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The Eternal Declaration

by Andrew Cohen

In the premodern era, especially in the east, it was believed that history moved in continuously recurring cycles. This idea is similar to what it would be like to be on a merry-go-round that turned round and round, eternally repeating the same process. For one who “awakened” in that context, the definition of salvation was obvious: to get off the merry-go-round of an endlessly repeating process in order to rest in the blissful peace and eternal freedom of nirvana—the formless unmanifest realm beyond time and space.

A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who compassionately refrains from entering nirvana until every other sentient being has been released from the endlessly repeating cycle of time. Traditionally, the bodhisattva declares, “I vow to liberate all sentient beings before myself. I refuse to enter into nirvana until all other sentient beings have entered before me.” The bodhisattva is a heroic figure because, for everyone else's sake, he or she is willing to remain in the world of time and space, in the manifest realm, for eternity.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, we know that history does not move in cycles but is a linear developmental process that began fourteen billion years ago with a burst of heat, light, and energy that, over time, gave rise to matter, then to life, and finally to our unique human capacity for self-reflective consciousness. And it is only in our highly developed capacity for consciousness that the very impulse that created us miraculously gains the means to know itself. Indeed, the process that began with a bang so long ago has just begun to awaken to itself through us. This is why the universe needs us to be here! In that light, the very definition of the bodhisattva vow needs to be updated so that it is in alignment with this emerging cosmic perspective. The universe needs enlightened souls more than ever because the future literally depends upon those sentient beings who are awakening to the evolutionary process as themselves.

Even the idea or concept of enlightenment—or nonduality—should be redefined. Spiritually, it just no longer makes sense that the ultimate goal of enlightenment is merely a release from the world process. Nor does it even make sense that enlightenment, as more evolved definitions tell us, means becoming one with the world and one with that formless unmanifest dimension that lies beyond it. Why? Because a new definition of enlightenment must express the dawning revelation that our conscious participation in the creation of the future has become essential to the unfolding of the cosmos—the shocking recognition that from now on, it really is up to us.

In the postmodern era, the mythical God has fallen out of the sky. And the yearning for heaven, nirvana, or final release is being replaced by a call from the Self to the awakening human for an unconditional willingness to be here, to help shepherd the universe into a glorious future. Enlightenment has always pointed toward a state of consciousness beyond ego. And true postmodern bodhisattvas are those shepherd-warriors who courageously die to themselves so that they will be able to bear the enormous burden of facing directly into the infinite future for us all. Who would dare to embrace a future without end for the sake of the universe itself? Who has the courage to imagine what it would be like to vow to live forever? Not my will, but thy will be done. I vow to live forever, to return again and again and again.


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This article is from
Our Immortality Issue


September–November 2005