Updated: May 31
Dear Sensei - I used to be an Episcopalian before formally entering our Buddhist community by taking the Precepts. I was always confused by the word, saint. Are there Saints in Buddhism and what does that word really mean? Thank you, Allen.
Happy All Saints Day, Allen. That’s a really interesting question. Let’s define the term, Saint. The etymology of that word can be found in the old Indo- European language as the word Sant, which means “a person who is exemplifying truth.”
In the Latin it comes from the word Sanct, which means “holy” or “sanctified.”
In our current dualistic pop culture there is the concept of saints and sinners, which are polar opposites of each other. I always joke that in movies, the character named Tony is always portrayed as either a sinner or a saint! However, my take on this is very different and I don’t believe inconsistent with any wise meaning of the description. Let me explain.
To me, a saint is simply someone who has awakened to his True Self and is practicing embodying that realization uniquely through his Ego Self. So what does that mean exactly? Well, first of all doesn’t mean perfection, which is the most pernicious problem that human face. Wanting things, or people in this case, to be either/or, good or bad, is just not realistic. It causes a view that makes one feel hopeless by comparison and breeds self righteousness in folks who pretend to be perfect. It also degrades the Ego Self as something wicked to be ridiculed or destroyed rather than enjoyed.
A real saint is someone who has experienced great pain in life and sometimes is perceived as having been the giver and other times the receiver. A saint is someone who has struggled deeply and continues to practice daily with letting himself manifest as the incarnation of his true nature, a Buddha.
Let me give you some historic examples from hagiographic lore. The first is the Tibetan saint, Milarepa. He was famously known as a murderer before turning to the Dharma and becoming a highly accomplished Buddhist disciple. As the legend goes, when he was a young man, his familial inheritance was stolen. So he studied sorcery and unleashed a terrible and deadly revenge.
Later, in a period of dark depression and remorse for his actions, he confronted the Shadow of his psyche and began studying under the teacher, Marpa. It wasn’t an easy conversion. He struggled deeply with what he had done and wrestled with it for a long time before realizing his True Self. After that he became one of the greatest Dharma teachers and poets in Tibetan history. One of his greatest lines, and one that I personally hold to, is, “My religion is to live and die without regret.” His words are still inspiring to this day.
The other is one of my favorites, a Japanese saint known as Ikkyu. The illegitimate son of an emperor, he would go on to be ordained as a priest and become a great Dharma preacher, known for his rebellious streak and maverick ways of presenting the Word of Liberation. He would famously wear his priestly black robes on his frequent visits to local brothels and considered sex, when entered into with mindful playfulness, a sacrament and a fine way to enlightenment as any. One of my favorite poems of his goes like this,
The narrow path of asceticism is not for me:
My mind runs in the opposite direction.
It is easy to be glib about Zen
I’ll just keep my mouth shut
And rely on love play all the day long.
Ikkyu would go on to be lauded as one of Japan’s great artists and his works live on, liberating us from puritanical prudishness. Finally, there is the story of how the great Bodhisattva, Kanzeon, became incarnated as a beautiful prostitute. She would accept all clients and offer them them the compassionate action of sexuality to both release their lust and calm their minds. She would later die infamously in poverty and be buried like a common criminal by the roadside. Years later a particularly enlightened priest was drawn to her grave. There he bowed and made offerings of gratitude to her. When people saw this they were perplexed and shouted, “What are you doing? Don’t you know that she was a great sinner?” To that the priest replied, “You fools! You have no knowledge that this was the Buddha! The Buddha saw how lost you are and order to liberate all beings, humbled herself and transformed into a prostitute. If you don’t believe me, then open the grave and see for yourselves.” So they dug up her grave and opened her shabby coffin. The people stood back in amazement as a cloud of incense arose and lifted skyward like a floating heavenly blossom with the figure of Kanzeon on top. What remained inside were all the monies she had collected during her career. With this wealth the priest built a temple on that spot for all to worship and learn about the boundless compassion of the Buddha. These Saints and Bodhisattvas teach us to move beyond our dualistic judgments of self or other. They turn upside down the ignorant definitions of what is sacred and profane. Our sense of separation sanctified, they call us into the holiness of Oneness. We are all called to become Saints, to embody our Buddha Nature without judgement of self or other and to Live Fully , Love Freely and Give Completely. May it always be so. _/\_