How to Overcome Difficulties
Without the experience of enlightenment, how can aspirants in the Mahayana tradition, meaning bodhisattvas, rise to the seemingly impossible task of helping all sentient beings to become enlightened? How can practitioners on the bodhisattva path truly help others attain enlightenment when they themselves have not done so? Daunted by such questions, many practitioners place exclusive emphasis on cultivating faith in and devotion to the Buddha, while others focus solely on striving to realize emptiness, wishing to escape from the toil and travail of life.
Such responses are understandable, as we are all only human. If we do not know how to swim, how are we going to save others from drowning? And if, at last, we have learned how to swim, and managed to get ourselves safely to the shore, why jump back into the roaring waters and risk our lives to save others? This attitude had led some practitioners to strive hurriedly to liberate themselves from suffering. Alienated from the sentient world, these people seek only to remove themselves from the ocean of cyclic existence. It becomes extremely difficult and takes an incalculably long time for them to generate the bodhi-mind.
In fact, in order to save people from drowning, one should not leave the water and seek safety on shore. And if we do not know how to swim, then the only place to learn is in the water, whether we like it or not. Likewise, the bodhisattva path must be practiced in the midst of suffering, in the whirlpool of cyclic existence. However, to keep our head above water, we need strength and skill, as we cannot rely on the power of Buddhas, or wait to become completely enlightened. Discernment, unshakable faith and vows, constant cultivation of love and compassion, and a penetrating insight into the nature of emptiness are four things we can bank on. Maintaining a balance in these four areas will safeguard and sustain us in times of difficulty. Eventually, it will subdue our vexations and afflictive emotions, leading us to the realization of emptiness, to the understanding of the interrelatedness of all beings and all conditions. To find the path and to tread firmly along it, we must undertake and commit to the bodhisattva precepts. This is the first step we should take to establish and maintain ourselves on a definite course that leads toward Buddhahood.