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Notes on Bodhicitta

Hello, everyone, and welcome to this small essay on Bodhichitta.

First, why is it so important? You have probably heard us at some time, in some teachings, talking about Bodhichitta or the spirit of awakening. Bodhichitta is the root of what we do every single day – Bodhicitta is the root, the whole tree and its fruit along with the entire forest and the path. But what does this mean?

Well Bodhichitta is a Sanskrit word that is composed of two parts: Bodhi, or “awakening,” like the Bodhi tree or the Buddha itself, and Citta, or “mind,” so, you could say that Bodhichitta is the mind of awakening. I usually translate it as the spirit of awakening, because ‘mind’ tends to feel a little more clinical and cold, and Bodhichitta has a very emotional meaning behind it. It's a resolve. And it's essentially the resolve of liberating every single being without exception.

Now, “every single being” includes you, of course, but it puts the Other first, in a way. It puts the focus on interdependence, and on community. So Bodhichitta is especially vital to develop this communal, “no man left behind,” approach that is the hallmark of Mahayana Buddhism. The individualistic approach of self-liberation is called Pratimoksha. Pratimoksha is a hallmark of the Arhat path but it is different from the path of the Bodhisattvas, which is what we teach. This does not mean that there is anything wrong with the other paths – this is just the one that we teach and undertake.

The Bodhisattvabhumi, one of the key texts in Mahayana, has the theme of, “May I obtain the supreme and perfect enlightenment so that I can increase the benefits of all beings, establish them in a final, complete Nirvana, and bring them closer to the knowledge of the Buddhas.” This is the general desire of Bodhichitta, and this desire can be seen in two aspects – merit, and wisdom.

First, let's examine the aspect of merit. This aspect is concerned about performing good karmic actions in order to benefit beings and alleviate their suffering. For example, assisting others, donating money, performing charitable deeds, meditating and teaching meditation, everything that is done to alleviate suffering – it doesn't necessarily have to be Buddhist in nature. Simply working as a doctor is a very meritorious profession, along with being a teacher. Even a businessman could be meritorious, but only if he had the benefit of all beings in his heart – a business-sattva, so to speak. This is the aspect of merit within Bodhichitta, but what about wisdom?

The wisdom aspect is the understanding of emptiness – the understanding that there are actually no beings, and no suffering. There are no good or bad acts. These seem like two contradictory positions, but in actuality, they are non-dual, which means that they are not two things – there is a dialectical discourse, a dance, a movement that is happening. Don’t take this to mean that they are connected – it is non-dual, which means that there are not two things that can become one – in truth there are no things, nothing to be connected to anything else. There's just a continuity of causes and conditions which gives rise to more causes and conditions.

This is very difficult to grasp at the beginning, so for now, let's go with a very simplistic approach – the approach of paradox, a conflict in language. However, as you probably know by now, one of the Buddha's key insights is that reality is not reducible to language – in other words, language can point to reality but it cannot encompass reality. Therefore, when you try to encompass reality with language you get paradoxes, like example of an immovable object versus an unstoppable force. In this case, the paradox is that you strive to help alleviate the suffering of beings, while simultaneously knowing that there are no beings, and no suffering.

These two aspects give rise to the attitude of Bodhichitta, which is the main thing that you’ll be training. It does not matter if you're training in deity yoga, or if you're training in metta meditation – if you are on the path of the Bodhisattvas, you are training in Bodhichitta. So it's a very important thing to do.

According to Shantideva, one of my favorite teachers, (I translated one of his books – the Bodhicaryavatara, or Way of the Bodhisattva) there are two kinds of Bodhichitta – aspirational Bodhichitta and active/actual Bodhicitta. This essentially means that there are two stages, with the first occurring when you begin training.

For example, when we first tell you to generate Bodhichitta, you might be confused, asking “What should I do here?” With instructions given, you look into your mind’s eye and visualize someone you love, someone that generates a lot of love within you – then you focus and extend that love, gradually expanding it until it encompasses all beings. This is a very abstract thing.

A lot of people come and say, “Hey, I can't seem to generate enough love. I can’t generate love on command without fail – and when I can generate love on command, I can’t expand it. I truly wish that I was able to, because it is amazing, but I cannot do it.” This is aspirational Bodhichitta. You already understand how it can help, but you are not trained enough to maintain it effortlessly. This is the stage of aspirational Bodhicitta – but don’t worry, we all went through it. Keep training it, and bring questions to your teacher to discover how to stabilize it!

The next stage is actional Bodhicitta, in which you actually train in these things. Perhaps you can generate love, and perhaps you can start expanding it, but then you might lose it a little bit, and have to start again. But there's already something there – now your training is to expand it and make it stable. Once it is stable and perfected, boom, you are a Buddha. There are also three ways in which you can perfect this Bodhicitta.

The first is called the king-like Bodhichitta, which refers to the practice of people who like to lead things, who like being in the forefront. It’s called king-like because, in this case, a Bodhisattva would ideally be seen as a kingly figure – as someone that is shown to always put all beings in the kingdom first. Like a picture-perfect King Arthur, if you will.

The second is the ferryman-like Bodhichitta, in which you ferry the passengers. Everyone has the same importance, and everyone is coming with you. You are not going to lead people, but you are going to work with them and make sure that they reach the other shore safely. So it's a kind of Bodhichitta that is focused on equality.

Finally, there is the shepherd-like Bodhichitta, which is akin to being a good shepherd. You always look after your ewes and your sheep. You herd them – they go before you, they enter the pen before you and you close the door afterwards. In this way, you put every single being ahead of yourself, and you prepare to wander night after night seeking just one sheep who is lost in the darkness among the wolves, because you care so much about them.

These are the three manners in which you can cultivate Bodhicitta – being a king-like personality looked upon to lead the way, being a ferryman that works with everyone equally regardless of their pasts or tendencies, or being a shepherd who consciously remains left behind until his entire flock is safe and sound. Which one is the best choice?. It depends on your personality. You have to pick the one that suits you the most.

Now that I have explained a little bit on what Bodhicitta is – why is it important for you? Well, there are several things that Bodhichitta generates, but the first and most immediate one is a strong motivation, a raison d’etre. It motivates you in the sense that it gets you out of your bed every single day. Knowing that there are beings who are suffering – it might be cold and uncomfortable outside, while warm and cozy in your bed, but even so, you’ll go out there to help them, all the while keeping the knowledge of emptiness in your mind, so that you don't fall into the mistake of perceiving that these beings and yourself actually exist.

This type of motivation is very important. I have seen tons and tons of people who are involved in some way with the occult, with yoga and meditation, who still fall into depression due to certain experiences that come about, and this is perfectly fine. One can be a great teacher, practitioner, or yogi and still have these bouts of melancholia, but it is perfectly alright.

To have Bodhichitta is to have the ability to always refocus on the needs of others and to treat yourself with the kindness that you deserve. If you see someone shepherding all day in a cold valley with a lot of sheep, and they happen to take a swig from a flask of whiskey, you would understand why they do it – they are spending a life in the cold looking out for these beings. Bodhichitta is the concept that will help you understand that these things are alright. That the suffering of every single being is tied up with yours, and that there will not be a perfect enlightenment until we all achieve the perfect enlightenment.

You should keep that in mind, because if not, you end up with some detrimental views – let me tell you a story to help show the dangers of these perceptions. In Argentina, my home, there are a couple of syncretic systems of Taoism that I know of that are very popular – however, these systems tend to have a very mechanistic understanding of karma because they mix some things (as they are syncretic).

So the cultivation of higher virtue is still important, but since it's very mechanistic, it lacks the flexibility, compassion, and emotion of Bodhichitta. For this reason, if you are a teacher, you better get your shit together. Why is that? Because once something goes bad, everything will start looking bad to the eyes of your students. You get a cold, perhaps it’s some karma you haven't purified. Hey, you are an unmarried monk, but one day you take a small sip of alcohol, then you are barred from ever teaching again. This sort of cold, mechanistic view tends to view success as the forefront in a strangely capitalistic manner. If you are a good monk, if you are a good person, you have to be healthy, you have to be successful, and you have to be rich.

But this misses the point of Bodhichitta – Bodhichitta tells you that the point is to alleviate the suffering of all beings. If you are involved in the occult, yoga or meditation and you do rituals to get rich, but you suddenly feel that you haven’t gotten the benefits, this might cause you to get into fights with your family. You might still have problems at work, or maybe you still haven’t found work.

These things might make it very easy to fall into despair, but Bodhichitta keeps you afloat. It's the raft by which we continuously orient ourselves. Also, since it's the ultimate compass of the practice, it is very useful to help you decide when to go with the rules and when to bend the rules. If you are doing something as per the rules, for example, not engaging in gossip, but the person you would gossip about is someone who has done something wrong and might hurt other people, then Bodhicitta would say that it's better to gossip and take the small, bad karma of gossiping rather than knowingly let other people suffer the consequences of this person’s actions.

With this compass, you can guide yourself in all the circumstances which the sutras and the Vinaya did not cover, which, you know, there's a lot of. Well, there is 2500 years of time between your time and the Buddha's time. Lastly Bodhichitta is the key vow that powers tantric practice, because, you must always remember – it is not only the aspect of merit, in the sense that you hope every being becomes enlightened, but it is also the aspect of wisdom in understanding that every single being is inherently pure and empty. Keeping the vow correctly means cultivating these two aspects in both action and view. This is how you are able to partake of the fruit of the path, which is nothing less than complete Buddhahood. I hope this small introduction is helpful to you, and I'll continue to work on these small essays to help refine the views of anyone reading them!

Sarva Mangalam!

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