Bodhicitta is the jewel of Mahayana Buddhism. While the term is usually translated as “awakened mind,” my teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, has often referred to bodhicitta as “intelligent heart” in that both wisdom and compassion are equally necessary for spiritual growth to occur.
It is important to understand that bodhicitta is not some “thing” you either have or don’t have, or something that you need to acquire. It is a way of relating with mind and the world that is based on seeing the nature of things in an unconfused way. Its purpose is a test of what we can become—the greatest unfolding of our human potential.
Those who actively practice bodhicitta are bodhisattvas. I sometimes use the phrase “burning with love in a world we can’t fix” to remind myself of what being a bodhisattva actually means. Bodhicitta is often misunderstood to mean compassionate activity alone, but it is much more than that. Bodhicitta contains an aspect of wisdom through which we can address questions concerning the human condition, such as: What if I want to burn with love but my heart feels like a dry seed? What do I do when I feel overwhelmed by the suffering I see in the world? How can I make a difference in a world that doesn’t lend itself to being fixed in a determinate way?
Such questions can be explored through the traditional presentation of three interconnected parts that provide the infrastructure for awakening: aspirational bodhicitta, engaged bodhicitta, and absolute bodhicitta.
On the path of bodhicitta one holds an aspiration: “Beings are limitless, I vow to free them all.” This is a challenging statement. From the outset you are presented with a task that seems impossible to achieve. In addition, you may wonder what it means to “liberate” someone—doesn’t it sound a bit presumptuous? Furthermore, isn’t freedom something one must discover for oneself?
But if you sit with this aspiration for a while, you may discover that the vow to free limitless beings from their suffering asks you to do something unexpected, remarkable, and within your reach. It invites you to move outside the barriers of ordinary logic and enter into a unique way of seeing things.
In his famous text The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva explains that just as your limbs extend outward from the trunk of your own body, you can include all conscious creatures as extensions of your ever-expanding self. In other words, serving others doesn’t mean you have to give up self-care. In fact, you don’t have to get rid of your ego at all. All you have to do is make it big enough to include all beings in the realm of your care, and make them the recipient of the love and protection you usually reserve only for yourself.
In this spirit, try to frame the vow in this way: “Yes, beings are limitless and their suffering is limitless. I will therefore have to expand the realm of my care limitlessly in order to include them all.” A mind set on this aspiration transforms the vow to serve all beings into a living practice.
That practice, however, will take some training. After all, as much as it sounds meaningful and liberating to burn with love, your heart may often feel barren or indifferent. The path of aspirational bodhicitta provides the infrastructure that, when put into practice, creates the causes and conditions for natural compassion to release from within your being. I have found that this path comes alive in me when I make the significant shift away from the thought “I am suffering” to the recognition that “there is suffering.” This shift often takes place when I am able to bear witness—without judgment but with deep acceptance and humility—to how I contract into a puny, self-focused existence. Such witnessing can feel painful or harsh, but the transformation caused by recognizing the universal nature of suffering expands my mind and heart to include others and evokes tenderness, purpose, and warmth.
When such feelings break through the indifference, pain, and despair of a contracted heart, the transformation is immediate. In valuing the potency and sanity of such an experience, you may wonder: “Why not make that the focal point of my life?” You might decide to pursue the practice of aspirational bodhicitta by committing yourself to reciting the vow formally every day on the cushion. When that is not enough for you, you might also decide to structure your day in order to pause and remember the vow, even just for moments at a time. As the warmth of your aspiration continues to sustain you, your devotion to this way of being will naturally grow, bleeding into your ordinary life and changing the way you move about the world. It may be that one day, like the great bodhisattvas of the past and present, you will burn with this aspiration in such a way that it drives your every thought and deed.
As you begin to explore the bodhicitta vow, the longing to reach out to others will arise sometimes with the spirit of playfulness and sometimes with a sense of urgency, but always with a deep sense of care. This kind of responsiveness is not a matter of principle; it is a matter of the heart. You could call this feeling love, but love as an idea is already a bit formed. Responsiveness describes the step before ideas; it is natural, unconditional, and raw.
Engaged bodhicitta refers to this responsiveness as it manifests in the ways in which you navigate life and relationships. In the formal teachings on engaged bodhicitta, you find the six transcendent activities, or paramitas: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom. The first five paramitas are a list of suggested means to channel your aspirational bodhicitta into direct action. In engaging these paramitas you are presented with the creative aspect of bodhicitta—how you bring your actions together with your intentions to awaken through service. Such actions are predicated on the experiential insight that your own liberation is inextricably linked to others, and are driven by the question: “How can I serve?”
If someone were to fill with jewels
As many Buddha fields, as their are grains
Of sand in the Ganges,
To offer to the Protector of the World,
This gift would be surpassed by
The gift of folding one’s hands
And inclining one’s mind to enlightenment,
For such is limitless.
—Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment
As you begin to feel increasingly touched by your own longing to respond to others, service can gradually become the sole lens through which you focus your life, and you will begin to see opportunities to serve all around you. Responsiveness doesn’t have to be grand. You might ask if someone wants to “jump into” your lane during a busy time at the pool, or offer your seat to someone on the subway. People often feel stunned at the most simple gesture of care, and it can sustain them (and you) for the entire day. As you extend tenderness to others, you may also begin to recognize how it brings out tenderness in them. Life begins to look more like a mother gazing at her infant child with deep adoration. The child smiles back, which makes her heart even brighter, and the child responds with laughter. All of a sudden the world begins to look very different. You find that you no longer have to ask the question: “How can I bring dharma into my daily life?” Engaged bodhicitta is not about fixing the world. In fact, if we take a realistic look at the nature of life, we find that the world is not a resolvable place. I don’t mean to say that the world is broken, but that both the mind and the world are too lively and rambunctious for the likes of our ideals. And so we will never be able to bring the world to our notion of a static state of perfect equilibrium. This may challenge your ordinary sense of what it means to evolve. You may see evolution as things getting better in a linear way, but that’s not a realistic look at how things actually work. Yes, we may accomplish many extraordinary things in life: someone might invent a new vaccine or rocket off to the moon, or you might find an opportunity to help someone out of a sticky or dangerous situation—some real victories, in fact. But in the end we will all succumb to old age, sickness, and death, and the world itself will continue to express itself in ways that push against your preferences. This brings us to bodhicitta’s wisdom aspect.
Absolute bodhicitta refers to the sixth paramita of wisdom, which specifically means seeing the nature of reality without mistake. This isn’t something philosophical or highfalutin; it has to do with being realistic about the ways of the world and who you are in it.
At the dawn of the Buddha’s awakening he said something curious and potent. He said: “This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises; this not being, that becomes not; from the cessation of this, that ceases.” A simpler way to frame this is to say that everything arises, presents itself, and falls away due to infinite causes and conditions. In the sutras the Buddha used the analogy of two bundles of reeds leaning up against each other to illustrate that if one were to knock over one bundle, the other would, as a result, fall to the ground. Everything “stands” by virtue of something else. In essence, everything leans. This being, that becomes—and because this falls, that falls.
The Buddha referred to phenomena’s mutual dependency as pratityasamutpada: “dependent arising,” “the nature of contingency,” or “dependent origination,” among other translations.
At first glance, dependent arising sounds simple and obvious, but it has deep implications. The Buddha is saying that what you call “experience” or “life” is generated by the activity of causes and conditions—infinite elements bumping up against, interrupting, and influencing each other. If you were to explore dependent arising in a nuanced way, as is done in the Mahayana tradition of analytical meditation, you would find that there is no singular thing that is whole and not made of parts. You would also find that because everything shares a relationship of mutual dependency, inertia is not possible. It is because everything leans that movement, perception, and creative expression can even happen.
For a moment, try to imagine the world: perhaps you envision the earth as seen from space or recall images from the morning news. But you would be hard pressed to find “the” world, because “it” is not a singular, permanent, or independent “thing.” We all perceive life differently depending on our mood, physical constitution, cultural background, and beliefs. There are as many worldviews as living beings, but who could possibly verify if any one of them is “true”? Yes, you have views—everyone does—but life will always continue to burst from the seams of your ideas.
To the degree that you assume things exist as you think they do, you will also walk through life with less and less sense of wonder. In contemporary culture, capturing truth is paramount; we don’t put a lot of value in wonder and awe. You might appreciate those moments when you look up at the stars and feel amazed by the mystery of what might lie in such a vast expanse. But you might also think that the mind of humility and openness have little practical purpose amid the gritty realities of daily life where you have to make serious decisions to work and survive.
The teachings on absolute bodhicitta, however, suggest otherwise. Awe and humility actually provide a critical function when it comes to our own and others’ wellbeing. When you deprive your mind of curiosity and openness, even your noblest endeavors become militaristic and righteous.
Because we misunderstand the open-dimensional nature of contingent relationships, we at times try to fix the world. You might sweep into a situation in order to put things in order with a strong conviction that you know what’s going on and how you will change it. Perhaps you think you’ve got all the players pegged and already know what motivates them. But when all of your ideas congregate around the truth of your own hypothesis, it won’t even occur to you that someone may have something else to offer or that there is something you yourself can learn.
The flip side of thinking you can fix things reveals something altogether different. In your failed attempt to change a situation, you might fall into despair. Suddenly, the world and all its problems overwhelm you. You only see things in a singular way and feel doomed. In forgetting that life is far from singular, you will miss the beauty of an autumn leaf falling from a tree, or fail to notice someone courageously risking her life to help another. You will forget about the laughter that comes from seeing the irony of things and of the resilience of others despite their challenges of being alive. Absolute bodhicitta reminds us that the world is many things—as many things as you can possibly imagine it to be. The practice of absolute bodhicitta is to bear witness to this infinite complexity, and to allow the beauty, poignancy, and pain of it all to touch you.
Should bodhicitta come to birth
In those who suffer, chained in prisons of samsara,
In that instant they are called the children of the Blissful One,
Revered by all the world, by gods and humankind
For like the supreme substance of the alchemists,
It takes our impure flesh and makes of it
The body of a buddha, jewel beyond all price.
Such is bodhicitta. Let us grasp it firmly!
From The Way of the Bodhisattva, by Shantideva © 1997, 2006. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications (shambhala.com). Shantideva, the renowned 8th-century Indian Buddhist monk, taught at Nalanda monastery.
The practical nature of awe allows the mind to bear witness to the fathomless nature of contingency without shutting down around definitive conclusions. Such a mind is humble and curious, poised to recognize the nature of reality and protected from fundamentalism and doubt. You will recognize the practical nature of awe when despair becomes compassion; righteous indignation transforms into openness and humility; and the tendency to want to fix things turns into a natural, unhindered longing to respond.
Bodhicitta is the path of understanding who you are in the fathomless nature of infinite contingency, and then developing the skills to navigate this reality—your life—in a way that is awakening for both yourself and for others. If you understand that everything leans, you will also understand that everything you do matters. This is why the bodhisattva engages in a fierce commitment to serve others, by doing so emerging from the confusion of a separate, confined self.
So you might ask yourself, as a citizen of the great nature of infinite contingency, what might you do with your life? How can you utilize it in a meaningful way? How will you burn with love in this unfixable world?
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