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What is Bodhicitta?

By Matthew F.
Updated May 23, 2024
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Bodhicitta is a form of Buddhist compassion and enlightenment. The person practicing this is to be totally dedicated to others. It is a way to overcome emotional afflictions, helping to bring all others to an equaled state free from suffering. Once achieved, it is supposed to bring true happiness.

Bodhicitta is a means to complete enlightenment, and thus Buddhahood. It represents one ultimate way of Buddhist thinking, where the person practicing pledges themselves to others and refuses the escape from samsara, the cycle of life in Buddhism. These are both important and extreme thoughts and practices in the world of Buddhism.

Those who have reached bodhicitta are known as Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is able to reach nirvana, a state free from suffering and free from the cycle of rebirth important in Buddhism. But, because of his or her compassion, he or she does not enter in order to save other sentient beings. These sentient beings are trapped in this cyclic existence and so are eluded by Buddhahood.

This practice has two different forms: aspirational and engaged. The aspirational type involves the striving for this status, and the complete heartfelt wishing to become a Buddha. This is followed by the desire to help all others become a Buddha. Also involved is the pledge never to abandon this goal of bodhicitta. The engaged type has the potential Bodhisattva engaging in the behavior to become a Bodhisattava, and likewise avoiding behavior that would discourage it. The Bodhisattva has vowed to avoid a certain eighteen actions that would constitute a downfall, and forty-six other types of “wrong behavior.”

The teachings of this practice also require positive mental states, awareness and wisdom. It calls for helping others with every means at the practitioner’s disposal, spiritually, physically, emotionally, and intellectually.

Bodhicitta is an important concept in many Buddhist schools of thought, separating Vajrayana and Mahayana Buddhism from other types of Buddhism. It began in the Mahayana Buddhist world with A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, written by Santideva around the year 700. Other Buddhist teachings emphasize the escape from the cycle and a personal liberation. But these two forms propose a selflessness and a declining of this liberation until the inevitable liberation of every other soul. The person following bodhicitta practices either this relative bodhicitta, working for all other souls, or absolute bodhicitta. The absolute type denies the existence of a “self” in a form of a philosophical view of “nothingness” in the world.

All the forms, whether absolute or relative, aspirational or engaged, are meant to compliment each other. They serve for the attainment of Bodhisattava by all souls until all others are saved, and nirvana is reached by all.

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