In this two-part column series, we will visit the philosophical nuances and tensions in the thought of Shantideva, an important Indo-Tibetan philosopher (circa 8th century CE). To understand Shantideva means to grapple with his ideas of compassion (karuna), emptiness (shunyata), and his take on the Six Perfections. These are found in his poetic Bodhicaryavatara (BCA) and Shikshasamuccaya (SS), a more discursive compendium of Buddhist doctrines. In the second section of this column we will discuss the fascinating philosophical problems in his ideas.
From the textual evidence available, it is generally agreed that Shantideva was affiliated with the Prasanghika branch of the Madhyamika scholastics. This is evident in the BCA, which despite its lyrical style betrays the heavily philosophical Prasanghika tendency in the celebrated ninth chapter about wisdom. This particular notion of compassion was unique because it emphasized the emptiness of the sentient being (while extolling compassion for it!). Shantideva proclaims the primacy of loving and saving all beings whilst arguing for their emptiness. His ethic of compassion operates on a specific, canonical interpretation of the Mahayana vision: that the objective of the path is to save empty beings.
Let us revisit this perennial question of wisdom and means, which after so many centuries has not been resolved.
Shantideva’s Empty Compassion
It is well known that compassion occupies a central place in Mahayana Buddhism. Indeed, the Mahayana claims to accord it an indispensable role. This section therefore begins with an analysis of Shantideva’s perspective on compassion in the BCA and the SS and how it relates to the concept of emptiness.
First, it is necessary to give a broad outline of what compassion denotes in Indic Buddhism. Karuna was a concept already running throughout the early canon of the Tripitaka and Jataka literature. These are visions of the Bodhisattva (Shakyamuni) as having embarked on a career path that focuses his destiny toward enlightenment over many rebirths. Karuna was included in the Four Divine Abodes or Immeasurables (brahma-vihara or apramana) alongside a nascent idea of a proto-bodhisattva path in the later story of Sumedha, one of the Buddha’s past lives. Within several centuries, the narrative basis of the bodhisattva and his compassion (once focused only on Shakyamuni) had become displaced temporally and spatially, and was soon taught as a path achievable for those prepared to make the effort. The Four Divine Abodes came to be integrated into the bodhisattva scheme and like all doctrines adopted by the Mahayana, underwent modifications in regard to intention, scope, and cognitive foundation.
Compassion is the spurring motivation of the bodhisattva and facilitates the actualization of the Mahayana disciple, who strives to help all be free from suffering as long as the world-systems continue to propagate sentient beings. Crucially, in both the BCA and SS Shantideva located his exposition of Mahayana motivation (bodhicitta) and praxis (compassion) in the Six Perfections (paramita), presenting the first five as auxiliary to and guided by the sixth Perfection of transcending discriminative understanding (prajnaparamita, or penetration into emptiness or shunyata). Therefore, through his union of theory in bodhicitta and practice in compassion, Shantideva offers a systematic plan for the achievement of his ultimate objective: realization of emptiness.
It is unknown whether the SS is an earlier manuscript than the BCA, although the latter contains a recommendation to study the former. As highlighted earlier, the primary purpose of the BCA is to facilitate and articulate the power and importance of bodhicitta, which is a fundamentally salvific concept. It is in the backdrop of bodhicitta that Shantideva establishes his idea of compassion in ten chapters. It must be noted that these ten chapters indicate a later version than the recension discovered at Dunhuang in 1906 – 08, which is of only nine chapters. As noted above, Shantideva’s primary innovation was the development of the Six Perfections as the foundations for bodhisattva training and around the contemplation and practice of compassion.
Shantideva crafts the BCA around these Six Perfections, but not in the typical order. In the introduction to their translation, Crosby and Skilton indicate that forbearance, vigour, meditation, and insight have a separate chapter beginning from Chapter 6 to 9, whilst generosity and virtue are dealt with in Chapter 5. The notion of compassion permeates each of these chapters. The tenth and final one contains one of the most famous and inspiring verses about compassion in the text: “As long as space abide and as long as the world abides, so long may I abide, destroying the sufferings of the world.” This stanza indicates that while Shantideva will eventually be enlightened and free from greed, hatred, and delusion, his compassionate work never ends as a bodhisattva. This is a defining characteristic of the Mahayana notion of compassion, and as such is inseparable from the bodhicitta and the bodhisattva path.
As noted in the introduction, the SS is a collection of passages from different sutras that Shantideva sees as pertinent to bodhisattva training. It comprises of nineteen chapters with a total of twenty-seven verses. As a text, it addresses mainly the first five Perfections as constituting the discipline of the Bodhisattva (vinaya). Within, he confirms the centrality of compassion. He refers to the Dharmasangiti Sutra  in which great compassion (maha-karuna) is the progenitor of all other virtues. It is declared by Avalokiteshvara that great compassion includes all the virtues of the bodhisattva. When the wheel of a universal monarch (chakravartin) turns, the entire army follows him. When the great compassion of a bodhisattva arises, all other virtues arise with it. Once dawn arrives by the sunrise the people are busy with their various businesses. In the same way when great compassion arises, all virtues producing wisdom are busy in action. These images highlight the causal relationship between the stimuli of compassion and the attainment of all other virtues: the sunnum bonum of Buddhahood.
Shantideva’s compassion is based on a long history of a specific interpretation that stretches back to the shadowy origins of early Mahayana. His specific vision of the compassionate path is grounded in presuppositions about the things that stimulate compassion. Among these things, early and influential texts (such as the Bodhisattvapitaka) regard as most important the perception of the wretchedness of worldly existence and its inevitable flaws. These flaws are mostly conceptual and include belief in a self, heretic views, desire for perverse pleasure, exposure to the five obstacles to purification and egoism. Therefore, it was established in the Mahayana fairly early on that compassion for beings and the wisdom to understand those beings as empty and without a self (anatta) were crucial partners on the path to liberation. Indeed, the Madhyamika draws to a significant degree its inspiration from Mahayana sutras that propound the doctrine of emptiness. To this day they are chiefly the Prajnaparamita texts, the Maharatnakuta and the Avatamsaka scriptures.
In the BCA it is unequivocal that compassion is guided by the sixth paramita of wisdom. This is because Shantideva sees through the illusion of existent sentient beings, and he teaches that this realization is the criterion for reaching the ultimate truth. He states: “Ordinary people see existent things and declare them to be real, that is to say, not as an illusion. It is in this regard that there is disagreement between the ordinary person and the spiritually developed.” The genuine realization of the compassionate Mahayana path hinges on a correct understanding of emptiness as taught by the Prasanghika-Madhyamika: “To liken the series of moments of consciousness and its aggregates to a group or an army is a mistake; nevertheless there is a notion of ‘I’ in reference to this series and aggregation because of our habit of considering them as ‘I.’ This system of liberation is based on the concept of gnoseology: When one practices and understands a certain insight, in this case that of emptiness, one knows oneself as liberated from samsara. Knowledge is key.
Bsteh said that Shantideva’s soteriology defends not only human dignity (menschenwürde) but also the dignity of all forms of life (lebewesenwürde). But as attractive and noble as this philosophy is, many scholars have pointed out conceptual problems that, in the most severe scenario, endanger their coherence. We will explore those problems in the second part of this column.