Nagarjuna, Shantideva, and dropping out…Posted: March 18, 2012
A legend that grew up around Shantideva relates that while reciting A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life to an audience of monks, he ascended into the sky and disappeared. This is said to have occurred when he uttered the words [of Nagarjuna]:
When neither something nor nothing
Remains to be known,
There is no alternative left
But complete non-referential ease.
By associating this vision of emptiness with Shantideva’s miraculous departure from the monastery, the legend suggests a symbolic release from the scholarly and moralistic constraints of monasticism into a life of unfettered ease and freedom. Having delivered his masterpiece, Shantideva shuns renown and seeks anonymity. Later fragments of biography tell of his employment as a palace guard, his departure to the mountains as a hermit, his living with a consort in Bengal. Shantideva’s abiding in emptiness leads him to the inexorable conclusion that to love the world entails disappearing into its midst to become no one.
Shantideva was not alone at this period in his rejection of institutional monasticism. A monk rising to preeminence within a monastery only to reject monasticism in favour of a return to the world is a common feature in the lives of the Buddhist tantric adepts (mahasiddha) of India. Like the Ch’an masters, their contemporaries in China, the tantric adepts sought to embody the Buddha’s teachings in the domain and language of everyday life and immediate experience. Both movements attempted to recover the vitality of a tradition which, while promising freedom, exhibits a curious proclivity to becoming mired in its own rules and dogmas.
pp35-36 of Verses from the Center: a Buddhist vision of the sublime, by Stephen Batchelor.