Excerpt from Tricycle post “Bodhicitta Explained:A Bird’s-Eye View of the Bodhisattva Path” by Ken McLeod
In Mahayana practice, compassion is both a practice and a result. Compassion is used to transform emotional reactivity into attention, and that attention in turn is used to awaken to the nature of mind—emptiness. But then that same emptiness becomes the basis for a different kind of compassion. This interweaving of emptiness and compassion is expressed in the Sanskrit word bodhicitta, for which an accepted and widely used English translation is “awakening mind.”
The Four Great Vows in the Zen tradition provide a wonderfully succinct, pragmatic, and profound articulation of bodhicitta:
Beings are numberless: may I free them all.
Reactions are endless: may I release them all.
Doors to experience are infinite: may I enter them all.
Ways of awakening are limitless: may I know them all.
The first of the four vows says Beings are numberless: may I free them all. It speaks to a heartfelt wish that others not suffer. In the practice of bodhicitta, we actively cultivate a wish that others be free of pain and struggle.
We soon find out that helping others to find peace in themselves is far from easy. We quickly discover that far from being able to help others, we are locked up in our own worlds of emotional reaction—the fiery hells and icy wastes of anger and hate, the barren deserts of greed where nothing is ever enough, the never-ending rat race of envy and competition, and so on. Our whole life consists of flitting from one such world to another. No matter where we land, we do not see things clearly and we are unable to provide any meaningful help to others.
Thus the second of the great vows is Reactions are endless: may I release them all.
In today’s world, where we have been brought up in the myth that we can actually control our lives and control what we experience, it is important to remember that we cannot and do not actually release emotional reactions. All we can do is create the conditions in which emotional reactions let go on their own.
Those conditions are a generosity of spirit; as much honesty with ourselves as we can muster; patience to endure our own confusion; steady and consistent effort; an ability to rest in attention without distraction; and a knowing that enables us to see through our own confusion. These qualities are known in Mahayana teachings as the six perfections—generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, meditative stability and wisdom. They create the conditions that make it possible for us to experience emotional reactions in open attention without succumbing to, suppressing, or controlling them. Then, as the texts say, emotional reactions arise and subside on their own, like clouds in the sky.
You may notice that this way of approaching life does not necessarily make life better. In fact, often it makes things more difficult, precisely because we cannot indulge our reactivity. We cannot ignore or avoid the pain and struggles of others, whether the other is a surly store clerk or a difficult boss or a homeless person on the street. You may also begin to appreciate that bodhicitta is not a sort of super-altruism or compassion. Rather, it is a practice that changes how we experience life itself. To do so, we have to let go of our emotional reactions, again and again and again. Every reaction that does let go opens a door to a different way of experiencing life, and that brings us to the third vow: Doors to experience are infinite: may I enter them all.
We can use our commitment to bodhicitta to meet any emotional reaction, open to it, see what it is, and let it release on its own. When we do these steps, we usually experience a shift. That shift is a glimpse of a different way of experiencing life, a way that does not depend on the conceptual mind, a way in which words, thoughts, and emotional reactions have no hold. Bodhicitta here is not a wish. Nor is it an ongoing commitment. It is an experience of awakening.
Now we move into the realm of the fourth vow: Ways of awakening are limitless: may I know them all. As we go through these doors again and again, our efforts build momentum. The inexpressible peace and freedom we experience when emotional reactions let go begins to pervade our life.
We have all the freedom of the sun: we radiate light and warmth to the world without any thought of who deserves to be nurtured and who does not. We have all the freedom of the rain: we provide the moisture of understanding and everyone partakes of it, regardless of how they live their lives. We have all the freedom of the wind, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, touching every form of life with the breath of life. We have all the freedom of the earth: we provide support and nourishment for all who live and breathe in the world without any say as to what they do with their lives. Such thoughts never arise. Instead, we are completely and utterly at peace, and at the same time we respond naturally and spontaneously to the pains of the world and the needs of others.