Shantideva, the great monk of the seventh and eighth centuries, exalts the Bodhisattva ideal in The Way of the Bodhisattva.
The Buddha-mind of Bodhichitta brings its thinker from self-interest into compassion. It is not a thought impelled by a God or a divine force. It is a seed from the thinker’s past, watered by the present, grown into the future. The thought cannot take root without favorable conditions. By tending to the initial inclination, caring for it, thinking about what it could become, the thinker gives rise to a new urge. The urge becomes a habit. The habit becomes a way of life. The way of life transform the inner world. The inner world changes everything. Anyone can move from delusion into understanding the non-self doctrine and still further into a profound accordance with the emptiness of all things.
The Bodhisattva way has no culmination. A Bodhisattva does not enter the way or stay on the way in service of a final goal. All a Bodhisattva wants to achieve is the liberation of all beings. A Bodhisattva, having achieved infinite wisdom, must surely understand that a single being cannot bring this about. Many children in the West have had a similar thought about Santa Claus. However, a Bodhisattva, in concert with other Bodhisattvas, can enact larger change. Still more Bodhisattvas, even more. This is not a miracle, but an aggregation of effort.
Fortunately for the tragic idealist, the Bodhisattva way restarts every morning. Indeed, Shantideva’s treatment of the Bodhisattva coincides with the passage of a day. First, the attention scatters out to the world until it is snared by an object of interest. Then, thoughts bubble to the surface in reaction to this object. Then, having been transformed by an understanding, these thoughts obtain focus. This focus, if having been latched to a particular thing in innumerable mornings before, will find itself naturally gravitating toward the very same particular thing. If not the next morning, then the next, or the next, or a morning in forty years. Direction of focus determines the next morning. Going to sleep with one thought at the top of the mind will begin as an accident and end as a dying thought. What began as something that we could not begin to understand might end as something we have forced on everything and everyone around us for decades.
Shantideva begins The Way of the Bodhisattva by understanding and praising all of the people before us who have lived difficult lives and experienced Dukkha, or suffering. All beings who have experienced the suffering of existence and have not given in to the belief that pain can ever possibly end. These beings who have let Dukkha give rise to something beneficial. After this understanding comes a dedication to a different life. There is no benefit to wallowing in this suffering and not acting on it. The Bodhisattva transforms pain into understanding by practicing the Six Paramitas.
The first three–generosity, morality, tolerance–are appropriate practices for anyone. The final three, however–energy, meditation, and wisdom–operate at a higher level of spiritual awareness and therefore tend to be the focus of monks, nuns, and others who give priority in their lives to spiritual practice and insight.”1
Shantideva’s explanation of the Six Paramitas are inextricable with his experience of monastic life. The Way of the Bodhisattva is considered a Shastra–an authoritative explanation of the Buddha’s teachings. According to the Vajrayana traditions, the three qualifications for producing a Shastra are: perfect understanding of reality, a vision of the Yidam deity, and a mastery of the Five Sciences.
1Wright, 2009, 137.