Readings of Śāntideva's Guide to Bodhisattva Practice

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Jonathan C. Gold, Douglas S. Duckworth
  • New York: 
    Columbia University Press
    , August
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Readings of Śāntideva’s Guide to Bodhisattva Practice offers fifteen perspectives on a classic Mahāyāna Buddhist treatise on the bodhisattva path by as many accomplished scholars. This volume models a surprisingly rare approach in Buddhist studies: a project focused on an historically important premodern text, carried out by a gathering of scholars with diverse expertise and methodological commitments, whose individual readings build upon one other’s. Two features of this approach are particularly compelling. First, it is collaborative and dialogical in nature, something that is evident from the many intertextual references between essays in the volume, as well as its overall consistency and sophistication. Second, its focus on a classic text foregrounds questions vital to the field of Buddhist studies about what it is to read an ancient work “not just as an interesting historical or cultural artifact but one that speaks to the present as though it belongs to our world” (12-13).

Readings of Śāntideva’s editors, Jonathan Gold and Douglas Duckworth, gave structure to the volume by sorting the essays into four groupings. Essays in the first grouping approach the text as text. For instance, an introduction by Gold pairs with Paul Harrison’s essay to address basic questions regarding Śāntideva’s biography, the historical context of the Guide’s original composition, questions surrounding authorship, and the Guide’s relationship to Śāntideva’s other major known work, the Śikṣāsamuccaya. Of particular interest is Gold’s notion of the Guide being the product of “participatory authorship,” a process by which readers engaging as practitioners with the text made notations, based on their own experiences and knowledge base, which were then incorporated, perhaps knowingly, into the text by copyists (7–8). Harrison, on the other hand, attributes differences between long and short editions of the text to Śāntideva’s own revisions over time. Essays by Amber Carpenter and Sonam Kachru are also included in this grouping. Kachru’s innovative chapter contributes to discussions about genre and authorship by exploring the first-person voice of the Guide. Kachru interprets it not only or primarily as an expression of Śāntideva’s subjective personal voice, but as a means of enabling the reader to participate in an “anonymous”—non-particular, capacious, generic—experiment in subjectivity (66).

The second grouping includes chapters that, according to Gold, “partake of the crucial shift in Buddhist Studies in recent years” towards the local, ritual, human, and embodied lives of texts (20). This section includes illuminating—and student-friendly—essays by Janet Gyatso, Reiko Ohnuma, and Eric Huntington, as well as an adept reading of the Guide’s difficult ninth chapter on the perfection of wisdom by Matthew Kapstein. Gyatso’s essay revisits Śāntideva’s famous treatment of a meditative exercise called “exchanging self and other” through the lens of a medieval Japanese dramatist’s theories on Nōh theatre. This comparison inspires Gyatso to conceptualize bodhisattva activity in the Guide as a way of acting in which ordinary forms of self-consciousness are replaced by an audience-aware “360-view of the self” (111–112). Ohnuma’s thorough study of body in the Guide takes up Susanne Mrozik’s ground-breaking work on embodied virtue in the Śikṣāsamuccaya, reminding readers that body comes a close second in importance to mind in Śāntideva’s advice on awakening bodhicitta. Huntington’s contribution addresses the ritual and material dimensions of the Guide, both within the text itself and in its subsequent reception in South Asian and the Himalayan Buddhism. Huntington clearly shows that the philosophical and ethical concerns at the center of Śāntideva’s project are inseparable from the materiality of ritual and devotional practice, at least in Buddhist religious settings.

The third and fourth groupings bring together essays on the Tibetan reception of the Guide, and philosophical readings of the Guide respectively. Thupten Jinpa’s erudite essay, grouped with Tibet-focused essays by Roger Jackson and Douglas Duckworth, traces the complicated connections between the Guide and Tibetan mind training traditions (lojong). Jinpa calls attention to the role the Guide’s “deeply personal tone,” “amazing practicality,” and “deep insights . . . on basic human psychology” (157) played in its popularity in the cultural environment of Tibet. Jinpa also briefly discusses evidence of its influence on the modern West, including the Dalai Lama’s writings on secular ethics and the emergence of Buddhist-derived secular compassion trainings in North America. Jay Garfield’s contribution to the fourth grouping on philosophical ethics (which includes additional essays by Charles Goodwin, Bronwyn Finnegan, and John Dunne) uses the framework of moral phenomenology to shine light on the Guide as a potential new approach to countering implicit bias rooted in sexism, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia. Moral phenomenology emphasizes correct perception of self and others over duty, adherence to moral principle, or analysis of consequences. As Garfield shows, this emphasis is consonant with the Guide’s focus on awareness of self and the cultivation of equanimity/non-reactivity.

There are, of course, other ways to group the essays in this rich volume. Certain chapters will be important for specialists studying the textual history and reception of the Guide (Gold, Harrison, Jinpa, Jackson, Duckworth). Other chapters will be useful for non-specialists wishing to integrate this perennial text into conversations in the larger field of philosophy (Carpenter, Kapstein, Jinpa, Jackson, Duckworth, Garfield, Goodman, Finnigan, Dunne). Yet others will be valuable for teaching undergraduates the Guide in religious studies and Buddhist studies classrooms (Kapstein, Gyatso, Ohnuma, Huntington, Garfield, Dunne).

I would additionally group together certain of the chapters for pointing towards a more grounded, applied, and thickly contextualized reading of Śāntideva, an approach I find especially compelling and needed. The chapters by Huntington, Jinpa, and Garfield, briefly described above, all fit into this category. Gold’s introduction can also be included here because of its incisive discussion of the Guide’s role in shaping and legitimizing contemporary Tibetan politics; that is, its “political ecumenism” and “compassionate approach” to the Chinese occupation (14–15).

It is not altogether fair to criticize an excellent volume for what it doesn’t get around to doing. What follows should be taken as an aspirational comment.  Śāntideva’s text is pragmatic, personal, and psychologically real, qualities remarked upon by several of the authors in this volume. Jackson adds the notion of its “wildness,” that is, its plurality and ambiguity, its tendency to “overflow with possible meanings and uses” (162). One challenge I would pose to this volume’s editors and authors is:  if the text is pragmatic and “wild,” why are the dominant methodologies used not consonant? In other words, why are so many of the chapters primarily concerned with reading the Guide in terms of its own internal Buddhist doctrinal arguments, its scholastic interpretations and reception history, its textuality? Why do so few introduce a sociological or ethnographic perspective, or speak to questions in applied ethics, in order to arrive at a more vivid sense of how this uniquely accessible but unruly text has been taken up or might be taken up by a diversity of communities and people? Gold and Harrison locate the genesis of the Guide within the special institutional and social environment of ancient Nālandā, where Śāntideva is said to have lived and studied. If the claim that the Guide is a perennial, wild, and amazingly practical text is to stand, its psychological insights and approach to moral transformation must function outside of that relatively homogenous monastic environment. Again, I commend Garfield, Huntington, Gold, and Jinpa for their respective attempts to work towards a more ethically applied, historically descriptive, and/or sociologically aware approach to the Guide. More Śāntideva scholarship that follows their trajectory is needed.

Given the elements of androcentrism and misogyny in the Guide, it seems especially important to explore in greater depth how Buddhist women, specifically, have or could engage this text and its related practices, a question almost wholly absent from this volume. Do all diverse “others” count in the “exchange of self and other”? As just one example, have Śāntideva’s teachings on awakening bodhicitta engendered empathy and compassion for the experiences of those that have been sexually abused in Buddhist communities? My undergraduate students ask me these questions when we read the Guide. I hope I will have more answers for them based on future work by skilled Śāntideva scholars like those contributing to this volume.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy Paris Langenberg is associate professor of religious studies at Eckerd College.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan C. Gold is associate professor in the Department of Religion at Princeton University. He is the author of The Dharma’s Gatekeepers: Sakya Paṇḍita on Buddhist Scholarship in Tibet (2007) and Paving the Great Way: Vasubandhu’s Unifying Buddhist Philosophy (Columbia, 2015).

Douglas Duckworth is associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Religion at Temple University. His latest works include Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy of Mind and Nature (2019) and a translation of an overview of the Wisdom Chapter of the Guide to Bodhisattva Practice by Künzang Sönam, entitled The Profound Reality of Interdependence (2019).


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