The Great Reversal
Putting others first—it’s the great switch that changes
everything. It cuts samsara at the root and plants the seed of enlightenment. SAKYONG MIPHAM on how to be a bodhisattva.
The Mahayana Buddhist tradition is defined by the supreme
thought of bodhichitta, the intention to bring all sentient beings to
enlightenment. Those who vow to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of others
are known as bodhisattvas. Their path is based on the six transcendent
perfections, the paramitas.
Paramita is a Sanskrit word meaning “arriving at the other
shore.” On the bodhisattva path, one’s view, practice, and action are based on
simultaneously benefitting self and other. The bodhisattva is likened to a
ferry operator whose sole purpose is to take passengers across the water. Yet
while taking others to the other shore, the ferry operator is crossing, too.
The paramitas are generosity, discipline, patience,
exertion, meditation, and prajna—wisdom or “best knowledge.” They are the
supreme way to attain merit, giving one the fuel and strength to take all
beings across the waters.
Only with prajna are the other paramitas transcendent.
Without prajna they are simply ordinary generosity, discipline, patience,
exertion, and meditation. The paramita of prajna is like the ferry operator
keeping an eye on the other shore, which we could equate with great emptiness
and great wisdom. Prajna always sees the purpose of the journey. Therefore,
prajna keeps the boat from going adrift. Generosity, discipline, patience,
exertion, and meditation are like the oars of the boat.
In practicing the paramitas, bodhisattvas progress along the
bhumis, the stages of realization. Through generosity, they create favorable
conditions. Through discipline, they become excellent at knowing what to accept
and what to reject. Through patience, they retain all the previous merit.
Through exertion, they progress joyfully. Through meditation, they exchange
self for other and create equanimity. Through prajna, they understand reality.
Thus, the paramitas become the bodhisattva’s view, action, and meditation—all
fueled by bodhichitta, the supreme thought.
We should not confuse bodhichitta with buddhanature, the
inherent possibility of becoming a buddha. Everyone has this seed and is fully
capable of attaining enlightenment. Since bodhichitta leads to full
enlightenment, it too could be regarded as a seed. However, while all beings
have buddhanature, we do not all have bodhichitta.
While the seed of all beings is buddhanature, at the core of
bodhichitta is the exchange of self and other. The two elements that enable one
to exchange self and other are loving-kindness and compassion. loving-kindness
is engendered by the thought, “May all beings enjoy happiness and the root of
happiness.” Compassion is engendered by the thought, “May all beings be free
from suffering and the root of suffering.” When we unify these two, we have
bodhichitta, the vow to bring all beings to the perfect state of buddhahood.
Love and compassion are essential to the teachings of the
Mahayana and the way of the bodhisattva. love and compassion lead to buddhahood
because for beings to be truly happy, they must understand the true source of
happiness, and for beings to be free from suffering, they must understand the
true source of freedom from suffering. If beings do not understand the source,
they might have a temporary state of happiness, but they will not have a
permanent state of happiness.
The bodhisattva exists in order to help others. One is not
helping others simply because one is inspired and wants to do it for oneself,
for the bodhisattva does not believe in the self. rather, the bodhisattva helps
others because they are utterly confused about the source of both happiness and
suffering. Trying to be happy, sentient beings act out of self-interest and
engage in nonvirtue—that which benefits self instead of others. In fact, it is
said that within samsara, the cycle of suffering, sentient beings act as though
it is virtue that will destroy them. and in a way that is true, for if we
define virtue as a lack of self-centeredness, virtue ultimately does destroy
The bodhisattva sees that entire realms of beings are going
up and down the ladder of existence, trying harder and harder to achieve
happiness: in the hell realms through anger, in the ghost realms through
jealousy, in the human realms through desire, in the god realms through pride,
and in the animal realms through ignorance. Clearly these beings are
perpetually suffering and utterly confused about how to free themselves.
Therefore, the bodhisattva sees an urgent need to apply bodhichitta and
Bodhisattvas make a vow that they will remain in this
cyclical place of pain and suffering until all these beings have perfected
view, meditation, action, and the six paramitas. When all beings have perfected
those, the bodhisattva stays to ensure that they attain the noble qualities of
perfect buddhahood. In this way, the bodhisattva is like a shepherd, remaining
until every being in samsara attains the perfect state.
Bodhisattvas attain buddhahood themselves as a means to lead
all beings to rouse the mind of bodhichitta and attain buddhahood too. In this
light, the bodhisattva is said to be like a monarch, first demonstrating the
principle so that other beings will follow. Otherwise, they may not follow
and, since they do not know what buddhahood is, they might even fear it.
Therefore, bodhisattvas perfect the state of buddhahood for the benefit of all.
The ferry operator, the shepherd, or the monarch—all these
virtues of the bodhisattva stem from bodhichitta. In the sutras, the buddha
says that arousing bodhichitta protects the mind like a suit of armor. With
bodhichitta, the mind is free from fear. as well, having bodhichitta brings
perpetual joy, and arousing bodhichitta gathers unimaginable merit. Once one
begins to understand the awesome potency of bodhichitta and its benefits, one
starts rousing the mind to generate it. This potent switch from a subjective
orientation toward the self to an objective orientation toward others yields
In this light, if one is drawn toward bodhichitta and
develops faith, that propels the mind for many lifetimes into the future,
laying the ground for enlightenment. Obviously, if one does not know the value
of such an intention, one will not generate it. It is also said that the minor
effort it takes to arouse bodhichitta is vastly outweighed by the benefits.
Thus, the bodhisattva—whether sitting, eating, walking, or talking— raises this
attitude, accumulating infinite clouds of unseen merit.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s new book is The Shambhala Principle: Discovering Humanity’s Hidden Treasure, published by Harmony.
Illustration by Megumi Yoshida.