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Alex Li Trisoglio

Aspiration: Week 4 – Compassion

April 6, 2024
61 minutes

Reference: Samantabhadra’s King of Aspiration Prayers, verses 13 – 21

Video / Transcript

Introduction to Week 4

The first taste of genuine compassion

Welcome to Week 4 of the review of Samantabhadra’s King of Aspiration Prayers. Before starting, let’s just take a moment to tune our motivation and aspire that the next hour may in some way benefit all sentient beings.


So this week’s theme is crossing the threshold or compassion. This week’s image is of someone sitting under the Bodhi tree under the full moon to indicate the first experience or taste of genuine compassion. In other words, we’re no longer in the preparation phase, but now in the actual practice of aspiration. Our experience may not yet be the non-dual realisation of emptiness, but it’s definitely something genuine, a heartfelt and authentic experience of altruism and selflessness, where we can really feel ourselves taking our first steps with our new identity as a bodhisattva.

The image also symbolises the first time we actually mean it when we take the Bodhisattva vow. In other words, when our vow is genuine and authentic rather than clouded by things like spiritual materialism or self-deception. For those of us who practice ngöndro, we take the Bodhisattva vow 100,000 times, and hopefully by the end, we have come a little closer to being able to do it authentically. So let’s not downplay what a profound accomplishment that is when our Bodhisattva vow and our aspiration becomes authentic.

Also this week, using the symbolism of the Hero’s Journey, this is the moment of “crossing the threshold” where we commit to the journey of the Bodhisattva path and step out of the ordinary world and into the world of adventure, or what Joseph Campbell calls the “magic world”. Once we cross that threshold, our lives will never be the same.

Compassion as the starting point for the Mahayana journey

I’ve called the week “Compassion”, because for many of us compassion represents the starting point of the grand journey of the Mahayana path. Last week, in Week 3, we completed the preliminaries, and now in Week 4, we’re beginning the main section of the Pranidhana-Raja, which is called the “Actual aspiration”. Now we’ve previously seen that the core of Mahayana Buddhism revolves around the union of wisdom (or prajña) and compassion (or karuna), where wisdom is the understanding of emptiness. In other words, it’s understanding the nature of all phenomena as being devoid of inherent existence, interdependent, and not separate from the fabric of reality.

As Buddhists, our goal is enlightenment. But as Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche has said, the word “enlightenment” can sometimes be misleading, and is perhaps more helpful to approach it in terms of “seeing the truth”, or fully realising the wisdom of emptiness. However, all this can seem quite grand to us at the moment. So it’s reassuring to know that we can start our journey with compassion — the wish for all beings to be free from suffering and its causes — and we can gradually expand this compassion to become bodhichitta as our practice deepens, and as our view becomes more vast and profound.

When teaching on this prayer in Bodh Gaya in 2023, Rinpoche said, “Meditating on bodhichitta and meditating on the true nature of phenomena or shunyata are essentially the same.” So for beginners on the Mahayana path, those who have not even heard about the view of emptiness, they can at least aspire or generate the intention to enlighten all beings without leaving any single being behind. And with this aspiration to enlighten all beings without leaving anyone behind, actually you’re beginning to practice the view of emptiness. So this is very encouraging, and allows us all to engage wholeheartedly in the Mahayana path.

Compassion and wisdom, relative and ultimate bodhichitta

Now before we turn to the verses of the Pranidhana-Raja itself, I’d like to give some more background, since an understanding of compassion and wisdom, and the related concepts of relative and ultimate bodhichitta, are going to be important themes both this week and in the weeks ahead, especially when in future weeks we talk more about the two truths — relative and ultimate truth. For those of you who have studied the Bodhisattva path, this will be familiar, but especially for people who are new to the Mahayana, all these terms can be a little bit overwhelming, and it will be helpful to have a better sense of what they mean to support our practice.

Compassion and wisdom

First, compassion and wisdom. For beginners like us, the concept of emptiness can be abstract, counterintuitive, or even disconcerting, as it challenges our deeply ingrained notions of self and reality. However, as Rinpoche said, compassion and the cultivation of bodhichitta provide an accessible entry point to approach the vast and profound concept of emptiness. By focusing on the welfare of others, and aspiring to enlightenment for their sake, we can start to transcend self-centred views, mirroring the non-dual nature of emptiness. This practice reveals the interdependence of all beings, highlighting that no phenomenon exists in isolation, which is a core aspect of understanding emptiness. And conversely, understanding emptiness deepens our compassion, as it becomes clear to us that suffering arises from clinging to the illusion of inherent existence. And this, of course, is also unfamiliar for beginners, as we usually think about suffering in more material and worldly terms. So starting with compassion allows us to engage with the teachings on emptiness in a relatable and emotionally meaningful way, gradually deepening our insight into the nature of reality. This method emphasises the non-dual nature of Mahayana, where wisdom and compassion are intertwined paths leading to enlightenment, motivated by the wish to liberate all beings. And here, in this prayer, we will also be practising both together.

Relative and ultimate bodhichitta

We’ve seen that bodhichitta is the compassionate wish to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings, and it is divided into two types: relative or conventional bodhichitta, and ultimate or absolute bodhichitta, each of which reflects different aspects of the path. 

  • Relative bodhichitta refers to the aspiration to achieve enlightenment, motivated by great compassion for all sentient beings. It involves the practice of the six perfections or six paramitas — which are generosity, ethical conduct, patience, effort, meditation and wisdom — and it’s characterised by a deliberate and conscious effort to benefit others and oneself. Relative bodhichitta is about developing a mindset where we seek to alleviate the suffering of others through compassionate actions and the cultivation of a loving, altruistic attitude towards all beings. It’s also about cultivating the skilful means or ability to engage in those compassionate actions.
  • Ultimate bodhichitta is direct insight into the nature of reality as it is — the realisation of emptiness or shunyata, and the interdependent origination of all phenomena. It is a profound understanding that goes beyond dualistic notions of self and other, and a realisation of the ultimate nature of mind and phenomena. This insight is not conceptual, but experiential, arising from deep meditation and wisdom practices. Ultimate bodhichitta means seeing through the illusions that create suffering, thereby allowing us to act with unconditioned compassion and wisdom.

The relationship between relative and ultimate bodhichitta is dynamic and interconnected, because through relative bodhichitta we gather merit and cultivate the compassionate foundation necessary for the deeper realisation of ultimate bodhichitta, while the insight from ultimate bodhichitta deepens and authenticates our practice of relative bodhichitta.

Put simply, we can talk in terms of compassion as relative bodhichitta and wisdom as ultimate bodhichitta, although the meaning of these words is much grander than our everyday usage. Compassion in the sense of relative bodhichitta is a vast and grand aspiration, benefiting not just some beings but all beings, and not just relative benefit but the ultimate benefit of enlightenment. Secondly, it’s not just aspiration but also engaging in actions. And thirdly, it’s not just actions but also training and cultivating our skilful means. So compassion has a much vaster sense. And wisdom is not just about having grey hair and reading lots of books, but seeing through illusions and understanding the true nature of mind and nature of phenomena. It’s not just conceptual, but an embodied and direct realisation.

Ground, path and result bodhichitta

When teaching on this prayer in Bodh Gaya in 2023, Rinpoche also talked about how we can approach bodhichitta in terms of ground, path and fruit:

  • Ground bodhichitta refers to the inherent potential or basic nature of all beings, which is untainted and pure. We refer to this as Buddhanature or tathagatagarbha. This inherent essence is always present, despite being obscured by afflictions and defilements, the kleshas. And when we talk about the ground, this might seem to focus more on the ultimate aspect, namely the fundamentally pure nature of the mind and all beings. Nevertheless, the ground is the foundation for the development of bodhichitta during the path, which has both relative and ultimate dimensions.
  • Path bodhichitta is the active cultivation and application of bodhichitta through practices such as the six paramitas. It’s the altruistic intention to attain enlightenment to benefit all beings. And on the path, ultimate bodhichitta involves the direct insight into the nature of reality. So the path involves training in both of these aspects, the relative and the ultimate. And both of these aspects are highlighted in the Pranidhana-Raja, and we’ll see this as the verses progress from more relative to more ultimate in the weeks ahead.
  • Result bodhichitta (or the fruit) corresponds to the attainment of enlightenment itself. At that point, we have perfected both our altruistic intentions and the wisdom that realises emptiness and we fully embody the qualities of a Buddha.

The analogy of the seed growing into a tree

We can illustrate this with the analogy of a seed growing into a tree. So imagine a garden where there’s fertile soil, rich and ready to nurture life. And in the soil, there is a seed which represents the ground bodhichitta. It’s not an ordinary seed. It holds the potential to grow into a magnificent tree. And this seed symbolises the Buddhanature inherent in all beings, pure and untainted regardless of outer conditions. So just as the seed’s quality isn’t diminished by weeds or rocks, our Buddhanature remains perfect and unspoiled despite being temporarily obscured by afflictions and delusions.

Path bodhichitta is about cultivation and growth, the process of tending to the garden. It involves things like removing weeds (like delusions and negative emotions), watering and nourishing the seed (things like practicing loving kindness, compassion, and the six perfections), and ensuring it receives enough sunlight (the wisdom that realises emptiness). This stage of the path requires effort, care, the right conditions. And just as a gardener uses different tools and techniques to encourage the growth of the seed, the practitioners of path bodhichitta apply both relative and ultimate practices to nurture the seed of enlightenment. And this journey from seed to sapling to mature plant reflects the practitioner’s progression on the path.

And then finally, the result or the fruit bodhichitta is the tree, the garden’s crowning glory of a fully mature flowering tree. This tree is the culmination of all the care, effort and conditions provided during the cultivation phase. It represents the attainment of enlightenment, where the distinctions between relative and ultimate path bodhichitta are transcended. The tree stands as a testament to the inherent potential of the seed and also the efficacy of the nurturing process. Its flowers and fruits benefit not just the tree itself, but the entire garden and its inhabitants, symbolising the enlightened being’s ability to benefit all sentient beings without distinction.

The analogy of cleaning a dirty window

So to give credit where it’s due, this analogy is based on one of the nine similes of Buddhanature from Maitreya’s Uttaratantra Shastra, although there the example is the amra or mango tree, which is referred to as the “king of trees”. Rinpoche taught on this texts some 15 or 20 years ago, and during these teachings he gave another analogy, which is my personal favourite, of cleaning a dirty window. 

Here the ground is a window. Imagine a window covered in layers of grime and dirt, but beneath all of that dirt lies clear and pristine glass, the inherent purity of the window. That’s like the ground bodhichitta, the basic nature of all beings, untainted and pure, obscured only by afflictions and defilements. And just as the clean glass is always present, despite being covered by dirt, the pure nature of mind and beings is always present, waiting to be revealed.

The path then is cleaning the window, things like a cloth wiping away the dirt, gradually revealing the clarity of the glass. Likewise, through the practices like the six paramitas, we purify our minds and uncover the innate purity and compassion that lies within. Of course, a key point here is that the dirt on the window is temporary. It’s adventitious. It’s not part of the glass itself, which is why it can be removed. If it was part of the glass, for example, like tinted windows in a car, then the window could not be cleaned. So an important study of topics like Madhyamaka and Buddhanature in the Mahayana is to develop understanding and conviction that the dirt is not the same as the window. We develop conviction that our defilements, our emotions, our ego — all the things we’re very familiar with — these are not our true nature.

The result is when the window is completely clean and transparent, allowing the light to shine through unhindered. At that point, the window is not only free from dirt, but fully embodies its true nature. Again, the result bodhichitta is the actualisation of the goal of the practice. And it’s helpful for us to think about the idea that only at this stage can the window fully function as a window, because right now although we have the seed of the Buddha within us, we are not yet able to manifest the full compassion and wisdom of the Buddha. 

We could say that with these two examples, the tree is a more Mahayana-oriented example. It talks about a seed, a potential, which is nurtured and grown through a path. And at the end, we have the result. Whereas Rinpoche’s example of the window and the dirt is more Vajrayana-oriented, more like the view of pure perception. The window is already clean, but we just don’t see it yet because the dirt is in the way.

The two-part structure of the actual aspiration in the Pranidhana-Raja

Two ways of making aspiration

So with this background, let’s look at the way bodhichitta is expressed in this King of Aspiration prayers and the progression of the verses. Again, in 2023 in Bodh Gaya, Rinpoche explained there are two ways or two stages of making aspirations in this Pranidhana-Raja:

  • Young bodhisattvas on the Stage of Aspiring Conduct: The first way of approaching aspiration is for bodhisattvas like us who are still in the early stages of our journey, the bodhisattvas on what is known as the “Stage of Aspiring Conduct” or the “Stage of Intentional Conduct”. We have not yet reached the Path of Seeing and the First Bhumi. The word “bhumi” is a Sanskrit word that means earth or soil or ground, and it also means stage or level. So it has the connotation of a certain stage or level of attainment. As Rinpoche said, during this initial stage, we are like young bodhisattvas “who have not yet become spiritually grown up”.
  • Mature bodhisattvas on the Path of Seeing and beyond: The second way of approaching aspiration is for bodhisattvas who have attained a direct realisation of emptiness. They’ve reached the Path of Seeing and they’re now continuing their journey on the higher bhumis. In the Mahayana, the path is said to have ten bhumis and the completion of the tenth bhumi is enlightenment.

As Rinpoche said, the aspiration of ordinary bodhisattvas on the Stage of Aspiring Conduct is not yet really reliable yet. So initially we need to cultivate qualities such as loving kindness, compassion, devotion, and generosity — and we do this so that we might realise the wisdom of emptiness. Remember that our goal is enlightenment, which is realising the truth — the nature of mind and the nature of phenomena — in other words, realising non-duality.

In his commentary on verse 14, which we’ll come to in a moment, Rinpoche noted that this twofold emphasis on relative and ultimate is a hallmark of the Mahayana. And so we have this seemingly paradoxical situation where we’re both (1) aspiring to purify our defilements and thereby attain enlightenment, and yet we’re also (2) aspiring to see that the universe, including ourselves and all beings, is already pure and fully enlightened as it is. So we have the twofold desire to both purify the world and all phenomena, and also to see them as already pure — corresponding to the more relative and the more ultimate ways of approaching this aspiration. And both aspects are richly developed in this main aspiration in the Pranidhana-Raja.

The 16 aspirations in the Pranidhana-Raja

And in the Pranidhana-Raja, the main section of the prayer — which is termed the “Actual Aspiration” — is divided into 16 aspirations or practices, which we’re going to cover over the next four weeks. These 16 are divided into two parts:

  • (1) Verses 13 – 27 (Young bodhisattvas on the Stage of Aspiring Conduct): The first part includes the first 10 aspirations, which are in verses 13 to 27. And these are the aspirations made by Bodhisattvas on the earlier stages, the Stage of Aspiring Conduct. These aspirations are more oriented towards relative truth, and correspond more to the wish “may things become perfect.” They’re more relatable, more understandable from an ordinary perspective, and therefore more suitable for beginners like us. We’ll be covering these verses in Weeks 4 & 5 (this week and next week).
  • (2) Verses 28 – 46 (Mature bodhisattvas on the Path of Seeing and beyond): The second part of these 16 aspirations is the last 6, which are in verses 28 to 46. These are the aspirations we make after direct realisation of emptiness on the Path of Seeing, and they are more oriented towards the ultimate truth. Here we are approaching the prayer and these aspirations more from the context that the world is already perfect, which also here we’ve seen has this connotation of infinite and inconceivable. It’s more ultimate, more emptiness-oriented, and at the same time, much less understandable from an ordinary perspective, because now we’re trying to express the inconceivable concepts of emptiness and non-duality in finite language. So we’re going to have challenges of inconceivability, paradox, going beyond time and space and ordinary conception. This is key to approaching and understanding and indeed practicing the later verses of the Pranidhana-Raja. But of course, we can still make these aspirations as beginners, even if we don’t yet have a full direct realisation of the non-dual view. So we’ll talk about all of this much more in Weeks 6 & 7.

As Rinpoche mentioned, the distinction between these first and second parts or sections is based on whether or not the Bodhisattva has reached the First Bhumi, which is all about a direct realisation of emptiness. So I’d like to spend a moment talking about the stages of the Bodhisattva journey, the paths and the bhumis. And I want to emphasise that this is just a brief overview of what is a vast topic. In the Tibetan shedras, where Buddhist monks learn to study philosophy, many months are spent on this very discussion1In his teachings in Bodh Gaya in 2023, Rinpoche referred to Asanga’s Abhisamayalankara (“Ornament of Clear Realisation”) and the Bodhisattvabhumi, which is the 15th section of Asanga’s Yogacharabhumi ( “Stages of Spiritual Practice”)..

The five paths

In the Mahayana, we have the practice and realisation of relative and ultimate bodhichitta evolving through what is known as the Five Paths, which we can also understand as stages on the path to enlightenment. These five paths are the Path of Accumulation, the Path of Joining (or Path of Preparation), the Path of Seeing, the Path of Meditation, and the Path of No More Learning. Each path represents a stage of growing understanding and realisation, with both relative and ultimate bodhichitta playing crucial roles throughout.

You could perhaps compare these to levels in a video game, where each level both requires and cultivates increasingly higher levels of skill. You might also compare these five paths to different coloured runs on a ski slope, or perhaps the grades as we learn a musical instrument, or maybe the coloured belts and levels of black belts in the martial arts. They are all parts of a single overall journey to mastery. But each of these stages or paths can look and feel very different. And it’s also worth acknowledging that some of us may not have the aspiration to go all the way to a black run or a black belt in our worldly pursuits. Life is short and we can’t achieve mastery or attain excellence in everything. So it’s important for us as bodhisattvas to focus on what really matters, and continuously cultivate the aspiration to attain full and complete enlightenment — to really fulfil our potential on this path for the sake of enlightening all beings.

(1) Path of Accumulation

  • Relative Bodhichitta: At this initial stage, we develop a strong motivation to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. We begin to cultivate relative bodhichitta through practices like loving-kindness and compassion, and engaging in virtuous activities to gather merit and wisdom, such as the Seven-Branch Offering that we talked about in Week 3.
  • Ultimate Bodhichitta: Although we may not yet have direct realisation or experience of emptiness, but we are starting to study and contemplate the teachings on emptiness and the ultimate nature of reality, laying the groundwork for deeper insight.

(2) Path of Joining (Path of Preparation)

  • Relative Bodhichitta: As we continue to cultivate compassion and altruistic intention, our practice deepens. We undertake more rigorous training in the six perfections, with more emphasis on ethical conduct, patience, and meditative concentration.
  • Ultimate Bodhichitta: Here, our understanding of emptiness becomes more nuanced through meditation and study. We develop a strong conceptual understanding of emptiness and begin to prepare our minds for the direct realisation of ultimate truth. In the Pranidhana-Raja, this second path corresponds to verses starting with the Actual Aspiration, crossing the threshold and making a heartfelt commitment to the bodhisattva path. We will cover these verses in Weeks 4 & 5.

The first and second paths together are called the Stage of Aspiring Conduct, which Rinpoche referred to as “beginner bodhisattvas”.

(3) Path of Seeing and the First Bhumi

  • Relative Bodhichitta: A really big shift happens on the third path, the Path of Seeing, which is also the point at which we attain the first of the ten bhumis. Here we have a direct experience of emptiness for the first time. This transforms our compassion, making it more profound and unwavering. Our altruistic intention to benefit all beings is much stronger, based on our profound insight into reality.
  • Ultimate Bodhichitta: We now have direct and non-conceptual realisation of emptiness, and we have seen the true nature of all phenomena (although this realisation is not yet stable). This realisation is a pivotal moment in our Mahayana path and significantly impacts our practice of relative bodhichitta going forwards. And just to be clear: in the Theravada path, this is already the stage of an Arhat, so someone who has reached the First Bhumi or Path of Seeing is no longer a samsaric being. At this stage, the bodhisattva is no longer taking rebirth due to karma and ignorance, but only due to compassionate intention and the desire to benefit and liberate sentient beings. This corresponds to the second part of the Actual Aspiration in the Pranidhana-Raja, verses 28 – 46, which we’ll talk about in Weeks 6 & 7.

(4) Path of Meditation

  • Relative Bodhichitta: We now have deep insight into emptiness, so our efforts to benefit others become more effective and are carried out with effortless spontaneity. The distinction between self and other begins to dissolve, and our actions are motivated by an unconditioned and natural compassion.
  • Ultimate Bodhichitta: We continue to deepen our realisation of emptiness and stabilise it through continuous meditation. We work to eliminate increasingly subtle obscurations and habitual patterns that arise from ignorance and block omniscience, and we steadily move closer to full enlightenment.

(5) Path of No More Learning

  • Relative Bodhichitta: At this final stage, we have perfected both the realisation of emptiness and the practice of compassion. We embody the qualities of a Buddha, acting solely for the benefit of others without any effort or conceptualisation.
  • Ultimate Bodhichitta: We have eradicated all obscurations and attained full realisation of emptiness, and we no longer need to engage in the practices associated with the previous paths. We have achieved the state of Buddhahood, the culmination of ultimate bodhichitta.

Throughout these Five Paths, our practices of relative and ultimate bodhichitta are evolving from a conceptual understanding and a deliberate cultivation to a spontaneous and natural expression of enlightened activity, leading ultimately to the state of Buddhahood. So with that introduction, let’s turn to this week’s verses and the first of the 16 aspirations.

1. Aspiration for purity of attitude (verses 13 – 15)

The offering is always happening

The first aspiration, which is the “aspiration for purity of attitude”, begins with verse 13:

[13] Let offerings be made to buddhas of the past,
And all who now dwell throughout the ten directions of this universe!
Let all who are yet to come swiftly fulfil their wishes
And attain the stages of enlightenment and buddhahood!

As Rinpoche said, “The incredible thing about these sutras is they are so profound and deep, but also so poetic, so beautifully expressed.” Here we’re beginning with offerings to all the Tathagatas of the past, the present and the future. And we’re offering all the offering objects, as we discussed last week. Rinpoche said, “You know, this is actually saying a lot because many of us, we might have a shrine, we might make things like lamp offerings, but if we forget for a week, then we think, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Buddha.’ We treat the Buddha as someone who might feel left out.” These lines are addressing this kind of mentality. The Buddhas are always being offered to. The offering is always there, whether or not we’re paying attention. As Rinpoche said, “This is why the Mahayana attitudes are so beautiful, why they have the name ‘maha’ or great. The bodhisattva does not have a poverty mentality of, “Oh, I forgot for a week.”

So what does that mean? This subject is taught in much greater detail in the Uttaratantra Shastra, the teachings on Buddhanature, because there we ask, how is it that Buddhas can continue to benefit sentient beings if they have no intention? And there are several answers. One is that by this stage, their activity is natural and spontaneous. It has become an embodied and ingrained habit. It doesn’t require intention — in the same way that we don’t need to think about breathing or our heart beating. Buddha activity is inherent. Everything is the manifestation of the three kayas.

Another way of thinking about it is to say the causes were set in place during the earlier stages of our practice and our aspiration, and now they are continuing to produce their results. The image here is spinning a traditional prayer wheel, which continues to spin after we set it in motion. Or maybe in a more modern context, we could say the universe is continuing to expand from the initial energy of the big bang. Likewise, the Buddha continues to benefit beings despite lacking intention because of the merit accumulated while on the path. And as we just saw when talking about the Path of Meditation, our practice will become like this — a practice of effortless spontaneity.

Aspiring to have good aspirations

Rinpoche also noted that here, right from the beginning, we are aspiring to have good aspirations. That’s a little bit meta, but I think it’s a really important point. We’re aspiring to aspire well, acknowledging that aspiration itself is a practice and that our aspiration today is not yet perfect. It’s still tainted with ego, selfishness, and ignorance, and we hope and aspire to continue to improve and deepen and perfect our aspiration.

We can also talk about this in terms of having a good intention or good motivation. As beginners, perhaps we may think in terms of having a good heart. And as Rinpoche said, having a good heart or good intention is already excellent, but it can be difficult to pinpoint what exactly this means. Because even ordinary people who still have emotions and ignorance and self clinging may still have a good heart, or at least think they have a good heart. Our political leaders present themselves that way. Even parents think they’re being kind towards their children, but you know, parents are still bound by emotions and ignorance and they lack clairvoyance. So although we as parents may wish to work for the benefit of our children, and we may have kindness and a good heart, there’s no guarantee this is going to bring positive results in the end.

As we saw last week with the story of the Chinese farmer, we don’t have the wisdom to know what is going to happen as a result of our actions. So even though we may have good intentions, we continue to strive to deepen and improve our intentions, and also improve our wisdom, our humility, acknowledging we may not always be benefiting beings despite our intentions. So we redouble our efforts to cultivate greater wisdom and discrimination, and greater skilful means. We want to become good at our craft — like a car mechanic or a surgeon might want to get better at their craft — except in our case, our craft is the craft of being a bodhisattva.

So this aspiration to have a genuinely good heart can also be a starting point for our bodhisattva journey. In other words, it can be a cause for our aspiration to practice or engage in practice because we see that even though we may have a good heart today, it’s not yet as genuine or as authentic as it could be. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, “My religion is kindness.” Yes, but we aspire that our kindness can be fuller, richer, deeper, and more genuine — not just our current version. And I really want to encourage you to approach this as a source of inspiration and encouragement, not to be self-critical about our current limited state, but excited that there is so much more that is possible.

Pure perception

And Rinpoche said, when we aspire for these Buddhas of past, present and future to be present and fill all of existence and indeed to have all of their wishes fulfilled, it’s like inviting everyone to your party. No one is excluded. And we literally mean nobody, because if all beings are indeed to be enlightened, then including all the future Buddhas includes all sentient beings. As Rinpoche said, if you can understand the idea of the presence of all the Buddhas, even a little bit, it should give you some goosebumps. This is the vision of a universe that is already fully and completely enlightened, where everyone and everything is Buddha. If we could actually experience reality that way, this is the Vajrayana pure perception, but already here it is being pointed out and explained in the Mahayana. It is the clean window without dirt. Experiencing the presence of the Buddhas is experiencing non-dual wisdom, the nature of mind, spontaneous presence.

Perfecting the Buddha fields

[14] Let as many worlds as there are in all the ten directions
Transform into realms that are vast and utterly pure,
Filled with buddhas who have sat before the mighty bodhi tree,
Around them all their bodhisattva sons and daughters!

Here we are aspiring to perfect the Buddha field, which is just everywhere, not somewhere specific like East or West. Yes, from time to time, we will hear this idea of “May the Bodhi tree be filled with endless Tathagatas and their retinue Bodhisattvas”, so there is at times this relative aspiration. And at other times, we have the more ultimate view that everything is perfect as it is. So we have both aspirations. May the Buddha field become perfect, may this realm be transformed into one where there are lots of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. And also may we already see them all this very moment, as in the previous verse. As Rinpoche said, this is a very unique Mahayana way of thinking.

He also said that what makes a realm perfect or pure is the presence of enlightened Buddhas. Even if you’re in a big city, no matter how many amenities or facilities it might have, if that place is not anointed with the presence of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, it is not a pure field or a pure realm. So as we already discussed last week, the notion of benefit or merit in the Mahayana and in Buddhism more generally is defined by the extent to which the conditions are there for us to practice and realise the truth.

May all our hopes be fulfilled according to the Dharma

[15] Let as many sentient beings as there are in all the ten directions
Live always and forever in happiness and health!
Let all beings meet the Dharma
That befits them best! And so may all they hope for be fulfilled!

Here when we talk about sickness and health, we’re not just talking about outer sickness — things like physical sickness or imbalance of the elements of the body — but also inner sickness, things like afflictive emotions, doubts, wrong views. And even the innermost sickness, loss of devotion, loss of inspiration, lack of merit and inability to maintain our concentration and discipline and so forth.

We aspire that all the activities of ourselves and others may be beneficial, no matter how ordinary. May all the hopes and pursuits of not just ourselves but all beings be fulfilled according to the Dharma. As Rinpoche said, “This is a big one.” No matter what we may do, may it in one way or another lead us to benefit sentient beings, so none of our activity is mundane or ordinary. For example, if we’re aspiring for long life, for example, we aspire that if we live just one year longer, may that year be one of encountering the Dharma, admiring the Dharma, and practicing and accomplishing the Dharma. Likewise, we aspire that others might become successful, wealthy, etc. Not for the sake of being successful and wealthy, but we aspire that because of these worldly benefits, may they gradually, directly or indirectly, encounter and practice and realise the teachings of the Buddha. So we are aspiring for worldly benefit in order that we and others might be able to connect to and practice Dharma.

We aspire that even normal activities like sleeping or just wandering around, may they become the cause of bodhichitta arising in our mind stream. As Rinpoche said, you want to take a nap? You take a nap, and you aspire, “May the power of this nap somehow in one way or another lead me to enlighten all sentient beings”. And we aspire this not just for seemingly mundane activities, but even for non-virtuous activities, may they in one way or another bring us to awaken all sentient beings. And even if it does not happen right away, we aspire that it will happen in the future.

In his Vancouver teachings in 2024, Rinpoche told several stories based on these aspiration, for example, one about one of Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s previous incarnations, and another about the mahasiddha Thaganapa. These stories illustrate the aspiration that even non-Dharmic worldly activities might connect us to the Dharma, and also that even seemingly non-virtuous activities like lying — the mahasiddha Thaganapa would lie all the time — that these could be or become bodhisattva activity.

2. Aspiration never to forget bodhichitta (verses 16 – 19)

Aspiring for a genuine heart of sadness

[16] As I practise the training for enlightenment,
May I recall all my previous births,
And in my successive lives, through death and through rebirth,
May I always renounce the worldly life!

In his commentary on this verse, Rinpoche said this is about aspiring to have a genuine heart of sadness. Basically, may I always be sad. As he said, sadness makes us more human. If you’re a frog or a spider, he said, I don’t think they have that much sadness. They’re busy or they’re afraid that someone’s going to eat them. And likewise, the gods are not sad because they’re distracted, they’re stoned. Whereas humans have sadness, but here we’re not just talking about ordinary sadness. This is the much more important sadness of may I always remember all of my lives.

We pray that we might have a bird’s eye view of life. Not just a bird’s eye view of this current moment in our life, or even the entirety of this life, but all of our past and future lives. If we could do this, as Rinpoche said, maybe we wouldn’t necessarily feel self pity, but some kind of sadness. For example, if you could see a time in the past where you were a lobster about to be fried, how would you feel? Or even this life, if you think about your life from childhood until now, as he said, I’m sure you’ll have many sentimental feelings. There would be be moments of happiness. And others where you might feel sad. And others where you are maybe happy with a tinge of sadness thinking, gosh, why did I do that? How silly I was.

So upon remembering all of our lives, may we be able to have a perfect renunciation mind and thereby renounce this futile samsaric life. Now Buddhists are afraid to go to hell, of course, but Buddhists are also afraid to go to heaven, because in heaven, we do not have this kind of sadness until the last minute. And as Rinpoche said, having last minute sadness is not really productive. So having this constant reminder, this constant sadness and dissatisfaction is one of the criteria of this Buddha field that we’re in.

And thinking again about our life purpose, many of us are so busy with work or life or family or entertainment or pleasurable distractions that we may not think much about the value of Dharma until it’s too late. We may be living in our own version of the God realms. So it’s important for us to find a way to cultivate this very human quality of sadness and then renunciation. As the prayer reminds us, this is an important method not to forget bodhichitta.

For example, some people are not able to give up their eight worldly concerns, even for an instant. These eight worldly concerns or eight worldly dharmas the four pairs of opposites — gain and loss, fame and disgrace, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. They are the typical sources of attachment and diversion that keep us bound in our ordinary existence of samsara and distract us from enlightenment. So we’re praying that we may be able to somehow go beyond these dualities such as gain and loss, pleasure and pain and so forth. We aspire to go beyond these dualistic distinctions and values that are currently driving us. And as Rinpoche said, if we haven’t yet even started that, that’s a sign we do not have renunciation mind. And if you don’t have renunciation, then your bodhichitta, your ability to practice this King of Aspiration Prayers is very likely still quite inauthentic, still quite self-oriented. So may we always aspire to have renunciation.

Aspiring for pure moral conduct and ethical discipline

[17] Training in the footsteps of all the victorious buddhas,
May I bring Good Actions to perfection,
And my moral conduct be taintless and pure,
Never lapsing, and always free from fault!

This verse is about ethics and discipline, which is once again a huge subject that we started talking about last week. As Rinpoche said, does the English word “ethics” even capture the meaning of the Sanskrit word “shila” or Tibetan word “tsültrim”? Because in Tibetan, tsültrim has a lot to do with the way or the truth. So for example, water is wet. That is the truth of water. That is the way of water. It’s cold outside today, and if I pour a glass of water over myself that’s not a good idea if I’m going to go outside.

That’s the core meaning of Buddhist ethics. If you do something that goes against the truth, it will only bring you and others misery, problems, and disappointment. So yes, of course, may I always be diligent in not killing, not lying, not slandering and so forth. We also need those aspects of ethical discipline on the relative level. But especially in the Mahayana, our ethical discipline is really about may we always do things that do not go against the truth.

In the framework of the six paramitas, the paramita of ethical discipline comes in three categories, as Rinpoche explained:

  • The first is not engaging in non-virtuous actions like killing and stealing and so on.
  • The second is engaging in virtuous actions like helping others, giving food or shelter or medicine. And traditionally, there are three categories of giving. The first is giving material things, giving on the outer level. The second is giving protection from harm and other more psychological things, on a more inner level. The third is giving Dharma.
  • The third category is the discipline of engaging in actions to benefit others.

As Rinpoche said, this third category is complicated. Because if by killing someone, you actually help a lot of people, what should the Bodhisattva do? And there’s a big study on this topic in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. And likewise, we know that lying goes against our basic vows. But if by lying to someone, you could save lots of beings, what should the Bodhisattva choose?And here, Rinpoche said, if it is beneficial for other beings, a Bodhisattva is supposed to lie. And indeed, if the Bodhisattva does not lie, he or she breaks or transgresses the Bodhisattva vow. So our Mahayana vows supersede the vows of the more basic vehicle.

And so more generally, Bodhisattvas need to engage in seemingly non-virtuous activities if these are beneficial to other beings. Of course, there’s always the danger we will fall into self-deception and convince ourselves that these activities are beneficial when actually they could be driven by perhaps ego or other defilements. So we should always remember that it could just be our own interpretation, our own confusion, our own self-deception. And therefore we always aspire to maintain our ethical conduct and thereby keep our bodhichitta intact.

Aspiring to teach the Dharma in all languages

[18] In the language of the gods, nāgas, and yakṣas,
In the language of demons and of humans too,
In however many kinds of speech there may be —
I shall proclaim the Dharma in the language of all!

This verse describes another method to enhance our bodhichitta. May we utter the teachings of the Buddha in different languages. As Rinpoche said, this not just teaching other humans, but all kinds of beings like gods and insects. It means teaching people in all kinds of languages, and not just languages like Chinese or English, but different ways of communicating. Bodhisattvas aspire to do this because different beings have different values and different ways of thinking. As Rinpoche said, how would you teach Dharma to the ancient Mexican Mayans? They had a game where the winner would have the honour of having his head chopped off. How should we talk to people with this kind of system? We would need a different set of values, a different language, a different way of communicating.

The YouTube bodhisattva

In 2023, Rinpoche gave the lovely example of a YouTube Bodhisattva. We know the Bodhisattva needs to work according to the expectations and ways of thinking of other people. So let’s suppose you have a friend who always wants to watch YouTube and you want to benefit your friend. And you might think that watching YouTube is not beneficial, it’s not a good thing. But if as a Bodhisattva you were to straight away step in and scold this person for watching YouTube, then all that’s going to happen is they’re just going to stop coming to you, they’re going to stop listening to you. So instead, the Bodhisattva must begin by watching YouTube as much as the other person wants, in order to inspire them, and then slowly lead them away from YouTube. Of course, if you’re not careful, then you also will become a YouTube addict. And then, as Rinpoche said, there will be two YouTubers. So you have to aspire that, yes, you want to work for the benefit of others, but you’ll never become tainted, just as the lotus does not get stained by the muddy water.

Perfecting the practice of the six paramitas

[19] Taming my mind, and striving in the paramitas,
I will never forget the bodhichitta;
May all my harmful actions and the obscurations they cause
Be completely purified, every single one!

So here, we’re aspiring to perfect our diligence in the practice of the paramitas, and also aspire that may others have similar diligence in practicing the paramitas. Now, this is actually the only verse in this prayer which refers to the six paramitas, which are of course very central to the Mahayana path, perhaps because this topic is covered so comprehensively in other Mahayana teachings. But because this prayer does not go into any detail here, for those of you who are unfamiliar with this topic, I strongly recommend reading the books and listening to Rinpoche’s teachings on Patrul Rinpoche’s “The Words of My Perfect Teacher”, the section on bodhichitta, and also Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara, “The Way of the Bodhisattva”.

3. Aspiration to be free from defilements (verse 20)

The third of the sixteen aspirations is the aspiration to be free from defilements, which is verse 20.

[20] May I be freed from karma, harmful emotions, and the work of negativity,
And act for all beings in the world,
Just like the lotus flower to which mud and water cannot cling,
Or sun and moon that course unhindered through the sky.

Here, we’re again purifying all harmful emotions and their impacts. As we saw before, non-virtue is about anything that takes you further from the truth, for example the truth of selflessness (anatta), etc. For example, when it comes to harming others, we usually harm others because we have self-cherishing or self-clinging, in other words because we do not realise selflessness. Clinging to the self is the key cause that distracts us from seeing the truth. We talked a lot about defilements last wee,  and I encourage you to please review that if you’d like more information.

As Rinpoche explained, this also means that bodhisattvas can manifest in many ways. They could be prostitutes or gangsters, you know, just like the lotus can emerge from a muddy lake, the bodhisattva can roam around in the stained and defiled samsara to benefit sentient beings in many different ways. And just like the lotus born in the mud, if it will benefit sentient beings, I aspire to be born as a prostitute, a hunter, a politician, a robber, a gangster etc, but again I aspire that I will always be unstained by worldly defilements or stains.

And like the sun or the moon, may I illuminate the darkness of the world. The sun and the moon are great examples, because they do not necessarily have the motivation to illuminate or to shine their light on any particular spot on the earth. They just rise in the sky, and their light reaches everywhere, so to speak. Likewise, may sentient beings receive the bodhisattva’s illumination or activity, even if the bodhisattva does not have a particular preference or partiality to benefit a particular being. This was covered in detail when Rinpoche taught on the Uttaratantra Shastra, the teachings on Buddhanature and how the Buddha manifests.

4. Aspiration to lead beings to happiness (verse 21)

The fourth and final aspiration in this week’s verses is the aspiration to lead beings to happiness.

[21] Throughout the reach and range of the entire universe
I shall pacify completely the suffering of all the lower realms,
I shall lead all beings to happiness,
And work for the ultimate benefit of each and every one!

We aspire to always work for both the relative well-being and happiness of all being, as we’ve seen already and also for their ultimate benefit. So while working for the ultimate, we should never despise the relative. In the past, Rinpoche often talked about giving people both “what they want and what they need”. And as every parent or coach will know, this is where skilful means are so important. How do we inspire people to do what is in their own best interests, which is not always easy in our ordinary world.

And going back to the example of the YouTube bodhisattva, Rinpoche said, “Yes, for other beings to have happiness and peace and enjoyment, we need to watch YouTube together with them. But if that’s the only thing we do, if we just watch YouTube, there will be no benefit.” So even while we are watching YouTube with them, in order words doing what they want, we must also do something that makes them begin to want to not watch YouTube. In other words, we must also give them what they need. The bodhisattva must always aspire to have activity that is both for the happiness and for the ultimate benefit of others. Again, this is one the important themes of this week, simultaneously aspiring on both the more relative and the more ultimate levels.


So in closing this week, let’s go back to where we started. We’re crossing the threshold and now engaging in the Actual Aspiration of the Pranidhana-Raja. And as practitioners on the bodhisattva path, this is equivalent to our first genuine glimpse of bodhichitta and our first authentic taking of the bodhisattva vow. This is a profound shift in our spiritual commitment, in our view, our attitude and our conduct to ourselves, our practice, the world around us. It’s a deep internal transformation from a more self-centred way of being to one oriented in altruism and compassion at its core. So let’s just review how this will affect our view, our attitude and our conduct.

  • View: Before this shift, our view might perhaps be more self-centred, more focused on personal gain, our own happiness and enlightenment. Our spiritual practice might be primarily aimed at personal peace and liberation from suffering, with maybe less emphasis on the welfare of others. But after authentically taking the bodhisattva vow, after authentically glimpsing bodhichitta, our view expands dramatically. We start to see ourselves as fundamentally connected to all beings. And we see the true enlightenment means liberating all sentient beings from suffering. So our view is now rooted in the Mahayana philosophy of emptiness and shunyata. We see more clearly the interdependence of all phenomena and the non-existence of a fixed and isolated self.
  • Attitude: Before the shift, our attitude to our practice was perhaps more from a sense of duty, an aspiration for personal growth, perhaps even a means to escape from worldly suffering. It was perhaps more individualistic, more focused on personal achievement and spiritual milestones. But after our attitude transforms into one of profound compassion and boundless altruism, a heartfelt desire to be of service to others, not out of duty, but from a genuine sense of love and compassion. We cultivate an attitude of patience, understanding that the path is long and our commitment spans countless lifetimes. We also develop greater resilience against discouragement, knowing that our efforts are for the ultimate benefit of all beings.
  • Conduct: Before the shift, our conduct was perhaps more exclusively focused on personal practices like meditation, study, ethical behaviour, doing no harm, and focusing on our personal purification. But afterwards, our conduct extends to including actions directly aimed at benefiting others. This could include aspiring to benefit others both in outer/material ways, inner/psychological ways such as protection from fear, and the highest benefit of giving Dharma. It could be something really big, like changing our job or our line of work. But it could be as simple as being more present and more compassionate in our everyday interactions with people. Here, the six paramitas, the six perfections, are the guiding principles for our conduct, not just for our personal enlightenment, but for all beings. 

And although the Bodhisattva vow is an intentional choice that marks a definite “before” and “after”, we understand this transition is not an overnight change. It’s a gradual process of deepening our understanding and commitment. And just as we may take the Bodhisattva vow a hundred thousand times as practitioners, we aspire that each time we do this, our Bodhichitta will deepen and become more profound. And likewise, with this King of Aspiration prayers, we hope it will be a guiding light on our path, encouraging continuous reflection on our motives, actions, and our impact on the world. And as we engage more deeply in the prayer, we learn to navigate our lives with this balance of wisdom and compassion, aiming to alleviate suffering wherever we may find it.

So in essence, the authentic practice of aspiration signifies a shift from a more self-centred way of being towards a life dedicated to serving others, a profound expansion of our perspective, an attitude of boundless compassion and conduct that aims to benefit all beings. And so our path is not just one of personal enlightenment, but one of universal liberation, embodying the ideal of the Bodhisattva in our every thought, word, and deed. So with that, we come to the end of Week 4. Let’s just take a moment then to dedicate our merit to the benefit of all sentient beings.


So with that, thank you, and I look forward to seeing you all again next week.


Note: to read footnotes please click on superscript numbers

Transcribed and edited by Alex Li Trisoglio