Buddha statue quiet lake
Absolute Bodhichitta: Empathy and Compassion
Listen to this talk:
Absolute Bodhichitta: Empathy and Compassion (33 min.) MP3
Transcript of a talk delivered by Brother ChiSing
March 17, 2013 - Dallas, Texas

ChiSing: Good evening, everyone.

Audience: Good evening.

ChiSing: Thank you for your practice tonight. Last Sunday we started our series on the lojong seven points of mind training, which has 59 slogans. And last week, Tashi opened us up by sharing from point one, resolve to begin. And the first slogan is, train in the preliminaries. And under that point of training in the preliminaries are four points underneath that, which are number one, the rarity and preciousness of human life, the inevitability of death, the awesome and indelible power of our actions, and the inescapability of suffering.

So I hope if you did not get a chance to hear Tashi's excellent talk, you will listen online, and also I hope that you all had a chance to at least read the first chapter, which goes over that first point, and if you have not, please get a copy of this book by Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong.

So, I do not need to go over these again. Tashi did a good job, but there is always more of course to go over. So tonight I would like to begin to talk about the most difficult topic of all of the trainings, which is to train in empathy and compassion. The first part is to look at absolute compassion, and the second part, which we may go over next week, is on relative compassion. I will do my best. I will probably only touch it in outline form, because it is something that you train in for many, many years to understand fully, this understanding of enlightened heart and mind, which we translate as compassion.

So in Buddhism, we have a special word, especially in Mahayana Buddhism, for this enlightened heart and mind. The special word is bodhicitta. And "bodhi" means enlightened, and "citta" refers to our mind, our consciousness. In Eastern languages, mind and heart are actually the same thing. So consciousness includes the mind and the emotional aspect of consciousness as well. It also includes another aspect, which is our will. But anyway, it is all included in the word consciousness, "citta."

Now most of the time when we talk about bodhicitta, we are referring to a quality of our consciousness which we want to cultivate as bodhisattvas. Now, "bodhi" of course has the same root word, enlightened, and "sattva" simply means being. So a being who is on the path of enlightenment. Now, some beings are unconsciously on the path of enlightenment because honestly, from the point of view of Mahayana Buddhism, every single sentient being is destined to become a Buddha.

So that means even if someone is definitely not on the spiritual path, not even remotely close, yet they are still in some way, on some level of truth, they are actually bodhisattvas, but just on an unconscious level. But we do not usually refer to them as bodhisattvas. But from the ultimate point of view, every being is, but they may just be unconscious about it. Kind of like Byron Katie's wonderful saying, "Everyone in the world loves me. They may just not know it yet." Then another understanding of bodhisattva is those great bodhisattvas who are already enlightened and are just continuing to unfold and expand their enlightenment until they become full Buddhas in the universe.

Now it is a little bit tricky here, because in Mahayana Buddhism, our definition of bodhisattva sometimes refers to one's actual realization. So in other words, if someone is a bodhisattva because they are on the path of enlightenment, but they have not become today yet as far as their realization, like full realization. However, sometimes in Mahayana Buddhism, we refer to beings as bodhisattvas not by their realization, but by their function, meaning that someone could have actually been fully enlightened but instead of functioning as a Buddha, they are functioning as a bodhisattva. So they may be actually fully enlightened Buddhas, but they are just functioning as bodhisattvas.

Now this is the case for Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, because in Mahayana Buddhism, we call her, Quan Yin, a bodhisattva rather than Buddha, because in Buddhist cosmology for this world, this realm of the universe, you can really only have one functioning Buddha at a time. Even though there may be many, many people enlightened in this realm, the function and title of the fully enlightened Buddha, only one being at a time can take that role. However, that is just function, but in actual realization, she can only be called bodhisattva because of her role, you know? But in actuality, it is said that she was actually a fully enlightened Buddha many eons ago in another realm and is just here to assist the Buddha in helping all of the beings in this realm. So she is not actually inferior and realization to Shakyamuni Buddha. She is equal, but in function and role, she is willingly taking on the role of bodhisattva for all of us, to give us an example of what it should be like to be a bodhisattva.

So anyway, that is just a little bit of something. Unfortunately, in Theravada Buddhism, we don't see it that way, so they will tell you if you are a monk, you only bow to the Buddha and never bow to Quan Yin. She is inferior to you as a monk, which I think is just horrible. But anyway, that is okay. I love Theravada Buddhists, and I go to the temples, and I give food to their monks all the time. I ordained as a Theravada monk just temporarily a couple times, so I appreciate the practices, but you know, in some respects, some ideas are little bit behind the times. But that is okay.

You know what? My discovery in my spiritual journey so far is to realize it is almost like—okay. I don't really know how I can say this. But it is almost as if there's this cosmic joke going on that God or the Buddhas or whoever the higher powers are, whatever you want to call them, intentionally made it so that no single religion or tradition can possibly have all of the truth. None of them can possibly have all of it, which forces all of us to have an open mind and to be willing to be open to the truth in other traditions or religions. It is almost like a cosmic joke I think. Seriously. I keep trying to find the one tradition or religion that has everything, and there's always at least one flaw. So it is probably on purpose.

All right. It is just to kind of keep us on our toes to never be fully content with just being lazily content with whatever we understand as truth, because truth cannot be contained by any of our human parameters at all. Truth, if it is just contained, is no longer truth. It is dead, because truth is actually alive. It is kind of like the scientist who wanted to fully understand what a butterfly is all about but killed it and dissected and put it through all these experiments. But that is not really what a butterfly is. To really fully understand the butterfly, it needs to be alive. So truth to be fully truth is an alive process. It is organic, and it is forever evolving and changing and growing and expanding. Once you think that you have the truth and it is set in stone, it is really dead, and therefore it is not really truth.

So anyway, going back to our topic. We have unconscious bodhisattvas, which is most beings. Then we have either very, very enlightened or fully enlightened bodhisattvas, who are helping many, many beings, and we have you and me as bodhisattvas. Just the average ordinary human beings who have consciously taken refuge on a spiritual journey, a spiritual path, and a spiritual practice and to want to live our lives in such a way that we can become enlightened and help all beings also. We may not be as far along the path as our elder brothers and sisters, like Quan Yin or whatever, but we are bodhisattvas also. We are like bodhisattvas in kindergarten and others are in their PhD studies or something.

So, as bodhisattvas, we are primarily cultivating what is called bodhicitta, and this is really what characterizes us as bodhisattvas, bodhicitta. Now bodhicitta has two levels of meaning. Most of the time, we understand bodhicitta to mean compassion, and this is called relative bodhicitta. This is primarily the way we talk about bodhicitta for the most part. To be a bodhisattva means that you're wanting to cultivate enlightenment in such a way that you are in solidarity with all beings to help all beings, help all suffering beings also awaken so that they can transform your suffering as well. So your motivation is to transform your own suffering and the suffering of all beings by awakening to the truth and by becoming enlightened.

So this we will primarily talk about next week hopefully, but another meaning of bodhicitta is wisdom, which is the ultimate or absolute understanding of bodhicitta. Now the reason why this is so difficult to talk about is because now we are talking about full enlightenment, the full, ultimate truth, and how do you talk about that?

Audience Member: How do you describe it if you have not been there?

ChiSing: That is right. That is right. So it is not really possible to talk about it if you have not actually experienced it fully. However, because enlightenment is actually our true nature, and it is always unfolding in our lives, even if we are unconscious of it, that is why it is still possible for us, even when we are not fully enlightened, to point to it. I think that when you experience an awakening to a glimpse of the truth of this, your whole being just says, "Aha." Your whole being says, "Aha," or maybe, "Duh," because it was your truth all along, and it just somehow got forgotten in the back of your mind. And also when someone is pointing to this, there is something within each of us that starts to stir because it is the truth, and there is something within all of us that knows that there is the truth here, and it starts to stir in our hearts. So I think we can recognize it.

The slogans for absolute bodhicitta are to see everything as a dream, examine the nature of awareness, don't get stuck on peace, rest in the openness of mind, and in post-meditation become a child of illusion. Now if you want to have more specifics, you can read the book to understand the slogans, but what I want to talk about is let's talk about this more generally. When you awaken to the truth of reality, you awaken to the truth of emptiness. You awaken to the truth that everything is okay. You realize that everything that has ever happened, that is happening, or that ever will happen is contributing to the enlightenment of all beings.

Now, at our level of consciousness, we do not see that, but I have, and many others have, had at least a glimpse of that reality, even if we have not awakened fully get to that reality. But we have had glimpses, and all of us can have glimpses at least once or many times in this lifetime. And when I glimpse this reality, I realize that all is well and that my enlightenment is assured and that there is nothing I can possibly do to keep myself from becoming fully enlightened eventually someday. If you realize this truth of emptiness and that everything is already okay, there can be a problem if you do not have full enlightenment. Because now you're only half enlightened or you think so anyway, and you may get stuck in this, which is why the fourth slogan is do not get stuck on peace.

What it means is if you realize this truth, then it is very easy to become cold and distant and uncaring. If you only have this aspect of bodhicitta, you may think that you have awakened to wisdom, and you have to a certain degree, but you have not completely cultivated full bodhicitta without the compassion aspect, because in the wisdom aspect of bodhicitta, you realized, well, if someone is suffering, it is because of their karma, and they're going to learn something from it anyway, and all of that. Or if I get angry at someone and yell at someone, well, that is just what had happened, you know? Our karmic conditions and causes all came together, and that's what they need to hear.

And on some level, that is true, because I have experienced that from time to time. It is weird, because it is like all of a sudden I'm going along just fine and all of a sudden whatever situation for whatever reason, something comes through my mouth or my actions that is really out of character, and then the feeling goes away after that. But it does something for that person and got them into that particular lesson they needed or something. I don't know. So I've actually experienced that, where okay, well, that was just a karmic thing. They needed to hear that, and I just happened to be the one that was right there.

But at the same time, if you're only looking at it from that point of view, then it becomes really easy to make an excuse for your behavior. And this happens sometimes among spiritual teachers, even spiritual teachers who are truly very, very enlightened teachers who can do some really crazy things, and sometimes it is true that those crazy things they do are actually for the benefit of their students on some weird level. Okay? However, if those teachers are stuck on that side of the truth, then it can become too easily an excuse for their behavior, you know?

Because, you see, some Zen teachers knowing what their student needs, they may yell at them or hit them with a stick or do some crazy things. You know, if you read these stories of Zen masters from ancient times, right? Well, if they are true teachers and truly enlightened, it is okay in that context. However, for most of us who are not at that level, we need to be very careful because otherwise we can use that as an excuse to just say or do whatever we think we do and think it is enlightened, kind of like some spiritual teachers like having some sort of sexual affair with—like there's some male Zen masters who are having sexual affairs with their female students and just think, "Well, it is to help them on their path of enlightenment or to help them get over their daddy issues or to help them to heal whatever phobias they have around that.

Well, I'm sorry. That just sounds like an excuse. And I can't really judge, because I don't really know what is going on, and maybe there is something going on that is of value, but I think for the most part, if we see such things, we should use our common sense and see that no matter how enlightened a teacher may be, there are also areas of unenlightenment as well. Because you can actually be part enlightened and in part unenlightened at the same time. Isn't that the case for all of us? Right? We are all part-time Buddhas, right? Practicing to become full-time Buddhas. So it is possible to have truth and wisdom and enlightenment and awakening in certain areas and not in others.

That is why bodhicitta has two aspects, because there is the absolute aspect and the relative aspect. There is the wisdom aspect and the compassion aspect. But it is important for us to keep cultivating to the point were we truly realize this wisdom aspect because too much of the time in our lives, we take things so personally. We get so caught up in the drama of the suffering of others and of ourselves, and we get overwhelmed by what is going on in the world. But when we awaken to absolute bodhicitta and wisdom, it is as if all these things just wash off of us. Like all this suffering and drama and problems and issues and crises in the world can be happening, and it does not affect us. It does not bring us down. Because we realize all of it is necessary, and it is all part of a bigger plan, and eventually, it will all help everyone to awaken.

In other words, from this wisdom point of view, we see that all the shit in the world, all the crap in the world, is just compost, which will eventually become fertilizer, which will eventually help us grow the beautiful garden of enlightenment for all beings, you see? But, if you do awaken to that in a glimpse, be careful not to get stuck there because the other half of enlightenment is to become a channel of the enlightened heart, which naturally just responds with love. You see, if you think you are enlightened because you have understood the truth that everything is okay anyway, and everyone's suffering is just part of their karmic journey, and you have no love or compassion welling up, then you're not really fully enlightened. You've only understood half of the truth, which is true, but the other half is that your heart then opens and naturally your true nature flows through as thoughts of loving kindness and compassion, and feelings of kindness and loving compassion naturally express in actions that support and help all beings.

This is illustrated in the story of Shakyamuni Buddha. According to Theravadan Buddhism and most understandings of Buddhism, we say that the Buddha was fully enlightened when he was sitting under the bodhi tree, and in the morning at the instant of seeing the morning star in the sky right before dawn. In that moment, it is said he was fully enlightened, but according to some teachers of Mahayana Buddhism and my understanding, that was not actually the point of full enlightenment. That was the initial point of full enlightenment, because you see, he kept meditating for several more days just enjoying the bliss of enlightenment, and he had the thought that maybe since no one else is going to be able to understand this, he will just be silent for the rest of his life until he passes away because he did not think that maybe anyone could understand.

But eventually it is said that he realized actually that there will be many beings in his lifetime and in future generations that will be able to benefit from his teachings and awaken to the truth and become fully enlightened. And when he realized that, he got up out of his seat and walked and talked and shared and started a movement, a revolutionary movement, that is still reverberating to this day, which is the very reason why we are sitting here right now. That to me is full enlightenment to the Buddha, not the initial point when he became enlightened during that morning, but when he realized that he needed to share the teachings with others.

See, this is an illustration of bodhicitta. He had a realization of the truth and then he allowed that truth to take action by sharing with others. That is real enlightenment. That is full bodhicitta. So be careful not to be stuck only on one aspect. There are a lot of spiritual teachers out there right now who are becoming popular who are only teaching this first absolute aspect, and it really frustrates me because I know that what they're saying is real and true and genuine, but they only have half the picture. A lot of people are so-called non-dual teachers. They are only speaking of the first half of this truth, but they are not offering people anything that is helping them on the path. They're not teaching people how to meditate, how to do the practical aspects of spiritual process, and how to heal the psychological aspects and heal the body aspects and feel relational aspects and how to engage mindfully in social activism. They're not teaching any of those things. They're just talking about just the realization of non-duality. But that is only half the picture, and as much as we need to have those truths out there, and I do love some of those teachers because they remind me of so much and help me with this aspect, all they are doing is just talking about enlightenment, and they do not actually help their students to practice it, you know? So just be careful. You can appreciate them and learn from them, but just be careful, because not everyone has the full spectrum of the truth.

I mean, obviously I am not fully enlightened, so we are not necessarily offering the full spectrum of all truth here, but I think if we at least have the outline of it, we understand that there is more to it then just one half of it, but there is another aspect that is also real and true. And so at least here, we have a more inclusive, integral approach to enlightenment, which I'm very happy that we have this opportunity here. So next time you hear someone saying that everything is an illusion anyway, none of this matters, remember they may be pointing to partly the truth, but it is not the whole truth.

I prefer to say that everything is like a dream, not that everything is a dream. I think that is a little bit closer to truth, so I would like to close with a poem that I think illustrates bodhicitta, especially in its relative aspect, but it also points to the absolute aspect because of the non-duality of all beings and all things. By Thich Nhat Hanh. It is called, "Please Call Me by My True Names."

Don't say that I will depart tomorrow--even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving to be a bud on a Spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope. The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive.

I am a mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river. And I am the bird that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am a frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond. And I am the grass-snake that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate. And I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hinds. And I am the man who has to pay his "debt of blood" to my people dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth. My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up and the door of my heart could be left open, the door of compassion.

["Call Me By My True Names" - Thich Nhat Hanh]


Transcribed by Jessica Hitch