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 ...

The first episode in Śāntideva’s exemplary life describes how he came to please his supreme meditation deity [lhag pa’i lha mnyes]. Śāntideva was born as the son of King Kalyāṇavarnam [dge ba’i go cha] and was named Śāntivarnam [zhi ba’i go cha]. From his earliest youth he had a natural inclination toward the Mahāyāna family [theg chen gyi rigs la gnas pa]. Those fortunate ones who are inclined toward the Mahāyāna family are blessed with vast minds and vast aspirations [bsam pa dang mos pa rgya che ba’i gang zag].

Also, those with such an inclination are by nature not fearful of the meaning of profound emptiness [zab mo stong pa nyid]. They labor joyfully for the benefit of others, motivated by great compassion, being compassionate by nature. In this context, the term ‘affinity’ or ‘inclination’ [rigs] connotes the character [gshis ka] of the individual.

People with a natural inclination toward the Hīnayāna family [theg dman gyi rigs] are people who by nature are, for the most part, interested in their own happiness, without particularly rejoicing in benefiting others [gzhan don la mi spro ba]. In this sense, their minds and their aspirations are limited. Even if they are instructed in profound emptiness, they will be unable to understand what is being spoken of. In contrast, those inclined toward the Mahāyāna family are filled with interest and delight the moment they so much as hear the term ’profound emptiness’.

People’s natural affinity with or inclination toward the dharma can be toward either the Hīnayāna [theg dman gyi rigs can] or the Mahāyāna [theg chen gyi rigs can]. When the virtuous karma of such beings has sufficiently ripened [las smin pa], they will ’awaken to their own affinity’ [rigs sad pa] and have the opportunity to perceive the Buddha and receive his teachings.

The phrase to ‘awaken to one’s Mahāyāna affinity’ [theg chen gyi rigs sad pa] means to awaken into the Mahāyāna family, progressing from first entering into the primary stages of the path of accumulation [tshogs lam chung ngu] up to the primary stages of the path of seeing [mthong lam chung ngu]. Practitioners on these stages are those who have genuinely developed relative bodhicitta in their minds. The phrase to ’attain the fruition of the Mahāyāna’ [theg chen gyi ’bras bu thob pa] refers to those who actually dwell on the first to the tenth bodhisattva levels.

The first episode of Śāntideva’s biography mentions that he first studied science [rig pa] and art [sgyu rtsal]. As mentioned before, ‘science’ here refers to the ten sciences [rig gnas bcu], which are the five greater sciences and the five lesser sciences. ‘Art’ refers to the sixty-four arts [sgyu rtsal drug cu re bzhi]: the thirty skills [bzo rig gi sgyu rtsal sum cu], the eighteen arts of musical instruments [rol mo’i sgyu rtsal bco brgyad], the seven harmonious tones [glu dbyangs nges pa bdun], and the nine expressions of dance [gar gyi cha byad dgu].

As part of the background to this episode of how Śāntideva came to please his supreme meditation deity, we are told that Śāntideva received the initiation, reading transmission, and meditation instructions on a Mañjuśrī practice called tikṣṇaMañjuśrī-sādhana [’jam dpal rnon po’i sgrub thabs] from a kusulu, a beggar yogin [rnal ’byor pa]. Śāntideva practiced this sādhana in secret with great diligence and endeavor, and he beheld many direct visions of Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī.

For further details about Śāntideva’s studies with this beggar yogin, see Vibhūticandra’s version of the biography below in the commentary to text section 93.

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, one’s personal meditation deity is called a ’special deity’ [lhag pa’i lha]; this is identical in meaning with the Vajrayāna Buddhist term ’yidam deity’ [yi dam gyi lha]. Among the countless forms of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities, practitioners will generally commit [dam] themselves to one special deity [dmigs gsal gyi lha] with whom they share a personal connection. Regardless of whether one practices Mahāyāna, Vajrayāna, or Dzogchen, a practitioner must rely on a special deity, on a yidam.

This is necessary since practitioners need an object of devotion in order to develop their faith. One would not expect beginners to be able to develop devotion without an object of faith toward which to focus their prayers. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, one need not necessarily practice a formal sādhana. Simply visualizing one’s special deity and supplicating that deity is sufficient. Through the student’s devotion, the deity’s blessing will descend, filling the student’s heart. Relying on blessing is a special and highly valued skillful means through which genuine bodhicitta and authentic realization will dawn in the student’s mind.

We are told that in ancient India practitioners had a single yidam which they practiced throughout their entire lives. They would guard the secrecy of their yidam to the utmost. Traditionally, it is said that if you tell others the name of your yidam, your spiritual accomplishments will vanish. On the other hand, if you refuse to tell anyone about your practice, you will gain the accomplishments very quickly. Following this example from the old masters is most beneficial. Following their example, do not even disclose the name of your root guru. Ideally, your yidam, your mantra, and your root guru should be kept secret. If possible, they should not be revealed, even to your spouse or your friends.

Some people seem to think that receiving the transmission of more yidam practices means they can acquire more and more blessings. When the Indian master Atiśa came to Tibet, he said that the Tibetans had missed the point due to practicing too many deities [lha mang bas spungs]. Atiśa believed that Tibetans in general had not accomplished any of their many yidams, since he was unable to find signs of accomplishment in them.

Thus, the expression,

“One person, one deity [mi gcig lha gcig].”

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