No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva

As Pema Chodron herself says in her foreword: however many books she has written, this is the first time she has written a book that is a commentary on another book. Writing commentaries is the most traditional way of writing books in Tibetan Buddhism.

No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva is a commentary on a book that has become one of the most taught books in Tibetan Buddhism: Santideva’s Bodhicharyavatara – The Way of the Bodhisattva.

Pema Chodron does not feel herself qualified to write this book – yet she does. That is the traditional expression of humility that is expected when starting such a task. She has chosen to stick to what she is good at: creating accessible and psychologically useful books. She picked out the translation of Santideva on that basis as well.

In fact, when Santideva himself expresses his humility, she has the following to say (1.2):

[Santideva] What I have to say has all been said before,
And I am destitute of learning and of skill with words.
I therefore have no thought that this might be of benefit to others;
I wrote it only to sustain my understanding.

[Pema Chodron] Invoking a humility that is also traditional, Shantideva expresses a clear understanding of the danger of arrogance. He knows that even if the Buddha were sitting in front of him, it would do him no good if his mind were filled with pride.

Humility, however, should not be confused with low self-esteem. When Shantideva says he is destitute of learning and of skill with words, he is not expressing self-contempt. The low self-esteem so common in the West rests on a fixed idea of personal inadequacy. Shantideva is committed to not getting trapped in such limiting identities. He is simply humble enough to know where he gets stuck, and intelligent enough to realize he has the tools to free himself.

This is what Pema Chodron does again and again in this book: she respects and emulates the essence of what Santideva has to say, but she also warns us of our Western cultural tendencies that may make us misunderstand the message.

[Santideva 2.3.1.] All the evil I, a sinner, have committed,
The sin that clings to me through many evil deeds;
All frightful things that I have caused to be,
I openly declare to you, the teachers of the world.

[Pema Chodron] This translation, I, a sinnermay be misleading. Buddhism stresses going beyond any fixed identity: good, bad, or in-between. Basically, with the right methods for working with our minds and the willingness to use them, we all have the ability to turn anything around.

[…] One positive view of words like “sin”and “sinner” is that they get our attention and remind us that this is not a subject to be taken lightly. I prefer to avoid words that are culturally loaded, so we don’t infuse Buddhist teachings with misleading projections. Trungpa Rinpoche, for instance, translated the Tibetan word dikpaas “neurotic crimes” rather than “sin,” choosing a psychological rather than an ethical interpretation. Words that identify us as fundamentally marred don’t seem helpful. Without them, we are more likely to feel inspired to connect with our inherent strength and goodness.

This book is probably one of the best introductions to Shantideva’s classic text as any. It has a decent translation and, as I have shown, Pema Chodron tackles common Western misconceptions in her commentary. The book has one limitation: the final ‘Wisdom’ chapter isn’t included. This makes sense: it is notoriously difficult and philosophically on a totally different plane from the rest of the book.