The Compassionate Attitude of Bodhichitta

Tsoknyi Rinpoche talks about how the most important thing in spiritual practice is motivation and the wish to free all beings from suffering.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche
25 February 2021

Whether our dharma practice will progress in the right direction depends on our attitude, our intention, our motivation. Motivation is extremely important: it is what everything stands or falls with. This is true not only in spiritual practice but in whatever we set out to do. Therefore, in Buddhist practice it is of utmost importance to continually correct and improve our attitude.

The attitude we need to cultivate is one that is suffused with bodhichitta, or awakened heart and mind. This enlightened attitude has two aspects. The first aspect is the urge to purify our negativity: “I want to rid myself of all shortcomings, all ego-oriented emotions such as attachment, aggression, stupidity and all the rest.” The second aspect is the sincere desire to benefit all beings: “Having freed myself of all negative emotions, I will benefit all sentient beings. I will bring every sentient being to the state of complete enlightenment.”

This compassionate attitude of bodhichitta should encompass oneself as well as all others. We have every reason to feel compassionate toward ourselves. In the ordinary state of mind we are helplessly overtaken by selfish emotions, and we lack the freedom to remain unaffected when these emotions occupy our mind. Swept away by feelings of attachment, anger, closed-mindedness and so forth, we lose control, and we suffer a great deal in this process. In such a state, we are unable to help ourselves, let alone others.

Bodhichitta, or awakened heart and mind, has two aspects. The first is the urge to purify our negativity: The second aspect is the sincere desire to benefit all beings.

We need to relate to our own suffering here with compassion, in a balanced way, applying compassion toward ourselves just as we would do with others. In order to help others, we must first help ourselves, so that we can become capable of expanding our efforts further. But we shouldn’t get stuck in just helping ourselves. Our compassion must embrace all other beings as well, so that having freed ourselves of negative emotions we are moved by compassion to help all sentient beings.

At this point in our practice it’s O.K. that our attempts to experience the attitude of bodhichitta are a little bit artificial. Because we haven’t necessarily thought in this way before, we need to deliberately shift or adjust our intention to a new style. This kind of tampering with our own attitude is actually necessary. We may not yet be perfect bodhisattvas, but we should act as if we already are. We should put on the air of being a bodhisattva, just as if we’re putting on a mask that makes us look as if we are somebody else.

In Tibet there is a lot of livestock: many cows, sheep, yaks. The skin from these animals needs to be cured in order to be useful. It needs to be softened by a special process. Once the hide has been cured, it becomes flexible and can be used in all sorts of ways: in religious artifacts, to bind up certain offerings on the shrine, as well as for all kinds of household purposes. But first it needs to be prepared in the right way—it needs to be softened, made flexible. If the hide is simply left as it is, it hardens and becomes totally stiff; then it is nothing but an unyielding piece of animal skin. It is the same way with a human being’s attitude. We must soften our hearts, and this takes deliberate effort. We need to make ourselves gentle, peaceful, flexible and tame, rather than being undisciplined, rigid, stubborn egocentrics.

This softening of our heart is essential for all progress, and not just in terms of spiritual practice. In all we do, we need to have an attitude that is open-minded and flexible. We are deliberately trying to be a bodhisattva, to have the compassionate attitude of wanting to help all sentient beings. This conscious effort is vital, because it can genuinely soften us up from deep within. If we do not cultivate this attitude, our rigidly preoccupied frame of mind makes it impossible for the true view of ultimate bodhichitta to grow. It’s like trying to plant seeds in a frozen block of ice atop Mount Everest—they will never grow, they will just freeze. When, on the other hand, you have warmed up your character with bodhichitta, your heart is like fertile soil that is warm and moist. Since the readiness is there, whenever the view of self-knowing wakefulness— the true view of Dzogchen that is ultimate bodhichitta—is planted, it can grow spontaneously. In fact, absolutely nothing can hold it back from growing in such a receptive environment! That is why it is so important to steadily train in bodhichitta right from the very beginning.

The word dharma, in this context, means method. The dharma is a method to overcome the delusion in our own stream of being, in our own mind—a way to be totally free of the negative emotions that we harbor and cause to proliferate. At the same time it is a way to realize the original wakefulness that is present in ourselves. There are ten different connotations of the word dharma, but in this context we are speaking of two types: the dharma of statements and the dharma of realization. The dharma of statements is what you hear during a lecture or a teaching session. Within the dharma of statements are included the words of the Buddha, called the tripitaka, as well as the commentaries on the Buddha’s words made by many learned and accomplished masters.

Through hearing the explanations that constitute the dharma of statements, and through applying these methods, something dawns in our own experience. This insight is called the dharma of realization, and it includes recognizing our own nature of mind. In order to approach this second kind of dharma, to apply it, we need the right motivation. Again, this right motivation is the desire to free oneself of negative emotions and bring all beings to liberation. We absolutely must have that attitude, or our spiritual practice will be distorted into personal profit seeking.

Basically there are three negative emotions: attachment, aggression and closed-mindedness. Of course, these three can be further distinguished into finer and finer levels of detail, down to the 84,000 different types of negative emotions. But the main three, as well as all their subsidiary classifications, are all rooted in ignorance, in basic unknowing. These are the negative emotions we need to be free of, and their main root is ignorance.

Someone might think, “I approach dharma practice because my ego is a little bit upset. My ego is not very intelligent, not quite able to succeed. I come here to practice in order to improve my ego.” That attitude is not spiritual.

Here’s another attitude: “My ego works so hard. I must take care of my ego. I must relax. I come here to practice and become relaxed, so that my ego gets healthier and I can do my job.” That type of attitude is O.K., but merely O.K.; it’s just one drop of a very small motivation.

We can, in fact, have a much larger perspective. As long as we harbor and perpetuate the negative emotions of attachment, anger, closed-mindedness, pride and jealousy, they will continue to give us a hard time, and they will make it difficult for others to be with us as well. We need to be free of them. We need to have this attitude: “I must be free of these emotions.”

Otherwise, what Gampopa said may come true: if you do not practice the dharma correctly, it could become a cause for rebirth in the lower realms. That may happen for many people. In fact, it happens more frequently among old practitioners than with beginners.

Someone may relate to dharma merely as a kind of remedy to be used when confused or upset. This of course is not the real purpose of spiritual practice. In this kind of situation, you do some practice till you have settled down, and then you set it aside and forget all about it. The next time you get upset, you do some more practice in order to feel good again. Of course, reestablishing one’s equilibrium in this way is one of the minor purposes of practice, but it’s not the real goal. Doing this is a way of using the dharma as if it were a type of therapy. You may of course choose to do this, but I do not think it will get you enlightened. Feel a little bit unhappy, do some dharma practice, get happy. Feel a little bit upset, then feel fine, then again feel unhappy. If you just continue like this, holding this very short-term view in mind, then there is no progress. “Last night I didn’t sleep—my mind was disturbed, and the dog was barking next door. Now my mind is a little upside down, so I need to do a session to cure it. O.K., this morning I’ll meditate.”Do not practice in this way.

Dharma practice is not meant merely to make oneself feel better. The whole point of spiritual practice is to liberate oneself through realization and also to liberate others through compassionate capacity. To practice in order to feel better only brings one back up to that same level—one never makes any real progress. With this attitude spreading in the West, we may see a huge scarcity of enlightened masters in the future. They will become an endangered species.

Please understand that the pursuit of “feeling better” is a samsaric goal. It is a totally mundane pursuit that borrows from the dharma and uses all its special methods in order to fine tune ego into a fit and workable entity. The definition of a worldly aim is to try to achieve something for oneself with a goal-oriented frame of mind—”So that I feel good.” We may use spiritual practice to achieve this, one good reason being that it works much better than other methods. If we’re on this path, we do a little spiritual practice and pretend to be doing it sincerely. This kind of deception, hiding the ego-oriented, materialistic aim under the tablecloth, might include something like, “I take refuge in the Buddha, dharma and sangha, so I must be pure.” Gradually, as we become more astute at spiritual practice, we may bring our materialistic aim out into the open. This is quite possible—people definitely do it. But if this is how you practice, you won’t get anywhere in the end. How could one ever become liberated through selfishness?

The dharma is a method to overcome the delusion in our own stream of being, in our own mind—a way to be totally free of the negative emotions that we harbor and cause to proliferate.

There comes a point when we start to lose faith in the illusions of this world: our level of trust in illusions begins to weaken, and we become disappointed. Using spiritual practice to nurture our ego back into good health while still retaining trust in these illusory aims does not set us free. True freedom does not mean having a healthy faith in illusions; rather, it means going completely beyond delusion. This may not sound particularly comforting, but it is true. It may be an unpleasant piece of news, especially if we have to admit to ourselves, “I have really been fooling myself all along. Why did I do all this practice? Am I completely wrong?” What can you do to pretend this isn’t true? Facing the truth is not pleasant.

The real help here lies in continually correcting and improving our motivation: understanding why we are practicing and where we are ultimately heading. Work on this and bring forth the noble motivation of bodhichitta. Then all methods and practices can be used to help you progress in that direction.

Again I must emphasize this point: if we want to approach ultimate truth, we must form a true motivation. This includes compassion for all other sentient beings who delude themselves continuously with the contents of whatever arises in their minds. Compassionate motivation says, “How sad that they believe so strongly in their thoughts, that they take them to be so real.” This deluded belief in one’s own thoughts is what I call the “granddad concept.” First, we hold our thought as true. Next, we accept that delusion, and it becomes our granddad. You know what it’s like to suffer from this delusion yourself, in your own experience. Bring to mind all other sentient beings who let themselves get caught up in their granddad delusion and, with compassion, form the wish to free them all. That’s the true motivation: please generate it.

Unless we have completely pure and true motivation, the practice of Vajrayana and Dzogchen doesn’t turn out well. Paltrul Rinpoche was a great Dzogchen master. He did not have any major monastery, but he had an encampment of thousands of practitioners that was called Paltrul Gar— Paltrul’s Camp. Over and over again, he taught those gathered around him the importance of having pure motivation. He created a situation referred to as “the three opportunities” to improve the motivation of these practitioners. The first opportunity was at the sound of the wake-up gong in the early morning. Upon hearing the sound, people had the opportunity to think, “Yes, I must improve my motivation. I must put myself into the service of others; I must get rid of negative emotions and assist all sentient beings.” They would repeatedly bring that to mind in order to adjust their aim.

The second opportunity arose at Paltrul Rinpoche’s main tent. To get into it, you had to pass by a stupa, and at the opening to the enclosure, you had to squeeze yourself by to get through. The entranceway was deliberately made narrow so that you paused for a moment and thought, “This is the second opportunity to adjust my motivation.”

The third one occurred in Paltrul Rinpoche’s teaching itself, at the times when he would say directly, “You must correct and improve your motivation”—just like I am telling you now.

If these three opportunities did not work, then for the most part, Paltrul Rinpoche would kick you out of the encampment. He would say, “You are just fooling me and I am just fooling you. There is no point in that, so get out. Go away and become a businessman, get married, have children, get out of here! What’s the use of being neither a spiritual practitioner nor a worldly person? Go and be a worldly person! Just have a good heart occasionally.” What he meant was, it is not all right to dress up as a dharma practitioner and merely pretend to be one. To act in this way is not being honest with others, and especially not with oneself.

Motivation is easy to talk about yet sometimes hard to have. We always forget the simplest things, partly because we don’t take them seriously. We would rather learn the more advanced, difficult stuff. And yet the simple can also be very profound. When a teaching is presented as a brain teaser and is hard to figure out but you finally get it, then you may feel satisfied. But this feeling of temporary satisfaction is not the real benefit. To really saturate yourself, your entire being, with the dharma, you need the proper motivation. Please apply this thoroughly, all the time.

In Vajrayana teachings, we find many instructions on how to improve our motivation. In fact, if you really learn about how this motivation should be, the whole bodhichitta teaching is contained within that. Cultivate the correct motivation within your own experience, and it turns into bodhichitta all by itself.

I have been teaching for quite a number of years now. Teaching on the view, on emptiness and so forth, all of that is of course great. But when I look through the whole range of teachings, the real dividing line between whether one’s practice goes in the right direction or the wrong direction always comes down to motivation. That is the pivotal point.

Without pure motivation, no matter how profound the method is that we apply, it still turns into spiritual materialism. To train in being a bodhisattva and to cultivate bodhichitta so that “I can be happy” means something is twisted from the very beginning. Instead, embrace your practice with the genuine bodhichitta motivation.

When we train in “welcoming practice” on a daily basis, we can progress and become truly transformed.

Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, who is one of my root gurus, would teach on motivation over and over again. He talked about it so much that, frankly, I sometimes felt a little bored, thinking, “He talked about it yesterday, he talked about it today and he will probably talk about it tomorrow. This is a little too much. I’ve already heard it.” This kind of resistance is actually very good proof that ego doesn’t like teachings on pure motivation. Right there, at the moment one feels resistance against the altruistic attitude, that is the precise spot to work with, touchy as it may be. To admit this and be willing to deal with it right at that point is very practical, very pragmatic. I think that the whole point of practice is using dharma teachings at the exact point of resistance. Otherwise, we just end up practicing when we feel good, and we avoid it when we feel bored or restless.

At the very moment of feeling depressed, restless or unhappy, take these moods as a really good training opportunity, as a blessing, and put the dharma to use right on the spot. Think, “I am so glad I have this opportunity to practice meditation. I am deeply delighted. Please come here, unhappiness, depression, every type of suffering! Please come closer—I am so happy to see you!” When we train in this type of “welcoming practice” on a daily basis, we can progress and become truly transformed. Otherwise we are just postponing the main problem until some indefinite future time—tomorrow and then again tomorrow. We postpone it again and again, until the doctor says, “Sorry, your time is up! No more tomorrows.”

I can promise you that the dharma works well if you use it well. I have a great deal of trust that the teachings of the awakened Buddha are extremely profound and precious. Their practice can solve our basic problem permanently and completely. All our confusion, all our emotional obscurations can be completely undone. Not only can we achieve liberation for ourselves personally, but we can expand our capacity to benefit others at a deep and true level, not just superficially. All these tools and insights are presented in the Buddha’s teachings. To use them only for temporary, shallow purposes—as is often the case with practice as a bit of self-improvement—degrades the Buddha’s teachings to the level of a self-help book. There is no need for that. There are already more than enough of those—stacks of them, mountains of New Age self-help books suggesting this or that kind of therapy. If this is all we want out of Buddhism, we can turn to the easily understood self-help books that already exist. They are actually very useful. But if the future of the Buddhist tradition is no more than another self-help variation, I feel somewhat sad. Someone who simply wants a stronger ego to face the world, make more money, influence people and become famous maybe doesn’t need Buddhism.

This sort of dharma talk was probably not heard in the past in Tibet. It wasn’t necessary then, because the country was full of true practitioners. You just had to look up the mountainside and somebody was sitting there practicing. You could see the dwellings of hermits from wherever you were, scattered all over the sides of mountain ranges. At any given time throughout history, the Tibetan tradition abounded with great practitioners who had given up all material concern. These people were happy to just get by on whatever came along, happy to let whatever happened happen; they were free of all emotional baggage and worry for themselves. Maybe they did worry somewhat in the beginning—let’s say the first six months of practice—but then they went beyond petty worries. They did not spend their whole lives trying to deal with emotional issues. They dealt with them and went on to the real practice. They did not remain inside the cocoon of spiritual materialism. Wouldn’t it be sad to die like that, wrapped up in selfish worry?

Particularly when we come to Vajrayana practice, we must also have a certain amount of courage, a certain kind of mental strength, and together with that, an openness and softness of heart. This quality does not mean we are spaced-out or preoccupied with one thought after another. Rather, we should have a willingness to understand how to practice, along with open-mindedness. This quality of inner boldness is very important in Vajrayana: being bold not in an aggressive way, as when you’re ready to fight whoever opposes you, but rather being ready to do whatever needs to be done. That is a very important quality.

To be a Vajrayana practitioner requires a certain degree of inner strength that grows out of confidence. This is not the aggressive strength of a fighter; it is more a preparedness that refuses to succumb to any obstacle or difficulty: “I am not going to give in, no matter how hard it is. I will just take whatever comes and use the practice to spontaneously liberate that state!” Be this way rather than timid and afraid, always shying away from difficult situations. It is very hard to be a Vajrayana practitioner with a timid, chicken-hearted attitude toward life.

The teachings I discuss here belong to the vehicle of Vajrayana. The Sanskrit word vajra literally means “diamond,” which is the hardest of all substances. A diamond can cut any other substance, but it cannot itself be cut by anything else. The diamond’s strength and impenetrability signify that when the true view of Vajrayana has dawned within our stream of being, we develop a quality of being unmoved or unshaken by obstacles and difficulties. Whatever kind of harm may present itself, whether it be a negative emotion or a physical pain, we have a certain quality of being unassailable, instead of immediately becoming lost and being defeated by that obstacle. The true practitioner of Vajrayana is unassailable in the face of difficulty. We can succeed in really improving our motivation, and that would be wonderful, not only for ourselves, but also for being able to benefit others.

Reproduced from Fearless Simplicity by Tsoknyi Rinpoche, published by Rangjung Yeshe Publications, with permission.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche

Tsoknyi Rinpoche

Tsoknyi Rinpoche is a meditation master in the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and son of the late Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. He teaches widely in the West and oversees nunneries and monasteries in Tibet and Nepal. His most recent book is Open Heart, Open Mind.