Bodhicitta meditation for skeptics

I’m a Mahayana Buddhist in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. This tradition has many features that baffle my scientifically trained mind. Unfortunately, some are at the heart of the tradition. Navigating my skepticism is part of the challenge of being a modern Buddhist.

However, I’m not quite as much a skeptic as the Bachelor’s. I do believe in rebirth, I do believe (with caveats) in the possibility to become a Buddha.

Those two beliefs are necessary for meditating on Bodhicitta in a way that approaches what the tradition meant by the word.

So let’s start with the basics: Bodhicitta is the Mind of Enlightenment. It’s the deeply felt intention or choice to become a Buddha to save all sentient beings from Samsara. It involves developing kindness for all beings, including your boss, and the awareness that nobody is going to be rushed to Nirvana. Patience is therefore an essential part of the story.

Note that in this tradition you are motivated to become a Buddha, not merely a Bodhisattva. A Buddha, after all, is more capable of helping people, being omniscient and all. A Bodhisattva is a being who is training to become a Buddha.

And that’s where my skepticism rears it’s ugly head: omniscient, all powerful – even accepting the limits of karma – do I really believe all that?

Fortunately, I don’t have to. The more human I imagine Buddha to have been, the less high is the standard of excellence I set for myself.

The Mahayana Gautama Buddha is really quite a miraculous being. He is seen, not as a human who struggled to find his way, faced up to disease, old age and death and left his home and struggled towards Nirvana. No – Gautama Buddha was a Buddha already before he incarnated as the baby boy Gautama. The task he set for himself in that life was to live the life that Buddha’s live, embodying the dharma.

I may believe that in the future, but for now the Buddha I am comfortable believing in is closer to an ordinary human being. He was a religious visionary, a talented meditator and concentrated on his task to the exclusion of all worldly concern. In the night of his awakening he had visions of Mara and Brahma that gave him the confidence to proclaim himself awakened. After weeks of meditating he decided, at divine instigation, that he ought to teach what he had discovered. And so he did, and I’ll always be grateful.

That’s step a: imagining a Buddha I can believe in and feel I can emulate

Step two follows logically from that. Even this Buddha is still beyond my present capacity to fully emulate. I have too many personal issues, too many attachments and aversions limiting the scope of my love and compassion. I get frustrated and angry, I dream about the impossible… In short I am an ordinary human being, although one that finds meditation helpful.

Step two is recognizing that I don’t have to become a Buddha in this life, it takes lifetimes after all. Three countless eons in fact, so the tradition says.

Step b: belief in rebirth and recognize the need for lots of reincarnations to attain this goal.

For the skeptic of course this is another hurdle. Personally I had visions of past lives in my early 20’s (half a life time ago). Others reading this may have had past life regressions done and believe in reincarnation on the basis of that.

For many however, belief in rebirth is a tough one to swallow. The FPMT has therefore given the ‘meditation on the continuity of consciousness’ an important place in the Discovering Buddhism program. It’s a traditional meditation, I suppose, but I do feel it’s especially necessary for Westerners trying to wrap their heads around a world view that they didn’t grow up in.

The continuity of consciousness meditation is therefore step c

Focus on your consciousness – either on a thought, or on consciousness itself – whatever works. Trace back your consciousness to yesterday, last week, last month, last year, a decade ago, your childhood, go back as far as you can manage in this life.

Realize that although your consciousness now is different from your consciousness as a child – there is still a continuity there. One moment of consciousness led to the next.

Realize next that for every moment of consciousness you remember, there was always a moment of consciousness before that. Where did it come from? Is there a point where it started? Can you find that starting point?

You find you can’t find a starting point.

Try and trace back consciousness to before you were born. If you can’t, reflect on how consciousness and matter are two very different things. How can one be the result of the other?

Conclusion (yes, the conclusions in these meditations are scripted, though it’s ok if you come to a different conclusion): my consciousness is without beginning, so I must have had countless lives before this one.

Having established both a Buddha we can believe in and the possibility to live countless more lives, we can now do the traditional meditations to meditate on Bodhicitta. Here I’ll give the steps to the sevenfold cause and effect method in my own words.

Step 0 – Meditating on equanimity

Focus on the feelings on attachment for a friend, aversion for an enemy or someone you’re annoyed with and indifference for a stranger. Remember that they’re all human, they all want happiness and your enemy acts that way out of their own disturbed emotions and thoughts.

Step 1 – seeing all beings as mother

Expanding on the result of the continuity of consciousness meditation, realize that not only have I lived countless lives – so have all other beings. We have therefore all probably met countless times as well. In fact, we probably had countless types of relationships with all beings: friends, enemies, strangers, family members – even mother and child.

Step 2: remembering the kindness of the mother

As a child we were dependent on our mother. She went through considerable discomfort carrying us around and later in feeding us, cleaning us etc. when we were helpless.

If we don’t have a good relationship with our mother today – remember all the things she did do for us. You don’t have to dwell on the negatives though. If it becomes hard, go on to remember also the kindness of other people in our lives: foster parents perhaps, teachers, siblings. Remember how dependent we are for our basic day-to-day necessities on perfect strangers. Be grateful to them as well.

Step 3: wishing to repay their kindness

Even though these people have helped us not merely in this life, but also in lifetimes beyond measure, they’re still caught in samsara, just like us. They suffer disease, old age and death as well as other types of suffering. I wish I could repay their kindness.

Step 4: Immeasurable love

Love is defined in Buddhism as the wish for beings (or a being) to have happiness and the cause of happiness. So meditate on wishing your friends happiness. If you can do that, include strangers as well. When that works, include enemies too. Make the wish as deep as you can manage and take on the responsibility to help them become happy: May I help them be happy.

Step 5: Immeasurable compassion

Compassion is defined in Buddhism as the wish for beings (or a being ) to be free from suffering and the cause of suffering. So meditate again on wishing your friends be free from suffering. Again: make it as deep a wish as you can manage and take on the responsibility to help them be free from suffering and the cause of suffering. Extend the wish to strangers and enemies if you are able.

Step 6: the Superior Intention

This is where you decide: yes, I want to help all beings become happy and free from suffering. I will do what I can to accomplish that goal.

Step 7: Bodhicitta itself

Realizing that the only way you can help all beings is by becoming a Buddha, you decide to take on the training of a Bodhisattva to become a Buddha and in deed help all beings.

With special thanks to Kay Minor and her teachings on the Middle Length Lam Rim by Lama Tsong Khapa, particularly the sevenfold cause and effect method summarized above.

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Katinka Hesselink

Having studied Buddhism and other religions and spiritual traditions since 1995, Katinka Hesselink became a Buddhist formally in 2011. She has studied world religions at Leiden University where she focused on religious anthropology, philosophy and psychology. She has written online since 1999 and started this blog to share her Buddhist knowledge, insight and opinions. Katinka is best known for her common sense approach to Buddhism.

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