The Bodhicitta Q and A
Q: What is meant by Bodhicitta?
A: From the standpoint of Buddhist mysticism, it is a special kind of illumination in which the adept is awakened to Mind’s great power.
Q: But I thought Bodhicitta just means “enlightened thought”.
A: Yes of course, but that is just the commonsense meaning-not the spiritual meaning.
Q: What is the experience of Bodhicitta?
A: As regarding its actual experience, the adept receives a kind of superessential illumination, emanating from universal Mind. Inwardly, he enjoys a spirit-like irradiation that passes completely through his body, even arousing the sense-perceptions.
Q: It sounds a lot like kundalini yoga in which a divine energy is raised through the spiritual centers in the body. Is it like that?
A: Yes, it is somewhat like kundalini, but with a difference.
Q: What is the difference?
A: Prior to Bodhicitta, the adept intuits what is called the ‘archetype of the Buddha’, known as the “gotra”. Variously described, it is also called a “germ”, a “seed”, an “element”, “lineage”, and so on. Actually, what the word gotra is alluding to, is knowing which has become, all at once, an object of itself. At any rate, over time, the gotra turns into Bodhicitta.
Q: I don’t understand. Could you give me an example?
A: In our everyday lives, we are used to seeing everything under the mode of the “object”. But never once has it dawned on us to look at knowing itself, as if it too, were an object! Now, beginning with the intuition of seeing knowing itself, called the “gotra”, the adept brings the gotra up in their mind’s eye tens of thousands of times for many years. This activity amounts to forcing the gotra out of its latent stage into actuality, becoming eventually Bodhicitta. It is analogous to cultivating a seed, or the gestation of an embryo in a mother’s womb.
Q: So far, what you have said is very interesting. But why haven’t I read about this before?
A: Those who have not manifested Bodhicitta, how would they know what it is? Yet, to suggest that it doesn’t exist in the canon is unwarranted. If you have read about the birth of the Bodhisattva from Queen Maya, that is Bodhicitta. The whole story of the Buddha’s birth, by the way, is a drama about spiritual birth which explains the entire process of enlightenment. Those who take the birth of the Buddha in a literal way, I am afraid, miss the true teaching.
Q: I don’t know quite what to say. My understanding of Bodhicitta is different. I never imagined that it is some kind of real spiritual transformation. In your explanation, everything seems more difficult.
A: I know. But whoever said the Way was easy?
Q: From the perspective of Zen, how should I conceive of this gotra, or what you call, the “Buddhaarchetype”?
A: Imagine in your mind’s eye Bodhidharma walking to China. Now, conceive what, within your mind, is producing this image of him walking to China.
Q: This is a koan-right? Is this how they were really intended to be used?
A: Of course. Each koan has a secret word that you fix onto, as if to conceive of its origin, before the word popped into your brain.
Q: But I thought that koans were illogical, or irrational.
A: Try super-logical.
Q: Okay, let us say I figured out what is making Bodhidharma go to China. Then what?
A: When you experience this “whatness” prior to the mental image of Bodhidharma going to China, you will, in that instant, be transported to the family of Buddhas. That is the gotra. Yet, I should caution you, this is only the beginning of the Bodhisattva’s career. Some Buddhists, however, fall into the delusion of believing that the gotra is final enlightenment. Zennists, who for example, talk about “no-thought”, or say, “This is it”, are only talking about the gotra. True enlightenment is far beyond that.
Q: Earlier, you mentioned that gotra can be called “lineage”. Do you think this is what is meant by lineage in Zen?
A: That is a good question. It is certainly a possibility. In Zen’s literature there is hardly anything mentioned about the Bodhisattva’s path. Most Zen masters just brush it aside as if the Bodhisattva’s path were inferior to “sudden enlightenment”. My reading, however, is different. I believe that early Zen only taught the gotra which it called “sudden enlightenment”. After that experience, the adept lived in the woods, so to speak, for about twenty years, mastering the Bodhisattva path.
Q: Who were some of the teachers that taught that kind of practice?
A: Right off the top of my head, Tsung Mi comes to mind. He was, I believe, the fifth patriarch of the Ho-tse School. He was a very strong advocate of the Bodhisattva path.
Q: But don’t today’s teachers teach the Bodhisattva path?
A: From what I have seen, I am inclined to say no. But this is only my opinion. Let me say, that if the gotra is not conceived, which is the foundation of the Bodhisattva’s practice, how can the Bodhisattva’s Way be accomplished? Furthermore, the Way is taught by a Buddha who is superessential, rather that a flesh and blood teacher. I think that I recall Saint Asanga flying up to Tusita heaven to learn from Maitreya! One more thing, remember that Bodhisattva’s only take refuge in the Buddha.
Q: What do you mean by flying up to Tusita heaven?
A: It is just a spiritual metaphor. Call it the plane of sublime intuitions.
Q: But how can the Buddha teach a Bodhisattva since he died long ago?
A: Who ever said he died? In the Mahavastu, it says that the Buddha was born from Queen Maya as a “spiritual body”. Obviously, that is not a physical body that will crap-out one day. The old coot is still around. Believe me.
Q: But the canon said that he was cremated and that his ashes were divided up.
A: That is a spiritual metaphor. In fact, everything from the Buddha’s conception in Queen Maya’s womb to his subsequent passing into nirvana is a spiritual fable. In actuality, the Buddha is Mind. Now, does that hit the ash heap? Does it burn? Let me tell you one important piece of information. The Buddha’s birth can take place in you. You can see Queen Maya and witness her death after seven days. You will even see the four mysterious Gods which attended her birth.
Q: That is strange. But I have always wondered about the story of the Buddha’s birth. It never seemed human to me. Why is it like that?
A: To lay it out to you in one bite, the Buddha’s birth, represents the reversal of natural birth. The Buddha’s birth is a spiritual genesis. As such, the maturation of the Bodhisattva (the young Buddha) is a progression from the physical to the spiritual.
Q: So what is gained by the reversal of natural birth?
A: Freedom from re-embodiment. The adept accomplishes the ability to distinguish between Mind’s true nature which is prior to the totality of being. That is about it. If all of a sudden, you find yourself prior to your mortal body, as it were, outside of it, I think it is fair to call this disembodiment.
Q: Is that maybe what nirvana means?
A: Hey, that is pretty darn good for an amateur! You are on the right track. I strongly suspect that nirvana and disembodiment are synonymous, although some Buddhists would howl at this idea. But what is the alternative? If religion only teaches us just to cope and wait for extinction; or wait for some savior to ride a cloud down to earth and raise the dead, I am afraid we will wait a very long time for salvation. The Buddha teaches us that we can attain nirvana now, rather than later.
Text by Zenmar, the Dark Zen mystic
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