Semkye – The Thought of Enlightenment

Why we do what we do: In the Mahāyāna Buddhist practice, chabdro (སྐྱབས་འགྲོ་) or taking refuge is followed by semkye (སེམས་བསྐྱེད་) or the altruistic thought to attain enlightenment. Semkye, or jangchub semkye (བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་བསྐྱེད་) in its full form, literally means the cultivation of the thought of enlightenment. It refers to the Mahāyāna thought of reaching Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings or the aspiration and resolve to take both oneself and other sentient beings to the ultimate state of enlightenment. Just as taking refuge is the defining characteristic and foundation of all Buddhist practices, semkye is the essential feature of all Mahāyāna practices.

Maitreya defines semkye as ‘the desire to reach perfect full enlightenment for the sake of others’ (སེམས་བསྐྱེད་པ་ནི་གཞན་དོན་ཕྱིར། །ཡང་དག་རྫོགས་པའི་བྱང་ཆུབ་འདོད། །) It has the two components of compassion, which acutely feels the suffering of sentient beings, and wisdom, which seeks a sustainable solution to the suffering by reaching the state of perfect enlightenment. Semkye is also popularly known as jangchubsem (བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་) or the mind of enlightenment and is praised as the supreme mind (སེམས་མཆོག་). Śāntideva considers it the quintessential cream extracted from the milk of sacred dharma or teachings (དམ་ཆོས་འོ་མ་བསྲུབས་པ་ལས། །མར་གྱི་ཉིང་ཁུ་ཕྱུང་བ་ཡིན། །) and divides it into the aspiring thought (སྨོན་པ་སེམས་བསྐྱེད་), which wishes to take all sentient beings to enlightenment, and the applied thought (འཇུག་པ་སེམས་བསྐྱེད་), which engages in the actions to do so.

Maitreya divides semkye into twenty-two types using similes but a common classification presents it in three types. The superior type, like the motivation of a shepherd, seeks enlightenment for other sentient beings before oneself. A shepherd would seek grass, water and safety for his flock before he seeks his own comfort. The middling type, like a boatman, wishes both oneself and others to reach enlightenment simultaneously. A boatman would wish for both himself and others to reach the other shore together. The inferior type, like the intention of a king, seeks enlightenment for himself first so that he can help others also reach it. A king first takes the throne and position of power and prosperity himself and then looks after his subjects. Bodhicitta is also classified in various other ways in order to help people generate it as easily and frequently as possible. Those people who generate the thought of enlightenment and act in accordance with it are known as Bodhisattvas or altruistic beings who seek enlightenment for all sentient beings.

The thought of enlightenment is often first cultivated through a ceremony of taking the Bodhisattva vow. The procedures for taking the Bodhisattva vow and precepts which follow will be topic for a separate essay. Bodhicitta is enhanced through a wide range of contemplative and applied practices which are promoted by various Mahāyāna traditions and masters. These practices and techniques, which are too numerous and profound to be discussed in this short introduction, help invigorate the altruistic semkye by furthering the qualities of compassion and wisdom in an individual. As the most important component of the Mahāyāna Buddhist path and an essential part of any Vajrayāna practice, semkye or Bodhicitta has a prominent place in Bhutan’s spiritual culture and ethos. Thus, a popular prayer one hears in Bhutan is:

བྱང་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 supreme jewel Bodhicitta

Which has not arisen arise and grow.

May that which has arisen, not diminish,

But increase more and more. (translator unknown)

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.

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