The Special Attitude of Bodhicitta

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kopan Monastery, Nepal (Archive #1096)

Lama Zopa Rinpoche discusses bodhicitta, the determination to achieve enlightenment for all sentient beings, at the 30th Kopan Meditation Course, held at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, in December 1997. This teaching is excerpted from Lecture Six of the course. Lightly edited by Gordon McDougall.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche in front of the Lawudo Lama's cave at Lawudo Retreat Centre, Nepal, 1978. Photo: Ueli Minder.

By having the realization of renunciation of our own samsara, when we look at others we see all their sufferings very clearly and we feel it is unbearable. That is how compassion is generated for others. That is how we achieve the realization of compassion for other sentient beings. And, because of this unbearable feeling of compassion for the suffering sentient beings, we can attain bodhicitta. Understanding how we must experience our own samsara due to our mind being obscured, we see how it is exactly the same with them—their obscured minds are under the control of karma and delusions, making them experience the sufferings of samsara.

From that arises the special attitude, the determination, “I myself will free them from all the sufferings and cause them to have happiness. Those who do not have temporary happiness, I will cause them to have temporary happiness. Those who do not have ultimate happiness, liberation from samsara, I will cause them to have ultimate happiness, liberation from samsara. And those who do not have the peerless happiness of full enlightenment, I will cause them to have the peerless happiness of full enlightenment. I am going to do this work by myself alone.” In that way, we take the responsibility completely on ourselves.

This is the special attitude, the attitude that is vital if we are to attain bodhicitta and then enlightenment. Without it, without achieving the state of omniscient mind ourselves, we cannot do perfect work for other sentient beings. At the moment, we cannot perfectly guide even one sentient being. Even the arhats, who are completely liberated from all suffering and have ceased all karma and delusions, including the seeds of the delusions, even though they have skies of incredible qualities, such as psychic powers and clairvoyance, they still cannot do perfect work for other sentient beings because they still have subtle obscurations, the subtle negative imprints left on the mental continuum by past delusions, such as the wrong concept of inherent existence. There is still a subtle defilement that hinders their mind, causing them to make mistakes when they are guiding sentient beings.

For example, even the very high arhats cannot see the subtle karma of sentient beings because they have not abandoned the four unknowing minds. They cannot yet see the inconceivable secret actions of the buddhas. These actions are called secret because only buddhas themselves with their omniscient minds can see them. No matter how many realizations they have, no sentient being can see these secret actions because they still don’t have omniscience. And they cannot see the subtle karma of sentient beings. I think the other two unknowing minds should be checked, but my guess is that one is the inability to see things that happened an unbelievably long time ago, and the other is the inability to see things that are incredibly far away. These last two should be checked. [Rinpoche was correct] Therefore, even though those arhats have skies of unbelievable qualities, so many realizations, they still have not abandoned the four unknowing minds. Because of that, there is the possibility of making mistakes when trying to do perfect work for sentient beings.

This is true not only for arhats but even for bodhisattvas on the tenth bhumi, those who are close to achieving enlightenment. There is no question an arya bodhisattva on the tenth bhumi has unbelievable qualities, so much more than an arhat. But even the tenth bhumi bodhisattvas who are close to achieving enlightenment still have subtle defilements, the negative imprints that project the hallucinated appearance of inherent existence. That is the imprint and part of that hallucinated appearance, the obscuration to the omniscient mind, the obscuration to a fully knowing mind, called “obscuration to knowledge,” in Tibetan she drib.

Because there is still the possibility of a tenth bhumi bodhisattva making mistakes when trying to do perfect work for other sentient beings, the only way we can do this perfect work is by achieving omniscience. Therefore we must achieve omniscience.

It’s only when we meditate that we feel this. When we don’t meditate, it doesn’t happen. So, we must first meditate on the renunciation of our own samsaric suffering. And then, on the basis of that, we use whichever technique we want to train our mind in bodhicitta, either the seven techniques of the Mahayana cause and effect or equalizing and exchanging the self with others.

The seven-point technique starts with equanimity, realizing how all sentient beings are equal, and then recognizing how all sentient beings have been our mother, remembering their kindness, generating the thought of repaying their kindness and then generating loving kindness, which can be translated as the loving kindness of seeing sentient beings in beauty.

This beauty has nothing to do with the body, with the beauty of the shape of the body. This beauty is seeing how that person is so precious, how they have been so kind to us, and because of that we see their beauty. With that perception, we feel loving kindness. Then there is compassion and then the special attitude, where we take complete responsibility upon ourselves for other sentient beings. After that, there is bodhicitta.

The feeling of bodhicitta will only come when we do these techniques of the seven-point Mahayana cause and effect or the other technique, equalizing and exchanging self for others. Whichever technique we use, the feeling will come, otherwise the feeling will not arise.

That is what is called “skin bodhicitta.” You know when you buy candies, there is the candy, the actual confectionery, and then there is the wrapping. If you lick the wrapping, there’s some sweetness on that, isn’t there? Maybe not on all of them! The analogy we normally use is the skin of a sugar cane. We only feel the thought to achieve enlightenment for others when we meditate, but after we stop meditating, after the session, we don’t feel it. That’s called “bodhicitta like the skin of the sugar cane.” It’s not the actual realization of bodhicitta; it is what is called the effortful experience of bodhicitta, feeling bodhicitta when we are meditating on it but not when we are not. Of course, it has to happen like that at first.

Then, by continuously training the mind in bodhicitta, we start to feel it all the time, continuously, day and night. Not only during meditation, but even when we are not meditating, our mind remains in that attitude. We naturally feel that. Our mind naturally, spontaneously arises in that attitude all the time, while we are eating, working, talking—all the time, day and night, spontaneously, the thought arises to achieve enlightenment for sentient beings. Whenever we see any living being—human being, insect, animal—we spontaneously have this thought to achieve enlightenment for them. That is the realization of bodhicitta. That is like the actual sweet, not the skin of the sugar cane, but the inside sugarcane itself, the actual sweet.

Bodhisattvas who have the actual realization of bodhicitta feel this so strongly; they cherish others like we cherish ourselves. Every other single sentient being is so precious; every one is the most important one in the bodhisattva’s life. That is how a bodhisattva feels. Therefore, whatever they do they only do with this attitude, nothing else. There is no thought at all of working for the self, no thought of seeking happiness for themselves. The only thought is seeking happiness for others.