Shantideva: “The Way of the Bodhisattva”


I came across this poem in the latest monthly newsletter from the Insight Meditation Center of Pioneer Valley, the Buddhist center that my husband attends. Although I believe that evil is real and has consequences in this lifetime and beyond, Christians sometimes get hung up on hellfire, neglecting to ponder how God’s infinite love and compassion are stronger than any sin. That is, after all, what we’re supposed to be celebrating this Easter weekend. The Christian equivalent of this poem may be the Harrowing of Hell, a doctrine that’s been obscured in the modern West but still part of the Eastern Orthodox celebration of Easter.

Moreover, I think it’s good to wish that all living beings will be saved, whether or not we feel secure about asserting universalism as a doctrine. If we could spend more time contemplating visions like Shantideva’s, and less time dwelling on images of divine punishment (eternal or otherwise), we might find it easier to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The Way of the Bodhisattva

Throughout the spheres and reaches of the world,
In hellish states wherever they may be,
May beings fettered there, tormented,
Taste the bliss and peace of Sukhavati.

May those caught in the freezing ice be warmed,
And from the massing clouds of bodhisattvas’ prayers
May torrents rain in boundless streams
To cool those burning in infernal fires.

May forests where the leaves are blades and swords
Become sweet groves and pleasant woodland glades.
And may the trees of miracles appear,
Supplanting those upon the hill of shalmali.

And may the very pits of hell be sweet
With fragrant pools all perfumed with the scent of lotuses,
Be lovely with the cries of swan and goose
And water fowl so pleasing to the ear.

May fiery coals turn into heaps of jewels,
The burning ground become a crystal floor,
The crushing hills celestial abodes,
Adorned with offerings, the dwelling place of buddhas.

May the hail of lava, fiery stones, and weapons
Henceforth become a rain of blossom.
May those whose hell it is to fight and wound
Be turned to lovers offering their flowers.

And those engulfed in fiery Vaitarani,
Their flesh destroyed, their bones bleached white as kunda flowers,
May they, through all my merit’s strength, have godlike forms,
And sport with goddesses in Mandakini’s peaceful streams.

(Excerpt from Shantideva’s Dedication in No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva by Pema Chodron, pp.343-45.)

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