Throwback Thursday: Bodhicitta, The Nectar of Immortality

The following is an edited version of a post published in 2014.

The Sanskrit word amrita means “immortality.”  In traditional Indian mythology, amrita is the nectar or “sweet dew” of the gods that grants immortal life.

In Buddhism, amrita appears in different contexts: 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 (samaya) “the amrita (nectar) of abundant nourishment,” and there is also 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.

It’s best to view both the idea of immortality and amrita as metaphors. The latter, the nectar, represents spiritual nourishment; anything that helps sustain or nurtures 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 raison d’ê·tre for Buddhist practice, because those who fare on the Bodhisattva Way practice not only for themselves, but also 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.”

Again, we should take “the nectar of immortality” as metaphor, for 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 present.  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, and more importantly it weakens our ability to deal with what is happening now.  When we live for more than just ourselves, we develop courage, even without being aware of it, and acquire wisdom, through which we see that even death is an opportunity for awakening.

Speaking of metaphors, near the beginning of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we find these words:

“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.”

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Two Pairs of Sandals

I saw this photo of a man giving his sandals to a homeless girl in Rio de Janeiro on Facebook. It was in black and white with the caption: “The world is full of good people. If you can’t find one . . . be one!”

man-giving-sandalsI looked for the original and discovered that it’s been posted all over the Internet for several years, so likely you’ve seen it before. I hadn’t. One reason why I found it so interesting is that it reminded me of this story about Mahatma Gandhi:

In India, during those days, rail was the fastest and most affordable way to travel across the country. The British rail company would only stop at a station if white people were waiting, otherwise they would merely slow down so that non-whites had to run and hop aboard the still moving train.

One day as Gandhi scrambled on to a train, one of his sandals slipped off and landed on the track. With the train rolling, he was unable to retrieve it, so he took off his other sandal and threw it back along the track where it landed close to the first one.

Asked by a fellow passenger why he did that, Gandhi replied, “If some poor man finds one sandal, he will surely find the other and then he have a good pair he can use.”

We have to accept both the photo and the story with a certain amount of faith. I have not been able to find the original source of either. The photo might have been staged, or it might actually depict something quite different from what it’s supposed to be. As far as the Gandhi story is concerned, well, there are a lot of stories about the Mahatma and I doubt if half of them are true.

It doesn’t really matter. What is important is the positive messages they convey. In the Gandhi story, there are two points. One is about how compassion and kindness can become so deeply ingrained in someone that they instinctively, without a moment’s hesitation, think about the welfare of others. The second point is about non-attachment. If Gandhi had been attached to his shoes, the loss of one might have caused to give in to anger or some other negative emotion. Instead, he was calm about the loss of his shoe, and he turned his misfortune into possible good fortune for another person.

As I’ve mentioned many times, in Buddhism, compassion begins with bodhicitta, the thought or wish to awaken for the welfare of all living beings. Bodhicitta has two stages, intentional, or the aspiration, and active bodhicitta, the practical engagement or the performance of altruistic acts. The Gandhi story is an example of both. Even though he was not Buddhist, Gandhi certainly aspired to be altruistic, and through his practice of meditation, he had trained his mind so that the welfare of others was nearly always his first thought.

The Dalai Lama, at a teaching I attended in 2001, put it this way:

Bodhicitta cannot be realized merely by making a wish or offering a prayer, but you can practice to a point where you make a simple thought and this causes a spontaneous arising of bodhicitta within you.”

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The Dalai Lama’s Message: True Compassion

Today Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, turns 80. To celebrate this milestone, friends of the Dalai Lama organized the Global Compassion Summit, a three day event in Orange County, California. The summit began yesterday with the “official birthday celebration” in which world leaders, Nobel Laureates, celebrity guests, speakers and performers from around the world gathered at the Honda Center in Anaheim to pay tribute to “His Holiness” and to listen to him speak on creativity and compassion.

This October, in Philadelphia, the National Constitution Center will present the Dalai Lama with the Liberty Medal “in recognition of his advocacy for human rights worldwide.”

In Tibetan Buddhism, lamas (teachers) only teach when requested to do so, and during the several decades that the Dalai Lama has been giving public teachings and talks, compassion has been his most consistent and fundamental message. Compassion is more than an emotion, it should be dynamic, for it is also behavior.  In Essence of the Heart Sutra, the Dalai Lama writes,

978bCompassion can of course be understood on many levels, and at the highest level, compassion ultimately liberates you . . . According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive – it’s not empathy alone – but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering . . .”

The aspiration, the state of mind the Dalai Lama is referring to here is what Buddhism calls bodhicitta, the wish or intention to realize awakening in order to help all living beings. Without this altruistic intention, it is not possible to realize full awakening.

However, during the practice of bodhicitta, we find that awakening is not as important as the generation of altruism and the performance of compassionate action. Or, perhaps, it is rather that deep altruism and compassionate action is awakening. The consummation of bodhicitta requires overcoming all narrow self-centered concerns and limitations, along with developing a genuine feeling of responsibility for others. What he said above, the Dalai Lama has stated many times: ultimately, compassion liberates us, and this is because through transcending the limitations of self and helping others become free from suffering, we become free from suffering, ourselves.

In another book, The Compassionate Life, he says,

True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason. Because of this firm foundation, a truly compassionate attitude toward others does not change even if they behave negatively. Genuine compassion is based not on our own projections and expectations, but rather on the needs of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy, as long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop genuine concern for their problem. This is genuine compassion.

For a Buddhist practitioner, the goal is to develop this genuine compassion, this genuine wish for the well-being of another, in fact for every living being throughout the universe.”

Real compassion is not based on any religious or political creed; it is altruism that is truly universal. It comes from the heart, and the mind, and not from belief.

Tenzin Gyatso, Ocean of Wisdom
great teacher of the Middle Way,
I make this request O Lama,
please remain strong and please live long.

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All That Noise

I saw a commercial on TV the other day that said,

Financial noise is everywhere. Tune it out with intentional investing from Invesco. And separate knowledge from noise.”

noise1 I thought this is close to what we’re trying to do with meditation and dharma. Noise is everywhere. It’s spiritually deafening at times. The kind of noise I mean is desire, illusion, attachment, stress, worry, anticipation, disappointment, fun, sorrow – noise is all the stuff we deal with in daily life. But we can tune out all that noise, turn off the static.

The commercial mentions knowledge, but we’re not too interested in that. I saw something recently, and dash if I can find it now when I need it, but I think it was the Buddha who said that when some practitioners encounter obstacles, they revert to intellectual comprehension. He meant that empirical and theoretical knowledge is not the best path for wayfarers. We want to travel on the way of Transcendent Wisdom (Prajna-Paramita), which “goes beyond” knowledge. In the Diamond Sutra, Transcendent Wisdom is likened to a diamond blade that cuts through all the noise to reveal the true aspect of all phenomena.

And that’s why, in the sutra the Buddha says,

Subhuti, this teaching should be known as the Diamond of Transcendent Wisdom – this is how you should receive and hold it. And why? Because the diamond of transcendent wisdom has the capacity to cut through illusions and go beyond to the further shore. Yet, this teaching the Buddha has called the diamond of transcendent wisdom is not really the diamond of transcendent wisdom. ‘Diamond of transcendent wisdom’ is just the name given to it.”

We can receive and hold the teaching, but it will not help us to go beyond if we cling to it. Use it, but don’t grasp it. In the Zen tradition, which was significantly influenced by Taoism, this was known as “not-knowing.” In The Diamond Sutra Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, Mu Soeng explains

Not-knowing is the intuitive wisdom where one understands information to be just that – mere information – and tries to penetrate to the heart of the mystery that language and information are trying to convey . . . The not-knowing approach is not a philosophical or intellectual entertainment; it is a doorway to liberation.” (p.64)

I didn’t have a clue to what intentional investing was so I Googled it. The company describes it this way: “At Invesco, all of our people and all of our resources are dedicated to helping investors achieve their financial objectives. It’s a philosophy we call Intentional Investing.”

At Buddha-dharma all our bodhisattvas and all of our teachings are dedicated to helping people achieve liberation through Transcendent Wisdom. It’s a philosophy we call bodhicitta or intentional cultivation.

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More Precious than a Wish-fulfilling Jewel

Chiron was a centaur, and if you know your Greek mythology, you’ll recall that centaurs are half-human, half-horse. Chiron, however, was a something special. He was extremely wise, and he was an immortal god to boot. One day he was accidently struck by Hercules’ arrow. The wound was so agonizingly painful, Chiron wanted to die. But he couldn’t, because he was immortal. One of the downsides to being a god, I guess.

Eventually, he was able to renounce his immortality and before he went off to Elysium (the afterlife), he taught the art of medicine to man, and to gods, including Askelpios, who became the god of medicine. For this, Chiron is known as the “father of medicine” and the “wounded healer.”

Carl Jung borrowed “wounded healer” to describe an archetype he saw in the relationship between an analyst and patients. An analyst, or doctor, is able to treat others because “The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals.”

If we unpack that idea a bit, then we can say that generally speaking, as we are all wounded in some way, for we all experience pain and suffering, and because each of us has the capacity to help others to alleviate their pain and suffering, we are all healers. Furthermore, as the myth of Chiron represents the ideal of compassion and selfless service, it is similar to the ideal of the Bodhisattva; so, we can be Bodhisattvas, too.

Jung, in outlining his concept of the wounded healer in Fundamental Questions of Psychotherapy (1951), said he believed disease was the best training for a physician.

Jihi (Compassion): “to care, to cry: to remove the cause for suffering.”
Jihi (Compassion): “to care, to cry: to remove the cause for suffering.”

There is no doubt that the experience of sufferings is beneficial training for the practice of altruism, but in Buddhism the prime cause for helping others is much more fundamental. In Supplement to the Middle Way, Chandrakirti wrote, “Compassion alone is seen as the seed . . . as water for its growth, and as ripening into a lasting source of usefulness. And so, first, I pay homage to compassion.”

He’s talking about Bodhicitta, the wish to realize awakening for the benefit of all living beings. There are two kinds of bodhicitta: “aspiration bodhicitta”, generating the thought, and “action bodhicitta” or putting the thought into practice.

Year ago, at a meditation class I was leading, a first time visitor, a rather cynical young man, wanted to know why we should practice compassion. He thought there should be a reason for it. I must admit that I failed at making him understand that compassion does not need a reason. It is a kind of vicarious identification, you see the suffering of living beings and you feel empathy, you feel compassion. I realize now that he suffered from an acute sense of separation from others and consequently, he thought he needed some rationale for practicing compassion.

That is why it is important for us who understand the inseparability, the interdependence of all things to reflect on thoughts like the one we find expressed in Geshe Langri Thangpa’s Eight Verses of Training the Mind:

By thinking of all sentient beings
As more precious than a wish-fulfilling jewel
For accomplishing the highest aim,
I will always hold them dear.

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