Patience

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Chapter six is about the perfection of patience. It starts off by describing the dangers of hatred and the virtue of patience (or forbearance). “There is no evil equal to hatred, and no spiritual practice equal to forebearance.” (VI.2)

One piece of especially good advice to avoid dejection is this: “If there is a solution, then what is the point of dejection? What is the point of dejection if there is no solution?” (VI.10)

Śāntideva then exhorts himself to show courage and to face suffering squarely so that suffering can be eliminated. He points out that suffering can even be helpful. “The virtue of suffering has no rival, since, from the shock it causes, intoxication falls away and there arises compassion for those in cyclic existence, fear of evil, and a longing for the Conqueror.” (VI.21)

The next section of chapter six discusses the conditioning of evil and evil-doers, so as to show that evil and suffering are not substantial but caused and conditioned, and the conditions in and of themselves, more often than not, were not primarily intended to cause suffering or bring about evil. Verses VI.25-26 say, “Whatever transgressions and evil deeds of various kinds there are, all arise through the power of conditioning factors, while there is nothing that arises independently. Neither does the assemblage of conditioning factors have the thought, ‘I shall produce’; nor does what is produced have the thought, ‘I am produced.’”

This means that the intention an evil-doer has to harm others is caused by phenomena that are not themselves harmful intentions and the harmful intentions produced as well as the conditioned entity holding them are ignorant of their own conditioned nature. In a sense, all are unwitting victims of circumstance. Take the members of one ethnic group who persecute or even committ genocide against another ethnic group. The persecuting group may have or believe they have legitimate grievances against the other group. Perhaps the other group exploited them in the past, or took or are believed to have taken some unfair economic advantage. Or perhaps the persecuting group fears for their own safety and believe, rightly or wrongly, that the other group plans to attack or undermine their preferred social arrangements and values. Through fear they begin to demonize the other group. They lose empathy and cultivate hatred and even cruelty. Lack of imagination (which is what empathy for others involves), perception of a grievance or a future threat, and ignorance of the true nature of the “other” are things that may not be outright evil in and of themselves, but they are the kinds of delusions and weaknesses that lead to evil. When we consider these things we can understand how harmful intentions and actions towards others may arise, even within ourselves when we fail to empathize, buy into unexamined prejudices, and give in to paranoia about the “other.” Rarely, if ever, does anyone want to be or set out to be the “bad guy” but due to causes and conditions people end up becoming oppressive, cruel, and unjust. Through analyzing the causes and conditions for the actions of others we dissipate our anger and cultivate understanding and even empathy for those who, out of ignorance and the circumstances of their own past and perceptions felt impelled to commit harmful actions. By letting go of anger, we can come up with a more clear headed and effective solution to unjust and harmful actions on the part of others (or perhaps even see that our perceptions were causing us to see malicious intent where there was actually only misunderstanding and unaddressed grievances).

This is not to say that people do not act with ill-will, callous disregard, or other motives that we would consider bad or even evil. It is also not to say that people should not be held accountable for their actions. What this deconstruction of evil aims to do is help us to understand that what we perceive as evil too evolves out of causes and conditions and has no stable or fixed identity. Its ephemeral nature means that our anger has no ultimately real object. Again, if we can stop demonizing the “other” or catastrophizing painful situations but instead look at causes and conditions analytically we can more cooly and effectively deal with them, both within ourselves and in influencing the people and situations around us for the better.

Śāntideva continues to argue along these lines in the next five verses but extends it into a critique of Sāṃkhya, one of the six schools of Vedic philosophy, and closely related to the theories underlying the practice of Yoga (also considered one of the six schools of Vedic philosophy). This will require a bit of unpacking. Verse VI.27 says, “The much-sought-for ‘primal matter’, or the imagined ‘Self’, even that does not come into being after deciding ‘I shall become’. In Sāṃkhya, the pradhāna or prakṛti, the “primal matter,” is the undifferentiated basis of all that can be experienced. The pure awareness that is the experiencer is called puruṣa, which is synonymous with the Ātman, or “Self.”

Why does Śāntideva assert that neither the alleged prime matter as the basis of experience nor the Self as the experiencer could intentionally bring themselves into being? The following verses provide his reasoning. He points out in verse  VI.28 that if something does not exist, then it cannot wish itself into existence. Alternatively, if it is believed that an entity exists in an independent unchanging manner, then it cannot choose to cease existing but will continue to act as it always has, so its existence and activity is not a choice but a necessity. In neither case could it be blamed for being what it is, because it had no choice in the matter.

Furthermore, the Self as envisioned by the Sāṃkhya is a pure awareness, a simple awareness without even the changing thoughts and feelings of a stream of consciousness, for such a stream is, in Sāṃkhya, the changing permutations of the most subtle forms of the primal matter that Self mistakenly identifies itself with. If the Self is simply a pure awareness that does not change even through contact with primal matter, then it is inactive like space (VI.29), and therefore not blamable for any action.

In the next verse, VI.30, it is pointed out that if something does not change at all, then how can it be part of any kind of activity that involves change. It’s very involvement would change it. Some might claim that there is no change because the action is necessarily a part of the unchanging composition of the agent of the action. But to say this is to raise the question, “does the act cause the actor to exist, or does the actor cause an action to happen? In either case, the actor is not an eternal unchanging and inactive entity.

All of this is to show that there are insoluble difficulties in trying to speak of unchanging entities as being responsible for the changing phenomenal world that we actually experience. It is also to show that there are no primal singular causes for anything, including the painful circumstances and events of life. In the analysis of any given situation, no single independent unchanging entity can be found to blame. All that is found is the dynamic network that is dependent origination. Śāntideva sums this up in VI.31, “In this way, everything is dependent on something else. Even that thing upon which each is dependent is not independent. Since, like a magical display, phenomena do not initiate activity, at what does one get angry like this?” There is no single thing to blame, be angry at, or hold hatred for, but there are causes and conditions that can be worked with and changed.

Śāntideva then raises the following question, “If it is argued that to resist anger is inappropriate, for ‘who is it that resists what?’, our view is that it is appropriate since there is dependent origination there can be cessation of suffering.” (VI.32) In other words, if everything is just a flow of impersonal causes and conditions, then how can we hold anyone responsible for anything, and why should we even care or bother? However, this impersonal flow of causality does give rise to the subjective experience of suffering, and so if we wish for this to cease then we should take responsibility, at least for our own subjective sense of involvement and contributions, and do what we can to change the causes and conditions so that suffering is removed from the flow. In this way, suffering will cease for both ourselves and others.

Why, then, bother to analyze away our judgments about the motives of others, if Buddhism still insists that sentient beings can and should take responsibility for their actions? The point is to understand that others do not understand that they are being impelled by causes and conditions, and this is one reason they suffer. The point of analysis is to move away from blaming others for being “bad” or “evil” and see that because of ignorance we have all become victims of circumstance to one extent or another and because of that act in harmful and even self-destructive ways. To awaken to this situation is to awaken empathy for ourselves and others. It is to see that beings do not really want to cause suffering but practically cannot help themselves until they begin to awaken. As verse VI.33 states, “Therefore, even if one sees a friend or an enemy behaving badly, one can reflect that there are specific conditioning factors that determine this, and thereby remain happy.”

The argument for empathy rather than blame for others is summed up VI.37-40: “When, under the power of defilements in this way, they injure even their own dear selves, how could they have care for the persons of other people? When, driven insane by their defilements, they resort to killing themselves, how is it that not only have you no pity but you become angry? If it is their very nature to cause others distress, my anger towards those fools is as inappropriate as it would be towards fire for its nature to burn. In fact, this fault is adventitious. Beings are by nature pleasant. So anger toward them is as inappropriate as it would be towards the sky if full of acrid smoke.” Note that these verses assert that the defilements are adventitious and that the true nature of people is to be pleasant. It can therefore be said that the bodhisattva is striving to awaken in order to restore the true nature of themselves and others.

Śāntideva then reflects that just as someone struck with a stick does not get angry at the stick but at the person wielding the stick, we should not stop there but reserve our hatred for the hatred that is controlling the person who strikes out at others (VI.41). This is not an unfamiliar reflection, as in our culture we have the saying “Hate the sin, not the sinner.” It is still easier said than done.

Śāntideva continues to reflect on his own culpability in being hurt by others, because he too has caused suffering to others in the past and now he is getting what he deserves (VI.42). In other words, the harm being done to him now is the effect of harmful causes that he made in the past. He then makes the rather odd argument that he is also to blame for the craving that led to his having a body that could be harmed in the first place (VI.43-46). Frankly, this kind of rhetoric seems a bit unhealthy. It can easily lead to “blaming the victim,” because it seems to be saying that no one would ever be harmed unless they were karmically responsible for similar aggression or worse in the past (or a past life). It also seems to be saying that any harm that comes to you is your fault for being alive in the first place. We should remember, however, that these are arguments for patience that Śāntideva is making for himself, that a practitioner would then likewise make for him or herself. It is not meant to be applied to other people. Still, the problem remains – are we really also to blame for the bad things we believe others have done to us because we were to blame in the past and that it’s our fault for being alive? This is not only unconvicing but it seems to be a negation of self-worth and of the value of life, and that does not seem very healthy.

Still, there may be a couple of things about the argument that are worth considering. The Buddha did teach that not everything happens because of karma. There is the teaching of the five niyāmas, or “certainties,” that describe five different modes of operation of the law of cause and effect. This teaching is based on a discourse in the Connected Discourses of the Buddha (SN 36.21). In brief, the law of cause and effect operates in terms of the interactions and changes of inanimate matter, biological processes, non-volitional mental activity, volitional or consciously willed activity, and the unselfconscious activity of the awakened ones. These five modes overlap, build upon, and influence one another. Only the volitional activity, though, is karmic in the sense of sowing seeds through intentional acts of thought, word, and deed that come to fruition as a particular body, mind, environment, and set of relationships. Volitional activity, however, is the one area that we can take responsibility for and exert some control over. So it is the one we should focus on. Returning to Śāntideva’s reflections, perhaps he is right that we should consider how we ourselves have contributed to any problems that we might be facing, or how we may have caused others similar problems in the past (perhaps even in a past life). Śāntideva’s reflection are not so much about blaming ourselves as realizing that we may not be blameless, esp. when we consider that our actions do matter and contribute to the way the world is for us.

Also, to be alive does mean to be vulnerable, and we should come to terms with that vulnerability and not blame others when things do not go our way or when others act in ways that we do not approve of. It is not that we should blame ourselves for being alive and vulnerable, but we should realize that if we are going to embrace life we are also going to embrace vulnerability and all the painful circumstances, contradictions, and infirmities that come with being alive. This is all by way of reconciling ourselves with what is and learning how to let go of anger and hatred. This idea is repeated in VI.66 which states, “Whether the cause possesses consciousness or not, distress is inevitable for embodied beings. That distress appears in what is conscious. Tolerate that pain therefore. “

Śāntideva next considers that if his past actions were what caused other people to be angry with him and to commit unwholesome karmic deeds, then he is the one who has harmed them (VI.47), and if he retaliates against them then he will be harming them again and also failing in his bodhisattva practice (VI.51). On the other hand, if he is patient, he will have expiated his own past misdeeds while they will fall into hell (VI.48). If such is the case, then there is no reason to be angry because his persecuters have given him the opportunity to cultivate patience and rid himself of past evils while they have caused themselves further harm on his account. It seems as though Śāntideva is assuring himself that his enemies are actually his benefactors and that nevertheless they will be punished for their misdeeds towards him, so he should feel compassion for them instead of anger. Further on in chapter six, Śāntideva reflects that if it weren’t for persecuters with malign intent he would not have the opportunity to practice patience, just as one cannot practice generosity if there is no one to give to (VI.105-111). So there is reason to be grateful towards persecuters instead of giving in to hatred of them.

Śāntideva also says, “And my hatred towards those who damage sacred images and stūpas or who abuse the true teaching is inappropriate, since the buddhas and bodhisattvas are not distressed.” (VI.64) Instead of jealously guarding their dignity and authority and advocating violence towards non-believers, the buddhas and bodhisattvas advocate patience and compassion towards those who are so bound by ignorance and their own prejudices and partisanship that they would attack Buddhism.

Śāntideva considers that the bodhisattvas (and buddhas in their previous lifetimes as bodhisattvas) have sacrificed everything to liberate sentient beings, so how could he do otherwise than serve sentient beings, even those who are currently maligant because they are controlled by their defilements, if he wishes to emulate them and attain buddhahood (VI.120). All other beings are cherished by the buddhas and bodhisattvas and so we should cherish them and serve them as well (VI.125-126). In Nichiren Buddhism, the story of Never Despising Bodhisattva in chapter 21 of the Lotus Sutra provides a model of the bodhisattva who is abused by others but nevertheless tries to teach them that they too are destined to attain buddhahood.

Morality

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The rest of chapter five deals with the perfection of morality and the guarding of awareness. In verse V.11 Śāntideva asks, “Where can fish and other creatures be taken where I might not kill them? Yet when the mental attitude to cease from worldly acts is achieved, that is agreed to be the perfection of morality.” As with the perfection of generosity, the important thing for Śāntideva is the cultivation of an underlying attitude of non-violence and self-discipline, rather than merely trying to arrange external relations so as to keep oneself from harming others. He continues in verse V.12, “How many wicked people, as unending as the sky, can I kill? But when the mental attitude of anger is slain, slain is every enemy.” The idea seems to be that if you don’t make enemies, you won’t have enemies, and in this way one rids the world bit-by-bit of enmity starting with one’s own attitude. Of course, others may try to make you into an enemy, but if you are a bodhisattva you will not reciprocate their enmity, and will instead try to change the adversarial relationship into something more productive. In verses V.13-14 Śāntideva reflects, “Where is there hide to cover the whole world? The wide world can be covered with hide enough for a pair of shoes alone. In the same way, since I cannot control external events, I will control my own mind. What concern is it of mine whether other things are controlled?” The perfection of morality is here defined as minding one’s own business. Instead of trying to control the outside world and other people we instead focus on controlling our own minds so that instead of seeing problems (or making) problems we see and implement solutions.

Śāntideva points out that our practice will come to nothing if we are not aware of what we are doing. We need to be vigilant and aware of the causes that we are making or failing to make. In verse V.16 he says that the Buddha has “declared that all recitation and austerity, even though performed over a long time, is completely useless if the mind is on something else or is dull.” In vese V.17 Śāntideva warns, “Those who have not developed this mind, which is hidden and contains the whole sum of dharmas, wander the compass in vain trying to attain happiness and destroy suffering.” Unless the practitioner is mindful, any other practice they undertake will be undermined by thoughtlessness and carelessness, whereby the true spirit of even the most excellent teaching and practice will be lost. Verse V.18 states, “Therefore I should manage and guard my mind well. If I let go of the vow to guard my mind, what will become of my many other vows.”

In terms of Nichiren Shū practice, it is not enough to simply chant the Lotus Sūtra or the Odaimoku, we must be fully present to our practice and the true spirit of our practice. This is the purpose for the unzō, or passages for “directing thought,” used in Nichiren Shū practice. Their purpose is to help focus one’s thoughts in a deep and contemplative way on the practice of reciting the sūtra or Odaimoku. Otherwise, faith, practice, and study will all be undermined by lack of awareness. As Śāntideva says in verses V.25-26, “What is heard, reflected upon, or cultivated in meditation, like water in a leaky jar, does not stay in the memory of a mind which lacks awareness. Many, though learned, possessing faith, and though absorbed in effort, are befouled by offenses due to the fault of lacking awareness.”

In verses V.27-33, it is argued that mindfulness should always be guarding the door of the mind from the robbers of the defilements. The shame one feels for having committed offences, the respect one has for one’s teachers and for the buddhas and bodhisattas who have unobstructed spiritual vision can therefore observe one’s actions, and fear of falling into the hells are three things that enable one to always maintain mindfulness of one’s actions (V.32).

Śāntideva resolves that he “should act at all times as if lacking senses, like a block of wood.” (V.34, see also V.48-53) In other words, one should not be constantly pushed and pulled by one’s attachments and aversions but remain still and silent, acting only in an intelligent, thoughtful and helpful way and not impusively under the control of the defilements. As he says, “in all situations one should proceed only after ascertaining what needs to be done.” (V.38) One should always keep the mind concentrated and not let it wander, and when acting he says, “One should think of nothing else other than that which one has decided to undertake, with heart fully involved there, until it is completed. For in this way everything is done well.” (V.43-44) Also, “When one wishes to move or speak, first one should examine one’s mind, and then act appropriately and with self-possession.” (V.47) This is a prescription for living life in a thoughtful and intentional way, with a mind as unshakeable as Mount Sumeru (V.58).

Verses V.59-79 are a reflection on how the bodhisattva should relate to his or her body. Here Śāntideva reflects that it makes no sense to identify with the body or act more protectively of the body than the mind. He reflects on the impurity of the body (filled as it is with sweat, mucus, urine, feces, and other substances that we usually consider dirty) and that if analyzed there can be found no unchanging essence that can be identified as the sef-nature. Śāntideva does acknowledge that the body should be protected, but only so that it can be utilized as the “implent of action for the benefit of humankind.” (V.66) Even though one protects the body, it should never be forgotten that the body cannot last and will inevitably become food for vultures (V.67-68). One should therefore regard the body like a laborer, or a ship that can be set on course to “fulfill the needs of beings.” (V.69-70)

Śāntideva also addresses the relative importance of each of the six perfections and exceptions to their practice. In verses V.83-84 he says, “Each of the perfections, beginning with generosity, is more excellent than its predecessor. One should not neglect a higher one for the sake of a lower, unless because of a fixed rule of conduct. Realizing this, one should always be striving for others’ well-being. Even what is proscribed is permitted for a compassionate person who sees it will be of benefit.” (See also V.42) This means that morality has more precedence than generosity, partience has more precedence than morality, and so on up to the perfectin of wisdom, which is the guide and ultimate aim of the first five. Overriding this order of precedence, however, is the well-being of others, and for the sake of others even what would not normally be permitted can be done. This can lead to all kinds of rationalizations, however, so it must be emphasized any action must be motivated by compassion and guided by wisdom.

In the Perfection of Skillful Means Sūtra, the Buddha tells a story about his past life as the leader of a group of five hundred traders (who were also bodhisattvas) to illustrate such an exceptional case wherein even a bodhisattva might have to kill out of compassion. Among the traders was a robber who was planning on killing them all, a crime for which he would have to spend many ages in hell. The bodhisattva, named Great Compassion, learns of this plot and so kills the robber himself, so as to protect the lives of the five hundred bodhisatta-traders, and to prevent the robber from performing an evil action that would land him in hell. Great Compassion is even prepared to fall into hell himself for the act of killing. The Buddha explains, however, that because he had killed the robber as a skillful means motivated solely by compassion he was able to avoid suffering and attain buddhahood and even the murdered robber was able to be reborn in heaven rather than hell. (Chang, pp. 456-457) The moral, so to speak, of the story is that the morality of the bodhisattva is not guided by rigid standards or fixed set of rules but only by compassion and an ability to discern what precise action will best alleviate the suffering of all concerned in any given situation.

An important caveat to all the self-sacrificing idealism appears in verses V.86-87. “The body serves the True Dharma. One should not harm it for some inferior reason. For it is the only way that one can quickly fulfill the hopes of living beings. Therefore one should not relinquish one’s life for someone whose disposition to compassion is not as pure. But for someone whose disposition is comparable, one should relinquish it. That way, there is no overall loss.” This would appear to mean that the advanced bodhisattva would not give their lives for another unless that other person were also an advanced person, and that giving one’s life even to protect an innocent though not suffiently advanced person is not appropriate. It would also seem to invalidate all the past life stories of the Buddha wherein he gives his life to save others, including even a family of hungry tigers. These two verses raise a lot of questions, but at the very least they warn the bodhisattva not to become an indiscriminate martyr but to think through all the consequences of their actions for other beings in the long term.

Many of the other recommendations in chapter five have to do with minor monastic rules and matters of etiquette and propriety. Verse V.90, however, is something that modern Buddhist practitioners should make sure to keep in mind. It says, “One should not restrict someone who is worthy of the higher teaching to the lesser teaching, nor, disregarding the matter of good conduct, beguile them with the Scriptures and spells.” One should not restrict practitioners to provisional teachings, nor disregard the basic sanity and common decency taught in the provisional teachings. In other words, if someone has the awakening mind of a bodhisattva, do not try to restrict them to teachings whose only aim is the attainment of arhatship, the cessation of birth and death for oneself alone. On the other hand, do not teach others (or fool oneself in thinking) that the practice of sūtra recitation or mantras is so beneficial that one can ignore the provisional teachings dealing with the law of cause and effect without repercussions. The aim of any of the teachings and practices of Buddhism is to enable self-cultivation (and eventually selfless compassion). Thinking that one can act as one pleases by presuming upon the merit gained from rituals and formal observances is to misuse otherwise legitimate practices and decieve oneself into thinking that one can act without fear of consequences.

The chapter ends with further exhortations such as “One should do nothing other than what is either directly or indirectly of benefit to living beings, and for the benefit of living beings alone one should dedicate everything to Awakening.” (V. 101)

Śāntideval also succinctly defines awareness as: “the observation at every moment of the state of one’s body and one’s mind.” (V.108) This is the way to guard one’s mind and direct one’s actions towards the liberation of all beings and the full flowering of the awakening mind.

Generosity

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Chapter five, “The Guarding of Awareness,” begins with a reflection on the importance of guarding the mind (V.1-8), because all suffering arises from the mind. Without guarding the mind, there can be no practice of Buddhism. By guarding the mind that is prone to wander, one guards not just one’s own life but all other beings as well.

Śāntideva wonders, “If the perfection of generosity consists in making the universe free from poverty, how can the previous Protectors have acquired it, when the world is still poor, even today?” (V.9) In other words, if the buddhas perfected generosity while they were accumulating merit over the course of their innumerable lifetimes cultivating the six perfections as bodhisattvas, then why haven’t their efforts eliminated poverty? The response in verse V.10 is that, “The perfection of generosity is said to result from the mental attitude of reqlinquishing all that one has to all people, together with the fruit of that act. Therefore the perfection is the mental attitude itself.” From this, it would seem that it is the thought that counts far more than any practical effects in the real world. We have already seen that the offerings made in II.1-25 and in III.6-21 were for the most part imaginary. It must be remembered, however, that Śāntideva is a monk with no personal wealth, so he has no material goods to present. What he can do is cultivate generosity as a spontaneous and genuine willingness to relinquish all that he has and all that he is to the buddhas and the liberation of all sentient beings. What is being cultivated is not just formal acts of charity but the underlying attitude. A bodhisattva who is generous and able to relinquish all things who also has the means to help those in need will certainly utilize those means without holding back.

The question, however, still stands as to why the innumerable lifetimes of efforts of buddhas and bodhisattvas to practice generosity has not had an appreciable effect on alleviating the poverty of sentient beings. Śāntideva does not attempt to answer that. His concern is with underscoring the importance of the practitioner cultivating his or her own views and motivation. A possible response, however, might be that despite the efforts of countless buddhas and bodhisattvas over countless lifetimes, sentient beings are infinite in number and for as many who are able to encounter and receive the generosity and assistance of buddhas and bodhisattvas there are many others whose karmic affinities do not allow them to come into contact with such beneficial influences. For as many stars as there are in the sky, there are still great spans of darkness. Previously in verse IV.13, Śāntideva admitted that through his own fault he had put himself beyond the healing care of the buddhas. In addition, the buddhas and bodhisattva do not and cannot override the free will of other sentient beings, who must each live with the consequences of their own actions. The buddhas and bodhisattvas will not force their help on those who do not want it. This is not to say that poverty should be blamed on karma or that those in need of help should be turned away because they presumably caused their own suffering. What it means is that there are helpers in the world, but they cannot magically fix other people’s lives. Also, the best assistance is not a sentimenal or condescending pity from a being who sees themselves as superior to a perceived lesser, but the help freely given as to a brother or sister and freely accepted, and not the kind of help that offends dignity or causes dependence but that empowers those who receive it to help themselves and go on to help others.