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From Introduction: The Way of the Bodhisattva
I received the transmission of the Bodhicharyavatara (The Way of the Bodhisattva) from Tenzin Gyaltsen, the Kunu Rinpoche, who received it himself from a disciple of Dza Patrul Rinpoche, now regarded as one of the principal spiritual heirs of this teaching. It is said that when Patrul Rinpoche explained this text auspicious signs would occur, such as the blossoming of yellow flowers, remarkable for the great number of their petals. I feel very fortunate that I am in turn able to give a commentary on this great classic of Buddhist literature.
Shantideva composed this text in the form of an inner dialogue. He turned his own weapons upon himself, doing battle with his negative emotions. Therefore, when we teach or listen to this text, it is important that we do so in order to progress spiritually, rather than making it simply a subject of academic study. With this in mind, we begin each session of teaching by paying homage to the Buddha and reciting extracts from the sutras.
Practice virtue well;
Subdue your mind:
This is the Buddha’s teaching.
Like a star, an optical illusion, or a flame,
A magical illusion, a dewdrop, or a bubble,
Like a dream, a flash of lightning, or a cloud—
So should one consider all compounded things.
While reciting these words, we should reflect on impermanence and the lack of reality in phenomena and conclude with a prayer of dedication:
By this merit may we attain omniscience
And overcome our enemy, our harmful deeds,
And may beings, buffeted by the waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death,
Be liberated from the ocean of existence.
Next we should recite the Heart Sutra, the Praise to Manjushri, and the offering of the mandala. Those of you who cannot recite these should simply think of the Buddha’s kindness and reflect on the view of emptiness, which is the meaning of the Prajnaparamita Sutras.
Finally, we should renew our vows, taking refuge and generating bodhichitta three times.
In the Jewels of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha,
We take refuge until we attain enlightenment.
By the merit of practicing generosity and the like,
May we attain Buddhahood for the benefit of beings.
We will now begin our study of the Bodhicharyavatara.
The master of these teachings, the Buddha, began by generating the wish for enlightenment. He then accumulated positive actions through many lifetimes over a period of three great uncountable kalpas. Finally, in the age when the average human life span was one hundred years, he entered this world and attained enlightenment on the Vajra Throne at Bodh Gaya in India. In the twenty-five centuries since he first turned the Wheel of Dharma of the vast and profound teachings, the Buddhist path has been one of the most important of the world’s spiritual traditions.
I usually consider the teachings of the Buddha under two headings: activity and view. Activity means refraining from harming others. This is something that is universally helpful, something that all people appreciate, whether they are religious or not. View refers to the principle of interdependence. Happiness and suffering, and the beings who experience them, do not arise without cause nor are they caused by some eternal creator. In fact, all things arise from causes corresponding to them. This idea is upheld by all schools of Buddhism, and so I usually say that our view is that of interdependence.
The view of interdependence makes for a great openness of mind. In general, instead of realizing that what we experience arises from a complicated network of causes, we tend to attribute happiness or sadness, for example, to single, individual sources. But if this were so, as soon as we came into contact with what we consider to be good, we would be automatically happy, and conversely, in the case of bad things, invariably sad. The causes of joy and sorrow would be easy to identify and target. It would all be very simple, and there would be good reason for our anger and attachment. When, on the other hand, we consider that everything we experience results from a complex interplay of causes and conditions, we find that there is no single thing to desire or resent, and it is more difficult for the afflictions of attachment or anger to arise. In this way, the view of interdependence makes our minds more relaxed and open.
By training our minds and getting used to this view, we change our way of seeing things, and as a result we gradually change our behavior and do less harm to others. As it says in the sutras:
Practice virtue well;
Subdue your mind:
This is the Buddha’s teaching.
We should avoid even the smallest negative actions, and we should perform even the most insignificant positive actions without underestimating their value. The reason for this is that the happiness we all want and the suffering we all try to avoid are produced precisely by our actions, or karma. Everything we experience is, as it were, programmed by our actions, and these in turn depend on our attitude.Whatever we do, say, and think in our youth is the cause of the happiness and suffering we experience in our old age. Moreover, what we do in this life will determine the happiness and suffering of the next life. And the actions of this kalpa will result in the experiences of future kalpas. This is what we mean by the law of karma, the law of cause and effect.
On this basis, an action is called negative or evil if it results in suffering, which is something we wish to avoid. It is called positive or virtuous if it results in happiness, which is something we want. We consider an action positive or negative not on its own account but according to whether it leads to joy or sorrow. This all depends on motivation, and so the text says, ‘‘Subdue your mind.’’ A mind that is not disciplined will experience suffering, but a mind that is under control will be happy and at peace.
It is important to know all the methods for subduing the mind through the instructions of the vast and profound path. The antidote to hatred is meditation on love. To overcome attachment, we should meditate on the ugliness of what attracts us. The antidote to pride is meditation on the skandhas, or aggregates. To counteract ignorance we should concentrate on the movement of the breath and on interdependence. The root of the mind’s turmoil is in fact ignorance, on account of which we fail to understand the true nature of things. The mind is brought under control by purifying our mistaken notion of reality. This is the teaching of the Buddha. It is through training the mind that we can transform the way in which we act, speak, and think.
It would be helpful at this point to say something about the Buddha’s teaching in general. According to the Mahayana, after attaining enlightenment, the Buddha turned the Wheel of the Dharma, setting forth his teaching in three stages. First he taught the Four Noble Truths, on which the entire Buddhist doctrine is based. These are the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path. With the second (or middle) turning, he gave the teachings on emptiness and the profound and detailed aspects of the path, which make up the Prajnaparamita Sutras. With the third turning of the wheel, he presented the teachings on emptiness in a more accessible fashion. In sutras such as the Sutra of Buddha Nature, he spoke of an absolute nature that is devoid of the dualistic concept of subject and object. This is also the subject of the Sublime Continuum.
The origin of suffering—namely, negative emotions—may be understood with varying degrees of subtlety, and this requires an understanding of the nature of phenomena. In the second turning of the wheel, the Buddha explained in detail the truth of the cessation of suffering. He showed that an increasingly subtle analysis of phenomena leads to a greater understanding of the negative emotions and finally to an ever more refined insight into the nature of emptiness. This in turn leads to more profound understanding of the truth of the path.
In the third turning we find a detailed explanation of the path for attaining enlightenment. It emphasizes the potential that we all have for future enlightenment. This potential, called Tathagatagarbha, or Buddha nature, is something we have always had, from time without beginning. When we talk about the truth of the path, we are not talking about something completely foreign to our nature, which might suddenly appear like a mushroom, as though without a seed or cause. It is because we have this foundation or capacity for ultimate omniscience that we are able to attain enlightenment. The texts belonging to the second turning demonstrate the empty nature of phenomena, while the Sutra of Buddha Nature and other teachings relating to the third turning emphasize wisdom, the clear and luminous aspect of the mind.