A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life
Translated from the Sanskrit and Tibetan by Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace
Snow Lion Publications: Ithaca, 1997.

The Way of the Bodhisattva
Translated from the Tibetan by the Padmakara Translation Group,
with a Foreword by the Dalai Lama
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1997.

The Bodhicharyavatara (The Guide) of the eighth-century Indian master Shantideva is one of the great works of Buddhist literature. It has been translated into Western languages at least a dozen times in this century, and is already well-known to many students of Buddhism in its venerable translation by Stephen Batchelor, published by the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives as A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Though Batchelor’s work will not soon be eclipsed as one of the best translations of Tibetan material available, these two new translations are significant contributions, both stylistically and methodologically.

Shantideva’s masterpiece shows the way to transcend the limitations of selfishness and realize the boundless compassion of the Bodhisattva, whose only concern is the benefit of others. As the Padmakara translation notes, one of the greatest exemplars of the Bodhisattva’s way is His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who credits The Guide as his chief inspiration.

The central concept of The Guide is bodhichitta, or the mind (chitta) that aspires and practices for the enlightenment (bodhi) of all beings. In the first chapter of the Padmakara translation, Shantideva says, “All other virtues, like the plantain tree,/ Produce their fruit, but then their force is spent./ Alone the marvelous tree of bodhichitta/ Will bear its fruit and grow unceasingly.” As all happiness comes from wishing others well, and all suffering from caring only for ourselves, bodhichitta, he proclaims, is the best medicine for what ails the world. Shantideva paints our prospects for the future in no uncertain terms. In the second chapter, titled “Confession,” he begins by making symbolic offerings to all the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and then declares: “Due to delusion, attachment, and hatred, I have sinned in many ways… Negligent and unaware of this danger, I have acquired many vices out of attachment to this transient life” (Wallace and Wallace). Neither translation shrinks from the use of the words “sin” and “evil,” which might conjure up unpleasant associations for anyone ever brainwashed with the teaching of Original Sin. But whether we call them sins or not, Shantideva’s frank discussion packs a punch. Death, he observes, does not discriminate between old and young, healthy and ill; it descends like a thunderbolt. The specter of our actions looms large in light of mortality, and the choice is clear: shape up and strive for enlightenment, or be prepared to suffer the consequences.

If chapter two is redolent of fire and brimstone, the following chapter is cheerfully evangelical. Shantideva again reflects on the supreme benefits of bodhichitta and rejoices in his vow to always work for the benefit of others. While cyclic rebirth is a hell realm of our own creation, where Sisyphean labors bring little pleasure and much torment, the bodhisattva’s way is joyful, and with relatively little effort bestows the supreme bliss of buddhahood. We claim to know this, but still we make excuses!

In the remaining chapters Shantideva continues to unmask our self-deception; with compelling logic, he shows that happiness is possible by first recognizing the alternatives—misery or enlightenment—and then making the right choices. It is hard to read The Guide and not be roused from the slumber of moral mediocrity.

 Shatideva, courtesy of Robert Beer.
Shatideva, courtesy of Robert Beer.

In the ninth chapter, which in many places improves on earlier translations, Shantideva introduces the nature of wisdom, by explaining the meaning of shunyata, or emptiness. At the outset he declares, “Ultimate reality is beyond the scope of the intellect. The intellect is called conventional reality” (Wallace and Wallace). The opinions of ordinary people, as well as the various levels of Buddhist philosophy, are gradually superseded as one advances in philosophical awareness, culminating in the view of the Middle Way, or Madhyamika, whereby everything is understood to be emptiness, or shunyata—the absence of own-being, true existence or self-sufficiency.

Thus, Buddhist teachings are only a means for indicating the final nature of things in emptiness; but lest we think emptiness is an end in itself, Shantideva observes in a much-debated verse, “Without detecting an imagined thing, its non-existence is not apprehended. Therefore, if a thing is false, its non-existence is clearly false” (Wallace and Wallace). His point is that emptiness cannot be understood without first examining some thing or another that is empty; if emptiness means that things are not as they appear, then emptiness too must be empty. In other words, form and emptiness are inseparable. This understanding is not without significance for Buddhist ethics: “Thus, with things devoid of true existence,/ What is there to gain, and what to lose?/ Who is there to pay me court and honors,/ And who is there to scorn and revile me?” (Padmakara). Through emptiness, we can take courage in the practices of bodhisattvas.

Working closely with Indian panditas, Tibetan scholars of yore translated Sanskrit verses into Tibetan verses of fixed length and precise meaning; amazingly, this was done with little or no loss of nuance. Although the inflexible syntax and polysyllabic words of English make this method impossible for us, the Wallaces’ version comes close to the style of early Tibetan scholars, but without re-creating the stanza form. Using primarily the Sanskrit version of The Guide, the Wallaces have produced a concise, literal, and elegant translation. The extant Sanskrit edition frequently differs from the one used in Tibet a millennium ago, so this translation has a somewhat different feel than translations based only on the Tibetan. The Wallaces have noted these differences in copious footnotes, which include many passages from the Sanskrit and Tibetan commentaries. These features make their translation both highly readable and an excellent source for scholars of the original languages.

The Padmakara translation is based primarily on the Tibetan version of the Bodhicharyavatara, and is interpreted with reference to a twentieth-century Tibetan commentary. There is an excellent introduction, presumably written by Padmakara’s main translator, Wulstan Fletcher, but not specifically credited to him, which draws attention to some of The Guide’s more provocative passages. Two appendices are translations of commentary passages on the method for identifying and exchanging oneself with others – in other words, how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes as a way of generating true compassion. A biographical essay on Shantideva forms a third appendix. The Padmakara edition is thus more than a translation; it is a well-rounded study that places The Guide in its religious, philosophical, and historical contexts. Taking frequent but for the most part prudent poetic license, Fletcher has crafted some lively and sophisticated verses. For example, where the Wallaces have “Until one is hoisted by four men and mourned by the world, one should retire to the forest,” he has “Until the time comes round/ When four men carry me away,/ Amid the tears and sighs of worldly folk/ Till then, I will away and go into the forest.”

Verse 10.2 provides an example of the different translation methods involved. The Wallaces have “Through my merit, may all those in all directions who are afflicted by bodily and mental sufferings obtain oceans of joy and contentment”; Fletcher has “May beings everywhere who suffer/ Torment in their minds and bodies/ Have, by virtue of my merit,/ Joy and happiness in boundless measure.” Both the Sanskrit and Tibetan texts use a typical Sanskrit metaphor, a compound word literally meaning “joy-happiness-ocean”; the Wallaces have slightly modified it, while Fletcher has replaced the metaphor with idiomatic English. In this case, both translations have opted not to re-create one subtlety of the original passage, which uses two words signifying, though somewhat redundantly, “uneasiness” (Skt. vyatha) and “disease” (atura), with respect to body and mind (kaya-citta); both have condensed the sense of the two words into one (e.g., as “suffering” or “torment”). The Tibetan translation, on the other hand, has preserved the distinction of two kinds of misery, using the words “suffering” (sdug bsngal) and “sickness” (nad). Unfortunately, in translating Sanskrit or Tibetan it is almost always necessary to sift out some nuances of the original, to make the final product palatable.

In honing their compositions, ancient Sanskrit grammarians are said to have rejoiced at the elision of a single syllable as over the birth of an only son. It is perhaps ironic that in his liberal use of syllables Fletcher has often been successful in evoking the lyricism of the original; on reading it, the old grammarians might experience a mixture of awe and horror, as over the birth of Siamese twins. But that needn’t discourage us speakers of the cacophonous hodgepodge known as English, for whom their dross might just be gold.

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