Path of Transformation

What is Bodhicitta?


Khenpo Gyaltsen begins by asking listeners to generate bodhicitta.

He then reminds us that it is important to study the Buddha’s own words as well as the words of great masters. Without study, we have nothing to contemplate. Genuine wisdom needs the three components of study, contemplation, and meditation. Without these three, even if we make many offerings, we cannot achieve liberation or buddhahood.

Shantideva said that the first five perfections or paramitas are practiced to achieve the sixth, that of wisdom. If we practice only the first five, we can assuredly achieve the higher realms. But only the perfection of wisdom brings buddhahood. And we need to build wisdom step-by-step. We start with study or listening. If we directly try to jump to higher meditations it is usually not possible unless we have strong karmic patterns from previous lives.

To become authentic Buddhist practitioners we need to rely on study. The wisdom of study brings us stable faith. If we don’t study, our faith will not be certain. We see these days people who have Buddhist family backgrounds but no understanding. In this situation, it is easy to lose faith, convert to other religions, or become non-believers.

The Buddha’s teaching is a precious jewel. If we don’t study, it is the same as a sick person not taking the medication that will cure them. The Buddha explained that as beginners we must first rely on the Dharma. The ultimate refuge is the Buddha, but in order to build faith we must first rely on the Dharma. Then, we will automatically give rise to irreversible faith in all three jewels.

Knowing how to practice the Dharma is the most important element. We know this only through study. Why is Dharma practice important? Our lifespans are short and our time of death is uncertain. Think back over your own life. How have you spent your life? It is like a dream; our past feels like a very short period. If you sleep half your life, think of how many years you have slept. And how much time have spent eating or hanging out? Calculate how much time you have practiced the Dharma. It’s not much, is it? When we read the life stories of great masters they practiced continuously. But we don’t spend much time practicing and still, we expect the same results.

Khenpo says one of his teachers said the most important thing is not to die with regrets. We may not be able to attain liberation in this very life, but if we practice sincerely we won’t have the suffering of regret. We can die without fear. This is Khenpo’s heartfelt advice and he hopes that it benefits all of us.

The main topic for this teaching is What is Bodhicitta?

Khenpo begins by explaining the benefits of bodhicitta. One of the sutras explains bodhicitta using three analogies or examples. This mind of awakening is the seed of enlightenment or Buddhahood. It is also compared to a farmland or field. One must cultivate it to ensure that the harvest or fruits will be plentiful. Bodhicitta is also known as the ground itself. It is the support or ground where one traverses the path leading to liberation.

Bodhicitta can also be compared to a father who protects his family from danger. We protect the three doors of body, speech, and mind from negativity and nonvirtue. Bodhicitta is also likened to a wish-fulfilling jewel that gives us what we want. Our wish here is the ultimate wish for enlightenment. It can also be likened to a precious vase that brings whatever we want and need. Bodhicitta can be compared to an umbrella that shields and protects us or a sword that cuts through afflictions. Thus, we understand that there are many examples of how bodhicitta benefits.

When we give rise to effortless, uncontrived Bodhicitta, the suffering of karma that leads to the hell realms will be greatly mitigated. And bodhicitta can be compared to a diamond. Even a tiny, broken piece of a diamond is very valuable; it is still a diamond. A broken diamond can dispel poverty. And a diamond outshines or overwhelms all other elements. Similarly, even if our bodhicitta is not constant and ever-present we are still given the name of bodhisattvas. And as such, we outshine all other classes of practitioners.

Candrakirti in Entering the Middle Way described how bodhicitta appears at three stages of our practice.

  1. In the beginning, bodhicitta is necessary to enter the Mahayana path. It is like a seed.
  2. In the middle, on the path, as the wisdom is arising, bodhicitta is the water that allows the seed to grow and ripen. Qualities increase and the path unfolds.
  3. At the fruition, there is still bodhicitta existing as the harvest itself. There is no Mahayana path without Bodhicitta.

What are the differences between the Sravakayana and the Mahayana pathways?

First, we can speak of the motivation of the different vehicles. We must check ourselves very carefully to investigate our own motivation. This is based on the capacity of the individual. Middling motivation is found in the Sravakayana; the practitioner practices for his or her own benefit. The desire is to attain liberation from samsara due to fear of suffering. They practice discipline, contemplation, and wisdom. The result of this path is the level of an arhat.

In the Mahayana, we speak of the greater or lesser scope of motivation. The motivation in the Mahayana is vaster or greater because the intent is to bring all limitless sentient beings to full awakening.

The ground refers to the view. In the Sravakayana, the main view is the selflessness of persons. In the Mahayana, one also has the view of the selflessness of phenomena.

On the path of both vehicles, the 37 limbs of awakening are the practice. The path depends on the view and thus the practice of the Mahayana is more profound.

In terms of the fruition, the result is also different. The Sravakayana practitioner realizes selflessness and reaches the peace of nirvana. They enter into the peace of cessation and remain there for thousands of eons.

On the Mahayana pathway, the bodhisattva’s fruition is to transcend both samsara and nirvana. If they enter into the meditative absorption of cessation, they will only remain for seven days. This is because their goal is to benefit all beings.

In the treatise of Maitreya, the Ornament of Realization, there is a beautiful description of Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is the mind endowed with two longings, wishes, or intentions. Intention involves a hope for something to happen, but there is also a genuine interest in making something happen. The first aspect is an interest focusing on sentient beings. Wouldn’t it be amazing if sentient beings did not have to suffer? We wish to accomplish the benefit and well-being of all sentient beings.

For sentient beings to be freed from suffering, we also need an interest in attaining liberation. We wish to attain perfect liberation solely for the benefit of others. This crucial intention is a form of wisdom. Without this intention, we have a very pure intention, but we will not be capable of really benefitting others.

There is debate within the tradition as to whether bodhicitta is the primary mind or a mental state. Nonetheless, the great adept Longchenpa said that a mental state arises at the same time as the main mind. Thus he said that there is no conflict in describing bodhicitta as either consciousness or a mental state.

If the mind is missing either intention or wish, we cannot call it bodhicitta. And if won’t bring the result of complete and perfect awakening.

We should contemplate the definition and check our understanding.

How do we give rise to Bodhicitta? How do we cultivate it?

There are three main lineages or traditions of practice:

  1. Manjusri to Nagarjuna to Shantideva is the practice of exchanging oneself with others.
  2. Maitreya to Asanga through Serlingpa to Jowo Atisha is a lineage that emphasizes the cultivation of 7 pith instructions of cause and effect
  3. Longchenpa taught the generation of bodhicitta based on practicing the four immeasurables.

In the following teachings, Khenpo will cover these specific traditions.

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