The black oak is a bodhisattva

Ceanothus silk moth on the trunk of a California black oak tree

Simply by existing, it serves many others. For human beings, the work of the bodhisattva is a path of kindness, the choice to serve others as a way of life.

Image: “This black oak in the hills above Napa Valley serves the many beings that wander into its chamber in search of food and shelter.” (© Phil Schermeister/National Geographic Image Collection/Getty Images)

© Phil Schermeister/National Geographic Image Collection/Getty Images


Dark branches high in the bright sky, the craggy form of the black oak hangs over the wet Earth. Streaming strands of spider silk glint from every distant twig. In the hollows of the trunk, spongy moss and small colonies of ferns drip with spring rains. Beneath the large limbs the ground is richly littered with seasons of leaves. Crickets, stinkbugs, centipedes jump and crawl through the maze of crumbled bark and moldy loam. A varied thrush lifts silently into the canopy. A hummingbird darts from perch to perch, gleaning for insects.

This black oak in the hills above Napa Valley serves the many beings that wander into its chamber in search of food and shelter. Thousands upon thousands of beings—miniscule, mammalian, migratory, marauding. An endless stream of living beings hatching and mating, gobbling and being gobbled, wandering and getting lost—all in the generosity of this great black oak. One could say that the black oak is a bodhisattva, one who exists to serve all beings. Simply by existing, it serves many others. When it dies, it will continue to serve, offering its bark as a home for beetles, its fallen branches as shelves for fungi.

For human beings, the work of the bodhisattva is a path of kindness, the choice to serve others as a way of life, as a tribute to life. Think of the gardener patiently tending her seedlings, or the creek steward planting willow shoots to shore up an eroding bank. Each is moved by the desire to actively serve other beings in some meaningful and effective way.

The wish for enlightenment is founded in the understanding that all beings are dependent on each other, that none stands alone.

Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, describes bodhisattvas as those who have a spontaneous, sincere wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings. The Pali word bodhi means enlightenment; its original sense was to “fathom a depth,” “penetrate to the bottom.” Sattva is interpreted as “essence,” “nature,” “mind,” or “intelligence.” Thus a bodhisattva is one whose mind is fixed on enlightenment. Some translators evoke the active aspects of this endeavor, denoting sattva as “strength,” “energy,” “power,” or “courage.” The Tibetan word for bodhisattva, sems dpah, puts together sems or “mind-heart,” and dpah, “hero” or “strong person.” Thus, we have a sense of the bodhisattva as spiritual warrior, someone of strong mind-heart, passionately devoted to relieving suffering in all its forms.

Over and over in all cultures and religions, bodhisattvas have arisen to respond to the particular sufferings of the age. Saint Francis of Assisi, John Muir, Richard St. Barbe-Baker, Rachel Carson—each dedicated his or her lifework to saving the lives of birds, mountains, waterfalls, trees. In the current crisis of tremendous environmental loss, bodhisattvas are working tirelessly everywhere, doing what they can to halt destruction, restore damaged areas, and honor the gift of life.

The earliest form of the word bodhisattva appeared around 100 B.C.E. in the Indian Jataka tales, stories for encouraging moral behavior. As the stories go, long before the Buddha arrived in human form, he had practiced compassion and generosity for countless eons in many forms. Each tale demonstrates a stage of his development of virtue and wisdom power. In the Monkey King story, the chief monkey (and Buddha-to-be) lived with his troop of 80,000 monkeys by a great river in the shade of a wonderful tree where they ate of its delicious fruits. Fearful that the fruits would be coveted by villagers downstream, the chief had warned the monkeys not to drop a single fruit in the water. But one slipped out and drifted downstream where it caught the attention of the king. The king tasted the fruit and pronounced it divine. His longing to find the tasty fruit could not be contained. He summoned his men and sailed up the river toward the Himalayas. Seeing the tree and also the monkeys, he commanded the men to surround the tree. They prepared to shoot the monkeys so the men could have all the fruit. The chief of the monkeys sprang from the tree across the river, making a bridge of his back for all the monkeys to escape. But the last monkey stepped too heavily and broke the monkey chief’s back. Seeing what had happened, the king’s eyes filled with tears. The dying bodhisattva monkey spoke his last words, urging the king to rule his lands and people not with power but with love.

To become a bodhisattva, one cultivates the mind of bodhicitta, or the wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings. Citta in Sanskrit means “heart” or “essence”; Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche translates bodhicitta as “awakened heart.” Cultivating this wish for enlightenment on behalf of others means being willing to embrace one’s own suffering and the suffering of others. Some are awakened by seeing the devastation of a clearcut forest, others by sitting with a dying family member. The wish is aroused to relieve this suffering, to serve others who are suffering. Once this burning wish takes hold, it becomes a passionate flame lighting the way for others along the path.

In the classic eighth-century text A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Santideva lays out a step-by-step procedure for cultivating bodhisattva mind. First, he begins by paying homage and making offerings to the Buddhas and enlightened ones. Then, he humbly confesses his errors and rejoices in the merits of others. Finally, Santideva implores the awakened ones not to withdraw support as he surrenders to serve the needs of all beings:

May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road;
For those who wish to cross the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.
May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,
And a lamp for those who long for light;
For those who need a resting place, a bed;
For all who need a servant, may I be a slave.
May I be the wishing jewel, the vase of plenty,
Powerful mantras and great medicine.
May I be the wish-fulfilling tree,
And for every being, the abundant cow.
Thus, for every single thing that lives,
In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,
May I be their sustenance and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering.

The Dalai Lama says of bodhicitta, “it is a very good state of mind, imbued with wisdom, in which kindness is combined with the highest intelligence. It is something quite marvelous. This sort of goodness and kindness brings us peace immediately, so we are less narrow-minded and agitated. When we meet others, we do not feel claustrophobic and distant. On the contrary, we feel close to people. With a mind like this, we are never afraid, but strong and courageous.”

The wish for enlightenment is founded in the understanding that all beings are dependent on each other, that none stands alone. This law of co-dependent arising affirms that nothing is separate, that all things reveal each other. The wish for one’s own well-being becomes simultaneously the wish for the well-being of all others. Likewise, the suffering of all beings becomes one’s own suffering, calling forth a natural response of kindness. “We are lived by whom and whatever we take, by their teachings that guide us.”

Obstacles on the path

The bodhisattva path is fraught with spiritual challenge. A vow of kindness is not easy to maintain under the relentless assaults of modern-day life. Environmental studies students tell me how their concern for forests, for native peoples, for animals raised for food are often met with mockery and rejection by their peers. Their altruism is labeled as “soft-hearted,” “sentimental,” “unrealistic.” The students’ concerns are a challenge to the dominant culture that depends on seeing animals and plants as inferior objects for human use. To give one’s life to relieving environmental suffering can present a threat to those in power whose actions create such suffering.

Environmental conflicts often reflect a battle of values between the dominant group and the challenging group. Feminist philosopher Alison Jaggar points out that a key tactic in defending the dominant group’s values is to deliberately ostracize those who question them. First the emotional and moral responses are denied—“You’re being too sensitive. What are you talking about?” Then they are labeled as unacceptable—“Surely you can’t feel that way about an old tree?” Kindness for plants and animals comes to be labeled as a marginalized emotion, one that puts the compassionate response outside of mainstream culture.

Hatred itself is the enemy for the one on the bodhisattva path, for this poisonous mind state makes it impossible to genuinely practice kindness.

Other obstacles stem from distracting states of mind such as irritation and frustration that arise when our efforts are not fulfilled. Environmental legislation we’ve supported doesn’t pass; restoration plans are stalled by budget cuts; a big development goes up despite citizen objections. But anger is not a sustainable foundation for long-term environmental work, for it is based on adrenaline bursts that tire the body. Hatred itself is the enemy for the one on the bodhisattva path, for this poisonous mind state makes it impossible to genuinely practice kindness.

Laziness, too, can be an obstacle in the form of procrastination and denial or wasting time in meaningless or nonvirtuous activities. In Sanskrit the word for laziness is alassya, “not to make use of.” Time can be wasted in so many ways; each of us has evolved elaborate detours off the track of committed practice. It can seem too hard to face the realities of life and death and still keep practicing.

One can also be prone to underestimation and doubting one’s abilities to save all beings. What an immense challenge! Overwhelmed by scientific and political information, one can easily flounder in a sea of self-doubt. How can I possibly know enough to understand what is right in this long-term forest plan? Where can I find enough technical knowledge to speak to experts? Who is really in charge of the key policy decisions? The very nature of these complex problems is beyond the grasp of any one person. Without a strong team of collaborative partners, it is almost inevitable that one person will sink under the scale of effort required to act responsibly toward the environment.

Burnout is another obstacle in following the path of kindness. One works long hours giving total effort to a single project, and sooner or later the body rebels. If the project results in defeat or disappointment, waves of despair rise up again. Burnout comes from too much effort with strong attachment to the results. You work hard to elect an environmental candidate or pass a ballot measure and when the push is over, you are exhausted. There has not been enough time for kindness to oneself.

Antidotes to obstacles: Practicing kindness

How does the aspiring bodhisattva overcome these endless obstacles? The traditional metta or loving­kindness prayer can be a most useful antidote, encouraging oneself and others by prayers of well-wishing.

May I be free from danger
May I have mental happiness
May I have physical happiness
May I have ease of well-being.

The first wish—to be free of danger—is to ask for shelter, basic needs, and freedom from threats of dangerous weather, animals, or people. Only in relative safety can one relax enough to concentrate on lovingkindness for others. The second wish, for mental happiness, is accomplished by stabilizing the mind through developing shamatha or mental calm. Because the work of today’s world is so challenging, such mental calm is necessary for holding steady through the long, sustained effort. The prayer for physical happiness is just that—a desire for health, for vitality in the breath and body, for the capacity to be fully present and alive. This in itself is a source of pure joy, happiness, and gratitude. The last line, “May I have ease of well-being,” signifies the desire to be free of suffering, to be peaceful, to meet the world with equanimity.

Another antidote to paralyzing obstacles is the act of making an offering of our work, even as a daily practice. Santideva does this in a most elaborate way:

Whatever flowers and fruits there are
And whatever kinds of medicine,
Whatever jewels exist in the world
And whatever clean refreshing waters;

Likewise gem-encrusted mountains,
Forest groves, quiet and joyful places,
Heavenly trees bedecked with flowers
And trees with fruit-laden branches;

Fragrances of the celestial realms,
Incense, wishing trees, and jewel trees,
Uncultivated harvests, and all ornaments
That are worthy to be offered;

Lakes and pools adorned with lotuses
And the beautiful cry of wild geese,
Everything unowned
Within the limited spheres of space.

Creating these things in my mind I offer them
To the supreme beings, the Buddhas, as well as their Sons;
O Compassionate Ones, think kindly of me
And accept these offerings of mine.

The Dalai Lama explains:

When we talk about offerings that do not belong to anyone, such as all the beautiful landscapes in the world and all the different universes that have no owner, at first glance they may not seem to have anything to do with us. . . . The universe that we inhabit and our shared perception of it are the results of a common karma. Likewise, the places that we will experience in the future will be the outcome of what we share with the other beings living here. The actions of each of us, human or nonhuman, have contributed to the world in which we live. We all have a common responsibility for our world and are connected with everything in it. That is why we can make an offering of it.

Sometimes the most important step is to confess our part of the suffering, a form of repentance. This is an expression of our most deep and sincere regret for all our negative and ignorant actions. We cannot help that we are inescapably part of the interdependent web. We buy the food that has been shipped around the globe; we travel in airplanes and contribute to rising carbon emissions; we use computers made by women in Southeast Asia, straining over their microscopes. One can repent and express such regret without blaming oneself. It is impossible to live a perfect pure life; all of us carry the burden of the world’s shortcomings. In our regret, we accept the fullness of the suffering, even as we pledge the bodhisattva vow to continue to act with kindness toward all beings.

One who takes the bodhisattva vow is part of a very long lineage of compassionate Buddhas; for this company we can offer gratitude. Many before and around us have planted trees to stabilize the soil, carried injured birds to safety, or renounced meat eating to reduce killing. Encouraged by each other’s vows, we can keep going amidst the overwhelming conditions.

In the company of spiritual friends, we can help each other uphold our vows by offering compassion in the face of environmental suffering and working together to restore damaged areas.

Trungpa Rinpoche speaks of the Kingdom of Shambhala, a vision of an enlightened society of bodhisattvas extending compassion to all beings. The Shambhala bodhisattva of strong heart-mind refuses to give up on anyone or anything. Trungpa says, “Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. The genuine heart of sadness comes from feeling that your nonexistent heart is full. You would like to spill your heart’s blood, give your heart to others.” The spiritual warrior cultivates gentleness from experiencing the absence of doubt. This comes from trusting in the heart, trusting one’s self. The warrior renounces anything that is a barrier between self and others. Thus the heart of the bodhisattva opens with kindness, sharing the gifts of love in the genuine desire to relieve all suffering.

The pygmy owl calls from the great black oak in the early dawn light—oooh, oooh, oooh. It has returned as a gift to the canyon, a silver tongue of sound slipping through the gray fog. The quiet, gentle notes cleave the air like a mindfulness bell. Giving itself by existing, it receives the gifts of this place and passes the gift on to others—all one motion, arising spontaneously. The black oak shines with morning light, the air buzzes with the first hatch of spring insects. Wilson’s warblers slip through the branches calling across the canopy.

May you be happy
May you be peaceful
May you be filled with lovingkindness
May all beings be happy
May all beings be peaceful
May all beings be filled with lovingkindness

From Green Buddhism: Practice and Compassion­ate Action in Uncertain Times, © 2019 Stephanie Kaza. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boulder, Colorado.

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