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The sense of urgency that Shantideva expresses is needed for these times, because when things are tough you don’t have to use fancy words, like enlightenment. You just want to be free of your confusion so you can help other people be free of their confusion. It’s a life-and-death matter. Confusion and pain have always been life-and-death matters, but now you can really feel it in the atmosphere. People are asking, “What can I do?”
Shantideva doesn’t restrict himself to absolute teachings. He gives plenty of practical, relative teachings on how to relate with our sore points. He has a lot of humor, yet he’s also very wrathful at times and pushes your nose into some of the undesirable qualities we human beings exhibit. You see yourself in there. You may not see yourself in every example, but there is something for everybody.
The text itself can be difficult for a modern audience to read. I have always found, though, that when I hear dharma teachers like Kongtrül Rinpoche teaching this text, their modern commentary makes the classic text come to life. I felt very inspired to do that myself.
When I first started to teach the Bodhicaryavatara I had no idea that a book would come of it. When I asked Rinpoche about the idea, he questioned me about my motivation. I told him that I simply felt a sense of urgency and that it would be a real blessing for me to connect so deeply with the wisdom of this text. I feel that inspiration and blessing is communicated through the commentary I’ve given, which is very much influenced by my teachers’ teachings.
It’s nothing original really, but it’s up to date. If you don’t have a commentary that communicates something to the modern ear, if you are just reading the verses and the classical examples they use, what Shantideva has to teach us might be lost. I hope readers will hang in there with this commentary, which is certainly not typical of what I’ve done in the past. If they do read the commentary, eventually they can leave it aside and just read the text itself and come to see how it connects with their own wisdom.
In my own experience, you study a verse and come to understand it in a certain way, and then you keep studying it and your understanding goes deeper. It’s not intellectual understanding. How you relate with the situations in your own life is informed by what Shantideva has taught, so his teachings become memorable to you. Shantideva talks a lot about the karmic results of doing the habitual thing over and over again, in order to encourage us to interrupt those habits and in fact burn them up altogether. When you’re on the spot and just about to do some habitual thing, his words will come to mind. They’re like nourishment that helps you to hang in there and save yourself from dire consequences.
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