Sunday Dharma: Shantideva

Shantideva was a Buddhist scholar who lived in the 8th Century CE, and the author of a number of works, the best known being the Bodhicaryavatara or A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.

Central to Mahayana Buddhist teachings is the ideal of the Bodhisattva or Enlightening-being. A Bodhisattva is anyone who, motivated by compassion, seeks to work for the salvation of other beings. In a more formal sense, a Bodhisattva is one who makes a vow to save all beings by taking on all their sufferings.

Some readers may see an obvious similarity between the Bodhisattva and the sacrifice of Jesus to take away the sins of the world. The general concept of the Bodhisattva was part of Buddhism from its earliest beginnings, some five hundred years before the time of Jesus. Scholars believe that the Mahayana Bodhisattva ideal with its vow to endure sufferings for the sake of others was fully realized by the First Century CE at the latest. Some suspect that a common source for the notion of a “suffering savior” may have originated in the Middle East.

Here is a short excerpt from Shantideva’s Sikaasamuccaya or Manual of Wisdom. Shantideva was a poet of the first magnitude and I find his description of the Bodhisattva’s attitude, particularly single-minded determination to accomplish the awesome vow undertaken, to be tremendously moving each time I read it. Although the Bodhisattva is presented here as masculine, please be assured that this ideal transcends gender.

The bodhisattva stands alone, without a companion, and he puts on the armor of supreme wisdom. He acts on his own, and leaves nothing to others, working with a will steeled with courage and strength. Strong in the strength of his own strength, and he resolves thus: “Whatever all beings should obtain, I will help them to obtain . . .

“The virtue of generosity is not my helper, I am the helper of generosity. Nor do the virtues of morality, patience, courage, meditation and wisdom help me, it is I who help them. The actions of the bodhisattva do not support me,  it is I who support them . . . I alone, standing in this round and adamantine world, must subdue all evil, and develop supreme enlightenment with the wisdom of instantaneous insight!”

Just as the rising sun, the child of the gods, is not stopped by all the dust rising from the four continents of the earth or by wreaths of smoke or by rugged mountains, so the bodhisattva, the Great Being is not deterred from bringing to fruition the root of good, whether by the malice of others, or by their sin, or error, or by their agitation of mind. He will not lay down his arms of enlightenment because of the corrupt generations of men, nor does he waver in his resolution to save the world because of their wretched quarrels. He does not lose heart on account of their faults . . .

“All creatures are in pain,” he resolves, “all suffer from bad and hindering karma and they cannot see the Buddhas or hear the Excellent Dharma or know the Community of Followers. All that mass of pain and evil karma I take into my own body. I take upon myself the burden of sorrow; I resolve to do so; I endure it all. I do not turn back or run away, I do not tremble,  I am not afraid,  nor do I despair. Assuredly, I must bear the burdens of all beings for I have resolved to save them all. I must set them all free. I must save the whole world from the forest of birth, old age, disease, and rebirth, from misfortune and sin, from the round of birth and death, from the toils of delusion. For all beings are caught in the net of craving, encompassed by ignorance, held by the desire for existence; they are doomed to destruction, shut in a cage of pain. They are ignorant, untrustworthy, full of doubts, always at odds with one another, always prone to see evil; they cannot find a refuge in the ocean of existence; they are all on the edge of the gulf of destruction.

“I work to establish the realm of transcendent wisdom for all beings. I care not at all for my own deliverance. I must save all beings from the torrent of misery with the raft of my omniscient mind. I must pull them back from the great precipice. I must free them from all misfortune, ferry them over the sea of suffering.

“For I have taken it upon myself, by my own will, the whole of the pain of all living things. Thus I dare try every abode of pain, in  every part of the universe, for I must not defraud the world of the root of good. I resolve to dwell in each state of misfortune through countless ages, for the sake of all beings. For it is better that I alone suffer than that all beings sink into the worlds of misfortune. I shall give myself in bondage, to redeem the entire world from the pits of hell, from the province of death. I shall bear all grief and pain in my own body, for the good of all living things, speaking the truth, not breaking my word. I shall not forsake them.

I must be the leader of all beings, I must be their torchbearer, I must be their guide to safety, and I must not wait for the help of another, nor lose my resolve and leave my tasks to another. I must not turn back in my efforts to save all beings nor cease to use my merit for the destruction of all pain.”

Adapted from Shantiveda’s Sikaasamuccaya (Compendium of Doctrine); ed. Cecil Bendall; St. Petersburg, 1902

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