Every mystical tradition has one or more ways to transform emotional energy into attention. The most common method is devotion, which plays a central role in traditions as diverse as Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Pure Land Buddhism, and Vajrayana Buddhism. In many of the Theravada traditions of Southeast Asia, lovingkindness is used to generate the emotional energy needed to power attention. Likewise, in many of the Mahayana traditions, compassion is the emotion of choice.


One of the two major traditions of Buddhism, now practiced in a variety of forms especially in China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea. It emerged around the 1st century CE. It is typically concerned with other-oriented spiritual practice as embodied in the ideal of the bodhisattva.

In Mahayana practice, compassion is both a practice and a result. Compassion is used to transform emotional reactivity into attention, and that attention in turn is used to awaken to the nature of mind—emptiness. But then that same emptiness becomes the basis for a different kind of compassion. This interweaving of emptiness and compassion is expressed in the Sanskrit word bodhicitta, for which an accepted and widely used English translation is “awakening mind.”

The role of compassion in Mahayana practice has led to more than a few misunderstandings in today’s world. In many traditions compassion is the stepping-stone into bodhicitta (awakening mind), the central theme of Mahayana. Many people regard bodhicitta as simply a form of altruism. (It is that, but also much more.) Others are of the opinion that the practice of compassion is primarily about doing good in the world, and that the ethics of bodhicitta require engagement with social or environmental issues and the advancement of specific social and cultural agendas, including identity politics, diversity, and related matters.

This social and political orientation is very much at odds with my own training in the Tibetan tradition. None of my teachers ever presented bodhicitta as a method or basis for social action, let alone political advocacy. Quite the contrary; they presented it as a way to make use of whatever we encounter in life to deepen or enhance our experience of awakening. The awakening they taught led to an essentially mystical relationship with life—a way of experiencing life directly, unmediated by the conceptual mind, a way of life based on the union of compassion and emptiness. What one actually did with one’s life was left open.

If compassion is the wish that others not suffer, one approach, certainly, is to address material and emotional needs—struggles with poverty, hunger, illness, and fear in all of their innumerable combinations, as well as the many ways in which people are treated as less than human. This form of compassion seeks to alleviate suffering and pain as much as possible and takes expression in society as kindness, care, and justice.

To bring an actual end to suffering is another matter entirely. Suffering comes to an end only when a person is so in touch with life that he or she is completely at peace, regardless of physical or emotional circumstances. The wish to help others find that kind of peace is a very different form of compassion.

Bodhicitta evolves out of this second kind of compassion. Bodhicitta, as awakening mind, is the intention to awaken to life in order to help others awaken to life. It is not simply a feeling or an emotion or a sentiment. It has a vertical dimension that runs at right angles to our social conditioning and embraces a knowing, a seeing, into the nature of experience itself. It may grow out of the compassion that seeks to alleviate suffering, but it is qualitatively different.

Bodhicitta permeates every aspect of Mahayana teaching and practice. Broadly speaking, it is a quality (many might say it is the quality) that moves us in the direction of awakening. But what is it?

For some teachers bodhicitta is an intention. The 4th-century Indian master Asanga regarded it as the intention to wake up in order to free all beings from samsara. Here, samsara means the way that we experience life when we are confused by emotional reactions and blinded by a lack of experiential understanding of what we are. For other teachers, such as the 8th-century scholar-monk Shantideva, it is primarily a commitment to engage in the practice of awakening, which is actively motivated by the wish to help others be free. For yet others, it is the experience of awakening itself—those moments when we experience a unity of compassion and emptiness that goes beyond any conceptual understanding. In such moments, emotional reactivity and ignorance relinquish their hold on us, and our relationship with life fundamentally and irrevocably changes. And for still others, notably the 14th-century Tibetan master Longchenpa, it is freedom from the confusion of blindness and reactivity—a freedom in which all choice disappears and we simply respond to the struggles and needs of others according to the circumstances of our lives.

Bodhicitta has been the subject of many large and weighty tomes. The Four Great Vows in the Zen tradition provide a wonderfully succinct, pragmatic, and profound articulation of bodhicitta:

Beings are numberless: may I free them all.
Reactions are endless: may I release them all.
Doors to experience are infinite: may I enter them all.
Ways of awakening are limitless: may I know them all.

The first of the four vows says Beings are numberless: may I free them all. It speaks to a heartfelt wish that others not suffer. In the practice of bodhicitta, we actively cultivate a wish that others be free of pain and struggle. As an example of such a wish, consider the 19th-century Tibetan master Jamgon Kongtrul the Great. Kongtrul himself was an extraordinarily humble person who devoted his life to practice and teaching. Nevertheless, he was so highly regarded that in the reincarnation tradition of Tibetan Buddhism he was regarded as a bodhisattva who would become the thousandth buddha of this age (Buddha Shakyamuni is said to be the fourth). Legend has it that the intention of the thousandth buddha is to do for sentient beings as much as all the previous 999 buddhas have done. Now that is a big wish! Its time frame alone boggles the imagination.

You might pause here and take a few moments to formulate a comparable wish. Make it big—really big. Make it as big as you can possibly imagine, and then push it a bit further. Do not worry about whether it is practical or even possible. When you have it, hold it in your heart for a few minutes. If you experience a shift, just rest there for a few minutes and consider what it would be like to live your life from that shift. From the perspective of bodhicitta practice, that shift is everything.

We soon find out that helping others to find peace in themselves is far from easy. We quickly discover that far from being able to help others, we are locked up in our own worlds of emotional reaction—the fiery hells and icy wastes of anger and hate, the barren deserts of greed where nothing is ever enough, the never-ending rat race of envy and competition, and so on. Our whole life consists of flitting from one such world to another. No matter where we land, we do not see things clearly and we are unable to provide any meaningful help to others. Thus the second of the great vows is Reactions are endless: may I release them all.

In today’s world, where we have been brought up in the myth that we can actually control our lives and control what we experience, it is important to remember that we cannot and do not actually release emotional reactions. All we can do is create the conditions in which emotional reactions let go on their own. Those conditions are a generosity of spirit; as much honesty with ourselves as we can muster; patience to endure our own confusion; steady and consistent effort; an ability to rest in attention without distraction; and a knowing that enables us to see through our own confusion. These qualities are known in Mahayana teachings as the six perfections—generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, meditative stability and wisdom. They create the conditions that make it possible for us to experience emotional reactions in open attention without succumbing to, suppressing, or controlling them. Then, as the texts say, emotional reactions arise and subside on their own, like clouds in the sky.

Man parting curtain to reveal a winding road behind it.
Illustration by Irene Rinaldi
If a bodhisattva should practice generosity while still depending on form, he or she is like someone walking in the dark. He or she will not see anything. But when a bodhisattva practices generosity without depending on form, he or she is like someone with good eyesight walking in the bright sunshine—he or she can see all shapes and colors.
—The Diamond Sutra

Here bodhicitta changes from a wish to a commitment: we are going to use whatever life throws at us to wake up. We may engage in political or social action if we feel called to do so, but our intention is subtly different. We use those settings or whatever our situation is in life to see our own emotional reactivity and work through it as best we can. The main point is that with the commitment of bodhicitta we no longer have the luxury of indulging our own confusion and reactivity.

You may notice that this way of approaching life does not necessarily make life better. In fact, often it makes things more difficult, precisely because we cannot indulge our reactivity. We cannot ignore or avoid the pain and struggles of others, whether the other is a surly store clerk or a difficult boss or a homeless person on the street. You may also begin to appreciate that bodhicitta is not a sort of super-altruism or compassion. Rather, it is a practice that changes how we experience life itself. Conventional notions of happiness, gain, fame, and respect begin to lose their hold, and we come to value peace, equanimity, and compassion as qualities worth striving for in their own right.

We make good on our commitment to awakening not by doing good but by using whatever arises in our lives to wake up. To do so, we have to let go of our emotional reactions, again and again and again. Every reaction that does let go opens a door to a different way of experiencing life, and that brings us to the third vow: Doors to experience are infinite: may I enter them all.

This line in Japanese contains a double entendre that is difficult to replicate in English. The phrase “doors to experience” also means “doors to the dharma,” as the word dharma means both what arises in experience and spiritual teaching.

An example of one such door is found at the beginning of The Diamond Sutra. The Buddha returns from his daily rounds begging for food in the town of Shravasti. He sits down and takes his meal. He then puts away his bowl and folds his robes. Subhuti is so awed by the naturalness of these simple actions that he is moved to ask the Buddha, “How does a bodhisattva sit? How does a bodhisattva act? How does a bodhisattva take hold of mind?”

The Buddha begins his response with the last question. In the third chapter of The Diamond Sutra he says, essentially, “To take hold of mind, a bodhisattva sets the intention to lead every being into nirvana—wherever they may be, however they have come into this world, however mundane or transcendent their experience. And in doing so, the bodhisattva knows that no being is freed.”

The first time I read this passage, everything just stopped. Thoughts vanished. My mind was completely clear, and at the same time there was nothing there. “Oh,” I said to myself, “that is how you take hold of mind!” Many of the sutras are to be read this way, not as philosophical teachings but as elicitations of specific experiences.

How is it that no being is freed? As the Buddha goes on to say in the sutra, no being is freed because in the moment of taking hold of mind, there is no perception of an other, no perception of a being, a soul, a life, or a person.

When something like this happens, we drop to our knees in awe that such an experience is humanly possible. We had no idea that we were capable of feeling such far-reaching care and compassion while experiencing such depth of peace and presence. Shantideva’s magnificent work The Way of the Bodhisattva arose out of the wonder and awe he felt when he discovered this possibility. This is bodhicitta, or awakening mind. Small wonder, then, that we feel we have discovered something profoundly, ultimately, and absolutely true.

Right there is where the notion of ultimate or absolute truth is born. The term “absolute truth” does not refer to a truth in the sense of philosophical, mathematical, or scientific truth. It is truth more in the sense of a poem that rings true or a sword that cuts true. It is experientially true in a way that goes right to the core of our being and beyond. By contrast, everything else seems superficial, misleading, and mundane, and is seen as “relative truth.” In short, the two truths of Mahayana Buddhism are not truths as such, but descriptions of how we experience life when the conceptual mind lets go.

This contrast is well described by a poem in the anonymously published collection Full On Arrival:

Until we experience it,
Emptiness sounds so
Once experienced,
All is empty by comparison.

This is one example of a door to experience, or a door to the dharma. The irony is that every emotional reaction is also a door to this way of experiencing life. We can use our commitment to bodhicitta to meet any emotional reaction, open to it, see what it is, and let it release on its own. When we do these steps, we usually experience a shift. That shift is a glimpse of a different way of experiencing life, a way that does not depend on the conceptual mind, a way in which words, thoughts, and emotional reactions have no hold. Bodhicitta here is not a wish. Nor is it an ongoing commitment. It is an experience of awakening. In any such glimpse of bodhicitta, you immediately recognize the two themes of Mahayana Buddhism, emptiness and compassion. On the one hand, when the mind stops, there is nothing there, just the peace of empty clarity. On the other, in that peace you are intensely and deeply aware of the pain of the world, and compassion naturally arises.

Now we move into the realm of the fourth vow: Ways of awakening are limitless: may I know them all. As we go through these doors again and again, our efforts build momentum. The inexpressible peace and freedom we experience when emotional reactions let go begins to pervade our life. Probably the most eloquent description of bodhicitta at this level is found in Longchenpa’s important work The Basic Space of Phenomena [Tib., chos dbyings mdzod]. In this truly epic work, Longchenpa sees awakening mind as the basis of life:

Awakening mind is the basis of all experience.
It is unrestricted, arising as anything whatsoever.
Its natural clarity shines in the vastness of pure experience:
Nothing whatsoever to identify, it is just the way unfettered awareness carries itself.

Longchenpa presents awakening mind as the constant unfolding of awareness or experience in an inconceivable vastness that can only be described as unrestricted empty clarity. This is a deeply mystical knowing, and at this point there is virtually nothing left of us. We are free. But what form does this freedom take?

We have all the freedom of the sun: we radiate light and warmth to the world without any thought of who deserves to be nurtured and who does not. We have all the freedom of the rain: we provide the moisture of understanding and everyone partakes of it, regardless of how they live their lives. We have all the freedom of the wind, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, touching every form of life with the breath of life. We have all the freedom of the earth: we provide support and nourishment for all who live and breathe in the world without any say as to what they do with their lives. Such thoughts never arise. Instead, we are completely and utterly at peace, and at the same time we respond naturally and spontaneously to the pains of the world and the needs of others.

Three Kinds of Bodhicitta

Compassion, the wish that others not suffer, arises in different ways. One is the simple, straightforward feeling that comes quite naturally when we see others struggling. We just want them to be at peace. A second is when we have come to terms with an aspect of life that everyone finds difficult—aging and mortality, for instance. In coming to terms with our own mortality, we see that we are all in the same boat, so to speak, and, again, we naturally feel compassion for others struggling with the same issue. Compassion arises in yet a third way when we come to know experientially that the sense of “I” we hold so dear is simply a movement of mind—there really is nothing there. Then we see that others are not different from us and their struggles are no different from ours.

In classical Indian Buddhism, the first way, the straightforward wish, leads to king- or queen-like bodhicitta. It is a wish to help others, a wish we realize through the power of our own virtue and understanding. The understanding and acceptance of mortality gives rise to boatman-like bodhicitta, helping others to accept this experience we call life just as it is and to be free and at peace with it. The third kind of compassion, the direct knowing of non-self, gives rise to shepherd-like bodhicitta. Here there is no comparison, not even the conceit of equality—just the intention to guide others as best we can to the peace and understanding of freedom, with little, if any, concern for ourselves.

Understand there are three kinds of persons
Because of their small, middling, and supreme capacities.
I shall write clearly distinguishing
Their individual characteristics.
Know that those who by whatever means
Seek for themselves no more
Than the pleasures of cyclic existence
Are persons of the least capacity.
Those who seek peace for themselves alone,
Turning away from worldly pleasures
And avoiding destructive actions
Are said to be of middling capacity.
Those who, through their personal suffering,
Truly want to end completely
All the suffering of others
Are persons of supreme capacity.

From Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, by Atisha Dipamkara with commentary by Geshe Sonam Rinchen, translated by Ruth Sonam © 1997. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications (shambhala.com). Atisha Dipamkara (982–1054 CE) was a Bengali Buddhist master and major figure in the spread of Mahayana Buddhism in Asia.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .