Bodhicitta: Practice for the Benefit of All Beings
The basic definition of bodhicitta is "the desire to realize enlightenment for the sake of others." It is also described as the state of mind of a bodhisattva, usually, an enlightened being who has vowed to remain in the world until all beings are enlightened.
Teachings about bodhicitta (sometimes spelled bodhicitta) appear to have developed in Mahayana Buddhism about the 2nd century CE, give or take, or about the same time the Prajnaparamita Sutras probably were written. The Prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) sutras, which include the Heart and the Diamond Sutra, are primarily recognized for their teaching of sunyata, or emptiness.
What Is No Self?
Older schools of Buddhism viewed the doctrine of anatman -- no self -- to mean that an individual's ego or personality is a fetter and delusion. Once freed of this delusion, the individual may enjoy the bliss of Nirvana. But in Mahayana, all beings are empty of self-essence but instead inter-exist in a vast nexus of existence. The Prajnaparamita Sutras propose that all beings are to be enlightened together, not just out of a sense of compassion, but because we are not actually separate from each other.
Bodhicitta has come to be an essential part of Mahayana practice and a prerequisite for enlightenment. Through bodhicitta, the desire to attain enlightenment transcends the narrow interests of the individual self and embraces all beings in compassion. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama said,
"The precious awakening mind of bodhicitta, which cherishes other sentient beings more than oneself, is the pillar of the bodhisattva’s practice – the path of the great vehicle.
"There is no more virtuous mind than bodhicitta. There is no more powerful mind than bodhicitta, there is no more joyous mind than bodhicitta. To accomplish one’s own ultimate purpose, the awakening mind is supreme. To accomplish the purpose of all other living beings there is nothing superior to bodhicitta. The awakening mind is the unsurpassable way to accumulate merit. To purify obstacles bodhicitta is supreme. For protection from interferences bodhicitta is supreme. It is the unique and all-encompassing method. Every ordinary and supra-mundane power can be attained through bodhicitta. Thus it is absolutely precious."
You may recognize that bodhi means "awakening" or what we call "enlightenment." Citta is a word for "mind" that is sometimes translated "heart-mind" because it connotes an emotive awareness rather than intellect. The word can have different shades of meaning depending on context. Sometimes it can refer to states of mind or moods. At other times it is the mind of subjective experience or the foundation of all psychological functions. Some commentaries say that the fundamental nature of citta is pure illumination, and a purified citta is a realization of enlightenment.
Applied to bodhicitta, we may infer that this citta is not just an intention, resolve or idea to benefit others, but a deeply felt sense or motivation that comes to permeate practice. So, bodhicitta must be cultivated from within.
There are oceans of books and commentaries on the cultivation of bodhicitta, and the various schools of Mahayana approach it in various ways. In one way or another, however, bodhicitta arises naturally out of sincere practice.
It is said the bodhisattva path begins when the sincere aspiration to liberate all beings first wells up in the heart (bodhicittopada, "arising the thought of awakening"). Buddhist scholar Damien Keown compared this to a "kind of conversion experience that leads to a transformed outlook on the world."
Relative and Absolute Bodhicitta
Tibetan Buddhism divides Bodhicitta into two types, relative and absolute. Absolute bodhicitta is a direct insight into reality, or pure illumination, or enlightenment. Relative or conventional bodhicitta is the bodhicitta discussed in this essay so far. It is the desire to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. Relative bodhicitta is further divided into two types, bodhicitta in aspiration and bodhicitta in action. Bodhicitta in aspiration is the desire to pursue the bodhisattva path for the sake of others, and bodhicitta in action or application is the actual engagement of the path.
Ultimately, bodhicitta in all of its forms is about allowing compassion for others to lead us all to wisdom, by releasing us from the fetters of self-clinging. "At this point, we might ask why bodhicitta has such power," Pema Chodron wrote in her book No Time to Lose. "Perhaps the simplest answer is that it lifts us out of self-centeredness and gives us a chance to leave dysfunctional habits behind. Moreover, everything we encounter becomes an opportunity to develop the outrageous courage of the bodhi heart."
By Barbara O'Brien