The Bodhicharyavatara was written by Shantideva, a famous scholar and yogi of India in the 8th century. Shantideva was a prince who became a monk and studied in the legendary Nalanda university. He was always very devoted to Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.
This is the story of Shantideva, and how the Bodhicharyavatara came to be, as told by Rinpoche.
He was born in South of India. His father was a king called Kalyanavarman and his name was Shantivarman. When he was young he had great faith in Mahayana. He was generally a Mahayana type, a bodhisattva type of person. He had great respect to his teachers, was a diligent person in studies and was very helpful and always benefiting his ministers and all the subjects. He was very compassionate to the poor, sick and lowly and used to help and protect them. He was always naturally acting in the way of a bodhisattva. He also became very learned and skilful in the different arts and sciences.
In his youth, he met a yogi from whom he received a teaching on Manjushri, called the Sadhana of Sharp Manjushri. When he practised the sadhana he actually saw Manjushri. He had a vision of Manjushri. And so he reached a certain level of attainment.
At a certain stage, his father passed away. They wanted him to become the king and wanted to enthrone him. The day before he was to be enthroned, he had a dream. In the dream he saw the big throne on which he was to be enthroned and saw Manjushri sitting on his throne. Manjushri was saying, ‘My son, this is my place, and I am your teacher. How can we two sit on the same seat?’ This is what he saw in the dream. When he woke up he understood that it was not right to become a king. It was an indication from Manjushri that it is no use to become a king. So he fled away. He just left everything and went away.
Then he went to Nalanda and met the pandita Jinadeva, who was the head teacher of Nalanda. There were five hundred teachers and Jinadeva was the most senior over them all. Shantideva became a monk under Jinadeva, and so he was given the name Shantideva, coming from the name of his teacher.
Shantideva studied and practised secretly and was not showing off. He studied more inwardly and all the time he practised on his own. He practised on the meaning. And then he also wrote three great treatises. One of these three books is the collection of instructions, the other is the collection of the sutras, and then there is the Bodhicharyavatara.
Although he had these great qualities, he remained in the Nalanda University without doing anything. He was the laziest person. People used to call him Busuku. Bu comes from bukta, which means eating. And su comes from susta, which is sleeping and ku comes from kuchiwa, that’s just walking. One who can do just eating, sleeping and going out to the toilet. So he was called Busuku.
The people in Nalanda thought he was a disgrace to them. Everybody else was studying, giving teachings, doing something, and he was just doing nothing. He was just sleeping in his small room. So they wanted to expel him. But they couldn’t find a way to expel him because he had done nothing wrong. If you don’t do anything you can’t do anything wrong. He didn’t break any rules. He didn’t do anything that was against the law. They couldn’t just ask him to go away. So they tried to find a way of driving him away.
Somebody had a great idea. They said, ‘Well, if we make a new system that anybody who is staying in this University has to give a teaching, then his turn will come very quickly and he wouldn’t know how to teach, so he will just run away.’ But their plan didn’t work.
They asked him to give a teaching but he didn’t listen to them and said, ‘I don’t know, please don’t ask me, I don’t know.’ He didn’t give his consent. But then they asked his teacher to give him an order. So the teacher gave him an order. Then he said, ‘Alright, I will read something.’ But they wanted to really embarrass him, so they made a big throne at the centre of a big field and asked everybody to come in, the whole community and from outside also. They wanted to really make him run away. But when the time came for him to give the teaching, he just sat on the throne. They didn’t even know how he had come and how he had climbed up on the throne, he just was there. And then he said, ‘What should I read, what kind of teaching should I give? Something that has been given before or something which has never been given before?’ And everybody shouted, ‘Something which has never been given before, of course!’ And Shantideva said, ‘Of these three teachings that I have, this one is too long, and that one is too short, so I will give you the Bodhicharyavatara which is in the middle.’
Then he recited the Bodhicharyavatara from his mind. It is said that many people saw Manjushri in front of him at that time. And when he reached the ninth chapter, the Wisdom chapter, he and Manjushri rose higher and higher and disappeared. That’s the usual way of describing it. He disappeared from this place.
You can also read Shantideva’s biography in The Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech on pages 17-22.