Bodhicitta- Thoughts from Norman Fischer, Pema Chodron and Traleg Kyabgon


We used Traleg Kyabgon’s Lojong, and Pema Chodron’s Start Where you Are for our reference materials in December 2018.  For 2021, begining in August, the Pema Chodron book and Norman Fischer’s Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong as our primnary references. Traleg Kyabgon’s book is always available for those who wish to explore further.

Zen teacher Norman Fischer looks at the famed Heart Sutra and explains why compassion (or relative bodhicitta) and emptiness (or absolute bodhicitta) go hand in hand.  (Another teacher, I forget who, uses the word “Boundlessness” for emptiness.  Wonderful!  Ken)

The key term in Buddhism’s Heart Sutra is the Sanskrit word shunyata, usually translated into English as “emptiness.” As the sutra says in its opening lines, “All dharmas [things, phenomena] are empty.” Eyes, ears, noses, tongues, bodies, minds: all external objects—and all Buddhist teachings—are empty.

The word “emptiness” is a fair translation of shunyata, but it has the drawback of sounding negative, even despairing. The emptiness of the Heart Sutra is something else entirely. It’s good news of joyful freedom and liberation. Commentators to the sutra often ask the question, “Empty of what?” and answer, “Empty of separate self, empty of weightiness, empty of burden, empty of boundary.”

The Chinese, searching for a word that might translate shunyata, used the character for “sky.” All dharmas are empty like the sky—blue, beautiful, expansive, and always ready to receive a bird, a wind, a cloud, the sun, the moon, or an airplane. The emptiness of the Heart Sutra isn’t the emptiness of despair; it’s the emptiness of all limitation and boundary. It is open, released.

When I am bound inside my own skin and others are bound inside theirs, I have to defend and protect myself from them. And when I do place myself among them, I must do it carefully, which is hard work, because I am often hurt, opposed, and thwarted by others. But when there’s openness, no boundary between myself and others—when it turns out that I literally am others and others literally are me—then love and connection is easy and natural.

This is why the emptiness teaching of the Heart Sutra, which seems to be rather philosophical and dour, is the necessary basis for compassion. Emptiness and compassion go hand in hand. Compassion as transaction—me over here, being compassionate to you over there—is simply too clunky and difficult. If I am going to be responsible to receive your suffering and do something about it, and if I am going to make this kind of compassion the cornerstone of my religious life, I will soon be exhausted. But if I see the boundarylessness of me and you, and recognize that my suffering and your suffering are one suffering, and that that suffering is empty of any separation, weightiness, or ultimate tragedy, then I can do it. I can be boundlessly compassionate and loving, without limit. To be sure, living this teaching takes time and effort, and maybe we never entirely arrive at it. But it’s a joyful, heartfelt path worth treading.

In Mahayana Buddhism, compassion is often discussed in terms of absolute and relative compassion. Absolute compassion is compassion in the light of emptiness: all beings are empty; all beings are, by virtue of their empty nature, already liberated and pure. As the sutra says, suffering is empty, and relief from suffering is also empty.

But this would be one-sided and distorted. Relative compassion—human warmth and practical emotional support—completes the picture. Absolute compassion makes it possible for us to sustain, joyfully, the endless work of supporting and helping; relative compassion grounds our broad view of life’s empty nature in heart connection and engagement. Either view by itself would be impossible, but both together make for a wonderfully connected and sustainable life.

Pema Chodron, from Start Where You Are:

“The practices we’ll be doing help us develop trust in our awakened heart, our bodhicitta.  If we could finally grasp how rich we are, our sense of heavy burden would diminish, and our sense of curiosity would increase…

“Bodhicitta has three qualities: (1) it is soft and gentle, which is compassion; (2) at the same time it is clear and sharp, which is referred to as prajna; and (3) it is open.  This last quality of bodhicitta is called shunyata and is also known as emptiness.  Emptiness sounds cold.  However, bodhicitta isn’t cold at all, because there is a heart quality – the warmth of compassion – that pervades the space and the clarity.  Compassion and openness and clarity are all one thing, and this one thing is called bodhicitta.

Pema Chodron on slogan 2, the first slogan in the Second Point of Mind Training, Bodhicitta:

“The first of the absolute bodhicitta slogans is “Regard all dharmas as dreams.”  More simply, regard everything as a dream.  Life is dream.  Death is also a dream, for that matter; waking is a dream and sleeping is a dream.  Another way to put this is, “Every situation is a passing memory.”

From The Practice of Lojong by Traleg Kyabgon: 

The cultivation of bodhicitta, or an enlightened heart, has two aspects and two associated practices: absolute and relative…You could define absolute bodhicitta as the wisdom mind, and relative bodhicitta as the cultivation of a compassionate heart.  While relative and absolute bodhicitta are ultimately inseparable, it’s important that we first learn to distinguish them.  The lojong teaching are predominately concerned with the cultivation of relative bodhicitta, but we should never forget that absolute bodhicitta is the mainframe of reference and therefore the basis of our training.

The cultivation of compassion (relative bodhicitta) is the veritable heart of the lojong teachings.  Compassion is not just about alleviating the suffering of others; it is also a powerful tool for effecting our own spiritual transformation.  We must learn to be compassionately concerned about others, because that concern is what enables us to go beyond our discursive thoughts, conflicting emotions, and self-obsessions, and break down the barriers created by ignorance, prejudice, fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Absolute bodhicitta, on the other hand, is our authentic and original state of being, and therefore relates to the wisdom aspect of enlightenment.  Despite the fact that sentient beings experience a multitude of delusions and obscurations, an element of the mind remains uncorrupted.  There is an open, empty, clear, spacious and luminous clarity of mind that is beyond concepts, ideas or sensations.  It does not come and go because it never enters the stream of time and is beyond both experience and intellectualism.  Alternative terms for this supreme aspect of bodhicitta are emptiness, the natural state, buddha-nature, the nature of the mind, the ground of being, ultimate reality, and the primordial state, depending on the context.  They all refer to an innate wakefulness that is present even when the delusion and obscurations of the mind are at work.

“…While it is quite possible to have a direct, immediate glimpse of absolute bodhicitta, our compulsive and overwhelming tendency to indulge in virulent thoughts and emotions makes it very difficult for us to stabilize that into a permanent realization when we are starting out on the spiritual path.  We need to convert our temporary glimpses into a stable realization of the natural state, for the ability to permanently rest in the natural state is the same as realization of the absolute bodhicitta, or wisdom mind.  It is the practice of compassion that leads to the realization of the wisdom mind, for while the practice of relative bodhicitta does not cause enlightenment, it does help to lift the veils and remove the conflicting emotions that create obstacles to permanently actualizing the ever-present condition of absolute bodhicitta.  Realizing the state of innate wakefulness also gives rise to the understanding that relative bodhicitta and absolute bodhicitta are really two aspects of the same thing.

“Before we try to realize absolute bodhicitta by cultivating compassion in our meditation, we need to establish ourselves in our own natural state. While this may seem paradoxical, it is not difficult to learn to meditate on absolute bodhicitta even if we cannot easily stabilize that state. While resting and stabilization are by no means the same, they are intimately connected in the context of spiritual practice. We must learn to temporarily rest in our natural state through the contemplative method of tranquility meditation before we can practice relative bodhicitta. It is essential to understand this point, for even though we can’t permanently access absolute bodhicitta, we can learn temporarily rest in it during meditation. If we were to begin the lojong practices of relative bodhicitta before learning to rest in this open, free, spacious, luminous clarity of mind, we would only increase our mental agitation, because our minds would not be sufficiently calmed to attempt any genuine assimilation of the practices.

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