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

William Edelglass is Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at Marlboro College in Vermont. He has a background sitting in Zen, Vipassanā, and Tibetan traditions. William has published widely in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, environmental philosophy, and 20th-century European philosophy. He is co-editor of the journal Environmental Philosophy. William is also co-editor of Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, the Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy (both with Jay Garfield), and Facing Nature: Levinas and Environmental Thought. Until last year he was co-director of the International Association of Environmental Philosophy. William has taught in a variety of settings, including a federal prison in New York, a Tibetan refugee settlement in Nepal, and for many years as a wilderness guide at Outward Bound. Previously, William was at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, Dharamsala, India, where he taught Western philosophy to Tibetan monks and Buddhist philosophy to American college students on a Tibetan studies program.

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.

Sticks on Frozen Leaves

IJ: What do you think is the relationship between ethics and practice, and how does the bodhisattva ideal help us understand this?

WE: I think it is instructive to return to the Four Noble Truths to address the role of ethics in the context of the path. The eight aspects of the Buddhist path, as articulated in the fourth truth, are often divided into three sorts of practices: wisdom or insight, moral discipline, and mental discipline. But right speech often requires mindfulness, concentration, and good intentions, and may also require right views. And similarly, the cultivation of right mindfulness is conditioned by right endeavors and right intentions. That is, the various practices of the eightfold path are intertwined. And they are all relevant and important practices on the path. Thus, I would suggest that ethics is a form of Buddhist practice.

For Śāntideva, as for many Buddhist thinkers, we cause suffering to others, are insensible to the suffering of others, and indeed bring suffering upon ourselves, because our minds are clouded with cognitive and affective defilements. Thus ethics, according to Śāntideva, calls for mental transformation, and his account of moral discipline addresses mindfulness (smṛti), which he understands as the ability to maintain focused attention, and awareness (samprajanya), which refocuses the mind when it has wandered. This is why Śāntideva begins his chapter on moral discipline with a verse about the importance of training the wandering mind and concludes his discussion with the observation of body and mind.

For Śāntideva, it is not just that mental transformation leads to ethical behavior but also that ethical behavior results in a more awakened mind. Practicing generosity actually loosens the bonds of attachment to things, or to concepts such as “mine.” Indeed, Śāntideva argues, someone who frustrates us is akin to the true dharma or a Buddha, for without such people we cannot fully transform our minds; those who might frustrate us provide opportunities to become more free. Thus, according to Śāntideva, increasing moral discipline is itself increasing mental discipline.

Ultimately, for Śāntideva, just as mindfulness and awareness are necessary for compassionate action, so is wisdom. We are all familiar with the harmful results of misguided projects motivated by compassion. Śāntideva insists that compassionate intentions require mental discipline and wisdom. And similarly, to embody wisdom, to enact wisdom so it is not just an abstract conceptual account, demands engagement with others. This is one of the most significant teachings of the bodhisattva ideal. As we find in an earlier text, the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra: “Compassion without wisdom, and wisdom without compassion, are the bodhisattva’s bondage. Wisdom together with compassion is the bodhisattva’s liberation.” Thus, the bodhisattva ideal suggests that wisdom, a calm and stable mind, and ethics are fundamentally intertwined.

Today, with the rise of engaged Buddhism, the bodhisattva ideal has been given new meanings that address not just personal ethics but also our responsibilities to many others, both those in our own communities and those who are very different. For example, in Coming Back to Life, the Buddhist teacher and Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy writes, “The bodhisattva archetype is present in all religions and even all social movements, be it in the guise of suffering servant, worker priest, shaman, prophet, idealistic revolutionary, or community organizer.” For Macy, the bodhisattva is a model for someone who does not want to close themselves off from the pain of others, or turn away in disgust, or distraction. Instead, the bodhisattva is an inspiration for many who, in the words of the Lotus Sūtra, “respond to the cries of the world.”

IJ: You mention in your course description that it will include practices. Can you say a little about what you have in mind?

WE: The Bodhicaryāvatāra invites us to experiment with a variety of practices. We will explore several of these together, including Śāntideva’s practices of mindfulness of body, speech, and mind; his meditations on the equality of self and other and the exchange of self and other; and finally, some of the meditations on emptiness. Śāntideva also extols periods of solitary meditation in the forest. (“On delightful rock surfaces cooled by the sandal balm of the moon’s rays, stretching wide as palaces, the fortunate pace, fanned by the silent, gentle forest breezes, as they contemplate for the well-being of others.”) The fields and trees surrounding BCBS are so beautiful, especially at the end of May. We will certainly take some time for solitary walking and contemplation “for the well-being of others.”

Another practice that we will pursue together is collaborative learning. I will provide an introductory lecture on Friday night, giving an overall account of the origin and development of the bodhisattva ideal in a variety of traditions and throughout the weekend will give small lectures where appropriate. But much of our time together will be devoted to reading and discussing passages from Śāntideva’s text. The attention demanded for this kind of close reading, remaining open to the text and the interpretations and views of others, asking questions and formulating responses, is itself, I believe, a practice that at its best cultivates wisdom, mental discipline, and ethical openness.

IJ: The bodhisattva ideal is not often associated with Theravāda Buddhism. Can you say something about the bodhisattva path in Theravāda traditions?

WE: Although it is not widely discussed, the bodhisattva, or bodhisatta, ideal has been an element of Theravāda traditions for millennia. With the transformation of the historical Buddha into a transcendent figure after his death, the term bodhisatta was initially used to describe Siddhartha Gautama in his previous lives. The Buddha frequently references these earlier lives and what he learned or cultivated during them. These references in the discourses later became the basis of the Jātaka tales, which were popular in Theravāda communities, both among monastics and lay people. But with the development of the doctrine of multiple buddhas, each of whom must go through a stage of cultivating the requisite virtues, the idea of the bodhisatta became a generic term and no longer just referred to the prior lives of the historical Buddha. Thus, in the Pāli Nikāyas we already see “bodhisatta” applied to a category of beings who are destined to achieve awakening, take a vow to become Buddhas, and are predicted to achieve full awakening by a Buddha. (For readers interested in this development, there is a detailed, book-length analysis by Anālayo—a regular teacher at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies—freely available as a pdf on the internet: The Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal.)

Once the bodhisatta path was understood as a possible model within a Nikāya framework, it became the chosen path of some Theravāda practitioners. Because, according to mainstream Theravāda doctrine, there can only be one buddha at any time, and a succeeding buddha will not arise until after the demise of the current dharma community, most Theravādins did not aspire to become buddhas. However, many practitioners who regarded themselves as exceptional—for example kings, but also monks, especially scholars and scribes—took the bodhisatta vow and cultivated the perfections. And exceptional practitioners were sometimes regarded as bodhisattas, such as the great commentator Buddhaghosa, who was thought to be an incarnation of the future Buddha, Maitreya (though there is no evidence that Buddhaghosa actually took a bodhisatta vow or practiced the perfections).1

Stick Hoop on Snow

IJ: If the bodhisattva ideal is present in Theravāda Buddhism, what is the relationship between Mahāyāna and Theravāda, and who are the Mahāyāna texts referring to when they use the term “Hīnayāna”?

WE: After some time, Nikāya Buddhism—or Sectarian Buddhism, or Early Buddhism; these are all terms that have been used to refer to the eighteen schools of which Theravāda is the only surviving member—included monks who pursued different practices with distinct goals. Some practices were oriented towards the ideal of the arahant (“worthy one”; describing a practitioner who is liberated from defilements and has therefore attained nibbāna), while others followed the bodhisattva path toward full Buddhahood. Monks pursuing these different goals all lived together in the same monasteries and understood themselves to be bound together in one religious community through ordination into a common monastic code, or vinaya. At some point, it seems, some practitioners of the bodhisattva path came to believe in the preeminence of their goal, which they characterized as the Mahāyāna, or “Great Vehicle,” as it was motivated by compassion for the suffering of all sentient beings. They contrasted this Great Vehicle with what they termed the Hīnayāna, or “Inferior Vehicle,” which, they argued, was motivated by self-interest and concerned purely with one’s own liberation.

Some Western scholars, interpreting classical Buddhist texts, have understood Mahāyāna references to Hīnayāna to refer to Nikāya Buddhist schools. Thus, more recently “Hīnayāna,” which is clearly a derogatory term, has been replaced by terms such as Nikāya, or Sectarian, or Early Buddhism. But a number of recent scholars have argued that in fact “Hīnayāna” was not employed to characterize any particular religious communities. This is in part because early Mahāyāna authors identified with the various sects of Nikāya Buddhism. Thus, when critiquing the Hīnayāna, they were not rejecting any actual institutions or sects. Rather, as Jonathan Silk has argued, “Hīnayāna” is really a polemical epithet to describe “whomever we, the speakers, do not at the present moment agree with doctrinally or otherwise here in our discussion.” According to this view then, Hīnayāna was not employed as a disparaging term for Theravāda, nor is it a term that characterizes earlier Buddhist traditions. As Silk notes, “Hīnayāna” was always a “rhetorical fiction” and because it does not refer to institutions but to a way of thinking, Silk suggests translating it as “small-minded.” Thus, when contemporary proponents of Mahāyāna do use the term “Hīnayāna” to refer to Theravāda, it is a derogatory and inappropriate term, and it is being used in a way that is different from the early Mahāyāna texts.

1Those wanting a concise introduction to the place of the bodhisatta in Theravāda traditions could start with Jeffrey Samuels, “The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravāda Buddhist Theory and Practice: A Reevaluation of the Bodhisattva-Śrāvaka Opposition,” Philosophy East and West, vol. 47, no. 3 [July, 1997]: pp. 399-415. For a longer and more detailed account, see Naomi Appleton’s book, Jātaka Stories in Theravāda Buddhism: Narrating the Bodhisatta Path [Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010]. Appleton draws particularly from the Nidāna-kathā, and from the commentaries on the Cariyāpiṭaka, Buddhavaṃsa, and Apadāna, three late canonical texts.

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