Introduction to the study of Shantideva’s’ text: The Bodhicharyavatara

By Lama Trinle (25/10/2021)

(Português) (Français) (Chinese)

Be it to begin or to deepen one’s study and practice of Dharma (the Buddha’s teaching), the text of Shantideva is an excellent reference and guide. The text, mostly written in stances of four lines, is short (around 150 pages) but it concentrates and resumes resume the Mahayana teachings.

The author and the context

When Shantideva lived in India (685 – 763 C.E. – Art. 13) the presentation of Buddha’s teaching (Art. 14) in its aspect of the Great Vehicle (Mahayana) was well established.

O Grande Veículo (Art. 15), que se desenvolveu a partir do primeiro séculos d.C., é baseado nos textos da Prajnaparamita e os tratados dos famosos mestres indianos: Nagarjuna ( 150-250 d.C.), fundador da filosofia Madhyamika;  Asanga (sec. IV) e Vasubandhu (316-396 d.C.) fundadores da tradição Yogachara Art. 12). Todos estudaram na universidade de Nalanda onde Shantideva foi um monge (Art.6).

The Great Vehicle (Art. 15) developed from the 1st century B.C. on. It is based on the teachings of the Prajnaparamita (texts on the Perfection of Wisdom) and treatises of famous Indian masters like Nagarjuna (between 150 and 250 C.E.) founder of the Madhyamaka philosophy; Asanga (IV century) and Vasubandhu (316-396) funders of the Yogachara tradition (Art.12). All these teachings were studied at the Nalanda University where Shantideva was monk (Art.6).

The Mahayana emphasizes the combined practice of Wisdom and Compassion.

Wisdom is referring to the right understanding of the nature of reality: Living beings and phenomena. In their relative aspect they are considered to be produced by causes and conditions. From the ultimate point of view, that of their essential nature, they are devoid of permanent existence (in-substantial). This can be realized by the means of rigorous analyzes and contemplative methods.

It is the realization of emptiness, of the un-conditioned (Art. 9), that frees form the different sufferings of a life limited to the conditioned domain. Shantideva illustrates this perspective already in the beginning of his text, just after the homages:

The favorable conditions (freedoms and acquisitions)
That allow the realization of the Good of beings, are difficult to gather.
If, once obtained, one does not make the best of them,
When will we be able to gather them again?
(Chapter I – Stance 4)

The thematic mentioned in this stance refer to a global understanding of Buddha’s teachings as they are presented in details in Tibetan manuals of gradual progression (Lam-rim).

They are presented in a particularly clear manner in the text of Gampopa – The Precious Ornament of Liberation. It is composed by six parts of which the second explains how the human existence is called rare and precious only when it gathers the favorable conditions (the 8 freedoms and 10 acquisition) that allow the realization of the State of Buddha and to manifest His Spontaneous Altruistic Activity ( Parts V and VI). This realization is possible because all being possess its potential (Part I : Buddha Nature). To actualize it we need the orientations of a Qualified Guide or Spiritual Teacher (part III). The purpose of His teachings is to bring a remedy to the four obstacles that prevent the full realization of our potential. 1) For the attachment to this life: The meditation on impermanence and death; 2) For the attachment to the cycle of existence: The sufferings of samsara and Karma; 3) Against the attachment to personal liberation: The meditation on kindness and compassion; 4) The remedy to the ignorance of the means to attain enlightenment: The instructions on Bodhicitta (Part IV).

The causes of the different sufferings are the negative actions committed by the body, speech and mind. They manifest particularly when the mind is under the power of negative emotions like: Cupidity, anger, pride, jealousy and stupidity. Their initial cause is the non-recognition (ma-rikpa) of the nature of reality in its relative and ultimate aspects. See the teachings of Venerable Kalu Rinpotche (1905-1989); a compilation of his teachings is available on the site

Considering that the various sufferings impregnate all beings, like us, one develops the feelings of kindness and compassion in relation to them. To make them effective one aspires to the realization of the state of Buddha and one applies the means to achieve it. This attitude corresponds to the Mind of Enlightenment (Bodhicitta) with its aspects of aspiration and application; they are the main subject of the text of Shantideva.

The Text

Different texts have been preserved in their original language: Sanskrit; we have also access to different ancient manuscripts and many more recent editions in their translation in Tibetan, Chinese, Mongolian and Nepalese (Art. 1). Actually many translations in European language are also available (Art. 2).

In the first chapters Shantideva presents the many benefits and the conditions for the generation and the development of Bodhicitta. The simple aspiration, even a strong resolution, to reach a destination is not sufficient to attain it. One has to apply the necessary means to concretize one’s aspirations. In the same way, following the Path of the Bodhisattvas, one practices: generosity, awareness, ethics, patience, energy, meditation and one develops wisdom (She-rab). In the following chapters Shantideva proposes practical advises to develop these qualities and concludes his text with the dedication of merit in chapter X.

The commentaries

The text of Shantideva is short with concentrated meanings. Traditionally it is studied with explanatory commentaries that present the different subjects in details.

-The commentary of the Indian master Prajnakaramati (IXth century C.E.) has been preserved in its original language, Sanskrit, as well as in its Tibetan translation. An edition, and English translation, has been done by Sharma (Com. 16) and another with His Holiness Dalai Lama (Com. 2).

-In Tibet (Art. 16) many great masters have written a commentary on this text; recently some have been translated and published into English; those of: Sönam Tsemo 1142 – 1182 (Com.8a Com. 8b) ; Sabzang Mati 1294 – 1376 (Com. 5a and Com 5b); Pema Karpo 1527-1592  (Com. 9a and Com.9b); Pawo Tsukla Trengwa 1504 – 1566 (Chap. IX)

-The text of Shantideva was the favorite of Patrul Rinpotche 1808-1887 that commented many times in oral teachings. At the end of the IXXth century some of his disciples have composed other commentaries: Kunzang Pelden 1862 – 1943 (Com. 3 and Com 4); Kunzang Sonam 1823 – 1905 and Ju Mipam Gyatso 1846 – 1912 for the IXth chapter.

_Many contemporary Tibetan teachers have also published commentaries based on the precedent texts as well as on those of de Tsong Kapa 1357 – 1419 and his main disciple Dharma Rinchen 1364 – 1432.

They are the commentaries of Geshes: Losang Tengye (Com. 10); Jampa Tegchok (Com. 11); Yeshe Tobden (Com. 12); Tenzin Zopa (Com.13); the Kagyu teacher Trangu Rinpotche (Com. 14) and his translator Karma Chöpel (Com.19); Kelzang Gyatso (Com.15a and Com.15b) and the publication of Asian Classics (Com. 18).

-In the west, academic studies of Buddhist texts have begun end of the XIXth century when the arrived the first manuscripts in Sanskrit. The first French translation was done by Louis de la Vallée Poussin between 1892 et 1907 (Text. 5a and Text. 5b); in English by Barnett in 1909 (Text. 6) and a new translation in French by par Finot in 1920 (Text.7).

This last translation remained a reference until the next translation, done by the Padmakara comity in 1992 (Text.1a, 1b, 1c, 1d). It followed a public teaching given by His Holiness Dalai Lama in a Buddhist center in France in 1991. The transcription of these teachings have been published under the French title: Comme un éclair déchire la nuit (Com. 1b).; In Portuguese: Como um Relampâgo Rasgando a Noite (Com.1a) The title English translation first publishes under the title: A Flash of Lightning in the Dark Sky (Com. 1c) has already been republished three times with just a change in the title and the cover of the book! This document remains a primary reference.

Following this event, in 1993, His Holiness Dalai Lama dedicated a whole meting to the study of the IXth chapter (Wisdom) referring to the comments of Kunzang Palden and Kunzang Sonam. In 1994, a first edition of this teaching was published in French under the title: Tant que durera l’Espace. In 2004 a complete revision was done by Tubten Jinpa, the main translator of the Dalaï Lama. It was published in English, French and Portuguese under the title: Practice of Wisdom. The other translations of the text and the commentaries followed this event.

In his article: Three recent Translations (Art. 2) Luiz O. Gomez analyses the requisites for a translation that respects the form and content of the original text but also renders clearly its meaning and elegance in the native language. He takes as example the three first translations of La Valée Poussin, Barnet and Finot and compares them with those of Padmakara (Text. 1a-d), Wallace (Text. 2), Crosby et Skilton (Text. 3). His own translation was publishes in the Norton  Encyclopedia of Religions (Text. 4). In his introduction to this publication: In the World of the Buddha Donald Lopez Jr. is excellent, as usual! (Art. 17).

A particular attention has been given to the chapters VI – Patience: Dalai Lama : Healing Anger; Lama Zopa: Patience; Thurman: Anger and to chapter IX – Wisdom (Skt. Prajna): Dalai Lama: Practicing Wisdom; with Alan Wallace: Transcendent Wisdom; Mipam: Ketaka Jewel and Wisdom Chapter, in French: L’opalescent Joyaux; Thèses of doctorate: Dorji Wangchuk : Resolve to become Buddha; Oldmeadow-Prajnakaramati: The Wisdom Chapter; Sweet : Shantideva and Madyamika.

The differences and possible complementarities between traditional studies and contemporary academic studies are well described by Makranski (Art.3). An interreligious study is done by the Christian theologians Perry Schmidt-Leukel (Com. 17 et Art. 7); a linguistic analyze and comparative philosophy perspective is offered by Alexis Lavis (Text. 17); Brassard has dedicated his book on the meaning of Bodhi-citta (Art. 10). There are also different other studies, translations, articles and complementary documents that will be made available progressively.

The documents are classified by categories:

Text.: Is for the original texts and the translations. Translations done by different translators have a different number ex. Text 1- Padmakara; Text 2 – Wallace etc. When it is the same author but in a different language it is indicated by a letter ex.: Text 1a for the English translation by Padmakara; Text 1b for the French translation; Text 1c for the Portuguese etc.

Com.: Is for the commentaries. Note that sometimes there can be a translation of the text and a commentary by the same author in two separate publications sometimes text and commentary are combined in one publication.

Art.: Is for articles and theses. Sometimes it can be one chapter in a publication editing texts from different authors.

To begin our comparative study we are presenting the documents related to: -The life of Shantideva -Historical and geographical contexts -The available original texts and the existing translation and what is related to the first chapter: The benefits of Bodhicitta.

How to study?

-Those that are just looking for some general information, or those that do specialized studies, are used to proceed according to their usual interests and methodologies. It may be useful for them to consider that, to learn something new, it is not sufficient to limit oneself to the search of the confirmations of one’s presuppositions but, at the light of new facts, or different perspectives, to be disposed to actualize one’s convictions.

-The Dharma students, or practitioners, are generally connected to a living tradition that proposes a program of studies and practices as well as qualified teachers that can provide personalized instructions. There are variations between the different traditions and the pedagogy of different teachers but, the fundamental teachings of Mahayana, as they are resumed in the text of Shantideva are common to all traditions. It is famous teachers of all the main Tibetan traditions that have written the commentaries mentioned above. It is also considered that the manuals of Lam-rim and the practices of training the mind Lojong that developed in Tibet have their origin in the text of Shantideva.

-Quite a few translations of the text and commentaries are now available in French, Portuguese etc. but, for the moment, most of the publications exist only in English. The students, who know Sanskrit, or Tibetan, can study or compare the translations with the original texts. The facilities, or difficulties, of access to the content of the documents depend mostly the situation of each person. Those that have the possibility can participate to the work of translation in order to share some texts with those that do not have access to other languages.

It is possible to study, and to meditate on different thematic using mainly only one text and one commentary. One can also focalize on the study (Tö) of one chapter, one stance, one idea or one perspective, and see what the different commentaries have to say on the subject.

Once these reliable references are acquired one can reflect with pertinence: _What is the meaning? _What are the implications? _What are the differences with other perspectives? _What are the causes? _What are the consequences? It is analytical meditation (sam).

Dharma practitioners know that intellectual study and understanding are only the first steps. They will only produce the actual result (Dre) when the teachings are integrated in life by practical application (Gom).

The effective progression on the path of Enlightenment, taught by the Buddha, is not limited to a simple accumulation of information but implies a transformation, progressive but integral of ones’ life, one’s way of being, the way our body, speech and mind function.

The transition from the conditioned state, in which prevail confusion, passions and karma, to the state of Buddha, in which all confusion is dissipated and all potential qualities are developed, is not the result of a simple accumulation of knowledge, wealth or social status, but results from a complete transformation of the person that manifests in his behavior (See Gampopa – The Precious Ornament of Liberation: -The five Paths and ten levels; -Enlightened Activity.)

This radical transformation has its origin in the generation of the Mind of Enlightenment: Bodhicitta. As says Shantideva:

Like the supreme elixir that can transform all in gold,
This Mind of Enlightenment, that transforms this impure body,
In the priceless Body of a Buddha,
On should carefully preserve!
(Chapter I – Stance 10)

Articles, Commentaries and texts available for download (album with all covers)

Dear translators and editors,
In order to favor comparative studies we present here the cover of some of your publications and a short extract from them. In case it is inconvenient for you just mention it to us at [email protected] and we will remove them immediately. On the other hand, if you have a translation in your language, or like to participate to the translation some texts, you can take contact with us or send them and we will be happy to share them. Thank you!!



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