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Quoted below is from 'A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life' by Santideva, Chapter IX: The Perfection of Wisdom. I'm struggling to follow the line of thought, can someone please decipher what it means.

This is what I deduce reading it and It really is incomprehensible to my feeble mind.

  1. Sentient beings do not exist
  2. For one to be compassionate he has to be deluded to believe that sentient beings exist.
  3. Compassion itself is a delusion
  4. One should remain deluded to alleviate the nonexisting suffering of nonexisting sentient beings.

How can all this be true?

Please note I'm writing bluntly because I want to understand what it means not because of lack of respect for Santideva work, far from it his book is always in my heart... it just that I can't get through chapter 9 :/

  1. [Qualm:] If no sentient being exists, for whom is there compassion? [Madhyamika:] For one who is imagined through delusion, which is accepted for the sake of the task.
  2. [Qualm:] If there is no sentient being, whose is the task? [Madhyamika:] True. The effort, too, is due to delusion. Never­theless, in order to alleviate suffering, delusion with regard to one's task is not averted
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First, you have to keep in mind that Shantideva's work is versified. This implies that it is not always technically accurate, because words are missing for the sake of poetry. For instance, we will read "sentient beings do not exist" as "sentient beings do not exist inherently" implying "but they do exist conventionally." What does not exist is a mode of existence.

Second, Shantideva was a Prasangika. This is his view of emptiness that neither persons nor phenomena exist inherently. They do exist conventionally. Prasangika also posit that conventional valid cognizers in the continuum of ordinary beings are valid with regard to the entity of the thing, but mistaken with regard to the mode of existence of said things. This all helps you understand that we do not negate conventions.

Third, Gyaltsab Je wrote a Prasangika commentary to Shantideva. He explains verse 9.75 as follows:

Gyaltsab Je: Realist: If there is absolutely no inherently existing person, then, as there is no focal object for compassion, for whom should one practice meditation on compassion? Madhyamaka: If there is no inherently existing person, then it follows there is no such fault that the focal object of compassion is non-existent, because that nominally existing sentient being, labelled by mental darkness, which is accepted for the purpose of achieving the result of liberation, is valid to be the focal object of compassion.

While part of his commentary on verse 9.76 says:

The opponent says that if sentient beings do not exist inherently they do not exist at all. The question is that if sentient beings do not exist, who would experience the result of meditation on compassion that is buddhahood? It is clear that the object of observation as well as the result of the meditation on compassion do not exist truly, but the problem as posited by the opponent does not exist for us, in that sentient beings still exist conventionally, and therefore conventionally it makes sense to meditate on compassion.

Now, to answer your questions more directly:

1) Sentient beings do not exist They do not exist inherently (or truly), they do exist conventionally. A valid eye consciousness apprehending a person is valid with regard to the entity of the thing. Compassion towards a person is valid with regard to the entity of the thing as well. Compassion towards a unicorn, however, is not.

2)For one to be compassionate he has to be deluded to believe that sentient beings exist. No. For one to be compassionate, he has to have some sort of insight into the four noble truths. Also, he who believes that sentient beings are utterly non-existent is deluded. So is he who believes they exist inherently (which is the whole topic here).

3)Compassion itself is a delusion It is not, because a delusion is never valid with regard to the entity of the thing. For instance, anger does not engage its object correctly. The object [of engagement] of anger is as non-existent as a unicorn. In addition, delusions take away the peace of the mind (it's their definition) and superimpose.

4)One should remain deluded to alleviate the nonexisting suffering of nonexisting sentient beings. This is not the case, since the conventionally existent buddhas do alleviate the conventionally existing suffering of conventionally existent sentient beings.


Non-versified books you can read on the topic are:

1. Commentary on Shantiva

  • Gyaltsab Dharma Rinchen, The Entrance for the Children of the Conquerors, A Commentary on Shantideva’s Introduction to the Actions of Bodhisattvas

2. Madhyamika

  • Elizabeth Napper, Dependent‑Arising and Emptiness

3. Special Insight

  • Je Tsongkhapa, Lam Rim Chen Mo, Volume 3, Part 2
  • Je Tsongkhapa, Middle Length Lam Rim, Chapter Five
  • Guy Newland, Introduction to Emptiness
  • Guy Newland, The two truths
  • Jeffrey Hopkins, Tsongkhapa's Final Exposition of Wisdom
  • Khedrup Je - A Dose of Emptiness
  • Thanks @ Tenzin. If you don't mind can you give response for each four statements in both truth ( conventional and ultimate). I ask this because i want to see these completely distinct. – user12952 Jan 27 '18 at 6:12
  • Also if you don't mind could you please direct me to a book or any writing in English which deals with this analytically, i mean not 'versified' as you noted. Thanks a mil. – user12952 Jan 27 '18 at 6:16
  • @user12952 I added titles of books. However, I am not sure I understand what you mean with "giving response for each four statements in both truths". Especially, which four statements are you referring to? – Tenzin Dorje Jan 27 '18 at 17:45
  • Thanks for the list of book @Tenzi..'m truly grateful!..........................The four statements that i refer to are the four statements that you gave direct response to i.e. ...1)Sentient beings do not exist....2)For one to be compassionate he has to be deluded... etc... I think in the ultimate reality all four seem to be true as i stated them originally. – user12952 Jan 27 '18 at 21:13
  • @user12952 You are most welcome. I'm sorry but I don't understand what you mean with "giving response for 'sentient beings do not exist' in both truths." That sentient beings do not exist is not true. However, you can say sentient beings do not exist inherently. Or sentient beings do not appear in the perspective of a non-buddha directly realizing emptiness. – Tenzin Dorje Jan 27 '18 at 22:01
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Let me quote Dogen's Genjō Kōan:

When things are seen in context of Buddha-Dharma, there is "delusion vs enlightenment", "practice and study", "birth", "death", "Buddhas" and "sentient beings". When things are seen in context of Emptiness, there is no longer such thing as "delusion" and no "enlightenment", no Buddhas, no sentient beings, no birth, an no death.

The path to buddhahood starts with a feeling that there is "too much" of one thing and "not enough" of another, and in that context there are "birth" and "death", "delusion vs enlightenment", "ordinary beings" and "Buddhas". But in reality this feeling only comes from attachment to a certain perspective, just like when we get nostalgic over the blossoms’ withering but hate when the weeds are flowering.

To undertake the project of Enlightening the entire universe through one’s training while carrying the burden of self is a delusion. To have the entire Universe enlighten oneself through training is awakening. To have awaken to one’s delusion is to be enlightened -- and to be deluded about enlightenment is to be an ordinary being.

To take on your individual statements:

1) Sentient beings do not exist

Incorrect. From the perspective of someone who sees, things are beyond descriptions such as "sentient beings exist" or "sentient beings do not exist". The idea of "sentient beings" is but one way to describe reality.

2) For one to be compassionate he has to be deluded to believe that sentient beings exist.

Incorrect, "he" is not deluded, he's just able to understand the delusion of others. Empathy or compassion is an ability to imagine what the world looks like from another perspective. Because those who see the truth have such ability (as they attained the truth by completely and utterly letting go of their fixed perspective), they can see reality from a perspective of a description that uses the concept of "sentient beings" and all that goes with it. And when you see things from this perspective, you see suffering, birth, death etc. -- all that stuff exists from the same perspective.

3) Compassion itself is a delusion

Incorrect, compassion or empathy itself is a real skill. In cognitive science, being able to understand what the world looks like from another observer's standpoint is a key criteria of sentience.

4) One should remain deluded to alleviate the nonexisting suffering of nonexisting sentient beings.

Incorrect, to be able to understand different people and to ferry them across, one needs to be able to see reality beyond limitations of a single perspective, and to freely move between perspectives.

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For others, what is just a mere delusion, is not a mere delusion, but reality.

For you, an enlightened being, there is no suffering, no sorrow, no pain, no happiness, no beings, no life, no death, no nothing, etc.

For others, not enlightened beings, there is suffering, sorrow, pain, happiness, beings, life, death, nothing, etc.

Because there actually is suffering, sorrow, pain, happiness, beings, life, death, nothing, etc. the Bodhisattva has compassion and it is the right thing to do because there actually IS suffering, sorrow, pain, happiness, etc.

UPDATE:

So you think everything is empty, thus there is nobody for whom to be compassionate. And now you're wondering if there is no object for compassion, then why compassion? For whom compassion, if there is nobody to be compassionate for?

The answer is in verse 75: "For one who is imagined through delusion". Thus, compassion is for nobody, but since this nobody actually IS somebody, that's why there is compassion for this somebody.

Even if a Bodhisattva knew that this somebody is actually nobody, he would still continue to be compassionate for this nobody because this nobody is deluded to be somebody. For nobody thinking he is somebody, there is suffering, sorrow, pain, happiness, beings, life, death, nothing, etc. and because for somebody there actually IS all this, this somebody is subjected to suffering. Even though there is nobody who suffers, there actually IS somebody due to him being deluded there is somebody and for him (the deluded one) there actually IS somebody who is suffering.

"For one who is imagined through delusion, which is accepted for the sake of the task." does not necessarily mean "For one to be compassionate he has to be deluded to believe that sentient beings exist". It can also mean "For one to be compassionate, other beings have to be deluded to believe that sentient beings exist".

In verses prior to verse 75 it says that the "I" cannot be found. Whenever the "I" is found, that is not the "I". Examples of this are here:

"73. The past or future mind is not "I," since it does not exist. If the present mind were "I," then when it had vanished, the "I" would not exist any more."

"74. Just as the trunk of a plantain tree is nothing when cut into pieces, in the same way, the "I" is non-existent when sought analytically."

To an uninstructed mind, it would logically follow that compassion is not needed, that's why this question arises:

[Qualm:] If no sentient being exists, for whom is there compassion?

And this is the answer:

[Madhyamika:] For one who is imagined through delusion, which is accepted for the sake of the task.

Given that the author in prior verses says that there actually is no "I" for whom to be compassionate, the only possible interpretation of the above answer can be this:

[Madhyamika:] For one who is imagined through delusion by the Bodhisattva or by the being, which is accepted as real by the Bodhisattva for the sake of the task.

If compassion would not be needed, there wouldn't be a long debate "why compassion is needed" and there wouldn't be the answer that compassion is needed for the one who is imagined through delusion. The "one who is imagined through delusion" does not cease to exist when the Bodhisattva eradicates his delusion nor when the being for which the Bodhisattva is compassionate eradicates his delusion. "one who is imagined through delusion" ceases when both the Bodhisattva and the being eradicate their delusions. When both eradicate their delusions, "one who is imagined through delusion" ceases to exist, there is no more suffering, no sorrow, no pain, no happiness, no beings, no life, no death, no nothing, etc., thus no more compassion is needed between the two because suffering actually ceases for both of them, comes to an end. Thus, until both eradicate their suffering, compassion is needed. As long as there will be deluded beings, compassion will be needed.

In the same way as verse 75, verse 76 can be interpreted.

The verse that follow then has sense:

  1. However, grasping onto the "I," which is a cause of suffering, increases because of the delusion with regard to the Self. If this is the unavoidable result of that, meditation on identitylessness is the best.

I would interpret it like this:

  1. However, grasping of the Bodhisattva onto the "I," which is a cause of suffering, increases because of the delusion with regard to the Self. If this is the unavoidable result of that, meditation on identitylessness is the best.

UPDATE 2:

You are indulging in the view "Sentient beings do not exist".

You think that sentient beings are just a dream. Thinking so, you think that once you wake up, sentient beings would vanish, because they haven't ever existed in the first place, isn't it? For you, sentient beings are non existent, isn't it? You think sentient beings are just characters in your dream, isn't it? You think that I and other sentient beings don't exist. That's what you think and that's the reason you're not satisfied with the answers.

You think that my dream is part of your dream. You think that my dream does not exist and that it's just part of your dream. That's not true. Your dream is your dream and my dream is my dream. They are two separate dreams. When you wake up from your dream, I'll still be in my dream. When you wake up from your dream, this world and the sentient beings in it would not cease to exist - they would still be in their dreams. But you, because you think that they are all part of your dream, think that they wouldn't exist anymore, which is incorrect.

Just think about all sentient beings who woke up from their dreams. If we were just a dream, after a sentient being woke up, then you and me would vanish and would not be here. But you and me are still here, even though numerous sentient beings woke up. How could that be?? They all woke up from their dreams, but we are still here? If we, sentient beings, were just a dream, we would vanish the moment a sentient being woke up. But that's not the case. We're still here, even though others woke up. Why we're still here?

Is it maybe because every sentient being is in his own dream? Yes, that is the answer.

Wrong view is: when I wake up from my dream, other sentient beings will stop dreaming because they haven't ever existed in the first place because they were just characters of my own dream.

Right view is: when I wake up from my dream, other sentient beings will continue to be in their dreams.

It is wrong view to say "Sentient beings do not exist". Right view is "Sentient beings neither do not exist nor exist" and even this view is wrong if not understood properly. Correct is to let go of all views:

"Does Master Gotama have any position at all?"

"A 'position,' Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: 'Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is perception...such are fabrications...such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.' Because of this, I say, a Tathagata — with the ending, fading away, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsessions with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released."

Source: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.072.than.html

You are caught in a view "Sentient beings do not exist" which is one extreme:

"By & large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by (takes as its object) a polarity, that of existence & non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'non-existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one."

"'Everything exists': That is one extreme. 'Everything doesn't exist': That is a second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle

Source: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.015.than.html

You are caught in non-existence. You should let go of it and come out in the middle. It's because of the extreme "Sentient beings do not exist" that you can't see a reason for compassion.

The whole point of enlightenment is to avoid extremes and come in the middle.

Once you come in the middle, you will know that your dream is your dream and my dream is my dream, so even if you wake up from your dream, there will still be my dream. That's why compassion remains and that's the reason why compassion can continue to go on, even after awakening/enlightenment.

  • Thanks @beginner.. But the question has something more than you described. Imagine you and your companion walking in a desert, your friend seeing a mirage think that there is water ahead and become joyful, but you, knowing what a mirage is, compassionately try to convince your friend not to be deluded hoping to alleviate his suffering when the mirage turns empty. This analogy fits well with what you described. However, the question goes beyond this .. You as an enlightened being also knows that your friend is also a mirage the same as the none existing water. So, for whom is there compassion? – user12952 Jan 28 '18 at 8:52
  • Compassion is for one who is imagined through delusion. Even though you're enlightened and you know your friend is a mirage, your friend is not enlightened and he thinks he is not a mirage. He can't yet comprehend what you know and maybe he would need many more years to comprehend it. That's why you're compassionate. You're compassionate towards nobody, but because your friend is not enlightened, you are really compassionate towards somebody (not nobody). And you accept it for the sake of the task. I updated my answer for a more detailed explanation. – beginner Jan 28 '18 at 11:20
  • tanks for your effort...Let me try another simile for your verification...sorry i like similes... What you described seems to me like someone [Bodhisattva] in a dream and when he realize that he is in a dream with his eyes closed continue the dream story feeling compassionate to the characters in the dream. In the dream the Bodhisattva also has a character an 'I' and if he meditate on identitylessness.. what happen then does he wakes up? .... This is profoundly complex, but i ask because i think within it the answer as to how one can embody both dispassion and metta is contained. – user12952 Jan 28 '18 at 12:02
  • Until the Bodhisattva is not enlightened, your simile is correct. But once the Bodhisattva becomes enlightened, he opens his eyes and he is not in a dream anymore. Then he sees beings who are still dreaming. He knows how much they suffer because of their dream, so he does what he can to alleviate their suffering. He is out of his dream, but others are still in their own dreams. He knows that. He can't deny it. – beginner Jan 28 '18 at 14:02
  • That which for an enlightened being is a dream, is reality to the unenlightened being. You can't deny that, you can't just erase it. It is there. Because it actually is there, an enlightened being helps others by being compassionate. – beginner Jan 28 '18 at 14:03

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