Author: Amod Lele (Boston University)
The Bodhicaryāvatāra is an Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist text from approximately the eighth century CE, whose author is referred to as Śāntideva. It is very popular among Tibetan Buddhists; the present Dalai Lama has referred to it as his favourite book. It instructs its readers how to live up to the ideal of the bodhisattva, the Buddhist hero who swears to free all living beings from suffering.
Much of the book is structured around the bodhisattva’s six “perfections” or virtues (the translations of the Sanskrit words vary): generosity (dāna), restraint (śīla), patient endurance (kṣānti), heroic strength (vīrya), meditative concentration (dhyāna) and metaphysical insight (prajñā). Chapters 6–9 of the text correspond to the last four of the perfections, in order. Chapter 8, on meditation, is the most widely read chapter of the text, both for its meditative exercises on developing compassion for others and its philosophical arguments for ethical altruism (which occur together). Chapter 9, on metaphysical insight, is by far the most difficult to understand, but Śāntideva views it as the culmination of the whole text. See Lele 2015 for a discussion of this chapter’s metaphysics and how it fits into the text as a whole.
Crosby, Kate, and Andrew Skilton. 1995. The Bodhicaryāvatāra: A New Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Contains extensive introductory material as well as a good translation.
Secondary Sources – Online:
Lele, Amod. 2009. “Śāntideva“. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Longer general introduction to Śāntideva and his works.
Secondary Sources – Books and Articles:
Goodman, Charles. 2009. Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation & Defense of Buddhist Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. A detailed philosophical defence of several of Śāntideva’s views.
Lele, Amod. 2015. “The Metaphysical Basis of Śāntideva’s Ethics.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 22 (2015): 249–83. http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/files/2015/07/JBE-Lele-final1.pdf
The Dhammapāda is another verse portrayal of the Buddhist ethical path, from a non-Mahāyāna perspective. The text invites comparisons with a variety of Western texts depending on which aspects one wishes to emphasize – the demanding spiritual path calls to mind Augustine’s Confessions, the metaphysical determinism invites a comparison to Spinoza’s Ethics, and the uncompromising altruism brings to mind Peter Singer’s “Famine, affluence and morality”.