Imagine leafing through a pamphlet or perhaps a monthly magazine and coming across a guide to good behavior with advice that included the following:
Put on an ever-smiling countenance.
Do not move furniture and chairs noisily.
Do not open doors with violence.
Take pleasure in the practice of humility.
Always strive to learn from everyone.
Speak with moderation, gently.
Express yourself with modesty.
For many contemporary Westerners the assumption that this advice was intended for women probably runs so deep as to go undetected. Maybe your imagination has already leaped ahead to the idea that this could be a list of idealized feminine virtues of the Victorian era; or a set of guidelines for prim boarding-school girls of the 1940s; or perhaps a compendium of traits that the feminists of the 1970s rejected in favor of male behavioral models. But in fact, these behaviors were extolled in The Way of the Bodhisattva, a seminal text by the great Buddhist sage Shantideva, and delivered to his fellow—all male—monastics at Nalanda University in eighth-century India.
Throughout Buddhist history the enlightened masters have advocated behavior—such as the quintessential bodhisattva ideal of putting others before oneself—that progressive women today can easily associate with a legacy of oppression. And yet, with the world in such perilous straits, and in light of recent patriarchal and god-sponsored warfare, these behavioral archetypes have ramifications that, like the teachings themselves, expand far beyond gender. Putting down the cultural baggage, however, is easier said than done.
A thirteenth-century Zen teaching points to how the mind variously refracts the same object, and offers us a way to approach this issue:
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