Practicing Wisdom - Preface

The Perfection of Shantideva’s Bodhisattva Way


192 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861711826

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The ninth chapter of Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva, which is the basis of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings presented here in this volume, begins with the statement that it is for the sake of cultivating wisdom that the Buddha taught all the various aspects of the teachings. This seemingly simple assertion captures a profound insight that lies at the heart of Buddha’s spiritual message. Unlike many of his spiritual peers, the Buddha argued that it is not through ascetic physical penance, through complicated religious rituals, nor through prayers that one attains highest spiritual awakening. It is through the disciplined taming of one’s mind. Furthermore, since our bondage to a perpetual cycle of unenlightened existence is rooted in a fundamental ignorance of the very nature of our own existence, the cultivation of a deep understanding of the nature of our existence must constitute a central element of this spiritual discipline. Hence the emphasis on the cultivation of wisdom.

It is no exaggeration to assert that Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhicharyavatara) is one of the most important spiritual and philosophical texts of Mahayana Buddhism. Written in the eighth century C.E., this short work of just under a thousand stanzas soon became a classic on the topic of a bodhisattva’s long journey to the full awakening of buddhahood. In contrast to Compendium of the Perfections, another classical Mahayana Buddhist work similarly written in verse and attributed to Aryashura (ca. fourth century C.E.),1 Shantideva’s text is not explicitly structured according to the well-known Mahayana framework of the six perfections. Although there are chapters (chapters 5–9) dedicated to each of the last four of the perfections—forbearance, joyous effort, meditation, and wisdom—the first four chapters deal with various aspects of the endeavor of generating the awakening mind (bodhichitta), while the final chapter (chapter 10) presents a series of deeply moving altruistic aspirations of the bodhisattva.

Shantideva’s classic was first translated into Tibetan in the ninth century from a Kashmiri redaction. It was later revised by Lotsawa Rinchen Sangpo on the basis of a careful comparison with a central Indian edition of the root text and related commentaries; it was once again critically revised in the twelfth century by the famous Tibetan translator Ngok Loden Sherap. Thanks primarily to the early teachers of the Tibetan Kadam tradition, including its founding fathers—the Indian Bengali master Atisha and his principal student Dromtönpa, who regularly cited poignant stanzas from Shantideva’s classic in their own teachings—The Way of the Bodhisattva came to enjoy tremendous popularity within Tibetan Buddhist circles. Alongside Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland and Asanga’s Bodhisattva Levels, Shantideva’s text became a “root text” for the Tibetan tradition of lojong, mind training, where the central objective is the cardinally important spiritual endeavor of cultivating the awakening mind—the altruistic aspiration to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all beings—and enacting this altruistic principle in day-to-day life. The next eight to nine hundred years saw a tremendous increase in both the popularity and influence of this short work in all the major lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, attracting substantive commentaries from such great Tibetan teachers as the Sakya hierarch Sönam Tsemo, the lojong master Ngülchu Thokme Sangpo, the great Geluk author Gyaltsap Je, the Kagyü teacher and noted historian Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa, as well as the well-known Nyingma master Dza Paltrül.

The influence of this Buddhist text on the thought of the present Dalai Lama is unmistakable. Not only does he cite most liberally from it during his numerous public discourses on Buddhism, even in his engagement with the wider non-Buddhist audience the Dalai Lama shares his enthusiasm for Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva. In fact, he cites the following stanza from Shantideva as his greatest source of spiritual inspiration and strength.

For as long as space remains,
For as long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain
And dispel the miseries of the world.

Perhaps part of the reason for the great popularity of this classical Indian Buddhist work in Tibet lies in the beauty of its poetry. Most of the time the author writes in the first-person voice, with the elements of the various practices of the aspiring bodhisattva as a series of personal reflections. Many of his lines convey a powerful sense of immediacy, and their poignancy for a spiritual aspirant remains starkly evident.

Like many young Tibetan monks, I had the privilege of memorizing the text in my early teens and thus had the honor to recite the entire work from heart many times, often in the comparatively cool nights of southern India where my monastery was based. To this day, I can fondly recall the joy with which I went through the process of memorizing this text while working in the corn fields of the Tibetan resettlement camp to which my small monastery belonged in the 1970s. In the Tibetan edition, the stanzas are written in perfectly metered verse with a language that can rival any original Tibetan poetic work, easily lending itself to memorization and recitation.

This said, the ninth chapter of Shantideva’s classic, the basis of our book, is a highly sophisticated and complex philosophical treatise. Shantideva opens the chapter with the following lines:

All of these elements of practice
The Buddha taught for the sake of wisdom.
So those who wish to pacify suffering
Must generate [the perfection of] wisdom.

With this statement underscoring the cardinal importance of cultivating wisdom, Shantideva sets out to systematically present what he understands to be the core of the Buddha’s insight into the ultimate nature of reality. Being a proponent of the Middle Way school of Buddhism, for him the ultimate nature of reality is the emptiness of intrinsic existence of all factors of existence. In other words, the cultivation of wisdom entails the cultivation of the understanding of emptiness at its deepest level. Shantideva’s presentation of the practice of cultivating wisdom can be broadly divided into the following three main sections: (1) presentation of the nature and characteristics of the two truths, (2) the need to realize emptiness even by those who aspire to attain mere freedom from cyclic existence, and (3) extensive presentation of the various reasonings establishing the truth of emptiness.

In part 1, in addition to defining his understanding of the nature of the two truths—the ultimate truth and the conventional truth—Shantideva presents a sustained critique of the philosophical standpoints of the Buddhist realists and idealists, with special emphasis on the views of the fellow Mahayana school, the Mind-Only. In part 2, as part of his overall argument for the necessity of the wisdom of emptiness even for the attainment of freedom from cyclic existence, Shantideva presents a systematic validation of the authenticity of the Mahayana teachings, including the validity of its scriptures. In doing so, he is following in the footsteps of some of his illustrious predecessors, such as Nagarjuna, Asanga, and Bhavaviveka, who too dedicated substantive writings toward the goal of establishing the validity of the Mahayana path. In the final part, Shantideva presents the various forms of reasoning, such as the famous reasoning of dependent origination, to establish the truth of emptiness as embodied in the Buddha’s teaching on the selflessness of persons and the selflessness of phenomena. In the course of this, the author presents a wide-ranging critique of the various nonBuddhist Indian tenets, such as their postulation of the theory of atman, or eternal self, Samkya’s theory of primal substance as the substratum of reality, Shaiva’s assertion of the origination of things by means of divine creation, Vaisheshika’s theory of indivisible atoms, the Materialist Charvaka’s theory of accidental origination, and so on. The actual presentation of the meditation on the selflessness of phenomena or factors of existence is given in terms of the well-known formula of the four foundations of mindfulness—mindfulness of the body, of sensations, of the mind, and of mental objects. The chapter concludes with a moving exhortation to cultivate the wisdom of emptiness by relating wisdom to boundless great compassion for all beings.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has given teachings on Shantideva’s text, including the difficult ninth chapter, on numerous occasions, and some of these have already been published in contemporary languages. What is unique about our present volume is that the Dalai Lama grounds his exposition of the ninth chapter as presented here on two interesting nineteenth-century Tibetan commentaries, each representing the perspectives of an important Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Khenpo Künsang Palden’s commentary entitled Sacred Words of My Teacher Manjushri presents the perspective of the Nyingma lineage, while Minyak Künsang Sönam’s commentary Brilliant Lamp Illuminating the Suchness of Profound Dependent Origination presents the perspective of the Geluk school. Both authors were important students of the great Nyingma teacher Dza Paltrül, who was highly instrumental in revitalizing the study and practice of The Way of the Bodhisattva, especially within the Nyingma tradition. Both were active participants in the movement of nonsectarianism (rimé) that began in some parts of Tibet in the early nineteenth century.

The Dalai Lama not only provides a detailed stanza-by-stanza exposition of this crucial chapter of Shantideva’s work, which has effectively become a philosophical classic in its own right, but he also intersperses his commentary with deep personal reflections on the practice of the Buddhist path. This latter dimension of the Dalai Lama’s discourse was originally given as preliminary comments at beginning of every session when the teachings on which this book is based took place in France. We have separated these reflections from the actual commentary under the subheading of “Practicing Wisdom” so that the reader can follow the exposition of the root text more clearly. In juxtaposing the two commentaries while presenting his own personal understanding of Shantideva’s root text, the Dalai Lama provides to the modern reader a richly textured experience of deep engagement with one of the most important religious and philosophical works of Mahayana Buddhism.

One consequence of the Dalai Lama’s interweaving of two different commentaries reflecting the perspectives of the two important Tibetan traditions is to bring to the fore a highly creative debate that took place toward the end of the nineteenth century in Tibet. This began with the publication of a short exposition of the ninth chapter by the influential Nyingma thinker Ju Mipham Namgyal Gyatso, whose work attracted substantive critiques from several noted Geluk authors, including the well-known Drakkar Lobsang Palden, who was also a participant in the nonsectarian movement. As to the details of what are the key points of divergence between the readings of the chapter by these two Tibetan lineages, I will leave this to the reader to discern from the Dalai Lama’s exposition presented in great clarity in this volume. To bring the philosophical reflections back to the basic framework of spiritual practice, many of the Dalai Lama’s teachings conclude with a guided contemplative meditation on the key elements of the philosophical and spiritual reflections presented in the ninth chapter.

This book is based on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s weeklong discourse at Vajra Yogini Institute in Lavaur, France, in 1993, which was delivered at the invitation of an association of Tibetan Buddhist centers in France. The teachings were given as a sequel to an earlier weeklong discourse on the first seven chapters of Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva, which took place in Dordogne, France.6 With so many attendees coming from different parts of Europe, the teachings were translated into all major European languages, including English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian. In addition to being a serious weeklong Buddhist teaching retreat, it was also a wonderfully festive occasion with fellow Buddhist practitioners connecting or reconnecting with each other and sharing their personal understanding and experiences. As on numerous occasions, here too I had the honor of interpreting His Holiness’ teachings into English.

Numerous individuals have helped to successfully produce the transcripts of His Holiness’ teachings into the present book. Patrick Lambelet did the initial transcription; Samantha Kent entered the extensive editorial changes I made in the course of editing the transcripts; Gary Mutton did further editorial work that helped make the English much more readable; Dechen Rochard provided valuable feedback on numerous passages. To all of them, I would like to express my deep appreciation and thanks. Not least of all, I would like to thank Timothy McNeill of Wisdom Publications for insisting that I personally edit the transcripts of the teaching for publication, and, of course, my longtime editor at Wisdom, David Kittelstrom, for his incisive editorial comments at numerous stages of the editing process. For his continuously reining in my attention to the project throughout the several years it took for us to bring this most valuable series of His Holiness’ teachings on Buddhist philosophy and practice into publication, I owe deep personal gratitude.

Thupten Jinpa
Montreal, 2004


How to cite this document:
© His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Practicing Wisdom (Wisdom Publications, 2005)

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