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.
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.