By David Michie
David Michie sketches a portrait of one of the great masters of Tibetan Buddhism, whose text, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life is strongly recommended by the Dalai Lama
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 was 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 40 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 21st. More than 12 hundred years separate
|Beginning with simple but powerful analytical tools he leads us, step by step, to the most profound realisations about the true nature of reality – and of ourselves.|
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 renunciate prince
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.
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.
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. 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.
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
|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.|
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 carrying on quite clearly until he’d finished his teachings.
From a 21st-century Westerner’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 exceptional 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.’
‘David Michie is an Australia-based author, and meditation teacher, His book Enlighten
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.
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