The two main visual mandalas used in Shingon – Garbhakosha and Vajradhatu – are iconographic representations of Shingon doctrine, which is a theoretical explanation of the identity of human and the Buddha, based upon the supposition of inherent buddha-nature. This identity of man and Buddha, however, represents the ideal. Human mind is ordinarily covered by reactive patterns (skt. klesha) that function almost incessantly. The awareness that klesha cover the mind and of the need to remove these involves a frustrating experience, for such an awareness leads one to realize his or her own limitations and the futility of efforts to overcome klesha. This means then that prior to the conceptual formulation of the very idea of implementing theory into practice, prior to translating ideal into real, we must deal with the problem of human will: determination to understand what needs to be done, and the commitment to actually do it. Practice takes on a significant spiritual dimension and becomes personally meaningful only when supported by this kind of will.
While practice here means eliminating one’s own reactive patterns, such elimination cannot be accomplished just by realizing a new conceptual horizon. One must simultaneously act in accordance with that new horizon. View and action must merge as a single concern. Shingon refers to the awakening of this kind of will as ‘arising bodhicitta’. Sanskrit word bodhicitta means ‘awakening heart-mind.’ This initial awakening takes place when one becomes aware of the futility of an indulgent life and of the paradox involved in leading a wholesome life, but also, more importantly, when one develops an intense desire to overcome such futility and paradox. This type of will presupposes that human nature is inherently clear and bright, hence it is also confidence in this inherent nature. Thus, bodhicitta and buddha-nature are synonymous.
The Bodhicitta Shastra describes three attributes of such bodhicitta: supreme truth, compassion, and samadhi. Supreme truth is insight into emptiness, and equals wisdom or understanding; compassion refers to the application of emptiness at an empirical level, and equals vow or practice; samadhi refers to the internalized discipline required to cultivate both understanding and practice, these two supplementing one another, for there can be no understanding without practice, and no practice without understanding. In this context, samadhi is the agent of integrating understanding and practice.
From this we see that bodhicitta – representing the ‘middle’ – is not merely a matter of apprehension. It is to be realized in experience, since it involves faith in the inherent good, as well as an empirical demonstration of that inherent quality.
Buddha-nature is that which is sought by one who has become aware of the futility and paradox of life, and has become deeply sensitive to the tragic problems of mankind. Master Kukai defines faith in buddha-nature as
“…the awareness of the inherent quality within all men which can be discovered by penetrating beneath the consciousness level dominated by ‘seeds’ of attraction, aversion, and indifference.”
This inherent and universal quality is real only to those who have come to understand the limits of the intellect in pursuit of an existential insight – the paradox one faces in pursuit of his authentic being. Such faith (skt. shraddha) and confidence (skt. adhimukti) is beyond self-awareness. Nonetheless, our very own self is the basis of discovering the authentic situation of one’s own beingness.
How is such bodhicitta cultivated to maturation? In response to this question, master Kukai refers to the triple formula from the Mahavairochana Sutra, which says,
“Bodhicitta is the seed, great compassion (skt. mahakaruna) is its roots, and skillful means (skt. upaya) is the fruit.”
This sutra explains understanding (skt. prajna), the function of awareness which cognizes supreme truth, by comparing it to a seed, requiring the condition to establish its roots and to produce fruit. Bodhicitta is the cause (seed) of understanding, and compassion (i.e. actual daily practice) is the condition which enables that cause to produce result (fruit of buddhahood). Bodhicitta cannot be awakened and matured without compassion, the conditioner which brings about buddhahood. This triple formula articulates the theory of the primacy of practical wisdom (i.e. phronesis or prudence). In other words, though arising bodhicitta is essential to practice, practice at the same time is the conditioner which cultivates the maturation of the arising bodhicitta.
Notes from Minoru Kiyota’s “Shingon Buddhism: Theory and Practice”