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What is bodhicitta?

Excerpt From

The Way of the Bodhisattva: Revised Edition


The word has many nuances and is easier to understand, perhaps, than to translate. For this reason we have used the Sanskrit term, in the hope that by dint of careful definition it may be incorporated into, and allowed to enrich our language.

Citta means “mind,” “thought,” “attitude.” Bodhi means “enlightenment,” “awakening,” and is cognate with the term buddha itself. This gives us “mind of enlightenment,” “awakened mind”—the attitude of mind that tends toward Buddhahood, the enlightened state. It should be noted that bodhichitta is not a synonym for compassion; it is a broader term in which compassion is implied.


Bodhicitta, as awakening mind, is the intention to awaken to life in order to help others awaken to life. It is not simply a feeling or an emotion or a sentiment. It has a vertical dimension that runs at right angles to our social conditioning and embraces a knowing, a seeing, into the nature of experience itself. It may grow out of the compassion that seeks to alleviate suffering, but it is qualitatively different.


According to tradition, bodhichitta is said to have two aspects, or rather to exist on two levels. First, one speaks of ultimate bodhichitta, referring to the direct cognizance of the true status of phenomena. This is the wisdom of emptiness: an immediate, nondual insight that transcends conceptualization. Second, there is relative bodhichitta, by which is meant the aspiration to attain the highest good, or Buddhahood, for the sake of all, together with all the practical steps necessary to achieve this goal. The connection between these two bodhichittas—the wisdom of emptiness on the one hand, the will to deliver beings from suffering on the other—is not perhaps immediately clear.


Bodhicitta permeates every aspect of Mahayana teaching and practice. Broadly speaking, it is a quality (many might say it is the quality) that moves us in the direction of awakening. But what is it?


The true realization of emptiness is impossible without the practice of perfect compassion, while no compassion can ever be perfect without the realization of the wisdom of emptiness.

At first sight, this apparently closed circle suggests that bodhichitta is impossible to achieve. It is nevertheless the startling assertion of Buddhist teaching that the mind itself, even the mind in saṃsāra, is never, and has never been, ultimately alienated from the state of enlightenment. Bodhichitta is in fact its true nature and condition.


For some teachers bodhicitta is an intention. The 4th-century Indian master Asanga regarded it as the intention to wake up in order to free all beings from samsara.



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