these hateful times, contributes to the violence and tribalism espoused by the fringe elements who seem intent on fracturing American society into a hundred different splinters. Everyone thinks they're so integral to the functioning of the universe, the solipsistic perspective alien to both Buddhists and Marines alike. Ignorance is our enemy.

  2. This is a beautifully written, and very inspiring to me.

  3. this is speaking to me with an such a voice of inspiration. it makes so much sense to me. i thank you.

  4. Thank you for sharing this story and lesson.


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