Not everyone will want to undertake the formal practice of a bodhisattva, but that does not mean they cannot enter the bodhisattva path.
It begins with generating bodhicitta, the thought of awakening. Bodhicitta is actually two aspirations: to experience awakening for oneself and then for others. It is comprised of two elements: compassion for others and a deep understanding of suffering. To wish to free oneself from suffering is true renunciation. To wish others to be free is to have true compassion.
My understanding of bodhicitta comes mainly from the Tibetan tradition, as teachers I have encountered in other traditions have not dealt with it in any comprehensive way. Since the Tibetan schools are essentially Madhyamaka or Middle Way schools, their discourses on bodhicitta are largely founded on the teachings of Nagarjuna and Shantideva.
Shantideva’s Bodhisattva-caryavatara, better known as A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life is probably the best and most expansive guide to the practice of bodhicitta. He writes “Those who want to transcend life’s multitude of sufferings, those who wish to end the distress of living beings . . . should never surrender this thought of awakening . . . as soon as the thought of awakening arises within, even the most miserable person . . . is proclaimed to be a child of the Buddha.”
Lama Govinda explains,
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.
Actually, without bodhicitta or any practice, there does appear to be meaning, but often that meaning is founded on pride and self-cherishing, so it is negligible. Bodhicitta is skillful means, a tool to combat the self-centered meanings we seize.
Shantideva praises bodhicitta, calling it “a precious jewel so seldom produced for one’s own sake, much less for others.” He says altruistic intention is so powerful that “Even the wish to relieve another being of a mere headache, produces immense benefit beyond conception” and that once bodhicitta arises all the actions of the individual are those of a bodhisattva.
Naturally not all statements of this sort should be taken literally. It’s the spirit of the words, reflecting the essence of bodhicitta, that we want to capture.
In addition to selflessness and compassion, bodhicitta also requires courage. In this sense, I’ve heard the term “active bodhicitta.” Liberation through bodhicitta cannot be realized merely by making a wish or a prayer. You must put the altruistic intention into action. After reflecting deeply on the meaning of bodhicitta take active steps to help others. This is also called wisdom.
In Madhyamaka philosophy, teachings on bodhicitta have a direct relationship with emptiness. Emptiness is seen as the real ground of liberation, and it is on account of emptiness that true compassion is possible.
In teachings on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, in Los Angeles in 201, the Dalai Lama said,
Bodhicitta is a benefit both temporary and long term. You should practice bodhicitta as an antidote to pride, also powerful when you are depressed.
You can practice to a point where you make a simple thought and this causes a spontaneous arising of bodhicitta within you. To achieve this kind of liberation requires a great determination.