I’m going to tell you a story.
Shantideva is a fascinating figure in Buddhist history. He lived in the 8th Century in India. He was a monk and lived at a large Buddhist university called Nalanda with a lot of other monks.
His story means a lot to me for a few reasons.
One is he wrote a text called “Way of the Bodhisattva.” To me this is one of the most important writings in all of Buddhist history. He spells out the Mahayana Path, the great way of wisdom and compassion, better than almost anyone.
The other is that he didn’t have any friends. He was judged and ridiculed by the other monks that lived at Nalanda. They really did not like him. We could say he was bullied. I think we’ve all felt like outsiders sometimes. Most of us have had the experience where we think the people around us don’t like us very much.
I know I have. I’ve had that experience even in spiritual communities. So I connect with Shantideva’s story. Also, I don’t have many friends either.
So, this is what happened.
The monks around him thought Shantideva was lazy. He just went to meditation and studied. He didn’t socialize and he really didn’t talk much. The monks got this idea in their heads that he was just there to sit around and not taking the life of a monk very seriously. The monks at Nalanda were supported by donations and people thought Shantideva was getting away with something.
So one of these monks came up with a plan, a plan to humiliate Shantideva. The idea was they’d convince the head monk that everyone should have a turn giving a talk. Then when it was Shantideva’s turn, he’d be so scared he’d just leave. They thought Shantideva didn’t know anything so he couldn’t possibly give a talk. And they thought he wasn’t much of a talker anyway because he didn’t socialize with them.
So it happened. The head monk was convinced. And Shantideva’s day came and he had to give a talk. A lot of monks lived at Nalanda. And also they invited people from nearby villages, they really thought that an even bigger audience would make it all the more humiliating.
I’m sort of reminded of the book (and film) Carrie, when a bully arranges for this unpopular girl to become Prom Queen and then pours blood on her in front of the whole school. Then Carrie kills everyone. Shantideva’s story isn’t so gruesome.
Shantideva went in front of all these assembled people. And he got up there and said, “Do you want to hear a talk on something you’ve heard before or do you want a whole new teaching?”
He said this with confidence, he just stepped into that teaching role.
The monks thought they still had the drop on him. The assembled crowded shouted “We want a new teaching!”
And that’s when Shantideva recited the text “Way of the Bodhisattva”
It was a long speech and at the end he just left. They got their wish and Shantideva left Nalanda, never to return.
Later he was found and he told them he had left behind the written version of Way of the Bodhisattva along with two other texts that he had written. They were hidden in his room at Nalanda.
I like this story because he had no friends, no one believed in him, and he proved himself. After he gave that talk, everyone knew he was incredibly wise. He had been the whole time, of course, but they didn’t know. Because he was just there doing the practice and studying.
Here’s a quote from “Way of the Bodhisattva” that’s often referred to as Shantideva’s Prayer:
“May the blind see the forms,
May the deaf hear sounds.
May the naked find clothing,
The hungry find food;
May the thirsty find water
And delicious drinks.
May the poor find wealth,
Those weak with sorrow find joy;
May the forlorn find new hope,
Constant happiness and prosperity.
May the frightened cease to be afraid
And those bound be freed;
May the powerless find power,
And may the people think of benefiting one another”
When the pandemic happened and we were all facing a whole lot of uncertainty and isolation, it was “Way of the Bodhisattva” that helped me get through it. I’ve always liked other teachings more until now. Now Shantideva has become my favorite historical Buddhist teacher.
I hope you like him too.
There are lots of versions out there of this text, but this one is my favorite: