“you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”

One should accept the advice of those who are able to direct others, who offer unsolicited aid. One should be the pupil of everyone all the time.

– Shantideva, The Bodhicaryavatara 5:74, translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (ca. 700 CE)

The fifth book of this major work is devoted to “The Guarding of Awareness.” Here Shantideva offers many precepts, of which this is just one. For instance, in the previous verse, he recommends moving quietly: like a crane, a cat, or a thief.

No one could fully follow all these instructions all the time. That is a problem of which Shantideva is fully aware. Chapter 4, “Vigilance Regarding the Awakening Mind,” addresses the inevitable backsliding that comes after an oath to attain Buddhahood. “Swinging back and forth like this in a cyclic existence, now under the sway of errors, now under the sway of the Awakening Mind, it takes a long time to gain ground” (4:11). The best we can do is try. “If I make no effort today I shall sink to lower and lower levels (4:12).

Therefore, the question is not whether it is possible to be the pupil of everyone all the time (it is not), but whether that is a valid aspiration. It isn’t obviously so. After all, many people communicate false and even wicked ideas. Why listen to them? We are also very repetitious. I offer virtually nothing that hasn’t already been said better by others. Why should everyone be my pupil; and I, theirs? And if we are always listening to everyone, when are we acting to improve the world?

The first quoted sentence recommends taking advice from “those who are able to direct others”–presumably those who have something valuable to offer. It doesn’t imply the striking second sentence, which tells us always to be learning from everyone. Why?

Maybe it is hyperbole: an exaggerated reminder to be more open to other people (and other animals) than we would otherwise tend to be, but not a rule that the wise would apply literally.

Or maybe it connects to Shantideva’s core recommendation: compassion for all. The argument would go: Each of us knows the most about our own situation and context. We each have a world of our own, which is a portion of the whole world viewed from our particular spot. The best life is a life of compassion for all those individuals. To be compassionate toward them requires understanding their situation as much as possible. And that implies being their pupil, all of the time.

Is this right? How does it relate to the virtue of justice? And what should we think about scientific methods of discernment? For instance, is surveying a representative sample of Americans a way of being a pupil of them all? If not, why not?

See also: how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; “Empathy” is a new word. Do we need it?; Empathy and Justice; etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.