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Becoming awake for others: Bodhicitta or the Bodhisattva Motivation

October 4, 2011

in Buddhism

It’s time to blog about what they call in Tibetan Buddhism the ‘large scope’ in the Lam Rim.

On one level this scope is the only one which we, as Westerners can relate to: it’s all about universal and impartial love. We can think of Christ, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama etc. as Bodhisattvas: people who lived not just for themselves, but for the alleviation of the suffering of all of humanity, or at least that part of that they could reach.

Less dramatic examples include foster parents who are in it to really help children, those teachers that manage to do more than merely survive, volunteers in churches and community centers who devote hours to making sure vulnerable children and the elderly get more than the mere basics.

All that is, when the motivation is pure and unselfish, a form of ‘bodhicitta’*, literally the spirit of enlightenment. That is, according to some Buddhist teachers.

My teachers however, in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, stress that this is merely the start. Sure, it’s an important start but real bodhicitta is about more than just universal love, it’s about the spontaneous resolve to do something about the suffering of all sentient beings – and forever too. In order to help all those sentient beings we can only do one thing, according to Buddhism in general: we have to help them out of samsara: the cycle of rebirth.

Not that any form of Buddhism claims that this is at all easy: even a Buddha can’t create enlightenment for us. We have to take his hand as he pulls us out of the water, as it were. Similarly: when we do become Buddha’s ourselves, we can’t magically release all beings. Instead we have to wait for the moment they’re ready to be helped.

So what a Bodhisattva** vows, out of the spirit of bodhicitta, is to help all those beings reach Awakening. However, a Bodhisattva is well aware that he or she cannot do that unless she becomes a Buddha herself. So the resolve becomes a bit more complex:
‘I vow to dedicate myself to becoming a Buddha, in order to help all sentient beings out of the cycle of reincarnation’. (Other formulations of the Bodhisattva vow)

All this is rather a lot to take on of course, and in order to really practice it a Bodhisattva will practice more particularly the 6 perfections:

1. DANA, the key of charity and love immortal.
2. SHILA, the key of Harmony in word and act, the key that counterbalances the cause and the effect, and leaves no further room for Karmic action.
3. KSHANTI, patience sweet, that nought can ruffle.
[4. VIRAGA, indifference to pleasure and to pain, illusion conquered, truth alone perceived.]
5. VIRYA, the dauntless energy that fights its way to the supernal TRUTH, out of the mire of lies terrestrial.
6. DHYANA, whose golden gate once opened leads the Narjol* toward the realm of Sat eternal and its ceaseless contemplation.
[*A saint, an adept.]
7. PRAJNA, the key to which makes of a man a god, creating him a Bodhisattva, son of the Dhyanis.
(H.P. Blavatsky, Voice of the Silence, Fragment III)

The formulation here is by Blavatsky in her meditative work ‘The Voice of the Silence’.

Unfortunately I don’t (yet) have permission to quote from the material we got during our Lam Rim weeks at the FPMT, so instead I’ll put it in my own words, based mostly on a Dutch book on the Lam Rim (#):

  1. Generosity
  2. Moral Self-Discipline
  3. Patience
  4. Enthusiastic Perseverance
  5. Meditative Absorption
  6. Wisdom (aka the spontaneous understanding of Emptiness)

The first four are very practical of course: we can practice patience, generosity, moral self-discipline and perseverance (enthusiastically or not) in our work, in our dealings with the shopping lady, in how we respond to beggars etc. Trying to practice these can transform our lives. What if patience did replace anger? What if generosity did replace envy? What if we responded to every moral temptation (for once I’m NOT talking about chocolate) with restraint? What if we never gave up on anything worth doing? What if we even managed to stay happy as we persevered?

The point here isn’t to beat yourself up every time you fail. The word to stress here is practicing generosity etc. Even noticing when you’re not being generous and not making excuses for yourself is already a form of practicing generosity. The same goes for every one of the other perfections.

Meditative absorption and a realization of Emptiness (that doesn’t forget about karma) are both formulated in such idealistic terms that it takes a monk or nun to reach the first, and perhaps even the second. Since I’m not a nun, nor very practiced in meditation, I’ll leave those to others to explain.

Am I right: is it easier to relate to this highest scope motivation than to the medium and lower scope? How do you feel about practicing the 6 perfections (especially the first 4) in your own life?

Terminology as explained by Pema Chodron in The Places that Scare You.
* Bodhicitta = “Bodhichitta exists on two levels. First there is unconditional bodhichitta, an immediate experience that is refreshingly free of concept, opinion, and our usual all-caught-upness. It’s something hugely good that we are not able to pin down even slightly, like knowing at gut level that there’s absolutely nothing to lose. Second there is relative bodhichitta, our ability to keep our hearts and minds open to suffering without shutting down.” (The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (Shambhala Classics), p. 6)

**Bodhisattva = “Few of us are satisfied with retreating from the world and just working on ourselves. We want our training to manifest and to be of benefit. The bodhisattva-warrior, therefore, makes a vow to wake up not just for himself but for the welfare of all beings.” (The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (Shambhala Classics), p. 122)

Other sources
# Lam Rim: Boeddha’s Weg naar de Verlichting, Geshe Konchog Lhundup, p. 179

{ 7 comments }

Julianne Davidow October 5, 2011 at 11:29 am

A comprehensive and informative overview. I think that we use these principles as guidelines in our daily lives. The problem arises when we think we can make huge strides, and then fail in the face of the difficulties of living up to high ideals. Just working on our own ‘stuff’ is a immense task. Still, they are there for us, and when we read over them or other similar instructions and practices day by day, we do make progress.

Katinka - Spirituality October 10, 2011 at 3:03 am

Pema Chodron’s approach to those disappointments is simple: be kind to yourself. Or be like the kid who learns to walk: keep getting up.

Jason Marshall October 11, 2011 at 12:55 am

Excellent post. I think in the end everyone on the path operates at various levels, and for different motivations. I can look back over the years of my path, and see that what motivates me today has changed drastically. For me, I probably started my path wanting to work on myself, but as I have become more awakened, I want to help others on their path as well, all the while still continuing my own path.

Psychic October 12, 2011 at 12:50 pm

I agree with Julianne, A comprehensive and informative overview.

I love how you highlighted that practicing does not mean perfection. Many get wrapped up with the perfection and loose the point

Tyra October 14, 2011 at 4:18 am

Reading this make me feel awakened and feel more alive. A very inspirational one. It also brightens up my day. This post is worth sharing! More power to you Katinka!

Joe Bill October 15, 2011 at 9:06 pm

I try for right action as I understand it in the moment. In that, I don’t try to think of frameworks or anything else. I try to go with a synthesis of me if that makes any sense. Some days are better than others.

David Melik October 23, 2011 at 8:42 pm

I used to think bodhichitta was to buddhi as chitta was to manas. Even though buddhi is defined as ‘intellect,’ and the idea of mind is part of Buddha Dharma, I guess that level above manas is not necessarily. I had to expand my idea of bodhichitta. Thanks for reminding me with your thoughts and explanations based on some teachings.

There are many texts on bodhisattvas, and I went to a teaching about the 37 practices of a bodhisattva but not yet the six perfections. It would be interesting to hear more if you are allowed to quote.

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