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BOOK REVIEW: The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva

The Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the BodhicharyavataraThe Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the Bodhicharyavatara by Śāntideva
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A bodhisattva is one who achieves enlightenment but sticks around to help others pursue the path. Shantideva was a Buddhist monk who lived [mostly] in the 8th century in the part of India that is today in the state of Bihar. Shantideva’s lesson on how to be a good bodhisattva is delivered via 10 chapters of verse, mostly in four-line stanzas. This instructional poem makes up almost 240 pages of the edition of the book put out by Shambhala as translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, and the rest is front matter, appendices, notes, and a bibliography.

The chapters of Shantideva’s poem are: 1.) The Excellence of Bodhichitta (lit. “enlightened mind”); 2.) Confession (fear is a major theme in this statement of modesty); 3.) Taking Hold of Bodhichitta; 4.) Carefulness (discussion of what to avoid.); 5.) Vigilant Introspection (on the need to keep one’s attention concentrated, and to not let the mind roam.); 6.) Patience (on not being focused on self, but on all those suffering.); 7.) Diligence (on avoiding hedonism and being industrious.); 8.) Meditative Concentration (avoidance of getting caught up in the material / physical world.); 9.) Wisdom (karma, illusion, and, particularly, the illusion of self.); 10.) Dedication.

As mentioned, there’s a lot of ancillary matter in this edition of the book. There’s a forward by the Dalai Lama, an extensive introduction (which is helpful as even a modern translation requires background), three appendices (a brief biography, a discussion of equalizing self and other, and a meditation on exchanging self and other), notes (which are also necessary give the nature of a 21st century global reader spoken to by an 8th century Indian monk), and a bibliography. There are no graphics (except a single line-drawn panel) but none are needed.

I had mixed feelings about this work. There was a great bit of wisdom, and the meditation described in the final appendix (based on Shantideva’s discussion) seems to be tremendously valuable. One the other hand, there was a lot of degradation and abasement of the physical body. Granted, I know that Shantideva is talking to an audience of primarily monks and he’s trying to keep them from being horn-dogs or otherwise being distracted by physicality. However, I’m always turned off by those who fail to recognize the tremendous awesomeness and beauty of the human body. There’s also the pessimism. Buddhists are often accused of being pessimistic. Starting with an opening statement of “life is suffering,” this might not be a surprise. Of course, Buddhists counter by saying that they aren’t pessimistic because they are offering a solution to the fact that life is misery, to which non-Buddhists tend to say, “Yes, but the defining characteristic of life need not be agony in the first place.” I won’t weight in on that debate, but the reader should be prepared for a certain dismal tone here and there.

I found this book to be loaded with food for thought. The introduction and notes are extremely beneficial, and this is one of those few cases in which they don’t just feel like padding to hit a desired page count. The verse is readable, and can be understood by a general audience.

I’d recommend this for those interested in Buddhist philosophy.

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