Bodhichitta as the Context of the Six Perfections

Conventional and Deepest Bodhichitta

There are two facets of bodhichitta: conventional or relative and deepest bodhichittas. Both bodhichittas are aimed at our own individual, future enlightenment which has not happened yet; but on the basis of our Buddha-natures and a great deal of effort and work on our parts, it’s something that definitely is possible to achieve. And because we are convinced that it is possible to achieve and we have an accurate idea of what it is, then with conventional bodhichitta we aim at actually what that future enlightenment is – what it will be, its qualities and so on – with two intentions: the intention to achieve that enlightenment through the realistic methods that will actually bring us there, and to benefit all beings as much as is possible by means of that attainment. We understand fully that we are not going to become an omnipotent god that can just snap the fingers – doesn’t even need to snap the fingers – and everybody’s problems will go away. That’s impossible. But we can teach others by actual instructions, and by our example, how to reach enlightenment. Then it’s up to them to actually do it.

More specifically, conventional bodhichitta is aimed at the mind of our not-yet-happening enlightenment – the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya. Deepest bodhichitta is aimed at the voidness (emptiness) and true stoppings of our not-yet-happening enlightenment – the Svabhavakaya (Essential Nature Body, Corpus of Essential Nature).

States of Mind that Accompany Bodhichitta

Conventional bodhichitta is accompanied by various other states of mind that are simultaneous with it, which are part of our motivation for aiming to achieve enlightenment. These other states of mind are focused first on all beings – which means absolutely every sentient being (or being with a limited body, a limited mind) absolutely equally, so we’re talking about every insect, everybody – with love, the wish for them to be happy and have the causes for happiness, and compassion, which is the wish for them to be free of suffering and free of the causes of suffering. So the love is aimed actually at the happiness and welfare of those sentient beings, and it’s the wish for it to increase and for it to grow. And the compassion is aimed at their suffering; it’s the wish for them to be free of that. Then these states of mind of love and compassion accompany the focus on our not-yet-happening enlightenments.

We have to be clear what these states of mind are focusing on and how they are focusing on them, in order to be able to actually generate them. Otherwise we have no idea of what in the world to do with my mind and my feelings when I am meditating on love or compassion, or bodhichitta for that matter. And compassion, as His Holiness explains, is not just wishing that their problems go away without having any idea or conviction that it’s actually possible for them to get rid of their problems; it’s based on understanding that it is possible for them to get rid of them. Otherwise it’s a pointless wish. It is also accompanied by an understanding of how they can get rid of their problems. It’s not that some savior, some omnipotent savior, is going to save them; it has the courage to actually help them to overcome these problems. There’s understanding – there’s always understanding – with these emotions, these feelings, these positive feelings.

And we also have, accompanying our bodhichitta, another state of mind or emotion, or however you want to call it, which is called the exceptional resolve (lhag-bsam, Skt. adhyashaya). Focusing on all beings equally and their situations, then this is the exceptional resolve that His Holiness sometimes refers to as universal responsibility; it’s not just the courage to try to help them, but absolute decided resolution: “I’m going to try as much as possible to help them, to benefit them. I take responsibility, a sense of responsibility, to actually do it, do something about it.”

And so love, compassion, universal responsibility, bodhichitta. These are all quite individual states of mind, although they all go together of course, but it’s important not to confuse them but to have a clear idea of each of them – what they are, what it is focusing on, how it focuses on its object – in order to have our state of mind not missing anything, to have it properly.

A Note about Red and White Bodhichitta

I should just mention, since sometimes people come across this in tantra and it can be quite confusing, that in the highest class of tantra, we speak about white and red bodhichittas. Now, these are forms of very subtle material phenomena, physical phenomena. These are not states of mind. These are very subtle… difficult to find a good word, but let us call them sparks of creative energy that each of us has. And in the highest class of tantra, in the very advanced stages of it, once we gain the ability to do this – which is incredibly difficult to gain, that ability – then we can move these very subtle creative energies within our body and dissolve them into the heart chakra in order to be able to achieve or access the subtlest level of mind. It’s called the clear light mind (’od-gsal). And then use that for focusing on voidness and achieving enlightenment, because it’s the most efficient level of mind.

These are substances and methods that we work with, these white and red bodhichittas, in order to actually achieve deepest bodhichitta, this clear light mind focused on voidness. And so often in Buddhism the name of the result is given to the cause, they say, and so the name of the result – which is bodhichitta, deepest bodhichitta – is given, as an alternative name, to these two types of creative subtle energy within the body. That’s what is white and red bodhichitta – are why they’re called bodhichittas.

Just so you don’t get confused, because I know that can be terribly confusing when we come across those names. At our level of practice, this is something we are not at all involved with. Very, very advanced. Also, so that people don’t get confused, both men and women have both white and red bodhichittas. And so although there are different levels of grossness of it, we shouldn’t associate them with the grossest representations of them and think that only men have one and only the white and only women have red; that’s incorrect.

Aspiring and Engaged Bodhichitta

Now, within conventional bodhichitta, there’s the aspiring stage (smon-sems, wishing bodhichitta) of it, which is we aspire or wish to achieve that enlightenment to benefit everyone, and then the engaged state (’jug-sems), in which we actually engage our self in the behavior, conduct, that will actually bring us to this goal. So first we develop the aspiring state, then the engaged state.

That aspiring state has two stages, first merely aspiring bodhichitta (smon-sems smon-pa-tsam), when we merely wish to achieve enlightenment, and then pledged aspiring bodhichitta (smon-sems dam-bca’-can), with which we are very strongly resolute and decide that we’re never going to turn back from this. And when we achieve that engaged state of bodhichitta, of relative bodhichitta, that is the stage that entails, as part of that, taking the bodhisattva vows. They go together. It’s not that you can develop engaged bodhichitta without taking the bodhisattva vows.

A vow (sdom-pa, Skt. samvara) is a shaping of the mind, a shaping of our conduct It sets certain boundaries that we are not going to transgress. “I’m going to avoid praising myself and putting down others because I’m attached to getting fame, and people liking me, and love and money, and all of that.” These type of things that we commit ourselves to not do, because if we were to do that, that would damage very much our ability to help others. We’re just exploiting others and saying, “I’m the best,” like you would have, let’s say, in general, people who are running for an office in government and wanting to do it just to have power, and so they campaign: “I’m the best and the other candidate is terrible, the devil.” You can’t trust somebody like that. That damages very much their ability to help others, because actually they are just aggrandizing themselves in order to get power. For this reason, the whole election and campaigning process is very alien to the Tibetans and very difficult for them to conceive of or participate in, because to campaign the way that it’s done in many countries in an election just goes totally against all the bodhisattva principals. “I’m the best. The other guy is no good.”

Shantideva, the great Indian master who wrote Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Bodhicharyavatara), wrote:

(IV.2) For something undertaken all of a sudden or something I didn’t examine well, even if I’ve given a promise about it, it’s proper to examine, “Do it or give it up?”
(IV.3) But how can I ever withdraw from what the Buddhas and their spiritual offspring have examined with great discriminating awareness and I, myself, have repeatedly examined as well?

These two verse are very important. They’re saying that before we take the bodhisattva vows, this engaged bodhichitta, that it’s important to study these vows, it’s proper to study them, to see and examine: the Buddha said, “Well, if you want to reach enlightenment, this is what we need to avoid if we really want to benefit others,” and then examine ourselves very well: “Is this something I can follow or not follow?” And then you take it. It’s not something that you do just all of a sudden because everybody else is doing it and there’s some lama here that is giving the vows, so that we do without really having examined very well. So Shantideva points that out very clearly.

The Svatantrika and Prasangika Definitions of the Perfections

For actually keeping the bodhisattva vows, what does that entail? That entails, basically, developing the six… the Sanskrit word is paramita (pha-rol-tu phyin-pa); it’s usually translated as perfections, but I prefer a more literal translation of it, which is the far-reaching attitudes. It will take us very, very far, all the way to the other shore, which is enlightenment.

In Indian Buddhism there are a number of different systems, and in one of them (the Svatantrika it’s called), according to this system, only the state of a Buddha – I mean, this is where the word would be more in the sense of a perfection – when in the state of a Buddha, that these would be the actual far-reaching attitudes. What we work with as a bodhisattva (and even before we become a bodhisattva, when we have taken these bodhisattva vows) … because we only really become a bodhisattva when we have this uncontrived bodhichitta – we don’t have to go through the process of: “ Everybody’s been my mother” and so on in order to feel it, and we have it all the time, day and night, that you actually become a bodhisattva … but the process, the stages before Buddhahood, would just be – these far-reaching attitudes would be – an approximation of the actual thing.

Whereas in the Prasangika system then both the stages – from the bodhisattva vows onward to Buddhahood, as well as in Buddhahood – both of them would be called the “far-reaching attitudes.”

So, regardless of which system we follow, we’re talking about the same thing. I mentioned that because some of the Tibetan schools follow one and some follow the other.

The Ten Perfections (Ten Paramitas)

There’s also a further explanation of ten, in which four further ones are basically divisions of the sixth one, far-reaching discriminating awareness or the perfection of wisdom, prajnaparamita. So whether we speak of six or, in a more full form, ten of these far-reaching attitudes, these are states of mind – attitudes – they are not necessarily a form of behavior, although they shape our behavior: we act, put them into practice, as much as we can according to the situation, abilities, and so on. But what we’re working to develop are these attitudes, these states of mind. Shantideva makes that very, very clear.

Also we shouldn’t think that a system of ten far-reaching attitudes is exclusive to Mahayana. We also have it in Hinayana, in Theravada. It’s a slightly different set of ten: many of them are the same but there are some which are different. And again, as we mentioned, the difference between the Hinayana and the Mahayana – because they practice many of the very same things – is whether or not the dedication… whether or not the positive force is being dedicated toward achieving liberation or toward achieving enlightenment. So they practice ten, which include many of these, with dedication that that positive force contribute to their liberation.

[See: The Ten Perfections in Theravada, Mahayana and Bon]

We should never think that Hinayana practitioners don’t work to benefit others and they’re not generous and so on, patient and so on. Of course they are. And they have love, and they develop compassion, and all of these things. The Mahayana texts take the Hinayana position to an extreme – that you’re only working selfishly to benefit yourself, and you don’t care about others – in order to point out the extreme that we need to avoid. We shouldn’t think that actual, especially present day, Theravada practitioners are like that. We can find Mahayana practitioners who are like that, just as well as finding Hinayana practitioners who are like that.

This is a method that’s used in the Prasangika school of Mahayana, Madhyamaka, which is to take things to the absurd, extreme conclusion in order to help people to avoid the dangers that might be present in a certain way of thinking. And so just as the absurd, extreme conclusion of working to achieve liberation would be that you’ve become completely selfish and you don’t care about anybody else – you don’t do anything to help others, you don’t have love and compassion – similarly, one could say the absurd conclusion, extreme conclusion of Mahayana would be that you just go out and help everybody and help everybody, and like that, and you never work on trying to overcome your own anger and attachment and so on, which would likewise be a great mistake. So we need to understand the methodology which is used here and not fall to the very mistaken position of sectarianism, to think that Mahayana is so strongly critical of Hinayana. That’s why in the bodhisattva vows there are several of them that deal with not putting down Hinayana.

So let’s stay with the abbreviated… the basic system of six perfections. And here these six are:

  • generosity (sbyin-pa)
  • ethical self-discipline (tshul-khrims)
  • patience (bzod-pa)
  • perseverance (brtson-’grus)
  • mental stability (bsam-gtan, concentration)
  • discriminating awareness (shes-rab, wisdom).

The Difference between Discriminating Awareness and Deep Awareness

In English, the word “wisdom” is used to translate so many different technical terms which are all different, that really to just use that word loses all the distinctions between these many terms, and so I use discriminating awareness here for the sixth perfection.

I make a difference in translation between two Tibetan words – they’re also different in Sanskrit – which often are both translated with wisdom (and then you lose the difference between the two). One is called discriminating awareness; that’s sherab (shes-rab) in Tibetan, or prajna in Sanskrit. And the other is called deep awareness; that’s yeshe (ye-shes) in Tibetan, or jnana in Sanskrit. These are very different. So I’ll explain the difference.

Although there are many different usages of each of these words, if we try to be a little bit more clear about it, discriminating awareness is… the definition is it adds certainty to distinguishing. Distinguishing – that’s often translated as recognition – is to distinguish that something is this and not that. So this adds absolute certainty to that. So it’s discriminating between what’s constructive, what’s destructive; what’s helpful, what’s not helpful; what’s appropriate, what’s inappropriate; what is accurate and what’s not accurate in terms of what’s reality and not reality. So usually it is associated with voidness (emptiness). It is the understanding of voidness that discriminates that things don’t exist in impossible ways; they exist in the way that is actually possible. That’s discriminating awareness.

Even a worm has this. A worm can discriminate – be very sure – food, not food. A cow can discriminate between the open door of the barn and the wall of the barn and not smack into the wall. So to call this wisdom is not the greatest here.

If we speak in terms of voidness, then discriminating awareness is of just the deepest truth of things, of voidness. Deep awareness, on the other hand, is awareness of the two truths, either the two truths together or the two truths in the context of each other. But also deep awareness is part of Buddha-nature, something which is very deep and everybody has, so it’s referring to the mirror-like (me-long lta-bu’i ye-shes) (the ability to take in information), the equalizing (mnyam-nyid ye-shes) (to see the patterns, to put things together), individualizing (sor-rtog ye-shes) (to be aware of the individuality of this or that), and so on.

In terms of these Buddha-nature aspects, the worm has it as well. So, again, calling it wisdom is a little bit uncomfortable.

This term deep awareness can be used slightly differently in the different Tibetan traditions. But in any case, it’s not the same as discriminating awareness. In Gelug, also it’s used for what an arya (’phags-pa) has – somebody who has non-conceptual cognition of voidness – as an additional meaning of the word.

The Two Networks (Two Collections)

In order to reach enlightenment – in order to reach any of the goals within Buddhism, spiritual goals – we need to strengthen and build up the two networks. These two networks we all have to a certain extent, as part of Buddha-nature; it’s not as though you start from zero. But we need to strengthen them, build them up further and further. And, depending on the dedication of them, they either can be samsara-building (that we don’t do anything, any type of dedication, and it just goes to improve samsara for us) or liberation-building (we dedicate it for liberation) or enlightenment-building (we dedicate these two for reaching enlightenment). So, again, dedication is extremely crucial here.

And these two networks – network because everything in it connects and networks and reinforces each other. And it grows; it’s not just like a collection of stamps. So one is… it’s usually translated as the collection of merit (bsod-nams-kyi tshogs, Skt. punyasambhara), which is not a collection of points, but it is the… Merit actually means positive force – and so it’s the network of positive force – from doing constructive things and so on. And then there’s the network of deep awareness (ye-shes-kyi tshogs, Skt. jnanasambhara), which is sometimes called the network of wisdom, but it’s a different term from discriminating awareness. So helping others, for example, just without any dedication – of course that’s going to improve our samsara; unless we dedicate it for liberation or enlightenment, it’s not going to contribute to that.

[See: The Two Collections: Two Networks]

Assigning the Perfections to the Two Networks

In the general Mahayana presentation that we divide these six far-reaching attitudes into these two networks, we have one system. And if we do it according to Prasangika, which is a special division of Mahayana, we have another way of dividing it. Now, to understand this, it helps us to understand: “Well, what is the purpose of these networks? What do they do?” As I also explained earlier this week, with enlightenment we have… they can be divided in many ways, but we have the sometimes called Buddha-Bodies or Corpuses, because they are actually a network of various things and not just a body like this body, but it’s a network of many, many things. And so we have the Dharmakaya (chos-sku, Corpus Encompassing Everything), which is the whole network of the omniscient mind of a Buddha and the voidness of that mind and so on. And then there is the network of enlightening forms (gzugs-sku, Skt. Rupakaya, Corpus of Forms), so that there’s subtle forms (Sambhogakaya (longs-spyod rdzogs-pa’i sku, Corpus of Full Use)) and gross forms (Nirmanakaya (sprul-sku, Corpus of Emanations)). There are many, many forms a Buddha can appear in – millions of forms – simultaneously, so that’s why it is called a network; it’s not just one body. And a Buddha knows everything simultaneously. So it’s not just one thing. A network.

So these two networks, the enlightenment-building network… if we speak in terms of Buddhahood, they are like… In Buddhism we speak of many, many different types of causes – six different types of causes – and many different types of conditions. Very, very complex. But there is one type of cause: if we use an example, it would be like the dough for making a bread. It’s the substance that becomes the bread, but you no longer have the dough when you have the bread. The dough, in a sense, transforms into the bread when it’s cooked. Such causes are called “obtaining causes” (nyer-len-gyi rgyu).

These enlightenment-building networks are like the dough: they transform into, they’re the substance out of which… From the network of positive force – that transforms into this network of enlightening forms, to help others. And the network of deep awareness is the dough that turns into, transforms into, the network of Dharmakaya, the omniscient mind of a Buddha. But you need both to accomplish either. They have to support each other. You can’t just achieve one and work on one. The two must go together.

So for each of these, one acts as the dough. For each of these enlightening networks of a Buddha, one of the enlightenment-building networks will act as the dough and the other one will be like the heat of the oven. The dough is not going to just turn into the bread without the heat of the oven. And so, in this way, they support each other. You need both in order to achieve any of the Bodies of a Buddha – each of the Bodies, the Corpuses of a Buddha, the networks of a Buddha.

So, as I said, there are two ways of dividing the six far-reaching attitudes into these two enlightenment-building networks. According to the general Mahayana one, the far-reaching networks… Now we’ll have to do it one at a time so you get it straight, and I’ll respond. So now we will give the list, according to general Mahayana, which of the six contribute to which of these two far-reaching networks, enlightenment-building networks. General Mahayana.

According to this, for the enlightenment-building network of positive force: First of all generosity, and then ethical discipline. And then patience has three different forms, and so two of the forms of patience – the patience of not getting angry at difficulties that you have with others, and the patience of not getting angry at your own problems. These contribute to the network of positive force.

Now, which ones contribute to the network of deep awareness? First of all, the far-reaching attitude of discriminating awareness, and far-reaching mental stability, and the third type of patience, the patience of not becoming frustrated at the difficulties in practicing Dharma.

The far-reaching attitude of positive enthusiasm, or perseverance, contributes to and strengthens both networks.

Now, in Kalachakra it speaks of three networks, three enlightenment-building networks. So here the third one is the network of ethical discipline. And in this classification scheme the ethical discipline – which had, in the general Mahayana one, been contributing to the network of positive force – this is now taken separately, as building up a network of ethical discipline.

Further Detail about Assigning the Perfections to the Two Networks

Concerning this general classification of the six far-reaching attitudes into the two or three networks is… it’s not really helpful to just think, “Well, it’s just an intellectual scheme. It doesn’t mean anything,” but we can see that, “Well, what is going to transform into having all these forms and so on that we can really help others as a Buddha?” Be generous, particularly, helping others. We need the discipline to help and not to hurt others. And to be patient, that we’re not going to get frustrated in trying to help others, because it’s not always easy, and we’ll be patient with our own problems and shortcomings as we’re trying to help others – work on them, of course, in ourselves, but not give up. So this combination is what’s going to transform into having all the forms and abilities of a Buddha to help others.

What would transform into the mind of a Buddha? Well, we need to have of course the discriminating awareness. We need to have mental stability, which means not just concentration, but not going up and down with moods and disturbing emotions and so on. And we need to have the patience of not getting frustrated at the difficulties in practicing the Dharma, particularly in terms of meditating and trying to gain this so-called wisdom. So this is what’s going to transform into having the mind of a Buddha.

And perseverance we need for both. If we speak in a very general way: we need to stick with it, not give up, and to actually take joy in both helping others and in meditating. So they contribute to both: In helping others, that’s building up this positive force – if we speak in very, very general terms – and building up this deep awareness by meditating. Obviously we both help and we meditate in both, building up positive force and the deep awareness. I’m just making a general point here so it’s easier to understand.

No matter what we’re doing, we need to stick with it, not give up. That’s this perseverance. And take joy in doing it, not, “Ugh, this is horrible. I hate doing it but I’ll do it anyway, because I feel obligated or I would feel guilty if I didn’t do it.” Enjoy it. “I love meditating. I love helping other people. It gives me great joy.” “I love translating. It gives me great pleasure. Nothing makes me happier.”

Shatideva wrote:

(VII.64) Although people do actions for the sake of happiness, it’s not clear that they’ll become happy or not; but for (a bodhisattva) whose actions in fact bring happiness, how can he be happy without doing those actions?

In other words, if you take joy in your work, then you’re going to be unhappy if you’re not. And we’re not talking about being a workaholic in an office, but we’re talking about helping others. Unless we’re actually doing something that’s a benefit for others, we don’t feel… we’re not really happy. “I always want to do something to help others. That’s what gives the most joy in life.” That’s what we’re talking about here with joyful perseverance. So it doesn’t matter what we’re doing to help others – taking care of our kids, working in some business that is oriented to helping others in some way or another, teaching the Dharma. It doesn’t matter. We do whatever we’re capable of doing.

Another way of assigning the six perfections to the two networks is that found in the Prasangika system according to Gelug, as formulated by Tsongkhapa. The earlier Tibetan traditions – Nyingma, Sakya, and Kagyu – have a different understanding of the Prasangika position. Tsongkhapa differentiates the six perfections according to the two truths. And so far-reaching discriminating awareness of the deepest truth, voidness, contributes to the network of deep awareness, to the mind of a Buddha. And all the others, including discriminating awareness of what’s helpful and what’s harmful, contribute to the network of positive force, for the Form Bodies of a Buddha. So it’s just another way of classifying here, according to the two truths.