The Nectar of Bodhicitta

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche

This book presents Lama Zopa Rinpoche's teachings on bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment, based on verses from two inspiring bodhicitta texts, The Jewel Lamp: A Praise of Bodhicitta, by Khunu Lama Rinpoche, and A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, by Shantideva. It has been compiled and edited by Gordon McDougall. This book is now available in print and digital formats and as a free audiobook on Google Play.

Shantideva. Photo: Fabio Heizenreder.
2.4 Working for All Sentient Beings

Shantideva explains the infinite merit we create every moment when we have bodhicitta. He says,

[1:21] If having the thought merely
To relieve sentient beings of a headache
Is a positive motivation that
Creates unimaginable merit,

[1:22] Without question [so much more] merit is created
By wishing to eliminate the limitless suffering
Of all sentient beings
And lead them to infinite happiness.

This is the unbelievable scope of the bodhisattva’s vision. If we have a headache, of course we want to cure it. There is nothing special in that mind. If we want to cure the headache of somebody else, that compassionate wish creates a lot of merit, and the wish to cure the headaches of many beings creates much more merit. Thinking in hundreds, we accumulate much more merit. If, like a bodhisattva, we wished to cure the headache of every single sentient being, then the merit created would be incalculable.

This is just considering one small discomfort, a headache. A bodhisattva wants to cure all sentient beings not just of one headache or of all headaches but of all physical and mental sufferings entirely. Seeing the depth of misery that all beings are sunk in, the bodhisattva’s goal is relief from even the tiniest suffering, and of course that means relief from all the great sufferings, including the suffering of the hell beings, hungry ghosts and animals. Because the number is infinite, the merit is infinite. All bodhisattvas are working tirelessly to help all sentient beings realize their full potential and gain boundless happiness and full enlightenment. Is it any wonder that at every moment a bodhisattva creates infinite merit?

Next Shantideva says,

[1:23] Do fathers and mothers
Have such a benevolent intention as this?
Do the gods and teachers
Or even Brahma have it?

[1:24] If those beings have never even dreamt
Of having such an attitude
Even for their own sake,
How could it ever arise for the sake of others?

[1:25] This intention to benefit others,
Which other beings fail to generate even for their own sake,
Is the most sublime, wonderful jewel of the mind;
Its birth is an unimaginable marvel.

The beneficial intention is of course bodhicitta. Shantideva here shows how rare this thought is. He focuses on our parents and the gods and teachers, great wise beings, but asks us to consider whether even they, who care about our welfare so much, have this inestimable thought. Even Brahma, the king of the Hindu gods, does not have bodhicitta.

Shantideva was writing in India in the eighth century and of course he used examples like Brahma. These were the greatest beings in the Hindu pantheon, with great powers, able to see into the past and future, able to control the lives of an incredible number of people. They didn’t have bodhicitta.

This mind is so vast, so incredible, that normal worldly people cannot even conceive of it. Even our parents, no matter how kind and caring they are to us, don’t have bodhicitta. No matter how much love and compassion they might feel toward us, the bodhicitta attitude would be something utterly unknown to them. Brahmins are said to be people who never tell lies, and hence their speech is very, very powerful and they succeed in whatever they pray for. In previous times they were also famous for being able to tell the future and past. Although the gods have much more power than normal people, they are not free from partiality and prejudice, therefore the mind of bodhicitta is beyond them.

These sentient beings—our parents, the Brahmins, the samsaric gods—all want to be free from all suffering and want the same for those they care for, but even in a dream they couldn’t conceive of being free from all suffering for themselves, meaning liberation and enlightenment, let alone for all other sentient beings. Here, Shantideva shows us just how rare bodhicitta is.

To have such a powerful thought arise, wanting to release all other beings from suffering and the causes of suffering, first we have to deeply understand our own suffering and see that all other sentient beings are suffering in the same way. Even if we say the words “all sentient beings” with the mouth, still in the depths of our mind our own happiness is paramount, and we hold this like a Mount Everest above all other things. This is because we have neither taken our understanding of our own suffering deep enough, to where we can see that all our suffering stems from self-cherishing, nor have we taken our understanding of others’ suffering to the level where great compassion arises.

Without this understanding there is no way we can generate bodhicitta. No matter how much we long for it, it just won’t happen. For bodhicitta to be generated we must generate great Mahayana compassion and that needs a deep understanding of the suffering of all sentient beings, not just the mouthing of sweet words. Changing our attitude from being self-centered to only thinking of others is a remarkable thing, an incredibly rare thing, like having a rainbow in our room. It is such an amazing thing that it might well seem impossible, but if we work on attaining it strongly enough it will happen. Shantideva says the birth of this altruistic attitude is an unimaginable marvel. In the next verse, he calls its benefits unfathomable:

[1:26] How can the mind fathom the depths
Of the benefits created by this precious mind,
The cause of all the joy for all sentient beings
And the medicine that cures all their suffering?

The source of all happiness is bodhicitta. It’s the source of all the joy of the world and the medicine that cures the world of all suffering. Seeing the depth of the suffering of all other sentient beings, we can do nothing but work tirelessly to relieve them of that suffering, and that means becoming enlightened ourselves in order to lead them to that same state. We please sentient beings by offering them the Dharma, the one route out of their suffering and to peerless happiness. Skilled in wisdom and full of compassion, we are able to help sentient beings in whatever way they most need it. For those in need of material things, we are able to help them acquire them; for those who are starving, we can help them have food. We can help those trapped in floods and give support to those with relationship problems. Bodhicitta enables us to do whatever is needed to best help sentient beings. In this way bodhicitta becomes the cause of joy of all sentient beings.

Even if other people know nothing about bodhicitta, they get a peaceful, joyful feeling from being near somebody with bodhicitta. A bodhisattva is utterly without harm and only ever helps others, always taking more care of others than of themselves. This love and compassion emanates from them, bringing such joy to others. A bodhisattva is always tirelessly working for others’ benefit.

The benefits of bodhicitta can never be imagined. The depths of the benefits of such a mind are unfathomable, infinite. Because we want peace for ourselves and for the whole world, anything other than following this mind, developing this mind, is foolish. We are always managing our time, trying to work on something to bring peace to ourselves and other beings, but until now it has always been done in an unskillful way. With bodhicitta, we can immediately see what is best for others and immediately do it. Therefore, it is necessary to train and develop such a precious mind.

The reason I often start my talks with an explanation of bodhicitta is because of its importance, and because even hearing about this wonderful mind fills us with joy. It is vital to see that the source of all suffering is the egocentric mind, the self-cherishing thought, and the source of all happiness is the mind cherishing others. There is no way of freeing ourselves from the egocentric mind other than through bodhicitta. Therefore, even hearing about bodhicitta is incredibly important.

In every city and town in the world there are a huge number of temples, churches, stupas, monks, priests and so forth, but to hear the teachings on bodhicitta is extraordinary. It’s like being in a top-class jewelry shop with all the diamonds and gold on display, but in order to find the most valuable jewel of all hidden in the back, first we must know it exists.


Talking about how beneficial bodhicitta is, Shantideva says,

[1:27] If even just having a beneficial intention
Is much more meritorious than venerating all the buddhas,
What need is there to mention working to obtain
The happiness of all beings without exception?

We need to consider Shantideva’s first point in this verse, that wishing to benefit others is more beneficial than making offerings to all the buddhas. When we have convinced ourselves of that, it’s easy to see that working to benefit all sentient beings is even more extraordinary. This far surpasses making offerings to all the buddhas.

In the Adornment of the Mahayana Sutras,35 Maitreya says that benefiting one sentient being is more meaningful than making offerings to not just one buddha but to buddhas and bodhisattvas equal in number to the atoms of the world. This benefit of bodhicitta is reflected in Shantideva’s verse. How can it be that merely wishing to benefit one sentient being is greater than making offerings to all the buddhas? Because helping sentient beings is the very best offering we can ever make to the buddhas.

There are many ways in which we can help sentient beings and I’m not just talking about the dogs and cats we keep—whether for their happiness or ours, that’s another question—but also insects and all beings. Actually, perhaps we should also keep insects such as mosquitoes and spiders as pets, especially the ones we don’t like! Whatever sentient beings we benefit—domestic animals, insects, hell beings, hungry ghosts, people—and however we help them—by giving medicine, material help, explaining the Dharma and so forth—we can always combine the two actions of making charity to sentient beings and making offerings to all the buddhas.

Whichever way we help sentient beings becomes the best offering to the buddhas because the buddhas cherish all beings and the only motivation for anything they do is to best benefit others. Therefore, if we are helping others we are doing their work. It’s like a mother feeling great joy when she sees her child helping the neighbors, spontaneously working with a good heart.

Even if we make offerings to all the enlightened beings, filling up as many buddha fields as there are grains of sand in the River Ganges with seven kinds of jewels and offering it to that many buddhas, it cannot compare to the mind of bodhicitta, thinking of benefiting all sentient beings. Making such extensive offerings to such powerful objects creates unbelievable merit, but how can that action done without bodhicitta compare to even the smallest action done with bodhicitta?

No matter how vast the benefits are of making such extensive offerings, they are still limited. The benefits of bodhicitta are limitless, and so even a small action done with a good heart—not even bodhicitta but the mind that leads to bodhicitta—is able to bring limitless benefits. Of course, I would never suggest to anybody that they should give up making offerings! Making offerings, even just a grain of rice to one holy object, brings incredible benefit, unbelievable benefit. One flower placed on our altar at home can create the cause for countless lifetimes of indescribable happiness and therefore it is far more precious than all the wealth in the world, but without bodhicitta such an offering will always be limited.

Shantideva continues by showing how bodhicitta can benefit all sentient beings:

[1:28] As much as sentient beings only ever want to be free from suffering
They run toward it, always creating more suffering.
As much as they only ever want happiness,
Like their own enemy they ceaselessly destroy the cause of happiness.

[1:29] For those devoid of happiness
And overwhelmed by suffering,
Bodhicitta brings every happiness
And destroys every suffering and the continuity of suffering.

[1:30] It even destroys ignorance.
Is there any virtue comparable to this?
Is there any friend equal to this?
Is there any merit similar to this?

Worldly beings look to the dissatisfactory sense objects for happiness and hence they are always frustrated. In striving for worldly pleasure they create nonvirtue and ensure future suffering. Wanting to be free from suffering, they run toward it. Bodhisattvas, with great compassion, make sentient beings satisfied by showing the way to real happiness, the happiness of the Dharma. They show them the way out of their suffering by helping them understand its causes and the methods to eliminate those causes. They introduce them to the wisdom that understands the absolute true nature of reality and explain what practices to adopt and what practices to avoid, thus dispelling sen tient beings’ ignorance.

Shantideva then asks what is comparable to this—what virtue, what friend, what merit? The bodhisattva, the child of the buddhas, does such inestimable work for others that any action done with bodhicitta eclipses any other virtue we can think of, it is beyond the help and joy even our best friend can bring us and it creates far more merit than the greatest merit of any other action done without bodhicitta.

Any other virtue we create without a bodhicitta motivation will be limited; any action we do with a bodhicitta motivation will be limitless, and consequently no virtue can compare. Any friend, no matter how loving, will be partial, whereas bodhicitta is utterly impartial, working equally for all sentient beings, and therefore it is the best friend. As we have seen, we can create amazing merit through offering to holy objects and so forth, but that is nothing compared to the merit we create when we do any action with bodhicitta.

This quotation explains how powerful and beneficial any action is when it is done with the realization of a bodhisattva, with great compassion, great love and with the wisdom understanding the absolute true nature, how it benefits the bodhisattva and all sentient beings. By understanding the great benefits of bodhicitta in this way, we are inspired to seek out teachings on it and to do whatever is necessary to train in this wonderful mind.


Shantideva says,

[1:31] When somebody is praised
For repaying a good deed
What need is there to mention
The bodhisattva who helps without being asked?

[1:32] When somebody is honored for just
Giving a tiny morsel of plain food
Disrespectfully to a few sentient beings,
That only brings them temporary satisfaction

[1:33] What need is there to mention
The bodhisattva who brings the peerless bliss of the sugatas
To countless sentient beings,
Fulfilling all their needs?

We admire people who help others. Helping somebody when they are about to be caught or unjustly punished, saving somebody from hunger or cold—such deeds are considered very praiseworthy. When we are helped, we are very thankful and often feel that we would like to repay that kindness in some way. If even temporary help for worldly problems is considered a thing of admiration, then infinitely more is the work of the bodhisattva, who helps countless sentient beings in far more profound ways without us having to ask for that help and without any wish to be repaid in any way.

For ordinary beings, fulfilling their desire depends on receiving material things. Being primarily concerned with their own welfare, equating material possessions to happiness—this is what pleases them. They would be utterly indifferent if we told them that somebody had achieved certain realizations or had become a bodhisattva—they probably wouldn’t even understand what we were talking about—but having ten dollars in their pocket fills them with joy. Offer them a chance to hear a lama or have a few dollars and they would certainly choose the money.

Bodhisattvas and buddhas, on the other hand, care only for our welfare. When we ask a normal person for help, we don’t get it or we get it with strings attached, but the help we get from bodhisattvas comes without depending on us asking for it or any expectation of payback, because of the incredible compassion that bodhisattvas feel for us and all sentient beings. Caring more about us than themselves, they have dedicated their whole life to helping us sentient beings. Whether asked or not, they spend all their time concerned with how best to guide others. Without us asking, the bodhisattvas cause us to create positive karma so we can be saved from suffering. If that is the case, why wouldn’t we admire these bodhisattvas far more than the most helpful worldly being?

Seeing this, we should determine to repay their great kindness, but how? The best way to repay the kindness of the bodhisattvas and the buddhas is to do whatever pleases them, which is to only create virtue and never create nonvirtue and thus to become free from suffering and never harm other beings. Whatever we can do that works toward freeing ourselves from suffering and attaining liberation and enlightenment is the best present to them, the best offering. They want nothing else. Pleasing them does not depend on them receiving something.

We please them when we practice Dharma as purely as possible. Even if we don’t go on pilgrimages to visit holy places or make extensive flower offerings to holy objects, by trying to transform our mind from self-cherishing to cherishing others we are making the best offering to them. Trying to realize emptiness, the absolute nature of reality, is the best offering we can make to them.

Rather than dressing up and going out to a temple, church, Dharma center or whatever with much the same mind as when we dress up to go to the movies—with the mind always occupied with the eight worldly dharmas—we set about trying to transform the mind. Physically offering to holy objects or making beautiful things without transforming the mind cannot please them that much. To do the same actions, however, with a virtuous motivation—in other words, for our actions to become Dharma—that pleases them very much. When we can turn our backs on worldly concern and do every action with a virtuous motivation, we are making the best offering possible to the bodhisattvas and the buddhas.


The final verse of the first chapter says,

[1:36] I prostrate to the holy body of the bodhisattva
Who has attained the sacred thought of bodhicitta.
I take refuge in that source of joy
Who brings happiness even to those who give harm.

A being who has attained the wonderful mind of bodhicitta is a bodhisattva, a holy being, and hence is worthy of our veneration. We should prostrate to such a being.

I’m not sure what a “holy” being means in a Western context, but in Buddhism it firstly means somebody who has no thought clinging to the happiness of this life. Secondly, it’s somebody who has destroyed the self-grasping ignorance by realizing the emptiness of the self. Such a person is holy. In this context, Shantideva calls the bodhisattva “holy” because the precious mind of bodhicitta has been actualized. The bodhisattva has overcome the self-cherishing thought and takes more care of others than of themselves. A bodhisattva is considered higher than a being who doesn’t have bodhicitta but has a realization of emptiness. If such a being, dedicated completely to others, is not an object of prostration, not an object of refuge, then who else?

It might seem strange that Shantideva finishes by saying we should prostrate and take refuge in the bodhisattva, the source of happiness for all, even for those who have harmed them. This is interesting. Here, it is taught that having any relationship with a bodhisattva is very powerful. Of course, pleasing the holy beings brings untold benefits and harming them creates terrible imprints that bring great suffering in the future, but if we harm a bodhisattva, something worthwhile will still come from it because we have made that connection with a holy being. It’s better to have a negative relationship with a bodhisattva than none at all. Never meeting a bodhisattva doesn’t plant the seed, it doesn’t create the karma to meet that bodhisattva in a future life, which means we can’t be helped by that bodhisattva in a future life.

From the bodhisattva’s side, whether we help or harm them, they will feel the same degree of compassion for us. Living in the perfection of patience, whatever occurs will never create any anger at all. No matter how much a person might harm a bodhisattva, that person only becomes the object of compassion for the bodhisattva, who prays that the suffering sentient being will quickly be freed from all suffering and attain enlightenment. Being scolded, beaten, criticized, no matter what harm is inflicted, can never diminish the bodhisattva’s compassion.

Even though we should always try to avoid it, if we did harm a bodhisattva we would benefit from the prayers that bodhisattva says for us. And because of the power of their bodhicitta, the success of that prayer would be quickly realized. Even if our relationship with the bodhisattva is negative, we have created the karma to have a relationship with them again and again in future lives and hopefully then it will be a positive one.

It is a wonderful thing to be able to copy these holy beings, the bodhisattvas, and aspire to skillfully benefit sentient beings as extensively as they do. It all depends on attaining the mind of bodhicitta, and that in turn depends on following the path, from guru devotion and the other lamrim topics of the lower capable being and of the middle capable being, and then developing all the qualities needed to enter the bodhisattva’s path. For that, we should start each day and each action with a pure bodhicitta motivation to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. It is crucial we generate this pure motivation in everything we do. We should think, “For the benefit of all kind mother sentient beings I must attain enlightenment as quickly as possible, therefore whatever I do must only ever be done out of pure bodhicitta.”

Bodhicitta is the altruistic attitude that cherishes all others and seeks to lead them to peerless happiness. It is the mind that completely, spontaneously, continuously works at nothing other than the benefit of all living beings. Can there be a more wonderful mind than this?

Of all possible states of mind we can have, bodhicitta is the most amazing because bodhicitta alone determines to free every single sentient being from suffering and place them in peerless happiness. This is the core of the verses I have quoted from Khunu Lama Rinpoche’s Jewel Lamp and the first chapter of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. By showing us the benefits of having such a mind, these two great bodhisattvas can inspire us to practice and do everything possible to attain it. I advise you to read these two books as often as you can and to take the inspirational verses there to heart, determining to do whatever possible to develop your compassion and wisdom and to quickly, quickly attain supreme enlightenment in order to free all sentient beings from suffering and bring them to the ultimate bliss of full enlightenment.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama usually finishes his dedications with this wonderful quote from Shantideva:

[10:55] As long as space remains,
As long as sentient beings remain,
So too may I remain,
To dispel the miseries of the world.


35 Also known as Ornament of the Great Vehicle Sutras, this is a major work of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. Published as The Universal Vehicle Discourse Literature by Robert Thurman et al. [Return to text]