In reality, the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life is the Lamrim for Bodhisattva’s. Atisha put together all of Buddha’s instructions in a special presentation called the Lamrim. Shantideva did the same thing for Bodhisattva’s. By practicing the instructions in his guide, we are directly or indirectly practicing everything.
When Geshe-la first came to the West, he had only a few books in hand, the most prominent of which was Shantideva’s Guide and Chandrakirti’s Guide to the Middle Way. Shantideva’s Guide was the first book that Geshe-la systematically taught. In particular, Eight Steps to Happiness, Universal Compassion, the Bodhisattva Vows and of course Meaningful to Behold all emerge, directly or indirectly, from Shantideva’s Guide. Meaningful to Behold is considered the final book in the Foundation Program sequence, essentially wrapping up into a final package how all of the Foundation Program instructions are to be practiced. It is, in effect, the very synthesis of Foundation Program.
There is a huge difference between taking Dharma at an intellectual level and putting it into practice. Taking Dharma purely at an intellectual level will change the way we think, putting it into practice changes the way we act with our body, speech and mind. In other words, we need to learn how to allow ourselves and our actions be influenced by the instructions so that we change. In reading about and studying the instructions our main focus should be, “what does this mean in terms of how my actions should change?” “How do I need to change my actions in response to these instructions?” If we take Dharma at a purely intellectual level, it is just Dharma chess and not very useful. Shantideva says there are many Buddhist scholars in hell.
The definitive meaning of instructions is found in our personal experience of them. Normally people fall into one of two extremes: either a scholar or a practitioner. A scholar takes things too intellectually and a practitioner often fails to grasp the inter-connections between the different practices. The ideal we strive for in our tradition is to be like Je Tsongkhapa, who was a scholar-practitioner.
In broad terms, every Dharma instruction has three layers of meaning. There is the instruction itself, namely the meaning we can derive from looking at the instruction in a vacuum, all by itself. As Geshe Chekawa says, the instructions are “like a diamond, like the sun and like a medicinal tree,” meaning that even a small fragment of them has incredible value. The second layer of meaning is viewing the instruction within its context, namely seeing the instruction within the context of the overall system of instructions. This is primary understood when we realize an individual instruction within the context of a special presentation of all of the instructions, such as that found within the Lamrim or as found in Shantideva’s Guide. When we have attained this level of meaning of the instructions, then our direct study of any one instruction indirectly reinforces our experience and understanding of every other instruction. At this point, the Lamrim ceases to feel like 21 different practices, and instead comes to feel like one practice with 21 parts. The third and final layer of meaning is that discovered through personal experience of the truth of the instruction. Here our understanding arises from our practice of the instruction. This is the final, definitive meaning of the instruction we are after. When we have personal experience of the instructions we effortlessly understand the intellectual levels at a very deep level, and things make sense.
We hear in Dharma all the time, “we need to put the instructions into practice.” What exactly does it mean to put the instructions into practice? It means to use them as the solution to our problems. The point of departure where one becomes a spiritual practitioner is a redefinition of the problem. There are two problems in every situation: the external one and the internal one. Geshe-la gives the example of our car breaking down. The outer problem is the car doesn’t work any more. Dharma can’t help us solve this problem (directly, at least). Our internal problem – our actual problem – is the deluded mental reaction we have to the outer problem. This deluded reaction destroys our inner peace and it creates unpleasant feelings within our mind. Dharma is used to solve that problem. We then use the instructions to change our mind, and thereby solve our inner problem.
The secret to being able to put the instructions into practice is to adopt the six recognitions of listening explained in the Lamrim, in particular viewing ourselves as a sick person. Before attending any Dharma teaching or reading any Dharma instructions, we should take a few moments to correctly identify what our inner problem is and how it is creating difficulties for us. We see ourselves as somebody sick with the disease of delusions. With this in mind, we then view Shantideva as the supreme spiritual doctor and the instructions he is providing us are our personalized medicine. In short, we bring our problem to the instructions.