Santaraksita was born in Sahor (Bengal) c. 724 CE, the son of a king. A devout Buddhist from his earliest years, he refused the throne and became a monk. His root teacher was Jnanagharba, whose philosophy was sometimes characterized as Yogacara Madhyamaka, which became Santaraksita's view.
Santaraksita lived in an age of relative tolerance, where debates occurred freely between Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and materialists (Lokayada), as well as between the different schools of Buddhism.
Under the reign of the sixth century monarch, Srongtsen Gampo, the minister Sambhota devised a phonetic alphabet for Tibetan from an archaic form of Sanskrit. This made it possible to learn to read Tibetan. Yet most remained illiterate.
In the eighth century, King Trhisong Detsen of Tibet, an enlightened ruler, was very interested in Buddhist philosophy, and even wrote a book on logic. In the hope of educating his people, King Trhisong Detsen asked his ministers to search throughout India for the greatest teacher and philosopher, who could set up a system of university monasteries in Tibet. They decided on Santararaksita
Although very advanced in years, Santaraksita decided to give up his post as abbot and professor of philosophy at Nalanda University, the most prestigious in India, and make the arduous journey to Tibet. Upon his arrival, when asked about his doctrine, he said, "to accept what is in accordance with reason, and to reject what is not". Warmly greeted by king Trhisong Detsen, he began to construct Samye university- monastery
Unfortunately the construction coincided with some natural disasters, and the leaders of the indigenous religion blamed them on Buddhism. They interfered with the building of Samye, and Santaraksita advised the king To invite Guru Padmasambhava from the Swat valley (present day Pakistan) to help. The guru arrived, and quickly put a stop to this interference. Santaraksita, who had left for Nepal, returned to Tibet and completed the monastery without further difficulty (810 CE). It was modeled after Odantpuri monastery in India, and its design formed a symbolic mandala of the universe.
The king decided to transmit many forms of Buddhism, and invited scholars to translate the entire canon from Sanskrit into Tibetan. Some of the famous scholars who came were Jinamitra, Sarvajnadeva, Danasila, Vimalamitra and Santigarbha. Seven young men were ordained as novice monks and were carefully observed to see if they could keep the vinaya (discipline) vows. They were successful, and many more were ordained. Semye quickly became a great center for scholarship, philosophy and translation, as well as medicine and science.
Santaraksita completed five major philosophical works, the Tattvasamgraha (Compendium of views), the Madhyamakalamkara (Ornament of the Middle Way), a commentary on the logician Dharmakirti, and the Tattvasiddhi (the Attainment of Reality),the Investigation of the Ultimate (which has been lost in both Sanskrit and Tibetan) as well as ritual texts and prayers. He died suddenly in Tibet.
He is famous for having said, "You cannot fault me, because I do not assert anything to be true (ultimately).
Soon after his death 788 CE, a dispute began between his followers who believed in the gradual path and the followers of the Chinese monk Hoshang Mahayana, who believed in sudden enlightenment.
Kamalasila, Santaraksita's student, came to Tibet and a great debate was held before the king. When Hoshang Mahayana argued that all one had to do to reach enlightenment was to stop thinking, Kamalasila replied that one might as well call unconsciousness enlightenment, which is absurd. The king judged that Santaraksita's side had won, and that the gradual path would be taught in Tibet.
Santaraksita inherited the philosophical tradition of Sakyamuni Buddha. All of Buddhist philosophy begins with the realization of impermanence. On the common sense level, this means that there is nothing permanent to which we can cling. We will lose our health, friends and family, possessions and our lives. All our happiness occurs in the context of this knowledge that it will end. Some try to find permanence in children, or artistic and literary creations, or even in a place in history. But in the vast cosmic picture, these flicker for only a moment.
Nor can we find permanence in our own self-identity. Our bodies, emotions and thoughts are constantly changing, and there is no aspect of our selves that endures throughout our lifetimes. This cycle of suffering and uncertainty is called samsara.
Buddha Sakyamuni taught that there is a way to find liberation from this sad state of affairs. There is no suffering without consciousness. It would, of course, be pointless to try to get rid of consciousness. One might as well be dead. The aim has to be to get rid of that aspect of consciousness that produces suffering. As one text puts this point, if a barefoot man, afraid of injuring his feet, asked that a rocky road be covered with leather, people would tell him to put on some shoes. Similarly, one cannot remove all that causes suffering. But one can train one's mind in such a way as to transform one's responses.
The impermanence of selves, and the interconnectedness of all things as they rise and fall moment to moment, provides, for Buddhists, a solution to the problem of altruism. For if there is no separate enduring self, if one cares for oneself one should care for others. This provides a rational basis for universal compassion.
The heart of Buddhism was expressed by Buddha Sakyamuni in the following way. "Do good, avoid evil, purify your mind." This mental purification involves the overcoming of attachment, the subsequent overcoming of suffering, and the attainment of nirvana (enlightenment)
Tattvasiddhi and Madhyamakalamkara by Shantarakshita, with Commentaries by Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche, Reconstructed Sanskrit of Madhyamakamkara by Geshe Lozang Jamspal. New York, Coolgrove Press, 2017.
The Tattvasangraha of Shantarakshita with the Commentary of Kamalshila Translated by Gaganath Jha. 2 vols. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1937.
Jnanagarbha’s Commentary on the Distinction Between the Two Truths Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.
Commentary on Dharmakirti (The Nyaya-hetu-Bindu Shastra) in Vadanyaya with the Commentary of Santaraksita ed. Journal: Appendix: Bihar and Orissa Research Society. Issue 2 of Sanskrit Texts from Tibet 1935.
Investigation into the Sublime (no copies extent)
The Ornament of the Middle Way: A Study of the Madhyamaka Thought of Santaraksita. New York: Ithaca, 2004.
Jamgon Mipam: His Life and Teachings Boston: Shambhal, 2011.
The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism. Vol. I and II Trans. and ed Dorje,Gyurme and Kapstein, Matthew. Boston: Wisdom, 1991.
A Brief Introduction to the Philosophy of Santaraksita New York: Cool Grove, 2012.
Studies on Santaraksita’s Yogacara Madhyamaka. New York: Global Scholarly Publications, 2012.
Paving the Great Way: Vasubandhu’s Unifying Buddhist Philosophy. New York: Columbia, 2015.
Shantarakshita’s “ Madhyamakalankara ”: Studies in the Literature of the Great Vehicle: Three Mahayana Texts. Ed. Gomez, Luis O., Collegiate Institute for the Study of Buddhist Literature and Center for the Study for South and Southeast Asian Studies. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1989.
The Tattvasangraha of Shantarakshita with the Commentary of Kamalshila 2 vols. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1937.
Mipham: Speech of Delight: Mipham’s Commentary on Santaraksita’s Ornament of the Middle Way. Trans. Doctor, Thomas. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2004.
Trans. Padmakara translation group. The Adornment of the Middle Way: Shankarakshita’s Madhyamakalankara with Commentary by Jamgon Mipham. Boston: Shambhala, 2005.
“Was Shantarakshita a Positivist?” In Buddhist Logic and Epistemology, ed. By B.K. Matilal and R.D. Evans. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1985.