Bodhicitta is a spontaneous wish to attain enlightenment motivated by great compassion for all sentient beings, accompanied by a falling away of the attachment to the illusion of an inherently existing self.


 “Bodhicitta” or “awakened mind”, “mind of enlightenment” is the central notion of the Mahâyâna (“bodhi” means enlightenment or awakening and “citta” means mind). Bodhicitta defines the way of the Bodhisattva, both in the Great Perfection Vehicle as in Tantrayâna or Secret Mantra Vehicle. This is a special mind one may generate by specific mental training. This mind seeks awakening, but for the sake of all sentient beings, in other words, vows to awaken to teach how to cease suffering.

Although various classifications pertain, two types of Bodhicitta are distinguished : ultimate and conventional (relative). Usually, the latter is referred to as the mind spontaneously wishing to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all living sentient beings. Two types of conventional Bodhicitta are given, namely aspiring and engaging. The former is the mere wish to attain this special mind, while the latter is actually doing so, holding all actions by the Bodhisattva Vows.

Two powerful methods are proposed to generate relative Bodhicitta, and on the basis of this ultimate Bodhicitta : the sevenfold cause and effect (Aśanga) and equalizing & exchanging self with others (Śântideva).

Ultimate Bodhicitta is a wisdom mind motivated by relative Bodhicitta directly realizing emptiness. This is the Bodhicitta of the mind of a Buddha.

Bodhisattvas and their Bodhicitta

Generating merit by virtuous actions and realizing absorptions are not typical for the way of the Bodhisattva. Non-Buddhist systems also maintain moral discipline and develop spiritual exercises, involving calmness and concentration. Spiritual systems considering this-life salvation as impossible or very unlikely mostly do not invisage helping others after being saved. Helping others however is introduced as the best way to be saved.

In the Buddhadharma, Lesser Vehicle practitioners keep to themselves and seek liberation for their own benefit. Although devoid of the intent of salvation to save others, this does not preclude joy, love, compassion & equanimity. While the Lesser Vehicle focuses on the latter, the Great Vehicle is all about compassion. In terms of Bodhicitta, this means one vows to seek Buddhahood to help others thereafter. Bodhicitta is the mind of enlightenment of the Bodhisattva.

It is said the Bodhisattva, like a good shepherd, vows to postpones his own enlightenment until all sentient beings attain theirs. He or she enters “nirvâna” only after the last sentient being has done so. Why ? Because all other sentient beings are deemed more important than one sentient being. This is the intent. So to convey this universality of compassion, the Bodhisattva makes sure he or she comes last. It is also said the Bodhisattva is like a boatman, ferrying sentient beings across, from conventional truth to “the other shore” of wisdom or ultimate truth.

These admirable & devotional images, conveying vital information (namely universality & process), do not represent the Bodhisattva’s ultimate intent. Does the Bodhisattva have the energy or omniscience to stay last & truly help ? Is he or she able to serve others with absolute certainty he or she is not self-serving ? No doubt compassionate, powerful and wise, even the Great Bodhisattvas, still under the sway of very subtle delusions, must first become Buddhas to realize their goals, namely the cessation of the suffering of others.

True Bodhicitta must be “king-like”. The Bodhisattva seeks full enlightenment (Buddhahood) to bring, as a Buddha, infinite energy-resources into play to help (teach, empower, bless) all sentient beings without free will (hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, anti-gods, gods) and all humans of good will. While very powerful, a Buddha is not omnipotent, nor the Creator-God.

To propell him or her into Buddhahood, the Bodhisattva vows to generate the “mind of enlightenment for all sentient being”. According to the Lesser Vehicle, the Great Vehicle miscalculates. Lacking time, the Bodhisattva will never be able to complete his or her training. Liberation (Arhathood) may be intended, but Buddhahood is extremely rare, if not impossible. And in a certain way, Great Perfection Teachings confirm this, for although Buddhahood is definitely possible, it remains extremely difficult. To accumulate the necessary merit to clear all the dross in a single lifetime from scratch was deemed nearly impossible.

This problem is solved by the tantric “turbo”, the Fourth Turning, increasing the accumulation spectacularly, i.e. allowing the already available Bodhicitta to generate very vast merit very quickly. The two baskets (of merit and wisdom) thus rapidly simultaneously (not sequentially) filled, enlightenment is possible in a period of time as short as three months or a single lifetime ! In exceptional cases, a single “pointing-out” instruction may suffice (cf. Dzogchen).

By itself, this mind of enlightenment is the ultimate vehicle of vehicles. But, once entering the “Body of Truth” (“Dharmakâya”), it is no longer necessary. Completing the Ten Stages of the Bodhisattva training for the sake of the enlightenment of all sentient beings is therefore the final goal of the Bodhisattva. The first stage of this training is entered when emptiness has been directly perceived (on the Path of Seeing). Then he or she is an “Ârya” or Superior Bodhisattva. The Mahâsattva Bodhisattva has Buddhahood in sight.

In Tibetan Buddhism, relative & absolute Bodhicitta are distinguished. The relative mind of enlightenment is subdivided in (a) the intention and wish to generate this mind of enlightenment for all, called “aspirational” Bodhicitta, and (b) actually doing so, called “engaging” Bodhicitta. Absolute Bodhicitta is the vision of the true, fundamental nature of all phenomena, the direct, undeluded experience of emptiness. This wisdom-mind or “son” prehends the matrix or “mother” out of which all phenomena emerge and to which all return.

The way of the Bodhisattva is the appropriate means to generate relative Bodhicitta, while the Ten Stages train the former to realize the ultimate wisdom of absolute Bodhicitta, i.e. totally remove substantial instantiation of objects.

These divisions again illustrate the importance of the proper understanding of the nature of intra-mental ideality (the ego, self, the mind) and extra-mental reality (the other, the world).

Generating Relative Bodhicitta

To generate relative Bodhicitta during meditation, the sevenfold instruction on cause and effect by Aśanga is to be applied :

recognizing sentient beings as mothers : if we realize the cycle of death & rebirth has caused every sentient being to be one’s mother, father, husband, wife, closest friend, etc. many times before, then we bring everyone within the context of one’s mind, and establish equanimity towards friends, neutral persons & enemies ;

mindfulness of kindness : becoming aware that at some point all sentient beings have been close & kind to us, helps to extend kindness to all ;

repaying kindness : cultivating the intention to repay the kindness of all sentient beings develops a sense of being in contact with them, it opens our heart to all, and cuts off the notion of being isolated or unable to be kind ;

love : generating love towards all sentient mother-beings, i.e. wishing them to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering, helps the mind to find pleasantness in relation to everyone ;

compassion : generating compassion towards all sentient mother-beings, i.e. helping them to actually realize their greatest happiness, namely freedom from suffering and the causes of suffering, results in a spontaneous & universal intent ;

great compassion : the attitude stating one will actually & constantly free each and every sentient being throughout space from suffering and the causes of suffering, changes an ordinary being into a person of great capacity, with a perspective beyond one’s own benefit ;

aspiration to enlightenment : realizing the aim of great compassion can only be fulfilled after enlightenment, makes one vow to attain the highest enlightenment for the sake of freeing all sentient beings from suffering and its causes. With this mind, Bodhicitta has been generated.

Another method, proposed by Śântideva involves equalizing & exchanging self with others. First one regards others as precious & important while contemplating the disadvantages of self-cherishing and the advantages of cherishing others. After thus having equalized self and others, one trains to exhange self with others. Success in this comes when one spontaneously cherishes others in the same way as one used to cherish oneself.

In the last phase of this training, one practices taking & giving (Tib. “tonglen“). One (a) takes the suffering, fear, unhappiness, faults etc. of another (visualized as black smoke inhaled and drawn into our own heart, the seat of our self-cherishing mind), (b) mixes these contaminations with the causes of our own suffering, namely the Three Poisons (attachment, hatred & ignorance), allowing this smoke to consume our self-cherishing, and then (c) returns our very best to the other, visualizing how they have become pure, uncontaminated and in great bliss.

The generation of Bodhicitta presupposes a whole series of preliminaries, summarized by the sevenfold prayer, involving refuge & prostrations, offerings, confession, rejoicing in virtue, supplications, turning of the Wheel of Dharma and dedication. Once generated, Bodhicitta has to become spontaneous. In order to prevent it from degenerating in this lifetime, four precepts are kept :

remembering the benefits of Bodhicitta : if we remember the benefits often, we will be more motivated to generate Bodhicitta ;

generating Bodhicitta six times a day : generating Bodhicitta every four hours allows this mind to become a habitual formation ;

never abandoning any sentient being : while sentient beings may hurt us or abandon us, the Bodhisattva never generates the intent to reject another permanently and irreversibly ;

accumulate merit & wisdom : by daily adding merit to our field of merit and deepening our understanding and/or experience of emptiness, we create the causes & conditions to maintain Bodhicitta.

At some point, when Bodhicitta is stable and no longer degenerates, it will become spontaneous. Only when this has happened, the Bodhisattva may enter the Tantrayâna.

Bodhicitta in Ritual

In Mahâyâna ritual, Bodhicitta may be generated by the Four Immeasurables (“brahmavihâras”), also used in the meditations of the Lesser Vehicle and later incorporated in Patañjali’s Yoga-sûtra, the canon of the Hindu Yoga school.

joy (“muditâ) : “may all mother-sentient beings enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness” : this is the act of rejoicing in the happiness of others. Taking joy in the merits visible in this world opens the mind to the truth, the beauty & the goodness present around us in every moment, but often we are taken by unawareness. Seeing these virtues, opens & feeds the mind with positive, constructive thoughts ;

love (“maitri”) : “may all mother-sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering” : this is wishing every other not to be afflicted with suffering. If we can love our enemies, our friends and the strangers we encounter, we have conquered our own self-cherishing. Wishing all living beings happiness broadens the mind even further, for not only do we rejoice in their virtue, but we also wish to increase it ;

compassion (“karunâ”) : “may all mother-sentient beings realize the greatest happiness : freedom of suffering” : this moves beyond merely wishing, but refers to actually realizing or contributing to the happiness of every other being. Here we engage and so actually do something. Afterwards we check whether sustainable improvement has been generated and correct our efforts if necessary, and this again and again and again … ;

equanimity (“upeksâ”) : “may all mother-sentient beings abide in equanimity, free from attachments to loved ones, free from hatred of foes” : this is dealing with every other in an impartial way. While acting, and contributing to the happiness of other sentient beings, they are not considered to be inherently different from one another, while their functional, dynamical distinctions are pertinent.

Generating Absolute Bodhicitta

Generating absolute Bodhicitta, or realizing the wisdom-mind of emptiness are equivalent.


~ Kyabje Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche: 

“How can we ensure happiness in future lifetimes? By practicing virtue with body, speech, and mind. When engendering Bodhicitta we pray, “May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness; may they be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.” The cause of happiness is virtue and the cause of suffering is nonvirtue. It is therefore necessary to practice virtue and avoid unvirtuous actions to the best of our ability. Since we have the ability to choose between virtuous and unvirtuous actions, our future happiness or suffering is in our own hands.

There are two practices that I find extremely important and beneficial. The first is the vow of refuge, which by instilling faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha forms a foundation for attaining Buddhahood. The second is the meditation on the Bodhisattva Chenrezi. This practice is the essence of all the teachings of tantra, and Chenrezi the essence of all yidam deities.

Many people in the West are interested in the teachings on Bodhicitta and benefiting others. This is very nice, but the root of cultivating Bodhicitta is being able to take all suffering, loss, and defeat for oneself and to give all happiness, profit, and victory to others. If one does not practice this within one’s own family, then talking about applying this ideal to all sentient beings is merely words.

Reflecting on the kindness of our parents is how one begins to practice mind-training (Tib. lojong). We realize that they are suffering now and will continue to suffer in the future, and that until they attain liberation from samsara, they will go from life to life experiencing pain. If we reflect in this way, we begin to understand that it is unfitting for us to allow beings who have been so kind to us to experience so much suffering. This recognition is the beginning of loving-kindness and compassion. Next we must resolve to do whatever we can to free them from suffering. We expand on this contemplation by including all the people that we care for—our children, friends, and relatives. We then include all those whom we neither like nor dislike, and then people we dislike, even those we consider to be our enemies. Finally, we include all sentient beings, who fill all of space, and we imagine that we take on all their suffering and offer them all our happiness and virtue. In particular, we should make the aspiration that this meditation may serve as a cause for their attainment of Buddhahood and liberation from the sufferings of samsara. That is the way in which Bodhicitta is developed.

If we can practice Bodhicitta, develop patience, and pacify all disharmony in our own home, then we have prepared the way leading to the development of limitless Bodhicitta. If, on the other hand, we cannot maintain patience and harmony in our own home with our own family, then it is very unlikely that we will be able to do this with respect to all sentient beings, who are infinite in number. So if, after hearing these teachings, you go home and eliminate all disharmony in your home and family, I will proclaim you all male and female Bodhisattvas!”


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