Awesome introductory article on Entering the Conduct of The Bodhisattva, by H.E. Dzogchen Khenpo Choga Rinpoche - posted at the Dzogchen Lineage site.
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Introduction to the Oral Commentary on Shantideva's Bodhisattvacaryavatara
(Entering the Conduct of The Bodhisattva)
by H.E. Dzogchen Khenpo Choga Rinpoche
The following text is an introduction to the study of the classic Mahayana text, Shantideva's Bodhisattvacarya (BCA), and acts as a preface to an exhaustive series of teachings given by Khenpo Choga Rinpoche that follow the BCA chapter-by-chapter and line-by-line. These teachings were originally given in the form of an oral commentary over the course of a sequence of teaching retreats, covering an interval of several years.
This oral commentary was translated from the Tibetan by Andreas Kretschmar, who retains copyright to the printed material.
This page is also available as a printable PDF.
H.E. Khenpo Choga Rinpoche and translator Andreas Kretschmar (left)
working on the BCA commentary in Nepal.
This translation, to date covering Chapters 1-5 of the BCA
in about one thousand five hundred pages of written text,
has been published online and is available for download at:
This famous Mahayana text, the Bodhisattva-caryavatara, ‘Entering the Conduct of the Bodhisattvas’, was composed as a teaching poem in the Sanskrit language by the the century master, Shantideva, at the great Buddhist university of Nalanda, one of the major centers of Buddhist learning and practice in ancient India. The main subject of the text is the motivation of bodhicitta and the practice of the six transcendental perfections. The precious bodhicitta and the six transcendental perfections are the very core of the path of the bodhisattva, the heroic practitioner who aspires to perfect enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings.
The precious bodhicitta is the unfailing seed which gives rise to Buddhahood. “With it you can attain Buddhahood. Without it you have no chance of attaining enlightenment at all.” The Bodhisattva-caryavatara teaches how to generate bodhicitta and how to practice the six transcendental perfections, thus showing us how to attain the unexcelled level of perfect enlightenment. Whoever comes in contact with this text will benefit greatly.
At first it is important to understand that becoming a Buddha is the supreme attainment possible for any being. There is no state higher than that of a Buddha. A Buddha is someone who has attained supreme enlightenment and is, therefore, endowed with inconceivable wisdom, compassion and powers, with all possible qualities, as well as being devoid of all defects. A Buddha is free from any delusion or error. In all of samsara and nirvana, none is superior to a Buddha.
Bodhicitta, the Supreme Wish
If we wish for someone to achieve even the exalted status of a world monarch, this is still a very limited wish. But, to wish for someone to become a Buddha, to attain perfect enlightenment, is the very greatest wish one can make. Wishing for all sentient beings to attain the level of Buddhahood is the ultimate, the highest of all wishes. This unexcelled wish is called the precious bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is most precious because it is directed toward the most precious of all achievements, Buddhahood itself.
Bodhicitta is the wish: “May I free all sentient beings from their suffering and establish them on the level of perfect enlightenment.” Or, even better, it is the commitment: “I will free all sentient beings from their suffering and establish them on the level of perfect enlightenment.” If, as a practitioner, you lack this wish or commitment, you will never reach enlightenment. Even when you practice meditation intensively, at some point your progress toward enlightenment will become impeded. Thus, even the progress of the sravakas, arhats and pratyekaBuddhas, who lack this wish and commitment, is limited.
Most Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists practice bodhicitta as an aspiration, wishing, “May I free all sentient beings from their suffering and establish them on the level of perfect enlightenment.” However, while they may give rise to this wish, they often lack the courage to develop the firm commitment: “I will free all sentient beings from their suffering and establish them on the level of perfect enlightenment.”
Practicing with that commitment is true bodhicitta. In order to develop that level of commitment and confidence, you must have some realization of the Buddha nature, profound emptiness. Unless you have gained some degree of realization of profound emptiness, genuine compassion for all sentient beings cannot truly arise in your mind.
Bodhicitta has two aspects, compassion and knowledge. With compassion you focus on the benefit for others by committing, “I will free all beings from their suffering.” With knowledge you focus on perfect enlightenment by committing, “I will establish all sentient beings on the level of perfect enlightenment.” Note that compassion and loving kindness are by themselves not what is known as bodhicitta; instead, they are the basis from which bodhicitta develops. Mind has a natural tendency to avoid suffering and accomplish happiness. If this natural tendency becomes vast and altruistic, it turns into bodhicitta. Instead of trying to accomplish personal happiness, a bodhisattva aspires to establish all infinite sentient beings on the level of the ultimate happiness of Buddhahood. Rather than freeing only himself from misery, he aspires to free all infinite beings from suffering and the root of suffering.
To understand suffering and the causes for suffering, a bodhisattva must understand the truth of suffering and the truth of its origination. To understand true happiness and the causes for happiness, a bodhisattva must understand the truth of cessation and the truth of the path that leads to cessation. In this manner bodhicitta encompasses the four noble truths. Among all thoughts and wishes, bodhicitta is the most noble.
Generating bodhicitta means ‘making your mind vast’ or ‘making your mind courageous’. In general, our minds are limited and restricted by ego-clinging. But the mind itself is as vast as space. A bodhisattva seeks to open his mind and to make it as vast as the reaches of space.
He contemplates the infinite number of sentient beings, the objects of his attention. He contemplates the infinite amount of suffering, which he wants to remove. He contemplates the infinite qualities of Buddhahood, which he wants all sentient beings to obtain. He contemplates the infinite time-span, as he has decided to free all beings from their infinite past karmas and to establish them forever on the level of complete enlightenment. Through these contemplations he breaks through the confines of a mind limited by ego-clinging. The precious bodhicitta is the antidote to ego-clinging. The feature of bodhicitta is to focus on others, while the character of ego-clinging is to focus on oneself.
When generating bodhicitta, three levels of courage can be distinguished: the courage of a king, the courage of a boatman, and the courage of a shepherd. What is meant by the courage of a king? A king’s first priorities are to overcome all his rivals, to promote those who support him, and to proclaim himself sovereign. Only once these aims have been secured does he turn to the care of his subjects. Similarly, the wish to attain Buddhahood for oneself first and then to bring others to Buddhahood subsequently is called the king’s way of generating bodhicitta. This is the wish: “May I be liberated from suffering and obtain the level of perfect enlightenment.”
What is meant by the courage of a boatman? A boatman aims to arrive on the other shore at the same time as all of his passengers. Likewise, the wish to achieve Buddhahood for oneself and all beings simultaneously is known as the boatman’s way of generating bodhicitta. This is the wish: “May I liberate myself and all sentient beings from suffering and obtain the level of perfect enlightenment.”
What is meant by the courage of a shepherd? A shepherd drives his sheep in front of him, making sure that they find grass and water, and are not attacked by wild beasts. He himself follows behind. In the same way, wishing to establish all beings of the three realms on the level of perfect enlightenment before attaining perfect enlightenment for oneself is known as the shepherd’s way of generating bodhicitta, or the incomparable way of generating bodhicitta. This is the wish: “May I liberate all sentient beings from their suffering and establish them on the level of perfect enlightenment.”
The king’s way of generating bodhicitta is the least courageous of the three, the boatman’s way is more courageous, and the shepherd’s way is the most courageous of all. Practitioners of ordinary capacity, those who follow the way of the king, will reach perfect enlightenment within ‘thirty-three countless aeons’; those of mediocre capacity, who follow the way of the boatman, will reach perfect enlightenment within ‘seven countless aeons’; while those of highest capacity, who follow the way of the shepherd, will reach perfect enlightenment within ‘three countless aeons’.
Bodhicitta of Aspiration and Bodhicitta of Application
One must also distinguish between relative and absolute bodhicitta. Absolute bodhicitta refers to one’s Buddha nature and only begins to be realized from the first bodhisattva level onward. Relative bodhicitta has two aspects: the bodhicitta of aspiration and the bodhicitta of application. Neither the bodhicitta of aspiration nor the bodhicitta of application refers to action. Instead, both are concerned with motivation and intention.
Both types of relative bodhicitta are concerned with motivation, rather than the actual application of the six paramitas, the six transcendental perfections. It is essential that one first give rise to the correct motivation; then, while maintaining this motivation, you can carry out any of the six transcendental perfections.
To commit oneself to the fruition, the state of perfect enlightenment, is what is known as ‘the bodhicitta of aspiration’. It is the motivation: “I will liberate all sentient beings from their suffering and establish them on the level of perfect enlightenment.”
To commit oneself to the causes of perfect enlightenment, which are the practice of the six transcendental perfections, is what is known as ‘the bodhicitta of application’. This is the motivation to enter into the conduct of any of the six transcendental perfections: “In order to liberate all sentient beings from their suffering and to establish them on the level of perfect enlightenment, I will practice generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditation, and knowledge.” Again, at this stage, one is simply giving rise to the commitment to do so; one has not yet come to the actual application of any of the six transcendental perfections.
For example, the commitment, “In order to liberate all sentient beings from their suffering and establish them on the level of perfect enlightenment, I will study this text,” is the bodhicitta of application. The bodhicitta of application requires the bar]. This is called ‘the third countless (time period)’ [grangs med gsum pa]. Thus Buddha Sakyamuni needed ‘three countless great aeons’ [bskal chen grangs med gsum] to perfect the motivation of actually wanting to do something; you actually want to engage in the conduct of the perfections. When you then study the text with that motivation, you are already practicing the perfections. You have brought bodhicitta of application into the application of the perfections. Intention and application have come together.
Bodhicitta generates the highest degree of virtue, virtue that leads to the liberation of the greater vehicle, the attainment of complete enlightenment. This ultimate degree of virtue entails practice with the intentional focus or aim of reaching perfect enlightenment. Otherwise, the practice of the six perfections is reduced to a lesser degree of virtue, either the virtue that leads to the accumulation of worldly merit, or in the best case, the virtue that leads to liberation from samsara. On the other hand, to only give rise to the bodhicitta motivation without actually carrying out the six transcendental perfections will also fail to lead one to the state of perfect enlightenment.
Understanding the preciousness of Buddhahood and generating the wish to attain the state of fruition, complete enlightenment, is the bodhicitta of aspiration.
Maintaining this motivation and wishing to bring this fruition about by practicing the causes that lead to it, the practice of the six transcendental perfections, is the bodhicitta of application.
Both of these types of bodhicitta are directly concerned with motivation rather than with action. These two motivations are what is called ‘relative bodhicitta’. To actually practice the six transcendental perfections of generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditation, and wisdom is the actual application itself. Finally, truly seeing one’s own Buddha nature is ‘absolute bodhicitta’.