Shantideva: Buddhism and the delight of solitude

Shantideva: Buddhism and the delight of solitude November 11, 2015

I’ve just completed teaching the Bodhicaryāvatāra (Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life) for the third time in my academic life, which probably makes this the 6th or 7th time I’ve been through the text. Some of it is finally, maybe, starting to sink in.

Vesna and Alan Wallace, whose translation I borrow from below, tell us that it, “has been the most widely read, cited, and practiced text in the whole of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition” and that it is widely cited in the works of the current Dalai Lama. My friend Amod Lele, whose PhD thesis focused on the text, writes in a recent scholarly article:

The Bodhicaryāvatāra is a poetic, beautiful and mostly accessible text. For that reason it, or selections from it, often serve as an introduction to Mahāyāna and to Buddhist ethics. It is widely taught in first-year Buddhism courses and excerpted in anthologies, some not even specifically about Buddhism…

It is indeed poetic and highly evocative. I remind my students of Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary to the Heart Sutra, which we cover earlier in the year along with the core text, letting them know that Shantideva’s work brings this together with the terse and rich philosophy of Nagarjuna. As we discover in the text though, Shantideva is also an inheritor and commenter on Yogacara thought and is keenly aware of the teachings traced to the historical Buddha.

In turn, his work is emblematic of – so I tell my students – half of Tibetan Buddhism. That is to say, his work represents a deeply powerful scholarly and monastic ideal that would make its way into Tibet. The other half of Tibetan Buddhism – the other wing, so to speak – is Tantra (which we study this week). All of this simplifies things enormously, of course, but given the constraints of one semester to introduce students to the entirety of Buddhism, many shortcuts need to be found and – most unfortunately – corners cut. However, if you wish to dig deeper, I’d recommend Geoffrey Samuel’s monumental Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies.*

Returning now to Shantideva and solitude; a few of the verses I found most meaningful in this latest reading were those on the pleasure – or, rather, contentment – found in dwelling in seclusion in the forest. These all come from chapter 8, the perfection of meditation:

buddha thailand
A Buddha in earth-touching mudra. Sukhothai, Thailand 2012, photo by the author.

Verses 26-29

Trees do not revile nor can they be pleased with effort.
When might I dwell with those whose company is a
delight?

After dwelling in an empty temple, at the foot of a tree, or in
caves, when shall I set forth, unconcerned and not looking
back?

When shall I dwell in unclaimed and naturally spacious
regions, wandering as I please and without a residence?

When shall I dwell fearlessly, without protecting my body,
having a clay bowl as my only property and a garment
useless to a thief?

Verses 85-88

Fearing sensual desires in this way, one should generate
delight in solitude and in deserted woodlands
devoid of strife and annoyances.

The fortunate ones, caressed by silent and gentle forest
breezes, pace on pleasant boulders, spacious like palaces,
cooled by sandalwood-like moon rays, and ponder how to
benefit others.

Dwelling here and there for as long as one likes, freed
from the exhaustion of guarding one’s
possessions and free of care, one lives as one
pleases in an empty dwelling, at the foot of a tree, or in a
cave.

Living as one wishes, homeless, and not tied down by
anyone, one savors the joy of contentment, which is difficult
even for a king to find.

IMG_1240 (2)

I don’t think I should give much commentary on these, and instead urge the reader to contemplate them, perhaps reading them a few times in the space of a day or two. If you have the book, I’d encourage thinking about how these verses fit in to the text as a whole. If you’ve studied the history of Buddhism, I’d encourage thought about how these fit into the tradition as it was shaped leading up to Shantideva.

As a Montanan and avid hiker, one part that especially resonates with me was the notion of: “unclaimed and naturally spacious regions, wandering as I please and without a residence” (isn’t that part of the Wilderness Act?).

* On Civilized Shamans: I first encountered this text in 2004 and used it again in 2007 when I taught a University course in Tibetan Buddhism and even today I think it should rank in the top 10, if not 5 or 3, of textbooks covering the breadth and depth of Tibetan Buddhism.

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