Thubten Chodron on how to develop bodhichitta, the aspiration to attain buddhahood in order to benefit others.
At times like these, when society is polarized and people feel insecure emotionally and financially, we long for connection with others—to know that we’re in this together and that we will take care of one another. Despite this longing, our self-centered mind interferes and keeps us separated.
In order to break down the walls of fear and alienation, we can practice what are called the seven cause-and-effect instructions to develop bodhichitta, the aspiration to attain buddhahood in order to benefit others. This meditation practice helps us see we’ve always been connected to others and that we can open our hearts with love, compassion, and altruism.
Before undertaking the first of the seven instructions, we must generate equanimity. That is, we must free ourselves as much as we can from our attachment to dear ones, antipathy toward enemies (people we don’t feel comfortable around), and apathy for strangers.
One way to do this is to see that people change roles in our lives constantly—no one is a fixed dear one, enemy, or stranger. A second way is to see that we create these categories and fit people into them according to how they relate to “me,” as if that determines their worthiness.
Once we’ve cultivated equanimity, we can practice these seven steps to help us develop our compassion, wisdom, and bodhichitta.
1. Recognize that all living beings have been your parents
Our ability to recognize that all living beings have been our parents at one time or another in beginningless samsara is based on our accepting rebirth and releasing the notion that everyone has always been whoever they appear to be now. If these ideas are new to you, for the sake of this meditation put your hesitation to the side.
2. Recollect the kindness you have received
Recall the immense kindness you have received from all living beings when they were your parents by using the example of your parents in this life. They gave you this body, protected and fed you when you couldn’t take care of yourself, made sure you received an education, taught you manners and how to get along with others, and encouraged your talents. They loved you and took care of you as best they could, given their own problems and limitations. Forgive their failings for, just like you, they are living beings under the influence of ignorance, attachment, and anger.
3. Wish to repay their kindness
When you are aware that you’ve been the recipient of tremendous kindness from others, a wish to repay their kindness will naturally arise.
4. Experience heartwarming love
Your wish to repay the kindness of others will lead to the experience of heartwarming love. You will see others with affection and want them to have happiness and the causes of happiness.
5. Let compassion arise
By contemplating the suffering of all beings, let compassion arise and wish for them to be free from all the unsatisfactory circumstances of samsara and its causes. You’ll know your meditation on compassion has been successful when you feel for all beings the same way a mother feels for her only child when they are sick.
6. Cultivate the great resolve
By strengthening your love and compassion through repeated contemplation, generate the intention to free others from suffering and its causes and to bring them happiness. The stronger our awareness of their kindness and misery is, the easier it will be to generate this great resolve. Think: “How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were free of suffering and its causes. May they be free. I shall cause them to be free. May all beings have happiness and its causes. I shall bring this about.”
7. Generate the altruistic intention of bodhichitta
At present we’re limited and cannot free all beings from suffering. It’s only by becoming a buddha that we’ll be able to actualize this deepest aspiration. Therefore, make the decision to attain buddhahood in order to benefit beings most effectively. This is the altruistic intention of bodhichitta. The first six steps of the seven cause-and-effect instructions are usually considered the causes, while this last one—altruistic intention—is the effect. This intention sets you on the path to fulfill your magnificent human potential and is the cause of happiness for all beings.