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Shantideva says, “Virtuous thoughts do rise, brief and transient, in the world.” We’ve all had this experience: you're walking along, you're complaining and judging everyone, you feel like you're on a steady diet of poison, you’re driving everyone crazy—especially yourself—and then, BAM! Like a flash of lightning in the dark, something gets through your self-absorption. Sometimes it's just a car backfiring, or maybe it's a dharma teaching, but it wakes you up out of your self-absorption and you see that the sun has come out, the sky is beautiful, and there are birds flying across it. Suddenly the world is very large. Everybody knows the experience of being completely self-absorbed and then something gets through. That’s a flash of bodhichitta.
That flash, though, feels fragile and fleeting. Meditators describe it often: “I felt like every time I meditated I was waking up more, and then I seemed to lose it." That’s the fragility Shantideva is referring to: there’s a flash of lightning, you suddenly understand that the sun is always shining, but then the clouds cover over it. At some point, though, something shifts and you begin to have confidence that the underlying quality of your being is open and warm and radiant. You know that the sun is always shining.
So the more you practice and study, the more you begin to view your emotional upheavals like weather changes. They can be captivating and convincing—they can hook you and drag you under—but at the same time, you begin to know they’re passing clouds. You’ve seen the sun and you have no doubt that it's there behind the clouds. That makes your motivation to practice stronger, because you feel there’s nothing that could happen to you that wouldn’t be a doorway through these clouds, these temporary weather conditions.
Take grief, for instance. Grief is completely pregnant with bodhichitta—it’s full of heart, love and compassion. But we tend to freeze or harden against grief because it’s so painful. We bring in the clouds. In fact, we're good at bringing in the clouds and keeping them in place. We’re good at fixating on them.
But when you practice the teachings that say, “Stay with the grief, see it as your link to all humanity,” you begin to understand that grief is a doorway to realizing that the sun is always shining. You begin to understand that the weather is transient like clouds in the sky. You begin to have more trust in the underlying goodness—the underlying “sun quality”—of your being.
In this way, any experiences you have, particularly very strong emotions, are doorways to bodhichitta. The trick is to stay with the soft spot—the bodhichitta—and not harden over it. That’s the basic bodhichitta instruction: stay with the soft spot.
How does this work? You’re going along, and your mind and heart are open. Then someone says something and you find yourself either frightened or starting to get angry. You feel the hair rising on the back of your neck, and something in you closes down. You’re on your way to becoming all worked up. At this point, you become unreasonable, and all your wisdom goes out the window. You’re hooked. This is what we work with as practitioners, as aspiring bodhisattvas: we have to be able to see where we get hooked like this. It’s easy to see. To interrupt the flow of it, though, is another matter.
When you’re doing sitting practice, and you label your thoughts as “thinking,” and go back to your breath, you're interrupting the momentum of fixation. Sometimes when you’re doing sitting practice, you can see that the thoughts themselves are like clouds in the sky—they just come and go and they're no threat to us. So in terms of bodhichitta, when you get hooked or fixated and you're off and running, it's actually possible to touch the soft spot of what it is you're trying to cover over—the anger, rage, frustration, grief, despair. Because inside what you're trying to cover over is bodhichitta: the soft spot, the tender spot, the vulnerable, open heart and loving mind.
The only thing that leads us to supreme joy is to interrupt the flow of fixation and to touch the soft spot of bodhichitta. None of us should turn our backs on bodhichitta, on learning how to contact this soft spot.
“Should bodhichitta come to birth in one who suffers in the dungeons of samsara” is a description of ego. It’s like you’re enclosed in a cocoon and there's no fresh air. But what if someone takes a penknife and slits the cocoon and suddenly light comes in through the darkness? What if you poke your head out and see the whole universe? The “slit” could be an explosion outside, or the sound of a bird, or someone teaching the dharma. Something gets through to your heart, and suddenly it seems like the whole universe is available to you. But then you go right back in.
Shantideva says that should bodhichitta come to birth for even an instant, in that instant you are called a bodhisattva, the Buddha’s heir. You’re worthy of being bowed to by gods and men and women—by everyone. In that instant, you’re as full-blown a bodhisattva as those who spend their whole life cultivating bodhicitta—those who hardly ever get hooked. Maybe you’ll go back to being a schmuck, but you did have a glimpse of what it’s like to feel the heart and mind of a bodhisattva.
In the beginning the contrast between being awake and being asleep is great; it feels like the clouds have the upper hand. But once you begin to hear the teachings on fixation and bodhichitta, you have tools that help you to stick your head out of the crack in the cocoon, and you begin to get enthusiastic about your potential to stay out there.
But I'll tell you one thing: expect relapses.