“Bodhicitta satisfies with all the varieties of happiness
And cuts free from all suffering
Those who are deprived of happiness
And those endowed with many sorrows.”
(Shantideva, from the Bodhisattva-caryavatara)
What is this strange word, bodhicitta? Where does it come from and what does it mean? Etymologically speaking, we can break it down like this: It is a Sanskrit term that combines the word for “awakened” (bodhi) and the word for “mind” (citta). Taken together, this reads as Awakened-Mind. It is sometimes also translated as the Mind of Enlightenment. This is helpful for us to begin to apprehend what bodhicitta is about, and yet, this is only a beginning, an initial step in the right direction, an intimation towards a reality that is beyond all words, beyond all dictionary definitions, and beyond all abstract thought processes.
The seed of bodhicitta is compassion, which is the wish for all beings to be free of suffering and its causes. Yes, all beings, not just those who are close to you, or those who treat you like you want them to; not just those who reciprocate your kind feelings, or say nice words to you, but all beings (even that punk who cut you off on the road the other day, even that lover that left you sad and lonely, even that father/mother/sister/brother that doesn’t talk to you anymore, even that co-worker or associate that just grates on your nerves, even that…well, you get the point).
Bodhicitta is an orientation, a direction, a motivation that infuses and informs our body (what we do), speech (what we say) and mind (what we think/feel). When we have firmly established bodhicitta, everything we do, everything we say, everything we think and feel will be dedicated to the liberation and enlightenment of all beings. At that point bodhicitta becomes second-nature, it arises spontaneously and effortlessly in all aspects of our lives. Yet we have to begin where we are. For most of us (including myself), we have not yet fully established this level of bodhicitta. But I’ll let you in on a little secret, that is OK. We can get there. It takes time, but we can get there. Keep working on it.
We start out by cultivating compassion. As mentioned above, compassion can be thought of as the wish for all beings to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. One method of cultivating this is through meditation. You can sit quietly, calm your mind and then begin to generate compassion. You can think of those you love to get you started. Think of someone close to you, someone you really care about. Feel the compassion arise in your heart and mind. In time, you can begin to add people who you have an aversion towards, someone who makes you angry, or someone who has hurt you. Begin to generate compassion for them as well. Then you can also add people who you are indifferent towards—people you don’t feel one way or the other about. Generate compassion for them as well. Once you have stabilized compassion in your mindstream then you can begin to cultivate bodhicitta. Whereas compassion is the wish for all beings to be free from suffering, bodhicitta is dedicating all of your energies towards attaining enlightenment so that you can aid all other beings towards liberation and enlightenment as well.
There are two main levels of bodhicitta. The first level of bodhicitta is called Aspiring Bodhicitta. This is where you want to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, but yet, you still are not quite ready to engage in all of the practices to get there. Yet this is still a valuable step. Informed by the compassion you have generated, you sincerely want to do it. You are moving in that direction. The second level of bodhicitta is called Engaged Bodhicitta. This is where you not only want to do it, but you actively engage in the Dharma practices that will carry you all the way to enlightenment, for only a Buddha, an Awakened One, can really help all beings to become Awakened as well. And to get to this state, to attain Buddhahood, we are guided by bodhicitta.