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 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.
Not only were these teachings very personal, full of useful advice, and relevant to their lives, they were also poetic and fresh. The content itself was not radical. In the very first verses, Shantideva says that everything he’s about to teach derives from the lineage of the Buddha. It wasn’t his subject matter that was original; it was the direct and very contemporary way he expressed the teachings, and the beauty and power of his words.
Toward the end of his presentation, Shantideva began to teach on emptiness, the unconditioned, inexpressible, dreamlike nature of all experience. As he spoke, the teachings became more and more groundless. There was less and less to hold onto, and the monks’ minds opened further and further. At that point, it is said that Shantideva began to float. He levitated upward until the monks could no longer see him and could only hear his voice. Perhaps this just expresses how enraptured his audience felt. What we do know is that after Shantideva’s discourse on emptiness, he disappeared. By then his disappearance probably disappointed the monks, but he never returned to Nalanda and remained a wandering yogi for the rest of his life.
Related: What is Emptiness in Buddhism?
The Way of the Bodhisattva is divided into ten chapters, each describing a stage on the path to enlightened living. It is in chapter eight that Shantideva directs the monks to practice meditation, and begins a discussion on the need for solitude:
In solitude, the mind and body
Are not troubled by distraction.
Therefore, leave this worldly life
And totally abandon mental wandering. (8.2)
In contemplating this section, it is helpful to remember three topics: dunzi, or wasting our lives with useless distractions; shenpa, the experience of being hooked; and heartbreak or nausea with samsara. When Shantideva tells us to leave this worldly life, he’s addressing how hooked we become by the things of this world, and how we need to find time to be free of distractions. After a while, nausea with getting hooked becomes like an ache in the heart that never goes away.
Shantideva is not making an ultimate statement about how to live one’s life. He’s just saying that in order for the mind to become steady, we’ll need to remove ourselves from dunzi, at least for short periods of time. Outer solitude is a support for inner solitude. This is his point.
We can’t kid ourselves: if we never take a break from our busy lives, it’s going to be extremely difficult to tame our minds. This is why it’s recommended to take time every day to meditate. Even short periods of sitting silently with ourselves allow the mind to settle down. Longer periods are even better.
Because of loved ones and desire for gain,
Disgust with worldly life does not arise.
These, then, are the first things to renounce.
Such are the reflections of a prudent man. (8.3)
This verse addresses a common addiction: seeking happiness in outer things, as though a partner, food, or some possession could provide the joy lacking in our lives. Our tendency to be overtaken by these drives is what concerns Shantideva here. It isn’t the loved ones and gain, per se, that need to be renounced; it’s the unrealistic hopes we place in these things.
Wishful thinking can easily become more compelling than the longing of the bodhi heart.
Penetrative insight joined with calm abiding
Utterly eradicates afflicted states.
Knowing this, first search for calm abiding,
Found by those who joyfully renounce the world. (8.4)
Calm abiding refers to the mental stability of shamatha meditation. The penetrative insight of a calm and steady mind is the basis for working with the kleshas [mental afflictions]. To cultivate this stability and wakefulness, we’ll need to find time for solitude.
Beings, brief, ephemeral,
Who fiercely cling to what is also passing,
Will catch no glimpse of happiness
For many thousands of their future lives.
And thus their minds will have no joy
And therefore will not rest in equanimity.
But even if they taste it, they are not content—
And as before, the pain of longing stays. (8.5—8.6)
When we beings, brief, ephemeral cling to things that are equally impermanent, it’s a setup for dissatisfaction. This isn’t a particularly religious statement; we can see that everything is constantly changing, including ourselves.
Since impermanence defies our attempts to hold onto anything, outer pleasures can never bring lasting joy. Even when we manage to get short-term gratification, it doesn’t heal our longing for happiness; it only enhances our shenpa. As my teacher Dzigar Kongtrul once said, “Trying to find lasting happiness from relationships or possessions is like drinking salt water to quench your thirst.”
If I long and crave for other
A veil is cast upon the perfect truth.
Wholesome disillusion melts away,
And finally there comes the sting of pain.
My thoughts are all for them…
And by degrees my life is frittered by.
My family and friends all fade and pass, for whom
The Doctrine is destroyed that leads to indestructibility. (8.7—8.8)
Driving the point home again and again is one of Shantideva’s teaching methods. These verses say once again that when we long and crave for other beings, a veil is cast upon the perfect truth. In other words, this craving blinds us to the unbiased nature of mind and thus our wholesome disillusion with samsara melts away.
Nausea with doing the same thing over and over is called wholesome disillusion because it motivates us to break our habits. By contrast, ordinary disillusionment is ego-based disgust—I don’t like this, I don’t want that—that keeps our habits well entrenched. Shantideva says that when seeking security in outer things clouds our perception of the fleeting, uncertain nature of reality, our longing to wake up may well evaporate. Then sooner or later it’s too late to wake up, because there comes the sting of pain. In other words, we die.
Even hundreds of years later, we can easily understand when Shantideva says my thoughts are all for them. We’re always thinking about others: loved ones, family, and the people we like and dislike. We fritter away whole lifetimes preoccupied with these objects of our craving and disdain. Meanwhile family and friends all fade and pass, leaving us, sadly, with a well-entrenched craving “habit.” Sadder still, we may have lost our passion for liberation in the process.
For if I act like those who are like children,
Sure it is that I shall fall to lower states.
So why keep company with infants
And go with them in ways so far from virtue?
One moment friends,
The next, they’re bitter enemies.
Even pleasant things arouse their discontent:
Worldly people—hard it is to please them!
A beneficial world and they resent it,
While all they do is turn me from the good.
And if to what they say I close my ears,
Their anger burns, the cause of lower states. (8.9—8.11)
The Buddha often likened sentient beings like us to children or childish beings. We’re childish in the way we constantly run after the objects of our desire. Shantideva isn’t implying he’s gone beyond this childishness. He’s saying this is the way we all are, and if we keep going like this, there’s no way to weaken our craving.
The time we spend getting hooked into our personal dramas only creates more confusion. One day we childish beings are friends, the next day we’re bitter enemies. Even the nice things we do for one another can create trouble. Have you ever tried to comfort someone or give them a word of encouragement, and get hostility in return? If you close your ears, people get angrier still. At a party, for example, if there’s some really good gossip circulating but you don’t go along with it, people find it very irritating. That’s just the way it is, and it never seems to change.
Reading these verses, you might decide that Shantideva’s a real curmudgeon. But if you take time to contemplate your experiences in the last twelve months, you’ll probably find he’s just stating the obvious.
Jealous of superiors, they vie with equals,
Proud to those below, they strut with praise.
Say something untoward, they seethe with rage:
What good was ever had from childish folk?
Keep company with them and what will follow?
Self-aggrandizement and scorn for others,
Talk about the “good things” of samsara—
Every kind of vice is sure to come. (8.12—8.13)
These verses describe how we so often get it wrong. We are jealous of those who are wealthier, more popular, better looking, or have better jobs. We are competitive with our equals. To those “beneath” us, we’re scornful and proud.
Like a bee that gets stuck extracting nectar from flowers, when we overindulge in gossiping, boasting, and slander, it’s lethal.
It would be so simple to turn these biases into the practice of dharma. With our superiors, we could practice sympathetic joy; thus, by awakening our bodhi heart, their station would bring us benefit. Instead of being competitive with equals, we could practice kindness and respect. With those below, we could practice compassion. We only get it wrong out of habit, and by doing so we miss valuable opportunities.
What often happens when we get emotionally entangled with childish folk is that we egg each other on. Building ourselves up, putting others down, regaling in the “good things” of samsara—our wonderful vacation, an excellent bottle of wine—we get further enmeshed in transitory pleasures. At this stage of the path it is very easy to get hooked into each other’s dramas, and it is very dangerous.
The support we need to dissolve these old patterns, Shantideva says again, will come from finding time for solitude.
Only ruin can result
From links like these, between yourself and others.
For they will bring no benefit to you,
And you in turn can bring them nothing good.
Therefore flee the company of childish people.
Greet them, when you meet, with smiles
That keep on terms of pleasant courtesy,
While not inviting close familiarity.
Like bees that get their honey from the flowers,
Take only what is consonant with Dharma.
Treat them like first-time acquaintances,
Without encouraging a close relationship. (8.14—8.16)
The way we get hooked by relationships always pulls us down. No one benefits and no good comes of it. Like a bee that gets stuck extracting nectar from flowers, when we overindulge in gossiping, boasting, and slander, it’s lethal. We could stay on good terms with each other without getting hooked. Like wise bees, we can get what sustains our good heart without getting hopelessly trapped.
These teachings can be very challenging, and somewhat insulting or disturbing. But truthfully, do we use our current relationships to awaken bodhicitta [the mind of enlightenment]? Most of us have no desire to be malicious or cause harm. We see our practice as a way of involving ourselves with sentient beings, not avoiding them. But as long as we are so easily triggered and seduced, we need solitude to deepen our stability and awareness.
Related: Bodhicitta Explained
It’s like becoming a brain surgeon: if this were truly our aspiration, we’d go to medical school for intensive training, and not try it out at home. Shantideva isn’t saying not to have friends or keep company with others. He is giving us advice for becoming less reactive and more wise.
The stability of mind is like a candle flame that at this point is very vulnerable. Solitude is like a glass chimney that keeps it from blowing out in the wind. When the flame is stable we can take the cover off. The wind is no longer a threat; now, in fact, it will make the flame like a bonfire.
The older I get, the more drawn I am to longer periods of retreat, yet I know that spending months in solitude isn’t realistic for many people. You could, however, meditate each day and do daylong or weekend retreats whenever possible. If you can take more time, I certainly encourage you to do so. The main point is to make solitude a part of your life.
As long as we are so easily triggered and seduced, we need solitude to deepen our stability and awareness.
In order to work with difficult outer circumstances, we need to gather our inner strength. If even ten or twenty minutes of meditation each day helps us to do this, let’s go for it! Making good use of our limited time—the limited time from birth until death, as well as our limited time each day—is the key to developing inner steadiness and calm.
One of the most inspiring stories I’ve heard in this regard concerns Dzigar Kongtrul’s grandmother. Her life was extremely demanding. But even though she worked hard from early morning until late at night, she became a highly realized person by practicing in the gaps. Whenever she wasn’t talking to somebody, she would relax her mind and be present. Whether she was milking cows, washing dishes, or walking from here to there, she used any opportunity to settle her mind. With every pause, she found outer solitude and thus discovered an inner solitude that was unshakable and profound.
“Oh, I am rich, surrounded by attention,
I have so much, and life is wonderful!”
Nourish such complacency and later
After death, your fears will start!
Indeed, O foolish and afflicted mind,
You want, you crave for everything,
This “everything” will grow and turn
To suffering increased a thousandfold. (8.17—8.18)
Verses 17 to 21 address the way we get distracted by good fortune. The great meditation master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche [1910—1991] taught that sometimes good circumstances are more difficult to work with than bad ones, because they’re so much fun. He called them “positive obstacles.” When someone is angry with us, it might remind us to meditate on patience. When we get sick, our suffering can put us in touch with the pain of others. When things go well, however, our mind easily accepts this. Like oil absorbing into our skin, attachment to favorable circumstances blends smoothly and invisibly into our thoughts and feelings. Without realizing what’s happening, we can become infatuated with our achievements, fame, and wealth. It’s difficult to extricate ourselves from positive obstacles. If we could have everything we wish for—wealth, a comfortable house, nice clothing—he advises us to view this good fortune as illusory, like a beautiful dream, and not let it seduce us into complacency.
As Shantideva says, O foolish and afflicted mind, you want, you crave for everything, but everything is never enough. As those in advertising well know, the more we get, the more we feel we need.
Since this is so, the wise man does not crave,
For from such craving fear and anguish come.
And fix this firmly in your understanding:
All that may be wished for by nature fades to nothing.
For people may have gained a wealth of riches,
Enjoying reputation, sweet renown.
But who can say where they have gone to now,
With all the baggage of their gold and fame? (8.19—8.20)
All those people throughout history who’ve gained riches, fame, and good reputations, where are they now? They’re gone forever. And in the end, what was all the baggage of their gold and fame? It didn’t help them at death and it won’t help us.
Worldly delights could, of course, support our awakening. When we are comfortable and at ease, we can devote more time to meditation and benefiting others. Usually, however, they lure us into further busyness and shenpa.
Why should I be pleased when people praise me?
Others there will be who scorn and criticize.
And why despondent when I’m blamed,
Since there’ll be others who think well of me? (8.21)
Shantideva refers here to the “eight worldly concerns”: praise and blame, pleasure and pain, fame and obscurity, gain and loss. He asks why be happy when people praise me, or unhappy when they condemn me, since there’ll always be those with other opinions. Nevertheless, these worldly concerns are the very things we constantly strive to get or get away from. The shenpa tug of want and don’t want keeps us spinning in samsara.
Just the thought of someone saying something nice about us makes us feel good. If someone treats us in a neutral way, maybe has a deadpan response to our story, just remembering this makes us a little depressed. It’s insane to be enslaved by such hopes and fears, but we can all count on it happening.
This is not just personal neurosis; it’s another example of our universal dilemma.
So many are the wants and tendencies of beings,
Even Buddha could not please them all—
Of such an evil man as me no need to speak!
Better to give up such worldly thoughts.
People scorn the poor who have no wealth,
They also criticize the rich who have it.
What pleasure can derive from keeping such company
With people such as these, so difficult to please?
Unless they have their way in everything,
These children are bereft of happiness.
And so, shun friendship with the childish,
Thus the Tathagata [the Buddha] has declared. (8.22—8.24)
Here Shantideva wraps up the section on getting hooked by people and good fortune. There is no wisdom in trying to satisfy worldly cravings—our own or anyone else’s. The fact that even Buddha could not please them all is sobering. Shantideva advises us once again to not get sucked into the drama.
In woodlands, haunt of stag and bird,
Among the trees where no dissension jars,
It’s there I would keep pleasant company!
When might I be off to make my dwelling there?
When shall I depart to make my home
In cave or empty shrine or under spreading tree,
With, in my breast, a free, unfettered heart,
Which never turns to cast a backward glance?
When might I abide in such a place,
A place unclaimed, by nature ownerless,
That’s wide and unconfined, a place where I might stay
At liberty without attachment?
When might I be free of fear,
Without the need to hide from anyone,
With just a begging bowl and few belongings,
Dressed in garments coveted by none? (8.25—8.28)
When Shantideva praises solitude, he is not suggesting we run away and hide from all unpleasantness. Even if this were possible, he wouldn’t recommend it. One could spend years alone in a cave without really letting go of anything. The question is how best to attain the inner solitude that will bring lasting happiness.
From No Time to Lose by Pema Chödrön, © 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. www.shambhala.com
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