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The Arising of the Bodhicitta

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 11: the Arising of the Bodhicitta - Edited Version

Having Looked at Conversion to Buddhism, and conversion within Buddhism, one might think that it is hardly possible to go any further, and in a sense - though only in a sense - this is true. But conversion in Buddhism not only has different levels; it can also be approached from different aspects and points of view. This brings us to conversion understood in terms of what is known in Mahayana Buddhism as the bodhicitta utpada.* We can provisionally render this term bodhicitta utpada as `the arising (utpada) of the will (citta) to Enlightenment (bodhi)', but the term bodhi in particular needs a little more elucidation. It derives from a Sanskrit root meaning `to know' or `to understand', so it comes to mean `understanding', `wisdom', or even `Enlightenment'. Traditional Buddhism distinguishes three kinds of bodhi: sravaka-bodhi, `Enlightenment of the disciple'; pratyeka-bodhi, `private' or `individual' Enlightenment; and anuttara-samyaksambodhi, `unsurpassed, perfect Enlightenment'. Until we have grasped what is meant by these three kinds of Enlightenment, there is much in the development of the history of Buddhist thought, especially in India, which we are not really in a position to understand.

Sravaka literally means `one who hears'; it is the Indian word for a disciple. However, a disciple not only hears with the ear, but also hears within; that is, he or she is receptive to the word of the teacher.

Srava-kabodhi, the Enlightenment of the disciple or hearer, therefore means the illumination which is gained not only by one's own effort but also on the basis of having been taught the method and discipline by someone else. Having been shown the path, one makes an effort and gains Enlightenment. However, one makes no attempt to communicate that experience to anyone else; one has a teacher but no disciples.

Pratyeka-bodhi differs from sravaka-bodhi in that it is gained without the benefit of a teacher's instruction; one discovers the path for oneself. This is, of course, very difficult to achieve, and it is therefore very rare.

And having attained Enlightenment in this way, one makes no attempt to communicate one's knowledge and experience to anyone else: hence `private' or `individual' Enlightenment.

Thirdly, there is anuttara-samyaksambodhi: unsurpassed, perfect Enlightenment. This too is gained without a teacher, but having been gained it is not kept to oneself but communicated to other beings so that they may have the opportunity of sharing the experience of Enlightenment. Gaining Enlightenment `without a teacher' is to be understood in quite a narrow sense, of course, because it refers only to the present existence. Having been shown the way by others in previous lives, one has accumulated sufficient momentum to be carried through the present existence without a teacher, and to make the ultimate discovery by oneself.

At this stage a very important question arises, a question with far-reaching implications. What is the real, basic difference between these three kinds of bodhi? Are we concerned here with three different types of spiritual experience, or is it one and the same Enlightenment in each case? Is the difference between these three kinds of bodhi essential or merely accidental? When we first come across them, we might naturally conclude that the difference is circumstantial, or even adventitious, but in fact it is much more fundamental than that. Provisionally, the three bodhis may be said to represent three grades of Enlightenment within a hierarchical structure, the third of which is the highest, the consummation as it were, of the whole series.

If we want to identify the single essential distinction between these `grades', we can simplify things by amalgamating the first and second of them and setting them apart from the third, anuttara-samyaksambodhi.

The basic difference between these two categories obviously lies in the relation of the Enlightened being to other, unenlightened, people. The first group, whether they gain Enlightenment with or without a teacher, do not communicate their experience, whereas the second group do. This difference between the two is neither accidental nor merely external, because the communication, the `giving away', of spiritual experience is not at all the same as the giving of material things. If we happen to acquire a precious stone, the jewel itself remains the same whether we keep it or give it away. But with spiritual experiences it is not like that in the least, because something far more subtle, delicate, and complex is involved. A spiritual experience which can be kept to oneself, we can say, is not the same as one which is communicated - which indeed has to be communicated, in the sense that the very nature of the experience demands that it should be communicated.

The fundamental difference between these two kinds of spiritual experience lies in whether or not the experience includes a feeling of selfhood. The feeling of selfhood has various forms, some gross and easily detected, others infinitely subtle and extremely difficult to detect. The subtlest of all the forms of this feeling is the form which arises in connection with the gaining of Enlightenment itself. We have a certain experience which we take as tending in the direction of Enlightenment, but then we attach to that experience a feeling that this is my experience, my Enlightenment, this is what I have gained. It is because this subtle feeling of selfhood arises that we may consider it possible not to communicate our experience to others. From the mundane point of view it may be a very high and sublime experience, but it is not the experience of unsurpassed, perfect Enlightenment; it is not the Enlightenment of the Buddha himself. So long as that feeling of `my' can be attached to it, it is not the ultimate experience.

When we speak of conversion in Buddhism in terms of the arising of the bodhicitta - the will to Enlightenment - it is the second of these two kinds of Enlightenment which is meant: the unsurpassed, perfect Enlightenment, Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. So the will to Enlightenment is the aspiration to that Enlightenment wherein there is not a shadow of selfhood and which, paradoxically, cannot therefore be called `mine'. There is no question of keeping it to oneself; by definition, it has to be communicated.

Having arrived at a sense of the meaning of bodhi, we need to find out a bit more about citta. Citta is usually translated as `thought', and therefore bodhicitta is often translated as `the thought of Enlightenment' as though it were a concept or idea about Enlightenment. But this is exactly what it is not.

It has nothing to do with thought in that discursive or abstract conceptual sense at all. Citta represents an immensely powerful drive, a drive which is not unconscious but perfectly aware, a drive which has one's whole being behind it. It is better, therefore, to speak not of the thought of Enlightenment but of the will to Enlightenment, although even this is not quite accurate because this `will' is infinitely more powerful than determination in the ordinary sense.

Finally, utpada literally means `arising': hence our working translation of bodhicitta-utpada as `the arising of the will to Enlightenment'. The arising of the bodhicitta is the initial process of orienting all one's energies and all one's strength, at all levels of one's being and personality, in the direction of Enlightenment understood as unsurpassed, perfect Enlightenment, Enlightenment for the benefit and welfare of all sentient beings.

Having worked out an appropriate translation, we can now turn to consider what light the arising of the will to Enlightenment sheds on the meaning of conversion in Buddhism. It can be said to represent conversion from an individualistic conception of Enlightenment to a non-individualistic ideal of Enlightenment, from the kind of Enlightenment which can be kept to oneself to the kind of Enlightenment which cannot possibly be kept to oneself. In other words, it represents a transition, a breakthrough, from that last most subtle sense of spiritual selfhood to an experience of complete and total selflessness.

Obviously this aspect of conversion is very important indeed, but it is not so easy to put your finger on it and say `It is like this' or `It occurs at a certain point,' in the way that you can with Going for Refuge and Stream Entry. One might even say that this type of conversion can occur at any stage of spiritual development, or in connection with any spiritual experience. This is why in Mahayana Buddhism there is the practice of `turning over' - that is to say, turning over one's merits to the cause of perfect Enlightenment. Although it is often neglected, this is one of the most important teachings in the whole of Buddhism. In the Perfection of Wisdom scriptures the Bodhisattva (the Mahayana's idea of the Buddhist par excellence) is advised: `Whenever you perform any good action, whenever you practise morality, or meditate, or help anybody, or give anything, turn over the merit - dedicate it to the cause of perfect Enlightenment.' In other words, don't think: `This skilful action is going to help me attain liberation.' Instead, reflect or resolve: `Whatever merit derives from my good deeds, I dedicate it to Enlightenment not just for my own benefit but for the benefit of all.' By practising regularly and systematically in this way, we ensure that in the course of our spiritual lives we do not build up a subtle spiritual selfhood which would eventually rise up and bar our way to the ultimate spiritual attainment, unsurpassed perfect Enlightenment.

The Bodhisattva is further told that this transference of merit in the direction of Enlightenment for the benefit of all ...

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