Chapter eight deals with the practice of meditative absorption, though it does so by presenting a series of reflections or themes for contemplation, rather than a general description of the perfection of meditation. In verses VIII.1-38 present a reflection that  meditation is best practiced by a monastic living in solitude, free of involvement with the foolish or distraction from worldly concerns and aggravations. “Distraction does not occur if body and mind are kept sequestered. Therefore, one should renounce the world and disregard distracting thoughts.” (VIII.2)  What the meditator is truly seeking is insight, but first one must have tranquility, and that requires “disregarding one’s delight in the world.” (VIII.4) Once seclusion has been achieved, the practice of meditation can truly begin. “Freed from all other concerns, my own mind in a state of single-pointed thought, I shall apply myself to taming and increasing the meditative concentration of my mind.” (VIII.39)

Buddhist meditation practices in general have two modes. One is calming practice in order to attain tranquility. This Buddhism holds in common with many other traditions of meditation. The Buddha, however, introduced the mode of contemplation in order to attain the insight that leads to liberation from suffering and ultimately buddhahood. Calming practice by itself cannot lead to liberation or awakening, but it is seen as a way of subduing the hindrances to the calm and clear state of mind that is needed for contemplation. These hindrances are sensual desire, ill-will, restlessness & remorse, dullness and drowsiness, and debilitating doubt (whether of oneself or of the teachings and practice). By focusing attention on a subject for meditation (such as the breath), one is able to focus the mind and temporarily subdue these hindrances. For instance, a meditator might focus on the breath, or on a colored disk, or on the thought of radiating loving-kindness, or on a mantra. In the first state of meditative absorption, sensual desire is replaced by a one-pointed attention on the subject of meditation, ill-will is replaced by a bodily sense of rapture and ease as one’s tensions and worries drop away, restlessness & remorse are replaced by mental happiness, dullness & drowsiness is replaced by the initial thought of the subject of meditation, and doubt is replaced by an ongoing examination of the subject of meditation. In the second state of deepening absorption thought and examination drop away as self-conscious effort to maintain attention on the subject of meditation is no longer necessary. In the third state of absorption the excitement of rapture drops away as one attains a state of calm happiness. In the fourth state of absorption even the self-conscious sense of happiness drops away leaving a more sublime state of equanimity and one-pointed awareness of the subject of meditation.

The practice of contemplation requires at least a state approximating the first state of absorption wherein the hindrances are for the most part in abeyance and the positive factors described above are present to some degree if not firmly established. The first state of absorption would be optimal, but the last three are not because contemplation requires thought and examination. The rest of chapter eight is comprised of a series of reflections  that the bodhisattva may contemplate having achieved a sufficient degree of calm focus.

The first two reflections are concerned with undercutting the defilement of sensual desire. Verses VIII.40-70 are a series of reflections based upon the contemplation of impurity which is part of the Buddha’s instructions concerning the four foundations of mindfulness. In the meditation on impurity one overcomes lust by contemplating the many revolting substances that are part of the body such as spit, sweat, mucus, phlegm, earwax, urine, and feces, and also the decomposition of corpses. The idea is that this consideration of impurity and decay will reveal how irrational it is to have lust for what is actually disgusting. People today might find these reflections of a celibate monk trying to maintain his celibacy and overcome the distractions of lust to be excessively morbid. That may be, but it is also true that too many people are overly concerned with catering to physical comfort and pleasure to the point that other values become neglected. Our culture also tends to worship beauty, sometimes using very rigid and unrealistic standards, while refusing to come to terms with bodily infirmity and death.

The reflection continues in verses VIII.71-85 by focusing on the futility of worldly amibitions and efforts to gain physical pleasure.  Śāntideva points out that people work so hard and go through so many troubles to gain what they believe will bring them pleasure that they have no time to actually enjoy anything, and even when they do get a chance to enjoy the rewards of their labor the experience is fleeting. He points out that for even a fraction of the effort made to gain such ephemeral and disappointing worldly pleasures one could have attained buddhahood (VIII.83). His conclusion: “Thus one should recoil from sensual desires and cultivate delight in solitude, in tranquil woodlands empty of contention and strife.” (VIII.85)

From this point on, chapter eight’s contemplations are Mahāyāna in character. Verses VIII.85-89 describe the practice of solitude in remote places as the optimal condition for the development of the awakening mind. This kind of practice is also described in the Lotus Sūtra, for instance when the Buddha states in chapter three, “I have already left the burning house of the triple world. I am tranquil and peaceful In a bower in a forest.” (The Lotus Sutra: Kindle Locations 2258-2260) Or in chapter twenty-one when the Buddha describes the place where the Lotus Sūtra is practiced as the “place of enlightenment”:

In any world where anyone keeps, reads, recites, expounds or copies this sūtra, or acts according to its teachings, or in any place where a copy of this sūtra is put, be it in a garden, in a forest, under a tree, in a monastery, in the house of a person in white robes, in a hall, in a mountain, in a valley, or in the wilderness, there should a stūpa be erected and offerings be made to it because, know this, the place [where the stūpa is erected] is the place of enlightenment. (The Lotus Sutra: Kindle Locations 7134-7137)

Verses VIII.90-110 present the contemplation of the “equality of self and others.” Verse VIII.90 says, “At first one should meditate intently on the equality of oneself and others as follows: ‘All equally experience suffering and happiness. I should look after them as I do myself.’” In verses VIII.91-96, Śāntideva argues that sentient beings are divided but undivided like parts of the body, therefore the suffering or happiness of any is the suffering and happiness of all.

In verses VIII.97-103, he argues that suffering is not something that happens to a self divided from others and proceeds to deconstruct the view that there is a fixed independent self-identity. In Buddhism, the person who dies is not the same as the person who is reborn but neither are they totally different. The consciousness of any given moment conditions but is not identical to the consicousness of the moment following it, just as it was itself conditioned by the preceding moment. This happens even within a lifetime. The Buddha taught that it also happens across lifetimes, consciousness at the moment of dying conditions the consciousness at the moment of conception of the following life. In this way there is not a single unchanging self but a continuum. Likewise, the parts of a body try to guard against or get rid of pain felt in other parts of a body. The bodily parts are different but not different. “The continuum of consciousness, like a queue, and the combination of constituents, like an army, are not real. The person who experiences suffering does not exist. To whom will that suffering belong?” (VIII.101) The point is that there is no substantial self that suffers, only a continuum of related bodily parts or related moments of conscoiusness. The conclusion is this: “Without exception, no sufferings belong to anyone. They must be warded off simply because they are suffering. Why is any limitation put on this?” (VIII.102) In other words, our concern for the relief of suffering must extend beyond our own lives because ultimately there is no real self and therefore no real distinction between self and other. The concern for bodhisattvas is to get rid of suffering generally without distinguishing between the suffering of self and other (VIII.103).

It could be argued, “compassion causes us so much suffering, why force it to arise?” (VIII.104) Śāntideva responds that in the face of the world’s suffering the suffering of compassion is small, and if suffering is alleviated through compassionate actions and beings are liberated, then it is the bodhisattva who will experience fulfillment through sympathetic joy. It is the bodhisattva who has compassion for the suffering of all beings and works to alleviate it who is able to become truly happy and at ease. “In fact, though acting for the good of others, there is neither intoxication nor dismay, nor desire for the resulting reward, with a thirst solely for the well-being of others. Therefore, just as I protect myself to the last against criticism, let me develop in this way an attitude of protectiveness and generosity towards others as well.” (VIII.109-110)

In verses VIII.111-119 Śāntideva returns to the non-duality of self and others. He begins by pointing out that all that we are originated from our parents and yet we still identify our body as “ours.” (VIII.111) He recommends extending our identification with others also, as we are all parts of the whole which is the universe. “In the same way that the hands and other limbs are loved because they form part of the body, why are embodied creatures not likewise loved because they form part of the universe? In the same way that, with practice, the idea of a self arose towards this, one’s own body, though it is without a self, with practice will not the same idea of a self develop towards others too?” (VIII.114-115) By thinking in this way we will become as protective and compassionate as the World Voice Perceiver Bodhisattva of chapter 25 of the Lotus Sūtra, who “empowered even his own name to drive away even such fear as the shyness people have in front of an audience.” (VIII.118) With such a compasssionate outlook as this, even difficulties once feared become rewarding to bodhisattvas as they are viewed as opportunities to alleviate suffering and liberate beings (VIII.119).

The next contemplation is the “exchange of self and other” (VIII.120) Before the contemplation proper, Śāntideva makes a comparison between the fool who acts for his own advantage and the sage who acts for the advantage of others. “’If I give, what shall I enjoy?’ Such concern for one’s own welfare is fiendish. ‘If I enjoy, what shall I give?’ Such concern for the welfare of others is divine.” (VIII.125) “All those who suffer in the world do so because of their desire for their own happiness. All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others.” (VIII.129) The conclusion is this: “If one does not let go of self one cannot let go of suffering, as one who does not let go of fire cannot let go of burning. Therefore, in order to allay my own suffering and to allay the suffering of others, I devote myself to others and accept them as myself.” (VIII.135-136)

The actual exchange of self and others occurs in verses VIII.141-146. In those verses, Śāntideva takes the point of view of those someone inferior to himself, someone who is jealous of his superior position and resentful that he does nothing to  help them. In verse VIII.147, he takes the contentious point of view of a rival. In VIII.148-155, he takes the point of view of someone superior to himself, someone who is contemptuous of his inferiority and exploitive in his conduct. In this way the problem of self-conceit is explored from every angle. In Buddhism, self-conceit is not just a matter of viewing oneself as superior to others, rather it is the habit of constantly comparing oneself to others and being preoccupied with one’s status, whether superior, equal, or inferior.  The result of these exercises in imaginatively viewing onself objectively from others’ eyes will hopefully be that the contemplator will overcome self-conceit, avoid arrogance and contention, and be more patient, helpful, and kind.

Verses VIII.155-157 are exhortations to practice the contemplation of exchanging self and other. Verse VIII.158 recapitulates the idea that one should identify with others in the same way that one identifies with the body that originated with one’s parents. Verse VIII.159, like verse VIII.139 previously, exhorts the bodhisattva to use their body for the benefit of others. Verses VIII.160-172 are exhortations to humble the ego-centered “self” and make it into a self that is of service to others. In this practice, you do for others everything that you would want done for you. Verses VIII.173-184 are further reflections on putting one’s body in the service of others. All of this is summed up in the following: “Therefore, without regret, I abandon my body to the benefit of the world. For this reason, though it has many faults, I carry it as a tool for the task.” (VIII.184)

Chapter eight ends in verses VIII.185-186 with a final exhortation to be vigilant and practice meditation.