Susan Shannon shares her passion for Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva
I have had a lifetime of being very nourished by studying the classical texts of Buddhism. When I began reading Shantideva, I was very taken at the invitation he was offering us through the Bodhicaryavatara, which is his guidebook to becoming a bodhisattva. When I got to chapter six, which is on patience (sometimes translated as forebearance), I was in a long dark night of the soul which lasted eight years. It was Kafkaesque, as one of my good friends called it. It involved losing the use of my arms and hands, falling through a lot of medical cracks, losing my job, and eventually losing everything I had spent my life building. So to come to Shantideva’s chapter on forebearance at that time was a real gift. However, this was heavy grit sandpaper for me, because what Shantideva asks of us is in that chapter is to see all of the arisings of our hardship with joy. That joy comes from a commitment to bodhichitta.
In chapter three of the Bodhicaryavatara, which I will teach on at Sukhasiddhi on June 7, Shantideva wants us to understand the power of bodhicitta so that we will commit to it. So what is the experience of bodhicitta like? I’ve talked to several people since Covid hit, including Lama Palden, who have experienced a phenomenon of feeling a vast compassion that leads to spontaneous tears. It can be felt as sadness, and though sadness is in those tears, there is more. Could they be the tears of a greater experience of an awakened heart? A heart that is blown boundless, where the entire experience of being sentient merges with the the great Buddha field of compassion.
This is bodhicitta, the place where we can find joy in suffering.
Finding meaning when things are going terribly
I don’t know that I would have survived that dark time in my life were it not for Shantideva’s teachings on committing to Bodhicitta and finding joy in suffering. I didn’t have anything else in my life to depend on that made sense to me at that time, so I committed to sending love to the doctor who had botched my surgery. I sent love to the rats that were running around my house. I sent love to the bureaucracies I was fighting. It took eight years for it all to sort out, and then angels began to appear in my life. What I mean by angels is people who were sincerely drawn into the vibration of love. Maybe I couldn’t tie my shoes, but I was still alive, so I began to sit with dying people.
To be able to find meaning in life is one thing when things are going good, and another when things are going terribly. This is where we grow. It’s no surprise that if you buy a dull knife you need a sharpening stone. Life provides us with that sharpening stone. It usually has to do with identity. Understanding ignorance and the emptiness of all phenomena is core to being able to practice with wisdom. Shantideva offers us scaffolding for our spiritual practice — a step-by-step approach to spiritual evolution for the benefit of all sentient beings in a perspective that includes all beings of the past, of the present, and of the future.
When we fully walk this path, our sentience has a meaning in the timeless span of consciousness, and our practice begins to do us.That’s what I found to be true in my own life, thanks to this incredible text. My own life began after it completely fell to pieces, and then those pieces became pieces. Through it all, I kept practicing, and this practice bore fruit. Slowly opportunities began to present themselves for me to be of benefit to a greater and greater number of people, with being able to create a sangha in a prison, doing weekly Buddhist practice with the men on death row. The fruit of practice is attainable for all of us.
An antidote to fear and anxiety
I was scheduled to come and talk on the third chapter at Sukhasiddhi just when Covid was starting to hit, and we canceled it. But over the weeks ensuing, as people were locked down, I regretted that we had canceled because what better time for a teaching on how to make our body, speech and mind of benefit? It’s one thing when we have the freedom and privilege of distracting ourselves by going here and there. Suddenly, we were locked down, and some people were really disoriented. Fear began to seep in.
I saw with so many people that once fear and anxiety set in, there was no longer a focus on how can I help. Maybe it was the stress and the cortisol released, but whatever it was, this inner stability was lost. As we explore the teachings of Shantideva, he shows us in every way how to stay on our square of altruism and bodhicitta, using our human incarnation in the very best way we can all the time, no matter if we are around people or not. And that’s why I think the teaching is so incredibly useful for this time.
The power of commitment
I remember telling my Death Row sangha, You don’t read Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, you marry it. The first translation of the Bodhicaryavatara that I bought, I can barely read anymore because it so thumbed through, so full of notes that the pages are almost transparent. I have lived in the sixth chapter for 21 years. I was not surprised when I read that the Dalai Lama said the sixth chapter contains all the teachings of Buddhism: If you can practice the sixth chapter in your lifetime, you will be practicing the entire Buddhist path.
There’s a line in the fourth or fifth chapter that says something like, one should guard one’s commitment to the awakened heart like one guards a fresh wound in a crowded marketplace. I’ve always loved that because we can all remember the feeling when we have a twisted ankle or a cut index finger, and we have to be close to other people and other things, and we guard our wound with an innate sense of protection. That innate protective sense goes hand in hand with a deep commitment to cultivating an awakened heart.
Note: Susan Shannon will teach four sessions on Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara online in June and July.
Rev. Susan Shannon has been a student and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism for 45 years, and has studied with many of Tibet’s greatest teachers here and abroad. Since being ordained as an Interfaith Minister and becoming a clinical chaplain, Susan’s ministry has been focused on transformational programs in prison ministry. Her work is rooted in the principals of restorative justice and emotional literacy, fostering interconnectedness and healthy community engagement. Susan has dedicated her life to the study of sacred Buddhist texts, in various languages as well, and especially loves bringing forth the wisdom of Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva to as many people as possible.