The Awakening Mind - Preface
Looking back on my life, I feel both grateful and humble that I have had so many opportunities to learn about the wonderful awakening mind, called bodhichitta in Sanskrit, the mind wishing to attain enlightenment for the sake of all living beings. Not only have I studied the great texts again and again in the monastery, but I have also heard many precious masters such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama teach on the subject often.
Despite the little I have been able to assimilate within my mental continuum, I still feel my continued exposure to the teachings on the awakening mind has done me much good. I’m not sure how far down the road to altruism I have gone, but I am completely convinced from all that I have studied that were I to cultivate such a mind at some distant time in the future, it would have immeasurable benefits for me and for all those I came into contact with over the course of my lifetime. Moreover, there would be both immediate benefits, such as the freedom from the fears, worries, and uncertainties that are now part and parcel of daily life, as well as long-term benefits, such as attaining the fully awakened state of enlightenment.
It is very interesting how Western students, utterly unabashed, often ask His Holiness the Dalai Lama if he has such a mind, a question no Tibetan would ever dare ask. His answer, invariably given with great humor, is that he has been trying since he was a boy to get a glimpse of such a mind, and that the day he cultivates the mind of enlightenment will be the day he can finally take a good rest.
This answer tells us how crucial the awakening mind of enlightenment is, and it is not just the present Dalai Lama who understands its importance. There is a long tradition of teachings on bodhichitta and many, many generations of great masters have understood this, beginning with the Buddha himself.
All of the Mahayana traditions say that to achieve full enlightenment both the wisdom and the method sides of the practice are needed. Wisdom refers to the profound heart-level understanding of subjects such as selflessness, impermanence, and lack of inherent existence, and method refers to the development of the emotional, intuitive side of the mind—kindness, love, ethics, and so on. Paramount to the method side is the cultivation of bodhichitta.
Buddhism is both a religion and a philosophy, and within the Tibetan tradition great emphasis is placed on philosophical inquiry, so it is natural that over the millennia there have arisen many different views on how things truly exist. Each suits a particular mental disposition, and while none are in direct contradiction, together they create a spectrum of philosophical views. What I find very interesting, though, is that, despite the love of debate and questioning within our tradition, there is no disagreement about the mind of enlightenment. All traditions agree, and agree totally and without argument, on the concept, its importance, and the methods of developing it.
Without a mind utterly and continually bent on others’ welfare, all our activities are sullied with self-interest. But the awakening mind is more than just compassion for others—it is the mind completely given to the aspiration of gaining full enlightenment as the only truly satisfactory means of benefiting all others in the utmost possible way. It is a huge mind. It is the most vast mind. With such a mind, every action of body, speech, and mind is pure and leads us inexorably toward enlightenment.
We should rejoice, because we are already taking the first tentative steps toward attaining bodhichitta, something so rare these days. If we have the courage, the route is mapped out for us. And it is a set route. Most masters agree that although there are different methods for developing this mind, there are definite steps that must be taken. These have been formalized over the centuries by Indian and Tibetan Buddhist masters into two main methods, with a third that is an amalgamation of both. They lead us to a mind that is imbued with a strong sense of love and compassion for all other living beings, a feeling of dearness and closeness to all. From that mind there arises the natural wish to help all beings in the most profound way possible.
Given it is such an important subject, there have of course been many wonderful books written by masters far more learned and accomplished than I, so I was at first quite reluctant to write on the awakening mind. But really there can never be too many books on the subject, and within the framework of The Foundation of Buddhist Thought series, this is a topic that must be tackled. Although I have no realizations of such a mind, perhaps somehow some little understanding has crept in over all the many years that I have studied it, and perhaps, because of my long association with Western people through teaching in the West, I can impart the wisdom of the earlier great masters in a language that is accessible and enjoyable. If that is the case, then presenting the teachings on this utterly incredible mind is a great pleasure to me. If, in this book, I can give you even a little of the inspiration the teachings of the great masters have given to me on this topic, then I feel I will have achieved my purpose.
Over the years that I have been associated with The Foundation of Buddhist Thought course devised by Geshe Tashi in 1997, one aspect that often strikes me is how the different modules attract different students. Some students sail through the comparatively esoteric and difficult concept of the two truths covered in Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth, but find the idea of taking responsibility for the happiness of all sentient beings that bodhichitta entails terrifying. Some are comfortable with the idea of love, but balk when it comes to a love that understands reality, in all its gritty and not so pretty aspects. I’m sure, should you read all six books in the series, that you will have your favorites and ones you are challenged by. Hopefully you will also see how skillful Geshe Tashi has been in choosing these six topics to give a complete overview of Buddhism from a Tibetan perspective.
Mahayana Buddhism’s prime foci are compassion—the wish that others be freed from suffering—and understanding reality so we can help make that happen. So therefore it is little wonder that the majority of the Foundation of Buddhist Thought students, attracted as they are to a Tibetan Buddhist course, find the awakening mind of enlightenment to be the most wonderful jewel of all. I found this subject a joy to study and edit.
Compassion and understanding, the two aspects of Buddhism that give it great strength and beauty, come together in the awakening mind. We each have different propensities, and are attracted to different ways of thinking, but within the term bodhichitta, the awakening mind of enlightenment, we are ambushed into embracing a mind so vast it breaks down our mental barriers. Those of us with a logical disposition can see how compassion is the only choice and thus learn to develop the intuitive, loving side of our natures; those of us whose minds naturally go toward love and compassion learn to see that the simple wish for people to be happy is pretty woolly unless reinforced with a deep understanding of why they are not, and so learn to develop the rational, understanding side of our natures. It’s all here, and if we can even start to get a taste for this incredible mind, it can be the motivation to spur us into exploring all the other aspects of Buddhism, or any other great philosophy for that matter.
Many have been attracted to the course, and especially to the series of books, because of the “voice” of Geshe Tashi (a voice I hope I haven’t dulled with my clumsy editing). It is a voice of warmth, humor, and understanding, but most of all compassion. Like his teachers, Geshe Tashi speaks only with the wish to help others, and his message of compassion and understanding shines through no matter what subject he is teaching.
I noticed this from the time I first met him in 1992, when he was staying at Nalanda Monastery in southern France, studying both the English language and the Western mind. When he studies an English language textbook, it is for compassion; when he reads Scientific American, it is for compassion. As he says, bodhichitta—compassion taken to its ultimate—is the essence of the Buddha’s teachings, and so everything within Tibetan Buddhism leads back to bodhichitta. It has been Geshe Tashi’s life.
Born in Purang, Tibet, in 1958, Geshe Tashi escaped to India with his parents one year later. He entered Sera Mey Monastic University at the age of thirteen, and spent the next sixteen years working for his Geshe degree, graduating as a Lharampa Geshe, the highest possible degree.
After a year at the Highest Tantric College (Gyuto), Geshe-la began his teaching career in Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, the principal monastery of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). Geshe Tashi then moved to the Gandhi Foundation College in Nagpur, and it was at that time that the FPMT’s Spiritual Director, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, asked him to teach in the West. After two years at Nalanda Monastery in France, in 1994, Geshe Tashi became the resident teacher at Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London.
Very early on in his teaching career at Jamyang he saw that the textbased, passive learning style usually associated with Tibetan Buddhism in Western Dharma centers often failed to engage the students in a meaningful way. By incorporating Western pedagogic methods, he devised a two-year, six-module course that he felt would give his students a solid overview of Buddhism. This book is derived from the fourth course book of The Foundation of Buddhist Thought.
As with the other books in the series, many people have been involved with its development and I would like to thank them all. I would also like to offer my warmest thanks to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the head of the FPMT and the inspiration for the group of study programs to which The Foundation of Buddhist Thought belongs.