From Bodhi Mind To Ultimate Enlightenment


“If we observe the pure precepts and awaken to the bodhi mind, integrating practice and principle, we are then in accord with the way of the great bodhisattvas. In the future, we will surely attain perfect enlightenment, truly benefiting ourselves and all others.”

In Buddhism, there are various methods and teachings, such as gradual cultivation and sudden enlightenment, or the Mahayana and Hinayana schools. The Hinayana practitioners aim to free themselves from the three realms and attain arhatship. The Mahayana followers practice the six paramitas to benefit the self and others, to make good connections with all, and to liberate all sentient beings, perfecting all virtues and merits in order to attain buddhahood.

These different schools and methods of practice all aim to impart the Dharma to people of different capacities through various expedient means. However, the essence behind these teachings is the same—bodhi and nirvana, which are the ultimate aim of Buddhist cultivation.

Since each of us has different aspiration, what we are able to achieve also differ. Whether we wish to attain the fruit of the arhat,2 the pratyekabuddha,3 the bodhisattva,4 or the buddha; or to achieve samadhi,5  arriving at the stages of non-regression (from mindfulness, conduct, or attainment)—we need to work hard on our cultivation. If we aspire to realize the Way through meditation, we must be attuned to the pure and unconditioned mind. The Way is not apart from the mind; when enlightened, this mind is the Way; not yet enlightened, this mind is in delusion.

However, whatever methods or traditions we follow in our cultivation, we must fulfill two essential requirements: first, bring forth the bodhi mind, and second, uphold the precepts of purity. If we can successfully achieve these two things, then we will not have lived this life in vain; even if we do not attain the fruit of enlightenment, we will still arrive at the stage of non-regression. By strictly upholding the precepts, and purifying our body, speech and mind, we will attain the state of true emptiness and achievearhatship. If we keep moving forward by developing the bodhi mind and cultivating the six paramitas and other bodhisattva practices, we will progressively realize the different stages on the bodhisattva path, and when we have finally perfected the path, we will then attain buddhahood. Therefore, bringing forth the bodhi mind and upholding the pure precepts are the two most important factors in our cultivation.

The Ultimate State of Bodhi and Nirvana

The bodhi mind is the awakened mind; it is the mind that is pure, lucid, undefiled, and in command of itself. It neither moves nor wavers, neither comes nor goes, neither arises nor perishes. A sutra says, “If we do not bring forth the bodhi mind in our cultivation, it is like farming without planting seeds.” If we till the soil and plow the field till exhaustion but do not plant any seeds, how can we expect to reap any fruits?

The Treatise on the Perfection of Great Wisdom by Nagarjuna states:

The bodhisattva’s initial resolve to attain ultimate enlightenment—“I will become a buddha”—is known as the bodhi mind.

So we can see that the most important thing in our cultivation is to bring forth the bodhi mind, to make this bodhisattva resolve. However, to plant bodhi seeds, blossom bodhi flowers and bear bodhi fruits, we need helping conditions, one of which is upholding the precepts.

Buddhist precepts differ from those of other religions in that they were established by the Buddha to guide practitioners to enlightenment, to nirvana. Any precepts based on false views, prejudices, or the incorrect attribution of causes to effects or vice versa will not help us in achieving nirvana.

What is nirvana? Nirvana is not death. It is the mind that has arrived at the highest and most tranquil state; it is the realization of emptiness. Yet, this is not all; we must also realize the bodhi mind.

There are four types of nirvana: when we realize emptiness, we attain “nirvana with residue” or “nirvana without residue”; furthermore, when we realize the bodhi mind, we attain “nirvana of non-abidance” or “nirvana of pure, inherent nature.” Actually, all these types of nirvana are states of this present mind in different levels of realization of emptiness, and with different abilities to maintain clarity and absolute stillness. If our mind wanders off or becomes drowsy in only a few minutes, then this bodhi mind will not be unveiled for too long.

The bodhi mind and nirvana are our highest aim. However, if we do not have the capacity to directly realize it, the Buddha teaches us many expedient means to calm our mind and allay our anxiety and fear so that we can have a temporary resting place (i.e., nirvana with or without residue). This is the Buddha’s compassion. Yet, if we truly wish to attain buddhahood, we must awaken ourselves to the bodhi mind.

A sutra says: “Only the buddhas can enter this door; the pratyekabuddhas and the shravakas6 cannot reach it.”

This means that even if there are pratyekabuddhas and shravakas as numerous as the Ganges’ sand, none can understand the state of the buddhas. Why? Because the bodhi mind is the foundation of buddhahood, the seed of all buddhas. Therefore, it is extremely important to awaken to and realize this mind.

Different Degrees of Enlightenment

What really is the bodhi mind? How do we bring forth the bodhi mind? The Diamond Sutra says: “The mind should act without any attachments.” The bodhi mind is the mind of non-attachment. The Chan School puts it this way: “With sudden enlightenment to the original mind, one directly realizes buddhahood.” This awakened mind is the bodhi mind, our inherent bodhi nature.

In the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, it is recorded:

One day, the Fifth Patriarch Hong’ren said to his disciples: “You have practiced under me for a long time. Today, write me a gatha (verse) to describe what you have learned and to show your understanding of the truth.” The well-learned Dharma Master Shenxiu, who was the foremost instructor under the Fifth Patriarch, wrote the following gatha on the wall of the South corridor:

The body is a bodhi tree, 

The mind a standing mirror bright,

At all times polish it diligently,

And let no dust alight.

This gatha seemed very sensible and meaningful.

At that time, the (future) Sixth Patriarch Huineng, as a disciple under Master Hong’ren, was working in the kitchen, splitting firewood and pounding rice. When he heard someone reading Shenxiu’s gatha, he had an insight and asked someone to write the following gatha right next to Shenxiu’s:

The bodhi is no tree,

Nor a standing mirror bright.

Since all is originally empty,

Where can any dust alight?

This means that in bodhi (i.e., from the perspective of enlightenment), not a single thing or dharma can be grasped. Our mind, like a bright mirror, is absolutely clear and lucid in the state of absolute emptiness. And since everything is inherently empty, where can any dust settle on and cling to?

From these gathas, we can see that the realization of Master Shenxiu was that of “gradual cultivation.” He had not yet truly realized the bodhi mind. On the other hand, the Sixth Patriarch’s gatha was that of “sudden enlightenment.”

There are different degrees of enlightenment. A cultivator may have “dozens of experiences of great enlightenment and thousands of small awakenings.” For example, when we sense that life is impermanent and resolve to cultivate the Way, it is only the beginning of enlightenment. After this awakening, we must further our practice because we have only realized impermanence, a truth of the phenomenal world, and have not yet penetrated the true nature of our mind. Since the truth realized by each person varies and the depth of one’s enlightenment is also different, the Dharma each speaks will be different as well.

Shenxiu’s gatha is of the gradual cultivation and can serve as a guideline for the general practitioners. When we cultivate accordingly, we will also be able to attain the fruits of the Way.

The gatha says: “The body is a bodhi tree.” Cultivating the Way is like planting a bodhi tree—we must provide soil, water, sunshine, and constantly weed and till the soil for the tree to grow and blossom. Likewise, we must regulate our body and mind, and mindfully uphold the precepts so we produce only pure action, speech and thought. In addition, we must earnestly perform good deeds to generate merits, which will enable us to obtain the necessities and aids we need on our cultivation journey.

“The mind a standing mirror bright.” This mind is like a bright mirror, not even a speck of dust falls on its surface. “When a Han7 comes, a Han appears; when a Hu comes, a Hu appears”—when an object appears, its image is shown on the mirror; when the object disappears, the image is also gone. Likewise, in the absolute state, the mind is totally empty and as bright as a mirror, free of any impurities, greed, anger, ignorance, pride, and doubt, with no attachment to dharmas (i.e., phenomena) or the self. To reach this state, we must “polish it diligently.” How do we polish it? By examination, reflection, contemplation, and amending our wrongs—this is the method of gradual cultivation.

On the other hand, the gatha of the Sixth Patriarch describes the method of sudden enlightenment. “The bodhi is no tree/Nor a standing mirror bright/Since all is originally empty/Where can any dust alight?” This is Huineng’s realization of prajna, the wisdom of emptiness—that all dharmas are fundamentally empty, without subject or object; everything (such as concepts, appearances) is “swept away and extinguished” in this absolute state. This is also what the Chan patriarchs mean when they say, “When a buddha appears, kill the buddha; when a demon appears, kill the demon.”

Here “a buddha” represents anything pleasing and favorable to us. If we develop cravings and attachments towards them, we will create obstacles that hinder us from awakening to the mind and seeing into our true nature. Therefore, during meditation, even if we see buddhas of the ten directions coming to stroke our heads, to prophesize our future attainment, we should not be overjoyed. When our mind is stirred by emotions and cravings, it will no longer be a mind of stillness and clarity, but a mind of birth and death.

“A demon” represents disturbing and fearful situations. When we encounter them, instead of being afraid, we must reflect that “all appearances are illusory,” that all things arise from our own consciousness; they are illusive and unreal because all dharmas are ultimately empty.

Then what is “to kill”? “To kill” means “non-attachment”—not clinging to either good or bad circumstances; when they come, accept it; when they go, let it be and continue to maintain the right mindfulness. Be clear and aware in every thought, be in command everywhere. With practice, the bodhi mind will eventually manifest; otherwise, the bodhi mind will stray and become the clinging mind.

Therefore, whether it is gradual cultivation or sudden enlightenment, the aim is to attain the bodhi mind; only the methods differ.

Sudden Enlightenment and Gradual Cultivation Are Compatible

Gradual cultivation and sudden enlightenment are different methods of practice for people with different capacities. Gradual cultivation means to enter the Way by practice, to realize the fundamental principle (li)  or essence of the mind through perfecting our actions (shi). Sudden enlightenment means to enter the Way by principle, to realize the fundamental principle first, and then perfect our actions. However, the two are compatible and complement each other.

Enlightenment through gradual cultivation is reached in stages—from that of an ordinary person to the perfection of all the merits and virtues required to attain buddhahood. Like going to school, one goes through elementary school, high school, college, and all the way up to earning a doctorate, gradually reaching one’s goal step by step.

“Sudden enlightenment” is to awaken to this present mind, this awareness, this pure and lucid mind, which is simply our inherent pure nature free of any conceptualization; this is also known as the wisdom of the tathagata, true suchness, the profound bodhi mind. When we are enlightened to this mind, we will realize that this mind is buddha, this mind is the Way. Then whether we are in stillness or in motion, idle or busy, this mind is never clinging or confused, always clear, lucid, and in command of itself. Maintaining this state from initial awakening until the attainment of buddhahood is the method of sudden enlightenment.

Actually, everyone has this mind. From the past to the present and to the future, everyone has it; everywhere in the world, men and women, young and old, rich or poor, noble or plebeian, all have this mind that knows and is aware. Even though everyone has this original awareness, which is equal and absolute, neither lesser in the ordinary person nor greater in the saint, each of us manifests different degrees of wisdom and compassion. This is because afflictions, attachments, delusions and false views cloud our awareness and obstruct us from our inherent virtues. Therefore, to realize the mind of purity and clarity, the bodhi mind, we must make diligent efforts in our practice by gradual cultivation or sudden enlightenment.

The Vehicles

As mentioned, there are many methods of practice in Buddhism. Hinayana (Small Vehicle)  teaches the practice of “eradicating afflictions,” whereas Mahayana (Great Vehicle) teaches “transforming affliction,” and in the Ultimate Vehicle, “affliction is bodhi.”

Hinayana practitioners take afflictions as real and therefore must be eradicated. Though they realize the emptiness of the self (or person), they are still attached to the concepts of subject (one who can eradicate) and object (what is eradicated), and the reality of the dharmas, thus they enter into the partial nirvana of emptiness.

Mahayana practitioners use the method of “transforming thoughts” because they understand that amid our afflictions is our inherent buddha nature. Transforming afflictions to reveal our inherent nature is analogous to making steel from iron ore. The essence of steel is within wrought iron, so if we throw away the iron, we will not be able to produce the steel. Similarly, we cannot find water apart from the waves (arising from water), just as we cannot find our buddha nature apart from afflictions.

With this understanding, bodhisattvas practice the six paramitas to transform afflictions, to benefit the self and others, and to return to the inherent pure nature. For example, when we practice charity long enough, our greed naturally diminishes; when we practice compassion contemplation, our anger gradually subsides; when we practice diligence, we overcome sloth; when we practice meditation, we calm and still our scattered mind and purge our delusive thoughts.

The most important of the six paramitas is “prajna.” Prajna overcomes our ignorance, confusion, and attachments to external situations. It means to reflect inwards, freeing the mind from the concept of dualism, of subject and object, and realizing “triple emptiness.”  When we have successfully cultivated prajna, we can then face all that we encounter with clarity and mindfulness, and eventually transform all our afflictions.

In Ultimate Vehicle, we neither extinguish our afflictions nor transform them, but simply maintain our mind in its original state, pure and lucid, which is the state of the bodhi mind. This mind is inherent in everyone; we do not need to seek it externally. As said in the Chan school: “affliction is bodhi; birth and death (samsara) is nirvana.” To directly realize and live by this truth is the method of Ultimate Vehicle.

The Bodhi Mind Is Not Found Externally

The Diamond Sutra says: “All dharmas are equal; none is superior or inferior.” Whichever Dharma gates or methods we practice, in the end they should bring us back to the bodhi mind. The bodhi mind is our original mind and nature, our inherent awareness. It is not bestowed by our parents, spirits, gods, or even bodhisattvas, but is inherent in everyone. Therefore, the bodhi mind is ever-present; it is the most real.

Just as a Chan patriarch said: “To move the mind is to err, to raise a thought is to stray.” The bodhi mind is inherently complete in everyone, but as soon as we consciously look for it, we will lose it. Just like looking for an ox while riding an ox; we are already sitting on the ox’s back, but in delusion, we do not see the ox so we keep searching for it everywhere. It is also like looking for a shadow at midday when the sun is directly overhead— we will never find it.

At this moment, your very mind that is listening to this teaching, when it does not raise a single thought, is the profound and lucid bodhi mind. Not raising a thought means being totally clear, lucid, and aware, without a single bit of delusion, drowsiness, or scattered thoughts. When we realize this unborn and undying mind, we attain enlightenment.

Once there was a Chan master who traveled all over the country to study the Dharma, scaling mountains to seek an enlightened teacher to guide her to enlightenment. Unsuccessful and exhausted, she finally returned to her native village. As she was leaning on a plum tree by the roadside to rest, she suddenly attained enlightenment and uttered the following verse:

Treading over cloud covered peaks in straw sandals, I sought spring everywhere but found none. Returning, I unwittingly smelled the plum blossom; On the treetops is spring in full glory.

Here, “spring” represents the bodhi mind, and the poem describes a practitioner’s exhaustive search to get awakened to this mind, but all the hardships endured on her journey has been in vain. Disheartened, she finally gives up seeking and totally let go, allowing her mind to rest completely. And, it is at this time of non-attachment that she realizes “on the treetops is spring in full glory”— that the Way is always here; this mind that can see and smell is ever-present.

An ancient Indian master said, “In the eyes it is the seeing; in the ears it is the hearing; in the nose it is the smelling; in the mouth it is the speaking; in the hands it is the grasping; in the feet it is the walking.” This awareness that sees the plum blossom and smells its fragrance is inherent in each of us. It is neither greater in the saint nor lesser in the ordinary person. In those who have not attained enlightenment, it is not a bit lesser; in those who are already enlightened, it is not a bit greater. That is the bodhi mind.

Five Kinds of Bodhi

The ancient said: “One may cultivate for billions of kalpas, but enlightenment takes only an instant.” Knowing this, we should make efforts everyday to cultivate and realize the bodhi mind, which involves five stages: “aspiring to bodhi,” “subduing the mind to attain bodhi,” “awakening to bodhi,” “progressive realization of bodhi,” and “ultimate bodhi.”

The first stage is “aspiring to bodhi.” This means we make a great vow and resolve to cultivate the Way, realize the bodhi mind, attain buddhahood, and liberate all sentient beings. With this resolve, we then constantly work in this direction: Do no evil, perform all good, and purify our own mind. Whether practicing gradual cultivation or sudden enlightenment, in motion or in stillness, busy or idle, our every thought must be clear and in command. We should adhere to the great vow of Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva, the great compassion of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, the great action of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, and the great wisdom of Manjushri Bodhisattva, incorporating these virtues into our daily lives. This is the beginning of the bodhisattva way.

The second stage is “subduing the mind to attain bodhi”—through constantly reflecting inwards, examining our thoughts and repenting for transgressions, we gradually gain control of our delusive thoughts and afflictions. For example, when we detect anger arising in us, we can immediately subdue it and refrain from creating bad karma. If greed arises, we can also detect it and overcome it right away. And as soon as sensual desire or lust comes into our mind, we can instantly tame it. This is “subduing the mind to attain bodhi.”

The third stage is “awakening to bodhi.” Having practiced “subduing the mind” and gained power over our deluded mind, we are finally on the way to awakening to the bodhi mind. On this stage, we awaken ourselves to see the true nature of our original mind, realizing that it is inherent, unborn and undying.

A Chan patriarch said: “A room in darkness for a thousand years is lit just by a single lamp.” When we are awakened to this present mind, always abiding in right mindfulness, all our past karmic obstacles can be totally swept away. Just as a room left in darkness for a thousand years, if a light is suddenly lit inside, then instantly it will be filled with brightness. However, if we lose our right mindfulness, it is like turning off the light; everything will again be filled with darkness. Therefore, once we are enlightened, we must still constantly maintain the right mindfulness and abide in pure awareness in our daily lives, so that our every thought is clear, and we are in command of ourselves in every situation.

The Chan school teaches: “When hungry, eat; when drowsy, sleep.” Also: “Eating all day, one has not chewed a single grain of rice; fully dressed, one has not put on a single thread.” What does this mean? It means being aware of yet not clinging to anything, and firmly abiding in right mindfulness. For example, when eating, do not daydream. Our “knowing” that can differentiate among the sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy is always  present, yet we do not overeat when the food is tasty, or complain when it is unsavory. Whether facing pleasant or unpleasant circumstances, we simply recognize it without any attachment, greed or anger. This is to truly abide in right mindfulness.

The aim of cultivation is to attain right mindfulness. Right mindfulness is a mind of clarity and purity; it is liberation; it is buddha; it is the place of the Way; it is pure land. “Hauling wood and carrying rice is the Way”—in our daily lives, when eating, dressing, working, or traveling, always maintain right mindfulness, the presence of this “knowing” mind. Thus, in living a life of inner peace and proper conduct, we are cultivating the Way.

The fourth stage is “progressive realization of bodhi.” Having realized where our mind is, we must continue to practice, continue to abide firmly in right mindfulness and maintain our pure awareness, so that bit by bit we eradicate our ignorance, and gradually, the Dharma body will come to full manifestation.

After we have eradicated the last trace of ignorance and completely removed our afflictions and delusions, we arrive at “ultimate bodhi.” It is only with the perfection of our awareness and action, and the perfection of benefiting others and ourselves that we attain this ultimate stage.

The Ten Dharma Realms Are in This One Mind

The most important goal in Buddhism is to realize our original mind. All the ten Dharma realms are in this present mind. Whether we are in a deluded or enlightened realm depends on the state of our own mind. To give rise to the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance is to sink into the realm of hell beings, hungry ghosts, or animals. If we observe the Five Precepts, we will secure ourselves a place in the human realm. If we further cultivate the ten virtues, filling our mind with virtuous thoughts and brightness, then we will ascend to the celestial realm and receive the blessings of heavens. Practicing the Four Noble Truths will lead us to the realm of the shravakas. Contemplating the twelve links of interdependence will bring us to the realm of the pratyekabuddhas. By committing to the great compassionate vow to benefit others, seeking the buddha way, liberating all sentient beings, and practicing the six paramitas, we immediately enter the realm of the bodhisattvas. Going one step further, we should cultivate non-cultivation, be mindful of no-mind, return to the original mind, and not give rise to a single thought; with total clarity, we enter into the Dharma realm of the inconceivable. This mind is then replete with all things.

“When the one Dharma realm manifests, the other nine Dharma realms disappear.” The one Dharma realm means the “one true Dharma realm,” which is this very mind listening to the Dharma talk, not thinking of the past, present, or future, with total clarity in every thought, being in command of ourselves at all times. When we are enlightened to this Dharma realm, we enter the realm of the buddhas.

“A building ten thousand feet tall begins from the ground level.” Everyone’s mind, from beginningless time, is filled with attachments and delusions, ignorance and false views. That we can now listen to the true Dharma is the result of our past virtuous roots and merits. Therefore, we should treasure this opportunity. Buddhism embodies both practice and principle. In practice we must make efforts to uphold the pure precepts and cultivate the Way. To realize the principle, we must bring forth the bodhi mind. If we have not yet given rise to the bodhi mind but still observe the pure precepts, in the future we will ascend into the heavens, or at least we will not descend into the suffering realms. If we observe the pure precepts and awaken to the bodhi mind, integrating practice and principle, we are then following the path of the great bodhisattvas. In the future, we will surely attain perfect enlightenment, truly benefiting ourselves and all others.