I was compelled by the idea of the bodhisattva vow—this ancient, sacred contract to achieve enlightenment for the sake of liberating all sentient beings—being tied to something as base and primal as a one-night stand.

Of course, for the woman I was talking to, one-night stands were never what they seemed. Furtive trysts with men with ostentatious facial tattoos were always opportunities for sublime communion, for flowering open into the mystery at the end of the fists closed around rough hotel sheets or in the viscous flow of semen and pussy juices trickling down a body.

It reminded me of what the ancient Tantriks spoke about: We will find our nirvana in the places where most people have been scared away by the gatekeeper of shame.

Not that any of that is necessarily shameful, at least not in a conscious way. We split our lives along this Cartesian continuum of flesh and spirit, though, so even if we aren’t active believers in fleshly evil, that doesn’t mean that most of us are contemplating God in the throes of passion…although I think that’s what we should be doing.

For me, the bodhisattva vow is an opportunity to understand and integrate our basest instincts with our almost contradictory desire for liberation from all of it. It is wedding the wisdom of the dove with the knowledge of the serpent. It is saying hell yes to all of it: the flotsam and jetsam making up the cosmic particles of our souls, and the shit and piss and blood and snot making up the common ground of our animal selves.

And, of course, such a vow isn’t simply about assuming this on our own behalf, which is usually how I imagine my endeavors: as sole pursuits of a private passion, perhaps a passion whose pursuit has beneficial ripple effects for others but, all the same, one that is born from my own awareness of me as a separate self.

 A bodhisattva knows that all suffering is shared suffering. One of us cannot be free if the rest of us are in chains. I will stay behind and carry you when you are weak, sister. This is the general battle cry. Not one of defense and dispersion, but one of gathering…collecting the seeds and petals that make up the human collective and attempting to weave together a garland that reminds us of our indivisibility.

I don’t know that I want to be indivisible. I still find the notion of a separate self and a destiny all my own so appealing. I still experience myself as a quite disparate being, with my own wishes and beliefs and desires that seem to have nothing to do with the sullen-faced strangers I see on public transportation or at the grocery store. I don’t wish them harm, but why would I choose to be like Nicole? Why would I choose to offer them a dispensation of my elixir rather than keeping it all for myself?

It isn’t that others are not deserving of joy and liberation. They are. We all are, by virtue of being alive. It’s more that, while I understand the value of contributing to a collective liberation, I do not know at what cost that will come. Will I have to pour every last effort of mine into providing for others—for their bodily and spiritual needs? How is being a bodhisattva different from being a martyr to the bleakest of causes? I think I understand the difference intuitively, but I still know that it takes energy to change one’s focus such that you are beaming a soft and generous light upon others.

I am not a typically generous person. I often want to be alone. I wish that my mere presence could be a spotlight on infinity, but I have my own issues that keep me from shining that brightly. If I have not alchemized the majority of those minor and major traumas so that I can be a clear channel for diamond light, how can I truly take the vow to liberate all sentient beings? Would I be paying lip service to a grand spiritual idea instead of directly addressing the shortcomings that keep me from living that idea?

I’m Nirmala Nataraj, a New York–based writer, editor, book midwife, theater artist, and mythmaker.

As someone who has woven in and out of a number of different word realms—nonprofit communications, advertising, theatre, publishing, and community arts, to name a few—I know that liberation is possible through the stories we choose to tell. As a first-generation South Asian American, I myself exist in the liminal spaces between cultures, art forms, and languages—and it is this multiplicity of narratives that informs my personal and professional approach.

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