The Two Kinds of Bodhicitta: Relative and Absolute

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

An image of a japanese garden - a metaphor for developing compassion and bodhicitta

Bodhicitta, the awakened heart, inspires us to follow the Buddhist path to the very end, to help free not just ourselves, but all beings everywhere. This is the basic principle of bodhicitta. But this Mahayana Buddhist concept is also of two kinds, there are relative and absolute levels of bodhicitta.

What Is Bodhicitta in Buddhism? (Definition and 2 Stages)

Bodhicitta is central to Mahayana Buddhism. It describes the heartfelt urge that drives our quest for enlightenment, not merely to ensure our own freedom, but to free all others too.

In our current state of confusion, we tend to prioritize our own needs before thinking of others. Even our attempts at being of service are clouded with the expectation we’ll get something in return. Our spiritual practice is no exception.

At first, we may turn to the Buddhist path to find relief from our own pain and suffering. As we practice, learn and grow, we come to understand there is a benefit to helping others too. Still, our efforts to accumulate good karma and merit are driven by self-centered goals. We want to get to Nirvana.

Bodhicitta is an inner awakening, a shift that occurs as compassion becomes realized within us. We awaken to the truth that our freedom is connected to the freedom of others. The two stages to bodhicitta describe how we go from understanding this conceptually to fully embodying the essence of wisdom and compassion.

Conventional Bodhicitta

Conventional bodhicitta may also be referred to as arising, aspiring or relative bodhicitta. This is the type of bodhicitta that exists as an aspiration or wish. As wisdom and compassion open our hearts, we wish the same for everyone. We aspire to become a bodhisattva, one who is equipped to make this wish come true.

There are a further two kinds of bodhicitta within the conventional: aspiring and engaging bodhicitta. In the first, we recognize the first noble truth, that all beings experience suffering, and aspire to be of service. But in our unenlightened state, we are unsure how to help. With faith in the path, we continue to aspire, make wishing prayers and learn how to best apply ourselves to benefit others.

In the second stage, we actually engage in developing bodhicitta – we take on the practices of the six paramitas or transcent perfections. These practices for engaged bodhicitta center on the development of empathy, loving-kindness and compassion. Although methods vary, each begins with the cultivation of selflessness. We can do this by recognizing all beings as our mothers, recalling their kindness and generating the wish to repay it. We can also practice by recognizing the self and others as equal. We recall the pain that arises from putting ourselves first and the joy that results from thinking of others.

Aspiring bodhicitta is like preparing for a journey, while engaged bodhicitta is actually going there. In both cases, we begin by using logical reasoning, contemplation and meditation to understand the benefits of being kind to all beings. We work toward loving others as if they were us. We may also truly feel as if all beings are equal to or even more important than us. Still, we view the world as if there is a separation between ‘me’ and ‘others.’ This worldview changes with the realization of ultimate bodhicitta.

Ultimate Bodhicitta

Ultimate bodhicitta, also known as absolute, is the higher of these two levels of bodhicitta. It is the complete realization of the wisdom of selflessness. With ultimate bodhicitta, we embody the truth that there is no separation between ‘me’ and another.

From that space of understanding, our loving, kind and generous actions take on new meaning. Free from all attachments and expectations, love is no longer transactional. We love from a place of wholeness, needing nothing in return as we are already complete. We understand the object of our love as complete, too. We practice genuine compassion versus pity. Thus the practices of the six paramitas truly become transcendent perfections. For example, we practice generosity within the three-fold purity: no giver, no recipient, no gift – all is embraced with the wisdom of emptiness.

As compassion and wisdom (the understanding of emptiness) flourish, absolute and relative bodhicitta work together. Relative bodhicitta keeps us grounded in reality. All phenomena are indeed empty of a separate, unchanging self, but things do exist. There is suffering in the world and we can participate in ending it. I can give to you.

Meanwhile, ultimate bodhicitta empowers us to genuinely help. Every action becomes imbued with wisdom and compassion. On a practical level, we remember that our healing is linked to that of others. By giving to you, I give to myself, and we both have everything we need.

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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