Living A Life of Compassion: Thoughts on Bodhicitta

To live without defenses is an impossibility. But still, we must try. All of us are so defended constantly protecting ourselves from pain and fear. It is the way of things. Buddhism, specifically Mahayana Buddhism, seeks to counteract our natural inclination to defend ourselves. The ultimate endpoint of Mahayana Buddhism is the Bodhisattva path, which is best illustrated in the Bodhisattva vows: 

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.

Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.

Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.

The Buddha Way is unattainable; I vow to embody it.

The path is unattainable, but as Bodhisattvas in training, we vow to live it. The term Bodhicitta means a commitment to living the path and being a bodhisattva. Bodhicitta is born of compassion first and foremost, not just for those we love but even strangers and enemies. The first noble truth of Buddhism is that life is dukkha or suffering. We all suffer, and there is no escaping it. Bodhicitta means not run away from suffering in ourselves or other people. It means to live with an open heart. 

Bodhicitta is intimately tied to the Buddhist teaching of anatta or non-self. As stated above, most of us desperately try to hold on to our sense of identity through our defenses.  Anatta is the understanding that the self is not solid, but impermanent and constantly in flux. Anyone who has spent 10 minutes in meditation can have this insight. One minute you are meditating on your breath. The next minute you are thinking about all the things you need to do for work. The next you have an ice cream craving. And the next you feel shame about something that happened 20 years ago. 

The self is a constantly changing phenomenon with nothing to hold on to, yet we all still try. It is why meditation training is particularly important. If left to our own devices, we will fall victim to the ups and downs of the self, no matter how self-aware we are. Training with Bodhicitta means to wrestle with ourselves on the meditation mat. It means to face our deepest fears, defenses, and demons, nakedly and with compassion so that we may provide loving-kindness and compassion to all beings. 

Most people do have any desire to live this path. That is ok. As the Buddha said, there are some beings who just have a little dust in their eyes, that can hear the Dharma and undertake the path. But be careful. Many use the spiritual path to build up their egos to put themselves in a social hierarchy where they feel spiritually superior to others. The way is quiet. If you see someone acting flashy or promising too much, they are probably a false prophet of sorts. There is nothing extraordinary about Bodhicitta or Buddha way. As the old Zen koan says, “Before enlightenment chop wood. After enlightenment chop wood.” 

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