Bodhicharyavatara (Skt. Bodhicaryāvatāra) or Bodhisattvacharyavatara (Skt. Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra; Wyl. byang chub sems dpa'i spyod pa la 'jug pa) or Introduction to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life - Shantideva's classic guide to the Mahayana path.
- 1 Overview
- 2 Studying and Practising this Text
- 3 Styles of Teaching
- 4 The Structure of the Text
- 5 The Tibetan Translation
- 6 Translations in European Languages
- 7 Indian Commentaries
- 8 Important Tibetan Commentaries
- 9 English Translations of Tibetan Commentaries
- 10 Contemporary Commentaries
- 11 Teachings on the Bodhicharyavatara at Rigpa Centers
- 12 Study Questions
- 13 External Links
- 14 Notes
- If I have any understanding of compassion and the bodhisattva path, it all comes from studying this text.
Ringu Tulku Rinpoche said:
- There are many different teachings on the Mahayana or bodhisattva path. What’s a bodhisattva? How to be a bodhisattva? All these different practices, meditations, and philosophies. But in essence, what is this path and how does one practice it? In the Bodhicharyavatara, Shantideva gives the essential path of the bodhisattva. He does not comment in detail on one particular sutra or topic, but he essentializes the whole spectrum of the Mahayana teachings, and puts them into a nutshell--so that we can see what it really means, in essence.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche said:
- The Bodhicharyavatara teaches the complete Mahayana path to enlightenment, including all necessary preliminary, main, and concluding practices. A perfect path in itself, it is also at the same time a perfect support for all practitioners of the Vajrayana teachings in general. Practitioners learn how to develop the motivation of bodhichitta, as well as how to carry out the application of the six paramitas or transcendental perfections. They learn how to fuse their practice of bodhichitta and the five first perfections with the sixth perfection, wisdom.
Khenpo Namdrol said:
- Concerning the study of the Bodhicharyavatara, my teacher Khenpo Tsöndrü told me that though the meaning of the text is not difficult to understand, applying the teachings to one’s mind is far more difficult. The purpose of the dharma is to transform the mind, to free us from our attachment to worldly concerns. Among all treatises and texts, Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara and Paltrul Rinpoche’s Words of My Perfect Teacher are the most powerful texts that serve this purpose. If a qualified teacher carefully explains these two texts, a diligent student can definitely transform his or her mind and become free from worldly concerns…
- While the Bodhicharyavatara is designed to transform a practitioner’s mind from the very outset, the other major Indian texts do not have this immediate practical applicability. The Abhisamayalankara for instance teaches extensively on the ten bodhisattva levels and five paths. How can people who have not even reached the first bodhisattva level apply these teachings to their minds? Even a complete beginner, on the other hand, can immediately make use of the teachings of the Bodhicharyavatara. The Bodhicharyavatara shows the methods, contemplations and meditations for transforming our minds, tells us how to free ourselves from worldly concerns, and thus how to become genuine practitioners. Khenpo Tsöndrü said that for these reasons the Bodhicharyavatara must be taught and studied extensively.
- I myself can only agree with my teacher Khenpo Tsöndrü. I truly believe that among all the Indian treatises, the Bodhicharyavatara is the most beneficial to any sincere practitioner. The Buddhist teachings are vast and profound. There are countless sutras, treatises, tantras and instruction manuals. For a beginner, who really aspires to become a genuine dharma practitioner, in my opinion no book is more suitable than the Bodhicharyavatara. This text is a perfect gateway to the dharma. This text is a perfect guide and companion throughout a practitioner’s entire life. The way Shantideva presents the dharma directly strikes one’s heart. This is his special feature. He talks straight to your heart. The teachings of the Bodhicharyavatara are common sense. Whoever receives or reads these teachings will agree and will think, “This is really true.” Since this manner of presenting the dharma is so clear and easy to understand, it transforms one’s mind if applied in daily life. 
Studying and Practising this Text
His Holiness the Dalai Lama advises:
- Shantideva composed his text in the form of an inner dialog. He turned his own weapons upon himself, doing battle with his negative emotions. Therefore, when we teach or listen to this text, it is important that we do so in order to progress spiritually, rather than making it simply a subject of academic study.
For Western students who are non-Buddhists, or who may be new to Buddhism, but who do not yet have a teacher and may not have a clear understanding of Buddhist concepts such as karma and interdependence, a commentary such as Pema Chodron's No Time to Lose may be the most suitable introduction to this text. This commentary is intended for a general audience and it explains basic Buddhist concepts in simple terms that can be easily understood.
For students who have a teacher, they should follow the advice of their teacher. Within the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, the two commentaries most commonly studied are Drops of Nectar and Khenpo Zhenga’s annotation commentary. There are also two guides to meditating on the Bodhicharyavatara: The Brightly Shining Sun and The Garland of Jewel Ornaments.
Khenpo Appey gives the following advice for serious dharma students who already have a teacher and who are already grounded in basic Buddhist concepts such as karma and interdependence:
- The Bodhicharyavatara is the most practice-oriented of all the Indian Buddhist treatises and texts. It contains all the necessary key points a practitioner needs to know and is relatively easy to study and understand. The Bodhicharyavatara is a text to be practiced and not simply studied. Genuine understanding comes about only through practicing the teachings. As Atisha said, “Intense study brings only some understanding. Practice, however, brings great understanding.”
- The Bodhicharyavatara can be practiced according to the ‘sequence of meditation’ as taught in the manuals written by Rongtönpa (The Garland of Jewel Ornaments) and Patrul Rinpoche (The Brightly Shining Sun). Following these manuals, the Bodhicharyavatara is practiced in a particular order and is used as a text for ‘mind-training’.
- From the viewpoint of a beginner the best way to access the Bodhicharyavatara is as follows: Choose one stanza of the text and make the commitment to practice it. At first think about the meaning of this particular teaching and then try to apply it in your daily activities. At the very moment when afflictions such as ignorance, anger, desire, jealousy or miserliness arise, apply the stanza you are practicing to the situation. By gradually incorporating more stanzas into your daily practice, you will eventually know the entire text by heart and will be able to apply each respective stanza to the appropriate situation. That is the benefit that accrues from memorizing the text.
- Merely recalling the appropriate stanza in situations when your mind is ablaze with afflictions will allow the power of the words of the Bodhicharyavatara to pacify the situation. Understanding the text’s meaning increases its capacity to tame afflictions. The full power of each stanza does not manifest through simply remembering it one time in a difficult situation. These teachings must be practiced again and again, and constantly applied to one’s daily life. This approach to taming the mind is called ‘mind-training’.
- The only way to truly overcome all afflictions is through practicing the view of emptiness. Practicing the skillful means of compassion, patience and so forth overcomes afflictions to some extent, but not completely. Practitioners should undertake mind-training embraced with the view of emptiness as taught in the traditions of Madyamaka, Mahamudra or Mahasandhi. Practice the view of emptiness according to the oral instructions of your root guru and let your bodhichitta motivation and bodhisattva conduct be guided by the Bodhicharyavatara. According to Mipham Rinpoche, the view of Prasangika Madyamaka as taught in the ninth chapter of the Bodhicharyavatara and the view of the Great Perfection are identical. Another crucial text for any practitioner who wants to develop certainty in the view is Madhyamakavatara. For the best results, practitioners should combine the study and practice of these texts with the direct instructions of their masters.
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said:
- Immerse yourself in the meaning of the teachings, day after day, month after month, and the spiritual qualities of a bodhisattva will develop without difficulty, like honey collecting in the hive as the bees go from flower to flower, gathering nectar.
Styles of Teaching
According to Alak Zenkar Rinpoche, Patrul Rinpoche started the tradition of teaching the Bodhicharyavatara continuously. This meant that if at least three or four texts were being taught in a monastery, one of them had to be the Bodhicharyavatara. When finishing the tenth chapter, the teacher would not stop there, but would go back to the beginning of the text and teach a little of that before ending the session.
Khenpo Appey said:
- In general in Tibet, Buddhist treatises and texts were taught only to monks. This was because Buddhist knowledge was handed down exclusively in monastic communities. Texts like the Bodhicharyavatara were taught in a shedra, a place for the study of Buddhist philosophy…
- Paltrul Rinpoche broke with the tradition of teaching Buddhist treatises exclusively to monastic communities. He was the first Buddhist master in Tibet who began teaching the Bodhicharyavatara to huge crowds of lay people. While the audience may not have understood the subtle meaning of the entire text, Paltrul Rinpoche taught so as to make the major points easy to understand.
- When teaching a non-scholastic audience, one must condense the meaning and present it repeatedly in simple language, illustrating points through everyday examples and stories. In old Tibet many faithful and devoted lay people were kept from studying the genuine dharma since few teachers made the effort to explain the dharma in easy terms to non-scholars.
Khenpo Trashi Palden said:
- In general, there are two styles of teaching the Bodhicharyavatara: ‘the scholastic explanation style’ and ‘the practice instruction style’. Patrul Rinpoche’s teachings on the Bodhicharyavatara as recorded by Thubten Chökyi Drakpa follow ‘the scholastic explanation style’, while Khenpo Kunpal’s commentary Drops of Nectar preserves Patrul Rinpoche’s teachings in ‘the practice instruction style’. Khenpo Kunpal’s commentary on the ninth chapter of the Bodhicharyavatara is based on Mipham Rinpoche’s Norbu Ketaka, which he wrote according to the teachings of Patrul Rinpoche. The study and practice of the Bodhicharyavatara became so popular in all shedras of East Tibet due to Paltrul Rinpoche’s influence. This text can truly transform the mind of a sincere practitioner.
- In our shedra, students would study Khenpo Kunpal’s commentary on the Bodhicharyavatara at the beginning of their first year… Khenpo Zhenga’s annotation commentary would be studied later, according to the teaching sequence of ‘the thirteen great textbooks of Indian origin’.
- …In our shedra only these two commentaries on the Bodhicharyavatara were taught, but the khenpo and the assistant teachers sometimes quoted from other commentaries during the teaching sessions. In our homework sessions, we students could compare different commentaries from other schools to gain a more profound understanding of the text. 
The Structure of the Text
- O precious, sublime bodhichitta:
- May it arise in those in whom it has not arisen;
- May it never decline where it has arisen;
- May it go on increasing, further and further!
According to this view, the whole text of this book can be divided into four sections, as expressed in this prayer.
- The first three chapters (1, 2 and 3) explain how to generate bodhicitta, how to make it arise.
- The next three chapters (4, 5 and 6) explain how to prevent bodhichitta from decreasing or being dissipated.
- The next three chapters (7, 8 and 9) explain how to make the bodhichitta increase further and further.
- The 10th chapter is a concluding prayer of dedication.
Outline by Chapter
The text of the Bodhicharyavatara has ten chapters. Most commentaries also include an introduction that establishes the context and background for the text.
- Chapter 1: The Excellence of Bodhichitta
- Chapter 2: Confession
- Chapter 3: Taking Hold of Bodhichitta
- Chapter 4: Carefulness
- Chapter 5: Vigilance - Outline
- Chapter 6: Patience - Outline
- Chapter 7: Diligence - Outline
- Chapter 8: Meditation - Outline
- Chapter 9: Wisdom
- Chapter 10: Dedication
The Tibetan Translation
The Bodhicharyavatara was first translated by Kawa Paltsek and Sarvajñadeva in the early ninth century. This translation was then revised twice, first by Rinchen Zangpo, Shakya Lodro and Dharmashribhadra in the tenth century, and then by Ngok Loden Sherab and Sumatikirti in the eleventh century.
Translations in European Languages
- The Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the Bodhicharyavatara, translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, Shambhala Publications, 2003, ISBN: 1590300572
- A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, translated by Vesna and Alan Wallace, Snow Lion Publications, 1997, ISBN: 1559390611
- A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, translated by Stephen Batchelor, LTWA, ISBN: 8185102597
- La Marche vers l’Éveil, translated by the Padmakara translation group using L. Finot's translation as a basis, Éditions Padmakara, 1992, ISBN : 2-906949-03-5
- Vivre en héros pour l'Éveil ; Bodhisattvacharyavatara, translated by G. Driessens, Édition Le Seuil—Points Sagesses 1993, ISBN : 2020196638
- La Marche à la Lumière. Poème sanscrit de Cantideva, translated by L. Finot, Ed. Brossard, 1920, re-edited by Les Deux Océans, 1987
- Bodhicaryavatara : Introduction à la pratique des futurs Buddhas, translated by L. de La Vallée Poussin, Louvain, 1907
- Shantideva, Anleitungen auf dem Weg zur Glückseligkeit / Bodhicaryavatara, O.W. Barth Verlag 2005.
- Shantideva, Die Lebensführung im Geiste der Erleuchtung / Das Bodhicaryavatara, Theseus 2004.
- Ernst Steinkellner: Eintritt in das Leben zur Erleuchtung, München: Eugen Diederichs Verlag 1981
There are ten translations of Indian commentaries that are included in the Tibetan Tengyur. The most important of these commentaries was written by Prajñakaramati; this is the only commentary on the Bodhicharyavatara that still exists in Sanskrit. The name of this commentary is:
- Bodhicharyavatara commentary (Wyl. byang chub kyi spyod pa la 'jug pa'i bka' 'grel, Skt. Bodhicharyavatara-panjika) written in Sanskrit by the Indian scholar Prajñakaramati, translated by Marpa and Darma Drakpa, revised by Yönten Gyamtso.
Important Tibetan Commentaries
Many great masters and scholars of Tibet wrote commentaries on the Bodhicharyavatara, and many of these commentaries were and still are used in monastic universities in Tibet, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Ladakh.
A selection of some of the more famous commentators follows:
- Butön Rinchen Drup (1290-1364)
- Lama Dampa Sönam Gyaltsen Pal Zangpo (1312-1375)
- Sazang Mati Penchen Jamyang Lodro (1294-1376)
- Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa (1357-1419)
- Gyaltsab Darma Rinchen (1364-1432)
- Pawo Tsuglak Trengwa (1504-1566)
- Drukpa Pema Karpo (1527-1592)
- Mipham Rinpoche (1846-1912)
- The Ketaka Gem (commentary on Chapter 9)
- Khenpo Shenga (1871-1927)
- Thubten Chökyi Drakpa (1823-1905)
- The Excellent Vase that Grants the Qualities of the Bodhisattvas (commentary on Chapters 1-8)
- The Brilliant Torch (commentary on Chapter 9)
- Khenpo Kunpal (1862-1943)
English Translations of Tibetan Commentaries
- Bodhisattvacharyavatara: Engaging in the Conduct of the Bodhisattvas Vol. 1 and 2 by Shantideva, with commentary by Sazang Mati Panchen, trans. by Lama Kalsang Gyaltsen and Ani Kunga Chodron, Tsechen Kunchab Ling, 2006
- Drops of Nectar: Khenpo Kunpal’s Commentary on Shantideva’s Entering the Conduct of the Bodhisattvas, translated by Andreas Kretschmar, http://www.kunpal.com/ (chapters 1-5 only)
- The Nectar of Manjushri's Speech: A Detailed Commentary on Shantideva's Way of the Bodhisattva, by Kunzang Pelden, translated by Padmakara Translation Group, Shambhala Publications, November 2007
- Wisdom: Two Buddhist Commentaries, Khenchen Kunzang Palden and Minyak Kunzang Sönam, translated by Padmakara Translation Group, 1993, 2nd edition 1999
- A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, HH the Dalai Lama, Shambhala, 1994, ISBN: 0877739714
- Anger: The Seven Deadly Sins, Robert Thurman, Oxford University Press, 2006 (A commentary on chapter 6)
- Healing Anger, The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective, The Dalai Lama, Snow Lion, 1997 (A commentary on chapter 6)
- No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala, 2005 (Does not include chapter 9)
- Practicing Wisdom, The Dalai Lama, Wisdom, 2004 (A commentary on chapter 9)
- The Way of Awakening, Geshe Yeshe Tobden, Wisdom, 2005
Teachings on the Bodhicharyavatara at Rigpa Centers
- Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, Rigpa Centres worldwide, 1997-2001
- Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Lerab Ling, 2-17 June 2001 (Ninth chapter only)
- Khenpo Sönam Tobden, Pharping, Rigpa Shedra East, 2006-7 (MP3 audio files available)
- Sogyal Rinpoche, Lerab Ling, April-July 2007 (Chapter 1 to 8 only)
- Questions on the Bodhicharyavatara - A simple way to test your knowledge of the text.
- Bodhicharyavatara Series on Lotsawa House
- Drops of Nectar, Khenpo Kunpal's commentary on Shantideva's Entering the Conduct of the Bodhisattvas The first five chapters of this commentary are translated by Andreas Kretschmar and available for free download in pdf format.
- Daniel Stender's Resource page for Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra
- Drops of Nectar, Khenpo Kunpal's commentary on Shantideva's Entering the Conduct of the Bodhisattvas, Volume 1, page 83, translated by Andreas Kretschmar.
- Drops of Nectar, Khenpo Kunpal's commentary on Shantideva's Entering the Conduct of the Bodhisattvas, Volume 1, page 133, translated by Andreas Kretschmar.
- A Flash of Lightening in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, by the Dalai Lama, page 1.
- Note that Khenpo Appey is referring to beginning students who are already Buddhists and who have a clear understanding of basic concepts such as karma and interdependence. Some dharma teachers in the West have expressed the concern that if Western students begin studying the root text without the proper understanding of basic Buddhist concepts, this can lead to confusion.
- Drops of Nectar, Khenpo Kunpal's commentary on Shantideva's Entering the Conduct of the Bodhisattvas, Volume 1, page 115, translated by Andreas Kretschmar.
- The Excellent Path to Enlightenment, by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Snow Lion Publications, page 10.
- Drops of Nectar, Khenpo Kunpal's commentary on Shantideva's Entering the Conduct of the Bodhisattvas, Volume 1, page 117, translated by Andreas Kretschmar.
- Drops of Nectar, Khenpo Kunpal's commentary on Shantideva's Entering the Conduct of the Bodhisattvas, Volume 1, page 127, translated by Andreas Kretschmar.