Introduction to Heart Essence
At the heart of Buddhism is the wish for all beings to be free of suffering. This grows out of the recognition, taught by the Buddha in the first noble truth, that life is pervaded by suffering. This wish is taken to a deeper level by thebodhisattva, who dedicates this and future lives to be of greatest benefit to sentient beings by actively liberating them from suffering. Undaunted by the extent of their suffering, the bodhisattva cultivates the courage and commitment to remain engaged in the world, despite its challenges and turmoil, to serve others. This engagement is supported by a growing capacity to awaken and to embody qualities of love, compassion, courage and wisdom that are attributes of our pristine buddha-nature. The combination of intense and consuming compassion for the chronic suffering of others with an understanding of our extraordinary human potential to awaken is a powerful cocktail. It can generate a compelling intention that sees awakening to our innate buddha potential as the most beneficial way to liberate others from suffering and bring the greatest sense of meaning to this life. This intention, known as bodhicitta, or the “awakening mind”, is not based in our ordinary conceptual mind; it is the awakening of a deeper quality of heart mind or heart essence.
The bodhisattva as the “awakening warrior” is willing to endure the hardships of the path of awakening and to remain in the world to serve others rather than attain a state of liberation that eventually becomes divorced from embodied existence. In Buddhism as it evolved in India after the time of the Buddha, two distinct paths began to emerge. One path sought self-liberation, a state that no longer needed to be reborn in the cycle of existence. A second path, the Mahayana, or “greater vehicle”, considered this liberation as not serving the welfare of others in a way that is possible by remaining in embodied form and continuing to live in the world. The bodhisattva chooses this second path.
This courageous path requires a bodhisattva to engage with life fully and with an openness of the heart that does not run away from the trials and challenges life brings. The power of bodhicitta makes this possible. Shantideva, the 11th-century Indian scholar, says in his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life that when bodhicitta is born it is “like a flash of lightning on a dark night that illuminates everything”.[i] He saw bodhicitta as an extraordinary disposition that, once awakened, will bring illumination to countless others in their darkness. He saw it as the “universal medicine” that would cure all ills, and as an elixir that transforms our ordinary nature into the quality of a buddha. He considered bodhicitta to be a quality of heart that would overcome all the evils in the world. Shantideva also made it very clear that, while there are many different aspects to the Buddhist path, it is only bodhicitta that gives rise to the fully awakened nature of a buddha. Within the Tibetan tradition are many inspiring, complicated deity practices and different forms of yogic energy exercises – but without bodhicitta these do not lead to buddhahood.
H.H. Dalai Lama describes the nature of bodhicitta as an attitude of “universal responsibility”[ii] that sees caring for the welfare of others as paramount. This is a disposition we sorely need in the world today when there is so much self-interest at the expense of others. Although the suffering that we seem capable of inflicting upon each other can appear to be endless, we are all capable of awakening this heart of bodhicitta. We all have this potential within our nature, but we are often unable to overcome those emotional habits and wounds that prevent it from manifesting.
We all have the capacity for love and kindness, but its expression will be limited until we open our hearts. Our potential for compassion and empathy emerges when we allow the suffering of others to touch us. Equally, it is possible for the attitude of bodhicitta to grow if we know how to enable this to happen. Within the Tibetan tradition are various approaches to meditation that help this cultivation of bodhicitta. These I have described in my book The Courage to Feel. What I want to explore here are the different facets of bodhicitta as it emerges and how we can understand the psychological implications of this emergence.
I see bodhicitta as a multifaceted jewel where many different qualities come together to make up the whole. Chenrezig, the buddha of compassion, is sometimes described as the jewel within the lotus; his mantra OM MANI PADME HUNG means exactly this. This is the heart jewel of bodhicitta. Figure 1 shows the facets of that jewel which make up the quality of bodhicitta. Each of these facets has gradually become clearer to me through my own exploration of this path, learning explicitly from many of my guides and also seeing how they expressed and embodied the qualities of bodhicitta. To cultivate these facets often requires that we begin to heal areas of our psychological nature that may obstruct their natural expression. As we begin to explore them we may see where we need further investigation of our own difficulties in order to grow. We may also recognise those facets of our emerging bodhicitta that already feel natural and awake and that simply need to be brought more fully into awareness. Together these different ingredients make up a whole that is much greater than the sum of the parts. Bodhicitta is a heartfelt quality, not just the thought “I must get enlightened for the sake of sentient beings”. Like a powerful river that runs through us, it is a profound feeling that moves us in our life and will inform all that we do from the depth of our being.
At this time in history the example of the bodhisattva is needed perhaps more than ever. As we begin to cultivate the qualities contained within the nature of bodhicitta, they can give us the courage and openness to live in a turbulent world full of great pain, fear, insecurity and anger. To be able to remain clear and present to the suffering of others, without being overwhelmed, requires that we develop the inner resourcefulness that bodhicitta can bring. If you are drawn to the path of the bodhisattva, then what I am exploring here will, I hope, help to awaken those inner capacities that can make this journey more steady and clear.
I am including this book in the Essence of Tantra Series because I want to bring the understanding of bodhicitta into the particular context of tantric practice. This quality of heart is the underlying intention that flavours how we embark upon tantric practice; equally, tantric practice flavours the way in which we can embody this desire to be of benefit to others. The tantric bodhisattva, as a vehicle for our buddha potential to manifest in the world, brings a particular potency to the quality of bodhicitta. Within tantric practice, our relationship to a deity enhances the way in which we begin to embody and manifest aspects of our innate buddha-nature in our life. A deity such as Chenrezig, often seen as the bodhisattva of compassion, is an expression or vision of our innate wholeness that deeply informs the nature of bodhicitta. Here I wish to explore ways in which awakening the heart essence of bodhicitta within the context of tantric understanding and practice has profound implications for how we can embody the bodhisattva’s way of life.