Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown
“The Bodhicaryāvatāra –Śāntideva: Verses to Inspire”
For the past two weeks I have been thinking about three of the world’s great religions. On Palm Sunday I remembered the Passover story from the Old Testament. The story offered much for us to think about in terms of setting out into the desert of our lives, looking for what is yet to come, what we can’t predict.
On Easter we considered the death of Jesus and how his message still lives in our hearts, how his teachings still guide us. As I re-read much of “The Bodhicaryāvatāra” off and on during this time, I saw again the similarities between Buddhism and some of the teachings of Jesus. There are many who believe that Jesus visited India for about ten years and that much of Buddhism can be found in his teachings.
During a course in Buddhism at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, I read about Buddhist history and how it was spread here and there. We met several monks and nuns who lived in the Bay area. They lead lives of meditation and simplicity similar to their counterparts two thousand five hundred years ago.
One of my professors had spent 25 years as a Buddhist monk in England.
He did not share his reasons for leaving the Sangha.
As a special project I studied Śāntideva, and I must confess I chose this because the book was only 143 pages. I discovered, however, that one could spend a lifetime uncovering the wisdom contained in the 912 verses. Some scholars are doing just that. I tried to read an essay refuting the position taken by an author of a new book. I decided that I would rather struggle with the verses themselves than to try to follow the writing about the verses. The author of this article accuses the author of the book of taking things out of context. A familiar problem in religious writing.
Śāntideva was an Indian Buddist monk, scholar, philosopher and poet who we believe lived between 685 and 763 ce. Legend has it that he was born a crown prince and fled his royal consecration to adopt the religious life, fashioned after his personal teachings received through visions from Mañjuśrī, who is known as the Buddist “patron saint” of wisdom. Śāntideva was a fully-ordained monk at the great monastic university of Nālandā. After he presented his Bodhicaryāvatāra to the monastic assembly, he is reported to have disappeared into the sky. And I suspect this was to avoid any questions that his colleagues might have raised.
He was reportedly seen wandering elsewhere in India and lived as a hermit and wanderer. Nothing is known of his death and some Buddhists are sure he is still present in some form, continuing to labor for others as he vowed to do.
The Bodhicaryāvatāra was written down some three hundred years after it was presented by Śāntideva. Two primary versions of the text are the canonical version and the Tun-huang version. It is believed that certain editors may have either added or subtracted from the original text. Nevertheless the bulk of the writings in existence are the same.
A word about Nālandā: The entire complex was sacked in 1197 by Moslem invaders. Modern archaeologists have discovered remains of eleven monasteries along with a number of figures of Buddhist and Hindu deities. They have found no remains of the famous towers, which were described as “cloud-licking” in an 8th century inscription from the site.
The program at Nālandā includied morning and evening rituals and a regimented program of studies. We assume it was a largely male institution.
The translators report that competitive scholastic debates took place daily at such monastic universities. “According to the Chinese monk Hsuan-tsang, who visited Nālandā in the first half of the seventh century ce, even monks of moderate renown who had managed to pass the exacting entrance examination were certain to be humbled and to forfeit their renown at such debates.” It is especially important to remember this when considering the famous chapter nine of Bodhicaryāvatāra, which is written in the form of a debate.
The elements in this story I’ve just told you of the life of Śāntideva include similar elements of other stories about famous scholars and religious persons.
Born of a fine family, just like Buddha, and very serious about his spiritual practice, he had a magical ending depending upon which story you read.
Either he flew up into the sky, or wanders the earth still as a Bodhisattva, trying to bring an end to our suffering. And similarly to many other famous scriptures, his words were written centuries after he disappeared. These literary devices seem to be required in order to enhance and underline the importance of the words. And I find the words very important today. While few of us in the post-modern world find ourselves willing to adopt the rigorous life of a Buddhist monk or nun, there is much in the teachings that we might consider as we live our daily lives.
The teachings of Buddhism that the average person may be most familiar with are first, the concept of impermanence, that is, everything changes; and second, the importance of learning to stop grasping at things as if they were changeless.
In a culture dominated by greed at the highest levels, it is difficult for us to consider these ideas very deeply. We are taught to acquire, to keep, to have as many robes as we can afford. I refer you to the verse at the beginning of your order of service. More serious is the sensitivity of our egos, which cause us deep pain as we try to identify our true self, and then protect it in our interactions with other humans and with the events of our lives. Most modern people believe that there is something unchanging inside, something that is “I.” According to Śāntideva, this is the root of all our suffering and we must strive to let go of the idea of an unchanging “I,” we can end much suffering by working to become selfless.
I was fascinated with the Bodhicaryāvatāra, and read certain sections and verses over and over again. In other cases, the teaching seemed to make sense on a very straightforward level. For example, in chapter 6, “The Perfection of Forbearance”, the verses suggest that feeling dejected (or put in whatever painful word you like there) is totally undesirable.
“Consuming the food of dejection prepared by doing the undesirable and thwarting the desirable, biting hatred strikes me down. Therefore I shall destroy the food of this deceiver, since this hatred has no purpose other than my murder. I must not disturb the feeling of sympathetic joy, even at the arrival of something extremely unwelcome. There is nothing desirable in the state of dejection; on the contrary, the skilful [ethically appropriate actions] is neglected. If there is a solution, then what is the point of dejection? What is the point of dejection if there is no solution?”
I know that this teaching is essential to my well being and could end much of the suffering of my life. “If there is a solution, then what is the point of dejection? What is the point of dejection if there is no solution?” The teaching that when I respond to life with negative thinking, I am hurting myself is obvious to a point, yet terribly subtle. Indeed, I am guilty of participating in thinking that is destructive and “has no purpose other than my murder.”
“The irritation of bugs, gnats and mosquitoes, of hunger and thirst, and discomfort such as an enormous itch: why do you not see them as insignificant? Cold, heat, rain and wind, journeying and sickness, imprisonment and beatings; one should not be too squeamish about them. Otherwise the distress becomes worse.” V. 15-16
Why do we let little things bother us? Why do we allow them to seem so important? There is a book out about the small stuff, I think the title is “don’t sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff.” Why can’t I pull this off?
I knew a young woman in Montana who rarely wore a coat, even in winter.
She said she relaxed against the cold and it didn’t bother her. I do not recommend this, but having tried it in mild situations I found it did make a big difference.The next verse about how the distress of a beating becomes worse if we are too squeamish is rather shocking, but the point is so important. The things that can be life threatening are even worse when we react strongly to them.
Throughout chapter 8, “Perfection of Meditative Absorption” Śāntideva writes to further illustrate the importance the Buddhist path. Meditative Absorption is a term used by the historical Buddha to describe the higher levels of consciousness attained through calming meditation that leads to insight.
Śāntideva gives no explicit instructions on how to meditate but rather verses of wisdom that lead the student to consider the possibilities. For example:
“Trees do not bear grudges nor is any effort required to please them. When might I dwell with those who dwell together happily? Staying in an empty shrine, at the foot of a tree, or in caves, when shall I go, free from concern, without looking back? When shall I dwell in vast regions owned by none, in their natural state, taking my rest or wandering as I please? When shall I live free from fear, without protecting my body, a clay bowl my only luxury, in a robe that thieves would not use?” V. 26-29
When shall any of us reach a time in our lives when we can live in a state of mind that permits us to be in the present moment, without looking back, dwelling with those who dwell together happily? How would we achieve such a simple life, either figuratively or literally? Can we let go of suffering, discard our need for possessions, stop worrying about our bodies?
“One should acknowledge oneself as having faults and others as oceans of virtues. Then one should meditate on renouncing one’s own self-identity and accepting other people. In the same way that the hands and other limbs are loved because they form part of the body, why are embodied creatures not likewise loved because they form part of the universe?
In the same way that, with practice, the idea of a self arose towards this, one’s own body, though it is without a self, with practice will not the same idea of a self develop towards others too? Though acting like this for the good of others, there is neither intoxication nor dismay. Even after giving oneself as food, there arises no hope for reward. Therefore, in the same way that one desires to protect oneself from affliction, grief, and the like, so an attitude of protectiveness and of compassion should be practiced towards the world.” V- 113-117
In these verses we find teachings that are reflected in our first and seventh principles, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of each person and we affirm the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. The language of these verses challenges us again and again to give up ego, self, the idea of “I” of “oneself” as something that needs our attention. Śāntideva urges us to recognize our bodies as other, which directs our attention out to the needs of the various parts of the universe. Giving one’s body as food to others reflects the denial of the self, which leads to the end of suffering. The self is a construction of our minds, and one which continues to cause us suffering as we try to protect it, and as we feel the attacks from the world.
The bottom line in this chapter is that “If, despite being instructed in this way, you do not do it, you it is, Mind, that I shall punish. All faults rest with you.” Remember the teachings of Jesus, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
A summary of Śāntideva’s teaching comes in verse 184: “Therefore, without regret, I abandon my body to the benefit of the world. For this reason, though it has many faults, I carry it as a tool for the task.” Accepting the body as a tool for the task of compassion is a liberating image for me.
The most challenging of all the reading in this volume is the famous Chapter 9.
This is the most difficult to understand. And the title is “The Perfection of Understanding.” Śāntideva writes in the first verse: “It is for the sake of understanding that the Sage taught this entire collection of preparations. Therefore, in the desire to put an end to suffering, one should develop understanding.” The translators refer to the importance of the realization that śūnyatā, or the emptiness of all phenomena including Buddhism itself and Enlightenment is the bottom line. There is no permanent, unchanging, entirely satisfactory entity with which to identify. To realize this was to realize the truth.
For something to really exist, it must be permanent, unchanging and independent of other factors. This is one of the teachings that I considered again and again.
In chapter 9, Śāntideva takes on all comers. Śāntideva draws on the Madhyamaka truth of “emptiness” (śūnyatā). The opponents are from other schools. He writes this chapter as though it were a conversation between representatives of these schools. There is a statement made by an opponent and then his response to the statement.
Suffice it to say that I was both frustrated and inspired by what is contained in Chapter 9. Verses 47-48 seem fairly clear to me:
“Feeling causes craving, and they do have feeling. A mind which has objects will get stuck on one or another. Without emptiness a mind is fettered and arises again, as in the meditative attainment of non-perception. Therefore one should meditate on emptiness.”
These two verses sum up very well for me the Buddhist concept of detachment, of not grasping, not giving importance to things or feelings. Meditating on emptiness seems to me much the same as the practice of letting go as often as possible. I often say to myself “get over it.” If I hear this at a deep level, below my ego, it can be effectively liberating.
The idea that nothing is permanent, not even self, that true self does not exist is found in verse 77: “The past or future mind is not “I” since that does not exist. If the present mind is “I” then, when it has ceased, the “I” does not exist any more.”
Verses 101-102 assert:
“Moreover, there is no one who experiences sensation, therefore, in reality, there is no sensation. So who, in this bundle devoid of self, can be afflicted by it? The mind is not positioned in the sense faculties, nor in form or the other aggregates [form, sensation, apperception, volitions, and consciousness], nor in the space in between. The mind is found neither internally nor externally, nor anywhere else either.”
These verses give me some pause. I have to translate them because I am unwilling as yet to give up my “true-self” that I suspect really is non-existent, really is forever changing. The importance of these verses seems to be to avoid a victim mentality. If there is no “me” then whatever happens is neutral.
I can no longer say, “Why is this happening to me.” Things merely happen.
The mind Śāntideva is talking about seems at times to be and at other times to not be. Regardless, it is instructive to contemplate on how damaging it is when a person spends significant time suffering from what are the life events of people everywhere. I confess this is easy for me to say but not easy for me to do.
I have moments but not nearly enough of them.
The result of adopting and internalizing this teaching is:
“When all things are empty in this way, what can be received, what taken away? Who can be honored or humiliated by whom? From what can there be happiness or misery, what can be liked and what loathed? What craving can there be? For what is that craving, when examined as to its true nature?” V. 151-152
Śāntideva wrote the Bodhicaryāvatāra for scholars and students at an elite 7th century monastic university. We are neither Buddhist scholars nor monastics.
We live in a complex consumer culture with instant input from the entire planet.
Our acculturation has prepared us for a lifetime of suffering the slings and arrows of attacks on our egos and what we consider to our true unchanging selves.
In the midst of all this it is difficult perhaps to see how we could begin to think in terms of living in the present moment and attaining mindfulness and awareness and expressing compassion.
In chapter one, Śāntideva wrote that he hoped he would influence his own mind through the writing of this composition. He says in Chapter 5, what is the point of advice if one does not act upon it. At the end of the work, he remembers the importance of his teacher Mañjuśrī in several aspects. These final two verses are very close to the end of the teaching. “May my own conduct emulate that of Mañjuśrī, who works to achieve the welfare of all living beings throughout the ten directions of space. As long as space abides and as long as the world abides, so long may I abide, destroying the sufferings of the world.”
So may it be with us.