What is Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryavatara? Interview Geshe Sherab: “Patience and Bodhicitta mind with elaborate reasoning and impeccable logic”
Scholar and teacher Geshe Serab, in an interview with Buddha Weekly, explains why Śāntideva’s masterpiece Bodhicaryavatara — the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life — is a timeless and vastly important text for Mahayana Buddhists.
Written around 700 AD in Sanskrit verse by the great Mahasiddha Śāntideva, it has become one of the main go-to practice guides for Bodhichitta and Mahayana practice.
- To see our previous interview with Geshe Sherab, “Skillfully teaching Tibetan Buddhism to Western Students” see>>
Interview: Most Venerable Geshe Sherab
BW: Why is Shantideva’s work considered so important to practice?
“Because it is the only work which covers in great detail the practice of Patience and Bodhicitta mind with elaborate reasoning and impeccable logic.”
BW: From a Tibetan Buddhist point of view, how is confession viewed? Why is it important to practice?
“Sincerely confessing is the beginning of the transformation of one’s behavior or action. It is acknowledging the mistakes and wanting to make changes in one’s actions or behavior through understanding.”
BW: What advice do you have for students interested in studying the Bodhicaryavatara?
“Every chapter is great but the beauty of this work is chapter 6 on Patience and chapter 8 on Meditation — particularly the latter part of that chapter, which covers on Bodhicitta based on exchanging and equalizing with others.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama bases his teaching and development of compassion and bodhicitta mind on this work.
Hopefully I will be able to teach these chapters in the future.”
BW: The chapter 2 and 3, even in English, the verses are very lyrical and poetic. Is it meant to be recited as a practice, in addition to being “understood” as teaching? The first 27 verses are wonderful offerings and a lovely refuge. It begins with an offering and a visualization. Is it a good practice to recite the chapter as a practice to help purify downfalls and non-virtues?
“One can recite and reflect and contemplate on the meaning of the verses. One uses the verses as a tool to reflect, contemplate and meditate. One has to really feel it while reciting in order for it to be effective and more meaningful.”
BW: From verses 28 on, is an extensive confession. The nature of the confession implies that we all — all beings who have not attained Enlightenment — have similar downfalls? In what way does confession help us purify our negativities?
“With confession, one acknowledges the mistakes and makes a commitment to not create such mistakes again. And we also use recitation of mantras or these verses and visualization. When all these conditions come together, then it would help to purify — and also help prevent such negative actions again.”
BW: As with Vajrasattva practice, the verses end with a promise to never repeat these harms we have done: “I promise, from now on, I shall never do again.” How do you guide students who might have doubts they will never repeat negativity when they believe it is human nature, a conditioned habit difficult to break.
“We can make a commitment by saying that I will try all my best not to create such negative actions again intentionally again.”
BW: What else can we take away from Chapter 2?
“In chapter 2 we can also learn about the impermanent nature of everything and especially life. We also study in this chapter the preciousness of this human life and not to waste it.”
BW: In chapter 3, we arrive at the essence of developing Bodhichitta The topic is about “Fully adopting Bodhicitta.”
“Gladly I rejoice in the infinite sea of virtue,
Which is the noble intention of bodhicitta,
Wishing to secure the happiness of beings,
And acting in ways that bring benefit to all.”
This is a very large topic, and the merit is vast, but how do you instruct students on bringing these lessons into their daily lives? It contains a Bodhisattva Vow:
“Like them, I take this sacred vow:
To arouse bodhicitta here and now,
And train myself for others’ good,
Gradually, as a bodhisattva should.”
“The practices of developing and adopting Bodhicitta mind is big topic and not so easy to practice.
But we cannot just not try just because it is difficult and not easy. We have to try as much as we can to learn, study, reflect, contemplate and meditate on developing Bodhicitta mind and practice Bodhisattva Vows.”
BW: The language “gradually, as a Bodhisattva should” is clear — step-by-step progress? — but in commentary do you elaborate on some of the ways students can embrace their lives “of great significance.”
“Yes, I will try to elaborate as much as I can according to my own understanding and experience.”
BW: If a student asked, “What is more important, wisdom or compassion?” how would you answer?
“Both wisdom and compassion are equally important. Buddha said compassion without wisdom is bondage but compassion with wisdom is liberation.
In the same way, wisdom without compassion is bondage but wisdom with compassion is liberation.”
BW: Why is “dedication of merit” so vital to the Bodhisattva path?
“The dedication is like depositing the money for interest. Dedication, make the merit or virtue increase and also it cannot be destroyed by anger and other negative emotions.
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Author | Buddha Weekly
Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.