The Power of Aspiration

The final chapter of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra is filled with grandiose aspirations ranging from transforming the regions of hell into “glades of delight, with lakes scented by a profusion of lotuses,” chorused by a variety of water fowl to helping “all those in the world [who are] women make progress, becoming men” (10.7; 10.30). My initial reading of this chapter was frankly dismissive; Śāntideva’s aspirations felt empty and unachievable. However, after discussing these verses in our last class, I have come to the realization that my interpretation – or misinterpretation – of these aspirations more so highlight my own naiveté instead of Śāntideva’s shortcomings.

After rereading the “Dedication,” I saw striking similarities between Śāntideva’s aspirations and Microsoft’s mission statement. Under Satya Nadella’s leadership, Microsoft aims “to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more,” and while their mission statement is equally grandiose as Śāntideva’s aspirations, Microsoft’s mission statement is incredibly inspirational, and perhaps that is most central to what an aspiration is. The “Dedication” read on its own makes little sense, but in context with the preceding chapters, it becomes an inspirational mission statement for the Bodhisattva ideal and the preceding chapters are instructions on how one should achieve this grand vision.

Aspirations are not meant to be tangible; their central function is to inspire. When someone devotes their life to becoming a Bodhisattva, they do so out of compassion, and I now see that Śāntideva hopes to inspire this compassion through his “Dedication”. While many of us may not go on to become Bodhisattvas, I think Śāntideva’s aspirations serve as an inspirational reminder to live with compassion and reduce suffering where we can, especially in these difficult times.

Forbearance & Letting Go

As I sit in my room and listen to the incessant clanging and banging of metal on metal from my neighborhood’s early morning construction, I can’t help but reflect on the myriad challenges our new quarantined lives have brought. For the most part, we’ve been confined to the walls of our homes with our roommates or family members, and no matter how much we may love someone, it takes true Bodhisattva compassion to not lose our tempers on occasion. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we need the catharsis of a heated argument or fight, but the moment we allow these negative feelings to grow and consume us we make ourselves vulnerable to more suffering. Śāntideva states it best in The Perfection of Forbearance: “One’s mind finds no peace, neither enjoys pleasure or delight, nor goes to sleep, nor feels secure while the dart of hatred is stuck in the heart” (6.3). While I have been angry at the construction workers for waking me up at 8 AM four times a week for the past three weeks, I’ve learned to tolerate the noise and suppress my annoyance because ultimately I have no power over their work, so why fret? “If there is a solution, then what is the point of dejection? What is the point of dejection if there is no solution” (6.10)? By reconciling with this and letting go of these annoyances, I’ve found this quarantine a lot more tolerable (but I’m still praying it ends sooner than later).

Creating Suffering by Escaping Suffering

The first two chapters of the Bodhicaryāvatāra have made me reflect on my own escapes from suffering during this time of extraordinary suffering. Like many upon hearing the news that Emory would be closing campus amidst the escalation of COVID-19, I chose to spend the remainder of my time here visiting friends before we all went our separate ways without seriously considering the implications of my actions. As Śāntideva exclaimed, “I did evil in many ways on account of friends and enemies. This I did not understand” (2.35). While my actions made me happy and temporarily alleviated my own suffering, I failed to see that they created undue stress for my parents, who worry about my safety, and roommates, who worry about their own safety. Perhaps due to our humanity, it seems that in times of crisis such as now, we tend to put our own needs above all else and become selfish, but selfishness during crisis simply creates more suffering. Although it is incredibly tempting for people to visit friends and loved ones in hopes of escaping suffering, in times like this “it is to suffering that they run. In the desire for happiness, out of delusion, they destroy their own happiness, like an enemy” (1.28).

The most we can do right now is remain at home and find other avenues to escape suffering. I found this CNN interview with Bill Gates very helpful in understanding the importance of self-isolation and adhering to statewide shutdown regulations: