Oct 9, 2022
Martin Goodson

The Seven-Part Worship of Shantideva

How does Shantideva's formula for worship relate to the different parts of Zen Practice?



Shantideva was an 8th century monk and philosopher who lived and taught at the famous Buddhist university of Nalanda. He was a follower of the founder of the Middle-Way school (mādyamaka). Shantideva’s most famous composition is the Bodhicaryavatara - A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. This text describes the full path of the aspiring bodhisattva from the first arising of the aspiration for Buddhahood (bodhicitta) to the Full and Perfect Enlightenment of the Buddha.

The emergence of Mahayana Buddhism in the last centuries B.C.E. was defined by a reorientation of the purpose of the path of practice. Early Buddhism had focused on the Arhat Path, the path to personal liberation in Nirvana. The Mahayana sutras introduced a doctrine that saw the true goal of the Buddha’s teaching as being in all beings becoming Buddhas. The Bodhisattva Path was the path to Buddhahood. 

The Bodhisattva was marked out by an aspiration to liberate all beings, not just oneself. This reflects the reality pronounced by the Buddha that there are no separate beings and that  to seek one owns liberation at the exclusion of others is to fly in the face of the ultimate nature of reality. There was also a change in the  path of practice. For the Arhat Path, the practice formula was the Noble Eightfold Path, the fourth of the Four Noble Truths. For the aspiring Bodhisattva, the practice formulation was the Six Paramitas - giving, ethical discipline, patient endurance, devoted energy, meditation & wisdom. The first four practices provide the stable foundation for the last two.

This Mahayana view can obscure the fact that early Buddhism also taught compassion for all beings. However,  the latter did limit those who could enter Nirvana to the ordained sangha; whilst the Bodhisattva Path was open to ordained and lay people alike.

So how do we embark on the Bodhisattva Path? Shantideva fixed the beginning point as the arising of bodhicitta. This term, which literally means – the aspiration to attain Enlightenment,  is seen as the fundamental reorientation of the heart towards this supreme end.

The fact that bodhicitta is not just some whimsical thought about how nice it would be to be a fully enlightened Buddha is important to understand.

In sutras such as The Lotus Sutra, the Arhat Path was seen as a preliminary path before entry into the Bodhisattva Path proper. Thus, the cultivation and transformation of the passions and impulsive desires of the heart,  products of the attachment to self, is paramount. It is only after the Buddha had already enabled many of his disciples attain  arhatship that he then turned the Wheel of the Dharma for a second time and taught the path to Buddhahood. However, even then, not all of those arhats who heard him gave rise to bodhicitta. In the Lotus Sutra, it is reported that at the sermon in which the Buddha revealed the continuation of the path of his teachings, 500 monks and nuns got up and left. The rest, however, upon hearing the Buddha’s sermon, gave rise to bodhicitta and stayed on.

Apart from the major practice formulations such as the Paramitas, there are myriad formulations that outline the elements that need to be cultivated in order to attain to the path. Such examples are The Seven Factors of Enlightenment or The Four Great Efforts; these break down a practice of cultivation into a system that can  be applied by the practitioner. Shantideva drew up one such  formulation , which truly sets us on the Bodhisattva Path. This formulation is known as The Seven-Part Worship and its goal was to develop bodhicitta in the heart of the practitioner. It was believed that once bodhicitta had arisen then Buddhahood would be assured though it may take a very long time!

The seven parts are as follows:

Bowing Down

For many practitioners, bowing should be second nature by now. We bow upon entry to the Zendo or Shrine room. We bow to the meditation seat. In a temple, we bow to receive food and so on. But it is interesting to find out what it brings up in us. Sometimes the reaction can be quite powerful!

The story goes that, back in the mid- 20th century, two American Zen practitioners went to Japan to see how Zen was practiced in a ‘native’ Buddhist country. Much of the English literature on Zen at that time stressed the rationality of Zen and the lack of ‘superstition’; this of course appealed greatly to the humanistic Western mind set. They arrived at a small Zen temple and asked the priest if he would mind  showing them around. The priest was happy to do so. As usual, he began in the Shrine Room and, as he walked in, he bowed to the Buddha on the altar. ‘‘And this is where we chant in the morning.” Going through to the Zendo, he again bowed to the Buddha statue there. “And here is where we sit meditation”. Entering the kitchen, he bowed to the image of the Bodhisattva on the threshold. “And here is where we prepare the meals.” So it continued. Each room of the temple had an image or statue and, as was the habit of his lifetime, he bowed as he walked by. By the end, one of the visitors, who was very fond of the iconoclastic stories of Master Rinzai saying ‘‘If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha” and of Master Tanka who burned a wooden image of the Buddha on a fire one cold winter’s night, could stand it no more.

“I thought Zen taught us to be beyond bowing and scraping to such images. Why, I could spit at them!”, he said rather irately. But the old priest, to whom such images symbolised the supreme ideal of his life, said in his broken English: “Ok, Ok, you spits, I bows!”.

For most of us, it may not be that we have such a powerful reaction when asked to place the hands in gassho (palms pressed together in front on the chest), and then bow to the Buddha as we enter the meditation hall. But is there a warm feeling of gratitude in our heart when we do so? Anyone can go through a mechanical process of bending the body in the form of a bow, but that is not bowing down. If we can feel real gratitude to the Buddha for his teachings, for his example, for all those who went before us and kept the Buddha’s Way open for us to benefit from it, if all that is in the bow, then we can truly say we bow down.

Reverence towards all the Buddhas

When my late teacher was still alive and giving talks to us in the Zendo, she would often start by asking us to turn our seats a little towards her. But she cautioned us not to turn our backs to the Buddha rupa (Buddha statue on the altar). When we bowed to our meditation seat, we would also turn 180 degrees and then bow to the assembly but we were instructed that, when we did turn, to ensure that our backs were not towards the Buddha on the altar either. In this way, we were expected to develop a sense of the presence of the Buddha in the room in a meaningful way. This wasn’t just a piece of metal or wood but the great ideal that was the reason we were there in the Zendo. When we were about to sit meditation, as the Buddha did, he was there with us.

A monk once asked Master Joshu: “What is Buddha”. This is a classic question that Zen masters are asked all the time. It is often expected that the master will reveal his insight to the questioner.

Master Joshu replied: “The one in the hall”. By this answer he was referring to the Buddha statue on the altar in the meditation hall.

“No”, replied the monk, “I mean the real Buddha. That statue is just piece of old wood.” It sounds like this monk had also heard of Master Tanka burning the Buddha statue.

Master Joshu nodded and agreed with him.

“What is Buddha?” The monk persisted.

Joshu replied: “The one in the hall”.

Buddha has several meanings. There is the man who lived and died 2,500 years ago and turned the Wheel of the Dharma and is credited as the founder of Buddhism. There is the Buddha nature, which goes under many names, - Heart-Buddha, Original Face, True Face and so on. All beings have Buddha nature which  suggests that we should also revere Buddha nature in all beings too. In one Mahayana sutra, it says that all things are Buddha things. So that really widens the net!

Reverence is not a word we hear much of these days, perhaps because it means acknowledging that I am not the hub and centre of the universe. It needs the attitude that there are things which are greater than myself and to which I fold the hands and bow down to and towards which I aspire . This is the very opposite of the know-it-all  ‘I’  who takes up space in the heart, leaving little room for others.

Going for Refuge

Sometimes a person might ask how to become a Buddhist? Usually, they are just told to start a Buddhist practice and that is enough to call themselves a Buddhist. But sometimes that person would like a more formal entry and then will be told that traditionally one takes the Three Refuges and that this is the entry into becoming a Buddhist.

The Three Refuges are:

I take refuge in the Buddha.

I take refuge in the Buddha-dharma (his teachings).

I take refuge in the Sangha (Buddhist Community past and present).

There are many different variations in the different schools, but all include these three refuges which may be chanted or spoken. In all cases they are chanted three times.

They act as a reminder that we are dependent upon others, both past and present and that nothing can be achieved without the support from the interconnected web of relationships in which we are all embedded. Truly, I have achieved nothing by myself alone.

Confession of past unskilful deeds

In Zen temples and monasteries, the morning begins with a service consisting of several chants. The first is called ‘Zangemon’ which translates as The Repentance Sutra.

Repentance may be a word that many associate with hell-fire preachers and with damnation. In truth, it is part of every spiritual practice. including Buddhist practice. The Buddha taught that we suffer because of ignorance (avidya), literally ‘not-seeing’. And, as the saying goes: ‘’There’s none so blind as those who do not wish to see’’. Such it is with our transgressions. ‘I’ do not like to feel I am wrong, I do not like to be corrected about something. Such things make me feel small and that is the last thing that I want to be. Even when I am going through my self-pity, I am focused on myself, often to the exclusion of others. So, confession of past unskillful deeds is the antidote to my vanity and surprisingly to the fear that is the other side of ‘I’. Repentance is most definitely not wallowing in what a terrible person I am. That too, is unskillful and unhelpful on the path. Making a clean breast of it and asking for forgiveness has a tremendous psychological effect of lifting a heavy cloud and opening us up.

I recall many years ago hearing Soko Morinaga Roshi reflecting on the story of Judas and St. Peter in the New Testament. He said that it puzzled him that whilst both betrayed Jesus Christ, the former hanged himself, whilst the latter became a saint and the first pope. He wondered if it was because St. Peter, unlike Judas, asked God for forgiveness and was thus forgiven, whilst Judas did not ask because he  had judged himself and found himself unforgivable.

Rejoicing in the merit of oneself and others

Merit is the term used in Buddhism to refer to the beneficial outcomes of skillful karmic actions. The term bhavana is used for both meditation and cultivation and refers to how the doctrine of karma is used to develop the qualities, (Wisdom & Compassion), of a Buddha. The performance of well-intended activities of body, speech and mind/heart results in the creation of merit and this produces beings of wisdom and compassion. However, in order to prevent a selfish motivation in the creation of merit, it is always turned over  for the benefit of all beings. In the end, the heart is left empty and no defilements can remain that might spoil the merit. Notice how this turning over of merit is akin to the bodhisattva’s wish to be of service to all beings.

All skillful actions create merit and all merit is to be turned over to the benefit of all beings: meditation, retreats, pilgrimage, chanting, following precepts, giving and the other Paramitas etc. As the true nature is total interconnection, there is no real possibility of accruing merit for oneself alone. There is no zero sum in Buddhism. This also means that the accumulation of merit by others will also benefit all beings. As ‘I’ am also such a being we are all included and so there is no need to give rise to envy of other’s meritorious action., In in fact. it is a time of rejoicing as we all walk along the same path to Buddhahood.

Request to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to continue preaching Dharma

Without the example and teaching of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, there is no possibility for ordinary beings to attain enlightenment. However, the impetus to learn must come from those who wish to walk this way. More often than not, in the scriptures, the Buddha sits silently, even amongst a crowd. It is only when asked a question that he responds with a teaching.

Nowadays, some of us might get into the lazy habit of expecting the teacher to tell us what to do and how to solve ‘my’ problems. Teachers are not beholden to their students; they will only teach if asked and to receive the Dharma is always a privilege, not a right. To be allowed to train in a genuine training environment is also a privilege, not a right. In this way, the onus is on the student to bestir him or herself; to take responsibility for one’s efforts and training and to cultivate a sense of gratitude to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas who went before or who represent the teachings in life in the present. This activity reminds us that our own training and welfare is dependent upon the deep compassion that is active in the Buddhist lineage and can never be my own fruits alone.

The transfer of one's merit for the welfare of others

All these practices are for the development of bodhicitta in oneself; but if it were really only for oneself alone  this would be in defiance of the Bodhisattva vow to be of service to liberate others. Therefore, the last requirement for this practice of worship is to dedicate all the merit accumulated by the previous practices in this list over to other beings for the liberation of all. There is a logical consistency in this too.

We can see that there is an underlying attitude that is being developed by all these seven worship practices, which is to move the centre of attention away from ‘I’ in order to  include all beings, - the heart of the Bodhisattva Vows. But the fact that this is also in the form of worship of one sort or another is to develop a growing awareness of just how dependent we all are on others, whether in the present or in the past, whether visible or invisible, and in this way to lessen the ‘my’ practice and ‘my’ attainment attitude which denies the fundamental reality that the Buddhist view gives of dependent origination and of mutual dependence. As these practices deepen, consciousness is perfumed by them to create a genuine wish to embody in the heart the motivation to walk the Bodhisattva path to its completion, no matter how long or how far. The joy in the walking lifts consciousness out of the small world of ‘I’ into a larger world of all the Buddhas of the ten directions.

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