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The Way of the Bodhisattva 1.

The bodhisattva and bodhichitta

This prayer from Shantideva the Dalai Lama says every morning on waking:

May I be a guard for those who need protection

A guide for those on the path

A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood

May I be a lamp in the darkness

A resting place for the weary

A healing medicine for all who are sick

A vase of plenty, a tree of miracles

And for the boundless multitudes of living beings

May I bring sustenance and awakening

Enduring like the earth and sky

Until all beings are freed from sorrow

And all are awakened.

The Mahayana background

Around 100BC a new inspiration entered Buddhism. Some monks began to speak of a ‘greater vehicle to awakening’ – the Mahayana. This new vehicle began to develop its own teachings – the Mahayana Sutras – that they believed were a superior teaching given to an elite of spiritually gifted students setting out a deeper, more efficacious path. First amongst these new sutras were the ‘Prajnaparamita Sutras’, the Perfection of Wisdom, a group of about forty texts dating between 100BC and 300CE. Varying in length between 10,000 lines and the pithy Diamond Sutra that says it all in just 300 lines, these sutras radically reframe the understanding of emptiness and the nature of the path.

The famous mantra from the Diamond Sutra:

Gate, Gate, Para gate, Para sam gate, Bodhi svaha.

Gone, gone, gone beyond, everyone gone beyond, awakened, far out! 

They also began to designate those who continued to follow the original teachings of the Buddha as followers of the Hinayana – the ‘lesser vehicle’. What is important for us to know is that Hinayana as a term only exists within Mahayana Buddhism – there has never been a school of Buddhism with this name.

Wisdom and Compassion – Prajna and Karuna

In early Buddhism the Buddha had described reality as having the ‘three marks of existence’ – reality is transitory, not-self and unsatisfactory. Further more, under the microscope of meditative insight, reality was found to be made up of fleeting micro-moments of psycho-physical events that the Buddha called ‘dharmas’. Presented in this way the apparent world of discrete existing things was broken down into a sequence of dharmas coming into and out of existence. Now the Mahayana sutras and the pre-eminent Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna revisited this model and said that if everything was truly transitory then this must apply to the dharmas also. With this the cat was out of the bag and the transitory-ness of all phenomena including every part of ourselves morphed into a new ‘sexed up’ view on emptiness – more on this in a couple of weeks.

On the compassion side a new being stepped into the limelight – the bodhisattva. The ‘awakened being’. The bodhisattva was not an entirely new idea. In early Buddhism there were accounts of how the Buddha, as a bodhisattva prior to his nirvana, had had a sequence of rebirths in which he had demonstrated extraordinary acts of compassion for sentient beings. One example is his meeting a starving Tigress and her cubs and him offering his body for their food. Furthermore, as the Buddha, his relationship with others was guided by his skilful means – giving them exactly what they needed to be able to understand what he was talking about and thereby enter the path. Kindness and compassion permeated his teachings and his actions and he encouraged this in his students. An example here is a monk laying in his own excrement from having dysentery and the Buddha cleaning him up while chastising the other monks for their lack of care and concern. However it was the motivation for attaining nirvana that the new Mahayana zoomed in on. The Buddha had described those who became enlightened as Arhats, ‘meritorious’, and their realisation was in every way equal to his own. Now those who followed the greater vehicle said that the realisation of an Arhat was lesser than the Buddha’s, which was complete and perfect, and also lesser than a bodhisattva’s, because theirs had a selfish motivation while the bodhisattva’s did not. This was the nub of it. A bodhisattva practices not for themselves alone but also for the salvation of all sentient beings. He or she would put off their own liberation until they had gathered up everyone and all suffering had come to an end forever. A very tall order, but one we are being invited to follow.

So out of the Mahayana emerged a deeper, more radical understanding of emptiness, not just the emptiness of the ‘person’ but also phenomena. And the wholesome mental factors of kindness and compassion moved to the fore as the motivating activities of a bodhisattva.


Bodhichitta – the awakened mind/heart is what motivates a bodhisattva. It is the wish that all beings may be well in a profound way. Here is a prayer from Shantideva, the eighth century monk and scholar who wrote the seminal work on being a bodhisattva called – unsurprisingly – “The Way of the Bodhisattva” – the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra.

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the roots of happiness.

May they be free from suffering and the roots of suffering.

May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.

May they dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression and prejudice.

According to Mahayana Buddhism there are two levels of bodhichitta – relative and absolute. 

Relative bodhichitta is the intentional cultivation of loving kindness, compassion and the other qualities that the path of the bodhisattva consists of. These open our hearts to others and also ourselves. To some extent we ‘fake it till we make it’ at this level. Just because we do not already experience loving kindness and compassion does not mean that we should abandon trying – why would we be able to do something before we had learnt to do it?

Absolute bodhichitta is an innate quality of our buddha nature. In the tradition I follow we speak of the buddha nature having three qualities, it is empty, clear (or luminous) and is an unimpeded expanse of compassion. When we recognise our buddha nature, the nature of mind that is empty, clear and compassionate, out of this automatically flows a deep concern for others. The practices of relative bodhichitta are there merely to release this already existing source – to burst open the dam.

The shadow of bodhichitta

What do we do about that part of us that want’s to tell people to “fuck off”? The not very bodhisattva like part? Well, it is called ‘the path of the bodhisattva’ so this suggests that we have to start somewhere and starting with not wanting to start – at least sometimes – is a great starting place. Here we have two choices. We could chose to ignore or pretend that this less than kind and compassionate part does not exist and just continue being nice when people are looking (or even just for ourselves in private). This is not really a good idea for all sorts of reasons. Or we could recognise these thoughts and emotions when they occur and be present with them as a felt sense in the way we are all familiar with. This is a very good idea. Why? Because we are extending kindness and compassion to these grumpy, resentful, unwilling parts and by doing so have entered the path. This is important – using mindfulness everything that arises within us can become the path.

Taking the bodhisattva’s vow

In the same way Buddhists take refuge when they enter the path, Buddhists also take the vows of the Bodhisattva. This may be done formally with quite a lot of preparation recognising the big deal it actually is. Or almost unnoticeably as part of our daily prayers – automatically wishing that all sentients being be well and reaffirming that our practice continue until all are saved from samsara. This then relates to the Buddhist notion of merit – generating good karma. When we are motivated by skilful and wholesome thoughts and do actions accordingly we create a mind that is open and generous. As a bodhisattva we can also share this with others – it’s called ‘sharing the merit’ and a bodhisattva will share her or his merit at the end of good things as a matter of course. Here is a commonly used prayer that combines sharing merit with the bodhisattva vow to bring the suffering of sentient beings to an end:

By this merit, may omniscience be attained,

And may the adversary, conflicting emotions, be subdued,

From the ocean of samsara, with its stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness and death,

May all sentient beings be freed.

And an exercise ….

What is our motivation for practice? The line between practicing simply for our own salvation and for the salvation of others is very thin and (I believe) we waver backwards and forwards across it many, many times. In fact we could say that an awareness of this wavering is in itself an element of the path. What do we notice in ourselves?

Practice this week: 

Bodhichitta aspiration, shamatha – vipashyana and the dedication of merit.

For sight of the full bodhisattva vows see:

And a teaching on the bodhisattva by H.H. the Dalai Lama:

NW.  6.10.19