Background for Understanding Bodhichitta

The Two Truths

To develop a bodhichitta aim, the first thing that we need to know and be clear about is to have some idea of what bodhichitta is. There are actually two aspects of bodhichitta and this is in accordance with the two truths. The two truths about anything are the relative appearance of things, so that’s called “relative” or “conventional truth.” We can translate it more literally as “superficial truth”, so superficially what things appear to be like, how they appear to us. Then the deepest truth about things, how they actually exist, in other words voidness (emptiness) of various things, and their absence of existing in impossible ways. Both of them are true; it is not that one is absolute or ultimate truth and the other one is less true. So we’re not talking about some transcendental truth that’s totally removed from our ordinary world, although sometimes the vocabulary that’s used in European languages suggests that, but that is not what is the actual meaning.

In Mahayana, when we speak about the two truths, we are talking about the two truths of anything. They are true facts about things. When we talk about the relative or conventional truth of things, we’re talking about as I said the appearance of things, so the appearance of what they are. Now when we speak about an appearance, things don’t have an appearance just by themselves. When we talk about an appearance, an appearance is to a mind. The appearance of the sink in the kitchen – is it appearing now? Well, we don’t know, I mean it is not just appearing. The only way that we can talk about the appearance of the sink in the kitchen is if we walk into the kitchen and look at it. Then it appears to us. It’s not just appearing by itself, sitting in there with nobody in the kitchen. And so, the type of appearance that we experience, that our mind experiences, depends very much on the state of that mind, the condition of that mind.


There are accurate and non-accurate ways of appearance-making. Let’s say I take my glasses off and I look in the kitchen and I see a blur. Well, that appearance of a blur is not accurate; if I put my glasses on I wouldn’t see a blur anymore and other people whose vision is not impaired, they wouldn’t see a blur. So that’s not an accurate appearance. But then, there are accurate appearances of what something is. Often the inaccurate appearance of what something is, is not necessarily because of some problem with our senses, but it can also be a mental projection. Like if somebody has not called us, we project, well, what’s the situation? It appears to us that they don’t love us anymore, whereas in fact the telephone was out of order. So very often what we perceive is a projection. So this is the appearance of what something is, the relative truth of something. It can be accurate or inaccurate depending on the mind.

When we talk about the deepest truth of something, which is how it exists, this also has to do in a sense with an appearance; it has to do with an appearance of how something exists. According to the Prasangika view – the deepest position in Buddhist philosophy or understanding – there’s nothing going on from the side of the object that’s making it exist in a certain way. It all has to do in relation to the mind in some way or another. It’s then discussed in various, complex ways of what the relation to the mind is. It’s like, how do we know that there is a sink in the kitchen, and that it exists in the kitchen? How do you know that? What proves it, that it is there now? The only way that we would know that it exists is if we went in and looked at it and saw it; or heard the dripping of the sink; or somebody else went into the kitchen and shouted out to us, “Yes, the sink is here, it’s still here”; or there was a video camera or something going on. But just by itself? With absolutely no connection to a mind there is no way of knowing that the sink exists in the kitchen now.

I think of an amusing example: How do you know that there’s light on in the refrigerator? You open the door and you see a light on, but when you close the door, we don’t know whether the light is still on or not, do we? There’s no way of knowing. We open the door again, well, we only know that there’s a light on now; we don’t know whether the light stays on when the door is closed or not – unless there’s a video camera or something inside. It’s amusing, isn’t it?

So the appearance of something existing and how it exists, that also is dependent on the mind in some way or another. The mind can either make things appear – just as we had accurate and inaccurate in terms of what it is – it can also be accurate or inaccurate in terms of how it exists. So, in other words, the mind can make things appear as if they’re existing in an impossible way, or it can make things appear to exist in a way that they actually do exist, which will be explained in terms of voidness – their absence of existing in an impossible way.

Mental Activity

When we speak about bodhichitta, we are speaking about a state of mind. When we talk about a mind, what we are talking about is not some sort of “thing” like a machine, but we’re talking about an activity that is occurring every moment, with individual continuity from moment to moment, subjective. That activity is the activity of experiencing, but you can’t just experience, you have to experience something. There is always content. And so, how would we describe this activity of experiencing something? You could describe it from several different angles of what’s going on – it is only one activity that is going on and you could describe it from different points of view. This activity is usually described from two main points of view. One way of describing is that there’s the production or making or arising of some sort of mental appearance (here we can use “mental”) – a mental representation of something. We can think of it as a mental hologram, but let’s not limit it to a visual thing. It could be in any sense, or just a thought, or just an emotion – although emotions are always accompanying things, they don’t just arise by themselves.

So, we can see this, this is quite clear in terms of vision; actually it’s like pixels of light – little pixels and dots of light strike the retina, the eye. And in the West we would say that the mind somehow, as if the mind were a machine – which it’s not from the Buddhist point of view – makes that into a mental picture. Not just pixels of light, but it appears solid, for example. That’s a mental representation. Or there’s an appearance of motion. Well, if we analyze that, we only see one microsecond at a time. The hand is here, and then here, and then here, and then here – we don’t see the whole motion simultaneously. When the hand is over here, it’s no longer over there and we’re no longer seeing it over there. There is this mental representation, however, of motion – it is not just disconnected frames, is it?

Hearing speech is really quite amazing, if you think about it, because in one moment we only hear the sound of a vowel or a consonant. We don’t even hear a whole syllable in one moment. And when we hear the next sound, the next part of a word, we don’t hear the beginning part of the word at all. And then, you know, there’s a whole sentence of words and yet, there’s a mental representation of the whole thing, such that we can actually understand the meaning of not only words, but of whole sentences. That’s quite remarkable if you think about it. This is a mental representation; this is a mental hologram of sound. The same thing with a thought, a line of thinking – only one moment of it happens at a time. Or a mood or something like that – every second is different and yet there’s a mental representation of the whole thing.

So this arising of a mental appearance or a mental representation – that’s usually called “clarity”. Although it’s literally the word in Tibetan, it’s rather misleading. We’re not talking about the focus of something or a quality of something; we’re talking about this activity. And we’re not talking about a process either, because “process” is a sequence of moments; we’re talking about the activity that happens in one moment, in every moment. One has to be very precise with the words they use.

Then, another way of describing the exact same activity is that it’s not just an arising of a mental appearance; it’s also actually a knowing of what something is, a perceiving of what something is. The arising of this visual hologram – that’s what seeing is. The arising of this audio hologram – that’s what hearing is. It’s another way of describing the same phenomenon – the arising of a visual hologram, that is what seeing is. That is seeing – that’s just another way of describing it. It’s another aspect of what’s happening. It’s not that first there is the arising of this visual hologram, mental hologram, and then afterwards we see it. How can that happen? How would we know that it’s arisen in order to be able to see it? It doesn’t make any sense. Same thing: it’s not that a thought arises and then you think it. The arising of a thought and the thinking of a thought is exactly the same thing; it’s just described differently.

Another point about this mental activity is that it’s just happening. It’s not that there is a separate “me” who is making it happen, or controlling it, or separate from it and observing it happen. And it’s not that “mind” is something separate, a machine separate from all of this which is doing this activity (although of course we can speak about the brain and so on, but that’s just the physical basis). So, it’s not that there is a “me” sitting over here and the mind is like some computer screen and I’m looking at it, looking at this mental activity of what comes on the screen. It’s not at all how it is. It’s just happening, moment to moment, and we can explain it in terms of “I’m thinking” or “I’m seeing” – it’s not somebody else; but it’s not that that “me” is separate from the whole process, outside of it and looking at it or controlling it, pressing the keys.

Bodhichitta, then, is a mental activity – an individual, subjective mental activity that we could develop so that it would occur in our mental continuum. A mental activity has to have a content, there has to have some mental hologram, a mental representation. So here, what is it a mental representation of? The mental hologram or representation is a representation of enlightenment. We’re not talking about the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni, we’re not talking about enlightenment in general; we’re talking about our own individual enlightenment.

There can be a mental appearance, a mental representation, of what is that enlightenment – what are its qualities and so on, what actually is it – that would be what is appearing with relative bodhichitta. And it could be also a mental representation of how that enlightenment exists; that would be deepest bodhichitta – the voidness of our individual enlightenment. And obviously these mental appearances of what that enlightenment is and how it exists, can either be accurate or inaccurate, so we certainly want to try and have an accurate one of what our individual enlightenment is – what the qualities are – and an accurate one of how it exists. Not some weird, fantasy projection.

Understanding What to Focus on in Bodhichitta

Now, it starts to get a little bit complicated. Our individual enlightenment has not yet happened. We might think it is totally nonexistent, so how can we focus on it? These are important questions because we say, “Okay, bodhichitta, meditate on bodhichitta.” In order to know how to meditate on it, any state of mind that we want to develop through meditation, we have to know what it is aimed at, what it is focused on, and how does it actually engage with that object. And here, what is being focused on is our own, individual enlightenment, and the way that the mind is taking it is with two intentions. One is to achieve that enlightenment, and the other is the intention to help everybody as much as possible. And it’s also accompanied with love – wanting everybody to be happy and not unhappy; and compassion – wanting them to be free from suffering and the causes for suffering; and the extraordinary resolve that I’m going to really do it, myself, for everybody. So it’s a whole complex, this state of mind, the relative bodhichitta. So we need to know: if I’m going to generate that state of mind or try to generate it, well what am I focusing on? What appears at that time? Otherwise, how in the world do we do the meditation of just really concentrating on bodhichitta? It is not an easy question.

Past and Future, and Affirmative and Negation Phenomena

We have to understand a little bit what is meant by past and future in Buddhism. Past actually is referring to a passed happening – it’s passed already, no longer happening. Future is actually, literally, the not-yet-happening of something. So the passed happening and the not-yet-happening. Those are the words. So we’re not talking about some sort of solid thing that is moving through time, as if time were a conveyor belt, and it moves from the state of not-yet-happened, like it’s outside of the room; and then now it’s happening so it comes into the room; and now it’s passed happening, it walks out of the room and it’s over there. That is not the way that time works from the Buddhist point of view. We’re not talking about some solid thing when we talk about an event.

So, not-yet-happening and a passed happening – they’re what we call a negation phenomenon. The table is an affirmative phenomenon; we would call the table an "affirming phenomenon." But we can also see there is no apple on the table. What do you actually see when you see no apple on the table? You see the table, but you know that there’s no apple on it. These are negation phenomena – we know them, but it’s a little bit strange, isn’t it? It’s very interesting, I mean you have to have known an apple before in order to see that there’s no apple. If you have no idea what an apple is and you’ve never seen an apple, you can’t see that there’s no apple on the table. So that becomes very interesting, how a baby learns all of this. How does a baby learn “not food?” A baby at first puts everything in its mouth; eventually it has to learn “not food.” I mean, we’re not talking about some weird philosophical thing; it’s very, very interesting, actually, how the mind works, how we know things.

Anyway, with our not-yet-happened enlightenment, it’s not here, so what are we focusing on? Let’s look at an example – an easier example, in terms of the past. My mother died a number of years ago, but I can think of my mother, can’t I? Now, when I think of my mother, what appears? She’s passed, no longer existing, but I can think of her. So what appears? Well, we have to say my mother appears. It’s not somebody else appearing when I picture her in my mind. But I also know the passed existence of her, the no-longer living of her. It’s passed – I’m not thinking that she is still alive. That mother is an affirmation phenomenon; she has qualities, like this table.

Same thing with something that has not yet happened: the not-yet-happening enlightenment. Our individual enlightenment has not yet happened but it is an affirmation phenomenon – it has qualities like my mother has qualities. But I know that it has not yet happened, the not-yet-happening of it. I don’t fool myself into thinking that now I’m enlightened. But I can only know that future enlightenment, my individual future enlightenment, through an idea of it. I can’t know it without an idea of it, because it’s not happening. It’s like the difference between seeing this object and seeing this object as a table. “Table” is an idea; that’s a category that I could apply to many, many different things.

So the individual enlightenment is like this object, the table, and knowing it through the concept, the category "enlightenment" – well that’s an idea. So these categories are concepts. Conceptual thinking is primarily involved with thinking through or with categories – word, audio and meaning categories. So we know the category of enlightenment, we know all the qualities and qualifications – so, that we need to know accurately, all the qualifications of a Buddha, qualities of a Buddha. And through that concept, basically, that category, that idea, then we focus on that not-yet-happened individual enlightenment of me.

So, how could that future enlightenment appear? What would it look like? Well, we could represent it as a Buddha-figure, or in tantra imagining ourselves as a Buddha, or just a word. There are many ways that we could represent that future enlightenment, just as I could think of my dead mother by just thinking “mother”, or a mental picture. It’s a hologram, a mental representation. This is why you cannot possibly practice tantra properly without bodhichitta, because by visualizing yourself as a Buddha figure – well that’s representing, it’s a mental hologram of that future, individual enlightenment that we’re aiming to achieve, through the idea of what all the qualities of a Buddha are; the category of enlightenment. And of course with the understanding that it’s not yet happened, the not-yet-happening of it – otherwise you’re crazy – and also with the aim to achieve it, and the aim to benefit everybody by means of it.

Becoming Convinced of Our Own Personal Enlightenment

There’s a difference between focusing on let’s say my not-yet-born child – the not-yet-happened child – or the not-yet-happened old age, and the not-yet-happened individual enlightenment. The not-yet-happened child or the not-yet-happened 80-year-old me may not happen. I could die before or I could not have children, whereas the not-yet-happened enlightenment is something that definitely can happen and will happen if we put in the effort. And so this leads to the next point, which is that we have to absolutely be certain that it is possible to achieve that enlightenment, and that I am capable of achieving it. Without it, we’re focusing on something that maybe will never happen, and so if we’re not convinced that it can happen, how can we sincerely aim to achieve it?

There’s a big difference between focusing on my not-yet-being reborn as Cleopatra – and we know what the qualities of Cleopatra are, so we could imagine the Cleopatra that I’ll become – and focusing on my not-yet-happened becoming a Buddha. What’s the difference? In the case of being reborn as Cleopatra, we can never be reborn as Cleopatra. In the case of being reborn as an animal, well, we could or we could not, depending on the causes. But in the case of becoming a Buddha, that’s something that we definitely can become further down on our mental continuum, if we put in the effort. If we don’t put in the effort, it’s not going to happen.

So that leads us to our next topic, which is how to become convinced that it actually is possible for me to become enlightened. And that is very, very important to really be convinced of in order to develop bodhichitta.