By Daniel Scharpenburg
“May the blind see the forms,
May the deaf hear sounds.
May the naked find clothing,
The hungry find food;
May the thirsty find water
And delicious drinks.
May the poor find wealth,
Those weak with sorrow find joy;
May the forlorn find new hope,
Constant happiness and prosperity.
May the frightened cease to be afraid
And those bound be freed;
May the powerless find power,
And may the people think of benefiting one another”
Not much is known about old Shantideva, really.
He came from obscurity to compose The Way of the Bodhisattva, and then he returned to obscurity. Like Lao Tzu, he wrote one of the greatest spiritual texts of all time, and then he just left.
Beloved by Buddhists in many traditions, The Way of the Bodhisattva is a guide. It’s dedicated to teaching us how to cultivate the mind of enlightenment and has been studied and expounded on for centuries. It clearly outlines the path we must take to be Bodhisattvas, to work for the liberation of all beings and is a classic of Mahayana texts. In composing this amazing work, Shantideva was like a new Nagarjuna, possessing not only remarkable knowledge and wisdom, but also a poetic ability to present things in a way that was easy to understand. And, unlike many old texts, is still easy to understand and relate to today.
As a monk at a prestigious training monastery called Nalanda, he was a devotee of the Madhyamaka philosophy that had been articulated by Nagarjuna six centuries earlier. He lived at Nalanda with numerous other monks (it was a very popular place). Shantideva was not well liked there. He was a quiet person—one who spent a lot of time by himself and that bothered some of the other monks.
I don’t want to misrepresent him and present him as some sort of rebel figure, because he probably wasn’t. But, he wasn’t big on socializing with the other monks, or trying to schmooze the guys in charge. We might like to believe that Buddhist monasteries in India in the 8th century weren’t political, but they were, just like every other human institution throughout life.
So, he wasn’t well liked. The other monks thought he was a bum. They never saw him studying; he never asked the teachers questions and he didn’t take extra shifts doing any of the temple work. For some reason, they thought he was just hanging out.
As it turns out, some of the monks were bullies. They got together and thought up a way to embarrass Shantideva. They thought they’d embarrass the hell out of him and he’d leave. One guy said, “We’ll trick him into taking a turn giving a teaching, and then he won’t be able to. So, he’ll be so embarrassed he will run out of here. We’ll all laugh at him.” This makes me think of the prom scene in Carrie. But, of course, although their plan would backfire, it wouldn’t be nearly as bloody or disastrous as that of course. Shantideva didn’t have super powers. At least, I think he didn’t.
So, anyway, the time came and one of the leaders said, “Who wants to give a teaching?” And the bullies shouted, “Shantideva should give one!” and they all just started chanting “Shantideva! Shantideva! Shantideva!”
They thought he’d probably chicken out, but he didn’t.
Shantideva calmly got on the stage in front of 1000 monks and said, “Do you want a lecture on one of these old teachings or do you want a new teaching?”
It got very quiet. The monks, who didn’t think highly of Shantideva at all, didn’t know what to make of this. They were astonished.
And one of them said, “A new teaching!”
Shantideva talked for hours. He spoke in verse about cultivating the six perfections, about activating the mind of bodhicitta, or awakened heart. He spoke about cooling the flames of ignorance, attachment, and aversion.
And they were awestruck.
Here, this guy who no one believed could do it, gave these monks the best teaching they had ever received. He blew all their minds. He articulated the Mahayana path, the path of the Bodhisattva, in a way that had been unheard of—in a way that made it exciting to embark on.
And then he left. He didn’t take any questions and he didn’t wait for anyone to congratulate him.
The monks were stunned in silence and Shantideva just left. And no one knows where he went.
I feel a connection to Shantideva. We all feel like outsiders sometimes, I think, and that’s what he was. He was someone who was really dedicated to practice and people just didn’t like him. He was bullied for no reason (and I know we all feel that way sometimes). But then, like a hero, he was able to turn it all around.
We all remember Shantideva and an unparalleled genius in the history of Buddhist philosophy, but no one remembers those bullies who bothered him.
Editor: Dana Gornall