‘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.’
The Dalai Lama speaking about Shantideva’s “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life”
Often when the Dalai Lama ends a public speech, a member of the audience will ask: ‘Can you recommend a book that explains how to put Buddhist ideas into practice?’
In all his years of teaching, the Dalai Lama has been remarkably consistent in the way he answers this question: ‘Read Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,’ he has repeatedly told audiences for more than forty years. One of the great classics of Tibetan Buddhism, its pages contain all the advice and motivation you need to make Buddha’s teachings part of your daily reality.
Shantideva’s Guide is not only one of the most revered texts in Tibetan Buddhism, it is arguably one of the most remarkable books ever written. Composed by an eighth-century Buddhist monk around the same time as one of the earliest English-language compositions, the epic work of fiction Beowulf, Shantideva’s Guide is a manual of advanced psychology. Writing to motivate his own practice, Shantideva authored what was probably the world’s first self-help book, outlining how to develop specific psychological techniques and reframe our experience of reality to achieve greater happiness and inner peace.
More than this, the Guide outlines a structured approach to the whole Tibetan Buddhist path, beginning with simple but powerful analytical tools and leading us, step by step, to the most profound realisations about the true nature of reality—and of ourselves. The word ‘bodhisattva’ in the title of Shantideva’s book describes a person who wishes to achieve enlightenment to help free all other beings from suffering. The bodhisattva way of life may therefore be regarded as the ultimate expression of compassion.
Shantideva’s Guide is extraordinary for many reasons. One thing I find amazing is that even though he wrote it in the eighth century, the wisdom it contains still has a direct application for us, here and now, in the twenty-first. More than twelve hundred years separate us from Shantideva, scratching at his parchment, trying to ignore the flicker of his butter lamp; nowadays we sit tapping at our computers, trying to ignore the ping of our email inbox, but in a more important sense, nothing has changed. Human nature is the same. We still strive for the same things. And no one had a more profound understanding of human nature than Shantideva.
Not only this, but like all great spiritual teachers, Shantideva understood the power of metaphor to make explanations come alive. Like an embroidered tapestry his instructions are richly illuminated with images that tumble off the pages—vivid, earthy and often quite unexpected. Shantideva had a poet’s understanding of language, and some of his stanzas are expressed with such poignancy and beauty that they rival the most lyrical passages of Shakespeare. It is said that there are some verses that still move the Dalai Lama to tears, despite his familiarity with them.
The best of Shantideva
But the most astonishing thing of all about Shantideva’s Guide is that it is still so little known in the West. Ask most people who Shantideva was and chances are you’ll be met with a blank expression, or a hesitant guess—an Indian cricketer? A Bollywood actor? Before I became a regular Buddhist class attendee in my early thirties, I had never heard of him, even though I am an arts graduate with a supposedly well rounded education. Such is the parochial nature of Western culture that if you go into any reasonably well stocked bookstore you’ll be sure to turn up a volume on Aristotle, Descartes or Freud. But Shantideva? We’ll have to order that in for you, sir.
Even specialist Buddhist sections are likely to stock a variety of books by Buddhist lamas and other teachers, all of whom would readily acknowledge the pre-eminence of Shantideva, but not the great man himself.
This is perhaps understandable. Sitting down to read Shantideva unplugged can be daunting for a newcomer to Buddhism. In the same way that someone unfamiliar with classical music might be intimidated by the prospect of sitting through an entire Beethoven symphony, or a stranger to art might hesitate on the steps of a famous gallery, even though we may feel drawn to some new field of endeavour we face a simple problem: where on earth do we begin? Even the name of his Guide, sometimes published under its multi-syllabic Sanskrit title, the Bodhicharyavatara (or BCA to Buddhist insiders), is somewhat confronting. With-out someone to give us the background, to explain the significance of this symbol or that reference, and to target the new material to our own experience and understanding, it’s easy to put any such new interest in the ‘too hard’ basket.
But with a guide to point out features of importance, and above all, to bring the whole subject alive with their own enthusiasm and purpose, then our new interest can quite naturally develop as a source of fresh inspiration.
In writing this book, I hope to be just such a guide. Enlightenment to Go is not a scholarly discourse on Shantideva—there are plenty of those already. Nor does it provide a comprehensive analysis of every one of his 800 stanzas—rather, only 75 of them. I have not slavishly followed the sequence of the verses presented in his teachings because, like a composer of a grand classical piece of music, Shantideva returned to several of the same key themes in different parts of his discourse, often with a different emphasis or turn of phrase. To enhance the practical application of his teachings for readers today, I have presented them thematically, rather than in the order they appear in the Guide.
Part I of this book discusses the compassionate mind of enlightenment from a Buddhist perspective. In Buddhism the word ‘mind’ is often used to mean ‘state of mind’, and we look at how such states of mind can be developed, what the benefits of developing them can be and how they may differ from the mind states we currently experience.
Part II moves from theory to practice. Exactly how do we set about cultivating an enlightened way of being? What precisely does this entail? What are the nuts and bolts—the psychological tools, the meditation practices, the methods and techniques—we can apply to effect personal transformation at the most profound level?
Like my book Buddhism for Busy People, Enlightenment to Go also provides a very personal account of how I’ve come to terms with Buddhist teachings in my own life. I offer my story not because I think I’m something special but for the very opposite reason. I know that the challenges and the frustrations, the happiness and the inner peace I continue to experience on my personal journey are not particular to me. Sure, I may experience them in a particular way, but they are experiences common to all busy people who seek to put Buddha’s teachings into practice.
Enlightenment to Go is not the book for readers preferring a rigorous textbook approach to Shantideva. However, I hope that those of you who join me on this highlight tour will find in the biographical passages something you can relate to: reassurance, perhaps, that you are far from alone as you make your way along this tried and tested path.
A structured meditation program
One way to use this book is simply to read it from start to finish like any other. And because most readers are busy people with precious little time to spare, I have written fairly short, manageable chapters that may be read during the course of a train commute, or perhaps in bed at night before turning out the light.
However, Enlightenment to Go has also been designed to provide a guided analytical meditation program. Each chapter is on a different theme and ends with suggested points for reflection or action. These meditations andexercises are based on traditional practices, some of which I have adapted a little to suit contemporary Western stu-dents. There are eighteen chapters in all, covering the full Tibetan Buddhist path. It is my heartfelt wish that many of you will find this book helpful not only as an introduction to Shantideva, but as a means to become acquainted with the most important Buddhist teachings in a truly life-enhancing way.
What is the difference between analytical meditation and simply reading something? In brief, our depth of understanding. While the intellectual knowledge we gain from reading can be helpful, if the significance of what we read is to have real meaning for us—if there is to be any possibility of it changing our view of ourselves and the world around us—we need to understand it on a deeper basis. Ultimately we need to experience it at a direct or non-conceptual level.
The impact of realisation
To illustrate, not so long ago I saw a TV news item about workers on a cacao plantation in west Africa. Although they’d been harvesting cacao beans for many years, each season dispatching large sacks to chocolate factories in Europe, the majority of plantation workers had never actually seen chocolate, let alone tasted it. They had, of course, heard about it. They possessed a good intellectual knowledge of chocolate: they knew that it was sweet, that it contained condensed milk, that it had a firm texture but melted in the mouth. And they knew that Europeans loved eating it. But despite having this intellectual knowledge, they couldn’t fully understand the ever-growing demand for the small bitter beans they harvested each year.
That is, until the day a TV crew arrived, bringing a variety of chocolate products. There was something compelling about watching the cacao workers undo the foil wrappers, scrutinise the mysterious brown tablets—and take their first bite. Seeing the expressions on their faces suddenly change as they realised: this is why people can’t get enough cacao beans! Their understanding was no longer intellectual. It was first-hand and non-conceptual. They had experienced it directly.
When we meditate, we create the possibility of experiencing ideas directly. We take our first bite of reality. While most of us have no shortage of notions about who we are and the world around us, and many of the other subjects Shantideva writes about, like the plantation workers before the TV crew arrived, our understanding is mostly intellectual and therefore necessarily limited.
The word ‘realisation’ is sometimes used in Buddhism to describe the point when our understanding of a particular subject ripens to the extent that it changes our behaviour. The middle-aged executive may know he needs to work less and exercise more, but perhaps he will only fully realise this in the back of an ambulance on his way to hospital having suffered a heart attack. Realisations may also refer to changes in attitude. Like the crusty old homophobe I introduced to a gay friend—of whom, after a thoroughly enjoyable dinner, he couldn’t speak highly enough. When I told him my friend was gay, there was a marked shift in his hitherto incorrigible prejudices: a realisation had been made!
Through meditation we can go beyond a surface or intellectual understanding of a subject towards achieving truly life-enhancing realisations. And the curriculum pro–vided by Shantideva offers the most profound benefits of all. We all know that every day of our life could be our last and that we shouldn’t take a single moment of it for granted—but do we really live like that? We are all aware that failure and misfortune offer incomparably better opportunity for personal growth than smooth sailing and success—but how many of us remember this in the midst of a crisis? Many of us have an inkling that our existence holds possibilities far more panoramic than the biographic summaries we’re familiar with—but how much energy do we invest explor-ing these?
Analytical meditation holds the key. For readers who are unfamiliar with the process of meditation, I’ve provided a ‘how to’ in the appendix on page 311. Even those of you who already have a meditation practice may find it useful to quickly read over the suggestions provided in the appendix before you begin the analytical meditation exercises.
One positive side-effect of analytical meditation is that when we focus on a subject during meditation, it will often pop up in our thoughts later during the day. We’ll find fresh relevance in a newspaper headline, or a snatch of conversation will return us to the subject again. And by focusing more and more of our thoughts on useful material, and steering them away from negative feedback loops that often dominate our inner self-talk, the balance of our preoccupations starts to shift—and with it, our behaviour.
When you order your regular cappuccino or latte, your pizza, pad thai or any other consumables to go, you are essentially taking whatever you are buying to enjoy in an environment of your own choosing—to savour it in private, on your own terms. In just the same way, Enlightenment to Go provides a complete package of teachings and meditations for you to study and use at a time and in a way that suits you. Within it is contained all the main teachings of the Tibetan Buddhist path, as well as the means to help penetrate the true essence of these teachings.
On a shelf in my office is a well-thumbed copy of Shanti-deva’s Guide that I use in a way you may also find helpful with this book. During challenging moments, I will take the Guide off the shelf, flick it open, and read a few verses at random. The effect is almost always beneficial. However disturbing the subject previously occupying my thoughts, I am reminded of the much broader reality in which it is of little importance. Often, curiously, the page I open directly addresses my agitation, as though Shantideva himself was right beside me in his red and gold robes—usually, wagging a finger at me and telling me to get a grip!
I hope you also find this book opens at just the right place for your needs at a particular moment. Whether you find yourself having to confront a difficult situation, or are simply looking for stimulation, I have no doubt that Shantideva can also offer you a fresh perspective on whatever challenges you may face.
Enlightenment for whom?
The objective of Buddha’s teachings, as illuminated by Shantideva, was not to convert people to a particular belief system but to offer access to a set of psychological tools which, at the very least, can improve our sense of inner peace and happiness. More than this, with patient application these tools transform our whole experience of reality. The Tibetan Buddhist view is that all beings with consciousness have the potential to achieve enlightenment. Whatever our background and cultural conditioning, whatever negative states of mind we may experience or wrongdoing we have committed, like clouds passing through the sky none of this can taint the natural state of our primordial mind, which is boundless, formless, blissful and unceasing.
In writing this book, I am assuming my readers have no prior knowledge of Buddhism, and I hope that whatever the background tradition you may come from, you will find in Enlightenment to Go some useful insights and practices. My own formative years were in mainstream Presbyterianism, and I was a regular Sunday school attendee until my mid teens. My parents were devout in their own private way, and in retirement my father has become a lay preacher in northeast Scotland. When Buddhism for Busy People was first published some years ago, I think he felt a sense of paternal obligation to read it. I could picture him, the day that it arrived in the mail, sitting down in his favourite armchair, steeling himself to read the combustible contents that were likely to have steam coming out of his Calvinistic ears.
But, to his own surprise as much as mine, he actually quite enjoyed the experience—partly, I expect, because he discovered some useful observations and anecdotes. He is always on the lookout for fresh material for his next sermon, and Buddhism for Busy People became an unexpected source book: I suspect that in the following months a number of ‘Buddhist’ ideas were repackaged and found their way into a variety of pulpits around Scotland!
The point is that no tradition has a monopoly on compassion. The same ethical framework underpins all the world’s major traditions, along with the yearning for the wholeness that comes from a direct experience of ultimate reality, whatever we choose to call it. Compassion—exemplified in the bodhisattva way of life—is the force which is supposed to motivate the followers of all the world’s great traditions.
While Enlightenment to Go has not been written specifically for seasoned Buddhist practitioners, I also hope that fellow students who read this book may find in it a fresh source of stimulation. When trying to penetrate the meaning of a subject, particularly subtler concepts, I’ve often found that a slightly different presentation of even a well-explored theme can illuminate the idea in a more accessible way. The effect can sometimes be that our understanding ‘clicks’ into place.
It may seem audacious for a Western student to be offering even a highlight tour of Shantideva, but I would like to emphasise that I am not doing so from an assumed position of superior learning. Instead, I am offering ideas that may provide catalysts for your own inner development. It was, after all, one of the Buddha’s most important teachings that enlightenment isn’t something that can be given to us by others, but rather a state of being which it is our own personal responsibility to develop.
The prince who gave up his kingdom
You may well be wondering about Shantideva himself—where did he come from, and what kind of person was he? In some ways, Shantideva’s life story reflects that of the Buddha himself: although born into a royal family, he chose to reject his comfortable lifestyle of wealth and status.
Born in Gujarat, western India, from an early age Shantideva showed a strong interest in practising the Dharma, as Buddha’s teachings are collectively known. After the death of his father it was, dramatically, on the eve of his coronation that he decided to flee the palace, travelling to a highly regarded seat of learning, the great monastic University of Nalanda.
It’s important to put this part of Shantideva’s story into context, because to be a member of a royal family in pre-industrialised India was to occupy a position of immense privilege. Unlike these egalitarian times, when most of us in developed countries live in relative comfort even without the benefit of any particular social status or great wealth, in eighth-century India, if you were not part of a tiny elite, everyday life was usually nasty, brutish and short. The gulf between rich and poor was huge. And the lifestyle of a monk demanded austerities which Shantideva would have been completely unused to. For him to give up a life of ease and privilege in pursuit of inner development would equate, in modern times, to the youthful heir to a multi-billion-dollar business dynasty permanently forsaking the luxury homes, fast cars and glamorous lifestyle to become an aid worker in Africa.
On the surface of things, such a decision may strike us as eccentric at the very least. But for someone with first-hand experience of all the pleasures of wealth and status to shrug them off perhaps tells us as much about the value of such things as it does about the person. Our own experience of life in a consumerist age confirms that despite enjoying a level of affluence far greater than our forebears ever dreamed of, our life’s central challenge remains essentially the same: how to live with a sense of enduring happiness and purpose.
The conspiracy that backfired
Once at Nalanda Monastery Shantideva continued to be a non-conformist, but here it was monastic convention against which he rebelled. Instead of studying, meditating and debating with his fellow monks during the day, he used to sleep, carrying out his own meditation practices at night in the strictest privacy. This unconventional behaviour didn’t endear him to his contemporaries, who used to refer to him sarcastically as the ‘Three Realisations’ because they believed the only things he knew about were eating, sleeping and defecating. Over time, some of them became determined to evict the monk they saw as a useless layabout who besmirched the fine name of Nalanda. In a scheming fashion you can’t help feeling was decidedly un-Buddhist, they set up Shantideva for a very public humiliation. He was ordered to deliver a Dharma discourse to the entire monastery.
One can imagine the atmosphere in Nalanda’s meditation hall, or gompa, when the appointed day finally arrived. How the monks would have awaited the speaker’s appearance with unusual excitement. Did the plotters mask their glee behind poker faces, or were surreptitious smirks exchanged during prayers? Whatever the case, the anticipation in the gompa must have been electric when Shantideva finally made his way to the teaching throne, centre stage, and began to speak.
Within a few minutes, however, the schemers’ plans began to unravel. Far from embarrassing himself in front of his assembled peers, Shantideva delivered teachings which immediately captured the attention of all present. His lecture was so incisive, so learned and so eloquently expressed that it was soon recognised—however grudgingly by some—for its brilliance. Even more ironically, when transcripts of the teachings were copied some time later, they become far better known than any of the other learned teachings to have emerged from Nalanda. They are sometimes referred to as the best practical guide to achieving enlightenment.
They are the teachings you now hold in your hands.
A number of English translations of the complete Guide exist, but my personal favourite has always been the work by teacher and writer Stephen Batchelor. A former monk who combines impressive scholarly credentials with an incisive understanding of the Western mind, his translation is outstanding because it captures both the poetry and the power of Shantideva’s language. It has an immediacy and freshness that keeps the text alive.
As the author of the bestselling Buddhism without Beliefs, and more recently Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Stephen’s ability to capture the essential wisdom of Buddha’s teachings is extraordinary, and he has applied this same ability in reviewing and, as required, revising the verses presented here specifically for this book. I am sincerely grateful to him for bringing Shantideva’s voice to us down the ages with such wonderful clarity.
Going beyond ordinary reality
You will have already gathered from this introduction that while knowledge and intellect are admired in Buddhism, far greater value is placed on the practical application of learning. It is significant to understand this if we are to make sense of what happened when Shantideva got to what is now known as the ninth chapter of his Guide, because it was at this point in his lecture that, we are told, something strange and magical—even by Himalayan standards—began to occur. Instead of remaining on the teaching throne, Shantideva began to levitate. Up and up he floated in meditation posture, a mesmerising presence, carrying on his lecture as though nothing out of the ordinary was going on. Higher and higher he ascended until he’d disappeared from sight—but through an amazing and hitherto unsuspected power, he continued to speak, his disembodied voice carry-ing on quite clearly until he’d finished his teachings.
From a twenty-first-century West-erner’s perspective, the idea of such a thing happening may seem altogether fanciful—another mystical tale from far, far away and long, long ago. But what Westerners would sceptically regard as claims of ‘psychic powers’ are in Tibetan Buddhism, even today, considered to be significant but by no means excep-tional manifestations of a highly experienced meditator.
It is especially relevant that the ninth chapter of Shantideva’s Guide concerns the nature of reality, a subject which goes to the very heart of Buddha’s teachings. More than two millennia before quantum scientists and neuropsychologists made their startling discoveries about the illusory nature of reality, the inaccuracy of divisions between subject and object and the deception of dualism, Buddha and other teachers were saying exactly the same things. Eastern mysticism and Western science have arrived at the same conclusion—summarised by physicist Sir Arthur Eddington when he said: ‘The concept of substance has disappeared from fundamental physics.’
What if, instead of only understanding such concepts at an intellectual level, Shantideva was able to apply them to reality? Perhaps the famous story of his levitation wouldn’t then seem quite so fanciful—it would, instead, merely have been an appropriate illustration of the wisdom he was conveying. And if the practical application of this wisdom wasn’t unique to Shantideva, what is to stop us from doing the same? Why should we not also strive to achieve an understanding which takes us beyond our usual conception of reality—an enlightenment to go?
It is with such a motivation that we should set out on our ‘best of’ tour of Shantideva’s Guide, an exploration blessed by the Dalai Lama’s repeated and emphatic endorsement. While grounded in the practical reality of daily life, Shantideva’s teachings offer us truly awe-inspiring wisdom about a different way of being. Penetrating the meaning of this wisdom is exciting enough: experiencing the wisdom we taste reality in an entirely different way.
For it is the ultimate purpose of Shantideva’s Guide to help awaken the Buddha potential which dwells in each one of us: to provide step-by-step instructions on how to develop this potential; and, like Shantideva himself, to help us achieve a personal transcendence which goes beyond anything we might currently even begin to imagine.
(Photo Credit: Ian Stauffer on unsplash)
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