Bodhi is a Sanskrit term meaning “awakened” or “enlightened”. And chitta (Sanskrit citta) means “mind” or “heart”. Thus the translation connotes, the mind or heart of (or directed toward) awakening or enlightenment.
The generation of bodhichitta is one of the defining characteristics of the Mahayana Buddist path. The foundational teachings primarily mention bodhisattvas—those who generate bodhichitta—in reference to the previous lives of the Buddha. In the Pali texts, and within the living Theravada tradition, a person taking the bodhisattva vow would take that vow in the presence of a living Buddha. At that point, the Buddha would then issue a prediction of the person’s eventual buddhahood.
In Mahayana teachings, all individuals are capable and encouraged to devote themselves to the vast aspiration. According to the Bodhipathapradīpa (A Lamp for the Path to Awakening) by the Indian master Atisha, the core of a bodhisattva’s path is the aspiration of bodhichitta, the firm resolve to relieve all living beings from suffering.
Nagarjuna, in his Commentary on Bodhichitta (Skt. Bodhicittavivāraṇa; Tib., chang chub sem drel) begins his text by emphasizing the link between bodhichitta and emptiness. He writes:
Bodhichitta, all the Buddhas say,
Is unobscured by veils of thought:
Conceptions of such things as self and aggregates,
Which always have the character of emptiness.
With minds moist with compassionBodhicitta-vivāraṇa-nāma, Thupten Jinpa (trans.) “Bodhicitta Vivarana: A Commentary on the Awakening Mind.”
We should strenuously meditate on bodhichitta.
The Buddhas who personify compassion,
Meditate upon it constantly.
Stages of Bodhichitta
One of many famous texts devoted to this topic is the Bodhicaryāvatāra: An Introduction to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life by Shantideva (Sanskrit Śāntideva). In the first chapter of that text, the Indian master defined two progressive stages of bodhichitta—aspiration and application. He points out that although aspiration brings great benefits, it is not sufficient to achieve liberation. Intention is the first step, but he and other masters repeatedly advise that skillful action is also necessary.
Understand that, briefly stated,
Bodhicitta has two aspects
The mind aspiring to awaken,
And bodhicitta that’s enacted.
Just as one understands the difference
Between wishing to go and setting out upon a journey,
The wise should understand these two,
Recognizing their difference and their order.
Bodhicitta in aspiration brings about great results,
Even as we continue to circle within saṃsāra;
Yet it does not bring about a ceaseless stream of merit,
For that will come solely from active bodhicitta.
From the moment we genuinely take up
This irreversible attitude—
The mind that aspires to liberate entirely
The infinite realms of beings,
From then on, even while asleep,Bodhicaryāvatāra—Chapter 1.
Or during moments of inattention,
A plentiful, unceasing force of merit
Will arise, equal to the vastness of the sky.
Relative and Ultimate Bodhichitta
In addition to those two stages, masters divide bodhichitta into ‘relative’ or ‘conventional’ bodhichitta, and ‘absolute’ bodhichitta.
- Relative bodhichitta is the wish, based on the development of compassion, to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings, and to attain awakening for the benefit of sentient beings.
- Ultimate bodhichitta is the direct insight into the ultimate, essential nature of things.
The great 19th-century master Patrul Rinpoche composed verses in praise of this mind of awakening. In this excerpt from his Aspiration to Generate Bodhicitta, Utterly Pure and Supreme, he reminds his listeners that generation and application of bodhichitta will lead to eventual awakening.
The indisputable seed from which buddhahood is gained,
May I generate bodhicitta, utterly pure and supreme!
Further and further, may supreme bodhicitta develop,Translated by Adam Pearcey 2010.
Throughout my lives, may bodhicitta never be forgotten,
Again and again, may I meditate on bodhicitta,
And always train in the way of the bodhisattva!