Shantideva Story

Shantideva was an eighth-century Indian Buddhist monk and is among the most renowned and esteemed figures in the entire history of Mahayana Buddhism. His Holiness the Dalai Lama comments that the Bodhicaryavatara (Bodhisattva Way of Life) his classic treatise, is the primary source of most of the Tibetan Buddhist literature on the cultivation of altruism and the Spirit of Awakening.

Shantideva, like Buddha Shakyamuni, was born into a royal family and was destined for the throne. But on the verge of his coronation, Manjushri, a divine embodiment of wisdom, and Tara, a divine embodiment of compassion, both appeared to him in dreams and counseled him not to ascend to the throne. Thus, he left his father’s kingdom, retreated to the wilderness, and devoted himself to meditation. During this time, he achieved advanced states of samadhi and various siddhis, and from that time forward constantly beheld visions of Manjushri, who guided him as his spiritual mentor.

Afterward, he served for a while as minister to a king, whom he helped to rule in accordance with the principles of Buddhism. But this aroused jealousy on the part of the other ministers, and Shantideva withdrew from the service of the king. Making his way to the renowned monastic university of Nalanda, he took monastic ordination and devoted himself to the thorough study of the Buddhist sutras and tantras. It was during this period that he composed two other classic works. But as far as his fellow monks could see, all he did was eat, sleep, and defecate.

Seeking to humiliate him and thus expel him from the monastery, the other scholars compelled him to recite a sutra before the monastic community and the public, a task they thought far exceeded his abilities. After some hesitation, Shantideva agreed to the request and asked them, “Shall I recite an existing text or an original composition?” “Recite something new!” they told him, and in response he began chanting the Bodhicaryavatara. During this astonishing recital, when he came to the verse “When neither an entity nor a nonentity remains before the mind…,” it is said that he rose up into the sky. Even after his body disappeared from sight, his voice completed the recitation of this text.

In the tenth, concluding chapter, Shantideva offers prayers dedicating the merits of this work for the benefit of all sentient beings. Here he returns to his initial theme of generosity and the Spirit of Awakening, which pervades this entire treatise.

Biography of Shantideva (Santideva Sanskrit), adapted from the introduction to A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (Bodhicaryavatara) by Santideva. Translated from the Sanskrit and Tibetan by Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace. Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York US.