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  • Bodhicitta and Charity:A Comparison
  • Luke Perera

The object of this paper is to present a comparison of bodhicitta and charity. These concepts are central to their respective traditions (Mahāyāna Buddhism, Christianity), and for the sake of keeping the comparison within reasonable limits I will focus on two sets of texts: the writings of the Indian Buddhist monk Śāntideva (late seventh and eighth centuries ce) and those of the French Catholic nun Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897). My intention is that this comparison will help to clarify the similarities and the differences between the two concepts and provide thoughtful comment for Christians and Buddhists involved in interfaith dialogue and interested in comparative or interreligious theology.

preliminary definitions


Bodhicitta is a Sanskrit term, a compound of bodhi and citta, which appears regularly in the sūtras and śāstras composed by Mahāyāna Buddhist monks in India. Citta can mean mind, intelligence, thought, intention, or will, and bodhi (lit. awakening) refers to the state of all-embracing knowledge and freedom from cognitive and emotional limitations possessed by the buddhas. Bodhicitta, then, is the mind or thought that takes the supreme bodhi of the buddhas as its aim. Synonyms include cittotpāda (arising of the thought) and bodhicittotpāda (arising of the thought of bodhi). These three terms have always been associated with the resolve to become a buddha or a bodhisattva.1

The resolve to become a buddha appears first in retellings of the story of the buddha Śākyamuni. Many lifetimes ago, the buddha-to-be was a pious young ascetic who had the fortune to encounter a buddha, and in his presence he vowed to become a buddha in the future.2 Thenceforth he was a bodhisattva, a being (sattva) devoted to the goal of complete enlightenment, the bodhi of the buddhas.3 In the Mahāyāna sūtras, the Buddha is shown teaching that the bodhisattva path is the supreme spiritual path. For a monk or layperson to begin the spiritual career of bodhisattva, they must generate the thought (cittotpāda), which takes bodhi as its aim (bodhicittotpāda): They must generate bodhicitta.

The Abhisamayālaṃkāra, an Indian scholastic text attributed to the bodhisattva Maitreya, provides a classic definition: “to generate the resolve [to become a buddha] [End Page 121] is to desire perfect complete awakening for the sake of other [sentient beings].”4 Bodhicitta has two aspects: It is a resolve to attain the state of the buddhas and to work for the welfare of sentient beings. These two aspects combine in one career because the best way to help beings is to become an awakened buddha, capable of teaching them the way to deliverance. As another important text, the Bodhisattvabhūmi, relates:

Furthermore, the bodhisattva, when fixing his thought on awakening, collects [his] thoughts and articulates [his] words thus: “Oh, may I be perfectly awakened unto the highest, perfect awakening, may I be the benefactor of all sentient beings and may I establish [them] in the absolutely perfect (or firm) extinction [i.e. Nirvāṇa] and in the insight of the Tathagata!” In this way, one generates the resolve [to become a buddha] when striving for one’s awakening and for the welfare of sentient beings.5

The generation of bodhicitta requires preparatory actions such as confession of sins, solicitation of buddhas and bodhisattvas, and prolonged meditation on the benefits of bodhicitta and the sufferings of sentient beings. When the candidate is ready, he will vocalize his intention in the form of a vow in a ritual context, modeled on the monastic prātimokṣa vow.6 He will henceforth be bound by special bodhisattva precepts, which forbid harming sentient beings and creating difficulties for fellow Buddhist practitioners. Tibetan Buddhists identify two ritual traditions for the taking of the bodhicitta vow, each with their respective preparatory meditations, which they trace back to India. They associate Śāntideva with a lineage derived from the mythic bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, which includes the great monastic teacher and philosopher Nāgārjuna and his disciple Āryadeva (second and third centuries ce).

The causes required for generating bodhicitta and its exact subdivisions have been...


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