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Alex Li Trisoglio

Aspiration: Week 2 – Benefits

March 23, 2024
67 minutes

Reference: Samantabhadra’s King of Aspiration Prayers, verses 47 – 54

Video / Transcript

Introduction to Week 2

Welcome

So, welcome everyone to our exploration of the transformative power of Samantabhadra’s King of Aspiration prayers. This week, the second week, we’ll be focusing on verses 47 to 54, which are all about the immense benefits of reciting and practicing this prayer. And this week’s image is the lotus blooming in the muddy water, a classic Buddhist image of the possibility of enlightenment in our ordinary world that is filled with suffering. 

As we discussed last week, the King of Aspiration prayers is considered a jewel of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, cherished across various schools for its profound teachings on bodhichitta and the path of the bodhisattva. Originating from the Gandavyuha Sutra, which is part of the Avatamsaka Sutra, it encapsulates the aspirations of Samantabhadra, a bodhisattva who embodies practice and virtue, and serves as a guiding light for practitioners, outlining the path to enlightenment through the cultivation of limitless compassion and altruistic intentions towards all sentient beings. It’s widely practiced across many Buddhist traditions, especially in East Asia, and also the main practice during the Tibetan Mönlam prayer festivals in Bodh Gaya.

Tuning our motivation

So to begin, I’d like to follow Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s example and start by inviting us all to tune our motivations, as Rinpoche says. So to get a sense of what this means, let me tell a story from when I was young. I went to school in London, a Church of England school, and each day before school lunch, the headmaster would lead us all in saying grace, which was, “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.” That’s a standard Christian expression of grace, cultivating appreciation and gratitude. And as we now know from positive psychology and the study of happiness, if all that [research] really could be boiled down to just one thing, it really is that we’re going to be happy to the extent that we can be grateful and appreciate our lives. 

And we can contrast that with our ordinary mindset of consumer or user, where we expect to be impressed by a product or service, and if something isn’t working to our liking, all the responsibility is on the person who made the product or provides the service, and we don’t any responsibility as the user to enjoy the experience. So there’s no surprise that everyone is so unhappy in this consumer society. 

The Three Supreme Methods

So yes, aspiration, saying grace — that is very good. And the Dharma has something even better, and we have something called the Three Supreme Methods — good in the beginning, the middle, and the end. There’s a popular quotation from Longchenpa:

Begin with bodhichitta, Do the main practice without concepts,
Conclude by dedicating the merit. These together and complete
Are the three vital supports for progressing on the path to liberation.

So, tuning our motivation for a Mahayana text such as this is all about really bringing to mind and cultivating bodhichitta, the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. And the “good in the middle” and “good in the end” will also be part of this prayer, and we will come to those in future weeks. We’ll have quite a lot to discuss when it comes to practicing without concepts, and also at the end we shall talk about dedication.

Relative and ultimate benefit

So just a little more on bodhichitta — the aspiration that “May I obtain supreme enlightenment to promote the good of all beings and establish them in supreme and perfect enlightenment”. So we want to offer both relative and ultimate benefit to others. It is said that without ultimate benefit, without absolute bodhichitta, just having relative aspirations can degenerate into pity and sentimentality. Rinpoche often calls this the “philanthropic” mindset, where we consider ourselves good and others somehow lesser than ourselves. But likewise, if you have the absolute only without the relative, it can lead to nihilism and a lack of desire to engage with other sentient beings for their benefit in the ordinary world. So hence in the modern world we now see a lot of focus on engaged Buddhism, and how we as Buddhists are not limited to just practice, but can really seek to be of benefit in the relative world. 

There’s a teaching by Rinpoche called Work as Practice, where he explains how we can apply this motivation to anything that we do when we’re working. And he suggests as part of setting our “good in the beginning” that we can recite some verses from Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara, from chapter three:

[3:18] May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,

A guide for those who journey on the road.

For those who wish to go across the water,

May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

[3:19] May I be an isle for those who yearn for land,
A lamp for those who long for light;
For all who need a resting place, a bed;
For those who need a servant, may I be their slave. 

So let’s just take a moment to set our intention for our time together during the next hour.

[Pause]

From ordinary generosity to the paramita of generosity

So just to emphasise, in the Mahayana, it really is a threefold shift from an ordinary kind of worldly aspiration. 

  • Firstly, we’re very much shifting from a focus on benefit for ourselves to a benefit for others.
  • Secondly, we’re moving away from a focus just on some sentient beings — our friends, our family, people we like — to all sentient beings. It’s truly a universal aspiration which requires us to go beyond tribalism, to go beyond the usual kinds of boundaries we have in our social and political worlds. 
  • And finally, it’s a shift from focussing on relative benefits, worldly benefits, to enlightenment, going beyond ordinary benefit. 

We’ll talk about this more in future weeks, but this is the difference between things like ordinary generosity and what in the Mahayana is called the paramita of generosity, which is the first in the practice of the six Paramitas. And one of the things we’ll keep seeing in this prayer is that going beyond the ordinary to something that may be considered a “paramita” means going beyond ordinary conceivability, which is going to be a big theme this week, as in all weeks. 

So in the spirit of aspiration, the idea of something infinite, which can at times seem maybe more than we can handle, I want to share a story of the young woman and the starfish on the beach1This story comes in many versions. This version is taken from Zander, Rosamund Stone & Zander, Benjamin (2000) “The Art of Possibility”. See also wikipedia on The Star Thrower..

“Strolling along the edge of the sea, a man catches sight of a young woman who appears to be engaged in a ritual dance. She stoops down, then straightens to her full height, casting her arm out in an arc. Drawing closer, he sees that the beach around her is littered with starfish, and she is throwing them one by one into the sea. He lightly mocks her: “There are stranded starfish as far as the eye can see, for miles up the beach. What difference can saving a few of them possibly make?” Smiling, she bends down and once more tosses a starfish out over the water, saying serenely, “It certainly makes a difference to this one.”

Aspiration, motivation and intention

Distinguishing some important terms

This week is about benefit, which is what we will accomplish as the outcome of practicing this King of Aspiration prayers. But there are several related terms, including intention, motivation, aspiration, and even merit, so I’d like to spend some time talking about these, because I think it’s going to be useful to distinguish them both for this week and future weeks.

(1) Aspiration (Goal) = “What?”

So firstly, aspiration. What is an aspiration? I guess we can think about it as the goal, or the “What” of our practice. It refers to a strong desire to achieve something, typically of a lofty or spiritual nature. It’s the longing for something that lies beyond our current state, or our current ability. In Buddhism, aspiration is closely associated with the development of bodhichitta, the mind of enlightenment, where we are aspiring to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is the bedrock of the Mahayana, where we really want to assist all beings in overcoming suffering. And as a way of making sense of this, I’m going to use the analogy of climbing a mountain. So here, our aspiration or goal might be like the goal of reaching the summit, not just for the sake of personal achievement, but also to inspire others, or perhaps to raise awareness for a cause. In this analogy, the aspiration is like the desire for enlightening all beings in Buddhism, and the climber’s longing to reach the top is something that’s beyond their current capabilities or state.

(2) Motivation (Inspiration) = “Why?”

Next is motivation or inspiration, which is the “Why” for our journey. It’s the driving force behind our actions. It’s what propels us to move towards our goal. Motivations can be intrinsic, coming from within, e.g. driven by personal satisfaction or a desire for self-improvement. Or they can be extrinsic, driven by external rewards or to avoid negative outcomes. In Buddhism, motivation is the key to sustaining our practice and ethical conduct. Motivation is always given great importance, with the emphasis on cultivating wholesome motivations that lead to the welfare of ourselves and others. For instance, we’re encouraged to meditate not just for personal peace of mind, but as a means to develop qualities like compassion and wisdom that can benefit others. In the mountain climbing example, motivation would be the climber’s driving force to embark on the challenging journey, perhaps an intrinsic desire to overcome personal limits or to experience the beauty and solitude of the mountains, or perhaps extrinsic factors like the recognition that comes from achievement, or maybe to support a charitable cause.

(3) Intention / Approach = “How?”

Third, intention. This is the “How” or the approach that we take in our day-to-day journey. Intention is defined as the purpose or attitude behind our action. It’s more specific than motivation and can be seen as the immediate thought or aim that leads to our action. Intentions are shaped by both aspirations and motivations, and they play a crucial role in determining the karmic consequences of actions in Buddhism. So in Buddhism, intention is central to understanding karma. Actions are said to be morally determinative based on the intention behind them. So even if an action outwardly appears beneficial, if it’s motivated by selfishness or greed or delusion, it’s nevertheless considered unwholesome. And this cultivation of right intention is an important part of the Noble Eightfold Path, emphasising intentions of renunciation, goodwill, and not harming others. For the mountain climber, intention would be the climber’s attitude in undertaking the climb. Perhaps he or she might wish to climb respectfully, minimising environmental impact or helping fellow climbers in need, reflecting ethical considerations similar to a Buddhist focus on right intention. The climber’s intentions ensure that their journey up the mountain is aligned with their values and their aspiration. And even as Buddhists, we should always be a little cautious and self-reflective because one thing that’s all too common is for intention to not be aligned with our aspiration. For example, people may go to a Buddhist teaching with an aspiration is to learn and study for the sake of enlightenment, and yet there’s often a rush to sit in the best seats at the front, right by the teacher. And so our immediate intention may not always be properly aligned with our aspiration. So it’s a good thing for us to check and be mindful about. 

Summary

So in summary, the aspiration, the “What” or the goal sets our vision for our spiritual journey. In this case, focusing us on the ultimate goal of enlightening all sentient beings. The motivation or inspiration is our “Why”, which is our fuel for our journey, and which provides our day-to-day energy and reasons for engaging in our practice, whether it’s meditation or ethical living or studying Dharma. It helps us overcome obstacles and sustains us through challenges. And as practitioners, it’s very important for us to make sure that we stay inspired. And for example, in answering one of the questions in the Vancouver teachings, Rinpoche said that if we’re losing inspiration, sometimes the best answer might even be to take a break from our practice — if in that way, we can come back refreshed and more inspired. So our intention or approach — our “How” — guides our moment-to-moment choices, ensuring our actions are aligned with our ethical and spiritual goals. And in each case, as Rinpoche says, “You are your own master”. These are things that we can take accountability for in our own path and in our own spiritual journey.

An overview of the journey

As we reflect on our journey, for most of us, when we’re first interested in or attracted to Buddhism, there is some kind of initial energy or motivation or inspiration. And then it moves over time to a second stage where we familiarise ourselves more through practice or study, and we intentionally cultivate an aspiration, which in the Mahayana is an actual practice, hence this prayer. And then based on that aspiration, in our day-to-day action we aim to integrate our aspiration into our intentions and our actions. So there’s a progression from an initial attraction to a deep intentional practice, and this reflects both our personal journey of growth and the structured approach of the path. 

So again, just to reflect on where we might be right now in our journey, our initial attraction or motivation can be for a variety of motivations. Perhaps for some people, it’s the desire for inner peace or understanding of life’s sufferings, or dealing with illness or death among friends or family, or perhaps our own impending death. Or perhaps it’s curiosity about meditation and mindfulness practices. And so this initial attraction is fuelled by a form of motivation that seeks something beyond our current understanding or experience — whether it’s the search for relief from suffering, existential answers, psychological well-being, or perhaps even exploring experiences beyond the ordinary. And as we become more familiar with the teachings and the practices, our engagement leads us to a deeper reflection on our purpose, both for our life and for our practice, and also the implications for our actions. And in the Mahayana, we’re encouraged to cultivate bodhichitta, the aspiration for us to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings. And then with that clear aspiration established, we can then turn to our actions and aim to align those with our broader vision. 

Merit and benefit

Merit

Okay, so we’ve talked a bit about the “What”, the “Why”, and the “How” of the path. So let’s now talk a little bit about merit and benefit, which is very much this week’s topic. So what is merit? It refers to the positive energy or karmic potential generated by good deeds, virtuous actions and practices aligned with Dharma. Meritorious actions include giving (dana), moral conduct (shila), and meditation (bhavana), among others. Merit is seen as crucial for our spiritual progress and for achieving favourable rebirths, and it has a very significant role in traditional Buddhist countries. Internally, it’s seen as making us happy and virtuous in our minds, and externally for giving rise to good circumstances such as long life, health, wealth, as well as the character and abilities that we’re born with. All that is seen as arising from merits we’ve accumulated in the past, and vice versa, if our situation is not so good, from demerits in the past. The merits and demerits we’ve accumulated in the past may take a while to bear fruit, and may only show up in the next life or future lives. It’s stated in the Buddhist scriptures of the Pali Canon that people cannot take anything with them when they die, except for whatever merit and demerit they have accumulated, which will then affect their future. 

When he taught this prayer in Vancouver in 2024, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche told a story of a time he was giving alms to a monk in Thailand, which is a very traditional way to generate merit. So I’d like to offer a little more context for people who are not so familiar with the traditional culture of Buddhist countries. And perhaps contrary to popular conception, merit-making is done by both monastics and laypeople. Both monks and laypeople can earn merit through mindfulness, meditation, chanting, and other rituals. And for laypeople, giving is the most common way of making merit, because monks, for example, are not allowed to cook by themselves, so giving them food is a very common practice. Monastics, in turn, practice to be a good field of merit, and make merit by teaching those who give — the donors. In this way, merit-making creates a symbiotic relationship between laypeople and the ordained sangha, and the sangha is obligated to be accessible to laypeople for them to be able to make merit.

Giving

Giving can be done in many ways. Some laypeople offer food, others offer robes and supplies, others fund ceremonies, build monasteries, or maybe persuade a relative to ordain as a monk. Young people will often temporarily ordain as monks because they believe this will not only yield fruits of merit for themselves, but also for their parents who’ve allowed them to ordain. In China, Thailand, and India, it used to be common to offer land, or the first harvest, to a monastery. And throughout Buddhist history, people were so intent on merit-making and giving that in some societies people would even offer themselves and their families to Buddhist temples, for example in the ancient Pagan kingdom in Burma. Likewise, there’s the story of the King Mahakuli Mahatissa, a first century BCE Sri Lankan king who disguised himself as a peasant and started to earn his living working on a paddy field so that he would be able to gain merit by giving rice to Buddhist monks. And in some cases, merit-making is even considered to continue after a person’s death. For example, in the ancient Thai tradition, it was considered meritorious for people to dedicate their corpses to feed wild animals after death. And likewise, there are many stories of the Buddha’s own merit-making actions in his previous lives, for example, in the Jataka tales. 

The cultivation of merit is motivated by both personal and altruistic aspirations. As beginners, we may perhaps engage in merit-making more with the motivation to improve our own circumstances, for example, for ensuring a better rebirth or experiencing less suffering. But over time, as we cultivate broader aspirations, especially in the Mahayana tradition, our accumulation of merit becomes more focused on enabling our progress towards enlightenment for the sake of all beings. So the intention behind our meritorious actions evolves, reflecting our deepening commitment to the welfare of others.

Going back to the mountain climbing example, I would say that merit-making is a specifically Buddhist idea, which doesn’t have a direct analogy in the West. But perhaps we might consider it in terms of the positive energy or recognition gained from the climb. We might think of it as assets or maybe even capital. By undertaking the climb with good intentions, by respecting nature or others along the way, the climber accumulates goodwill and respect from the community, which is like a form of merit. And this supports the climber’s future endeavours, much like a Buddhist would accumulate favourable conditions for spiritual progress. And while the word “assets” typically connotes material things, it can also include things like goodwill, reputation, networks, and trust. And we can think of “capital” in a sense that goes beyond merely financial capital, and also includes things like social capital and emotional capital — the sense of accumulated value that is supporting our future good actions. 

Benefit

Finally, benefit is all about impact. Benefit in Buddhism is understood as the positive impact of our actions, our practices, and our path —both for ourselves and for others. It can encompass both immediate welfare and happiness generated by virtuous actions, as well as longer term spiritual benefits accruing from practices towards enlightenment. And this is closely linked to the idea of our day-to-day intentions, where we’re very much invited to think of the benefit that each action will have, both for others and for ourselves. We’re aiming for outcomes that are promoting harmony, reducing suffering, and contributing to spiritual development. And this intention to benefit all beings is very much a hallmark of the Mahayana path.

Going back to the mountain climbing example, benefit would include both the benefits gained through journey itself — the strength, the resilience, and the personal growth from going on the journey. And then also whatever benefit we might gain by reaching the summit, especially if we are climbing, for example, for a charitable cause.

So merit is very much the foundation for our path, for any significant spiritual journey. It creates the conditions necessary for us to practice the Dharma effectively and for us to ultimately achieve enlightenment. And benefit is the expression. Acting with intention to benefit others is the natural expression of our Buddhist path. And there is a cyclical relationship between these two. We generate merit through virtuous actions, which leads to benefit, which further supports us creating further meritorious actions. So with this as a background or context, let’s turn to the verses. 

Verses 47 – 48

The benefits of making aspirations in general

For this section of the prayer, the structural outline in the commentaries has two sections. Firstly, the benefits of making aspirations in general, which is these first two verses.

[Note: if you don’t have a copy of the text of the prayer, you may download one from the aspiration Main Page]

3. The Benefits of Making Aspirations

3.1. The Benefits of Making Aspirations in General (verses 47 – 48)

[47] Whoever hears this king of dedication prayers,
And yearns for supreme enlightenment,
Who even once arouses faith,
Will gain true merit greater still

[48] Than by offering the victorious buddhas
Infinite pure realms in every directions, all ornamented with jewels,
Or offering them all the highest joys of gods and humans
For as many aeons as there are atoms in those realms.

So this is a profound statement. We’re saying that the merit of reciting this prayer is far greater than infinite vast material offerings. Even just hearing it, even just having the intention to recite this prayer even just once, to long for the Mahayana path, the qualities of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas — that brings enormous benefit. And Rinpoche emphasised that “you should never think that this is just a poetic statement. In fact, due to the limitation of human language, I would say this is understatement. The merit of doing an aspiration such as this is so vast that it just doesn’t fit in our small minds.” Yes, we can understand it as meaning that this aspiration is powerful, or maybe even to say that it’s inspiring young Bodhisattvas by saying that the Buddhas have great power to fulfil our wishes and aspirations. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said that’s not the best kind of intention, but it’s still good. 

The contents of this aspiration are non-ordinary

But according to Rinpoche, the best intention comes with the understanding that the contents of this aspiration are not ordinary. This King of Aspiration Prayers is based on the grandest view and the grandest motivation — the inconceivability and the vastness of bodhichitta. There are two different ways in which this aspiration is not ordinary, which are actually the two different aspects of bodhichitta, the relative and the ultimate:

(1) The non-ordinary aspiration of bodhichitta: Firstly, we’re not aspiring merely for worldly change, just to improve one’s situation in the world. We’re aspiring for bodhichitta, which is a non-ordinary aspiration. As Rinpoche has often said, we’re all aspiring for something anyway. So this kind of practice will gradually divert our mental, emotional, and physical energy and time towards the Buddhist path and towards our transformation. Even just the aspiration for benefiting others rather than just ourselves — even that is quite different from our ordinary worldly way of seeing things. Even the Theravada has aspirations for better rebirths, and I think many people start out wishing for good outcomes just for themselves. We’ll talk more on this in future weeks, but an important part of what makes the Mahayana “Maha” or grand is this idea that it’s for all sentient beings. 

(2) The non-ordinary view of emptiness: The second way in which the content of this aspiration is not ordinary is because of the view, the ultimate bodhichitta, which is inconceivable. So we’ll come next week to prostration, for example, where because of this view of emptiness, we can simultaneously prostrate to all the Buddhas of past, present and future and thereby multiply the benefit of our action infinitely. Likewise, when we talked about Sudhana’s journey in the Gandavyuha Sutra, he could see infinite Buddhafields in a single pore of Bodhisattva Maitreya’s body. And in each of these infinite Buddha fields, he saw infinite Buddhas with infinite disciples and infinite retinues. So just to emphasise, emptiness is not about nothingness or voidness — rather, it’s about fullness, vastness, inconceivability. As Rinpoche said, it’s understanding that “in one lotus, there are infinite lotuses, and then within each of these there are limitless and inconceivable numbers of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas”. 

Because of emptiness, everything is possible

And in the Mahayana and the Madhyamaka, it is said, “Because of emptiness, everything is possible”. That’s what allows us to simultaneously prostrate to all the Buddhas of the three times and multiply our merit infinitely. As Rinpoche taught in Bodh Gaya last year, “For those who can understand the [inconceivable nondual] view set out in the Avatamsaka Sutra, they don’t need to go through these details of Buddha being born 2500 years ago and so on.” If we can understand this nondual view, then just as the Bodhisattva Sudhana could see all his activities of past, present and future in a single moment, likewise, all that we do here, whether it’s starting with our practice early in the morning, going through our day right to the evening, it can all be accomplished in a single moment. So although we speak about elaborations of time and space, as Rinpoche said, “there’s no such thing as past, present and future in the ultimate sense. So there’s no reason why the prayer cannot be fulfilled or accomplished”. Now, if we can really understand the emptiness and inconceivability that is the heart of this prayer — if we can transcend our ordinary understanding of space and time — we can thereby transcend the merit of all our ordinary offerings. 

I would also say for those of you who’ve received teachings on this prayer before or read other commentaries, I think one way in which Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s teachings are quite different is that many of the Mahayana commentaries follow the causal path, to which the Mahayana path belongs, where we engage in good actions and thereby cultivate causes for a future result. But Rinpoche is teaching much more from the Vajrayana or the Dzogchen perspective of the result path. In the result path, we’re already looking from the perspective of the result of enlightenment — what one might call the “Buddha’s-eye view” of reality — hence this cosmic perspective. In the result path, the view is as much about engaging in training and aspiration for a future result of enlightenment. Rather, it is starting from the firm conviction that all sentient beings are already enlightened, and we just have to wake up to that reality.

Summary of verses 47 – 48

So just to summarise these two verses: even one moment of genuine faith is greater than vast material offerings. Now why is this? Because of the intention behind our aspirations, our heartfelt wish for the ultimate well-being of all beings, which touches the very heart of the Mahayana aspiration. It aligns with our deepest boundless compassion and wisdom and catalyses the profound transformation within us and in the world around us. And when we think of the various ways in which we might help or benefit others, we understand that Dharma is the highest offering. So while traditional Buddhist practices include making many kinds of material offerings, symbolising generosity or renunciation, the teachings emphasise that the highest offering is that of the Dharma. In other words, actions that cultivate wisdom, compassion and aspiration for enlightenment are those that carry the greatest merit. Because although material offerings help us reduce attachment, express devotion and help other beings in practical ways, aspirations like this prayer directly transform our mind, aligning it with the altruistic intention that is essential for Buddhahood.

So once again, let us reflect on our own aspirations. When we’re reciting this prayer, it’s not merely reciting words. We’re cultivating a boundless field of merit within our own hearts. And this doesn’t just accelerate our own path to enlightenment, but it sows the seeds of potential for awakening in countless other beings.

Verse 49

The thirteen benefits in detail: Benefits 1 – 3

Now we come to verse 49. Actually, the next few verses from 49 to 53 in the outline talk about the 13 benefits in detail. And this verse, contains the first three of those benefits.

3.2. The Thirteen Benefits in Detail (verses 49 – 53)

[49] Whoever truly makes this Aspiration to Good Actions,
(1) Will never again be born in lower realms;
(2) They will be free from harmful companions, and
(3) Soon behold the Buddha of Boundless Light.

Trusting in the power of this prayer

Rinpoche gave some commentary on each of these three benefits. Interestingly, when he was teaching this in Taiwan in 2016, he said, “If you aspire according to this prayer, it guarantees you will abandon all the lower realms.” In that teaching, you could perhaps say that he was taking almost a faith-based approach when explaining this prayer. He said, “I believe this. Almost to the extent that sometimes I become lazy. But then again, it’s not really laziness [either]. I really believe that because I have prayed and I have also heard the Pranidhana-Raja, I will be okay. This life and next life and [at the time of my] death, I’ll be okay. I’m sure some intellectuals will say I’m just going through some very blind tripping. [Even] so, I will die much more peacefully than them. And trusting this is a blessing of the Buddha.” He also said “If you’re a follower of Mahayana Buddhism and you’re a regular visitor to Mount Omeishan, for instance, you should also feel happy”. And Omeishan or Emeishan is Mount Emei, which is near Chengdu in China. It is the highest of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China, and is traditionally regarded as the bodhimanda, or place of enlightenment of Samantabhadra. 

So here Rinpoche was setting forth a position that might be unfamiliar for those of us who see Buddhism as a rational and secular path, namely that blind faith is perhaps even more useful than rational skepticism. Because if one spends one’s life solely in rational skepticism, one may never actually engage in practice. And so our rationality can actually block us from cultivating the merit that we need to make progress on the path. So yes, skepticism is highly encouraged in Buddhism when doing analysis and when establishing the view. But when it comes to practice, we’re really encouraged to engage wholeheartedly in our practice with devotion and faith. It’s much more useful to us to actually get on with our practice. And for all of us, establishing and refining our view is also going to take us a while. It may take many years. So it’s much better to start our practice with an imperfect view rather than to spend many years refining our intellectual understanding and never getting down to practice. 

It’s also explained in the commentaries that this first benefit also speaks to how this prayer gives freedom from being reborn in lower realms. And so traditionally, especially in Tibet, when somebody dies, one of the first things that is done is to recite this King of Aspiration Prayers to prevent them from lower rebirths. So that’s also a practice you can do for deceased people in your life. This is a great prayer for that.

The meaning of non-virtuous friends

The second part of this verse, the second benefit, talks about being free from harmful companions. Here Rinpoche explained that when we talk about “bad friends”, this doesn’t necessarily mean somebody who distracts you by taking you to the movies or things like that. Rather, it’s someone who derails you from having interest and devotion towards the view of emptiness. Someone who makes you lack confidence in concepts such as in one lotus flower, there are 25 lotuses containing infinite Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In other words, bad friends are those who derail your interest or devotion or willingness to practice Dharma. And the reason why others may be non-virtuous is because they don’t have this kind of grand aspiration. Our aspiration is vast, and once you have this kind of attitude, you will automatically abandon small-minded or petty-minded non-virtuous friends. 

The third part of the verse is about Amitabha. Rinpoche said there are many different ways we can think about Amitabha Buddha. And generally, for example, in the Sukhavati prayer written by Raga Asa, we say that Amitabha is red in colour, and he resides in the western direction. But actually, if you think about his name, “The Buddha of Limitless Light”, this is once again talking about the inconceivable nature at the heart of this prayer. So just remembering his name, his form, his colour — through that aspiration, we can accomplish our wishes. So in summary, verse 49 is not just about avoiding harm, it’s about transformation. By distancing ourselves from harmful associations and inclinations, we open our hearts to the influence of the enlightened intention of all the Buddhas, symbolised here by Amitabha Buddha. And the vision of Amitabha is not just a visual encounter, it actually represents the awakening of our inherent Buddha nature, our first experience on the path where we are touched by that, illuminating our path with compassion and with wisdom. 

Verse 50

The thirteen benefits in detail: Benefits 4 – 7

[50] (4) They will acquire all kind of benefits, (5) and live in happiness;
(6) Even in this present life all will go well,
And before long,
(7) They will become just like Samantabhadra.

Verse 50 comprises benefits four to seven. Number four is gaining beneficial factors. Number five, not explicit in the verse, is having good health. Number six is having good fortune in this life, which is all about having good conditions so we can better benefit others and do our practice. And number seven is we shall become like Samantabhadra.

Here Rinpoche said that according to the Pranidhana-Raja, all other prayers are considered relative prayers. For example, even in Buddhism, there are many prayers for long life, but these are considered conventional or subjective. What is long? One minute could be long. And is long even good? Would it even benefit us to live for a thousand years or 10,000 years? Likewise, we might pray for prosperity or success, but these are very relative and subjective. And as Rinpoche said, you can still do these prayers, there’s nothing wrong with them. But if you forget the ultimate aspiration to enlighten all beings, these relative aspirations alone will not lead you anywhere. They’re not bodhichitta. And our aim as Buddhists is to get out of samsara, not just to improve our status in the relative materialistic world.

Buddhanature as the foundation for our aspiration

Rinpoche also talked about how for a prayer to work, we need to be able to trust that there is some kind of basis or foundation for the prayer. When we say talk of a perfect aspiration, it means it has to yield or generate a perfect result. And this aspiration of bodhichitta —aspiring for the enlightenment of all sentient beings — is considered in the Mahayana to be the only aspiration that will give a perfect fruition or result. The idea of “may I be free from ignorance, may I free all beings from ignorance” — that is worthy because it is achievable. Much more than long life or wealth. Or as Rinpoche said, “May all beings be enlightened, that is very much achievable”. Whereas aspiring may they all become Buddhists, that’s not necessarily achievable, and not necessarily even a good thing.

So why do we say there is a foundation for this aspiration? What is our reason for believing in this aspiration? The reason that we have confidence in bodhichitta is because ignorance and defilements are not our true nature. Here we’re talking about Buddhanature. We don’t spend a lot of time on that topic in this prayer, but in other Mahayana texts, such as the Uttaratantra-shastra, a lot of time is spent establishing the basis, the understanding of Buddha nature. And there are three ways we can approach this:

  • Faith and devotion: First is just having faith and devotion in the Buddha and the three jewels, and devotion to the teacher. So even if we may not fully understand the teachings on Buddhanature, just having faith and devotion is already a useful foundation for us.
  • Study and contemplation: Second, we can study the Mahayana texts such as the Madhyamaka and the Uttaratantra to give us confidence in emptiness and Buddhanature as the basis.
  • Experience: Third, as we begin to practice, we can start to get confidence based on our own experience. We start to realise we are not angry or jealous all of the time. There are times when our awareness is clear, when our aspiration is positive. So we realise that our negative emotions and our defilements are not our true nature. They’re like dirt covering a window, and the window itself is clean. So through our experience, we can get really clear that we have a window that is clean. The dirt is not part of the window, and therefore the window can be cleaned. Now that’s the confidence that allows us to aspire, not just for our own enlightenment, but also for the enlightenment of all beings. 

Another aspect that Rinpoche touched on here once again is non-duality. He said we might think, “May all beings be enlightened.” But that might feel like it’s going to take many, many aeons. Forever. And what do we mean by “all”? So here he said, “Let’s not forget the Mahayana interpretation.” So going back to the Gandavyuha Sutra and the journey of Sudhana when he met, for example, Indriyeshvara, the eight-year-old boy who gave him a teaching on numbers. As Rinpoche said, after going through all of these unimaginable numbers, Indriyeshvara asks, “What is the meaning of one? One, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand. There is no difference. They’re all illusory. They’re all relative, all imputed by habitual patterns.” As Rinpoche said, “you really need to know this element”. So this is why for a Mahayana student, aspiring “May all be awakened or enlightened” is much more doable than “May there be world peace”. As he said, world peace is not so easy, but everyone becoming enlightened, “That’s very possible, easy”. 

Only the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas understand the full working of cause and effect

Also, in this context of the only true or reliable or solid aspiration being the ultimate aspiration of bodhichitta or enlightening all beings, we have to confront the notion that even in the relative world, we may wish to do good for others, but our ability to know what is actually going to be good is quite difficult. We may do something with good intentions, but it may have bad outcomes. So just as an example, there’s the famous story of the Chinese farmer. Here, I’ll give you the version by Alan Watts:

Once upon a time, there was a Chinese farmer, who lost a horse. Ran away. And all the neighbours came round that evening and said “That’s too bad”. And he said “Maybe”.

The next day, the horse came back and brought seven wild horses with it. And all the neighbours came round and said “Why, that’s great isn’t it!”. And he said “Maybe”.

The next day, his son, who was attempting to tame one of these horses, was riding it and was thrown and broke his leg. And all the neighbours came round in the evening and said “Well, that’s too bad, isn’t it”. And the farmer said “Maybe”.

The next day the conscription officers came around looking for people for the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. And all the neighbours came around in the evening and said “Isn’t that wonderful”. And he said “Maybe”.

So the whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity. It’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens is good or bad, because you never know what will be the consequences. You never know what’s going to be good fortune or misfortune. So as Rinpoche said, we should always aspire following Mañjushri or Samantabhadra, acknowledging that only they fully understand the function of cause, condition, and effect. 

Acquiring good things and “all kinds of benefits”

The fourth benefit of reciting this King of Aspiration Prayers is that the aspiring bodhisattva will acquire all kinds of good things. Here we consider “good” things as things that support our Dharma practice and the Dharma practice of others, and all things that support us on the path to enlightenment. This includes things like encountering a qualified teacher, and encountering virtuous friends who have devotion and interest in the teachings. In Vajrayana Buddhism, these are traditionally known as the 18 freedoms and advantages. For example, if we do ngöndro practice, right at the beginning we contemplate how we have a precious human birth. And the preciousness of a human birth is considered in terms of these 18 freedoms and advantages. So here again, good things are defined in terms of what is conducive to our study and practice of Dharma.

This can also include outer things such as health and wealth. It can be difficult to study and practice Dharma if we don’t have the right outer conditions. And yes, of course, we still wish to accomplish relative benefit in this world, including socially, politically, and so forth. But ideally, this aspiration for relative benefit in the outer world is always with this spirit of creating the conditions for self and others to practice Dharma, to encounter the teachings and put them into practice. And here also, we’ll typically start out in our practice with a more relative understanding of what it is to do good and what creates merit, and as we understand emptiness more deeply we will progress from ordinary generosity to the paramita of generosity. We’ll see this in more detail with next week’s teachings on the first 12 verses where we will talking about the foundations for our practice of aspiration. And in particular, as we proceed through the verses of this prayer, we will increasingly delve into inconceivability, emptiness, and non-duality. And for us to really understand emptiness and nonduality and put it into practice, that really requires vast merit. So a lot of what we will do is to establish and cultivate the merit for that. 

Living well

When Rinpoche commented on the sixth benefit of living well, he said, “Why do we consider that we live well? Because you have a grand vision. A little bit of a scratch here, a little bit broken or dented there — that doesn’t bother you any more. When you have a grand vision, a grand view, a grand plan — a little bit of failure here or there is nothing. So you sleep well. you live well. If you are thinking of very limited things, then you have so many things to worry about.” And as he said, we all know where that leads. “We’ve done quite a lot of this worrying business and it’s not going to end.” And so in summarising verse 50, it’s really bringing our attention to the here and now, promising happiness and cultivation of bodhisattva qualities within our current existence. And this immediate transformation is crucial. As we embody compassion, wisdom, and the other bodhisattva qualities, our lives also become a beacon of hope and guidance for others. Our happiness becomes increasingly intertwined with the happiness of all beings, demonstrating that enlightenment is not just a distant goal, but a present reality that we can cultivate through our aspirations and actions. 

Verse 51

The thirteen benefits in detail: Benefit 8

[51] (8) All negative acts—even the five of immediate retribution—
Whatever they have committed in the grip of ignorance,
Will soon be completely purified,
If they recite this Aspiration to Good Actions.

In verse 51, we come to the eighth of the 13 benefits. Traditionally, these five acts of immediate retribution — killing one’s father, killing one’s mother, killing an arhat, maliciously drawing blood from the body of a Tathagata, or creating a schism in the Sangha — are considered in Buddhism as the most severe of negative deeds. But here the verse is saying that all karmic defilements will be purified, including these. This is normally considered extremely difficult, something that can only be accomplished through the antidote of applying non-dual wisdom. But here we’re saying that just through reciting this prayer, it is possible. And Rinpoche taught, “This is because karma is fundamentally a mental phenomenon. As Buddha said, everything is causes and condition, and of all the causes and conditions, motivation is the most powerful. So generating a grand aspiration can immediately manipulate the past, present, and future karma.” So transforming our mind is also about giving us the skilful means of transforming karma.

So this verse really offers us profound hope. No matter what the weight of our past actions, sincere aspirations can cleanse the slate. This really underscores the transformative power of intention and aspiration. So although our karma is shaped by countless past actions, we can transform it through the genuine wish for enlightenment for ourselves and all beings. And this purification is not just erasing the past, but it’s a deep transformation, turning our past into a fertile ground for the blossoming of our Buddha nature. 

Verse 52

The thirteen benefits in detail: Benefits 9 – 12

[52] (9) They will possess perfect wisdom, beauty, and excellent signs,
(10) Be born in a good family, and with a radiant appearance.
(11) Demons and heretics will never harm them,
(12) And all three worlds will honour them with offerings.

Wisdom

Verse 52 includes benefits numbers 9 through 12. On wisdom, Rinpoche said, you can understand wisdom as the ability to discern what is good and bad, what is to be adopted, what is to be abandoned, what is Dharma, what is not Dharma, and so forth. Of course, wisdom in Mahayana also includes knowing the non-self of the person and of all phenomena. in other words, it refers to non-duality, which we can understand as the attitude or way of thinking that contradicts dualistic clinging. But as Rinpoche said, we can also understand it as “the exhaustion of the ordinary mind and mental events, which is not a state of being completely empty or void, but rather luminosity or clarity. It’s the union of clarity and luminosity or clarity and emptiness”. And as an ordinary practitioner, Rinpoche said, the best method to actualise this kind of wisdom is aspiration. 

And through reciting this prayer, one of the most supreme accomplishments is indeed wisdom, which is one of the most supreme skilful means or paramitas for us to acquire to benefit other beings. And as we’ve said, if we’re dualistic, if we don’t have wisdom, we may feel discouraged. We may think we can only benefit a handful of beings. And even if we’re only trying to benefit one or two sentient beings, when things don’t go as planned, or when people don’t appreciate our efforts, we may get discouraged. And as young bodhisattvas, we may get weary, fatigued. And so here in this prayer, the bodhisattva’s aspiration is to keep aspiring, to keep practicing as long as there are sentient beings — up to the utmost infinite limits of the universe. During the questions and answers in Vancouver, when answering questions about disappointment, Rinpoche said a couple of times that, “The best antidote for disappointment is having an infinite aspiration.” So once again, this is very much about cultivating this wisdom of non-duality, inconceivability, vastness, which we’re going to come back to in future weeks. And as Rinpoche said, “In this sphere or context of wisdom, there is no difference between benefiting one being or an infinity of beings”. So, as we’ll talk about more in future weeks, it’s shifting from a focus just on a limited goal to a path, where every moment of our journey is infused with this vast aspiration. And for those of you who know about the idea of finite and infinite games, it’s about thinking of our life not as some kind of finite game with a finite goal, but really as an infinite game. We’ll talk more about that in future weeks.

Radiant appearance and other worldly benefits

This verse also talks about having a radiant appearance, and more broadly, the skilful means to manifest different bodies, attributes, caste, clan, colours, and signs. This could include mundane things like fame or prosperity or relationships, which can indeed be accomplished also through mundane and mediocre aspirations. But in this case, the Bodhisattva aspires for these mundane things not for mundane reasons, but because of his or her desire to benefit beings. A Bodhisattva uses different colours, different shapes, different forms to better inspire beings, to reach them, to teach the Dharma. So once again, our aspiration for improving our relative conditions is not for ourselves, but so that we can better study, practice, share, and teach the Dharma. We aspire for things like radiant appearance only inasmuch as it’s to benefit others.

And of course, there’s a real challenge here in keeping ourselves honest. Now, some of you may have followed recently what happened with the whole crypto implosion of FTX and Sam Bankman-Fried, which was related to the Effective Altruism movement and the idea that you can “earn to give”. And sometimes people may think of their own lives in that way — “let me cultivate wealth and good conditions now so that I can better give it away in the future”. But there’s always a real danger we can fool ourselves. Rinpoche often quotes the songs of Milarepa, “My religion is not deceiving myself and not disturbing others.” Or for those of you who watched the movie Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, the Nobel physicist, he said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” So just always being mindful. When we say to ourselves, “Oh, yes, I want relative good so that I can benefit others,” just check your intention. Is it really to benefit others or are you just fooling yourself? 

The twelfth benefit, being venerated by the three worlds, it’s not just because you have some temporary position or power or influence which is going to go away. It’s because you have become a living embodiment of bodhichitta, the Bodhisattva aspiration. Your qualities, your kindness, your goodness — they will become visible, omnipresent wherever you go, and therefore you will be venerated and respected by beings. 

Verse 53

The thirteen benefits in detail: Benefit 13

[53] (13) They will quickly go beneath the bodhi-tree,
And there, they will sit, to benefit all sentient beings, then
Awaken into enlightenment, turn the wheel of Dharma,
And tame Mara with all his hordes.

With verse 53, we come to the last of the benefits. As Rinpoche said, this is the most beautiful part. The Bodhisattva goes to the Bodhi Tree, sits under the tree, actualises Buddhahood, and then turns the wheel of the Dharma. So remember, our aspiration here ultimately is Bodhichitta. It’s to achieve enlightenment for ourselves so that we can then benefit all other beings. This verse emphasises that enlightenment is not an end, but a beginning — the start of an unending commitment to turn the wheel of the Dharma and tame the forces that bind us and all beings to suffering. So as we contemplate these verses, always remember that our transformation, our aspiration is not for our benefit alone, but it’s the key to unlocking the boundless potential for compassion, wisdom, and liberation of all beings. 

Verse 54

3.3. The Benefits in Brief

[54] The full result of keeping, teaching, or reading
This Prayer of Aspiration to Good Actions
Is known to the buddhas alone:
Have no doubt: supreme enlightenment will be yours!

The final verse of this week, verse 54, summarises the benefits in brief. And here Rinpoche said, “Never doubt the Bodhisattva path.” Don’t worry about the fact you may struggle to benefit even one being — a friend, or a spouse, or a child — and then wonder how could you benefit all sentient beings. Don’t worry, because just carrying this text, just flipping through the text without really much concentration, just that, the merit is infinite. As Rinpoche said, do not doubt these words because we’re talking about a mental act based on a vast aspiration. And that is at the heart of what this King of Aspiration Prayers is all about.

So this verse offers us a profound assurance. By keeping, teaching, even reading this aspiration, we align ourselves with a path that is known and blessed by the Buddhas. It’s not just an encouraging sentiment, it’s a testament to the power of aspiration. When grounded in faith, motivated by the altruistic wish for the enlightenment of all beings, and inspired by the wisdom of the Buddhas, our path to enlightenment becomes inevitable. This assurance invites us to engage deeply with the prayer, confident in the knowledge that our efforts are supported by the compassionate wishes of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. So let this assurance fuel our commitment to the Mahayana path, inspiring us to embody these aspirations in all our thoughts, words, and deeds.

Conclusion

So in closing, once again I would like to invite you to make this prayer into a regular daily practice, even if it’s just for a few moments each day. Even if — as the prayer itself suggests — you just carry it around in your briefcase or your handbag. Perhaps consider keeping some kind of journal to reflect on how these verses are speaking to your current experiences and aspirations, and noticing any shifts or deepening of commitment as you go through these weeks. And really nurture a Mahayana mindset of aspiration in your daily activities. See the opportunity for living these verses in day-to-day action. Challenge yourself to view situations through the view or lens of a Bodhisattva. How can I bring compassion to this interaction? How can my actions reflect my deepest aspirations for the benefit of all beings? Even simple acts of kindness, moments of patience in the face of irritation, and gestures of generosity can become expressions of our Bodhisattva vow. And remember, it’s in the seemingly mundane day-to-day activities that our greatest spiritual growth can occur. 

And so as we conclude this week, let’s carry forward the understanding that these aspirational verses are far more than just personal wishes for spiritual growth. They are acts of universal benevolence. Each recitation, each moment of reflection, strengthens not only our own path to enlightenment, but also contributes to the vast interconnected web of awakening that encompasses all beings. The path we walk is paved with the aspirations and practices of countless Bodhisattvas before us, and with each step we extend the same support to all who follow. May our engagement with these teachings inspire us to live with boundless compassion, unwavering patience, and deep wisdom, dedicating every thought, word, and action to the enlightenment of all beings. So thank you for sharing our journey this week, and may the merit of our collective aspirations benefit all beings, leading us together to the shore of perfect awakening. So with that, I wish you a good week, and I hope to see you again next week.

[END OF TEACHING]


Note: to read footnotes please click on superscript numbers

Transcribed and edited by Alex Li Trisoglio