The Bodhicaryāvatāra or “Way of the Bodhisattva” as it is often translated, is one of the most read texts in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.* This is hardly surprising, as it’s author Śāntideva managed the feat of encapsulating the vast expanses of Mahāyāna Buddhism in a single elegantly and often movingly written text. What is surprising is that the text as it has been passed down in the Tibetan tradition, and as it is read in translation today, is not the earliest version, and is quite different from it. We know this largely thanks to the excellent work of Akira Saito, which is undeservedly difficult to get hold of. During the 90s Saito worked on four Dunhuang manuscripts of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, showing how the early version that they contained differed quite radically from the familiar later version. Here I’ll summarize his conclusions and add some of my own thoughts. The four manuscripts are actually three:
(1) A complete copy comprising IOL Tib J 628 and Pelliot tibétain 794.
(2) A copy with several missing pages, now representing about 60% of the text (IOL Tib J 629).
(3) A copy of the last chapter, on the dedication of merit (IOL Tib J 630).
So, what are the differences between this Dunhuang version of the Bodhicaryāvatāra and the one that was passed down through the centuries in Tibet and is still being taught today? Most strikingly, it is significantly shorter, containing roughly 700 verses instead of 1,000. Also, chapters 2 and 3 of the longer version are combined together, so that the Dunhuang version has nine chapters instead of ten. Most of the missing verses come in the chapters on meditation and wisdom, perhaps the most read and discussed chapters in the Bodhicaryāvatāra. Further confirmation that the Dunhuang Bodhicaryāvatāra was the earlier version is found in the early 9th-century library catalogue, the Ldan dkar ma, which records the existence of this text, with 600 verses (Saito suggests that it is given as 600 rather than 700 because the verses were estimated at 300 verses per volume, and the text was in two volumes). Saito’s close study of the differences in the wisdom chapter lead him to conclude that the familiar longer version of the Bodhicaryāvatāra is “an enlarged version” of the Dunhuang manuscript version, with many verses added on criticism of other systems of thought, including that of a supreme deity (Īśvara) and the metaphysics of the Sāṃkhya. On the other hand, some of the verses on non-self have been cut from the older version.
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The existence of different versions of the Bodhicaryāvatāra was known in Tibet. Buton was aware that a shorter version was listed in early library catalogues like the Ldan dkar ma, and he wrote:
Though this [Bodhicaryāvatāra] is described the three great catalogues as comprising 600 verses, it actually has 1,000. Many state that this [Bodhicaryāvatāra] is not the same as the one with nine chapters said to be written by Akṣayamati. However, apart from the difference arising from separating the chapter on the confession of sins, and differences in the earlier and later translations, I would say that they are the same [text].
Another major difference between the two versions, which Buton mentions, is the name of the author, which in the colophon to the complete Dunhuang manuscript (IOL Tib J 629) is not Śāntideva but Akṣayamati. Saito quotes from two sources that suggest this was an alternative honorary name for Śāntideva. Here’s that colophon:
Note also that this colophon gives the names of two translators, an Indian, perhaps Sarvajñādeva (Sa ra bad nya de ba) and a Tibetan, Bande Paltseg. If we look at the colophon of the longer version of the text, we can see that this is the first stage of its translation history:
The Indian master Sarvajñādeva and the Tibetan translator Paltseg edited and finalized [a translation] based on a text from Kashmir. After that, the Indian master Dharmaśrībhadra, the great translator Rinchen Zangpo, and Shakya Lodro completed an amended translation by combining a text and its commentary from central India. Furthermore, in a later period, the Indian master Sumatikītri and the monk translator Loden Sherab completed a correctly amended translation, which was excellent.
Thus there is a gap of some two centuries between the work of the first translation team in the late 8th century and the second in the early 11th century. It is not surprising that a significantly different manuscript version was in circulation by the time Rinchen Zangpo was travelling in India in search of books to translate. (Incidentally, the surviving Sanskrit versions of the Bodhicaryāvatāra are all the longer version.)
Writing much later still, in the 17th century, the Tibetan scholar Tāranātha claimed that there were three versions of the Bodhicaryāvatāra: a version from eastern India in 700 verses, and two different versions from Kashmir and central India in 1,000 verses. Tāranātha then tells a story of two monks being sent to Śāntideva to ask which was the correct version, to which the author replied that it was the one found in central India. The same story is told by Buton in his history of Buddhism. These look very much like post facto justifications that the version already accepted in the Tibetan tradition was indeed the correct version.
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I’m inclined to agree with Saito in his assessment that the version found in Dunhuang is earlier, and the longer ones that were passed down through the Tibetan tradition were based on Indian manuscripts that had been supplemented with new verses between the 8th and 11th centuries. Since the first translation was done quite soon after the time of Śāntideva himself (who lived in the 8th century) the shorter version may represent something close to what the author first circulated. The popularity of the text in India meant that it would have been copied multiple times, and that it could have been adapted to the needs of the people using it, resulting in multiple variously expanded versions circulating in India. As we saw, in the longer version there is new material in the chapter on wisdom, disputing theists and metaphysical dualists, and this would have been useful in religious debates.
I’ve written a little bit in the past here on the concepts of “originality” and “authenticity” in Buddhist texts. It is difficult to hold on to the idea of an original and authentic text when one looks at the multiple versions on offer in printed and manuscript versions. In manuscript culture in particular, it is clear that texts were constantly trimmed, augmented and supplemented. Commentary added in interlinear notes might be inserted into the main text in a later copy. Whole sentences might disappear due to a copyist’s eye’s skipping too far down the page.
At one end of the spectrum there are the scriptural texts that are preserved as much as possible from the innate malleability of manuscript culture, as they represent the authority of the tradition, and are not actually used much. At the other end there are those works that are found to be useful in a variety of ways, spread far and wide, and are much changed in the process. The latter was surely the case with the Bodhicaryāvatāra in India. Later on in Tibet, as a prestigious text translated from the home of Buddhism, it became important to designate and preserve an original version. Though as we have seen, due to the quirks of history and politics, the version that came to be accepted as authentic in Tibet was probably further from the original form than the version that was forgotten.
Not that the shorter version is the “original” either. Unless a Sanskrit manuscript turns up, signed by Śāntideva himself, we’d better not worry about that. As for the “authentic” Tibetan version: if pressed I would go for the one that has been used with great success by generations of teachers and students.
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* The full title is Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, literally meaning something like “Engaging in the activity of a bodhisattva.”
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The above is based on the following works by Saito:
Akira SAITO. 1993. “A Study of Akṣayamati (=Śāntideva)’s Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra as Found in the Tibetan Manuscripts from Tun-huang. Report of the Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research published by Miye University, Japan.
Akira SAITO. 2000. “A Study of the Dūn-huáng Rescension of the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra. Report of the Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research published by Miye University, Japan.
Saito’s conclusions were briefly mentioned in the Translators’ Introduction to:
Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (trans.). 1996. Śantideva: The Bodhicaryāvatāra. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The image at the top is from a 19th-century painting: see here.