When Shantideva’s Guide was studied at the International Teacher Training Program, Geshe-la gave some special advice for how to get the most out of our study. Before we get to this advice, I want to first provide some basic background on the nature of our samsaric existence.
The real source of all our problems is we are trapped in contaminated aggregates. We have human problems because we are trapped in human aggregates. We identify with a human body and we can’t stop doing so. So when our body experiences pain or our mind experiences delusions, “we” experiece pain and “we” have delusions. Samsara is the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth into contaminated aggregates. If we identified with the pure aggregates of a Buddha, we wouldn’t have samsaric problems, but experience only bliss. The same is true of everyone else. A Bodhisattva is somebody who understands that the root cause of everyone’s problems is their identification with contaminated aggregates, so they learn how to identify with a Buddha’s aggregates to be able to help everybody else do the same.
So what makes our aggregates “contaminated?” Our delusions. In particular, self-cherishing and self-grasping ignorance are the two root delusions from which all other delusions arise. Self-grasping ignorance thinks that we exist inherently, independently; and self-cherishing then cherishes this I as supremely important. In reality, the “I” of self-grasping ignorance doesn’t exist, so the object of of our self-cherishing doesn’t exist at all. Understanding this, it is quite silly to think our “I” is supremely important. Self-grasping ignorance and self-chershing are like the generators of the uncontrolled nightmare of samsara. They project uncontrolledly contaminated appearances which we then assent to as true. From these two delusions arise all our other delusions of attachment, aversion, jealousy, etc. Shantideva’s Guide takes these two delusions as the primary targets to be destroyed. If we destroy these, we pull the plug on all our other delusions.
With this background in mind, what was Geshe-la’s special advice for studying this book?
“You should mainly try to concentrate on, understand the meaning of the text Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Through contemplating, try to find a very meaningful practice and keep it in your heart. … This text is a real emanation. When I escaped Tibet I took only Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, texts by Je Tsongkhapa, and some money. My first teaching in England was on Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Kadampa teachings are mainly training the mind. Training the mind comes from Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Never waste this good opportunity. Wonderful that you’re memorizing. When I was at Sera I made my own determination to memorize it.”
There are a few points I want to highlight about this advice. First, Geshe-la says we need to understand the meaning and then put it into practice in our heart. The meaning of this was discussed extensively in the last post. Second, this text is a real emanation. We should view Shantideva’s Guide as like a magical telephone through which we can communicate directly with the Spiritual Guide. We can meditate on the verses requesting that their meaning be revealed to us. Everytime we do so, we will discover a new layer of meaning. Third, we should not waste this good opportunity. We very often take for granted that we have found the Dharma in this life, but we don’t understand how many causes we had to create to have this opportunity. If we don’t use this opportunity to the fullest, we will burn up the karma that created it and never get it again. Finally, he advises us that it is useful to memorize the verses. We don’t do this for memory’s sake, but rather because it is a powerful way of internalizing deeply the verses into our mind. Essentially, by memorizing the verses, we plant patterns, like a kalideoscope, on our very subtle mind which then reflect up pure spiritual meanings. In short, whatever we mix our mind with, we will become. If we mix our mind with the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, we will become a Bodhisattva, and eventually even a Buddha.
The main point of studying Shantideva’s Guide is we need to change our way of life with the instructions. Our intention determines what kind of life we have. A selfish, worldly intention will cause us to have a worldly way of life, and a bodhichitta intention will enable us to have a Bodhisattva’s way of life. As was said earlier, we have arrived at the crossroads and we need to decide what kind of life we are going to have.
The Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life is divided into ten chapters. The first three chapters prepare us to take the bodhisattva vows. The first chapter, the benefits of Bodhichitta, helps us develop a strong desire to generate bodhichitta and begin the Bodhisattva’s path. The second chapter on purification helps us purify all of the negative karma obstructing us from travelling this path, and then the third chapter explains taking the Bodhisattva’s vows. The next two chapters, chapters four and five, primarily explain the specific mental qualities we need to actually train in the Bodhisattva’s path, namely the minds of conscientiousness and alertness. These chapters primarily explain the practice of the perfection of moral discipline. The following four chapters explain in turn the practices of the perfection of patience, effort, concentration and wisdom. Finally, the last chapter directly is a dedication for the guide, but indirectly it teaches us the practice of the perfection of giving. In this way, Shantideva explains how we enter the Bodhisattva path by first aspiring to become a Bodhisattva and then making the formal decision to travel the path. He then explains how we actually engage in the Bodhisattva’s path by training in the six perfections.
The Guide begins with an explanation of the benefits of bodhichitta. If we do not want bodhichitta, we will not put in the effort necessarily to cultivate it. Since such an exalted mind will never arise on its own, if we don’t consider the benefits of bodhichitta we will never start the Bodhisattva’s path. It is said that we are desire realm beings, meaning we have no choice but to work towards whatever we desire. If we desire samsaric pleasures, this is what we will direct our efforts at attaining. If we want bodhichitta, we will work to attain it.