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Stay with the Soft Spot

Pema Chödrön on how to awaken bodhichitta—enlightened heart and mind—the essence of all Buddhist practice.

The Bodhicharyavatara, or The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, is a teaching from the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism—the tradition of the bodhisattva, the compassionate warrior. In the Mahayana, the emphasis is on awakening—on thinking bigger—so that you can benefit other By people. The author is Shantideva, a monk who lived in the eighth century in India.

The first three chapters of The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life introduce us to the principle of bodhichitta and how it may arise in us. Bodhichitta—awakened heart or awakened mind—is something everyone has access to. It arises in everyone, and everyone has experienced it. The text says that it often appears like “a flash of lightning in the dark.” It’s like there’s an opening in the clouds. We sense that we're connected to something that wakes us up and makes our world feel bigger. It makes our heart and our whole being feel expansive; we feel confident and inspired. But, unfortunately, our habitual patterns are so strong that the opening usually closes again. We revert to our old ways of staying stuck in negative mind. We get hooked again in our old patterns.

But we do have these moments of awakening. And when we can begin to nurture them, and cherish them, they come out more and more. Then at some point the shift to being awake becomes irreversible: something shifts in our heart and our mind, and bodhicitta is no longer superficial. It becomes a part of our being.

Shantideva begins The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life with the following verses:

To those who go in bliss, the dharma they have mastered, and to all their heirs,
To all who merit veneration, I bow down.
According to tradition, I shall now in brief describe
The entrance to the bodhisattva discipline.

What I have to say has all been said before
And I am destitute of learning and of skill with words.
I, therefore, have no though that this might be of benefit to others
I wrote it only to sustain my understanding.

My faith will thus be strengthened for a little while
That I might grow accustomed to this virtuous way.
But others who now chance upon my words
May profit also, equal to myself and fortune.

It isn't easy to say what bodhicitta is. If you looked it up in a Buddhist dictionary, it would say something like: “The heartfelt longing or wish or aspiration to awaken fully, so that you could benefit sentient beings.” The aspiration is vast, because you wish to awaken not partially but fully. It’s vast because you wish to awaken so that you could benefit not just a few, but all sentient beings. And you aspire to benefit all beings not just at the relative level of housing and food and fear and abuse, but also at the absolute level of helping them help themselves so that they too can wake up fully. Full-blown bodhicitta is the global perspective that wants all beings to fulfill their potential. It is based on a growing confidence that all beings have the potential to wake up fully.

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