Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
Bodhichitta, the seed of enlightenment, grows where it’s cultivated. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche explains six traditional contemplations for developing awakened heart.
The Sanskrit term bodhichitta means “mind of enlightenment,” “seed of enlightenment,” or “awakened heart.” Fundamentally, bodhichitta is the aspiration for others to be happy, to be free from suffering. Absolute bodhichitta is the realization of emptiness, which happens fully at the first bhumi, the path of seeing. Relative or conventional bodhichitta is more immediate. Relative bodhichitta has two aspects: aspiration and entering. Aspiration is positioning ourselves to do something. Before we do something, there’s a thought process involved: we contemplate it. In aspiration, we contemplate all sentient beings having been our mothers, we vow to repay their kindness, and so on. Such thoughts are the heart of contemplative meditation.
We begin by doing sitting meditation until we experience some peace. Out of that we conjure up an intention: “Today I will try to be kind to others.” Then we actually enter, engage in the practice.
Traditionally, we are offered six quintessential instructions on how to generate bodhichitta, all rooted in the ground of equanimity. The point of first cultivating an attitude of equanimity is to open up our view. We tend to have fixed ideas of friends and enemies, and based on that view, we see the world through the lens of good and bad: sharks are bad and bunny rabbits are good; democracy is great and communism is bad.
Equanimity is a spacious, vast, and even state of mind; it does not take sides. It’s not about being untouched by the world, but letting go of fixed ideas. How else are we to develop compassion and loving-kindness for everyone and everything? Equanimity levels the playing field—we are not excluding anyone from our practice. It’s like dealing with two fighting children. Since we’re more experienced with all kinds of trials and tribulations, we know that what they’re arguing about is not really important. We enter with an unbiased view, which is equanimity.
Most of the time we’re trying to figure out a problem based on our attachment. We all believe that if it were not for that one particular person who really irritates us, we’d already be compassionate and understanding. If only that one person weren’t in our way! But she has our number and calls it a lot. Generating bodhichitta helps us deal with problems involving helping others. There are six ways in which we can cultivate this attitude.
The first way is to consider that all sentient beings have been our mothers. Basically, it is our mother who gives us unconditional love. She nurtures and supports us and takes care of us when we are weak. Traditionally, it is said that genuine courage is like that of a mother protecting her child from danger. Regarding all sentient beings as having been our mothers means that at some point, everyone has shown us love and care. The Buddha said that we have all experienced endless lifetimes. If we take this to be true, then every being we encounter has been our mother, father, brother, sister, enemy, friend—everything. If we don’t believe in life after death or rebirth, we can understand this in the context of our present life. From the moment we were born, we’ve had friends who have become our enemies. We’ve been in good situations that have turned bad. We’ve been in bad ones that have turned good. The point of this first instruction is to help support our equanimity by reducing our attachment to relative notions of good and bad.
The second way to generate bodhichitta is to think of the kindness of others. We can contemplate what others have done for us in great and small ways. If all sentient beings have been our mothers, they have, of course, all been kind to us at some point. Even that person who’s got our number has done something good for us—maybe just by passing the salt. Contemplating the kindness of others helps us see the positive aspects of any situation. These are often hard to see—sometimes we just want to stick with our negativity—but this instruction begins to loosen us up. With the budding view of bodhichitta, we begin to look at life and see what is good, even in a bad or chaotic situation. Trying to see things in a more positive light by thinking of the kindness of others churns up our mind and lets the bodhichitta come out.
The third instruction on generating bodhichitta is to repay the kindness of others. This is almost like taking a vow. If we have the view that those who have helped us includes everyone—that even animals have cared for us in some previous lifetime—every encounter becomes an opportunity for us to practice repaying their kindness. This contemplation is part of the aspect of the Mahayana school of Buddhism called the “great activity.” It’s called “great” because this attitude is so vast that it’s difficult to imagine. If we had this attitude even for a moment, we’d begin to see that everyone we meet has helped us, directly or indirectly, and we would want to repay his or her kindness. By taking this attitude in working with others, we could experience our lives in a completely different way.
The fourth way to generate bodhichitta is to develop loving-kindness by contemplating the delightful qualities of others. If we care for someone, we naturally find something delightful in him; that’s what draws us in. In the middle of a meadow, if we saw a mound of dirt with a single flower growing out of it, we would still be able to see the beauty of the flower. We wouldn’t think, “The flowers are beautiful except for that one, because it grew from that pile of dirt.”
So rather than contemplating the shortcomings of others, we see their good qualities and generate loving-kindness towards them. Loving-kindness is associated with wanting others to enjoy happiness. What generally hinders our wanting other people to be happy are heavy emotions such as anger, jealousy, and pride, which obscure our mind. Developing kindness towards others takes the energy out of this emotional confusion.
The next instruction is to generate bodhichitta by contemplating compassion, which is the desire that everyone be free from suffering. Compassion does not mean taking pity on others or having sympathy: “Oh, you poor thing!” Compassion is empathy based on understanding what suffering is. Not only do we see the suffering of others, but we also feel it directly. If we love and care for others, we do not want them to have a hard time. Seeing the suffering of someone who’s very close to us heightens our sense of compassion. We think, “This could happen to me.”
The final instruction on how to generate bodhichitta is to commit ourselves without question to following these instructions. Even though in postmeditation we may not be able to do the bodhichitta practice continuously, we keep our determination strong. We will be kind and compassionate and we will take delight in all beings, with the knowledge that they have helped us. Even if we are the only person in the entire world practicing in this way, we will not stop doing it. Such an adamantine commitment gives us the steadfastness and conviction of the Buddha sitting underneath the bodhi tree.