Time operates in a deep and mysterious way with regard to our aspirations and goals. When formulating New Year’s resolutions, it is commonly advised that they be realistic. Presumably, such goals should be achievable by the end of the year, and even if they were broader and not dependent on a single year—such as resolving to be a kinder person—it seems common sense that we need tangible results to mark milestones and assess progress.
The bodhisattva vows, conversly, fly in the face of both these principles. They are not accomplishable within a certain timeframe with no qualitative milestone. The end product of seeing all beings enlightened seems unachievable in the far stretches of the endless future, let alone this year. The Zen teacher Robert Aitken theorizes that their formal structure, which is well known these days, may have originated in China in the sixth century, and that they were possibly derived from a more ancient Sanskrit gatha. Two things are certain: that lay Buddhists were taking bodhisattva vows en masse under the directives of Emperor Wu of Liang (464–549 CE), indicating their popularity in China by this time, and that the vows themselves are formulated to be impossible from a conventional perspective.
This is not because we are human and unworthy. On the contrary, even the foremost of bodhisattvas cannot achieve them, not conventionally. The vows are so impossible that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition tells the story of how Avalokiteshvara’s failure resulted in the birth of a powerful female buddha who would help him and save beings in her own right. In his commentary to The Twenty-One Praises to Tara, the posthumously named First Dalai Lama, Je Gedum dr’up-pa, explains the result of Avalokiteshvara’s grief at being unable to save all beings: reminiscent of Aphrodite’s birth in a Venus de Milo scene, the Buddhist divinity Tara emerges from the bodhisattva of compassion’s tears. (Willson, 1987, 111) As Je Gedum dr’up-pa explains:
What was Her origin? – Ārya Lokeśvara [Avalokiteśvara], the Lord and Refuge of the Three Realms . . . saw that however many migrating beings He removed from samsāra, they grew no fewer, and He wept. Tārā sprang from the opening filaments of His face – of an utpala (blue lotus) that grew in the water of His tears. She is swift in the aid of sentient beings, asking “I shall quickly do them the service of saving them from samsāra, so please do not cry!”; and in turning back the battle of samsāra, She is a heroine.(Willson 1987, 124–25)
Even now, the bodhisattvas still work tirelessly across the universe to liberate all beings, and from the ultimate perspective (paramarthika satya) all beings are already enlightened buddhas. However, since all beings operate in conventional or worldly perspective (loka-samvriti-satya) and are endlessly reborn, the task remains never-ending. In “playing” with the two truths (satyadvayavibhaga), the formulation of the bodhisattva vows also “play” with time, remaining at once unachievable yet also constantly renewing and relentlessly pursued by the bodhisattvas after whom Buddhists model their lives.
As 2023 unfolds, there is an event planned for later in the year that will be tinged with the symbolism of renewal and rebirth (not in the samsaric sense). On 24 September, NASA’s spacecraft OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to bring to Earth small samples from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. OSIRIS-REx was launched in September 2016 and reached Bennu in 2018. Scientists at the Utah Test and Training Range say that they “hope the dust and pebbles OSIRIS-REX gathered from the surface of the asteroid Bennu will provide insights into the formation of the early solar system, as well as how asteroids could impact Earth in the future.” (The New York Times)
The asteroid is “a primordial artifact preserved in the vacuum of space, orbiting among planets and moons and asteroids and comets. Because it is so old, Bennu could be made of material containing molecules that were present when life first formed on Earth.” (NASA)
The asteroid was named Bennu in 2013 by Michael Puzio, who was nine years old at the time and won a NASA contest. Not only does the NASA mission represent a grand planetary objective, the asteroid and the spacecraft also take after potent figures of salvation and rebirth in ancient Egyptian religion and mythology. OSIRIS-REx means “King Osiris,” the god of the underworld who was killed by his brother Set and consequently reborn to reign over the afterlife. The being Bennu that the spacecraft is named after is often mistaken for a phoenix in pop culture, but is much more. The Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom depict Bennu as a self-created being who serves as the “personality” of the sun god Ra, and a continually self-renewing deity:
Bennu is the ancient Egyptian deity linked with the Sun, creation and rebirth—Puzio also noted that Bennu is the living symbol of Osiris. The myth of Bennu suits the asteroid itself, given that it is a primitive object that dates back to the creation of the Solar System. Themes of origins and rebirth are part of this asteroid’s story. Birds and bird-like creatures are also symbolic of rebirth, creation and origins in various ancient myths.(NASA)
The interplay between life, death, and rebirth also plays with time and is intimately associated with a goal in the far distant future: the study of our human community’s origins, and protecting humanity from potential cosmic threats. The ambition is epic and grand, worthy of a space opera.
The bodhisattva vows, unlike conventional resolutions, also feel unrealistic, even fantastical. Yet the themes of salvation, compassion for all, and perpetually renewing selflessness—whether as regenerative deities like Osiris and Bennu or as the saving prime celestials Avalokiteshvara and Tara—have been with us since time immemorial. They provide an inspiring metaphysical grounding for thinking about our own meaningful resolutions that are relevant not only in 2023, but for all time.
The vows of ancient times “echo” through time and across conventional and ultimate realities, taking new forms as society and technology changes, while also remaining constant, recognizable, and resonant. May we take on similarly “unrealistic” and ambitious, grand resolutions unbound by conventional time. May our personal bodhisattva vows and aspirations to do good in the world be renewed and reborn in 2023 and every year.
Martin Willson. 1986. In Praise of Tārā: Songs to the Saviouress. London: Wisdom Publications.
The Bodhisattva Vows (Tricycle)
Events to Shake, or Gently Rattle, the World in 2023 (The New York Times)
Ten Things to Know About Bennu (NASA)