Etymologically, the word is a combination of the Sanskrit words bodhi and citta. Bodhi means "awakening" or "enlightenment". Citta derives from the Sanskrit root cit, and means "that which is conscious" (i.e., mind or consciousness). Bodhicitta may be translated as "awakening mind" or "mind of enlightenment".
Bodhicitta is a spontaneous wish to attain enlightenment motivated by great compassion for all sentient beings, accompanied by a falling away of the attachment to the illusion of an inherently existing self.
The mind of great compassion and bodhicitta motivates one to attain enlightenment Buddhahood, as quickly as possible and benefit infinite sentient beings through their emanations and other skillful means. Bodhicitta is a felt need to replace others' suffering with bliss. Since the ultimate end of suffering is nirvana, bodhicitta necessarily involves a motivation to help others to awaken (to find bodhi).
A person who has a spontaneous realization or motivation of bodhicitta is called a bodhisattva.
Different schools may demonstrate alternative understandings of bodhicitta.
Some bodhicitta practices emphasize the absolute (e.g. vipaśyanā), while others emphasize the relative (e.g. metta), but both aspects are seen in all Mahāyāna practice as essential to enlightenment, especially in the Tibetan practices of tonglen and lojong. Without the absolute, the relative can degenerate into pity and sentimentality, whereas the absolute without the relative can lead to nihilism and lack of desire to engage other sentient beings for their benefit.
In his book Words of My Perfect Teacher, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Patrul Rinpoche describes three degrees of bodhicitta: The way of the King, who primarily seeks his own benefit but who recognizes that his benefit depends crucially on that of his kingdom and his subjects. The path of the boatman, who ferries his passengers across the river and simultaneously, of course, ferries himself as well, and finally that of the shepherd, who makes sure that all his sheep arrive safely ahead of him and places their welfare above his own. The last, the way of the shepherd, is according to Patrul Rinpoche the best and highest way.
Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche and Surya Das, both Nyingma masters of the non-sectarian Rime movement, distinguish between relative and absolute (or ultimate) bodhicitta. Relative bodhicitta is a state of mind in which the practitioner works for the good of all beings as if it were their own. Absolute bodhicitta is the wisdom of shunyata (śunyatā, a Sanskrit term often translated as "emptiness", though the alternatives "vast expanse" or "openness" or "spaciousness" probably convey the idea better to Westerners). The concept of śunyatā in Buddhism also implies freedom from attachments[b] and from fixed ideas about the world and how it should be.[c]
We are describing here the late systematized Indo-Tibetan Mahāyāna. It seems that in the relatively early Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra, for example, the bodhicitta is a much vaguer concept, more "a certain state of mind" in which a Bodhisattva acts (Nattier 2003a: 148). [...] Pagel points out that many Mahāyāna sūtras, including the Bodhisattvapiṭaka, hold that the arising of bodhicitta (bodhicittotpāda) is not simply a static thing that occurs just at the beginning of the Bodhisattva path. Rather it is continuously retaken and evolves through practice.
Among the most important later Tibetan Buddhism source texts on bodhicitta are:
Mahayana Buddhism propagates the Bodhisattva-ideal, in which the Six perfections are being practiced continuously. Arousing and aspiring in the Paramita's application, are part of this Bodhisattva-ideal to bodhicitta.
Bodhicitta nature meditation, its degrees, and intentional precepts, and action, with a dedication to achieving Buddhahood is an ancient Tibetian Buddhist wisdom method.
Mahāyāna Buddhism teaches that the broader motivation of achieving one's own enlightenment "in order to help all sentient beings" is the best possible motivation one can have for any action, whether it be working in one's vocation, teaching others, or even making an incense offering. The Six Perfections (Pāramitās) of Buddhism only become true "perfections" when they are done with the motivation of bodhicitta. Thus, the action of giving (Skt. dāna) can be done in a mundane sense, or it can be a Pāramitā if it is conjoined with bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is the primary positive factor to be cultivated.
The Mahāyāna-tradition provides specific methods for the intentional cultivation of both absolute and relative bodhicitta. This cultivation is considered to be one of the most difficult aspects of the path to complete awakening. Practitioners of the Mahāyāna make it their primary goal to develop a genuine, uncontrived bodhicitta which remains within their mindstreams continuously without having to rely on conscious effort.
Among the many methods for developing uncontrived Bodhicitta given in Mahāyāna teachings are:
In Lojong's 59 slogans, Point Two: The main practice, which is training in absolute and relative bodhicitta.
When only realizing Śūnyatā, the practitioner might not benefit others, so the Mahayana path unites emptiness and compassion, this keeps from falling into the two limits and remaining on the middle way. Traditionally, Bodhisattvas practice mediative concentration at the beginning toward attaining the noble one's wisdom level, then the main practice becomes benefiting others spontaneously, unlike other paths that might discontinue benefiting others.
All the conducive causes and auspicious conditions should be complete for bodhicitta to properly arise. After continued training, these qualities can arise in the mind without contrivance.
The two main traditions in taking the Bodhicitta vows are: 1) Nagarjuna's profound view chariot and, 2) Asanga's vast conduct chariot. After which this is guarded with what to avoid, and what to adopt.
The practice can be divided into three parts: 1) mind training, 2) arousing bodhicitta, and 3) training in what to adopt and what to avoid. These can be called the 1) preliminary practice, 2) main practice, and 3) concluding practice. The preliminary practice is training in the four boundless qualities. The main practice is arousing Bodhicitta and taking vows. The concluding practice is training in what to adopt and guarding without fail against what to avoid.
The Ancient Tibetan school preliminary practice cycle in the Samantabhadra to Longchenpa to Jigme Lingpa's lineage of the . Invocation; Confession; Faith with Refuge: Mind Series Bodhichitta nature in the channels, inner air, and tigles; Mandala of essence, nature, and compassion; Generation: Illusory perceptions like the moon reflecting in the water. Follow like Manjushree to dedicate with the aspiration to realize the innermost meaning and realize to attain Buddhahood as a spiritual warrior.
Tibetan Buddhists maintain that there are two main ways to cultivate Bodhichitta, the "Seven Causes and Effects" that originates from Maitreya and was taught by Atisha, and "Exchanging Self and Others," taught by Shantideva and originally by Manjushri.
The practice and realization of bodhicitta are independent of sectarian considerations, since they are fundamentally a part of the human experience. Bodhisattvas are not only recognized in the Theravāda school of Buddhism, but in all other religious traditions and among those of no formal religious tradition. The present fourteenth Dalai Lama, for instance, regarded Mother Teresa as one of the greatest modern bodhisattvas.