Comment on Lele’s “The Compassionate Gift of Vice” (Journal of Buddhist Ethics Vol 20. 2013).

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.

About Stephen Harris

Stephen Harris currently teaches at the Institute for Philosophy and the International B.A. program at Leiden University. He has also taught philosophy at the University of New Mexico and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. He specializes in Comparative and Indian philosophy, with a particular interest in Buddhist ethical texts.

9 thoughts on “Comment on Lele’s “The Compassionate Gift of Vice” (Journal of Buddhist Ethics Vol 20. 2013).

  1. The argument above strikes me as an object lesson of what is wrong with thinking in terms of super-natural beings with super-powers who intervene in human affairs. I say this because there no real-life circumstances where facilitating alcoholism helps to free the alcoholic. It betrays a fundamentally warped view of the nature of addiction and the impact of alcohol addiction on individuals and communities.

    Early Buddhists did not share this warped view. They treat alcohol with exaggerated care:

    “The drinking of fermented & distilled liquors — when indulged in, developed, & pursued — is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry shades. The slightest of all the results coming from drinking fermented & distilled liquors is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to mental derangement.” Vipāka Sutta. AN viii.40. Thanissaro’s trans.

    This is hyperbolic, to be sure, but it’s more a realistic attitude to the dangers of alcoholism. I would argue that this is because the early Buddhists didn’t believe in super-human intercessors or have any ways of avoiding karma. For them karma was karma. And it would ripen whatever happened, cf. Dhammapada 188-189 which effectively says “you can run, but you cannot hide”.

    Śāntideva, as I show in JBE 21 ( – see especially p.513ff.), was operating in an environment where karma could easily be avoided. See particularly the section on purification of evil (pāpaśodhana) in Śikṣāsamuccaya. Apart from that, he believed in the possibility of supernatural beings able to intercede to prevent harm coming to us (again with no parallel in early Buddhism). Thus his attitude to transgression was necessarily different because he had no fear of the consequences of his actions. The avoidance of karma had become routine by his time. It’s a good practical example of how the metaphysical changes in karma that I identify might play out in someone’s attitudes.

    Thus Śāntideva is like a Zulu warrior who believed himself to be bullet proof. Fearless in the face of bullets. Karma has no power over him. And anyway, the end justifies the means.

    I studied Śāntideva (in translation) as part of preparation for joining the Triratna Buddhist Order, and he always struck me as an unattractive religious fanatic. One of the interesting twists with Śāntideva is that he’s somewhat transgressive (with his giving of prohibited gifts), but in other respects he is heavily burdened with (Brahmanical?) convention. Where it comes to bodies for example, his Bodhicāryāvatara is rank with hatred for those “pus filled sacks” we lug around with us, and especially he seems to share the Brahmanical horror of body fluids. A single pada is enough to illustrate both points:

    “8.59. If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth?” (Crosby & Skilton trans).

    He appears to be quite a disturbed individual at times, especially when he’s not quoting sūtras. Women’s bodies in particular seem to disgust him. Even mother’s milk is “filth” to him. There is no sense of going beyond taboos here. Śāntideva is a vehement advocate *for* them.

    Śāntideva apologists seem always to fall back on the upāya argument – he is using skilful means (again with the implication that the end justifies the means). But to me this looks like a refusal to engage with what the man is actually saying. Rather apologists only wish to discuss an idealised version which casts Śāntideva as a saint. A straw man argument in reverse (is there a name for this?). And it involves taking his magical thinking on face value or in some cases endorsing it.

    Lele has done some good work in seeing Śāntideva on his own terms and explored the textual basis of (socially) engaged Buddhism. But because the ideas about gift giving are only a background to the main point on poverty alleviation he doesn’t thoroughly assess Śāntideva’s views on alcohol. And this is a shame, because it leaves open the rather Romantic reading posted by Stephen. Reading the essay above we get no sense that the kind of bodhisattva being invoked in the text is entirely a product of the religious imagination – he has no real-world counterpart. Śāntideva’s morality is based on a religious fantasy about moral supermen. Such a fantasy-being was unimaginable in the early Buddhist worldview where transgression was simply transgression and the perfected übermensch was *physically incapable* of transgressing. How times change.

    In fact we might well be appalled by Śāntideva’s ignorance and magical thinking, especially when it comes to weapons and alcohol. It’s characteristic of Śāntideva’s negativity towards women and sex that he includes them along with weapons and alcohol. Śāntideva is like Peter Pan. He makes for an entertaining story, but it would be detrimental to be like him, to follow his example or even to share his views. We scholars, even we Buddhist scholars, can afford to be a little less respectful and a lot more critical.

    For the socially-engaged record, charities in the UK that work with homeless people recommend that we do not give money to beggars precisely because most of them are alcoholics who spend it on alcohol. Better to donate money to a charity which works to help them sober up. Eg.
    Beyond all the magic and fantasy is the grim reality of alcoholism.

    • Thanks for this, Jayarava. I should note that Śāntideva’s original only says madyapāna – literally “alcohol drinkers”, not “alcoholics”. I render my translation accordingly. Bendall and Rouse, for some reason, rendered this “alcoholics” in the only extant English translation, and Stephen followed that usage above. When we get to a critique like this, that precise distinction matters: it could merely imply giving alcohol to casual alcohol drinkers, although he doesn’t specify that.

  2. Thanks for the kind words on my article, Stephen.

    Certainly Śāntideva is advocating skill in means to help others to liberation, and these passages should be read accordingly. Indeed, he quotes the Upāyakauśalya Sūtra in the Śikṣāsamuccaya – I believe that’s the very sūtra he’s quoting in at least some of the passages at issue.

    I probably wouldn’t go so far as to identify it as tantric, although I think Śāntideva’s historical situation (eighth-century Nālandā) is one where that was a possibility. But I suppose to say much about that we’d need to define tantra in the first place, which is always tricky.

  3. I’m not knowledgeable enough about Buddhism to necessarily find anything wrong with Śāntideva’s teachings although they do strike me as quite specific and contextual and thus I think we should, pace Jayarava, be reluctant to draw wider or grandiose inferences or conclusions for Buddhist spiritual praxis. In fact, I think we might bear in mind several recent discussions about the conduct of contemporary Buddhist teachers as addressed by the Dalai Lama and others in light of some notorious cases where teachers have failed (at least been credibly accused of same) to exemplify fidelity to the Five Precepts. See, for instance, discussions and comments here:
    and here:

  4. Thanks for the comments, and the link to Amod’s article. Sorry for the omission.

    Just a couple things in response to Jayarava:

    Śāntideva claims that the purpose of the shorter of his texts, Introduction to the Practices of Awakening, or Bodhicaryāvatāra, is to develop the qualities/discipline of the bodhisattva (1:1). I think it’s usually helpful to keep this in mind when reading the various images that he offers. So the main purpose of 8:59, quoted by Jayarava, is to draw our attention to what we naturally find repulsive in the human body when we dwell on it (like sweat, feces etc) as a way of dispelling attachment to the body, rather than his views on its actual impurity. In 9:87, for instance, he claims that accepting the emptiness of form (rūpa) undermines the male/female distinction. Given this, it’s hard not to take his comments about female repulsiveness (for instance) as primarily a a meditation to dispel lust. The same should apply to comments about physical repulsiveness in general.

    A lot of what Śantideva offers in the BCA are practical psychological techniques, many of which don’t depend on karma, magic thinking, fantasy etc. 6:8 is a good example, in which he reminds us that becoming angry never helps, since if we can change the situation we should just do it, and if we can’t then anger is just an additional hardship. I’ve also been struck by how much of the text (throughout so many of the chapters) uses meditations and images designed to rechannel negative emotional energy. The main thing I wanted to do in my comment was connect this to Amod’s article on harmful objects—the strategy of the BCA bleeds out from the mind into the physical world in the SS. But I agree that this wouldn’t actually be a good strategy for substance abuse counselors to adopt.

    But then we’re also probably not convinced that the classic examples of skillful means from The Skillful Means Sutra and so on are all that . . . well skillful. I always found the story of the bodhisattva having sex with his lust-filled devotee rather strange. Likewise in the story of the bodhisattva captain, how could killing the robber be the best way to prevent him from committing mass murder? This raises interesting questions about why these particular examples were adopted in the text, which I don’t have anything to say about at the moment.

    Thanks again for the comments.

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