Bodhicitta is a concept in Mahayana Buddhism that refers to the compassion that Bodhisattvas have for all sentient beings. Bodhisattvas are those who are capable of reaching nirvana, but instead choose to remain in samsara to help others attain enlightenment.
The mind of an ordinary person is often filled with selfish desires, and those who consistently operate from this mindset will accumulate negative karma. Karma can be both positive and negative, but people tend to be more attached to negative karma.
By studying and practicing the Buddha’s Dharma with generous compassion, we become more aware of the suffering of those around us. Depending on the circumstances, we participate in the work of relieving suffering and helping sentient beings overcome their afflictions. This is in line with the Bodhisattva ideal that the Buddhas have both exemplified and continue to do. To follow the Bodhisattva path, we must first cultivate and develop bodhicitta.
This article will delve into the core teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, specifically the concept of Bodhicitta. LotusBuddhas and friends will learn together about this important topic.
Definition – What does bodhicitta mean?
Bodhicitta, a term originating from Mahayana Buddhism, is conventionally translated as “the mind of enlightenment” or “the awakening mind.” It embodies two fundamental aspects: the profound aspiration to attain Buddhahood and a compassionate desire to benefit all sentient beings on their path to this goal.
Etymologically, the term is a composite of two Sanskrit words: ‘bodhi,’ meaning enlightenment or awakening, and ‘citta,’ meaning mind or consciousness. Thus, bodhicitta encapsulates the mental state of a Bodhisattva, an enlightened being who, moved by great compassion, seeks Buddhahood not for personal liberation alone, but to help alleviate suffering and aid others in their spiritual evolution.
Bodhicitta is subdivided into two main types: relative and absolute. Relative bodhicitta is further split into aspirational bodhicitta, which embodies the desire to attain enlightenment, and active bodhicitta, which involves engaging in virtuous actions that lead toward this goal. In contrast, absolute bodhicitta refers to the direct, non-conceptual cognition of emptiness or reality as it is, free from dualistic perception—a crucial realization in the attainment of enlightenment in Buddhist philosophy.
Cultivation of bodhicitta is deemed essential in the Mahayana Buddhist path, as it represents a profound commitment to transcend the confines of individual suffering and delusion to reach a state of ultimate wisdom and compassion. It combines the altruistic intent of benefiting all beings with the profound understanding of the nature of reality, rendering it a cornerstone of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy and practice.
Benefits of generating bodhicitta
Generating bodhicitta, the altruistic intention to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, is considered to have many benefits in Mahayana Buddhism. Here are some of the main benefits:
- Compassion: Generating bodhicitta helps to develop a deep sense of compassion for all sentient beings, which is essential for overcoming self-centeredness and cultivating a genuine concern for the welfare of others.
- Altruism: Bodhicitta motivates practitioners to work for the benefit of others, which leads to the development of altruism and selflessness.
- Merit: Generating bodhicitta is said to accumulate immeasurable merit, which creates the causes and conditions for the attainment of enlightenment.
- Positive qualities: Bodhicitta helps to cultivate positive qualities such as loving-kindness, patience, generosity, and wisdom, which are essential for spiritual development and the attainment of true happiness and peace.
- Protection: Generating bodhicitta is said to protect one from harm and obstacles on the path, as it provides a powerful source of motivation and inspiration for one’s practice.
- Liberation: Generating bodhicitta is essential for attaining enlightenment, as it provides the motivation and direction for one’s practice and helps to overcome obstacles and difficulties on the path.
- The benefit of others: By generating bodhicitta, one is able to benefit others in countless ways, by relieving their suffering, helping them to develop positive qualities, and guiding them on the path to liberation.
Overall, generating bodhicitta is considered to be of great benefit for both oneself and others. It leads to the development of compassion, altruism, positive qualities, and wisdom, and ultimately to the attainment of enlightenment and the benefit of all sentient beings.
Generating and cultivating bodhicitta is considered of utmost importance in Mahayana Buddhism, as it is seen as the heart and essence of the bodhisattva path, which is the path to enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
The 14th Dalai Lama said: “The precious awakening mind, which embraces more sentient beings than oneself, is the pillar of Bodhisattva practice, the path of the Great Wheel of Dharma. There is no wisdom stronger than bodhicitta. There is no stronger mind than bodhicitta, no mind is joyful than bodhicitta, therefore, it is extremely precious.”
Bodhicitta is the noblest quality we can develop. This profound compassion is the basis for becoming a bodhisattva. Cultivating and developing bodhicitta helps us to perfect all our good qualities, to solve all our problems, to fulfill all our desires, and to develop the capacity to help others appropriately with many benefits.
We often love someone when they are kind to us, or to our loved ones,… but most commendable of all is someone who has devoted his entire life to easing the sufferings of sentient beings! By cultivate Bodhicitta, Buddhists believe that they can not only help others, but also achieve their own enlightenment.
How to cultivate bodhicitta
Bodhicitta can be cultivated and developed through the practice of the Six perfections of Bodhisattva including: (1) generosity (dāna), (2) morality (śīla), (3) patience (kṣānti), (4) vigor (vīrya) , (5) concentration (dhyāna), and (6) wisdom (prajñā), making offerings and engaging in other meritorious activities.
In Buddhism, there are many levels to developing bodhichitta. Different schools of Buddhism have different understandings of the number of levels.
- The first level is an individual who seeks their own benefit in life, but also realizes that if they help others around them, they will also benefit.
- The second level is an individual who is acting to help others, acknowledging that they themselves benefit.
- The third level is an individual who helps others wholeheartedly with the utmost concern for the happiness of others, rather than their own.
There are many guidelines on cultivating bodhichitta, and different schools of Mahayana approach it in different ways. One way or another, bodhichitta develops naturally through sincere practices.
As we cultivate Bodhicitta, our compassion expands and we come to feel a profound connection with all sentient beings. We see that their suffering is our suffering, and that their happiness is our happiness. This encourages us to dedicate our lives to alleviating the suffering of others and bringing them closer to enlightenment.
In this way, bodhicitta is both the cause and result of great compassion; it drives us to seek Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings, and as we do so we become ever more compassionate.
Ultimately, Bodhicitta is the key to achieving Buddhahood; it is said that without bodhicitta even the Buddha himself could not have attained enlightenment. Thus, cultivating Bodhicitta is essential if we wish to follow in the footsteps of the Bodhisattvas and achieve liberation for all sentient beings.
Absolute and relative bodhicitta
In the rich philosophical tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, bodhicitta, or the mind of enlightenment, is bifurcated into two distinct yet interrelated forms: Absolute bodhicitta and Relative bodhicitta.
Relative bodhicitta, also known as conventional bodhicitta, pertains to the aspiration and action phases of the enlightenment journey. It consists of two subdivisions: aspirational bodhicitta and active or engaged bodhicitta. Aspirational bodhicitta embodies the strong intention or desire to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. This aspirational intent is not merely a passive wish but is considered the preliminary step that motivates an individual’s engagement in practices conducive to enlightenment.
On the other hand, active or engaged bodhicitta translates this aspiration into concrete action, guiding the practitioner’s conduct in accordance with the six paramitas: generosity, ethical conduct, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom. This stage represents the tangible expression of the Bodhisattva’s profound compassion and commitment to liberating all beings from suffering.
Absolute bodhicitta, also known as ultimate bodhicitta, refers to the direct, non-conceptual perception or understanding of reality as it truly is, devoid of all dualistic thought. This form of bodhicitta is intertwined with the concept of emptiness (Sanskrit: Śūnyatā), a fundamental notion in Mahayana Buddhism that signifies the absence of inherent or independent existence in phenomena.
In other words, all phenomena are interdependent and lack an intrinsic, unchanging nature. Absolute bodhicitta thus involves recognizing and experiencing this profound interdependence and lack of inherent selfhood, leading to a profound transformation of consciousness and a fundamental shift in the way reality is perceived.
Although distinct, relative and absolute bodhicitta are not considered mutually exclusive but rather two facets of the same diamond-like path to enlightenment. Relative bodhicitta, through its aspirational and active phases, prepares the ground for the realization of absolute bodhicitta, while the experiential wisdom of absolute bodhicitta imbues actions inspired by relative bodhicitta with deeper insight and effectiveness. Together, these two aspects of bodhicitta form the bedrock of the Bodhisattva path in Mahayana Buddhism.
The difference between Bodhicitta and compassion
Bodhicitta and compassion are pivotal concepts in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, each holding distinct yet intertwined significance in the pursuit of enlightenment.
Compassion, known as ‘karuna’ in Sanskrit, signifies the heartfelt wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering and its causes. It arises from a deep understanding of the universality of suffering—a recognition that just like oneself, all beings wish to avoid suffering and attain happiness. Compassion thus is not merely a passive sentiment; it motivates constructive action to relieve the suffering of others. In Mahayana Buddhism, compassion is seen as an essential quality to cultivate on the path towards enlightenment and a fundamental attribute of a Bodhisattva.
Bodhicitta, on the other hand, is a more encompassing concept. It refers to the ‘mind of enlightenment,’ a profound aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. While compassion forms an integral part of bodhicitta, the latter is not limited to the wish to alleviate suffering; it also encompasses the determination to attain full enlightenment to be most effective in aiding all beings on their spiritual journey.
In other words, compassion can be seen as the motivational force behind bodhicitta. The desire to free all beings from suffering (compassion) nurtures the resolve to attain enlightenment (bodhicitta) to accomplish this aim most effectively. However, bodhicitta adds an additional layer of intention and commitment: it involves the vow to achieve Buddhahood and engage in the practices necessary to reach this goal.