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 third preliminary assessment asks,

“Under which category is it classified?”

The Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra is classified as a Mahāyāna treatise. The Mahāyāna teachings include both sūtra [mdo] and mantra [sngags]. Mantra [sngags] or Mantrayāna is identical with the vehicle of tantra or Vajrayāna.

The Nyingma School structures the Buddha’s entire teaching in an ascending sequence of nine vehicles [theg pa rim pa dgu]:

  1. śrāvakayāna [nyan thos kyi theg pa],
  2. pratyekabuddhayāna [rang rgyal ba’i theg pa],
  3. bodhisattvayāna [byang chub sems dpa’i theg pa],
  4. kriyatantra [bya ba’i rgyud kyi theg pa],
  5. ubhayatantra [upa’i rgyud kyi theg pa],
  6. yogatantra [rnal ’byor gyi rgyud kyi theg pa],
  7. mahāyoga [rnal ’byor chen po’i theg pa],
  8. anuyoga [rjes su rnal ’byor gyi theg pa], and
  9. atiyoga, also known as the Great Perfection [rdzogs pa chen po shin tu rnal ’byor gyi theg pa].

These nine vehicles are distinguished according to their unique teachings on view [lta], meditation [sgom], conduct [spyod], and fruition [’bras].

A practitioner of Secret Mantra Vajrayāna and particularly of the Great Perfection will study and practice the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra as an enhancement [’bog ’don gyi tshul du] for his practice and also as a method for clearing away obstacles [bgegs bsal gyi tshul du] that arise in the course of his practice. Thus, the gradual path of sūtra and the instantaneous path of Secret Mantra can be practiced as a perfect unity, seamlessly integrated with one another.

The teachings of the Great Perfection train you in the perfect view while at the same time the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra educates you in the perfect conduct of the six transcendental perfections.

Sūtra or Sūtrayāna is also called the ’causal vehicle of (the six) transcendental perfections’ [rgyu pha rol phyin pa’i theg pa], while tantra is called the ’resultant vehicle of mantra’ [’bras bu sngags kyi theg pa]. The Buddhist tradition actually speaks of ’three causal vehicles’ [rgyu mtshan nyid kyi theg pa]. These refer to the śrāvakayāna, the pratyekabuddhayāna [rang rgyal ba’i theg pa], and the bodhisattvayāna.

The followers of the causal vehicles [rgyu’i theg pa / rgyu mtshan nyid kyi theg pa] practice as their path the causes (for enlightenment), which are the six transcendental perfections [phar phyin drug rgyu lam du byed pa]. The followers of the resultant vehicle, also called the ’vehicle of secret mantra’ [gsang sngags kyi theg pa], practice the fruition as the path [’bras bu lam du byed pa].

As Düjom Rinpoche explained:[1]

Therefore, in the vehicle of attributes [mtshan nyid kyi theg pa], mind nature is merely perceived as the causal basis for buddhahood. Since it is held that buddhahood is obtained through the condition that the two accumulations increasingly multiply, and since the purifying teachings [rnam byang gi chos] which form the causal basis of nirvāṇa are made into the path, it is called the causal vehicle. Therein, a sequence in which cause precedes result is admitted.

According to the vehicle of mantra, on the other hand, mind nature abides primordially and intrinsically as the essence of the result [’bras bu’i ngo bo], endowed with kayas and wisdom [sku dang ye shes kyi bdag nyid can]. Since the aim [thob bya], (mind nature), thereby exists within oneself from the very present moment, it is the ground. By recognizing it, temporary and momentary stains are removed.

Thus, the recognition is the path [ngo shes par byed pa’i cha nas lam]. When this ground is actualized [mngon du gyur pa’i cha nas], it is the fruition. Since the sequence in which cause precedes result is not really distinguished therein, it is called the resultant vehicle.

The causal vehicle of the six transcendental perfections is an unimaginably long path to enlightenment. The Mahāyāna path to complete enlightenment is generally said to require three countless aeons to complete. The resultant vehicle of mantra is in comparison an infinitely swifter path to complete enlightenment. It is said that a person of highest capacity can reach perfect enlightenment in this very lifetime.

A person of average capacity is said to be able to reach enlightenment at the time of the intermediate state [bar do], and a person of lowest capacity within thirteen or sixteen lifetimes. Thus, considering the timespan necessary to attain enlightenment, the Sūtrayāna path can be classified as the gradual approach [rim gyis pa], and the Secret Mantra Vajrayāna as the instantaneous approach [gcig char ba].

The Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra is a text of the gradual path to enlightenment. Study and practice of the sūtra teachings of the Buddha follow a gradual sequence [go rim], and so the practitioner must know which stage of study and practice he has reached.

The distinction between Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna can also be made in terms of the vastness of the scope of one’s motivation. While the Hīnayāna practitioner strives to liberate only himself, the Mahāyāna practitioner strives to establish all sentient beings at the level of complete enlightenment.

A follower of the Hīnayāna path has a limited motivation [bsam pa rgya chung ba] and a limited aspiration [mos pa rgya chung ba]. Such a person understands the defects of saṃsāra [’khor ba’i skyon] and the qualities of nirvāṇa [myang ’das kyi yon tan]. He has become disgusted with saṃsāra [’khor ba la yid phyung] yet is not undertaking the benefit of others and instead is striving to achieve the level of peace [zhi ba] and cessation [’gog pa] for himself alone. Thus, his character [rigs], motivation [bsam pa], and aspiration [mos pa] are quite limited.

In contrast to this narrow scope of mind, a follower of the Mahāyāna path is someone endowed with a vast motivation [bsam pa rgya che ba] and a vast aspiration [mos pa rgya che ba]. This type of person generates the noble thought to reach unexcelled and perfect enlightenment [bla med rdzogs pa’i byang chub] for the sake of all sentient beings. Such persons are happy to engage, even for countless aeons, in the boundless trainings of perfecting, ripening, and purifying [rdzogs smin sbyang gsum].

A Mahāyāna practitioner wishes to entirely perfect the two accumulations [tshogs gnyis yongs su rdzogs pa], the accumulation of merit and the accumulation of wisdom. He wishes to ripen his being [rgyud smin pa], to let his ordinary body, speech, and mind ripen into the qualities of the Buddha’s three kāyas [lus ngag yid gsum sku gsum gyi yon tan du smin pa]. Furthermore, he trains to purify the two obscurations [sgrib gnyis sbyang ba], obscurations of affliction [nyon mongs pa’i sgrib pa] and obscurations of cognition [shes bya’i sgrib pa].

The practice path of a Mahāyāna practitioner is understood through two fundamental classifications: the profound [zab pa] and the vast [rgya che ba]. The ‘profound’ is the complete realization of both types of egolessness [bdag med]. The ‘vast’ means that one has embarked upon the boundless trainings of the ten bodhisattva levels [sa bcu], of the five paths [lam lnga], and of the six perfections [phar phyin drug]. Thus, one is practicing the unity of ‘profound knowledge’ [zab pa’i shes rab] and ‘vast skillful means’ [rgya che ba’i thabs mkhas].

A true follower of the Mahāyāna path is not intimidated by the defects of worldly existence, the three realms of saṃsāra [srid pa khams gsum ’khor ba].[2] Nor does he aspire to attain the qualities of the peace of nirvāṇa [zhi ba mya ngan las ’das pa], the truth of cessation [’gog bden]. Rather, he aspires to attain a state of equanimity beyond hope and fear, beyond rejection and expectation, beyond aversion and attachment; in other words, to achieve actual and perfect buddhahood [mngon par rdzogs par sangs rgyas pa], the fruition of nirvāṇa beyond abiding [mi gnas pa’i mya ngan las ’das pa].

‘Nirvāṇa beyond abiding’ means that one neither abides in the extreme of saṃsāric existence [srid pa ’khor ba’i mtha’] nor in the extreme of peaceful nirvāṇa [zhi ba myang ’das kyi mtha’]. The extreme of peaceful nirvāṇa is the attainment of Hīnayāna. The nirvāṇa of Mahāyāna, however, is beyond extremes of any kind.

Mahāyāna [theg pa chen po] is further said to surpass Hīnayāna [theg pa dman pa] through a seven-fold superiority [chen po bdun]:[3]

1) The superiority of its scope or focus [dmigs pa chen po]: Mahāyāna surpasses Hināyāna through the scope of its teachings and the scope of its topics. The scope of its teachings encompasses the complete teachings of the Buddha [rjod byed bka’ yongs su rdzogs pa], including the immeasurable bodhisattva piṭaka. The scope of its topic [brjod byed] covers boundless profound [zab pa] and vast [rgya che ba] meanings. Mahāyāna is profound since both types of egolessness are realized. Mahāyāna is vast since it encompasses all the trainings of the ten bodhisattva levels, the five paths, and the six perfections.

2) The superiority in practice [sgrub pa chen po]: Mahāyāna surpasses Hināyāna since one practices in order to accomplish the welfare of all sentient beings, one’s own welfare as well as the welfare of others. While Hināyāna teaches how to accomplish liberation for oneself, Mahāyāna teaches how to accomplish the temporary and ultimate happiness of all sentient beings.

3) The superiority in wisdom [ye shes chen po]: Mahāyāna surpasses Hināyāna since, completely realizing the two types of egolessness, one reaches a personal [so so] and non-conceptual [spros bral] realization in which emptiness and compassion are a unity.

4) The superiority in diligence [brtson ’grus chen po]: Mahāyāna surpasses Hināyāna,[4] since (in Mahāyāna) one embarks for three countless aeons [bskal pa grangs med gsum] and more[5] on perfecting [rdzogs], ripening [smin], and purifying [sbyang].

5) The superiority in skillful means [thabs la mkhas pa chen po]: Mahāyāna surpasses Hināyāna since, training in the path that neither abides in worldly existence nor in nirvāṇic peace, one perfects one’s own path without forsaking even a single being. Journeying through these five points of superiority is called ’the vehicle of the path’ [lam gyi theg pa].

6) The superiority in perfect achievement [yang dag ’grub pa chen po]: Mahāyāna surpasses Hināyāna since one accomplishes the immeasuable qualities [chos] of the Buddha such as the ten powers [stobs bcu], the four kinds of fearlessness [mi ’jigs pa bzhi], the eighteen non-associated qualities [ma ’dres pa bco brgyad], and so forth. ‘The superiority in perfect achievement’ connotes perfect buddhahood, endowed with boundless qualities.

7) The superiority in enlightened activity [sangs rgyas kyi phrin las chen po]: Mahāyāna surpasses Hināyāna since, for as long as saṃsāra exists, one embarks on unceasing activities to benefit all sentient beings. The ‘superiority in enlightened activity’ refers to the unceasing activities of buddhas. Having journeyed to these two (final) points of superiority is called ’the fruitional vehicle’ [’bras bu’i theg pa].

Footnotes and references:


Nyingmapa School of Tibetan Buddhism, page 244 / folio 125a.


las kyi ’bras bu smin tshar ba la srid pa zer


For details see mi pham mkhas ’jug, pages 260-261.


A practitoner of the Hināyāna path might attain arhatship in one life time, in three or in seven.


Those of highest capacities need three countless aeons to attain perfect enlightenment through the Mahāyāna path, those of mediocre capacity need seven countless aeons and those of lowest capacities need thirty-three countless aeons.

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