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Buddhadharma : Spring 2006
spring 2006| 74 |buddhadharma commentary on the bulk of the Bodhicarya vatara by a Westernborn teacher, and so represents a milestone in the course of the text’s transmission to the West. The trans lation of Shantideva’s verses on which she comments is that of the Padmakara Translation Committee (The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambhala). Based on the Tibetan version rather than the Sanskrit original, it is, nevertheless, the clearest and most poetic Bodhicaryavatara trans lation in English. Chödrön comments on nearly every verse in nine of the text’s ten chapters. She has omitted chapter nine, on wisdom, noting that it involves a daunting and complex discussion of Madhyamaka philosophy that would merit a book of its own. As we might expect, given her empha sis on a positive psychological approach to Buddhism, Chödrön treats the Bodhi caryavatara above all as a set of “surpris ingly uptodate instructions for people like you and me to live sanely and open heartedly, even in a very troubled world.” She provides consistently clear exposi tions of Shantideva’s sometimes convo luted verses and lines of argument, keeping her eye firmly on the question of how his discussion is relevant to the lives of ordinary people living in modern soci eties. She illuminates, from a psychologi cal standpoint, a whole range of concepts and practices crucial to appreciating Shantideva’s work, such as generosity, prostration, confession, merit, ignorance, shame, virtue, anger, pride, disillusion ment, solitude, and prayer. In so doing, she downplays the differences between Shantideva’s cosmology and social atti tudes and our own, and presents him as a sort of inspirational cognitive therapist who urgently wants to help us think and feel our way to sanity. The illustrations she provides often are drawn from the cultural currency of the West, including references to the comic strip Peanuts and the movie Groundhog Day, the revolution in South Africa, and repeated reminders of Westerners’ ten dency toward selfloathing, our obsession with our personal dramas, and our need to undergo “detox” to rid ourselves of our addiction to shenpa – the grasping and attachment, the “nonverbal tighten ing or shutting down” that keeps us in the turmoil that is samsara. Shenpa itself is rooted in and helps to reinforce our inability to appreciate our clear, open, empty, gentle nature, which, if only we could relax into it, would be the key to our and others’ happiness. Chödrön’s interpretation of the Bodhi caryavatara as a kind of cognitive therapy is entirely reasonable, and should be greatly appreciated by her audience, which consists mostly of educated Western laypeople trying to live wiser and more compassionate lives in a frenetic and bewildering world. In this sense, she has “translated” Shantideva for modern readers most effectively, and I have noth ing but admiration for her reading of the text, from which I have learned much. Where a classic is concerned, however, every interpretive choice involves exclud ing other possible readings, and it is worth at least noting some of what Chödrön does not say about the Bodhi caryavatara. She does not say much about the text’s ritual dimension. It actually is possible to view the entire Bodhicaryavatara as an extended Mahayana liturgy, and it is undeniable at least that portions of the poem have been drawn from earlier Mahayana rituals. Portions of Shantideva’s text, in turn, have become incorporated into Tibetan rites, such as the ceremony for administering the bodhisattva vows. Chödrön touches on this, but very lightly. Ritual often is a secondary concern for modern Western Buddhists (even Tibetan Buddhists!), but it has been central to the religious life of most Buddhists in most places and times, especially in Asia, and it certainly was a basic part of life in Shantideva’s Indian monastic setting. Chödrön also says little about the Bodhicaryavatara’s philosophical dimen sion. She clearly appreciates the ingenuity of Shantideva’s arguments, but she rarely acknowledges (as, for instance, Paul Williams does in his provocative Altruism and Reality) that many of his verses pose difficult ethical and metaphysical prob lems, ranging from the paradox of altru ism (how can I seek my own enlightenment for the sake of others without selfish ness?), to the ramifications of the doctrine of skillful means (how far can a bodhisat tva bend conventional morality?), to the nature of buddhas (are they the same as, or different from each other and sentient beings?), to the relation between empti ness (shunyata) and compassion (doesn’t the former threaten to undermine the latter?). Chödrön’s comments on shunyata are few, and tend to emphasize its connota tions of openness and indefinability, and its relation to buddhanature. This is fine, but it only begins to hint at the richness of the concept as Shantideva employs it, even outside the Wisdom chapter. That she would not fully comment on that chapter is understandable, but that she entirely omits it is regrettable, since, as Shantideva asserts in the chapter’s very first verse, all of his foregoing discussion has been for the sake of wisdom, which, whether approached analytically or non conceptually, is essential to completion of the bodhisattva path. Finally, Chödrön does not always acknowledge the cosmological and cul tural aspects of Shantideva’s outlook that may be unpalatable to modern Western ers. These include his references to the realms of samsara, including, most fre quently, various hells; his evocations of the vicissitudes of karma in this and other lives; his punctilious insistence on observ ing monastic rules; and his denigration of the body, especially the female body. These and other traditional attitudes may make modern Buddhists uncomfortable, but they were a real and inescapable part of the ethos in which Shantideva lived and have been taken quite seriously by Shantideva’s Tibetan interpreters. There fore, they cannot easily be explained away. Certainly, it is important to make a classic like the Bodhicaryavatara acces sible to different audiences in various times and places, but not without acknowledging that the text is both famil iar and alien, that it both invites and dis tances us, and challenges us constantly to confront who we are and what we think. A classic should discomfit us, even as it draws us into its vision. In the end, no commentary can possi bly exhaust a text as rich and complex as the Bodhicaryavatara. Pema Chödrön’s No Time To Lose may do little to enhance our appreciation of the ritual, philosophi cal, and cultural aspects of Shantideva’s great poem, but it is a superlative presen tation of the text for modern Western Buddhists whose focus is on the applica bility of dharma to everyday life. It is indeed, as the subtitle suggests, a timely guide to the Bodhicaryavatara, which elo quently, if selectively, extends its commen tarial tradition into the brave new world of twentyfirstcentury Buddhism.