Geshe Kelsan Gyatso. Meaningful to Behold: View, Meditation and Action in Mahayana Buddhism. An oral commentary to Shantideva's A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life (Bodhicharyavatara). Wisdom, 1980, pp. 20-31.
Divisions of bodhicitta (17)
If our meditation on bodhicitta is to be successful it is necessary that we understand exactly what the essence of this awakening mind is. As has already been stated, bodhicitta is a spontaneous and continuous state of the mind that seeks enlightenment solely for the benefit of all sentient beings. Shantideva says that this mind is of two types:  the aspiring and engaging minds of bodhicitta. To understand the significance of and the distinctions between these two types of mind it is helpful to be familiar with the traditional methods of cultivating bodhicitta.
Bodhicitta can be developed by following either of two methods: (1) the realization of the six causes or (2) the exchanging of self for others. In the first method the cultivation of six specific causal meditations leads to the desired effect: the development of bodhicitta. This tradition was originally taught by Shakyamuni Buddha and subsequently passed in an unbroken lineage from Maitreya and Asanga to such masters as Serlingpa and Atisha. The second method-exchanging self for others-was designed specifically for those of sharp intelligence. It was also taught by Shakyamuni Buddha and passed through Manjushri in an unbroken lineage of Indian masters to Shantideva himself. Both lineages have survived to the present day and are currently held by accomplished lamas, or teachers, of the four Tibetan traditions of mahayana Buddhism.
The exchanging self for others method will be explained at length in the eighth chapter. 10 What follows is an explanation of the development of bodhicitta by means of meditating on the six causes. This method flourished widely throughout India and Tibet and by studying it we shall see that bodhicitta is not something that can be attained instantly, but rather is the result of a gradual training and development of the mind.
The six causes are as follows:
a. Recognition of all sentient beings as one's mother
b. Remembering the kindness of all mother sentient beings
c. Repaying this kindness
d. The development of affectionate love
e. The development of great compassion
f. The cultivation of the superior intention
and the one effect to which these six lead is:
g. The development of the awakening mind of bodhicitta
Before we begin our meditation on the six causes it is helpful first of all to meditate on equanimity. At present our mind is unsettled and biased; instead of looking at all beings equally with the eye of compassion, we feel very partial towards some and very distant from, or even hostile towards, others. In such an unbalanced state it is very difficult to recognize all beings as our mothers-the first of the six causes for developing bodhicitta-so if our meditation is to be successful we must first try to remove our prejudices by cultivating an attitude of equanimity.
Briefly outlined, the way to develop equanimity is as follows." First we should bring to mind threepeople we presently regard as our enemy, our friend and a stranger. Then we should ask ourselves why we have categorized them in this way. Upon inspection we shall find that the person we call our enemy has received this label because of some harmgreat or small, mental or physical, real or imagined-he or she has given us in the past. If we think back, however, we can often remember occasions when this same person treated us with much kindness. And if we could see into our past lives (as will be discussed later) we would undoubtedly discover instances in which this so-called enemy was our selflessly kind mother, feeding us with her own milk and protecting us from harm and fear. Even without considering any lifetime but the present we can see how temporary and easily subject to change the status of an enemy really is. If tomorrow we were to receive some unexpected assistance, praise or merely a kind word from this person, would we still regard him or her as our foe?
The same considerations can then be applied to the person we now call our dear friend. Although the sight, or even the mere thought, of him now elicits a warm feeling in our heart, this was not always the case. There were times, either earlier in this lifetime or in previous lives, when this dear friend or relative was our chief enemy and, as such, inflicted great suffering upon us. And it can easily happen that because of some slight difference of opinion, hasty word or thoughtless act, we suddenly find ourselves estranged from the same person to whom we are now so attached.
In a similar fashion, the stranger has not always been the object of
our indifference, nor will he or she always remain so. There have been
times when this person-so invisible to us now that we may scarcely be aware
of his existence-has been our murderous enemy and others when he has been
our dearest friend and protector.
By using examples from our own and others' experiences and employing various lines of logical reasoning we can become convinced that it is extremely short-sighted and ultimately very mistaken to think that anyone is permanently or inherently our friend, enemy or stranger. And if this is the case-if these three positions are so temporary and variable-then who is the proper object of our attachment or hatred? If we feel justified in generating hatred towards our present enemy then we should be obliged to direct this hatred towards everyone, for sometime in the past we considered each person our enemy. And if it is correct to feel attached and biased towards our present friend because of some benefit we have received from him recently, then we should feel similarly towards all because at one time or another everyone has been extremely kind to us, even to the point of being our mother.
If we exert enough energy in meditation acquainting ourselves with the above reasons and examples and try to view people in an altered status we shall come to see how narrow-minded it is to be extremely partial to some beings while hostile or indifferent to others. Instead of assenting, as we now do, to a hard and fast classification scheme of friend, enemy and stranger and therefore being biased in our outlook, we can develop true equanimity: the basis of the love and compassion necessary if we are to generate the precious bodhicitta and achieve enlightenment. As this is such an extremely worthwhile goal, we should not let our current prejudices go unexamined but should penetrate them in the manner described.
At this point a doubt may arise as a result of the meditative techniques just described. It has been stated that the purpose of developing equanimity is to prepare us to recognize all beings as our mother. We may therefore wonder, `If it is correct for me to regard all beings as my mother because they have sudly been my mother in the past, then isn't it likewise correct for me to regard everyone as my enemy for the same reason?' To recognize the fallacy of this conclusion we must understand that whenever we have called anyone our enemy we have done so for basically unsound reasons and as the result of an illusory vision on our part.The habit of blaming our troubles and suffering on others-on the so-called enemy-is a deluded way of thinking, one that fails to realize that it is our own state of mind and not any external circumstance that is ultimately responsible for whatever misery we experience."
At the root of our decision to regard someone as our enemy is a false projection of our mind, a mistaken conception of events. Forgetting such things as the kindness and parental nurturing this person has given us and unaware of our own culpability for our suffering, we take the harm we receive from another as a valid justification for calling him our enemy and treating him with hostility. Although this is something we do all the time, it is in fact completely deluded and ultimately indefensible. On the other hand, as will be explained in the following section, there is nothing false or deluded about regarding all beings as our mother. This is true and verifiable and not only opens the gateway for continued spiritual growth but provides us with an immediate experience of happiness and well be remove all biased attitudes of mind and thereby be able to view all beings without discrimination as our mother. This in turn will motivate us to consider how we can repay their infinite kindness. If, as a result of this meditation, we are able to regard even our most hated enemy as our kind mother, we are prepared to gain a realization of the first of the six causes for developing bodhicitta.
Recognition of all sentient beings as one's mother (a)
Once we have developed an unbiased outlook towards all beings we are ready to view them all equally as having been our mother. This is the firm foundation upon which the supremely altruistic mind of bodhicitta depends. But how is it possible to recognize all beings as our mother? What are the reasons for believing we have shared the intimate motherchild relationship with everyone?
To answer these questions consider the following line of reasoning. The woman we presently recognize as our mother is such by virtue of our having been born into the world from her womb. Yet this is not the first and only time we have taken birth. The continuity of our consciousness stretches back over infinite time and the births we have taken have been countless. As we have been born countless times it follows we have had countless mothers. Thus there is not a single being we meet who, over the incalculable expanse of beginningless time, has failed to be our mother.
Despite the altered form and appearance of those we encounter and the
failings of our extremely limited memory, once we become convinced of the
logic of the above line of reasoning there will be nothing to prevent us
from viewing each being with the same warm recognition we now effortlessly
extend to our present mother.
Although the argument presented above is internally consistent, it is obvious that it will be completely lacking in persuasiveness if we do not come to understand and at least tentatively accept the existence of past and future lives. As long as we reject this possibility-as long as wt cling to the belief that our birth and death of this lifetime mark the outermost boundaries of our existence - it will be utterly impossible for us to recognize all beings as our mother, except metaphorically. Many other important dharma topics, such as the workings of cause and effect, also depend for their full understanding on a consideration of past and future lives. Therefore, although this topic may present particular difficulties to some people-especially westerners-it is very important that we try to keep an open mind and examine the issue with as few preconceptions as possible.
The crux of the matter is our understanding of the nature of the mind, for it is through realizing that our mind is a formless continuum and that this continuum is beginningless that we shall be able to understand the existence of previous lives. One way to meditate upon this is as follows. We can look at our present stream of thoughts, perceptions and emotions-at all the factors we identify as being mental-and trace it backwards to the mindstream of the previous moment, minute and hour. Then we can trace this mindstream even further backwards to yesterday, last week and last year. Depending upon the sharpness of our memory, we can trace this mindstream back year by year until we approach the time of our birth. Even if we can trace it back to our stay in the womb or the moment of conception, we can never point to a time and say, `At this instant my mind came into being.'
In fact, some people who do this backwards tracing meditation are able
to go beyond the moment of conception and remember the mindstream existing
at the end of a previous lifetime. But as this experience is not shared
by very many people (and is the object of many others' doubt) we cannot
fairly use it as a proof that mind is a beginningless continuum. Rather,
it is much more beneficial for us to gain a closer acquaintance with our
own mind and question our own assumptions as to its nature and origin.
To aid in this investigation here are a few useful questions and observations to keep in mind. When we search for the source of our present body we eventually come to the combined sperm and egg of our parents; can this also be the source of our mindstream? If we answer yes, many difficulties arise. How do we account for the marked differences between our mind and those of our parents and siblings? If our mind is traceable to our parents' germ cells, what is the relation between these cells and our parents' minds? Is the mind something that can eventually be reduced to a physical cause or, being essentially formless, must it not have a non-physical cause of its own quite apart from the source of our physical body?'3
Some people assert that the mind is a relatively blank slate at birth with but a few pre-natal impressions on it. They say that what we call the mind is merely the learned behaviour we acquire as we grow and develop. Is such a theory satisfactory? Does it take into account differences in temperament between people, differences which have been noted even in new-born infants of the same family? Does it account for the complexity of mental behaviour found in ordinary children, much less the unusual skills and aptitudes of exceptionally gifted youngsters?
If we truly want to understand the nature of the mind and discover whether it is a beginningless continuum or not we must consider these questions carefully. It is a fact that most people, even the educated and including those whose professions deal directly with mental phenomena, possess nothing more than a vague idea of what the mind is. If our own views are similarly indefinite-if we do' not have a coherent theory to explain the relationship between material form and non-material mindthen it is not wise to reject out of hand a theory based on logic, observation, experience and the testimony of enlightened beings. At the very least we should remain openminded and look at the issue impartially.
According to buddhist thought our stream of consciousness was present while we were a foetus. Going even further back to the moment of conception, this mindstream entered the embryonic cell formed by the union of our father's sperm and mother's egg. Prior to this entry this consciousness or mental continuum was the consciousness of a previous lifetime." Furthermore, the consciousness of that life arose from the one before that, and so on back into infinity. Even Shakyamuni Buddha's omniscient mind saw no beginning to this process. Therefore, if the continuity of mind is beginningless then we have taken countless rebirths and have therefore had countless mothers. Consequently there is not a single sentient being who has not at one time or another been our mother.
If this is so why do we not intuitively recognize other beings as having been our mother? The reason is that the traumatic experiences of death and rebirth generally rob us of our memories of past lives. In addition, the way beings change form from one life to the next makes it difficult for us to recognize them. For example, if our present mother were to die and be reborn a dog, we would be completely unable to recognize her even if she eventually became our pet. Thus despite appearances, we are presently surrounded by countless beings each of whom has been our mother.
It is important to remember that not all beings lack the ability to recall their previous existence. As a fruit of their meditative practices-in which the gross obscurations of the mind are progressively removedmany yogis gain the ability to see their past lives. Even some ordinary people, especially young children, have memories of their past lives owing to especially clear imprints on their mind. The fact that most of us, however, do not have such memories is not so surprising. After all, even the obscurations of this lifetime and the general fogginess of our mind are enough to prevent us from remembering events from our early childhood, infancy and stay in the womb.
Considering such lines of reasoning as presented above-checking carefully to see if they are logical, non-contradictory, reasonable and applicable to our experience-is the process known as examination meditation. Arising from this process of examination is a conclusion, in this case a strong feeling that all beings have indeed been our mother. The next step is to take this feeling or conclusion, hold onto it by the power of our mindfulness, and dwell upon it single-pointedly. This process is called placement meditation. It is by the continual practice of placement meditation that true realizations dawn on our mind. When we become firm in the recognition that all sentient beings have indeed been our mother then the first of the six causes for the development of bodhicitta has been attained.
Remembering the kindness of all mother sentient beings (b)
If all beings have been our mother then how are we to recollect their
kindness? Our present mother carried us in her womb for nine months. Whether
sitting, walking, eating or even sleeping she was ever mindful of our presence.
Her only thought was of our welfare and she regarded us a precious gem.
Even though our birth may have caused her intense pain she still thought
solely of our welfare and happiness.
As an infant we were little more than a helpless caterpillar, not knowing what was beneficial or harmful. Our mother cared for us and fed us her milk. When we were afraid she warmed us with the heat of her body and cuddled and comforted us in loving arms. She even wore soft clothing so as not to harm our sensitive skin.
Wherever she went she took us with her. She washed and bathed us and cleaned the dirt from our nose. While playing with us she would sing sweet sounds and repeat our name with special tenderness. She protected us continually from the dangers of fire and accident; in fact, if it were not for her constant care we would not be alive now. All that we have and enjoy is through the kindness of our mother. She rejoiced in our happiness and shared in our sorrow. Worrying about our slightest discomfort, she would have willingly surrendered even her own life in order that we might live. She taught us how to walk and talk, read and write, and underwent many hardships in order to give us a good education and the very best of whatever she possessed.
Looking upon her child with tenderness, a mother cherishes it-from conception until death-with great devotion and unconditional love. Bringing to mind the limitless kindness of our present mother makes us realize the infinite loving care we have received from time without beginning from all the countless mothers who have nurtured us. How kind these sentient beings have all been!
Repaying this kindness (c)
Merely to remember the kindness of all mother sentient beings is not enough. Only the most callous and ungrateful would fail to see that it is our duty and responsibility to repay this kindness. This we can do by bestowing on others material gifts, pleasures or enjoyments and other temporal benefits. However, the supreme repayment for the infinite kindness we have received is to lead all beings to the unsurpassable happiness of full awakening.
The development of affectionate love (d)
The next stage in the development of bodhicitta is to look upon all
beings with affectionate love. This state of mind will arise naturally
as a result of meditating for a long time upon the three previous causes.
In general, whenever we see our child, husband, wife or parents a heart-warming feeling of affection naturally arises within us and we hold them dear to ourselves. But such affection does not arise when we see other sentient beings, especially those who disturb us. If we are to develop true bodhicitta this warm feeling must be extended to embrace everyone. If as a result of long and continual meditation our mind becomes accustomed to looking upon each being with affection and warmth then we have realized this fourth cause for the development of the awakening mind.
The development of great compassion (e)
Great compassion is the state of mind that wishes each being to be separated from all suffering. If we have already developed affectionate, heart-warming love, and have extended it towards all living beings, then when we meditate deeply on the suffering that others are now experiencing a feeling of great compassion will arise easily. Thus the primary cause of great compassion is our previous development of affectionate love.
The mind of great compassion embraces all sentient beings without exception. At present we are unable to bear our own suffering because we cherish ourselves so deeply. In addition we cannot bear to see the suffering of our parents, family and friends because we cherish them as well. However, when we see our enemies in pain we take delight in the knowledge that suffering has befallen them. Why? Because we do not cherish them at all. It is this prejudiced mind that we must tame and transform. We do this by accustoming ourselves to the first four causes until we spontaneously look upon all beings as we do our kind mother. Then, by remembering their suffering and dissatisfaction, great compassion will be easily developed. The measure of this development is when upon our confronting a former enemy the spontaneous wish arises that he or she be separated from all misery. As has been said, until affectionate love has been developed for all others we shall be unable to develop this great compassion for them.
There are two traditions regarding the development of affectionate love.
That of such Indian masters as Chandragomin and Chandrakirti states that
affectionate love is the result of the first three causes as explained
above. According to the tradition of Shantideva, this heart-warming affection
is developed mainly through the method of exchanging oneself for others,
as will be explained later.
As already mentioned, if we develop affectionate, heart-warming love for all beings and then focus in meditation upon the suffering of others, we can develop the mind of great compassion, wishing them to be released from their misery. If we focus instead on their lack of pure happiness-how they are deprived of true pleasures and joys-then our affectionate love develops into what is known as true love. This is the heartfelt wish that no sentient being ever be separated from happiness and its cause.
The cultivation of the superior intention (f)
Upon the full realization of great compassion the thought will arise: `I myself shall undertake the task of liberating all beings from suffering; this is solely my duty and responsibility.' Assuming personal responsibility for the release of all sentient beings in this way is called the superior intention, or the pure selfless wish. This can be explained further by an example. If a child is drowning in a river, the onlookers will have the heartfelt wish that he be rescued. If the child's father sees this danger, however, he will not be satisfied with merely wishing him to be saved. Instead there will arise in him the strong intention to act to save his child. He will think, `I myself will rescue him.' The mind of the onlookers is like great compassion while the mind of the father is like the superior intention.
Someone who has developed this pure wish, although having the strong desire to act for the liberation of all sentient beings, soon realizes that he or she has no power to accomplish this aim. Like a father who is crippled and therefore cannot respond to his son's call for help, such a person is unable to fulfil this altruistic wish. A deep realization of this predicament-the inability to act upon one's desires-leads to the following, intended result of this meditation.
The development of the awakening mind of bodhicitta (g)
By contemplation and examination it is discovered that only a fully
perfected being-one who has awakened from the sleep of ignorance, a fully
enlightened buddha-has the complete power to liberate others from their
suffering. The truth of this becomes clear when we think about the attributes
a true liberator of others must have. Such a being would have to possess
the four characteristics of an awakened one:
1 freedom from all obscurations preventing liberation and
2 skilful means for leading all sentient beings from their suffering
3 equal compassion for all
4 complete impartiality while working solely for the benefit of
In this world we do not find any ordinary person who has such qualities. Any being who does have these four characteristics is what Buddhists are referring to when they use the title `Buddha'. In the past many people in eastern countries have earned this title by developing supreme qualities through meditation on the mahayana path. It is my hope that in this present day some westerners also may develop these precious qualities and likewise achieve buddhahood.
In conclusion, when the sixth cause-the superior intention-has been developed and one subsequently recognizes that only a buddha endowed with the four above-mentioned qualities has the full power to fulfil this pure wish, one achieves the intended result of this meditation. In one's mind arises the continuous thought to seek the full enlightenment of buddhahood in order to benefit all mother sentient beings and remove them from suffering. This is the awakening mind of bodhicitta and anyone who develops it is called a bodhisattva.
As Shantideva stated in the previous stanza, while there are many types of bodhicitta they are all contained within the following two aspects: the aspiring mind and the engaging, or venturing, mind.  These may be likened to the wish to go somewhere and the actual going. First the mind aspiring or wishing to go to the destination arises and it continues to arise while the journey is being made. In a similar fashion, the aspiring mind of bodhicitta seeks to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings and continues to arise until this goal is achieved. As for the engaging mind, it begins when the bodhisattva vows have been received. It is at this point that one actually engages in the practices leading to enlightenment: the six transcending perfections and the other virtues.
The two aspects of the awakening mind are stabilized within one's consciousness by following the appropriate precepts and vows. First, in the presence of an actual preceptor or the visualized assembly of buddhas, one commits oneself to the aspiring mind. At this time the promise is made never to abandon this mind, but to hold onto it firmly until enlightenment is reached. Then the following eight precepts are taken to prevent this aspiring mind from degenerating in this life and in all future lives. For the sake of this life one vows:
a. to recollect frequently the benefits of bodhicitta
b. to generate bodhicitta three times every day and three times every night
c. never to abandon the intention of benefiting sentient beings
d. to accumulate a wealth of merit and wisdom
As for the four precepts that prevent the aspiring mind from degenerating in future lives, one vows:
e. not to deceive one's teacher, abbot or preceptor
f. not to dissuade others from practising virtue, either by not rejoicing in their virtuous actions or by causing them to regret the virtuous actions they have already performed
g. to avoid criticizing those who have entered into the mahayana family in general and actual bodhisattvas in particular's
h. to avoid deceiving any sentient being
When the aspiring mind has become firm and full of encouragement, the bodhisattva naturally develops the wish to practise all the transcending perfections: the pure deeds of a bodhisattva. At this point the vows of the engaging mind are taken, again either in the presence of a preceptor or before the visualized assembly of buddhas. At this time one commits oneself to observing all the infinite precepts contained within the practice of the six perfections. These six transcending perfections will be explained later in this commentary and the actual ceremony for taking the bodhisattva vows will be explained in the third chapter.
When the full set of bodhisattva vows are taken the aspiring mind of
bodhicitta becomes the engaging mind of bodhicitta. If all the precepts
involved are kept purely the bodhisattva moves ever closer to the attainment
of supreme enlightenment. However, if these precepts are disregarded, violated
and abandoned, heavy negative consequences are incurred, removing one's
mind further from the goal. A full explanation of the eighteen root and
forty-six secondary vows of a bodhisattva can be found in Arya Asanga's
Bodhisattvabhumi and Je Tsongkhapa's Jangchub shung-lam (The
Main Path to Enlightenment). 16