Nagarjuna’s Twenty Verses, presented as part of Wednesday’s post, contained the line “may all sentient beings aspire to realize the highest bodhicitta.”

What he’s really saying is “may all beings aspire to aspire,” for bodhicitta, “the thought of awakening,” is itself an aspiration – the wish or desire to realize awakening for the sake of all beings. Generating the thought of awakening is an essential step on the bodhisattva path and Shantideva’s Bodhisattvacaryavatara, better known as “A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life” is one of the most important Mahayana texts dealing with that path. The first four chapters were used as a liturgy:

To acquire the jewel that is this thought,
I offer salutations to the buddhas,
the pure treasure of the true dharma,
and the children of the awakened, fields of virtue.

I rejoice in the arising of the thought of awakening
in those who adopt the teaching,
for this thought is an ocean whose tide brings bliss,
whose depths hold the treasure of all that is beneficial to all sentient beings.”

The word bodhi means “awakening” and citta literally means “mind” or “thought.” Bodhicitta is comprised of three aspects: the simple thought or idea of awakening, the consciousness permeated with this thought, and the force of the thought to transform one’s life.

Shantideva states that he is in such awe of bodhicitta, that at first, he cannot understand how it could have possibly arisen in him. He compares himself to a blind man who finds a precious jewel in a heap of mud.

He also says that once bodhicitta has arisen, there is no reason why one should ever lose it or its force be diminished.  But this power to remain within the mind is only possible when a person has a strong determination to nurture and maintain the thought of awakening.

Shantideva writes,

Those who want to transcend life’s multitude of sufferings
and end the distress of living beings, should never surrender
this thought of awakening, for as soon as the thought arises within,
even the most miserable person is proclaimed to be a child of the Buddha.”

Shantideva tells us that the arising of this altruistic intention marks a turning point in the life of the individual and becomes so forceful that “even the wish to relieve another being of a mere headache, produces immense benefit beyond conception.”

That’s overselling it a bit perhaps, and of course, the point of bodhicitta is not about amassing merit or acquiring benefit for one’s own sake. It’s a tool to train the mind. When we generate bodhicitta for the sake of others, the turning point actually occurs when we adopt a new way of thinking. Once our mind has turned, concern for others does not really require generation; it is already front and center.

Still, one must start somewhere. According to Min Bahadur Shakya, Shantideva based his formula for generating the thought of awakening (found in the Bodhisattvacaryavatara) on a work ascribed to Nagarjuna entitled, Exchanging Self with Others. Shakya presents the formula as:

a)  The Equality of Self and Others (Paratmasamata)

b)  The Fault of Self Cherishing (Atmasnehadosa)

c)  The Importance of Others and Cherishing of others (Parasneha)

d)  The Exchange of Self with others (Atmaparavartana)

These are points to contemplate on during meditation or through simple reflection, points to help turn the mind from its self-centered direction.

Nagarjuna’s mention of “highest bodhicitta” in the Twenty Verses may be a reference to the two types of bodhicitta, relative and ultimate. Relative bodhicitta is a state of mind where one naturally strives to be of benefit to others, while ultimate bodhicitta has more to do with emptiness, dissolving completely the illusion of inherent self-being.

The Dalai Lama has said,

If you have the wisdom of emptiness but no bodhicitta, you will not achieve full progress on the path. If you have no wisdom of emptiness but have bodhicitta, you are on the way no matter what happens.”

I feel like bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, requires a certain amount of courage. You may have heard of “active bodhicitta.” To me, this means awakening is not realized merely by making a wish or a prayer. It means putting our altruistic intentions into action. That, at times, definitely takes some courage, but perhaps the greatest challenge, the one requiring the most courage, is to conquer our self-centered natures.

When we develop this kind of motivation to be of benefit to others and then put it into play, enlightenment is no longer an abstract idea. I think it becomes something real and attainable. I think compassion is enlightenment, or at least, the very edge of something like enlightenment. The thought of awakening opens a door that offers us a glimpse of enlightenment and the more bodhicitta we generate opens the door a little wider.

Lama Govinda explains it this way,

Bodhicitta is here the spark of that deeper consciousness, which in the process of enlightenment is converted from a latent into an active all-penetrating and radiating force. Before this awakening has taken place, our existence is a senseless running about in circles; and since we cannot find any meaning within ourselves, the world around us appears equally meaningless.

It’s not meaningless. It’s meaningful. When we live for more than just ourselves.

It seems that some people liked my recent post “Are We Enlightened Yet?”, especially the Dalai Lama quote which I have seen re-posted several places. In that post, I questioned why anyone would want to claim that they have attained enlightenment, and previously, I have stated why I am suspicious of such claims (presumptuousness, egotism, etc). The Dalai Lama said that ultimately it doesn’t make any difference if we become enlightened or not because if we are striving to be of benefit to others then we are already fulfilling our life’s true purpose.

This presumes that there is a purpose or meaning to life. Joseph Campbell once said, “Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it.” However, meaning is not a meaning by itself alone; rather it is a meaning only of some expression that serves as a sign or symbol for some thought or fact. Meaning is often subjective, and that is why Campbell added, “The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be.”

Some persons may want to ascribe no meaning to life, seeing existence as something that just “is.” Others believe that meaning can be ascribed but have differing opinions as to what that meaning may be. Therefore, not everyone will accept the idea that the purpose of life is to be of benefit to others.

Almost all religions and spiritual philosophies do see meaning and purpose in our existence. Again, there are differences of opinion, and yet, in one way or another, they all embrace the idea of altruism or service to others. In Mahayana Buddhism, it is the prime point, and in fact, it is considered more important than enlightenment itself.

To understand, we need to look at the Mahayana ideal of the Bodhisattva. Following the passage I quoted the other day, the Dalai Lama went on to say,

These are also the kinds of sentiments that resonate in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, where the bodhisattva practitioner makes prayers that even the smallest elements of earth, such as atoms, should be of service to others. This kind of sentiment is summarized in Shantideva’s verse, which reads, ‘As long as space endures, for as long as beings remain, may I remain also, to dispel the miseries of the world’.”

Symbolically, bodhisattvas forgo entry into “final enlightenment” in order to remain in the world serving others.  Not only is this the bodhisattva’s individual aspiration, but also the aspiration that he or she wishes for all beings to cherish.  To the bodhisattva, nirvana is a world of people helping people.

It is said that bodhisattvas invariably make the Four Vows, but if he or she does not fulfill the first vow to save all beings, then the fourth vow to attain enlightenment can never be achieved. Realistically, it is impossible to save all beings, so in the absence of any caveat, we can choose to take it literally or understand it as allegory. Either way, the same meaning is expressed, which is the idea that enlightenment is not the real goal of Buddhist practice, and not the purpose of life.

Neither is it the meaning of life to end suffering, for as long as there is life, suffering will be a part of it. Without suffering, there could be no freedom from suffering on any level.

This is the message of Mahayana Buddhism, which views enlightenment for the sake of enlightenment as fundamentally selfish. Ron Epstein, of the Philosophy Department San Francisco State University, explains:

The goal of the [early Buddhist] practitioner is that of ending attachment to self and, thereby, becoming an Arhat, who undergoes no further rebirth. Although those on the path of the Arhat help others, often extensively, that help ends with the entering of nirvana  because the Arhat is not reborn. The Mahayana practitioner does not treat Arhatship as an ultimate goal, and is on the Path of the Bodhisattva, which leads to becoming a Buddha.

The point here is not about which ideal is better, for ultimately terms such as Arhat, Bodhisattva or Buddha are only signs or referents that serve to bring attention to different modes of approach, or different aspects of the same path.

Perhaps the best way to understand this is to look at the motivation behind the Buddha’s decision to teach his dharma. It was not because he felt the world needed another philosophy, or because he wanted fame, or because he was lonely and he wanted to gather up a group of followers. He realized that the purpose of his life was to be of benefit to others by showing them a way that suffering could be transcended.

With this motivation, which we call bodhicitta, enlightenment is no longer an abstract idea, it becomes something real and attainable. When we touch others with our compassion, we touch enlightenment.  As Epstein says, the Path of the Bodhisattva leads to becoming a Buddha, and yet this path is only a guide, a symbol. In this sense, then, we could say that altruism is the path to enlightenment, or even that it is enlightenment, that compassion is enlightenment. When we practice loving-kindness, when we have the kind of empathy for other beings that motivates us to engage in compassionate acts, we are becoming Buddhas.

The meaning of life is the meaning we bring to it and the highest meaning we can bring is that the purpose our lives is to be of benefit to others.

Of course, there is also the notion that we are already enlightened, already Buddhas. But that will have to wait for another post.

Not everyone will want to undertake the formal practice of a bodhisattva, but that does not mean they cannot enter the bodhisattva path.

It begins with generating bodhicitta, the thought of awakening. Bodhicitta is actually two aspirations: to experience awakening for oneself and then for others.  It is comprised of two elements: compassion for others and a deep understanding of suffering. To wish to free oneself from suffering is true renunciation. To wish others to be free is to have true compassion.

My understanding of bodhicitta comes mainly from the Tibetan tradition, as teachers I have encountered in other traditions have not dealt with it in any comprehensive way. Since the Tibetan schools are essentially Madhyamaka or Middle Way schools, their discourses on bodhicitta are largely founded on the teachings of Nagarjuna and Shantideva.

Shantideva’s Bodhisattva-caryavatara, better known as A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life is probably the best and most expansive guide to the practice of bodhicitta. He writes “Those who want to transcend life’s multitude of sufferings, those who wish to end the distress of living beings  . . . should never surrender this thought of awakening . . . as soon as the thought of awakening arises within, even the most miserable person . . .  is proclaimed to be a child of the Buddha.”

Lama Govinda explains,

Bodhicitta is here the spark of that deeper consciousness, which in the process of enlightenment is converted from a latent into an active all-penetrating and radiating force. Before this awakening has taken place, our existence is a senseless running about in circles; and since we cannot find any meaning within ourselves, the world around us appears equally meaningless.

Actually, without bodhicitta or any practice, there does appear to be meaning, but often that meaning is founded on pride and self-cherishing, so it is negligible.  Bodhicitta is skillful means, a tool to combat the self-centered meanings we seize.

Shantideva praises bodhicitta, calling it “a precious jewel so seldom produced for one’s own sake, much less for others.” He says altruistic intention is so powerful that “Even the wish to relieve another being of a mere headache, produces immense benefit beyond conception” and that once bodhicitta arises all the actions of the individual are those of a bodhisattva.

Naturally not all statements of this sort should be taken literally. It’s the spirit of the words, reflecting the essence of bodhicitta, that we want to capture.

In addition to selflessness and compassion, bodhicitta also requires courage. In this sense, I’ve heard the term “active bodhicitta.” Liberation through bodhicitta cannot be realized merely by making a wish or a prayer. You must put the altruistic intention into action. After reflecting deeply on the meaning of bodhicitta take active steps to help others. This is also called wisdom.

In Madhyamaka philosophy, teachings on bodhicitta have a direct relationship with emptiness. Emptiness is seen as the real ground of liberation, and it is on account of emptiness that true compassion is possible.

In teachings on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, in Los Angeles in 201, the Dalai Lama said,

If you have wisdom of emptiness but no bodhicitta, you will not achieve full progress on the path. If you have no wisdom of emptiness but have bodhicitta, you are on the way no matter what happens.

Bodhicitta is a benefit both temporary and long term.  You should practice bodhicitta as an antidote to pride, also powerful when you are depressed.

You can practice to a point where you make a simple thought and this causes a spontaneous arising of bodhicitta within you.  To achieve this kind of liberation requires a great determination.

Rabindranath Tagore remarked that way of the Buddha was “the elimination of all limits of love, the sublimation of self in a truth which is love itself.”

Love is not a word used very often in Buddhism, and Tagore was not a Buddhist, but he understood the essential purpose of Buddhist practice. Others have too, in a different way. It may sound corny, but when the Beatles sang “Love is all there is,” they were right.

How deeply they got that, I don’t know. But anyone who can grasp this thought beyond a superficial level can get that enlightenment is not the ultimate goal, and understand why bodhisattvas forfeit Nirvana. The removal of suffering is not the goal either, because sufferings are Nirvana. Mere happiness, peace of mind, or improving one’s chances for a more favorable birth in the next life, seen in this light, are likewise. These are the tools, not the purpose.

I once heard the Dalai Lama give the following guidance:

If, as a result of one’s commitment to the principles of the Bodhisattva ideal, one sees that the purpose of one’s life is to be of benefit to others, and from the depths of one’s heart there is a real sense of dedication of one’s entire life for the benefit of other sentient beings, and that kind of strong courage and principle – for that kind of person, then time doesn’t seem matter much. Whether or not that person becomes enlightened, as far as he or she is concerned, it doesn’t make any difference, because the purpose of existence is to be of benefit to others, and if the person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose. Such is the kind of courage and determination to altruistic principles that the bodhisattva should adopt.

I’ve shared this many times. One person told me it sounded like a prescription for co-dependency. I agreed. It is, but not in the way that she meant. The clinical term “co-dependency” refers to a condition that is not based on selflessness but rather on selfishness. It is an ego-driven condition. From a Buddhist point of view, we are all co-dependent, in the sense of dependent arising (pratiya-samutpada). We are all linked together, dependent upon one another, just as in the case of the proverbial two bundles of reeds which support each other – remove one, and the other falls down.

The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to transform the extreme self-centeredness which neglects others. To be interested in one’s own welfare and want happiness is natural. What we’re struggling against are the negative aspects of mind that prevent us from developing deep compassion, a sense of closeness to all sentient beings, and having a real empathy with them.

The motivation for most persons to practice Buddhism is the need to feel connected to their true nature. I have never heard anyone say that they became a Buddhist because they wanted to be of benefit to others, although I’m sure someone has. Bodhicitta, the aspiration to liberate sentient beings is the motivation for those who follow the bodhisattva path.

When bodhicitta arises, all the actions of the individual are those of a bodhisattva. This is not different from Dogen when he says that practice of meditation is not of an ordinary human beings trying to be Buddhas, but a Buddhas expressing themselves as ordinary persons.

The bodhisattva eventually cultivates maha-karuna-citta, or great compassionate mind: a big mind and a boundless heart. This great loving heart-mind is the essential nature of the bodhisattva, or better yet the subject of the path, and all living beings constitute the object. The purpose then is to transcend the duality.

And once we accomplish that, we see something that we saw before but didn’t deeply get – that the duality never existed. This is not a case where a cognizing subject can never penetrate an object, being nothing more than a “finger pointing to the moon.” Dependent arising tells us that subject and object have always penetrated each other, existing interlinked in a chain of causes and conditions. Self and other are two but not two.

We have only to realize this all the way, and then, as the Karaniya Metta Sutta states, “Cultivate for the world a boundless heart of  loving-kindness.” It’s a big job.