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.”


6 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday: Bodhicitta, The Nectar of Immortality

  1. Looking back at your own old posts, do you feel you have changed, or perhaps have a new perspective? 🙂 .

    death/immortality played a huge role in indian mythology, as it did in other cultures.

    But buddha/ism always tied immortality to one’s awareness. For example, the notion of the “cycle of samsara” , or the “birthsufferingdeath” (aka dukkha) concept, or karma; All of these concepts are tied to “death” (not necessarily physical).

    Death of awareness is a samsaric cycle. Buddha reached a state where his awareness never died…immortality. Can we live with one constant uninterrupted expression of “life”/state-of-being? Is there an elixir/amrita for that.

    1. I began with the idea of expressing skepticism about the religious and mythical elements of Buddhism and yet conveying confidence about Buddhist wisdom, and I think that has remained fairly constant. I hope that my perspective has broadened, and that I’ve become a better blogger. Some of that early stuff is awful.

      When I began, I did not have cancer (or didn’t know it) and that journey has changed me. I have documented some of the changes, others I prefer to keep personal. Overall, I would say the past six years have deepened my conviction that all the wisdom in the world can be put into four words: take care of each other. My own life is not a perfect example of that principle but it’s what I believe.

      We can look at death as rebirth, not necessarily physical or metaphysical. We can have death and rebirth in each present moment. The one constant uninterrupted expression of “life”/state-of-being, in my opinion, is simply daily life. That is the elixir, the amrita.

      1. Thanks for that, nicely put. Definitely the daily life is what it is…god’s perfect play/creation in action. Lot of wisdom in “It is what it is” 🙂

        Though I sometimes struggle with ignorance(or “dukkha”) in myself and in the world. I guess we just have to come to terms with it. That , in some way could be viewed as the “end of the path”

        We humans, the mind, won’t/can’t settle down until then.

        I see Buddha’s teachings more like a way to live better life, be a better person, selfishly AND selflessly.

        “Wisdom” used to be overrated few hundred years ago, even more so during Buddha’s time; but over the last couple hundred years it has become increasingly underrated. We may see it slowly pick up again, as dukkha engulfs host culture.

        Best wishes and prayers for your health and well-being.

        1. Thanks, Red. All of us struggle with ignorance and the goal for everyone is to be a better person. In that way, Buddha-dharma is very easy to understand.

          1. “all the wisdom in the world can be put into four words: take care of each other”

            just want to add, one of my favorite parables in buddha’s teachings/literature is that of the “The Parable of Saw”. The entire sutra that has it, is good too:

            Wisdom and compassion (or, taking care of others) is one and the same, it turns out.

            Bodhisattva ideals are one powerful potion. Some buddhist sects went off the road into tantra, zen and other stuff etc, but apparently there is nothing as powerful as the limitless and endless wish granting jewel : the bodhisattva stuff.

            The more i contemplate on suffering/ignorance, the more genius the shantideva’s Bodhisattvacharyavatara seems.

            “In that way, Buddha-dharma is very easy to understand”.

            Indeed. If we boil it down to the parable of saw, its just plain simple. No matter what, keep doing/acting good. How complex can that be?

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