Putting others first—it’s the great switch that changes everything. It cuts samsara at the root and plants the seed of enlightenment. Sakyong Mipham on how to be a bodhisattva.
The Mahayana Buddhist tradition is defined by the supreme thought of bodhichitta, the intention to bring all sentient beings to enlightenment. Those who vow to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of others are known as bodhisattvas. Their path is based on the six transcendent perfections, the paramitas.
Paramita is a Sanskrit word meaning “arriving at the other shore.” On the bodhisattva path, one’s view, practice, and action are based on simultaneously benefitting self and other. The bodhisattva is likened to a ferry operator whose sole purpose is to take passengers across the water. Yet while taking others to the other shore, the ferry operator is crossing, too.
The paramitas are generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and prajna—wisdom or “best knowledge.” They are the supreme way to attain merit, giving one the fuel and strength to take all beings across the waters.
Only with prajna are the other paramitas transcendent. Without prajna they are simply ordinary generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, and meditation. The paramita of prajna is like the ferry operator keeping an eye on the other shore, which we could equate with great emptiness and great wisdom. Prajna always sees the purpose of the journey. Therefore, prajna keeps the boat from going adrift. Generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, and meditation are like the oars of the boat.
In practicing the paramitas, bodhisattvas progress along the bhumis, the stages of realization. Through generosity, they create favorable conditions. Through discipline, they become excellent at knowing what to accept and what to reject. Through patience, they retain all the previous merit. Through exertion, they progress joyfully. Through meditation, they exchange self for other and create equanimity. Through prajna, they understand reality. Thus, the paramitas become the bodhisattva’s view, action, and meditation—all fueled by bodhichitta, the supreme thought.
We should not confuse bodhichitta with buddhanature, the inherent possibility of becoming a buddha. Everyone has this seed and is fully capable of attaining enlightenment. Since bodhichitta leads to full enlightenment, it too could be regarded as a seed. However, while all beings have buddhanature, we do not all have bodhichitta.
While the seed of all beings is buddhanature, at the core of bodhichitta is the exchange of self and other. The two elements that enable one to exchange self and other are loving-kindness and compassion. loving-kindness is engendered by the thought, “May all beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.” Compassion is engendered by the thought, “May all beings be free from suffering and the root of suffering.” When we unify these two, we have bodhichitta, the vow to bring all beings to the perfect state of buddhahood.
Love and compassion are essential to the teachings of the Mahayana and the way of the bodhisattva. love and compassion lead to buddhahood because for beings to be truly happy, they must understand the true source of happiness, and for beings to be free from suffering, they must understand the true source of freedom from suffering. If beings do not understand the source, they might have a temporary state of happiness, but they will not have a permanent state of happiness.
The bodhisattva exists in order to help others. One is not helping others simply because one is inspired and wants to do it for oneself, for the bodhisattva does not believe in the self. rather, the bodhisattva helps others because they are utterly confused about the source of both happiness and suffering. Trying to be happy, sentient beings act out of self-interest and engage in nonvirtue—that which benefits self instead of others. In fact, it is said that within samsara, the cycle of suffering, sentient beings act as though it is virtue that will destroy them. and in a way that is true, for if we define virtue as a lack of self-centeredness, virtue ultimately does destroy the self.
The bodhisattva sees that entire realms of beings are going up and down the ladder of existence, trying harder and harder to achieve happiness: in the hell realms through anger, in the ghost realms through jealousy, in the human realms through desire, in the god realms through pride, and in the animal realms through ignorance. Clearly these beings are perpetually suffering and utterly confused about how to free themselves. Therefore, the bodhisattva sees an urgent need to apply bodhichitta and liberate them.
Bodhisattvas make a vow that they will remain in this cyclical place of pain and suffering until all these beings have perfected view, meditation, action, and the six paramitas. When all beings have perfected those, the bodhisattva stays to ensure that they attain the noble qualities of perfect buddhahood. In this way, the bodhisattva is like a shepherd, remaining until every being in samsara attains the perfect state.
Bodhisattvas attain buddhahood themselves as a means to lead all beings to rouse the mind of bodhichitta and attain buddhahood too. In this light, the bodhisattva is said to be like a monarch, first demonstrating the principle so that other beings will follow. Otherwise, they may not follow and, since they do not know what buddhahood is, they might even fear it. Therefore, bodhisattvas perfect the state of buddhahood for the benefit of all.
The ferry operator, the shepherd, or the monarch—all these virtues of the bodhisattva stem from bodhichitta. In the sutras, the buddha says that arousing bodhichitta protects the mind like a suit of armor. With bodhichitta, the mind is free from fear. as well, having bodhichitta brings perpetual joy, and arousing bodhichitta gathers unimaginable merit. Once one begins to understand the awesome potency of bodhichitta and its benefits, one starts rousing the mind to generate it. This potent switch from a subjective orientation toward the self to an objective orientation toward others yields vast results.
In this light, if one is drawn toward bodhichitta and develops faith, that propels the mind for many lifetimes into the future, laying the ground for enlightenment. Obviously, if one does not know the value of such an intention, one will not generate it. It is also said that the minor effort it takes to arouse bodhichitta is vastly outweighed by the benefits. Thus, the bodhisattva—whether sitting, eating, walking, or talking— raises this attitude, accumulating infinite clouds of unseen merit.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s new book is “The Shambhala Principle: Discovering Humanity’s Hidden Treasure,” published by Harmony.