Bodhicitta—the Bodhi-mind

Khai Thien


            Dear Friends,

            In our daily prayers, we often hear “May my Bodhi-mind be strong and solid!” But just what is the Bodhi-mind and how important is it in our journey of spiritual practice as well as in our present life? First, I would like to share with you that the Bodhi-mind is the essential element in all paths of practice; it is also, according to the Buddhist practical view, the principle factor in the life of true happiness, spiritual freedom, and enlightenment. Only the Bodhi-mind can actually be the “mind of goodness”; thus, only those who live and act in accordance with the Bodhi-mind can be worthy of the name “the person of goodness.” From the innermost nature, the Bodhi-mind is a life force orientating toward the Perfect Wisdom—the life force of the non-self wisdom, which is the only agent capable of helping you overcome all afflicted storms that turn you upside down in life and directing you to attain the realm of true happiness. Having the non-self wisdom as its nature, the Bodhi-mind itself transcends all dimensions of religion and philosophy, although the Sakya Muni Buddha was the first man in the history of humanity who awoke it, spoke of it, and taught it. Therefore, those who practice the Bodhi-mind—regardless of race or religion—are able to create for themselves a life of true happiness. The following discussion will help you further understand the significance of the Bodhi-mind in our real lives.

            1. Meanings of the Bodhi-mind

The Bodhi-mind is an important term in the canonical languages of Mahayana Buddhism. The Sanskrit form of it is bodhi-citta, in which bodhi means awakening or enlightenment and citta means the mind. Thus, Bodhicitta is the mind of awakening (enlightened mind), the mind orientating toward enlightenment, or the mind that tranquilly resides in the state of awakening and enlightenment. Here we simply call it the Bodhi-mind. However, it is important to note that the Bodhi-mind, in Buddhist thought, is understood through two basic aspects: the conventional—namely, the daily practice of ethics, virtues and merits in order to achieve the noble happiness and peace in practical life—and the absolute—namely, the full awakening of the Perfect Wisdom, becoming a Holy One, a Bodhisattva or a Buddha. In Buddhist tradition, various teachings help you practice the Bodhi-mind, including 37 Dharmas, also known as Bodhiyangas (a general term for factors of spiritual practice leading to enlightenment) that serve as particular directions teaching you how to practice and cultivate the seed of bodhi (enlightenment) in your practical life.

As an ordinary person, you may not care about or be interested in the ultimate enlightenment—you might not even think about it. It may be that, from the bottom of your heart, you think that “I am an earthly person being immersed in so many worldly desires, conflictions, dissatisfactions, and grief in a life full of suffering, pleasure, sadness, gain, loss, worry, etc.” Being trapped and surrounded by such afflictions, the ultimate enlightenment—however noble it is—is indeed in this present moment chimerical and remote because what you earnestly want to seek now is not that ultimate enlightenment, but happiness as you may view it: love, money, fame, power, etc. In other words, you may think that you are not a monk and, therefore, awakening or enlightenment has nothing to do with your life! Truly, such an idea sounds reasonable and appropriate to your own way of thinking and your personal lifestyle, but it is this way of thinking that loses the life of your true happiness! The cause of happiness never lies in love, money, fame, or power, but in your “awakening” in the life of love, money, fame, and power. Lacking such an “awakening,” where will your love grow, how will your money be used, and what will it take to perfume your fame?

In reality, whenever you foolishly fall in love without awakening (understanding or awareness), your love eventually turns out to be a blind love, ultimately leading to suffering. Likewise, when you make as well as spend money without awakening, it is not likely that you will gain or spend money reasonably and usefully. Therefore, despite the fact that you are an earthly person, if you live in awakening or at least carry in yourself a desire for awakening—the character of the Bodhi-mind—you will have the ability to create and maintain your happiness steadily and durably. The truth is, lacking understanding and awareness is always a great obstacle on the way to true happiness; in other words, it is the fountainhead of suffering. For this reason, we need to cultivate and practice the Bodhi-mind—not for fame or power, but for our true happiness.

2. Life and the Bodhi-mind

How, then should you cultivate and practice the Bodhi-mind? First, you need to build up for yourself a desire that orients you toward the life of awakening—namely, the Bodhi-desire—and practice three principal aspirations of the Bodhi-life with your sincere efforts and devotion: (i) aspire not to do evil, (ii) aspire to do good, and (iii) aspire to benefit other sentient beings. Based upon your actual ability in practicing these three Bodhi-aspirations, you will accomplish your own noble life step by step. Most importantly, you should note here that the foundation of the Bodhi-heart is the mind of great compassion and the non-self wisdom. For this reason, in practicing the Bodhi-mind, you must not only refrain from evil and instead do good to fulfill your own life, but also benefit other sentient beings. If you concentrate only on your own benefit and take care of only your own blessings in life without thinking of the welfare of others, your efforts will easily be governed and controlled by the mind of profane selfishness.

The 14th Dalai Lama  teaches us that we have two kinds of selfishness: foolish selfishness—concern only for yourself—and wise selfishness—concern for the suffering of others with loving-kindness and compassion. For example, when you have a dollar and you spend it on yourself, that dollar “ends”; however, when you use that same dollar to help others, that dollar “still exists” in the sense of goodness. In other words, the “wise selfishness” here is used as a skillful expression in order to remind you that, when you perform (give) a certain “goodness or charity” to others with loving-kindness and compassion, you lose nothing and instead are practicing virtues and building up merits for your own life in return.

Clearly, the concept of wise selfishness here shows us the reciprocal relationship in doing good to others and receiving the good in return—that is, to give means to take. Saint Gandhi used to say that, “If I found myself entirely absorbed in the service of the community, the reason behind it was my desire for self-realisation.” Indeed, in practicing the Bodhi-mind, you must practice to live a life of altruism and non-self. If you offer a donation, provide a service, or give help to others with the mind of self-attachment, self-pride, or haughtiness, you are not, in such a way, practicing the Bodhi-mind. Your offering, donation, public service, or help carries the virtue of Bodhicitta only when you perform those services with the sincere desire to benefit sentient beings and with the heart of great compassion and non-self. To practice such an act of compassion and non-self is to practice the Bodhi-mind.

The truth tells us that the nature of existence (dharma) is impermanent and ever-changing and that, among the world of birth and death (impermanence), the mind is considered the existence that constantly changes in the fastest mode. Indeed, in the reality of the mind, each idea comes and goes, arises and disappears in a moment and in such a way that the stream of the mind constantly changes from notion to notion and object to object. The only exception is when you attain “concentration” after having practiced—i.e., at this attainment, your mind can stay still in meditation, peacefully and tranquilly. Thus, if you do not have or do not cultivate the Bodhi-mind, which serves as the foundation for your mental life, all meanings and purposes of your actions may change, either positively or negatively, during the course of time.

For example, today you like a friend, you love him, and you try in all ways to help him; but tomorrow, for some reason, you do not like him anymore. You may sometimes not only dislike him, but also hate him and envy him—you may even regret what you have given or done for him. It is really unfortunate for those who fall into such a situation! But when you earnestly perform a benefaction or charity with the Bodhi-mind, you yourself become the mentor who strictly prohibits any idea of “love today, hate tomorrow” from arising in your mind or interfering in your virtuous actions. Therefore, with the Bodhi-mind, you will never regret what you did for the sake of charity, compassion, or altruism. Clearly, the Bodhi-mind not only gives you more peace and happiness in your aspiration of public service or benefiting others, but also helps you maintain the sense of goodness from the beginning when you first commit yourself to the act of goodness, regardless of how the human heart has changed.

Without the Bodhi-mind serving as the foundation for our mental as well as spiritual life, what we have done in the name of charity or public service may turn out to be the cause of suffering, particularly when an outburst of anger from self-love and self-pride breaks out or when selfishness arises in our mind with ambition, hatred, and attachment. For this reason, the AvatamsakaSutra warns us that “Practicing meritorious deeds (kusaladharmas) while loosing the Bodhi-mind is the evil karma (karma of māra).” Here you should understand that karma of māra is the profane mind of selfishness, craving, hatred, attachment, etc., hidden deeply in our actions—even those actions named as charity or public service.

Thus, in order to nurture the Bodhi-mind on the journey of spiritual practice, you need to develop the heart of great compassion and non-self virtue. The heart of great compassion is the noble love, which always opens to all sentient beings and is the deep understanding and sympathetic and true heart willing to share the suffering of others. The non-self virtue in the heart of great compassion is loving kindness, sympathetic joy, equanimity, generosity, altruism, forgiveness, non-attachment, non-pride, and non-contention. Living with the non-self virtue, you are able to see that the nature of all existences is constituted by conditions; therefore, their characters are all non-self. There is nothing true in the so-called “I”, “mine”, and “my self”; such personal expressions are all provisional. The same can be said of all existences.

In the light of great compassion and non-self wisdom, you direct all your life and your virtuous aspirations to the Bodhicitta. This is the condition that makes your heart of great compassion wake up and enables it to embrace and comfort every anguish in the human world; it truly saves the world and makes the world become the PureLand. You should remember that the Bodhi-mind is the inner core of true happiness, because the nature of the Bodhi-mind is the full awakening, the unobstructed heart of great compassion, the sympathetic joy and equanimity, and the Perfect Wisdom.

3. The Fulcrum of Happiness

The Bodhicitta, as mentioned, is the mind of awakening and enlightenment, the mind oriented toward awakening and enlightenment, or the mind residing in awakening and enlightenment. Here, awakening is in all cases the essential element because the word bodhi means awakening. However, awakening is understood through various aspects—from the simple to the profound, from the mundane to the saintly—and the climax is the full awakening of life: ultimate enlightenment. When we say that the Bodhi-mind is the foundation of life, it means that the Bodhi-mind is the solid ground for the life of your true happiness, even if you are staggering in the up-and-down misery of human vicissitudes. But we shall here discuss an essential aspect of the Bodhi-mind: the foundational element of happiness.

In the habit of your personal life, you often think that having love is happiness, having money is happiness, having fame is happiness, or having power in society is happiness, but what would it take to secure your personal happiness and how is it possible to guarantee your happiness and make it long-lasting? Truly, these are vital questions because the answers may help you perceive the nobility of awakening in your own life, particularly when that awakening—Bodhicitta—appears as a solid ground for the life of happiness, a life that would never be staggered by any profane affliction of humanity. For example, when you build a house, you think that the accomplishment of the house—which is in the process of being built—is the climax of your happiness. However, when the house is complete, your priority is not the idea that “you have a house” but the “stability of the house”. Consequently, although you may perceive happiness in your personal view, you always need a solid ground so that you are able to maintain your own happiness.

Then, what should the real fulcrum for happiness be?Love?Money?Fame? No. It is not like that. Love, money, fame, etc.—these things may serve as one of the conditions of your provisional happiness, but in the innermost nature, they cannot be and never will be the foundation of happiness or for happiness. For this reason, it is truly necessary to have a solid ground upon which you can secure and maintain your own happiness in the ever-changing and impermanent world. Truly, only the Bodhi-mind here can serve as a solid agent that has the ability to protect and secure your happiness because the nature of the Bodhi-mind always carries within itself an energetic stream of the great compassion and profound awakening of life as well as the conditions that constitute our lives. The Bodhi-mind is the heart of love and understanding that exists in the light of non-self-wisdom and compassion. It is the Bodhi-mind that will lead you in overcoming all the storms of life. In reality, whenever you face or remain steadfastly in the energetic stream of great compassion and awakening, you are able to see the truth of the impermanent life; by seeing the truth, your heart of great compassion will awaken and create for yourself a life of tolerance, generosity, and forgiveness in facing any act of selfishness and ignorance.

Here, you should be aware of the two different kinds of minds of a person: the profane mind and the Bodhi-mind. The profane mind (or the unholy mind) always carries within itself selfishness, craving, hatred, and self-attachment. In the earthly aspect, you may think that you do nothing wrong in trying wholeheartedly just to take care of your personal happiness and your own benefit. However, as the truth tells us, it is not wise and noble to live like that; attaching yourself to such a life is really selfish and naïve! For example, how will you actually feel when you live a wealthy and luxurious life among starving, poor, and diseased persons in the same apartment? Although you are a rich person, are you really happy when you have to face the starving, poor, diseased, and suffering persons around you day in and day out? Thus, in order to live in true happiness, you really need to have a heart of tolerance and altruism; that is to say, you live not only to take care of your personal happiness, but also to be concerned about the happiness of others—at least those who live around you. The truth is that a gorgeous castle will lose its magnificent beauty if the environment around it is full of ratty  houses, ragged and polluted. An old proverb says that, “A heart of generosity is better than a big house.” This comparison provokes the profound meaning of a noble life arising from the heart of great compassion, which transcends all profane minds.

Furthermore, if you nurture your happiness just by the profane mind, then your happiness becomes the profane happiness; it may be easily broken by any attack from either the outside or the inside. For instance, when an outburst of anger, envy, or doubt arises in your mind, your personal happiness may turn into suffering in just a moment, for your happiness has not been protected by the Bodhi-mind. You should keep in mind that because the character of the profane mind is craving, hatred, and self-attachment, it does not have any ability to save you or liberate you from any mode of craving, hatred, or self-attachment. Accordingly, any happiness that is nurtured only by the profane mind is very easily broken down. Even when you carry out a charitable act with the profane mind without awakening and carefulness, the profane mind—with its nature of self-love and self-pride—is ready to repress and bully the noble sense of that charity for which you are acting. For example, when you create a virtuous deed—give a donation or assist others—you experience a pleasance and comfort in your mind; certainly, according to the law of cause and effect, your virtuous deeds would bring you good consequences. But you must be very careful, because whenever the profane mind arises in your own person, it will tow you far from the original purpose and meaning of virtuous deeds; in other words, the profane mind uses the virtuous deed to foster the “personal self” and, thus, no longer carries the sense of altruistic service you sought from the beginning. Of course, following the profane mind is a series of jealousy, worry, intrigue, device, etc.; if you do not awake in a timely manner, the original sense of the service you do will gradually fade and finally leave room for the “race of self.” Thus is the danger of the profane mind.

Clearly, in the mind-stream of human beings, there are two different groups of quality: the profane and the Bodhi. The profane includes the psyches of selfishness, craving, hatred, self-attachment, self-pride, envy, etc.; meanwhile, the Bodhi consists of the heart of great compassion and non-self wisdom. Most importantly, you need to realize that selfishness cannot extinguish selfishness; only the heart of great compassion can extinguish selfishness. Likewise, the profane mind with its selfish nature cannot actually protect and maintain our happiness; only the Bodhi-mind can secure our happiness and make it significant and long lasting. In particular, when you fall powerlessly into the vicissitudes of the earthly life, the Bodhi-mind is a precious refuge. The Bodhi-mind is, by nature, the great heart of unobstructed compassion that is able to welcome all the good and bad or any ungratefulness from the practical life without deteriorating the noble qualities of loving kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. For instance, your love in reality, regardless of how hot it is, does carry within itself the potential for change, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively; but with the Bodhi-mind, any and all changes occur in the sense of goodness without losing the heart of love, sympathy, forgiveness, and equanimity. Moreover, with the Bodhi-mind, all the changes, regardless of how they occur, maintain the original source of peace in your life without leaving behind any regret for the virtuous deeds you have performed. This is the reason we need to nurture and build up the Bodhi-mind by living well and practicing virtues.

You need not define what happiness is; if you practice and cultivate the Bodhi-mind, you will certainly have happiness because the nature of the Bodhi-mind is the group of noble qualities of the heart of great compassion and non-self wisdom, which can liberate you from all earthly afflictions. Thus, the essential element of our true happiness is the very Bodhi-mind, and the fulcrum for that true happiness is also the Bodhi-mind. You should keep in mind that selfishness in the profane mind is the cause of all cravings, hatred, and self-attachment, which are, by nature, the original source of human sufferings. Therefore, if you build your own happiness on the foundation of this profane mind, your happiness will consequently turn into suffering. However, if you build your happiness on the foundation of the Bodhi-mind, certainly, you will—regardless of how difficult it may be—achieve true happiness, which is the real source of peace and blissfulness and which in itself contains all characteristics of Nirvāna. Accordingly, if you want to secure your love, you must begin to love using the heart of Bodhi. Likewise, if you want to secure your happiness, you must also build it using the heart of Bodhi.

4. Residence of the Bodhi-mind

At this point, you may ask, if happiness needs to have the Bodhi-mind as its foundation, then where is the foundation upon which the Bodhi-mind relies? Truly, this is an interesting question. First of all, you should be aware that no one can dedicate the Bodhi-mind to you. The Buddha himself cannot give you the Bodhi-mind; God, if he is present now, cannot give you the Bodhi-mind either. You are the only person who can create a Bodhi-mind for yourself. Thus, you should know that the residence of the Bodhi-mind is not in heaven, nor in the PureLand, but it exists right in this withered body and this mundane world. The Fa-pao-t’an Sutra says that “Buddha-Dharma exists in the earthly world; you cannot escape the world to find enlightenment; to leave the world for seeking the Bodhi is similar to the seeking of the rabbit’s horn.” Indeed, afflictions, sufferings, or the world of samsāra (the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth) is the very land upon which you are able to raise the desire of Bodhi, nurture the heart of Bodhi, and practice the life of Bodhi. Being in a state of suffering will give you an opportunity to recognize the truth of life, for suffering always bears in itself the noble qualities. For example, in facing the deploring sadness of death, grief, disaster, sickness, misfortune, etc., of sentient beings, you are able to lessen or even exterminate the temper of haughtiness, self-pride, or spite in your own mind. Likewise, by living in the suffering status and the ups and downs of human life, you are able to germinate your heart of compassion to all sentient beings—you do not want to create sins or evil karmas any more, and you are delighted with the life of virtue and ethics. Truly, it is the ocean of suffering that gives you a chance to generate your Bodhi-mind, orient yourself to the noble life of compassion, and transcend all selfishness of the profane mind.

However, in order to retain the Bodhi-mind, you need to think deeply about or meditate on the truth of life (impermanence, non-self, the law of cause and effect, karma, etc.), the sufferings of sentient beings who are living in the darkness (ignorance), the hardships of habitual force and karma of human beings, the noble and virtuous life of the Buddha, as well as the virtues of sacrifices and services in the lives of the noble saints. The more you meditate on such truths, the more you develop your heart of compassion to the infinite. The great compassion is the substance that nurtures the heart of Bodhi. Like the mother’s love embracing her only child, she loves him until the last moment of her life, regardless of how spoiled he is. Indeed, without the heart of compassion and the non-self wisdom serving as the foundation for our spiritual life, our practice of austerity, both mentally and physically, leads to the faded and shriveled state just like a piece of decayed wood—useless. This is why Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the career of a Bodhisattva—the heart wishing to rescue all sentient beings, until no single sentient being is left in the realm of suffering, at which point he or she will actually finish his or her service of benefiting all sentient beings. You should always remember that compassion and wisdom are the crystal of the Bodhi heart. However, those who have just generated the Bodhi-mind or in whom the Bodhi-mind remains in its young period should practice more and more. In some special cases, you also need to take refuge in a master, because the winds and storms of life (craving, hatred, ignorance, self-pride, etc.,) are sometimes so strong that they can uproot your “young Bodhi tree.”

In summary, nothing can be certain in the world of human life, for everything is impermanent and ever-changing. Those changes sometimes make our life better and sometimes worse. In the constantly running stream of life, you cannot hold anything firmly in hand. However, you can be sure of one thing: As long as you still run after the profane mind as well as build your life on the ground of the profane mind, you will continue to be immersed in the earthly vicissitude of gain, loss, pleasure, pain, like, hate…until you have built your life on the foundation of the Bodhi-mind, when even a thousandth of this mundane world will no longer disturbs your true life because you have lived and resided peacefully in the heart of Bodhi and have also come to the world with the heart of Bodhi. I put my hands together and pray for your Bodhi-mind to be strong and solid.

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