I want to start this letter with some good news. One month ago I wrote up a letter A Case for Giving, encouraging all of you to read Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save (which you can get for free) and donating to the not-for-profit named after it. Since then the letter has gotten the attention of the organisation itself, they got in touch with me asking if they could repost it to their blog. Naturally, I said yes.
Please share the link to it around if there is anyone you believe would benefit from reading it.
All other virtues, like the plantain tree,
Produce their fruit, but then their force is spent.
Alone the marvellous tree of Bodhichitta
Constantly bears fruit and grows unceasingly
Shantideva, The Bodhichayravatara
Chapter 1, Stanza 12
In the letter above, I urged all of you to be more willing to part with the fruits of your labour — to give away what you own. This one is directly related to this — I wish for you to cultivate to the Buddhist virtue of Bodhichitta.
This very word among words Bodhicitta is dear to my heart and contemplating what it means brings me joy.
Bodhi means enlightenment. Citta (pronounced "Chitta") means mind.
Therefore Bodhicitta refers to "the enlightened mind" — what is an enlightened mind like?
If with kindly generosity
One merely has the wish to soothe
The aching heads of other beings,
Such merit knows no bounds.
No need to speak, then, of the wish
To drive away the endless pain
Of each and every living being,
Bringing them unbounded excellence.
Chapter 1, stanzas 21 and 22
To put it simply Bodhicitta is the desire to alleviate the suffering of others. To be more specific Bodhicitta is the desire to bring an end to the suffering of all sentient beings without limit.
Could our father or our mother
Ever have so generous a wish?
Do the very gods, the rishis, even Brahma
Harbor such benevolence as this?
Chapter 1, stanza 23
An individual who has cultivated Bodhicitta and dedicates their life towards the happiness of all beings is known as a Bodhisattva — an enlightened being. An individual who has mastered the way of the Bodhisattva is a Buddha.
To them in whom this precious jewel of mind
Is born — to them I bow!
I go for refuge to those springs of happiness
Who bring their very enemies to perfect bliss.
Chapter 1, stanza 36
In English, it is translated as The Way of the Bodhisattva.
I have read many books, but the Bodhichayravatara is my favourite all-time.
Of all things that have been written — this is the greatest.
The purpose of this letter will be:
- To provide you with an understanding of what Bodhicitta is and why it is important
- To convince you to pick up this text
It isn't just my recommendation though.
"If I have any understanding of compassion and the practice of the Bodhisattva path, it is entirely on the basis of this text that I possess it."
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
Shantideva was a monk living in 500 AD in what is now Northern India. He stayed at the legendary institution of Nalanda University, a safe-haven for scholars and intellectuals of the time. it is said that to study at Nalanda, no entrance examination was required. Instead, an aspiring student would show up to the gates guarded by an appointed scholar and challenge them to a debate — if they could win, they were allowed in.
Upon visiting the grounds of Nalanda many a great monk and scholar could be seen working tirelessly towards spiritual and intellectual pursuits. Shantideva wasn't one of them. In fact, the man we know to be the sage, Shantideva was not seen to ever be doing much and all. He garnered a reputation for this, and was known as for doing nothing but eat, sleep and stroll around. He was made fun of.
One day he was challenged to demonstrate all he knew in front of an audience. To his colleagues, this was simply a way to reveal his inadequacy. That he had no place living at the noble institution or to enjoy the alms offering left for the real monks.
A throne was prepared in front of the assembly and suddenly Shantideva appeared taking his seat gracefully as if it were an ordinary chair.
Denizens from the town had gathered to hear a spiritual teaching and the other monks braced themselves for our sage's unravelling.
Unfettered by circumstance, Shantideva defied all expectations as he calmly began to utter the words that would echo through the ages as the text most beloved by Buddhists across the world — The Bodhichayravatara.
We cannot trust the wanton Lord of Death.
The task complete or still to do, he will not wait.
In health or sickness, therefore, none of us can trust
Our fleeting, momentary lives.
Chapter 2, Stanza 33
All that I possess and use
Is like the fleeting vision of a dream,
It fades into the realms of memory,
And fading, will be seen no more
Chapter 2, Stanza 36
When compared to the moral philosophy of other spiritual traditions, the brilliance of this vision of Bodhicitta is that it is neither religious nor moralistic. It does not appeal to supernatural consequences or the levers of shame and guilt — rather this is the way of being that makes sense.
These bodies of ours are corpse-bound. We should be living as if we have one foot in the grave. It isn't a matter of if, but a matter of when. Given that everything we can attain will fade away, does it make sense to live in constant fear? Does it makes sense to waste our lives accumulating and safeguarding possessions?
If we are selfish, if we take from others for ourselves, is there any ultimate gain?
My body, thus, and all my goods besides,
And all my merits gained and to be gained,
I give them all and do not count the cost,
To bring about the benefit of beings.
Nirvana is attained by giving all,
Nirvana is the object of my striving,
And all must be surrendered in a single instant,
Therefore it is best to give it all to others
Chapter 3, Stanzas 11 and 12
On the contrary, striving hard towards the accumulation of wealth and walking the earth forever nervous it will fade. Perpetually living in the act of maintaining all the good one has acquired in life is exhausting and all these efforts are and always have been for naught. At the moment of death, all we have attained will perish — all must be surrendered in an instant.
Even worse it is our clinging to this life and what is in it is the cause for our suffering.
Clinging to our lives and that that which is in it is the reason for our anxiety, our continual sense of instability and the undercurrent of stress that seems to follow us like a shadow. By letting go of our attachments we can free ourselves of suffering and improve our capacity to benefit others in a single swoop.
The void left by ceasing to work towards our former mundane endeavours can be devoted to the highest aspiration of them all — bringing an end to the suffering of all beings.
This is not simply a lofty ideal. It works.
The Dalai Lama was once awarded the Templeton Prize of $1.5 million. What did he do with it?
He donated it without a thought. Mainly to save the children.
"I have all facilities provide by the Indian government, I have no family, just a single stomach here.”
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
Harmful beings are everywhere like space itself.
Impossible it is that all should be suppressed,
But let this angry mind alone be overthrown,
And it's as though all foes have been subdued.
To cover all the earth with sheets of leather —
Where could such amounts of skin be found?
But with the leather soles of just my shoes
It is as though I cover all the earth
Chapter 5, Stanzas 12 and 13
Arguably the most well-known stanza of the entire piece, it makes the case for mental training. Rather than address each and every cause for frustration — why not untie the knot of the mind so prone to them?
This directly fits in with Bodhicitta.
What prevents us from living in accordance with our highest ideals?
What would prevent us from effortlessly acting as the Dalai Lama did when presented with a vast sum of money?
We believe we have something to fear, we believe we have something to gain.
Does this make sense in light of death? What if it was simply our minds that needed to change?
If there's a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for dejection?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being glum?
Chapter 6, Stanza 10
A life devoted to the benefit of all beings is a life of happiness. There is no suffering that needs to be born to live in this way — the real cause of suffering is our own clinging, our own delusion.
In my view, this stanza unravels all of the justification we give for our worries. That they indeed serve no purpose.
This is true in the normal course of our lives, and it is equally true for the bodhisattva. If working for the benefit of all beings seems to give us reason to ail — it doesn't really.
This predates my having even heard of Shantideva or having read the Bodhichayravatara.
The point that is made still stands, there isn't a need to hold our present happiness hostage to achieve our aims be they selfish or noble.
If those who are like wanton children
Are by nature prone to injure others,
There's no reason for our rage;
It's like resenting fire for being hot.
And if their faults are fleeting and contingent,
If living beings are by nature mild,
It's likewise senseless to resent them -
As well be angry at the sky when it is full of smoke!
Although it is their sticks that hurt me,
I am angry at the ones who wield them, striking me,
But they in turn are driven by their hatred;
Therefore with their hatred I should take offence.
Chapter 6, Stanzas 39-41
Not only does it serve no purpose, our anger makes no sense!
Is it in their nature to harm? Then they can't help it, it is like resenting fire for being hot.
Is it based on causes and conditions that arise and pass? They likewise cannot help it — as well be angry at the sky when it is full of smoke!
The stick is wielded by your enemy, but your enemy is wielded by their hate, which is, in turn, the result of causes and conditions prior.
Why do we arbitrarily pick one link on the causal chain to our suffering and fixate upon it?
If our enemies are driven by their hatred, that is; their suffering, why do we want them to suffer more?
To wish that their ails vanish like mist in the morning sun — simply makes sense.
The Vast View of the Bodhisattva
What differentiates Bodhicitta from our conventional virtues is the vast outlook it presents us from the beginning. Our circle of concern is expanded beyond limit — not to our family, our nation, or even our species — but to all sentient beings.
This is not presented as an idealistic dream but the reasonable way to be in the world.
Underneath the surface, we are all the same in wanting to be happy in the world and not wanting to suffer.
All we want is simply this.
Our actions — apparently good and bad — are simply our means to realise this.
Those who cause suffering in the world are doing so believing they will be better off because of it — and they are wrong. It is their ignorance that drives them.
They do not warrant hatred but compassion, they are helpless but to run into the abyss.
When I was on my solitary meditation retreat late last year I did not take many books. What I did bring with me, however, was Shantideva's wisdom in paperback.
This wasn't the first time I had read it, but each time it struck a different chord.
When reading it in the silence of my retreat hut I saw something beautiful in the verses of the final chapter that illustrates how vast infinite compassion — Bodhicitta — really is.
And may the very pits of hell be sweet
With fragrant pools all perfumed with the scent of lotuses,
And lovely with the cries of swan and goose
And waterfowl so pleasing to the ear.
May fiery coals turn into heaps of jewels,
The burning ground become and even crystal floor,
May crushing hills become sublime abodes:
Offering temples, dwellings of the Buddhas.
May the hail of weapons, lava fiery stones
Become henceforth a rain of flowers,
And all mutual woundings with sharp blades
Be now a rain of flowers thrown in play.
Chapter 10, Stanzas 7-9
To cultivate Bodhicitta is to wish the happiness of all beings in all directions without limit.
Our conventional notions of retribution and justice are left in tatters, abandoned like a pair of worn-out shoes. When asking the question "who is it that deserves to suffer?" we hear only the chirping of crickets.
Abandoning the view of people as separate selves but rather inseparable from the play of nature — the folly of hatred is revealed.
Suffering begets further suffering and holding onto negative feelings is to traumatise ourselves.
The well-wishing for all sentient beings is a panacea for ourselves as well as everyone else.
"May all beings be happy"
When we practice loving-kindness meditation and repeat this as a mantra — we really mean it.
I normally start my letters with this, but this time I will close with it — I hope you are all doing well. This is a difficult time for many of us, but it is also an opportunity.
Away from the distractions of our day-to-day lives, we can dwell more deeply on what it is we truly care about it, and if the activities we engage in make sense in light of that.
As we march onward to the grave, will we find that we have been concerned about the right things?
In any case, thank you for reaching the end of yet another letter. I hope these words are of benefit to you.