Bodhicitta, or the aspiration to attain the final goal of complete Buddhahood in order to be able to help sentient beings, is the starting and end point of Mahayana Buddhism. Shantideva says that bodhicitta gives one all the joy and all the merit equal or more than Mount Sumeru. Riding the horse of bodhicitta, one only experiences joy after joy, happiness after happiness. One who has bodhicitta will accrue merit even when one is asleep (in the same way as one’s interest in the bank accrues all the time.)
But why is the practice of bodhicitta so important? The fact that having bodhicitta incurs such a vast amount of inexhaustible merit shows that this is a very important aspect of the practice of Buddhism. All the teachers say that one’s practice of Mahayana Buddhism will not even start if one does not begin with the proper attitude which is there in bodhicitta. This is because the very existence of Mahayana, the practice of finally attaining Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings, requires bodhicitta as the starting point. This is simply why we practice Buddhism in the first place. We practice not so that only we become a Buddha; that is limiting and is not the proper goal that we can achieve. So we need to start with bodhicitta. Moreover, bodhicitta is at the end of the practice, for if we finally achieved the final goal of Buddhahood, that would consist in nothing but the pure thoughts for the welfare and happiness of all beings wandering around in samsara. Nothing else matters. This is the thought of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
Nonetheless, one may ask if bodhicitta is really necessary in one’s practice of Buddhism. Why is practicing in order to liberate oneself alone discouraged? The answer is that we need to repay the kindness of all sentient beings who have been most kind to us, and without their kindness we can’t even stay on living. Asanga wrote in a very moving piece about the seven-point mind training that all beings used to be our mothers and fathers in the past. Since the number of sentient beings is finite (very huge, but finite), but the duration of time leading from the present to the “beginningless time” is infinite (that is, we can go back further and further into the past and will find no starting point), there is bound to be a time when a particular being was our mother, our father, our friend, our enemy, our teacher, and so forth. All beings are thus interconnected in this way. So realizing this, it would be mean to leave these beings behind and seek out liberation for oneself alone.
I usually emphasize that Mahayana and Theravada are essentially the same, but here there is a difference, because the Theravada does not put as much emphasis on realizing Buddhahood as does the Mahayana. However, it is entirely possible for a Theravada practitioner to set a goal of their practice higher and aim at realizing Buddhahood for the sake of sentient beings, all the while keeping their Theravada practices. This will make their practices much more meaningful. In fact in the end there are really no differences at all.
But let us come back to the point about bodhicitta and merit. Why does bodhicitta incurs so much merit? Because we are aiming not only at ourselves alone, but all sentient beings in the universe (or in other universes too if they exist). Hence any merit that would occur to oneself would be multiplied by the sheer number of the sentient beings one intends the merit to go to. Thus if one were to dedicate oneself to the well being of, say, one million beings, then the merit accrued will be multiplied by one million and so on. And in fact the number of all sentient beings is much, much, much more than one million This is why the Mahayana practice is so powerful.
But doesn’t that smack of self interest? Well, I have heard the Dalai Lama say that thinking of others’ interest is a best way to push forth our own interest! That is true, but then you need to keep check your motivation. The motivation has to be pure, and if you think of yourself first you would not gain much even though you regard others interest later on. But if your primary motivation is yourself, then even if you think of others in order finally to advance your own interest that would not do much. What the Dalai Lama said is strictly speaking an upaya, a skillful means to get people interested in bodhicitta. One in whom bodhicitta is firmly planted will have no regard for oneself; all his or her action will be totally devoted to the welfare of others.
So how does one plant bodhicitta within one’s mental continuum? First think about other beings and think of their kindness to us, the fact that we won’t even be where we are now without them. Then think that we will not abandon them no matter what. This will be important first steps….