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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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Introduction to the Pledged Bodhicitta Actions for Training and the Root Bodhisattva Vows

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, October 2009

Session One: Developing Bodhicitta

Unedited Transcript
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This weekend, we are going to speak about the bodhisattva vows. And obviously in order to understand the bodhisattva vows we need to understand what a bodhisattva is, and what bodhichitta is, upon which it is based. And in terms of that, we have many, many different quotations and sources which point out how important it is to take bodhisattva vows, to develop bodhichitta – take bodhisattva vows and keep them – for achieving enlightenment.

So what is bodhichitta? Bodhicitta is a state of mind which has many components to it. When we generate it, it has two phases. First of all we focus on all unenlightened beings with love and compassion. Love is the wish for others to be happy and have the causes for happiness, and compassion is the wish for them to be free of suffering and the causes for suffering. And we wish this equally for everybody.

In terms of the suffering that we wish them to be rid of, we understand this on the deepest level. Not just the suffering of unhappiness and pain. Not just the suffering which is involved with our ordinary happiness, which is the type of happiness that never lasts, doesn’t satisfy, and which changes into unhappiness and discomfort, as for instance when we eat too much of our favorite food and it makes us sick. But the suffering that we wish them to be free of, in addition to being free of those two, is the all-pervasive suffering (which is the basis for experiencing these first two types of suffering), which is the uncontrollably recurring rebirth that’s referred to as “ samsara.” And this is being reborn over and over again under the influence of unawareness, disturbing emotions, and the karmic actions that are based on this; which then, being under the influence of these factors, then we have the type of body and the type of mind that is subject to the suffering of unhappiness and our ordinary unsatisfying happiness which beings experience as the result of their karmic behavior – karmic behavior being the behavior that’s under the influence of unawareness of cause and effect and unawareness of reality. So we wish others to be free from this type of deeper suffering and the causes for it. And the deepest cause for it is this unawareness of reality.

And when we have love, we wish for them to be happy. That’s not the ordinary happiness that never satisfies, although that is better than them experiencing pain and unhappiness. But on a deeper level, we wish them the happiness of liberation and enlightenment, which is a happiness that comes from being free of what’s known as “obscurations of the mind.” The obscurations that are caused by disturbing emotions, and these are the ones that prevent liberation. And the obscurations preventing the omniscient state of a Buddha, which prevent them from understanding the interrelation of everything, and cause and effect, completely, which they would need to know in order to be able to be of best help to others. And when we are free of these limitations, from these two sets of obscurations (either one or both), then this is a tremendous joy that doesn’t end. It’s not something like the pleasure of eating our favorite food: that the more we have, eventually it turns to discomfort. It’s not like that type of happiness, ordinary happiness, at all. And we wish for them to have the causes for that type of unending happiness which would be in liberation and enlightenment.

And this love and compassion is also based on the firm understanding and conviction that it is possible for everyone to be free of suffering and to gain this unending happiness. So it’s not just a nice wish that we know can never really happen that it’s fulfilled. But we’re convinced that it is possible. And we are taking responsibility as well to be able to bring that freedom from suffering and attainment of happiness. We take that responsibility and we have this exceptional resolve that I’m going to do it, even just by myself, if I need to.

This is the first phase. This compassion and love and exceptional resolve that we have with this first phase, then, is going to continue, in a sense, in the background. And then the second phase, which is the main phase here of bodhichitta, we change our focus and instead of focusing on all limited beings (in other words, everybody who’s not yet a Buddha), now instead we are focusing on our own individual enlightenment which is not yet happened. But we know that it can happen, we’re convinced of it. It can happen on the basis of what is known as “Buddha-nature.” Buddha-nature being those factors that will allow for us to become a Buddha, to generate the various Bodies of a Buddha – technically the Form Body, the mind of a Buddha, etc.

And this is referring basically to the fundamental purity of the mind. That in its basic fundamental nature, the mind is not stained by these limitations or obscurations. That these stains are just superficial and can be removed so that they never recur. If we’re able to activate and stay forever on the deepest level of the mind, which is not stained – because the level at which these stains or limitations or confusion occur are more superficial, rougher levels of the mind. And the mind is not stained by impossible ways of existing. And if we can understand that and stay focused on that, then on the basis of that, what’s called the “voidness of the mind,” and on the basis of our understanding of that voidness of the mind, then we will be able to stay in that basic unstained level, that level that’s not stained by these fleeting confusions.

And on the basis of the subtlest energy associated with that deepest level of mind, and on the basis of the networks of positive force and deep awareness that are primarily the positive force that is carried along by this continuum of this deepest level, then out of that subtlest energy we’l l be able to generate and appear in the various Form Bodies of a Buddha. The Form Bodies of a Buddha, the appearances of a Buddha, whether gross or subtle, are made from this subtlest pure energy. They can be conjoined with the gross elements (earth, water, etc.), but it’s not the gross elements that are the Form Body of the Buddha, it’s the subtle energy conjoined with them, on the basis of that. Okay, anyway, that’s perhaps a very condensed explanation of Buddha-nature. I’m sorry if that was a little bit too much information at one time, but that’s not the main topic of our discussion.

But in any case, we are focusing on this aspect of our mental continuum, Buddha-nature aspects: the voidness of the mind, the basic purity of the mind, the deepest subtle energy of the mind, networks of positive force and deep awareness. And on the basis of that, we can impute a not-yet-happening enlightenment which we know we can achieve, so that we will have a presently-happening enlightenment, if we strengthen and complete these two networks, network of positive force and deep awareness. So that’s what we’re focusing on with bodhichitta. And how do we do that? We do that by representing this not-yet-happening enlightenment, which is our own individual not-yet-happening enlightenment, not Buddha Shakyamuni’s or some general one in the sky. We can represent it by visualizing a Buddha (that would be the most common) or we could represent it by our own spiritual teacher, or lineage teacher, that is representing this enlightenment for us, or we can just (in mahamudra or dzogchen methods) focus on the basic purity of the mind itself, which is quite difficult to do.

That is the focus, the focal object of bodhichitta, this not-yet-happening enlightenment, and there are two intentions that accompany it. The first intention is to actually attain that enlightenment which is not yet happened, and the second is to benefit all beings on the basis of that. So, in other words, this is resting on that love and compassion and exceptional resolve we developed in the first phase. And of course along the way of achieving that enlightenment, we’re going to try to help others as much as possible. And the bodhisattva vows are going to give us guidelines of how to do that, how to benefit others as much as possible, and what to avoid that would damage our ability to help others. And actually the vows are always phrased in terms of what to avoid that would be detrimental to our development of bodhichitta and our helping others.

So in order to develop this state of mind of bodhichitta and take the bodhisattva vows, we need to, obviously, work ourselves up to having that state of mind of bodhichitta. And this is of course based on a long process of development, spiritual development, with which we recognize the precious human rebirth that we have, we recognize that it’s not going to last forever, so we understand death and impermanence; and we have full confidence in rebirth, and we realize that if we don’t take some preventive measures (which is what the word “Dharma” means) to avoid a worse rebirth in the future then, based on our destructive behavior, we will be reborn in a situation in which we’ll have no opportunity to further our spiritual development. So we understand all this, we take it very seriously. And so, in order to avoid worse rebirth and to help us to continue on the spiritual path, we put a safe direction in our life; that’s called “refuge.” And that direction is indicated by the Buddha, the achievements of a Buddha and what they’ve taught, and those who have accomplished what the Buddha has, at least a certain extent; that’s the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. So that is the direction we put in our life. We go in that direction based on wanting to avoid worse situations of rebirth and the confidence that going in this direction will help us to avoid that and achieve our spiritual goals of liberation and enlightenment. Avoiding worse rebirths, achieving liberation and achieving enlightenment: these are the three goals of what’s known as “lam-rim,” the graded stages of the path.

And the first thing that we need to do, in order to avoid things getting worse, is to restrain from destructive behavior. So, ethical discipline. And we do that on the basis of understanding that if we act in a destructive way, it will cause us unhappiness and problems; and if we refrain from destructive behavior, that will bring us at least the ordinary type of happiness. And although eventually we want to overcome even this ordinary happiness, nevertheless it is a circumstance more conducive for spiritual practice than pain and unhappiness.

Then we think of all the problems of uncontrollably recurring rebirths. So whether we are experiencing terrible unhappiness or extreme ordinary happy situations, that all of them have shortcomings. And we understand how all of that, the states filled with tremendous suffering of pain, or the states of rebirth filled with ordinary happiness – we understand how both of these are generated by karmic behavior, which is based on unawareness of cause and effect and of reality, and our craving after ordinary happiness, and craving after being parted from this usual pain and unhappiness, and just having the ordinary happiness. We develop the determination to be free from these completely. That’s called “renunciation.” And so we have the strong determination to be free.

And then the basis of all of that, with already some development of concentration, then we go to the Mahayana. Although we could bring in Mahayana ideas of compassion and so on from the very beginning: I want to continue to have a precious human rebirth so that I can help others. So this compassion can be added from the very beginning. But what will constitute a Mahayana type of practice is that we are aiming our practice at absolutely everybody. So we’re not focusing just on ourselves and our own problems and our own liberation from it. We’re not focusing on just a few others that we happen to like. We’re not even focusing just on all those who are human beings now, in this lifetime. But this is a completely vast state of mind that is focusing on everybody, in all states of rebirth, throughout the whole universe.

And we recognize that everybody has a beginningless mental continuum, beginningless rebirth, and everybody has been every different type of life form in one lifetime or another, including being our mother. And we have equanimity toward everybody so that we’re not just attracted to some and repelled from others and indifferent to yet others. And we recall the kindness of everyone, not only when they’ve been our mothers, but even at other times when they’ve grown our food or built our roads or made the honey that we eat. And we appreciate that kindness and want to somehow act kindly in return, and this generates a heart-warming love toward everybody, that even just thinking about others makes us feel very warm and happy, and how terrible it would be if something bad happened to them. And this is reinforced by understanding the equality of everyone. That just as I want to be happy and not want to be unhappy, so does everybody equally feel the same thing. And I’m just one person and everybody else is countless number of others, and so rather than thinking of just me and working to overcome my problems, I am a member of a whole class of these beings and so it is proper for me to work for everybody because I belong to everybody. And we all equally have the same problem: in one word, samsara. Samsaric existence. So, then, it’s on the basis of this that we have this love and compassion and exceptional resolve and bodhichitta that I explained earlier.

And first we need to hear about all of this, in terms of bodhichitta, so that we have heard it correctly, we know what bodhichitta is talking about. We don’t just confuse bodhichitta with love and compassion, which many people do. Bodhicitta is much more than love and compassion. It’s based on love and compassion, but it’s much more, as I’ve explained. And then we work further with bodhichitta, thinking about it so that we understand what it really means. We understand how to focus on it and what is the state of mind that we’re generating. We’re convinced that we can achieve it. We’re convinced that everybody could become enlightened and that I could actually help them by showing the way. And we realize that nobody is an almighty god – that I can just touch somebody with my finger and they’re enlightened. So we have a realistic idea of how people can become enlightened. They have to work on it themselves, basically. And so, based on that, then understanding the methods for working ourselves up to generating this state of mind, we’re able to generate bodhichitta at this very initial level.

Now we know correctly what this state of mind is. We understand it, we’re convinced that we can achieve it, and so then we go through the stages of everybody’s been my mother, everybody’s been kind, etc., and we’re able to generate that state of bodhichitta and it’s sincere. And what’s really difficult here is for this to encompass everybody, that wish to equally help everybody.

And what we would first have, on the basis of this, is called the “aspiring bodhichitta.” This is wishing to achieve that enlightenment that’s not yet happened in order to benefit others. And that has two phases to it. The first is this phase of just merely wishing this; and the second is what’s called the “pledged state,” in which I pledge that I’m not going to give it up until I achieve enlightenment. And then we go on to develop what’s called the “engaged state” of bodhichitta, that’s in addition to the wishing or aspirational state, in which I am fully decided to engage myself totally in the practices that will bring me to enlightenment.

And it’s at that stage that we take the bodhisattva vows. And this is going to structure our behavior, by taking these vows, because what we are vowing is to avoid certain things that would be damaging to our development of bodhichitta in general – that would be the root bodhisattva vows. And the secondary bodhisattva vows are to avoid those things that would be specifically detrimental to our development of the six far-reaching attitudes (or perfections), plus what would be detrimental to our benefiting others, in general terms. When we talk about the far-reaching attitudes we’re talking about generosity, ethical self-discipline, patience, joyful perseverance, mental constancy – which is not only concentration, but having a stable state of mind not disturbed by disturbing emotions – and discriminating awareness, usually of reality (we discriminate reality from fantasy).

Obviously we can develop and practice these far-reaching attitudes before we develop bodhichitta, but the real Mahayana practice is when these are conjoined with bodhichitta. So we practice bodhisattva type of behavior on the basis of these bodhisattva vows, basically developing more and more of these far-reaching attitudes, these six. There’s also a list of ten; the additional four are subdivisions of far-reaching discriminating awareness. There’s no need to give all the details. And through this, we build up more and more our networks of positive force and deep awareness.

Now still at this stage we are generating this state of bodhichitta in a labored way – this is the technical term, which means with labor or with effort – and this means that we have to go through the line of reasoning in order to be able to refresh that state of mind of bodhichitta. So we have to go through the stages of equanimity, and everybody’s been my mother, etc., and work ourselves up to this conscious state of mind. And eventually through tremendous amount of familiarity and positive force from helping others, we will have an unlabored development of bodhichitta, which means that we don’t have to go through that line of reasoning in order to generate bodhichitta; we have that state of mind naturally, automatically. And whether we are conscious of it or not is irrelevant. Whether that bodhichitta state of mind is actually conscious (in other words, it is our main focal object at the moment) or whether it is an undercurrent (in other words, unconscious), it is the same, in the sense that this is the main direction of our life regardless of what happens. It’s so deeply integrated. And it is only at that stage where we actually become a bodhisattva. That’s what a bodhisattva is, somebody who has unlabored bodhichitta. So all the benefits and praise to bodhichitta that are mentioned, for instance in the first chapter of Shantideva’s text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, are referring to this stage of bodhichitta, this unlabored stage where one becomes a bodhisattva.

And we need to understand that whether we are speaking about labored or unlabored bodhichitta, it is still conceptual, because only a Buddha can nonconceptually know what enlightenment is like; and so for us who are not yet Buddhas, to focus on enlightenment, even a not-yet-happening enlightenment, can only be through a concept of what it is. So when Shantideva says that once you develop bodhichitta, then whether you are awake or even asleep or even drunk, that still this builds us a tremendous amount of positive force, he’s referring to that unlabored state of bodhichitta.

And also when we develop this unlabored state of bodhichitta, then at that point we attain what’s called the “path of building up” or “path of accumulation.” That’s the first of the five pathway minds. So it’s a level of mind that will act as a path for the actual main pathway that will lead us to, in this case, enlightenment. So when we hear about these five paths, these are five levels of mind; they’re not roads, but it is a level of mind that will take us further like a road. And we can do this in a Mahayana way so that this stream of development will lead to our enlightenment. And we reach that beginning of the first level of these five when we have this unlabored bodhichitta.

So now, for most of us, we are at the levels of mind before that. And even if we do practices of love and compassion and bodhichitta, it’s probably based on just having heard of the teachings of bodhichitta. And maybe we’ve understood it a little bit, but I think, for most of us, we are not fully convinced on a rational basis that we actually can become enlightened and that absolutely everybody else can become enlightened, it’s actually quite difficult to be fully convinced of that because to do that you have to understand what enlightenment is. It’s not easy. So we merely have what’s called a “presumptive understanding.” We presume that it’s true, but I’m really not deeply, deeply so convinced. And if we are honest with ourselves, the scope of my Mahayana-style thoughts is really quite limited. I’m really not thinking of absolutely everybody. I can’t even begin to imagine everybody, everybody – the insects – at this point, everybody that’s any life form anywhere in the universe. So we’re working toward that. We need to be – not pretentious, not to pretend, “Oh I’m such a great Mahayana practitioner,” let alone to pretend I’m a bodhisattva. This is absurd. But whatever level of development that we have which is going in the direction of bodhichitta, this is great and beneficial.

Okay? So this is a basic introduction that we’ve covered actually all of lam-rim and all the bodhichitta teachings, but I think that this is necessary background before we get into the bodhisattva vows. And in the retreat next weekend, we will go more deeply into these methods for developing bodhichitta. But now in this weekend, we will discuss the vows themselves. But before we do that let’s take a fifteen minute break and then we’ll continue.