Śāntideva on self-interest and altruism

Authors: Amod Lele (Boston University), and Anna Lännström (Stonehill College)


Śāntideva is an eighth century Indian Buddhist philosopher from the Mahāyāna tradition. His most famous work is the short and largely accessible Bodhicaryāvatāra (Undertaking the way to awakening). The work had an important influence on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

The arguments for altruism (8.89 – 105) are perhaps the most famous parts of the work and can easily be excerpted. They occur in the context of the discussion of how to awaken the desire to become a bodhisattva (someone who wants to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of others). One of the steps he recommends for awakening that desire is meditating on the equality of oneself and others.

The arguments start from his metaphysical views, most importantly that there is no permanent self, and draw out the ethical implications of those views. They are directed at a hypothetical objector who wishes to prevent only his own suffering, but not that of others. Śāntideva responds by arguing that we cannot coherently draw a distinction between our own suffering and that of others. Because the self is empty and unreal, it makes no sense to protect it at the expense of others or to think that its suffering matters more than that of others. Their suffering is just as undesirable and painful as our own.


Secondary Sources – Online:
Secondary Sources – Books and Articles:
Compare/Contrast with:


Crosby, Kate, and Andrew Skilton. 1995. The Bodhicaryāvatāra: A New Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 8.89-105. The text contains extensive introductory material as well as a good translation.

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Secondary Sources – Online:


Lele, Amod. 2009. “ŚāntidevaInternet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Section 5.e.i focuses on the arguments for altruism.

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Secondary Sources – Books and Articles:

Clayton, Barbra. 2001. “Compassion as a matter of fact: The argument from no‐self to selflessness in Sāntideva’s Siksāsamuccaya.” Contemporary Buddhism 2,1: 83-97. Response to Williams (below).


Goodman, Charles. 2009. Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation & Defense of Buddhist Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  


Lele, Amod. 2015. “The Metaphysical Basis of Śāntideva’s Ethics.”  Journal of Buddhist Ethics 22 (2015): 249–83.  Pages 267-73 outline and discuss the arguments for altruism.

Pettit, John. 1999. “Altruism and Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of the Bodhicharyavatara.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 6. Response to Williams (below).

Siderits, Mark. 2000. “The Reality of Altruism: Reconstructing Śāntideva.” Philosophy East and West 50 (3): 412-24. Response to Williams (below).

Williams, Paul. 1998. “The Absence of Self and the Removal of Pain: How Śāntideva Destroyed the Bodhisattva Path.” In Altruism and Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, ed. Paul Williams. Richmond, UK: Curzon Press. Williams criticizes Śāntidevas argument, arguing that suffering makes no sense without a self.

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Compare/Contrast with:

This reading would work well as part of a unit on egoism and altruism.

See also: Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra

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