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  • The Concept of Bodhicitta in Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra
  • William Edelglass
The Concept of Bodhicitta in Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra. By Francis Brassard. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. Pp. ix + 193.

Śāntideva (eighth century C.E.) occupies a prominent position in the Indo-Tibetan pantheon of scholar-saints. This prominence is due primarily to the reception of his Bodhicaryāvatāra (The way of the bodhisattva). Citing traditional sources, the great fourteenth-century Tibetan historian Butön puts the number of Indian commentaries on the Bodhicaryāvatāra at one hundred.1 In addition, every major school of Tibetan Buddhism produced its own commentarial literature. These commentaries, especially the material devoted to the penultimate chapter on the perfection of wisdom (prajñā-pāramitā), became sites of intense debate between the various Tibetan schools—each school defending an interpretation consistent with its own philosophical views. Śāntideva's exquisite descriptions of bodhicitta, his psychological understanding, and his moral and meditative guidance also made his work of value to many whose practice did not include philosophical study. For these reasons the Bodhicaryāvatāra is thought to be "the most widely read, cited, and practiced text in the whole of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition."2

The continued significance of the Bodhicaryāvatāra is reflected in its many translations available in European languages; six English versions have been published since 1970. There are also a handful of commentaries by contemporary Tibetan scholars available in English, including two by Tenzin Gyatso, H.H. the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Despite the attention it has received from the Indo-Tibetan tradition and contemporary translators there is little written by Western scholars on philosophical, ethical, or religious aspects of the Bodhicaryāvatāra.3 This lack is surprising given the current interest in Buddhist ethics and the long-standing European fascination with Mādhyamaka philosophy. Francis Brassard's study of bodhicitta is thus a welcome addition to the literature on the Bodhicaryāvatāra.

In his introduction Brassard proposes two claims he will seek to demonstrate. First, although Buddhist religious and philosophical concepts do have functional uses they are not simply skillful means (upāya) to achieve liberation, as Michael Pye has argued. Some concepts actually describe reality and thus are more than provisional steps in a ladder to be discarded at a later stage. The concepts that interest Brassard are those that describe all possible experience on the path to enlightenment, which in Mādhyamaka include most famously emptiness (śūnyatā) and dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda). Second, it is through the cultivation of awareness of these concepts that one is able to function effectively on the Buddhist path. Brassard claims that bodhicitta, the desire to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, is precisely such a concept: it describes reality, and its efficacy as a religious concept is achieved through the cultivation of awareness of the reality it describes. [End Page 95]

Bodhicitta has sometimes been interpreted, by both some Mahāyāna traditions and contemporary scholars, as an act of will or an intense desire for enlightenment that motivates good conduct. Brassard critiques this interpretation on the basis of an analysis of 'citta' in a number of Buddhist texts and other Indian philosophical works. He wants to show what seems a rather uncontroversial point, that 'citta' has a much broader meaning than desire or volition. The meaning of 'citta' also includes the other active qualities of the mind, such as memory, imagination, mental activity, reflection, et cetera, as well as the latent habits and tendencies that constitute the passive aspects of the mind. 'Citta', and therefore bodhicitta, cannot be solely a volition or desire but must be thought of as a state of mind. Brassard also critiques the idea that bodhicitta is simply an object of concentration. While meditating on bodhicitta may lead to an overcoming of the egoistic self and the neutralization of anger and hatred at the active level, Brassard argues that this process cannot liberate the latent states of mind from their problematic tendencies.

As a preliminary to his own interpretation of bodhicitta Brassard briefly presents a philosophy of religious language that encompasses...


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