The Practice of Bodhichitta Meditation

Exceptional Resolve 

The next step after tonglen (giving and taking) is developing the exceptional resolve (lhag-bsam), which is the even stronger wish to be able to eliminate all the suffering of others and bring them the happiness of liberation and enlightenment. What is exceptional about it is the intention that even if we have to do it all by ourselves, we will do it and never give up. Obviously, this exceptional resolve is based on having even stronger compassion, that we can’t wait for other people to be able to do this; we’re going to do it ourselves. 

Developing the Bodhichitta Aim to Reach Enlightenment for the Benefit of All 

The next step after the exceptional resolve is bodhichitta itself. We examine ourselves and see, “Am I really able to do all of this myself? Can I really bring everyone to liberation and enlightenment?” We see that, “No, in my present situation, I can’t even help myself terribly well, and the only way that I will really be able to benefit others is if I attain not only liberation but the full enlightenment of a Buddha.” 

With bodhichitta, we focus on enlightenment, and here we’re not talking about enlightenment in general, we’re not talking about the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni. We are referring, instead, to our own individual enlightenment, but that individual enlightenment of ours is not presently happening; it is not yet happening. Like now, we’re in the year 2009, and the year 2010 is not presently happening; it’s something that is not yet happening. There is such a thing as the year 2010, but it’s just not happening now, so that is a type of existent phenomenon, something that is not yet happening. We can think about it, we can focus on it, like we can think about the year 2010, so we can validly know it or cognize it. 

When we focus on this enlightenment which is not yet happening, we have the intention to achieve it – in other words, to achieve a presently-happening enlightenment – by understanding all the work that is involved with that. The wishing state of bodhichitta (smon-sems) is just to attain it, and the engaged state (’jug-sems) is that we will put in all the work to attain it, and the full intention to benefit all others as much as is possible by means of that attainment and benefit them as much as is possible all along the way as much as we are capable. 

We have already, in the background, love and compassion, and this exceptional resolve. Also, we have a realistic understanding as well of what enlightenment entails and what we are capable of doing as an enlightened being. The famous line from a sutra is that “Buddha is not able to pull out others’ suffering like pulling a thorn out of a foot; all that a Buddha can do is to show the way to others and inspire them how to do it.” We don’t imagine that we can become an all-powerful god that just with a snap of the fingers – or we don’t even have to snap our fingers – we can eliminate all the suffering of others. From a Buddhist point of view, that is impossible for anybody to do. 

Focusing on Our Not-Yet-Happening Enlightenment on the Basis of Our Buddha-Nature Factors 

In the development of bodhichitta, usually we have two phases. One is we focus on all beings with the intention to benefit them and eliminate these sufferings, so this strengthens our love and compassion. Then, we focus on our not-yet-happening enlightenment with the intention to achieve it and benefit others. The question is, “What are we actually focusing on?” and “How do we focus on the not-yet-happening enlightenment?” If we speak just in a very general way, we need to understand that it is possible for us to achieve enlightenment on the basis of our Buddha-nature factors, and so we have two types of Buddha-nature factors. 

By the way, this word “Buddha-nature” is not actually technically the word that is used; there are several terms, but the most common term is a “family-trait” or “characteristic;” it is the characteristic of all those who belong to the Buddha family, which means the family of those who are able to become a Buddha, which means everybody. Anyway, in our Western languages, we have adopted the convention of calling this “Buddha-nature,” but we must understand that we’re not talking about some singular nature. We’re talking about many different factors which are somehow connected with our individual mental continuum. There are different assertions of this according to the different Indian tenet systems, and this is referring specifically to the Mahayana tenet systems, not in the Hinayana ones. We’re talking about Chittamatra and Madhyamaka, and within Madhyamaka, there’s a different assertion by Svatantrika and Prasangika; the various Tibetan traditions will have their own explanation of what these various Indian tenet systems assert. There are many, many variant assertions here. 

[For more detail, see: Buddha-Nature: Gelug Presentation

The Two Types of Buddha-Nature Factors and the Buddha Bodies 

Although this is a rather complicated topic, let’s just look at the Prasangika assertion, as explained by the Gelug tradition, that in all the different systems’ assertions of these factors, we have what are known as evolving factors (rgyas-’gyur-gyi rigs), which will evolve and grow, and abiding factors (rang-bzhin gnas-rigs), which will always stay the same. The evolving factors are factors that will evolve and grow into becoming the various bodies of a Buddha, and this we can understand in terms of body, speech and mind of a Buddha; or we can understand it in terms of Form Bodies of a Buddha and the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya of a Buddha, which is referring to the omniscient mind of a Buddha. 

Dharmakaya has two aspects, the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya (ye-shes chos-sku) and the Nature Dharmakaya (ngo-bo-nyid sku), something like that; I forget how I exactly translate them. Often, we refer to them with the Sanskrit terms, the Jnana Dharmakaya and the Svabhavakaya, and the abiding factor is referring to what is responsible for the Svabhavakaya, the Nature Body. There are many different variant assertions of what Svabhavakaya means, so it’s not an easy term to translate. Here in the Gelug Prasangika assertion, the Svabhavakaya is referring to the voidness (emptiness) of a Buddha’s mind, and the voidness of our individual minds or mental continuums is responsible for the fact that there is the voidness of a Buddha’s mind, the Svabhavakaya. The voidness of our ordinary mind and the voidness of our mind when it’s enlightened is exactly the same. Voidness is a static phenomenon; it doesn’t change. When we talk about voidness, we’re talking about a total absence of impossible ways of existing, so that is a fact which is unchanging and is the same whether our mind is in its ordinary aspect or as an enlightened aspect. Whether it is with mental obscurations – the emotional and cognitive ones – or free of them, the voidness of the mind stays the same. 

Thus, the voidness of the mind is an abiding Buddha-nature factor. If we speak about the most general assertion of the evolving Buddha-nature factors, then we would assert it as the two enlightenment-building networks, which is usually called the two “collections.” We’re talking about the network of positive force or potential (bsod-nams-kyi tshogs), that’s usually translated as “collection of merit,” and the network of deep awareness (ye-shes-kyi tshogs), that’s often translated as the “collection of wisdom.” 

When we talk about this network of positive force, there are different types of this. If that positive force is not done with a dedication to liberation or enlightenment, it is just a samsara-building network. In other words, it will act as a cause for experiencing pleasant situations in samsara, which is the suffering of change (’gyur-ba’i sdug-bsngal). If with renunciation, it is dedicated just toward liberation, then these will be liberation-building networks. If they are dedicated with the full attitude of bodhichitta, then they become enlightenment-building networks. So, the dedication is very important. 

The network of deep awareness technically is built up specifically when we have non-conceptual cognition of voidness; it’s built up by that. However, meditation on voidness before that (or different types of deep awareness) are similar to that and probably can be included, but the technical definition is that it’s built up from this non-conceptual cognition. We can have a very precise explanation, or we can have a more general explanation here. The network of positive force is built up from all other constructive practice besides that non-conceptual absorption on voidness. 

Anyway, this is not the time to go into a detailed discussion of Buddha-nature or these networks, so let’s leave that discussion. What is relevant here is that when we talk about the causes for obtaining the Bodies of a Buddha which are non-static – “non-static” here means from moment to moment they change and do different things – from another point of view, all the Bodies of a Buddha are eternal, so that’s translated as “permanent,” and sometimes we have a little bit of confusion here. The Form Bodies of a Buddha are eternal, but nevertheless, in each moment, they may be doing different things and appearing in different forms. 

In the attainment of these, we have what’s known as an obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) and a simultaneously acting condition (lhan-cig byed-pa’i rkyen). An obtaining cause is like a seed for a plant. It is that from which one obtains the result, but when the result is attained, that cause no longer exists. We obtain the plant or the sprout from the seed, but at the time of the sprout, we no longer have the seed. The simultaneously acting conditions for the sprout would be the water, the soil, etc. The obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha is the network of positive force, and what is the simultaneously acting condition that needs to accompany it would be the network of deep awareness. I’m referring to an enlightenment-building variant of each of these networks. 

For the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya of a Buddha – in other words, the omniscient mind of a Buddha – which, although eternal, in each moment would be aware of different things as it is benefiting each being over a time, the obtaining cause is the enlightenment-building network of deep awareness, and the simultaneously acting condition is the enlightenment-building network of positive force. These two networks, in general, are things that we all have, beginninglessly. It’s part of any mental continuum, because there is a basis level of deep awareness when we speak about the five types of deep awareness (mirror-like, equalizing, and so on). There’s no beginning to a network of positive force, because we have all done, endlessly, some constructive types of actions and some destructive types of actions. There are some Buddha-nature aspects that can be attained for the first time; like in any individual mental continuum, there will be a first time when bodhichitta is generated and never given up until enlightenment, and that will transform (if it’s applied) the samsara-building networks into enlightenment-building networks, or start the beginning of that process because we can dedicate the positive force from all our actions of the past, as well as the present and future. 

When we develop bodhichitta for the first time without ever afterward giving it up – bodhichitta is also a Buddha-nature factor – and what it does is it transforms when it’s applied with dedication, the samsara-building networks into enlightenment-building networks. Obviously, any further meditation that we do on bodhichitta when we really become a bodhisattva, when we have unlabored bodhichitta (rtsol-med byang-sems), is going to continue to build up more enlightenment-building positive force. Now, what are we focusing on with bodhichitta meditation? Remember, in general, we were saying that we’re focusing on a not-yet-happening enlightenment which nevertheless can happen on the basis of these Buddha-nature factors. 

The Buddha-Nature Factors as Imputation Phenomena 

Now, we need to understand imputation phenomena. When we talk about non-static phenomena (things that change from moment to moment), then we have forms of physical phenomena, like sights, sounds, smells, etc. We have ways of being aware of things, so visual consciousness, audio consciousness, all the mental factors, the emotions, concentration, etc. These change from moment to moment. Then, we have certain phenomena that change from moment to moment, but are in neither of these two categories like, for instance, motion. We have a sequence of moments: our hand is here, and then the next moment, it is in a slightly different position, and then the next moment yet another slightly different position, and motion is an imputation phenomenon on that basis. An imputation phenomenon is one that can neither exist nor be known separately from a basis. The motion of the hand cannot exist or be seen independently from a hand located sequentially in slightly different places. The existence of motion as an imputation phenomenon does not require someone to actively impute it. Motion conventionally exists. It can be seen non-conceptually. 

In each moment, we have five aggregate factors that are occurring. In this moment, there’s the visual sight of a table, there’s visual consciousness, and we’re distinguishing the table from the floor (the colored shape of the table), and we’re cognizing it with some level of happiness (a very low level of happiness), and there are other mental factors of attention and interest, etc. All of that is changing every moment. A mental continuum, an individual one, is an imputation phenomenon on that sequence of changing moments of five aggregates, of presently-happening five aggregates. This individual continuum cannot exist or be known independently of this individual sequence of five changing aggregates over time, like motion is an imputation phenomenon on something being in different positions in space over time. On the basis of each moment of that presently-happening mental continuum, a presently-happening mere “me” or conventional “me” exists as an imputation phenomenon, and on the basis of that presently-happening mere “me” there exists as a further imputation phenomenon the presently-happening karmic force or potential.

When we commit a constructive action, there is a karmic force or merit; we’re talking about the constructive type. This is Gelug Prasangika, by the way. One aspect of the karmic force is the karmic impulse of the action itself during the time of the physical, verbal, or mental action. Then after the action is completed, that karmic force transforms into an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the mere “me” that itself is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the mental continuum. It too is constructive. And as an imputation phenomenon on all the karmic force that builds up like that, there is a network of karmic force, positive force. 

Here we’re talking specifically about the enlightenment-building network, and there are two facets of that network – “facet” (cha) means like a face or aspect. One is its ability to give rise to its result, which is not yet happening; the result is not yet happening. It has an ability to give rise to a result, but the result is not yet happening, but that ability is presently happening. All right? That’s important to understand. If we aren’t aware that there is an ability of this network to give rise to a result, we wouldn’t think that we can achieve enlightenment. We have to be convinced that we are able to. So, how are we able to? It’s on the basis of this network. One aspect of these networks is the ability to give rise to a result, but that result is not yet happening. 

The other facet that is relevant here is its temporarily not giving rise to that result (re-zhig-gis ma-skye-pa’i cha), and on the basis of the temporarily not giving rise to a result, a not-yet-happening of the result exists as an imputation phenomenon. So, that is the not-yet-happening (ma-’ong-pa) of our enlightenment.

Focusing on a Representation of Our Enlightenment That Has Not Yet Happened 

That is what we are focusing on with bodhichitta, the not-yet-happening of our enlightenment, which can happen on the basis of the ability of these networks to give rise to it. What do we focus on in the meditation? We have to somehow represent this, so what we would focus on is the result, the enlightenment which has not yet happened. These are two different things here: there’s the not-yet-happening of the enlightenment, and there’s the enlightenment which has not yet happened. The not-yet-happening enlightenment is a negation phenomenon, but we represent it with an affirmation phenomenon, an enlightenment which has not yet happened, and that is a type of form that we can focus on. It is what is known as a totally conceptual form (kun-brtags-pa’i gzugs) – another translation for that is a totally imaginary form – but that doesn’t mean that it can only be known conceptually, and so on, but it’s just a translation of the term. It is a form that can only be known by the mind, like a dream form (rmi-lam-gyi gzugs). For us, because we’re not enlightened beings, we can only have a conceptual cognition of this type of mental form, and it represents the enlightenment which has not yet happened. That can be either a visualized image of a Buddha, or a visualized image of a Buddha-figure like Chenrezig, or a great spiritual master (either from the lineage or presently living). There are many variants. 

This represents our enlightenment, which is not yet happening, based on our understanding of the not-yet-happening of that enlightenment; we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that it’s happening [now], but that not-yet-happening of the enlightenment is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the temporarily not-giving-rise to enlightenment of those networks, and that network has the ability to give rise to the effect, enlightenment. That network is an imputation phenomenon on all the individual karmic potentials or forces. Those individual moments of karmic force are imputation phenomena on the mere “me,” and the mere “me” is an imputation phenomenon on the mental continuum, and the mental continuum is an imputation phenomenon on all the moments of our experience made up of five aggregate factors that are changing all the time. 

If we understand all these different levels of imputation phenomena then, while we’re sitting here, or at any time whatsoever – either sitting in meditation or any time – and we’re experiencing the five aggregates changing every moment, then we can see through all these levels of imputation phenomena, and on the basis of that, there’s the not-yet-happening of our enlightenment. We can represent it by this visualization and focus on that figure with the full intention to achieve it, to have a presently-happening enlightenment. It’s not that we want to become this visualization – obviously not – but we have a presently-happening enlightenment. The visualization is just representing it, what is possible to achieve. Since we know about the ability of these networks to give rise to this result – although temporarily, it’s not giving rise to that result – we have the intention to achieve that result, on the basis of putting in all the causes that will bring about the attainment of that result. All of that is accompanied by love and compassion.

That is a highly technical description of what we are actually doing in bodhichitta meditation. However, if we can understand technically what is going on, then it becomes much easier to be able to generate that state of mind in meditation and know what we are doing. Otherwise, what often happens for most people is that they think they’re doing bodhichitta meditation, but in fact, all they’re doing is meditation on love and compassion, which, although very beneficial, is not bodhichitta meditation. 

Let’s try doing this meditation on bodhichitta. Remember, we first focus on all beings and try to bring back up that feeling of love and compassion, and then go into the focus on our individual enlightenment that is not yet happening. As Tsongkhapa emphasizes very much, in order to do any meditation practice, we have to know what it is that we are focusing on in that meditation (in other words, what appears in our mind) and how our mind is relating or taking that object, and here it’s with the intention to achieve it in order to benefit everyone. 


I think that we can start to appreciate now the absolute necessity for having bodhichitta to do any type of tantra practice. In tantra practice, we’re visualizing ourselves in the form of a Buddha figure on the basis of knowing that we have the ability to achieve it with these networks and so on. We understand that it’s not yet happening, so we don’t fool ourselves, but we imagine that it is happening now, and then visualize ourselves actually helping others – with lights going out and alleviating everybody’s suffering, and so on – with the bodhichitta motivation that eventually we actually will be able to do this. By practicing now similar to what we want to achieve as a result, it becomes a more efficient speedy method. 

However, without all the bodhichitta foundation behind this visualization process, and renunciation (which is turning away from our ordinary samsaric aspects because it’s filled with suffering), and the understanding of voidness, which is responsible for this whole transformation, without these three principal aspects of the path (Tsongkhapa calls renunciation, bodhichitta and voidness), then the whole practice of tantra is just craziness. Tantra practice is not at all a beginning level of practice. It’s very important not to trivialize it or to practice it prematurely at a stage at which we just will get very confused, and there will be more damage than benefit. 

What is going on with the individual mental continuum after we reach enlightenment? You said that there is no universal mind continuum. So does the individual continuum of mind begin something else after enlightenment, or does it remain individual? 

It remains individual, with a different quality, of course: it’s no longer unenlightened, so it is no longer limited. In Nyingma terminology, we have two different names. We have the word “sem” (sems), which I translate as a “limited mind,” which means not an omniscient mind. What is usually translated as sentient being is “semchen” (sems-can), someone with a limited mind. Buddha doesn’t have a limited mind; a Buddha is not a sentient being. That’s why I don’t like to use the term “sentient being” because that’s confusing. A Buddha doesn’t have a limited mind or a limited body, so a Buddha’s not a limited being. Unfortunately, in many languages, when we translate “limited being,” it sounds as though it’s a disabled person, which is not what we mean here; although, in a sense, it’s disabled, in terms of not being able to know everything and help everyone. In the Nyingma terminology, we have the term “rigpa” (rig-pa), which is “pure awareness,” the type of mind that a Buddha has; it is unlimited and is the basis underlying our limited minds as well. 

It is in certain types of Hindu philosophies that we have the idea that all rivers, all streams go into the ocean, and so with liberation, all mental continuums become one, but that’s certainly not the Buddhist position. A mental continuum of Maitreya Buddha is not the same mental continuum or enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha. The level of attainment is the same: they are both equally omniscient and know everything. However, certain beings have built up the karma to be benefited by Shakyamuni Buddha, and some beings have built up the karma to be benefited by Maitreya Buddha, and so they are individual in terms of their experience of helping others. They retain that individuality. In many of our Buddhist practices, we acknowledge that we have not built up the karma to actually meet and study directly with Buddha Shakyamuni, and so we have these Maitreya prayers which are recited certainly daily by all Tibetan monks and nuns to be able to build up that karmic connection to be able to actually study in the presence of Maitreya Buddha. 


Let us end with the dedication. We think whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from all of this discussion, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.