July 18, 2024
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Article Philosophy

“MAY I BE THE DOCTOR & THE MEDICINE” THE COMPASSION TEACHINGS OF SHANTIDEVA

Words: Victor M. Parachin

Interestingly, the person whose writings profoundly informed and shaped Tibetan Buddhist teachings about compassion, anger management, awakening, and enlightenment, was an Indian Buddhist monk named Shantideva. Over his lifetime, the fourteenth Dalai Lama consistently studied Shantideva’s writings for his own personal growth and continuously taught Shantideva’s philosophies to monks and laity.

Details of Shantideva’s birth and death are shrouded in legend (c. 685CE -763 CE). It is known that he was born in India and lived his entire life there and that he was born into a royal family destined to follow his father as the ruler of an Indian province. However, in a dream, a Goddess of peace and compassion appeared to Shantideva urging him not to ascend to his father’s throne but seek out a life as a spiritual teacher. Following the dream, Shantideva left the kingdom, and retreated into the forests where he devoted himself to meditation. He also wandered parts of India studying with and learning from various teachers of the time.

After some time, he gained favour with a king who brought him into the palace as a spiritual advisor. His presence, however, aroused jealousy from other ministers so he eventually withdrew himself from the King’s service. From there, Shantideva made his way to the renowned monastic University of Nalanda in North India. There he took monastic vows and devoted himself to a thorough study of Buddhist texts. During this time he began writing his classic works. While at Nalanda he was given the name “Shantideva” which means the God of peace.

For some reason, he was not liked by the other monks who viewed him as being intellectually weak. In fact, they crudely mocked him saying his Buddhist “realisations” were merely eating, and sleeping. Seeking to humiliate him, the other monks arranged to have Shantideva be chosen to give a talk to the entire university. Normally, this honour was extended only to the best students. Assuming he was intellectually incapable of developing this kind of address, the monks believed he would be so embarrassed that he would leave the university.

To their amazement, when Shantideva rose to speak, he first asked those present if they wanted to hear an exposition on traditional teachings or if they wanted to hear something new. Taunting him further, they indicated they wanted his new teaching. He proceeded to deliver what would later be recorded as The Way of The Bodhisattva. While the content did not depart from traditional teaching, the manner in which it was presented was original in that it was personal, poetic, powerful, persuasive, and easy to understand and apply to daily life.

Though he was immediately recognised as a spiritual master, Shantideva promptly left Nalanda after delivering his talk spending the rest of his life as a wandering teaching monk. His major writing is The Way of The Bodhisattva, which explores and explains ways of developing an enlightened mind. This volume has had a powerful impact on Tibetan Buddhist philosophy with the fourteen Dalai Lama saying: “If I have any understanding of compassion and the practice of the bodhisattva path it is entirely on the basis of this text that I possess it.” Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche expresses a similar appreciation for this work saying: “A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, therefore, shows us how to control our mind and develop our altruism, and how to understand reality, the truth of how things exist. Without such vital elements, no matter what we do, it can never “be effective in making us happy. No matter how much money or how many possessions or friends we have, we will never succeed while the mind is not imbued with compassion and wisdom. Our friends can’t guide us toward true happiness, but this book can. It’s the cure for all our mental ills.”

Though this writing had been available in Tibetan language for centuries, it was virtually unknown to the West until recently when Shantideva’s powerful yet accessible teachings became known via Tibetan Buddhist teachers. In the 20th century, The Way of the Bodhisattva, was translated into English as well as other Western languages. One of the most popular excerpts from his writing is known as the “prayer” of Shantideva.

prayer of Shantideva

May I be a protector to those without protection,
A leader for those who journey,
And a boat, a bridge, a passage
For those desiring the further shore.
May the pain of every living creature
Be completely cleared away.
May I be the doctor and the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world
Until everyone is healed.

Victor M. Parachin, M. Div. (CYT) is an author, Vedic educator, yoga instructor, and Buddhist meditation teacher. He is the director of Tulsa Yoga Meditation Centre (USA). Victor researches and writes extensively about eastern spiritual philosophy and is the author of numerous books. His work is published regularly in YOGA Magazine. His latest book

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