Bodhicitta: The Heart of the Mahayana and Vajrayana Teachings

To be able to understand the controversy regarding deity yoga, the similarities and distinctions between Mahayana and Vajrayana must be carefully examined. The heart of the teachings of both schools is the practice of cultivating the two levels of enlightened mind (bodhicitta), the conventional and the ultimate. The conventional bodhicitta is the mind of great compassion (mahakaruna) that is the desire to work for the benefit of all sentient beings. Recognizing, however, that physical means of benefit are temporal and impermanent and that only an enlightened being can provide lasting benefit by dispelling ignorance, the conventional bodhicitta gives rise to the altruistic desire to achieve enlightenment as the most expedient way of exercising compassion. The ultimate bodhicitta is the bodhisattva wisdom cognizing emptiness. The cultivation of conventional bodhicitta is requisite for the attainment of ultimate bodhicitta. The ultimate bodhicitta operates in a non-dual mode of perception in which good and bad, pure and impure, or extra-samsaric and intra-samsaric do not have independent self-existence. The ultimate bodhicitta perceives the emptiness (sunyata) of inherent existence of all phenomena.
The doctrine of emptiness is one of the most important teachings of Mahayana Buddhism and one of the most difficult to understand fully. Madhyamika, the philosophy of the Middle Way, employs a system of reductio ad absurdum which slips between all extremes of "this" and "that" in order to show that emptiness is the ultimate nature of reality. There are two standard lines of reasoning by which one cultivates an understanding of emptiness.3 First, nothing has independent self-existence because everything is made of parts. Since all things are dependent on their parts, they cannot have independent self-existence. Second, nothing can be said to have independent self-existence as a group of many individual things because all of the component parts are shown not to have independent self-existence by the first line of reasoning. If the parts of the whole are dependent upon their parts, then the whole cannot be independently self-existent.
However, the philosophy of Madhyamika does not deny the existence of things on the relative level. This misunderstanding of the Middle Way teachings would lead one to assert one of two wrong positions. The first is nihilism, in which one would have found nothing left on the relative level of truth by which to recognize things and would dismiss all conceptions or understanding of things on the relative level as being untrue. This might lead one to conclude that emptiness, as misunderstood to assert the lack of inherent, independent self-existence of things on the relative level, was itself incorrect. According to the Mahasmrtyupasthanasutra, abandoning sunyata would cause one to be reborn in the Avici Hell.4 The second wrong position would be to accept emptiness on the ultimate level of truth, but to see all things on the relative level as mere mental conceptions which are mistaken by the mind as being real. This could cause one to abandon Dharma teachings and practices such as meditation and taking refuge which bring good karmic effects. Both of these positions are misunderstandings of emptiness and would lead individuals to believe that they had attained everything when in fact they had attained nothing at all.
A correct understanding of the teaching of emptiness is the ability to hold both truths, the relative and the ultimate, in the mind at the same time without seeing any contradiction between them. Ashvaghosa has said, "You should never ignore the relative level of truth because of sunyata. Rather, you should understand that the relative level of truth and sunyata on the ultimate level work in harmony with each other."5 For this reason, the Madhyamika philosophy is said to steer a middle course between eternalism and nihilism.
Nagarjuna, the dialectical master of the Madhyamika school, uses a cyclic strategy to discredit the assertions of his opponents and to support the doctrine of emptiness. He begins by accepting the notion of own-being (svabhava) and then showing the absurdities implicit in such a "realistic" view point. His attack on these metaphysical propositions is that they do not provide the knowledge they claim to. Nagarjuna shows that they cannot possibly fulfill their promise because "words and expression-patterns are simply practical tools of human life, which in themselves, do not carry intrinsic meaning and which do not necessarily have meaning by referring to something outside the language system."6 By disproving all extreme views of "this" and "that" without offering a viewpoint of his own, Nagarjuna allows the wisdom of emptiness to manifest itself. Since emptiness cannot be described due to the limitations of language just mentioned, this method is the only way to truly share a profound understanding of emptiness. By using this strategy, Nagarjuna consistently replaces apparently common sense notions which are in fact highly metaphysical with apparently metaphysical notions which are in fact common sense. For instance, Nagarjuna responds to the following objection in the Madhyamikaprajnamula:
"If everything were ultimately void of any true independent self-existent nature, then there would be no creation and no destruction, and it would follow that there would not be even the four noble truths. How do you explain that? In answer to this objection that if everything were ultimately void of any true, independent, self-existent nature, then there would be no distinction between those things binding you to samsara and those liberating you from it, I would say precisely the reverse. Both creation and destruction are dependent functions, arising from their causes according to the law of dependent arising. Therefore it is only if everything were not ultimately void of any true, independent, self-existent nature (in other words, it is only if things did have true, self-existence, independent of their causes) that it would follow logically that there would be no creation and no destruction of things and that there would not be even the four noble truths."7
Thus, it can be seen from this example that far from denying the existence of reality, emptiness actually saves reality from the brink of extinction! For without emptiness, conventional interdependent reality as we observe it could not exist. However, even the doctrine of emptiness has the danger of being reified as independently self-existent. To prevent this, one must apply the doctrine of emptiness to itself in order to remember "the emptiness of emptiness." The enlightened mind holds the conventional and the ultimate truths of reality in mind simultaneously; there is no other way that the conventional bodhicitta (mahakaruna) and the ultimate bodhicitta (mahaprajña) could coexist simultaneously. Therefore the simultaneous cultivation of wisdom and compassion is the first step of Mahayana practice, and the perfection of this cultivation marks the culmination of Mahayana practice.