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.


Bodhicitta: The Nectar of Immortality

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.

Within 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 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.


The Way Followed by the Mind

Chih-i, founder of the Chinese T’ien-t’ai school, was one of the greatest Buddhist philosophers. Some have put him on a par with Nagarjuna and I would agree but add that at least in the beginning Chih-i was merely attempting to clarify Nagarjuna’s philosophy for a Chinese audience. During the time I spent practicing Nichiren Buddhism I developed an abiding interest in Chih-i’s work, since Nichiren viewed Chih-i as his spiritual ancestor and incorporated the T’ien-ta’i teachings into his own system.

Lately, I’ve been studying a section of Neal Donner’s 1976 translation of Mo-ho Chih Kuan, Chih-i’s monumental work on Buddhist practice. Donner renders the title of Chih-i’s work as “Great Calming and Contemplation”, while the Thomas Cleary translation has it as “Great Stopping and Seeing”, which I prefer.* In the Nichiren traditions (most of which reject the mode of practice Chih-i explains in the text) it is known as “Great Concentration and Insight” (Jpn. Maka Shikan).

In any case, the Mo-ho Chih Kuan was one of the most important non-Indian works of Mahayana Buddhism, influencing the development of the Ch’an (Zen) meditation, as well as practices in other traditions. It was actually the first comprehensive meditation manual written by a Chinese Buddhist, although to say that Chih-I “wrote” this work is a bit of a misnomer, for it was compiled from his lectures after his death.

The section I have been studying deals with bodhicitta, a subject I have blogged about on several occasions in recent months. Bodhicitta, the “thought of awakening”, is the aspirational wish to realize awakening for the sake of all living beings. It’s the first step in the bodhisattva path.

According to Donner, the Mo-ho Chih Kuan essentially charts “the progress of the religious practitioner from the first arising of the thought of enlightenment (bodhicitta) – when he realizes the possibility of Buddhahood within himself – to the final absorption into the indescribable Ultimate Reality, beyond all teaching, beyond all thought.”

At the beginning of the section on bodhicitta, Chih-i defines the term: “bodhi [awakening] is here (in China) called the Way” while citta “is here called ‘mind’, that is, the cognitive mind.” Donner says “Chih-i understands the bodhicitta as ‘the Way followed by the mind’” and translates the complete term bodhicitta-utpada (utpada = ‘production’) as “arousing the great thought,” while Thomas Clearly in his translation uses “awakening the great mind.”

Buddhist practice is aimed at the transformation of sufferings into nirvana. Traditionally, a crucial first step in practice is the taking of vows (vrata) which are said to form tendencies opposite of those that bind us to hard-to-eliminate negative thought patterns and habits that produce suffering.

If action is dependent upon intention, then we can counter negative patterns with purer intentions, the purest of all being the wish to realize awakening for the sake of all living beings, the essence of bodhicitta or the “thought of awakening.”

The first instant of thought in which a person conceives of the desirability of attaining awakening for the sake of others is identical with awakening itself. Chih-i says, “Even a beginning practitioner becomes a refuge for the world” if he or she understands the profound meaning of bodhicitta.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. Once generated, the subsequent determination to actualize the thought that nurtures the aspiration sets in motion the conditions that make it possible for positive tendencies to be strengthened and negative ones to be lessened. The seeds of negative potentialities reside deep within the consciousness, and it is from there, the depths of the mind, that a new concentrated thought pattern, bodhicitta, is aroused, starting the process through which we transform sufferings into nirvana for both self and others.

Chih-i says,

We call bodhicitta the “cause and condition for awakening because it is through this as a cause that sentient beings come to experience the Buddha, and it is through this as a condition that a response is aroused toward them in the Buddha.”

Chih-i may or may not have had an external, eternal Buddha in mind; however, we can understand this as referring to Buddha-nature. Bodhicitta is the cause that awakens the Buddha-nature within, and constantly arousing this wish to realize awakening for one’s self and others is the condition that enables Buddha-nature to reach full maturity.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that in this modern age only the Tibetan traditions focus seriously on bodhicitta. This seems a shame, since it was an all-important concept for such great Buddhist thinkers including not only Chih-i, but also Nagarjuna and Shantideva, all of whom offered teachings that resonate with us today. The “thought of awakening” should be easily embraceable in this present time of reason because it is a non-metaphysical concept, as the Dalai Lama, who frequently teaches on bodhicitta, explains,

Bodhicitta or the altruistic aspiration to attain Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings is a state of mind which cannot be cultivated or generated within one’s mental continuum simply by praying for it to come into being in one’s mind. Nor will it come into existence by simply developing the understanding of what that mind is. One must generate that mind within one’s mind’s continuum.”

In other words, it’s not magic. Bodhicitta is the mind that follows the Way by working at it.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Neal Arvid Donner, The Great Calming and Contemplation of Chih-i, Chapter One: The Synopsis, The University of British Columbia, 1976; Thomas Cleary, Stopping and Seeing, A Comprehensive Course in Buddhist Meditation by Chih-i, Shambala Publications Inc., 1997


The Spring, The Source and The Root of The Path.

In his superb book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche describes bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, like this:

To awaken and develop the heart of the enlightened mind is to ripen steadily the seed of our buddha nature, that seed that in the end, when our practice of compassion has become perfect and all-embracing, will flower majestically into buddhahood. Bodhicitta, then, is the spring and source and root of the entire spiritual path.”

I’m not sure any other spiritual tradition than Buddhism has a concept such as bodhicitta, the aspirational wish to realize awakened mind for the benefit of all living beings. And for our path, as Sogyal Rinpoche says, it is the spring, source and root of the all spiritual development.

Shantideva, the eighth century Indian Buddhist poet and philosopher, understood the importance of bodhicitta well, and that is why in Chapter One of A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, he wrote,

A person who wants to overcome the sorrows of life, who wants to still the sufferings of sentient beings, who wants to experience happiness of the spirit, must never abandon the thought of awakening.

And in Chapter Three,

Once a person of wisdom has given rise to the the thought of awakening, that person shall exalt the same thought repeatedly in the following manner, in order to secure its subsequent growth:

“Today my life bears fruit, and this human state is well assumed; today I have been born in the family of Buddhas, now I become a child of the awakened.”

From today on, I must act according to the customs of my family, so that the legacy of this noble lineage may be fulfilled.

It as if a blind man found a gem in a pile of dung.  In the same manner, I know not how, this thought of awakening has arisen in me.

This elixir has arisen to vanquish death from the world. It is the inexhaustible treasure that will alleviate thirst in the world, the unsurpassed medicine that will allay the sufferings of the world . . .

The caravans of men, which travels through the roads of existence, hungering for pleasure and happiness, finds here the banquet of bliss, in which all those who come to it become satiated.

Today in the presence of all the Noble Ones, I invite the whole world to be guests at the festival of awakening, and at the same time, to happiness.  May all living beings rejoice.”


The Dalai Lama on the ‘Thought of Awakening’

If it seems that I write an awful lot about compassion, it’s because I need to constantly remind myself to practice compassion and understanding. These posts are like notes to myself. It’s also because I feel that what Jackie Deshannon sang almost 50 years ago is still true today:

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of . . .”

The world, even our little pieces of it, is still too cruel, too hard, and quarrelsome. And as the Dalai Lama indicates below, compassion is the main point of Buddha-dharma.

The other day, after reader sent a email with a link to a video of a recent teaching the Dalai Lama gave on Tsongkhapa’s “The Three Principle Parts of the Path,” I took a look at some notes I made from one of the first Dalai Lama teachings I attended. This was back in 1996 and it was a four-day session, the first three days devoted to teachings on the same text and the third, an “Empowerment of the White Tara.”

Here is what the Dalai Lama had to say during that teaching about bodhicitta, ‘the thought of awakening’, the aspirational wish to develop a mind of enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings:

“When you aspire to Bodhisattva, you contemplate all beings without suffering. All people are equal in the sense that all people want to be happy. It is important to be more concerned with the happiness of others, than yourself. Others are far more important. If you center on only your own well being, you ignore the well being of others. Putting yourself first brings trouble and leads to the ten non-virtuous acts. This is the folly of cherishing oneself. The act of cherishing others brings great benefits to you even though you do not seek them.

The Buddha achieved such a peaceful state from meditating on the welfare of others.

Why do we still suffer? Because we have not developed wisdom and the proper meditative techniques to relieve suffering. We have not learned to relieve suffering. Our aim should be to take this self-cherishing and turn it aroud.

If we are followers of the Buddha, it is important to do as the Buddha taught. He achieved various states of being only for the welfare of others. The welfare of others sentient beings is the main point of Buddhism.

When we go to the Buddha for refuge, we will switch our self-cherishing to other-cherishing. This wish is that out of compassion we can take the sufferings of others as our own. You should not hesitate to cultivate the bodhicitta mind, even if it takes several eons.”

Now here is the link I mentioned above, a one day teaching given on November 11th at the Main Tibetan Temple, Dharamsala, India. Thanks, Michael!