Bodhichitta is a primary mind motivated by great compassion that wishes to attain full enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings. This special mind does not arise naturally but has to be cultivated in meditation for a long time. Eventually, through the force of familiarity, it becomes spontaneous, arising naturally day and night without effort. When this happens, we become a Bodhisattva, a being bound for enlightenment.
Many people nowadays are attracted to tantra because they believe it will provide a shortcut to enlightenment - or at least endow them with magical powers - but these people have no understanding how important the foundation of renunciation, bodhichitta and emptiness is to this higher path. Practicing tantra solely for the sake of benefiting this life, hoping to gain notoriety or special powers, does nothing but plant seeds for hellish suffering in future. Anyone who practices like this is like a misguided person who uses precious sandalwood to kindle a fire. Or, to cite other examples, such an ill-motivated practitioner is like a person who uses pound notes to light his cigarette or a Rolls Royce to cart manure. If we wish to make the practice of tantra meaningful, bodhichitta is indispensable.
When King Prasenajit asked Shakyamuni Buddha for a spiritual practice he could follow without having to abandon his family or his kingdom, Buddha advised him to practice rejoicing, cultivate bodhichitta and dedicate his merits. Even someone who is very busy with the affairs of the world has time to engage in these three practices and a great deal of positive energy can be generated by each of them.
If we meditate deeply by considering the constant suffering to which we are subjected we can develop the wish to be liberated from all the unsatisfactory states that make up cyclic existence, or samsara. This wish to be free is called renunciation. If we reflect on the sufferings of those who are in the same situation as ourselves - and realize that all sentient beings are suffering throughout samsara - the wish will arise that they also be freed. This is the development of true compassion and leads to the generation of the bodhichitta wish.
Nowadays, with the world in turmoil, there is a particular need for westerners to cultivate bodhichitta. If we are to make it through these perilous times, true bodhisattvas must appear in the West as well as in the East.
To stress the supreme value of bodhichitta, Shakyamuni Buddha has said that it is even more important to prostrate, or pay homage, to a bodhisattva - someone who has developed bodhichitta - than it is to prostrate to a buddha. He explained this by using the example of the waxing moon. If someone bows down before the new moon it is the same as bowing down to every phase of the moon between new and full. Why? Because by paying respect to a cause we are implicitly paying respect to each of its succeeding effects. Thus, if we prostrate to a bodhisattva we are implicitly paying homage to all the future states of his or her development, up to and including the attainment of buddhahood. For such reasons then, bodhichitta is very precious and anyone who develops this mind becomes worthy of veneration.
It is important to remember that we do not need to be a monk or of aristocratic birth or possess a male body in order to develop bodhichitta. Although Shantideva uses the title ‘son of the buddhas,’ he is not using it restrictively. When a woman develops the mind of enlightenment she becomes known as a daughter or princess of the buddhas and likewise becomes an object to be venerated by all gods and humans.
Developing equanimity is like ploughing a field - clearing our mind of the rocks and weeds of anger and attachment. Practicing love is like watering the soil, training in compassion is like sowing the seeds, and generating bodhichitta is like causing the seeds to sprout. The final harvest is the supreme state of Buddhahood, full enlightenment.
Developing the good heart of bodhichitta enables us to perfect all our virtues, solve all our problems, fulfill all our wishes, and develop the power to help others in the most appropriate and beneficial ways. - Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, The New Meditation Handbook