Aspiring and Engaging Bodhicitta

07/23/2012 07:28 am ET | Updated Sep 22, 2012
  • Tenzin Norbu Author, radio host and retired professor of philosophy

Bodhichitta abides in two precious ways;

Keep both of these in mind.

The goal to become a Buddha for all

Is what we first must find.

But having a goal bereft any Effort

Will always leave us behind.

With Effort seek the goal in practice;

Employ the engaging kind.

Just as the difference between wishing to go and

Truly going is known.

Strive to possess the two Bodhichittas;

Both of them must be shown.

As these verses of Ocean of Compassion state, there are two forms of bodhicitta -- aspiring bodhicitta and engaging bodhicitta. Aspiring bodhicitta is a complex cognitive and emotional pattern of feeling and believing. It is the pattern of feeling universal, unbiased love and compassion, and the belief that Buddhas have the greatest possible ability to lead everyone to true and lasting happiness and freedom from all suffering. The emotional elements of universal, unbiased love and compassion are strong motivating factors to act so as to benefit all others, but, unless one knows how to bring real benefit to others, one will not be able to help others effectively. Not knowing how to bring true benefit to others is like seeing someone who is drowning and strongly desiring to save that person but not knowing how to swim. Just as learning and practicing how to swim and do proper cardiopulmonary resuscitation are parts of the training that leads to becoming an effective lifeguard, each of the six perfections of patience, generosity, joyful effort, moral discipline, concentration and wisdom are parts of the training that leads to becoming a Buddha. Cultivating and practicing these six perfections until one becomes a Buddha is called "engaging bodhicitta."

In my last blog post, I explained that a patient person does not overcome anger by suppressing it -- rather, he or she eliminates the dysfunctional patterns of thinking that cause anger. Not every patient person is practicing the perfection of patience. A mother, for example, who responds with biased love rather than with anger to her child's misbehavior does not perform an act expressing the perfection of patience. This kind of behavior is an example of an imperfectly patient act, because it springs from the motive of biased love rather than the universal, unbiased love and compassion of bodhicitta motivation. Such an action is certainly commendable, but it is not meritorious to the same degree that a bodhisattva's actions are.

To practice any perfection, the thoughts and behaviors consistent with perfect behavior are intentionally chosen because they are steps on the path to becoming a Buddha. When bodhisattvas respond to someone's "outrageous behavior," they react lovingly and helpfully, because they know that by responding lovingly to someone's outrageous behavior they are building the capacity to become Buddhas and help everyone. Reacting lovingly to someone's non-virtuous behavior does not mean responding imprudently -- a bodhisattva very carefully protects his or her body, because a bodhisattva's body is a powerful tool to help others, and because universal, unbiased love includes loving oneself. Protecting one's body from harm out of bodhicitta motivation is actually an example of the perfection of generosity. So, interestingly, a bodhisattva who responds to someone's "outrageous behavior" without anger and with love for all acts both patiently act and generously. Each of the other five perfections of engaging bodhicitta must be understood in the same way -- each act is a perfection of any kind if and only if it is both a way to perform one of the six virtuous types of action and is chosen from bodhicitta motivation.

A generous act, obviously, is an act of giving something to someone other than oneself. An act of the perfection of generosity is an act of giving something to someone that one knows will advance both the giver and the receiver along the path to true and lasting happiness. To express the perfection of joyful effort, you must have the disposition to rejoice spontaneously whenever performing any perfect action, much like the immediate experience of joy felt by an athlete upon scoring a goal. Moral discipline is a combination of having made the decision, out of bodhicitta motivation, to renounce all moral flaws and drawing upon mental resources, when necessary, to block a desire to act non-virtuously. Concentration is resting the focus of one's mind upon a virtuous mental content, such as compassion, out of bodhicitta motivation. With concentration, our meditation sessions are very effective in developing virtuous states of mind and eliminating non-virtuous states of mind. The perfection of wisdom is the ability, acquired from bodhicitta motivation, to perceive the interdependent arising of all things and the understanding that the objects of our consciousness are like dreams, in that they have no reality independent of the mind perceiving them.

In summary, aspiring bodhicitta is the aspiration to become a Buddha for the benefit of all, and engaging bodhicitta is, with bodhicitta motivation, cultivating all six of the perfections and acting as the perfections require whenever relevant circumstances arise. In order to become a Buddha, you must employ engaging bodhicitta until you master all six of the perfections. The six perfections, collectively, are the necessary and sufficient causes of becoming a Buddha. The first five perfections are steps to Buddhahood, because they prepare the mind to be able to acquire wisdom, and, with the acquisition of wisdom, one becomes a Buddha.

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