Shantideva: The Way of the Bodhisattva

The Way of the Bodhisattva (or Bodhicharyavatara, literally "An Entry into the Activities of Enlightenment") is one of the great classics of Mahayana Buddhism. Presented in the form of a personal meditation in verse, it outlines the path of the bodhisattvas—those beings who, turning aside from the sufferings of the world of samsara, nevertheless renounce the peace of individual salvation and vow to work for the deliverance of all beings and to attain enlightenment for their sake. Originally written in India in Sanskrit, the text first appeared in Tibetan translation soon after its composition in the eighth century. The fact that it has been expounded, studied, and practiced in Tibet in an unbroken tradition lends the Tibetan version of this classic a particular authority. The present translation has therefore been rendered from the Tibetan, following a commentary by the Nyingma master Kunzang Pelden, renowned for its thoroughness, clarity, and accessibility. Shantideva begins with a celebration of the mind of enlightenment, explaining in detail how this is cultivated. There are chapters devoted to the transcendent perfections of patience, heroic perseverance, meditation, and wisdom. The teaching on meditation culminates in the profound practices of equality and exchange of self and other. The celebrated ninth chapter presents the direct realization of emptiness, the perfection of wisdom, as explained in the Madhyamika, or "Middle Way" tradition. Throughout the verses of this text, Shantideva is able to communicate the qualities of precision, contemplative experience, and lyrical beauty, which have served to inspire generations of spiritual aspirants.

Shantideva was an Indian Buddhist while Buddhism still flourished in India. His great work, the Bodhicharyavatara, or "Entrance to the Path of Awakening," became a major text of Tibetan Buddhism long after it went out of circulation in its homeland. It is a handbook on how to realize the nature of existence and of compassion that arises from such realization. The Dalai Lama said of it, "If I have any understanding of compassion and the practice of the Bodhisattva path, it is entirely on the basis of this text that I possess it." Like the Book of Proverbs, the Bodhicharyavatara is a timeless work of wisdom, the longevity of which is due to the quality of its verse as much as to its wisdom. For the first time, an attempt has been made to recover that poetic immediacy by rendering the text in iambic lines.
Regard your body as a vessel,
A simple boat for going here and there.
Make of it a wish-fulfilling gem
To bring about the benefit of beings.
With this translation, gleaming in its clarity, a Buddhist classic becomes an English classic. Worthy of recitation and committing to memory, Shantideva's words on such topics as doing good, reading sutras, guarding the mind, keeping good company, and on the nature of the mind and reality can take on a life of their own, to grow and blossom in a new native tongue. The text booms, like the voice of a Shakespearean actor, as if it were not the bodhisattva but the book itself that proclaims: And now as long as space endures,

As long as there are beings to be found,
May I continue likewise to remain
To drive away the sorrows of the world.

One of the many Buddhist masters who have written profoundly and with clarity about the wellsprings of the Buddhist traditions is Shantideva, a seventh-century Buddhist scholar who taught at Nalanda, one of the great monastic universities of ancient India. Shantideva's Bodhicharyavatara, one of the foundational texts of Tibetan Buddhism, deeply influenced the Dalai Lama, who once remarked that his own understanding of the bodhisattva path is based entirely upon Shantideva's text. Bodhisattvas are beings who renounce nirvana and vow to work for the welfare of all beings. The Bodhicharyavatara, which means "An Entry Into the Activities of Enlightenment," is an outline of the path that bodhisattvas should follow as they seek to teach others the path to nirvana. Thus, this collection contains meditation exercises and moral instruction for bodhisattvas to practice as they engage in their work. Shantideva's work is required reading for an understanding of Tibetan Buddhism, and the clarity and crispness of this new translation make it an accessible way into the world of Tibetan Buddhism.