Why Haven’t We All Become Enlightened Already?

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Samsara is beginningless, and yet there can be a first time when we develop a bodhichitta aim. How does this decision arise to aim for achieving enlightenment for the benefit of all beings? Is it a matter of free will – we choose to aim for enlightenment? Is it all determined by our karma and it happens mechanistically, so we have no choice? Or is the question more complex than that?

Neither Free Will Nor Determinism

Neither free will nor determinism explains how we make decisions and choices. Free will implies a truly existent “me” that can make decisions independently, without being affected by causes and conditions. It also implies decisions existing independently by themselves, like choices on a menu. If such a “me” existed, it couldn’t make any choices or do anything. That’s because it would exist independently by itself, like being encapsulated in plastic.

Determinism implies that the result truly exists already, findable in the cause, and is just waiting to pop out and become manifest. If that were the case, the result would already have been produced and so could not be affected by any conditions to arise. Moreover, there would be no need for something to arise again that has already arisen.

This last refutation is the same if the result already truly exists, determined at the time of the cause. There would be no need for it to be made to arise again. On the other hand, if the result were totally nonexistent at the time of the cause, it could not come to exist. A truly existent “nothing” cannot become a truly existent “something.”

So if neither free will nor determinism is the case in making decisions and choices, our discussion really comes down to an analysis of how does decision-making occur, such as the decisions involved in developing bodhichitta for the first time, i.e. the decision to aspire and work toward attaining enlightenment for the benefit of all?

Why Has Everyone Already Been Our Mothers, But Not Everyone Has Already Attained Enlightenment?

I would like to discuss this issue in terms of a larger question: If our mental continuums have no beginning, and consequently everyone has been our mother in some previous life, then why hasn’t everyone decided to develop bodhichitta and attained enlightenment already?

The fuller question is: Given that time is beginningless, the number of limited beings (sentient beings) is finite, everyone is equal, and there have always been Buddhas, then why haven’t all limited beings already attained liberation and enlightenment?

This situation is quite different from the question: Given that time is beginningless, the number of limited beings is finite, and everyone is equal, why have all beings been my mother at some time?

Why All Beings Have Been Our Mothers

In the case of being my mother, there is no beginningless, mutually exclusive opposing force preventing anyone from being my mother. Nothing beginningless needs to be overcome in order to become my mother. Moreover, in every life that I have been born from a womb or an egg, I have had a mother, so I have had an infinite number of mothers.

The prasanga-style proof is that if one being has been my mother, then all beings have been my mother, because everyone is equal and no beginningless opposing force needs to be overcome in order to have been my mother. If that were not the case, then if one being has not been my mother, then the absurd conclusion would follow that no one has ever been my mother, including my mother in this lifetime, also because everyone is equal and no beginningless opposing force had to have been overcome in order to have been my mother.

Why Everyone Has Not Already Attained Enlightenment

The case of everyone having already attained liberation and enlightenment is different. Here, there are mutually exclusive, opposing forces preventing liberation and enlightenment, namely unawareness (ignorance) and grasping for truly established existence, plus their tendencies and constant habits. All limited beings are equal in having had this unawareness and grasping as parts of their mental continuums with no beginning.

Now it is true that all limited beings are likewise equal in having had, with no beginning, as parts of their mental continuums, the Buddha-nature factors that will allow this unawareness and grasping to be stopped forever. These factors include their networks of positive force (collection of merit) and deep awareness (collection of wisdom), plus the deepest natures of their minds, voidness (emptiness). However, when the beginningless combination of the two networks is accompanied with beginningless unawareness and grasping for truly established existence, they function as the causes for beginningless samsaric rebirth. This is because, unless accompanied by renunciation or both renunciation and bodhichitta, the networks of positive force and deep awareness are samsara-building networks.

[See: The Two Collections: Two Networks]

For the two samsara-building networks to become pure-building networks (resulting in liberation or enlightenment), a limited being needs to develop renunciation, or renunciation and bodhichitta, for the first time and then develop them further. Unlike becoming my mother, developing renunciation and bodhichitta cannot occur naturally, without inspiration and teachings from a Buddha and without individual effort. Part of Buddha-nature is the ability of our mental continuums to be inspired and the beginningless mental factors that allow for effort, but again they are clouded by beginningless unawareness and grasping for truly established existence.

Why Have Some Beings Developed Bodhichitta for the First Time and Others Have Not?

If there were a beginning and at the beginning all limited beings were equal in having the same strengths of unawareness and grasping for truly established existence, then it would be difficult to account for the differences in how this finite number of limited beings developed spiritually. Why would some limited beings have developed renunciation and bodhichitta for the first time and gone on to attain liberation and enlightenment, while others have not? After all, even correct discriminating awareness of voidness, which is needed for overcoming unawareness and grasping for true existence, is not enough for attaining enlightenment. The correct discriminating cognition of voidness needs to be held by the force of bodhichitta.

However, since there is no beginning, each limited being is an individual, with different strengths of unawareness and grasping for truly established existence, different strengths of the two samsara-building networks, different strengths of karmic aftermath and of tendencies of disturbing emotions and attitudes, and different strengths of the mental factors enabling spiritual growth, such as concentration and discriminating awareness. Because of these differences, occasionally some limited beings may develop renunciation and bodhichitta. But for this to happen, it requires a large build-up of samsara-building positive force before the network of positive force is strong enough to ripen into meeting a Buddha, receiving teachings, following them, and developing renunciation and bodhichitta for the first time. It then takes three zillion eons of building up positive force in order to attain enlightenment. But even developing a positive thought, not under the influence of disturbing emotions, is extremely rare.

As Shantideva wrote in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (I.5-6):

Just as a flash of lightening on a dark, cloudy night, for an instant, brightly illuminates all; so, in this world, through the might of the Buddhas, a positive attitude rarely and briefly appears.

Thus, constructive (behavior) is constantly weak, while negative forces are extremely strong and most unbearable. Except for a full bodhichitta aim, can anything else constructive outshine it?

[See: Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Chapter 1]

Has Everyone Already Attained Enlightenment, But We Just Don’t Recognize It?

A doubt may arise here. Maybe everyone has already attained enlightenment, but we just don’t recognize it, just as we don’t recognize everyone as having been our mothers despite their having in fact been our mothers?

In the case of all limited beings having been my mother, except for my mother in this lifetime while she is still alive, the “state of being my mother” of all other limited beings is no longer happening. In the case of someone being enlightened, their “state of being enlightened” continues to be presently happening once it is attained. Therefore, if, for the reason of beginningless time, everyone should have already attained enlightenment, then everyone’s “states of being enlightened” would still be presently happening, including my own. However, this is contradicted by valid cognition of at least my own way of acting, speaking, and thinking. I’m not enlightened. So it is not like the case of everyone having been my mother, but I don’t recognize them as such because they are not my mother in this lifetime. It is not that everyone has attained enlightenment already, but I don’t recognize them as such because they are not enlightened in this lifetime.

The Laws of Probability and the Role of Positive Force and Prayer

Now we can ask the question: How is it that some, but not all limited beings have built up sufficient positive force to have met a Buddha, received teachings, followed them, and developed renunciation and bodhichitta for the first time? What role did choice and decision-making play in this?

In the case of becoming my mother, positive force was not required for this to happen and no decision or choice was involved either. It just happens that someone becomes our mother because, over infinite time, everyone will have interacted with each other. This is because all beings are equal in the sense that all beings engage in samsaric activity and all beings undergo rebirth. It is like the example that all dust particles in a room over infinite time will collide with each other because all of them are equally in motion. It is not like the case of our meeting the Dharma and our meeting and studying with spiritual teachers in all our lifetimes as the result of offering prayers and dedicating our positive force for that to happen. No one would ordinarily offer prayers and dedicate positive force to be born as the child of a specific person in all his or her lifetimes.

Although the laws of probability lead to the conclusion that everyone has been my mother at some time, the laws of probability do not lead to the conclusion that everyone has met a Buddha at some time. Why? because a build-up of positive force is required for meeting a Buddha, receiving teachings, and so on. If there were a beginning at which point everyone’s network of positive force was equal, then the same line of reasoning as proved that everyone has been my mother would apply. If one person had met a Buddha and so on, everyone would have met a Buddha; otherwise, if one person had not met a Buddha, no one would have ever met a Buddha, including Shakyamuni’s personal disciples.

However, since there was no beginning, then everyone’s network of positive force has always been of different strengths. Because of that, only some limited beings have built up sufficient strength of positive force to have met a Buddha and so on. We need to have attained a precious human rebirth. Therefore, as the lam-rim texts all explain, if we have built up sufficient strength of positive force to have attained a fully endowed precious human rebirth, we have the working basis for developing renunciation and bodhichitta for the first time and going on to attaining liberation and enlightenment.


In summary, although we are all equal in equally having:

  1. Beginningless Buddha-nature factors
  2. Beginningless unawareness of reality and grasping for true existence
  3. Beginningless other mental factors included in having five aggregates in each lifetime:
    • Neutral ones such as urge, intention, mentally fixating, discriminating awareness
    • Constructive ones such as a caring attitude (to take care of one’s offspring)
    • Disturbing emotions and attitudes, such as anger, greed, and attachment.

It is not that all these started at “value equals zero” at the beginning. There was no beginning. So the strength of each of these has always been different in each being.

What Do We Need in Order to Be Able to Make the Decision to Work toward Enlightenment?

The next question is: When faced with the choice of striving to develop bodhichitta or not for the first time, how does the decision-making occur if neither free will nor determinism explains it?

First of all, to even be in the position to decide whether or not to aim for enlightenment in order to best benefit all beings, we need confident belief in the existence of the qualities of a Buddha, our ability to achieve them, and an aspiration to attain them ourselves.

To develop this, we need to encounter the teachings of a Buddha and have interest in them and the teacher, Buddha, who taught them, which means not having an antagonistic distorted attitude toward them. We also need love and compassion to help others to attain this too.

To develop these, we need at minimum a precious human rebirth so that the teachings and teachers are available, they are supported, we are a human being, we encounter the teachings and teachers, we are receptive to them, and so on.

The causes for a precious human rebirth are ethical discipline, prayer and the other five far-reaching attitudes. These build up the positive karmic force or potential for attaining a precious human rebirth.

  • Ethical discipline means refraining from destructive behavior, based on discriminating awareness of the disadvantages of destructive behavior and the benefits of refraining from it.
  • According to Vasubandhu, Treasure-House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa'i mdzod, Skt. Abhidharmakosha), discriminating awareness means “intelligent awareness” (blo-gros), defined as the mental factor that decisively discriminates that something is correct or incorrect, constructive or destructive, and so on. It adds some level of decisiveness to distinguishing an object of cognition – even if that level is extremely weak – and may be either correct or incorrect.

But, we can only develop such discriminating awareness (the cause for a precious human rebirth) during a precious human rebirth. So, is it a cumulative process that the more discriminating awareness we build up and the more constructive behavior we engage in, the more precious human rebirths we will attain? If that were the case, then, because of beginningless rebirth, by now we should all have built up enough positive force or potential for developing bodhichitta for the first time and for reaching enlightenment – i.e. three countless eons build-up of positive force.

Why Haven’t We Already Built Up Enough Positive Force to Develop Bodhihcitta?

But this hasn’t happened. Why? because:

  • Unawareness of reality is beginningless and, although our having the mental factor of discriminating awareness is also beginningless, our having correct discriminating awareness – for example discriminating awareness of what is beneficial and what is harmful in the long term (not just short term, like instinctively running away from danger), or of voidness or of the Four Noble Truths – is not beginningless. It too needs to be developed for the first time.
  • We can only develop such types of correct discriminating awareness during a precious human rebirth.
  • Despite beginningless rebirth, the infinite number of lower rebirths we have had is a larger infinite number than the infinite number of precious human rebirths we have had. For example, if for every one precious human rebirth, we have a million lower rebirths, then the infinite number of lower realm rebirths we have had is larger than the infinite number of precious human rebirths we have had. According to both Western and classical Indian mathematics, infinities can be of different sizes.
  • We are building up negative karmic force and strengthening the force of our ignorance and disturbing emotions in all our rebirths, but we are strengthening our positive karmic force and discriminating awareness only sometimes in some rebirths. Therefore, our negative karmic force and ignorance are much stronger and compelling than our positive karmic force and correct discriminating awareness.
  • Although constructive behavior can weaken negative karmic potentials and destructive behavior can weaken positive karmic potentials; nevertheless, since the amount of our destructive behavior is much larger than the amount of our constructive behavior, we are constantly weakening our positive karmic potentials or force.
  • Also, although negative and positive karmic potentials no longer exist once they have finished ripening; nevertheless, since our negative ones outnumber our positive, we are always left with more negative karmic potentials than positive ones.

So, how can we strengthen our networks of positive force and deep awareness so that they can overcome our negative potentials and unawareness, so that we can attain a precious human rebirth and develop renunciation and bodhichitta for the first time? Can we simply decide to do so with free will, is it determined, or is there some other explanation? To analyze this issue, we need to look more closely at these two networks.

The Two Networks

Our networks of positive force and deep awareness can be either samsara-building, liberation-building, or enlightenment building, depending on the motivation and dedication involved with which we build them up. Let’s limit our discussion to only samsara-building and enlightenment-building positive force.

If our positive force is built up with unlabored bodhichitta, then it cannot be weakened by destructive behavior and it doesn’t run out. It continues to ripen all the way to enlightenment. Unlabored bodhichitta is bodhichitta that arises without our having to build it up through steps and lines of reasoning, such as distinguishing all beings as have been our mothers. According to the Panchen textbooks, the same is the case even if our positive force is built up with labored bodhichitta – bodhichitta that arises through building it up through steps and lines of reasoning. But in the case of labored bodhichitta, we must actually generate the mental factors of each step for developing bodhichitta – equanimity, love, compassion, exceptional resolve, and then bodhichitta. On the other hand, samsara-building positive force, for instance to have a precious human rebirth, can be weakened, for instance by anger.

So, it is possible for positive force to overpower negative force if that positive force is enlightenment-building positive force, because positive force built up with actual bodhichitta, either unlabored or labored, cannot be weakened or destroyed. But, first, we need samsara-building positive force in order to attain a precious human rebirth; and only in a precious human rebirth can we develop facsimile bodhichitta so that we build up the facsimile enlightenment-building positive force that can eventually lead to labored and then unlabored bodhichitta and to building up actual enlightenment-building positive force.

The Role of Karma

Where do choice and decision-making come in to this analysis? What role does karma play in this? We need to be clear, however, about what karma actually is referring to. Karma, as something that we want to overcome and rid ourselves of, does not refer to actions; otherwise, to become liberated or enlightened, we would just need to stop doing, saying or thinking anything. Karma means a compulsion. According to the Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Svatantrika tenet systems, karma is the mental factor of compulsion (sems-pa, a compulsive urge) that drives us to think, speak or act in a certain way. According to the Vaibhashika and Gelug Prasangika tenet systems, karma is the mental factor of compulsion that drives us merely to think in a certain way. In the case of acting or speaking, karma is the compulsive shape that our body takes when we act, or the compulsive sound that our voice takes when we speak, plus the subtle compulsive energy that accompanies these and continues afterwards as part of our mental continuums so long as we do not give up the wish to repeat the action. It is clear from these definitions that karma does not mean “actions,” despite the fact that the Tibetan translation for the Sanskrit word “ karma,” “ las,” is the colloquial Tibetan word for “actions.”

The Analysis of Making the Decision to Refrain from Destructive Behavior

Now for the analysis: To build up even samsara-building positive force, we need the correct discriminating awareness to choose to refrain from destructive behavior when two feelings or wishes arise:

(1) The feeling or wish to act destructively, which ripens from a negative karmic potential and occurs before the compulsion (the karma) arises that drives us to think to act on that wish

(2) The feeling or wish to act constructively (in other words, to refrain from acting destructively) ripens from a positive karmic potential.

According to Vasubandhu, Treasure-House of Special Topics of Knowledge, this wish (‘dod-pa) to act or to refrain from acting is equivalent to an intention (‘dun-pa), the mental factor to do something, or to obtain an object or goal, or to do something with that object or goal once we obtain it.

But the opportunity to even make this decision will only arise if, when a negative karmic potential ripens to give rise to the wish to act destructively, a positive karmic potential also ripens to give rise to the wish to refrain from acting destructively. Only then can we experience indecisive wavering between the two wishes. Negative and positive potential ripens, however, only when certain circumstances are present.

For negative potential to ripen, these circumstances include:

  • A disturbing emotion of anger, greed, or attachment, and so on
  • The negative influence of others
  • Incorrect consideration (for instance, of suffering as happiness)
  • A physical situation (for instance starving, being poor, and so feeling like stealing food).

Positive potential will ripen and feeling like refraining will occur when we have:

  • A constructive mental factor of detachment, patience, equanimity, or imperturbability (not getting angry), and so on,
  • The possible positive influence of others
  • Inspiration from the Buddhas and our teachers
  • Mindfulness – remembering their teachings
  • Concentration on them.

Many circumstances, then, need to be present even to encounter the situation in which we can make a decision between acting destructively or refraining, and each of these circumstances arises from its causes.

But even if the circumstances are present, if the positive karmic potential is too weak, it won’t give rise to the wish to refrain from acting destructively. This is the more usual situation. Once the wish to act destructively (feeling like acting destructively, for instance like yelling) arises and is accompanied by a disturbing emotion (anger), incorrect consideration (that yelling will bring happiness), and so on, then new karma (new compulsion) arises. With compulsion, we think to yell and then we act with a compulsive shape of our body or a compulsive sound of our yelling voice. The whole sequence follows without deliberation, just compulsively.

So, when the wish to yell arises from the negative karmic potential to yell, we cannot choose, with deliberation, to refrain from acting on it unless a positive karmic potential to refrain from yelling also gives rise to the wish to refrain. In addition, the positive potential needs to be strong so that the strength of that wish is strong and all the supporting circumstances and factors for choosing to act on that wish, like perseverance, ethical discipline, etc., need also to have arisen from their tendencies and be strong.

But we can only have strong positive karmic potentials if we have built them up through refraining from destructive behavior. And to do that, we need to have had discriminating awareness.

Since that discriminating awareness needed to build up positive force is only built up during a precious human rebirth, and to attain such a precious human rebirth we need positive karmic force, and we are always weakening our positive karmic force through anger, and so on, it is like trying to fill with water a bucket that has a hole in it. This describes samsara and is why all beings have not yet achieved enlightenment. It is because, in brief:

  • So many positive circumstances need to come together and these are not beginningless
  • The negative circumstances arise from beginningless causes
  • The negative causes continually weaken or destroy the positive ones that we have built up.

Why Enlightenment Is Possible

But enlightenment is possible. The reason why it is possible at all is that incorrect discriminating awareness can be harmed by correct discriminating awareness, but correct discriminating awareness cannot be harmed by incorrect discriminating awareness, once the mental factor of firm conviction, in other words decisiveness, is there.

  • According to Asanga, An Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa kun-las btus-pa, Skt. Abhidharmasamuccaya), firm conviction (mos-pa) focuses on a fact that we have validly ascertained to be like this and not like that. Its function is to make our belief that a fact is true (dad-pa) so firm that others’ arguments or opinions will not dissuade us.

So, when faced with the two feelings or wishes arising – to act destructively or to refrain from so acting – and cognizing them with indecisive wavering, how does a decision occur? How does it occur either based on presumption (we presume that it is better to refrain, but we aren’t fully convinced) or based on valid inference based on conviction that Buddha is a valid source of information about karmic cause and effect. In either case, we experience the occurrence of a decision arising as “making a choice,” but how does it happen?

How Is It Possible to Make a Decision?

As we have discussed, it is not through free will, because there is no independently, truly existing “me” existing separately from these two feelings (to act destructively or to refrain from so acting) and separately from the indecisive wavering – all of which arise as part of our five aggregates. On the other hand, it is not determined, because although we can validly impute and cognize the not-yet-happening of a decision on the basis of the absence of a presently-happening decision on our mental continuums, we cannot validly impute a presently-happening decision on the basis on that absence of a presently-happening decision. So a presently-happening decision cannot be sitting inside that absence of a presently-happening decision on our mental continuums, predetermined and waiting to pop out.

When a presently-happening decision occurs, it means that we cognize one choice, let’s say to refrain from yelling, with correct discriminating awareness that this course of action is beneficial. Optimally, this discrimination is based on having analyzed the choices with the mental factors of gross detection (rtog-pa) to investigate the situation roughly and subtle discernment (dpyod-pa) to scrutinize the details. This analysis can only have occurred if we have built up the habit of analysis so that the tendency to analyze gives rise to these mental factors, based on various conditions being present for them to arise, such as motivation. Optimally, then, with gross detection and subtle discernment we have analyzed the conditions that have caused these two wishes to arise – to yell or to refrain from yelling. In other words, we have analyzed why we feel like yelling or why we feel like refraining from yelling. We can also have analyzed why we want to yell or want to refrain, and why we need to yell or need to refrain. With correct discriminating awareness, we have evaluated the strength and validity of all the reasons for all of these and correctly discriminated the disadvantages of yelling and the benefits of refraining. At the conclusion of this process, the decision occurs with an urge arising that drives us to refrain from yelling. This urge is accompanied by correct discriminating awareness of the benefits of doing this. It is also accompanied by the positive mental factors that caused the positive karmic potential to refrain to ripen into feeling like refraining, such as mindfulness of the Dharma and so on. Subjectively, we experience this process as making a choice.

The Role of Will-Power

Where does will-power come into this analysis of making a decision? Will-power is a part of armor-like perseverance, the perseverance to endure any difficulties that might arise in implementing our decision. Perseverance, however, is a complex of many components. In Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (sPyod-‘jug, Skt. Bodhicharyavatara), Shantideva explains six of them:

  • Zestful vigor and strength, accompanied by a strong intention to implement our decision
  • Steadfastness not to turn back from our decision and self-pride with which we think, “I will be able to carry out my decision”
  • Being satisfied and happy about the decision we are making, otherwise later we will be plagued with regrets
  • Letting go, which in this case of making a decision, not dwelling on the decision we have made once we have made it, but going on with what comes next
  • Readily accepting the difficulties that might be involved with our decision
  • Taking control of ourselves to overcome laziness and resolving that “I’m going to do it.”

In An Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge, Asanga explains five further aspects of perseverance:

  • Armor-like courage, to endure difficulties, gained from reminding ourselves of the joy with which we make our decision
  • Constant and respectful application of ourselves to the task of implementing our decision
  • Never becoming disheartened or depressed about our decision
  • Never withdrawing from it
  • Never becoming complacent, for instance that refraining once from yelling is enough and we don’t need to apply ourselves to refraining again in the future.

All of these factors and aspects of joyful perseverance network with each other to give strength and energy to the decision-making process. We can label the network of these factors as “will-power,” and if we impute our conventional “me” onto this will-power, we experience the occurrence of the decision of refraining from yelling as “I made the decision.” And this is a correct mental label. No one else made the decision.

But if we impute a truly existent “me” onto this complex, we believe that we made the decision not to yell based on free-will and it feels like that. If we impute a truly existent “decision not to yell” onto the dependently arisen decision that occurred, then we believe that the decision not to yell was determined and it feels like that. But if we impute the mere conventional “me” on the basis of all the presently occurring five aggregate factors of our experience that include the decision-making of not to yell, and we do not grasp for the truly established existence of the three so-called circles involved – “me,” the decision, and the decision-making – then our decision is accompanied as well with correct discriminating awareness of reality.

Dependent Arising

In the end, we have seen that developing bodhichitta for the first time arises dependently on many very basic factors and conditions – a precious human rebirth, refraining from destructive behavior, and all the causes and conditions for both of them. All these factors and conditions can be condensed into two: positive force and discriminating awareness. The opportunities to develop these two are only available on the rare occasions that we have attained a precious human rebirth. Therefore it is extremely crucial that we take advantage of the precious human rebirths that we presently have and use them to develop bodhichitta, enlightenment-building positive force and correct discriminating awareness.

Inspiration from the Buddhas cannot overcome the compulsion of our karma. This is because the force of the enlightening influence of Buddha’s inspiration and the force of the compulsion of our karma are equal. Our beginningless unawareness and grasping for truly established existence are continually cancelling out whatever progress we make. We need will-power to overcome the compulsion of negative karma so that we make the correct decisions with correct discriminating awareness that will eventually lead to developing bodhichitta for the first time and to building up enlightenment-building positive force that cannot be depleted. Will-power consists of a network of many factors and arises dependently on many factors that each arises from yet other causes and conditions. Will-power is devoid of self-established existence precisely because it dependently arises.

The Importance of Will-Power

Tsongkhapa emphasized the importance of will-power in A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path (Lam-rim chen-mo) in his presentation of the four forces with which we can develop bodhichitta for the first time. These are through:

  • The force of our own strength – by our own efforts and will-power
  • The force of others – by relying on the inspiration, support and help of others, for instance our spiritual teachers and spiritual community
  • The force of a cause – by the force of having become familiar with the Mahayana teachings in previous lives, having instincts for bodhichitta arise when merely hearing praise for the Buddhas and bodhisattvas in this life
  • The force of application – by habituating ourselves to constructive factors for a long time in this lifetime, such as entrusting ourselves to a spiritual teacher and thinking about the Dharma we have heard.

Tsongkhapa then paraphrases Asanga, who in Bodhisattva Stages of Mind (Byang-chub sems-dpa'i sa, Skt. Bodhisattvabhumi) wrote that the development of bodhichitta from relying on our own force or the force of a cause from previous lives will be firm, whereas developing it from relying on the force of others or from applying ourselves in this lifetime will not be so firm.

From these quotes it is clear that will-power plays a large role as well in making a decision to refrain from acting when a feeling arises to do something destructive. And, as we have seen, dependently arising decision-making based on dependently arising will-power, then, is neither a case of free will nor determinism.

In short, everyone has not become enlightened yet because the myriad decisions needed for developing bodhichitta for the first time occur only through dependent arising. If they occurred through free-will or determinism, everyone would have become enlightened already and they have not. Thus, “through dependent arising” is the answer to the question, “How do we develop bodhichitta for the first time?”

But If Time Is Beginningless, Haven’t We Given Up Bodhichitta Countless Times?

The Flower Garland Sutra (mdo Phal-cher, Avatamsaka Sutra) speaks of bodhisattvas who generate bodhichitta for the first time, and Haribhadra also discusses this in A Commentary Clarifying the Meaning (‘Grel-ba don-gsal, Abhisamayalamkaravrtti Sputartha), his commentary to Maitryea’s Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs rgyan, Abhisamaya-alamkara). But given beginningless time, we may still not be satisfied with our analysis. After all, given beginningless time, we have not only developed bodhichitta countless times in the past, we have likewise given up bodhichitta countless times. So, although we can apply our analysis to explain how it is possible to develop bodhichitta for the first time, we could apply it differently. We could accept that there never was a first time we developed bodhichitta and apply the analysis instead to how it is possible to not give up bodhichitta for the first time. This is perhaps a more relevant question in terms of our practice.

To attain enlightenment, we need to never give up bodhichitta – that’s clear. If we give up bodhichitta, we lose our bodhisattva vows and, as a result, experience an enormous number of rebirths in the worse rebirth states. It will take an enormous buildup of positive force to attain a precious human rebirth once more and even more positive force to develop bodhichitta again. Because of that, an enormous emphasis is placed on taking the bodhisattva vows and keeping them purely. This explains why, when taking these vows, we promise never to give them up though our lives be at stake. To take the bodhisattva vows and keep them purely, as Atisha emphasizes in his Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Lam-sgron, Bodhipathapradipa), requires taking the lay or monastic vows beforehand and keeping those purely, and for taking the pratimoksha vows, we need a spiritual master and a proper, healthy relation with him or her. This requires well qualified teachers and supportive circumstances on the part of others and determination, fortitude, self-discipline and will-power.

In the end, then, we need to refine our analysis. The issue is not simply about how is it possible to develop bodhichitta for the first time, but about how is it possible to develop bodhichitta for the first time in which we do not give it up. The conclusion, then, is that we need to emphasize in our practice never giving up bodhchitta and keeping our bodhisattva vows as purely as possible.