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The power of prayer during a pandemic

Venerable Sangye Khadro shares some advice from Khadro-la Rangjung Neljorma on practices for dealing with the pandemic.

Good afternoon!

Today I’ll talk about something different than the verse from the Vajra Cutter Sutra. I’ll go back to that next time. Today I thought to talk about using prayer as means for dealing with difficulties such as the one we’re going through now with the coronavirus.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama recommended that we do the practice of Tara, reciting the mantra of Tara and praises to the 21 Taras. So here in the Abbey we every morning before breakfast we recite the 21 praises and then some mantras of Tara. And I was really happy with his advice because I’ve had a long-term connection with Tara and relied on her numerous times with difficulties and had very good results and I also know other people had good results. I’ll just tell one story which, for me, is quite amazing.

Here is one of the prayers about the benefits or the results of praying to Tara. There’s a mention of “Those who want a child will have a child.” You’ve heard that one? So when I was living in Singapore in 90’s there was one woman coming to our center (Amitabha Buddhist Center). She told me that she wanted so much to have a baby and she and her husband tried for 10 years every possible way her to get pregnant and have a child. Nothing worked. So she was really so unhappy. And then a friend told her about Tara and how it says in a prayer that if you pray to Tara you can get a child. So she was, “Well, nothing to lose!” She started praying to Tara to have a baby. And after a couple of months she got pregnant and had this beautiful little child, a little girl. So that’s one story. That’s quite a remarkable story but there are many other stories.

I have confidence that praying to Buddha, to Tara, to Chenrezig really does help. But we shouldn’t think it’s like, “Oh, superman or superwoman is gonna come flying down from space, swipe us up and take us off somewhere away from this difficult situation.” That’s probably not gonna happen. But it seems that things can shift, sometimes in an external situation. It might be a shift in a situation so that things go better than before. Or internally–sometimes the shift is internal. I can see this in my experience when you’re facing a difficulty and you pray to someone like Tara. Then you can find yourself feeling less alone, isolated, unprotected and it gives you more courage, more confidence and wisdom to be able to deal with the situation and manage it better. Of course the real purpose of relying on Tara and the other deities is to reach enlightenment. But while we are in samsara, you know, these difficulties happen and they can become obstacles to our practice. So it is useful to have [the prayers]. They are promises that Tara will help us with all kinds of difficulties, all kinds of problems.

So, kind of in line with this: yesterday I got an email from a friend containing some advice from Khandro-la. (She’s known as Khandro-la but there are lots of Khandro-las. This is the one who is very close to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. She is also kind of an oracle, she deals with one of the deities and passes messages on from the deities. She is also very close to Lama Zola Rinpoche.) On the urging of a number of people, she composed this text, giving advice. It’s quite long and I don’t have time to read all of it, but [I will] read a few things from this text. It’s quite beautiful. The title is “Transforming the Adverse Conditions of the Coronavirus into the Path.”

Orgyen Rinpoche please help!

Orgyen Rinpoche is another name for Padmasabhava (Guru Rinpoche).

Due to the karmic appearances of sentient beings in this degenerated bad time, the world is pervaded by a pandemic disease. We have fallen into a prison without shelter and without hope, isolated, without protection, and without an army; we cry out in despair.

The epidemic has turned heaven and earth upside down; I ask the Buddhas of the three times to listen to me.

And then she goes on, kind of confessing. She says,

I openly reveal various reasons why this pandemic is happening.

For example, our tendency to see everything as inherently existing, as a truly existing I and truly existing everything else, the influence of these hallucinations, and other disturbing emotions and that’s the original cause for this situation that we are in. She goes on to confess that we’ve created a lot of negative karma, we’ve broken our vows and so on. She is speaking in first person but on behalf of all sentient beings, just pointing out what are the causes for finding ourselves in this situation. And then she goes on to give advice on what to do about it. She says:

Dharma friends close to me and acquaintances, please apply yourselves in Dharma reflecting on the difficulty of obtaining freedoms and endowments;

In other words, the preciousness of our human life.

apply yourselves in the Dharma of adventitious impermanence;

So, remembering impermanence and death, that’s just the nature of our existence.

apply yourselves in the Dharma of infallibility of actions and their results;

In other words karma. So whatever is happening to us is the result of the actions we did in the past. But karma isn’t like fate, we can change it. And that’s something we can do.

apply yourselves in Dharma reflecting on the disadvantages of samsara;

As long as we are in the cyclic existence, we will face these kinds of problems again and again.

apply yourselves in Dharma reflecting on the advantages of liberation;

So there’s a state beyond cyclic existence when we no longer have such problems. Aspire for that.

apply yourselves in Dharma reflecting on universal responsibility.

Bodhichitta, altruism.

Compassion, altruism, and the mind of enlightenment are the precious riches that do not deceive.

Basically she’s saying contemplate the lamrim and practice the lamrim. The Three Principal Aspects of the Path and so on.

And then she goes on, saying:

Rest assured that the Dharma is solely to pacify yourself and benefit others. Stop worrying! If you rely on powerful deities, all suffering becomes an aid to happiness. Never separate yourself, even at the cost of your life, from the refuge of the three rare and sublime ones…

The Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

…who do not deceive.

Faith and compassion are the foundation of all that you desire, do not be afraid! Make requests from the bottom of your heart. Ask continually for blessings from the lama deity.

Meaning seeing deity, whatever deity it is, and our lama as inseparable.

And then specific advice. She says:

If you recite the mantras Mani [om mani padme hum],

the Chenrezig mantra. And Benza, which, I think, means the mantra of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), which is om ah hum vajra guru pädma siddhi hum. You can find it online easily. And Tare, the mantra of Tara.

…with request, you will certainly free yourself from all obstacles.

Those are some of the main points. And then in the colophon she says:

Right now, due to the coronavirus pandemic disease that has spread throughout the world, human beings are afraid of losing their lives and suffering from multiple losses, such as financial loss. Therefore, just like one family, the beings on this planet are all experiencing great torment together. I have been asked what could be done to quickly bring this disease to an end. My advice is to practice the Guru Yoga of the Supreme Arya who has the Lotus in his Hand…

In other words Chenrezig, Avalokiteshvara.

…inseparable with the one who embodies the great compassion of all the Conquerors, the manifestation of the union of emptiness and great compassion, the dispeller of the three times.

In other words His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

She seems to be referring to the practice of the inseparability of Avalokiteshvara from the spiritual master. We’ve done that here a few times. It’s short and very very beautiful. So that’s one of the things she recommends.

People should recite as much as possible the mantra of the six syllables (Mani) and the mantra of the name of the maha guru (Padmasambava).

So, in addition to Tara, she did mention it earlier and this is what His Holiness mentions, she’s also recommending om mani padme hum which is so easy, you know, and quick to recite many of those, and Padmasambhava for those who have that connection.

So I don’t think this means we have to do all the practice we’ve been advised to do but do at least one. At least one of these practices is very good. Then of course the lamrim that she recommends, meditating on the main stages of the path to enlightenment. These are things we’ve all been doing and hearing about again and again but I just thought, you know, it’s quite sweet that she did compose this and make it available. It was an old Dharma friend, Fabrizio, who saw this text message in Tibetan and wanted to translate it. He thought this is really really important. He spent a couple of hours on the phone with her to get the meaning correct so that it could be translated.

There is always this question about does prayer really work. And it is a valid question. When this question used to come up in Singapore I would say to people, “Well, yes, sometimes you make prayers and you get what you pray for and other times you don’t.” I think prayer alone isn’t enough. You also need to have karma, you need to have other factors. Wisdom of course, [and] ethics. Just praying for something doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, whether it’s in Christianity or in Buddhism or Hinduism or whatever.

Just this morning I read on the BBC about Indonesia. They have big problems now in Indonesia. Lack of proper medical equipment and so on. And there was just this little story about one nurse who was working with patients suffering from current coronavirus and then she got it herself and talked with her husband about it. And he said to her, “Well, it’s in the hands of Allah.” And she died. So just think, well let’s pray to our deity or god or whatever, you know, doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to get the results that we wish for.

It is the traditional response in religions to pray. Do your prayer, do your practice. Social activity, social activism, and so on. Volunteering isn’t always a part of traditional Buddhism but I don’t think just because she doesn’t mention that doesn’t mean we can’t do it. The more contemporary Buddhists and activists are encouraging that and we are doing that. But in addition to helping financially or helping [those who are] physically sick, making face masks or whatever, it’s also important to have our own practice because if you’re spending too much time doing the other activities, your own mind, your own energy can really get drained. We need to have ways of replenishing our spiritual energy and keeping our mind positive. I think it’s good to do both. That’s kind of the bottom line. You can do both. Everything we can to help but we do need to take care of our own mind.

There is research showing that prayer and meditation can improve our immune system, which can help. There has also been lots of research done on prayer. People being prayed for, even though they don’t know they’re being prayed for: there’s evidence that it does help them. So I always figure, well it doesn’t hurt, you know, and it might benefit, so it’s a good thing to do. If nothing else it’s a way of keeping our own mind calm and peaceful and less likely to go down the road of worry and anxiety and anger and so on. That’s the way of keeping our own mind in a positive state. Just having that connection with someone, some one or some ones who are more powerful, more compassionate, above this situation that we are in. For me it’s always been very very helpful. Even though I tend to be a skeptic but just my experience is–it does help.

Thank you.

Venerable Sangye Khadro

California-born, Venerable Sangye Khadro ordained as a Buddhist nun at Kopan Monastery in 1974, and is a longtime friend and colleague of Abbey founder Ven. Thubten Chodron. Ven. Sangye Khadro took the full (bhikshuni) ordination in 1988. While studying at Nalanda Monastery in France in the 1980s, she helped to start the Dorje Pamo Nunnery, along with Venerable Chodron. Venerable Sangye Khadro has studied Buddhism with many great masters including Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, and Khensur Jampa Tegchok. She began teaching in 1979 and was a resident teacher at Amitabha Buddhist Centre in Singapore for 11 years. She has been resident teacher at the FPMT centre in Denmark since 2016, and from 2008-2015, she followed the Masters Program at the Lama Tsong Khapa Institute in Italy. Venerable Sangye Khadro has authored several books, including the best-selling How to Meditate, now in its 17th printing, which has been translated into eight languages. She has taught at Sravasti Abbey since 2017 and is now a full-time resident.

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