On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

September 07, 2011

The Meditations of a Bodhisattva

Kamalasila (8th c)


The necessity of compassion 

One who wishes to gain omniscience swiftly must strive in three things: in compassion, in the thought of enlightenment, and in meditation.  Practice compassion from the very outset, for we know that compassion alone is the foundation of all the qualities of Buddhahood.  As we read in the teachings:

“A bodhisattva should not practice too many things at once, for if a bodhisattva can master and truly understand just one thing, then she would hold all the qualities of Buddhahood in the palm of her hand. And what is this one thing?  It is great compassion.  What is the beginning of a bodhisattva’s practice, and what is its abode?  Great compassion is the beginning of a bodhisattva’s practice, and it abides among living beings.”

Thus a bodhisattva is impelled only by a desire to help others, with no regard for himself:  and he sets out upon a long and arduous path, ever exerting himself to acquire merit and knowledge.  As we read in the teachings:  “When one’s compassion aims to bring all beings to maturity, there is no happiness at all which one will not renounce.”

Meditation upon compassion

The entire world is licked by the blazing flames of suffering; meditate upon compassion for all beings.  First meditate upon those whom you love; see how they bear many sufferings; they are the same as you and realize there is no difference between them and you.

Then meditate upon those you are neutral about; consider that in the beginningless world there is no being who has not been your kinsman a hundred times, and awaken compassion for them as you do your own loved ones.

Then meditate upon your enemies; realize they are the same as you and awaken the same kind of compassion for them as you do for your loved ones.

Thus, gradually meditate upon all beings in the ten directions; awaken compassion for all beings equally; realize they are as dear to you as your own family, aspire to lead them out of pain. Thus is your compassion made perfect, and it is called great compassion.

The Thought of Enlightenment

The yearning for Buddhahood  

It is thus through one’s constant habit of compassion, the intention to lead all beings out of pain, that awakens the thought of enlightenment for other’s sake.

Seeing that beings are without protection or refuge or sanctuary, establish your mind in compassion and awaken the thought of supreme and perfect enlightenment.

Now a bodhisattva may awaken this thought of enlightenment at the urging of someone else; but the Buddha has shown us that it is far more excellent if one awakens it oneself, through the impulse of self generated compassion. 

This thought of enlightenment, this yearning for Buddhahood, has great fruits in the world even when it is unaccompanied by any religious practice.  As we read in the teachings:

“Even a flawed diamond is better than the finest golden ornament; it is still called a diamond, and it is still able to relieve all poverty.  In the same way, this diamond of awakening your mind to omniscience, even when flawed in practice, is better than any golden ornament of a disciple’s or solitary Buddha’s virtues; it is still called the thought of enlightenment, and it is still able to relieve the poverty of being in the world.”

One who is unable to practice all the perfections, all the time, in all ways, should just awaken this thought of enlightenment for it has great fruits when it is skillfully embraced. 

“….you are very busy, and you have much to do; and you are unable to practice all the perfections, from charity to wisdom, all the time, in all ways.   And so, you should hope for perfect enlightenment, believe in it, long for it, yearn for it; and when you go or stand or sit, when you lie down or when you awaken, when you eat or when you drink, bear it always in mind, think upon it, meditate upon it.”

The vow of enlightenment 

It is when this thought of enlightenment is accompanied by practice that its fruits are truly great.  As we read in the teachings:

“The thought of enlightenment is the seed of all the qualities of Buddhahood.”

The thought of enlightenment is of two sorts: the intention and the setting forth.

“It is hard to find beings in the world who intend to achieve supreme and perfect enlightenment; and it is even harder to find beings who actually set forth to find supreme and perfect enlightenment.”

The intention is the initial yearning for Buddhahood; the setting forth is the actual making of a vow to become a Buddha, and the actual accumulation of the stocks of merit and knowledge.

The necessity of meditation

Thus we should awaken the wisdom that comes from meditation so as to directly experience reality ourselves.  All the teachings emphasize that even by much study and much consideration one cannot experience reality directly.  If the light of manifest knowledge does not begin to shine, we cannot cut through the darkness of our confusion; and it is through meditation that the light of manifest knowledge shines even upon objects which are not real; how much more upon what is really real!  One who wishes to see reality face-to-face should set out to meditate.


First one should practice calm in order to steady the mind, for the mind is as wavering as water, and is not steady without the support of calm.  “It is a concentrated mind which understands things as they really are.”  We can attain to this calm quite swiftly if we are indifferent to gain and steady in practice.  In the teachings there are nine terms describing a state of calm.  The mind is fixed and founded, fast and firm; it is trained, calmed, quieted, unified and concentrated.

Fixed means the mind is bound to the meditative object;  founded means that it continues to hold to the meditative object; fast means that is casts aside any distraction which occurs; and firms means that it fixes itself upon the meditative object once again, when the distraction has been cast aside.

Trained means that the mind delights in meditation; calmed means that it calms discontent by considering the consequences of distraction; quieted means that it calms any drowsiness and torpor which occur; unified means that it flows evenly and naturally upon the meditative object; and concentrated means that it flows smoothly and spontaneously upon it.

Now there are six defects to any state of meditation: and these are sloth, and fading away of the meditative object, giddiness, depression, lack of effort, and too much effort.  To cultivate the antidotes to these defects there are antidotes which suppress them:  faith, hope, and exertion; serenity, mindfulness, awareness, investigation and equanimity.  The first four of these are all antidotes to sloth.  For a bodhisattva’s faith is defined as complete confidence in the virtues of meditation: hence we begin to wish to possess these virtues; then we set out with energy.  The body and mind become supple, and with this serenity of mind and body, we ward off sloth.  Thus we should cultivate faith, hope, exertion and serenity that sloth may be overcome. 

Mindfulness is the antidote to the fading away of the meditative object, and awareness is the antidote to both giddiness and depression.  But when giddiness and depression have been calmed, one may then meditate with insufficient effort.  Cultivate investigation as the antidote.  When the mind is flowing serenely, one may meditate with too much effort; cultivate equanimity as the antidote to that.

A state of meditation endowed with these eight conditions is the most supple, and it produces incredible results. 

Kamalasila (8th c)

Excerpted from The Buddhist Experience; sources and interpretations translated by Stephan Beyer 1974

The simplicity of this piece, the clarity of expression, gives a kind of accessibility that is refreshing and brings a breath of fresh air to our journey.  Who has not felt the balm of compassion?  What is profound is to realize how much the foundation of practice is based on compassion.  In the meditations on compassion, which we have heard before, there is one left out, the compassion for oneself.   In embracing the thought of enlightenment; in attempting to put meditation into practice, we invariably disappoint ourselves.  While not becoming complacent, we need to forgive ourselves as well.  We are all a part of this delusive and seductive world; we are all works in progress.

At times the attainment of enlightenment seems so far away, we seem to be very much beginners still.  How many stories have we read about Zen masters who trained and trained for years becoming discouraged with their “progress?”

“This thought of enlightenment, this yearning for Buddhahood, has great fruits in the world even when it is unaccompanied by any religious practice.”

This is a surprising sentence, one you think at first you must be reading wrong.  Perhaps it’s the translation, you wonder.   What it communicates is the power of this thought of enlightenment; of course once one conceives this kind of intention, one seeks a way, a path forward.  Once one begins practice, meditation, then there is the skill of staying true to the Way.

And we all can recognize the defects that all have opportunities to challenge us.  Not only are they clearly elucidated, but the antidotes are given as well.  This short piece contains a toolbox of teachings we can all easily access and try on.  No extensive visualizations required, just an encouraging sense of ease, just as a bodhisattva might instruct us who is devoted to helping us.

 In the teachings there are nine terms describing a state of calm.  The mind is fixed and founded, fast and firm; it is trained, calmed, quieted, unified and concentrated.

May our Way be clear!


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