The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhicaryavatara),

~ by the great Shantideva.

Shantideva was born near Bodhgaya in the 8th Century. At a young age he manifested intuitive understanding of many things and, at seven years of age, he received explanation on the Manjushri meditation. He was soon able to see Manjushri directly and, from then on, he could meet Manjushri face to face to receive initiations and instructions.

When his father, a king, died, the people requested Shantideva to take on his father’s role. Shantideva had spent many lives practising the bodhisattvas’ conduct and had no attachment to the marvels of cyclic existence, but was unable to refuse their strong request. That night, Manjushri said to him, “My son, this is my seat, I am your guru, and it is not right for us both to sit on the same seat.”

Shantideva immediately decided to not become king and went to Nalanda Monastery to take ordination. Having mastered the Three Baskets and the four classes of tantra, he avoided all distractions and spent most of his time in meditative equipoise. The other monks thought he only ate, slept, and went to the toilet, and they mocked him for this. Although Shantideva had attained clairvoyant powers and a high level on the bodhisattvas’ path, the monks thought he was bringing the Sangha into disrepute by eating food offered with faith and not doing proper activities. They chose a gentle way to get rid of him by saying that everyone should take turns in reciting a sutra, believing that Shantideva would have nothing to recite and thus could properly be expelled.

When it became Shantideva’s turn to recite, the monks placed a high throne in the assembly hall, thinking it would be a good laugh right at the beginning because he wouldn’t be able to even sit on the throne. When the bodhisattva arrived, he stretched out his arm like the trunk of an elephant and pressed the throne down. Having seated himself, the throne went back up. Then he asked, “Should I recite something which is usually recited, or something which has never been recited before?”

Again, just to get at him, they chose the latter, wondering what on earth he would recite. Shantideva began reciting the Bodhicaryavatara and, as he did so, the throne rose higher and higher and disappeared into the sky. He continued to teach clearly even though his body was not visible. Some of the monks took notes and others committed the teachings to memory. Later, they were able to write down the entire Bodhicaryavatara.

The Bodhicharyavatara is easy to understand and is revered wherever the Mahayana is studied and practised.  It explains the meaning of all Buddha’s teachings, in particular, all that needs to be practised by those wishing to train on the bodhisattvas’ vehicle, the six perfections. Of the two aspects of the teachings, method and wisdom, the lineage of method has two: the extensive and the powerful. The lineage of extensive method is for those of dull intellect to train their minds in bodhicitta by first knowing all sentient beings as having been one’s mother, thinking of their kindness, repaying their kindness, heart-warming love, compassion, the special thought, and generating bodhicitta.

The lineage of powerful method is for those of sharp intellect to train their minds in bodhicitta through the stages of equalising and exchanging self and others. It includes the stages of extensive method, but takes the bull by the horns and immediately deals with the self-cherishing mind, seeing it as the cause of all troubles and seeing the mind cherishing others as the cause of all that is good. This way of thinking is very powerful, and since one engages in the bodhisattva’s conduct with such deep and incisive thoughts, the lineage is called powerful method. Buddha taught this lineage to Manjushri, who passed it on to Shantideva, who expounded it in the Bodhicaryavatara. Eventually the lineage came to Lama Serlingpa, who passed it to Atisha. All the Kadampa lamas trained in dependence on these instructions; Lama Tsongkhapa received them; and they finally reached the two tutors of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who passed them on to His Holiness.

Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche has expressed the wish to teach the Bodhicaryavatara in great depth over several visits to Australia. The opportunity to receive this instruction is rare, but you have to know that Rinpoche’s method of teaching is unique in that he may not refer to the text at all while still giving profound teachings according to his assessment of the capacity of those present to understand.

Arya Shantideva