Over the years, I’ve read The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva. I have the text and commentaries written by people like the Dalai Lama and have heard talks about this text that reveal the profound teaching that this beautiful poetry describes. Yet, I’ve been less and less likely to incorporate these teachings directly; mostly, I struggle with taking something in this text and finding a way to make the ideas fit within my proscribed mental formations…it’s like I understand the words but missed the meaning.
Into this morass of confusion came Pema Chodron’s text No Time to Lose. Her writing and commentary have reopened my mind to the ways in which Shantideva transcended the teachers he encountered and helped transform what we understand as Buddhism.
In particular, Chodron’s commentary helped me better understand an idea I really thought I knew: bodhicitta. This idea, bound up in the very heart of vajrayana teachings, is the core principle that opens the mind to the possibility of enlightenment and awareness. Without this one thing, no dharma teaching our reading will do anything for you. It’s like I have experienced: reading the words but missing the meaning.
In her text, I am pausing on bodhicitta. Why this concept today? Well it’s pretty much the place I need to be right now. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this feeling, but I’ve hit a proverbial wall. I cannot move my mind any further in any direction without this teaching. As well, without incorporating the essence of bodhicitta and compassion into my thoughts and actions, I’m missing a key to breaking the pattern of samsara in which I am trapped.
Here’s the money quotation from Shantideva,
For like the supreme substance of the alchemists, it takes the impure form of human flesh/ And makes of it the priceless body of a buddha. Such is bodhicitta: we should grasp it firmly! (Chapter 1, verse 10)
Ok, so stay with me here. Paolo Coelho’s book The Alchemist really spoke to me when I first read it. The idea that what we seek is not at all what we need. That virtually every distraction and obstacle will get in our way until we unlock the awareness of our minds. Like Shantideva is saying, we can take our own form and create from it a buddha. Unlike Shantideva, however, Coelho’s awareness comes from connecting to the Soul of the World. Maybe that could be a kind of buddha nature? A nature we all share? Hmmm.
Anyway, Shantideva is finally speaking to me through Chodron’s words. In particular, I loved her words on how bodhicitta is like a great fire, burning away all negative tendencies. She says, “Ordinarily we buy into our negative habits, acting them out or turning hem against ourselves.” In may own case, the idea that we take those negative thoughts and actions and turn them against our own best heart is so much of my own tendency. Her language really captured my attention and helped me redirect my thoughts. Rather than acting out or repressing these negative energies, we stand in the fire and allow the pain to connect to those around us.
The fact is, experiencing the pain of negative thoughts and emotions is, actually, a KEY to making the connection to bodhicitta. What a profound and wonderful way to look at it all.