“Entering the Way of the Bodhisattva” by Shantideva and “Finding the Heart Sutra” by Alex Kerr

Entering the Way of the Bodhisattva: A New Translation and Contemporary Guide, Shantideva, Khenpo David Karma Choephel (trans, commentary) (Shambhala, April 2021); Finding the Heart Sutra: Guided by a Magician, an Art Collector, and Buddhist Sages from 
Tibet to Japan, Alex Kerr (Allen Lane, November 2020) Entering the Way of the Bodhisattva: A New Translation and Contemporary Guide, Shantideva, Khenpo David Karma Choephel (trans, commentary) (Shambhala, April 2021); Finding the Heart Sutra: Guided by a Magician, an Art Collector, and Buddhist Sages from Tibet to Japan, Alex Kerr (Allen Lane, November 2020)

Here are two indispensable and beautifully-written guidebooks designed to lead readers through essential Buddhist thought. One is an ancient guide in verse by the western Indian sage Shantideva (c 685-763) to becoming a bodhisattva, someone who seeks enlightenment in order to pass it on to everyone else. The other is a modern bilingual guide by Alex Kerr using the Japanese version of the Heart Sutra, a Mahayana Buddhist text whose mere 56 lines of poetry are regarded by many as the key to all Buddhist wisdom.

Three guidebooks for the price of two, in fact, as Entering the Way of the Bodhisattva includes a contemporary “guide to the guide”, written by its translator, Buddhist scholar Khenpo David Karma Choephel, who uses as his base text the Tibetan version of the Shantideva’s Sanskrit original. Both Shantideva’s book and the Heart Sutra come in several versions written in different languages, which of course display various differences, and the translators have to choose one to use. Readers who are not scholars simply have to go on trust.


Shantideva, Choephel and Kerr share the capacity to engage with their readers in a relaxed way which makes one feel that they see themselves rather as informed and friendly companions (a less serious Virgil to our Dante, perhaps) rather than learned teachers imparting wisdom to the great unwashed. “I’ll teach in brief, according to the scriptures,” Shantideva writes, “The way to enter the bodhisattva’s vows.” A little disingenuously, he continues, “I won’t say anything not said before,/ Nor have I any skill in poetry,” and claims that he’s writing “to cultivate my mind.” Kerr informs us that he is “not a monk and nor am I a Buddhist scholar. That makes me poorly-equipped for taking up a topic as monumental as the Heart Sutra.” So here we have it: one guide, writing in verse for some one hundred and forty pages, claims to be a poor poet, the other telling us that he really shouldn’t be guiding us through the Heart Sutra because he’s unqualified to do so. They do it anyway, and they do it very well; Shantideva gets around any difficulties by saying that he’s really writing for himself, and Kerr, who unveils the text line by line, by telling us that even the greatest Buddhist scholars have been “humbled” by the Heart Sutra and have felt “inadequate”, so it doesn’t matter if he does, too. Kerr and Shantideva have drawn on other, older sources, and both disavow originality, which is in a sense reassuring, as what we read is not just their own “newer” versions of their subjects, but faithful renditions in modern English. This does not take away from the freshness and enjoyment readers can find as they allow Shantideva, Choephel and Kerr to accompany them along the path to enlightenment.

Kerr and Shantideva both employ an informal style. Kerr, who says he has “an intimate personal bond” with his text, engages readers, often with gentle humor and a light touch, by recording conversations he had with various people, including, amongst several friends and mentors from various walks of life, from the French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, known for her Memoires d’Hadrien (1951) to the American art collector David Kidd (1926-1996). Each part of the book is introduced with calligraphy (a suggestion Kerr got from Yourcenar), as “copying out the Heart Sutra has been regarded as a pious act,” and which, he says, “transmits the writer’s inner soul to paper.” Kerr also draws on his own peripatetic life, which has led him to practically every country in Asia where Buddhism is practiced, until he finally settled in Japan. Shantideva, whose text is based on a lecture he gave to his fellow-monks at Nalanda University (there’s a good story behind this which I won’t divulge here), often talks about himself, too—his own experiences as he tries to follow the path of virtue would have been recognised by readers as similar to their own.

This personal tone makes the writers come across as congenial yet learned companions who want readers to understand and indeed enjoy looking for the way to achieve bodhichitta (Buddha-heart), as they themselves have done, in spite of any setbacks and hardships endured along the way. “Whatever happens, I will not upset my cheerfulness,” Shantideva writes, “Displeasure won’t fulfil my wishes.” Both books have the capability to “help anyone develop a good heart and become a better person,” as Khenchen Dorje Rinpoche writes of Shantideva’s book. Kerr quotes the Dalai Lama’s succinct comment on how to do this, “The mind which cherishes other sentient beings more than oneself is the pillar of the bodhisattva’s practice.” Or, as Shantideva puts it,


May no sentient being be miserable,
None wicked, none diseased.
May none be fearful or despised.
Let no-one be unhappy.


According to Choephel, if you are a Buddhist, Shantideva’s text “presents a clear description of how to rouse bodhichitta,” and if you aren’t, “it gives helpful advice on how to become a better, more compassionate person.”


The trouble is, as Shantideva of course well knows, is that so many people are miserable, wicked, diseased, fearful, despised, and unhappy, and no earnest preaching about brotherhood and joy will put that right. As Kerr says, trying to get people to sign up for a religion in order to evade those negatives is what he calls “Sweety Tweety”, which he explains is “a desperate attempt to pretend that everything is all right when it isn’t.” What will put things right is bodhichitta, in the words of Choephel “the profound, direct realization of the empty nature of all phenomena.” The goal is to bring all sentient beings to this state; it may be said, then, to be the ultimate act of compassion and relief of suffering. “May I be a guardian of the defenseless,” Shantideva writes,


A leader of travelers,
A boat or ship or even a bridge
For those who wish to cross


Kerr notes that the image of the boat is often used as a metaphor for hannya haramita (Perfection of Wisdom), “carrying us from ‘this shore’ (the world of illusion and sorrow) to ‘the other shore’ (enlightenment and nirvana).” Perfection of Wisdom is the key concept of the Heart Sutra:


The Buddhas of the three worlds
Rely on Hannya Haramita, and therefore
They attain supreme, perfect enlightenment.


The Heart Sutra stresses that compassion is not just feeling sad about the world, because that would merely add more suffering (our own) to that of others. “There is no Suffering nor Causes of Suffering,” it proclaims, “Nor Cessation of Suffering, nor the Noble Way.” And herein lies its difficulty for its (Western) readers and interpreters—the Heart Sutra advocates what the eminent Indian philosopher Nagarjuna (c 150-250) called “emptiness” (sunyata in Sanskrit, ku in Japanese), as in its famous and rather puzzling lines:


The material world does not differ from emptiness.
Emptiness does not differ from the material world.


As Kerr puts it, that is “the knot of wisdom that the rest of the sutra is devoted to unravelling.” And, according to Choephel, Shantideva, like the Heart Sutra, teaches that “without an understanding of emptiness, it is impossible to achieve liberation.” And of course, one can’t hope to convey this understanding to another person unless one has it oneself. Therefore, understanding emptiness is absolutely crucial, as it can “overcome the habits of dualistic thought, which prevent us from achieving buddhahood.” In the end, he argues, we must get rid of the whole concept of ego and selfhood, as, in Shantideva’s words,


All of the violence in the world
And all the fear and suffering
Arise from clinging to a self.


Thus Shantideva’s thought may be said to echo that of the Heart Sutra. “The seed of emptiness,” Kerr writes, “lay right at the start of Buddhism, in the blissful empty state of nirvana.” Shantideva explains it this way: “Reaching nirvana and not reaching/ Are not, in suchness, any different,” because duality has been extinguished, negative and positive cancelling one another out.


The goal to which both Shantideva and the author of the Heart Sutra aspire is “supreme, perfect enlightenment”, for which both Kerr and Shantideva provide lucid guides which go far beyond what has been detailed above. Concepts like “emptiness” are clearly explained, their puzzling veils lifted for modern readers to reveal their hidden meanings. Furthermore, reading Cheophel’s commentary puts Shantideva’s book into a modern context, explaining how it was written and bringing some of its teachings up-to-date without making them appear pseudo-modern, and Kerr’s references to his own contemporaries bring the Heart Sutra into modern focus, making it easy to understand why it is still central to today’s Buddhist practices.

There are, of course, many ways of interpreting both texts, but Kerr and Choephel manage to take Western readers on a spiritual journey through them without strain, making them relevant and clear to our modern world in the best possible sense. “There’s nothing at all that is not easy,” says Shantideva,


If you are used to it.
By getting used to minor pains
You’ll bear great harms as well.


With guides like Kerr and Choephel, unravelling these two great works of wisdom does, indeed, become a little easier. Kerr tells us that “The other shore is neither black, white, nor grey; it’s not joyful and not sad. It’s immaterial, invisible, beyond absolutely everything …”

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.