– How to Cultivate Bodhicitta –
We each bring our own motivations and intentions to our vipassana or insight meditation practice when we first begin. Some of us might want to help calm our anxiety or tame our anger. Others might want to sharpen their mental faculties, increase their productivity or focus. And some of us may be interested in understanding the nature of our own minds.
These are all great reasons to practice, of course. But, I think you’ll find that as your practice continues to develop, as you continue to look directly at awareness and witness first-hand the selfless, ever-changing nature of experience, your motivation and intention will naturally move more and more in the direction of compassion.
I think you’ll soon find deep within you, at the heart and stillness of your being, an impulse to practice out of the benefit for the world. Traditionally, this is known as bodhicitta – or the awakened heart.
What is Bodhicitta?
There are two dimensions to bodhicitta: the ultimate and relative. The ultimate dimension is that direct, non-dual insight into experience that transcends all concepts, the direct insight into that which is no thing but which embraces, contains, and composes all things. It is the wisdom of emptiness. The ultimate is whole, entirely without borders or limits. It is that deeper aspect of experience our words, because of their fractured and isolated nature, cannot get at.
It is here, in that state of mind, where you feel and know directly that you are inextricably linked to, not separate from, completely at one with, the entirety of existence.
And it is through this direct experiential understanding of emptiness — of oneness, of centerless-ness, of selfless-ness, and boundless-ness — that we can express relative bodhicitta, or the aspiration to awaken for the happiness and wellness of all beings.
Now, though we can speak of these two – the ultimate and relative – separately, it’s important to keep in mind that they are in fact inseparable — two sides of the same coin. One can’t be understood without the other: the realization of emptiness is impossible without relative bodhicitta, while our charity and compassion can’t be expressed fully without the direct realization of emptiness.
Look close and you’ll see that our intellect, by its conceptualizing nature, too easily distracts us from the ultimate truth. All rational formulations, all beliefs, all theories, however ingenious, contain within themselves paradox and inconsistency, the seed of their own refutation. If any conceptual framework is pushed to explain itself, it will ultimately end in contradiction or infinite regress. When seen from the whole, from the divine perspective — that is, from the ultimate truth — all theories, Buddhist theories included, fail through sheer inanity.
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The Way of the Bodhisattva (9.2)
“Relative and ultimate, these the truths are declared to be. The ultimate is not within the reach of the intellect, for the intellect is said to be the relative.”
Any statement, theory, or concept — any thing — that emerges does so from the intellect or ego, which, to know anything at all, must dice the entirety of existence into parts — it must give edges, borders, and boundaries to aspects of our all-encompassing, ever-changing experience. It must create contrast. It must paint imaginary pictures out of the ever-changing clouds of the Great Sky.
Theories may be of practical use, of course, and may even have empirical support. But as expressions of the ultimate truth, of the direct ‘nature of experience,’ they are inadequate. The ultimate — that which holds what is contrasted; that which holds all things — is suprarational. It cannot be expressed in conceptual terms:
The Way of the Bodhisattva (9.34)
“When something and its nonexistence both are absent from before the mind, no other option does the latter have: It comes to perfect rest, free from concepts.”
How Can I Cultivate Bodhicitta?
There are generally two themes to cultivating bodhicitta: The first is to meditate on the equality of self and other, and the second is to meditate on the exchange of self and other.
Check it out for yourself, but when you meditate on the equality, the non-seperateness, of you and others, see whether, through the direct wisdom of emptiness, a natural and deepening compassion continues to express itself, and whether this expression leads to a softening of the ego. See whether the barrier dividing you from others continues to become more and more fictitious – a mere dream, a mental construction stenciled over your bare, ever-changing experience.
I’ll bet once you cross this barrier and realize directly that there is no real line that separates you from others, others’ suffering will no longer be something that exists outside of you — and all this suffering will start to become as real as your own. And the urge to relieve this suffering from the world, from all those around you, will become your deepest and most natural impulse.
The Way of the Bodhisattva (8.129)
“All the joy the world contains has come through wishing happiness for others. All the misery the world contains has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.”
For the second theme – meditating on the exchange of self and other – I invite you to imagine switching places with someone you’ve had a bad exchange with, and who felt ‘wronged’ in some way by what you said or did.
Then, once you bring this situation to life with your sympathetic imagination, pay close attention to what it feels like to be in their shoes. Watch yourself through this other person’s eyes, and try to generate the appropriate feeling of anger, say, or jealousy — whatever the feeling may be that the other believes you caused in them. Get a firsthand impression, a direct understanding, of what it’s like to be at the receiving end of your own behavior.
Then, pay attention to how this changes or affects your mind. Ask how it affects your understanding of the world and how that understanding shapes your being in the world?
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Additional Bodhicitta Exercises
Another way to awaken your heart-mind is to reflect on the good of the objective. What will your life look like, what will it feel like, what will it be like if you flood the world with Love? What impact will it have on your loved ones? And on the world?
Or maybe consider the opposite end: what would be the consequences of your weakness, laziness, or cowardice? What would happen to your loved ones if you fall into self-concern, if you turn off your concentrated outpour of Love?
You can try meditating on how materialistic and sensual aims have provide nothing but the fleeting satisfaction of scratching an itch or blowing a load. You can question whether they feed your appetite, and lead back to only more desire, more unsatisfaction and frustration. You can explore for yourself whether lasting peace and tranquility – freedom – is found not outside but within.
Finally, be careful about the possessions and company you keep. Without mindfulness, without caring attention, we too easily adopt subconsciously the energy of those we’re with. If you hang with people who are uneasy, tense, angry, and stressed, you’ll probably feel a bit uneasy, tense, angry, and stressed when you’re around them. And maybe even for a little or a lot longer after they’re no longer physically present.
Find and surround yourself, then, with people who pour love and goodness from their heart freely. Find people who demonstrate peace through their very being in the world. Find people who are curious and playful, who appreciate and create art and beauty, who express joy and a deep reverence for Life, for Love, for the World.
Let go of your self, put down your self-concern, and instead look toward your fellow beings, to their predicament, to their pain, suffering, and insecurities. Fully wrap them with your caring attention. Surrender to them your entire being.
Have the courage to confront suffering in all its horrifying reality. Refuse to retreat in fear or revulsion. Gaze into the pit of darkness, composed and resolute. Shine the light and warmth of compassion out of all your pores. Walk hand-in-hand with those in unrelenting pain. And let your mind be filled not with sorrow, stress, and despair, but with a protective concern that is vibrant with joy, over-flooded with the heartfelt wish to help, and an unshakeable confidence in the transformation power of Love.
Let your entire being be a gateway for all to enter the boundless depths of Love.