Preliminaries to meditation
Preliminaries to meditation
Part of a series of teachings on The Easy Path to Travel to Omniscience, a lamrim text by Panchen Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen, the first Panchen Lama.
- Introduction to the series and text
- The preliminaries—how to start the session, set up the space, the altar, offerings, posture, breathing meditation, and visualization
- The purpose of prayers and the recitations done at the beginning and end
Some of the people who are attending the course, I know, are new to Buddhism; some of you have some background, so I’m going to try and do it in a way that’s suitable for everybody. I know that the text—I hope you have kind of taken a look at it already—begins with a lot of visualization, ritual, and stuff like that. For some people that may not be their cup of tea in the beginning, so I’m going to abbreviate that and then really get into the teachings. As we get into the teachings some of the other visualizations and so on may make more sense after that.
Preliminary prayers before teachings
We sent you out some papers with the prayers before teachings, right? Okay, we’d like to recite those; these are the ones that are commonly recited in the Tibetan community. There’s a reason why we do those prayers—first of all, to pay homage to the Buddha as our teacher. When we have respect and we see the good qualities of someone and express those good qualities, it opens our mind to really benefit from their teachings. That’s why we say the prayers at the beginning—talking about the Buddha’s good qualities and so on—because it helps open our mind and makes our own mind more receptive.
Then there are some verses in there where we pay a specific homage to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Also then there’s the verse that starts “A star, a mirage, a flame of a lamp.” The one before that is “Do not commit any non-virtuous actions, / Perform only virtuous actions, / Subdue your mind completely, / This is the teaching of the Buddha”—that’s kind of the synthesis of everything. If you had to say the essence of the Dharma standing on one leg, that’s what you’d say. If they ask you for an elevator statement about what the Buddha believes, that is it.
Then when we say “A star, a mirage, a flame of a lamp, / An illusion, a drop of dew, a bubble, / A dream, a flash of lightening, a cloud, / See conditioned things as such.” I really love that verse, because that is reminding us of impermanence.
It’s the page that says “Homage to Shakyamuni Buddha” at the top. It starts out with the homage to the Buddha; then [the homages] to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha; then the verse that’s synthesizing the Dharma teachings; and the verse “A star, a mirage, a flame of a lamp.” That one is talking about impermanence so that we really think of the preciousness of this opportunity. Then the next verse: “Through this merit”—merit or positive potential—“Through this merit may sentient beings attain the state of all-seeing, subdue all faults, and be delivered from the ocean of cyclic existence perturbed by the waves of aging, sickness, and death.” That’s actually a dedication verse, but it is a motivation verse as well, so why we’re doing this.
Then we have the short mandala and the mandala offering to request teachings, and these are both quite important. Here mandala means the universe. We’re offering the entire universe to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as we request, “Please may we receive the teachings.” When we think of the entire universe it’s everything that’s beautiful, everything that our attachment usually goes towards, that we think, “I want, I want, give to me.” But here instead of regarding the universe like that, we take it and all the beauty we offer to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, without any kind of attachment whatsoever, and at the same time we’re requesting the teachings. That’s quite important because it signifies that we’re willing to give the entire universe in order to receive the teachings. It helps us not to take the teachings for granted.
When you do the mandala offering you should really think of everything you consider beautiful and desirable, and then offer it with a sincere mind that is really requesting the teachings. If you do it that way then the teachings will have somewhat stronger imprint on your mind. If you do the mandala offering and the other verses like, “Ta-dah-dah, how much longer do we have to chant anyway?” then that is the mind you’re approaching the teachings with so you’re not going to get so much benefit from them.
Then we do the refuge and bodhicitta in order to set our motivation and to take refuge in the Three Jewels. Usually after that we have some silent meditation. We will do that. Just a few minutes of silent meditation today and then we will start the text. Remember that we don’t just direct these prayers to the empty space, but we always imagine the Buddha surrounded by all the buddhas and bodhisattvas in the space in front of us and ourselves surrounded by all sentient beings. We think that we’re leading all sentient beings in generating these virtuous thoughts in the presence of all the buddhas and bodhisattvas.
Homage to Shakyamuni Buddha
To the teacher, endowed transcendent destroyer, one thus gone, foe destroyer, completely and fully awakened one, perfect in knowledge and good conduct, one gone to bliss, knower of the world, supreme guide of beings to be tamed, teacher of gods and humans, to you the Buddha, endowed transcendent destroyer, glorious conqueror Shakyamuni, I prostrate, make offerings and go for refuge. (3x)
When, O supreme among humans, you were born on this earth,
You paced seven strides,
Then said, “I am supreme in this world.”
To you, who were wise then, I bow.
With pure bodies, form supremely fine;
Wisdom ocean, like a golden mountain;
Fame that blazes in the three worlds,
Winner of the best—supreme guide, to you I bow.
With the supreme signs, face like the spotless moon,
Color like gold—to you I bow.
You are immaculate, the three worlds are not.
Incomparable wise one—to you I bow.
Great compassionate Protector,
Field of merit and good qualities vast as an ocean –
To the Tathagata, I bow.
Through purity, freeing from attachment,
Through virtue, freeing from the lower realms,
Unique, supreme ultimate reality—
To the Dharma that is peace, I bow.
Having freed themselves, showing the path to freedom too,
Well established in the trainings,
The holy field endowed with good qualities—
To the Sangha, I bow.
Do not commit any non-virtuous actions,
Perform only perfect virtuous actions,
Subdue your mind completely,
This is the teaching of the Buddha.
A star, a mirage, a flame of a lamp,
An illusion, a drop of dew, a bubble,
A dream, a flash of lightning, a cloud—
See conditioned things as such!
Through this merit may sentient beings
Attain the state of all-seeing, subdue the foe of faults,
And be delivered from the ocean of cyclic existence
Perturbed by the waves of aging, sickness, and death.
Short Mandala Offering
Mandala Offerings to Request Teachings
Venerable holy gurus, in the space of your truth body, from billowing clouds of your wisdom and love, let fall the rain of the profound and extensive Dharma in whatever form is suitable for subduing sentient beings.
Idam guru ratna mandala kam nirya tayami
Refuge and Bodhicitta
Let’s have a few minutes of silent meditation. Calm your breath—let breathing just be normal and natural. Focus on your breath, just observing what it feels like to inhale and exhale. If you get distracted by a sound or a thought or whatever, just notice it and bring your attention to the breath. Don’t pay attention to whatever is distracting you. Let’s do that for a couple of minutes and let our minds settle. [Meditation]
Before we actually begin the teachings let’s generate our motivation and think that we will listen attentively and share the Dharma together this evening, so that we can learn the path to full awakening, learn what to practice, what to abandon, how to cultivate virtue, how to abandon non-virtue—and learn these [things] so that we can put them into practice and gain the realizations, really transform our body, speech, and mind into the body, speech, and mind of a fully awakened one. Let’s remember that our motivation for doing this is to offer service to sentient beings, to repay their kindness, to benefit them. So let’s have that motivation of love and compassion, caring concern for all living beings as we share the Dharma together this evening.
Introduction to the text and opening lines
I’m going to give the oral transmission at the same time with the teachings; the oral transmission means that I’m reading the text. Then I’ll make some commentary on it. Our teachers very often give us the oral transmission. So think like you’re hearing it from the author of the text, think you’re hearing it from the Buddha—because all these teachings came from the Buddha to the author of the text [and then] down to us. So we really think, “Okay, I’m hearing it as it was written and spoken.” That really plants some good seeds in our mind and helps us to understand.
This text, The Easy Path to Travel to Omniscience, I love that title, The Easy Path. It’s so encouraging! It’s not actually that easy, but when you compare it with staying in cyclic existence, practicing the Dharma is easier. People sometimes complain, “Oh, it’s so hard!” but samsara is pretty hard. In samsara you don’t get anywhere at the end. Whereas if we’re trying to practice the path we run across challenges, but it really gets us somewhere, leads us somewhere good.
It was written by Panchen Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen. He was the First Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lamas were the abbots of Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Shikatse, in Tibet. He’s also the author of the Guru Puja that we do twice a month. He’s the teacher of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama—so quite a well-respected practitioner.
He starts the text out by saying: “At the feet of the venerable and holy masters indivisible from Shakyamuni-Vajradhara I pay homage continuously. With your great compassion, I pray to you to care for me.” So, “At the feet of the venerable and holy masters”—he’s approaching them with humility. He’s not, you know, walking in the room and saying, “Here I am.” No, rather it’s with humility “…at the feet of the masters.” He’s seeing the masters as indivisible from Shakyamuni-Vajradhara, so seeing all this lineage of teachers. For him, he was starting with his own teacher and going back in the lineage in time to the Buddha. He’s seeing all the teachers and the Buddha as having the same essence, the same nature. Also the part with Vajradhara, having the same nature as Vajradhara. Vajradhara is the aspect that Shakyamuni Buddha appeared in when he gave the tantric teachings.
Then he pays homage continuously, not just sometimes. Instead of, “Okay, I got that done with, what’s next?” but having an attitude of respect continuously in his mind. Next he says, “With your great compassion, I pray to you, care for me.” What does it mean for your teacher to care for you? When you ask your teacher to care for you, are you asking your teacher to be Mommy and Daddy? To scoop up the baby food and go, “Open wide! Zoom!” It’s not what we’re doing. How do our teachers care for us? They’re teaching us the Dharma. They’re teaching us the Dharma by pointing out to us the things that we need to work on in our lives.
Our teachers don’t care for us by flattering us and saying, “Oh, you’re the most wonderful disciple I’ve ever had. Thank you very much for coming here.” We’re all looking at you [laughter]… no. But our teachers care for us by teaching us and by pointing out to us what we need to work on; not by pampering our ego. We usually like the people who pamper our ego, don’t we? We’re totally suckers. Somebody pampers our ego, we adore that person. Even if they have a horrible motivation and they are manipulating us, we don’t care! They’re praising us, they’re pampering our ego, we love them! These are the false friends.
“The exposition of the stages of the path to awakening, the profound method leading fortunate beings to Buddhahood”—so leading fortunate beings to Buddhahood. Are we a fortunate being? Do you feel like you’re a fortunate being? I bet if I let you talk for a few minutes you would tell me all your problems and how you aren’t fortunate at all! We’re always full of complaints, aren’t we? Like, “Well, somebody has it better than me; I’m not so good.” We don’t feel like we’re fortunate beings, but actually we’re incredibly fortunate. To have not only a human life, but to have a human life with all these circumstances whereby we can meet the Dharma and practice it. It takes an incredible amount of merit from previous times to have this opportunity. So in actual fact we’re quite fortunate—more fortunate than the richest people in the world. We usually think, “Oh, the rich people of the world, they’re so fortunate.” I don’t know. They have a whole bunch of problems we don’t have, whereas we’ve met the Dharma and that is worth all the riches of the world.
Structure of the text and preparatory practices
This profound method leading the fortunate to Buddhahood has two parts. The first part is: “How to rely on spiritual mentors, the root of the path,” and the second part: “Having relied on them, how to progressively train your mind.” The first one—how to rely on spiritual mentors, the root of the path—has two parts also:
- How to conduct the actual meditation, and
- What to do between meditations sessions
And (1) How to conduct the actual meditation has three parts:
- The preliminaries,
- The actual meditation, and the
I’m reading this from the text right now.
In this first meditation about how to rely on the spiritual mentor it’s actually introducing the whole method of how you meditate and prepare yourself for the lamrim meditation. So this whole introductory section isn’t just about the spiritual mentor. It’s about to set up a meditation session, what to do in your session, the meaning of the initial prayers that you recite, the meaning of initial visualization that you do – all these kinds of things come in here.
In the first part about the preliminaries; the text says, “In a place you find pleasant sit on a comfortable sit in an eight-point posture or whatever position is comfortable. Then examine your mind well and in an especially virtuous state of mind think…”—and then it’s going to tell us the visualizations.
Let’s go back to “In a place you find pleasant.” That means that you want to do your meditation in a place that is conducive for meditation, so not in your office next to the computer, not near your iPhone or even in the same room with your smartphone, not in the children’s room where the babies are crying, not in the kitchen where you’re going to get up and take a snack, but in a pleasant place where you can really focus your mind. So find somewhere in your home where you don’t have a lot of stuff, there’s not a lot of clutter, and where it’s a very simple environment.
Setting up an altar
Then you want to set up an altar. This is very helpful. We’re going to be visualizing the Buddha, so it’s very helpful to have an image of the Buddha to look at. It’s very helpful also before your session to make offerings to the Buddha and to do other things.
When you set up an altar you have your central figure here [in the middle]. In this altar the central figure is Kuan Yin appearing as Samantabhadra. We’re going to build a little ledge above Kuan Yin for the Buddha. This actually is a Buddha statue that was given to us by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, so small, but very precious. So you always have the Buddha in the center of your altar. If you want to have pictures of your spiritual mentors, then you would place those above the Buddha; and pictures and statues of the deity go below them. On the Buddha’s right hand side, or on your left side, you put a Dharma text. On the Buddha’s left side, or on the right as you look at it, then you have a stupa. We have a stupa, if you can see it there. So you can put a stupa or a bell.
When you have the Buddha statue or image, the Buddha represents the body of the Buddha. The text represents the speech of the Buddha. And the stupa represents the mind of the Buddha. So you have all three images. They are to remind you of the qualities of the Buddha’s body, speech, and mind.
In front you can put water bowls. There is a video online of me showing how to make water bowl offerings, isn’t there? So you can find it somewhere online. You can also offer flowers or fruit or anything that you consider beautiful. This is a really nice practice to do when you first get up in the morning. So get out of bed, make three prostrations, and then make offerings to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. It’s really quite nice and it helps your mind. It’s a very peaceful thing to do first thing in the morning.
About making offerings to the Buddha: you offer the best quality. If you get fruit or something, you don’t take out the nice things and save it for yourself and your family and give the Buddha the ones that are bruised. It’s the opposite. You keep the bruised ones and you offer to the Buddha the ones that are really very beautiful. Similarly with flowers: we offer fresh flowers. When the flowers start to fade, you take them off the altar. You don’t leave dead, wilted, discolored flowers on the altar.
When you offer food, you make the offering one day; and then you can take it down that evening, or you can take it down the next day when you offer some new food. You do not take the food offering down when it’s your lunch time! I’ve seen this happen sometimes in Singapore. People come with lots of food for the Buddha, they make offerings to the Buddha on the altar, and just the time that they want to take the food offering down it just happens to be dessert time. No, that’s not right, because then you’re not really offering it to the Buddha, are you? You’re really putting it in front of the Buddha until you want it. You’re offering it to yourself. Try not to do that. Rather, really with your heart offer it.
When you offer water, when you take it down in the evening you put it on plants or you put it outdoors. You don’t put it down the toilet. You don’t put it where somebody’s going to walk over it. It’s also very good before you sit down to tidy the room up and to clean it up. We often talk about the six preliminary practices before you do your lamrim meditation, and cleaning the room is [the first] one of them, and it goes together with setting up the shrine, setting up the altar. The second one is obtaining offerings properly and arranging them nicely. Then you make three prostrations and you sit down.
Eight-point meditation posture
The text said, “Sit in a comfortable seat in the eight-pointed posture.” Let’s go through the eight points of the posture.
- First, your legs are crossed. So you put your left leg on your right thigh, and your right leg on your left thigh. Can you see? (I’m pretending these [hands] are my legs!) If you can’t keep your legs like that, then put your right leg flat. If you still can’t do that, then you can also put your left leg flat, so that both your legs are flat like this; or you can sit cross-legged like this – like you usually often sit. If you can’t sit cross-legged, then sit in a chair; but use a straight-back chair, not an easy chair. So your legs: that’s the first part in the eight the eight-point posture.
- Then your hands – the right on the left [with the palms up], the thumbs touching to form a triangle, and they are in your lap. If you put them in your lap properly, then there’s some space between your body and your arms, so then the air circulates like that.
- Then third, your back is straight. Keep your back straight, sit up straight.
- Keep your head level. Don’t let it droop because you’re going to fall asleep. Also don’t stretch it out like that [looking up] because you’re going to get distracted. Just keep your head level.
- Keep your mouth closed and your tongue just on the roof of your mouth. I’m not sure where else you put it – at least in my mouth there’s no other space!
- Your shoulders are level also. Your arms, like I was saying, this little bit of space between your arms and your body.
- Then your eyes – they say to keep them a little bit open and kind of looking at the tip of your nose. But not actually looking because you’d be distracted if you’re looking. So just gaze at the tip of your nose, or if that’s uncomfortable then gaze at the space (like on the floor) that’s in front of you. If you keep your eyes a little bit open like that, it will prevent you from getting drowsy. That’s always very helpful. If your eyes close by themselves, that’s okay.
- The eighth point is to have a neutral mind—so that your mind is not distracted by a lot of thoughts when you sit down to meditate. If you just got done having an argument with somebody or if it’s right before lunch and you’re wondering what’s for lunch, your mind’s going to be distracted. So to get rid of the distraction in your mind you want to focus on your breath.
Here when you’re doing breathing meditation you can either focus on your abdomen and be aware of the rise and fall of your abdomen as you inhale and exhale; or you can focus at the upper lip and the nostrils and be aware of the sensation of the air as it goes in and out there. You put your attention on one of those two places. Or sometimes you can just put it on your whole body and just feel the air as it goes in and out.
When you’re doing the breathing meditation to calm your mind like this you don’t force your breath in any way. Just whatever your breathing pattern is, you let it be. Some days—you’ll see as you meditate more—you’ll see that when you have certain mental states you’ll also have certain breathing patterns. If you sit down and you’re kind of nervous and anxious, your breathing pattern is going to be coarser and more rapid. Also you’ll be breathing from here [indicates upper chest]. If you sit down and your mind is really relaxed, your breathing is going to be slower and it’s going to be from down here [indicates lower chest/abdomen]. If you’re really upset when you sit down, your breath is not going to be even, it’s going to be jerky because you’re emotionally upset. It’s very interesting to really learn. You can learn about yourself by observing the relationship between your breath and your mental states. It can be very helpful to you to give you some insight into what’s going on in your mind by watching your breath.
If your mind is disturbed by something, when you sit down to meditate, then you want to do some breathing. You just do it for five or ten minutes, whatever it takes to calm your mind down.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama often says when you’re doing the breathing meditation to count up to ten and then to count backwards down to one again, as a way to help you stay on your breath. You can do that if that helps calm your mind down. That’s quite good; and then you can start the actual meditation.
It says, “Examine your mind well.” You don’t just plunk yourself down on the meditation seat. Rather you sit down, and it’s like, “Okay, what’s going on in my mind. Do I have a peaceful mind? Do I have an open mind right now? Do I have a virtuous state of mind? Or am I really angry at somebody?” Because if you’re really angry at somebody it’s going to be very difficult to meditate. You have to deal with any kind of emotional state before you actually start practicing. As we get into the lamrim the antidotes to the different emotional states will become clearer and we’ll be able to use them.
Simplified visualization to use in your meditation session
Now the text is going to talk to us about the visualization. I’m going to go over the visualization rather quickly and give you a simplified version of it to work with.
“In the space in front of me,” so that’s you visualizing, “In the space in front of me, on a precious throne both high and wide, supported by eight great snow lions,…” You have a throne with eight snow lions. You often see this in statues—you have this lion-throne and then there is a multicolored lotus on top of the throne. Then there’s a flat moon cushion and a flat sun cushion. The lotus, moon, and sun together represent the three principal aspects of the path: renunciation, bodhicitta, and the correct view. The Buddha sits on top of that showing that he’s mastered those three principal aspects of the path. On top of those seats “is my kind main spiritual mentor in the form of the Conqueror Shakyamuni.” Here you’re thinking of your principal teacher in the form of the Buddha.
Now, people at the beginning who are listening to teachings don’t have a teacher yet. So don’t worry about it, it’s okay. Just imagine the Buddha. The Buddha is our teacher. Don’t worry about finding a teacher yet, and which one’s your principal teacher, and all of that. That will come very naturally as you practice. For now just visualize the Buddha. If you’re somebody who’s been practicing for a while then you can think of the Buddha, and you think of your own teacher in the physical form of the Buddha.
“The color of his body is pure gold. On his head is the crown protuberance.” The Buddha with the crown protuberance here [indicating on top of the head], that is indicative of the extraordinary amount of merit that he had to accumulate in order to become fully awakened. “He has one face and two hands. His right hand touches the earth; and the left, in meditation position, holds an alms bowl full of nectar.” So his right hand is in touching the earth: The story behind that is when the Buddha first attained awakening, some spirits or devas were saying, “Well, how do we know that you’re fully awakened, who’s going to attest to this?” As the story goes the earth goddess appeared out of the earth and said, “I will attest to it. He’s fully awakened.” And he put his hand on the earth at that point, so it’s reminding us of that.
His left hand in meditation posture, and he’s holding an alms bowl full of nectar. The monastics always have an alms bowl. It is not a begging bowl; sometimes people mistranslate it and call it a begging bowl. It’s not a begging bowl, because monastics do not beg. There’s a difference between begging and going for alms. When you’re begging, you’re going up to somebody and saying, “Please give me, please give me.” When you’re on alms, you’re holding your bowl and you’re walking or standing, and then it’s completely up to other people whether they want to offer or not. You do not ask. So the Buddha’s holding his monastic alms bowl, and it’s filled with nectar. This nectar is the wisdom nectar that cures all of the afflictions and all of the suffering arising from the afflictions.
“Elegantly he wears the three saffron-colored monastic robes.” Fully ordained monastics have three robes: the shamtab is the lower one with the patches; the chogu is the one that I’m wearing here [an upper robe]. In the Chinese tradition shamtab is called the five-striped robe; this one is called the seven-striped robe. The fully ordained monastics have the namjar (in Tibetan). It’s called the nine-striped robe in Chinese. The Tibetans sometimes have seventeen, nineteen, twenty-one, twenty-three panels on this namjar robe so it’s quite complicated to sew.
“His body, made of pure light,”—it’s important when you’re visualizing the Buddha that you’re not thinking of a statue. You’re really thinking and imagining the real Buddha sitting there, but his body is made of light. So it’s light and it’s radiant. You’re not thinking of a bronze statue. You’re not thinking of a human flesh-and-blood body. Rather it’s a body made of light and it’s “adorned with the signs and marks of a Buddha,” and “emanates a flood of light.”
The “signs and marks of the Buddha”—these are certain physical attributes that a fully awakened being has, that you can identify them by. These include the crown protuberance, the long earlobes, the hair curl [at the center of the forehead], the number of teeth, length of the arms, webs between the fingers. There are all sorts of physical signs like this. His body “emanates a flood of light,” so when you’re visualizing the Buddha in front of you, his body is made of light. There’s just this incredible light just radiating from it indicating the light of his wisdom everywhere. You’re sitting there and you think you’re surrounded by all the sentient beings; and there’s the Buddha in front of you just radiating light everywhere. It’s hard to be depressed when you visualize that. You really have to work hard to be depressed then because the Buddha is really quite beautiful.
He’s “sitting in the vajra posture,”—that was the posture I was describing before where your legs are crossed. And, “he is surrounded by my direct and indirect spiritual mentors.” Your direct spiritual mentors are the teachers that you study with, that you know personally. The indirect ones are the lineage, like your teacher’s teacher, your teacher’s teacher’s teacher, all the ones that go back to the Buddha. Those would be indirect ones. So there’s Buddha surrounded by all of your direct and indirect spiritual mentors, by all the deities, Chenrezig, Manjushri, Vajrapani, Tara and so on, by Buddhas and bodhisattvas, heroes, heroines, (the dakas and dakinis), and also by an assembly of arya Dharma protectors.
Here’s it’s specifically noted that these Dharma protectors that we visualize are arya protectors. They’re not the ordinary beings. There are some Dharma protectors that are aryas, that have realized the ultimate nature of reality; and some Dharma protectors that are common beings, like us. We do not put the common Dharma protectors in visualization here. We’re just visualizing the ones that are realized beings.
“In front him (the Buddha), on exquisite stands are his teachings in the form of books made of light. The members of the merit field…”—so all the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and deities and so on, they “look upon you with contentment,” with contentment, with acceptance.
This is very important because so often we judge ourselves very hard. We’re quite hard on ourselves in picking at our own faults. Then due to this we can’t imagine anybody at all looking at us with acceptance. Especially we think of the Buddha [in this regard] because we have so much respect for the Buddha, and the Buddha is an enlightened being. So we think that Buddha’s going to be sitting and looking at us [thinking,] “You overslept this morning, didn’t you?” Or “You told a lie yesterday!” Or “You haven’t been doing your practice.” Sometimes we project onto the Buddha how we talk to our self, how we treat ourselves. That’s wrong. We have to remember the Buddha is somebody who’s completely compassionate and who doesn’t judge others. So when the Buddha looks at us it’s with complete acceptance, complete contentment.
Depending on your personality you may have to really work on it to imagine somebody looking at you with acceptance and compassion. But it’s very important to do that. The Buddha’s not glaring at you, he’s not falling asleep, he’s not laughing at you. Buddha is looking at you and being very pleased because you’re going to do something virtuous.
Three kinds of faith
“In turn, at the thought of their compassion and their virtue I have great faith in them.” When we’re imagining the Buddha we generate faith. Now what does faith mean in Buddhism? This is quite important.
There are three kinds of faith. One kind of faith is called “admiring faith.” That’s the kind of faith where we admire the qualities of an enlightened one, like we admire the Buddha’s wisdom. We admire the fact that they have impartial love and compassion for all living beings. We admire the fact that the Buddha can give his body as easily as we do the carrot, that there’s actually no attachment. That admiring faith really is uplifting to our mind. When we think of Buddha’s qualities it can make our mind quite happy.
The second kind of faith is called “aspiring faith.” This is where we aspire to become like the Buddha. So thinking of the Buddha’s qualities we aspire, “Oh, gee, I would like to become like that. The Buddha is a fantastic role model. I want to generate his qualities in myself.”
The third kind of faith is the “faith of conviction.” The faith of conviction or convictional faith—convinced faith—this is when we have really thought about the teachings. We’ve learned the teachings. We’ve thought about them. They make sense to us; and because they make sense to us we have faith in them. It’s a kind of faith that’s based on knowledge and based on analysis.
You’ll notice that all three kinds of faith, none of them are faith without investigation. None of them are, “Well, my parents worship the Buddha, so I’m going to, too.” None of them are like that. So we have admiring faith, knowing their qualities; aspiring faith, wanting to be like them; or convinced faith, where we have thought about the Four Noble Truths, we thought about the teachings the Buddha has given. They make sense to us. And because they make sense, our faith in the Buddha or our trust, our confidence in the Buddha really increases. When we look at the Buddha here we’re looking with that kind of uplifted mind.
I and all sentient beings, my mothers from beginningless time until now, have continuously undergone the dukkha [dukkha means unsatisfactory conditions] of cyclic existence in general and the suffering of the three lower realms in particular. Nevertheless, it is still difficult to fathom the depth and breadth of this misery. Now that I have attained a precious human life, so difficult to attain and so meaningful once acquired, if I do not realize supreme liberation in which all dukkha of samsara is overcome—[in other words] Guru-Buddhahood—then once again I will have to experience the various torments of cyclic existence in general and those of the three lower realms on particular. As I now have before me the spiritual mentor and the Three Jewels who can protect me from this pain, for the sake of all mother sentient beings I will do all I can to realize precious, perfect and consummate Buddhahood. To this end, from the depths of my heart I take refuge in the spiritual mentors and the Three Jewels.
I’ll explain this, but as you’re reciting this you really transform your mind into the feeling that’s being described here.
You start out thinking, “I and all mother sentient beings, my mothers from beginningless time until now…” Here the idea is that all sentient beings have been our parents in previous lives. We’ve had infinite beginningless lifetimes. It’s been plenty of time for each and every living being to have been our parent—and as our parents that were kind to us. They kept us alive, they took care of us. Even if they couldn’t take care of us, they put us in the care of somebody who could take care of us. They made sure we were taken care of in one way or another; and the proof of that is that we’re still alive.
We have this very close relationship to sentient beings, like parent and child, from beginningless time. All of them, each sentient being—so, Lee Quan Yew [Singaporean statesman who transformed this country] has been your mother in a previous life. And George Bush has been your mother in a previous life. And Osama Bin Laden has been your mother in a previous life. And your boss, whom I know you can’t stand, has been your mother in a previous life. We’ve had this very close relationship with everybody since beginningless time.
All of us have continuously undergone the dukkha: the unsatisfactory condition of cyclic existence in general and the suffering of the three lower realms in particular. Later on in the text we’ll get into the unsatisfactory conditions of cyclic existence in general—the fact, for example, that you get born and get old and get sick and die; that you get born again and again without choice; and then especially the suffering of the three lower realms. The three lower realms are being born in a hellish realm, as a hungry ghost, or as an animal. Lots of people sometimes say. “How come an animal is a lower realm? I love animals! You’re insulting the animals I love saying they’re in a lower realm.” They seem to get quite upset about it. But if you think about it, animals are, some animals they’re quite adorable. I don’t know about mosquitoes, we don’t usually think mosquitoes are so adorable. But animals have limited intelligence, so it’s very difficult for them to practice the Dharma. If the teachings were in the other building tonight we would show you our two kitties. They’re missing the teachings tonight. They usually come to the teachings. So we try and teach our kitties how to keep good ethical conduct: Don’t kill the bugs, don’t chase the birds, don’t chase the mice—all these living beings want to live as much as you want to live. We tell our kitties this, and they look at us [uncomprehensive], “Why don’t you feed me?” So as much as we explain to them about ethical conduct, they can’t absorb that. It’s for that reason that this is considered a lower rebirth, an unfortunate rebirth.
We’re free from those kinds of rebirths. We’re born as human beings with human intelligence, and we’ve met the Dharma, which is really quite astounding, when you think of it. I mean, how many people in this world have encountered the Buddhadharma and have interest in it? Not very many. Even in Singapore, you may say: Well, there are a lot of people in Singapore that are Buddhist. But there are a lot of people who aren’t. Even the ones who are Buddhist they’re kind of jaw stick Buddhists, aren’t they? Go to the temple and light incense, but they don’t really know what it means. You come to America, boy, Buddhists are really rare and far between. It’s the same in Mexico and many countries in the world.
All of us who have endured all of these disadvantages of cyclic existence since beginningless time, and nevertheless it’s still difficult to fathom the depth and breadth of this misery. “Now that I’ve attained a precious human life,” our present human life that is difficult to obtain, because it’s difficult to create the karma for it, “and so meaningful once acquired,” and our lives are meaningful because we have the opportunity to practice the Dharma and to transform our minds.
Now that we have this situation, “if I don’t realize supreme liberation in which all the dukkha of samsara is overcome”—in other words, becoming a guru-buddha myself—“then once again I will have to experience various torments of cyclic existence in general and those of the three lower realms in particular.” So if I don’t practice and I don’t get some spiritual realizations in this lifetime, then what’s going to happen? I’m going to get born again, and who knows where I’m going to be born and if I’m going to have the opportunity to practice the Dharma in my next rebirth. Who knows if I’ll be happy in my next rebirth. We don’t know. We’ll just keep on taking one birth after the next, unless we really practice and make some headway in this lifetime.
That’s why Dharma is important, really important, because once you lose a precious human life? Like let’s say we don’t practice very well and we create a lot of nonvirtue in this life, so that next lifetime maybe you’re born as a cat at the Abbey. Or worse, you’re born as a tick in the forest of the Abbey, or a mosquito at the forest of the Abbey, or one of the birds that’s nesting. Then there you are, at the Abbey, so close, but can you even take advantage of the teachings? No. And if you’re a tick or a mosquito, you aren’t particularly welcome—we won’t kill you, but we don’t offer you lunch either. So we have to think, “Do I want that kind of rebirth?”
“As I now have before me the spiritual mentor and the Three Jewels that can protect me from this fate,…” Here we’re visualizing before us our spiritual mentor and the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, who have the ability to guide us. By guiding us and teaching us that’s how they protect us from this pain. Therefore, “for the sake of all mother sentient beings I will do all I can to realize precious perfect consummate Buddhahood.” In another words, I’m really going to put my energy in a good direction in this life and try and practice and make some spiritual headway. I’m not going to practice the Dharma as a hobby, like, “Oh well, nothing better to do right now, might as well sit down and read a Dharma book. But oh! I remember there’s this really good program on TV. I’ll read the Dharma book later, I’ll watch the TV program now.” Instead of having that kind of attitude, we really make the Dharma the centerpiece in our life, so that we can try and realize Buddhahood. In other words, we’re not working just for a good rebirth or just for liberation, but we really want to become a fully awakened buddha. So “To this end, from the depths of my heart I take refuge in the spiritual mentors and the Three Jewels.”
If you have your sheet right now that says … so you should have a printout that is called “Abbreviated Recitations.” You have either the blue prayer book [Pearl of Wisdom, Volume 1] where on page 28 it says “Abbreviated Recitations” or you have a printout. At this point, now that we’ve done the visualizations of the Buddha surrounded by all the other holy beings; we’ve meditated on this verse that I just went through; now we do the abbreviated recitations.
The text is going to go into a much more complicated visualization that we’re not going to get into. I’ll just read through it, but what you’ll be doing is the abbreviated recitations. Okay?
So it starts out taking refuge in the Guru, in the Buddha, in the Dharma, and the Sangha. Then our refuge and bodhicitta prayer, most of you know that. Then the four immeasurables—love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. It’s “May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes”—that’s love. “May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes”—that’s compassion. “May all sentient beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss”—that’s joy. And “May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger”—that’s equanimity.
Explanation of the seven-limb prayer
Reverently I prostrate with my body, speech, and mind,
so we imagine bowing, or we stand up and bow to the Buddha.
And present clouds of every type of offering, actual and mentally transformed,
we imagine the whole sky filled with beautiful offerings; those are the mentally transformed ones.
I confess all my destructive actions accumulated since beginningless time,
so this is confession, or we can also call it repentance. Regretting our mistakes and wanting to purify them.
And rejoice in the virtues of all holy and ordinary beings,
Please remain until cyclic existence ends,
And turn the wheel of Dharma for sentient beings
in other words, to please teach us the Dharma.
It’s very important to request teachings and to request our teachers to live long, instead of, again, just taking the Dharma for granted, taking our teachers for granted: “Oh yes, there’s my teacher… don’t look like they’re going to die this week, so…. I’m a bit tired, I won’t go to the Dharma class this week.” Or, “My friend asked me out for lunch. I’ve got a Dharma class, I can’t go out to lunch…my friend really wants me to go out to lunch, and, besides, we’re going to go to this really good restaurant, so I want to go. So… I won’t go to the Dharma class this week, because I can go next week, the teachings are always there.”
This attitude of, you know, Dharma’s nice, my spiritual mentor is important, but the pleasures of this life sometimes take precedence. If we have that kind of idea, we’re creating a cause to be born in a place where we’re separated from spiritual mentors. Really think of it, spend some time thinking, “What would it be like to be born in a place where you have no access to any spiritual mentors?” How are you going to learn the Dharma? Maybe there are even no Dharma books. When I first encountered the teachings in 1975 there were hardly any Dharma books in English; and the ones that were, some of them were pretty weird. They didn’t really explain the correct teachings, so that was really weird; and there were hardly any centers. So then how do you learn the Dharma? It’s important to request teachings and request the Buddha to manifest and to live long. Why? So that we don’t take these things for granted and we really take advantage of them while we have that opportunity.
It’s like if Bill Gates gave you his credit card and said, “Go shopping and you can get anything you want.” Are you going to go to bed? Are you going to sit and surf the internet? Are you going to go take a walk? No, you are going to go shopping, aren’t you? With Bill Gates’ credit card you can get anything and everything you want, you’re not going to waste one minute. You’re going to be in that shopping center from morning until night, and even after you go home you’re going to be dreaming about what you’re going to go back and get the next day, because you’re not going to waste any time.
That is the kind of attitude we should have with the interest in learning the Dharma and practicing the Dharma. That’s what it should be like. The Dharma is so important, more important that Bill Gates’ credit card. Because even you have a credit card and you go buy everything you want, when you die, you’re going to have to separate from it. You can’t take any of it with you. I don’t care how much paper money, the Bank of Hell, they burn when they die, you’re not going to be able to take any of it with you. So the real thing you have, if you practice, is your merit, your virtue, your Dharma practice. You can take with you.
Then the last of the seven limbs,
I dedicate all the virtues of myself and others to the great enlightenment.
that’s the dedication of merit.
Next we do the mandala offering like we did beforehand. I can talk more about that next time. And then we do two verses requesting inspiration, and we chant the Buddha’s mantra. While we chant the Buddha’s mantra we imagine light coming from the Buddha into us, purifying us, filling us with all the realizations of the path, and we imagine this light going into all the other sentient beings around us too.
What I want you to do this week, your homework, is to do the visualization that we just went through; and then that paragraph talking about the motivation, and then the abbreviated recitations. Please do those every day without fail. For this class I have some expectations with the people who are doing this class. I really am expecting you, first of all, to attend every class unless you really are on your deathbed, or, well, close to your deathbed. Please attend every class. I really am expecting people to do that. Then whatever we cover in class, to go home and meditate on it. Do it because that’s the only way this is going to benefit you. If you come to class but you don’t practice it in the time between one class and the next, then it’s not going to benefit you. Then what am I doing? Sitting here, when I could be taking a nap! So please really…have some commitment to the class and to meditating on whatever we’ve covered in class. Is that clear?
Now I didn’t leave very much time for questions. Do you have any questions?
Audience: Venerable, can I ask one question? If we have difficulty in imagining the visualizations of some of the things mentioned here, like the Buddha’s body’s gold and then turning it into a light… sometimes you see the body, but you cannot just tweak it into light. What should we do?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): The body starts being light. It’s not like it’s bronze and then becomes light. From the beginning, when you visualize it, it’s already light. Just look at a light bulb beforehand and how light looks, and light appearing in the form of the Buddha’s body.
People think visualization’s very hard, it’s not. If I say, “Think of your mom.” Do you have an image in your mind of what your mother looks like? Even though you’re sitting here in this room, looking at the screen, or at me, or whatever, you still have an image in your mind of what your mom looks like, don’t you? That’s visualization.
Don’t expect, when you visualize, that you’re going to have 3D, flashing lights, as bright as when your eyes are open. But it’s just like when you think of anything. I say, “Think of ice cream… think of noodles…think of pizza…think of the Buddha sitting on a pizza.” [laughter] You get the pizza part really well, but the Buddha you probably won’t get so well. Why? This is because you’re very familiar with pizza. But if you really practice, you’ll start becoming as familiar with visualizing the Buddha as you are with visualizing pizza. It’s true, isn’t it?
VTC: Arya Dharma protectors would be, for example, like Palden Lhamo, Mahakala, Kalarupa. Those would be the arya Dharma protectors. Any other questions?
Audience: There is one question here, Venerable. If I don’t have, like, a special place to do my meditation, what should I do?
VTC: If you don’t have a special meditation place then just find a quiet place where you can be alone. If you don’t have some special place, just find a quiet place where you can be alone and do your practice there or go the Dharma center. You have a beautiful center in Xalapa, you can go there for practice.
Concluding prayers and dedication
Now to conclude, let’s go back to the prayer sheets you have that we started with at the beginning. We’re going to do the mandala offering and then the dedication prayer:
May the spiritual teachers who lead me on the sacred path and all spiritual friends who practice it have long life. May I pacify completely all outer and inner hindrances. Grant such inspiration, I pray. May the lives of the venerable spiritual mentors be stable, and their virtuous actions spread in the ten directions. May the light of Lobsang’s teachings dispelling the darkness of the beings in the three worlds always increase.
Idam guru ratna mandala kam nirya tayami
May the precious bodhi mind
Not yet born arise and grow
May that born have no decline
But increase forever more.
In the snowy mountain pure land
You’re the source of good and happiness;
Powerful Tenzin Gyatso, Chenrezig,
May you stay until samsara ends.
Note: Excerpts from Easy Path used with permission: Translated from the Tibetan under Ven. Dagpo Rinpoche’s guidance by Rosemary Patton; published by Edition Guépèle, Chemin de la passerelle, 77250 Veneux-Les-Sablons, France.
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.