Shantideva on How to Live a Good Life


“Today my life has given fruit. This human state has now been well assumed. Today I take my birth in Buddha’s line, and have become the Buddha’s child and heir. ”

Shantideva (c. 685- 763) was an eighth century Indian master who wrote the Way of the Bodhisattva (Skt. Bodhicaryavatara), the treasured guide to generating the awakened mind for the sake of all beings. Shantideva was generous to all and cared tenderly for the poor, sick and destitute. He was a monk who upheld the monastic vows and contemplated the vast range of the Buddha’s teachings, condensing them into various digests, such as the Digest of All Disciplines (Skt. Shikshasamucchaya).

Though he had boundless qualities and realization, other monks believed that he was frittering away his time in distraction and meaningless activity. They would call him Bhusuku (bhuj means ‘eating’, sup means ‘sleeping’, and kutim gata means ‘walking around’) as an estimation of what they thought he did all the time. Many of the other monks thought that he was wasting his precious human life caught up in worldly activities and trivial pursuits. In an effort to make Shantideva look foolish, they invited a large congregation to listen to him expound the scriptures, during which time Shantideva expounded the Bodhicaryavatara on how to engage in the practice of the bodhisattva. It is said that when Shantideva was teaching the ninth chapter on wisdom that he began rising higher and higher into the sky, so he is often portrayed in thangkas as floating above his meditation seat.

We too find ourselves caught up in trivial pursuits and busy activity. We wander through life in search of purpose and meaning, struggling to reconcile the meaningless activities of our normal day to day with the path of liberation. How do we make this life meaningful? What does it mean to live a good life? These are questions that Shantideva resolves with his complete and unmistaken presentation of the practice of the bodhisattva.

In the first chapter, the Excellence of Bodhicitta, Shantideva writes:

To those who go in bliss, the dharmakaya they possess, and all their heirs,
To all those worthy of respect, I reverently bow.
According to the scriptures, I shall now in brief describe
The practice of the bodhisattva discipline.

Shantideva pays reverence to those who go in bliss, the Sugatas. ‘Sugata’ means one who goes well or beautifully, or one who has gone perfectly without turning back. A Sugata is one who has lived life well, a life of meaning and purpose. What do these Sugatas possess? The dharmakaya. The dharmakaya is the ‘body of truth’, one of the three bodies or kayas of the Buddhas. Dharmakaya is the body of realization that is the true nature of the mind. As Longchenpa writes in his Finding Rest in the Nature of the Mind:

The spotless dharmakaya, luminous and clear, is the buddha nature of all beings.

Shantideva describes in great detail in this present work how to actually practice this, how we can bring together all the teachings of the Buddha into an easy to understand and practical guide so that we too may possess this body of truth.

Next, Shantideva pays reverence to all the heirs and those worthy of respect, namely the community of sravakas and pratyekabuddhas, but mainly those bodhisattvas who are already practicing this path. Those worthy of respect includes everyone in the Sangha, the Dharma community of teachers, students and those supporting the activity of the Sangha.

Shantideva clearly states his purpose for sharing this work: to describe the practice of the bodhisattvas according to scripture. This isn’t something that he made up. This isn’t a path based on his own conjecture or pretense. This path of the bodhisattvas is in accord with the scriptures of the Buddha. Dharmakirti writes in his Pramanavarttika:

The teachings of Buddha we may trust.
For since he is exempt from fault,
There is in him no cause for lies.
Know therefore that the scriptures are exempt from error.

This practice of the bodhisattvas that Shantideva sets out to describe is threefold in nature. It consists of doing no harm to others, cultivating a wealth of virtue, and working to benefit others. Shantideva sets out to describe this practice in a way that is easy to understand and practical to everyday life.

In the second verse of chapter one, Shantideva continues:

Here I shall say nothing that has not been said before,
And in the art of prosody I have no skill.
I therefore have no thought that this might be of benefit to others;
I wrote it only to habituate my mind.

Shantideva starts by taking a humble attitude, saying that he wrote this work only to meditate upon and habituate his own mind. He isn’t worried about the result of his generosity, his is simply engaging in the practice of doing the work and engaging in the path. We too should emulate this behavior of engaging in study, contemplation and meditation so that we can habituate our own mind to the practice of the bodhisattvas. Through this practice of reflecting and contemplating the practice of the bodhisattvas we give rise to enthusiasm and strengthen our yearning and confident faith in the bodhisattvas activity. Shantideva writes that with a joyful and enthusiastic mind he is more able to meditate upon and cultivate bodhicitta, the awakened mind:

My faith will thus strengthen for a little while,
That I might grow accustomed to this virtuous way.
But others who now chance upon my words
May profit also, equal to myself in fortune.

Khenpo Kunzang Pelden, one of Patrul Rinpoche’s foremost students and spiritual son wrote in his detailed commentary to Shantideva’s work, The Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech:

When these four features are present (the homage, promise to complete the work, humility, and enthusiasm), everything one embarks upon will be brought to a worthwhile fulfillment.

The humble practitioner pays reverence to great teachers, profound teachings, generous acts and all those who are striving to make a difference.  The act of paying reverence is a display of humility. Humility and reverence rely on values like integrity, determination, self-respect and service. Our minds infused with humility and reverence we naturally form a commitment to the work, recognizing our own innate potential and responsibility. With enthusiasm we seek to take full advantage of this life of freedom and opportunity that is so hard to find. As Shantideva writes:

So hard to find the ease and wealth
Whereby the aims of beings may be gained.
If now I fail to turn it to my profit,
How could such a chance be mind again?

When searching for consummate meaning in our lives, time and time again we go outside ourselves, always asking ourselves what we should do now. Should we travel, go out for dinner, meet new friends, find a better job, volunteer? We either seek out escape in a spa, vacation or lazy Sunday; or we seek out illusion in food, fun, goals and experiences. None of these have satisfied our thirst. If we fail to apply ourselves to the practice now, when should we find this opportunity again? For too long we have wandered after trivial pursuits and kept ourselves nice and busy. We have been living in a situation where we have been confused about what we should do and what we should avoid. When a moment such as this arises, where we recognize our potential and purpose, we should seize that opportunity. Shantideva continues:

Just as on a dark night black with clouds,
The sudden lightening glares and all is clearly shown,
Likewise, rarely, through the Buddha’s power,
Virtuous thoughts rise, brief and transient, in the world.
Virtue thus, is weak; and always
Evil is of great and overwhelming strength.
Except for perfect bodhicitta,
What other virtue is there that can lay it low?

If we find in our hearts and minds that we want to accomplish something good, at that time we should apply ourselves diligently to practice. But what practice? It is bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment that seeks to secure for countless beings immediate benefit and the ultimate supreme joy of perfect awakening. In our practice we strive to free ourselves from our own suffering and discontentment, but also to bring about the welfare and benefit of others. Bodhicitta is the single practice that encompasses all the Buddha’s teachings. We should reflect always on one thing- bodhicitta. Practice one thing- bodhicitta. As Shantideva writes:

Those who wish to crush the many sorrows of existence,
Who wish to quell the pain of living beings,
Who wish to have experience of myriad joys
Should never turn away from bodhicitta.

Those of us who give rise to this jewel-like bodhicitta find new meaning in our life. We assume a new identity, perhaps the truest representation of who we are and what we are here to do in this world. We take our place in the Buddha’s line and are named a “child of the Sugatas.” You become a bodhisattva, a heroic warrior set on the journey to enlightenment. Khenpo Kunpel writes in his commentary, “They are moreover said to be worthy of reverence even by the Buddhas themselves, for the latter have bodhicitta as their master.” As Shantideva writes:

Should bodhicitta come to birth
In those who suffer, chained in prisons of samsara,
In that instant they are called the children of the Blissful One,
Revered by all the world, by gods and humankind.

With bodhicitta as the anchor for our practice, we guard it constantly with mindfulness, vigilant awareness and carefulness without ever letting it go. Everything that we do revolves around this single intention to gain awakening for the benefit of others. Gradually, through effort bodhicitta becomes stable and gives rise to a powerful mind of initiative and resourcefulness to secure the two aims of oneself and others. Through the method aspect of compassion, we fulfill the welfare of others; and through the wisdom aspect we recognize the true nature of our own mind and the true nature of reality. As Maitreya says in his Sutralankara: “It is a mental state endowed with the two aims”.

There are many ways to understand bodhicitta, but in brief we should understand it as bodhicitta in intention and active bodhicitta. As Shantideva writes:

Bodhicitta, the awakened mind,
Is known in brief to have two aspects:
First, aspiring, bodhicitta in intention;
                  Then active bodhicitta, practical engagement.

Bodhicitta in intention is the aspiration to attain enlightenment. It is a wish or intention that focuses on the result. Active bodhicitta is the practical engagement in the activities of a bodhisattva. It is the practice and effort that focuses on the path. Longchenpa says “The commitment to achieve the result of Buddhahood is bodhicitta in intention, while the commitment to the cause is active bodhicitta.” Shantideva writes:

As corresponding to the wish to go
And then to setting out,
The wise should understand respectively
The difference that divides these two.

Just as when we set out on a journey, we must first form an intention, so too in order to engage in the practice of the bodhisattva we must first form the aspiration. Once we set out on the journey, we do not abandon our intention to go there; so in active bodhicitta we also have bodhicitta in intention.

This powerful initiative mind that works for the benefit of beings is the jewel of the mind. Of all thoughts and intentions it is the most sublime and profound. This noble intention of bodhicitta is beyond the conception of even the gods, as Shantideva writes:

If with kindly generosity
One merely has the wish to soothe
The aching heads of other beings,
Such merit knows no bounds.
No need to speak, then, of the wish
To drive way the endless pain
Of each and every living being,
Bringing them unbounded excellence.
Could our father or our mother
Ever have so generous a wish?
Do the very gods, the rishis, even Brahma
Harbor such benevolence as this?
For in the past they never,
Even in their dreams,
Wished something like this even for themselves.
How could they do so for another’s sake?
This aim to work for the benefit of beings,
A benefit that others wish not even for themselves,
This noble, jewel-like state of mind
Arises truly wondrous, never seen before.
The pain-dispelling draft,
This cause of joy for those who wander through the world,
This precious attitude, this jewel of mind-
How shall we calculate its merit?
If the simple thought to be of help to others
Exceeds in worth the worship of the Buddhas,
What need is there to speak of actual deeds
That bring about the weal and benefit of beings?

Whatever happens in our life, whatever our circumstances or past, we must have this intention of bodhicitta. When it has arisen clearly in our minds, we must practice so that it will intensify and gain strength in our lives. It is not enough to simply understand this conceptually, we must take it to heart and practice diligently.

Then no matter what comes up in our life, whether we experience sickness or disease, harmful situations, problems or obstacles; everything becomes fuel for our practice and we learn to carry obstacles as the path. Shantideva writes:

Even in great trouble, Bodhisattvas
Never bring forth wrong; their virtues naturally increase.

The present times are a call to practice. For bodhisattvas, difficulties and challenges are no hindrance to their Dharma practice. Adversity becomes a means to purify confusion, negative emotions and karma. Asanga has said: “Even when the world is full of evil they turn hardship into the enlightened path.”

Your boots will get muddy. Your socks wet. There will be dirt underneath your fingernails and you might suffer some scratches. Working in the fields means getting dirty.  Your work will be the same.

The bodhisattva knows that their time on this earth is very short.  They know that the road ahead will be long.  Knowing the truth of suffering they plunge into the fields.  Knowing liberation upon arising, they do not fear getting covered in mud.  At the end of the day, they dedicate their work for the benefit of others.  Tomorrow, they rise again.

That is how you practice on the path. This is how you living a meaningful life. A lifelong commitment to practice is how you live a good life.