The Bodhisattva Vow

The following article is from the Summer, 2000 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

The Bodhisattva Vow By Geshe Sonam Rinchen Translated by Ruth Sonam Edited by Ruth Sonam

By Geshe Sonam Rinchen
Translated and edited by Ruth Sonam


Bodhisattvas, the great beings of Mahayana Buddhism, are those people who vow to gain enlightenment in order to bring about unchanging happiness for all living beings. Many Tibetan Buddhists take these vows as part of the process of initiation.


These teachings by Geshe Sonam Rinchen explain this altruistic wish to attain enlightenment and the precepts of training which accompany it Geshe Sonam Rinchen teaches Buddhist philosophy and practice at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India.

 Geshe Sonam Rinchen Geshe Sonam Rinchen (1933–2013), Sera Je Monastery, Lharampa Geshe, Buddhism philosophy and practice, Tibetan, Dharamsala, India, dharma


The following is an excerpt from

The Bodhisattva Vow, Chapter 2: How to Develop Altruistic Intention.



Just as a fresco will only turn out well if it is painted on a smooth surface, equanimity is the essential foundation for the other insights. At present the affection we have for friends and loved ones is mixed with clinging attachment. Our aim is to develop an unbiased affection for all beings which is not tainted by such attachment. If a single being is excluded from this affection, what we do will not be a Mahayana practice. It is difficult for us even to think in this way, let alone embody it in our actions. Only Buddhas and Bodhisattvas possess this attitude. How worthwhile to try to arouse such thoughts and feelings for even a moment!

The first prerequisite, then, is the cultivation of boundless equanimity, living beings are born again and again in cyclic existence because of their clinging attachment towards some and hostility towards others. Wouldn't it be wonderful if they could all remain in a state of equanimity? Why shouldn't they do so? May they do so! Thinking in this way is called the practice of boundless equanimity. However, more is required here, for we ourselves must learn to maintain a state of perfect equanimity free from attachment and aversion towards all beings. In his compilation of Pabongka Rinpoche's teachings on the stages of the path called Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche advises us to consider how all beings are exactly the same in their wish to avoid suffering and enjoy happiness. This being so, does it make sense to discriminate among them in our thoughts and actions?

At present we feel close to some and very distant from others. One way to develop equanimity is to begin by imagining someone who has neither helped nor harmed us in this life. We imagine their appearance and behavior as vividly as possible and watch what emotions arise. Probably there will be no strong emotions. Any attachment or aversion that is present is relatively easy to stop where such a person is concerned. Having practiced in this way for some time, we begin to work with friends, then with enemies and gradually extend the focus to include more and more living beings.

It is inadvisable to begin with an amorphous mass of living beings because the good feelings arising towards them en masse may be difficult to sustain in the case of individuals. Seeing a great assembly of monks can be inspiring but when we begin to look at individuals, whom we recognize and whose behavior may leave something to be desired, or we notice that, in fact, some of them are sleeping, critical thoughts will arise. This illustration shows that it is better to begin by developing equanimity towards specific individuals.

Soon after I arrived in India, I was living with many other monks in Buxaduar in West Bengal, we all used to assemble for daily prayers. A nun was in the habit of circumambulating the assembly of monks with her hands pressed together in respect. This respect was not aimed at us all but only at a select few, particularly at the reincarnation of Pabongka Rinpoche. If anyone obstructed her view, she would move her hands, still in the gesture of respect, indicating that they should get out of the way. We were all rather afraid of her because she would scold us if she saw anything that did not meet with her approval. This is an amusing example of bias. Once you start being selective and exclusive things become complicated. Pabongka Rinpoche's reincarnation died at the age of twenty-five, soon after taking his Geshe examination during which there were many remarkable signs visible to everyone. He had made brilliant progress in his studies and had won everyone's admiration.

Shantideva Nalanda, celestial bodhisattva Manjushri, Bodhicharyavatara.

The Victorious Ones and their spiritual children, the Bodhisattvas, do not get angry, no matter what physical or mental harm is inflicted on them. They are not tempted to retaliate but practice patience, thereby creating great virtue. Shantideva pays homage to all who possess that precious and excellent state of mind, the altruistic intention:

By contrast, good and virtuous thoughts

Will yield abundant fruits in greater measure.

Even in adversity, the Bodhisattvas

Never bring forth evil-

Only an increasing stream of goodness.

Atisha and Dharmakirti of the Golden Isles

When Atisha was trying to decide what would be of greatest benefit to himself and others, he received many signs and predictions from spiritual teachers and meditational deities which indicated that he should dedicate himself to developing the altruistic intention. This is why he undertook the long and dangerous thirteen-month journey to Indonesia to study with Dharmakirti of the Golden Isles. Having made fabulous offerings to this master, he requested complete instruction on how to develop the altruistic intention.

The master demanded to know whether he had the capacity to develop love and compassion and whether he was willing to remain with him for twelve years. Atisha replied that he thought he had that capacity and that he was willing to stay. And so he remained close to this master and it is said that their pillows touched at night.

Dharmakirti of the Golden Isles instructed Atisha fully on how to develop the altruistic intention and this transmission was like the complete contents of one pot being poured into another. Atisha at once began putting the instructions he received into practice and eventually developed the altruistic intention in such a powerful way that his teacher was truly satisfied and delighted. It is said that Atisha developed the altruistic intention primarily through the practice of equalizing and exchanging self and others.

Buddha Shakyamuni is the symbol of Buddhism

To signify that he would be a great lord of the teachings, Dharmakirti of the Golden Isles gave Atisha a treasured copper gilt statue of the Buddha Shakyamuni and predicted that he would propagate the teachings in a snowy land. In this way the auspicious connections were already established long before Atisha journeyed to Tibet. The fact that we still have access to Atisha's teachings is due to those who have treasured them through the centuries and to our own good actions in the past.

Without equanimity any love and compassion we develop will be partial, biased and tainted by clinging attachment. Attachment and aversion are major obstacles which the cultivation of equanimity can remove. Without these disturbing emotions we would experience peace and harmony, but we dislike to hear of stopping desire and all the emotions associated with it because it is pleasurable when these emotions first arise. Stealthily they masquerade as friends. They exaggerate the attractiveness of the object on which they focus, making us reach out for something non-existent which we can never possess. This brings frustration. Instead of getting what we want, we get much that we don't want. This leads to pain and anger which destroy us, others and our whole environment.

What should we do about these emotions? Repressing them is pointless and though it may be useful to suppress them temporarily by distracting ourselves, they will simply return later. We need to apply antidotes so that disturbing emotions which have already arisen stop and those which have not yet arisen don't get the chance to begin. Normally meditation on ugliness is the main antidote to desire and meditation on love the main antidote to anger. Our aim in applying the correct antidotes continuously is no longer to respond with attachment and anger no matter what the provocation may be. Instead, like the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas Shantideva mentions, we learn to respond with non-attachment, non-aversion and with love and compassion.

Once we have succeeded in maintaining equanimity towards a neutral person, Je Tsongkhapa's Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path tells us to imagine someone to whom we feel near, who has helped and been kind to us and whom we find attractive and appealing. As we try to cultivate equanimity towards this person, we remember their good qualities. It is natural to feel attachment but we must try to curb it.


Kamalashila stresses the importance of gaining the ability to see all living beings as lovable-as lovable as a cherished child.


When we are able to think of such a person with equanimity, we begin to work with the image of someone we dislike. This is the real challenge. As we think of the harm they have done us, how they have injured our friends or supported our enemies, and when we remember their horrible behavior, we automatically bristle with hostility.

How can we stop the attachment and hostility which arise spontaneously? Our notion of permanence is so strong that we see friends and enemies forever fixed in these roles, but in fact we constantly experience how unstable everything is. Our relationships are continuously in flux. When we are fully aware of their impermanent nature, our disturbing emotions will not be nearly so strong.

In his Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path Je Tsongkhapa quotes the Sutra Requested by Excellent Woman Moon,

I have killed you all in the past and you have hacked and cut me too. We have all been enemies and killed each other. How can these thoughts of desire and attachment arise in you?


From one life to the next our roles as friends and enemies change. But even in this life people who begin as friends may later in life become bitter enemies and vice versa. People who are friends in the morning may be foes by nightfall or the reverse. Someone you are talking to one moment may become your enemy in the next because of a single word, look or gesture. We have all seen these things happen.

Other great masters recommend that instead of trying to develop equanimity towards the neutral person, the friend and enemy one after the other, we should begin by imagining all three of them at once and by observing the different emotions that arise in relation to each.

Why do we feel happy focusing on the friend? Because he or she has given us some help in this life or has done what we wanted. Why do we feel uncomfortable focusing on the enemy? Because he or she has harmed us in this life or acted in a way contrary to our wishes. Why do we feel indifferent towards the neutral person? Because he or she has neither helped nor harmed us.

Next we should think that this so- called friend has harmed and killed us in many other lives. The so-called enemy has been our father, mother, dearest friend, lover, beloved child and so on in other lives, while the neutral person is not really neutral because he or she has been both our closest friend and bitterest enemy in the past. To whom should we be attached, to whom hostile, since all have been both friends and foes at different times?

Assenting to the illusion of permanence, we cling to the friend and turn our back on the enemy. But our emotions, their behavior and our relationship with them are constantly changing and are unstable and unreliable. Therefore it makes sense to develop equanimity towards them.

If we consider their situation, we find that all living beings are the same in desiring happiness and wanting to avoid suffering. Considering our own situation, we may like some more than others but all of them have helped and supported us in the past. We may argue that certain people have not been at all helpful to us in this life but, in fact, all living beings have both helped and harmed us at different times. Our friends have been harmful in the past, our enemies helpful.

If we can develop equanimity towards the friend, the enemy and the neutral person, it becomes easy to extend it to other living beings. Equanimity stops our tendency constantly to judge and discriminate which leads to harmful emotions and actions.

In the middle of Stages of Meditation,  Kamalashila stresses the importance of gaining the ability to see all living beings as lovable as a cherished child.

Je Tsongkhapa, in explaining this quotation in his Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path, says that before we can hope to see all living beings in this way, we must level the present unevenness created in our minds by attachment and aversion through equanimity.

Geshe Sonam Rinchen Geshe Sonam Rinchen (1933–2013), Sera Je Monastery, Lharampa Geshe, Buddhism philosophy and practice, Tibetan, Dharamsala, India, dharma


Geshe Sonam Rinchen (1933–2013) studied at Sera Je Monastery and in 1980 received the Lharampa Geshe degree. For more information click here.

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