I was glad to see that Amod Lele had published an article in The Journal of Buddhist Ethics expressing some of the central conclusions of his dissertation. The article, “The Compassionate Gift of Vice: Śāntideva on Gifts, Altruism and Poverty” takes as its point of departure an apparent contradiction in Śāntideva’s writing. Śāntideva instructs the bodhisattva to give gifts such as alcohol, sex and weapons to those desiring them. Yet the text as a whole is clear that these objects harm their possessor. Particularly puzzling is Śāntideva claim that alcohol should be given to alcoholics to help them develop mindfulness and introspection, since he specifically claims that consumption of alcohol hinders developing these mental states (Lele, 703).
Lele resolves the tension by explaining that the benefit of these “gifts of vice” is not in the object given, but in the effects of the act itself. The bodhisattva gives alcohol to alcoholics, and so on, because this nurtures their relationship to the bodhisattva. In particular, these gifts increase attachment (saṁgraha) towards the bodhisattva, by means of developing tranquil pleasure (prasādana) (Lele, 709). Gifts of vice, then, are a means of strengthening a relationship which will, over time, have vast benefits to the alcoholic, sex addict, or warrior. Lele suggests that this strategy explains the motivation behind most giving of gifts to benefit others endorsed in Śāntideva’s texts (714).
I’m sympathetic to all of these claims. As Susanne Mrozik (whom Lele also cites) has carefully argued, a pressing concern of the bodhisattva is creating beneficial relationships with their potential students, and Lele’s work is an important contribution to this area. I do wonder, however, whether a natural additional motivation behind the bodhisattva’s gift of basic provisions such as food, might be the elimination of certain gross forms of suffering. Lele’s convincing arguments that nurturing relationships motivates gift-giving doesn’t rule out additional motivations that are so obviously connected to the bodhisattva’s commitment of removing all suffering.
More importantly, I want to connect Lele’s insights with a feature of Śāntideva’s other text, the Bodhicaryāvatāra (BCA), that I find fascinating. Throughout the first nine of its chapters, Śāntideva frequently offers meditations designed to stir up mental energy arising from the afflictions and rechannel it towards the cause of liberation. He encourages us, for instance, to hate anger (BCA 4:43), seeks to install great fear towards death as a motivation for practice (BCA 7:4-12), offers meditations whereby we develop jealousy as a way of understanding another’s perspective (BCA 8:140) and so on.
Śāntideva’s remarks on the benefits of giving objects of vice can be seen as part of this overall strategy. In fact, the emphasis on weapons, sex and alcohol is significant, since these correspond to the three root negative mental states of anger, attachment and ignorance. The mental state of attachment and the physical act of sex, are dangerous in that they usually bind us to samsara, but under the bodhisattva’s skillful guidance, they can be used to nurture the right kinds of relationships. Similar remarks might be made about the mental states of anger and ignorance, and their corresponding objects.
Redeploying negative mental energy for liberative purposes is, of course, associated with tantra, and what these strategies in Śāntideva’s texts suggest is that a tantric streak is shot through much of the Mahayana tradition. This goes back at least to the quite early Skillful Means Sutra, in which stories of bodhisattvas doing prohibited actions, like engaging in sexual intercourse, are found. The strategy overall is not really that surprising. Buddhists claim that our cognitive systems are deeply infected with the mental afflictions, which have been strengthening since beginningless time. All teachers must meet their students where they currently stand. For Śāntideva, this means arriving with an armful of dangerous toys, and an electrician’s kit to reroute a seething morass of negative energy.
With the exception of nirvana, the entire Buddhist universe falls under the categorization of compounded suffering (saṃskāra-duḣkha). Lele’s attention to the use of samsaric objects helps highlight a tendency developing in Buddhism to see everything that exists as also, in some way, part of the causes for liberation. Guns and wanton sex can bind us to rebirth in hell, or to the bodhisattva who will liberate us from suffering. Anger and lust can motivate killing and acquisitions, or the destruction of negative mental states and the attainment of nirvana. Even killing, stealing, lying and so on can, in their skillful use by the bodhisattva, save beings from future pain. The entire universe, then, is both bound up with ignorance and craving, and also is the path to liberation. Nāgārguna famously equated nirvana and samsara in his Root verses on the Middle Way. With this Mahayana appropriation of the causes of suffering as the causes of liberation, we perhaps work our way to a similar equation of the first Noble Truth (Suffering) with the fourth (Path).
Anyway, these are some of the thoughts Lele’s article stimulated in me. But really it’s my pleasure to warmly endorse it, as the work of a careful scholar treating Śāntideva’s writing with the attention and respect it deserves. Hopefully we’ll be able to convince him to take occasional future breaks from his wonderful blog to publish again in formal academic venues.