Bodhichitta: The Mind of Awakening

Taigen Leighton
Hartford Street Zen Center - September, 1997

I feel very honored to be sitting up here in the temple of my dear old friends and teachers, Issan and Zenshin Philip Whalen. Over the years I've only had a few occasions to come here, but they have always left me with a strong impact. As I was sitting here earlier I remembered the time I came here and sat the week after the 1989 earthquake. There was a big aftershock and this whole row made a huge jolt, but without hesitation Philip yelled, "Bah, Humbug!" Of course we all kept sitting, the earth stopped and settled down, and eventually the bell rang. I think of Philip settling down the earth like that as an advanced example of what I want to talk about today, bodhichitta, which literally means the mind of awakening.

Bodhi is awakening, and chitta is mind. It's that first thought or intention or impulse towards awakening, towards Bodhi. In Sino-Japanese its called Doshin, or the "mind of the way." The "way" is a term used in China and Japan as a synonym for complete awakening, but it's also the "way to awakening." Bodhicitta is considered a very important aspect of our practice, and kind of mysterious. First of all, this Bodhi that is involved with bodhichitta is not just wanting to be enlightened yourself. It means universal awakening, in which all beings are awake. This thought of awakening is something very deep in all of us. The thought that all beings together with one's self will awaken is the essence of bodhichitta.

I relate this to our first impulse or intention that led us to zazen practice, and to be together here today. Many of us first came to sit zazen out of curiosity, pain, or grief, or maybe we wanted to feel better. In America we tend to have a therapeutic orientation towards zazen, that zazen is going to make me a better person, calm me down, help with my anxiety. Probably it does in some respect, but the intention of bodhichitta isn't about gaining or getting something for yourself. It's about opening very deeply to the deepest meaning of our life. It's not about wanting to be more relaxed, but something that goes as deep as there is, that almost has no bottom.

So what is this intention to hear about Dharma and sit zazen? I think there are two main aspects to bodhicitta: The first is compassion; a very deep concern for suffering beings. We all have experienced that somewhere, a smile or a feeling that this person cares or is concerned, which moves us very deeply. Maybe we first get this from our mothers. Somewhere in the experience of receiving kindness, we also get this inkling of caring for beings. Or it may come from seeing someone in pain, feeling for them, and the sympathy that arises. This is very deep and also very ordinary. We all have some sense of this deep concern and caring for suffering beings, not just self-concern. It is alive in the world.

The second aspect of bodhicitta, after this deep caring, is to see this intention as an awakening from our conventional view of the way things are, to see that all the beings we care for are in some sense illusory. It's not that the illusion isn't real, but it's not the whole story. There is some sense of openness to an aspect of reality beyond our conventional way of

labeling the world. Just to have some glimpse of the world as brighter, wider, vaster, and beyond our limited capacities gives us a taste of this intention.

These two together, the caring, combined with the sense that what we care for is deeper than what we really can know, is what bodhichitta is about. The Lotus Sutra says that Buddhas appear in the world solely for the sake of helping beings enter the way of awakening. So we are concerned for others, and do kindness to others, which includes ourselves. We all have many others within us. This compassion is about being kind and awakening to how wonderful it is to be just who we are, even with all the pain, grief, and sadness.

What is important to hear about this bodhichitta is that our very first impulse towards awakening, mysterious as it is, is said to be more difficult to arrive at than the full and complete awakening of a Buddha. This first impulse or glimmer, this vague sense of deep caring, is said to be essentially the same mind as a highly advanced bodhisattva.

How do we sustain this direction towards deep concern for others and for ourselves, and for the awakening of all beings? We come back to zazen because it opens us up to this awareness. But how this proceeds and develops is not something we can figure out beforehand. So we continue to study ourselves and study the way together. We come back to the cushion again, and just sit. We see how our mind turns and twists around as the scenery goes by. Yet in the midst of all that it is very helpful to try to remember your first impulse to practice. What was it that brought you here? What brought the impulse to sit upright and still?