The great sage Shantideva composed The Way of the Bodhisattva in India over twelve centuries ago, yet it remains remarkably relevant for our times. This classic text gives surprisingly up-to-date instructions for people like you and me to live sanely and openheartedly, even in a very troubled world. It is the essential guidebook for fledging bodhisattvas, those spiritual warriors who long to alleviate suffering, their own and that of others.

Shantideva (Bhusuku—the lazy monk); © Robert Beer, 1986, gouche on paper, 11×8.5 inches
Shantideva (Bhusuku—the lazy monk); © Robert Beer, 1986, gouche on paper, 11×8.5 inches

Shantideva was born a prince in eighth-century India and, as the eldest son, was destined to inherit the throne. In one account of the story, the night before his coronation, Shantideva had a dream in which Manjushri (the Bodhisattva of Wisdom) appeared to him and told him to renounce worldly life and seek ultimate truth. Thus Shantideva left home immediately, giving up the throne for the spiritual path, just as the historical Buddha had done.

The prince disappeared into India and began living the life of a renunciate. Eventually he arrived at Nalanda University, which was the largest, most powerful monastery in India at the time, a place of great learning that attracted students from all over the Buddhist world. At Nalanda he was ordained a monk and given the name Shantideva, which translates as “God of Peace.”

Contrary to what his later reputation suggests, Shantideva was not well liked at Nalanda. Apparently he was one of those people who didn’t show up for anything, never studying or coming to practice sessions. His fellow monks said that his three “realizations” were eating, sleeping, and shitting. Finally, in order to teach him a lesson, they invited him to give a talk to the entire university. Only the best students were accorded such an honor. You had to sit on a throne and, of course, have something to say. Since Shantideva was presumed to know nothing, the monks thought he would be shamed and humiliated into leaving the university.

Shantideva got onto the throne and confidently asked the assembled monks if they wanted traditional teachings or something they had never heard before. When they replied that they wanted to hear something new, he proceeded to deliver the entire Bodhicharyavatara, or The Way of the Bodhisattva.

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