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.
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.
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 bodhicitta, 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
The ninth chapter of the Bodhicharyavatara, 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.
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?”
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, 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.
There are a few upcoming releases that are chapter-specific commentaries as well.
In 2017, Shambhala Publications will be publishing 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.
In 2018, Shambhala Publications will publish Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche’s commentary on the patience chapter.
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 Shantideva-specific piece 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.