“No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva” by Pema Chödrön, reviewed by Roger Jackson
No Time to Lose is a fruit of the encounter between one of the most respected of all Western Buddhist teachers, bhikshuni Pema Chödrön, and one of the most beloved of all Mahayana Buddhist texts, the Bodhicharyavatara by the eighth-century Indian monk, Shantideva.
The Bodhicharyavatara—variously translated into English as Entering the Path of Enlightenment, The Way of the Bodhisattva, or A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life—is a long Sanskrit poem usually divided into ten chapters: The Excellence of Bodhichitta, Confession, Commitment, Awareness, Vigilance, Patience, Heroic Perseverance, Concentration, Wisdom, and Dedication. It includes extraordinary poetic evocations of the joys of altruism, ingenious exhortations to self-discipline and compassion, a remarkable analysis of our spiritual debt to our enemies, classic meditations on equalizing and exchanging ourselves with others, a subtle presentation and defense of Madhyamaka philosophy, and an uplifting final benediction extended to all beings everywhere.
The Buddhist scholar Lu’s Gómez has rightly observed that over the past century, the Bodhicharyavatara has become a classic of modern Buddhism, with only the Dhammapada and the Heart Sutra translated more often from Indian into modern languages. The reasons for its initial popularity outside Asia were complex, and include its survival in Sanskrit, the power of its poetic imagery, and its distant echoes of such Christian devotional classics as Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. But the recent spate of translations and analyses, whether scholarly or popular, unquestionably can be traced to the growing influence in the West of Tibetan Buddhism.
All Tibetan Buddhist traditions look for inspiration to the Buddhist literature of India, and for almost a thousand years, the Bodhicharyavatara has been one of the most widely studied and deeply admired of the thousands of texts that were translated from Indian languages into Tibetan. Though it was translated into Tibetan as early as the ninth century (the translation subsequently was revised), the Bodhicharyavatara only began to gain popularity in Tibet in the eleventh century, when masters of the reformist Kadampa order began to study and comment on it, using it as a basis for their instructions on bodhisattva mind-training (lojong) and their interpretations of Madhyamaka.
The Kadampas directly or indirectly influenced Tibetan studies of nontantric Indian texts in all the other Tibetan Buddhist lineages, so the Bodhicharyavatara became a part of nearly every scholastic curriculum; indeed, between the eleventh and twentieth centuries perhaps a hundred Tibetan commentaries were written on it. Even today, many Tibetan monks and yogis have committed the Bodhicharyavatara to memory, and can draw on it at will for personal reflection and advice to others. The present Dalai Lama has expressed a particular veneration for it, and has published several books commenting on various aspects of it, including A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night (Shambhala) and Transcendent Wisdom (Snow Lion). Several other Tibetan teachers have weighed in with full or partial commentaries as well, most notably Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (Meaningful to Behold, Tharpa Publications) and Geshe Yeshe Tobden (The Way of Awakening, Wisdom Publications).
The Bodhicharyavatara’s importance in Tibet was foreshadowed by its popularity in India, where nine different commentaries were written on it in a matter of a few centuries, and it became one of the first texts selected for translation by Indian pandits who were invited to Tibet in the ninth century to begin the great task of creating a Tibetan Buddhist canon. As with many ancient Indian texts, there are lingering questions about the dating, authorship, and textual integrity of the Bodhicharyavatara as it now stands. The version translated into Tibetan differs in both length and organization from a manuscript of the same era discovered in the Dunhuang caves of western China, leading scholars to wonder what the “original” text may have been, and how it might have been altered over the years. And Shantideva himself remains a shadowy figure, known to us only through colorful legends written down by Tibetan historians many centuries after his death.
Despite these uncertainties, and although it was composed by a Buddhist monk for other Buddhist monks in an elite monastery in late medieval India, the Bodhicharyavatara has been influential nearly everywhere it has appeared, from India, to Indonesia, to Tibet, to Mongolia, to the modern West. It is easy to see why: it is one of the handful of Buddhist texts that with supreme skillfulness combines poetic beauty with argumentative rigor, longing for enlightenment with ruthless self-analysis, and ritual formality with everyday advice.
Like classics everywhere, the Bodhicharyavatara is many things to many readers. It has been described as a philosophical poem, a meditation manual, an inner dialogue, a code of ethical conduct, and a devotional hymn. It is all these, and more. Above all, it is, in Pema Chödrön’s words, “the essential guidebook for fledgling bodhisattvas,” providing a multitude of ways in which one can spur oneself to arouse, act upon, and perfect the central mind-state of the Mahayana practitioner: bodhichitta, which in its conventional sense is the commitment to gain enlightenment for the sake of all beings, and in its ultimate sense is the transcendent insight into emptiness that is necessary if enlightenment is to be won. To the degree that the bodhisattva is the central ideal of Mahayana, the Bodhicharyavatara’s imaginative and inspiring presentation of the bodhisattva path has insured its wide and appreciative readership.
Pema Chödrön is well known to readers of Buddhadharma as the author of such popular and practical guides to applied dharma as When Things Fall Apart and The Places That Scare You (both published by Shambhala). She is an articulate exponent of the approach to Buddhism developed by her principal teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, but has studied as well with numerous Tibetan masters, especially in the Nyingma and KagyŸ lineages. She is the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, in Nova Scotia—a Tibetan monastery established for Westerners—and she travels widely, giving lectures and courses. Her teachings and writings over the years have been marked by compassion, humor, directness, and a gift for presenting up-to-date examples and anecdotes. She has displayed an especially keen appreciation for the psychological dimension of Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice, and unusual skill in translating that dimension into language readily accessible to her modern, largely Western, audience.
No Time to Lose is based primarily on transcripts of teachings on the Bodhicharyavatara that Pema Chödrön gave at Gampo Abbey in 2001. It is, so far as I know, the first published commentary on the bulk of the Bodhicharyavatara by a Western-born teacher, and so represents a milestone in the course of the text’s transmission to the West. The translation of Shantideva’s verses on which she comments is that of the Padmakara Translation Committee (The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambhala). Based on the Tibetan version rather than the Sanskrit original, it is, nevertheless, the clearest and most poetic Bodhicharyavatara translation in English. Chödrön comments on nearly every verse in nine of the text’s ten chapters. She has omitted chapter nine, on wisdom, noting that it involves a daunting and complex discussion of Madhyamaka philosophy that would merit a book of its own.
As we might expect, given her emphasis on a positive psychological approach to Buddhism, Chödrön treats the Bodhicharyavatara above all as a set of “surprisingly up-to-date instructions for people like you and me to live sanely and openheartedly, even in a very troubled world.” She provides consistently clear expositions of Shantideva’s sometimes convoluted verses and lines of argument, keeping her eye firmly on the question of how his discussion is relevant to the lives of ordinary people living in modern societies. She illuminates, from a psychological standpoint, a whole range of concepts and practices crucial to appreciating Shantideva’s work, such as generosity, prostration, confession, merit, ignorance, shame, virtue, anger, pride, disillusionment, solitude, and prayer. In so doing, she downplays the differences between Shantideva’s cosmology and social attitudes and our own, and presents him as a sort of inspirational cognitive therapist, who urgently wants to help us think and feel our way to sanity.
The illustrations she provides often are drawn from the cultural currency of the West, including references to the comic-strip Peanuts and the movie Groundhog Day, the revolution in South Africa, and repeated reminders of Westerners’ tendency toward self-loathing, our obsession with our personal dramas, and our need to undergo “detox” to rid ourselves of our addiction to shenpa—the grasping and attachment, the “nonverbal tightening or shutting down” that keeps us in the turmoil that is samsara. Shenpa itself is rooted in and helps to reinforce our inability to appreciate our clear, open, empty, gentle nature, which, if only we could relax into it, would be the key to our and others’ happiness.
Chödrön’s interpretation of the Bodhicharyavatara as a kind of cognitive therapy is entirely reasonable, and should be greatly appreciated by her audience, which consists mostly of educated Western laypeople trying to live wiser and more compassionate lives in a frenetic and bewildering world. In this sense, she has “translated” Shantideva for modern readers most effectively, and I have nothing but admiration for her reading of the text, from which I have learned much. Where a classic is concerned, however, every interpretive choice involves excluding other possible readings, and it is worth at least noting some of what Chödrön does not say about the Bodhicharyavatara.
She does not say much about the text’s ritual dimension. It actually is possible to view the entire Bodhicharyavatara as an extended Mahayana liturgy, and it is undeniable at least that portions of the poem have been drawn from earlier Mahayana rituals. Portions of Shantideva’s text, in turn, have become incorporated into Tibetan rites, such as the ceremony for administering the bodhisattva vows. Chödrön touches on this, but very lightly. Ritual often is a secondary concern for modern Western Buddhists (even Tibetan Buddhists!), but it has been central to the religious life of most Buddhists in most places and times, especially in Asia, and it certainly was a basic part of life in Shantideva’s Indian monastic setting.
Chödrön also says little about the Bodhicharyavatara’s philosophical dimension. She clearly appreciates the ingenuity of Shantideva’s arguments, but she rarely acknowledges (as, for instance, Paul Williams does in his provocative Altruism and Reality) that many of his verses pose difficult ethical and metaphysical problems, ranging from the paradox of altruism (how can I seek my own enlightenment for the sake of others without selfishness?), to the ramifications of the doctrine of skillful means (how far can a bodhisattva bend conventional morality?), to the nature of buddhas (are they the same as, or different from each other and sentient beings?), to the relation between emptiness (shunyata) and compassion (doesn’t the former threaten to undermine the latter?). Chödrön’s comments on shunyata are few, and tend to emphasize its connotations of openness and indefinability, and its relation to buddhanature. This is fine, but it only begins to hint at the richness of the concept as Shantideva employs it, even outside the Wisdom chapter. That she would not fully comment on that chapter is understandable, but that she entirely omits it is regrettable, since, as Shantideva asserts in the chapter’s very first verse, all of his foregoing discussion has been for the sake of wisdom, which, whether approached analytically or nonconceptually, is essential to completion of the bodhisattva path.
Finally, Chödrön does not always acknowledge the cosmological and cultural aspects of Shantideva’s outlook that may be unpalatable to modern Westerners. These include his references to the realms of samsara, including, most frequently, various hells; his evocations of the vicissitudes of karma in this and other lives; his punctilious insistence on observing monastic rules; and his denigration of the body, especially the female body. These and other traditional attitudes may make modern Buddhists uncomfortable, but they were a real and inescapable part of the ethos in which Shantideva lived and have been taken quite seriously by Shantideva’s Tibetan interpreters. Therefore, they cannot easily be explained away. Certainly, it is important to make a classic like the Bodhicharyavatara accessible to different audiences in various times and places, but not without acknowledging that the text is both familiar and alien, that it both invites and distances us, and challenges us constantly to confront who we are and what we think. A classic should discomfit us, even as it draws us into its vision.
In the end, no commentary can possibly exhaust a text as rich and complex as the Bodhicharyavatara. Pema Chödrön’s No Time To Lose may do little to enhance our appreciation of the ritual, philosophical, and cultural aspects of Shantideva’s great poem, but it is a superlative presentation of the text for modern Western Buddhists whose focus is on the applicability of dharma to everyday life. It is indeed, as the subtitle suggests, a timely guide to the Bodhicharyavatara, which eloquently, if selectively, extends its commentarial tradition into the brave new world of twenty-first-century Buddhism.