In Sanskrit, the word amrita means “immortality.” In traditional Indian mythology, amrita is the nectar or “sweet dew” of the gods that grants immortal life.
Amrita appears in different contexts within Buddhism. It might be water or food that is blessed through the act of chanting, or it may be a sacramental drink taken at the beginning of certain tantric rituals. The great Tibetan yogi, Milarepa called the precepts or samaya “the amrita (nectar) of abundant nourishment,” and there is the “Ocean of Amrita” a teaching by Padmasambhava, as well as a story about the Healing Buddha appearing before Padmasambhava to give him a cup of amrita that would prolong his life.
We can view both the idea of immortality and amrita as metaphors. The latter, the nectar, representing spiritual nourishment. Therefore, anything that helps sustain or nurture wayfarers is amrita, sweet dew.
The purest and most potent amrita is bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, the elixir of compassion. In his teaching “The Four Immeasurables and the Six Paramitas,” Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche states,
[Bodhicitta] is very beneficial for oneself and for all others. So, when someone has bodhicitta, whatever he or she does, is like medicine or healing nectar (Skt. amrita) which brings calmness, peace, and the coolness discussed before. It is very beneficial and is like a great and powerful medicine. It just flows out quite spontaneously and naturally from the presence of one’s bodhicitta. Take the supreme example of bodhicitta: when the Buddha taught, he led a very simple life and everything happened spontaneously around him. These far-reaching effects were a completely natural outflow of this very therapeutic healing, coming from the very pure motivation which he had. This is very special.”
Bodhicitta is not only the ultimate spiritual nourishment, it is the foundation of the raison d’ê·tre for Buddhist cultivation, because in the Bodhisattva Way, we practice not just for ourselves but also, and perhaps most importantly, for the benefit of others. Bodhicitta is the aspiration to awaken for the sake of all living beings. Nurturing bodhicitta is a cause that comes back to nurture us. In A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva says of bodhicitta, the thought of awakening,
It is the nectar of immortality prepared for vanquishing death in the world;
An inexhaustible elixir to end the world’s poverty.”
I like to think that Shantideva is using “the nectar of immortality” metaphorically to mean the non-fear of death. Fear of death is a negative state of mind, a fixation on the future that distracts us from living fully in the now. As this fear tightens its grip on our mind and spirit, it weakens our ability to deal with death when the time for it comes. When we live for more than just ourselves, we acquire a kind of courage, even without being aware of it, and of course, wisdom through which we see that death is an opportunity for awakening.
Speaking of metaphors, I am reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a wonderful book that I will perhaps write about in more detail later. Near the beginning of the book, Kundera has these great lines:
Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.
And so ends my small offering of nectar for the mind and ambrosia for the heart.