In Sanskrit, the term bodhi refers to awakening, the recognition and actualization of our mind’s true reality, and citta to mind. More precisely, citta refers to the state of mind that corresponds to being awakened or that leads to it. Thus, bodhicitta, generally translated as the wish for or spirit of awakening, refers to a state of mind that corresponds to being awakened or that leads to it. It is the intention to attain perfect awakening for the sake of all beings—in essence, the union of great compassion and the realization of emptiness (wisdom).
According to Mahayana teachings, without this altruistic state of mind that characterizes a bodhisattva (one who has developed bodhicitta), you cannot attain the most perfect and ultimate awakening of the Buddha. Perfect and ultimate awakening is neither nirvana alone nor a person’s attainment of freedom from rebirth within conditioned existence (samsara). Rather, it is an unsurpassable state that encompasses both nirvana and samsara and that also beneficially affects all other beings.
This special awakening is what the bodhisattva strives to attain, deliberately choosing through his great compassion to remain in samsara and to renounce gaining salvation for himself alone. In other words, an aspiring bodhisattva wishes for awakening only as a means to bring about the positive welfare of other beings. Because of his love and compassion for all beings, the bodhisattva is never deterred by the suffering of samsara or any hardship that his altruistic efforts may entail. Fearless courage, therefore, particularly distinguishes a bodhisattva and is implicit in bodhicitta.
Mahayana scriptures distinguish different aspects of bodhicitta relative to the practitioner’s advancement on the path. One important distinction is that of ultimate and relative bodhicitta. Traditionally, the process toward awakening is commonly divided into five paths or stages. It is at the third stage, called the path of seeing, that awakening, although not perfected yet, is for the very first time actually experienced in meditation. At this point the meditator, through clear discernment sustained by meditative concentration, sees reality as it ultimately is, directly perceiving the emptiness of all phenomena. Ultimate bodhicitta corresponds to this realization when the mind, free from the reification of “I” and “others,” is able to express true selfless compassion. Both wisdom and compassion are unified at this point.
Relative bodhicitta, on the other hand, is what you can develop as an ordinary being within samsara, within a mind frame that still assumes the substantial existence of “I” and “others.” This initial bodhicitta involves the wish and the commitment to attain awakening for the benefit of all beings. In his work the Bodhicaryavatara (“Introduction to the Practice of Awakening”), the 8th-century monk Shantideva explains the two related aspects of wish and commitment:
Bodhicitta, the awakened mind,
Is known, in brief, to have two aspects:
First, aspiring, bodhicitta in intention;
Then, practical engagement, bodhicitta in action. (1.15)
They correspond to the wish to go
And, then, to the act of setting out.
The wise should understand
The difference that divides the two. (1.16)
(All translations by Karma Trinlay Rinpoche)
The motivation or altruistic wish to help all sentient beings is bodhicitta in intention. It precedes and accompanies bodhicitta in action, which is the actual process of making that wish come true through commitment to the bodhisattva precepts and the progressive practice of the six perfections (paramitas) that benefit both oneself and others: benevolent generosity, ethical discipline, forbearing patience, enthusiastic perseverance, concentrative meditation, and discerning wisdom.
You might wonder: Why should I try to develop bodhicitta for the benefit of others and not just try to free myself from samsara? Isn’t that hard enough? The Buddha widely taught the importance of cultivating love and compassion. He is believed, however, to have explained the bodhisattva path only to certain disciples because the altruistic dedication it demands would have turned many away, making those who were fearful of samsara and lacking courage feel that awakening was impossible for them to attain. The Buddha, therefore, skillfully taught other indirect paths. According to the scriptures, the mere inclination to generate bodhicitta thus shows a certain degree of spiritual evolution and maturity.
To answer the question above, then, you would develop bodhicitta because you are inclined to do so because of affection and compassion for all sentient beings. This noble aspiration is sufficient reason in itself. But this altruism is not just for others—it also brings about benefits for you. Bodhicitta is the quickest and most direct way to ultimate awakening, the complete actualization of a person’s potential. In addition, it brings about great benefits from the very moment it is generated and thus is a kind of immediate salvation in itself. As Shantideva says:
Those who wish to crush the many sorrows of existence,
Who wish to quell the pain of living beings,
Who wish to experience a myriad of joys
Should never turn away from bodhicitta. (1.8)
The implicit claim here is that all happiness comes from altruism and all suffering from selfishness. Altruistic attitudes and bodhicitta, their greatest expression, bring such benefits because they are related to the true nature of our mind, whereas selfishness does not because it is the expression of an illusion. To understand this, one must see that the mind is not the ego. Both rational analysis and direct observation can demonstrate this fact.
Starting at an unconscious level, our mind mistakenly conceives of itself as the “I” or what belongs to the “I,” which in this case is perceived as somewhat independent of the mind and body. Because of this ego the mind cultivates selfishness. In reality, however, this ego has no substance. It is but a concept of the existence of something that actually has no corresponding objective reality. If we carefully analyze our body and mind, we will never find in them anything that corresponds to the ego—ego really is an illusion. Being selfish, then, is merely enacting an illusion, not being what we truly are, which is awakened, a buddha.
The sources of all our problems—our afflictions like hatred, attachment, and fear, as well as their consequences, such as conditioned existence and suffering—all stem from ego. Though our mind is entangled and confused by this presumption of the “I” and expresses selfishness, it nonetheless always retains an innately pure and selfless quality. All sentient beings express it to a certain degree. Our illusion of ego clouds this quality but can never fully eradicate it, because it is the actual nature of our mind.
Sentient beings’ natural, spontaneous expression of affection and compassion proves the presence of this innate quality. All beings without exception express this inherent selflessness, although it is expressed in most cases only to a limited degree. You might expect a cruel being to always work in his own interest. But even dangerous predators sometimes express kindness toward certain people—toward their children, for example, or toward another treasured family member. At times this kindness is offered even to the extent of self-sacrifice. So even the cruelest and most selfish of beings have the capacity to be gentle and altruistic.
If ego or selfishness existed substantially as the true nature of our mind instead of being simply an illusion, acts of selflessness would never be possible. Bodhicitta is related to this selfless expression. It corresponds in our present, unawakened state to what is closest to awakening. Bodhicitta takes our usual limited expression of affection to a universal level through the genuine feeling of lovingkindness and compassion not just for our child, parent, or friend, but also for all sentient beings without exception.
We may experience an occasional feeling of genuine affection for someone close, but certainly not for strangers, much less for all sentient beings without exception. Thus, a core component of Buddhist practice requires you to develop and cultivate love and compassion so as to be able one day to express them fully and universally. Understanding what they are exactly and how to cultivate them are essential to giving birth to relative bodhicitta. Relative bodhicitta is genuine only if it relies on two related qualities: universal love and universal compassion.
The first quality, love, should not be confused with ordinary, sensual love, the desire that arises toward what seems attractive to our eyes and what we impulsively want to own for ourselves. Contrary to desire, love (maitri) is benevolent. It is a feeling of appreciation for the other that is always accompanied by joy. Buddhist scriptures describe it as the feeling parents would have upon seeing their long-lost child once again. This joy naturally leads to the wish for that child’s happiness.
In order to develop universal loving affection, we first need to feel close to others. This is possible if we realize that all sentient beings share a common quality—sentience—that differentiates them from physical objects. Although sentient beings may appear to be very different from one another, they ultimately are not. We all wish for pleasure and well-being and fear pain and suffering. Even those who inflict harm upon themselves do so as a relief from what they believe to be a greater pain.
Sentience can’t be reduced to the ego; it is, in its essential nature, selflessness, thus capable of all the qualities of awakening such as wisdom and limitless compassion. Sentient beings are therefore admirable. This “lovableness” that transcends our usual notions of good and bad is their innately pure nature. Imperfections that sentient beings display, such as selfishness, greed, hatred, and so forth, usually prevent us from seeing this nature. But those flaws are only adventitious (noninherent). For example, when someone expresses hatred it is because he feels hurt, and he only feels hurt because he cherishes himself. That self-cherishing can only arise if you believe consciously or unconsciously that there is an existing self to cherish. But that belief is unfounded—the self cannot be found to exist objectively anywhere. So the whole process is rooted in an illusion. Therefore, when sentient beings express violence or another adventitious flaw, all they are doing is expressing their own confusion. If you understand this, you will be able to see how all sentient beings are ultimately innocent. Any temporary flaw they might express is only due to their unfortunate, erroneous confusion. Understanding that others are sentient and innately pure, just as we are, is key to being able to genuinely respect and love all sentient beings.
Buddhism emphasizes love’s beneficial power. Because its nature is joy and because it always brings about happiness and well-being, to love is the most meritorious action. Specifically, it is the best protection for yourself and the greatest gift that you can give to others. Someone who expresses true love and kindness is not harmed but loved in return. He who loves is thus protected, and he who is loved comes to express, through the love he feels from being loved in return, his potential qualities beyond egotistical concerns, thus cultivating the true source of happiness.
The second necessary quality for relative bodhicitta, compassion (karuna), is characterized in the scriptures as a feeling of sadness or distress that is experienced when you see a person whom you love suffer; it is the feeling parents would have upon seeing their only child suffering, in great pain and difficulty. It is followed by the wish to see the loved one free from pain. One might think that compassion is negative because it implies a degree of suffering caused by acknowledging others’ suffering. But compassion is actually beneficial, as it stimulates us to eliminate, both for ourselves and others, suffering and its causes.
For compassion to be genuine and unassociated with any affliction, it must be endowed with discernment. You must see and understand the suffering and experiences of sentient beings for what they really are: illusions. All interdependent phenomena lack inherent existence and are therefore empty of the substantial reality sentient beings attribute to them. Knowing this, and seeing this absurdity of suffering that most beings create for themselves despite this truth, generates compassion toward those who unnecessarily experience it and at the same time frees you from being affected by it. Such discerning and universal compassion free from attachment, which gives us the capacity to face any difficulty, is known as great compassion. The hagiography of Avalokiteshvara [the bodhisattva of compassion] quotes the famous deity’s explanation about the importance of great compassion:
If there is one dharma through which all the dharmas of the Buddha are found within the palms of our hands, that dharma would be great compassion!
The two feelings of love and compassion are intimately linked. Without love, compassion cannot arise, and compassion always involves having love. Without love one would not have compassion for others’ pain; instead you would probably have pity, if not total indifference. It is because of love that the suffering of other beings becomes so unbearable that a bodhisattva would endure any pain to help them.
By cultivating both love and compassion and learning the teachings of the Buddha, you will eventually come to have relative bodhicitta. Cultivating the six perfections, and more specifically meditation and wisdom, will enable us to develop ultimate bodhicitta. This ultimate aspect is already a partial awakening that just needs to be perfected and completed through continuous training on the stages of the path.
Awakening, or the state of a buddha, of course, is not something that we create artificially, because it is only the actualization of what we genuinely are and have always been. As long as you abide by the precept of the bodhisattva never to abandon any sentient being, you will inevitably become a buddha. How long this takes depends only on the degree of your perseverance.
From the moment we rely upon bodhicitta, we are no longer deceived. It produces immediate benefits in samsara and frees us from its limitations by bringing us to awakening. Bodhicitta is beneficial from inception through completion. It is not a moral obligation but the full expression of our natural quality and the actualization of what we have been all along: a buddha.
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