Shantideva (Sanskrit: Śāntideva, Tibetan: Zhi-ba-lha), who was a great bodhisattva and a Indian Buddhist philosopher of the Middle Way School (Sanskrit: Madhyamaka), was born as the only son of King Kushalavarma and Queen Vajrayogini in the kingdom of Saurāshtra near Bodhgaya around 8th Century.
Same as Buddha in his childhood, the young prince Shantivarman (the name given at his birth) had all the favorable conditions that he needed, and from his earliest age, he displayed remarkable skills in all fields of knowledge. When he was six years old he met a yogi (a great practitioner of the secret teachings), and from whom he received his first initiation and teachings on the practice for reaching the state of the enlightened being named Manjushri (the wisdom deity). As a child he made great efforts in this practice, doing its meditations and reciting its secret words. As a result of his engagement in this practice, he was able to meet Manjushri and receive many teachings directly from him.
When he was fifteen, his father died. He developed deep realizations into impermanence and death. All the people of the land requested Prince Shantivarman to be King. Because he had practiced the bodhisattva path in many previous lives, he had no desire to live a life of royalty, but so as not to upset the people, he agreed. The night before his crowning ceremony, he had a dream. In the dream he saw that Manjushri was already sitting on the King’s throne, and He said: Son, this is my seat and because I am your teacher, it would be improper for both of us to sit on the same throne.” The same night, Arya Tara (the female compassion deity) also appeared to him in a dream in the guise of his mother. She poured hot water over his head and said, “kingship is like the hot water of the hells; such is the situation that you are about to enter.” Prince Shantivarman considered his awaiting kingship as a poisonous tree and he regarded these visions as clear indication that he should not take over his kingdom, so before dawn, he hastily fled the kingdom.
Twenty-one days after his escape, Shantideva felt very
thirsty, so he went in search of water. He found a beautiful spring in the
middle of the forest, but just as he was about to have a sip, a beautiful girl
appeared and told him not to take the water because it was poisonous. She
offered him pure water to quench his thirst and led him to a yogi (her teacher)
who was meditating in the forest. This yogi empowered him and opened many doors
of wisdom and concentration. The yogi was a manifestation of Manjushri and the
girl was a manifestation of Tara. He stayed to study with his master for a long
time devoting himself to meditation. During this time, Shantideva achieved
advanced states of samadhi and various siddhis, and from that time forward he
constantly experienced visions of Manjushri who guided him as his spiritual
After about twelve years, his teacher said that he should go to east India. When Shantideva left the forest, he carried with him a wooden sword which symbolized the wisdom sword of Manjushri. He journeyed to the kingdom of Pancamasimha and found a great crowd of mighty, but merciless people. There were a lot of them gathered already, and many others like them on their way. These people were aware of the King's great wealth, and this fact was causing the King much distress. The King thought that if he were to use all of his wealth to pay off these people, then having obtained the kingdom would be of no point; but also that if he did not, then they would surely take his life. The King of that country recognized Shantideva as a man of great wisdom and proficiency in all worldly fields of knowledge and appointed him as one of his ministers. Shantideva accepted this position. He was arranged to be the King’s bodyguard. Due to his limitless power and might, he was able to overpower all of the evil people, and put the King and his people at ease. During his term of office, he introduced the skills of various crafts into the kingdom and always performed his duties in accordance with the Dharma. The whole kingdom began to develop great faith and respect for Shantideva and they made many offerings to him. Shantideva had a strong and beneficial spiritual influence in the kingdom, which made other ministers jealous and they could not bear all of his success.
They told the King, “This man is very deceitful. Even his sword is not a real one; it is just made of wood. How can he guard your body if anything happens? Please investigate.”
Upon hearing this, the King asked all the ministers to show their swords. When Shantideva’s turn came, he said, “O Lord, it is not good for you to view my sword, it will harm you.” Of course, the King became even more suspicious and insisted on seeing the sword. Then Shantideva said, “If you really want to see it, please cover your right eye and look at it only with your left.” When Shantideva drew his sword out of its sheath, the radiance was so powerfully brilliant that the King’s left eye went blind and fell out. Quickly Shantideva put his sword back and he picked the King’s left eye up, pushed it back and healed it completely. The King realized that Shantideva was in fact a great siddha, and faith arose in him. The King apologized, made many offerings to Shantideva, took refuge in him and entered into the teachings of the Buddha. The King requested Shantideva to remain in his kingdom, but he declined. He urged the King to always rule his kingdom in accordance with the Dharma and establish twenty centers for Buddhist learning. Then Shantideva left for the great monastic university of Nalanda.
At this time, Nalanda was the center of Buddhist and worldly studies in the northern India. At Nalanda, he met and was ordained by his preceptor Abbot Jayadeva and received the name Shantideva (Lord of Peace). At the monastery, he lived among all other great masters and mahapanditas. He served his preceptor well and devoted himself to the Buddhist studies. He perfected within himself the three characteristics of a great Buddhist master—teaching, debating, and writing—and continued to rise up all the spiritual levels and paths. He achieved the ability to remember everything he had ever been taught, the ability to perform miracles effortlessly, and incredible clairvoyance; thus he became a god among bodhisattvas. He understood the arising and passing away of phenomena. The original nature of all things had been revealed to him. He constantly received teachings from Manjushri and realized all the important points of both sutra and tantra. Shantideva was meditating all the time. By overcoming all internal and external distractions, he attained realizations of the highest stages of the path. It was during this period that he composed the Shiksasamuccaya (Compendium of Trainings) and the Sutrasamuccaya (Compendium of the Sutras) which describe the amazingly powerful and effective way of living one’s life as a bodhisattva.
According to the rules of the monastery, the monks could not decide to expel a monk without getting permission from the principal abbot. So they went to the abbot and explained the situation and what they wanted to do about it. Contrary to their expectations, the abbot did not give his permission to expel Shantideva. He said, “You don’t know whether he’s someone special, or just an ordinary lazy person. Since we really don’t know, and we can’t tell what’s going on inside of him, it’s better just to leave him alone. Don’t do anything.” The disciplinarians were left without recourse, since they could not expel the sleeping monk. However, there was one custom at Nalanda that they could use to publicly humiliate Shantideva so that he would leave of his own accord. There is a custom that professors at the university took turns giving public lectures in the central courtyard. The lecture would be announced some time prior to the scheduled date, and on the day before it was to take place, the disciples of that particular professor would gather together, clean up the courtyard, and cast flower petals. On the day of the lecture, they would lay out all of their outer robes and pile them on top of each other, and these would serve as the throne of the lecturing professor. Making use of this custom, the Nalanda disciplinarians said, “Although Shantideva is not a member of the faculty, perhaps we can tell him that he has to lecture. If we schedule a lecture, he would leave on his own since he has no ability to deliver it.”
So they asked Shantideva to recite sutras from memory before a gathering of the monastery. He answered them by saying, "How could someone like me ever be able to recite scripture?" and declined. However they insisted that he do so, and after some hesitation, he agreed if they built him a throne to sit on.
Of course, since Shantideva was not a professor on the faculty, he did not have any students, so there was no one to clean up the courtyard on the day before the lecture. Nevertheless, in the evening before the talk, a great wind came up and blew away all of the dirt and dust in the courtyard. Then a light rain fell, causing the remaining dust to dissipate. People were amazed at this, but they still wanted to humiliate Shantideva. They said, “Well, he doesn’t have any students to pile up their robes as his throne, so they build him a very high one. To make it humiliating, we’ll build it without stairs so he can’t get on it. He’ll have to stand there looking like a fool beside this very high throne which he’ll be unable to mount.”
At the appointed time for the lecture, the clacker was rung, and the entire monastery gathered. They put on their ceremonial outer robes and, holding flowers in their hands, filed into the courtyard in an elaborate procession. Shantideva calmly walked in among them. When he reached the front of the throne, he simply touched it gently, it immediately shrank to a size that he could sit upon, then immediately the throne grew back to its original size. So without the slightest effort he appeared sitting on top of it. As soon as he took his seat on the throne, he showed not only his accustomed tranquility, but he also seemed majestic and somehow awe-inspiring. He then asked, "What kind of teaching would you like to hear? Something that had been taught before or something that had never been taught before?" The monks requested, “Oh please, something new!” and asked for a previously unheard teaching hoping that he would embarrass himself. Shantideva recited the entire Bodhicharyavatara “The Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life” as spontaneous verses.
Although at that time, there were in India loads and loads of the Buddha’s teachings—all of the sutras and tantras, and loads and loads of shastras or commentaries, but there was not a single book that comprised the quintessence of all of the teachings. Bodhicharyavatara was written for sentient beings who wish to discover the Buddha nature through the practice of bodhichitta. Bodhicaryavatara was a condensed teaching relating to all three baskets of Buddha’s teachings (the Vinaya, Sutra and Abhidharma), but it primarily concerned with the development of transcendent wisdom which dispels ignorance, the root of the other two poisons of anger and attachment. More on Bodhicaryavatara can be found at the end.
It became clear to this audience of great scholars that Shantideva’s teaching was something extraordinary, so they started to memorize it. Many in the audience saw him appear in the form of Manjushri. Eventually he came to verse 34 in the ninth chapter on wisdom explaining the profound view on emptiness:
Once neither an entity nor a non-entity remains before the mind,
there is no other mental flux (either).
Therefore, there is utter non-referential peace.
At this point, he rose up into the sky. His body left the throne and as he continued reciting stanza after stanza, he floated in the air higher and higher until he not only floated above the assembly but also circumambulated it. He circled like an airplane. By the time he got to the tenth chapter (the aspiration chapter), he was so high in the sky that the crowd could no longer see him. Then, eventually, he disappeared completely, but his voice could be heard until the end of the last chapter.
What he did was to fly to southern India where his teacher, Nagarjuna, was living at the time. He remained in Nagarjuna’s presence, but his audience did not know that yet. Back at Nalanda, as soon as Shantideva’s voice was stopped, there were some highly realized beings who possessed clairvoyance of the ear and they were able to hear his complete recitation while there are others who possessed the Dharani of perfect memory recorded Shantideva’s words. They started to compare what they have memorized. However, they found that there were three different versions. The Kashmiri scholars had memorized more than ten thousand verses (more than 10 chapters) but had missed the verses of homage in the beginning. Of course, nobody had been paying attention at the beginning, since everybody thought that Shantideva had no clue about anything. The scholars from east India had less than eight hundred verses (less than 10 chapters). The version of the scholars from central India had one thousand verses (ten chapters). So they discussed the matter. Also they began to get curious about two of his other books which were mentioned in the fifth chapter of Bodhicaryavatara. They finally decided to send three scholars to see Shantideva and ask for his advice.
When they finally discovered that he had landed in southern India and was living with Nagarjuna, three scholars travelled to a stupa in the south of India called Pelyun Chen supplicated him to come back to Nalandra. Shantideva refused. But he did tell them that he recited ten chapters. In addition, he told them to find and study two other books that he had written secretly while at Nalanda and was mentioned in Bodhicaryavatara: “Compendium of the Training” and “Compendium of the Sutras”. He said that they were both written in tiny letters on birch bark and could be found on the windowsill in the room assigned to him at the monastery. He then gave these monks a complete explanation of the two books.
At that time, Shantideva was living with five hundred other monks in a great Indian monastery located in a nearby forest full of deer and other animals. These creatures were very tame and used to come to the humans in the monastery. However, many of the deers that Shantideva’s fellow monks saw going into his room never came out again. They also noticed that the number of wild animals in the forest kept decreasing. So some monks started suspecting that Shantideva ate the flesh of these animals. Especially for a monk, this was considered a really bad thing to do. However, when the monks accused him of doing this, Shantideva instantly revived all the animals, and they came out of his room stronger and healthier than before. As usual, Shantideva was asked to stay and, as usual, he refused. This time Shantideva did not just leave the monastery but left monasticism altogether.
He became a wandering yogi practicing Vajrayana in many unconventional ways. Thus, he acted just like other great siddhas, such as Naropa and Maitripa. Shantideva engaged in contests of debate and magic with non-Buddhist scholars and yogis. He performed many supernatural activities for the benefit of others, such as miraculously providing food or stopping a war. Thus he became one of the well-known mahasiddhas of that time in India. Below are some of these accounts.
Once Shantideva, with his clairvoyance, saw that there were many non-Buddhists who opposed the Buddha’s teachings and they needed to be subdued. He went to where they lived in the south, and dressed himself as a beggar. One day a householder who threw his washing water out of the doorway. It felt on Shantideva’s feet and started boiling just as water does when dropped on hot iron. The householder was startled and disconcerted by this strange event. At that time, a non-Buddhist teacher named Shankaradeva, wanting to compete with a Buddhist in intellect and miraculous powers. He went to see King Khatibidhari, the ruler of this region. The conditions he proposed for the competition were that whoever was defeated should convert to the winner’s doctrine and that his places of worship would be destroyed. He asked the king to witness this contest. The King agreed and sent a messenger to inform the Buddhist community of the challenge, and the King felt very disheartened. Just then, the householder who had thrown the water at Shantideva’s feet arrived to relate that incident to the King and would like to find out who this mysterious ascetic could be. When the king had heard the householder’s story, he immediately sent messengers in every direction to find the Buddhist ascetic in hope to defeat the non-buddhist teacher. After a long search, Shantideva was found sitting under a tree as a beggar. Shantideva accepted the non-Buddhist’s challenge and asked to be supplied with a pot of water, some clothing and a fire so that he could tidy up himself for the event.
On the day of the competition, the whole kingdom gathered. The contestants were seated on two thrones in the center. King Khatibidhari was seated to one side with his ministers on his left and the other pandits on his right. The debate began. Because of the power of Shantideva’s reasoning and scriptural knowledge, it did not take long for Shantideva to defeat Sahnkaradeva. Then Shankaradeva challenged Shantideva to compete in the display of miraculous powers and he proceeded to draw a huge and powerful Shiva-mandala in the air. When he had just finished drawing the eastern gate of the mandala, Shantideva entered into the samadhi of destructive wind element and suddenly a strong storm blew which began to tear apart the entire area. The surrounding area was wrecked and covered with dust. The King, Queen and others assembled ran for cover while Shankaradeva with his mandala was carried up and tossed about like a bird in a fierce storm. Then the whole area became shrouded in darkness. Suddenly, Shantideva shot out an intense ray of light from between his eyebrows to light the way for the King and the Queen. Their clothes had been ripped off and they were covered in dust, so the great bodhisattva bathed them in the water from the bowl, dressed them in cloth and put them near the fire where they could warm themselves. The wind stopped and instantly everyone recovered from the ordeal, and the whole area became bright, clean and orderly once more. To fulfill the conditions of the contest, non-Buddhist temples were closed, and many non-Buddhists embraced the Buddhist doctrine. The town in which the competition was held became known as “The defeat of the non-Buddhist.
Once Shantideva with his clairvoyance saw in the east that a great many people whose lives were disturbed by a terrible dispute. Knowing that he could help, he set off in their direction. While he was there he acted as the opponent of the great argument maker who was causing all the trouble, and with his great powers he was able to bring everyone back together.
Another time, Shantideva travelled to the kingdom of Magada in order to help the people living there who had fallen into the chasm of wrong views. When he arrived, he found a great many people who had extremely weird wrong views, and he decided to stay with them for some time. One day, due to his extraordinary power and to the purity of the prayers these people had made in their past lives, an enormous blizzard broke out. The storm lasted for seven days, and the community ran out of food and drink. They began to go crazy, and decided that whoever was able to come up with something to eat and drink would become their leader. Shantideva was miraculously able to fill a single alms bowl with rice, and from it fed everybody in the community. As their leader he was then able to demolish their wrong views, and lead them into the practice of Buddhadharma.
Yet another time, Shantideva saw many people suffering from a famine, and in desperate need since thousands were about to die. He provided these people with sustenance, taught them the teachings of the Buddha which enabled them to lead a contented existence from then on.
In Eastern Ariboshana, there lived a king who had many evil people conspiring against him. Santideva helped the King to avert this threat and led him and all his subjects onto the path of goodness.
Another time, he prevented a war by expounding the holy Dharma and showed the warring parties the true means to attain happiness.
These are just a few examples of the many exalted deeds that Shantideva, the great Bodhisattva, performed in his lifetime, and because of which he is revered as one of the greatest Indian Masters of all time. Shantideva's activities were exclusively dedicated to the benefit of living beings, and to help the Buddha's teachings.
Bodhicaryavatara was not created as scholarly work but a doha, a spontaneous yogic song of realization. All mahasiddhas such as Saraha, Tilopa, Naropa and Milarepa composed and sang such songs. In a similar way, Shantideva delivered his text as extemporaneous verses in superb Sanskrit poetry. However it is more than just a masterpiece of Sanskrit literature. More important for the Buddhist practitioner is that because the doha carries the blessing of the supreme realization of a great bodhisattva and mahasiddaha. At the same time, in terms of its content, Shantideva's text describes the entire path of a bodhisattva in a lucid style that is very practice-oriented and often sounds like personal advice. For these two reasons, this text is said to represent the lineage of practice and blessing. Thus it is highly accessible even for ordinary beings who wish to follow the path of a bodhisattva and at the same time masterfully spreads both of the two great wings of this path: the knowledge of cultivating the profound view of emptiness and the compassionate means of vast skillful activities. Therefore, the text is said to represent the lineage of the unity of view and activities, starting with the cultivation of the mind of enlightenment as the root of all practices of the great vehicle and then presenting detailed instructions of all six perfections, from generosity up through supreme knowledge. For all these reasons, at all times, Buddhist scholars and practitioners alike consider Shantideva's text to be very special and it has enjoyed great popularity to the present day.
Life Stories of the Lineage Teachers of the Steps of the Path by Yongdzin Yeshe Gyeltsen
Jewel Garland of Buddhist History translated by Lobsang N. Tsonawa
Enlightened Masters: Arya Shantideva by Venerable Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche and Venerable Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche
Shantideva’s Life and Aspiration by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche
The Center of the Sunlit Sky, Madhyamaka in the Kagyu Tradition by Karl Brunnh÷zl
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Last updated on 2015-10-06.