In Buddhism, bodhicitta[lower-alpha 1] (Sanskrit: बोधिचित्त; Chinese: 菩提心, putixin; Japanese: bodaishin; Standard Tibetan: བྱང་ཆུབ་ཀྱི་སེམས་, Wylie transliteration: byang chub kyi sems; Mongolian: бодь сэтгэл), "enlightenment-mind", is the mind that strives toward awakening and compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings.


Etymologically, the word is a combination of the Sanskrit words bodhi and citta. Bodhi means "awakening" or "enlightenment". Citta derives from the Sanskrit root cit, and means "that which is conscious" (i.e., mind or consciousness). Bodhicitta may be translated as "awakening mind" or "mind of enlightenment".


Bodhicitta is a compassion for all beings, accompanied by a falling away of the attachment to the illusion of an inherently-existing self.

This spark of compassion motivates one to achieve omniscient Buddhahood as quickly as possible, so that one may benefit infinite sentient beings. Bodhicitta is a felt need to replace others' suffering with bliss. Since the ultimate end of suffering is moksha, bodhicitta necessarily involves a motivation to help others to awaken (to find bodhi).

One for whom bodhicitta is the prime motivation for all actions is called a bodhisattva.


Not all schools of Buddhism agree in their understandings of bodhicitta.

One tradition distinguishes between relative and absolute (or ultimate) bodhicitta. Relative bodhicitta is a state of mind in which the practitioner works for the good of all beings as if it were his own. Absolute bodhicitta is the wisdom of shunyata (śunyatā, a Sanskrit term often translated as "emptiness", though the alternatives "openness" or "spaciousness" probably convey the idea better to Westerners).[1] The concept of śunyatā in Buddhist thought does not refer to nothingness, but to freedom from attachments[lower-alpha 2] and from fixed ideas about the world and how it should be.[lower-alpha 3]

Some bodhicitta practices emphasize the absolute (e.g. vipaśyanā), while others emphasize the relative (e.g. metta), but both aspects are seen in all Mahāyāna practice as essential to enlightenment, especially in the Tibetan practices of tonglen and lojong. Without the absolute, the relative can degenerate into pity and sentimentality, whereas the absolute without the relative can lead to nihilism and lack of desire to engage other sentient beings for their benefit.

In his book Words of My Perfect Teacher, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Patrul Rinpoche describes three degrees of bodhicitta:[2]

The lowest level
The way of the King, who primarily seeks his own benefit but who recognizes that his benefit depends crucially on that of his kingdom and his subjects.
The middle level

The path of the boatman, who ferries his passengers across the river and simultaneously, of course, ferries himself as well.

The highest level

That of the shepherd, who makes sure that all his sheep arrive safely ahead of him and places their welfare above his own.

Origins and development

Luminous mind

The Pāli Canon (the standard scriptures of Theravada, the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism) says bodhicitta is the mind that strives to be pabhassara citta, a luminous mind.[3] The luminous mind is the mind of Buddhahood.

In the Pāli Canon,[where?] Buddha describes the most fundamental aspect of the mind, which he says is "brightly shining" whether or not one realizes it. The Pāli discourses offer no doctrinal interpretation of Buddha's meaning here.

Mahāyanā interprets luminous mind (pabhassara citta) as bodhicitta.[3]

The Astasahasrika Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra says that "citta is no citta since it is by nature brightly shining." This accords with Anguttara Nikaya I,10 which goes from a reference to brightly shining citta to saying that even the slightest development of mettā (loving-kindness) is of great benefit. This implies that loving-kindness and compassion are inherent within the luminous mind as a basis for its further development.[4] The observation that the ground state of consciousness is of the nature of loving-kindness implies that empathy is innate to consciousness and exists prior to the emergence of all active mental processes.[5]

Source texts

Among the most important source texts on bodhichitta, within the Mahāyāna tradition in which the teaching arose, are:


Mahayana Buddhism propagates the Bodhisattva-ideal, in which the Six perfections are being practiced. Arousing bodhicitta is part of this Bodhisattva-ideal.


In Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism, the goal of Buddhist practice is primarily to be reborn infinite numbers of times to liberate all those other beings still trapped in samsāra.


Mahāyāna Buddhism teaches that the broader motivation of achieving one's own enlightenment "in order to help all sentient beings" is the best possible motivation one can have for any action, whether it be working in one's vocation, teaching others, or even making an incense offering. The Six Perfections (Pāramitās) of Buddhism only become true "perfections" when they are done with the motivation of bodhicitta. Thus, the action of giving (Skt. dāna) can be done in a mundane sense, or it can be a Pāramitā if it is conjoined with bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is the primary positive factor to be cultivated.


The Mahāyāna-tradition provides specific methods for the intentional cultivation of both absolute and relative bodhicitta. This cultivation is considered to be one of the most difficult aspects of the path to complete awakening. Practitioners of the Mahāyāna make it their primary goal to develop a genuine, uncontrived bodhicitta which remains within their mindstreams continuously without having to rely on conscious effort.

Among the many methods for developing uncontrived Bodhicitta given in Mahāyāna teachings are:

  • Contemplation of the Four Immeasurables (Brahmaviharas):
    • Immeasurable Loving-Kindness (Maitri),
    • Immeasurable Compassion (Karunā),
    • Immeasurable Joy in the Good Fortune of Others (Mudita), and
    • Immeasurable Equanimity (Upeksa)
  • The practice of the Pāramitās (Generosity, Patience, Virtue, Effort, Meditation, and Insight).
  • The Taking and Sending (tonglen) practice, in which one takes in the pain and suffering of others on the inbreath and sends them love, joy, and healing on the outbreath,[9] and the Lojong (mind training) practices of which tonglen forms a part.[8]
  • Viewing all other sentient beings as having been our mothers in infinite past lives, and feeling gratitude for the many occasions on which they have taken care of us.


The practice and realization of bodhicitta are independent of sectarian considerations, since they are fundamentally a part of the human experience. Bodhisattvas are not only recognized in the Theravāda school of Buddhism,[10] but in all other religious traditions and among those of no formal religious tradition. The present fourteenth Dalai Lama, for instance, regarded Mother Teresa as one of the greatest modern bodhisattvas.[11]

See also




  • White, Kenneth R. 2005. The Role of Bodhicitta in Buddhist Enlightenment. New York : The Edwin Mellen Press. [includes translations of the following: Bodhicitta-sastra, Benkemmitsu-nikyoron, Sammaya-kaijo]
  • Lampert, K.(2005); Traditions of Compassion: From Religious Duty to Social Activism. Palgrave-Macmillan
  • Steps on the Path to Enlightenment. Vol. 1. Geshe Lhundub Sopa w/ David Pratt. 2004
  • An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Peter Harvey. 2000
  • Entering the Path of Enlightenment: The Bodhicaryavatara of the Buddhist Poet Santideva. (Translation) Marion L. Matics. 1970
  • The World of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama. 1995
  • Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. John Powers. 1995
  • A Guide to the Buddhist Path. Sangharakshita. 1990

External links

  • Compassion and Bodhicitta
  • The Bodhisattva in Buddhism by Walpola Rahula Thera - German language
  • Drikung Kagyu Ngöndro Teaching By Lama Sonam Jorphel Rinpoche
  • Berzin, Alexander (2001). The Berzin Archives. Stages of Bodhichitta.
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