Dharma Mom


Bodhicitta is a fundamental concept in Mahayana Buddhism that refers to the mind or heart of awakening. It is a key aspect of the path to enlightenment and encompasses both the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings and the altruistic intention to work for the welfare and liberation of others.

Etymology and Meaning:
The term “bodhicitta” is composed of two elements: “bodhi,” which means awakening or enlightenment, and “citta,” which can be translated as mind or heart. Bodhicitta can be understood as the mind or heart that aspires to attain enlightenment and is dedicated to the ultimate welfare of all sentient beings.

Two Aspects of Bodhicitta:
Bodhicitta is often described in two aspects: relative bodhicitta and ultimate bodhicitta.

  1. Relative Bodhicitta: Relative bodhicitta refers to the compassionate intention to attain enlightenment in order to liberate all beings from suffering. It involves cultivating great compassion, loving-kindness, and the aspiration to free oneself and others from the cycle of samsara.
  2. Ultimate Bodhicitta: Ultimate bodhicitta refers to the direct realization of the true nature of reality, often described as emptiness (shunyata) or the absence of inherent existence. It is the understanding that all phenomena lack inherent existence and are interdependent and interconnected. Ultimate bodhicitta goes beyond conceptual understanding and is a direct experiential realization.

Bodhisattva Ideal:
Bodhicitta is closely associated with the bodhisattva ideal, which is the aspiration to attain full enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. Bodhisattvas are individuals who embody the qualities of compassion, wisdom, and skillful means to guide and support others on the path to awakening.

Cultivating Bodhicitta:
Cultivating bodhicitta involves practices such as meditation, contemplation, and engaging in altruistic actions. It includes developing qualities such as compassion, loving-kindness, generosity, ethical conduct, and wisdom.

The Bodhisattva Vows:
In Mahayana Buddhism, practitioners often take vows known as the Bodhisattva vows, which are commitments to embody and cultivate bodhicitta in thought, speech, and action. These vows serve as a guiding framework for a bodhisattva’s conduct and commitment to the welfare of all beings.

bodhicitta (T. byang chub kyi sems བྱང་ཆུབ་ཀྱི་སེམས་; C. putixin 菩提心) is the mind (citta) that strives toward enlightenment (bodhi) for the benefit of all sentient beings. It is translated as “mind of enlightenment,” “mind of awakening,” “thought of enlightenment,” etc.

The 14th Dalai Lama states: Bodhicitta—the aspiration to attain full awakening for the benefit of all sentient beings—is the magnificent motivation that enabled Siddhārtha Gautama to become a bodhisattva and then a buddha and to turn the Dharma wheel. Both the Pāli and Sanskrit traditions speak of bodhicitta, bodhisattvas, and bodhisattva practices.[1]


Sanskrit tradition

Brief explanations

Thupten Jinpa describes bodhicitta as: An altruistic intention to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all beings. The awakening mind is characterized by an objective, the full awakening of budhahood, and a purpose, the fulfillment of others’ welfare.[2]

Matthieu Ricard states: Bodhichitta (byang chub kyi sems): lit. “the mind of enlightenment”. On the relative level, it is the wish to attain/reveal Buddhahood for the sake and benefit of all beings, as well as the practice of the path of love, compassion, the six transcendent perfections, etc., necessary for achieving this goal. On the absolute level, it is the direct insight into this ultimate nature.[3]

Dzigar Kongtrul states: The wish to attain enlightenment in order to guide all other sentient beings to enlightenment is known as bodhicitta, a Sanskrit word that means “mind-set or heart of awakening.” We all have the potential for this noble attitude because we all have the innately warm, tender heart of tsewa. The main subject of Shantideva’s [Bodhicharyavatara] is how, from this common basis, we can gradually cultivate bodhicitta until it is completely merged with our being, and we attain our highest potential and become fully enlightened beings, or buddhas. Bodhicitta has two inseparable aspects, known as “relative” and “absolute.” On one hand, we cultivate relative bodhicitta using the conceptual mind. For example, by thinking about the deep and endless suffering of sentient beings, we inspire ourselves to attain enlightenment so we can liberate them from samsara. Absolute bodhicitta, on the other hand, is based on wisdom beyond concepts. It comes about through direct insight into the nature of phenomena. This insight, when it is completely unobstructed, enables our compassion and our ability to benefit others to blossom to its fullest extent.[4]

Karl Brunnhölzl states: In Buddhism, compassion means the wish that all sentient beings be free from suffering, which is also the core of bodhicitta. Bodhicitta adds the wish to attain buddhahood in order to be personally able to effectively free sentient beings from suffering. Thus, bodhicitta has two elements—compassion as the mere wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering and, as a consequence of that wish, striving to attain buddha-hood for the sake of all beings. That is, bodhicitta adds the component of making it our personal responsibility to actually free all sentient beings from suffering through becoming a buddha ourselves. The main goal of bodhisattvas is to free sentient beings from suffering, while the attainment of buddhahood is the means to that end. In other words, buddhahood is more like a by-product of bodhicitta or the bodhisattva path. Usually buddhahood is presented as the final result of the path, which is often understood as being primarily for one’s own benefit since it means the relinquishment of all obscurations and the realization of buddha wisdom and its many qualities. However, since the whole point of bodhicitta is to benefit others, the true result of the bodhisattva path is the enlightened activity that a buddha performs for the sake of all beings. And since such activity is only possible on the basis of having become a buddha first, bodhisattvas strive to attain this state. In technical terms, among the three kāyas of a buddha, the dharmakāya represents one’s own welfare in terms of supreme relinquishment and realization, which is the formless and dimensionless sphere of a buddha’s mind. The welfare of others consists of the two form kāyas—sambhogakāya and nirmāṇakāya—which promote the welfare of both bodhisattvas on the bhūmis and all kinds of ordinary beings, respectively.[5]

Detailed explanation

In the Library of Wisdom and Compassion (Vol 5), the 14th Dalai Lama presents a detailed explanation of bodhicitta from the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism. He states: The word “bodhicitta” has two syllables, bodhi and citta. Bodhi means awakened or enlightened, and citta means mind. What type of mind? There are two types of mind: primary consciousnesses and mental factors. Primary consciousnesses know the general nature of an object, be it an object of sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch, or a mental object. Auxiliary mental factors know the specifics of the object. As a primary consciousness, bodhicitta focuses on the general nature of its object, which in this case is bodhi. “Bodhi” implies both purification and realization. To show this, Tibetan translators translated “bodhi” or “awakening” as byang chub (pronounced jang chup) in Tibetan. Byang indicates purification; we can understand that through purification of all mental obscurations it’s possible for the mind to directly know all phenomena. Chub indicates enhancing our good qualities so we can attain that state. In this way byang chub connotes that the awakening that comes about by completing the purification process is omniscience — buddhahood with the four buddha bodies. Similarly, Tibetan translators rendered the word “buddha” as sangs rgyas (pronounced sang gyey). Sangs means to eliminate, and refers to the eradicating of all faults and obscurations, and rgyas means to expand, in the sense of knowing all phenomena and actualizing all excellent qualities. Someone who has done this is sangs rgyas, or buddha. Looking at the words byang chub and sangs rgyas, we see that they have similar meanings: both byang and sangs portray the purification of all obscurations, while both chub and rgyas indicate the expansion of good qualities and the development of all realizations, especially the direct realization of emptiness. This realization of emptiness is common to āryas of all three vehicles — the Śrāvaka, Solitary Realizer, and Bodhisattva Vehicles, each of which has its own awakening. Due to how śrāvakas, solitary realizers, and bodhisattvas practice before attaining their respective awakenings, there are differences in these three types of awakening. In the present case, “bodhi” refers to Mahāyāna bodhi or great awakening, so byang indicates the purification of both afflictive obscurations and cognitive obscurations, and chub is a buddha’s realization of ultimate reality in which meditative equipoise and post-meditative realization cannot be differentiated. A buddha’s awakening has the ability to simultaneously remain in the union of meditative equipoise and post-meditative realization until the end of space; unlike sentient beings, buddhas are omniscient and can directly perceive all veiled truths and ultimate truths simultaneously. Bodhicitta is a primary mental consciousness. As such, it is accompanied by (is concomitant with) various mental factors, a principal one being the aspiration to attain full awakening. How does this aspiration arise? Contemplation of the kindness of sentient beings and their duḥkha in saṃsāra causes great compassion, which is a mental factor wishing sentient beings to be free from suffering. The observed object of compassion is sentient beings. Strong meditation on great compassion causes the aspiration to benefit sentient beings. This aspiration leads us to examine how best to benefit sentient beings, and we conclude that it is through attaining the qualities of a buddha. Thus the aspiration for full awakening is born. This aspiration accompanies the primary mind of bodhicitta. The observed object of bodhicitta is bodhi — our own full awakening. Bodhicitta is directed toward full awakening because we want to work for the welfare of all sentient beings by attaining full awakening. Wisdom is the force that will purify our mind and transform it into the fully awakened mind of a buddha. The observed object of this wisdom is emptiness. To have the aspiration for full awakening, we have to understand what we are aspiring toward, and to do this we first need to be convinced of the possibility of attaining true cessations, nirvāṇa. This returns us to the topic of the mind’s nature being pure and the afflictions being adventitious… This, in turn, leads us to investigate the ultimate nature of the mind, through which we come to understand and then have an inferential realization of emptiness. Sharp-faculty practitioners generate bodhicitta on the basis of an inferential realization of emptiness that confirms the possibility of attaining full awakening. Their bodhicitta is especially firm and cannot degenerate because it is based on reasoning. Modest-faculty practitioners, inspired by their teachers, past practitioners, and the scriptures, assume that awakening is possible. With this vague understanding of awakening, they generate bodhicitta. Because their bodhicitta is based on faith, it is not firm and is vulnerable to degeneration. In the Ornament of Clear Realizations, Maitreya describes twenty-two types of bodhicitta… Practitioners on the initial level of the path of accumulation have earth-like bodhicitta, which may degenerate so that the practitioner loses his bodhicitta and relapses to the state of a non-bodhisattva. However, gold-like bodhicitta, attained on the middle level of the path of accumulation, is stable and cannot degenerate. Bodhicitta divorced from the wisdom realizing emptiness cannot develop beyond the initial level of the path of accumulation; thus it is important to further our understanding of emptiness while we also create the causes to generate bodhicitta. This wisdom mind that focuses on bodhi is completely developed at buddhahood. To arrive at the state of mental enrichment indicated by chub, we must understand the observed object of bodhicitta — full awakening. The potential to attain full awakening is not something that must be newly generated; it is an innate quality of our mind present from beginningless time. The Buddha said (AN 1.51): This mind, O monastics, is luminous, but it is defiled by adventitious defilements. And Maitreya said in the Sublime Continuum (RGV 1.50): The pollutants are adventitious; the good qualities exist innately. Dharmakīrti makes a similar statement (PV 2.208ab): The nature of the mind is clear light; the defilements are adventitious. Both of these masters emphasize two reasons why pollutants can be eliminated from the mind. First, there exist strong counterforces capable of destroying the pollutants. Second, the nature of the mind is clear light — that is, the pollutants do not abide in the nature of the mind. The ability to cognize and understand objects is the innate nature of mind. When the obscurations are overcome and this ability is perfected and focused on worthwhile objects, the mind is purified and all obscurations removed. At that time, our mind will become the omniscient mind of a buddha. If the ability to realize something is in the nature of the mind, why doesn’t our present mind realize all existents? Because it is polluted by obscurations. While chub indicates enriching the mind with realizations, to arrive at the state of perfect enrichment or realization, total purification is necessary. That is, purification must happen for enrichment to come about. Thus byang comes first, followed by chub in the word ‘byang chub — the Tibetan word for awakening — because without purification there is no possibility of knowing all objects. However, saying that the ability to cognize and understand that an object — even an object such as the emptiness of inherent existence — is an innate quality of the mind does not mean that we can sit back and relax and awakening will come to us without effort. Bringing to fruition the two aspirations associated with bodhicitta involves effort and diligence because serenity (samatha) and insight (vipassana) must be cultivated and unified in order to nonconceptually realize ultimate bodhicitta — the wisdom directly realizing emptiness. Only that wisdom has the capacity to remove all obscurations from the mind in such a way that they can never reappear.[6]


Conventional and ultimate bodhicitta

Bodhicitta may be classified as conventional (or relative) bodhicitta and ultimate (or absolute) bodhicitta.

The 14th Dalai Lama states: Bodhicitta may be classified as conventional and ultimate: Conventional bodhicitta is the altruistic intention that is a primary mind held by two aspirations: the aspiration to benefit sentient beings and the aspiration to attain full awakening in order to do so most effectively. This is what is commonly called “bodhicitta” or the “altruistic intention,” and most of the following classifications are ways to speak about conventional bodhicitta. Ultimate bodhicitta is the pristine wisdom in the continuum of an ārya bodhisattva or a buddha that directly perceives the emptiness of inherent existence. In other words, ultimate bodhicitta is the direct perception of the nature of complete awakening that is informed by conventional bodhicitta. While śrāvakas have realized emptiness directly, their realization is not informed or supported by conventional bodhicitta, and so they do not possess ultimate bodhicitta. The ten bodhisattva grounds (bhūmi) are divisions of the ultimate bodhicitta. Ultimate bodhicitta can be understood in two ways. The first is in common with Sūtra as explained above. The second is unique to Tantra: in highest yoga tantra, the fundamental innate clear-light mind that is focused on emptiness is ultimate bodhicitta. The object is the subtlest object — the emptiness of inherent existence — and the mind realizing it is the subtlest subject — the fundamental innate clear-light mind. Categorizing bodhicitta according to the name given indicates that the division into conventional and ultimate bodhicitta is a terminological division. That is, although given the name “bodhicitta,” not all of the subdivisions are actual bodhicitta. In this case, conventional bodhicitta is actual bodhicitta, but ultimate bodhicitta is not, even though it is given the name “bodhicitta.” Conventional bodhicitta is so called because it is involved with conventional truths, such as sentient beings, whereas the object of ultimate bodhicitta is ultimate truths. Conventional bodhicitta exists from the Mahāyāna path of accumulation through the buddha ground (i.e., in the mental continuum of a buddha). Ultimate bodhicitta is a Mahāyāna ārya’s primary consciousness that directly realizes the emptiness of inherent existence of full awakening. It exists from the first bodhisattva ground through the buddha ground. Together conventional and ultimate bodhicitta represent the method and wisdom sides of the path.[7]

Aspiring and engaging bodhicitta

When classified according to its nature, bodhicitta can be of two types: aspiring bodhicitta or engaging bodhicitta.

The 14th Dalai Lama states:

He also states: Aspiring bodhicitta is the initial wish to become a buddha in order to benefit all sentient beings. This bodhicitta is generated before making the formal commitment to engage in the bodhisattva deeds by taking the bodhicitta vow. Engaging bodhicitta arises when someone follows up on the initial wish of aspiring bodhicitta by taking the bodhisattva vow and making the commitment to create the causes for buddhahood. Aspiring bodhicitta is analogous to wishing to go to Dharamsala; engaging bodhicitta is acting on that wish by buying the air ticket, packing the bags, getting on the plane, and so on. These two types of bodhicitta are generated sequentially as part of a single substantial continuum of bodhicitta. That is, someone meditates on either the seven cause-and-effect instructions, equalizing and exchanging self and others, or their combined instruction, and when they generate bodhicitta, the continuum of that mind becomes aspiring bodhicitta. When bodhisattvas, upon taking the bodhisattva vow, engage in acts of generosity, ethical conduct, or fortitude, and so forth, the continuity of their bodhicitta becomes engaging bodhicitta. Both bodhicitta and the active practice of the bodhisattva deeds must be manifest to be engaged bodhicitta.[8]

Three types based on motivation

Bodhichitta can be divided into three types based on motivation.

The 14th Dalai Lama states: People may generate bodhicitta in different ways according to how they see themselves leading sentient beings to awakening. Each of these ways requires great self-confidence. With monarch-like bodhicitta, bodhisattvas aspire to become fully awakened buddhas and, like leaders with great capabilities and power, to then work for the welfare of the general population. They think, “Just as a monarch leads others, I will attain awakening first and lead others there.” With boatman-like bodhicitta, bodhisattvas progress to awakening together with other sentient beings, just as a boatman rows others across a river and arrives at the other shore at the same time as the passengers. These bodhisattvas think, “Sentient beings and I are in the same boat in the ocean of cyclic existence. I will row them across, and we will reach the other shore of nirvāṇa together.” With shepherd-like bodhicitta, bodhisattvas intend to attain awakening after leading others to awakening, similar to a shepherd driving the flock in front of him to the destination. These bodhisattvas think, “I will guide sentient beings to awakening, like a shepherd guides his flock. After they have attained awakening and are safe, I will attain awakening.” Bodhisattvas may meditate on each of these three types of bodhicitta because each one brings out a particular quality in their bodhicitta. Nevertheless, they know that in order to benefit others most effectively, they must attain awakening first and then lead others. Guiding all sentient beings to awakening and later attain awakening or attaining awakening at the same time as all others is not the most effective way to serve sentient beings.[7]

Twenty-two types based on examples

Bodhicitta can be divided into twenty-two types based on examples or similes.

The 14th Dalai Lama states: By comparing the bodhicitta found on the successive levels of the path to various pure or lovely things around us, we can see how bodhicitta spreads joy to sentient beings and acts as the source of all of a buddha’s realizations. Contemplating these poetic similes of twenty-two types of bodhicitta from the Ornament of Clear Realizations gives us a vision of the qualities we can develop and realizations we can gain by generating bodhicitta in our hearts and minds and living our lives according to it.[7]

Further information: twenty-two types of bodhicitta

Four types based on the paths and bhumis

Bodhicitta can be divided into four types based on the five paths and ten bhumis:

The 14th Dalai Lama states: Maitreya’s Ornament of Mahāyāna Sūtras (5.2) speaks of the bodhicitta present on various levels of the path: Bodhicitta on the various levels is held To be accompanied by aspiration, pure special resolve, full maturity and the elimination of all obscurations. The bodhicitta of aspiration or belief is found on the paths of accumulation and preparation. Of the twenty-two types of bodhicitta mentioned above, the first four are considered the bodhicitta of belief or faith. Of these, the first three are from the path of accumulation and the fourth is from the path of preparation. Generated by having faith and receiving teachings, this bodhicitta is called the “bodhicitta of belief” because bodhisattvas on the first two paths believe and think that all phenomena are empty of true existence, but they do not yet have direct realization of emptiness. The bodhicitta of pure special resolve is found in the bodhisattvas from the first through the seventh grounds and includes seven of the twenty-two types of bodhicitta — the fifth through the eleventh. This bodhicitta is so-called because the bodhisattvas who possess it have direct realization of emptiness. The fully ripening bodhicitta, which includes nine of the twenty-two types of bodhicitta (the twelfth through the twentieth) is found in bodhisattvas of the three pure grounds (eighth, ninth, and tenth). These three grounds are called “pure” because these bodhisattvas have purified all afflictive obscurations. The fully ripening bodhicitta is so-called because all aspirational prayers and dedication are ripening, and these bodhisattvas are about to attain the fully ripened result of full awakening. The bodhicitta free from obscurations is found only in buddhas who are free from both the afflictive and the cognitive obscurations. These are the twenty-first and twenty-second types of bodhicitta. Nevertheless, the last three bodhicittas are subsumed under the category “the Buddha’s bodhicitta,” as the preparation, actual, and final bodhicitta of a buddha. Bodhicitta like a lovely voice is the preparation because the tenth ground is a preparation for full awakening. Stream-like bodhicitta and cloud-like bodhicitta are the actual and final bodhicittas of a buddha.[7]

Pali tradition

In One Teacher, Many Traditions, the 14th Dalai Lama states: For followers of the Pāli tradition, which vehicle to follow is an individual choice, and seeking the full awakening of a buddha is one option. Although most practitioners seek arhatship, the bodhisatta path is set forth for exceptional individuals. The Buddhavaṃsa, Cariyāpiṭaka, Jātakas, Mahāpadāna Sutta (DN 14), and Apadāna are canonical scriptures that speak about previous buddhas fulfilling the bodhisatta practices. The twelfth-century Pāli treatise Upāsakajanālaṅkāra by Thera Ānanda from the Mahāvihāra tradition speaks of the awakening of sāvakas, paccekabuddhas, and bodhisattas in detail. Some Pāli suttas emphasize compassion as the motivating force for the Buddha’s attainment of awakening. He was the “one individual who arose and came to be for the welfare of the multitude, for happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare, and happiness of gods and humans” (AN 1:170). The Buddha told his disciples to cultivate the Dhamma with that same compassionate motivation so the holy life will last for a long time (DN 16:3.50). He sent the monastics to spread the Dhamma for that same reason (SN 4:5). Monastics are to engage in the path to liberation not only for their own benefit but also to preserve the Dhamma for future generations and to become exemplars inspiring others to practice the path and attain liberation. Out of concern and compassion for others, the Buddha instructs his followers to abide harmoniously. He praises Mahākassapa for teaching the Dhamma with compassion, and Mahākassapa himself says that he became a monastic and cultivated contentment with simple food, clothing, and shelter to benefit others. His hope was that others would see value in this lifestyle, adopt it for themselves, and attain liberation. Monastics show compassion by being receptive, accepting offerings, and counseling those from all socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and educational classes. Their duty is to receive their livelihood in a nonharmful manner, show people how to live ethically, encourage them to practice mindfulness, teach them the Dhamma, and be grateful recipients of their gifts so that the laity will accumulate merit from making offerings. The oldest Pāli scriptures speak of bodhisattas who, in their last lives as sentient beings, become fully awakened buddhas without the aid of a teacher. They begin a dispensation (sāsana, śāsana), turning the Dhamma wheel so the enlightening teachings will exist in the world. This is the awakening attained by buddhas, and it is extolled as superior to the awakenings of sāvakas and paccekabuddhas. While some ancient Pāli sages said that the bodhisatta path is only for those who are destined to become wheel-turning buddhas, the South Indian commentator Dhammapāla did not concur and instead described a bodhisatta path open to others who aspire to follow it. In a post-canonical Pāli composition, Dasabodhisattupattikathā, the Buddha says, “There have been…and will be limitless and countless ariyas who…with courage and determination having successively fulfilled the pāramīs, will attain buddhahood and pass away having completed a buddha’s duty.” It then tells the stories of ten bodhisattas who will do this in the future. The bodhisatta ideal is not foreign to Theravāda countries. Historically there was interest in the bodhisatta path in Sri Lanka, and statues of the bodhisatta Avalokiteśvara have been unearthed in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other Theravāda countries. In the past and present, kings and the populace in Theravāda areas found the bodhisatta ideal exemplary. Beginning around the eighth century, some kings in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand either were referred to as bodhisattas by others or declared themselves to be bodhisattas or practitioners of the bodhisatta path. Some Theravāda scholars and textual scribes, in the colophon of their writings, declared their bodhicitta motivation, saying “Buddho bhaveyyam” or “May I become a buddha.” Buddhaghosa was regarded as the incarnation of Metteyya Buddha (Maitreya) by the monks of Mahāvihāra Monastery. Some Theravāda practitioners find the bodhisatta path appealing and practice it. Nowadays there are both monastic and lay Buddhists in Theravādin countries who make the resolve to become buddhas for the benefit of all sentient beings. In Thailand two Thai masters are regarded as incarnations of the bodhisatta Metteyya.[9]

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