Bodhicitta (Thought of Awakening)

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The English phrase "thought of awakening" is a mechanical rendering of the Indic term bodhicitta. The original term is a compound noun signifying "thought directed at or focused on awakening," "a resolution to seek and/or attain awakening," or "the mind that is (virtually or intrinsically) awakening (itself)." The concept is known in non-Mahāyāna sources (e.g., Abhidharmadīpa, pp. 185–186, 192) and occurs in transitional texts such as the MahĀvastu, but gains its doctrinal and ritual importance in MahĀyĀna and tantric traditions.

Technical definitions

In its most common denotation the term bodhicitta refers to the resolution to attain bodhi (awakening) in order to liberate all living beings, which defines and motivates the bodhisattva's vow. However, even this simple definition entails several layers of meaning and practice. The resolution to attain awakening can be seen as a state of mind or a mental process, but it is also the solemn promise (the vow as verbal act) embodied or expressed in particular ritual utterances, acts, and gestures (recitation of the vows, dedication of merit, etc.). Bodhicitta is also the motivating thought and sentiment behind the spiritual practice or career (caryā) of the bodhisattva; as such, it is the defining moment and the moving force behind the course of action that follows and enacts the initial resolution (the first appearance of the thought, known as bodhicittotpāda). As moving force and motivation it is also the mental representation of the goal (awakening) and the essential spirit of the practice (a usage sometimes rendered in English as "an awakened attitude"). Finally, the culmination of the intention of the vow and of the subsequent effort in the path—that is, awakening itself—may also be regarded as technically bodhicitta. As a further extension of this usage, the term bodhicitta may also refer to the fundamental source or ground for the resolution, namely, innate enlightenment.

In a narrow psychological sense, bodhicitta is the first conscious formulation of an aspiration: to seek full awakening (buddhahood) in order to lead all sentient beings to liberation from duḤkha (suffering). Conceived as a wish, as an intention that arises or occurs in the mind, the bodhicitta is a sort of decision; but in the traditional Buddhist view of mental culture, feelings and wishes can be fostered or cultivated. Accordingly, the bodhicitta is generally believed to require mental culture and self-cultivation, perhaps as an integral part of the purpose it embodies. The continued cultivation of the intention, the practice or exercise of the thought of awakening, helps develop a series of mental states and behavioral changes that gradually approximate the object of the wish: full awakening as a compassionate buddha or bodhisattva.

Ritual uses and meanings

This practice of the thought of awakening begins with a ritual enactment, usually as part of the so-called sevenfold supreme worship (saptavidhā-anuttarapūjā), which includes, among other things, the rituals of taking the bodhisattva vows and the dedication of merit. Some Indian authors (e.g., ĀryaŚŪra and Candragomin) composed their own ritual for the production and adoption of the bodhicitta. In these liturgical settings the bodhicitta appears prominently as the focus of the ritual of the bodhisattva vow, which in many Mahāyāna liturgies replaced or incorporated earlier rituals for the adoption of the precepts or rituals preparatory for meditation sessions. Such rituals proliferated in East Asia and Tibet.

Although the model for many Tibetan liturgies was arguably a reworking of ritual elements in the ŚikṢāsamuccaya and the BodhicaryĀvatĀra of ŚĀntideva (ca. seventh century c.e.), the tradition combined a variety of sources in developing a theology and a liturgy of the thought of awakening. The Thar pa rin po che'i rgyan of Sgam po pa (1079–1153 c.e.) distinguishes the ritual based on Śāntideva's teachings from the rituals from the lineage of Dharmakīrti Suvarṇadvīpin of Vijayanagara (fl. ca. 1000 c.e.)—presumably received through Atisha (982–1054 c.e.).

Most Mahāyāna traditions consecrate the initial thought as the impetus and hence the most important moment in the bodhisattva's career: the breaking forth of an idea, the aspiration to the good, and a rare and valuable event. This event, in both its internal, psychological form and its ritual, public form is called "giving rise to the thought of awakening," or, "causing the (first) appearance of a thought directed at awakening" ([prathama]-bodhicittotpāda). In its most literal and concrete sense, this is the moment when a bodhisattva encounters, or creates the conditions for, the appearance of the earnest wish to attain awakening for the benefit of all sentient beings. In Śāntideva's explanation, the vow as expression of bodhicitta is closely associated with the adoption of the precepts of the bodhisattva (bodhisattvasaṃvara), which are seen as the means for preserving and cultivating the initial resolution. This close link is recognized in many other ritual plans; for instance, the repentance rites (wuhui, "five ways to repent") of the Tiantai school follow an ascending hierarchy that is somehow parallel to the sevenfold act of worship but begins with confession (canhui) and culminates with the resolution (fayuan) to seek awakening for the sake of all living beings.

Indian Mahāyāna scholastic accounts assume for the most part that a concerted and conscious effort to cultivate the bodhicitta by setting out on the path (called prasthānacitta) is necessary for awakening. Nonetheless, the ritual expression of the vow (called "the thought of the vow," praṇidhicitta), and the adoption of the bodhisattva precepts (saṃvara) in the presence of a spiritual mentor (kalyāṇamitra), or before all the buddhas of the universe, is sometimes seen as a guarantee of eventual awakening. Some authors (notably Śāntideva in his Bodhicaryāvatāra) conceive of bodhicitta as a force so potent that it appears to be external to the person's own will, effort, or attention. In this conception, once a person has given rise to the resolution, the bodhicitta is, as it were, awakening itself, present, in manifest or latent form, in that person's mental processes.

Thought of awakening as awakened thought

We may speak of a historical process whereby the abstract notion or the psychological reality of a resolution became an autonomous spiritual force. The process is already suggested in Mahāyāna sūtras that glorify the bodhicitta as both the sine qua non of Mahāyāna practice and the essence or substance of awakening: It is a hidden treasure, like a panacea or powerful medicinal herb (see, for example, the "Maitreyavimoksa" chapter of the Gaṇḍavyūha-sūtra). What may have been a hyperbolic celebration of the bodhicitta, however, soon took the form of a reification or deification of this mental state or sequence of mental states. The thought of awakening is present even if one lacks all virtue, like a jewel hidden in a dung heap; one who gives rise to the thought will be venerated by gods and humans (Bodhicaryāvatāra). And, in a metaphor chosen as the title for one of the fourteenth Dalai Lama's commentaries, the thought of awakening is like a flash of lightning in the dark night of human delusion. What is more, sūtras and śāstras alike agree that the thought of awakening protects from all dangers the person who conceives of it.

Insofar as the bodhicitta is also the starting point for Mahāyāna practice proper, it is a precondition and a basis for the virtues of a buddha (the buddhadharmas), and hence, impels, as it were, all the positive faculties and states generated in the path. The thought of awakening hence manifests itself throughout the path, in all stages of the bodhisattva's development (Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra, chap. 4, following the AkṢayamatinirdeśa). The First Bhāvanākrama of Kamalaśīla states that the foundation (mūla) for these virtues, and for the omniscience of a full buddha, is karuṆĀ (compassion), but, referring to the Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi, adds that bodhicitta is the generating and impelling cause (hetu) of buddhahood.

Furthermore, insofar as bodhicitta is the mind of awakening, it is a beginning that is an end in itself. To paraphrase Kamalaśīla's Second Bhāvanākrama, there are two types of bodhicitta, the conventional one of ritual and process, and the absolute one that is both the innate potency to become awakened and the mind that has attained the ultimate goal, awakening itself. The distinction between these two aspects or levels of bodhicitta is perhaps an attempt to account for the difference between the ritual and conventional enactment of a resolution, the spirit of commitment, the magnetic force of an ideal representation, and a sacred presence (awakening itself). Psychologically the idea may reflect a desire to understand how conviction and good intent can exist next to lack of conviction and a desire for what is not virtuous—in short how an ideal can be both a clear and heartfelt conviction and a distant goal.

The distinction between a provisional or conventional thought of awakening (saṃvṛtibodhicitta) and one that is or embodies the ultimate goal (paramārthabodhicitta) plays a central role in tantric conceptions of the "physiology" and "psychology" of ritual and meditation, in India and beyond. For it serves as a link between ritual convention and timeless truth, and between disparate branches of the tradition— linking, for instance, the sūtra or pāramitā aspects of the path with the tantric stages, on the ground that all stages manifest some aspect of bodhicitta. This is arguably the most important function of bodhicitta as an explanatory or apologetic category in path theory and is highlighted in classic lam rim literature (for a contemporary presentation, see Gyatso).

The thought as icon

The thought of awakening is also a pivotal concept in Mahāyāna ethical speculation: In some ways bodhicitta is shorthand for the instinct of empathy and the cultivation of compassion as foundations for Buddhist involvement with saṂsĀra. It epitomizes important dimensions of intentionality, as attitude toward others and attitudes toward self, as well as intention as the direction in which transformative behavior moves.

A term so laden with meanings almost fits naturally as the core around which one could build further ritual tropes, as one can see in relatively early tantras like the Mahāvairocana-sūtra. The Guhyasamāja-tantra devotes its second chapter to bodhicitta, describing it as the solid core (sāra, vajra) of the body, speech, and mind of all the buddhas. Since this ultimate reality is, not surprisingly, the emptiness of all things, the text implicitly builds a bridge between the ethical and ritual life of the practitioner's body, speech, and mind, and both the reality and its sacred embodiment in all buddhas.

Bodhicitta is also a force that empowers the practitioner, and therefore plays an important role in some tantric rites of initiation or consecration (abhiṢeka). A common homology imagines bodhicitta as masculine potency—upĀya and the seed of awakening—and prajñā as the feminine "lotus-vessel" that receives the bodhicitta. Thus, bodhicitta becomes bindu (the "droplets" of awakening) and hence the semen that stands for the generative power of awakening. Because bodhicitta as bindu or semen represents the male potency of awakened saints, it is not uncommon for a female participant (a yoginī present symbolically or in person) to be seen as vidya or prajñā, whereas bodhicitta stands for upāya. Classical Indian physiology assumed that females also have semen, hence the disciple receiving initiation ingested, symbolically or literally, the sexual fluids of both the guru (male) and the yoginī (female) as a way to give rise to the thought of awakening—thus generated, as it were, from the union of mother and father.

Summary interpretations

The above tapestry shows how the concept of bodhicitta ties together liturgy, systematic theories of awakening and the path, and the foundations of Buddhist ethics. It is a concept as important for the history of Mahāyāna ritual as those of the vow (praṇidhāna) and the dedication of merit (puṇyapariṇāmanā). A social history of the concept would include its function as a secure solid ground outside social and sectarian differences: It is, as it were, a thin, but steely thread that links the specifics of ritual and theology with the idea of a timeless and ineffable liberating reality. As a source of authority, bodhicitta is both an inner drive and an untainted reality beyond individual differences.

Theologically, bodhicitta is, in part, a functional equivalent to the family of concepts encompassed by Hindu notions of prasāda and Western concepts of grace: Bodhicitta stands for the mystery of the presence of the holy in an imperfect human being who is in need of liberation and imagines it, despite the unlikelihood of the presence of even the mere idea of perfection in such an imperfect being.

See also:Original Enlightenment (Hongaku)


Brassard, Francis. The Concept of Bodhicitta in Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho (Tenzin Gyatso, Dalai Lama XIV). A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bo dhisattva's Way of Life, tr. the Padmakara Translation Group. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1994.

Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang. Essence of Vajrayāna: The Highest Yoga Tantra Practice of Heruka Body Maṇḍala. London: Tharpa, 1997.

Khunu Rinpoche. Vast as the Heavens, Deep as the Sea: Verses in Praise of Bodhicitta, tr. G. Sparham. Somerville, MA: Wis dom, 1999.

Kong sprul Blo gros mtha' yas (Lodro Thaye Kongtrul, Jamgon Kongtrul). The Light of Wisdom: The Root Text, Lamrim yeshe nyingpo by Padmasambhava …Commentary on the Light of Wisdom by Jamgon Kongtrul the Great. Boston: Shambhala, 1999.

Nanayakkara, S. K. "Bodhicitta." In Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. 3, Fasc. 2, ed. G. P. Malalasekera, 1972.

Luis O. GÓmez