Why Bodhisattvas Don’t Defend Themselves

All of us, no matter who we are, have compassion to at least some extent. For example, whenever we think of someone hit by tragedy or suffering, we are naturally moved by a feeling of compassion. All of us seem to have a natural capacity for love as well.

Through training the mind, or lojong in Tibetan, we take these qualities of compassion and love and infuse them with a limitless motivation, vision and determination that we can and will free all beings from suffering and guide them toward enlightenment. This is called great compassion. From the depth of our hearts, our only wish is for beings to be free from suffering and to have happiness—the ultimate happiness of enlightenment.

This compassion, when developed to its deepest extent, and linked with wisdom, is embodied in what is called bodhichitta. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says:

“Bodhichitta is considered in Mahayana Buddhism to be the spirit, the source and the root of the entire spiritual path. It is the very highest form of altruism and the highest form of courage, the source of all spiritual qualities and the essence of all the teachings of the Buddha.”

Someone who has genuinely given rise to bodhichitta is called a bodhisattva. The word for bodhisattva in Tibetan—changchup sempa—carries the meaning of someone who is courageous and brave, like a warrior. Bodhisattvas are warriors because they live and act solely for the sake of others, free from worry or concern for themselves. Since their main objective or task is working for the benefit of others, they are neither attached to the pleasures and comforts of the world, nor afraid of its suffering and difficulties.

Ordinarily we try to keep good things such as happiness, success and prosperity for ourselves, while we prefer to give to others all the things we don’t want such as suffering, misfortune and difficulties.

But the bodhisattva attitude is the complete opposite of how we normally operate. With compassion, bodhisattvas are willing to take on the suffering of others, and with love, they wholeheartedly give away their own well-being and happiness. They have tremendous vision, capacity of mind and courage. Whatever happens to them, whether they are attacked, mistreated or criticized, they never lose heart and never respond to others with anger or aggression, only love and compassion.

As Gyalse Thogme Zangpo wrote in The Thirty Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas:

“Even if others should declare before the world
All manner of unpleasant things about me,
To speak only of their qualities in return,
With a mind that’s filled with love—this is the practice of all the bodhisattvas.”

This attitude of fearless concern for others is captured in this verse from the famous text the Eight Verses of Training the Mind, by Geshe Langri Tangpa:

“Whenever someone out of envy
Does me wrong by attacking or belittling me,
I will take defeat upon myself,
And give the victory to others.”

In fact, these two lines, “I will take the defeat upon myself, and give the victory to others”, are the heart of the teachings of training the mind in compassion, and the basis for tonglen, the practice of giving happiness and receiving suffering. To have this attitude is the way of a bodhisattva, a true practitioner of compassion.