Śāntideva and the Bodhisattva Path

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 9 2002

Did Śāntideva Destroy the Bodhisattva Path?

Jon Wetlesen
University of Oslo

The question in the title has recently been answered in the affirmative by Paul Williams in his book on Altruism and Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of the Bodhicaryāvatāra. Williams assumes that Śāntideva attempted to justify the bodhisattva’s universal altruism on the basis of a reductive conception of a person, and that this entails a number of absurd consequences that are destructive of the bodhisattva path. Williams concedes that Śāntideva might have avoided these consequences if he had adopted a non-reductive conception of the person as a conventional truth, but Williams seems to assume that this would have to be an individualistic conception, and in that case it would have prevented Śāntideva from reaching his desired conclusion.

I argue that there may be a way out of this dilemma if we interpret Śāntideva’s conception of the person in the direction of an interpersonal holism. In this view, others are perceived not only as more or less similar to oneself, but as parts of oneself. The bodhisattva path is understood as a transformation from the small to the big self within the framework of conventional truth, and eventually to non-self within the highest truth. I believe that this approach takes better care of those few verses in chapter eight of Śāntideva’s book, on which Williams has based his interpretation, and that it is supported by a number of other verses in this context, to which Williams has not paid much attention.

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