Buddhism Bodhicitta
John Powers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0091


The Sanskrit term bodhicitta (mind of awakening) refers to the state of mind of a bodhisattva, who pursues buddhahood in order to benefit others. There are two primary aspects: (1) a conventional aspect of a bodhisattva who aspires to buddhahood; and (2) an ultimate aspect, which is actualized when the nature of mind of a bodhisattva awakens. The conventional aspect also has two levels: (1) aspirational (praṇidhāna) bodhicitta, in which the bodhisattva takes a vow to attain buddhahood for the benefit of others; and (2) practical bodhicitta, which refers to actual practice on the path. Bodhicitta is the key concept that separates the two main traditions of Indian Buddhism, Mahayana (“Greater Vehicle”) and Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”). The latter is a polemical term (rejected by those to whom it is applied) coined by their Mahayana rivals. Mahayanists characterize the Hinayana pursuit of personal liberation as selfish and valorize the universal compassion of bodhisattvas, who are portrayed as mighty heroes who pursue the supreme religious goal because of their universal compassion. Note that, in Tibetan, the term bodhicitta is byang chub kyi sems. In East Asia, the term is written as 菩提心 and pronounced in Mandarin as pútí xīn; in Japanese as bodaishin; in Korean as pori sim; and in Vietnamese as bồ đề tâm.

General Overviews

Given its importance for Mahayana doctrine and practice and the central role it plays in polemical debates with its rivals, it is unsurprising that this topic has received a great deal of attention from scholars. Dayal 1932 is a classic overview of the bodhisattva doctrine that is useful but has been surpassed by subsequent scholarship. Williams 1989 provides a concise discussion of the doctrine of bodhicitta and its implications for Buddhist philosophy and practice. Kawamura 1978 contains articles that explore a range of topics related to the bodhisattva doctrine. Sparham 1992 is an erudite discussion of bodhicitta and related terms in Sanskrit and Tibetan literature. Wangchuk 2007 is the most comprehensive exploration of the concept to date, but discusses only Indian and Tibetan sources.

  • Dayal, Har. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1932.

    Somewhat dated, but still a good guide to Indic texts. The main discussion of bodhicitta can be found on pp. 58–64.

  • Kawamura, Leslie, ed. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhism. Waterloo, ON: Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion, 1978.

    The articles in this volume were written by some of the leading scholars in the field in the mid-1970s, and some remain useful. The main value of this volume today is its comprehensiveness: It begins with studies of Indic texts and also contains a number of articles that examine aspects of the bodhisattva doctrine that were debated in Tibet, China, and Japan.

  • Sparham, Gareth. “Indian Altruism: A Study of the Terms Bodhicitta and Cittotpāda.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 15.2 (1992): 224–242.

    Discusses the origins of the term bodhicitta and of related terms cittotpāda (mental arising) and bodhicittotpāda (arising of the mind of awakening) and argues that they should not be conflated. Sparham argues that bodhicitta is more profound than cittotpāda; the former implies a major existential transformation, while the latter appears to operate on a conceptual level.

  • Wangchuk, Dorji. The Resolve to Become a Buddha: A Study of the Bodhicitta Concept in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 2007.

    This is probably the most comprehensive discussion of bodhicitta to date. It contains an overview of how the term is construed in classical Indic sources, a survey of scholarly opinions, and some important Tibetan debates on the subject.

  • Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge, 1989.

    This highly accurate and very readable book remains the best overall introduction to Mahayana doctrine. An excellent summary of the concept of bodhicitta begins on p. 198; this section is followed by an analysis of the bodhisattva path.

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