This bodhisattva appeared in the Lotus Sutra Chapter 20 and I had the great opportunity to research this topic because of a comment left on the YouTube channel @lifeexpeditionprogram.
One of the viewers raised a question about Sadāparibhūta Bodhisattva.
The name, Sadāparibhūta means Never Despising and it was actually a nickname meant to mock the Bodhisattva. In the story, this bodhisattva would approach people and say “I do not despise you. You are not despised, for you all perform bodhisattva practice and you are to become buddhas.” The people that he approached were deeply offended and started to abuse him. And even when abused, he continued with the same proclamation. Consequently, people would call out “Never Despising” is coming our way. Until here, there are already a few major points to discuss.
Foremost in my mind was; “Why would anyone be offended by such a positive encouragement?”
Then it occurred to me. What if someone were to approach you in Starbucks and he said “I don’t find you funny, I am not laughing at you, you are doing a great job at trying to SLIM DOWN AND LOSE SOME WEIGHT! One day, you will become pretty.”
I think some people would be offended by this “positive message” right? Similarly many people were offended by Sadāparibhūta. Some even abused him. And guess what? Sadāparibhūta did not back off. He actually ran away but continue to proclaim what he said in a louder voice!
What a provocative personality Huh? By the way, Sadāparibhūta was one of the previous lives of Shakyamuni Buddha.
Next, let’s examine Sadāparibhūta’s proclamation. Are there any truths in it?
I think it demonstrated Sadāparibhūta’s faith in the Triple Gems. He sincerely believed that anyone who practiced the Buddha’s teachings will ultimately gain enlightenment. If not in this very life, then in future lifetimes. I think that is a very firm conviction that is charged with the right zeal.
Therefore, Sadāparibhūta was unabashed in proclaiming his conviction even though the response was hostile. In a way, it was courageous of him to share his message amidst hostility. More importantly, we can learn the following from him.
- He practiced humility and regarded everyone as a potential Buddha-to-be. Thus, he expressed respect and paid homage to everyone he met.
- He did not bore resentment or became angry with those who were hostile towards him
- He did not give up sharing his messages when he met challenges and difficulties
In some Chinese commentary or modern translations, various authors translated the aforesaid point number one as meaning that Sadāparibhūta bowed or make prostration to people as his spiritual practice.
However, we would know that sounds weird. This is because the Buddha had on numerous occasions critique certain religious actions as completely irrelevant to gaining spiritual evolution. For example; He said bathing in holy rivers will not wash away sins. Therefore, it is highly improbable that Buddha would recommend bowing and prostration as contributing factors for attaining enlightenment.
With that doubt in mind, it spurred our interest to refer to a few texts for an answer. The Chinese chanting text only recorded a short verse that should be translated into “expressing respect” or paying homage. It did not specifically state bowing and prostration. Similarly a translation from the Tibetan text into English also had the same conclusion.
Therefore, the practice of Sadāparibhūta Bodhisattva hinges upon humbleness in his mind and regarding everyone with respect. It is not about bowing and prostration.
The current practice of bowing and prostration is closely influenced by the Indian custom of expressing devotion and respect. Traditionally, one would touch his/her forehead to the feet of someone whom they honour and respect. Thus, a student would prostrate to his teacher and a child would prostrate to his/her parents.
But we need to also know that that custom was only around for 3,000 years at most?
Sadāparibhūta was a figure that lived way before our current human civilization. According to Buddhist beliefs, this human civilisation that we experience today is just one of the many that had existed. It’s a bit like science fiction but we believed that there were other civilizations before our current time. Those civilizations were erased by calamities and each time, human civilization would re-start. In some of those ancient past civilization, a Buddha would also appeared to teach the Dharma.
So the point we want to make is that, the manner in which Sadāparibhūta expressed his respect may not be bowing or prostration. In those times, aeons ago, mankind could have a different civilization with different customs. Therefore, the crux of Sadāparibhūta’s story is not about the importance of bowing and prostrating, but more about developing positive traits in our minds. (MAYBE humans in that civilization stuck their tongues out as a way to express respect?)
Having said all that, I am not against any customs or any manner of expressing humility and devotion. Prostrations can be a beneficial practice for subduing our ego. It can help train our minds and lead us to be humble people.
On the other hand, it can also be a source of ego. For example, some people became proud that they had prostrated 100,000 times. That sense of achievement can become a challenge for further spiritual advancement because it inevitably creates pride in our minds. In that manner, instead of ridding oneself of ego, we become egoistic instead.
May all be well and happy.
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