The Beautiful Way of Life - Preface

A Meditation on Shantideva’s Bodhisattva Path

Enter into the presence of a wise Buddhist master through this modern distillation of a spiritual classic.

 

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Many years ago, I rented a cabin in Bodh Gaya, the blessed place where the Buddha reached enlightenment, with the idea of doing a silent retreat. Soon after entering seclusion, however, work started on the erection of a new building right in front of my cabin. Construction would begin early in the morning and continue until late in the afternoon. At night, the sound of crackling loudspeakers blaring popular Indian music prevented me from sleeping, let alone remaining focused in meditation. My earlier fantasies of being close to the Bodhi tree, hearing the sweet whiffle of the wind in a pipal tree, watching a gently meandering river, or gazing on the golden tapestry of rice fields were shattered. Instead of becoming more peaceful and inspired, I found myself increasingly irritable and restless. I seriously contemplated leaving, but giving up felt like defeat.

At that moment I remembered Shantideva’s Bodhisattva Way of Life. The classic guide to becoming a bodhisattva, one who strives for enlightenment in order to perfectly serve all beings, was one of the few books I was traveling with. It had a chapter on patience. What better opportunity than the present circumstances to put it into practice! I spent the next weeks studying the text, focusing especially on the sixth chapter. I was amazed by the effectiveness of Shantideva’s clear logic. Meditating on patience gradually appeased my frustration and, to my astonishment, I was actually able to develop gratitude for the outer disturbances.

Shantideva’s Bodhisattva Way of Life is a remarkable practice manual written in exquisite poetry. It gradually outlines the whole spectrum of mind training up to enlightenment, covering:

  • An explanation of the benefits of entering the bodhisattva path
  • How to prepare the mind to enter this path
  • How to take the vow to become all-knowing out of altruism
  • How to strengthen this resolve
  • How to cultivate mindfulness in daily life
  • How to gradually bring to perfection generosity, ethics, patience, perseverance, concentration, and wisdom, all necessary for reaching the goal of full enlightenment
  • Concluding altruistic prayers

In Shantideva’s vision, bodhisattvas may be solitary, but they never feel alone, as they continuously place themselves in the caring presence of the buddhas and the spiritual masters. They conquer their afflictive emotions and perfect their conduct with tremendous patience and perseverance. As progress unfolds they experience ever-greater peace, contentment, and compassion. They live freely in the world, driven only by their altruistic wish to benefit others.

While getting more immersed in the text and its logic, I found that the meaning was sometimes veiled in the beautiful poetry. So, as a personal exercise, I took up my pen to extract the meaning of each verse and draw out Shantideva’s lines of reasoning. After finishing the chapter on patience, having enjoyed the task so much, I moved on to the other chapters.

Later, while residing at Vajrapani Institute in California, I showed the work to Fabienne Pradelle, who encouraged me and helped me to finish it, thinking it would benefit others. Working with several different translations, when verses were translated to have different meanings, I chose the one that made the most sense to me given Shantideva’s line of reasoning. In many places I reduced the elaborations while keeping the essence of the meaning of each verse and retaining the same number of verses. The exception was the ninth chapter on wisdom. The content being so complex and the meaning sometimes hidden, the emphasis there was put on clarity of meaning rather than length. As a result, some of the verses ended up being longer than the original. In addition, Shantideva, a Buddhist monk, composed the text in India in the eighth century and conformed to the gender bias of the time. I did not see any benefit in maintaining that view for a Western audience in the twenty-first century. Finally, I added some headings, hoping to make the structure clearer and for ease of use—to help the reader find relevant passages. Judith Kondo then went over the whole text and brought it to its present polished language. I wish to express my sincere gratitude to both Fabienne and Judith, for without their friendly help this distilled version would never have appeared.

I am also thankful to David Kittelstrom and all those at Wisdom who contributed the final touches, including a beautiful layout and photographs that lend themselves to contemplative reading. And finally my deepest gratitude goes to all my teachers, actual examples of bodhisattvas in daily life, for without their inspiration and teachings, I wouldn’t be traveling on this inner journey. Foremost among them is Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche, who has guided me patiently from the very beginning and awakened my curiosity about and appreciation for Shantideva.

This present distillation is by no means intended to be a replacement for Shantideva’s work, the verse numbers of which are given alongside their corresponding lines here. In fact, I strongly recommend that everyone not only read his text many times but also receive teachings and read commentaries on it as well. Instead, this work is intended as a complementary meditation manual.

This manual can be used in many different ways: to find encouragement when one feels lazy, as advice for everyday mind training, as a preliminary to meditation or as a meditation itself, or as break-time reading on a comfortable chair with a cup of tea! It is my hope that the conciseness of this text will make the content of the masterpiece easier to integrate into one’s meditation practice—and therefore, optimistically, more frequently put to use.

As Shantideva himself says at the outset of his work:

This text contains nothing
that has not been said before;
I composed it solely to train my mind.
However, should others chance upon it,
it may benefit them, too.