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.”