Essence of Bodhicitta: How Do We Understand and Practice?

Understanding the essence of bodhicitta is fundamental for our practice.  Here, in a brief audio teaching from Japan, Phakchok Rinpoche addresses this question from a student.  The student says she has been studying dharma for about the last ten years. She studied many books.  And she believes she has an intellectual understanding of bodhicitta.  But she has serious doubts about whether she  understand at a very deep level in my heart what bodhicitta is. So she asked Rinpoche to please explain the essence of bodhicitta .

The essence of bodhicitta is knowing that the nature of the mind of every living being is actually buddha.  And that is the fundamental practice of bodhicitta. Whenever you remember this, then you say, “I wish all sentient beings to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. I wish them all to attain the enlightenment of realization.” If we know our nature is the same, then it is easy. And it is genuine. But because we don’t have that certainty, bodhicitta cannot arise forcefully – the strength of our bodhicitta is not there. 

Once we have that conviction, then we can practice by first asking ourselves, “Who are all sentient beings”?

We think of each and every sentient being as our mother – because Buddha said we are born and we die many, many times so we are all connected. You could have been born as my child many lifetimes ago or I could have been your mother many lifetimes ago. We are all interconnected. Think that all sentient beings are like our parents. They are having suffering and the causes of suffering. For this reason, they need to attain enlightenment.

Then we resolve, “Today I am going to do five minutes of meditation”.  Or, “today I am going to go to the temple and offer a coin”.  And, “for this reason, I am going to go to the temple to pray”. The motivation to practice in order to benefit others becomes the core intention for any type of practice we do.

Two Reminders

The two key reminders are:

  1. We have trust that the nature of all sentient beings is Buddha.
  2. We have an attitude of compassion, caring, and kindness.

When we have these two attitudes, bodhicitta arises very correctly.  Kindness naturally brings forth compassion. And trust in the buddha nature of all beings brings enlightenment. Both are possible and that is why these are very important.

Essence of Bodhicitta: Pure Compassion

After this explanation, another student asked about compassion and how we should understand pure compassion.

Our compassion is not pure because our compassion has an agenda. For example, I may feel compassion towards you but I have an agenda. My agenda can be anything. Mostly our compassion is not pure because we have an agenda. Our compassion carries emotions. For example, if we feel compassion for someone and if the person then acts badly, we tend to become angry. Our compassion is emotional.  On top of that, our compassion has an agenda. And of course, our compassion has judgment. So, our compassion is not the same for everybody.

When we add all these elements to our compassion, we cannot really call it good compassion, can we?   

Emptiness and Compassion

When we meditate on emptiness, we have no agenda. At that time, we don’t have judgment and we don’t have emotion in emptiness. After we have finished our meditation–at the moment we arise– the first thought needs to be, “I wish all sentient beings to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering”. When we arise after the emptiness meditation that moment of compassion has no agenda because it is just after the emptiness meditation. It is pure.  But, after five minutes– the agenda develops again.  Then our compassion has emotion and judgment.

Essence of Bodhicitta

So how do we practice? We practice by alternating the two practices.

Alternating is the key to practicing correct compassion. Compassion can be developed from emptiness and emptiness can develop from compassion. This is how we practice alternating.

Simply sit for one to five minutes and meditate. Afterward, we say, “I wish all sentient beings to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.” This is compassion. After we spend some time developing compassion, drop that, and return to emptiness. After emptiness, then we again cultivate compassion.

When we alternate, compassion helps emptiness and emptiness helps compassion. How?  Our meditation does not become selfish when we have supported it with compassion. When we don’t have compassion,  then our emptiness compassion becomes selfish.  That means we are meditating for our own benefit–and that is selfish.

Reflection Question:

Consider carefully the statements above about selfish compassion and agendas.  Then examine your own thoughts, words and deeds.  Can you begin to notice when your kindness and compassion has an agenda?  Don’t judge yourself–simply notice.

Slowly try to pay more attention to this in your dealings with others in daily life.  Can you pause and examine your motives?  How does this change your expression of kindness, compassion and bodhicitta?