Filed in Tibetan

What We've Been All Along

Cultivating the spirit of awakeningKarma Trinlay Rinpoche

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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?...

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