Bodhisattva 1: Vanishing Acts, Altruism, Biological Allies


Notes on a talk by Michael Stone at Centre of Gravity, Jan. 8, 2013

For the next couple of months we’re going to study a text written by Shantideva who lived in India in the seventh or eighth century. Shanti means peace and Deva means deity. I’ve tried to learn more about him and there’s very little, which is typical of most Buddhist scholarship. There’s nothing. Much scholarship proves there’s nothing. Shantideva’s text is called A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.

Shantideva was a student at Nalanda near Rajgir. It was the largest Buddhist university with thousands of monks studying there. By all accounts, Shantideva was a very poor student. He had three practices: eating, sleeping and shitting. He hardly went to sitting practice and barely attended lectures. The authorities tried to find a way to kick him out of the school. Every month they would ask a student to discourse in front of all the other students. Shantideva showed up in front of the other monks and asked them: would you like me to give a talk about a text you’ve studied? Or would you like to hear something completely original? Of course they were intrigued and asked to hear something original. He delivered his text in metered Sanskrit and delivered the 900 lines that comprise this text, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. When he got to the 9th chapter he started levitating up through the clouds and he was never seen at the university again. Search parties were sent out, and many years later he was discovered living as a farmer who didn’t want to have anything to do with Buddhist monastic practices.

Vanishing Act
Could we call it a tradition of the untraditional, that sometimes a person has an experience where they see something deeply, and then they go on practicing for a few years, and then they want to be anonymous. One of the ways they want to serve is to be anonymous. An important lesson perhaps for a culture where people have experiences then immediately go on Oprah and tell us all about them.

In another version of the story Shantideva is a Tantric adept named Busuku. He left college and became a guardian of the king’s castle. But you could pick him out of the line-up because he was the one with the wooden sword. It’s the sword of wisdom. One day his fellow guards discovered who he was and then he disappeared. Can you imagine? No need for a website or promotional flyers.


Cit is a Sanskrit word meaning awareness, or consciousness. Bodhi means awakening. Bodhicitta means awakening to one’s Buddha nature. To the nature of how things are. Norman Fischer calls it: a passion for awakening. He translates citta as passion, which is so lovely. Many people in this room are trying find ways of awakening or a livelihood that helps us to awaken. At the end of tonight I’m hoping some of you can help put the room back to what it was, to roll out the mats and set up the tables. This is how we might express bodhicitta, grounding our practice in these small gestures with one another. Sometimes you need to climb a mountain, and sometimes you need to roll out a carpet.

I’d like to read the chapter headings of this book, they describe the arc of one’s entire practice. 1. The Benefits of Awakening Mind 2. Disclosure of Wrongdoing 3. Full Acceptance of the Awakening Mind 4. Conscientiousness. 5. Guarding Alertness 6. Patience 7. Enthusiasm 8. Meditation 9. Wisdom

The book is written in the first person. In Mahayana tests the author is almost always invisible. What’s edited out is any sense that these words arrive from a person. Then this text shows up and it’s so personal.

“Respectfully I prostrate myself to the Sugatas
Who are endowed with the Dharmakaya
As well as to their Noble Children
And to all who are worthy of veneration.

Here I shall explain how to engage in the vows of the Buddha’s Children,
The meaning of which I have condensed in accordance with the scriptures.

There is nothing here that has not been explained before
And I have no skill in the art of rhetoric;
Therefore, lacking any intention to benefit others,
I write this in order to acquaint it to my mind.

For due to acquaintance with what is wholesome,
The force of my faith may for a short while increase because of these (words).
If, however, these (words) are seen by others
Equal in fortune to myself, it may be meaningful (for them).”

Teaching Practice
I spent all day preparing to give a talk and I wind up talking about what’s happening in my life in coded form. There’s something I’m trying to understand in my own practice, but I have to make it seem like I’m not doing this so I cover it up with quotes from the Dalai Lama. This verse is identical to how I feel when I prepare a talk or think about what I do. I never know how you might benefit but I HAVE to do it. I have to do this for my life. When I teach my faith is strengthened.


“Leisure and endowment are very hard to find;
And, since they accomplish what is meaningful for humanity,
If I do not take advantage of them now,
How will such a perfect opportunity come about again?”

Everyone here has leisure time. We have enough health to come here, and we’ve come from so many different backgrounds. There are so many places in the world where we wouldn’t be able to gather like this.

Nothing Separate
Bodhicitta means seeing that real nature is emptiness, in other words, non-separation. There are no things, only relationships. Nothing and no one is separate. Everything is empty of fixed and substantial essences, we are a matrix of relationships. Everything you think of as a thing is actually a spectrum of relational continuities. The realization that there’s no fixed thing anywhere means that everything is intimately drenched with everything else. When you realize interdependence in an intellectual way it’s like reading the menu when you want to find out about food. Realizing interdependence means being love. There can’t be any real awakening without love. What do we awaken to? We awaken to love. And then you have to act. Love is a response to interdependence. And it never runs out. We can all love deeper and this is the practice of bodhicitta.

Bodhicitta has these two aspects: 1) Intention 2) Practical Engagement

Bodhicitta: when we wake up ourselves and our relationships it means waking up to where we are. And this includes pain and suffering. And this means not just my wound, but the wound that we all have slightly different versions of. When we can feel the roots of it, our wounds connect us to other people. Without practice it becomes easier to avoid our wounds and see them as what annoys us about other people or other countries. When we’re wounded we become more connected to other people. In this way, our wounds by being so personal, become not so personal.

Dalai Lama
“The basic difference between the investigation of external matter and the investigation of mind is that the former requires large laboratories and a huge budget. In the internal world, you just investigate which thoughts are useful and which ones are harmful, and you keep and develop the ones you like, making constant effort. Over time, your mental state will become much better balanced, and you will find that you are happier and more stable. This is a kind of yoga for the mind.

Each day when we wake up, we can say to ourselves, ‘Altruistic attitude.’ If we have an altruistic attitude, many favourable things will come. I practice these things and I know they are helpful. I try to be sincere to everyone, even the Chinese. If I develop some kind of ill-will, anger, or hatred, who will lose? I will lose my happiness, my sleep, and my appetite, but my ill feelings won’t hurt the Chinese at all. If I am agitated, my physical condition will become weak, and some people I could make happy will not become happy.

Some people may criticize me, but I try to remain joyful. If we want to work effectively for freedom and justice, it is best to do so without anger or ill-will. If we feel calm and have a sincere motivation, we can work hard for thirty or forty years. I believe that because of my firm commitment to nonviolence, based on a genuine sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, some positive results have been produced.”


An experiment funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted in 2007 at the Duke University in Durham, North Carolina suggests a different view, “that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it.”[17] In the study published in the February 2007 print issue of Nature Neuroscience, researchers have found a part of the brain that behaves differently for altruistic and selfish people.

The researchers invited 45 volunteers to play a computer game and also to watch the computer play the game. In some rounds, the game resulted in the volunteers winning money for themselves, and in others it resulted in money being donated to a charity of the volunteer’s choice. During these activities, the researchers took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the participants’ brains and were “surprised by the results”. Although they “were expecting to see activity in the brain’s reward centers,” based on the idea that “people perform altruistic acts because they feel good about it,” what they found was that “another part of the brain was also involved, and it was quite sensitive to the difference between doing something for personal gain and doing it for someone else’s gain.” That part of the brain is called the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC). 

In the next stage, the scientists asked the participants some questions about type and frequency of their altruistic or helping behaviours. They then analysed the responses to generate an estimate of a person’s tendency to act altruistically and compared each person’s level of altruism against their fMRI brain scan. The results showed that pSTC activity rose in proportion to a person’s self-reported level of altruism. According to the researchers, the results suggest that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it. “We believe that the ability to perceive other people’s actions as meaningful is critical for altruism,” said lead study investigator Dharol Tankersley.[18]

Compassion is neural Wi-Fi, attuning to the other person’s internal state moment to moment and recreating that state in our own brain. You need to want to look for it.

“Just as a flash of lightning on a dark, cloudy night
For an instant brightly illuminates all,
Likewise in this world, through the might of Buddha,
A wholesome thought rarely and briefly appears.”


Loving Darkness
Love is the flash. The tendency in the mind is to go towards the dark dark sky. Why do we pick up what’s negative and run with it sometimes for years? There can be a whole array of thoughts and out of those I’ll pick the few negative ones and dive deep. Maybe we’re trained to look for negativity.

Biological Allies
Sharon Salzberg interviews Daniel Goleman:
An important study, done by James A. Coan in Richard Davidson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin: A woman lies in a brain-imaging machine and waits to get a mild shock. She’s understandably apprehensive. While she’s lying there, someone comes and holds her hand. If it’s a stranger, her anxiety level falls a bit. If it’s her husband, it plummets to nothing. That study is one of many that suggests we are each other’s biological allies. That one person simply holding someone’s hand, or maybe just being a calm presence, can have a powerful biological effect both emotionally and physiologically. For people who are in very vulnerable, extremely precarious health situations, it might have clinical consequences, too. But apart from that, just in terms of how a person experiences their illness, a calm, loving presence can make a huge difference. This doesn’t cure the disease; it eases the suffering the disease brings.

24. “If those beings have never before
Even dreamt of such an attitude
For their own sake,
How would it ever arise for the sake of others?”

This is my favourite verse. If you can’t want sweetness for yourself, how can you intend it for others? We allow others happiness but do we dare wish for it? Are we worthy of it? Do you ever think you deserve unfortunate difficulties? The most common dictionary definition of altruism is: “Unselfish concern for the welfare of others“. But unselfish means to unselfishly take care of yourself. And to act.