According to the Tibetan historians Butön and Taranātha, Śāntideva (late 7th to mid-8th century CE) was a prince born in Saurāṣṭra, on the west coast of India in modern-day Gujarat. Modern scholars have uncovered little historically reliable information about his life and dates. The earliest reference to his writings appears in the work of Śāntarakṣita, and scholars thus date his works to before 763 CE.
Two major Sanskrit philosophical works are unanimously attributed to Śāntideva. His poetic masterpiece, the Bodhicaryāvatāra, The Way of the Bodhisattva is the most widely read. This text is widely beloved, and clearly lays out the path of the bodhisattva in training through the practice of the paramitas or perfections. Śāntideva begins the text by praising the mind set upon awakening, bodhicitta.
This free and well-favoured human form is difficult to obtain.
Now that we have the chance to realise the full human potential,
If we don’t make good use of this opportunity,
How could we possibly expect to have such a chance again?
Like a flash of lightning on a dark and cloudy night,Śāntideva, Bodhicaryāvatāra, Chapter I.
Which, for just a single instant, sheds its brilliant light,
Rarely, through the buddhas’ power,
A mind of virtue arises, briefly, to people of the world.
Śāntideva’s poetic aspirations are frequently quoted by Buddhist teachers, including His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama to this day. He inspires Mahayana practitioners to always work for the benefit of all sentient beings in stirring verse:
May I be a guard for those without one,
A guide for all who journey on the road,
May I become a boat, a raft or bridge,
For all who wish to cross the water.
May I be an isle for those desiring landfall,
And a lamp for those who wish for light,
May I be a bed for those who need to rest,
And a servant for all who live in need.
May I become a wishing jewel, a magic vase,
A powerful mantra and a medicine of wonder.
May I be a tree of miracles granting every wish,
And a cow of plenty sustaining all the world.
Like the earth and other great elements,
And like space itself, may I remain forever,
To support the lives of boundless beings,
By providing all that they might need.
Just so, in all the realms of beings,Śāntideva, Bodhicaryāvatāra, Chapter III, verses 18-23.
As far as space itself pervades,
May I be a source of all that life requires,
Until beings pass beyond saṃsāra’s pain.
His second most influential work was the Śikṣāsamuccaya. This text comprises quotations from the Mahāyāna sūtras with Śāntideva’s own commentary on those verses. The work has been invaluable to traditional and modern scholars alike as it contains excerpts from over a hundred sūtras, many of which no longer exist in Sanskrit. Śāntideva’s writings include many quotations from earlier sources, that encourage investigation into the absence of self and the profound teaching of emptiness. Śāntideva and his direct sources underline the necessity of a direct, authentic realization of the absence of any self in order to achieve freedom from cyclic existence.
Butön relates the most famous story regarding the master—a story that is related in Tibetan scholastic settings to this day.
Śāntideva studied at the great monastic university of Nālandā. However, in the perception of his fellow students, he appeared to be lazy. He never seemed to be engaged in the core disciplines of Nālandā’s students: the study, contemplation, and recitation of Buddhist texts. His fellow students disparaged him by referring to him not as a bhikṣu (an ordained monk) but as a bhusuku, a Sanskrit play on words adopting syllables from the words meaning “eat”, “sleep”, and “shit”—as that was he ever seemed to do.
Annoyed by this scholarly negligence, some of the pupils asked their teachers to set him an “impossible” task to reform his behavior. They agreed and gave him the “honor” to deliver a teaching at Nālandā during a religious festival. Convinced that he would be unable to recall any scripture, they decided to humiliate him further by having him deliver his talk from an ostentatiously high throne.
According to the account, when Śāntideva ascended the throne he asked the audience if they preferred to hear something old or something new. Thus he offered the choice of an original composition, which would have been quite unusual. Unprepared for this option, the monks chose the “new”, perhaps expecting disaster. To the audience’s stunned surprise, Śāntideva delivered the first recitation of the Bodhicaryāvatāra.
Famously, as he drew to a close while reciting the final chapter and still seated in meditation posture, Śāntideva began to rise off the throne. When he recited verse 34 from the renowned ninth chapter on wisdom, he disappeared from view. The rest of the text was spoken by an unseen voice from the sky. Verse IX.34 reads:
When neither entity nor nonentity remains before the mind, since there is no other mode of operation, grasping no objects, it becomes tranquil.Śāntideva, Bodhicaryāvatāra, Chapter IX: 34.