In Buddhist practice we develop awareness of the motivations that underlie each of our actions. We also open to the possibility of expanded aspirations, enlarging our sense of what we can accomplish in our lives. Bodhicitta, a Sanskrit and Pali word that literally means "awakened heart", is the deep aspiration to awaken from the dream of ignorance in order to benefit all beings. It is the dedication of our spiritual practice, and our lives, to the happiness and welfare of all.
But is this a realistic aspiration for us? Is it really possible to cultivate such an altruistic motivation, given the great mix of qualities within our own minds? Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, "I cannot pretend to practice Bodhicitta, but deep inside me I realize how valuable and beneficial it is. That is all."
If we too can realize how valuable and beneficial it is, then we simply plant the seed of this Bodhicitta in our minds, and slowly let it grow and take root in our lives. We might begin each day, or each period of meditation, with the resolve, "May I quickly attain liberation for the welfare and happiness of all beings." We then go from the understanding that our dharma practice inevitably helps others to making the benefit of others the very motivation to practice. This change of understanding has a transforming effect on how we move through the day.
Bodhicitta is the practice of compassion. And compassion arises when we allow ourselves to come close to suffering, both our own and others'. This is a profound and difficult practice. We may want to be compassionate, and even feel that we often are, but it is not easy to do.
Just as we don't like to open to our own pain, we don't necessarily want to be with the pain of others. But the more we learn to be mindful and aware of the difficulties in our own lives, whether it is physical pain or emotional distress, the more strength and courage and insight we have in being with the suffering of others.
At first, we might begin to feel a genuine empathy for others in pain or difficulty. This happens when we take a moment to stop and feel what is really going on, before rushing on with our lives. But with the aspiration of Bodhicitta something even more powerful begins to happen. We move from empathy, which is a sympathetic feeling for others, to the feeling of compassion. Compassion here is not simply a warm feeling. It also contains within it a strong motivation to act. The Vietnamese Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, expressed this very well when he said, "Compassion is a verb."
Compassion means that we practice an active engagement with the suffering of the world, responding to the various needs of beings in whatever way is possible and appropriate. It might be in small, perhaps unregarded ways - being kinder, more generous, more forgiving of the people around us. At other times it might be in acts of tremendous courage and determination in the face of great hardship and difficulty. There is no particular prescription for what we should do. The field of compassionate response is limitless. It is the field of suffering beings. What is important is that we water and nurture the seeds of Bodhicitta within us, cultivating the intention to benefit all.