Jangchubsem (བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་) or Bodhicitta in Sanskrit is the thought of enlightenment or awakening. It is a desire to take all sentient beings, leaving no one behind, to the ultimate state of happiness, which is Buddhahood. Bodhicitta is considered as the essence of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Just as taking refuge is said to differentiate Buddhists from non-Buddhists, Bodhicitta is said to distinguish the followers of Mahāyāna from non-Mahāyāna. The entire Mahāyāna system is characterized by the theory and practice of Bodhicitta and said to be encompassed by Bodhicitta. Thus, in a Mahāyāna Buddhist country like Bhutan, Bodhicitta plays a vital role in people’s spiritual culture.

Maitreya, in his famous work on the Perfection of Wisdom, defines Bodhicitta as the desire for the perfect state of enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. He calls Bodhicitta also Semkye (སེམས་བསྐྱེད་) or cultivation of the mind, in which mind refers to the altruistic thought. Following his definition, scholars elaborate that Bodhicitta is made of two components: compassion towards all sentient beings and wisdom to seek perfect enlightenment for their wellbeing. In practice, Bodhicitta is often presented as a wish to take all sentient beings to the unsurpassable perfect state of the Buddha (སེམས་ཅན་ཐམས་ཅད་བླ་ན་མེད་པ་རྫོགས་པའི་སངས་རྒྱས་ཀྱི་གོ་འཕང་ལ་འགོད་པར་ཤོག་)

Śāntideva divided Bodhicitta into two types of Aspiring Bodhicitta (བྱང་ཆུབ་སྨོན་པའི་སེམས་) and Engaged Bodhicitta (བྱང་ཆུབ་འཇུག་པའི་སེམས་). The first is the desire to take all sentient beings to Buddhahood, like a wish to go somewhere, and the second is to engage in the activities to take them to Buddhahood, like making the journey towards a destination. In other treatises, Bodhicitta is classified into four, five, six, and twenty-two depending on the reasons for classification.

The theory and practice of Bodhicitta was passed down through two Mahāyāna traditions: the Profound View tradition (ཟབ་མོ་ལྟ་བའི་སྲོལ་) passed down from Nāgārjuna and his followers and Vast Praxis (རྒྱ་ཆེན་སྤྱོད་པའི་སྲོལ་) tradition transmitted by Asaṅga and his followers. The theories and techniques of Bodhicitta practice from the Profound View tradition were transmitted to Tibet and Bhutan by masters such as Padmasambhava and Śāntarakṣita and the Vast Praxis tradition by Atīśa Dipaṃkara and other masters via Tibet.

Śāntideva in his book on the Bodhisattva path promotes Bodhicitta for the practice of equality between oneself and others (བདག་གཞན་མཉམ་པ་), exchange between oneself and others (བདག་གཞན་བརྗེ་བ་), and the six perfections (ཕར་ཕྱིན་དྲུག་). Atīśa passed down the seven-fold instructions of cause and effect (རྒྱུ་འབྲས་མན་ངག་བདུན་) to cultivate Bodhicitta. The seven are 1) recognising all sentient beings as one’s mother (མར་ཤེས་པ་), 2) recollecting their kindness (དྲིན་དྲན་པ་), 3) reciprocating their kindness (དྲིན་གཟོ་བ་), 4) loving kindness (ཡིད་འོང་བྱམས་པ་), 5) great compassion (སྙིང་རྗེ་ཆེན་པོ་), 6) noble resolve (ལྷག་བསམ་རྣམ་དག་) and 7) cultivation of Bodhicitta (བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་). Longchenpa recommended the practice of the four immeasureable thoughts of loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity in order to develop the thought of Bodhicitta. Masters such as Chekhawa Yeshi Dorji and Patrul Ogyen Jigme Chokyi Wangpo further elaborated on these different ways of generating Bodhicitta. Chekhawa pointed out how the exchange between oneself and others can be practised with the exhalation and inhalation of one’s breath in the practice of tonglen (གཏོང་ལེན་). Patrul introduced the technique of practicing the Bodhicitta in the form of a wishful thought, a prayer, a resolve and supplication.

A champion promoter of Bodhicitta in the Buddhist world is Śāntideva, who is widely studied in Bhutanese monasteries and who treats the cultivation of Bodhicitta in detail through the practice of six perfections of giving (སྦྱིན་པ་), discipline (ཚུལ་ཁྲིམས་), patience (བཟོད་པ་), zeal (བརྩོན་འགྲུས་), meditation (བསམ་གཏན་) and wisdom (ཤེས་རབ་). Śāntideva extols Bodhicitta as the quintessential cream from the milk of Buddha’s dharma, the panacea for all maladies, elixer to destroy mortality, the sun to dispel all darkness, the treasure to solve all poverty and a supreme jewel of thought.

In later Mahāyāna writings, Bodhicitta is divided into relative Bodhicitta and ultimate Bodhicitta of which the latter refers to the gnosis of Emptiness, the ultimate state of being. This idea is further developed in the tantric and Vajrayāna systems, in which Bodhicitta finds an advanced philosophical purport referring to the empty and luminous nature of the mind, which is primordially free, open, pure and perfect. The understanding of Bodhicitta in both relative and ultimate terms is common in the Nyingma and Kagyu Buddhist schools prevalent in Bhutan. However, the popular way in which the Bhutanese recollect and practice Bodhicitta is through the following verse which is recited ubiquitously and frequently.

བྱན་ཆུབ་སེམས་མཆོག་རིན་པོ་ཆེ། །མ་སྐྱེས་པ་རྣམས་སྐྱེ་གྱུར་ཅིག །

སྐྱེས་པ་ཉམས་པ་མེད་པར་ཡང་། །གོང་ནས་གོང་དུ་འཕེལ་བར་ཤོག །

May the precious and sublime Bodhicitta

Arise in those in whom it has not arisen.

Where it has arisen, may it never decline

But increase more and more.

Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including  The History of Bhutan.