Tibetan Buddhism contains a wonderful array of practices to suit many different people, across a variety of circumstances. But at the centre of all these practices, you might say at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism itself, is the cultivation of bodhichitta.
What is bodhichitta, and why is it so important?
The following extract from my book, Enlightenment to Go, explains more, illustrated by sublime verses from the work of the great Buddhist teacher, Shantideva: Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.
Our encounter with bodhichitta, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘the mind of enlightenment’ or ‘the awakening mind’, marks an extraordinary mile-stone in our journey of self-development. It introduces us to a new purpose with the potential to transform the way we think of everything we do, so that even our most mundane experiences can be used to support an audaciously panoramic and positive interpretation of reality.
So far we have discussed the Buddhist definitions of love—the wish to give happiness to others; and of compassion—the wish to free others from suffering. We have explored the benefits of shifting our thoughts away from our constant preoccupation with self towards a state of being in which we open our mind and heart to others.
Buddha encouraged us to go even further. He also spoke of ‘great love’ and ‘great compassion’, which are different from the ordinary kind because they include the happiness of all beings without exception. ‘Great’ means that we expand the scope of our concern from the family, friends and colleagues who form the typically quite narrow focus of our love and compassion, to include every sentient being, every mind-possessor, in universal space.
A tough ask? An impossible objective? It’s important to be clear about what is being suggested. In cultivating an attitude of great love, or the wish for all living beings to be happy, Buddha is not suggesting that our attitudinal change will be complete only when we succeed in making all living beings happy. Given the level of dissatisfaction and suffering that persists in the world, this would imply that all existing Buddhas have failed miserably in their efforts.
It’s not what’s out there we’re trying to change but what’s in here. We succeed in developing an attitude of great love when we cease categorising those around us as ‘friends’, ‘strangers’ and ‘difficult people’ and wishing only for the happiness of the first category while remaining indifferent to the suffering of the second, and secretly pleased when the third do it tough. Great love and great compassion require us to develop equanimity, seeing all beings as exactly the same as us in wishing for happiness and the avoidance of dissatisfaction.
Bodhichitta: the jewel of the mind
Whether we develop equanimity based simply on the acceptance that all other beings are just like us in wanting to be happy, or from a recognition that the web of relationships connecting us to one another may be more profound than we generally assume, Buddha suggests that instead of wishing only for their mundane happiness we should set our sights very much higher. Just as we might aspire to achieve enlightenment ourselves, we should develop the same aspiration for others. More than this, we should make it the central purpose of our lives. This is the true meaning of bodhichitta.
If the thought to relieve
Living creatures of merely a headache
Is a beneficial intention
Endowed with infinite goodness,
Then what need is there to mention
The wish to dispel their inconceivable misery,
Wishing every single one of them
To realize boundless good qualities?
The intention to benefit all beings
Which does not arise in others even for their own sake,
Is an extraordinary jewel of the mind,
And its birth is an unprecedented wonder.
I love Shantideva’s phrase ‘jewel of the mind’, which underlines the extraordinary preciousness of bodhichitta, as well as his emphasis on the fact that bodhichitta is ‘an unprecedented wonder’. Later on in his Guide, he expresses the same idea with a different image:
Just like a blind man
Discovering a jewel in a heap of rubbish,
Likewise, by some coincidence,
An Awakening Mind has been born within me.
This verse emphasises the mind-blowing improbability of our discovery of bodhichitta—how unlikely would it be for a blind man to discover a jewel in a heap of rubbish? In just the same way, the discovery of bodhichitta motivation is as amazingly unlikely, almost random.
The literal definition of bodhichitta, provided by Maitreya in his Ornament of Clear Realization, is: ‘For the sake of others, wishing to attain complete, perfect enlighten-ment’. It is significant that ‘for the sake of others’ comes first in the definition, as it reminds us where to place the focus of our attention. Bodhichitta motivation is so powerful in part because it encapsulates the several different agents of transformation already explored in this book within a single motivation. If, for the sake of others, we wish to attain enlightenment, our thoughts are, by definition, directed more to a big picture perspective than to the here and now, more towards working on inner processes than rearranging our external world, and more towards a compassionate focus on other beings than on ourselves.
Equanimity is also implicit in bodhichitta—we are not seeking enlightenment only for the sake of those we feel close to, but for all beings equally, wherever in the universe they reside and whatever level of sentience they experience. There is no place for partiality in bodhichitta.
My teacher likens bodhichitta to the fuel in a car or aeroplane—it is the means by which our inner growth is propelled. To extend his metaphor, an intellectual under-standing of the Dharma may be likened to the vehicle itself—and the more deeply realised that understanding, the better. But without the heartfelt purpose of bodhichitta—without the urgent need to put great love and great compassion into action—no vehicle, no matter how many extras and special features it may have, is going to get us very far. In Tibetan Buddhist texts on this subject, the Dalai Lama says, ‘We find that compassion is not only highly praised, but the authors also repeatedly emphasize its importance in the sense that it really lies at the root of all spiritual endeavour.’
In a formal sense, the point at which people officially become Buddhists is when they take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (the last is our community of fellow practitioners). It is a simple process in which we commit to abandoning up to five harmful behaviours, namely killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and taking intoxicants (only the first is an absolute requirement). In Tibetan Buddhism, when we take refuge we usually also take bodhichitta vows. These include eighteen root vows and 46 branch vows, providing the guidelines through which the motivation of bodhichitta is translated into action. Cultivating bodhichitta, the compassionate mind of enlightenment, is therefore central to Tibetan Buddhism, and is what distinguishes it from other Buddhist traditions.
People’s reactions when presented with bodhichitta for the first time vary greatly: some want to take a good, hard look at it from all angles, while the response of others is intuitive and heartfelt, a sense of discovering—at last!—the basis of a meaningful life. In my own case, the idea of it instantly caught my imagination and I quickly realised that I couldn’t think of a motivation more altruistic, noble or worthwhile. When it comes to thinking big, it is impossible to think bigger than bodhichitta.
But this recognition was accompanied by a dispiriting thought: who was I to start telling myself I was working to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all beings, when the reality was so very different? I am too small-hearted, too self-centred to convincingly make bodhichitta my central motivation, and it would be hypocritical of me to pretend otherwise.
Wishing and venturing bodhichitta
The Dharma recognises that it takes time to develop confidence in the goal of bodhichitta and to develop the practice of bodhichitta itself. For this reason a distinction is made between ‘wishing’ and ‘venturing’ bodhichitta. We need to become familiar with bodhichitta, to hear about it, think about it and meditate on it, until the point at which we develop a heartfelt conviction in it.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama tells us, ‘Our bodhichitta may not yet be spontaneous. It is still something we have to fabricate. Nevertheless, once we have embraced and begun to develop this extraordinary attitude, whatever positive actions we do . . . while not appearing any different, will bring greatly increased results.’
Initially you may feel like a fraud when you recollect bodhichitta motivation—but even at this stage, simply becoming mindful of the motivation is extremely beneficial. What starts out as nothing more than a thought can—little by little—become our defining purpose. As Buddha explains in the Dhammapada: ‘The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character . . . As the shadow follows the body, as we think so we become.’
Buddhists a lot further down the Dharma path than me have explained how bodhichitta can gradually evolve from just a superficial idea to a very genuine motivation—how we get to the point where we no longer question the wisdom of thinking of others because we know, from familiarity, that this is the true source of indestructible happiness. A shift occurs at the core of our being.
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