The Awakening Mind

1. Awakening from the Sleep of Selfishness

– +








The Essence of the Buddha’s Teachings

BODHICHITTA IS THE ESSENCE of all Buddhist practice. The word bodhichitta itself explains so much: bodhi is Sanskrit for “awake” or “awakening,” and chitta for “mind.” As enlightenment is the state of being fully awakened, this precious mind of bodhichitta is the mind that is starting to become completely awakened in order to benefit all other beings. There are two aspects to this mind: the aspiration to benefit others and the wish to attain complete enlightenment in order to do that most skillfully.

In the Mahayana tradition, teachings of the Buddha are divided into three groups, or three “turnings of the wheel of the Dharma.” The teachings on the awakening mind come from the second turning of the wheel of the Dharma, from the huge group of sutras called the Prajnaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom sutras. Although the explicit subject of these sutras is the nature of emptiness, or shunyata in Sanskrit, their strong implicit focus is on bodhichitta, or how to cultivate it initially, how to keep it, and how to strengthen it once it is cultivated.

To understand the implicit meaning of the Prajnaparamita sutras, Maitreya wrote a commentary entitled The Ornament of Clear Realizations (Abhisamayalamkara). Other commentaries on Maitreya’s work soon followed, including Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland (Ratnavala) and2 Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhisattvacharyavatara). These commentaries further show us how crucial it is to develop the mind of enlightenment and enhance it by engaging in the bodhisattva’s deeds.

Everything the Buddha taught is for the sake of developing this inestimable mind. As the great eighth-century Indian sage Shantideva says in A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

It is the great sun that finally removes

The misty ignorance of the world.

It is the quintessential butter

From the churning of the milk of Dharma.1

For me, this really sums up bodhichitta: just as fresh butter is the essence of milk when we churn it, so bodhichitta is the very essence of Dharma practice. Whatever practice we do on the Buddhist path, if we channel it toward achieving bodhichitta, then we are endeavoring to achieve the essence of all of the Buddha’s teachings.

Shantideva’s quote has particular resonance for me, as I well remember having to churn milk as a child. It was my daily task to milk the 150 goats my family owned and help my mother make butter. We lived in South India where it was incredibly hot, so this had to be done before daybreak. Being the oldest child, it was my responsibility to make sure we had fresh butter for all of our meals. And so I came to know the butter-making process very well.

Churning milk makes many different substances, such as cream, curds, and whey, but the essence is always the butter. Shantideva is asking us to look at our practice as the butter in “the milk of the Dharma,” to understand that through understanding and practicing the Buddha’s teachings we can gain many benefits; still, within them all, the essence is bodhichitta. It must be the core of everything we do.3

There are many ways of studying and developing bodhichitta — reading, listening, meditating, and working with it in our environment. Ideally, we will diligently practice all methods with enthusiasm and vigor. But this is often much harder than we initially realize.

Many of us who have been following the Mahayana path for a long time will have already received teachings and initiations where bodhichitta has played a big part. From my own side, however, I can see how so often the mind of bodhichitta remains a superficial mind, a mind simply wishing to help others in the most general way. This is of course a wonderful mind, but it will not lead that far. It is like dreaming of traveling to India but in reality never doing anything to act upon our wish.

We need to find a way to go beyond that simple wish, and so we will be looking at two traditional and very effective step-by-step methods (and their synthesis) for developing the awakening mind. It is quite important — and very productive — to examine the procedure closely: the starting point of the process, what comes next, where that will lead us, and so on. By doing this, our meditation will not just be a wishing state of mind, but will become part of the process of actually achieving bodhichitta. The most precious mind of all, that which cherishes all beings, can become a genuine part of our life, a real gut feeling that motivates us in everything we do, and not just a vague wish.

What follows is like a manual: useless unless used as a practical guide to achieving your goal, the precious mind of bodhichitta. The words on these pages are simply lines of black ink unless they are somehow effective in stimulating the reader to take action, to begin contemplating bodhichitta in a systemic, vigorous way.

My hope is that by the end of this book you will feel that bodhichitta is the most important thing in your spiritual development, and that you will make a firm decision to actually develop it in a step-by-step way,4 taking your attitude beyond the mere wishing stage to the actualization of the mind intent on the well-being of all other beings.

The Benefits of Bodhichitta

A boat delivers one to the other bank.

A needle stitches up one’s clothes.

A horse takes one where one wants to go.

Bodhichitta brings one to buddhahood.

The elixir called the philosopher’s stone

turns the element iron into gold.

Bodhichitta turns this unclean body

into the body of a buddha.2

Buddhist masters claim that self-centeredness is behind all our suffering. Although we try to blame our suffering on factors that exist outside ourselves, such as our jobs, our families, and even global warming, Buddhism looks beyond this notion and ascribes it to the self-centered mind. If that is so, the solution must be the opposite, the mind that no longer focuses solely on the self.

Cultivating the awakening mind is the work of many lifetimes, and the goal might seem so far in the distance that we lose sight of it and strive for lesser ones instead. Therefore, from the very beginning, we need to establish the benefits of bodhichitta as clearly and strongly as possible in our minds. This is the motivation for everything we do, nothing less.

I recommend that in order to keep your motivation strong, you should habitually reacquaint yourself with the writings on the bodhichitta practice. In a sense, you should brainwash yourself into seeing 5 that bodhichitta is the only worthwhile mind, and propagandize yourself into becoming a bodhichitta fanatic. We are all subjected to brainwashing and propaganda every day — literally millions of images bombard us, all to do with parting us from our money or bending our minds to another’s way of thinking. But in this way, we are enforcing a kind of positive brainwashing, a deprogramming of the imbedded assumptions that are dominating our lives.

For this reason, guides such as Khunu Rinpoche’s Vast as the Heavens, Deep as the Sea and Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life are particularly helpful in allowing us to refresh our practice and aspiration.

Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life is the most beloved book in Tibet. I have seen over thirty commentaries written about it, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama often quotes from it when he is teaching. Reflection on the individual verses stimulates and encourages the mind on its journey, like a key in a car’s ignition.

The Tibetan Dzogchen master Khunu Rinpoche says:

If you start something, start it with bodhichitta.

If you think of something, let the thought be of bodhichitta.

If you analyze something, analyze it in the light of bodhichitta.

If you investigate something, investigate it in the light of bodhichitta.3

Lama Tsongkhapa also made this point in his Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim Chenmo). He said that whenever he asked somebody what their main practice was they would mention some powerful deity, but he rarely met anyone who said, “My practice is bodhichitta.” He thought that was very sad because it indicated the decline of the practice of Buddhadharma. There is certainly nothing wrong with having a tantric deity practice, 6 but to concentrate on Tara, Chenrezig, or another tantric deity at the expense of developing bodhichitta is contradictory, as such deities are founded on bodhichitta. Without the motivation of bodhichitta, our entire practice becomes just another aspect of samsara, and there is no real benefit. With bodhichitta as your motivation, the benefits are infinite.


At first the mere thought of an immeasurable mind that defies all superlatives is too daunting to conceive, and so it may be helpful to begin by thinking about the many benefits of developing bodhichitta, even on a very mundane level. By reducing our selfishness by even a little, we increase our happiness. So while we are striving for this vast and unimaginable mind that is our ultimate goal, we are at the same time effortlessly fulfilling our natural need to be happy.

The primary concern of bodhichitta is to develop a caring attitude toward others, and by doing so we will also reduce our attachment, aversion, and ignorance, the “three poisons” that are at the heart of all our suffering. At present our mind is ruled by partiality — liking one, disliking another, ignoring a third — but as we develop concern for others and our attachment, aversion, and apathy decrease, we will naturally become more content and happy. The selfish mind is a tight, unhappy mind, whereas the selfless mind is a light, joyful one. It is as if there is a continuum and we are somewhere in the middle, neither totally selfish nor totally selfless. Working toward eliminating our selfishness can only lead to greater degrees of happiness. While this may seem obvious, we have conditioned ourselves to seek happiness through external objects, such as a new car, a fun holiday, or an intense relationship.

The joy and lightness that we feel when we are doing something 7 selfless is the exact opposite of the fear we feel when we are involved in selfish pursuits. The self-centered mind invariably exaggerates things. Objects of its desire become more attractive and objects of its aversion become more repulsive, and in both instances fear plays a big part — fear of losing the object of desire, or fear of the unwanted happening. It is a very simple equation if we consider it: selfishness equals fear and selflessness equals freedom from fear. The more we develop a mind that sincerely cares for others, the more that exaggeration will fall away, and the lighter and easier our life will become. There will definitely be less worry in our life.

There used to be a program on British television called 999, which showed reenactments of dangerous rescues people had performed. It was very popular because when we watch the bravery of people saving lives, we naturally feel an extreme sense of joy and pleasure. And this was just a reenactment on television of somebody else doing something good for others! If we ourselves managed to do something as altruistic, there is no doubt that we would feel real joy. And yet there is no way to compare that temporary accidental state of mind with genuine bodhichitta. In A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva says:

If even the thought to relieve

Living creatures of merely a headache

Is a beneficial intention

Endowed with infinite goodness,

Then what need is there to mention

The wish to dispel their inconceivable misery,

Wishing every single one of them

To realize boundless good qualities? 4


We all know how grateful we feel when someone offers us even temporary, minor help, such as a pill for a headache, or advice on a computer virus. We should therefore feel so much more grateful to someone trying to develop altruism in order to lead us to the complete cessation of all our suffering.

And as we open ourselves up to the awakening mind, we become lighter and happier, less obsessed with our own personal problems, and have more space for others. Think about the people around us: our friends, co-workers, the men and women we see on the way to work. By cultivating bodhichitta, we are opening ourselves to bringing peace and benefit to all those we encounter. Our joy attracts them to us, and they feel a sense of calm and happiness in our presence, just as one smile can light up many other faces. This can spread to our community, our environment, and to the whole world.

So, no matter how immense the awakening mind of bodhichitta is, from this very moment it can start to change our lives, both positively and radically.


If the immediate benefits of developing the awakening mind are wonderful, the long-term benefits are inconceivable. Shantideva says:

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.5

With bodhichitta our life becomes truly meaningful. Our present human body is the result of afflictive emotions and negative karma, and as such is a vessel for suffering, full of the potential for worries and 9 difficulties. But if we can develop bodhichitta in this life, and become what is called a bodhisattva, this human body can become a buddha’s body. Shantideva says:

It is the supreme gold-making elixir,

For it transforms the unclean body we have taken

Into a priceless jewel of a Buddha-Form.

Therefore firmly seize this Awakening Mind.6

If we manage to do something good for others spontaneously, even for a few seconds, we ultimately experience a feeling of great joy. This is not an abstract theory or a piece of random advice given to show us a state we can reach far in the future, but instead it is a simple statement of fact that I think we have all experienced at one time or another.

To put it simply, Lama Zopa Rinpoche often says that real happiness in life starts when we begin to cherish others. Bodhichitta will not only reduce our negative emotions, it will finally eliminate them completely because it is the main antidote to the self-centered mind. If all of our fears are caused by the self-centered mind, then cessation of that mind is key to our happiness. By cultivating this mind, every one of our actions is made worthwhile.

Without bodhichitta, even if we gain a direct realization of emptiness, it will not lead us to full enlightenment. We might achieve nirvana, we might become an arhat,7 but we can go no further than this. That is why it is so important at the very beginning to set our motivations as high as we can, to determine that everything we do is for the purpose of attaining full enlightenment. And the sole reason we want to attain full enlightenment is to benefit all sentient beings.

There is no need to get as far as full enlightenment. The moment 10 we generate bodhichitta in our mindstream, it is as if we are the daughter or son of the Buddha. Shantideva says:

Today my life has (borne) fruit;

(Having) well obtained this human existence,

I’ve been born into the family of Buddha

And now am one of Buddha’s sons.8

That’s really amazing, isn’t it? To be born in the Buddha’s family — how nice! How wonderful! Only then can we truly say our life is fruitful.

People claim that they are Mahayana practitioners because they study Tibetan Buddhism and do long sadhanas every day, but if they don’t have a mind set on developing bodhichitta, they cannot be honest in their direction.

Lama Tsongkhapa says in his Lamrim Chenmo that whether or not our practice becomes a Buddhist practice on the bodhisattva path depends on our state of mind. If our mind is the awakening mind of bodhichitta, then even just reciting the mantra to bring temporary wealth will become a practice of the bodhisattva vehicle.

Imagine a life where all of the petty and not so petty concerns of self-interest no longer exist; where you are totally free from fear, worry, and indecision; where the wish to help others arises continually and spontaneously, and causes not heaviness and dread, but the most incredible joy, enabling you to have the energy and ability to make a profound difference.

Perhaps we can’t really imagine what having such a mind would be like, but if we are lucky enough to have met the most accomplished Buddhist teachers, then we can easily see this in operation. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ajahn Sumedho — wonderful beings such as these — are living examples of 11 what an awakening mind can be like. Utterly free of self-interest, they are invariably light, happy, humble, humorous, and above all totally compassionate and loving. They are the role models we should use when thinking about bodhichitta.

Why do people seem naturally drawn to people such as Lama Zopa Rinpoche? It isn’t because he is from Nepal, or because he has a different face, or because he wears different robes. I think it is because he has that kind of mind. It is clear he totally cares for others, and so we love him and enjoy being around him. Because of his truly kind heart, his presence brings us so much joy. Our aspirations follow his guidance.

If this mind is so desirable, what can prevent us from seeking and eventually finding it? The answer is simply habit and conditioning. The habit of considering ourselves first has been with us for countless lifetimes and it has made us petty and weak, easily confused and easily manipulated. We see advertisements on the television for products such as fast cars, new clothes, and loud electronics, and we immediately are persuaded to think that we want, and need, these things. It seems so easy to manipulate our minds toward meaningless things and yet so difficult to point them toward spiritual things.

Even if a heavy smoker knows smoking will kill him, the habit is still hard to break. It is the same with the habit of self-centeredness. The habit is so strong because it is an addiction we have had for countless lifetimes. If we could truly understand our situation in samsara, we would see with shocking clarity how crucial it is to break that bad habit of ours, to stop being so easily manipulated by samsaric things and to start following the spiritual path. From my own side, I can see the huge gap between the logical understanding of the suffering nature of cyclic existence and the intuitive wish for comfort and pleasure. I cannot, at a heart level, see the fragility of the “happiness” I am now experiencing, and so my motivation to break free of the self-centered mind is still weak.12

If a mountain climber halfway up a very steep rock face loses concentration, it is very dangerous. That is the situation we are all in at present: we are human beings and reasonably well off, especially from the material point of view of the West. At present, because of these transient material things supporting us, we seem quite safe and comfortable. But, even though it is certain that our support is going to disappear, we lack awareness of this. If we could really understand how unaware we are, that might be the shock we need to break the bad habit of relying on such things, and it could be the thing needed to encourage us to develop spiritually.

What is very clear is that we can train to have this mind called bodhichitta. It is possible. And if we have this kind of mind, there is no doubt it will be the source of true happiness for ourselves and for others. Ultimately it will lead us to full enlightenment, but more immediately the awakening mind can bring huge benefits to ourselves and others, as well as so much joy.

Join Wisdom

This content is only available to All-Access, and Plus members of the Wisdom Experience. Please log in, upgrade your membership, or join now.

Join Now
rotate left rotate right
There are no products in your cart.