Sunday, April 18, 2010

Enlightenment in the Present Moment

All of Mahayana Buddhism is built upon the idea of bodhicitta. ‘Bodhi’ means ‘awake’ or ‘awakening’ and ‘citta’ can mean either heart or mind. So bodhicitta literally means ‘awakened heart’ or ‘the mind of awakening.’ But this is a case where knowing the word’s literal meaning and translation doesn’t really tell you very much.

The classic definition of bodhicitta is: the wish to attain complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. It’s an altruistic vision that asks us to put the welfare of others ahead of our own individual concerns. In a recent blog post, I described this Mahayana motivation of bodhicitta as The Megabus to Enlightenment:

The spirit of Mahayana is that we travel the path of awakening not just for ourselves and our own liberation, but for the sake of all beings. It’s a view that places compassion front and center, and emphasizes our interconnectedness — that fact that we need each other to do this work of waking up. When you embrace the Mahayana path, helping others becomes your primary goal, an end in itself — and attaining your own enlightenment is seen as merely a means to that end. When you, yourself, wake up, then you will know best how to help others wake up. Developing the strong intention to become enlightened for the benefit of all sentient beings, and then putting that intention into practice, is the way of Mahayana.

The trouble is that this idealistic vision of enlightenment is off in the distant future, and enlightenment in the future is an abstract concept that is not very practical or applicable in the present moment. Someday, we think, when we attain the fundamental enlightenment – perhaps three or four incalculable aeons from now – then we’ll be able to benefit beings. Holding that kind of vision of enlightenment, and that kind of aspiration of bodhicitta, is pretty useless.

A few days ago, Pema Chodron gave a teaching at the Abbey in which she defined the aspiration of bodhicitta in much more practical, immediate terms: it is the wish to keep your heart open in all situations, not to close down and harden against other beings even when they challenge or upset you. Bodhicitta is a fundamental openness and warmth of the heart, our connectedness to other beings, which can manifest as loving-kindness or as compassion.

This is, as Ani Pema would say, news you can use. When we practice keeping our hearts open to other beings – even the ones who really piss us off or scare us – then we are practicing bodhicitta-in-action. When we close our hearts to others and harden against them in anger or judgment, then we are taking a step away from bodhicitta. We can sit there and flap our gums about attaining enlightenment to benefit all sentient beings until we’re blue in the face, but if our hearts are actually closed towards another being in the present moment, then we’re not really practicing bodhicitta -- and we're not moving towards enlightenment.

The future doesn’t exist, and it never will. When the future arrives, it will be the present moment. The present moment is all we ever have, and it is in each fleeting, present moment that we must practice enlightenment. We will never find it anywhere else.

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