City Retreat | Berkeley Shambhala Center
June 18, 2001, Pema Chödrön

sbdtThe general subject that we’re exploring here is bodhichitta and the awakening and nurturing of bodhichitta, which is said to have these four qualities [maitri, compassion, joy and equanimity]. Or by awakening these four qualities or nurturing these four qualities, we’re simultaneously contacting and encouraging and expanding what’s called bodhichitta.

Bodhichitta is essentially a quality of warmth, an experience of our connection with all beings and with all things. It’s said traditionally that it’s expressed as a wish or an aspiration, initially expressed as a strong longing or wish that nobody suffer, and that we could in some way in the course of our lifetime, as much as possible, help to alleviate suffering in the world.

When a person begins to feel more and more strongly about this, they take the bodhisattva vow, which is a vow based on one’s wish to alleviate suffering in the world. And when you take this vow, nobody is kidding anyone. We know that we’re not there yet, that we could even wish to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings. You know, abstractly, sure. We’ve been working with this for two short weeks, or whatever it is. I think it’s two weeks, right, going into the third? And already you kind of realize what you’re up against when you even try to receive love. That would be called, you know, the easiest thing of all, to receive love, let alone give it anyone, let alone give it to difficult people or neutral people or yourself. How about, then, all sentient beings? You begin to get real when you do this practice, you know.

I think in The Wisdom of No Escape or one of the other books, someone was recently telling me that in the book I talked about reading the bodhisattva vow and reading about awakening the bodhichitta and reading about wanting to alleviate suffering and getting so impassioned about it and feeling so inspired. And I was sitting in a bus, apparently, at the time coming back from my teaching job and I was crying, I was so moved by the suffering in the world and that I could want so much to alleviate it.

Then I walked into the San Francisco Shambhala Center, which was a residence at that time, and I was living there. The phone rang. It was someone saying, Could you lead the meditation tonight? And I said No, I’m tired, or something (laughter). And it was just like, I put down the phone and it was like ooh! There’s a big gap between this wish to save all sentient beings and the reality of coming back from work, being tired, and someone asking you to extend yourself.

When we work with bodhichitta and go so far as to take the bodhisattva vow– but even if we’re not taking the vow– we know that our capacity at this point is fairly limited, and yet we enter in at the level of aspiration. That’s why we’re doing these aspiration practices, because you enter in at the level of aspiration. It’s actually called aspiration bodhichitta, aspiring bodhichitta.

It’s this compassionate recognition of where we’re at, that we all have some capacity to love and to be with the pain of other beings, and to rejoice, we all have some equanimity. We all have some of it, and a part of this practice is contacting it. And I’ve said that again and again, contacting it and encouraging it with the aspiration. A lot of what we’re doing here is contacting and encouraging with the aspiration, and then noticing what happens.

And this noticing– I probably need to say it over and over again– noticing the effects is such a crucial part of this. Because it’s not just about opening up. It’s also about a full, compassionate recognition of closing. And then we train in expanding it further. And as Jesse pointed out at the nyinthün, those of you who heard that. Last week in the class I came up with CEEN: contact and encourage and expand and notice the effects. But actually more accurately you contact the experience at best you can of what you already have– and we’ve been working with love– and you encourage it with the aspiration and then you notice the effect. So it’s like CEN, then you expand, you move on to something more challenging, like you move from the beloved to yourself and then to neutrals and difficult people and so forth.

You keep going through that process of contacting whatever you already feel, encouraging it with the aspiration, noticing the effect, and then you expand it. What this is called is mind training. At the level of our minds, we work with aspiration. We’re acknowledging that we have some love and compassion and so forth. But we need to encourage it, and then it will expand. It will expand by itself if we keep encouraging it this way with these practices. The notion of aspiration is a very, very powerful one.

I think sometimes people belittle it or think it’s a kind of sentimental practice, something like this.But from my own experience of working with this, it’s a very gutsy kind of practice. It’s also extremely honest. Because a lot of times we do have the wish to alleviate suffering in the world and we want to jump right in. And often we jump right in and then we drown. We jump into a profession, for instance, and then after a very short time we burn out. Or we take on more than we can handle in our family situation, or whatever it might be. And we quickly learn that sometimes . . . It’s like that expression about your eyes being bigger than your stomach. What you want to do is currently more than you are able to do. And so by doing these aspiration practices, you get very real about where you are right now and you respect where you are right now. And there’s no problem with being where you are right now.

This is a very important point. There’s no problem with being where you are right now. And the fact that we encourage it and expand it at the level of mind training is just to say that we respect and have appreciation for where we currently are. And at the same time we leave wide open the possibility of being able to expand way beyond where we currently are in the course of our lifetime. But, you know, the expansion never happens through greediness or pushing through or striving. It just never happens that way. All practice grows and flourishes by learning to relax with where you are already. So some combination of learning to relax where you are already and, at the same time, holding a big vision or keeping the possibility open that really your capacity, my capacity, the capacity of all beings is limitless, absolutely limitless. This is such a powerful thing.

And it’s actually very primary to the view of this practice or the view of Buddhism altogether that the possibility of human birth is enormous. And when we say, “May I have happiness” or “May I be free of suffering” or “May any individual have happiness and be free of suffering,” actually we are saying something that is in accord with our potential and their potential.

We’re actually saying something that is in accord with the potential of a human being to expand our capacity for opening and caring limitlessly. It starts out with our love for an individual or our compassion for an individual. And it can expand to include more and more individuals, until finally there is a stage that people have reached throughout history, generations and generations of people, have reached the full capacity of connecting with love and compassion which is limitless. Which is to say, it almost doesn’t even have a reference point. It’s just connecting with this free-flowing warmth-connected energy, flee-flowing, dynamic, alive, connected energy. It’s connecting with the true state of affairs.

Photo by Ana Elisa Fuentes.