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Alex Li Trisoglio

Aspiration: Week 7 – Vastness

April 27, 2024
60 minutes

Reference: Samantabhadra’s King of Aspiration Prayers, verses 36 – 46

Video / Transcript

Introduction to Week 7

Vastness

Hello everyone and welcome to Week 7 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 go through verses 36 to 46 and thereby complete the 16 aspirations that form the heart of this prayer. This week’s title is “Vastness”. And maybe we can begin by asking: What does it mean to think and aspire vastly, beyond the limits of our usual human experience? 

In the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, “vastness” refers not just to great size or scope, but to an expansive state of mind that transcends ordinary limitations and embraces infinite possibilities. This vastness is about more than just big numbers or large concepts. It’s about expanding our hearts and minds to encompass the boundless nature of reality itself. As we’ll see this week, the Bodhisattvas dwelling on the higher bhumis or stages of awakening embody this vastness through their incredible aspirations, which grow increasingly profound and boundless as they progress on their path.

In this week’s verses, we’re now seeking to aspire in the manner of these Bodhisattvas on the higher bhumis as they approach enlightenment. And their ocean-like qualities, activities and aspirations may seem almost inconceivably vast as seen from the perspective of young Bodhisattvas like us, who are just starting out on our journey. For instance, we might struggle to help even our closest friends and family members, whereas these Bodhisattvas are aspiring to purify oceans of realms and liberate countless beings across multiple dimensions of existence. So we refer to their view, aspiration and activities as vast or inconceivable, because they challenge our assumptions about what is possible and expand our usual ways of thinking about space, time and capability.

Letting go of limited views

This week’s image symbolises the expansion of our hearts and minds to include all beings in the entire cosmos in a vast vision of compassion and altruistic activity. By contemplating and aspiring to such vastness, we begin to let go of limited views and embrace a more holistic and interconnected view of life. This expansion is not just philosophical but deeply practical, aimed at cultivating the view and qualities necessary to aid all beings effectively.

And as we explore these verses together today, I encourage you to open your mind to the vastness presented by these aspirations. Let’s challenge our perceptions and embrace the limitless potential of our own Buddhanature. Perhaps we can approach today’s session as a journey into the heart of vastness, where each verse becomes an invitation to expand our understanding and our capacity for compassion. So with that, let’s take a moment to tune our motivation.

[Pause]

We already entered the realm of inconceivability last week when we talked about how the First Bhumi Bodhisattva realises the view of non-duality. This week we’ll go further and deeper by considering the view and aspiration of the Bodhisattvas on the higher Bhumis. And talking about non-duality is always going to be challenging. In the words of the great Tibetan master Jigme Lingpa, ”As soon as we talk, it’s all contradiction. As soon as we think, it’s all confusion.” But words are all we have for now, so we shall press on despite knowing that words can only take us so far. And we know that we need to cultivate merit and wisdom to progress on the path. So Rinpoche’s underlying message holds true. Aspiration is something that we can do and something that we should do. So with that, let’s turn to the twelfth of the sixteen aspirations. 

12. Aspiration to the Power of Enlightenment through Nine Powers (Verses 36 – 37)

[36] (1) Through the power of swift miracles,
(2) The power of the vehicle, like a doorway,
(3) The power of conduct that possesses all virtuous qualities,
(4) The power of loving kindness, all-pervasive,
 
[37] (5) The power of merit that is totally virtuous,
(6) The power of wisdom free from attachment, and
(7) The powers of knowledge, (8) skilful means and (9) samadhi,
(10) May I perfectly accomplish the power of enlightenment!

These two verses are about aspiring for nine particular powers that are possessed by bodhisattvas on the higher bhumis, which they cultivate and apply to accomplish the tenth power of enlightenment itself. These powers refer to abilities or qualities that cannot be affected or diminished in any way by obstructing conditions, especially the afflictive emotions. The commentaries explain that these verses refer to bodhisattvas on the Seventh Bhumi and beyond. And I should note in passing, there are several similar lists of ten powers elsewhere in the Mahayana teachings. For example, the ten powers of the Buddha (Tibetan: tob chu), the ten strengths of the Buddha (Tibetan: wang chu), and the ten powers of a bodhisattva (Tibetan: jangchup sempé tob). But this is a different list from any of those other lists.

And here Rinpoche commented that although these qualities of the Buddha’s and bodhisattvas might seem beyond us, we should nevertheless talk about these things for our own merit and for the future. It’s good to hear about them repeatedly as we journey on the path, because just by hearing about these qualities we’ll be getting closer to them. But it is difficult to talk about them. He gave the example that for us, it’s difficult to talk about the vision of a person who has two eyes on the soles of their feet instead of on their face. With inferential logic, perhaps we can vaguely talk about it, but we really cannot say much. We don’t know how things would look to them. And it is like that. Of course, it’s much more than that, but that’s just an example. So let’s briefly go through these ten powers. 

(1) The power of swift miracles

The first power is “the power of swift miracles”, or in a different translation it’s translated as “the power of miracles that has complete speed”. And this is like a power to manifest miracles. Because the bodhisattvas have understood both relative truth and ultimate truth, and because they’ve understood the non-duality of numbers, size, destinations and so forth, they can manifest miracles such as crossing a long distance within a moment, expanding a moment to an aeon, or contracting an aeon to a moment, and so forth. For someone who has not yet understood non-duality, all these abilities will simply appear to be miraculous. 

We already talked about the Nirmanakaya and Sambhogakaya a little last week, and in this week’s verses we’re going to be talking about the way that the bodhisattvas on the higher bhumis aspire, so it will help us to understand the Mahayana view on how these bodhisattvas perceive and experience the world. So here I’m going to draw from Rinpoche’s teachings on Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara (“Entering the Middle Way”). 

In talking about the ten bhumis, the first seven bhumis are referred to as the impure seven bhumis, and the last three bhumis are referred to as the pure bhumis or stages of the bodhisattva path. These last three bhumis are very special stages, and from an ordinary point of view like ours, we cannot tell the difference between such bodhisattvas and the Buddha. From the Eighth Bhumi onwards, bodhisattvas do not receive teachings from the Nirmanakaya anymore, only the Sambhogakaya. Last week we talked about how enlightenment is seen as the result of elimination, like cleaning the dirt from a dirty window. And so in the Mahayana, our progress on the path can be assessed in terms of our progress in removing these defilements and obscurations, in other words, in cleaning the dirt on our window.

But what is this dirt? We already talked about defilements and obscurations during Week 3 of our review, and now we’ll talk a little more about how defilements are explained and understood in the Madhyamaka. You might think that talking about the defilements of the bodhisattvas might seem a little removed from our current concerns, but it is not as if their defilements are different from our own. Yes, you could think about these defilements symbolically, but I’d encourage you to approach them with the understanding that this is the work that each of us has to do in order to clean our own windows. And this is also going to bring additional perspective to Rinpoche’s example of the nightmare of falling from a 26-story building that we talked about last week.

The two main types of defilements: dendzin and tsendzin

In the Madhyamaka, we distinguish between two main kinds of defilements:

  • (1) Clinging to phenomena as truly existent (Tibetan: བདེན་འཛིན, dendzin): This is our ordinary samsaric way of perceiving objects as real. Rinpoche gave the example of dreaming about a cup of coffee. If in your dream someone asks you if you’re drinking coffee, then if you don’t know that you’re dreaming, you’ll say, “Yes, I’m drinking coffee.” If they ask you if you’re sure, you’ll say, “Yes, definitely I’m sure.” And if they ask whether your coffee is satisfying you, you’ll say, “Yes, it is.” Then when you wake up and someone asks you whether the coffee you drank really existed, you’ll say, “No, it was just a dream. It was not a truly existent cup of coffee.” So in this example, the clinging to the dream coffee as real or truly existent is dendzin, whereas an awakened person no longer thinks of or experiences the dream coffee as real.
  • (2) Clinging to or fixation on characteristics (Tibetan: མཚན་འཛིན, tsendzin): As long as we experience an object and a subject, there is this fixation on characteristics. There’s an object there and we can describe it and say something about it, what it is like. We can talk about its characteristics. Now, this is a more subtle obscuration than the first defilement of clinging to phenomena as truly existent, because even the person who has woken from their dream can still say something about the characteristics of the dream coffee. Perhaps they can remember the colour and flavour of the coffee in the dream, or the type of cup it was served in, maybe even the other people in the coffee shop, or the pictures on the walls and so forth. For simplicity, we can say that the first defilement, the belief in things being truly existent (dendzin) is the cause of samsara. And when they attain the First Bhumi, bodhisattvas overcome this defilement and abandon this belief. But they still have the second defilement of fixation on characteristics (tsendzin). If they look at a table or chair, they will see its illusory nature. They will know it is not truly existent. But when they talk about it, they will still think that blue is blue, yellow is yellow, and so on. They still perceive or grasp these kinds of dualistic characteristics, which we might call conventional truth, and which they see as mere relative truth. 

The magic trick of a monkey riding an elephant

Rinpoche gave a classic example to illustrate these two defilements. For bodhisattvas on the bhumis, it’s like a magician performing a trick. For example, creating an illusion of a monkey riding an elephant. Now, ignorant beings do not know this is a magic trick, so they might think, “What a strange sight, a monkey riding an elephant.” And this is that first defilement of clinging to phenomena as truly existing (dendzin), because these ignorant beings think the monkey and the elephant are really there. And because of this ignorance, they roam in samsara. As Rinpoche said, “They laugh and they cry when they see the magic show. They part from their money to see the show. They become hooked to it, addicted to it, and they suffer”. 

Now, the magician himself also sees the monkey riding the elephant. Of course, he has to be able to see them, otherwise he could not perform his trick correctly. He might mistakenly put the elephant on top of the monkey. But the difference is that he knows it is just magic. So he does not have the defilement of clinging to true existence (dendzin). The magic does not hook him, and he does not pay to see the show. That is the difference between the first and second kinds of defilements, the dendzin and the tsendzin. The point here is that for sublime beings, the elephant and the monkey are mere relative truth. But for an ordinary person looking at the elephant and the monkey, they are the real relative truth. Indeed, most ordinary beings do not know about the two truths, and so they would not distinguish ultimate and relative truth at all. For them, the elephant and the monkey are simply reality. Like the vast mass of humanity in the dystopian movie The Matrix, most ordinary beings simply do not question their experience of the world. Indeed, many of us are quite attached to our subjective experiences and beliefs. We can get quite passionate in saying they cannot or should not be questioned at all. Unfortunately, the state of current social and political discourse is not really helping us here. However, it is very difficult to make progress on the Bodhisattva path if we cannot accept that maybe some of our experiences might be mistaken or confused. 

There is a third defilement called mere apprehension:

  • (3) Mere apprehension (Tibetan: གཉིས་སྣང, nyinang): When we come to the Bodhisattvas on the higher bhumis, those whose view and aspiration we are talking about in this week’s verses, in other words the Bodhisattvas on the Eighth to the Tenth Bhumis, they no longer perceive ordinary perceptions or appearances at all. So this is why only Bodhisattvas on the Eighth Bhumi can directly perceive and receive teachings from the Sambhogakaya. When they reach the Eighth Bhumi, they engage in actions to benefit sentient beings without any effort. But they still have a very subtle defilement called “mere apprehension” (nyinang in Tibetan), which is a very subtle form of dualism.

The Buddhas benefit sentient beings without any motivation, intention or prejudice

Finally, when the Bodhisattvas reach the Tenth Bhumi, the final stage before enlightenment, they no longer even have the intention of helping. There is no intention, there is no conception, and so there is absolutely no effort. These Bodhisattvas benefit beings by the accumulated power of all the aspirations that they made in the past. And finally, a Buddha, someone completely enlightened, does not have any of these defilements. They do not have clinging to phenomena as truly existent (dendzin), they do not have fixation on characteristics (tsendzin), or even the mere apprehension (nyinang). Buddhas do not have perception. For the Buddha, all continuity of the mind has stopped. Now, this could give rise to many new questions. For example, how can the Buddhas benefit sentient beings if they have no perception and no intention to benefit? 

This is a vast topic, but when Rinpoche taught the Uttaratantra-Shastra, he gave an example. The Buddha who is like the sun radiates Dharma-like sunshine, and those who are fortunate, those who are to be tamed by the Buddha, will open like a lotus, and they will reap the benefit like the harvest. But other beings will be provoked and irritated like the night-blooming jasmine — this is a plant that avoids the sun and only blooms at night1yongdu (Tibetan: ཡོངས་འདུ ; Wylie: yongs ‘du) = night-flowering jasmine – see yongdu.. The three kayas are like the sun and its rays. The sun radiates at all times and in all places. Likewise, the Buddha does not have any motivation, intention, or prejudice. If we are able to hear the Buddhas’ teachings or experience the Buddha’s blessings, it is not because they are choosing to teach us or bless us rather than other beings, but rather because we have the merit to receive or experience these teachings and blessings. And so again, we return to the profound importance of cultivating merit so that we might be able to hear and understand the teachings of the Buddhas and receive their blessings. Just like the clean window that is already there beneath the dirt, the teachings and the blessings of the Buddha are already there waiting for us if we can just cultivate the merit to receive them. So once again, we come back to the power and importance of aspiration. 

(2) The power of the vehicle like a doorway

The second of the ten powers is called “the power of the vehicle like a doorway”, which is also translated as “the power of yanas that possesses every gateway”. This is the power of being able to enter into not just the three yanas that we generally accept, but all the infinite teachings that the Buddha taught according to the propensity of different beings. And here Rinpoche said that, for example, at the moment, as reason-oriented people or followers of logic, we can perhaps accept logic and reason to explain things. But when we hear about concepts like Buddhafields and pure realms like Sukhavati — things that fall outside the domain of science and cannot be explained with logic and reason — then we may not really accept them. We might think of these things as just provisional or expedient teachings. Likewise, some people can accept teachings like dependent arising, emptiness and so forth. But when the teachings talk about karma and rebirth, their minds cannot assimilate this. They think these ideas are outdated or religious or irrational. 

There is no conflict between Buddhism and science/rationality

Now, Rinpoche didn’t say it directly, but here his teaching is a direct challenge to secular Buddhism, which rejects all the supposedly religious aspects of Buddhism. Now, this is a big topic, and I think it’s very important to acknowledge that there is no conflict between Buddhism and science or rationality in any way. And although the secularists might wish to frame it this way, there is no war of science against religion here. However, Rinpoche is making an important point here. As Jigme Lingpa said, when it comes to non-duality, “As soon as we talk, it’s all contradiction. As soon as we think, it’s all confusion”. And we don’t even have to leave the realm of science to be able to admit that our ordinary worldly ways of thinking are incomplete, and that our understanding can at best only ever be a map rather than the territory. 

And of course, science itself is a work in progress. What was understood to be true during the time of Galileo in the 16th/17th centuries, or Newton in the 17th/18th centuries — and these were perhaps the greatest scientists of their day — is not all still considered true or complete today. And when it comes to the Buddhist path and our aim of transcending ego and dualistic clinging, even the most basic koans like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” fail the test of conforming to ordinary rationality. And yet they’re not religious. They’re not asking you to believe anything, but rather they are tools to help you challenge, untangle and disassemble your beliefs. And the same is true with the vastness of the vision described in the Pranidhana-Raja, which takes more of a maximalist rather than a minimalist approach to challenging our ordinary rationality, but it challenges it nevertheless. So in this spirit of challenging and breaking through our ordinary rationality, I’d like to talk a little about the idea of having our minds blown. 

Mind blown

Now, sometimes we might say that something “blew our mind”. We use this expression to describe a highly impressive or shocking or overwhelming experience that challenges or surpasses our expectations or understanding. We’re often referring to something that’s so extraordinary, surprising or enlightening that it causes us to rethink our assumptions or see something in a completely new light. We might say this in casual conversation to convey excitement or amazement at a discovery, experience or piece of information. But the term actually works quite well in thinking about the Buddhist path as well. 

Because in Buddhism, the spiritual path can be thought of as a journey that “blows the mind” in a profound and transformative sense. This metaphor captures the essence of the deep radical shifts in perception and understanding that we seek through Buddhist practice. In Buddhism, having one’s mind blown can be seen as a transformative experience that leads to a deeper understanding of the true nature of reality, ultimately aiding in the pursuit of enlightenment. This notion is grounded in the idea of breaking free from the habitual patterns of thought, perception and emotional responses that bind us to suffering.

For example, Buddhism would say that much of human suffering is rooted in delusion, such as the beliefs in a permanent self, in unchanging entities, and in the ultimate reality of sensory experiences. Experiencing a mind-blowing moment in Buddhism involves a radical realisation that cuts through these delusions, providing a glimpse of the true nature of phenomena as impermanent, non-self and empty of inherent existence. Such insights can be sudden and profound, disrupting our deeply held beliefs and altering our relationship to the world. The Buddhist tradition offers a rich variety of approaches to achieving profound insights or mind-blowing experiences, ranging from the minimalist and direct methods seen in Zen to the expansive visionary practices found in texts like the Avatamsaka Sutra and this Pranidhana-Raja that we’re going through right now. These methods cater to different temperaments and spiritual inclinations, emphasising either simplicity and directness or vastness and complexity and richness. 

Minimalism and maximalism

Minimalist approaches are particularly prominent in traditions such as Zen or Chan Buddhism, but also in Mahamudra and Dzogchen, and they strip away complexity to focus on the essence of mind and reality. For example, in Zen training, the goal is to induce sudden insights through direct, often stark practices that cut through conceptual thinking. Zen koans are designed to exhaust the rational mind, forcing practitioners to abandon usual ways of thinking. The aim is to provoke a direct realisation of the true nature of self and reality, culminating in satori or sudden enlightenment. There are also techniques such as directly pointing out the nature of mind, which involve minimal discourse and conceptualisation. Teachers may use abrupt commands, physical gestures, or even silence to jolt students out of conceptual thinking and enter a direct, immediate awareness of their own true nature. And there’s also an overall flavour of simplicity and naturalness and everydayness. Zen emphasises seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, encouraging practitioners to experience enlightenment in simple daily activities and in nature. This approach seeks to demystify the spiritual path, presenting it as accessible and immediate, integrated into every breath and action.

By contrast, we can see the Avatamsaka Sutra and Samantabhadra’s King of Aspiration prayers as examples of a maximalist approach. These teachings are characterised by their grand cosmic vision of reality and the Bodhisattva’s journey. They often have highly elaborate, even inconceivable imagery and concepts to expand our minds beyond their ordinary limits. In texts like the Avatamsaka Sutra, the universe is portrayed in its infinite interdependent complexity. There is a cosmos of infinite realms upon realms, each containing Buddhas teaching Dharma in ways that are adapted to the capacities of all beings. This portrayal helps to shatter our limited perceptions of reality and encourages an expansive, interconnected view of all phenomena. Likewise, these sutras are maximalist in terms of their vast practices and aspirations. For example, here we vow to make endless offerings to all Buddhas, to always be present whenever a Buddha appears, and to lead all beings to enlightenment. These practices and vows are designed to cultivate an immeasurably vast heart and mind, embodying the Bodhisattva ideal of universal benevolence and limitless compassion. We are also encouraged to make vast visualisations of Buddhas, pure lands and vast assemblies of beings. This mental training not only enhances our concentration and devotion, but also expands our sense of the possible, pushing the boundaries of our imagination and perception. 

Both of these approaches, the maximalist and the minimalist, are aimed at transcending our limited dualistic views of self and the world, albeit through very different means. While the maximalist methods use vastness and complexity to expand our minds, the minimalist methods strip away all extras to reveal the stark, luminous nature of reality beneath. Each approach can be mind-blowing in its own way, offering different paths to the same ultimate truth, tailored to the varying needs and capacities of practitioners. And ultimately, whether we get there through the vast or inspiring visions of the Avatamsaka Sutra and the Pranidhana-Raja, or the direct, intimate confrontation with reality in Zen, both of these approaches lead us to a deeper understanding and transformation, challenging our conventional views and encouraging a profound re-evaluation of what is truly real and important.

The Vajrayana path integrates both maximalism and minimalism

And although it’s not our topic today, I’d like to take a moment to appreciate the Vajrayana path and how it incorporates both maximalist and minimalist elements, thus making it a particularly comprehensive and nuanced path within the Buddhist tradition. Vajrayana practices are designed to harness the full spectrum of human experience — emotion, perception and intellect — toward the goal of enlightenment. Vajrayana is well known for its maximalism, which includes complex visualisation practices involving detailed mandalas, intricate deity forms and elaborate ritual sequences. In those kinds of practices, we visualise ourselves as deities embodying divine attributes and qualities, which serve to expand our sense of identity and reality, breaking down our ordinary perceptions of self and world. 

But Vajrayana also has an essential element of minimalism. In deity visualisation practices, after constructing the detailed visualisation of the deity in the mandala, there is a phase of dissolution, where all the visualised forms are dissolved back into emptiness, perhaps the most profound expression of minimalism. Emptiness meditation involves direct contemplation on the lack of inherent existence of all phenomena, leading to a profound release from attachment and dualistic perception. And at the pinnacle of the Vajrayana path, we have Dzogchen and Mahamudra, which emphasise the direct realisation of mind’s true nature. These practices involve stripping away all concepts and experiences to rest in the simple, uncontrived state of awareness, often referred to as the natural state or ordinary mind. 

So Vajrayana is thus highly integrative, combining the imaginative and expansive qualities of maximalist practices with the direct, essence-striking minimalist approaches. This combination allows practitioners to engage fully with both the form — through elaborate practices and visualisations — and also the formless — through meditations on emptiness and the nature of mind — thus accelerating the path to enlightenment by using all facets of human experience. This dual approach of Vajrayana is particularly suited to practitioners who seek a path that is both deeply engaging and directly liberating, providing tools to transform ordinary experiences into gateways to transcendence, while also offering a straightforward, profound teaching on the ultimate nature of reality. This makes the Vajrayana a unique and powerful vehicle for spiritual growth and realisation. 

So for those of you who are Vajrayana practitioners, I hope you can see how this Pranidhana-Raja elegantly combines both maximalism and minimalism, offering us a vast and inconceivable cosmic vision, while always coming back to the foundation of emptiness, non-duality, and the direct realisation of the nature of mind. And hopefully through hearing, contemplating and practicing these verses, we will also experience our minds being blown. Let’s return to the ten powers.

(3) The power of conduct that possesses all virtuous qualities

The third power is “the power of conduct that possesses all virtuous qualities”, or “the power of conduct that has the complete qualities”. This is widely explained in the sutras, and Rinpoche said it refers to how to cultivate the attitude of the bodhisattva while going upstairs, going downstairs, eating meals, and doing each and every kind of activity. This power transforms even the smallest activity or movement into conduct that has all the good and beneficial qualities. And one of the commentaries here says that it is said in the “Sutra of Perfectly Pure Object of Conduct” that “When a bodhisattva is inside a house, he remains endowed with natural awareness of all sentient beings without being overpowered by the darkness of the house. One should generate this kind of bodhichitta. And likewise, the unlimited activities of our body, speech and mind are all transformed into conduct for the sake of benefiting sentient beings.” And so just as last week we talked about pure perception, we might perhaps talk about this power as pure action. 

(4) The power of loving kindness, all-pervasive

The fourth is “the power of loving kindness, all-pervasive”, also translated as “the power of love that is universal”. This loving kindness should pervade everybody, all beings, everything — not just beings who are suffering and emaciated, but those who are rich, powerful, and so on. The commentaries give the example of this power of this loving kindness pervading all worldly realms of the ten directions, in a similar way to how a bodhisattva might manifest a cloud and cause a stream of rain to fall through the strength of their love for the inhabitants of the hot hells, and in that way, ensuring their well-being. 

(5) The power of merit that is totally virtuous

So with the fourth power we have completed verse 36, and now we are onto verse 37. The fifth power is “the power of merit that is totally virtuous”, or “the power of merit that has complete goodness”. This merit allows us to outshine the power of the worldly deities or worldly celestial beings, gods such as Brahma, Indra, and so on. Their merit cannot compete with the merit needed to establish even a single pore in the skin of these bodhisattvas, and the reason why the bodhisattvas’ merit is able to outshine the power of these worldly gods is because the merit of the bodhisattvas is accompanied by the view of non-duality. 

(6) The power of wisdom free from attachment

The sixth power is “the power of wisdom free from attachment”, also translated as “the power of knowledge that is without impediment”. So here it’s about cultivating the power of not getting obstructed or having hindrances, so that while we are trying to cultivate all the arts and methods to benefit other beings, we don’t have obstructions or hindrances in accomplishing our activity. 

(7) The power of knowledge

The seventh power is “the power of knowledge” or “the power of wisdom”. This is prajña or transcendental wisdom, referring to cultivating the power of being able to enter into the view, the profound view which is uncompounded and beyond extremes. 

(8) The power of skilful means 

The eighth power is “the power of skilful means” or “the power of methods”. When skilful means are combined with this profound non-dual wisdom, we can transform not only virtue, but also non-virtue into the path that leads to benefiting other beings and finally to their enlightenment. 

(9) The power of samadhi 

The ninth power is “the power of samadhi”, the power of being able to enter into different kinds of meditative absorption. For the sublime bodhisattvas, every single moment of their meditation has a unique quality or characteristic. For example, the famous Heart Sutra, the Prajñaparamita-Hrdaya, starts by describing how the Buddha entered a particular meditative absorption. It says, “At that time, the Blessed One entered the samadhi that expresses the dharma called profound illumination.” And the sutra continues, “And at the same time, Noble Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva Mahasattva, while practicing the profound Prajñaparamita, saw in this way. He saw the five skandhas to be empty of nature. Then, through the power of the Buddha, Venerable Shariputra said to Noble Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva Mahasattva, “How should a son or daughter of noble family train who wishes to practice the profound Prajñaparamita?” And then Avalokiteshvara’s answer gives us the rest of the famous Heart Sutra, including the famous line, “Form is emptiness. Emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form. Form is no other than emptiness.” In other words, the Buddha entering this particular samadhi was the catalyst or stimulus for Avalokiteshvara and Shariputra to enter into that conversation. This is what is meant by the power of samadhi. 

(10) The power of enlightenment

And finally, the tenth power is, “May I perfectly accomplish the power of enlightenment.” This is cultivating the power of transforming all of these previous nine strengths and powers into the cause of Buddhahood or enlightenment. It is the strength that swiftly actualises the inconceivable qualities of the Buddha in our own mind streams. 

13. Aspiration to the Antidotes that Pacify the Obscurations (Verse 38)

[38] May I purify the power of karma;
Destroy the power of harmful emotions;
Render negativity utterly powerless;
And perfect the power of Good Actions!

Here, Rinpoche said that there’s another power which can also be called outshining obstacles, sometimes called ziji, which is the power of presence or outshining others. The bodhisattva is not stained by duality — not just the duality of time and space, but duality of all kinds, good/bad, moral/immoral, and so on — and in every way in terms of their body, speech, mind, activity, and so on. So there’s just no way that bodhisattvas will fall into pretence or hypocrisy. They’re authentic. What you see is what it is. And this really shatters the heart of the demons of hypocrisy. So this is a brief way of explaining this aspiration. 

Rinpoche continued, “The bodhisattva has authentic sitting, authentic presence, authentic being. People aren’t really going to argue with you when you’re authentic.” And here Rinpoche said, “Perhaps a very bad example might be a three-year-old baby walking around naked. Are you going to argue with them? Are you going to say it’s unlawful and all of that? We just have to accept it. There’s not much argument.” And everyone accepts it. So now multiply this billions of times. And the bodhisattva reaches this sort of total authenticity. What you see is what you get, just how it is, which gives them the power to outshine obstacles and obscurations. And through the Pranidhana-Raja, one can attain this power to be able to instantaneously destroy the defilements, including those that arise from the eight kinds of extremes. 

The Four Maras

At this point, Rinpoche talked about the Four Maras, especially when he taught on the Pranidhana-Raja in Bodh Gaya in 2023. This subject actually appears on the third line of verse 38, although it’s not explicit in all the translations. For example, the one that I just read translates the third line as “Render negativity utterly powerless.” But the translation by 84,000 has “Render powerless the power of the Maras.” 

So what are these Maras? Now there’s a well-known story in the life of the Buddha about how the Maras or demons attacked the Buddha before he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. As Rinpoche said, that’s how it’s presented for beginners. And there are frescoes and representations with fearful expressions of these demons or Maras. But when we talk about rendering the Maras powerless in the context of the Pranidhana-Raja, we’re not only referring to the gross or outer Maras that attacked the Buddha before his enlightenment, but also more subtle Maras or demons. And there are four types of obstructive or demonic forces which create obstacles for us as practitioners on the spiritual path:

(1) Mara of Emotions (Klesha-Mara): This is Mara or demon as the embodiment of all unskillful emotions, such as greed, hate and delusion. And it symbolises our addiction to the habitual patterns of negative emotion. 

(2) Mara of the Lord of Death (Mrityu-Mara): This symbolises both death itself, but also our fear of change and impermanence of all kinds. Rinpoche said this Mara also refers to time. So we might say that right now it’s half past ten and soon it’s going to be eleven o’clock. And in this way, time is also one of the most vicious Maras or demons. 

(3) Mara of the Aggregates (Skandha-Mara): This Mara is a metaphor for the entirety of conditioned existence. It symbolises our clinging to forms, perceptions and mental states as real. And according to Buddhism, once things are collected together in any kind of aggregation, it is certain they will at some point fall apart or disintegrate. So this refers especially to the five aggregates of our body, feelings and so on, which are ready to fall apart or disintegrate at any moment.

(4) Mara of the Son of God (Devaputra-Mara): In its outer form, this is the Deva of the sensuous realm who tried to prevent Gautama Buddha from attaining liberation on the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment. It symbolises our craving for pleasure, convenience and even for emotional states like peace. This Devaputra-Mara or Mara of the Son of God is the vastest among these four Maras. For instance, you might meditate on loving kindness and compassion, and if you feel that compassion and loving kindness is actually arising in your mindstream, even that could also be a manifestation of Devaputra-Mara. Basically, Devaputra-Mara refers to the clinging to characteristics that we talked about earlier.

The reason the Bodhisattvas can ultimately purify the power of karma and render all these Maras and negativity powerless is that their intention is vast and profound. And not only their intention, but also their view is also profound. And since the Bodhisattvas have realised the view of non-duality, they are able to gradually purify and ultimately completely abandon the power of karma from its root, including the most demonic obstacles and forms of negativity. Here Rinpoche gave the example of cooking an egg. Before we cook an egg, whether or not we want to cook the egg is in our hands. We have the power to decide. But at a glance, it might seem that once we’ve cooked the egg 99% of the way to full cooked, we cannot but help to fully cook it. We don’t think we have the power to reverse the cooking of that egg. But through the power of vast intention and vast view, even this kind of seemingly non-reversible karma can also be reversed or purified by the Bodhisattvas through their vast view and intention.

Now here, as with Rinpoche’s earlier comments on rebirth in the earlier verses, this is another example of directly confronting and challenging our ordinary rationality. Because in other places, he’s also used this example of cooking an egg to illustrate that Buddhism is indeed a path that is based on cause and condition, such that if an egg has been cooked, there’s nothing we can do to un-cook it. Whereas here he’s saying something that appears to be directly opposed to that. So once again, we’re confronted with paradox, back to inconceivability, vastness and what we might term “blowing our minds.” 

14. Aspiration to Enlightened Activities (Verses 39 – 40)

[39] I shall purify oceans of realms;
Liberate oceans of sentient beings;
Understand oceans of Dharma;
Realise oceans of wisdom;
 
[40] Perfect oceans of actions;
Fulfil oceans of aspirations;
Serve oceans of buddhas!
And perform these, without ever growing weary, through oceans of aeons!

These verses are mainly about the activities that are performed when a bodhisattva obtains the Tenth Bhumi, which is known as “Dharma Cloud”, when they have completed the ten powers, ten strengths, and so on. But there are practices conforming with this already before the Tenth Bhumi. And by engaging in these practices and aspirations, even beginners can start the process of accumulating merit and beginning to place karmic imprints to cultivate these habits. So this is just a very brief glimpse of how the Tenth Bhumi bodhisattva thinks. 

Here Rinpoche gave some examples to help us imagine these ocean-like realms. He said that, for example, some of the Buddhafields are no bigger than the size of our thumb, and the duration of some of these Buddhafields is only as long as it takes to snap our fingers. And there’s no instance in the whole of the ten directions or times that there are no Buddhafields. In some of the Buddhafields, there are only Eighth Bhumi bodhisattvas. In some Buddhafields, there are no human beings, but only other kinds of beings. So we make the aspiration to be able to enter into all such ocean-like Buddhafields and liberate the ocean-like beings inside them. 

And we also aspire to realise ocean-like teachings in these Buddhafields. At the moment we only know and talk about teachings like the sixteen aspects of the Four Noble Truths, dependent arising, and so on. But these are just a drop in the ocean of the teachings that were taught by the Buddha. So we also make aspiration to realise ocean-like wisdom. At the moment, we can barely talk about the wisdom of the Buddha. Even when we talk about non-dual wisdom, it almost does not fit into our small heads, as Rinpoche said. And we also make aspiration to enter into the ocean of activity or conduct, sometimes king-like conduct, sometimes like a prostitute, sometimes like a monk, sometimes like a drunk person, sometimes like animals and birds, or non-human spirits, and so forth. 

Once again, these stanzas are really talking about the grand vision of the Mahayana, the ocean-like, vast, infinite vision. And the point here is not that vastness is referring to something very big, but rather that it’s something that goes completely beyond all our concepts, including concepts of big and small. In other words, when we say the view of the bodhisattvas is “vast”, we mean they have broken all concepts and categories, including those of size and scale and dimension. Out of a lack of words, we can say their view is “bigger” than that of ordinary beings like us, but I hope that by now you understand this doesn’t mean that they know “more” than we do, or that they can see “further” than we can, but rather that their view has completely transcended the dualistic limitations that constrain our own.

Vairochana Buddha, Himalayan Art HAR #77224

The vastness of Vairochana Buddha

Rinpoche often gives the example of Vairochana Buddha to illustrate this. And here I’ll draw from a teaching he gave in Taipei in February 2021. Now, Vairochana Buddha is one of the five Buddha families. It’s not like there are actually five Buddhas sitting out there somewhere. Basically, the five Buddhas are the five elements or five objects of consciousness, which are forms, sounds, odours, tastes, and tactile objects. For example, form is the object of eye consciousness. Sounds are the object of ear consciousness, and are usually considered Amitabha Buddha. And although the correspondence changes in different teachings, generally, Vairochana Buddha is form. So anything that is form, colour, shape — like this room, this screen, these colours — all that is Vairochana. And this is beautifully explained in a sutra which talks about the shape and size of Vairochana. 

Here, Vairochana Buddha is sitting in meditation posture, and on his hands rests a begging bowl, which contains countless universes. In the bowl are 25 lotus branches, and from among these, on the 13th lotus branch, there is another branch, with a lotus flower and many other flowers all joined together. And according to traditional Buddhist cosmology, in the centre of this flower is the world where humans live, which is called Zambuling in Tibetan or Jambudvipa in Sanskrit. It is supposedly the only place where one may become enlightened if born as a human being. This world has four continents, and in the centre is Mount Meru. There are also 100,000 other world systems there, each with their own set of four continents and Mount Meru. These are the indestructible worlds where thousands of Buddhas come, also called the “Fearless” world, meaning that beings who live there have no basis for fear. 

And then, like many Mahayana teachings, the sutra goes on to say that this Vairochana Buddha is just so big. As we have seen, on just one of the lotuses in his begging bowl is our entire world system. But then, just like the vast and inconceivable descriptions in the Pranidhana-Raja, in each pore of Vairochana’s body is a whole set of universes with their respective world systems, but the sutra explains that even then, the original Vairochana hasn’t become bigger to fit all these Buddhafields in each pore, and likewise, all these Buddhafields have not become smaller. They haven’t become reduced to some tiny size in order to fit into one of his pores. So again, we’re talking about how shape, colour, size are, as Rinpoche puts it, “so depriving”. Ideas of size, colour, shape actually make us poor. We’re stuck with things like white or yellow or green or square or rectangle, whereas Vairochana is just infinite, beyond any concepts of size, shape, colour and dimension. And we should aspire to understand these verses of the Pranidhana-Raja in the same way, which is to say that they’re describing something that we cannot hope to understand with our ordinary dualistic conceptual minds. Again, these verses are like a finger pointing us to the moon. 

15. Aspiration for Training (Verses 41 – 44)

a) To Emulate the buddhas
[41] All the buddhas throughout the whole of time,
Attained enlightenment through Good Actions, and
Their prayers and aspirations for enlightened action:
May I fulfil them all completely!

b) To emulate the bodhisattvas: Samantabhadra
[42] The eldest of the sons of all the buddhas
Is called Samantabhadra: ‘All-good’—
So that I may act with a skill like his,
I dedicate fully all these merits!
 
[43] To purify my body, my speech and my mind as well,
To purify my actions, and all realms,
May I be the equal of Samantabhadra
In his skill in good dedication!

c) To emulate the bodhisattvas: Mañjushri
[44] In order to perform the full virtue of Good Actions,
I shall act according to Mañjushri’s prayers of aspiration,
And without ever growing weary, in all the aeons to come,
I shall perfectly fulfil every one of his aims!

There was little commentary on these verses, because most of us can’t even begin to fathom these enlightened qualities and activities of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. So what can we do? Well, if we wish to follow and emulate them, one thing we can do is say, “There’s a Bodhisattva called Samantabhadra, and however he aspired, may we also aspire in that same way.” And by aspiring in that way, it encompasses all his aspirations, even those that we cannot really understand at the moment. So in verse 41, we’re aspiring as the Buddhas aspired, and in verses 42 to 44, we’re aspiring in the way that the Bodhisattvas Samantabhadra and Mañjushri aspired. And in all these ways, may we also tirelessly aspire. 

16. Concluding Aspiration (Verses 45 – 46)

[45] Let my bodhisattva acts be beyond measure!
Let my enlightened qualities be measureless too!
Keeping to this immeasurable activity,
May I accomplish all the miraculous powers of enlightenment!

[46] Sentient beings are as limitless
As the boundless expanse of space;
So shall my prayers of aspiration for them
Be as limitless as their karma and harmful emotions!

Here we’re saying that sentient beings are not restricted by any limit. We can’t say there is just a certain number of them in any one direction or particular time and so forth. So likewise, the realm of their karma is similarly unrestricted, also limitless. And just as the karma and affliction of these beings is limitless, in a similar way, may each of my aspiration prayers be limitless, so that the karma and afflictions of each and every one of these sentient beings that fill space may be exhausted. And so they will all be placed on the bliss of unsurpassable enlightenment. Here in this 16th and final aspiration, we’re talking about the Fifth Bhumi, the final path, which is the level of Buddhahood. 

Here, Rinpoche said that when you read stanzas like “may our qualities be infinite”, this would include things like if a bodhisattva is required to be an idiot from 5 o’clock to 7 o’clock today, why not? That’s included. Idiots in their own way can be very powerful and can benefit many people. If a bodhisattva needs to be helpless or sick in order to benefit beings, they should do that. If a bodhisattva needs to be homeless or a drug addict, or even to be annoying for half an hour, may I be that. Basically, you cannot exclude anything, not a single quality. The only thing that can be excluded is something that goes against the truth. In other words, something that will not benefit others. 

Questions & Answers

I’d like to include a couple of questions and answers from Rinpoche’s teachings on the Pranidhana-Raja in Vancouver in 2024 and Taipei in 2016, to illustrate some of the things we’ve been talking about this week.

If there is no self, who is aspiring?

First, a question about the two truths:

[Q]: We’ve been talking about aspiration, and usually when we aspire we say something like “may I” something something aspire. It sounds like “I” am in pursuit of something, or “I” am trying to do something. And yet we also talk about the idea of selflessness. So if there’s no self, who is trying to aspire?”

[DJKR]: Yes, you’re talking about the story of me and the monk in Thailand (which we talked about in Week 2 of this review). So remember, we’re only talking about aspiration during the period from the beginning of the nightmare until the end of the nightmare. In other words, we’re only talking about aspiration from the perspective of the path, when we’re cleaning the dirt on the window. Other than that, there is no aspiration.

I’d like to build on what Rinpoche said. So just to be clear, as long as you think you have a self, you should aspire. When there is no more self, there is no more aspiration. The confusion arises when we mix the two truths (i.e. the ultimate truth and the relative truth), because of course, ultimately there is no self. There is no dirt on the window because the window is already clean. It is primordially clean, as we saw last week. It doesn’t even have concepts of dirt and no dirt. However, the relative truth is the world of our experience, our subjective reality. And right now, we still have hope and fear and all the usual samsaric emotions and experiences. And so although our window is ultimately clean, relatively, there is still dirt on our window. Most importantly (in terms of what actually matters to us), our experience is that our window is dirty. We don’t experience the window as being clean. In other words, our experience does not correspond to the actual or ultimate nature of reality as it is. And this is why we speak of sentient beings as being ignorant or deluded. Not because they haven’t read a lot of books or because they can’t do algebra, but because they do not experience reality as it is. 

So yes, Buddhism is sometimes referred to as a philosophy, and certainly it contains many aspects of philosophy. But it’s much more than that. The Buddha wasn’t teaching metaphysics. He was teaching a path to liberation. In other words, he was teaching a path to enable us to see the truth, and experience reality as it is. He gave us a path or a way — you could call it a method or even a technology — to clean our window. Because as long as we experience the window as dirty, in other words, as long as we have dualistic perception, self-clinging, and all the emotions and defilements, then we are still path-dwellers. We need the relative practices of the path to clean our window, even though the ultimate window is already clean. We need the boat to cross the river so we can get to the other shore, even though the other shore is already there. 


What is enlightenment?

Next, a couple of questions about enlightenment:

[Q]: What is enlightenment? Is it the same as omniscience? How can we know if we’re enlightened or on the right track?

[DJKR]: Yes, the word “enlightenment” is not so good. I would say for now, when you see the truth, when you see the complete truth. When you’re dreaming and you realise that you’re dreaming, already there’s a little bit of enlightenment.

[Q]: What does it mean to say that enlightened beings are not sentient?

[DJKR]: An enlightened being refers to someone who is beyond numbers, directions, space, and time, I guess.

So hopefully now when we hear Rinpoche talk about enlightenment in this way, the meaning is a little clearer. 


How can we apply this aspiration to our ordinary lives?

There were also some practical questions about how to do good in the relative world. I think a lot of us naturally want to connect these aspirations and prayers with the very practical questions of how can we apply them in our own work and life? How can we use this aspiration to guide what we might do in the world? 

[Q]: I want to ask about the topic of rights and liberties, and what would you say Buddhism and the Dharma’s view on them are. Do they align most closely with, say, John Locke or Thomas Jefferson’s views on prioritising individual rights and freedoms and pursuit of happiness above all else, which has shaped much of Western civilisation? Or perhaps more with Confucian principles that moral obligation and family hierarchy are more important than an individual’s rights and freedoms, which is more common in Eastern civilisations? Or perhaps even something like Marxism, in that some collective community or class interests might supersede those of both the individual and the family? Or is there something totally unique and different on the subject that Buddhism would suggest? 

[DJKR]: As I said earlier, all this only applies from the 26th floor to the ground. Yes, they’re all equally a child’s game.

[Q]: What do you mean, a child’s game?

[DJKR]: An illusion, a child’s game. There are many metaphors, like a shooting star, a mirage, even some sort of saliva from a small bug that binds itself with its own saliva, although I don’t know how to translate that.

[Q]: So what would the Buddha say on the issue? 

[DJKR]: That you should transcend them all. None of them works. What I’m saying is Churchill is very wrong. He said democracy is second best. It is not. They’re all rubbish.

Here I would like to clarify that Rinpoche is obviously not trying to be nihilist. He’s not trying to say, “Bring down the government, they don’t speak for us!” Rather, he’s talking about what works in the context of addressing the root cause of suffering. In other words, what works in terms of cleaning the window so that we can realise the ultimate truth and see the nature of reality as it is. And because none of these social or political philosophies offers a path to transcend the relative world, none of them works as a means to realise the ultimate truth. Now, of course, we can still ask questions about what might work best in the relative world, but Buddhism would say that all this is dependent on the different needs of different kinds of sentient beings. As Rinpoche said in his commentary on the Pranidhana-Raja, we should aspire to manifest and teach the Dharma in various ways according to individual needs of each being. As he once said, if people on Jupiter greet each other and show affection by punching each other on the nose, then if we wish to benefit beings on Jupiter, we need to learn to do this also, whatever we might think about punching people on the nose back here on Earth. And when it comes to the Buddhist aspiration to liberate all sentient beings, any teaching or activity in the relative world that does not help lead us to enlightenment is no more useful to us than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. So yes, in that sense, they are all rubbish. 

[Q]: Rinpoche, my question is about the climate emergency and the way the world is going generally. Some years ago I heard you say that we should make aspirations, and if we’re worried about the climate emergency and all of that, this would really help. But I guess I still have some doubts. From my point of view, maybe there really isn’t any future. So what aspiration should I make in that case?

[DJKR]: No, no. If you have taken the bodhisattva vow, then you should think. “Okay, this world will end, but so what? I’m not going to give up my bodhisattva vow.” That’s the attitude.

So again, we come back to vastness and inconceivability. And purely practically, none of us knows the future. And as the great hockey player Wayne Gretzky supposedly said, “You will miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. So as Bodhisattvas, we never give up, we never lose hope, we keep taking the shots. And even if we don’t always score, we will from time to time be able to benefit ourselves and other beings in small ways, and sometimes in not-so-small ways. And the more we practice, the better we’ll get, and the more we’ll cultivate the vast view and abilities of the Bodhisattvas on the bhumis. And one day we’ll be able to make a real difference in terms of benefiting people and making the world a better place. Now this goal may seem vast and profound right now, but as the great Chinese sage Laozi said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” 

Conclusion

Two Zen stories

To close, I’d like to share a couple of stories from the Zen tradition to illustrate vastness. The first is about the vastness of nonduality that transcends big and small:

“Shuzan’s Short Staff“: Shuzan held out his short staff and said, “If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?”

The second is about the vastness of liberation, a beautifully poetic image of the great openness that comes with the realisation of nonduality:

“No Water, No Moon”: When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free!

In commemoration, she wrote a verse:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail

Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break

Until at last the bottom fell out.

No more water in the pail!

No more moon in the water!

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

[Pause]

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

[END OF TEACHING]


Note: to read footnotes please click on superscript numbers

Transcribed and edited by Alex Li Trisoglio