Saints and Bodhisattvas: Mortal Human Messianicity in Mormonism and Mahayana Buddhism

In a previous post I reviewed Jad Hatem’s Postponing Heaven, recently published in English by BYU’s Maxwell Institute. Hatem sets out to draw parallels between Mormonism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Islam by examining how each tradition expresses what Hatem terms “human messianicity.” In this post I would like to further explore and expand on some of Hatem’s ideas by focussing on the two primary ways human messianicity is expressed in both Mayahana Buddhism and Mormonism.1

Supernatural Human Messianicity in LDS Theology

In Postponing Heaven Hatem focuses on the eschatological and soteriological roles of both the Three Nephites in Mormon theology and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism. Hatem discusses the supernatural aspects of the Three Nephites who have had their lives preserved and extended in order to bring Christian salvation to others. Similarly, Bodhisattvas have willfully delayed passing into Nirvana, becoming Buddhas, in order to assist other sentient beings obtain enlightenment or awakening and as such, have become god-like with abilities to both observe and intervene in human affairs. This form of human messianicity has two primary characteristics. First, human beings knowingly and willfully extend their connection to and involvement with this world despite their qualification for transcendence. Second, these human messiahs are either gifted or granted supernatural power or obtain it by virtue of their own merit. They do so in order to act as emissaries of something greater than themselves.

LDS folklore is replete with examples of supernatural intervention by Three Nephites. In these stories the Nephites provide aid and comfort to those in need. For example, a description of one popular story can be found here:

This story usually has sister missionaries knocking on the door of a serial killer not realizing the danger they are in. They speak to the man for a few minutes, trying to convince him to let them in to speak more about the Book of Mormon. He is very short with them and turns them away.

A few days later the authorities capture the serial killer (it is often a well-known killer like Jeffery Dahmer). Somehow the police know that he had the chance to kill the sister missionaries and asks why the serial killer did not allow them into his house. The serial killer says, “I was scared of the three huge Indian warriors that were standing behind them.”

According to the Book of Mormon the Three Nephites will play a role in the events leading up to the millennial reign of Jesus Christ and yet, as we have seen expressed in folklore, they are also involved in meeting earthly human needs. It is this directly earthly involvement in human affairs that sets the Three Nephites apart from Moses, Elijah, and John the Baptist — among others — who have had key roles in the Restoration but whose activities appear to be exclusive to specific theologically significant events involving the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Supernatural Human Messianicity in Mahayana Buddhism

In Mahayana Buddhism a Bodhisattva is a sentient being who is fully committed — and in some cases fully qualified — to become a Buddha but, out of compassion, vows:

  • Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
  • Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
  • Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
  • Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.

Clearly, fulfilling these vows is an impossibility; an indication of the eternal nature of the Bodhisattva way. A Bodhisattva’s work, as it were, will never cease as as there will always be deluded sentient beings in need of liberation.

Supernatural Bodhisattvas play a significant role in Buddhism as practiced by devoted lay followers around the world. Bodhisattvas — spanning both countries and schools — form a kind of Buddhist pantheon of “gods” who concern themselves with specific aspects of sentient existence. One of the most well-known and most widely recognized Bodhisattva is known as Guanyin, Avalokiteśvara, Kannon, or Lokeśvara. Guanyin is often referred to as the Goddess of Mercy. However, it must be noted that in many traditions, Guanyin is neither male, nor female and in others Guanyin is male. In the Lotus Sutra — a central text of Mahayana Buddhism — Avalokiteśvara is presented in many forms.

Master Dogen, patriarch of the Japanese Soto Zen school stated the importance of Guanyin to practice and realization: “Through our training, we study Him, or Her, as the father and mother of all Buddhas.”2

In China, Budai — who in iconography is often mistaken for the Buddha by westerners — is seen as the Bhodisattva of good fortune. Thus it is not uncommon to see some representation of Budai at Chinese-owned or operated business establishments. Budai is also often associated with the future Buddha Meitraya. 3

In both Mormonism and Buddhism supernatural human messianicity plays a significant role in theology, eschatology, and folklore.

Mortal Human Messianicity in LDS Theology

But both Mormonism and Buddhism contain another type of human messianicity; acts performed by mortals for the salvation of others.

In the LDS Church the most clear example of this is proxy temple work performed for the dead. In 2004, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke of the practice in these terms:

Most of our temples could be much busier than they are. In this noisy, bustling, competitive world, what a privilege it is to have a sacred house where we may experience the sanctifying influence of the Spirit of the Lord. The element of selfishness crowds in upon us constantly. We need to overcome it, and there is no better way than to go to the house of the Lord and there serve in a vicarious relationship in behalf of those who are beyond the veil of death. What a remarkable thing this is. In most cases, we do not know those for whom we work. We expect no thanks. We have no assurance that they will accept that which we offer. But we go, and in that process we attain to a state that comes of no other effort. We literally become saviors on Mount Zion. What does this mean? Just as our Redeemer gave His life as a vicarious sacrifice for all men, and in so doing became our Savior, even so we, in a small measure, when we engage in proxy work in the temple, become as saviors to those on the other side who have no means of advancing unless something is done in their behalf by those on earth.4

What I find very interesting about President Hinckley’s remarks are that he points out 1) that acting as proxy in temple ordinances literally makes practicing LDS “saviors to those on the other side” and 2) that the act of carrying out these proxy ordinances enables practitioners to “overcome” selfishness.

In Gospel Principles we read:

Many of our ancestors are among those who died without hearing about the gospel while on the earth. They now live in the spirit world. There they are taught the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who have accepted the gospel are waiting for the temple ordinances to be performed for them. As we perform these ordinances in the temple for our ancestors, we can share their joy. (emphasis added)

LDS missionary work could also be considered an act of mortal human messianicity. D&C 18:15:

And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!

And now, if your joy will be great with one soul that you have brought unto me into the kingdom of my Father, how great will be your joy if you should bring many souls unto me!

In both temple and missionary work there is an essential symbiotic relationship between savior and saved. From Gospel Doctrine:

We will not finish our work until we have saved ourselves, and then not until we shall have saved all depending upon us; for we are to become saviors upon Mount Zion, as well as Christ. We are called to this mission. The dead are not perfect without us, neither are we without them. We have a mission to perform for and in their behalf; we have a certain work to do in order to liberate those who, because of their ignorance and the unfavorable circumstances in which they were placed while here, are unprepared for eternal life; we have to open the door for them, by performing ordinances which they cannot perform for themselves, and which are essential to their release from the “prison-house,” to come forth and live according to God in the spirit, and be judged according to men in the flesh. 5(emphasis added)

Mortal Human Messianicity in Mayahana Buddhism

One of the key differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism is the view of Bodhisattvas and Arhats. Speaking broadly, the ideal of Theravada Buddhism is to become an Arhat, or one who is very near enlightenment and on the cusp of entering nirvana.

Mahayana Buddhism, by contrast, holds up the Bodhisattva ideal wherein both clergy and lay practitioners seek to cultivate bodhichitta and take on the bodhisattva vows.

Becoming a bodhisattva begins with bodhichitta; an “awakened mind.” Speaking of bodhichitta, Shantideva wrote6:

Those who wish to crush the many sorrows of existence,

Who wish to quell the pain of living beings,

Who wish to have experience of a myriad joys

Should never turn away from bodhichitta.

Should bodhichitta come to birth

In those who suffer, chained in prisons of saṃsāra,

In that instant they are called the children of the Blissful One,

Revered by all the world, by gods and humankind.

For like the supreme substance of the alchemists,

It takes our impure flesh and makes of it

The body of a Buddha, jewel beyond all price. Such is bodhichitta.

Let us grasp it firmly!

Since the boundless wisdom of the only guide of beings

Perfectly examined and perceived its priceless worth,

Those who wish to leave this state of wandering

Should hold well to this precious bodhichitta.

Through the cultivation of bodhichitta Mahayana buddhists seek to become mortal bodhisattvas and, in many Mahayana schools, continue on as supernatural bodhisattvas for eternity. In other schools, the supernatural or immortal aspects of being a bodhisattva are heavily de-emphasized or mostly ignored. Therefore, tremendous emphasis is placed on acting as a bodhisattva now and not at some future time. When one has experienced bodhichitta they aspire to cultivate the compassion of a bodhisattva. This is not unlike a Latter-day Saint or other Christian having gained a testimony of the Gospel developing a sincere desire to share this experience with others.

Shantideva describes his own personal devotion:

Thus, from this day forward I take refuge

In the Buddhas, guardians of beings,

Who labor to protect all wanderers,

Those mighty ones who scatter every fear.

And in the Dharma they have realized in their hearts,

Which drives away the terrors of saṃsāra,

And in all the host of Bodhisattvas

Likewise I will perfectly take refuge.

And then explains how this leads to a desire to help all beings:

Their enlightened attitude, an ocean of great good,

That seeks to place all beings in the state of bliss,

And every action for the benefit of beings:

Such is my delight and joy.

And so I join my hands and pray

The Buddhas who reside in every quarter:

Kindle now the Dharma’s light

For those who grope, bewildered, in the dark of pain!

Then makes clear that he, himself, desires to be a mortal vessel of compassion:

Through these actions now performed

And all the virtues I have gained,

May all the pain of every living being Be wholly scattered and destroyed

For all those ailing in the world,

Until their every sickness has been healed,

May I myself become for them

The doctor, nurse, the medicine itself.

Raining down a flood of food and drink,

May I dispel the ills of thirst and famine.

And in the aeons marked by scarcity and want,

May I myself appear as drink and sustenance.

For sentient beings, poor and destitute,

May I become a treasure ever-plentiful,

And lie before them closely in their reach,

A varied source of all that they might need.

My body, thus, and all my goods besides,

And all my merits gained and to be gained,

I give them all and do not count the cost,

To bring about the benefit of beings.

Nirvāṇa is attained by giving all,

Nirvāṇa is the object of my striving;

And all must be surrendered in a single instant,

Therefore it is best to give it all to others.

Postponing Heaven and Saving All Beings

I believe that Hatem’s conception of human messianicity may be expanded to include mortal humans acting for the salvation of others. More specifically that Mayahana and Mormon devotees do so as part of their spiritual practice and devotion. Hatem’s Postponing Heaven may just as easily have been titled Creating Heaven as both Mormons and Mahayana Buddhists work to improve conditions and alleviate suffering in the present, and not only as part of eschatological or soteriological expectations.

  1. I exclude Islam here simply because I am most familiar with these ideas as found within both Buddhism and Mormonism. ↩︎
  2. Dogen, Eihei. Shobogenzo: The Treasure House of the Eye of the True Teaching. Translated by O.B.C. Rev. Hubert Nearman. Mount Shasta: Shasta Abbey Press, 2007. ↩︎
  3. More information on supernatural Bodhisattvas may be found here: ↩︎
  4. 2004 October General Conference, Closing Remarks ↩︎
  5. Gospel Doctrine, 442. ↩︎
  6. Shantideva. The Way of the Bodhisattva; a Tranlslation of the Bodhicharayavatara. Translated by Padmakara Translation Group. Boston: Shambhala, 2011. ↩︎

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