It has been nearly thirty-five years since I first opened The Way of the Bodhisattva, and revisiting it now at the behest of Inquiring Mind fills me with a renewed appreciation for the vitality and breadth of the text. What appeared to me all those years ago as a beautiful but lofty and distant map of the bodhisattva path now feels deeply personal, subtle and provocative. Indeed, part of what draws me close to the work is a powerfully empathetic connection to the book’s author, Shantideva, who lived in the great monastic university of Nalanda in eighth-century India. Although we recognize him today for his great scholarship and deep wisdom, what immediately ignites my interest is that Shantideva was considered by his contemporaries to be a loser.
And, oh, what a beautiful loser he was—and is, as he lives on through his words to this day. And when it comes to being a loser, let’s be frank: even Prince Siddhartha was considered by his family and peers to be a bit of a weirdo, an outcast, a misfit. Paradoxically, the lineage of beautiful losers from the Buddha’s time down to my teachers, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Anam Thubten, repeatedly stepped away from the conventions of society and religion in order to take the deep inner journey of awakening and deliver the fresh-alive dharma to their students.
Shantideva, of royal parentage, left his life of privilege to enter the spiritual life at Nalanda University, where the customs were strict and prescribed. The diligent and well-behaved monks filled their time with extensive studies and monastic duties. Shantideva chose to spend his time eating, sleeping and hanging out, and such behavior infuriated his fellow monks, who nicknamed him the “one who eats, sleeps and shits.” One day the monks banded together over a plan to shame and humiliate him. Feigning curiosity and respect, the monks invited Shantideva to “grace” them with a discourse that would demonstrate his spiritual understanding. They assumed that if he was arrogant enough to accept, his laziness and ignorance would be exposed and, thus shamed, he would slink away from the monastery in embarrassment.
Instead, with great love, Shantideva gave a spontaneous teaching on the path of awakening. The monks were stunned! These teachings were not new to the monks. What was new, though, was Shantideva’s ability to directly point out to their hearts and minds the depth of meaning contained in these traditional teachings. As he spoke, the monks were overwhelmed by the power of his presence, which was the complete embodiment of boundless compassion and egoless wisdom that is the essence of his teaching. Delivered in the form of poetic quatrains, and thereafter known as The Way of the Bodhisattva, his poem has since been considered one of the seminal works of Mahayana Buddhism.
My personal journey with these teachings began in 1980, with my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. It wasn’t until two decades later, however, during a time in my life when everything began to fall apart, that their full meaning began to penetrate. Prior to this I had years of study and meditation under my belt, including a three-year retreat, and was surrounded by circumstances conducive to my wellbeing. I had confidence in my meditation and understanding, and felt that my emotions were well tamed. Circumstances changed, though, and I found myself in a time of enormous groundlessness and fear. My familiar reference points were not holding up, and my previous sense of wellbeing evaporated like morning mist as I was beset by waves of anger, fear, loss and downright self-doubt. This was a turning point in my life for which I am profoundly grateful. Like those diligent monks at Nalanda, I needed to be pushed to a deeper understanding. It was at this point that I reached out to Shantideva once again with a true sense of “beginner’s mind.” I had been studying and practicing Vajrayana Buddhism for twenty years but realized that I had skipped over some essential aspects of the Mahayana path, and this left me tethered to a limited view. I felt a deep longing to dive deeply into the teachings on bodhichitta, which is at the heart of The Way of the Bodhisattva.
Coincidentally, at about this time I was invited to lead month-long meditation retreats for students in a master’s degree program in contemplative psychotherapy at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. The university was founded by Trungpa Rinpoche, and the program I was involved in was based on the principle of “training bodhisattvas” to enter and engage thoroughly with the world. Such an opportunity brought me right back into the wide embrace of Shantideva’s remarkable teachings.
The Way of the Bodhisattva is really a fearless love song. Bodhichitta, the Sanskrit term for the egoless wisdom and boundless compassion of the heart, is our deepest nature but has been sleeping, lying dormant, and needs to be awakened. Awakening and strengthening bodhichitta is the main thread of our bodhisattva journey, and turning our attention outward to others is how we begin to free ourselves from the enormous disconnection and suffering of a narcissistic focus on ourselves.
The bodhisattva’s motivation for waking up is for the benefit of all beings throughout time and space. This altruistic view was the part of the path that I had previously paid delicious lip service to, but I had unconsciously skipped over its vast implications. In times of ease, my compassion was readily available. In times of fear and anxiety, though, my compassion was a fair-weather friend, and disappeared in the crowd of judgments and emotional reactivity, unable to withstand the buffeting of ordinary human life when happiness changed into wrenching sorrow.
Milarepa, the great Tibetan yogi of the eleventh century and another “beautiful loser,” said “the journey to awakening is discovering one mistake after another.” Milarepa was a murderer in his youth, and, while still a young man, experienced the heartbreaking realization of the harm he had caused, an insight that propelled him onto the spiritual path with tremendous energy and motivation. Throughout his journey, as he discovered mistake after mistake, he didn’t lose heart. Instead, he brought everything he discovered into the path of awakening.
Such radical self-awareness is what is called for in our spiritual journey. In Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s words, we become aware of how “we keep grabbing the wrong end of the stick,” and Anam Thubten points out that we discover all the ways that “we are losers.” We hate, grasp, reject, avoid, judge and ignore—all the dark secrets that cause so much suffering for ourselves and others. So the question then becomes the very crux of being a bodhisattva: how do we bring these dark secrets and harmful unconscious habits into the light of awareness in a way that helps us transform into a bodhisattva?
Because awareness so easily slides back into unawareness, where our old habits rule, Shantideva teaches the importance of acknowledging and confessing all our mistakes to ourselves. When we bring our habits into the light of awareness, they no longer have the power to bind us. We can welcome them in an atmosphere of generosity and love, which makes us gentle and appreciative and humble. We begin to sense that this precious jewel of bodhichitta is already within us. When our minds relax and our hearts are open, we can stop struggling. We can lighten up. We can let go. This is what all the beautiful losers have whispered to us through the ages.
As our bodhichitta strengthens, the stark and artificial separation between self and other begins to dissolve, and we see how interconnected we are. This awareness is the basis for the bodhisattva vow, a major step on the path of a bodhisattva. In The Way of the Bodhisattva’s “Chapter on Commitment,” verses 21–34, are the words of the vow that one takes in the presence of a teacher, one’s spiritual friend. If I were to own only a few verses of dharma, it would be these beautiful, evocatively poetic words of wisdom and compassion.
For I am like a blind man who has found
A precious gem within a mound of filth.
Exactly so, as if by some strange chance,
The enlightened mind has come to birth in me.
(Chapter 3, verses 28, 29)
We celebrate that we too have discovered this precious gem of bodhichitta in our own hearts. It has been there all along, veiled by our mistaken beliefs and emotional reactivity. We vow that we will do everything we can to help others be free of suffering and experience this jewel in their own hearts.
Shantideva reminds us that the more we care for others and let go of the narrow focus on ourselves, the more joy and freedom we feel. That sentiment shines in the following verse:
All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.
(Chapter 8, verse 129)
With our dearly beloveds, this view is easy. We cherish our friends and family and those who wish us well, and find great joy in their happiness. What is revolutionary in The Way of the Bodhisattva is to bring about that level of care for all beings, including those wishing us harm, those we dislike, and those we rarely notice.
This inner transformation is at the heart of Shantideva’s teachings and he gives us the skillful methods to bring this about through the journey of the six paramitas. They are the natural qualities of bodhichitta, the very essence of our true nature. Paramita is the Sanskrit term for transcendent action; the six paramitas are generosity, vigilance, patience, heroic perseverance, meditation and wisdom. Our actions become transcendent because the wisdom and insight of awareness from our meditation begins to flow into all of our activities. This wisdom is bodhichitta in its panoramic, or absolute, nature. It is the direct understanding of emptiness.
Shantideva considers the wisdom of emptiness to be the heart of the bodhisattva’s journey, and the absence of this wisdom to be the root of the sorrows of the world. In Shantideva’s words, “Like a flash of lightning in the dark of night,” awareness illuminates everything clearly. Our minds are wide open, clear and luminous, and our so-called ego is seen as what the Dalai Lama refers to as “just a little assumption.”
In moments of such openness we see that our habits and mistakes are not solid or deep-rooted at all. They are just habitual. We continuously train in letting go. Then we lose touch, and habit crowds in once again. Rather than losing heart, we find our heart and rest in its warmth and openness. We rejoice that dancing with our habits and fears is our sacred journey.
We spring from a lineage of beautiful losers, who lose everything along the way in order to find that there is nothing to lose except our dry ideas and the protective padding around our hearts. We thereby discover this innate jewel of bodhichitta that is beyond any words or limitations at all.
As the dharma takes deep root in this twenty-first-century Western culture of ours, bodhisattvas will probably not be identifiable by monastic robes and spiritual titles. We are a motley group of householder yogis: men and women from all walks of life who dare to take this deeply personal inner journey because of all the beautiful losers who have gone before and shown us the way.
The psychology students I have been leading in retreats for more than a decade embark on such a personal journey of awakening bodhichitta, befriending and taming their deepest habits and fears. Trained as psychotherapists, they graduate into the world not as experts but as compassionate and empathetic humans who know from direct experience the joys and sorrows of being alive. They are some of our modern-day bodhisattvas.
I would like to end with these beautiful words from Shantideva:
And now as long as space endures,
As long as there are beings to be found
May I continue likewise, to remain
To drive away the sorrows of the world.
(Chapter 10, verse 55)
Or, in the words of an old friend, many years ago watching a Naropa class of warrior-bodhisattvas graduate from the psychotherapy department, “There goes help. . . .”