Shantideva’s Enthusiasm: On Being Controlled by Joy

Reading time: 5 minutes

What is Enthusiasm?

Awakening, like any goal worth working towards, requires the mobilization and exertion of energy. To orient oneself towards a goal that is worthy of one’s efforts, one must cultivate the right mentality. The right mentality is animated by enthusiasm:

…I should develop enthusiasm;
For Awakening will dwell only in those who exert themselves.

Enthusiasm is “finding joy in what is wholesome”. A wholesome activity promotes the health of the mind or the body.

How does One Recognize Enthusiasm?

Like meaning, enthusiasm’s import is most often apparent in its absence. Drudgery – and the need to distract oneself from it – are common indications that one is missing something. The factors that oppose enthusiasm are

laziness, attraction to what is harmful
And despising oneself out of despondency.

We flee from awareness of the finiteness of our time in this world by incessantly searching for things to distract us, and then despise ourselves for the precious time that is thereby wasted:

Do I not see
That (the Lord of Death) is systematically slaughtering my species?

Whoever remains soundly asleep

(Surely behaves) like a buffalo with a butcher.

Forbearance as the Source

Forbearance refers to qualities that would seem to have no place in our 21st century world. Yet patience, tolerance, and self-control are necessary to sustain enthusiasm and the efforts animated by it:

Much harm befalls those with little forbearance
And those who want results without making any effort.

The sources of impatience, intolerance and the impulse to act destructively can, paradoxically, contribute to enthusiasm, for the prospect of success in conquering actions that spring from destructiveness produces the conditions from which enthusiasm springs.

How Is Enthusiasm Cultivated?

How does one cultivate enthusiasm? Although the methods are simple and easily accessible, they are often overlooked.

One must aspire towards goals that are worthy of one’s efforts. One does this by ensuring that one’s work will be of benefit to oneself and others:

The supports when working for the sake of living beings
Are aspiration, steadfastness, joy and rest
Aspiration is developed through fear of misery
And by contemplating the benefits of (aspiration) itself.

Aspiration is created by and cultivated through use of the imagination. Aspiration is self-creating and self-perpetuating because it arises and expands by its cultivation of itself. To cultivate aspiration one needs only contemplate the benefits that derive from it.

Self-Importance is the Enemy of Self-Confidence

Self-confidence is the condition necessary for enthusiasm to grow. Self-importance is not just unhelpful, it constitutes the enemy:

Whoever has self-importance is destroyed by it,
Is disturbed and has no confidence.
For those with self-confidence do not succumb to the power of the
Whereas the former are under the sway of the enemy of self-

Why is self-importance detrimental to self-confidence ? Because self-importance focuses one’s attention on oneself rather than the work that is being performed. It enslaves the worker and turns work into slavery. The work is degraded because the self-important use work to demonstrate their self-importance:

Inflated by the disturbing conception of my self-importance,
I shall be led to it by the lower realms.
It destroys the joyous festival of being human.
I shall become a slave, eating the food of others.

Self-importance turns the worker into an object that elicits revulsion:

Stupid, ugly, feeble and everywhere disrespected.
Tough people bloated by conceit
Are also counted among the self-important;
Tell me, what is more pathetic than this?

Enthusiasm is Victory

Enthusiasm denotes victory because the self-confidence upon which it is predicated entails the vanquishing of self-importance.

Whoever seizes self-confidence in order to conquer the enemy of self-
They are the confident ones, the victorious heroes,
And, in addition, whoever definitely conquers the spread of this enemy, self-importance,
Completely (wins) the fruit of a Conqueror, fulfilling the wishes of the world.

The “wishes of the world” are fulfilled by work animated by enthusiasm because such work is beneficial.

Transforming Work into Play

Because enthusiasm is unencumbered by necessity, compulsion, and the demands of other people, work undertaken with enthusiasm is more like play than work.

Just like those who yearn for the fruits of play,
(The Enthusiastic) are attracted
To whatever task they may do;
They never have enough, it only brings them joy.

Our conception of happiness is often inadequately informed by an awareness of the origins from which it can be expected to spring. Most of us labor under the impression that happiness will accompany receipt of work’s rewards – i.e., money, status, or recognition. Experience suggests that this is a dubious proposition, at best. Yet work motivated by aspiration and animated by joy is experienced as play, and, like play, can reasonably be expected to deliver happiness:

Although people work in order to be happy,
It is uncertain whether or not they will find it;
But how can those whose work itself is a joy
Find happiness unless they do it?

Rational Ventures Controlled by Joy

Enthusiasm is not tantamount to euphoria or elation: it is inevitably mediated by Reason. Rationality is integral because reason is employed to determine the nature of the venture and the limits of what is feasible:

First of all, I should examine well what is to be done,
To see whether I can pursue it or not undertake it.
(If I am unable), it is best to leave it,
But once I have started I must not withdraw.

Once the nature and the scope of the project is deemed to be beneficial and worth doing, the tasks undertaken are seized upon as a relief from despondency, laziness, and self-loathing:

Thus in order to complete this task,
I shall venture into it
Just as an elephant tormented by the mid-day sun
Plunges into a (cool, refreshing) lake.

Accomplishing Everything

The worker animated by enthusiasm need not worry about accomplishment because the worker inevitably accomplishes the joy that accompanies beneficial work. The product of enthusiastic work is “everything” in the sense that the joy that derives from such work is immeasurable. Such joy colors the world of the worker and always available. When it is supported by rest, it is inexhaustible:

Just as the wind blowing back and forth
Controls (the movement of) a piece of cotton,
So shall I be controlled by joy,
And in this way accomplish everything.


The foregoing interprets the work of Shantideva, a Buddhist monk who resided at the monastic University of Nalanda in Northern India in the 8th Century AD.

Shantideva. A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Translated by Stephen Batchelor. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala. 1979.

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