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There is a destructive pattern of behaviour I’ve observed too often which, in an amateur psychological diagnosis, I have come to call the bodhisattva complex. I thought of this term as a friend of mine – a young medical resident – described the behaviours she observed among her fellow medical residents and doctors, who think nothing of working 24- or even 48-hour shifts in order to help people in their care. One wonders: what kind of patient wants to be treated by a man or woman who hasn’t slept in 48 hours?

When I refer to the bodhisattva complex, I do not mean that actual bodhisattvas – ideal Mahāyāna Buddhist beings – are psychologically unhealthy. Some might make that argument (Martha Nussbaum has done so, more or less), but I would not at all. Rather, the bodhisattva complex refers to something which I think is far more common than actual bodhisattvas: you suffer it if you believe you are a bodhisattva, but aren’t.

What do I mean by this? The most characteristic features of the bodhisattva is altruism – rather than seeking one’s own nirvana, as the earliest Buddhist texts advocate, one aims to seek the liberation of others. But that is not the only thing. Since the earliest texts advocating the bodhisattva path, like the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra, the bodhisattva was viewed as a largely independent being. He (in the earliest texts it is only a he, though this comes to change relatively soon) allows others to depend on him, but he does not depend on them.

The eighth chapter of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra is perhaps Śāntideva’s most renowned work, for its meditations on the equalization and exchange of self and other. What is less frequently discussed is the earlier portions of the chapter, in which the altruistic bodhisattva cultivates isolation. Śāntideva puts affection (sneha) in a category with craving (tṛṣṇā) as something that prevents one from renouncing the world. He tells his readers to “flee far from a fool”, to cultivate solitude – but to do this so that one may best benefit others. I argued in my dissertation that the bodhisattva’s aim is something quite similar, though not identical, to the Greek and Roman Stoics’ rejection of external goods: he rejects any dependence on possessions and on personal relationships. Like so many other Indian monks, the bodhisattva aims for complete independence from others; but he differs from those other monks in that he is fine with those others being dependent on him.

The difficulty with the bodhisattva’s goal, which I think Śāntideva and other classical writers understand, is that it is extraordinarily difficult to achieve. The fully realized bodhisattva is almost superhuman. Indeed, in Śāntideva’s writing he is actually superhuman, able to emit rays from his body that make the blind see, among many other miraculous super-powers. But such powers are not the point; one is not aiming for them so much as for a state far better than our normal, unsatisfactory, state of interdependence.

The thing is, Śāntideva recognizes that most people, including those who have taken the bodhisattva vow, are far, very far, from this goal. Śāntideva recognizes the basic lesson of chastened intellectualism: becoming the person one knows one should be is hard, really hard, and one doesn’t get there just by wishing for it or thinking about it. So starting bodhisattvas are dependent. Śāntideva spends significant time in his Śikṣāsamuccaya discussing the idea of the kalyāṇamitra: literally a “good friend”, and in his writing referring to a guru, a teacher who can help one on the path. One depends on one’s kalyāṇamitra but the dependence is not mutual. In the more famous Bodhicaryāvatāra, the available kalyāṇamitras seem to be the celestial bodhisattvas, godlike fully advanced beings to whom one pays homage.

And this is the part that those who suffer the bodhisattva complex do not get. Rather than trying to walk the path, they believe they have already arrived at the goal. They believe themselves to have no significant needs, to be simply available to help with the needs of others – tough enough to stay up 48 hours without significant ill effects, neglecting their own health while helping others out with whatever they need.

The problem seems to me exactly parallel to the problem of repressing and reducing anger. It is good to attempt to root out one’s anger – explore its roots to figure out how to get rid of it entirely. But that is a difficult task. And the problem is that too easily it can be confused with repressing anger – which in turn makes the anger worse, leading to passive aggression. Actually getting rid of your anger is not the same thing as pretending your anger isn’t there; indeed it’s almost the opposite.

I see the bodhisattva complex as being to neediness what passive aggression is to anger. It’s good to aim at at least a certain amount of independence from others and from the physical world – perhaps not as much as the bodhisattva’s, though that’s arguable. But what’s deadly is to assume that one has already done it, to pretend that one doesn’t have needs when one does. Then one weakens oneself and makes oneself less able to help others, going directly against one’s goal of being helpful, just as passive aggression goes against one’s goal of being less angry.

These could all be viewed as variants of the pre-trans fallacy, identified in earlier works of Ken Wilber. (In his recent work Wilber changes this to the “level-line fallacy”, a far less helpful concept.) That is, one confuses a low stage of personal development with a high stage because they both reject something in the middle. The passive aggressor rejects anger just like the one who successfully gets rid of anger, but the latter has a healthier mind than a normal angry person’s while the former’s is less so. And so the true bodhisattva and one mired in the bodhisattva complex both reject neediness – thus the name of the complex – but the bodhisattva has genuinely shed many needs, while the bodhisattva complex causes existing needs to be ignored.

In this light, in A Brief History of Everything, Wilber once claimed: “If you don’t befriend Freud, it will be harder to get to Buddha.” I think this is one of his wisest sayings – at least if we take “Freud” as a symbol for penetrating insight into one’s own unconscious mind, not necessarily the details of his theories. The rejection of need, of anger, of ego is a high-stakes game. If one does it successfully, one becomes a great person, a saint, one who has raised himself up far above the normal human state of existence. But it is far too easy to delude oneself into believing that one has accomplished this rejection when one hasn’t – and in so doing one lowers oneself down well below normal.