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Bodhicitta can be translated as Way-Seeking Mind, or the Mind of Enlightenment. Bodhicitta is the part of us that recognizes and seeks truth and goodness, inspiring our spiritual search and motivating our practice. In a sense, bodhicitta is the part of us that is already awakened, because without it we wouldn’t recognize or seek truth and goodness in the first place. In Mahayana Buddhism, bodhicitta is essential to the path and a cause for gratitude. It also can be seen as the primary source of redemption for humankind, even when it seems the world is dominated by greed, hate, and delusion.



Quicklinks to Outline Headings (sorry for incomplete text):
The Definition of Bodhicitta
The Very First Arising of Way-Seeking Mind
Gratitude That Bodhicitta Has Arisen in You
Bodhicitta as Enlightened Mind
Cultivating Bodhicitta: Faith and Determination
The Redemptive Power of Bodhicitta
Keeping Our Bodhicitta Unconditional


The Definition of Bodhicitta

Definitions from Buswell, Robert E. Jr., and Donald S. Lopez Jr. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014:

bodhi = “awakening” or “enlightenment”[i]

Bodhisattva = awakening being (sattva = being) – a being intent on achieving enlightenment[ii]

citta = “mind,” mentality,” or “thought” (last four skandhas other than form – sensation, perception, mental formations, consciousness)

bodhicitta = “thought of enlightenment” or “aspiration to enlightenment” – “As the generative cause that leads to the eventual achievement of buddhahood and all that it represents, bodhicitta is one of the most crucial terms in Mahayana Buddhism.”[iii]

Alternate translations: Way-seeking Mind, the Mind of Enlightenment


The Very First Arising of Way-Seeking Mind

Much of our lives – at least in childhood (usually), perhaps through most of our adulthood: take things at face value

Then… dissatisfaction… intuition there is something more, should be something more… related term samvega, which I covered in Episode 86 – Samvega and Pasada: Two Buddhist Emotions Indispensable for Practice.

Theravada approach: samvega, a spiritual urgency arising three things: A sense of distress and disillusionment about life as it’s usually lived, a sense of our own complicity and complacency, and determination to find a more meaningful way… Balance it with pasada, a serene confidence that arises when you find a reliable way to address samvega.

Bodhicitta includes both of these; samvega needs to arise first, but if we don’t have any hope, sense, intuition, determination there at least might be a better way, our samvega just leads to depression or despair.

More about that first arising of Way-Seeking Mind, as we’re calling it: At what point in your life did you seriously question the path you were on, the way you were living? At what point did you experience some existential angst – there’s got to be a better way, or there’s something essential I’m missing?

How can there be so much indescribable beauty in the world, and yet in so many respects it is a terrible, unjust place? How can we bring about more manifestation of good, and win the fight against the forces of greed, hate, and delusion? At certain moments of our lives, we feel so… alive, so aligned with what is right. And at other times we’re on autopilot, driven by habit energy and failing to appreciate the short time we have to enjoy this life.

How did the questions arise for you? Many times loss, trauma, bring the questions up for us. Sometimes they arise because of something we read or hear or otherwise encounter.

Often, we ask these questions: People around us may or may not have answers. If they do have answers, usually they are about resigning yourself to the way things are and trying to enjoy your life as best you can despite them. Common sense says to just try harder at what you’re already doing until you succeed in creating a decently happy life for yourself. If that seems impossible, then you just avail yourself of whatever pleasurable diversions you can in the meantime.

At a certain point, however, some of us refuse to accept that this is all there is, that the only thing you can do is resign yourself and hope for the best for yourself. We become convinced there is a way… we may not even be able to articulate what this “way” is going to lead to. We may have no idea what we’re supposed to do next. We may suspect we’re deluding ourselves, indulging in wishful thinking. Yet a determination arises in us, and if we don’t already have a path to walk, we go searching for one. People around us may be skeptical (my first husband: you’re not going to find what you’re looking for…), but we find ourselves stubbornly clinging to our intuition.

My teacher Kyogen Carlson talks about this in a new book, You are Still Here: Zen Teachings of Kyogen Carlson, edited by Sallie Jiko Tisdale, first chapter, appropriately, Way-Seeking Mind (got me on this topic):

“This aspiration arises in prisons, in concentration camps, and amid the worst degradation. When people take a look at their lives and the world around them and say, ‘There’s got to be something more than this,’ they are ready. They’re ready to go down to that place beneath appearances and the superficial aspects of life, and there they find the seed of bodhi. We cannot predict it. We cannot manipulate it. When conditions ripen, that seed will sprout. It is a natural arising, innate in us. We are born to become buddhas.”[iv]


Gratitude That Bodhicitta Has Arisen in You

I will say more about the innate quality of bodhicitta later. Now I want to point out the implications of the observation of how Way-Seeking Mind seems to arise spontaneously, from deep within us, and how that seed – even if it exists within every person – cannot be forced to sprout before its time.

Bodhicitta rarely arises, and almost never outside of the human realm. Six Realms are from Buddhist cosmology; no need to believe in them literally, but they make a useful metaphor for different kinds of human experience, and different states of mind. See Episode 149 – Understanding People’s Actions Through the Six Realms Teaching.

Heaven: Too peaceful and pleasant (what’s wrong?)

Hell: Too painful, consumed with hatred and anger (can’t even hear)

Asuras: Too envious of heaven, busy with striving, competition, ambition (don’t bother me, I’m busy)

Beast Realm: Extremely limited focus on one’s own basic needs for food, safety, sex (no interests beyond fulfilling and protecting my own needs and desires)

Hungry Ghost: Endlessly seeking satisfaction in things which will never truly satisfy (don’t worry, this next thing is going to be the answer)

Human: A mix of all of these, but gives beings an opportunity to wake up, not too stuck in any one state

This is central to the way Buddhism offers itself to the world: Dharma practice is offered freely, but Buddhists generally do not evangelize. You can’t convince someone to seek the way if bodhicitta has not yet arisen in them. Instead of pushing people, you respect the seed of bodhi within them and cultivate patience for them, appreciating how each person is on their own spiritual timeline.

We should be grateful bodhicitta has arisen in us, rather than feel proud about it, or judgmental of others who don’t yet experience it. We had nothing to do with the seed being present in us, and little or nothing to do with most of the conditions that led to it sprouting.


Bodhicitta as Enlightened Mind

Kyogen says bodhicitta “is a natural arising, innate in us. We are born to become buddhas.”[v]

Admittedly, this is a Mahayana view, not all schools of Buddhism adhere to it. However, the idea that the Way-Seeking Mind is inherent in us aligns with my own experience. The vast majority of people seem to recognize what is right and good and true. This recognition may be buried deep within someone who is stuck in one of the non-human realms of existence – buried under fear, anger, self-concern, ambition, denial, etc. But most beings, if they are approached in a way that allows them to let their defenses down and open up, turn toward wisdom and compassion. If they’re able to see a situation clearly (which, admittedly, is a big “if”).

In addition, when we approach the truth or are called to compassion, the experience is one of recognition, or returning… it feels like there is a still, small voice inside us which can guide us if we just get quiet enough to listen.

After all, how do we recognize truth and goodness if there isn’t something within us that is true and good? I always appreciate how Huston Smith put this in his book, Why Religion Matters:

“…the finitude of mundane existence cannot satisfy the human heart completely. Built into the human makeup is a longing for a ‘more’ that the world of everyday experience cannot requite. This outreach strongly suggests the existence of the something that life reaches for in the way that the wings of birds point to the reality of air.”

I cited that passage in Episode 8 – It-with-a-Capital-I: The Zen Version of God, about Dogen’s essay “Inmo.” In that essay, Dogen suggests the bodhi-mind, or bodhicitta, arises because of Inmo (It-with-a-Capital-I) itself, which is not actually separate from us (all the uses of “it” in this passage are translations of inmo):

“Remember, it happens like this because we are people who are it. How do we know that we are people who are it? We know that we are people who are it just from the fact that we want to attain the matter which is it.”

That which we are seeking is causing us to seek – a source of consolation and encouragement…


Cultivating Bodhicitta: Faith and Determination

Of course, then we need to take care of this bodhicitta sprout. As Kyogen says in his book, “These first stirrings are called the ‘Way-Seeking Mind.’ When we clarify it to a firm resolve, it becomes the “thought of enlightenment.”[vi]

So, a hope arises in us that there is a better way, a way for us to experience and manifest truth and goodness more completely. We have an intuition that something true and good within us is what is causing us to seek. How do we know our Way-Seeking Mind, our hope there is way to address our samvega – spiritual dissatisfaction – isn’t just a delusion? Is it just wishful thinking? Are we just a hungry ghost after all, looking for the next thing to satisfy us? Are we sure it’s a good idea to cultivate our bodhicitta?

Buddhism’s answer is an emphatic, “Yes!” For a while, we may need to operate on faith based on our own limited experience, our intuition, and the guidance of trusted teachers and Dharma friends. After a while, though, our own experience with practice confirms our Way-Seeking Mind. It doesn’t take that much – we don’t have experience some great, dramatic awakening in order to have our bodhicitta confirmed. We simply need to experience some greater clarity, freedom, peace of mind, or compassion in order to prove to ourselves there is a way.

Challenges and difficulties – in our own lives, or evident in the world around us – can threaten our bodhicitta, however. We need to care for this bodhicitta sprout, allow it to grow, protect it from the elements.

What feeds/strengthens?

As already mentioned, practice itself… so the best thing we can do is keep on with practice even when our determination flags a little. This is where the practice of vow can help – forming intentions for specific periods of time, sometimes sharing them with others or stating them formally, if that helps you keep them. For example, if you have received the precepts and formally become a Buddhist, you may find yourself sticking with practice even when things become difficult for one reason or another, perhaps longer than if you thought of yourself as still more or less shopping around for the spiritual path that fits you.

Also vital to cultivating bodhicitta is good spiritual friendship. Ideally you will have people – at least one person – you can talk to about your path of practice: Sharing stories of challenge and reward, exchanging inspiring teachings and practices, encouraging one another, helping one another frame your lives in terms of practice. Few things are as encouraging as this, which is why the Buddha famously said admirable friendship, companionship, and camaraderie is not just a significant part of the holy life – it’s actually “the whole of the holy life.”[vii]

There are many ways to cultivate bodhicitta, and many aspects of Buddhist and Zen practice end up helping us do exactly that. Of particular value, however, is recognition of the preciousness of bodhicitta, and learning to cultivate gratitude for those times we experience it.


The Redemptive Power of Bodhicitta

Dharma study is one way we can remind ourselves about bodhicitta and how valuable it is. For example, here are some encouraging words from Shantideva (David Karma Choephel, translator) from Entering the Way of the Bodhisattva, the first chapter (Explaining the Benefits of Bodhicitta):

No one should ever forsake bodhichitta
Who wants to dispel beings’ unhappiness,
Vanquish the hundreds of miseries of existence,
And partake in the many hundreds of joys.

If they rouse bodhichitta, in an instant
The wretched, fettered in samsara’s prison,
Are named the offspring of the sugatas [enlightened ones]
And revered in the worlds of gods and humans.

Just like the greatest kind of alchemy,
It takes this unclean body and transforms it
Into a priceless jewel, a buddha’s body,
So firmly grasp ahold of bodhichitta.[viii]


The wish to benefit beings that others
Have never had for their own sake—
This special jewel of mind—is born,
A wonder without precedent.

The cause of every wanderer’s joy,
The cure for beings’ suffering;
How could one take the measure of
The merit of this precious mind? [ix]

In one sense, you could say bodhicitta is important because we’d never end up with any enlightened beings (or even partially enlightened beings) if no one thought to set out on the path of practice. If no human being ever thought, “There’s got to be a better way to be, spiritually,” we wouldn’t have Buddhism, or any other beneficial path. Siddhartha never would have set out on his search and eventually become a Buddha, and students would never have gathered around him and then passed on this tradition to us. Whatever benefits you have experienced from practice you may never have experienced at all, except for the bodhicitta arising in Shakyamuni, and in generations of people since, and then in you yourself.

At a deeper level, I find intriguing and inspiring the description of bodhicitta being instantly redemptive. Sure, bodhicitta leads us on a path which ultimately leads to some positive stuff, but Shantideva says the instant bodhicitta arises, even if you are wretched and caught up in all kinds of worldly suffering, you become a child of the enlightened ones and someone worthy of reverence. It’s not that you become redeemed after you work really hard and clean up your act. You’re redeemed as soon as the Way-Seeking Mind arises in you.

Shantideva also says that bodhicitta transforms “this unclean body” into a priceless jewel, a buddha’s body. Setting aside any inappropriate thoughts about body hatred, we’re all familiar with the sense that this body-mind we have ended up with can be quite problematic at times. The afflictive emotions of fear, anger, envy, and jealousy arise in us quickly. We are plagued with mental habits of judgment, shame, pride, and self-absorption. We try very hard, but natural selection seems to have stacked the cards against us becoming the wise, peaceful, generous people we would like to be. All of this is our “unclean body,” and it turns out that all it takes to transform this imperfect being into a buddha is bodhicitta!

This doesn’t mean no work is required. We still have to practice in order to manifest truth and goodness. But in this moment, when bodhicitta is present, it is amazing, transformative, redemptive, beautiful, and shining. There is much greed, hate, delusion, destruction, and injustice in the world, but pretty much everywhere you look, you’ll also see people manifesting bodhicitta, acting in ways that turn toward truth and goodness, manifest generosity and compassion, and pursue a better world with tireless determination. A second-grade teacher patiently trying to get through to his students, a nurse calmly delivering care to someone who is suffering, a construction worker building a safe home, people seeking improvements to our justice system, people making sure we have clean water to drink, people spending part of each day sitting silently in order to be as present for their lives as possible… all of these beings are manifesting bodhicitta.

I like to think the Buddhist teaching of bodhicitta encourages us to change our framing of ourselves and the world. Instead of evaluating the worthiness of life based on the balance of good versus evil present over time, we’re asked to recognize bodhicitta as the miraculous source of potential from which all good flows. Full stop.


Keeping Our Bodhicitta Unconditional

This all sounds pretty great, I suppose – bodhicitta as a kind of redemptive power in the world, which arises mysteriously, sometimes despite us, and which can keep us walking our spiritual path.

However, if we conceive of bodhicitta as a force in the relative world – or, as I’ve been describing it, the dependent dimension of reality, which includes space and time – then after a while we are likely to lose it. When the value of bodhicitta becomes conditional – I’m going to achieve certain results in my spiritual practice, or the force of bodhicitta is going to bring about certain conditions in my life or in the world – we’re inevitably going to be disappointed.

Samvega, our beneficial spiritual dissatisfaction, sets us on our spiritual path… then what? What are we seeking? Way-Seeking Mind can end up actually being a source of further dissatisfaction when we end up with a sense of need for improvement, progress, going somewhere other than where we are; when our sense of self gets wrapped up in “having” the way-seeking mind and walking the path.

Kyogen talks about this in his book. He had been training at Shasta Zen monastery for years, working very hard. A powerful sense of bodhicitta brought him to the monastery and kept him there. Then, about four years in, he had a conflict with his teacher and found himself questioning everything. He says:

“During this time of crisis, I questioned everything: ‘What am I doing here?’ ‘What is this all about?’ ‘Why do this?’

“Once we ask why, the question can suck everything into it, like a black hole. ‘Why do this one thing?’ becomes ‘Why do anything?’ ‘Why take the next breath?’ ‘Why am I here at all?’”[x]

Kyogen spent some time wrestling with his doubts before deciding whether or not he should leave the monastery (he ultimately stayed). He describes his process:

“During this time of questioning at the monastery, I started reading the Diamond Sutra. I was struck by this [passage]: ‘Moreover, Subhuti, a bodhisattva who gives a gift should not be supported by a thing. Nor should he be supported anywhere. When he gives gifts, he should not be supported by sight objects nor by sounds, smells, tastes, touchables, or mind objects…”

“‘Not supported’ in this passage means to do something without an expectation of getting something back. ‘Mind objects’ are self-constructions, underlying assumptions about the way the world works. The Diamond Sutra is saying that dana, “true generosity,” has to come from a place beyond all of that, from unconditioned mind itself, and to me, this passage referred to my own offering of my practice and my service. To truly give this as dana, it would have to come from a place that did not depend upon anything external. That meant, for me, that it shouldn’t matter what my teacher did or didn’t say, or how anybody reacted. Instead, my practice had to come from place in the core of my being that arose in spite of any of these things.”[xi]

What ways do you turn toward truth and goodness that you continue to do no matter what? No matter what happens in your life, or in the world, will you continue to try to live according to the precepts? Make space in your life for zazen? Support your friends, family, and community? Speak up for justice? Seek the truth?

Our practice must be manifested along the dependent dimension of reality, in space and time, in our daily lives. When bodhicitta functions along the dependent dimension, it keeps us moving along the path. The miraculous, redemptive power of bodhicitta, however, is appreciated first and foremost along the independent dimension of reality – the dimensionless dimension. For some reason, the will toward truth and goodness arises in sentient beings, just as the new sprout can tell which way is up as it’s unfolding under the soil.



[i] Buswell, Robert E. Jr., and Donald S. Lopez Jr. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Carlson, Kyogen (Sallie Jiko Tisdale, editor). You are Still Here: Zen Teachings of Kyogen Carlson. Boulder, CO: Shambala Publications, 2021.

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii] “Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life)” (SN 45.2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.002.than.html.

[viii] Shantideva (David Karma Choephel, translator). Entering the Way of the Bodhisattva. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.

[ix] Ibid

[x] Carlson, Kyogen (Sallie Jiko Tisdale, editor). You are Still Here: Zen Teachings of Kyogen Carlson. Boulder, CO: Shambala Publications, 2021. Pg. 3

[xi] Ibid, pg. 4


Picture Credit

Image by Adam_Tumidajewicz from Pixabay


180 - The Dharma of Staying Calm When Facing Challenges
182 - Answers to Interview Questions from Eastern Horizon Magazine