Thought of Enlightenment

· Articles & Essays · ,

by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Having realized the importance of faith and of taking refuge, we now come to the essence of Mahayana, the thought of enlightenment.

The basis of the Mahayana path is the thought of enlightenment;
This sublime thought is the one path trodden by all the Buddhas.
Never leaving this noble path of the thought of enlightenment.
With compassion for all beings, recite the six-syllable mantra.

The “thought of enlightenment,” bodhichitta in Sanskrit, is the wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Bodhichitta has two aspects, the relative and the absolute. Absolute bodhichitta is the recognition of the buddhanature inherently present in each being and can be grasped only by those who realize the void nature of all phenomena; since it is not easy to understand fully, we usually begin with the practice of relative bodhichitta, which is less difficult.

Relative bodhichitta is also divided into two: aspiration and application. The first is the wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings, and the second is putting this wish into action through the practice of the six paramitas. In other words, aspiration bodhichitta is what identifies the goal, and application bodhichitta is the means by which the goal is attained. The key point of the Mahayana is that both aspiration and application are directed not toward oneself but toward all sentient beings, for however long samsara may last.

How does one start to generate aspiration bodhichitta, the feeling of compassion for all beings that inspires in us the wish to attain enlightenment for their sake? First, take Chenrezi as a witness of your determination to attain realization in order to benefit others (ed. note: Chenrezi is a fully realized Buddha embodying compassion as a Bodhisattva; Avalokitesvara). Next, try to overcome the attitude of only wanting to help those close to you while rejecting the needs of people you dislike. This becomes possible when you realize that, in all your infinite previous existences, every being, without exception, must have been your mother or father at least once. Each one of those beings, down to the smallest insect, wants only to be happy and not to suffer; but what none of them knows is that suffering is caused by negative actions and happiness is generated by a virtuous mind. When you think about all those beings who are sinking hopelessly in suffering like blind people lost in a vast desert, you cannot help but feel great compassion for them all.

To develop this compassion further, imagine yourself in the realms of hell; suddenly, before your eyes, your own parents are dragged in by the henchmen of Yama, the Lord of Death, who savagely beat them, slash them with sharp weapons, scald them with molten bronze, and crush them beneath slabs of red-hot iron. Watching their terrible agony, would you not feel overwhelming compassion and the irresistible urge to rush immediately to their rescue? When this strong feeling of compassion arises clearly, reflect a little. Your living parents are only two out of the vast infinity of living beings. Why should the infinite number of other beings not deserve your compassion too? Realizing that in fact there is no real reason, gradually try to extend your compassion, first to your closest friends and relatives, then to everyone you know, to the whole country, the whole earth, and finally to the infinite number of sentient beings in the three realms of samsara. Only when your compassion really reaches this vast extent can it be called true compassion.

All sentient beings are the same in wishing to be happy and not to suffer. The great difference between oneself and others is in numbers—there is only one of me, but countless others. So, my happiness and my suffering are completely insignificant compared to the happiness and suffering of infinite other beings. What truly matters is whether other beings are happy or suffering. This is the basis of bodhichitta. We should wish others to be happy rather than our- selves, and we should especially wish happiness for those whom we perceive as enemies and those who treat us badly. Otherwise, what is the use of compassion?

To feel compassion for all beings is the starting point. You then have to be able to translate your wishes and aspirations into action. But, as Lord Atisha said, “It is the intention that counts.” If your mind is always filled with the intention to benefit others, then, no matter what your actions may look like on the surface, the application of bodhichitta will take care of itself. If you can maintain this attitude of bodhichitta, not only will you never stray from the path, you will also definitely make progress along it. When your body, speech, and mind are completely saturated with the wish to help all sentient beings, when your aim both for others and for yourself is perfect Buddhahood, then even the smallest action, a single recitation of the mani or a single prostration, will swiftly and surely bring the fulfillment of your goal.

The six syllables of the mani, the essence of Chenrezi’s being, are the six paramitas in the form of mantra. When you recite the mantra, the six paramitas spontaneously arise and the application of bodhichitta is accomplished. (ed. note: the six syllable mani is OM MANI PADME HUM, considered in Tibetian Buddhism to be the compassionate wisdom of all the Buddhas manifest as sound.)

It is said that when those who are afflicted in the prison of samsara generate the thought of enlightenment, they are instantly adopted by the Buddhas as their sons and daughters, and they are praised by both men and gods. The whole of their existence takes on a new meaning. This is all due to the measureless power of the jewel-like bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is the essence of the eighty-four thousand sections of the Buddha’s teachings, but at the same time it is so simple, so easy to understand and practice, even for a beginner.

Absolute Bodhichitta is the inseparability of voidness and uncontrived compassion. It is the simplicity of the natural state, beyond all concepts and intellectual limitations, out of which spontaneous, objectless compassion arises, benefiting all sentient beings.

As you make progress in your practice, the two aspects of bodhichitta reinforce one another. To catch even a glimpse of the absolute nature of mind gives you the proper perspective to practice relative bodhichitta, and, in turn, the practice of relative bodhichitta broadens your realization of absolute bodhichitta.

Photo by Francois Decaillet

Photo by Francois Decaillet


Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991) was an accomplished meditation master, scholar, and poet, and a principal holder of the Nyingma lineage.

From The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones: The Practice of View, Meditation, and Action: A Discourse Virtuous in the Beginning, Middle, and End. Copyright ©1991 by Dilgo Khyentse, Shechen Publications. Reprinted in The Collected Works of Dilgo Khyentse, Volume II. Copyright ©2010 by permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

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