Thursday, December 10, 2009

Śāntideva: A Look at Two Translations of the Bodhicharyāvatāra

Mason Brown
Professor Jobson
REL150 Research Paper

Śāntideva was an Indian monk who likely lived in the Early 8th century in the university/monastery of Nālānda. The great work attributed to him is the Bodhicharyāvatāra, or “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,” which has been a central, inspirational scripture in Tibetan Buddhism for over twelve hundred years, and has been translated, copied, and commented upon constantly over that period, resulting in a great body of literary, pedagogical, and practical knowledge, which leads to the rich pool of modern work on the subject. This paper will examine two English translations of Śāntideva’s masterpiece, both of which are recent and readily available, and it will also attempt to give a general introduction to Śāntideva and his most important work.

The first of the two translations, which is by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, with a general introduction by Paul Williams, and published by Oxford University Press in 1995, is based on a somewhat fragmentary Sanskrit text known as “Prajñākaramati’s commentary on the Bodhicharyāvatāra, the Bodhicharyāvatāra-pañjikā,” and, as the translators are both British—from Oxford University and the University of Bristol—the style is “standard British English.” (Crosby xxxv) The second, by the Padmakara Translation Group, Published by Shambala in a revised edition in 2006, is based on the Tibetan, with special attention paid to the commentary of Nyingma master Khenpo Kunzang Pelden. It was translated by Wulstan Fletcher and seems to favor American English.

The Padmakara group, after acknowledging the importance and utility of Crosby and Skilton’s translation to themselves and to scholarship in general, claim that their Tibetan-based translation, with its reliance on living tradition, might be more useful to the practitioner of Mahayana Buddhism:

we would argue that for those who are interested in practicing the Bodhisattva path, the Tibetan translation of the Bodhicharyāvatāra occupies a position of greater significance than a modern rendering, be it never so scholarly and accurate, of a Sanskrit manuscript that by chance escaped the destruction of the Buddhist libraries in India. The accidents of history have determined that the textual and commentarial transmission of the Bodhicharyāvatāra stretching back to Śāntideva—the human connection, so to speak—lies in the Tibetan and not in the Sanskrit. (Padmakara Translation Group, xv)

Crosby and Skilton are very concerned with textual questions, such as the arrangement of the chapters, since they are confronted with the fact that verses from Śāntideva’s other work, the Śikṣā Samuccaya, appear in the canonical Sanskrit text of the Bodhicharyāvatāra, and that the number of chapters varies in the received versions. Their Translator’s introduction, as well as the general introduction by Buddhist practitioner and scholar Paul Williams invaluable reading for understanding some of the problems involved with reaching a perfect translation, as well as providing a connection to present-day practice, belying the Padmakara Group's implication that their translation might be too scholarly to be of use to actual practitioners.

Nālandā University and the context of the Madhyamaka
When Śāntideva was at Nālandā around the turn of the 8th century, The monastery, university, and world-renowned center of learning had been there, in northern India, in the modern-day state of Bihar, for over 300 years (Crosby xxviii). It was a major educational center, with a Buddhist orientation, but was by no means exclusively Buddhist. Hindu studies, as well as “logic, grammar, medicine, magic, Sāṃkhya philosophy, and a number of other subsidiary subjects, such as art” were taught there. In this intellectual environment, with its open and cosmopolitan style, the Buddhist dialectical school known as Madhyamaka came to predominate. The founder of this school, the name of which means “Middle way,” was Nāgārjuna, “who lived sometime during the first few hundred years after Christ,” (Huntington, 32) and coined the term, “Madhyamika.” The philosophy of the Madhyamaka, which was conceived as a refutation of the “Yogacara,” or “mind-only” school, is that attachment to either the extreme of innate existence or the extreme of complete and literal non-existence are both in error, and that any rational postulation contains the seeds of its own refutation. In other words, though something may be true in terms of “relative truth,” rational constructs are insufficient for describing the “absolute truth” of phenomena. Another important exponent of Madhyamaka, Chandrakīrti, was associated with the Prāsaṅgika-Madhyamaka, which held that “ one must either be led toward a gradual realization of emptiness solely by means of a critique against one’s own prejudices and presuppositions about so-called empirical experience and the arguments consciously or unconsciously posited to support these preconceived ideas,” (Huntington 34) or “one need only to observe patiently, with extreme care and devotion, the appearance of reality on which our commonsense assumptions are based, and in so doing the emptiness of all ontological and epistemological categories will reveal itself in these everyday appearances.” (35) Madhyamaka is, in short, a dialectical system in which, through reductio ad absurdum, all conventional views, indeed, all positions are refuted.

Śāntideva is solidly within Nāgārjuna’s and Chandrakīrti’s tradition, and the chapter entitled “The Perfection of Understanding,” (Crosby) or simply, “Wisdom,” (Padmakara) is famous for summarizing the many arguments that went on among different schools of thought at Nālandā, and for refuting all those opposed to Madhyamaka. That chapter is notoriously difficult, and is often problematic for scholars and writers, and describing its meaning is beyond the scope of this paper, and the abilities of this author. My main concern will be with a comparison of the prose of the two translations, with reference to commentaries including one by the Dalai Lama. According to him, the Bodhicharyāvatāra “condenses the three turnings of the wheel of the Buddha’s teaching.” (Tenzin Gyatso 8) According to the Padmakara Group:
It is a frequent practice to divide The Way of the Bodhisattva into three main sections, along the lines of a famous prayer, perhaps traceable to Nāgārjuna:

May bodhicitta, precious and sublime,
Arise where it has not yet come to be;
And where it has arisen may it never fail
But grow and flourish ever more and more.” (2)
Turning the Mind Toward Bodhichitta
The word Bodhichitta means, “awakening mind” according to Crosby and Skilton. Padmakara leaves the term untranslated, as it is widely used and understood by English-speaking Buddhists to mean “mind of enlightenment.” (2) Kobun Chino Otogawa translated it as “wayseeking mind,” and it is at the heart of Śāntideva’s method. The first three chapters of Bodhicharyāvatāra are called “Praise of the Awakening Mind,” “Confession of Faults,” and
“Adopting the Awakening Mind” by Crosby and Skilton, and their thrust is to rouse us from complacency; to inspire us to follow the still-small voice of our own innate enlightenment to live for the benefit of beings:
To those who go in bliss, the dharmakaya they posses, and all their heirs,
To all those worthy of respect, I reverently bow.
According to the scriptures, I shall now in brief describe
The practice of the Bodhisattva discipline. (Padmakara 31)


In adoration I make obeisance to the Sugatas and their sons, and to their bodies of Dharma, and to all those worthy of praise. In brief, and in accordance with scripture, I shall describe the undertaking of the sons of the Sugatas. (Crosby 5)
After this opening verse, with strikingly different wording in our two translations, the first three chapters take us through many verses of humility; of reflections on the pointlessness of samsara; of pointing out the preciousness of bodhichitta, and the rarity of human birth; of full confession of Śāntideva’s past misdeeds, supplication for aid from powerful Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and promises of extravagant offerings. We witness Śāntideva’s vows of Refuge in the Three Jewels, and hear his inspired homage to enlightenment: an acknowledgment of the beginning of theBodhisattva path.

Reading either of these translations, we might be inspired to join Śāntideva in his renunciation and aspiration to service. The Padmakara version, however, seems to roll a little easier off the tongue, while the Crosby version is a little more cerebral and makes one wonder about the literal meaning. Consider the following verse:
All that I posses and use
Is like the fleeting vision of a dream.
It fades into the realms of memory,
And fading, will be seen no more. (Padmakara 42)


Everything experienced fades into memory. Everything is like an image in a dream. It is gone and not seen again. (Crosby 37)
While the Crosby/Skilton version is relatively terse, though still with a certain beauty, the Padmakara version is simply more poetic and euphonious. Through these three chapters, Śāntideva is working to arouse and inflame; to inspire bodhichitta. Bodhichitta, according to the Dalai Lama, is “a double wish: to attain enlightenment in itself, and to do so for the sake of all beings.” (Gyatso 12)

Maintaining the Aspiration to Help Others
The fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters, called “Carefulness,” Vigilant Introspection,” and “Patience” by the Padmakara Group, are concerned with nurturing our newfound bodhichitta, and sustaining the necessary level of effort required to see the Mahayana path through. The Dalai Lama says “the thought of bodhichitta has now been generated in our minds. Next we come to three chapters devoted to protecting it from deterioration.” (Gyatso 35) Śāntideva is telling us that if we want to follow the Bodhisattva path, we must guard against backsliding with unwavering zealotry, and that, having come so far, we shouldn’t waste the one chance of thisprecious human life:
The appearance of the Buddhas in the world,
True faith and the attainment of human form,
An aptitude for good: all these are rare.
When will they come to me again?

Today, indeed, I’m hale and well,
I have enough to eat and I am not in danger.
But this life is fleeting, unreliable,
My body is like something briefly lent.

And yet the way I act is such
that I shall not regain a human life!
And losing this, my precious human form,
My evils will be many, virtues none. (Padmakara 55)


When shall I find such rare circumstances again: the arising of a Tathāgata, faith,the human state itself, the capacity to practise skilful deeds,

Health, on this day,with food and freedom from disaster? In a moment life breaks its word. The body is like an object on loan.

The human state is never achieved again by such acts as mine. When the human state is lost there is only evil. How could there be good? (Crosby 26)
Both translations are quite beautiful here, I especially like “life breaks its word,” from Crosby and Skilton. Over the course of many verses in these three chapters, Śāntideva slowly builds an ironclad case for continuing on our course of Bodhisattvahood. If he fails even one being, he tells us, he will “work the ruin” (Padmakara 54) of himself, being born in the lower realms of hungry ghosts and demons. He tells us that a human birth is “as likely as a turtle poking its neck through the hole of a yoke floating on a mighty ocean.” (Crosby 26)
Śāntideva’s case is not only ironclad and irrefutable, it is emotionally rousing and inspiring. Reading the middle three chapters is like hearing the most charismatic southern preacher. His small examples and statements slowly build into a torrent, and we are swept into the mainstream, ready to give our lives. How can we sit idly by
When fishers, butchers, farmers, and the like,
Intending just to gain their livelihood,
Will suffer all the miseries of heat and cold,
Why, for being’s happiness, should those like me not bear the same? (Padmakara


Their minds set only on their own livelihood, fisherman, caṇḍālas, ploughmen, and the like, withstand such distress as extreme heat and cold. Why have I no endurance though it is for the advantage and well-being of the universe? (Crosby

Śāntideva warns us to protect our newly aspirational mind like we would protect our own broken arm in an “unruly crowd.” (Padmakara 64) After all the difficulty of arriving at our current situation, with all its potential to do good and help beings, we can lose it all instantly:
All the good works gathered in a thousand ages,
Such as deeds of generosity,
And offerings to the Blissful Ones—
A single flash of anger shatters them. (Padmakara 77)


The worship of the Sugatas, generosity, and good conduct performed throughout thousands of aeons—hatred destroys it all. (Crosby 50)
After I read these chapters, I am thoroughly convinced and converted: I am ready to take the next step.
Deepening Bodhichitta and Realization
The next three chapters are about learning to develop bodhichitta continuously (Gyatso 75). Crosby and Skilton translate them as the perfections of “Vigour,” “Meditative absorption,” and “Understanding,” which are the last three paramitas, or “perfections,” of the bodhisattva path. Diligence is recommended, and is defined as taking “joy in virtuous ways,” (Padmakara 97) and we are asked again what we did not understand:
Don’t you see how, one by one,
Death has come for all your kind?
And yet you slumber on so soundly,
Like a buffalo beside its butcher. (Padmakara 98)


You do not see those of your own herd as they are killed one by one? You even go to sleep like a buffalo at the butcher. (Crosby 67)
Śāntideva gives us yet another chance to understand the gravity of the situation. He enjoins us to make sure everything we do is in furtherance of our bodhisattva path, culminating in the practice of meditation. He encourages us to contemplate the transitory nature of our lover’s body, and to seek the “lovely, gleaming woods,” where “mental wandering will cease.” Always Śāntideva brings us back to mindfulness of the inevitable consequences of evil deeds, backsliding, and forsaking our vows. He gives us instructions for shamata and vipashyana, and for exchanging self with others. (Gyatso 88)

In the ninth chapter, “Wisdom,” Śāntideva turns to an explication of the Buddhist
doctrine of emptiness: the idea that “things have no true, objective existence.” (Gyatso 117) Śāntideva talks about the “two truths,” which is an essential idea in the Madhyamaka:
Relative and ultimate,These the two truths are declared to be.
The ultimate is not within reach of intellect,
For intellect is said to be relative. (Padmakara 137)


It is agreed that there are these two truths: the conventional and the ultimate. Reality is beyond the scope of intellection. Intellection is said to be conventional (Crosby 115)

According to Crosby and Skilton, the idea of emptiness began to be asserted in the
Prajñā-pāramitā sutra as a reaction to the reification of prototypical ideas of emptiness contained in the Abhidharma: The truths described therein were being treated as absolutes, and that understanding had to be refuted:
The chapter on the perfection of understanding in the Bodhicharyāvatāra is a deluge of such refutation. A number of opponents are lined up, each to be rebutted in turn as their views become relevant to Śāntideva’s line of argument. It is in the nature of such works as this that one knows the winner from the outset. For the audience it is just a matter of watching how skilfully each opponent is rebutted, how smooth the turn to the next. No opponent is taken all the way through the argument. Each is dismissed once he has served Śāntideva’s purpose. Opponents are refuted on their own grounds, their theories shown to be flawed and often made laughable; or they are taken under the wing of the author and shown that, did they but understand their own theories properly,they would realize they were in agreement with the Madhyamaka in what is really relevant. (Crosby 106)

Śāntideva gives us a large dose of absolute truth in the ninth chapter:
The mind that has not realized voidness,
May be halted, but will once again arise,
Just as from non-perceptual absorption.
Therefore one must train in emptiness. (Padmakara 144)

Without emptiness a mind is fettered and arises again, as in the meditative attainment of non-perception. Therefore one should meditate on emptiness. (Crosby 120)

In typical Mahayana fashion, Śāntideva concludes his song with a dedication. With sober
and humble awareness that his poem will benefit many countless beings for unknown time, he casts away the merit accrued; the karmic energy for good, to all beings, rather than keep it for himself. He then articulates the bodhisattva’s vow:
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. (Padmakara 171)


As long as space abides and as long as the world abides, so long may I abide, destroying the sufferings of the world. (Crosby 143)

He ends the dedication with a bow to Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, who is a kind of “patron” bodhisattva for the Madhyamaka and for the sects of Buddhism in Tibet and Japan that derive from it.

As a serious student of Śāntideva; one who would aspire to follow his path, I would keep both of these translations near. Crosby and Skilton have obviously chosen to represent Śāntideva”s Sanskrit verse in prosaic English, delivering a very precise and sharp language, with economy of words, and occasionally jarring, stark phrases that stick in the mind. The Padmakara Group has attempted a more poetic rendering in four-line free verse which they hoped would be similar in feeling to the Tibetan source. To my ear, this is a little easier to take in. In spite of it being longer, in number of words, than Crosby and Skilton, its rhythm is entrancing; its melody engaging, and its content is revolutionary. Though it is not quite for the reason the Padmakara Group claims, I think their translation just might be superior—for the practitioner—to Crosby and Skilton’s: because it is easier to sing.

Work Cited

Crosby, Kate, and Andrew Skilton. The Bodhicharyāvatāra. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Gyatso, Tenzin. A flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Boston: Shambala, 1994.

Padmakara Translation Group. The Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the Bodhicharyāvatāra. Boston: Shambala, 2006.

Huntington, C. W., Jr., and Geshé Namgyal Wangchen. The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamaka. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1994.

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