The Jewel of the Thought of Awakening

Nagarjuna’s Twenty Verses, presented as part of Wednesday’s post, contained the line “may all sentient beings aspire to realize the highest bodhicitta.”

What he’s really saying is “may all beings aspire to aspire,” for bodhicitta, “the thought of awakening,” is itself an aspiration – the wish or desire to realize awakening for the sake of all beings. Generating the thought of awakening is an essential step on the bodhisattva path and Shantideva’s Bodhisattvacaryavatara, better known as “A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life” is one of the most important Mahayana texts dealing with that path:

To acquire the jewel that is this thought,
I offer salutations to the buddhas,
the pure treasure of the true dharma,
and the children of the awakened, fields of virtue.

I rejoice in the arising of the thought of awakening
in those who adopt the teaching,
for this thought is an ocean whose tide brings bliss,
whose depths hold the treasure of all that is beneficial to all sentient beings.

The word bodhi means “awakening” and citta literally means “mind” or “thought.” Bodhicitta is comprised of three aspects: the simple thought or idea of awakening, the consciousness permeated with this thought, and the force of the thought to transform one’s life.

Shantideva states that he is in such awe of bodhicitta, that at first, he could not understand how it could have possibly arisen in him. He compares himself to a blind man who finds a precious jewel in a heap of mud.

He also says that once bodhicitta has arisen, there is no reason why one should ever lose it or its force be diminished.  But this power to remain within the mind is only possible when a person has a strong determination to nurture and maintain the thought of awakening.

Shantideva also wrote,

Those who want to transcend life’s multitude of sufferings
and end the distress of living beings, should never surrender
this thought of awakening, for as soon as the thought arises within,
even the most miserable person is proclaimed to be a child of the Buddha.

Shantideva tells us that the arising of this altruistic intention marks a turning point in the life of the individual and becomes so forceful that “even the wish to relieve another being of a mere headache, produces immense benefit beyond conception.”

That’s overselling it a bit, and of course, the point of bodhicitta is not about amassing merit or acquiring benefit for one’s own sake. It’s a tool to train the mind. When we generate bodhicitta for the sake of others, the turning point actually occurs when we adopt a new way of thinking. Once our mind has turned, concern for others does not really require generation; it is already front and center.

Still, one must start somewhere. According to Min Bahadur Shakya, Shantideva based his formula for generating the thought of awakening (found in the Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life) on a work ascribed to Nagarjuna entitled, Exchanging Self with Others.  The formula is:

a)  The Equality of Self and Others (Paratmasamata)

b)  The Fault of Self Cherishing (Atmasnehadosa)

c)  The Importance of Others and Cherishing of others (Parasneha)

d)  The Exchange of Self with others (Atmaparavartana)

These are points to contemplate on during meditation, or through simple reflection, points to help turn the mind away from its self-centered direction.

Nagarjuna’s mention of “highest bodhicitta” in another work may be a reference to the two types of bodhicitta, relative and ultimate. Relative bodhicitta is a state of mind where one naturally strives to be of benefit to others, while ultimate bodhicitta has more to do with emptiness, dissolving completely the illusion of inherent self-being.

The Dalai Lama has said,

If you have the wisdom of emptiness but no bodhicitta, you will not achieve full progress on the path. If you have no wisdom of emptiness but have bodhicitta, you are on the way no matter what happens.

I feel like bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, requires a certain amount of courage. You may have heard of “active bodhicitta.” To me, this means awakening is not realized merely by making a wish or a prayer. It means putting our altruistic intentions into action. That, at times, definitely takes some courage, but perhaps the greatest challenge, the one requiring the most fortitude, is to conquer our self-centered nature.

When we develop this kind of motivation to be of benefit to others and then put it into action, enlightenment is no longer an abstract idea. I think it becomes something real and attainable, although I’ve always felt there is no ultimate or final enlightenment. Compassion is enlightenment, or at least, the very edge of something like enlightenment. The thought of awakening opens a door that offers us a glimpse of enlightenment and the more bodhicitta we generate the wider the door opens.

Lama Govinda explains it this way,

Bodhicitta is here the spark of that deeper consciousness, which in the process of enlightenment is converted from a latent into an active all-penetrating and radiating force. Before this awakening has taken place, our existence is a senseless running about in circles; and since we cannot find any meaning within ourselves, the world around us appears equally meaningless.

It’s not meaningless. It’s meaningful when we live for more than just ourselves.


3 thoughts on “The Jewel of the Thought of Awakening

  1. Hi David,

    This is a wonderfully clear exploration of what bodhicitta is, and why we might aspire to it. In my school we translate bodhicitta as “the resolve for bodhi.” Your essay I think explores some of the factors of what it means to make a resolve. What is true sincerity? What does it mean to have truly and deeply set your mind on something, so that it establishes the direction of your life?

    I think it is a wonderful teaching that we might have our life guided by pure goodness, and that this is something that we can aspire toward, even if we don’t fully understand what that resolve would be like.

    1. Thanks for your comment, James. “The resolve for bodhi” is a good way to phrase it. And Dharma Realm is a fine school. I have been to both Long Beach Monastery and Gold Wheel Monastery a number of times, although the last time I was at Gold Wheel, it was actually a nunnery. I had an interesting experience there that I should blog about sometime.

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