Shāntideva and the Way of the Bodhisattva

Manjushri: he bodhisattva personifying supreme wisdom

Shantideva was an Indian scholar in the eighth century from the monastic university Nalanda, one of the most celebrated centers of learning in ancient India. He was born a prince in eighth-century India and, being the eldest son, was destined to inherit the throne. In one account of his life 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 centuries before him.

Shantideva 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 like at Nalanda. Apparently he was one of those people who didn’t show up for anything, never studying or showing up to practice sessions. His fellow monks said that his three realizations where “eating, sleeping, and shitting.”

Finally in order to teach him a lesson, they invited him to give a talk to the entire community. Only the best students were accorded such an honor. The student-lecturer 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 ashamed and humiliated into leaving the university. That’s one story.

Another version presents a more sympathetic view of Nalanda, whereby the monks hoped that by embarrassing Shantideva, they could motivate him to study. Nevertheless, like all beings who are building a case against someone, they probably derived a certain joy from the possibility of making Shantideva squirm. It’s said they tried to further humiliate him by making the throne unusually high, without providing any stairs.

To their astonishment, Shantideva had no problem getting on the throne. He then confidently asked the assembled monks if they wanted traditional teachings or something they have 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 the 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 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 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 teaching became more and more groundless. There was less and less to hold onto, his audience’s minds and hearts 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.

 We can believe these magical stories if we wish, perhaps they are meant to expresses how enraptured his audience felt listening to his words. What we do know is after Shantideva’s discourse on emptiness, he disappeared into the forests of India and began living the life of solitude. By then his disappearance probably disappointed the monks. Members of the congregation, many of whom had extraordinary abilities of recollection, hurried to write down what they had heard, but their accounts varied, and this text was clearly so important that they were concerned about recording it faithfully. When, some time later word reached Nalanda that Shantideva was living in South India, several of the scholars set off to find him in order to confirm the definitive version. Shantideva not only identified the correct rendering of the text for them, he also alerted them to the existence of his other two texts, The Compendium of Sutras and The Compendium of Training. Shantideva never returned to the Nalanda and remained a wondering yogi for the rest of his life.

About bodhichitta

The Sanskrit term bodhichitta is often translated as “awakened heart,” and refers to an intense desire to alleviate suffering. On the relative level, bodhichitta expresses itself as longing. Specifically, it is the heartfelt yearning to free oneself from the pain of ignorance and habitual patterns in order to help others do the same. We start close to home with the wish to help those we know and love, but the underlying inspiration is global and all encompassing.

Bodhichitta is a sort of “mission impossible”: the desire to end the suffering of all beings, including those we’ll never meet, as well as those we loathe.

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About Sunday morning

Sunday Morning Contemplation is informed by Eastern and Western contemplative traditions. The first, lectio divina has its origins in 6th century Europe. It unfolds in four steps or stages: reading (lectio), reflecting (meditatio), responding (oratio), and silent abiding (contemplatio). Our Eastern inspiration come from the Indian Upanishads (800-200 BCE), where contemplative practice consists of three steps or stages: listening (śravana), reflecting (manana), and meditating (nididhyāsana or dhyāna). Our contemplative practice on Sundays embraces both approaches, and each contemplation will be based on a reading from either tradition.

The texts and teachers I have chosen played a significant role in my life and I believe have much to offer. I will read presellected texts, slowly, with pauses between verses or quotes. The readings will be accompanied by soothing background music. To lessen distraction, I suggest participants close their eyes and listen. However, the screen will display the text so that people can choose to read along or mute the sound and read on their own. If there is time remaining after the contemplative period, participants can choose to either leave or stay for a short discussion.

As a preface to the reading, I will provide a 10-15 minute introduction to the text. When relevant, I’ll review facts about the author/teacher’s life. I will also present a brief explanation of the terms and language encountered in the reading.

Finally, when the contemplation is over, all texts read will be available online to read and/or download at any time on the website.

What I mean by
The Symbolic Life

This website makes liberal use of classical Indian visual art and refers mostly to traditional Indian texts (for example, the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras) in the courses, seminars, and discussions on offer. However, I am not presenting lessons in Hinduism; in fact, teaching mainstream Hinduism is neither my area of interest nor expertise. Rather, my interest in Yoga and Tantra is grounded in the concrete situation in which we find ourselves, in the places where we arrive and from which we depart. Beginning in the here and now, we will explore the underlying meaning of the symbols, stories, images, philosophies, and techniques found in Indian philosophical texts and practice, in light of our world and our current circumstance. We will excavate the meaning of the aphorisms and teaching stories; the symbolic figures of gods, people, and nature; and the sometimes terse, sometimes poetic, philosophy of the texts. Thus, in referring to the Symbolic Life of Yoga and Tantra, I mean not just the symbols themselves, but the rich explication of life that the symbols represent.

Our lived, concrete situation is wonderfully captured in the Sanskrit word loka, whose ancient meaning is “the world.”  The root meaning of both the Sanskrit loka and the English locate (and local, locale, and location) is identical. In the ancient Indian mind, the world is where we are located, in our current circumstance. Thus, the meaning of the symbols of Yoga and Tantra can occur only in the now, in the places where we find ourselves, and not in any imagined ancient and/or foreign world.

To emphasize our place of origin and return, I use the terms “archetypal” and “symbolic” quite frequently. Archetypal meaning is associated with the universal and collective aspects of human experience—what we intimately share with all others regardless of culture or era or epoch—while symbolic language forms a bridge between the realms of the universal with the culturally specific and local. Symbols are the scaffolding upon which human beings build a world and imbue it with meaning.

Think for a moment of pain and pleasure, sorrow and joy, hatred and love, and greed and generosity—universal experiences that ancient Indian thinkers called the dvandva-s. This Sanskrit term is a combination of two words, or rather, one word spoken twice: the word dva (meaning the same as the English “two”) duplicated. Dvandva is commonly translated as “the pair of opposites” or literally “the two-twos” (dvadva). The ancients who coined this compact symbol gave voice to an archetypal human experience that can be further unpacked to reveal deep insights into the human condition. Once we gain an understanding of the various symbols of Yoga and Tantra, we can further excavate their meaning and the archetypes they convey, and thus gain access to, in a practical and meaningful way, the vision of life experienced by the sages. These insights are available to us and are still relevant today, as are the resilient and adaptable techniques and forms of practice that can help us lead richer and more fulfilling lives