In The New Saints, I explore the tradition of the bodhisattva. I came to this topic during quarantine in 2020, right after Love and Rage was published. I found myself engaging with a lot of different people around social justice and movement work, particularly after the murder of George Floyd, where we saw a reigniting of the movement for Black lives. 

For the work that I wanted to do with that tradition, I started thinking about saints. I wanted to bring it back to a profound word that I think carries energy for many of us: saints, and how to become a new saint. 

Not the saints of old, not just the great bodhisattvas of Buddhist history, but the great saints across many traditions, which I explore in the book as well. To say, yes, this is one understanding of sainthood. But what does it mean to enter into a new sainthood?

In doing that, I decided to examine what the bodhisattva is actually doing. I came down to four qualities. These qualities introduce my understanding of what the new saint is. 

The four qualities of the New Saint are: (first) to give a shit, (second) to figure out our work, (third) to do that work, and (fourth) to keep returning to do the work. 

The First Quality of the New Saint: Giving a Shit (Awakened Care)

The first quality is giving a shit. That language is very evocative, “giving a shit.” What I’m really trying to communicate is that we have to care. That caring, that expression of compassion, means that we recognize suffering and we vow to end that suffering; the suffering of ourselves, the suffering of those around us. 

We disrupt and end the suffering of all beings, regardless of if we like them or not. This is an age of deepening our care, first for ourselves and then for others around us. And that care has to be awakened care. 

Awakened care is this coming together of not just compassion, but also joy, love, and clarity, which is what I call wisdom. Bringing all of these streams of ideas, practices, modalities, and states of mind together to awaken into this heightened care, for ourselves and for others around us. To not be afraid.

I think this awakened care is what helps us to cut through the fear that we have around really caring about the world. Many of us are afraid to deepen our care for the world, because we find it difficult to hold space for the violence, the trauma, and the despair that so many of us are moving through. 

Awakened care is something that protects us. It opens up space, it helps us to be with the things that scare us to death. It’s the awakened care, the daring, courageous expression of the New Saint.

I will pay attention. I will show up. I will listen. I will watch. I will witness. I will hold all this without reacting but just hold it, just be present. To experience what feels possible and appropriate.

I think this is the most important aspect of these New Saints qualities. We have to allow our hearts to break as we hold space for the world. 

The Second Quality of the New Saint: Figure Out Your Work

Moving to the second point: we figure out our work. We figure out what it is we should be doing to disrupt suffering in the world. It’s not enough just to care. After we start caring, after we start opening to the experiences of the world, then we have to say, what is my role in reducing the suffering of the world

We also ask ourselves, what is my role in reducing my suffering? This is the kind of dual practice we’re always having to engage in. This dual practice of being aware of my experience, and also putting my experience into community, or into conversation with the experience of the world or the collective. 

We have to allow our hearts to break as we hold space for the world. 

What is my work? If you are white-identified, for instance, I think your work is to dismantle and disrupt white supremacy as this construct, as this philosophy, as this identity location; to start figuring out who you are beyond this whiteness. Or to go back and figure out who you were before whiteness emerged as this expression of violence and subjugation of Black and brown communities and people. 

My work as a cisgender male is to go to my front line to disrupt the system of patriarchy which has taken deep root in my body, in my mind. That’s been a big part of my work. What is your work? 

As we’re deepening our own realization, at the same time, we begin to benefit others around us. But we can’t get there unless we’re doing the work that we need to do to get awakened, to get free from systems, from philosophies, from paradigms of violence. 

The Third Quality of the New Saint: Do Your Work

After you figure out your work, third, you do your work. You do your work. The second and third points seem very similar, but I want to emphasize doing. It’s easy to say, my work is to dismantle and disrupt white supremacy. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to do anything. 

When we move into this third quality of doing, that means we are in action. As we talk about compassion as well, compassion is only realized through action. We have to take everything from the concept or theory into application. 

The Fourth Quality of the New Saint: Keep Returning

When you start the work, you want to keep returning to do the work, which is the fourth expression of the New Saint. We keep returning. 

The bodhisattva keeps coming back. The bodhisattva keeps emanating back into samsara to be of benefit until we achieve complete enlightenment and expand into our Buddhahood. And even as Buddhas, we keep returning. 

Sometimes yes, you have to take a break. We have to figure out how to be sustainable in the work. Sometimes that breaking is what we can call self-care. We do that in order to experience restoration that helps us to return to the work. This isn’t about giving up, nor is it about self-indulgence. When we are engaged in self-indulgence, it means that we are taking a break from the work with no intention of returning. 

When I think about self-care, I often think about Audre Lorde, the great Black feminist writer, scholar, and thinker who talked about self-care as a kind of survival. She talks about it as political warfare. To survive, to be sustainable is this act of political warfare because systems of violence like patriarchy, racism, are designed to annihilate, to eliminate, to “other” people from who they really are. 

To disrupt those systems we survive and we experience sustainability by accessing and tuning into these profound acts of care. Care for ourselves, and care for others. Because these systems deplete us, and in order to get freed from suffering, in order to return to our enlightened nature, we have to be resourced, not depleted. Awakening is about fullness, it’s about expansion. 

The root of that is profound libratory love. Love is what begins to heal us, to bring us back together into wholeness. Then from that wholeness, we expand into our true nature again. 

The article was adapted from a dharma talk given in April 2024 by Lama Rod Owens titled, “Becoming a New Saint.”

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .