Faith, study and practice: sometimes we need reminding that all three are equal in importance as the foundation for our spiritual evolution. Reminding is needful should one be inclined to ballance precariously upon just one or two legs of this otherwise stable tripod. In my own case, I am lean too much toward study...an addicitive behavior spilling over perhaps from my karmic past. A compulsive reader, I may even sit out my breakfast in absorbed contemplation over the list of ingredients on the same cereal box day after day. Reading Dharma by the volume sometimes only aids me to delude myself further, falsely crediting this conduct as virtuous in and of itself. The merit therof comes but rarely, such as when I stumble over some small revelation which casts formerly disconnected elements of my understanding in a whole new light. Yet these rare moments breathe new life into both my faith and my practice.
Take for instance, refuge prayers. Devout Buddhists recite some form of these every morning and evening. We each have our own favorite set of verses. But for long I myself did not know that each stanza, each line, and sometimes even each word is targeted at a very specific, precisely defined spiritual function. And as a whole, the prayer is laid out line by line, so as to evoke a series of mutually interdependent mental responses all aimed toward a carefully targeted end result. It is really so much more than just inspiring poetry.
When recited with correct motivation and a level of understanding, the mind is led according to the author’s own innermost thought. Starting out at one value or spiritual concept on the first verse, the focus of one’s attention is passed along via each sucessive phrase to higher and more rewarding frameworks. Imagine the flow of kinetic energy passed along a line of falling dominoes. It works like that. By attending carefully to the meaning of each, we are channeled along a carefully charted course of concepts and values.
I first heard the following refuge verses on the bright sunny morning of Saturday, April 27th, 1994. It was when H.H. the XIV-th Gyalwa Rinpoche was about to give the White Tara transmission from his teaching platform erected upon the stage of a tremendous auditorium at the University of Michigan. This was an event I’d waited twenty years for. And I did not at all mind being seated far over to the left and up in second balcony. I sat there entranced. His interpretor was explaining the preparatory rites: refuge verses and the seven limbed prayer. Our hosts, the Sangha of Jewel Heart which practices under the guidance of Kyabje Gelek Rinpoche, had passed out programs which contained different verses. And there was some small confusion. But His Holiness still felt it better at the time to give the following version rather than that which had been distributed. I didn’t fully appreciate its especial meaning at the time, but my studies since have provided some little illumination. It has brought me to a much enhanced appreciation. Here is the prayer.
With the wish to free all beings
I will always go for refuge
To the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
Until the attainment of full Enlightenment
Enthused by Compassion and Wisdom
Today in the Buddha's presence
I generate the Mind of Enlightenment
For the benefit of all sentient beings
For as long as space endures
And as long as sentient beings remain
May I too abide
To dispell the miseries of the world
I recall thinking that this did not seem so very different from other versions which I knew. And fancying myself something of a poet, I even presumed to judge the metre of one or two lines somewhat awkward. But His Holiness stated that this was his own favorite prayer, and that he recommended it for all of us as part of our daily observances. So for this reason alone I adopted it, but without any great understanding. In the years since that time my attitude has reversed completely.
I had hoped to encounter a line by line explanation somewhere in one of my books. But I have yet to find this same exact version, or even a greatly similar one, in any text I know of. But I have found and read the line-by-line explanations of some few other prayers. And from this I have learned to look at all Indo-Tibetan verses in a new way.
Let us take the first line. With the wish to free all beings. This clearly refers to a Bodhisattva’s altruistic intention. Bodhicitta, as it is termed, is that altruistism which motivates one to seek Enlightenment not merely for oneself but mainly so as to benefit others. This is like someone wishing to save lives but knowing that the only effective way is to become a doctor. Not for money, comfort or renown, but solely for the joy of bringing happiness and relief to others. Transplant this sentiment from the material to the spiritual realm and you have Bodhicitta. One of the two most important concepts in all the Lord Buddha’s Dharma, Bodhicitta has three approaches:
And further, each of these may be divided into two classes:
So the first line of this prayer is phrased such that it requires only our sincere aspiration. It does not presume that our attainments are yet sufficient to produce concrete results. So long as we maintain a deep and abiding regard for the welfare of others, we can all fulfil this aspect of the Bodhisattva Vow. Practitioners at any level can recite this line without generating doubt by over-taxing their self-appraisal of the moment. And as for choice of method, this is left entirely up to the practitioner. One may modify their approach as necessary according to the situation at hand. All of that (and probably a lot more!) in just that one first line.
Now you might think that I am making some of this up. I am not. There are similar arguments which I have found where famous sages have expounded similaryly with regard to other prayers. I make no claim to scholarship for myself. I just thought that it might be helpful were someone to piece together such elements from various sources and apply them to this one particular prayer. I rather fear to over-step the bounds of logic and and of scripture. So you, of course, must apply your own judgement, attaining perhaps a different conclusion. These are just the ways in which I am led to interpret them. And here I will leave of form issuing further caveats.
Now for the second line: I will always go for refuge. The key word here is always. Refuge is said to have two foundations, fear and reliance. In Buddhist practice there are three objects of which to be afraid:
For fear of these three things we are motivated to seek a refuge. The word always in this context clearly precludes the first, small scope aspect of fear. Combined with the first line it even precludes the medium scope aspect of merely striving for our own final release. Add to that the fourth line and together they establish our aspiration firmly according to the large scope doctrine of striving for final release solely for the benefit of others.
The third line defines the objects of refuge, and are obvious to any Buddhist. The fourth line serves, in addition to the arguments given above, to delimit the extent of the term always from the second. We seek refuge only until we ourselves become Buddhas. From that point forward we will be peers with every other Fully Enlightened Being. We will have no need of taking refuge in them thereafter. We will ourselves have become a refuge.
When reciting this verse, His Holiness instructed us to picture the Buddha and Bodhisattvas seated in the space before us. He did not dictate a specific refuge visualization. He left that open to individual choice. So you may be as simple or elaborate as you yourself feel appropriate. And since this part is common to all Indo-Tibetan refuge practices, and part of the preliminary rite rather than the White Tara transmission itself, I am certain that he meant it to be an open instruction. You do not need to have been there for the transmission to practice this visualization.
Buddha will be pleased with your intention. So picture multicolored rays of light and nectar which corruscate out from Buddha’s heart penetrating your body and your mind. These cleanse your negativities and stimulate your positive potentials. Even if you can’t get a good picture in your mind, imagine that it is nevertheless so. Try and feel purified and invigorated. As my one-time Lamrim teacher, Geshe Ngawang Jangchup put it, Just feel that way. It will put you in the right frame of mind for the next four lines in the second verse.
Enthused by Compassion and Wisdom. This frequently renewed contact with Lord Buddha, His Dharma and the assembly of the saintly will indeed enthuse us with these qualities. Visualization as above will keep us mindful. It is already partly the case or else we would have no motivation to practice Dharma at all. So even if your motivation feels a bit shaky at the moment, you should still try and feel thus enthused. Increase it if you can. Work at making it so until it becomes habitual.
Today in the Buddha’s presence. The body, speech and mind of an Enlightened Being penetrate all phenomena. And wherever any one of these has penetrated, there He or She is actually present. Even when we are not visualizing them. But when we are visualizing, especially then. Buddhas know our hearts and minds. They are always present. Let us maintain awareness of this and our conduct can only grow more vituous. Don’t think of it as being spied upon and found wanting. It is not a judgement, as in the case of divine condemnation, or the controlling influence of some cosmic tyrant. It is more like having a spiritual coaching staff who rejoyces and roots for our success, but knows also the difficulties involved, having experienced the same themselves. They dislike to see us fall down, but don’t condemn when we do. Not in the least do they so judge and condemn us.
Then we have the third and fourth lines, I generate the Mind of Enlightenment, for the benefit of all sentient beings. The term Mind of Enlightenment is a direct translation for the Sanskrit world Bodhicitta. It means as described above. Translating it thus really hammers home the connection between Great Compassion and Buddhahood. We can’t obtain the second without having the first. Then the fourth line reiterates the object of our compassion, insuring proper emphasis on benefit for others rather than self.
And lest we forget the enormity of our vow, the prayer closes with an almost daunting clarification of just what we are taking upon ourselves. For as long as space endures. Who can fathom it? Such an unimaginable expance of time. Not for the duration of human society, or even merely as long as may last our planet or the sun. Not even so long as the present universe. But space itself! All mater as we understand it will one day decay into energy. Or so the physicists tell us. But space itself will continue to endure rather longer beyond even that. Hyperspace theorists posit the decay even of the dimensions of space. But this possibility lay at the furthest extreme of even the most imaginative cosmoligists hypothetical timeline. An eternity, or close to it. How much thought would we give to signing a mere thirty-year mortgage? Let us think about that for a moment... Done? Okay, now recite the vow. It adds something, doesn’t it?
And as long as sentient beings remain, meaning we aren’t to leave a single one behind. And perhaps hinting that some will be even then. There are after all the Formless Realms. No matter, or even space there. Only mind. The residents here are gods to be sure. But they are still in samsara. They need rescuing quite as much as anyone.
May I too abide... meaning that we are not to pass away into nirvana. We must remain accessable to whoever needs us for as long as they need us. We will be their refuge. (Unless it should happen that one of us be the last out... How’s that for a motivator?) And the phrase May I again establishes that this practice is Aspiring Bodhicitta. Venturing Bodhicitta is posited off in the future. Which is not to say that we ought not to take whatever advantage we may to venture some concrete benefit to others here and now. We definitely ought. But in this prayer we are firming up our resolve through expressing sincere aspiration. This we can always do, regardless of our present ability to produce great results.
...to dispell the miseries of the world. The verb dispell means to scatter, to diminish something by propelling its component parts in myriad directions. Thus we recognize that we can not wholly remove suffering from samsaric existence. We can only deminish its localized effects. This is the best that we can hope to do for those who yet remain in samsara. Our best wish is to remove sentient beings entirely from that quagmire. But it is not possible. They have to do it themselves. We vow to aid them however we can for as long as it takes for them to work themselves free. Until eternity we shall never abandon them. This is Great Compassion. It is all that we ourselves may obtain from the Enlightened Ones here and now. They have given us the Dharma. It is enough.
That is what I try to think about whenever I recite the above verses. It is a lot to hold in mind all at once. But I try. And I think I see now why His Holiness said that this is his own favorite prayer. It really does wonders for my faith and practice. May it mean as much to you.