A Reader’s Guide to The Way of the Bodhisattva

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The great nineteenth-century master Patrul Rinpoche, author of The Words of My Perfect Teacher  and  revered by all Tibetan Buddhists, was known for his wandering ascetic lifestyle, eschewing fame, generous offerings, and all but the most meager possessions. However, wherever he went throughout his peripatetic life, he carried with him a copy of Shantideva's Bodhicharyavatara,  which we know now as  The Way of the Bodhisattva or  A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life.  Renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge and ability to transmit the wisdom of  Prajnaparamita and Dzogchen, Patrul Rinpoche spent his life constantly teaching this text, encouraging students to read it and study it over and over again-hundreds of times. Why this focus from  him and millions of masters and practitioners before and after?

Below  is a guide to help practitioners answer this question for themselves and go deeper and deeper into this essential  work. For a bit of history, you can also see our post on its story.

The Translations

There are at least five translations of the text available in English.

By far the best-selling translation  is from the Padmakara Translation Group entitled  The Way of the Bodhisattva.  This was translated with reference primarily to the Tibetan  and following the commentary of Khenpo Kunpel,  the nineteenth-century Nyingma master renowned for his spiritual realization and instrumental in the preservation of the oral traditions and teachings of  his tradition.

This edition also includes a ten-page biography of Shantideva as well as selections on tonglen, or exchanging oneself with others, from Khenpo Kunpel's commentary. This is available as a Shambhala Library hardcover, a  paperback, a  CD  set, an MP3 download, and an eBook.

Another excellent translation is from Alan and Vesna Wallace, translated as  A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life.  The Wallace's translation is based both on Sanskrit and Tibetan sources and was guided by Tibetan  commentaries, notably of Gyaltsup-Je. This is also available as a paperback and an  eBook.

Another version to note is Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton's translation from Oxford University Press. All three of these translations  expose different facets of the text,  while  the translators' introductions each  illuminate it in different ways and are well-worth seeking out.

General Commentaries

There are a number of excellent commentaries covering the entire text.

Based on teachings His Holiness gave in Dordogne, France in 1991,  For the Benefit of All Beings, translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, gives an overview and commentary on each chapter of the text, distilling the key messages on the benefits of bodhichitta, offering and purification, carefulness, attentiveness, patience, endeavor, concentration, wisdom, and dedication. His Holiness said,

"I received the transmission of the Bodhicharyavatara from Tenzin Gyaltsen, the Kunu Rinpoche,  who received it himself from a disciple of Dza Patrul Rinpoche,  now regarded as one of the principal spiritual heirs of this  teaching. It is said that when Patrul Rinpoche explained this text, auspicious signs would occur, such as the blossoming of yellow  flowers, remarkable for the great number of their petals. I feel very  fortunate that I am in turn able to give a commentary on this great  classic of Buddhist literature."

This is available as a paperback, eBook, and MP3 audio download (read by Wulstan Fletcher of the Padmakara Translation Group).

In  No Time to Lose:  A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva,  Ani Pema Chödrön talks about her relationship with the text and said it was not always easy:

"Some people fall in love with The Way of the Bodhisattva the first  time they read it, but I wasn't one of them. Truthfully, without my  admiration for Patrul Rinpoche, I wouldn't have pursued it. Yet  once I actually started grappling with its content, the text shook  me out of a deep-seated complacency, and I came to appreciate the  urgency and relevance of these teachings. With Shantideva's guidance,  I realized that ordinary people like us can make a difference  in a world desperately in need of help."

This is available as a paperback, an  eBook, a  CD set, and an  MP3 download.

Pema Chödrön's teachings on this text are also available in the form of  Giving Our Best:  A Retreat with Pema Chödrön on Practicing the Way of the Bodhisattva.  This is a  rare and wonderful presentation from a live teaching that brings the teachings into real life, present-day situations.

This is available as video  via a DVD  or streaming video and as audio via a CD set or MP3 download.

The most in-depth commentary in English comes from the great Nyingma master Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang, aka Khenpo Ngakchung. Entitled  The Nectar of Manjushri's Speech:  A Detailed Commentary on Shantideva's Way of the Bodhisattva,  this has been described as the  commentary that Patrul

Rinpoche so often gave by word of mouth but never actually wrote. This explains  why Khenpo Kunpel's text has attained such popularity  among Tibetans.

This is available as a paperback and an eBook.

 

 Chapter Specific Commentaries

The ninth chapter of the Bodhicaryavatara, on wisdom, is considered one of the most  profound and requires deep study and practice to truly understand. In  Transcendent Wisdom, His Holiness the Dalai Lama focuses on this chapter and its application. Here, His Holiness goes deep into the subjects of the methods needed to cultivate wisdom, what identitylessness means, and how the notion of true existence is refuted.

This is available as a paperback and an eBook.

However, the most comprehensive work on this chapter in English is the 2017 release of the Padmakara Translation Group's  The Wisdom Chapter: Jamgön Mipham's Commentary on the Ninth Chapter of The Way of the Bodhisattva,  which includes a fascinating exchange between Mipham Rinpoche and one of his fiercest critics.  With a 75 page introduction that is highly instructive, this book will stand the test of time as one of the most fascinating presentations of Shantideva's Madhyamaka.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama also has a book devoted to Shantideva's chapter on patience.  Healing  Anger:  The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective.  Here His Holiness relates that:

"Shantideva observes that from one point of  view, as pointed out earlier, when the other person inflicts harm or  injury upon one, that person is accumulating negative karma. However,  if one examines this carefully, one will see that because of that  very act, one is given the opportunity to practice patience and tolerance.  So from our point of view it is an opportune moment, and we  should therefore feel grateful toward the person who is giving us this  opportunity. Seen in this way, what has happened is that this event  has given another an opportunity to accumulate negative karma, but  has also given us an opportunity to create positive karma by practicing  patience. So why should we respond to this in a totally perverted  way, by being angry when someone inflicts harm on us, instead of  feeling grateful for the opportunity?"

This is available as a paperback and an eBook.

Forthcoming: In 2018, Shambhala Publications will publish Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche's commentary on the patience chapter.

Another in-depth look at this text-in particular the ninth chapter-is Pawo Rinpoche's explanation included in The  Center of the Sunlit Sky. In just under 200 pages of this work,  in addition to being a commentary on Shantideva's work generally, Pawo Rinpoche provides several long accounts on such topics as  Madhyamaka in general, the distinction between different branches of Madhyamaka philosophy,  prajña, emptiness, conventional and ultimate reality, and the nature and qualities of Buddhahood.  It describes the four major Buddhist philosophical systems and how  the Mahayana  represents the words of the Buddha. In addressing the issue of  so-called Shentong-Madhyamaka, he also elaborates on the lineage of vast activity  and shows that it is not the same as mind only.

This is available in both hardcover and eBook.

Additional Work

2017 also saw the release of Enlightened Vagabond, the collected stories about Patrul Rinpoche who led a revival of the focus and immersion of students on this text.  The stories often revolve around him teaching on this text which he did countless times.  Here is an example:

"Patrul and the Prescient Monk
Patrul was famous for his teachings on The Way of the Bodhisattva. He might take days, weeks, or months to comment on the entire text, teaching at whichever level of complexity was most suitable to the occasion, from brief and quintessential to extensive and complex. Often, he’d advise students to read the text before he gave his commentary. After he was done, he’d tell students to read it another hundred times.

"Patrul himself had received teachings on The Way of the Bodhisattva more than a hundred times. He taught the text more than a hundred times, yet even so, he used to say that he had not grasped its full meaning. One night, a monk at Trago Monastery dreamed that he saw a lama who he felt was Shantideva in person, the author of The Way of the Bodhisattva. The next morning, when a wandering lama arrived at Trago Monastery, the monk recognized him: He looked just like the figure who had appeared in his dream the night before! The monk approached the lama—who in fact was Patrul Rinpoche. Bowing respectfully, he requested that he teach The Way of the Bodhisattva. Bowing back, the lama agreed. Patrul gave the teachings. When he left, the monk who had seen him in his dream went with him, accompanying him along the way for several days’ walk."

Another work that should be mentioned is  Destroying Mara Forever,  a collection of essays on Buddhist ethics including three  pieces focused on this text.

The first is by Barbara Clayton entitled Santideva, Virtue, and Consequentialism.  The second, by Paul Williams, is entitled  Is Buddhist Ethics Virtue Ethics?   The final piece that is Shantideva-specific is Daniel Cozort's  Suffering Made Sufferable: Santideva, Dzongkaba, and Modern Therapeutic Approaches to Suffering's Silver Lining. These three pieces explore different ethical implications and significance of Shantideva's work.

This title is available as a paperback and as an eBook.