by Andreas Kretschmar | 246,740 words

The English translation of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara (“entering the conduct of the bodhisattvas”), a Sanskrit text with Tibetan commentary. This book explains the bodhisattva concept and gives guidance to the Buddhist practitioner following the Mahāyāna path towards the attainment of enlightenment. The text was written in Sanskrit by Shantideva ...

Ajita, the ’undefeatable one’ or the ’invincible one’ [mi pham pa / mi pham], is one of the many epithets of the great bodhisattva Maitreya [byams pa]. Maitreya is said to presently dwell in the Tuṣita heaven [dga’ ldan] and in the future will take rebirth in our world system as the Fifth Guide [rnam ’dren lnga pa], the fifth buddha.

Maitreya belongs to the group of the eight great bodhisattvas, also called the eight close sons [nye sras brgyad]. These bodhisattvas are the major lineage holders [chos bdag] of all the Buddha’s Mahāyāna teachings.

Among the immeasurable qualities of the Buddha, eight of his foremost qualities manifest as the eight bodhisattvas:

  1. the personification of the Buddha’s wisdom [ye shes kyi rang gzugs] is Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī [’jam dbyangs];
  2. the personification of the Buddha’s compassion [snying rje’i rang gzugs] appears as Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara [spyan ras gzigs dbang phyug];
  3. the personification of the Buddha’s power or capacity [nus pa’i rang gzugs] is Bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi [phyag na rdo rje];
  4. the personification of the Buddha’s activity [phrin las] is Bodhisattva Maitreya [byams pa];
  5. the personification of the Buddha’s merit [bsod nams rang gzugs] arises as Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha [sa yi snying po];
  6. the personification of the Buddha’s qualities [yon tan gyi rang gzugs] appears as Bodhisattva Sarvanīvaraṇaviṣkambhī [sgrib pa thams cad rnam par sel ba];
  7. the personification of the Buddha’s blessings [byin rlabs kyi rang gzugs] arises as Bodhisattva Ākāśagarbha [nam mkha’i snying po]; and
  8. the personification of Buddha’s aspriations [smon lam gyi rang gzugs] is manifest as Bodhisattva Samantabhadra [kun tu bzang po].

A student of Mahāyāna Buddhism should have a special meditation deity [lhag pa’i lha], a form of the Buddha upon which to meditate. This meditation deity may be Buddha Śākyamuni or any bodhisattva, such as one of the eight bodhisattvas. However, one should understand that in reality the eight bodhisattvas are eight aspects of the Buddha, revealing eight of the Buddha’s special qualities. Buddha is wisdom, the wisdom of the dharmakāya [chos sku’i ye shes]. This wisdom manifests on the saṃbhogakāya [longs sku] level as eight wisdom qualities of the Buddha, appearing in the form of the eight bodhisattvas.

The bodhisattva manifestations function as gateways [sgo / ’jug sgo] or thresholds through which one approaches the wisdom of the Buddha. In this way we may understand the eight bodhisattvas to be none other than the natural expression [rang rtsal] of the Buddha’s wisdom. This is the true reason they are known as the Buddha’s close sons [nye ba’i sras]. When one understands the relationship of the Buddha and the bodhisattvas at this level, the sixteen elders are likewise understood to be the appearance of the natural expression of the Buddha’s wisdom. That is why they are known as the ’sixteen emanated elders’ [sprul pa’i gnas brtan bcu drug].

A practitioner may adopt Buddha Śākyamuni as his or her principal meditation deity. If one feels a special affinity toward any of the abovementioned qualities, one may choose the corresponding bodhisattvas as the practice deities in order to evoke these particular qualities of the Buddha. For example, Śāntideva’s meditation deity was Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī.

The bodhisattva Maitreya meditated unceasingly on loving kindness [byams pa; skr. maitri]; thus the name Maitreya, ’Loving Kindness’, was bestowed upon him. As the fifth of the one thousand buddhas of the Fortunate Aeon, he received a prophecy that he would in the future be known as Buddha Maitreya [sangs rgyas byams pa]. When he was near to completing the two accumulations of merit and wisdom, the buddhas of the three times conferred upon him the ’Great Rays of Light Empowerment’ [’od zer chen po’i dbang].

At the time of Buddha Kāśyapa, the third of the thousand buddhas, Buddha Śākyamuni took birth in Tuṣita heaven and remained there among the gods, giving them teachings. When the time came for him to appear in our world, Śākyamuni placed a crown [prog zhu] on Maitreya’s head, consecrating and empowering him as his regent [rgyal tshab tu dbang bskur ba]. Ever since, Maitreya has been universally renowned as ’the regent Maitreyanātha’ [rgyal tshab byams pa mgon po].

Bodhisattva Maitreya continuously visualizes Buddha Śākyamuni above his head. Therefore, when other beings look at him, they are able to see an ‘enlightenment stūpa’ [byang chub mchod rten] over his head. Thus, he is depicted with an enlightenment stūpa on his uṣṇīṣa [gtsug tor], the protuberance that appears upon a buddha’s head.

It is said that Buddha Śākyamuni’s teachings will vanish from this world five thousand years after his first promulgation of the dharma. Buddhas appear only in phases of decline within a given aeon. Further, Buddha Śākyamuni appears near the very end of such a declining phase. Hence, during the time of Buddha Śākyamuni’s teachings, beings will have fallen increasingly under the power of afflictions, harming each other incessantly and commiting many negative deeds. Eventually, therefore, the merit of sentient beings in our world will decrease until their lifespan dwindles down to a mere thirty, twenty, and finally only ten years.

The body size of sentient beings is eventually diminished to no more than the length of a thumb. Famine, plagues, and war will come to torment beings relentlessly. This suffering is a direct consequence of sentient beings repeatedly enacting the ten non-virtuous actions.

During the era when the lifespan of beings is declining from thirty years to ten years, three time periods called ’the three intermediate periods’ [bskal pa bar ma gsum] will occur. These three intermediate periods occur at the end of every declining phase within a given aeon.

These are known as:

  1. the period of famine [mu ge’i bskal pa];
  2. the period of plague [nad gyi bskal pa]; and
  3. the period of weapons [mtshon gyi bskal pa].

During these times our human world will be as miserable as the hell realms themselves.

1) When the lifespan of beings has declined to a mere thirty years, the ’period of famine’ will arise. This famine will last for seven years, seven months, and seven days [zhag bdun zla ba bdun lo bdun]. Since at this time beings exclusively enact the ten non-virtuous actions, the nāgas will become upset, and the rains will stop. There will be no harvest, and the three kinds of famine [mu ge gsum] will ensue. Human beings will be described by such names as ’the hidden eaters’ [gab tshe ba], ’the spoon eaters’ [thur mas ’tsho ba], and ’the bare bones eaters’ [rus gong dkar po pa].

At the time of ’the hidden eaters’, food will be extremely difficult to obtain, and people will live only on grain stored in the past. Even a small amount of inferior grain [’bru ngan pa] will be treasured like a jewel, stored in vessels and jealously guarded. People will fear that their food will be stolen and will keep it very secret and hidden; thus beings will be called ’the hidden eaters’.

Hunger will render people so weak that if they fall to the ground they will be unable to stand again. Others will be unable to help them up, being themselves too weak to lift them. Whoever falls to the ground will simply die.

At the time of ‘the spoon eaters’ [thur ma ba / thur mas ’tshol ba], food will have become so scarce that people can obtain no more than a few spoons of food at any one time. The small store of grain that people have will be cooked as a soup and everyone will receive only a few spoonfuls. Everyone gathered will jealously oversee the meal, making certain no one gets either too much or too little. Therefore, human beings in such times will be known as ’the spoon eaters’.

At the time of ‘the bare bones eaters’ [rus gong dkar po pa], food has become such a rare commodity that people are forced to cook up the bare bones of the dead, subsisting on nothing more than a soup of human bone. The bones they cook will lack any trace even of fat. Because humans are reduced to surviving on the bones of their dead, they are known as ’the bare bones eaters’. They themselves are emaciated, wasted away to mere skeletons, without an ounce of body fat. When that human birth has ended, those born in the times of the bare bones eaters will immediately take rebirth in the preta realm, the realm of the hungry ghosts.

2) When the lifespan of beings has fallen to twenty years, the ’period of plague’ arises. This plague will last seven months and seven days [zhag bdun zla ba bdun], during which people will be stricken with virulent epidemics of infectious diseases [’go ba’i yams nad]. All types of diseases with no known cures will arise in the human world, all due to the karmic fact that the asuras [lha ma yin], the demi-gods, will have become victorious in their celestial wars with the gods.

This particular detail of the story of the period of plague reveals the interdependent karma of our world system. When human beings abide by the ten virtuous actions [dge ba bcu], the merit they generate ensures the victory of the gods. On the other hand, when human beings spend their days commiting the ten non-virtuous actions [mi dge ba bcu], the victory of the asuras is assured. For this reason we can easily understand that the gods protect those who lead meritorious lives.

The Buddhist scriptures explain to us that when human beings engage in negative conduct, this directly increases the presence of demons and malignant spirits until negative forces dominate conditions in our human world. The power [nus pa] of these negative forces produces all kinds of diseases. As many of these diseases are for the most part incurable, the majority of human beings will die from them, only to be reborn directly into the hell realms.

3) When the lifespan of humans has dwindled to a scant ten years, the ’period of weapons’ will arise. This war will last seven days, and during this time people’s minds will be filled with uncontrollable aggression. People will not live according to the dharma but will single-mindedly pursue harmful intentions. Whatever they lay their hands on becomes a weapon; they will assault and murder one another on sight. The moment they die, they will take birth directly in the hell realms. The hell realms will be filled with countless former human beings.

After the period of weapons has passed, the remaining survivors will venture from the mountains and forests back toward towns and cities. Catching sight of others, for the very first time in their lives, they will experience joy and kindness. It is said that during the time after the period of weapons, an emanation of Bodhisattva Maitreyanātha[1] will appear in this world.

The surviving human beings will have very small bodies, and the body of Maitreya will be somewhat larger. He will radiate charisma and be clothed in robes of saffron. Seeing Maitreya, the human beings of that time will be amazed, wondering how he could be so much taller than they are.

Maitreya will answer,

“I have attained such a body because I practice patience and refrain from killing.”

Hearing this, the people will follow his example and abandon the senseless killing of their fellow human beings. This changed behavior will lead to an increase in lifespan of up to twenty years in their descendents. Hence, the emanation of Maitreya in this human world will mark the beginning of another ascending phase within a given aeon.

Just as Maitreya’s first emanation will teach human beings not to kill one another, another emanation of Maitreya will appear to teach the second virtuous action, to refrain from theft. The virtuous karma gained by abandoning stealing will increase up to thirty years the lifespan of the descendents of these human beings. In this way, emanations of Maitreya will gradually appear, teaching human beings to abide by the ten virtuous actions, resulting in an increased human lifespan. Gradually, the lifespan will again rise back to eighty thousand years.

When the lifespan of human beings has increased to seven hundred years, the sixteen elders [gnas brtan bcu drug] will appear to gather whatever remains in this world of Buddha Śākyamuni’s teachings. They will place them in a stūpa made of the seven precious jewels. The sixteen elders will then sit around the stūpa, pay homage to Buddha Śākyamuni, and pass into nirvāṇa without any remainder. This will mark the final end of the presence of Buddha Śākyamuni’s teachings in our world.

Maitreya will appear in our world as a fully enlightened Buddha only when the lifespan of human beings has reached eighty thousand years. Many pratyekabuddhas will appear in our world throughout the phase of ascent prior to this time. Just before Maitreya descends from Tuṣita heaven into our world, he will cast his gaze over the world, giving it a five-fold examination [gzigs pa lnga]. Like all buddhas he will choose the appropriate time [dus], the appropriate country [yul], the appropriate caste [rigs], the appropriate family [rus pa], and the appropriate mother [yum]. When he perceives the perfect conditions, Maitreya will take rebirth as the fifth buddha of this Fortunate Aeon.[2]

These stories recount the buddhas’ spiritual histories. They begin with the moment each first generated bodhicitta and continue through their gathering the accumulations of merit and wisdom for at least three incalcuable aeons.[3] They conclude with the buddhas’ attainment of enlightenment. These histories are found in both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna sūtras and represent the ’provisional meaning’ [drang don].

According to the ’definitive meaning’ [nges don] on the other hand, which is recounted only in the Mahāyāna sūtras, all buddhas are primordially enlightened [ye sangs rgyas] and only demonstrate the appearance of traversing the path to complete enlightenment in order to inspire deluded beings to follow that path. In reality, a buddha is primordial wisdom beyond birth and death. What we perceive as a buddha arising in the world and passing into nirvāṇa is only a manifestation or emanation of this wisdom. Though all buddhas share the same wisdom realization, they are individually distinct, just as one thousand butter lamps share the same light while each shines on its own.

Now we will mention the eight close sons, the sixteen elders, the seven generations of heirs to the doctrine, the six adornments of Jambudvīpa, and the two supreme ones.

First, the eight close sons [nye sras brgyad]: Among the infinite bodhisattva students of the Buddha, the eight close sons [nye ba’i sras brgyad] are the eight great bodhisattvas mentioned earlier, who dwelt constantly with the Buddha.

  1. Mañjuśrī [’jam dbyangs],
  2. Vajrapāṇi [phyag na rdo rje],
  3. Avalokiteśvara [spyan ras gzigs dbang phyug],
  4. Kṣitigarbha [sa yi snying po],
  5. Sarvanīvaraṇaviṣkambhī [sgrib pa thams cad rnam par sel ba],
  6. Ākāśagarbha [nam mkha’i snying po],
  7. Maitreya [byams pa] and
  8. Samantabhadra [kun tu bzang po].

They are called the eight close sons because they reached the tenth bodhisattva level and are thus close to the level of the Buddha’s realization. They are also called the ’sons of the Victor’ [rgyal ba’i sras; skr. jinaputra] because they are considered to be Buddha’s heart sons [thugs kyi sras].

The sixteen elders represent the group of senior monks who attained the state of arhats. They are the senior elders, the leaders of the thousands of arhats among the Buddha’s students. The term ’elder’ [gnas brtan; sthavira] means a senior monk [dge slong rgad po], but not every arhat was an elder. Young children were also included among the many students of the Buddha who reached the spiritual attainment of an arhat.

These sixteen elders, along with the seven generations of heirs to the doctrine, are the lineage holders of the Hīnayāna teachings, also known as the śrāvakayāna, the ’vehicle of the listeners’. The śrāvakayāna teachings belong to the first turning of the wheel of dharma, ’the first set of teachings, the dharma wheel of the four truths’ [bka’ dang po bden bzhi’i chos ’khor]. Many śrāvakas were also present when the Buddha taught the second and the third turnings of the wheel of dharma, but they did not become lineage holders of these teachings.[4]

The seven generations of heirs to the doctrine maintained the doctrine and the saṃgha after the Buddha had passed away. The Buddha had first entrusted Kāśyapa with the care of both the doctrine and the saṃgha. Just before Kāśyapa passed away, he in turn entrusted Ānanda with this task.

The sixteen elders [bnas brtan bcu drug; skr. ṣoḍaśa sthavirāḥ] are:

  1. Aṇgaja [yang lag ‘byung],
  2. Ajita [ma pham pa],
  3. Vanavāsin [nags na gnas],
  4. Mahākālika [dus ldan chen po],
  5. Vajrīputra [rdo rje mo’i bu],
  6. Śrībhadra [dpal bzang po],
  7. Kanakavatsa [gser be’u],
  8. Kanakabharadvāja [bha ra dva dza gser can],
  9. Bakula [ba ku la],
  10. Rāhula [sgra gcan ’dzin],
  11. Cūḍapanthaka [lam phran bstan],[5]
  12. Piṇḍola Bharadvāja [bha ra dva dza bsod snyoms len],
  13. Panthaka [lam bstan],[6]
  14. Nāgasena [klu’i sde],
  15. Gopaka [sbed byed], and
  16. Abheda [mi phyed pa].[7]

The seven generations of heirs to the doctrine [bstan pa’i gtad rabs bdun] are:

  1. Mahākāśyapa [’od srung chen po],
  2. Ānanda [kun dga’ bo],
  3. Śāṇavāsika [sha na’i gos can],
  4. Upagupta [nyer sbas],
  5. Dhītika [dhī ti ka],
  6. Kṛṣṇa [nag po pa], and
  7. Mahāsudarśana [legs mthong chen po].

These arhats and patriarchs passed on the Buddha’s teachings from one to another in turn.[8]

One year after the Buddha had passed into nirvāṇa, the saṃgha held the very first council meeting [bka’ bsdu dang po]. Five hundred arhats gathered at the Banyan Cave [nyagrodha’i phug] in Rājagṛha [rgyal po’i khab] under the patronage of the Magadha king, Ajātaśatru [rgyal po ma skyes dgra], the son of King Bimbisāra [gzugs can snying po].

During the council meeting, Ānanda [kun dga’ bo] recited the sūtra piṭaka [mdo sde’i sde snod],
Upāli [nye ba ’khor] recited the vinaya piṭaka [’dul ba’i sde snod],
and Mahākāśyapa [’od srung chen po] recited the abhidharma piṭaka [mngon pa’i sde snod].

These teachings were recited from memory to an audience of the five hundred arhats.

For the second council meeting [bka’ bsdu gnyis pa] at Vaiśālī [yangs pa can], one hundred and ten years after the Buddha’s passing, seven hundred arhats gathered under the patronage of the dharma king Aśoka [chos rgyal mya ngan med]. The council meeting was called in order to expunge ten specific transgressions [rung min gzhi bcu] that had arisen within the saṃgha. During the meeting, the ten transgressions were repudiated as non-dharmic, and the seven hundred arhats together recited the sūtra, vinaya, and abhidharma piṭakas, thus re-establishing harmony among the saṃgha.

The third council meeting [bka’ bsdu gsum pa] was called a few hundred years after the Buddha’s passing. Over time many differences had arisen in regard to the Prātimokṣasūtra,[9] the code of discipline. This had led to a division of the Buddhist tradition into eighteen schools. It is said that the monks began to write down the teachings after the second council meeting. During and after the third council meeting, the vinaya piṭaka and the remaining teachings were written down. The precise location and dates of the third council remains subject to question.[10]

The next groupings are the six adornments of Jambudvīpa [’dzam gling rgyan drug] and the two supreme ones [mchog gnyis].[11] They are the most famous of the great paṇḍitas, the scholars from the noble land of India [rgya gar ’phags pa’i yul]. Among these sublime scholars, Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva, and Śāntideva are also counted among the group of the eighty-four mahāsiddhas, those realized yogins who accomplished both the relative as well as the supreme spiritual attainments.

The six adornments of Jambudvīpa, also known as ’the six adornments that beautify Jambudvīpa’ [’dzam gling mdzes par byed pa’i rgyan drug], are in three pairs.

The first, the ‘adornments of madhyamaka’ [dbu ma’i rgyan], are

  1. Nāgārjuna[12] and
  2. Āryadeva.[13]

The second pair of masters, the ‘adornments of abhidharma’ [mgnon pa’i rgyan], are

  1. Asaṅga[14] and
  2. Vasubandhu.[15]

The third pair, the ‘adornments of valid cognition’ [tshad ma’i rgyan], are

  1. Dignāga[16] and
  2. Dharmakīrti.[17]

Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga, and Dignāga are also identified with one another as the ‘three authors of fundamental texts’ [gzhung byed pa po gsum]. Āryadeva, Vasubandhu, and Dharmakīrti are similarly grouped as the ‘three commentators’ [’grel pa byed pa po gsum] on the writings of the three former masters, Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga, and Dignāga.[18]

The two supreme ones [mchog gnyis] are Guṇaprabha[19] and Śākyaprabha.[20] Sometimes the phrase ’two supreme ones’ is also used to refer to the two supreme masters from among the ’six adornments of Jambudvīpa’, that is, Nāgārjuna [klu sgrub] and Asaṅga [thogs med].

Furthermore, also noteworthy are the ’two marvelous masters’ [rmad du byung ba’i slob dpon gnyis]. Glorious Candrakirti,[21] according to some sources Candragomin,[22] was the one with the marvelous view [lta ba rmad du byung ba dpal ldan zla ba grags pa]; and Śāntideva,[23] the author of Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra, was the master with the marvelous conduct [spyod pa rmad du byung ba rgyal sras zhi ba lha]. Khenpo Kunpal is paying respect to all of these masters by placing them above his head with hundred-fold devotion [dad brgyas spyi bor bsnyen].

Footnotes and references:


byams mgon gyi sprul sku


For a detailed account of Maitreya’s life story see lam rim bla brgyud, pages 141-161.


Note that the term ’incalculable’ or ’countless’ [grangs med; asaṃkhya] is a number: ten to the power of fifty-nine. See Jewellery of Scripture, pages 144-145 and bu ston chos ’byung, pages 71-72.


For details on the three promulgations of the wheel of dharma see Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, pages 154-155.


Also known by the name lam chung pa.


Also known by the name lam chen pa.


For an extensive account on the life stories of the sixteen elders see Tibetan Religious Art, pages 60 ff and Crystal Mirror Vol. VI, pages 216 ff.


For the life stories of the seven generations of heirs to the doctrine see Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, pages 432-439 and Crystal Mirror Vol. VI, pages 202 ff.


Prātimokṣa-sūtra [so sor thar pa’i do].


For details on the three council meetings see Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, pages 428-431.


For more details on the six adornments of Jambudvīpa [‘dzam gling rgyan drug] and the two supreme ones [mchog gnyis] see Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, pages 440-441.


For biographical notes on Nāgārjuna [klu sgrub] see History of Buddhism, pages 121-128 and bu ston chos ’byung, pages 145-149.


For biographical notes on Āryadeva [‘phags pa lha] see History of Buddhism, pages 129-130 and bu ston chos ’byung, pages 149-150.


For biographical notes on Asaṅga [thogs med] see History of Buddhism, pages 135-141 and bu ston chos ’byung, pages 152-155.


For biographical notes on Vasubandhu [dbyig gnyen] see History of Buddhism, pages 142147 and bu ston chos ’byung, pages 155-157.


For biographical notes on Dignāga [phyogs glang] see History of Buddhism, pages 149-152 and bu ston chos ’byung, pages 158-160.


For biographical notes on Dharmakīrti [chos grags] see History of Buddhism, pages 152-155 and bu ston chos ’byung, pages 160-162.


See Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, pages 440-441.


For biographical notes on Guṇaprabha [yon tan ’od] see History of Buddhism, pages 160-161 and bu ston chos ’byung, pages 165-166.


For biographical notes on Śākyaprabha [shākya ’od] see Crystal Mirror Vol. VI, page 310.


For biographical notes on Candrakirti [zla ba grags pa] see History of Buddhism, pages 133135 and bu ston chos ’byung, pages 151-152.


See Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, page 441.


For the three most important biographical notes on Śāntideva’s life see Legende de Śāntideva, pages 161-182; vibhūti dgongs ’grel, page 236, folio 229b-231b; History of Buddhism, pages 161-166; bu ston chos ’byung, pages 166-169; Tāranātha’s History of Buddhism, pages 215-220 and rgya gar chos ’byung, pages 201-206.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: