Profound View, Precise Conduct

Adrienne Chang shows how Shantideva joined the way we see with the way we act in his classic guide to living the life of a bodhisattva.

By Adrienne Chang

Shantideva floating above his teaching seat at Nalanda University, 20th century Thangla Tsewang, East Tibet

Of the many renowned Nalanda masters, there’s a special place reserved for Buddhist monk, scholar, and poet Shantideva. His Bodhicaryavatara remains one of the most beloved texts in the Buddhist canon, distinctive for its poetic, practical, yet deeply personal articulation of the Mahayana path. Since its composition in the early eighth century ce, the Bodhicaryavatara has served as a complete guide to the view, meditation, and ethical practice of a bodhisattva, showing us how to develop awakened mind, enter the Mahayana path, receive the bodhisattva precepts, and train in the six transcendent perfections of generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditation, and wisdom.

Contemporary readers may be challenged when they first encounter this text. Despite its lauded place in Buddhist literature, Shanti­deva’s guide, brimming with urgency, may seem moralistic, exuding a passion—both in the sense of vigor and of suffering—that may be difficult for us to relate to. Indeed, Shantideva assumes that readers accept Buddhist teachings on karma and metaphysics that may rub up against modern psychological views of the person, relationships, and society in general. On a deeper level, Shantideva assumes a readiness within the hearts of those who engage with his text: a genuine desire to relieve the suffering of the world and a longing for enlightenment that emerges from such a desire.

The Bodhicaryavatara is at once a work of exacting theoretical argumentation and intimate aspirational prayer. Its title—variously translated as The Way of the Bodhisattva or A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life—could also be understood as a guide on “How to Lead an Awakened Life.” It includes within it one of the most influential and condensed digests of Middle Way (Skt. Madhyamaka) philosophy. Likewise, it is a motivational poem, and can be read as Shantideva’s own meditation manual, a record of personal recollection, which he composed to cultivate and nurture the motivation of bodhicitta within himself.

How can modern Buddhist practitioners—who might be unconvinced by the reasonings of the Middle Way, and unsure of their bodhisattva capacity—relate to the Bodhicaryavatara as more than an ancient metaphysical treatise, more than a religious guide toward ethical conduct? An even deeper question: how does an understanding of the view of the Middle Way—on the ultimate level, the natural emptiness of all phenomena and on the relative level, the illusory appearance of dependently arising phenomena—begin to transform our character? How does understanding metaphysics inform ethical conduct? Inversely, how can the development of ethical conduct inform our view of reality?

Shantideva weaves together such reflections with quotations from the Mahayana sutras, exploring the relationship between philosophy and ethical practice, giving the Bodhicaryavatara its singular place within the Nalanda tradition. While many Mahayana texts present the stages of the bodhisattva path, few share the stature of the Bodhi­caryavatara as a classic in world literature, nor invoke the same intimacy and deep aspiration to guide individuals toward personal transformation.

Legendary Beginnings

There exist few historical records of Shantideva’s life. We know that the Chinese pilgrim Yijing wrote of the decade he spent at Nalanda in 685 ce but made no mention of Shantideva nor the Bodhicaryavatara. By 763 ce, when the great Nalanda abbot Shantarakshita traveled to Tibet at the request of King Trisong Detsun and commissioned the first wave of translations of classic Indian Buddhist texts into Tibetan, the Bodhicaryavatara was among them. Historians believe Shantideva most probably composed his text in the first half of the eighth century, receiving enough acclaim among his contemporaries as to merit inclusion in this group of translations.

According to legend, Shantideva was born the son of a king but renounced his kingdom after having a vision of bodhisattva Manju­shri. Shantideva was ordained as a monk at Nalanda, but over the years, appeared to many as not much more than an indolent layabout. On the brink of expulsion from Nalanda due to his idleness, Shantideva was challenged by the pandits to give a public recitation of scripture, assuming he would be forced to leave the university out of embarrassment. However, Shantideva took up the challenge, and after scrambling up a ludicrously high throne built specifically for this occasion, asked the audience if they wanted to hear something familiar or something new. Asked for something new, he astonished his peers by reciting his original composition, the Bodhicaryavatara.

When he reached the ninth chapter on the paramita of wisdom, it is said that at the beginning of stanza 34, Shantideva began to levitate above the throne. He rose into the air and gradually disappeared, his voice continuing to echo from the sky, completing the entire text.

The famous stanza 34 from the ninth chapter, reads:

When neither “existence” nor “nonexistence”
Remains before the mind,
At that point, since there is no other position,
Mind rests in utter peace, without any conceptualizing.

What would it mean to be in a state “when neither ‘existence’ nor ‘nonexistence’ remains before the mind”? Why would such a state be a powerful cumulative moment in one’s spiritual development?

From Emptiness to Ethics

Shantideva’s famous passage describes the view of emptiness (Skt. shunyata), the realization that all phenomena are empty of having an inherent nature. The Madhyamaka teachings invite us to investigate for ourselves, through analysis and reason, the nature of our experience and what we consider “real.”

Whether explicitly or implicitly, all our actions in the world are informed by a view. Our views are conditioned by friends, by society, by personal experience. At its best, philosophical analysis helps us to examine, challenge, and develop our views. Madhyamaka philosophy in particular asks us to challenge the solidity of the very building blocks of our reality and deconstruct the foregone conclusions we carry around with us.

The nature of reality, metaphysics as it is understood in Western philosophy, remains largely unexamined for most of us. Through force of habit, we take the various phenomena of our world—our tables, chairs, partners, jobs, ideas, identities—as real, solid, singular, fixed, and independently existing. In fact, though, objects that seem to exist in our material and mental worlds do so as ever-changing collections of causes and conditions momentarily coming together and falling apart.

Most of us forget, most of the time, about the interdependent nature of what appears before, around, and indeed, within us. This often leads us to behave inappropriately. We assume independent agency, and get angry and place blame on others when we feel harmed. We believe in an independent self that is different from others, ignoring that all of us share the same desire for happiness and aversion to suffering. More often than not, this happens when we see the phenomena of our reality as fixed and solid; we fail to see they are dependently arising. For Shantideva, once we see how things actually are, we will have a better understanding of how we should act. He argues that when we familiarize ourselves with the view of the Mahayana and develop the wisdom that sees reality as it is, it transforms our behavior and inspires more compassionate responses to life’s problems.

In the sixth chapter of the Bodhicaryavatara, Shantideva writes about working with anger and developing patience—the ability to remain unperturbed when wronged—through reflecting on the composite, interdependent nature of all things:

All things, then, depend on other things,
And these likewise depend; they are not independent.
Knowing this, we will not be annoyed
At things that are like magical appearances. (v.31)

Thus, when enemies or friends
Are seen to act improperly,
Remain serene and call to mind
That everything arises from conditions. (v.33)

These verses invite us to deeply look at interdependence. Just as a stick is merely an inert instrument being wielded by a hateful person to beat you, Shantideva asks us to consider that the person in turn is being wielded by their own anger, which itself arises from a myriad of conditions. Shantideva teaches that practicing patience does not necessarily mean passively accepting harm, but developing a keen awareness of all the conditions from which harmful situations arise.

Concerning desire, Shantideva writes in the eighth chapter of the Bodhicaryavatara that because we mistake the human body for a single thing and impute all sorts of features to it, we lust, crave, and become attached to our own and others’ bodies. The body, however, is no more than its component parts, “a heap of bones devoid of self, without autonomy!” He asks us to consider whether it is the whole body that incites desire or the individual parts. If we really investigate the precise object of our desire, we cannot find it.

Having analyzed in this way, Shantideva offers methods in chapter eight for fostering a relationship with others that stands on a more profound basis—methods for equalizing ourselves and others:

Since I and other beings both,
In wanting happiness, are equal and alike,
What difference is there to distinguish us,
That I should strive to have my bliss alone? (v.95)

Since I and other beings both,
In fleeing suffering, are equal and alike,
What difference is there to distinguish us,
That I should save myself and not the others? (v.96)

Because we mistakenly assume the existence of a self, we act out of self-interest. But there is no substantial self, and we should care as much about “others’” well-being as we do about our “own.” Once a person experiences and thereby truly appreciates that the happiness and suffering of all beings are causally conditioned, the only rational attitude is a compassionate one, grounded in a clear-eyed intention to eliminate suffering and its causes. Shantideva writes:

Suffering has no “possessor,”
Therefore no distinctions can be made in it.
Since pain is pain, it is to be dispelled.
What use is there in drawing boundaries? (v.102)

In the ninth chapter, Shantideva expounds on shunyata, and the inherent insubstantiality of things. Linking this to letting go of self-grasping and loosening our attachments, he writes:

Whatever is the source of suffering,
Let that be the object of our fear.
But voidness will allay our every grief,
How could it be for us a thing of dread? (v.55)

If such a thing as “I” exists indeed,
Then terrors, granted, will torment it.
But since no self or “I” exists at all,
What is there left for fears to terrify? (v.56)

Mistakenly believing that things substantially exist, we attach to them. We are afraid of losing some things we want to keep and of encountering other things we want to avoid. If we were to perceive that the objects of our fears are indeed empty, how could they be for us a source of dread? And where does this “I” exist that is so terrified by fear?
This is how Shantideva establishes philosophical premises, then logically draws ethical conclusions to guide our behavior.

See Better, Act Better

Compassion is a direct result of learning to see all phenomena—including the suffering of oneself and others—as interdependent, impermanent, and empty of inherent existence. There is no use in drawing boundaries between self and other; no distinctions can be made between my suffering or others’ suffering. Suffering, when correctly understood, elicits compassion. So too, anger, when correctly understood, inspires patience. For Shantideva, anger and desire are based on an incorrect understanding of dependently arising phenomena, falsely conceiving objects as solid, singular, and imbued with agency.

To speak of “correct understanding” is a reference to wisdom, or prajna, which develops as we familiarize ourselves with the Mahayana view. When prajna is lacking, patience and compassion can become unskillful “idiot compassion”—simply treating others well in order to make ourselves feel better rather than attending to their real needs seen in a larger context.

Alternatively, as prajna develops, our actions flow from a more profound way of seeing the world, which may well include actions that from a conventional perspective may seem too direct or even harsh. Ultimately, through beneficial actions and more skillful ways of responding to the world, our prajna grows, and a virtuous cycle develops.

Buddhist scholar Jay Garfield argues that this manner of moral cultivation is particular to the Buddhist tradition. Garfield writes, “…we do not aim to foster ethical growth by instilling a sense of duty, nor by teaching people to focus on the consequences of their actions, nor by accustoming them to do particular things. Instead, moral cultivation in this tradition involves training people to see themselves and others in a better way, with the confidence that the experience will not only be more accurate, but also that it will yield more effective engagement with the world in a host of situations.”

Garfield calls this Buddhist approach to ethics moral phenomenology. It is not mere intellectual knowledge of the interdependence and insubstantiality of our world that transforms us, but an understanding that is so internalized that it transforms our perceptual experience. Just as an expert violinist transforms the experience of the sound, sight, and sensations of their instrument through years of dedicated practice, so too does the Mahayana practitioner transform their view of reality through years of cultivating prajna, so that they directly see phenomena as they actually are: interdependent, impermanent, and insubstantial.

For Shantideva, the culmination of ethical practice is a new way of experiencing oneself in the world, a way of perceiving that is at once richer and more precise. Acting as a bodhisattva comes from first learning to see as one. And seeing as one comes from the continued pursuit and training in the three methods that develop prajna: study, contemplation, and meditation.

Shantideva Lives On

It is this tradition that has not only preserved Shantideva’s words, but also the moral phenomenology and lived experience of the view behind his words. The Bodhicaryavatara remains a deeply personal text—inspiring and challenging at every turn. For thirteen centuries, students who have encountered Shantideva’s words have faced the challenge of building their own relationship with them through intimate reflection and contemplation.

The great nineteenth-century Nyingma master Patrul Rinpoche, who is considered one of Shantideva’s spiritual heirs, dedicated his life to the dissemination and propagation of the Bodhicaryavatara. He said that he himself had read the text more than a thousand times and still gained new insight each time he read or recited it. Due to his efforts, Shantideva’s teachings were widely taught in nearly all Tibetan monastic universities. Young monks to this day learn to recite the text by heart.

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama received the transmission of the Bodhicaryavatara from Khunu Lama Tenzin Gyaltsen, whom the Dalai Lama calls the “Shantideva of our time,” who had himself received the transmission from a disciple of Patrul Rinpoche. The Dalai Lama has said that the Bodhicaryavatara is his favorite religious work and, as with many other Tibetan teachers, that the Bodhicaryavatara was formative for his spiritual development.

In his own commentary on the Bodhicaryavatara, His Holiness recounts that when Patrul Rinpoche taught this text to large outdoor gatherings, yellow flowers, remarkable for their numerous petals, would begin to blossom as he spoke. Through his deep personal connection with Shantideva’s teachings, Patrul Rinpoche made the Mahayana path accessible to vast audiences, monastic and lay alike.

Buddhist practitioners today can approach this text as part of a living tradition of explanation and practice. Great masters, yogins, and yoginis have authenticated the text with their own experience and passed on their own realization. Just as at his first exposition of the Bodhicarya­vatara at Nalanda, while Shantideva’s form may have disappeared, his voice remains vivid to this day, and his teachings continue to nourish new generations of practitioners.

Adrienne Chang

Adrienne Chang

Adrienne Chang is a student in the tradition of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She has co-led Buddhist study and meditation retreats in Europe, North America, and online. She is also a participant in the Milinda Program, a ten-year, multi-sangha, shedra-style teacher training program for Western dharma instructors under the vision and guidance of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.