The Way of the Bodhisattva: Living in the World

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If we desire enlightenment only for ourselves, then living in society will seem like a hindrance. Everything will appear as an obstacle keeping you from your spiritual lifestyle and practices. You will feel a drive to escape, perhaps to nature or to an ashram. But wherever you go, your mind comes with you.

A key component is Motivation. If you seek peace and enlightenment only for yourself, then the world will continually get in the way. However, the Tibetan Buddhists have a different thought in mind. They aspire to enlightenment for the benefit of all Beings.

If we want to live in a beautiful and awakened world of majesty and harmony, then all change must start with ourselves. But we cannot wait until we are perfect before extending compassion to the world. Therefore even as we walk the path, we must also create the space to allow others to do so as well.

This is not a matter of teaching or outreach. This means treating everyone and everything as it truly is: an extension of existence.

Part of the Bodhisattva Vow is: "The beings in all the worlds are numberless, I vow to save them."

This does not mean going one by one and leading each by hand down the path to enlightenment. This means seeing into and accepting their inner nature for what it already and always is: You.

Living in the world requires you to understand the interdependence of all things, not just below the surface but also ON the surface.

When you can get on everyone's side, not their ego's sides mind you but the Soul's side, then you will no longer find society to be a hindrance to your path. Far from it! Every moment of conflict is an opportunity to make room for clarity to emerge within yourself. Whether or not the same happens for other people is not your concern, so long as you continually give others every opportunity to emerge with you.

With this attitude, the greatest obstacle to spiritual development in the modern age becomes a vehicle for your own salvation and peace.


Those who pursue the bodhisattva way aspire to bring bodhicitta into every moment and action.

Bodhicitta is the feeling and connectivity that is generated when we allow ourselves to be compassionate. There are two kinds of bodhicitta: absolute bodhicitta and relative bodhicitta.

Citta means mind and heart, your feelings of this moment. Bodhi means awake or awareness. Therefore bodhicitta is the awareness of the heart of this moment.

When we feel things that we dislike, we try to run away from them. We try to distract ourselves with rationalizations or diversions. Bodhicitta means staying with the feelings that you dislike. Allowing them to be there without running away, you will discover how they change along with the arising of fearlessness within.

Relating to the moment with openness is relative bodhcitta. It means practicing mindfulness and acceptance in this moment, every moment.

Absolute bodhicitta is cultivated through meditation. Absolute bodhicitta is the underlying emptiness of all things that thrums with the love of existence. It is groundlessness and freedom and openness, like a vast sky. It is your nature. By engaging in meditation, you grow to connect with your own nature as being of absolute bodhicitta.

By bringing that flash of absolute bodhicitta into the moment during times of hardship, you create enough space to practice relative bodhicitta mindfulness.

This is the practice of Tonglen.

Most of all, bodhicitta is something you discover in your own way through your own experience. Words help to give the impression but it is you who must awaken yourself to your genuine heart.

Tonglen: The Wakeful Heart

To be in touch with one's self and therefore the universe is the work of the beginning meditator. It demands a person to overcome restlessness, attraction, and repulsion by sitting with whatever thoughts and feelings that arise. Practice and earnestness make this possible. But after one discovers a certain amount of peace in sitting meditation, the next question is now what? How can we bring this peace into our world and not only feel it but deepen it as well?

This takes us to a very special practice that comes from Atisha, an Indian Buddhist teacher who was part of a movement to repopularize Buddhism in Tibet over a thousand years ago. Atisha developed a practical and beautiful technique called tonglen, which is Tibetan for giving and taking. More specifically, tonglen is a way for a meditator to give out compassion and take in suffering.

It is understandable if this seems counterintuitive to you. However, the Tibetan Buddhists saw this as a way to generate fearlessness in the face of the things that scare us. That can be something as mundane as public speaking or as life-changing as childbirth.

For those familiar with meditation, the first form of tonglen is the formalized sitting. Find yourself a comfortable seated position and sit for a short period of meditation. When you are ready to practice the technique, you may open your eyes or leave them closed.

Step One: Openness

Connecting with openness allows us to feel a certain confidence when confronting difficult things. Therefore before we work with the suffering in our lives, it helps to first touch base with our vast Nature. It is a reminder that you can always come back to peaceful abiding.

To get the feeling of this openness, some people like to apply visualization. They see themselves standing before an endless white fog, the ocean, or the vast sky. Whatever gives you a feeling of expansive freedom. When that feeling arises, focus your attention on the feeling and forget the visual. Abide with the feeling for a few minutes.

Step Two: Breathing

Place your attention on your breathing. As you inhale, imagine you are taking in the claustrophobic texture of suffering. If you are having trouble connecting with this feeling, add a color, scent, and visual to the suffering. As you exhale, imagine you are breathing out sincere peace, love, and freedom. In and out; again and again. Keep at it for another few minutes.

Step Three: Work

Now is the time to confront a very real situation. Visualize someone whom you love or care for deeply. Inhale the strain of that person's problems and exhale the genuine wish to alleviate their suffering. Continue with the breathing until a flow is established.

Once you feel confident in this exchange, you may broaden the practice to visualizing total strangers and eventually to people you dislike. Sincerely sending compassion to strangers and enemies alike helps to overcome certain divisive human tendencies and heals old wounds. You can also apply this to difficult situations.

Step Four: Broadening

Focus on a particular aspect of the suffering with which you are working. Is there an unhappiness with physical appearance? A tendency toward anger, judgment, or jealousy? Focus on that issue, breathing in everything that troubles you about it and exhaling spacious peace.

Now acknowledge all the other people who may be feeling the exact same way. You are all in this together and as a practitioner you have the opportunity to fully experience this suffering so that in the future others wont have to. Inhale the suffering of everyone who suffers in the same way you do, exhale the peace of openness out to them.

End with another sitting of meditation.

Steps one through four altogether can go anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes in duration. By using this technique both on the cushion and in the world, meditators may come to a new place of social understanding and connectivity with their fellow humans.


The world in which we live is largely compartmentalized. There is the part of us that works or attends school, a part of us that cuts loose and socializes, and for some of us there is a part of us that mulls over life in solitude. Even within those divided aspects of our lives there may be even more divisions.

Amidst the boxes within boxes, it is all too easy to lose track of one's self and become lost in a sea of shifting identities. One aim of the spiritual path is to acknowledge the lack of inherent existence to these fabricated boundaries and divisions. However, sometimes along the way the spiritual path ends up becoming just another box or compartment.

The bodhisattva way of life is one manner in which we might bring a touch of connection, love, and compassion into every facet of our lives. You don't have to be a Buddhist, a theist, or anything in particular to benefit from these perspectives.

Learning to stay with the most challenging moments of life despite our burning desire to run or push them away can open a new chapter of our existence. Fearlessness doesn't necessarily mean the absence of fear but rather the absence of panic and confusion induced by fear.

Peace, freedom, and happiness are the true inheritance of every individual. They come not from doing, gaining, or achieving but by re-discovering the reality of existence. Satisfy yourself with nothing less.



Image by swifant, courtesy of Creative Commons license. 

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