Semkyé: The Thought of Enlightenment

In Mahāyāna Buddhist practice, chabdro (སྐྱབས་འགྲོ་), or taking refuge, is followed by semkyé (སེམས་བསྐྱེད་), meaning the altruistic thought to attain enlightenment. Semkyé, also known in its full form as jangchub semkyé (བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་བསྐྱེད་), literally means the cultivation of the thought of enlightenment. It refers to the Mahāyāna thought of reaching Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings, or the aspiration and resolve to take both oneself and other sentient beings to the ultimate state of enlightenment. Just as taking refuge is the defining characteristic and foundation of all Buddhist practices, semkyé is an essential feature of all Mahāyāna practices.

Maitreya defines semkyé as ‘the desire to reach perfect full enlightenment for the sake of others’ (སེམས་བསྐྱེད་པ་ནི་གཞན་དོན་ཕྱིར། །ཡང་དག་རྫོགས་པའི་བྱང་ཆུབ་འདོད།།) It combines the two components of compassion, which acutely feels the suffering of sentient beings, and wisdom, which seeks a sustainable solution to that suffering by reaching the state of perfect enlightenment. Semkyé is also popularly known as jangchubsem (བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་), or the mind of enlightenment, and is further praised as the supreme mind, or semcho (སེམས་མཆོག་). Śāntideva considers it the quintessential cream extracted from the milk of sacred dharma (དམ་ཆོས་འོ་མ་བསྲུབས་པ་ལས། །མར་གྱི་ཉིང་ཁུ་ཕྱུང་བ་ཡིན། །) and divides it into the aspiring thought (སྨོན་པ་སེམས་བསྐྱེད་), which wishes to take all sentient beings to enlightenment, and the applied thought (འཇུག་པ་སེམས་བསྐྱེད་), which engages in the actions to do so.

Maitreya divides semkyé into twenty-two types using similes but another common classification presents it in three types. The superior type, like the motivation of a shepherd, seeks enlightenment for other sentient beings before enlightenment for oneself. A shepherd would seek grass, water and safety for his flock before he seeks his own comfort. The middling type, like a boatman, wishes both oneself and others to reach enlightenment simultaneously. A boatman would wish for both himself and others to reach the other shore together. The inferior type, like the intention of a king, seeks enlightenment for himself first so that he can help others also reach it. A king first takes the throne and position of power and prosperity himself and then looks after his subjects. Semkyé is also classified in various other ways in order to help people generate it as easily and frequently as possible. Those people who generate the thought of enlightenment and act in accordance with it are known as bodhisattvas, altruistic beings who seek enlightenment for all sentient beings.

The thought of enlightenment is often first cultivated through a ceremony of taking the Bodhisattva Vow. The procedures for taking the Bodhisattva Vow and the precepts which follow are the topic of a separate essay. Semkyé is enhanced through a wide range of contemplative and applied practices which are promoted by various Mahāyāna traditions and masters. These practices and techniques, which are too numerous and profound to be discussed in this short introduction, help invigorate the altruistic semkyé by enhancing an individual’s qualities of compassion and wisdom. As the most important component of the Mahāyāna Buddhist path and an essential part of any Vajrayāna practice, semkyé has a prominent place in Bhutan’s spiritual culture and ethos. Thus, a popular prayer one hears in Bhutan is:


བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་མཆོག་རིན་པོ་ཆེ། །མ་སྐྱེས་པ་རྣམས་སྐྱེ་གྱུར་ཅིག །

སྐྱེས་པ་ཉམས་པ་མེད་པར་ཡང་། །གོང་ནས་གོང་དུ་འཕེལ་བར་ཤོག།

May the supreme jewel Bodhicitta

Which has not arisen arise and grow.

May that which has arisen, not diminish,

But increase more and more. (translator unknown)


Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel as part of a series called “Why We Do What We Do.”