Tsoknyi Rinpoche gave the following teaching (minimally edited) recently in Bodhgaya, India, 2011, in which he tells the story of his own experience of working with bodhicitta.
“When your mind becomes frozen you cannot find space and openness, and without space and openness, compassion cannot come out. The whole point is to experience detachment.
“If you are attached to your [bottled] mineral water–that means the mineral water is very important to you, and if you let that go, the object of attachment, that creates a lot of merit…I think things happen here because of Bodhgaya’s blessing.
“Five years ago I thought I needed to change something, so I looked into my whole Buddhist practice–what I needed to change, what I needed to improve, and I realized what I needed to improve was bodhicitta. I think the comfortable Dharma practice, I usually call California dharma practice, in which you make yourself very cozy, mindful, relaxed, aware, love, love to others–all this makes you feel happy. All the things that make up a dharma practitioner I have–if I have a little bit of stress, the environment is not so good, then I think ‘OK,’ this is impermanence, and then I practice. Oh, this is the Buddha realm, so I make myself very joyful and cozy for Dharma. But one needs to be willing to suffer for others. Real compassion is not afraid to suffer. One needs to think, ‘I need to help, I’m going to help, but along the road of helping I will face a lot of difficulties, but I am OK with that. I’m willing to take that risk.’ Bodhicitta activity is not comfortable—it is a rocky journey along the path, but if you are willing to take it, then I think the first seed of bodhicitta is growing in your mind.
“So I thought this time in Bodhgaya, I would like to take the bodhisattva vow again, so I went to the Stupa around 5 o’clock, the best time for me. I circumambulated around the Stupa one time, two times, and on the third time under the bodhi tree, the exact spot where Buddha became enlightened, I was there taking the Bodhisattva vow—and at that moment, one bodhi leaf fell from the tree, touched on my head and fell to the ground. People were sitting on both sides of the path, chanting, meditating. I thought they were doing practice, but in fact they were waiting for the leaf. So when the leaf touched the ground, on both sides of my hands, about 10 hands came together. My hand also went down automatically. My hand was faster than the rest and touched the leaf first and their hands touched my hand, so I got the leaf, and I felt good. WOW. The moment I took the vow, the leaf touched my hand. Now I have the leaf, so I feel very good. Then I walked a little bit and after one or two seconds, I felt very bad. Three seconds ago I wanted to take a vow for all sentient beings, I wanted to dedicate my life for all sentient beings, but right now I cannot give one leaf to them. I thought, ‘I took the bodhi leaf, so I am a terrible person.’ There was a strong contradiction. I almost crushed the bodhi leaf, but then a second thought came that maybe this could be a very important reminder for my bodhicitta practice. So I took leaf, put on the paper, and now it hangs framed behind my bed.
“So I think the real authentic feeling of bodhicitta is not so easy. I am still working on that. Always selfish, absorbed in self-interest, I want to chant mantra for myself, I want to sit down and have peace for me, I want to do some Tonglen so I feel good. Last night I didn’t sleep so well, so I didn’t help so many people. Now sit down to practice, so I give my dharma, my virtue, take their suffering. At the end of 25 minutes–WOW I feel great. So all Dharma is all about me I–want to feel great, including bodhicitta, including taking refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha–there is always a ‘me’ behind everything. If we cannot transform that ‘me,’ I think Dharma is not going to work at all.
“Sometimes I feel very good going to the Stupa; sometimes I feel very sad. Because there are hundreds of thousands of people going around the Stupa, focusing on ‘me.’ I want to do prostrations, I want to see the face of Buddha…’me.’ ‘Me’ chanting, dharma helping me–me, me, me. I saw very few with no ‘me,’ letting go ‘me.’ Ha, letting go Dharma. Behind this there is a doer, an ‘experiencer,’ a ‘practitioner.’ If that ‘er‘ doesn’t transform, then Dharma is not going to work–it’s all about me. So then I thought, ‘WOW–I am doing the same thing. So sometimes I go there and don’t do anything, just sit there and see if I am trying to do something for myself–contemplation, bodhicitta, emptiness–for what? I want to feel good. Until you let go of that, real bodhicitta might never happen.
“I am solid, and this solidity of ‘me’ is practicing solid dharma, and ‘I’ would like to experience solid happiness, and ‘I’ would like to get rid of the source of suffering. Everything is serious, solid, and obvious. I don’t want the solid suffering. I want the solid happiness. Maybe if I practice serious dharma, I will get serious happiness. Behind all this is a tiger holding back. You have to die to ‘me.’ First you have to experience this reified ‘I,’ then you have to contemplate whether ‘I’ exists, or ‘I’ does not exist. We call this analytical meditation, which is very important. Analyze everything, and then you see that everything is mere existence, not like a solid giant. Even include that life and death are sort of a joke, within that joke there is cause and effect. Cause and effect is also part of the joke–the grief, the tightness, the solidity–you have to loosen up, and within that looseness, we have to function. But not too loose, that’s what Nagarjuna calls the unity of two truths–relative and ultimate.
“Until that is realized, it is very difficult. If you cannot bring the two truths together as a unification, it is very difficult to understand Dharma–it becomes black and white–relative solid–ultimate nothing. Ultimate and limited come together like milk and water. Ah, we have lost the art, the dance, and the movement of Dharma. Either nothing or either everything, either the world exists or non-exists. So how can it be–this existence and non-existence together, spontaneously? As Nagarjuna always mentioned, the unification of two truths is really important. The more I think about dharma, it’s neither nihilism, nor realism–just empty awareness. Form is empty, empty is form. When these two things don’t conflict in your mind–then you know dharma.”