Amitabha practice: Requesting inspiration
Amitabha practice: Requesting inspiration
Part of a series of short commentaries on the Amitabha sadhana given in preparation for the Amitabha Winter Retreat at Sravasti Abbey in 2017-2018.
- Explanation of the many epithets of the Buddha
- Turning to Amitabha for spiritual guidance
- What it means to request inspiration or blessings
Yesterday we talked about the mandala offering in the Amitabha practice. Then there’s a verse after that of prostration, offering, and refuge that Lama Zopa inserted. It says “optional,” so you can say it or not say it.
There’s actually quite a long explanation of this because it involves many epithets of the Buddha, many which are similar to the epithets in the prayer that we usually say before teachings: “To the endowed transcendent destroyer….” Actually, “endowed transcendent destroyer” is a translation the Tibetan word “chomdendé” which is a translation of the Sanskrit word “Bhagawan.” I don’t know if “Bhagawan” literally translates into “chomdendé” or “endowed transcendent destroyer”, but that’s what the Sanskrit word is.
To the guru, teacher,
So we’re seeing Amitabha as our guru. The teacher. Usually “teacher” refers to Shakyamuni Buddha, because he was the one who taught the Dharma initially. Here it’s referring to Amitabha.
…the endowed transcendent destroyer,
When you have chomdendé, “chom” means “to destroy,” in the sense that the Buddha has destroyed all the afflictions and obscurations. “Endowed” means endowed with all the good qualities. That’s the “den” “chomdendé.” And then “de” means “beyond” or “transcendent,” in other words, had gone beyond samsara.
…one thus gone,
That’s “Tathāgata.” The one gone to thusness, to the realization of emptiness.
That’s arhat. The foe is the obscurations.
…completely and fully awakened one,
That’s something only for the Buddha, because the Buddha is completely and fully awakened in such a way that he can never slide back, and never gain the afflictions and obscurations again.
…magnificent king, Guru Amitabha of boundless light,
Amitabha means boundless light, or infinite light. And Amitayus, which is the sambhogakaya (or enjoyment body) aspect of Amitabha means “infinite life.’”One’s “infinite life” one’s “infinite light.”
I find that when we chant “Amitabha” again and again that to just focus on the meanings sometimes of “infinite light” is very inspiring, especially on days when I feel frazzled, I need some light in my life because I’m heavy and I’m frazzled, then to remember, “Oh, that’s Amitabha’s name, infinite light.” And it’s a good way, also, when we’re chanting Amitabha, it reminds us also to think of light coming from Amitabha into us.
You can think of it as the light of wisdom, the light of compassion, just the light of calming your mind down. Whatever it is.
…Guru Amitabha of boundless light I prostrate,
“I bow down.” Prostrate is with body, speech, and mind. Physically we bow down, or we put our hands together. Verbally we bow down by saying the praise out loud. Mentally we bow down by developing respect and appreciation, and by imagining sentient beings around us and we’re all bowing together.
Whatever you want to offer: the mandala, the eight offerings, whatever you consider beautiful, and you fill the sky with the offerings.
…and go for refuge.
We really turn to Amitabha for spiritual guidance. We often call the refuge objects, especially the Buddha, the protector. The way the Buddhas protect us is by teaching us the Dharma. Because the Dharma is the real protection.
Please bestow upon me great inspiration.
We’re requesting Amitabha to inspire us. What we’re really saying when we request inspiration, or when we request “blessing,” (whatever “blessing” means, I don’t know) is we’re really talking to ourselves. May my mind be inspired. Because the word jinlap which is translated here as “inspiration” or in some places “blessing” means “to transform into magnificence.” This is a cooperative work of the buddhas and us to transform our mind. So with their waves of virtuous activity and our practice and our sincerity, then our mind gets inspired or blessed. So when we request inspiration… The buddhas from their side are always giving inspiration. When we request it we’re saying two things to ourselves. One, wake up and realize the Buddha’s sending out this inspiring activity. And two, do your part, make it easy for the Buddha to inspire your mind by doing your practice, because that’s what brings about the transformation. Just praying for inspiration and blessing, that’s not going to get us to buddhahood. We have to act.
Then after that comes the mantra recitation. I’ll go through the visualization here for the recitation, and then I’ll talk about some also in the Chinese tradition the way some of the masters talk about the meditation on Amitabha and how to meditate on Amitabha.
Here we’re doing it with the front visualization, so Amitabha is above our head. When we do refuge he’s in front. For this he’s above our head.
With heart-felt devotion
In other words, we have a feeling of respect and regard and appreciation and reverence for Amitabha. We’re not just like, “Well yeah, okay, I’ll do this mantra….” We have to come to it with some kind of feeling in our heart. Because we’re the ones that are creating the relationship with Amitabha. With that kind of sincerity…..
I concentrate single-pointedly on Guru Amitabha.
Amitabha’s on the crown of our head. We’re thinking that Amitabha is a manifestation and is the same nature as our root spiritual mentor. So if we’ve received the Amitabha initiation then in that case the root spiritual mentor is the one who gave us the empowerment into this. If you’ve received the jenang from several lamas then you can choose whichever one you want to as being the root one. But actually we think of all of our teachers as being the same nature, and all of them being the same nature as Amitabha.
We concentrate single-pointedly. Here if you want to you can stop and do some serenity meditation, developing serenity on the image of Amitabha on the crown of our head. I would think if it’s more convenient for you to keep Amitabha in front and do the serenity, I’m sure Amitabha wouldn’t mind moving in front and then coming back on the crown of your head later. But he’s not going to go back and forth in the middle of your serenity meditation.
Then you would follow the regular instructions for generating serenity which are on Friday night [Friday night teachings].
Now he’s on top of our head. It’s good to actually stop at this point and renew the visualization and remember that we’re meditating on Amitabha, and think of his good qualities, because that will make our recitation of the mantra stronger. Some people find it very difficult to do the visualization of the light, plus thinking of Amitabha’s qualities, plus reciting the mantra all at the same time. And that is a bit difficult, because it’s involving three different processes. I think it’s fine if you want to just spend some time in silent contemplation of Amitabha’s qualities and thinking of how you can gain those qualities. Then that will help when you think of the qualities coming down in the form of light and nectar from Amitabha into you. Or you can go right into the visualization, thinking of the light and nectar coming down, think of Amitabha’s different qualities, which are the qualities of the Buddha.
This is the point where you take out your lists of the four kinds of self-confidence, the ten powers, the eighteen unshared qualities. All these lists that talk about a Buddha’s qualities. The sixteen qualities of speech. All these kinds of things. And you can do a meditation on them, thinking Amitabha has those qualities and they’re coming into you while you’re doing the visualization of the light and nectar, and while you’re saying the mantra.
In this section of it if you want to stop and just do the contemplation on the qualities, then add to that contemplation on the light and nectar, and then after that add to that the mantra…. If that helps you to get things going, then do it in that sequential thing. When you’re counting the mantra, you’re counting the mantra so you have to be reciting it at that time. If you can’t do the visualization and recite the mantra at the same time with full attention to both, don’t get yourself neurotic about it. I say this because some people just, “I can’t do this, this is too hard, I’m going crazy.” Just relax, it’s okay. It’s like how you can hear the muzak in the background and at the same time pay attention to the person in front of you. Actually, it’s consciousness going back and forth very quickly, but we can do that, can’t we? Sometimes in this section, we may be focusing more on the visualization and the mantra is more in the background. Other times we may focus more on really the sound of the mantra, the energy of the mantra, the vibration of the mantra, and focus more on that and the visualization is more in the background. In that way, you can have both going. You don’t make yourself crazy about having everything in technicolor and fully aware. We’re beginners. So go step by step, do what you can. As you do what you’re able to do, slowly your capacity will increase. Whereas if you have this grandiose idea of doing it all perfect at once and then you don’t meet that, and you get yourself discouraged, then you’re never going to get there, because when we’re discouraged we stop trying. It’s like learning to walk. Be content when you take a couple of steps. Rejoice. Pat yourself on the back. You can’t run the 50-yard dash yet. That’s okay. You’re learning to walk. Be glad about that.
From his holy body, five-colored nectar light streams down….
It’s five-colored light: white, yellow, red, blue, and green. Those are the five colors that correspond with the five Dhyani buddhas, with the five elements (earth, water, fire, wind, space). You think like that. Also you’ll notice like when we do White Tara we visualize five-colored light coming. And there it’s really thinking that it’s the five elements and re-balancing the elements in our body. And when we re-balance the physical elements our health improves and our mental state calms down.
Five colored nectar and light. Light you know. Nectar. If you feel like you’re kind of getting “lung,” this anxiety, restlessness, then don’t focus so much on Amitabha above your head because that moves your energy up and that’s not what you need at that time, you need your energy to focus down more. Don’t focus at the heart, focus down at the belly. And also visualize the nectar and think of the nectar as really creamy, something completely creamy and lush and soothing, like some kind of really soothing lotion that comes into your body, and as it says here, flows down through your crown, through the central channel.
…into my crown, descending through my central channel.
There’s a central channel that starts below our navel, goes up to the top of our head, comes around and then comes out [the forehead]. But we’re tapping into it [at the crown of the head]. Don’t worry about it. You’re visualizing. It’s not like an umbrella, and you can’t get into the central channel because it’s curved and there’s no opening. This is a visualization, folks, relax. The light and nectar come down through the central channel, you imagine it. The central channel is, they say, about the size of a straw, around. I don’t know if it’s a thin straw or a fat straw. Sorry. Or one of those big pipes. So you imagine that that comes and it fills your central channel, from your central channel, at each of the chakras (your crown chakra inside the body, your throat chakra in your throat, your heart chakra, and your navel chakra, which is a little bit below your actual navel, they say four fingers width below. Although sometimes they seem to say the navel chakra is at the navel. It’s not been entirely clear to me. I hear different explanations.) Anyway, somewhere around there.
There are different side channels that come in at different points there, so you can imagine that the light and nectar goes through the side channels at each of these places and goes out into the rest of your body. There are also two other main side channels that go from your nostrils and curve back and then hook into the central channel about four fingers width below the navel.
Don’t get all into this thing of “I’m doing chakra meditation” and focusing on everything trying to get it… Just relax. You keep hearing me saying relax, don’t you? It’s because I mean it. Relax. It’s just a visualization. This very soothing light and nectar is coming down. It’s coming [at the head] and it’s going out to all these places. And it’s going into your side channel and into your central channel, and the nectar makes everything feel really creamy, soothing, peaceful. The light makes it feel very clear, very light, not heavy. You can concentrate on the light, concentrate on the nectar. They bring two different feelings inside. But you learn how to do it and which visualization kind of helps you according to what your mind is going through at that particular time.
From there it flows through your crown into your central channel. From there it flows through all the other channels of your body, completely filling your entire body with blissful nectar and light.
This is really good. If you have a part of your body that hurts, that is ill, that’s not functioning right, this soothing nectar, this beautiful light just goes in that area and completely fills it. And just think that’s getting totally healed.
Then also think as your body is getting filled, and your channels are getting filled,
These could be the five hindrances to generating serenity. It could include the five faults from the other system. It could include all afflictions, all wrong views. They’re all hindrances and obscurations.
Any kind of illness, injury, malfunction. And all the karma we’ve created for untimely death.
…and untimely death….
Untimely death is, when we’re born we have a karmic lifespan to live a certain age, but that can get interrupted if a very heavy destructive karma ripens in the middle of our lifetime, and that would cause what we call an untimely death. Like somebody dies when they’re quite young, or in a freak accident, like that. So all of that….
…are completely purified.
Let’s stop here, and then we’ll continue tomorrow with this.
Audience: Ven Chodron, that was very helpful how you described the visualization, how you’re supposed to be able to switch in between, all these different things, but to relax. It’s the best explanation I’ve heard. So thank you for that. Are we supposed to imagine that this is actually happening, like the nectar is actually? Because the sadhanas always say “imagine,” so I thought we’re kind of pretending. But we’re supposed to think this is actually happening?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes. The reason is that we’re imagining most of our time even though we think we’re perceiving reality. So there’s not so much difference between imagination and experience.
Audience: Well I imagine at some point we’ll feel it in our bodies.
VTC: Yes exactly, the purpose is to feel it. Saying “imagine,” in some ways, helps us relax. If we say “feel” light and nectar, then “oh god, I don’t feel anything, what’s wrong with me? Feel, feel.” Then we just get tight again.
Audience: If we’ve been trying to cultivate serenity using the image of Shakyamuni Buddha, for the duration of the winter retreat would it be okay just to… Because we’re doing Amitabha sadhana each session, just to switch and use the time to focus, cultivate serenity on Amitabha?
VTC: You can switch for the retreat if you want to to Amitabha. Or you can keep Shakyamuni Buddha if you want to when you do refuge and focus on Shakyamuni Buddha at that point. Your refuge can be Shakyamuni Buddha or Amitabha, the refuge visualization.
Audience: I guess an underlying question would be, does the skill that you would develop in shamatha, or trying to develop concentration on Amitabha, would that focus translate back to having that focus on Shakyamuni Buddha if you switched?
VTC: They say for when you’re trying to cultivate serenity don’t switch objects. Okay? Why? Because they look different. And part of serenity, part of concentration, is cultivating familiarity. So when you switch objects then that’s going to slow it down.
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.