Friday, 24 September 2010

The Courage to Awaken to Bodhicitta (Pema Chödrön)

When I teach, I begin with a compassionate aspiration.

I express the wish that we will apply the teachings in our everyday lives.
I encourage the audience to keep an open mind. At the end,
I dedicate the merit of the occasion to all beings.

This approach reflects what are called the three noble principles: good in the beginning, good in the middle, good in the end. They can be used for all activities of our lives: to begin with the intention to be open, flexible and kind, to proceed with an inquisitive attitude, as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to say, “Live your life as an Experiment”, and finally, to seal the act by thinking of others, that anything we learned in our experiment may benefit them. In this spirit I offer this guide on the training of the compassionate warrior.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” (St. Exupéry)

I learnt my first lesson in bodhicitta when I was six and kicking my way home. An old woman sitting in the sun said to me, laughing, “don’t you go letting life harden your heart”. Reacting to difficulty, we have a choice.

What is bodhicitta? It is easier to understand than explain, knowing and discovering it from our own lives. It is only bodhicitta that heals. Citta means “mind”, and also “heart” or “attitude”. Bodhi means “awake”, “enlightened” or “completely open”. Sometimes the completely open heart and mind of bodhicitta is called the “soft spot”, a place as vulnerable and tender as an open wound. It is in part equated with our ability to love. Even the cruellest have it. As Trungpa Rinpoche put it, “we all love something, even if it’s only tortillas”.

It is also equated in part with compassion, our ability to feel the pain of others. We continually shield ourselves from this pain because it scares us. We put up protective walls, made of opinions, prejudices and strategies, barriers that are built on a deep fear of being hurt. These walls are further fortified by emotions such as anger, craving, indifference, jealousy, envy, arrogance and pride. But fortunately for us, the soft spot – our innate ability to love and to care about things – is like a crack in these walls. With practice we can learn to find this opening. We can learn to seize that vulnerable moment – love, gratitude, loneliness, embarrassment, inadequacy – to awaken bodhicitta.

The rawness of a genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all. The Buddha said we are never separated from enlightenment. Even when we feel most stuck, we are never alienated from the awakened state. What a revolutionary assertion! Bodhicitta, like the open sky, is always here, undiminished by the clouds that cover it. Just we’ve got so accustomed to those clouds!

Bodhicitta exists on two levels. First, there is unconditional bodhicitta, an immediate experience, refreshingly free of concept. Second there is relative bodhicitta, the ability to keep heart and mind open to suffering without shutting down. The man or woman who trains wholeheartedly to awaken these two is a bodhisattva or warrior of compassion. The training involves going through fire to alleviate suffering, willing to face the most challenging situations, willing to cut through personal reactivity and self-deception, dedicated to uncovering the basic undistorted energy of bodhicitta.

Wherever we are, we may train. The practice of meditation, loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity are our tools, and with their help we uncover the soft spot of bodhicitta. We find it in tenderness, sorrow and gratitude. We find it hiding behind the hardness of rage and the shakiness of fear.

A warrior accepts that we can never know what will happen to us next. This “I” who wants to find security, who wants something to hold onto, can finally learn to grow up. The question for the warrior is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear, but how we relate to discomfort? All too frequently, we are like timid birds who don’t dare to leave their nest. Here we sit in a nest that’s getting pretty smelly and that hasn’t served its function for a very long time. No-one is arriving. No-one is protecting. And yet we keep hoping mother bird will show up and save the day. We can do ourselves the ultimate favour and finally get out of that nest! It takes courage for sure, and we could use some helpful hints. We may doubt, but do we want to live the rest of our lives in fear or do we want to grow up and face life directly?

Jack Kornfield tells a touching story how the Cambodians, repressed by the Khmer Rouge and forbidden to practice their religion, established a temple in a refugee camp, despite the danger of doing so, and opened it with a continuous chant of one of the central teachings of the Buddha:
Hatred never ceases by hatred
But by love alone is healed.
This is an ancient and eternal law.

Bodhicitta has this kind of power. It will support us in good times and bad. It is like discovering a wisdom and courage we do not even know we have. Just as alchemy would change any element to gold, bodhicitta can, if we let it, transform any activity word or thought into a vehicle for awakening our compassion.

The blog originally appeared on Buddhist Travelers.

1 comment:

  1. This is like the first stage of a journey, like the "Fool" stepping out with trust and openness into the unknown, is it not?