Wherever you find yourself, says Pema Khandro, that’s the starting point of the bodhisattva path—all you need to do is take that first step.
Once upon a time, many aeons before he took birth as a prince, Shakyamuni was an ordinary being born into a hot hell realm, where he was forced to pull a chariot through the fires. Distressed over the struggles of his feeble companion, great compassion welled up in the future Buddha’s heart. This, it is said, was the first time bodhichitta dawned in his mind, and it marked the beginning of his lives-long journey toward ultimate awakening—the compassion that arose while he was in hell.
This rather astonishing story exemplifies when and how we must generate motivation for the benefit of others. We’re more familiar with the Buddha’s later life story: he was handsome, intelligent, wealthy, privileged, skilled in sports, and highly educated. Of course, such an ideal person, a buddha, should and could help others. But the Jataka tales of the Buddha’s past lives inform us that such an ideal life was not where he began. Indeed, it is always the case that our highest aspirations must be launched from right in the midst of our afflictions, wherever we happen to find ourselves in this life stream—even if it is in hell.
What gives a hell being the right to help others? Every Tibetan Buddhist practice includes the bodhisattva vow to work for the benefit of others. However, the tradition is also full of assertions that we cannot benefit others unless we are wise and enlightened, lest our good intentions be misguided. So when, exactly, are we wise enough to help others? We all want to be better versions of ourselves, but when are we “better enough” to step up and act on a bodhisattva’s heroic intent?
The mind-set of samsara is that we can only be happy if we are someone other than our present self. Someday, somewhere, somehow—different. Oh, the things we would do if we were smarter, richer, thinner, if we had more knowledge or better opportunities. This is the clinging to a self that generates dukkha, or pervasive unsatisfactoriness. Dukkha often manifests in negative self-images and accompanying fantasies of a better me. Buddhism, by offering an alternate focal point, can shift our primary focus from this futile pursuit of our ideal selves. Instead of trying to be perfect, we focus on purifying our underlying motivations so that we can wake up, show up, and act with enlightened intention—right here, right now, just as we are.
Every great Buddhist practitioner ever, in the history of Buddhism, knew their limitations and acted for the benefit of beings anyway.
Being mesmerized by limited self-concepts presents the biggest obstacle to altruistic action. Every great Buddhist practitioner ever, in the history of Buddhism, knew their limitations and acted for the benefit of beings anyway. It’s because of their lack of hesitation that we can receive the dharma today. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche gives voice to this in his autobiography, Brilliant Moon:
Hands of wisdom and love that rescue me from the precipice of samsara and nirvana;
Lord of the hundred families, outstanding among the buddhas;
Precious master, glorious chief of the sea of refuges;
I shall constantly serve you within the ocean of my zeal…
He follows this with sober, even severe, reflections on his limitations:
In my case, the dung heap of my defects makes Mount Meru look small, and even though I was able to grow a tiny sprout of the appearance of holy qualities, it could not survive but has withered into a yellowish green and is now on the verge of drying up…while polluting the winds with the stench of my karma and emotions, aware of my flaws without hiding them from myself….
If the great master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche felt he had a “dung heap” of defects, what does this say about ordinary people like you and me? And how could someone who felt so awed have spent his entire life helping others, serving buddhadharma, and so beautifully reflecting our highest potential?
Here we see one of the marks of a good Buddhist practitioner: aware of our limitations, we are not paralyzed by honest self-reflection. Driven by motivations stronger than any limited self-concept, we are able to transcend our perceived limitations in order to act for the greater good. Easier said than done—after all, the voices demanding perfection are not just inside our heads. They are everywhere in our culture today. They come from outside and inside.
I, too, have fallen prey to such internal dialogues—good teacher/bad teacher, good Buddhist/bad Buddhist. In this suffocating atmosphere of habitual self-grasping, a battle between our good and bad self-images wages on endlessly, draining whatever vital energy, whatever rlungta, might otherwise infuse us with the experience of being fully alive.
Underlying this inner critic, behind the veil of rampant insecurity, we find self-absorption. If we aim to ground our lives in a concrete sense of “self,” before long we find ourselves drowning in a whirlpool of dualistic concepts. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard successful, prominent people tell me that they live in fear that others will find out who they “really” are. And students, after gaining some kind of worldly success, will tell me that they’re suffering from the feeling of not deserving it, fearing that they will lose what they’ve worked so hard to gain.
In the West, we tend to dismiss this as an issue of self-worth, low self-esteem, or, more recently, “impostor syndrome”—but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is believing in the existence of a worthy or unworthy self in the first place. Worthy/unworthy or perfect/imperfect are equally false narratives. From the Buddhist point of view, there is no worthy or unworthy self. Instead, something else is taking place—the pervasive presence of bodhichitta as our intrinsic goodness, our natural propensity for compassionate action.
At first, Buddhist teachings on no-self sound destabilizing. How can we develop confidence without building up a strong ego? Actually, the nonself principle skillfully disarms all our self- concepts, turning us away from the actual source of our suffering. This doesn’t have to lead to nihilism, but it could, hence Dzogchen’s emphasis on positive frameworks such as identifying with our buddhanature or resting into presence of awareness. We are directed instead to a deeper force within us that is more trustworthy and more powerful than mere concepts of self.
Imbued with presence, we can show up and help our world.
To reliably locate that deeper force, we must deliberately cultivate bodhichitta: an enlightened mind-set, the wish to realize awakening in order to be of greatest benefit to all beings. In Tibetan it is called chang chub sem, the mind of enlightenment held by an “awakened mind warrior.” This powerful idea annihilates the dualism between being and doing. Being and doing can be united. When we act from the depths of being, the actions themselves arise organically from our ultimate nature. Imbued with presence, we can show up and help our world.
The life story of Yeshe Tsogyal, the female buddha of Tibet, offers an extraordinary example of this process. Her progress toward the highest realization is described in terms of her blossoming capacity to help others; when she transcends anger, she gains the capacity to work for others “in seven universes of the ten directions.” This capacity expands even further when she transcends grasping and eliminates the habitual tendencies of her mind stream. In the same way, each time we transcend a mind poison, we become available for a greater purpose.
We tend to think that there is a large divide between the great Buddhist masters and our own minds. But throughout Yeshe Tsogyal’s life story, even her identity continually alternates between a highly realized buddha and an ordinary being experiencing the problems of the world. In one scene, she proclaims herself Vajradhara personified, the primordial Buddha. And yet at that same stage in her development, she also says that she is a timid woman with scant ability and serious doubts that she has what it takes to accomplish the path.
The Dzogchen teachings Yeshe Tsogyal mastered reveal that each of us possesses this same beginningless buddhanature. It is hidden from us by the mind-set that clings so tightly to self-concepts. How this plays out may be hard to predict. What does it mean to be a buddha and confused in one and the same body?
What we see in the female buddha’s life story is that the path to buddhahood is not a perfect linear progression from a totally ignorant, karma-covered being to a fully awakened buddha. One’s identity oscillates along the way. What does not oscillate in Yeshe Tsogyal’s story, what remains constant throughout her training, maturity, and fully blossomed buddhahood, is that at all times she acts unwaveringly with the motivation to benefit others. This clarifies any questions about how an ordinary being can navigate the ambiguity of wisdom and confusion that characterizes our mental states. Our center of gravity and our guiding light is bodhichitta, our own altruistic motivation and enlightened intent.
“May all beings everywhere be free from suffering”—this is not just a pie-in-the-sky wish that this will happen eventually. It is an explicit assumption of universal responsibility, a declaration that we ourselves will actively help make such benefits possible—beginning with taking responsibility for our own spiritual awakening. But who among us feels worthy of helping other beings right now? Of course Buddha could help people—he was enlightened. Of course Yeshe Tsogyal can help infinite beings—she’s gone beyond anger and grasping. But what about us? At what point in our development does the bodhisattva mandate kick in?
It’s easy to think that the bodhisattva vow is a practice for people more highly realized than ourselves. It may even seem that Buddhism has a mixed message on this point: on one hand, we’re told in no uncertain terms that we absolutely must become enlightened if we’re to have the discriminating wisdom that allows us to effectively help others; on the other hand, we must act now. We’ve been born into a world that is in dire need of our help.
The fact is, we’re taking some form of action all the time. Since we can’t avoid action, since we’re committed to right action, and since even our thoughts have consequences, we’re compelled to consider the benefits—or detriments—to others from all our actions and omissions. This basic ethic underpins all Buddhist engagement with the world.
It is tempting, in considering the bodhisattva vow, to envision a time when we will enjoy better circumstances in our lives, when the vow will be easier to fulfill. But the extreme examples in Buddhism gently remind us to bring altruistic intent to whatever circumstance befalls us. Yeshe Tsogyal was kidnapped, beaten, mugged, molested, demonized, poisoned by a rival, exiled twice, and even raped. It is hard to imagine more difficult circumstances for practicing the dharma.
When enlightened intent is relentless and unwavering, that is when the profound basis of the mind reveals itself to us in all its radiant glory.
What qualifies Yeshe Tsogyal to act is not her circumstances but rather her allegiance to pure motivations. Through all her travails, she never stops working for the benefit of beings—including her tormentors. Paradoxically, intense hardship is transformed into an accelerant on the path of awakening. The message of her extreme circumstances is this: when enlightened intent is relentless and unwavering, that is when the profound basis of the mind reveals itself to us in all its radiant glory.
So what are we sleeping buddhas to do? Act with enlightened intent. Check our motives. Always act from bodhichitta. Keep the bodhisattva vow close to our heart—at all times, and in all situations. Then we can have some confidence, some peace of mind, in everything we do. The day-to-day discipline and commitment to practice for every one of us, lamas and beginners alike, is to do our best to help others. We enlist our lives in the service of relieving suffering and bringing awakening into our world—even though we are sometimes good self, sometimes bad self, sometimes in the lucid reality of no-self, and at still other times confused and suffering with our own problems.
What does not waiver is our guiding principle: enlightened intent. Acting on enlightened intent is a revelatory practice because it tunes us into what we really are. To abide in the heart of reality is to recognize that we are emptiness, we are lucid presence, and we are great compassion. In that heart is our essence, which is not other than Buddha nor different from Yeshe Tsogyal’s heart essence. We are that presence, emptiness, and compassion.
In this moment, in this circumstance, which choice will strengthen your bodhichitta? Which choice will express your heartfelt wish for the benefit of yourself and all others? Which choice will advance the joy of beings and their relief from suffering? Maybe right now it sounds a bit grandiose for us to work for the benefit of all beings. But if we aim as high as our sights allow, then the aspiration itself will be fulfilling. We will find contentment in the clarity and energy of our enlightened intention itself.
When we act on bodhichitta, we connect with our true nature—and with all of nature as well.
If we idealize buddhahood as some idealized notion of self that is forever beyond our grasp, then what exactly are we advancing toward in this life? What is there in our present situation that we can rely upon with confidence? In Dzogchen, we learn that our true nature is bodhichitta. When we act on bodhichitta, we connect with our true nature—and with all of nature as well. We touch the earth, ego recedes, boundaries dissolve, and buddhanature manifests through our activities. no more dukkha. This is mahasukkha, the great sweetness of life.
If we become even partially aware of our buddhanature, if we are convinced that buddha mind permeates our very being, then we no longer enjoy the luxury of waiting for our perfect self to arrive before helping others. We must be willing to do our best just as we are, wherever we find ourselves on this path of awakening. Our world needs us now. Other beings need our best efforts. The purpose of our life is to wake up, show up, and heed the call.
Can you hear it?