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April 4, 2015 full moon

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Cultivating Bodhicitta: Wisdom and Compassion in Śāntideva’s Introduction to the Awakened Life

Talking with William Edelglass

Insight Journal: Your course is titled “The Bodhisattva Path of Wisdom and Compassion.” Let us start with the question, what is a bodhisattva?

William Edelglass: “Bodhisattva,” or in Pāli, bodhisatta, is a compound of bodhi, meaning “awakening”—as in the Bodhi tree—and sattva, meaning “being.” Beginning already in the Pāli Canon, a bodhisattva has been understood as one who makes the intention to liberate beings from suffering. In Śāntideva’s words, that the Dalai Lama is so fond of quoting: “As long as space abides and as long as the world abides, so long may I abide, destroying the sufferings of the world.” To realize this intention, the aspiring bodhisattva seeks to cultivate a mind characterized by stability, insight, and an openness and compassion for others. This mind, bodhicitta (literally, “awakened mind”) is attained through practicing virtues, or perfections. Santideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra is an introduction to these practices.

IJ: Can you tell us something about Śāntideva and his text?

WE: While there are many stories about Śāntideva, there is little that holds up to contemporary historical methods. He probably lived at Nālandā, the great Buddhist university, sometime in the late seventh or early eighth century. At that time Nālandā was one of the leading centers of intellectual study anywhere in the world. It was large and cosmopolitan, with—according to Chinese pilgrims who visited and described what they saw—10,000 students from numerous places in Asia, and a large, multi-story library. Thus, Śāntideva wrote in an environment that included proponents of a variety of different views.

According to his Tibetan biographies, Śāntideva pursued his studies and practices at night. Thus, his fellow monks only saw him “eating, sleeping, and walking about.” Or, as some Tibetans describe it, Śāntideva was known only for “eating, sleeping, and shitting.” The Bodhicaryāvatāra is said to have been presented when the monks asked Śāntideva to give a teaching, thinking to expose his ignorance and laziness and humiliate him. Instead, Santideva presented them with what is widely characterized as the preeminent Indian guidebook to the bodhisattva path.

The Bodhicaryāvatāra has been translated into English many times, and each translation has its own title. My colleague Jay Garfield likes to translate it as How to Lead an Awakened Life. This translation conveys the way in which the book is an invitation to any reader interested in pursuing the path. The focus of the text is on practice: it is at once a meditation manual, a presentation of Buddhist philosophy, an account of ethics, and a ritual text. Practicing all these elements is meant to support freedom from emotional and cognitive defilements and lead to bodhicitta.

Śāntideva himself seems in awe of bodhicitta, the mind that is open and generous and caring for others and not obstructed by self-consciousness or embarrassment or anger and craving. It arises mysteriously, he notes at the beginning of his book, like a flash of lightning in the dark of night. But once there is a spark of bodhicitta, Śāntideva suggests, it can be nurtured. The rest of the book provides practices and ways of thinking to cultivate bodhicitta. These include practicing mindfulness of one’s body, speech, and mind; practices aimed at developing concentration and tranquility, as well as insight and wisdom; practices to relax our clinging to a congealed self and to encounter others in all their singularity and vulnerability.

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June 13, 2014
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May 14, 2014
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April 15, 2014
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March 16, 2014
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February 14, 2014
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January 15, 2014
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December 17, 2013
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November 17, 2013
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October 18, 2013
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August 20, 2013
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June 23, 2013
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April 25, 2013
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January 26, 2013
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See Archive page for some older editions.