Bodhicitta: The Ultimate Expression Of Compassion

Category: Buddhist Path | Love & Compassion Meditation | Recent Meditation Posts

An image of a Tibetan Buddhist statue of Tara, the incarnation of compassion and skillful wishing prayers

The Relation Between Compassion and Bodhicitta

Compassion and bodhicitta are related, but there is a difference between the two. Understanding how bodhicitta evolves from compassion can help us encourage the process.

Compassion is a response to suffering. For compassion to take place, three things must occur. First, suffering is perceived. Second, the desire to help minimize suffering arises. Finally, one acts upon this desire in the form of thought, word or deed.

In Buddhism, the awareness of suffering is what differentiates compassion (karuna) from lovingkindness (metta). Lovingkindness is warmth and friendliness we can direct towards another regardless of our awareness of their suffering. Lovingkindness says I want you to be happy and to have all the causes of happiness. Compassion says I wish you freedom from your pain as well as from all the causes of pain.

From the two root words ‘com’ and ‘passion,’ compassion is indicative of ‘suffering with’ another. It’s my felt recognition of your pain that compels me to act. And so, my compassion is perhaps limited by my capacity to open my eyes and heart to your suffering. If you’re angry, for example, I may not recognize that as an expression of pain. I react to your anger with anger, missing an opportunity for a compassionate response.

We also limit compassion in another way. Typically, we participate in acute acts of compassion. Our roommate stubs their toe, we witness a suffering animal, a loved one receives a diagnosis and we want to help. In our unenlightened state, compassion is not an all-the-time thing, for we prefer to think of suffering as periodic. But the Buddha taught of more than one type of suffering, the third of which is all-pervasive.

As we expand our awareness and open our hearts, we develop the courage to let in the truth of suffering. The profound recognition that pain is ever-present stirs something deep inside of us. We want to do everything in our power to help. This is the compassionate attitude of bodhicitta.

Developing Bodhicitta From Compassion

Our journey from compassion to bodhicitta is a journey of expanding compassion. We awaken to the possibility that we can practice compassion at all times for all beings. It’s possible for karuna, just like metta, to be boundless.

As conventional bodhicitta arises, we feel an urge to help like never before. And yet, in our current capacity, we struggle with offering compassion to those outside our closest circle. We find it challenging to open our hearts to those who have hurt us. In our daily lives, we’d prefer to forget about pain.

In the one whose heart has awakened, however, there’s no forgetting about sorrow. This is not to say the bodhisattva lives in constant negativity. Their infinitely open heart indeed sees the pain of this world but in its spaciousness, also takes in immeasurable joy and love. We can do the same, with practice.

Just as all others do, we suffer. To be of real help, we must come to terms with our suffering and also the reality that there is a way out. The Four Noble Truths teach both the truth of suffering and the truth of the cessation of suffering. With faith and the first-hand experience that arises out of practice, we come to see that the most effective thing we can do to help others is to help ourselves.

To devote oneself to freedom with compassion, the intent to help others is said to be the highest form of motivation. As we progress along the path, this impulse only becomes stronger. Compassion evolves into two kinds of bodhicitta, first aspirational then ultimate bodhicitta. For us beginner bodhisattvas, aspirational bodhicitta is the most important practice, constantly reminding ourselves to wish for the benefit and dedicate our merit to limitless sentient beings. This can simply be the thought: may whatever I engage in become a cause for enlightenment for all.

As wisdom arises, suffering becomes a gift that breaks open our hearts. We see there is space in which to hold both beauty and hardship. And that every thought, word or deed with which I seek to alleviate another’s pain also softens my own.

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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