The Boundless Energy of No-Self

Zoketsu Norman Fischer on his deep love for Shantideva and how the great teacher’s insights lead us unavoidably to a path of vigorous service to the world.

By Norman Fischer

Hands Together, 2018 Courtesy of Bildhalle © Paul Cupido.

According to legend, Shantideva’s great eighth-century text, the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, (the Bodhisattvacharyavatara, which can be shortened to the Bodhicharyavatara), is said to have been spontaneously spoken by Shantideva, in rhymed Sanskrit verse, as he slowly floated up into the air above Nalanda University. Even when he was entirely out of sight, people could still hear his booming voice. The text he spoke is as amazing as the story of its composition. It compels not only for its cleverness and outrageousness, but also because it strikes a familiar and inspiring chord in the human imagination.

Humans have always imagined that life is more than it appears to be: that the tangible, difficult world we live in is not all there is, and that we ourselves are much more than we appear to be. Yes, we are poor souls lost in the struggle for survival and recognition, huddled together with our friends, surrounded by troublesome and sometimes hostile others. At the same time, though, we imagine we are more: loving and courageous creatures motivated by our dedication to the well-being of others.

The Bodhicharyavatara makes the case that the ordinary materialistic self-oriented view of life is inaccurate, abnormal, frightening, and dangerous.

We imagine—and we cherish this, we can hardly live without it—that the world can be a better place.
Given human history and our own everyday experience, these hopes and dreams seem preposterous. And yet we have held onto them for millennia.

In the Bodhicharyavatara, Shantideva tells us that these hopes and dreams are not only worthy, but that they can, and must, become real. The alternative, he says, is gruesome and insupportable.

If we don’t become bodhisattvas, altruistic spiritual heroes, Shantideva says, if we insist instead on our small-minded, self-centered way of living, we are guaranteed to suffer terribly. Individually, we’ll be stressed out, dissatisfied to the point of despair, and compelled to take up all sorts of unhappy and destructive ways of coping. Collectively, our self-protectiveness will eventually result in societal impasse—endless wars, intractable injustices, environmental collapse. It is essential, then, that we throw off our limitations and enter the bodhisattva path. There is no other way.

An Absurd Commitment

A bodhisattva is a spiritual Superman or Wonder Woman, a fearless and invincible Super Person with the twin Super Powers of innocence and universal love. Bodhisattvas not only love all beings equally and work tirelessly for their well-being without noticing any obstacles—they also completely identify with beings, gathering all their sufferings and joys into themselves. Without any idea of personal advantage, or any sense that what they are doing is impossibly idealistic, they are completely without guile.

Far from the usual view of self and other as inherently at odds, bodhisattvas know that there is no self apart from others. And this knowledge is not merely philosophical or aspirational—it is physical, emotional, spiritual, cosmic, and it propels bodhisattvas to expansive and salvific heights.

In Zen practice we chant the Four Bodhisattva Vows:

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.

Who with a straight face could chant such verses? And yet we chant them and mean them, understanding that they do not describe accomplishments in the ordinary material world, within ordinary time frames. Instead, they affirm the imaginative spiritual course we are committed to, a way of life we live, come what may.

The Bodhicharyavatara is a handbook for developing the bodhisattva way of life. It begins with praise for and techniques for developing bodhicitta, the altruistic spirit of awakening, a surge of inspiration that propels us forward into never-ending effort on behalf of others. From there it teaches us how to develop essential bodhisattva practices: mindfulness of thoughts and conduct; forbearance with difficulties, so as to transform them into the path; joyful effort that takes delight in every step of the way, without worry about results; meditation to stabilize body and mind; and, finally, the wisdom that sees that the world is far otherwise than it appears. By the time Shantideva is done, he has convinced us that the bodhisattva path—outrageous and impossible as it seems at first—is a down-to-earth way of life we can actually live. And that this way of life is more real and more sustainable than the flimsy fiction of life as we have known it.

The Bodhicharyavatara is one of the world’s great motivational texts. Using colorful and often startling language, it makes the case that the ordinary materialistic self-oriented view of life is inaccurate, abnormal, frightening, and dangerous. By contrast, the bodhisattva view—gloriously transcendent and joyful—accords with things as they actually are. In the course of explaining how to develop forbearance, joyful effort, mindfulness, wisdom, and other spiritual qualities, Shantideva constantly coaxes us into wanting to develop them.

Fractured and Confused World

As almost everyone I know is constantly repeating, we live in unprecedented times. Although we have more material know-how and prosperity than ever, we are aware of enormous long-standing social and economic injustices, and of suffering all over the world. We see how fractured and confused our societies are. And we are stunned to realize that our material progress has led to environmental collapse, including the demise of many precious species. No one in the modern world can be unaware of all this. It’s no wonder the average person is gloomy.

This is why chapter seven of the Bodhicharyavatara, the chapter on virya paramita, seems especially salient.
Virya paramita literally means the perfection of virya. The word virya, like its English cognate virile, implies strength and power. But virya paramita involves not only vigor, but also joy, zest, and ardency. Shantideva tells us that bodhisattvas depend on virya paramita above all else. They are moved by it just as wind moves trees and grasses. Joyful effort is the essential energy of bodhisattva practice.

Strength or power, as we usually conceive of it, is aimed at conquest or domination. But effort expended to control or to win is grim, and inherently weak. Every hero will be brought low and every victory will eventually end in collapse or defeat.
But not so for bodhisattvas.

They can never be defeated, because they are not trying to win. Since their goal—universal love and well-being—is unlimited, their joyful effort is also unlimited. It never flags. Love is the only truly sustaining motivation.

Watch Out!

In the ordinary world, selfishness seems so reasonable. “It’s rough out there, watch out!” Be vigilant, forever ready to defend yourself, your family, tribe, nation. No one can argue with this. Even decent, well-meaning people, as most of us are, know they’d be fools not to look out for themselves and their families as they scan the area for threats. It’s a threatening world. Self-protection is natural.

Provocatively, Shantideva calls this normal everyday attitude limited and lazy. It requires no deep thought, no great courage. But a deeper look will show that it’s unworkable, because it lacks imagination and leaves out one unavoidable fact that renders it infeasible: death. Shantideva personifies death as Yama, Lord of Death, who devours you in the end, suddenly, and much sooner than you planned. Self-protection is a sham, a faulty concept. Its failure is assured.

Shantideva conjures up a vivid deathbed scene. Here we are, terrified in our last delirium, undone, wracked with guilt and regret for all we did that we should not have done and all we did not do that we should have. And as we look dimly up at the sad, bewildered faces of our loved ones standing round our bed, not knowing what to say or do, we feel their regret and cluelessness too, as the screeching demons of unfinished business swirl round our heads like a smoking whirlwind.

All this because we lacked the courage and imagination to look more deeply into our lives, because we failed to commit ourselves to what we knew all along was right and good, failed to prioritize love over all the other things we thought were necessary or compelling.

We thought we were making a big effort, but in fact we were lazy—distracting ourselves with useless activity. And now that the

Lord of Death is about to leap into our throat, we realize it.

Too late.

A Rare Opportunity

Human life is a precious vessel, Shantideva reminds us, uniquely capable of crossing the stream of suffering to the shore of love and liberation. Everyone knows this but few take it to heart. Let’s not waste this rare and precious opportunity. Let’s start right now to turn our boat around.

Practice immediately, Shantideva says, the equality of self and other and the exchange of self and other. These practices will free us from our crabbed and lazy small-mindedness and lead us into the open. The practices of the equality of self and other and exchanging self and other amount to a radical revision of our sense of identity. Rather than identifying with my body, my thoughts, my history, my feelings, and so on, I come to realize that thinking of all this as me has always been a painful dead end. And there is really no reason for it. Once I examine it closely, I see that my sense of identity is nothing more than a lazy habit.

When I open my eyes, am I not what I see in front of me? When I hear the wind, am I not the wind? Am I not the food I eat, the books I read, the people who have influenced and loved me and whom I have loved? When I look at another person and fill my heart with that person’s presence, am I not that person?

The “I” that I think I am is a position, a choice, a habit. Must I take that position, make that choice, reinforce that habit? Especially when I know that it is guaranteed to lead to suffering not only in the end (remember Lord Yama’s scary teeth—if I am not my body, who will he kill?), but it will lead to suffering every day, as I struggle to defend my precious self against the ordinary insults, fears, and anxieties that have always been a part of my life.

Everything Other than Myself

As Buddhist teaching so simply points out, I want to be happy and avoid suffering in exactly the same way everyone else does. The Japanese Zen masters are saying the same thing in their funny way when they point out that we all belong to the same nose-hole society. In other words, we are all in the same boat; self and other are equal. Knowing this dispels all fear, loathing, and judgment of others. It’s universal brotherhood/sisterhood/otherhood that liberates me from my painful and small self-cherishing.

To recognize that what truly constitutes myself is everything other than myself—all that I see hear smell taste touch think of sense and remember—is to exchange self and other. I am you and you are me. We depend on each other. As Shantideva says later in the text:

All the suffering there is in this world arises from wishing our self to be happy. All the happiness there is in this world arises from our wishing others to be happy.

Shantideva’s discussion goes on. You may object, saying, “That’s a great idea for someone but not for me. I am too selfish and too weak; it is beyond me.” More laziness! Bodhisattvahood is lofty and great, yes. But it is inherently available to all. Even gnats and houseflies with a little effort become buddhas. Certainly every human being, born with the innate capacity for language and therefore the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, is capable of it. We will all become buddhas. So why not you? Are you really that special?

OK, you say, maybe. But it is so hard. It takes so long. All that meditation and deprivation. I am frightened of the effort and the sacrifice.

Well, yes, effort is involved, but think about it: when you are sick the doctor prescribes medicine that is not necessarily tasty or pleasant. But you are happy to take it, because it’s so much better than the alternative. Besides, it turns out that the effort and sacrifice you’re afraid of is actually quite invigorating, in the same way that strenuous physical effort that at first seems onerous is a great joy once you train a little. Moreover, as you continue, your idea of what is difficult and frightening turns inside out, and you realize that it only looked like a sacrifice from your limited point of view. In fact, it is no sacrifice at all, but pure joy!

These arguments might strike you as a bit facile. But I have found them to be true. It constantly amazes me that people think of ordinary life as casual and fun, and religious life as dour and difficult, when actually the opposite is the case. It doesn’t take long for the noise, agitation, and tension involved in what we usually call fun to wear us out, and the pressures and deflations of everyday life are all too obviously not much fun to begin with. On the other hand, the joy of silence and of simply looking at and loving the world keeps getting better and better as your practice goes on.

You don’t give up ordinary life: how could you so long as you are alive? Altruistic spiritual practice makes life much easier and more joyful. Because, as you overcome stuck habits, oceans of joy rush in. Proceeding from happiness to happiness, despair dissolves as you ride the sailboat of awakening, which glides smoothly past all worry and weariness—this is what Shantideva promises.


Next Shantideva cajoles us into developing what he calls pride and desire. I imagine the verses here to be intricate in the original language, turning as they do on a set of verbal, spiritual, and psychological reversals. Because it is exactly pride (self-centeredness) and desire (grasping and clinging) that bodhisattvas must heroically overcome. And how do they overcome them? With pride (buddha confidence) and desire (bodhisattva love). “I will be an obstacle to obstacles!” Shantideva insists we declare. “I will conquer conquering and being conquered! For I am a child of Buddha.”

Just as the eye cannot taste nor the ear see, so the bodhisattva is no longer the sort of human being who fears difficulties or shrinks in the face of daunting tasks. Bodhisattvas see no difficulties, only steps in the endless path forward. They are intoxicated with the practice of joyful effort; they can’t get enough!

Bodhisattvas can never be defeated, because they are not trying to win. Since their goal—universal love and well-being—is unlimited, their joyful effort is also unlimited.

Ordinarily, we do everything for a reason, with a goal in mind.

A good deal of the time we don’t achieve the goal. And even when we do, we are likely to be disappointed. And even if we are not disappointed, eventually we will be, as the initial pleasure of the accomplishment or reward wears off. In fact, the whole proposition of goal-oriented action, obvious as it seems, is quite shaky.

For bodhisattvas who have impossible goals, things are completely otherwise. Every step of the way is joyful. Since every moment of the path completely disappears as soon as it arises, there is nothing to grow weary of. There is just step after step. Bodhi­sattvas plunge into each successive activity with delight, just as an elephant, overheated in the midday sun, plunges into a cool watering hole. Disappointment and frustration are impossible.

Resting and taking care of oneself is a necessary part of this endless joyful effort. Bodhisattvas know how to regulate themselves. When hungry they eat, when tired they rest. They know they need exercise and good food to continue their tasks, so they make sure to get just as much of these things as they need, not more, not less, for they do not take care of themselves for themselves. They take care of themselves for others. And they do what they do with flexibility and improvisation. No rules, just wit and weal and a good spirit, come what may.

There’s a Zen poem about this easygoing bodhisattva spirit called “Song of the Grass Hut.” It’s about a hermit who builds a grass hut and lives a life of ease, taking naps when he wants to and enjoying his mountain life. At one point he writes, “Bind grasses; never give up!” This is an expression of the disciplined joyful effort of the bodhisattva, practiced in simplicity and easefulness.

Shantideva ends his chapter on joyful effort with a beautiful image. Just as a thin piece of cotton, he writes, is wafted this way and that by a warm summer breeze, so should the bodhisattva make joyful effort to be a blessing for the world.

The cloth relaxes to collaborate with the wind just as the bodhisattva relaxes to collaborate with reality. Bodhisattvas know they are not alone and that it’s not all up to them. So they are never desperate, never discouraged. They are fully aware of course that life brings good times and bad, health and sickness, birth and death. They are grateful for all of it, and flow with it gracefully.

When Shantideva’s life story is told, his unusual career at Nalanda is always mentioned. Less well-known is what happened to him after he disappeared into the sky. Legend tells us that his subsequent career was various: he lived for a time quietly as keeper of a shrine; later, through miraculous powers, he brought peace to warring nations; after that he occupied himself feeding the poor; and still later he served as bodyguard for a king, whom he effectively defended using a wooden sword. A truly versatile bodhisattva, Shantideva went beyond his monastic training, beyond his devotion to meditation and study, because he understood that bodhisattvas always go forth to do practical service in a needy world in whatever way they can.

Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.