🇬🇧 English 🇵🇹 Português 🇨🇳 即将发布


Aspiration: Main       Outline        Week 1         Week 2         Week 3         Week 4         Week 5         Week 6         Week 7         Week 8         Week 9


Alex Li Trisoglio

Aspiration: Week 8 – Dedication

May 4, 2024
56 minutes

Reference: Samantabhadra’s King of Aspiration Prayers, verses 55 – 63

Video / Transcript

Introduction to Week 8

Welcome

Hello and welcome to Week 8 of our review of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s teachings on Samantabhadra’s King of Aspiration Prayers, the Pranidhana-Raja. This week we’re going to cover the verses on dedication and thereby complete the text. This week’s image is a pair of hands gently releasing a bird into the sky, symbolising the manifestation of compassion and wisdom in actions that bring benefit, joy and ultimately freedom to others. 

It also symbolises the intention at the heart of dedication, which is about taking what is most precious to us — the merit that we have worked and practiced so hard to accumulate — and giving it away. This is no ordinary gift. It is the fuel for our progress on the path, the raw material for our own awakening — and we’re not just letting it go in the spirit of non-attachment, but actively and intentionally giving it away. 

So naturally this is going to arouse some resistance from our habitual patterns of ego-clinging, which are strongly focused on self-preservation and self-interested behaviour. So although the practice of dedication is seemingly quite straightforward and quite familiar to most Buddhist practitioners, to practise dedication authentically is not so simple. And as we shall see, cultivating the ability to dedicate authentically could even be considered the capstone or crowning achievement of our practice. 

So with that in mind, let’s take a moment to tune our motivation and intention for how we’d like to approach this next hour together. 

[Pause]

There are two themes for this week. Firstly dedication, and in keeping with our week’s title, we’re going to spend most of our time on the subject of dedication. We’ll review the basics of dedication as they are presented in the ngöndro practice, and then also explore what a more non-dual practice of dedication might look like. And secondly, Pure Lands. As we’ll see, an important part of the dedication in the Pranidhana-Raja includes dedicating the merit so we might be reborn in Amitabha’s pure land of Sukhavati. So we’ll also spend some time talking about how we might understand the concept of Pure Lands. 

Dedication following the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas (Verses 55 – 56)

4. Dedication of the Merits of this Meritorious Aspiration

4.1. Dedication that Follows the Bodhisattvas
[55] Just as the bodhisattva Mañjushri attained omniscience,
And Samantabhadra too
All these merits now I dedicate
To train and follow in their footsteps.

4.2. Dedication that Follows the Buddhas
[56] As all the victorious buddhas of past, present and future
Praise dedication as supreme,
So now I dedicate all these roots of virtue
For all beings to perfect Good Actions.

In these two verses we dedicate the merit of having made these aspirations so that we will be able to follow the aspiration and conduct of Mañjushri and Samantabhadra, including the way they practiced dedication during their own journeys on the Bodhisattva path. We also make the aspiration or commitment to dedicate the merit in the same way that the Buddhas of past, present and future dedicate their merit. 

These verses are similar to verses 41 to 44 that we talked about last week, where we aspire to make aspiration in the way of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the three times, and in particular in the way of Samantabhadra and Mañjushri. By aspiring in this way, our aspiration encompasses all the vast and profound aspirations of these enlightened beings, even those that we cannot really understand at the moment. It’s like an insurance policy, a way to ensure we don’t inadvertently leave anything out of our aspiration. 

Likewise, here in verses 55 and 56, we dedicate in the way of Mañjushri, Samantabhadra and all the Buddhas of the three times, aspiring to follow in their footsteps. This helps to ensure that our dedication is complete and all-encompassing, even though their practice of dedication is vast and profound in ways that go beyond our current understanding and realisation. 

Dedication is more than gratitude

During his teaching on the Pranidhana-Raja in Bodh Gaya Bodh Gaya in 2023, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said, “In terms of how to dedicate the merit, there’s nothing that people can’t understand.” However, like mindfulness itself, just because something is simple doesn’t mean that it’s easy. So let’s review the basics of the practice of dedication before we consider what a more non-dual understanding and practice of dedication might look like. 

The first challenge for beginners like us is that we might easily confuse the practice of dedication with secular practices such as gratitude, appreciation and thanksgiving that we’re perhaps more familiar with. Gratitude is seemingly everywhere in the contemporary wellness and psychology world these days, from self-help books to therapy sessions, and for good reason. Gratitude helps reduce negative emotions like envy and resentment, it boosts mental health and positivity, and strengthens relationships. Its opposite, a lack of gratitude, is often linked with a less satisfying and more troubled life. It’s often said that if you were to summarise the whole of positive psychology into just one idea, that would be gratitude. And indeed, dedication and gratitude both involve a reflective appreciation of blessings, positive experiences and good deeds well done, so they do have something important in common. 

However, while these two practices share superficial similarities, their philosophical foundations and intentions are profoundly different. Gratitude is about personal psychological benefits that come with acknowledging and appreciating what one has received. In contrast, dedicating merit is rooted in the view of interdependence and emptiness. It transcends personal benefit and involves directing the positive karma gained from virtuous actions towards the enlightenment and liberation of all sentient beings. 

In a similar vein, we should avoid confusing dedication with practices like savouring, which is actively enjoying and prolonging positive experiences, and which is often taught alongside appreciation and gratitude in many modern mindfulness practices. And while savouring can indeed be beneficial in a psychological context, it can easily be misunderstood and misapplied in a way that undermines the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. In Buddhism, mindfulness is based on an attitude of non-attachment, where the goal is to observe experiences without clinging to them. And rather than savouring experiences, we are encouraged to let them go, in much the same way that a Vajrayana practitioner might offer a mandala. Indeed, in more advanced practices, we are even encouraged to actively cast aside so-called positive experiences, walking away from them as we might spit in the dust. 

So before we go any further, let us be sure that our practice of dedication is not something more like gratitude or clinging to positive experiences, both of which correspond to falling into the eternalist extreme of solidifying, reifying and clinging to reality. And of course, we also want to take care not to fall into the nihilist extreme of denial. As with any spiritual practice, there is also a risk that we might practice dedication as a form of spiritual bypassing. This refers to the unfortunately all-too-common tendency to engage in so-called spiritual practices as a way to avoid confronting unresolved psychological issues and negative emotions. Spiritual bypassing might sometimes create a superficial appearance of calm and peace, but at the cost of unresolved issues that will eventually undermine our progress on the Bodhisattva path. So as with the rest of our practice, it is important for us to be self-aware and honest with ourselves about what we are actually doing when we practice dedication, and ensure that our foundations are solid. 

Good in the beginning, middle and end

Let’s turn to the way that dedication is presented in Buddhism. In Week 2, we talked about the importance of the Three Supreme Methods, which are good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end. These three are an essential foundation for any Dharma practice or activity that we might engage in, from offering a single candle to an extensive ngöndro or sadhana practice, or even in our post-meditation activities in our work and relationships in everyday life. The three supreme methods are articulated in a popular quotation from Longchenpa:

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

As Longchenpa says, in any Mahayana practice, such as reciting this Pranidhana-Raja, we begin with bodhichitta, the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. And we are not just aspiring to be able to bring them relatively worldly benefit, but the ultimate benefit of enlightenment. Likewise, when we come to the dedication at the end of any activity or practice, we will once again arouse bodhichitta. We dedicate any merit we might have generated, not only towards our own enlightenment, but also for the benefit and enlightenment of all sentient beings. 

And although the altruistic intention of dedication is no different from that of aspiration, for many of us it goes against our habits more strongly. Yes, as practitioners we all know that our Buddhist practice aims to undermine and challenge our habits of self-clinging and ego. But we all grew up in the conventional world, and we all learned some version of the rule that good and bad deeds will lead to rewards and punishments. We tell our children that if they are good and nice, we’ll give them some kind of treat as a reward, just as our parents told us when we were children.

The whole logic of Christmas gifts works this way. Santa Claus checks his list to see who has been naughty or nice, and the good children are rewarded with presents. And even if we didn’t grow up in a culture that celebrates Christmas, we’re all part of systems that work in the same way. We know that we should reward good Uber drivers with five-star ratings, and we’re suspicious when a driver’s rating drops much below five. We look forward to getting a bonus if our annual performance appraisal at work is good. We might even hope that we’ll be given a promotion. In other words, we intuitively understand and value the system of rewards, even if it’s not always perfectly fair or meritocratic. We have all learned that it’s worth being good in the beginning and good in the middle so that we’ll get our reward at the end. 

But the practice of dedication undermines this whole logic in the most radical way. We practice diligently to accumulate merit and good karma — which is perhaps our most treasured and valuable possession, because unlike worldly wealth and power, this is the only thing that allows us to make progress on our Buddhist path. And yet, now we’re being asked to give it all away, including and especially to other sentient beings who haven’t even done any practice, or who are actively causing harm in the world. They might not even be people that we like. This is not the way of Santa Claus. So we should not be too taken aback if we do not find the practice of dedication at least somewhat unreasonable and unfair, because it goes against a lifetime of behavioural conditioning. And equally, we shouldn’t be surprised if our egos attempt to twist what is meant to be a selfless practice into something that ends up feeling more like a personal reward. 

If you’ve ever been to a Buddhist teaching, it’s quite likely you may have witnessed the spectacle of students trying to get the best seats at the front, right by the teacher. This can sometimes look like the seemingly life-and-death struggle of overly competitive hotel guests trying to get the best deck chairs by the pool or by the beach. So this should give us pause. After all, if we aren’t always able to practice altruism and selflessness, even in settings where we’re surrounded by Buddhist imagery and reminders of the path, it shouldn’t be surprising if we might sometimes fall short of our best selves at other times and occasions. 

Rinpoche often says that when we recite the Bodhichitta aspiration to liberate all sentient beings, it can sometimes end up as merely mouthing words. The verses are so vast and grand that sometimes they don’t really touch us. So he suggests we can start by trying to be genuinely kind to just one person, for example the person closest to us in our ordinary worldly life. And then we can extend from there. So likewise, next time we’re at a Dharma teaching, perhaps we can practice dedicating the merit of being able to attend the teaching by offering the best seats to someone else. 

After all, if our dedication is not an expression of genuine altruism, selflessness and Bodhichitta, it is all too easy for us to fall back into old egoic habits and for our Dharma practice to become self-serving and ultimately fruitless. Of course, this isn’t just a contemporary problem but a timeless challenge to human nature. The Zen tradition has a story about this, called Reciting Sutras:

Reciting Sutras
A farmer requested a Tendai priest to recite sutras for his wife, who had died. After the recitation was over the farmer asked: ‘Do you think my wife will gain merit from this?’
‘Not only your wife but all sentient beings will benefit from the recitation of sutras,’ answered the priest.
‘If you say all sentient beings will benefit,’ said the farmer, ‘my wife may be very weak and others will take advantage of her, getting the benefit she should have. So please recite sutras just for her.’
The priest explained that it was the desire of a Buddhist to offer blessings and wish merit for every living being.
That is a fine teaching,’ concluded the farmer, ‘but please make one exception. I have a neighbour who is rough and mean to me. Just exclude him from all those sentient beings.”

Dedication in the manner of the great bodhisattvas Samantabhadra and Mañjushri

In verses 55 and 56, we are aspiring to dedicate our practice in the manner of the great Bodhisattvas like Samantabhadra and Mañjushri. So let’s explore what this means in a little more depth. And here I am going to draw in particular on three ngöndro commentaries: Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s ngöndro commentary, “Not for Happiness”; His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche’s ngöndro commentary, “A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom” and Patrul Rinpoche’s ngöndro commentary, “The Words of My Perfect Teacher”.

(1) Altruism

First, altruism. As we have already discussed, we need to ensure that our dedication is genuinely altruistic and directed towards all sentient beings, for both their relative benefit and ultimate enlightenment. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when it comes to directing our merit to people that we don’t like, or people who don’t like us. But the Bodhisattva path is rich with skilful means to help us cultivate this habit. And if you’d like to explore this further, please read Shantideva’s “Way of the Bodhisattva”, the Bodhicharyavatara. 

(2) Vastness

Another aspect of dedicating in the manner of Samantabhadra is to make our dedication genuinely vast, which we talked about last week, especially in our discussion of maximalism and minimalism in Buddhist practice. So here, for example, we don’t just dedicate the merit of our virtuous actions or practice that we’ve just completed, but all the sources of good that we have accumulated in the past, that we are accumulating in the present, and that we will accumulate in the future. In other words, we also dedicate the merit we may have forgotten to dedicate in all our past lives, and even the future merit we have not even generated yet. And likewise, we don’t just dedicate all the sources of good from our own actions, but also those from the good actions of all other beings in the three times. At first glance, it might seem a little strange to give away something we might not have even obtained, or that is not ours. But as we saw last week, as practitioners of the non-dual view, we need to get used to this kind of vast thinking. 

In his commentary, Dudjom Rinpoche says we can dedicate positive deeds regardless of when they are done, who does them, or what form they take. And these positive actions can be classified according to five groups of three criteria:

  • First, we can classify them in terms of three kinds of doer. There are positive actions performed by oneself, those done by others, and those done by both. 
  • Second, in terms of the three times. There are good deeds performed in the past, those being performed in the present, and those that will be performed in the future. 
  • Third, in terms of the three ways in which they are accomplished. There are good deeds performed with the body, with speech, and with mind. 
  • Fourth, in terms of the actual action that is meritorious. There is virtue that arises from giving, from discipline, and from meditation. 
  • Fifth, in terms of the fully ripened effect. There are positive acts consistent with worldly ends, those consistent with liberation — in other words nirvana, which is the aim of the Shravakayana path — and those consistent with omniscience or complete enlightenment, which is the aim of the Mahayana path. 

He recommends that all these five sets of three can and should be included in one’s dedication. And in particular, among all of these, he points out that the most important is the merit that comes from meditation. Like all Buddhist practices, the practice of dedication is also a skilful means, or upaya. It is part of the vast toolkit of the Mahayana path to train our minds and clean the dirt from our window. And the practice of meditation is at the heart of how we do this. 

(3) Emptiness

As we have seen in previous weeks, we should always ensure that our cultivation and practice of skilful means is never separated from the wisdom of non-duality. And in “The Words of My Perfect Teacher”, Patrul Rinpoche identifies this crucial aspect of dedication by saying that we should “Seal it with emptiness”. So what does this mean? According to the Mahayana view of shunyata or emptiness, everything is empty of inherent existence. This includes actions (like performing a good deed), the concept of merit (in other words the positive karmic value assigned to these actions), and also the identities involved (like gift, giver, and receiver). These are all conceptual labels that we apply to the interdependent events of our experience. However, even though merit, actions, and identities are all empty, they still function and have effects through the principle of interdependent origination. 

In his book “Not for Happiness”, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche explains that while practicing or performing Dharma activities, we should remain constantly aware that everything we do and experience is illusory. He gives the example that if we prick our flesh, we feel pain. The pain feels real, because we’re so used to the idea that phenomena are truly existing. So to counteract this tendency, we need to get used to the idea that all our experiences, feelings, thoughts, and actions are interpretations created by our mind. Here again, Rinpoche is talking about sealing our experience with emptiness — the truth that no phenomena have any truly existing identity or nature of their own. In other words, whatever reality or seeming truth we might perceive or impute is created by our own minds. 

Being able to consistently seal our practice with emptiness means getting used to the view and practice of sealing it with emptiness. And getting used to this view and practice means reminding ourselves about it over and over again. No matter how simple our Dharma activity, for example, offering a flower to our teacher, we can remind ourselves that although we aspire to accumulate merit by making the offering, in reality the idea or story that we’re accumulating merit is itself a creation of our mind. There is no such thing as a truly existing meritorious, good or ‘holy’ activity. If we can get used to this way of thinking, it will have a profound effect on the way we function, not least because we’ll be less caught in defilements like pride and jealousy. And so, as Rinpoche says, when our teacher throws the flower that we offered to the ground without even glancing at it, we won’t mind at all. 

Likewise, because of emptiness, we’re free to choose our attitude at all times. So we’re free to choose a vast and grand attitude towards our dedication. And as Rinpoche says, we should be ambitious here. We shouldn’t settle for simple kindness when nothing less than the full-fledged mind of Bodhichitta is what is needed. The greater the view, the more merit we will accumulate, even when all we do is light a candle. And here, as Rinpoche says:

  • If you light a candle merely as a decoration for the living room, your motivation is that of an ordinary person.
  • If you light it and dedicate the merit to further your own progress on the path so you can eventually escape from samsara, you share the attitude cultivated by Shravakayana practitioners.
  • If you light the candle and dedicate the merit for the enlightenment of all sentient beings, your attitude is the same as that of Bodhisattvayana or Mahayana practitioners.
  • And if you consider the candle to be the light of wisdom that illuminates all sentient beings, with the dedication that wherever its light falls becomes the mandala, that is the attitude of a tantric practitioner.

However, as Rinpoche says, most of the time we seem unable to remember these instructions, and even when we do, our attempts to put them into practice often become unnecessarily complicated. Rinpoche says, “I’ve heard many practitioners these days say they want to do long retreats or make enormous offerings to their teacher, or some other grandiose gesture that will accumulate a great deal of merit in one go. In practice, however, they have neither the time nor the resources to do anything at all. And ironically, such gestures are really not necessary. All that any of us needs to do to accumulate a vast treasury of merit is to seal our every action with the aspiration and dedication of Bodhichitta”. In this way, even by offering a single flower while thinking, “May this offering ultimately benefit all sentient beings”, you will accumulate immeasurable merit. 

Dedication requires mindfulness and awareness

In his ngöndro commentary, “A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom”, Dudjom Rinpoche explains that positive deeds performed from the Eighth Bhumi up to the level of Buddhahood are all beneficial in every respect, as Aryadeva explains in his 400 verses on the Middle Way:

When you, the Bhagavan, make a movement
It is never without reason:
Even the breaths you take
Are solely for beings’ benefit. 

As this verse is telling us, even when Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on the pure bhumis just breathe in and out, it is exclusively for the benefit of others. For them there is not an instant that is meaningless. Their aspiration, action and dedication are all spontaneously accomplished. But for beginner Bodhisattvas like us, who are on the Stage of Aspiring Conduct (in other words, before attaining the First Bhumi), we need to intentionally cultivate and habituate ourselves to the practice of dedication. Like a hungry yak eating grass, we should take advantage of every opportunity to do so. So as Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche says, although dedication is traditionally done at the end of our practice, we don’t have to wait for the end of our practice session before we dedicate. We can dedicate at any time, for example after every prostration, so that we can be sure that none of the merit we generate is wasted.

Now of course we can’t actually dedicate any action if we are distracted. Ideally our practice will reach the stage where we have uninterrupted, ongoing mindfulness and awareness. But right now many of us are easily distracted. So as beginners, we can and should take advantage of obvious beginnings and endings in our practice and in our everyday life, and use them as reminders to aspire and to dedicate. And by the way, this is also standard advice in the contemporary behavioural science of how to build positive habits. If we are engaging in formal practice sessions, this is even more straightforward, as our practice texts will usually have specific verses that we recite for setting aspiration and making dedication. So then, even in the worst case, we have at least two opportunities to remember — at the beginning and at the end of our practice — where we can pause and invoke the genuine bodhichitta that is the heart of authentic aspiration and dedication. And hopefully we’ll be mindful enough to remember to insert additional opportunities to dedicate throughout our practice, and indeed throughout the rest of our day. 

As we progress on our path, we can follow the practice advice that the masters have given us for meditation itself, namely to make our dedications “Short, but often”. In this way, the habit of dedication will become internalised into our way of being. Indeed, if we are going to practice “Good in the middle”, we need to engage in our practice without concepts, which also requires the ongoing practice of mindfulness. In other words, our practice needs to include both shamatha (in other words remaining non-distracted), and vipassana (in other words holding the non-dual view of emptiness or shunyata). So let’s not look down on the seeming simplicity of shamatha practice, because in order to seal our practice with emptiness, we need the non-distraction of samatha as a precursor to having the non-dual view of vipassana that is the seal. 

So to recap, as Dudjom Rinpoche said, the most important form of merit is the merit that comes from meditation. And as Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said, even by mindfully and undistractedly offering just a single flower with the attitude of bodhichitta and the view of non-duality, we accumulate immeasurable merit. So even as we aspire to the vast and grand practices of the Mahayana and Vajrayana, we should never forget the foundations of shamatha and vipassana. And likewise, we should never look down on the teachings of the Noble Eightfold Path as something introductory. Yes, this was taught as part of the Buddha’s first teaching in the Deer Park at Sarnath after he attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, but it still serves us as a valuable guide throughout our journey. And in particular, the Eightfold Path is often categorised in terms of the Threefold Training (or trishiksha), and we can apply this Threefold Training when we practice dedication:

  • Prajña (training in wisdom): In the Eightfold Path, the category of prajña includes the two practices of right view and right intention. Here in the Mahayana path, it is about cultivating the right view of emptiness and non-duality. When we are able to seal our dedication with emptiness, the distinction between self and others dissolves. Dedication is no longer seen as a transaction from a giver to a receiver, but as an expression of the fundamental interconnectedness of all beings. The merit dedicated is not owned or transferred, but is understood as a universal benefit in which all participate. 
  • Shila (training in moral discipline or virtue): In the Eightfold Path, the category of shila includes the three practices of right speech, right action, and right livelihood. Here in the Mahayana path, the view of moral discipline and virtue is expanded into the vast and profound aspiration of bodhichitta, which as we’ve seen is an essential part of the practice of dedication. And in order for us to be able to take skilful action to benefit others, our bodhichitta of aspiration needs to be accompanied by training in skilful means, which is also known as bodhichitta of application.
  • Samadhi (training in meditation or contemplation): In the Eightfold Path, the category of samadhi includes the three practices of right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana paths, mindfulness and non-distraction are no less vital in our practice. But now our view has expanded from the dualistic mindfulness of the Theravada path to the non-dual practices of the Mahayana and Vajrayana, which go completely beyond subject and object.

So to summarise, the authentic practice of dedication needs to be founded on all three of these trainings — the view of emptiness, the aspiration of bodhichitta, and the samadhi of non-distraction. And importantly, these elements are not isolated or sequential. They are continually practiced and refined together. And over time, our integrated practice deepens, leading to a profound transformation in how we experience ourselves and the world, moving ever closer to authentic dedication and the realisation of enlightenment. 

Dedication and aspiration: going beyond the duality of time

In his ngöndro commentary, Dudjom Rinpoche says that dedication is essentially a thought — that of transforming sources of good into the intention to gain enlightenment — to which we add the force of special words. He quotes from a sutra called the Array of Qualities of Mañjushri’s Buddhafield:

Everything depends on
The intention as a condition:
He who makes a prayer of aspiration
Will accomplish that very prayer. 

And in his commentary, he asks what, then, is the difference between a dedication and a prayer of aspiration? And he observes that most scholars say that these two are different names for the same thing. However, Longchenpa clarifies by adding that for a source of good that has already been produced, the words and prayer of aspiration together constitute a dedication, while to aspire to a source of good that has not yet been produced is a prayer of aspiration. So in other words, aspiration and dedication are really just two words for the same thing, differing only when we introduce the dualistic distinctions of time. 

We have already seen that when we seal our dedication with emptiness, the distinction between self and others dissolves. But likewise, all other dualistic distinctions dissolve, including those of time. And as we become able to genuinely seal our practice in this way, then dedicating merit (which is traditionally associated with past actions), and generating aspirations (which is traditionally associated with future actions) converge into a single, unified practice of intent. We recognise that the dedication of merit for past actions and the aspiration to engage in future beneficial actions are both expressions of a compassionate and wise intent that transcends time. So when we dedicate merit, we’re also setting the intention or aspiration to continue creating positive causes in the future. And conversely, when we make an aspiration, it reflects a continuation of the positive potential generated by our past actions. 

As our understanding and realisation of non-duality of emptiness deepens, practices like dedicating merit and making aspirations are seen not just as methods for dealing with individual actions or moments, but as continuous manifestations of an enlightened mind that sees beyond conventional time and self. We no longer see our actions as bound by temporal constraints, but rather as part of an ongoing, timeless expression of compassion and wisdom. This perspective not only deepens our practice, but also enhances the transformative power of these practices, reinforcing their role on the path to enlightenment. 

So in a very real sense, we can say that Samantabhadra’s King of Aspiration Prayers is also Samantabhadra’s King of Dedication Prayers. As the distinctions of time dissolve, endings become beginnings, and beginnings become endings. In the words of “Little Gidding”, one of my favourite poems by T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Dedication with the highest nondual view

So as we have seen, by sealing our dedication with emptiness, we go beyond the distinctions of self and others, the distinctions of past and future, and even the distinctions of aspiration and dedication. And as we hear in the fundamental teachings on mindfulness, when we remain in the present, we engage fully with our immediate experience, reducing the regret that stems from preoccupation with past memories, and the anxiety that comes with our hopes and fears about what might happen in the future. We cultivate a state where our mind is undisturbed, undistracted, and at peace. 

But according to the highest non-dual teachings of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, there is still one more step to go. These teachings speak of the “fourth time”, which is not another point along the linear timeline of past, present and future, nor is it merely an extended present. Instead, it refers to an experiential understanding of time that completely transcends the conventional division into past, present and future. It is a realisation of the state of pure awareness that is not conditioned by any conceptual understanding or limiting notion, including the limiting notion of time. This awareness is the fundamental nature of mind. There is no time in this state. It is an experience of timelessness, where the conventional dualities of time have dissolved. 

And this is important if we are practicing the non-dual path. When we have at least an intellectual understanding of the fourth time, it helps shed light on the practice advice where we are told not to try to extend moments of non-dual experience and pure awareness. Our masters tell us that the desire to extend these moments of non-dual awareness is an unfortunate residue from our dualistic practice of mindfulness. After all, if we are able to have an authentic experience of pure awareness and the “fourth time”, then it makes no sense to speak of attempting to lengthen or extend this experience, as it is literally beyond time. For the sake of communication, we may still speak of “resting” in the nature of mind, but ideally we go beyond the language of abiding and non-abiding. But when we attempt to talk about this state, words can only fail us. As Jigme Lingpa said, “As soon as we talk, it’s all contradiction. As soon as we think, it’s all confusion.” 

So what might dedication look like in the context of the timelessness of the fourth time? When seen with this view, merit itself is understood to be empty of inherent existence, and not something that is accumulated and then transferred. Actions that generate merit are expressions of the inherent Buddha nature that pervades all beings and all times. Dedication is not about sending merit from one point to another, but recognising and affirming the non-separation between oneself and all other beings. We approach a more non-dual understanding of bodhichitta where aspiration and dedication are not focused on gathering causes for future results, but are a timeless expression of enlightenment. Our dedication does not aim to affect the future in a conventional sense, but is instead a present moment realisation of the interconnectedness of all phenomena, which naturally encompasses all times. 

When we attain this realisation, we operate from a state of spontaneous and natural awareness, where our every action is naturally and effortlessly aligned with the welfare of all beings. And so our dedication of merit becomes an ongoing, non-conceptual way of being, rather than a deliberate act performed at specific times. Our every action, thought and word naturally serves as a dedication of merit, because we are continuously manifesting the qualities of a Buddha. This way of being is a direct manifestation of the Bodhisattva ideal, where helping others is not separate from any other activity. 

In conclusion, when dedication of merit is understood in the context of the fourth time, it ceases to be a discrete practice, and instead becomes an integral, seamless quality of an enlightened relationship to reality. It is no longer about doing something specific, but about being in a continuous state of dedication, where every moment is an expression of the ultimate union of wisdom and compassion, beyond the confines of conventional time. 

Dedication towards Rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land (Verses 57 – 60)

4.3. Dedication towards Actualising the Result
[57] When it is time for me to die,
Let all that obscures me fade away, so
I look on Amitabha, there in person,
And go at once to his pure land of Sukhavati.
 
[58] In that pure land, may I actualise every single one
Of all these aspirations!
May I fulfil them, each and every one,
And bring help to beings for as long as the universe remains!

4.4. Dedication towards Receiving a Prophecy from the Buddhas
[59] Born there in a beautiful lotus flower,
In that excellent and joyous buddha realm,
May the Buddha Amitabha himself
Grant me the prophecy foretelling my enlightenment!

4.5. Dedication towards Serving Others
[60] Having received the prophecy there,
With my billions of emanations,
Sent out through the power of my mind,
May I bring enormous benefit to sentient beings, in all the ten directions!

In verses 57 and 58, we’re dedicating the merit so that one day when we die, we will go to Sukhavati, the Pure Land of Amitabha, and that once we’re reborn in the Pure Land of Sukhavati, we’ll continue to benefit beings and actualise all the aspirations we’ve made. In verse 59, we’re further dedicating the merit so that Amitabha Buddha will grant us the prophecy that we’ll attain enlightenment in the future. And in verse 60, we dedicate the merit so that through the power of having received this prophecy, we’ll be able to manifest countless forms in order to benefit other beings through the power of our mind. 

Rinpoche’s visit to a Pure Land temple in China

When teaching on the Pranidhana-Raja in Vancouver in 2024, Rinpoche told a story of how he had visited the head monastery of the Pure Land School in China a few years previously. He said, “As I entered, they were giving all the tourists pamphlets with an explanation of Pure Land Buddhism, which said something about Amitabha and Buddhist heaven. And you remember how we previously talked about how bodhisattvas have to learn to communicate with different beings using different languages?” Rinpoche said, “I guess even though the word ‘heaven’ sort of annoyed me, I thought, ‘Yes, why not?’ And then when I went in, I saw that the temple itself is one of the most beautiful temples. It has so many beautiful Chinese characters written in ancient calligraphy.” And he had a good translator with him and asked him to translate many of these scripts. And Rinpoche said, “I was thinking, if only they’d just translated some of these and put them in the brochure instead of talking about “Buddhist heaven”. But I understand because some of the contents of the Pure Land teachings are maybe not that easy for people to digest.” 

Nevertheless, it is mentioned several times in this Pranidhana-Raja that whoever does this aspiration will enter Sukhavati, the Pure Land of Amitabha. So we should spend a few moments talking about this. And here, Rinpoche said that migrating is such a thing for sentient beings. You can see it if you walk around a downtown shopping street in a city centre. It is one of the familiar afflictive or destructive emotions that we all have. The grass is always greener on the other side. And this has been with us since dualism started. We all fantasise about going somewhere else, a better place, a land of dreams. Maybe somewhere like the Wild West or a tropical beach, wherever. And of course, for different people, there are different dream lands. But the Pure Lands in Buddhism are not about escapism. So how should we understand them?

Taking a trip to blow your nose in North Vancouver

Here Rinpoche gave example of how the Mahayana Pure Land works. Here said usually when you go somewhere, there’s always an aim, like going for a job interview or to pick up a package or to see a museum, something like this. Or to meet your uncle. Or maybe to actually settle there. He said, “I’m talking on a very profound level, so be prepared. I’m just giving you one of the ingredients of the atmosphere of the Pure Land”. So after this session, if you just walk on whatever road and just go, you will find that the atmosphere is very pure. It doesn’t matter where you go. You have nothing to do. There is no place to reach. 

Rinpoche said, “Now if you have to have an aim, how about going to North Vancouver just to blow your nose? When you get there, you blow your nose and then you come back. I bet you this will be the most blissful trip”. Because blowing your nose is not that big a deal, right? Upon reaching there, you can really blow it ceremoniously if you want. And if you really want to do it with a proper ritual, maybe you could get up tomorrow in the morning and put on your best dress as if you’re going for the most important job interview. You can iron your napkins, all in preparation for the nose-blowing. Make a really big fuss about this ironing. Then take a taxi or walk or take a boat. And of course, remember, you’re doing this for the benefit of all sentient beings. And then you reach North Vancouver, the place where you will forever depart from your snot. He said, “I’m trying to make it a little watered down, but this is actually a very important aspect of the Pure Land”.

He continued, “But I understand because many people, when they read the descriptions of the Pure Land, they get distracted by things like birds that speak and swimming pools”. And another very important aspect of the description of the Pure Land is the ground beneath your feet. Supposedly, if you press down on it, it sinks. And if you let it go, it comes up again like a sofa seat. And here, he said, you know, many of these prayers were written many hundreds of years ago when only a very small number of people could afford a sofa seat. And just imagine if all the birds started to talk. I don’t think you would have much of a good day. But please read the Amitabha Pure Land Sutras. They’re just so beautiful. But you have to think within this context of the beyond ordinary thinking of the Mahayana. It’s so beautiful, actually. 

And even if you’re not so well behaved in this life, as long as you are really wholeheartedly devoted to Amitabha, you will be reborn in the Amitabha realm inside a lotus. Although the lotus might not blossom right away, you’re already okay because you know that one of these days it is going to blossom. These descriptions are just so profound. We need to somehow communicate the vast and profound Mahayana view to ordinary people. And that’s how these Pure Land scriptures communicate it. So anyway, when you read the aspiration and dedication to be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land, just think about blowing your nose in North Vancouver, and probably it will make a little more sense. Of course, you can still think about talking birds and swimming pools and all of that. Whatever wonderful and beautiful things you can imagine: trees, mountains, lakes, turquoise, all of that. 

Should we aspire to be reborn in Sukhavati?

There was a question about Pure Lands in 2016 in the Taipei teachings. 

[Q]: In this aspiration prayer, Samantabhadra aspires that when he passes away, may he be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land of Sukhavati. So I thought we should also want to be reborn there. But when I listened to your teachings, it doesn’t seem like you’re encouraging people to be reborn in Sukhavati. Can you say more about that?

[DJKR]: It looks like when these Bodhisattvas aspire, they specifically choose some sort of reference point or value. I’ll try to explain. This is a little difficult. For instance, Avalokiteshvara supposedly blessed his name. He aspired that his name would become the most popular among all the Bodhisattvas. And whoever hears his name will have some sort of connection or link with love and compassion. And it looks like it is true. Because I’d say that among all the Bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara is probably the most well-known. From Sri Lanka all the way to China and Japan, there is involvement with Avalokiteshvara everywhere. 

And the story for Pure Land Buddhism also begins with a dedication. It is believed that many aeons ago, there was a monk called Dharmakara, and he dedicated his merit to bless a specific place called Sukhavati where everyone would be attracted to go. It’s almost like Sukhavati, the place, is even more famous than Amitabha himself, and certainly more famous than Dharmakara. For instance, how many of you wish to be reborn in the land of ponytails? I don’t think you’ve even heard of it, have you? That’s the Buddhafield of Vajrapani, which is called Changlo Chen, which basically means , “The Land of Long Hair”. And how many of you aspire to go to the Land of Turquoise Leaves? That’s where Tara is. If there are some Nyingmapas here, perhaps some of you wish to go to the Copper-Coloured Mountain. And Rinpoche said, “To me the most attractive place is Khechara, which is the land of Vajrayogini. From a very young age I was so attracted to the idea of letters made of coral. And I like the idea that if I wholeheartedly devote myself to Vajrayogini, then even if I’m about to take rebirth in a donkey’s womb, for instance, that this beautiful 16-year-old girl with a sindoor on her forehead will just grab my wrist and pull me up. I like this.” And actually, even Mañjushri’s land is not really certain either. In many sutras it’s referred to as Ngadré Zhing, which means “The Land of the Sound of Drum”. But it’s also believed that Mañjushri’s land is actually here on this earth in Wutaishan, which is about five hours’ drive from Beijing. “I’m serious,” Rinpoche said, “I’m not making this up.” 

But anyway, among all these pure realms, Amitabha’s realm seems to be top of the list. And Rinpoche said, “Now, as I talk about these things, you might think that a pure realm is some sort of theistic or religious concept of heaven. But it’s not like that in Buddhism. Because the Amitabha realm can be understood on many different levels. And as it’s stated in the Amitabha sutras, the moment you close your eyes, you are already there in the Amitabha realm. Meaning the Amitabha realm is here and now”. But for those who can’t understand these kinds of profound teachings, then yes, there are mentions such as “Towards the west where the sun sets, there is Amitabha’s realm” and so on and so forth. 

So in answer to your question, what should I say? Sukhavati is specifically included here because the Pranidhana-Raja is an aspiration to benefit all sentient beings in every way, according to the specific needs of each sentient being. And so while we are aspiring to enter into ocean-like Buddha fields, we can also aspire to enter into Amitabha’s realm. That is the most popular and sort of easy to access of the pure realms. And I guess that’s why it’s included here specifically. 

Conclusion (Verses 61 – 63)

5. Conclusion

[61] Through whatever small virtues I have gained
By reciting this “Aspiration to Good Actions”,
May the virtuous wishes of all beings’ prayers and aspirations
All be instantly accomplished!
 
[62] Through the true and boundless merit
Attained by dedicating this “Aspiration to Good Actions”,
May all those now drowning in the ocean of suffering,
Reach the supreme realm of Amitabha!
 
[63] May this King of Aspirations bring about
The supreme aim and benefit of all infinite sentient beings;
May they perfect what is described in this holy prayer, uttered by Samantabhadra!
May the lower realms be entirely emptied!

This completes the King of Aspiration Prayers, Samantabhadra’s “Aspiration to Good Actions.”

In verse 61 we dedicate the merit of reciting the Pranidhana-Raja so the virtuous wishes and aspirations of all beings will be instantly accomplished. In verse 62 we dedicate the merit so that not only I but all beings will be reborn in Amitabha’s pure land of Sukhavati. And the final dedication comes in verse 63, which was added by the Tibetan translators and does not appear in the Chinese or Sanskrit versions of the prayer. Once again we dedicate the merit and aspire that through the benefit of this prayer, may all beings benefit and may all the lower realms such as the hell realms be emptied. And so with that we come to the end of the Pranidhana Raja. 

I’d like to close this week with a couple of Zen stories. Returning to this week’s image of releasing a bird, the first story is a lovely example of what it means to let go of a good deed:

Muddy Road
Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.
Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
‘Come on, girl,’ said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself.
‘We monks don’t go near females.’ He told Tanzan, especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?’
‘I left the girl there,’ said Tanzan. ‘Are you still carrying her?”

The second story is a story about “good in the end”, told with one of those beautifully down-to-earth Zen examples:

Joshu Washes the Bowl
A monk told Joshu: “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
Joshu asked: “Have you eaten your rice porridge?”
The monk replied: “I have eaten.”
Joshu said: “Then you had better wash your bowl.”
At that moment the monk was enlightened.”

So let’s close by making a dedication. And this week I’ll use the lovely dedication verse by Nagarjuna:

By this merit may all attain omniscience.
May it defeat the enemy, wrong-doing.
From the stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death — the ocean of samsara,
May all beings be free!

I’ll give you a moment to dedicate yourself. 

[Pause]

With that, thank you, and I look forward to seeing you again next week for our final week.

[END OF TEACHING]


Note: to read footnotes please click on superscript numbers

Transcribed and edited by Alex Li Trisoglio