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Bodhichitta

1. Bodhichitta Is the Gateway to the Mahayana

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1  :BODHICHITTA IS THE GATEWAY TO THE MAHAYANA

W HEN WE EXPLORE the ways we have to help ourselves and others, we will see that nothing compares to bodhichitta. This is what Khunu Lama Rinpoche said in The Jewel Lamp and what Shantideva said in A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. According to Shantideva,

It is the supreme ambrosia

that overcomes the sovereignty of death;

it is the inexhaustible treasure

that eliminates all the poverty of the world.

It is the supreme medicine

that quells the world’s disease.

It is the tree that shelters all beings

wandering and tired on the path of conditioned existence.12

In the West, when a new medicine is discovered that cures a particular disease, long articles are written about it in scientific journals and television programs are made about it. Then commercial companies patent it, and it becomes a big commodity that everybody talks about. That is only for one medicine that can cure one disease for a few people. Bodhichitta can cure every disease, both mental and physical, for all beings. This is what Guru Shakyamuni Buddha and the other thousand buddhas of this fortunate eon, with their unfathomable concern for the welfare of all beings, have seen. So why don’t we have endless television programs telling people how beneficial bodhichitta is? Shantideva also said this,

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All the buddhas who have contemplated for many eons

have seen it to be beneficial;

for by it the limitless masses of beings

will quickly attain the supreme state of bliss.13

Of the many realizations we can develop in order to progress on the path to enlightenment, such as equanimity, the wisdom of how things exist, an understanding of karma, and so forth, the greatest realization we can strive for is the peerless mind called bodhichitta.

Generating bodhichitta means systematically cultivating the mind that increasingly cares for all sentient beings, that is, developing the will to benefit others. This is what Maitreya explained in his Ornament for Clear Realizations,14 the philosophical text that shows the whole path to enlightenment. At first, when we are consumed with self-concern, even thinking about such an attitude is difficult. But the more we see the advantages of such a mind, the stronger our determination to have it becomes, thus increasing our capacity to benefit others.

For countless rebirths until now, we have only ever done things for our own happiness, often at the expense of others. With bodhichitta we put self-interest aside and work solely for others. The “happiness” our self-cherishing mind has sought for us has, in fact, been a fantasy. We can see when we study subjects such as the four noble truths that any mental state poisoned with attachment to sense pleasures — what we would normally consider worldly happiness — is suffering in that there is an underlying dissatisfaction, one that will lead to future grosser suffering.

On the other hand, when we put that selfish mind aside and start working for others, as a byproduct we effortlessly attain a real sense of happiness that will not let us down. Not only that — we are developing our mind toward its ultimate potential, the fully awakened mind of enlightenment. As I often say, real happiness begins when we start cherishing others.

Everything we do in our daily life is for happiness, whether for our 17own happiness or for the happiness of others. The definition of Dharma is that which keeps us from suffering and hence leads us to happiness, particularly the happiness of liberation and full enlightenment. The very essence of the Dharma taught by the kind, compassionate Guru Shakyamuni Buddha is bodhichitta. This altruistic thought to achieve enlightenment for all other sentient beings lies at the heart of everything he taught.

BODHICHITTA AND THE WHOLE BUDDHIST PATH

The Buddha said in the Sutra of Individual Liberation (Pratimoksha Sutra),

Do not commit any nonvirtuous actions,

perform only perfect virtuous actions,

subdue your mind thoroughly —

this is the teaching of the Buddha.

The Kadampa geshes15 explained that the whole Buddhist path comes down to this advice — to not harm others and to benefit others, and in order to do those, to pacify the mind.

The compassion toward all beings that is the essence of Buddhism entails not harming them, which means not committing nonvirtuous actions. This encompasses all beings, even those who have harmed us. For that, we need to develop equanimity, to see all beings as equal in deserving our nonharm, not partially seeing one as deserving help and another as deserving harm. Even for somebody who has harmed us or who hates us, even for strangers or nonhumans, our fundamental Buddhist practice is nonharm.

Additionally, in Mahayana Buddhism the emphasis is not only on not harming but also on helping in any way we can. We subdue our mind and train it in order to be able to offer perfect service to other sentient beings, without mistake. That means leading them away from 18all suffering and its causes and toward the peerless happiness of full enlightenment. To be able to do that, we ourselves have to be fully qualified, which means having attained full omniscience. Then, with perfect power we can reveal whatever method suits every sentient being according to their level of mind, their karma.

Developing bodhichitta comes into the teachings on the graduated path of the higher capable being. In the forty years from his enlightenment to his parinirvana, the Buddha gave 84,000 teachings, all of which are included in the Tripitaka, the three collections, or baskets, of the teachings: the Vinaya basket on morality and discipline, the Abhidharma basket on philosophy, and the Sutra basket, the other teachings of the Buddha.

In Tibetan Buddhism, and particularly the Geluk tradition, all these teachings are incorporated into the lamrim, the path to enlightenment that entails the graduated path of the lower capable being, the graduated path of the middle capable being, and the graduated path of the higher capable being.

The graduated path of the lower capable being is the path of a being trying to attain a fortunate rebirth. It includes subjects such as the perfect human rebirth (its usefulness, how difficult it is to find again, and so forth); impermanence and death; the sufferings of the lower realms; refuge; and then karma. The entire graduated path of the lower capable being is contained in the first piece of advice in the verse above, to not harm others.

The graduated path of the middle capable being is the path of a being trying to gain not just a fortunate rebirth but also liberation from the whole of samsara. The meditations here are on the general sufferings of samsara and the twelve links of dependent origination,16 which show why we circle in samsara. It also includes the shortcomings of delusions, practicing the antidotes to all that, and the three higher trainings of morality, concentration, and wisdom. The graduated path of the middle capable being is also included in the first piece of advice, to not harm others.

The third level of the path, the graduated path of the higher capable being, includes all the Mahayana teachings, including all the Vajrayana, 19or tantric, teachings. The graduated path of the higher capable being is included in the second piece of advice, to benefit others.

So within these two pieces of advice, to not harm others and to benefit others, is the entire Buddhadharma. This is what is taught in the great Tibetan Buddhist monasteries such as Sera, Ganden, and Drepung, the Geluk monasteries of Lama Tsongkhapa’s lineage, which study the vast Nalanda tradition developed by the great pandits such as Nagarjuna, Atisha, and so forth.

From a very young age, Tibetan monks and nuns study the extensive philosophical subjects within the Buddhadharma, in both the sutras — the Buddha’s own words — and the commentaries written by the great pandits such as Lama Tsongkhapa. They not only learn these texts but also put them into practice, integrating everything within the lamrim into their lives.

If we too do this, if we live our life with this attitude, then we will work only to benefit others, without sectarianism, without discrimination, whether a sentient being seems beautiful or ugly, whether they help us or harm us. We work to free everybody from the oceans of samsaric suffering and bring them to full enlightenment.

If we have this goal, if this is the main purpose of everything we do, then so many problems disappear. The selfish mind is the major obstacle to developing compassion and causes all our problems. On the other hand, cherishing others is the source of all happiness, for ourselves and all others, and so working for all other beings is the fastest route to destroy all our problems. This life’s parents gave us this life’s body and nurtured us, fed us, protected us, and educated us; therefore we can easily see how we need to show love and compassion to them. But, as we will see when we discuss the seven points of cause and effect, all beings have been our kind mothers and so we need to show the same concern for all of them.

The Four Ways of Clinging

In the Sakya tradition, there are four things that block us from attaining the three paths of lower, middle, and higher capable beings. They are the four desires or the four clingings:

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1.If you cling to this life, you are not a Dharma practitioner.

2.If you cling to future lives’ samsara, your mind is not in renunciation.

3.If you cling to cherishing the I, that is not bodhichitta.

4.If you cling to the I, that is not the right view.17

The Nyingma and Kagyü traditions have the four aspects of the transformed mind, which refers to much the same thing. The “transformed mind” of their teaching is the mind that has firstly renounced this life, then renounced all samsaric perfections and happinesses, then totally renounced self-cherishing and so cherishes others with bodhichitta, and finally renounced the wrong view that holds the I and phenomena as inherently existing. This corresponds to the three principal aspects of the path in the Geluk tradition, where renunciation of this life and of the whole of samsara are combined. We will look at that later.

Clinging to this life, we are trapped in the thought of the eight worldly dharmas18 — being happy when having material possessions and unhappy when not having them, wanting happiness and comfort and not wanting unhappiness and discomfort, wanting praise and not wanting criticism, wanting a good reputation and not wanting a bad reputation — and so nothing we do can become the Dharma. It is impossible for any action to be both a worldly action and a Dharma action, so while we are wrapped up in the affairs of this life, we cannot be a Dharma practitioner.

Overcoming the eight worldly dharmas corresponds to the graduated path of the lower capable being. When we have renounced this life and no longer work for the unsatisfactory happinesses of this life, we can call ourselves a Dharma practitioner because our life and our Dharma practice are equal. This pure mind of letting go of attachment is a peaceful, free, happy mind. Letting go of clinging to this life is the fundamental practice, the most basic level of Dharma practice.

In retreat or in our daily life, we need to watch our mind carefully all the time to see that attachment to the eight worldly dharmas does not creep in. If we see a mind such as attachment to comfort or reputation or aversion to criticism arising, we need to destroy it, to apply whatever 21remedy is appropriate, such as meditating on impermanence and death or on love.

Until now we have given freedom to our desire, allowing the thought of the eight worldly dharmas to flourish, causing us all our problems, but now we give freedom to ourselves. We break our slavery to the eight worldly dharmas that have constantly abused us, bringing us one problem after another, one suffering after another. Now, always watching our mind, always destroying the mind of attachment when it arises, we have incredible freedom and happiness. Having renounced this life, we have relinquished the first clinging, and we can consider ourselves a Dharma practitioner.

After we have renounced this life, the next level of practice is when we can renounce the whole of samsara. This is the second clinging. As long as we cling to samsaric happiness, to samsaric perfections, there is no way we can generate a mind renouncing samsara and so no way we can attain liberation. The door to the path to liberation is through seeing the whole of samsara as suffering and therefore renouncing it. We need this next step for liberation.

The third of the four clingings is clinging to the self-cherishing mind. As long as we cherish ourselves, there is no space to cherish others, no way to develop bodhichitta, and no way to attain enlightenment. Just as renouncing samsara is the door to liberation, attaining bodhichitta is the door to enlightenment. Whether a normal daily action or one we consider a Dharma activity such as reciting mantras or doing retreats, whatever we do actually becomes an obstacle to achieving enlightenment if we are still clinging to the self.

The last of the four clingings is clinging to wrong view. As long as we don’t renounce the wrong view that sees all things as inherently existing, there is no way we can realize the absolute nature, the right view that sees the emptiness of the inherent existence of all things. Most importantly, there is no way we can realize the absolute nature of the self.

Perhaps we have a good intellectual understanding of emptiness, but as long as we cling to an instinctive sense that the I is truly existent, that it exists from its own side, then we cannot say we are holding the 22right view of emptiness. We perceive emptiness directly when we have reached the path of seeing, the third of the five paths, and only then do we stop creating new negative karma that produces future samsara. This is a very advanced mind. All other minds can help us toward this realization, but it is only here that we are totally free from the entire suffering of samsara; then we have everlasting happiness, liberation.

The Five Paths and Tantra

Both the Hinayana and the Mahayana traditions talk about the five paths through which we must progress to attain our goal:

1.the path of merit

2.the path of preparation

3.the path of seeing

4.the path of meditation

5.the path of no more learning

There is a slight difference in how the paths are described within the Hinayana and the Mahayana, and the goal is slightly different: individual liberation and enlightenment, respectively. In the Mahayana tradition, the first path, the path of merit, refers to the period in which we accumulate merit by listening to the Dharma, reflecting on its meaning, meditating, and so forth, in order to fully realize the teachings within our mindstream in the future.

With the path of preparation we gain a penetrative insight on emptiness, one in which the conceptual understanding of emptiness is conjoined with a very deep meditative experience. But we have yet to realize it directly, so we are still an ordinary being.

Then, through continual meditation on emptiness, we enter the path of seeing. Before, our understanding of emptiness was mixed with conceptualizations, but now it is a direct realization. We become an arya being. Having attained this path we have a spiritual body — as opposed to our worldly body — that is different from the body of the arya being of the Hinayana path. Because we no longer have to go through death, 23we don’t have to experience rebirth, old age, sickness, and yet another death.

With the path of meditation, our direct realization of emptiness becomes stabilized and continuous. Even on the fourth path, there are still very subtle residual defilements, and so during that time we work on slowly destroying even these.

From the time of realizing emptiness directly on the third path until the last path, we progress through stages called the ten bhumis, or grounds. The first bhumi is on the path of seeing, the second to seventh bhumis are during the path of meditation, and the eighth to tenth are during the path of no more learning. It is when we achieve the tenth bhumi, while on the fifth path, the path of no more learning, that we attain enlightenment.

In the Hinayana tradition, when we have completed all five paths, we achieve the cessation of the whole of samsara and attain the sorrowless state called nirvana or liberation. From a Mahayana perspective, although such a state is amazing, it is not sufficient. Even if we can free ourselves completely from all suffering, our journey is not complete without continuing on to try to free all sentient beings. We need to enter the Mahayana path and actualize bodhichitta. Then, as a bodhisattva, we go on to practice the bodhisattva’s activities, the six perfections, or paramitas — the perfections of patience, morality, generosity, enthusiastic perseverance, concentration, and wisdom — and the four means of drawing disciples to the Dharma — giving, speaking kind words, teaching to the level of the student, and practicing what we teach. Then, having worked through the five paths and attained the path of no more learning — enlightenment — we can work perfectly for the welfare of all sentient beings.

This is the path according to the Paramitayana, the nontantric aspect of the Mahayana. But it is also possible to attain enlightenment extremely quickly by entering the Vajrayana, or tantric path, once we have actualized the common path of renouncing samsara, attaining bodhichitta, and realizing emptiness.

There are four levels of Vajrayana: kriya, or action tantra; charya, or 24performance tantra; yoga tantra; and highest yoga tantra. Only with highest yoga tantra can we attain enlightenment within one brief lifetime of this degenerate time. Having received an initiation from a qualified vajra master, the mind is ripened and we can practice the generation stage and the completion stage. When we attain the final part of the completion stage, called the union of clear light and illusory body, we achieve the unification of no more learning, the fully enlightened state.

BODHICHITTA WITHIN THE THREE PRINCIPAL ASPECTS OF THE PATH

In The Foundation of All Good Qualities, Lama Tsongkhapa said,

Having become a pure vessel by training in the general path,

please bless me to enter

the holy gateway of the fortunate ones:

the supreme vajra vehicle.19

The tantric path is entered through attaining the general path, meaning the three principal aspects of the path: renunciation, bodhichitta, and the realization of emptiness. This makes it very clear that we need these three realizations before we can enter the Vajrayana, otherwise any tantric practice we do will not even be the cause for liberation. Without renunciation we can never free ourselves from attachment; without emptiness we can never eliminate the root of samsara; without bodhichitta we can never develop the cause of enlightenment. The three principal aspects of the path are indispensable for the Vajrayana; they are what make it a special shortcut to enlightenment.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains that just as the special holiday food made of butter and cheese that Tibetans love exists due to the kindness of the cheese — I suppose we would say our beloved ice cream exists due to the kindness of the milk — so the Vajrayana being a shortcut to enlightenment is due to the kindness of the three principal 25aspects of the path. We could practice tantra for eons without them, and we would still be unable to attain enlightenment.

Therefore whatever we do should be imbued with renunciation, bodhichitta, and emptiness. Even just saying a mala20 of a mantra should have this special quality. Just knowing is not enough. Especially if we do a daily sadhana,21 we must meditate on the deity based on renunciation, bodhichitta, and emptiness. It is vital not to miss this, otherwise there is little flavor to our practice. With the three principal aspects of the path, on the other hand, whatever we do will have great taste; it will have very deep meaning, and every moment of our life will be oneness with the path, oneness with the deity.

Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo, the author of Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, was the root guru of two of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s tutors: His Holiness Ling Rinpoche and His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche. He said that people can spend their whole lives concentrating on watching the mind, but without renunciation, bodhichitta, and emptiness, all their efforts have little meaning. Even the strongest concentration can only lead to different, more subtle levels of existence, such as in the form or formless realm.22

We might have great concentration but will still be in samsara. We need to understand how this is not enough. The Hindu and other traditions in India, for instance, have incredible concentration practices, but while they do have single-pointed concentration (samadhi), they do not have penetrative insight (vipashyana) that realizes the absolute true nature. They have their own explanations of ultimate nature that are actually the opposite of reality, presenting impermanent things as permanent.

In the lamrim texts, calm abiding and special insight come after bodhichitta. Meditating on emptiness through great calm abiding based on bodhichitta can never become the cause of samsara. On the contrary, it becomes the cause that eliminates the very root of samsara and leads to enlightenment.

The most important of the three principal aspects of the path is bodhichitta. Without bodhichitta, even if we have fully renounced samsara 26and realized emptiness, we can enter the Hinayana path and attain nirvana, but we will still be unable to attain enlightenment. Maybe after having stayed in great bliss for many, many eons we will be awoken from our concentration and will move toward enlightenment, but that is such a long way away. We should aim to attain enlightenment now, in everything we do, and for that we need bodhichitta. That is what makes life highly meaningful.

Even if we are unable to attain bodhichitta before we die, there is nothing to be upset about. Our life will have still been highly meaningful, because we have spent it trying to develop bodhichitta. Each time we meditate on bodhichitta, by making our life the cause of happiness for all sentient beings, we purify our mind so much that we get closer and closer to enlightenment. This is why, among the hundreds of practices we can do, such as Vajrayana deity practice or meditating on emptiness, the principal practice should always be bodhichitta. When we keep bodhichitta as our main practice, we can be assured we are obtaining the most meaning from our life. To do extensive purification, to accumulate extensive merit, the best way, the infallible method, is to train in bodhichitta.

While we are trapped in self-cherishing, there is no way to realize emptiness, and bodhichitta is the mind that frees us from self-cherishing. With the self-cherishing mind there is no renunciation, and so again developing bodhichitta is the key. But specifically, even though we might be able to develop incredible concentration and possibly realize emptiness without bodhichitta, without it there can never be enlightenment.

Somebody with bodhichitta is considered the most fortunate of the fortunate. Even a new bodhisattva who has yet to realize emptiness is more fortunate than an arhat — those transcendental beings on the Hinayana path who have completely removed all disturbing negative thoughts, have a full realization of emptiness, and are totally free from suffering and its causes. Therefore, of the three principal aspects of the path, bodhichitta is considered the most important.

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Attaining Bodhichitta Is Impossible without Renunciation

To train in bodhichitta we need to have renounced samsara. Some people think that it is possible to actualize bodhichitta without this, that we can be kind to others but still hold on to attachment to this life. Of course, being kind to others is wonderful, but if we want more than that, if we want the peerless mind of bodhichitta, we need to turn our back on worldly concerns. To think that bodhichitta is attainable without renouncing samsara is to misunderstand what bodhichitta is, thinking it is a light and easy practice. We need a mind that has fully renounced the trivial pleasures of this life, and that can only be obtained through thoroughly understanding our own suffering in all its levels of subtlety. Then we can see how all other beings are also suffering.

In The Foundation of All Good Qualities, Lama Tsongkhapa said,

Just as I have fallen into the sea of samsara,

so have all mother migratory beings.

Please bless me to see this, train in supreme bodhichitta,

and bear the responsibility of freeing all migratory beings.23

This is a request to the merit field, the guru-buddhas, to grant blessings so that we are able to see that, just like us, all other sentient beings are suffering in samsara in many different ways. Seeing that, we make the request that we can train in bodhichitta in order to be able to bear the burden of freeing them from all suffering and leading them to enlightenment.

This verse shows clearly how in order to generate great compassion and develop bodhichitta, we must relate our understanding of suffering to all beings, seeing how they have been friend, enemy, stranger, father, mother, brother, sister, wife, husband, child — every possible relationship. This requires thinking about past lives, seeing the continuity of the mind and how it has continued from one life to the next and how all the karmic imprints travel with the mind, bringing all the different types of suffering.

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The sufferings of this life are many, but we can summarize them as birth, old age, sickness, and death. The suffering of birth is behind us, the sufferings of old age and sickness are with us now (or will be soon), and we have death waiting for us in the future. We are helpless not to experience these.

Furthermore, because we are controlled by karma and delusion, whenever our senses encounter any sense object, various disturbing thoughts arise: attachment to an attractive object, aversion to an unpleasant object, and so forth. Every day, every hour, hundreds and hundreds of karmic imprints are placed on our mental continuum due to disturbing thoughts, each creating the conditions for future lives in samsara. Unless we apply the meditations that are antidotes to our attachment, anger, and ignorance, this process will go on forever, each day bringing hundreds of thousands of samsaras with these suffering aggregates.24 This is terrifying.

Seeing this, we can develop deep renunciation for the whole of samsara, and feeling our own samsara to be unbearable, we look at all others and see they are in the same tragic situation, trapped in samsara. We then naturally feel that their suffering is also unbearable. With this thought strong compassion arises and then strong bodhichitta grows. The stronger the bodhichitta, the quicker we achieve realizations and attain enlightenment. We are then able to become the perfect guide to quickly lead all sentient beings to enlightenment.

A bodhisattva has a stronger renunciation of samsara than an individual-liberation practitioner. Without completely turning our back on self-interest, how can we hope to cherish all other sentient beings? This essential renunciation, which will lead to strong compassion and loving-kindness, the causes of bodhichitta, will not come from reading a few books about the Mahayana and having a nice feeling for bodhichitta. That does not automatically make us a Mahayanist practicing bodhichitta.

Another common misconception is that because bodhisattvas choose to remain in samsara to best help sentient beings, bodhisattvas have not given up samsara, that they have not been released from it. In the 29sutra texts there are many references to bodhisattvas wishing to be born in the lower realms in order to suffer for the sake of other sentient beings. This shows the great courage of the bodhisattva, not the wish to enjoy samsara. To think that we can hang on to the attachment to sense pleasures and attain bodhichitta at the same time is a total misunderstanding.

Bodhisattvas fully comprehend that the nature of samsara is total suffering. To us it seems a pleasure grove, but to them it is like standing in the middle of a raging fire. Because of their great love for all sentient beings, in order to release all sentient beings from that suffering, they are willing to remain in samsara. However, that does not mean they are in their own samsara; they have totally renounced all attachment, and so although they live in the samsaric world, they are not in samsara. Without renouncing samsara, how could a bodhisattva help others extensively? Even with a lot of love and compassion, with limited wisdom the help they could give others would be limited.

Buddhism talks about two bodhichittas, conventional bodhichitta and ultimate bodhichitta...

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