Stories of the bodhisattva are the stories of our journey toward authenticity and liberation. The Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) devoted countless lifetimes to bring to completion the qualities of the true human being. These qualities are the ten paramis or perfections: generosity, moral beauty and strength, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, lovingkindness and equanimity.
The Jataka tales, or birth stories, are a kaleidoscopic map of the gradual fulfillment of these paramis. Jatakas describe the hero’s journey of the bodhisattva through innumerable lifetimes toward spiritual maturation. Such “innumerable lifetimes” can be seen as a mythic space/time, not predicated on the rational mind, a place where characters like those in our own psyches reside: the shadowy ogre who is transformed by a brave teenage prince; the queen who must realize her true queen nature of caring and nurturing; the ascetic who is challenged by temptation.
I use at least one Jataka tale in nearly every dhamma talk I give. The Jataka tales humanize the teachings. There are many modern day Jataka heroes and heroines demonstrating for us the bodhisattva journey. One hero is Eddie Aikau, a legendary Hawaiian surfer and superlative waterman born in 1946. His ancestors voyaged to Hawaii from southern Polynesia 2000 years ago. A high school dropout, Eddie found his way as a big wave surfer and became the first lifeguard at Hawaii’s famed North Shore beaches, notably Waimea Bay, where some of the largest waves in the world are ridden. Visitors to Hawaii are often struck with wonder at seeing thousands of bumper stickers and T-shirts with the words: EDDIE WOULD GO. It’s simple. Eddie would take off on the largest waves ever ridden; and Eddie would save the lives of others. He danced with waves, merging with their power, gracefully, fearlessly. In these treacherous winter waters with mountain-size waves, lives are lost yearly. Yet no one ever drowned when Eddie was on guard. By some estimates, he saved over 1000 lives.
In 1978 Eddie was sailing on the traditionally-built double-hull voyaging canoe, the Hokule’a (guiding star), a prototype vessel of the early Polynesian voyages. The boat and crew of nine were sailing between Oahu and Molokai in one of the most treacherous stretches of ocean on the planet, Kaiwi Channel. They were preparing for a long journey to the South Pacific in commemoration, study and duplication of the earlier journeys over the past two thousand years. Suddenly they were hit at midnight with heavy weather, twelve-foot swells and gale-force winds. The Hokule’a took on water and flipped over. By late morning they were still adrift, out of air and shipping lanes, clinging to the overturned hulls, wet, cold and undiscovered. Eddie, tied to his favorite surfboard, took off toward Lanai, a small island twelve miles to the east, to seek help. It was just his way to risk his life for others. He was never seen again. For the last time, Eddie would go.