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Alex Li Trisoglio

Aspiration: Week 6 – Insight

April 20, 2024
64 minutes

Reference: Samantabhadra’s King of Aspiration Prayers, verses 28 – 35

Video / Transcript

Introduction to Week 6


Hello and welcome to Week 6 of the review of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s teachings on Samantabhadra’s King of Aspiration Prayers, the Pranidhana-Raja. This week we’re going to cover verses 28 to 35, which together comprise the eleventh of the sixteen aspirations. This one is called “Aspiration to the Different Methods for Entering into the Good Actions”, and it refers to the view, meditation and action of bodhisattvas on the First Bhumi and beyond. The title for this week is “Insight,” referring to the direct experience of non-duality that the bodhisattva attains on the Path of Seeing, in other words the First Bhumi. And this week’s image is of an infinite and interconnected array of enlightened beings and pure realms, reflecting the First Bhumi bodhisattva’s inconceivable vision and boundless aspirations to benefit all sentient beings across time and space. 

So before we begin, let’s take a moment to tune our motivation and aspire to spend this time together so that it might benefit all beings. 


So in this week’s verses, there are a couple of key themes.

  • Pure perception: The first is one we’ve already touched on, which is pure perception. And Rinpoche says, “You need to think that on a single atom, on the surface of a single atom, there are Buddhas as many as the atoms in the universe, right at this very moment.” And so for most of us, this inconceivable vision is not merely beyond our current perception of the world, but it’s also quite different from the way we might understand or relate to the Buddha. So how might we understand this? We can perhaps relate to prostrating and making offerings to a statue of the Buddha in a sacred place like the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya. But what does it mean to make offerings and praise to the Buddha if there are countless numbers of Buddhas on top of every single atom? We’ll explore this question, supplementing Rinpoche’s commentary on the Pranidhana Raja with extracts from his teachings on Buddha nature and the Uttaratantra Shastra. 
  • The two truths: Another key theme this week is the two truths. And here we’ll go through Rinpoche’s introduction to the two truths using the example of having a nightmare of falling from a 26-storey building.

With that, let’s turn to the verses.

11. Aspiration to the Different Methods for Entering into the “Good Actions”

11a) Seeing the Buddhas and their Pure Realms (Verses 28-29)

[28] In a single atom may I see as many pure realms as atoms in the universe:
And in each realm, buddhas beyond all imagining,
Encircled by all their bodhisattva heirs.
Along with them, may I perform the actions of enlightenment!

[29] And so, in each direction, everywhere,
Even on the tip of a hair, may I see an ocean of buddhas—
All to come in past, present and future—in an ocean of pure realms,
And throughout an ocean of aeons, may I enter into enlightened action in each and every one!

So, this is quite inconceivable. On top of each atom, there is a number of Buddhas equal to all the atoms in the universe. And I’m going to look at these Buddhas, gaze at them, and emulate them for ocean-like aeons. And as Rinpoche said it’s not that you’re going to see, or that you’re making the aspiration to see in the future, but rather that you need to have the confidence that you are looking at the Buddhas and seeing the Buddhas right here, right now. So, in this context, it’s wrong to think that the Buddha passed into Nirvana 2,500 years ago. It’s not right to think that Bodhisattvas such as Mañjushri or Avalokiteshvara exist somewhere in the universe, and that if we practice and recite prayers, then one day we’ll be able to encounter them. As Rinpoche said, this is a wrong way of thinking, a wrong attitude. It’s also wrong to think there’s just one Buddha like the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. We have to think that on a single atom, on the surface of a single atom, there are as many Buddhas as the atoms in the universe, right at this very moment. And not only are there infinite Buddhas on a single atom, but they’re surrounded by infinite Bodhisattvas. And I’m going to see them and look at them this very moment.

Having confidence

So, Rinpoche said we need to have confidence, which raises the question, what is the meaning of confidence as compared to blind faith? We might also ask, what is the correct understanding of devotion in the Vajrayana, which is certainly not meant to be like the romantic crush of a devoted teenager. And this is one central point where secular Buddhists misunderstand Buddhism, especially Vajrayana. But it’s also one of the central points where Buddhists, especially Vajrayana Buddhists, can misunderstand the Buddha and the guru, and thereby create obstacles for their own path and practice. 

So in reaching this confidence, there are at least two important steps.

First, we need to establish the basis for our confidence. And here, we can go back to the example of the dirty window that we’ve used in previous weeks. We have confidence that we can clean the window, because although there is dirt on the window, the dirt is not the nature of the window. This also means, of course, that our current perception of a dirty window is not the window as it truly is. Our current impure perceptions are not seeing things as they truly are. The Tibetan word for relative truth, kündzop, has this connotation of “obscured”. The dirt is obscuring the truth. And that’s something that I think gets lost in the English translation of the word as “relative truth”. So first, we need to establish the basis for our confidence, that it is justified rather than blind faith.

Secondly, we need to accept the difficulty, indeed the impossibility, of saying anything about the clean window. In other words, we cannot really talk about this vision of the countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, of the non-dual awareness, the nature of mind, or even enlightenment itself. The teachings tell us that all this is beyond thought and language, beyond our conceptual minds. But nevertheless, we need to find ways to talk about it, so that we can teach and we can inspire students. So we need a finger pointing at the moon. And of course, we also need to know the finger isn’t the moon. This example is now part of popular culture, as spoken by Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon”, the famous 1973 movie, where there’s a scene where he says:

“It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon
Don’t concentrate on the finger,
Or you will miss all the heavenly glory.” 

This example actually comes from the Mahayana sutras, for example, the Shurangama Sutra:

The Buddha told Ananda, “You still listen to the dharma with the conditioned mind, and so the dharma becomes conditioned as well, and you do not obtain the dharma-nature. It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? He mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.

There’s another one, the Lankavatara Sutra:

As the ignorant grasp the finger-tip and not the moon, so those who cling to the letter, know not my truth.

So the challenge is that the moon in enlightenment is beyond words and concepts, and unlike the actual moon, we cannot talk about it or describe it or show pictures of it. And yet we know our aim is Buddhahood and enlightenment for self and all beings, so we need to find a way to talk about it and to visualise it, so that beginners are inspired to go on the journey, but also so they have a sense of the right direction to go in. We need a finger so that we can point at the moon. So we talk about how form is emptiness and emptiness is form. In other words, how emptiness is fullness, or as we see in this week’s verses, the infinite possibility of limitless Buddhas. And it’s not that Buddhas or indeed deities are the only way for us to see this fullness, and Tibetan iconography is obviously just one very particular way of visualising Buddhas and deities. But we have this important twofold point, firstly, to accept that our ordinary way of seeing and understanding is obscured, and secondly, to find representations that are inspiring and aspirational, even though they’re not true. 

Nirmanakaya and Sambhogakaya

What makes these verses 28 and 29 about seeing the Buddhas even more challenging is that now we’re talking about the Sambhogakaya and not just the Nirmanakaya. So let me spend a moment on this. Remember last week we talked about verse 25, which was:

[25] May I always behold the buddhas, here before my eyes,
And around them all their bodhisattva sons and daughters.
Without ever tiring, throughout all the aeons to come,
May the offerings I make them be endless and vast!

And here the commentaries note that that verse 25 was about bodhisattvas who are still ordinary beings — those who are not yet on the First Bhumi — and how they view the array of the supreme emanation bodies and their fields, in other words, the Nirmanakaya. Whereas this verse 28 is about how the arya bodhisattvas, in other words, those on the bhumis, view the array of complete enjoyment bodies and their fields, in other words, the Sambhogakaya. And the difference in meaning is substantial, even though at first glance the verses sound very similar. So here’s verse 28 once again:

[28] In a single atom may I see as many pure realms as atoms in the universe:
And in each realm, buddhas beyond all imagining,
Encircled by all their bodhisattva heirs.
Along with them, may I perform the actions of enlightenment!

How are the three kayas understood in different traditions of Buddhism?

So to understand this difference, let’s talk a little more about the three kayas. In Mahayana Buddhism, the three kayas are the three aspects or dimensions of a fully enlightened being or Buddha.

  • Dharmakaya (literally, “truth body”): This is the ultimate nature of reality itself beyond conceptualisation. It represents the absolute or unmanifested aspect of enlightenment. Dharmakaya is often described as the essence of Buddhahood beyond form and characteristics. 
  • Sambhogakaya (“enjoyment body”): This is the aspect of the Buddha that appears in a subtle form to highly realised beings, such as bodhisattvas in higher realms or to beings in pure realms such as Amitabha’s pure realm of Sukhavati. The Sambhogakaya embodies the blissful aspect of enlightenment and serves as a source of inspiration and guidance for practitioners. 
  • Nirmanakaya (“emanation body”): This is the physical or manifest form of the Buddha, as exemplified by historical figures such as Gautama Buddha. The Nirmanakaya represents the Buddha’s appearance in the world for the benefit of sentient beings, which includes the historical Buddha Shakyamuni and other Buddhas who appear in various forms to teach and guide beings. 

I would like to compare this view with some other traditions in Buddhism:

  • Theravada: Generally the Theravada does not emphasise or really speak about the concept of three kayas in the same way as the Mahayana. Instead, the Theravada teachings focus on the realisation of Nirvana as a cessation of suffering through insight into the impermanent and non-self nature of phenomena. 
  • Secular Buddhism: Likewise, secular Buddhism does not really talk about the three kayas at all. But when it does, it’s explained in terms of analogies for practical wisdom and psychological insights. Dharmakaya may be understood in terms of fundamental principles underlying human experience and the nature of physical reality. Sambhogakaya is the subjective experience of joy and well-being. And Nirmanakaya is the embodiment of wisdom and compassion in human form. 

I also want to talk briefly about the Mahamudra and Dzogchen perspective. Admittedly, the view and path of these teachings is completely beyond the Mahayana view of these teachings, but I want to include it for completeness and also because Rinpoche uses these terms when he teaches in different ways on different occasions:

  • Dharmakaya: understood as the ultimate nature of mind, which is empty, luminous, and free from conceptual elaboration. It is the ground or basis from which all phenomena arise and dissolve. Dharmakaya is not seen as a separate entity or state to be attained but as the inherent nature of one’s own mind, which is already present and accessible.
  • Sambhogakaya: understood as the spontaneous manifestation of the enlightened qualities and activities of the Buddhas. It is the natural expression of wisdom, compassion, and skilful means that arises from the Dharmakaya. The Sambhogakaya is not limited to specific celestial or pure realms, but is present in every moment of experience as the luminous display of awareness.
  • Nirmanakaya: In Mahamudra and Dzogchen, the Nirmanakaya is understood as the dynamic manifestation of enlightened activity within the world. It is the expression of wisdom and compassion in response to the needs and conditions of sentient beings. Nirmanakaya is not limited to historical Buddhas or specific emanations but includes the spontaneous activity of all awakened beings, including practitioners who realise their true nature.

In Mahamudra and Dzogchen, it is considered possible for practitioners to directly see or experience or realise the three kayas in this life, and the practices in those traditions are aimed at directly realising the nature of mind, which is understood to be inseparable from the three kayas.

How might the aspiration to see countless Buddhas be understood differently depending on our view?

Going back to verses 28 and 29 and their aspiration to see countless Buddhas and pure realms, how might these be understood differently depending on our view? 

  • Mahayana: Seeing countless Buddhas in pure realms in every direction reflects the core Mahayana view of the ultimate reality of emptiness (Dharmakaya), the dynamic expression of wisdom and compassion (Sambhogakaya), and the skilful manifestation of enlightened activity (Nirmanakaya). The aspiration to perform enlightened actions in each realm aligns with the Mahayana ideals of bodhisattva activity and compassionate engagement for the benefit of all beings.
  • Theravada: These verses might be interpreted more metaphorically or aspirationally, rather than as literal manifestations of Buddhas in pure realms. For example, they might be understood as an expression of devotion and inspiration, encouraging practitioners to aspire towards wholesome qualities and cessation of suffering. Although the concept of three kayas is not explicitly emphasised in the Theravada, these verses might nevertheless be seen as expressing aspirations for spiritual growth and liberation. 
  • Secular Buddhism: These verses might be approached as poetic expressions of universal human aspirations for peace, wisdom, and compassion. They could be seen as reflections of the potential for goodness and enlightenment within human experience, encouraging ethical living and compassionate action in a secular context. And the aspiration to perform enlightened actions could be understood as a commitment to personal growth and contributing to the well-being of others, regardless of religious or metaphysical beliefs. 
  • Mahamudra/Dzogchen: These verses might be understood as pointing to the innate purity and luminosity of mind, where the perception of countless Buddhas in pure realms arises naturally from the recognition of the empty and luminous nature of reality. They could be seen as expressions of the natural state of awareness, where phenomena are perceived as inseparable from the empty and luminous nature of mind. And the aspiration to enter into enlightened action in each realm could be understood as an expression of spontaneous, compassionate activity, again arising from the natural state of awareness. 

When are bodhisattvas able to perceive the Sambhogakaya directly?

There are some differences among Mahayana commentaries about the stage at which bodhisattvas can perceive the Sambhogakaya directly. The most common view is that the bodhisattvas perceive the Sambhogakaya from the Eighth Bhumi onwards. This stage is called Immovable (Achala), because bodhisattvas who reach this level are no longer subject to backsliding in their spiritual attainments. But in other commentaries it’s sometimes said that already from the First Bhumi, bodhisattvas can have glimpses or partial perceptions of the Sambhogakaya, especially during profound meditative states or through the blessings of higher beings. These perceptions however are typically not as complete or continuous as they would be from the Eighth Bhumi onwards.

And as we just noted, the three kayas are understood differently in the Mahamudra and Dzogchen traditions, but outside those traditions it’s generally considered impossible for ordinary beings like us to experience the Sambhogakaya, which makes all of these verses very difficult to talk about and to understand. And at this stage, as Rinpoche has often said, what we can do and what we should do is aspire. Hence we recite the Pranidhana-Raja. 

11b) Listening to the Speech of the Buddhas (Verse 30)

[30] Each single word of a buddha’s speech, that voice with its ocean of qualities,
Bears all the purity of the speech of all the buddhas,
Sounds that harmonise with the minds of all living beings:
May I always be engaged with the speech of the buddhas!

Here Rinpoche said, this verse is saying that I will listen to ocean-like teachings with their ocean-like melodies, and with my ocean-like determination I shall enter into their words. When these Tathagatas turn the wheel of the Dharma, I shall not only listen and hear their words, but I shall enter into these teachings with the power of my wisdom. And I shall not only enter into them in this present time, but even the Buddhas of the future, I shall enter their speech within one moment. 

11c) Hearing the Turning of the Wheels of Dharma (Verse 31)

[31] With all the power of my mind, may I hear and realise
The inexhaustible melody of the teachings spoken by
All the buddhas of past, present and future,
As they turn the wheels of Dharma!

Here Rinpoche said that just as verse 30, the previous verse, was about hearing the words of the Buddhas, this verse is about understanding the meaning, the unmixed characteristics of the meaning of the words of the Buddha. So when we talk about entering into the meaning of the Buddha’s speech, and especially the speech of the Buddhas as understood by the Bodhisattvas on the First Bhumi and beyond, this may seem to us as characterised by inconceivability and paradox. As Rinpoche said, while we’re on the Stage of Aspiring Conduct, in other words, before we attain the First Bhumi, we’re not able to enter into the speech of the Buddhas directly. It’s not just that we have limited views and sectarian attitudes, but that we easily get confused when we hear seemingly contradictory teachings. For example, sometimes the Buddha says things like, “At one time I was a monkey,” as if to indicate there is a self that continues over multiple rebirths. And at other times he teaches, “There is no self.” In other words, he teaches both ultimate and relative truths. And as Rinpoche says, the two truths, like the three kayas, are not to be understood as separate — but the challenge is that we only have one mouth, so we have to talk about them one at a time.

Practical ways for beginners to relate to the body, speech and mind of the Buddhas

He also said during the questions and answers in the Vancouver teachings in 2024, that this difficulty in understanding the two truths is the main source of confusion and questions for young Bodhisattvas like us as we try to make sense of the grand Mahayana view. So how might we connect to inconceivability? Well, of course, we continue to make the aspirations such as the Pranidhana Raja, but Rinpoche has also suggested that we might be able to relate to the body, speech, and mind of the Buddhas in very basic and practical ways. He has suggested some things that practitioners might do, for example:

  • Copy sutras: Buy a copy of the text of the Vajracchedika Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and copy it by hand.
  • Volunteer: Do at least 50 hours of voluntary work to benefit others, and really try not to have your name acknowledged for what you’re doing. You should have no recognition. This is an important way to get used to the actions of the Bodhisattva.
  • Pick up garbage: Even something as simple as when you see garbage, pick it up, even though you might know this is endless.
  • Clean Dharma places: Spend at least 100 hours cleaning a place that houses the Buddha, the Dharma, or the Sangha. For example, a temple or a Dharma centre.
  • Pilgrimage: Go on pilgrimage to Buddhist holy places like Bodh Gaya, or Vulture’s Peak, or Nalanda University, or the sacred Buddhist mountains in China like Emeishan and Wutaishan.

These are just examples of ways that can start to relate to the inconceivable body, speech, and mind of the Buddhas, even if they feel completely beyond us at the moment.

11d) Entering into All the Aeons (Verse 32)

[32] Just as the wisdom of the buddhas penetrates all future aeons,
So may I too know them, instantly,
And in each fraction of an instant may I know
All that will ever be, in past, present and future!

Here we’re making the aspiration and commitment to enter into the ocean of future ages and future aeons right now, this very moment. We are also making the commitment to enter into all the past and present and future aeons this very moment. Now when you hear this, you might think it’s some inconceivable magic or miracle. But as Rinpoche said, if we think deeply, we can understand that time — our conception of past, present, and future — is just a fabrication of our conceptual mind. And if we can do this, it’s not necessarily inconceivable to be able to digest this kind of concept. Although of course, that’s on an ultimate level. Because on a relative level, as Rinpoche said when teaching Madhyamaka, if you were to ask the great Madhyamaka masters like Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti for a glass of water, they’re going to give you a glass of water. They’re not going to say, “There is no glass, there is no water”, and so forth. 

Rinpoche’s story of his trip to Mongolia and the horse’s milk

When teaching this in Bodh Gaya in October 2023, Rinpoche told a story about his trip to Mongolia a few months earlier. He said he had recently visited Mongolia and they put him up in a hotel. And in the morning when he went for breakfast, there was a line of dishes lined up for breakfast. And among this line of dishes, they also had unique Mongolian food. Rinpoche said that he’s not usually really keen on taking breakfast, but Mongolian food includes Tibetan butter tea, and he really likes Tibetan tea. So for a few days, he deliberately went for breakfast and drank butter tea, the Tibetan salted tea. And with the tea, he also ate Mongolian bread, which is like Tibetan bread, and he would put butter and cheese in between the slices of this Mongolian bread. 

And then one day, the young Mongolian guy from the hotel said to him, “You must really like this Tibetan food, like horse’s milk and horse butter.” And he said, “You know, I personally don’t like horse butter and milk.” And Rinpoche said, “The moment I heard this, I felt nausea the whole day. And from the next day, I couldn’t even turn my face towards this kid. I realise I have this dualistic clinging or distinction of liking cow’s milk and not liking horse’s milk. And perhaps feeling disgust or revulsion towards horse’s milk might be due to a habit that I carry from childhood or even from past lives.” And likewise, at this moment, most of us have a very strong grasping and clinging towards time, to past, present, and future. And we suppose that if time — like tomorrow or the future — was cancelled, then for us, it would be like drinking horse’s milk. 

The body, speech, mind, qualities and activities of the Buddhas

So this group of five verses from 28 to 32 is all about engaging with the enlightened qualities and activities of the Buddhas through the strength of non-dual wisdom or yogic direct cognition. These are not things we can comprehend directly. But verses 28 and 29 are about the body of the Buddhas. Verse 30 is about the speech of the Buddhas, verse 31 is about their mind, and verse 32 is about their qualities and activities. These are the five key aspects of the Buddha that all need to be realised on the path. This is also another way to approach the inconceivability of emptiness and pure perception. So as we say in Vajrayana:

  • Pure perception of body: This is seeing all appearances as non-dual deity, which would correspond here to visualisation of infinite and inconceivable Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on each atom.
  • Pure perception of speech: This means hearing all sounds as non-dual mantra. And here in Mahayana, as Rinpoche said, this is like making sense of and being able to hold these teachings that are seemingly paradoxical and contradictory.
  • Pure perception of mind: This is seeing all thoughts as non-dual wisdom. That’s like Rinpoche’s example of going beyond all distinctions such as cow’s milk and horse’s milk, or about going beyond the concepts of past and present and future.

11e) Seeing all the Buddhas in One Instant (Verse 33ab)

11f) Entering the Sphere of Activity of the Buddhas (Verse 33cd)

There are actually two headings here, one for the first two lines and another for the last two lines. One is “Seeing all the Buddhas in one instant”, which is the first two lines of verse 33, and the next is “Entering the sphere of activity of the Buddhas”, which is the third and fourth lines.

[33ab] In an instant, may I behold all those who are the lions of the human race—
The buddhas of past, present and future!
[33cd] May I always be engaged in the buddhas’ way of life and action,
Through the power of liberation, where all is realised as like an illusion!

Having manifestations of the Buddha that we can relate to

Here Rinpoche talked about the importance of having relatable stories of these infinite displays of the Buddhas, in other words something that ordinary beings like us can relate to. We’re aspiring to see all the Buddhas and enter into their conduce, but for ordinary beings like us, when we think about the Buddha, we can only really think about the Buddha in terms of a normal human being. You know, the one that was alive 2,500 years ago in Magadha, holding a begging bowl, making the touching the earth mudra while he was sitting, peacefully and mindfully walking around, holding his begging bowl and begging for alms. 

Rinpoche talked about one sutra, he could not remember its name, which tells a story about when Buddha talked to Bodhisattva Maitreya about Bodhisattva Mañjushri. Buddha invited Arya Maitreya to look at how Mañjushri is walking. And he said to Maitreya, the way Mañjushri walks — how he lifts his feet, and then places them on the ground again — can only be understood by a person who has unimaginable amounts of merit. So if we reflect on this, it would seem that the activity or conduct of the Buddha himself is truly unimaginable and beyond us, really beyond our imagination. The only aspect or version of the Buddha’s conduct or activity that can fit into our mind is the traditional story of the Buddha’s descent from Tushita heaven, taking birth in Lumbini, going through austerities and penance on the banks of the Nairañjana and so on. Only that much can fit into our very small conceptual minds. So here in this Pranidhana-Raja, we’re making the commitment or aspiration, or indeed generating the confidence, that we will see the enlightened activity and conduct of all the Buddhas as it is, through the power of knowing that everything is illusion. 

The Buddhas put on a show for our benefit

Going back to the example of cleaning the dirty window, we know that Buddhanature is primordially pure and completely stainless. We can say it’s like a clean window covered by dirt, or like a gold statue encased inside the mould of our emotions, obscurations and defilements. And the Buddha knows that all these emotions and defilements are temporary. But in order to benefit sentient beings — in other words to help them dismantle this mould or to clean the dirt on their windows — although the Buddhas have never moved from the original state of enlightenment, they manifest as if they have. In other words, they manifest as if they are samsaric beings, just like Shakyamuni Buddha. So hence we talk of the Nirmanakaya Buddhas, their manifestation bodies, which is like a show they put on for our benefit. Here I’m drawing from Rinpoche’s teachings on the Uttaratantra-Shastra in 2003-2004 in Dordogne. 

But at the same time, they can’t be too ordinary, because then what’s the point? They have to be somewhat special, perhaps with a blue colour or six arms or things like that. And even the historical Buddha Shakyamuni supposedly had 32 major marks and 80 minor marks. So yes, these are related to ordinary things like having a tongue, but the Buddha’s tongue is not ordinary, it’s slightly beyond normal. It covers his whole face. Things like this are slightly beyond normal. And therefore the path is difficult. But as Rinpoche said, the difficulty is not because of the path, it’s because of the person that walks on the path. And that’s why it has to suit the needs of the person on the path. And at the same time, it should not negate or oppose the result. So this is why it’s difficult. And this is why the sublime beings manifest differently to different kinds of sentient beings according to their different wishes and necessity. They know how to do that. Hence the manifestation or show of the Nirmanakaya. 

The Buddha knows what people need and what people want, which is why he is called “One who knows the world” (Tibetan: འཇིག་རྟེན་མཁྱེན་པ, jigten khyenpa). And this is one of the most important qualities of the Buddha. In the Sutra of Remembering the Triple Gem, it says he not only knows what people need and what they want, but he will also give them both of these. If he only gave people what they need to hear, then nobody would listen. And if he only gave people what they want to hear, there’s no point. He would be useless, like a comedian or entertainer.

The show goes on, all the time, until the end of samsara

We talk of the show of the Nirmanakaya. What is the real show? The Buddha took rebirths as a rabbit, a monkey, a bird, and so on, until the last of rebirths as a god. At that time, his name in Sanskrit was Shvetaketu, which means “white tip” or “white mark”. His hair had a white tip jewel or something like that. And as Rinpoche said, Maitreya knew this very well because this Bodhisattva was the one who took off his crown and gave it to Maitreya, saying, “I’m going to earth, leaving the god realm, and entering Mayadevi’s womb in the form of an ash-coloured elephant with six tusks”. And then after nine months and nine days being born in the garden of Lumbini, and studying the arts such as writing, reading and warfare under various tutors. And don’t forget this is all a show. Enjoying the courtesans and the queens, having a certain curiosity to leave the palace, seeing death and old age, asking his chariot driver, ‘What are these things?” Coming back, depressed. Brooding. Then escaping from the palace, searching for enlightenment, and for that six years of penance, and then realising that’s not right and stopping penance, meeting Sujata the cowherd girl and a grass seller, and accepting offerings like grass, and going under the Bodhi tree, and in the evening defeating the Maras, and at dawn attaining enlightenment, and then not wanting to teach. 

And it’s amazing. It’s all a show. And what is the show for? It’s for the benefit of sentient beings. The Buddha is giving us both what we want and what we need. Every action, every aspect of his show has a purpose. For example, when he didn’t want to teach, what did that do? It caused sentient beings like the gods Brahma and Indra to come down from their heavenly realms and request him to teach. And by doing so, they created merit. As Rinpoche said, this is amazing compassion. So then the Buddha turns the wheel of the Dharma three times, and in the end, in Kushinagar, under the falling red blossoms from two stately sal trees, he passes into Parinirvana. And that’s how the show goes on, all the time, until the end of samsara.

11g) Accomplishing and Entering the Pure Lands (Verse 34)

[34] On a single atom, may I actually bring about
The entire array of pure realms of past, of present and future;
And then enter into those pure buddha realms
In each atom, and in each and every direction.

Now, many of these verses may feel quite similar, and indeed for us as beginners, they’re all aspirational, since we can only handle the Theravada story of the Nirmanakaya Buddha, as we’ve just said. But let me contrast some verses which might feel similar in order to illustrate the progression of the bodhisattva’s aspiration. In verse 3, we had:

[3] In every atom preside as many buddhas as there are atoms,
And around them, all their bodhisattva heirs:
And so I imagine them filling
Completely the entire space of reality.

As you may recall, this verse was during the preparation of the Seven-Branch offering, and there our aspiration was to imagine the Buddhas filling reality. Last week, we came to verse 25, which was for bodhisattvas on the path of aspirational conduct. These bodhisattvas are still ordinary beings, aspiring to enter the First Bhumi. And here our aspiration was:

[25] May I always behold the buddhas, here before my eyes,
And around them all their bodhisattva sons and daughters.
Without ever tiring, throughout all the aeons to come,
May the offerings I make them be endless and vast!

Next verse 28, from the beginning of this week. Now we have attained the the First Bhumi and we are progressing through the bhumis. We can only see Sambhogakaya directly on the Eighth Bhumi, so here we’re aspiring to behold and enter the Buddhafields through our miraculous power, which have now acquired on the First Bhumi:

[28] In a single atom may I see as many pure realms as atoms in the universe:
And in each realm, buddhas beyond all imagining,
Encircled by all their bodhisattva heirs.
Along with them, may I perform the actions of enlightenment!

So here once again, the nature of the aspiration in this verse has changed. We’re now aspiring to see the Buddhas with the vision of someone on the First Bhumi, the Path of Seeing, and we’re aspiring to actually perform the actions of enlightenment. And then in verse 34, now we’re seeing the Sambhogakaya from the Eighth Bhumi:

[34] On a single atom, may I actually bring about
The entire array of pure realms of past, of present and future;
And then enter into those pure buddha realms
In each atom, and in each and every direction.

So all this is likely inconceivable to us now. I just wanted to point out that there is a progression here, and perhaps all we can say right now, as Rinpoche did, is that we should aspire to have the confidence that we will be able to see the Buddhas and their realms in the way that the sublime bodhisattvas are able to see them. 

11h) Entering into the Presence of the Buddhas (Verse 35)

[35] When those who illuminate the world, still to come,
Gradually attain buddhahood, turn the Wheel of Dharma,
And demonstrate the final, profound peace of nirvana:
May I be always in their presence!

Here, as Rinpoche said, we’re aspiring to enter into the realm of the Buddhas of the past, present, and future directly in manifest form, especially entering the realm or domain of future Buddhas when they’re generating bodhichitta, or their own enlightened aspiration. And we pray that we will be able to pay homage and offer prostrations and make offerings as they do that. And likewise, as they engage in the path of accumulation and purification for three countless aeons, and of course when they finally attain Buddhahood, and turn the wheel of Dharma, and enter Parinirvana, we will also directly be there, go pay homage and make offerings. 

The two truths

The nightmare of falling from a 26-storey building

So with that, I’d like to turn to some of Rinpoche’s commentary on the two truths, which he taught in Vancouver in 2024, using the example of falling from a building. As he said, “This is kind of important”. If you’re having the nightmare of falling from a 26-storey building, there is the whole act of the beginning of the fall, secondly the duration or the middle of the fall, and then third, the end of the fall, perhaps breaking your hips or whatever. And during this you’ll be scared, you’ll be panicked, all of that. Those experiences cannot be denied. And during this period of falling, in other words, from the beginning of the fall until you’ve landed on the ground, during this period we can talk about karma, bad karma, good karma, karma in general. 

But in reality, you’re just lying asleep on your bed. You are not falling. So there is no beginning of the falling, middle of the falling, or end of the falling either. So as he said, can you see that the reality of not falling, the ultimate truth, and the illusion of falling, the relative truth, can occur together. So this is why asking a Buddhist about whether everything is free will or predestination is difficult. Because if you believe in free will, then you’re basically saying the fall during the dream is not a dream. Likewise, if you believe in predestination, it’s the same thing. So he said this is a little difficult, it will take some time to get used to this logic. But the short answer is that in Buddhism, karma is neither free will nor predestination. Sometimes there might be the appearance of free will, at other times it might appear to be already fixed. 

Ultimately you are not falling, but relatively you experience falling

The analogy of the dream of falling from the 26th storey of a building demonstrates how we construct a theory. So here are two things, ultimate and relative. Ultimately, you’re not falling, but relatively you’re falling. Now it’s not as though these two — ultimate and relative — are opposites, like one is in the east and one is in the west. They are one. But also you can’t really say they’re one, because even though you’re not actually falling, you appear to be falling. Your experience is that you are falling. 

Here he said, “I don’t know anything about Taoist teachings, but as I read some of the stanzas from the beginning of the Tao Te Ching, you can feel the thinking is very similar to lines like “The name that can be given is not a name”. So you’re almost talking about the ultimate, but then come all of these names, which are like the relative. So going back to what we talked about previously, the bird’s eye view — what is this bird’s eye view? Remember, we’re having a nightmare that we’re falling right now. And we pray that when we fall, may we at least know that we’re dreaming. Because when you know that, then you can see the whole fall — the beginning, the middle and the end of the fall — with a bird’s eye view.

What does that do? As Rinpoche said, it does many things. If you’re falling from a building and you know that you’re really just dreaming, then you might want to take advantage of this dream experience. Perhaps you might look through the windows of people’s apartments as you fall, because you know you’re not going to break any limbs in reality anyway. So this combination of the ultimate truth and relative truth — in other words, knowing you’re not really falling, even though you experience falling — that’s what we call understanding non-duality. In other words, bodhichitta, which is the key to aspiration. 

Avoiding the extremes of nihilism and eternalism

So going back to the dream, you’re falling from the 26th floor. Let’s suppose you path the 20th floor where your friend is living, and your friend might be smoking on the balcony. And here, if you scream for help, saying, “Help, I’m falling!” That’s a bit like not having revulsion towards mundane worldly life. You’re denying the ultimate reality that this is just a dream. That’s easy to understand. But if your friend asks you, “Hey, what are you doing?” And you say, “Well, actually nothing, I’m not really falling. You should try it!” That’s also failing to have revulsion, because now you’re denying the relative experience of the dream. You fail to have revulsion or renunciation towards worldly life when you deny either the relative truth or the ultimate truth. And this is such a big thing for Buddhists, not to be extreme. They will say you’ve become nihilist if you deny the relative truth, or eternalist if you deny the ultimate truth. 

So when we say, “May I always have renunciation mind” Yes, of course, we should have renunciation towards carpets, gold rings, whatever. But also renunciation and revulsion towards values — liberal values, fascist values, all values. And as Rinpoche said, “That’s much more difficult than renouncing a carpet, I’m telling you”. Because your values are your character, and character is so important to us. A big part of our identity is our values. So may I always be able to renounce my identity and my values. 

Going along with the story of the dream

So in reality, nobody is falling, but relatively there is the perception of falling, and therefore there is fear. And because there is fear, there is wish to be free from this fear. And in one way, you could say this wish to be free from fear is the seed of aspiration. Although ironically, the cause of this fear is unfounded, because in reality, it is just an illusion. But nevertheless, if someone is having a nightmare, it doesn’t do any good for you to go to their dream and tell them, “You know, you’re just dreaming.” Because unless the person is ready to hear and contemplate what you’re saying, it won’t do them any good. So at times, it’s also good to go along with the story of their dream. Likewise, there’s a famous verse in the Madhyamakavatara by Chandrakirti where he says that unless a person is ready to hear the teachings on emptiness directly, we should not try to teach them emptiness directly. We should teach them the gradual path. We should go along with the story of their dream.

And because this is a Mahayana text, we’re also talking about helping everyone else awaken from their dreams as well. It makes things a little complicated because we might say, Well, if this is my dream and that is their dream, Buddha himself said he cannot wipe away your suffering, you have to do it yourself. So what is this idea of clearing everyone’s dreams away? How can you take responsibility of awakening others? It makes things a little complex. So we’re always going to be talking about these two, relative and ultimate, at times as one, at times as different, and it’s always going to be challenging. As Rinpoche said, many of our questions stem from this. And hypothetically, you might say Buddhists don’t even like these questions. There’s one sutra where there’s a list of 14 questions that the Buddha never really answered. Although actually, his not answering was the answer, which many people actually misinterpreted as there not being an answer. But that not answering was the answer. For example, one of the questions was, “When did everything begin?” That’s a tricky question, because the question of beginning alludes to an original genesis. Then you’re talking about ultimate truth, “in the beginning”, the real thing. And Buddhists don’t like that. Remember the person falling from the building? The beginning of the fall is like that. It actually never really happened. There is no beginning of the fall. The beginning of the fall can only be talked about just because we see the ground beneath. 

Ultimately there is no beginning or end of suffering, but relatively we can attain enlightenment

When teaching the Uttaratantra-Shastra, Rinpoche said, yes, ultimately there is no beginning or end to suffering and ignorance. However, relatively and individually, there is indeed enlightenment and an end to defilements. Even though relatively and individually, we can say there’s no beginning. You might ask, “How can that be?” And Rinpoche said, “The relative truth is like that. It’s completely irrational. Don’t analyse it too much or it will fall apart.” When we talk purely from the Buddhanature’s point of view, there is no beginning and no end. There’s no such thing as all sentient beings one day clearing all the dirt from their window, because that would be the end of samsara. And there is no such thing as that. In the ultimate truth, there are no sentient beings, as everything has always been enlightened. There’s no “big” end because then we’re talking about ultimate truth again. However, as soon as we talk about confusion, we talk about the path, which is relative truth. And individually, a practitioner can clean their window and they can experience the relative end, but this is only on the relative level. Nevertheless, it is possible for us to wake from our nightmare. And that’s how it is. 

Here Rinpoche said, “That’s a very good understanding for now.” Basically, we have the logic of cause, condition, and effect — this is the ordinary rational logic of relative truth. And then we have the logic of Buddhanature, which is beyond cause, condition, and effect. But to think about or talk about these two ways together is difficult. Because on the one hand, we’re talking about the window glass itself, which is pre-dirty and pre-clean. But on the other hand, we are talking about the dirt that is covering the window. And once we have started talking about dirt, then we can talk about cleaning the dirt, and the result of cleaning the dirt — the clean window post-dirt. But it’s meaningless to talk about a clean window if there’s no dirt, even though we might see the window as clean from our perspective. As Rinpoche said, from the window’s point of view, there is no difference between dirt and no dirt because the dirt is simply not part of the window. The window glass is pre-dirty and pre-clean. From the perspective of the window, none of this has anything to do with dirty and clean. It has always simply been pure glass. 


Buddhahood is a result of elimination, not something newly created

So let’s go back to the confidence of seeing Buddhas here and now, not in the future. Once again, we talk about enlightenment or Buddhahood as the “result of elimination” (Tibetan: བྲལ་འབྲས, dreldré). This basically means the clean window glass is there already underneath the dirt. It’s currently covered with dirt. We clean the dirt to reveal the clean glass that is already there, but we are not newly creating a clean window that was not there before. The clean window is the result of elimination of the dirt. Likewise, our Buddha nature is already there. It’s just temporarily covered over with emotions, obscurations, and defilements, and so we don’t see it. It does not manifest. It does not function for us. But it is there nevertheless. Rinpoche said that “the Mahasandhi people have very good words for this, such as “primordially pure” (Tibetan: kadak), or perhaps you could say “primordially eliminated”, but we can’t use these words now as this is a Mahayana teaching”. And also words like “primordially pure” can cause a lot of misunderstanding. So that’s why a term like “result of elimination” is actually a very good term, especially for those of us following the Mahayana path. 

The nature of beings is primordially pure, and that’s why we call it “Buddhanature”. And although emotions are seemingly apparent and seemingly stubborn, seemingly almost like a second nature, they never are actually a second nature. They’re like clouds. They’re adventitious. They’re not you. This point is very important. In Buddhism, we always conclude that emotions and defilements are temporary. We might be looking at a grey cloudy sky, and we might call it a “cloudy sky”, but it’s not really a cloudy sky. The clouds are never the sky. 

The Buddha’s qualities are already present, but we don’t experience them

And likewise, the Uttaratantra-Shastra describes four paradoxes, the third of which is that even though all the qualities of the Buddha — such as the 10 powers, the 32 major marks, the 80 minor marks — even though these exist within ordinary beings all the time without increase, decrease, or change, nevertheless, we don’t see them. For example, we do not see ourselves or other sentient beings with an ushnisha on the top of our head. Likewise, one of the 80 minor marks is that the Buddha’s lips are as red as the bimpa, which is a very special fruit. These qualities are there all the time, but we don’t see them. So the Shentongpa masters would say these effects of maturation, like the 32 major marks and 80 minor marks, are there right from the beginning, and not even a single lock of the Buddha’s hair can be produced. But the Rangtongpa masters would say they need to be cultivated, and we cultivate them through aspiration. For example, when the Buddha was a Bodhisattva, he engaged in prayers and aspiration. And likewise, when we generate devotion, aspiration, and pure vision, then we begin to see these qualities. We begin to see reality as it is. Removing the dirt is our aim during the path. Hence, we call the result the result of elimination. Of course, this seems to imply there’s something there you need to eliminate, but actually it was never there in the first place. The window was never dirty. 

If enlightenment is beyond words and concepts, why do we say that it is “good”?

And likewise, we have the question, well, if Buddha nature is beyond all words, all concepts, and all distinctions — including the distinctions of good and bad, clean and dirty, and so forth — why do we say that enlightenment is “good”? Why do we say the window is “clean”? Why should virtue be preferable to non-virtue? And here Rinpoche said, “Well, actually it isn’t. I would dare to say this”. Of course, during the path, when we talk about virtue, we’re referring to something auspicious and without pain. So we prefer the word “virtue”. But from the point of view of absolute truth, you cannot say that Buddhanature is good or bad. But when we talk about cultivating qualities on the path, I guess we have to say Buddhanature is “good” rather than saying it is “bad”. Because who wants a result that is “bad”? 

And indeed, we can say it is “good” because the bad can be removed and the good cannot be removed, which is why it’s called Buddhanature. And likewise, we may say that Buddhanature is “pure”, but that transcendent purity is not clean in the ordinary sense of clean, but something that transcends the idea of clean and not-clean. And one of the functions of our Buddhanature is that we feel revulsion towards suffering. And so we can say that because there is Buddhanature, we have this longing, we have this aspiration for peace, for happiness, for enlightenment. And hence, even though in reality, there is nothing pure or impure, nevertheless, given our current awareness and experience, we prefer pure over impure. Likewise, Rinpoche said, when we talk to ordinary beings, there are teachings that describe the appearance of Vairochana Buddha as being like “an ocean of snowy mountains”. He’s a very big Buddha. And somehow in the minds of ordinary people, big is appreciated more than small. But of course, the Buddha has no preference. There are no extremes of big and small. But when ordinary people talk about these things, we like to think about and describe Buddha in terms of the best rather than the worst. And so when we think in terms of big and small, maybe big is better than small. 

And as we think about cleaning the window glass which is there beneath all the dirt, we might ask, is the window glass permanent? And that’s a good question. Because the definition of permanent here is that there is no beginning, no middle and end. The window that is pre-dirty and pre-clean is free from the beginning, middle and end of clean and of dirty. So whether we call it impermanent or permanent, it doesn’t really matter. But for beginners on the path like us, in the same way that we prefer good over bad, we seem to prefer a result that is permanent over one that is impermanent. So although the Buddha is beyond permanent and impermanent, for the sake of path dwellers like us, we can say that Buddhanature is permanent. Just like the question of time in the example of falling from the building. 

If we see a pure land, how can we know if it is real or just our mind’s production?

Here there is a common question. We know we must practice the pure view. But how can we do this in everyday life? For example, seeing the Guru as the Buddha, all sentient beings as deities, and the land as a pure land — this is so hard to visualise. For example, if we see someone that we know is a criminal or a liar, how are we supposed to see them as pure? How are we supposed to see their Buddhanature? If we see a pure land, how can we know if this is really a pure land or just our mind’s production? And here Rinpoche said, first, you have to hear that everybody has the Buddhanature. You have to hear this again and again, and contemplate this and then meditate on this. Then you will become courageous and you will obtain loving kindness. You will no longer have inferiority or superiority and all the other things we’ve discussed. Now to the last part of the question, how to know it is not a projection? How to know what is real? Here Rinpoche said, if you know that this is your projection, that is already real. And that’s probably about all we can say for now. 

There is continuous manifestation all the time. And when we say the manifestations of the Nirmanakaya do not run out, you might think it’s like a river flowing all the time, something continuous. But even “continuous” is not really the right word, because we tend to understand that to mean lots of things continuing one after the other, a bit like a mala or rosary with many beads on a string. By contrast, the Buddha is there. His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche used the example of a crystal, which reflects rainbow light when you hold it up to the sun. If you hide it for 1000 years, there is no rainbow. But if after 1000 years, you hold it up to the sun, then suddenly all the rainbows are there again. The rainbows do not get confused. They are already there. 


The Mahayana view will change your perspective

In the 2024 teachings in Vancouver, Rinpoche said, it’s really good that you’re asking these questions. “It really means that actually my whole purpose of agreeing to teach the Pranidhana-Raja is working out”, he said, “I’m happy it has really confused you guys”. Because all these things — beginning, end, Genesis, Armageddon — all these are as arbitrary as talking about the beginning of the dream, when I just fell from the 26th floor. And now I’m slowly falling past the 20th floor. It’s like that. But also we can’t dismiss our experience. There is real pain. It’s a nightmare. There’s sweating, screaming, sleep-walking, everything. Nightmare, samsara, whatever you want to call it. 

And Rinpoche said, I hope you that after hearing these teachings you realise that Buddhism in general and Mahayana in particular has a different way of looking at the world. And even if you only hear it intellectually, that’s good. It will really change your perspective. Even if the only thing this makes you realise is that everything that you say is vague. At this point, he held up a red rose and said, even just saying “the rose is red”, every part of that sentence is vague. “Red”, “rose”, even the word “is” — what a tragedy. So now just apply this to everything, all your values, all that you treasure, all the things you dislike. But then the Mahayana will say, well, you don’t even have to apply this to everything. That’s wasting your time. Just go to the root of it. The “I”, you know, that thing that’s experiencing the fall from the 26th floor to the ground. Rinpoche said, can you believe it? It’s been with me for 62 years. And I’m sure somewhere a great Bodhisattva is laughing at me. 62? That’s nothing. What about billions and billions of lifetimes before when you were a spider, when you were a bug, when you spoke a totally different language?


And so with that, let’s just review the main theme of this week’s verses once again, namely aspiring to see the qualities and activities of the Buddhas from the perspective of the Bodhisattvas who’ve reached the Path of Seeing.

  • We need to develop confidence that the window can be cleaned: As Rinpoche said, we need to develop the confidence to see the infinite Buddhas right here and right now. We need to be able to see countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on top of every atom, which requires vast aspiration. Also, we need confidence and trust that enlightenment is possible and that our current perception is not yet enlightened, as we saw with the example of cleaning the dirty window. As Rinpoche said, we need to have the confidence the window can be cleaned. And this is something where we can develop an intellectual understanding and then gradually extend it into experience and finally realisation. 
  • Nondual awareness is beyond our conceptual understanding, but nevertheless something we can experience: We also need to cultivate acceptance that the Buddhanature, enlightenment, and the view of non-dual awareness is beyond our conceptual minds. In other words, we can say that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”, and even that “emptiness is fullness”. But the inconceivable view of infinite Buddhas and Bodhisattvas right here right now isn’t something we can really talk meaningfully about. We can only point at it indirectly, like a finger pointing at the moon. And here we need to go beyond our ordinary rationality and our ordinary habit of relating to the world with thought and language. But nevertheless, this isn’t something completely beyond us. We can experience it.

So let us rejoice if we’re feeling a bit confused by what it means to see the Buddhas and understand the two truths, as this was Rinpoche’s aspiration. It means that we are beginning to disassemble our ordinary confused habits and ways of relating to the world. We are starting to clean our window.

Two Zen stories

So let me close with a couple of stories from the Zen tradition, which I think encapsulate what we have been talking about this week: 

“Is That So?“: A beautiful girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who the father was. At first resistant to confess, the frightened girl eventually pointed out Hakuin, the Zen master whom everyone previously revered for living a pure life. When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter’s accusation, he simply responded, “Is that so?” When the child was born, the parents brought the baby to Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the village. He willingly accepted the child, taking very good care of the baby. A year later, the girl remorsefully confessed that the real father was a young man in the village whom she had tried to protect. The parents went to Hakuin to apologise and ask for forgiveness. They also came to take the baby back. Hakuin willingly yielded the child, simply saying, “Is that so?”

“The Moon Cannot Be Stolen”: Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing to steal. Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and slunk away. Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”

With that, let’s take a moment to dedicate our merit.


Thank you, and I look forward to seeing you again next week.


Note: to read footnotes please click on superscript numbers

Transcribed and edited by Alex Li Trisoglio