In the West, discussions of Buddhism tend to focus on three broad traditions: Theravada (or Insight), Zen in its various forms, or the many schools that fall under the umbrella of Tibetan Buddhism. For lots of reasons, historical and cultural, these three have been the ones to capture people’s imaginations outside of Asia. But by no means are they the whole thing.
One tradition that gets almost no attention in this part of the world (but should, and hopefully one day will), is Shingon. The name Shingon means “mantra,” or literally, “true word.” It’s an esoteric tradition that developed in China and moved to Japan, but that shares strong connections with the esoteric traditions of Tibet. It’s well worth exploring.
In the Shingon Abhiseka, an important initiation ceremony, participants take on four precepts:
- Never to abandon the true dharma.
- Never to negate bodhicitta.
- Never to withhold or be selective of Buddhist teachings toward others.
- Never to cause any sentient being any harm.
These are huge undertakings, each the project of a lifetime. But three of them are fairly straightforward: (1) stick with the true teachings, (3) don’t be stingy, and (4) do no harm. It’s that second one, to never “negate bodhicitta,” that needs some unpacking.
Bodhi means “awakening” or “enlightenment”; citta is “consciousness,” usually translated as “heart” or “mind” or “heart–mind.” That makes it sound like enlightenment itself, but it’s understood more as an aspiration—the intention to awaken in order to benefit other beings. Some traditions focus on the “benefit” element and frame bodhicitta simply as “compassionate mind.” In any case, it isn’t a state of mind, not exactly. It’s a mindset.
Shingon practitioners are told never to negate that mindset. Never. That’s a lot to take in, but we can start by noticing that never includes right now. And if the agreement is to not negate bodhicitta now, then that means it’s something you can already access in this moment—even if this is the first you’ve ever heard of it. This isn’t something reserved for people who have meditated for decades. This is something in your reach today.
The next thing is to notice it. Not to conceptualize it, which is easy to do, but to notice how it feels. What does it feel like to want to benefit everyone? For this, the most basic advice is to start with what’s easy. Who, in your life, is easy to love? My thoughts go straight to my children—they can drive me crazy (and I’m sure I drive them crazy), but I can’t imagine not loving them, ever. I know how that feels. Some of you may think of a parent, or a sibling, or a friend, someone with whom you have so much history that the details don’t really matter much anymore. Or maybe a pet, some being who brightens your day whenever they appear.
We often overlook it because it comes to us so easily, but in these relationships, the ones in which love is a given, there is a quiet intention as well. We may not be able to articulate it; it may not involve a plan of action. But there is an intention, an aspiration, to be of benefit, to serve, to care for. Maybe it’s to make things easier. Or maybe it’s just to not make things any harder. It’s a tenderness with just a little bit of volition. Notice that—not just its presence, but also how it feels when it arises, how it affects your breathing, how it relaxes the crease between your eyebrows. Memorize that.
And then: never do anything that gets in its way. Ever. For your whole life. Buddhism lays out a number of paths for living that way, and they’re all worth exploring. But for now, start with that feeling, that gentle intention, and see what it takes to just never let it go.