Giving up bodhichitta.
This vow says if, due to self-cherishing or discouragement, we give up our bodhichitta motivation we incur a root downfall. To give up our bodhichitta motivation does not mean forgetting it sometimes, rather it means we don’t actively make the decision to stop helping somebody.
Often times when we hear this, we are far more likely to fall into the extreme of indulging others in their delusions and negativity. We remain in dysfunctional or even abusive relationships with people because we “don’t want to abandon them” or we think we don’t want to abandon helping them. To protect against this tendency we need to conjoin our love and compassion with a little bit of wisdom. The bottom line is we don’t help people by indulging them in their delusions and negativities. To take an easy example, if somebody is abusing us we are not helping them by allowing them to do so. We may think we are helping them by sticking around, but unless there are very unique circumstances, we are not actually helping them. What is far more likely is our fear of leaving them kidnaps the instruction on not abandoning our bodhichitta and uses that as the justification for why we never leave. This is a mistake. They wind up creating all sorts of negative karma towards us, and we wind up wasting our precious opportunity to be doing something else.
Yes, we may be able to transform their abuse, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t also transform the challenges associated with no longer being with them. If all situations are equally transformable since they are all equally empty, then this can’t be a reason for staying or leaving. Instead, the question is what is the least deluded and most virtuous course of action for all concerned? It takes enormous spiritual strength to leave a relationship when it needs to be done. Sometimes the most spiritually challenging thing to do is not stick around, but leave.
But doesn’t this “abandon” the other person? We think, “I am helping them somewhat in the good times and if I left they would have nothing good in their life and they would get worse, so I need to stick around for them.” But it is also equally possible that the best way we can help somebody is by our absence. Sometimes our absence speaks more powerfully than our presence. It all depends upon the context of the situation.
The test I use to decide whether it makes sense to stick around is very simple:
- Do I have the spiritual capacity to stick around without being destroyed myself in the process? If no, then leave. If yes, proceed to question 2.
- Is the other person genuinely, from their own side, trying to get better and change themselves. If no, then leave. You will never change them. Only they can change themselves. If they are only trying to get better because you said you would leave if they don’t, then as soon as you take them back they will revert back to their old bad habits and you will have to make threats again. This is no way to live a life. If yes, they are trying to change, proceed to question 3.
- Do I have some obvious alternative where I could be helping far more people if I left? If no, then stay. If yes, then leave. We can think of the example of Buddha Shayamuni. He was married and had kids, but he had very clear indications that he could help far more people by leaving his relationship. But we also need to get real here – how many of us are poised to become the next Buddha Shakyamuni? In modern times, the overwhelming majority of the cases will be its best to stay in our normal relationship nexus. But it can be, depending upon our circumstances, that there is very little holding us in a given context and it is clear we could bring greater benefit by moving on.
But even if we leave somebody physically, this does not mean we have broken this vow. In our hearts, we never abandon anybody. In our bodhichitta, we never abandon anybody. The way we help others will vary all the time, but our wish and determination to help them never varies.