Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Buddhist Book Club: Shantideva

On Thursday before New Year's Eve, I left Jack at Aunt Betty's so I could run a few errands. I meant to go to Publix, but somehow I ended up in the Homewood Public Library. It's a lovely little branch that has a surprising selection of books on Buddhism. I generally rely on my book karma to place in my hands the volumes meant for me to read, and indeed my book karma held true. On the shelves I found a copy of Shantideva's The Way of the Bodhisattva. I plucked the well-worn paperback from the shelf, and as I turned back its cover to examine the table of contents, the distinct aroma of incense floated from its pages. I knew I'd found something very special.
   I had heard of Shantideva and this book.  In The Way to Freedom, the Dalai Lama quotes heavily from this 1000-year-old text written by the renowned Indian scholar. If the DL quotes Shantideva, it's gotta be an honored teaching.
     There are copious introductions and appendixes, but Shantideva's teaching consists of ten chapters, each explaining the attributes required to attain Buddhahood, or to at least live a compassionate and serene life. A bodhisattva is generally any person who is motivated by great compassion to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. In the Mayhayana Buddhist tradition (which is what I practice), the end goal is not to reach enlightenment only to sit on a mountaintop and bliss-out in meditation. The objective is to attain enlightenment in order to return in human form to end the world's suffering and help others reach enlightenment too. On a gross-level, the way of a bodhisattva is the same sentiment as the Soldiers' Creed, "You never leave a man behind!" (And yes, I'm familiar with this phrase because it's one of my favorite lines in the Pixar movie Toy Story.) As long as one sentient (conscious) being is left in the Universe, the bodhisattva will not rest. A lofty goal, yes, but a beautiful one too.

   That night, I sat in my little meditation room and lit some incense to set the mood.Taking a deep breath, I randomly allowed the book to open to a spot of its comfort and choosing. Of course, the fragrant pages offered the perfect lesson for me: Patience.
   As I began to read the words aloud, I was delighted to discover that Shantideva was a poet! And the book was comprised of his wise and witty verse. The words were not foreign or difficult at all (thanks, I'm sure, to a fine translator.) In fact, when read aloud—as was surely its purpose when written—the verse takes on a Shakespearean lilt, although I don't think Shantideva composed in iambic pentameter. Here are the first verses in the chapter entitled Patience:

Good works gathered in a thousand ages,
Such as deeds of generosity,
Or offerings to the blissful ones—
A single flash of anger shatters them.

No evil is there similar to anger,
No austerity to be compared with patience.
Steep yourself, therefore, in patience—
In all ways, urgently, with zeal.

Those tormented by the pain of anger
Will never know tranquility of mind—
Strangers they will be to every pleasure,
Sleep departs them, they can never rest.

Noble chieftains full of hate
Will be attacked and slain
By even those who look to them
For honors and possessions.

From family and friends estranged,
And shunned by those attracted by their bounty,
Men of anger have no joy,
Forsaken by all happiness and peace.

  And so Shantideva goes on for 134 verses, explaining how patience is not a passive sense of waiting, but an active shield against the afflictive emotion of anger. He expounds in vivid example how those who cause us anger or distress should indeed be blessed, because it is through them that we earn a stripe towards becoming bodhisattvas. Each of the other nine chapters are equally as beautiful and profound.
   It is a comfort when you stumble upon a work so old and yet still so relevant and accessible. And this sums up the beauty of Buddhist Practice: ancient, yet relevant and accessible.

1 comment:

  1. Many good and precious things are timeless.