Bodhicaryavatara [Hardback]

A Guide to the Buddhist Path to Awakening

Author : Skilton, Andrew and Shantideva

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Bodhicaryavatara [Hardback]

Book Details

  • Publisher : Windhorse Publications
  • Published : 2002
  • Cover : Hardback
  • Pages : 258
  • Size : 194 x 128mm
  • Category :
    Mahayana Buddhism: General
  • Catalogue No : 10672
  • ISBN 13 : 9781899579495
  • ISBN 10 : 1899579494
Wisdom Price : £10.39
Publishers Price : £12.99 (Save 20%)
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A new, beautifully produced cloth bound edition. Written in India in the early 8th century AD, Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara became one of the most popular manuals of the Buddhist spiritual path. This translation is from the Sanskrit, with detailed annotations explaining allusions and technical references.

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Buddhism and Mahayana

Santideva was a monk, and a Mahayana Buddhist. As a monk he was expected to live a simple life which, iii the reduction of distractions, left space for following the spiritual path. He probably wore an orange or faded yellow patched robe, and had no hair. It is doubtful, if he came from the well-endowed monastery of Nãlanda, that ~antideva needed to go to local villages on the alms-round, but if he had he would have kept his eyes down and spoken little. 'When he did speak he would have weighed his words carefully in order to make sure that they were suitable to the occasion and beneficial for the person to whom they were addressed (see Bodhicaryavatara 5.79). He would have kept his simple, sparsely furnished room tidy and clean, seeing the cleaning as part of his spiritual practice, a metaphor for cleaning the mind of taints. In one corner we can imagine a shrine, with a statue of the Buddha, and for Sãntideva perhaps a statue or representation of Manjusri. Possibly, as is common with Tibetan statues, Manjusri is portrayed seated cross-legged on a lotus throne with the right hand holding aloft a flaming sword, the Sword of Gnosis, while the left hand holds the stem of a lotus which curls round to the left side of his body and contains, resting on the flower, a book - The Eight-Thousand Verse Perfection of Wisdom scripture.5 ~antideva would sleep little, eat but one meal a day, and as a serious practitioner devote many hours to study, teaching, perhaps debate, but certainly devotional practices - making offerings before the Buddhas and figures like Manjusri and visualizing the assembly of Buddhas, holy beings, and saints, praising them as a means of recollecting their great qualities and aspiring to attain the same qualities - and meditation, stabilizing the mind, contemplating the teachings, regret and purification of previous transgressions, all the time increasing his insight into the way things really are, and his aspiration to help all other suffering sentient beings.

The Mahayana Buddhism which Santideva practised was the result of a gradual evolution, a maturation of reflection on the message and example of Sakyamuni Buddha, the so-called 'historical Buddha' who lived and died some time between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE. Modern critical scholarship has shown that it is not possible to know very much in detail about the actual words of Sakyamuni, although we can be reasonably clear about the sort of spiritual perspective and path the Buddha advocated.6 In social terms Sakyamuni was a renunciant, one of those who can still be seen in India today who have chosen to renounce their families, social status, and ties in order to live a wandering life seeking for a higher truth than that of social place and function. This truth is commonly portrayed as the truth which leads to freedom from all sorts of suffering and, in the Indian context, from the round of repeated rebirth into still further repeated unhappiness - as Buddhists put it, the endlessly repeated anguish of old age, sickness, and death, the state of unenlightenment samsara.As far as we can tell, Sakyamuni's message in its simplest expression was that of a very deep sort of 'letting go'. He seems to have discerned that most - he would say all - of our unhappiness and frustration comes from holding on, reifying, when actually things are always changing. Seeking for a raft in the sea of change, we particularly grasp at some sort of self-identity for ourselves. To hold onto all such unchanging self-identities is a fundamental misapprehension which ends in tears. Ourselves and others, animate and inanimate, are composite collections which come together and part again bringing life and death, purpose and apparent uselessness. That is the nature of things, against which we fortify ourselves through the misapprehension of grasping an unchanging identity which is at variance with the way things really are and thus invariably produces suffering. The principal dimension of this misapprehension is reifying ourselves into Selves, the feeling that somehow I must have an unchanging core which is the 'Real Me'. Thus, unlike other spiritual teachers in India, the Buddha did not teach the search for the True Self behind the changing world, but rather the opposite: he taught that there is no True Self either in or behind the changing world, and grasping at such Selves is the cause of suffering. The permanent truth is that there is no such thing. To seek to dissolve away apparent unities into their constituent flow of parts is a hallmark of the Buddhist approach. Thus, as far as we can tell, the Buddha seems to have taught that what we call ourselves is actually a construct superimposed upon an ever- changing flow of physical matter, sensations, conceptions, further mental contents such as volitions and so on, and consciousness. That is all there is. There is no unchanging Me, my Self. To understand this deeply in a way which truly leads to the cessation of grasping after all fixed identities is to destroy completely the very forces which lead to continued embodiment, rebirth into suffering. That is enlightenment, nirvana.

The practice of the Buddha and those specially adept monks and nuns who followed him in the centuries after his death was 'insight', seeing through deep thought - meditation - beyond the way things appear to the way they really are. This seeing the way things really are (a common epithet of nirvana) carries with it a change of behaviour, a letting go, an 'existential relaxation', a cessation of grasping. This relaxation and cessation of grasping can when cultivated in a particularly sensitive way lead to great compassion, a compassion which no longer has any egoistic involvement. Such great compassion for those who still suffer was thought to be a quality of the Buddha himself, who did not sit alone in a forest meditating and 'letting go' but rather felt a need to help others, touring North India, teaching in forests, certainly, but also in market-places and palaces.

Reflection on the compassion of the Buddha was surely one (but only one) of the factors which led some centuries after his death to the emergence of scriptural texts claiming to represent a 'Great Way (or Vehicle) to Enlightenment' (Mahayãna), eventually to be contrasted with an identified 'Inferior Way' (Hinayana). These scriptural texts purported to be the words of Sakyamuni Buddha himself. The origins of the Mahayana, and even its exact nature, are obscure in the extreme. Mahayana could not be called a 'sect' of Buddhism, nor, we now know, was it the result of a schism. There might be monks holding to Mahãyana ideas and others holding non-Mahayana views living together, as far as we can tell, quite harmoniously in the same monastery7 Rather, Mahäyãna concerns a vision of what the ultimate intention of the Buddhist practitioner should be. In Mahayana this ultimate intention is said to be to attain not just enlightenment, as some Buddhists might think - one's own freedom from suffering and rebirth - but perfect Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. One who has through great compassion for others taken a vow to attain this Buddhahood no matter what it may cost, no matter how many times one must be reborn on this long and difficult path, is called a bodhisattva.8 Mahãyana advocates the path of the bodhisattva as the highest and final path for all or most sentient beings - all (or most) will eventually become fully-enlightened Buddhas, and the reason for this is the benefit of all.
Perhaps the best way to understand the nature of Mahayana Buddhism is through its own self-definition reflected in a work from three centuries after Santideva, the Bodhipathapradipa (Lamp on the Path to Enlightenment) by the great missionary to Tibet, Atisa (982-1054). Atisa speaks of three 'scopes', three aspirations which one might have when engaging in spiritual practice. The first and lowest aspiration is that of a person whose goal is purely within the realm of unenlightenment - religion for wealth, fame, or even a favourable future rebirth. This aspiration - if they were honest the aspiration of so many people - is not particularly Buddhist, although at least in its higher concern with future rebirths it is somewhat better than having no spiritual aspiration whatsoever. In some of the earlier sections of the Bodhicaryavatära Sãntideva seeks to generate in himself (and his readers if they are interested) this aspiration, reflecting for example on death and impermanence, which leads to a concern with future lives (Chapter 4) governed by the morality of actions and a need to purify misdeeds already committed (Chapter 2, verses 28 ff.).

According to Atisa the second and middling aspiration is that of one who turns his or her back on all concern with future pleasures and future rebirths (with their invariable attendant sufferings) and aims for freedom. The hallmark of this aspiration is renunciation, and the goal is enlightenment, understood as freedom from suffering and rebirth. The many verses in which Santideva tries to inculcate in his mind a spirit of renunciation belong to this scope. It is a stage of a progressive path which involves an accurate assessment of the practitioner's level of spiritual development, and transformation into that which is higher through meditations, which are taken as medicines appropriate to the particular spiritual illness. Thus Santideva's many verses on the foulness of the female body (Chapter 8), a foulness which he also perceives in his own body, should not be read as a strange form of misogyny or bodily hatred. They express a specific meditation practice appropriate to a specific stage on a clearly-discerned spiritual path. It is misleading in reading Buddhist writings - or indeed any writings on the spiritual path -to take what is intended as counselling, meditation instructions embedded in a particular context, as abstract statements about the universal way things actually are.

In following this second middling scope the practitioner can attain freedom from rebirth, enlightenment. Such a person is called an arhat, a Worthy One. The goal is held to be a difficult one requiring intensive practice and great insight which will fuel the letting go, the deep renunciation which leads to freedom. Perhaps this was the main concern of serious Buddhist practitioners in the immediate centuries after the death of the Buddha. Yet from the Mahayana perspective, no matter how many of their fellows follow it, this is not the highest goal and its aspiration is not the supreme aspiration. There is something higher than simply attaining enlightenment, the state of an arhat, and that is the state of a Buddha himself. What characterizes a Buddha, the Mahayana urges, is not just great insight, supreme wisdom, but his (or sometimes her) immense compassion as well. Compassion for others is missing in the description of the second scope which leads to the enlightenment of the arhat. Atisa adds that those of the third and highest scope wish in every way - even by means of their own sufferings - for the complete destruction of all the sufferings of others.' In fact, so long as someone else is suffering the Mahayana practitioner cannot attain peace. Superior to the arhat is the bodhisattva, one who vows to attain perfect Buddhahood, the perfection of insight and compassion, for the benefit of all. The great poem of the bodhisattva, embedded within a progressive path which will lead to the cultivation of that supreme aspiration, is the Bodhicaryavatara, in which Santideva the bodhisattva vows (3.7):

I am medicine for the sick. May I be both doctor and nurse,
Until the sickness does not recur.

Those Buddhists who follow the path to their own personal enlightenment - sometimes called the Hearers (Sravakas) and Solitary Buddhas (pratyekabuddhas) - are termed by the Mahäyãna followers of an Inferior Vehicle (Hinayana). In the last analysis Sãntideva's concern is to help himself and others pass through (but without ignoring) this conception of the spiritual life towards what he sees as the great integration of insight, wisdom, and compassion which is found in the bodhisattva and eventually flowers in full Buddhahood. In aiming for Buddhahood the bodhisattva turns away from his or her own personal peace, the nirvana of an arhat.'° Indeed from a Buddhist point of view time is infinite, and from a Mahayana perspective compassion is so strong that surely there must also be many, infinitely many, Buddhas still present in the infinite cosmos, and many advanced bodhisattvas of great power, all acting for the benefit of others. For the follower of Mahayana a being such as a Buddha would not really have abandoned us at the age of eighty, as Sakyamuni Buddha is supposed to have done. The death of a Buddha is mere appearance. Really Buddhas remain, benefiting sentient beings (not just human beings) in innumerable appropriate ways. Thus some Mahayana texts speak of a Buddha having three types of body: his (or her) actual body as a Buddha which remains in what is called a 'Pure Land', a realm where a Buddha sits in glory helping sentient beings; his emanated bodies - one of which was the Sakyamuni Buddha who appeared to die at the age of eighty; and the 'Dharma-body', another name for the ultimate truth itself as perfectly understood by a Buddha (see I.I).l~ It is therefore felt to be possible to enter into a relationship of devotion and prayer with these Buddhas, and also with advanced bodhisattvas. One such advanced bodhisattva who may well have been particularly important to ~antideva is Mañjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.' But - and this is important - in terms of the Mahayana spiritual path the real purpose of such prayer and devotion (found, for example, in Bodhicaryavatara 2.1-27) is the transformation of the mind of the devotee towards greater wisdom and compassion. It is helpful for us in reading Buddhist texts, in meeting their strangeness, to be constantly sensitive to the practical context: 'How does this perspective, or this practice, transform the mind of the practitioner in a way which Buddhists would see as beneficial - the cultivation of wisdom and compassion?'