Generating and Focusing on Bodhichitta

In this weekend seminar, we are going to speak about the bodhisattva vows. Obviously, to understand the bodhisattva vows, we need to know what a bodhisattva is, and what bodhichitta is, upon which the vows are based. We have many different quotations and sources which point out how important it is to take bodhisattva vows, to keep them, and to develop bodhichitta for achieving enlightenment.

Understanding Bodhichitta

What is bodhichitta? Bodhichitta is a state of mind, and it has many components to it. We generate it in two phases. First, we focus on all unenlightened beings with love and compassion. Love is the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness, and compassion is the wish for them to be free of suffering and the causes for suffering. We wish this equally for everybody.

In terms of the suffering that we wish others to be rid of, we understand this on the deepest level – not just the suffering of unhappiness and pain. Furthermore, it’s not just the suffering involved with our ordinary happiness, which is the type of happiness that never lasts, doesn’t satisfy, and changes into unhappiness and discomfort; for instance, when we eat too much of our favorite food and it makes us sick. In addition to being free of those two types of suffering, we wish others to be free of all-pervasive suffering (the basis for experiencing these first two types of suffering), which is uncontrollably recurring rebirth known as “samsara.” This involves being reborn over and over again under the influence of unawareness, disturbing emotions, and the karmic actions based on these; when under the influence of these factors, we have the type of body and mind that is subject to the suffering of unhappiness and our ordinary unsatisfying happiness, which beings experience as the result of their karmic behavior. This behavior is under the influence of unawareness of reality and cause and effect. We wish others to be free from this type of deeper suffering and the causes for it, and the deepest cause for it is unawareness of reality.

When we have love, we wish for others to be happy. That’s not the ordinary happiness that never satisfies, although it is better than them experiencing pain and unhappiness. On a deeper level, we wish others the happiness of liberation and enlightenment, which is a happiness that comes from being free of what’s known as “obscurations of the mind.” There are two sets of obscurations. The first are the obscurations that are caused by disturbing emotions – these are the ones that prevent liberation. The second are the obscurations preventing the omniscient state of a Buddha, which prevent others from completely understanding the interrelation of everything and cause and effect; these obscurations are what they need to know in order to be of the best help to others.

When we are free of these limitations, from these two sets of obscurations (either one or both), this is a tremendous joy that doesn’t end. It’s not something like the pleasure of eating our favorite food: that the more we have, eventually turns into discomfort. It’s not like that type of ordinary happiness at all. We wish others to have the causes for that type of unending happiness which would be liberation and enlightenment.

This love and compassion are also based on the firm understanding and conviction that it is possible for everyone to be free of suffering and to gain this unending happiness. It’s not just a nice wish that we know can never really be fulfilled. We’re convinced that it is possible. We also take responsibility to bring that freedom from suffering and the attainment of happiness. We have this exceptional resolve that we’re going to do it, even just by ourselves, if we need to. This is the first phase. This compassion and love and exceptional resolve that we have in this first phase continue, in a sense, in the background.

In the second phase, which is the main phase of bodhichitta, we change our focus and instead of focusing on all limited beings (in other words, everybody who’s not yet a Buddha), we focus on our own enlightenment that has not yet happened. However, we know that it can happen; we’re convinced of it. It can happen on the basis of what is known as “Buddha-nature,” which are those factors that allow us to become a Buddha, to generate the various Bodies of a Buddha – technically the Form Body, the mind of a Buddha, etc.

All of this is referring to the fundamental purity of the mind. The mind in its basic, fundamental nature is not stained by these limitations or obscurations. These stains are just superficial and can be removed so that they never recur. We’re able to activate and stay forever on the deepest level of the mind, which is not stained – because the level at which these stains or limitations or confusion occur are more superficial, rougher levels of the mind. The mind is not stained by impossible ways of existing. If we can understand and stay focused on that, then on the basis of that, what’s called the “voidness of the mind,” we will be able to stay in that basic unstained level, that level that’s not stained by these fleeting confusions.

On the basis of the subtlest energy associated with that deepest level of mind, and on the basis of the networks of positive force and deep awareness that are primarily the positive force that is carried along by this continuum of this deepest level of mind, we’ll be able to generate and appear in the various Form Bodies of a Buddha. These Form Bodies, the appearances of a Buddha, whether gross or subtle, are made from this subtlest pure energy. They can be conjoined with the gross elements (earth, water, etc.), but the gross elements are not the Form Body of a Buddha; it’s the subtle energy conjoined with them, on the basis of them. This is a very condensed explanation of Buddha-nature. I’m sorry if that was a little bit too much information at one time, but that’s not the main topic of our discussion.

In any case, we are focusing on this aspect of our mental continuum, Buddha-nature aspects: the voidness of the mind, the basic purity of the mind, the deepest subtle energy of the mind, networks of positive force and deep awareness. On the basis of these aspects, we can impute a not-yet-happening enlightenment which we know we can achieve, so that we will have a presently-happening enlightenment, if we strengthen and complete these two networks, network of positive force and deep awareness. That’s what we’re focusing on with bodhichitta. How do we do that? We do it by representing this not-yet-happening enlightenment, which is our own individual not-yet-happening enlightenment, not Buddha Shakyamuni’s or some general one in the sky. We can represent it by visualizing a Buddha (that would be the most common), our own spiritual teacher, or lineage teacher, which represent enlightenment for us. We can also just focus on the basic purity of the mind itself (in mahamudra or dzogchen methods), which is quite difficult to do.

That is the focus, the focal object of bodhichitta, this not-yet-happening enlightenment, and there are two intentions that accompany it. The first intention is to actually attain that enlightenment which has not yet happened, and the second is to benefit all beings on the basis of that. In other words, we rest on that love and compassion and exceptional resolve we developed in the first phase. Of course, along the way of achieving that enlightenment, we’re going to try to help others as much as possible. The bodhisattva vows give us guidelines on how to do that, how to benefit others as much as possible, and what to avoid in order to prevent damaging our ability to help others. Actually, the vows are always phrased in terms of what to avoid that would be detrimental to our development of bodhichitta and our helping others.

In order to develop this state of mind of bodhichitta and take the bodhisattva vows, we need to, obviously, work ourselves up to having that state of mind of bodhichitta. This is, of course, based on a long process of spiritual development, in which we recognize the precious human rebirth that we have; we realize that it’s not going to last forever, so we understand death and impermanence. We have full confidence in rebirth, and we realize that if we don’t take some preventive measures (which is what the word “Dharma” means) to avoid a worse rebirth in the future then, based on our destructive behavior, we will be reborn in a situation in which we’ll have no opportunity to further our spiritual development. We understand all this, and take it very seriously.

Prerequisites for Taking the Bodhisattva Vows

In order to avoid worse rebirth and help us continue on the spiritual path, we put a safe direction in our life; that’s called “refuge.” That direction is indicated by the Buddha, the achievements of a Buddha, what they’ve taught, and those who have accomplished what the Buddha has, at least a certain extent; that’s the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This is the direction we put in our life. We go in that direction based on wanting to avoid worse situations of rebirth and the confidence that going in this direction will help us to avoid that and achieve our spiritual goals of liberation and enlightenment. Avoiding worse rebirths, achieving liberation and enlightenment are the three goals of what’s known as the “lam-rim,” the graded stages of the path.

The first thing that we need to do, in order to avoid things getting worse, is to restrain from destructive behavior. It’s about ethical discipline. We do that on the basis of understanding that if we act in a destructive way, it will cause us unhappiness and problems; however, if we refrain from destructive behavior, that will bring us at least the ordinary type of happiness. Although, we want to eventually overcome even this ordinary happiness, nevertheless, it is a circumstance more conducive for spiritual practice than pain and unhappiness.

Then, we think of all the problems of uncontrollably recurring rebirths. Whether we are experiencing terrible unhappiness or extreme ordinary happy situations, we understand that all of them have shortcomings. We understand how all of that, the states filled with tremendous suffering of pain, or the states of rebirth filled with ordinary happiness, are generated by karmic behavior, which is based on unawareness of reality and cause and effect, our craving after ordinary happiness, our craving after being parted from this usual pain and unhappiness, and just having ordinary happiness. We develop the determination to be free from these completely. That’s called “renunciation.” We have a strong determination to be free.

Then, on the basis of all of that, already with some development of concentration, we go to the Mahayana. Although we could bring in Mahayana ideas of compassion and so on from the very beginning: “I want to continue to have a precious human rebirth so that I can help others.” This kind of compassion can be added from the very beginning. However, what will constitute a Mahayana type of practice is that we are aiming our practice at absolutely everybody. We’re not focusing just on ourselves and our own problems and our own liberation from them. We’re not focusing on just a few others that we happen to like. We’re not even focusing on those who are human beings now, in this lifetime. This is a completely vast state of mind that is focusing on everybody, in all states of rebirth, throughout the whole universe.

We recognize that everybody has a beginningless mental continuum, beginningless rebirth, and everybody has been every different type of life form in one lifetime or another, including being our mother. We have equanimity toward everybody so that we’re not just attracted to some or repelled by and indifferent to others. We recall the kindness of everyone, not only when they’ve been our mothers, but even at other times when they’ve grown our food or built our roads or made the honey that we eat. We appreciate that kindness and want to somehow act kindly in return, and this generates a heart-warming love toward everybody. Even just thinking about others makes us feel very warm and happy, and we think how terrible it would be if something bad happened to them.

This appreciation is reinforced by understanding the equality of everyone. It’s the belief that just as I want to be happy and do not want to be unhappy, everybody equally feels the same. “I’m just one person, and everybody else represents a countless number of others, and so rather than thinking of just me and working to overcome my problems, I am a member of a whole class of these beings, so it is proper for me to work for everybody because I belong to everybody.” We all equally have the same problem: in one word, samsara. Samsaric existence. Then, it’s on the basis of this that we have this love and compassion and exceptional resolve and bodhichitta that I explained earlier.

First, we need to hear about all of this, in terms of bodhichitta, so that we have heard it correctly, and we know what bodhichitta is talking about. We don’t just confuse bodhichitta with love and compassion, which many people do. Bodhichitta is much more than love and compassion. It’s based on much more, as I’ve explained. Then, we work further with bodhichitta, thinking about it so that we understand what it really means. We understand how to focus on it and what is the state of mind that we’re generating. We’re convinced that we can achieve it. We’re also convinced that everybody can become enlightened and that we can actually help them by showing the way. We realize that nobody is an almighty god – that we can just touch somebody with our finger and they’re enlightened. We have a realistic idea of how people can become enlightened. They have to work on it themselves, basically. Based on that, then understanding the methods for working ourselves up to generating this state of mind, we’re able to generate bodhichitta at this very initial level.

Now, we know correctly what this state of mind is. We understand it, we’re convinced that we can achieve it, and so we go through the stages of everybody’s been our mother, everybody’s been kind, etc., and we’re able to generate that state of bodhichitta and it’s sincere. What’s really difficult here is for this to encompass everybody, that wish to equally help everybody.

What we would first have, on the basis of this, is called the “aspiring bodhichitta.” This is the wish to achieve that enlightenment that’s not yet happened in order to benefit others. This wish has two phases. The first is merely wishing; the second is what’s called the “pledged state,” in which we pledge that we’re not going to give it up until we achieve enlightenment. Then, we go on to develop what’s called the “engaged state” of bodhichitta, and that’s in addition to the wishing or aspirational state, in which we’ve fully decided to engage totally in the practices that will bring us to enlightenment.

It’s at that stage that we take the bodhisattva vows. Taking these vows structure our behavior because we are vowing to avoid certain things that would be damaging to our development of bodhichitta in general – that would be the root bodhisattva vows. The secondary bodhisattva vows are to avoid those things that would be specifically detrimental to our development of the six far-reaching attitudes (or perfections), plus what would be detrimental to our benefiting others. When we talk about the far-reaching attitudes, we’re talking about generosity, ethical self-discipline, patience, joyful perseverance, mental stability – which is not only concentration but having a stable state of mind not disturbed by disturbing emotions – and discriminating awareness, usually of reality (we discriminate reality from fantasy).

Obviously, we can develop and practice these far-reaching attitudes before we develop bodhichitta, but the real Mahayana practice is when these are conjoined with bodhichitta. We practice bodhisattva type of behavior on the basis of these bodhisattva vows, basically developing more and more of these six far-reaching attitudes. There’s also a list of ten; the additional four are subdivisions of far-reaching discriminating awareness. There’s no need to give all the details. Through this, we build up more and more our networks of positive force and deep awareness.

Labored and Unlabored Bodhichitta

Still at this stage, we are generating this state of bodhichitta in a labored way – this is the technical term, which means with labor or with effort, and this means that we have to go through a line of reasoning in order to be able to refresh that state of mind of bodhichitta. We have to go through the stages of equanimity (everybody’s been our mother, etc.), and work ourselves up to this conscious state of mind. Eventually, through a tremendous amount of familiarity and positive force from helping others, we will have an unlabored development of bodhichitta, which means that we don’t have to go through that line of reasoning in order to generate bodhichitta; we have that state of mind naturally and automatically. Whether we are conscious of it or not is irrelevant.

Further, whether that bodhichitta state of mind is actually conscious (in other words, it is our main focal object at the moment) or whether it is an undercurrent (in other words, unconscious), it is the same, in the sense that this is the main direction of our life regardless of what happens. It’s so deeply integrated, and it is only at that stage that we actually become a bodhisattva. That’s what a bodhisattva is, somebody who has unlabored bodhichitta. All the benefits and praise to bodhichitta that are mentioned, for instance, in the first chapter of Shantideva’s text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, are referring to this stage of bodhichitta, this unlabored stage where one becomes a bodhisattva.

We need to understand that whether we are speaking about labored or unlabored bodhichitta, it is still conceptual, because only a Buddha can non-conceptually know what enlightenment is like; for us who are not yet Buddhas, to focus on enlightenment, even a not-yet-happening enlightenment, can only be through a concept of what it is. When Shantideva says that once we develop bodhichitta, whether we are awake or even asleep or even drunk, that still builds up a tremendous amount of positive force, he’s referring to that unlabored state of bodhichitta.

Also, when we develop this unlabored state of bodhichitta, then at that point, we attain what’s called the “path of building up” or “path of accumulation.” That’s the first of the five pathway minds. It’s a level of mind that will act as a path for the actual main pathway that will lead us to, in this case, enlightenment. When we hear about these five paths, these are five levels of mind; they’re not roads, but it is a level of mind that will take us further like a road. We can do this in a Mahayana way so that this stream of development will lead to our enlightenment. We reach that beginning of the first level of these five when we have this unlabored bodhichitta.

Most of us are at the levels of mind before that. Even if we do practices of love and compassion and bodhichitta, it’s probably based on just having heard of the teachings of bodhichitta. Maybe we’ve understood it a little bit, but I think, for most of us, we are not fully convinced on a rational basis that we actually can become enlightened and that absolutely everybody else can become enlightened; it’s actually quite difficult to be fully convinced of that because to do that, we have to understand what enlightenment is. It’s not easy. We merely have what’s called a “presumptive understanding.” We presume that it’s true, but we’re really not deeply convinced. If we are honest with ourselves, the scope of our Mahayana-style thoughts is really quite limited. We’re not really thinking of absolutely everybody. At this point, we can’t even begin to imagine everybody, including insects, meaning any life form anywhere in the universe. Basically, we’re working toward that. We need to be not pretentious, not to pretend, “Oh I’m such a great Mahayana practitioner,” let alone to pretend we’re a bodhisattva. This is absurd. However, whatever level of development that we have that is going in the direction of bodhichitta, is great and beneficial.