The Bodhicaryavatara

Review by Roy Smith, 2008

Santideva, Bodhicaryavatara, trans. Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, intro. Paul Williams. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

The Bodhicaryavatara is believed to have been written by Santideva, a Buddhist monk from India. Santideva is a legend which may or may not be based on a historical individual. He is said to have been a prince who left his riches in order to seek enlightenment. At any rate, the book is rich with Buddhist ideals which praise enlightenment, encourage awakening and offer a human archetypal figure, called the Bodhisattva. This figure is characterized by selflessness, benevolence, and similar to the figure of Jesus Christ, has the potential to ‘save’ the world. As the Bodhisattva is the most important aspect of this book, which is comprised of beautiful meditative poetry, this review will focus on a discussion of what the search for attaining this ideal entails. In short, the highest goal, coterminous with the highest ideal, of our author is awakening.

Based on Mahayana Buddhist thought, the person committed to self-denial and ascetic discipline must determine to submit to the rigor of meditation towards the pursuit of awakening. In Praise of the Awakening Mind, we are given instruction on how to begin our search. First, the “Awakening Mind” must be “resolved on Awakening” and must be “proceeding in Awakening” (6). Importantly, the reader is told both how difficult and how rewarding this process will be. Those who enjoy the arising of the awakening mind will escape the imprisoning condition of existence. “Great dangers”, “delusion” and the “ignorant” state that the whole of humanity exists under will be broken by the “jewel, the Mind which is the seed of pure happiness in the world and the remedy for the suffering of the world” will “release the limitless realm of beings” still awaiting salvation (6-7). When one is on the path toward Bodhisattva perfection, one must Guard Awareness by focusing on these six virtues: generosity, morality, patience, vigor, meditative absorbtion, and understanding (c.f. 30). Importantly, one is advised not to “turn back”, because never seeking awakening is better than to turn back once the path is begun (71). Once committed to the path, the understanding will eventually be perfected. The teaching of this perfection is the climax of the six virtues, and of all that precedes this section in the book: “It is for the sake of understanding that the Sage taught this entire collection of preparations. Therefore, in the desire to put an end to suffering, one should develop understanding” (115). This section contrasts the “conventional” notion of truth with the “ultimate” reality which transcends conventionality (c.f. 115). Here a sort of hierarchy is presupposed between those with and those without understanding. Interestingly, understanding gives illumination to ‘Self’, or the ‘I’, causality, existence, and the limitations of consciousness. One who gains understanding begins to unravel these mysteries by devout meditation and disciplined asceticism: “May monks experience solitude and take pleasure in their precepts. Their minds supple, devoid of all distraction, may they experience meditative absorption” (142). Overcoming distraction and refusing to retreat, the disciple may strive to overcome “habitual distraction” (131). The selfless disciple, through hard work, strives to escape anxiety, fear, death, and aids all of the cosmos in this regard (c.f. 138, 142).

I found this book often optimistic and sometimes a bit pessimistic—though honest—about humanity: “they are extremely wretched” (132). It is hoped that they, the masses, will join the community of people seeking awakening. More constructive still, those in the condition of ignorance, darkness and bondage are pictured not in elitist fashion, but as people worthy of love in the community. So my reaction is mixed. What happens to those who have not heard these kinds of teachings? Regardless, this text is beautifully written, morally challenging, and inspiring. The journey of the Bodhisattva surely could not but encourage a better, more selfless society. For this reason I think highly of Santideva and those willing to put forth the effort required to create a better self and society.