This morning I gave a talk at Oasis. I spoke about Shantideva and his famous text on the Way of the Bodhisattva. In particular, the text, like most Mahayana texts, begins with a homage to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. It is possible that many western readers skip over this as if it were a kind of polite preliminary, like saying 'How do you do?' In fact, however, the whole purpose of such a text is to inculcate and attitude and the first essential character of that attitude is homage. Shantideva's whole purpose in creating the work is homage. Teaching the Dharma is his way of expressing his devotion to the Buddhas. Homage is also a form of gratitude. It is from the Buddhas that we have received the Dharma.

Then Shantideva goes on to say that the text may be of use to those who hear or read it, but more importantly he has written it in order to clarify his own understanding. So here there is a kind of modesty and this modesty is the other side of homage. In order to put the objects of devotion on a high place it is necessary to abase oneself. Unless one recognises one's deficiency, how can one fully feel gratitude to the Buddhas?

A little further on, there is the famous verse in which he says that receiving illumination is like being in the darkness of a night time when the sky is completely clouded over and then suddenly there is a flash of lightning and, for a moment, all is clear and bright. This kind of occurrence brings a sense of astonishment. Why me? Here Shantideva is talking about sudden illumination in a manner quite like Zen. The lightning flash is spectacular because of the darkness. The same flash occurring in the day time would not have the same impact or sense of revelation. Shantideva writes about it saying he has no idea why he has been granted some access in this way.

What we can take from this is the importance of being aware of the darkness. We cannot make the lightning flash, but we can be aware of our own obscurity. This is the same attitude of modesty. Then when some insight arises, one feels great gratitude and realises the precious nature of what has been bestowed.

Too often in Buddhist groups there is much bandying about of concepts like emptiness and nonduality in a hifaluting way that yet does not evidence the attitude that Shantideva is trying to inculcate. His objective is not that one arrive at a better intellectual understanding than the next person, but that he and we may have the right attitude of reverence, homage, modesty, gratitude and even surprise that anything of the precious Dharma at all should have fallen into our laps.

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Replies to This Discussion

Perhaps luminous things
need the paradox of death to be
seen

Darkness to rest against;
A contraction of the infinite light
that breaks the empty mirror
and gives birth

to everything
that ever emerged
from the cocoon of the deep dreaming ocean

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