The Fourth Practice: Visualizing a Bountiful Field for Spiritual Growth
The fourth of the six preparatory practices is to visualize a bountiful field for spiritual growth (tshogs-zhing, Skt. punyakshetra). That’s usually called the merit field, but there is a meaning to that: It’s a field in which we plant more and more seeds of our positive force to grow. And it’s a bountiful field; it will yield an abundant crop. Again this can be an extremely complicated visualization or just a simpler one with our root guru in the form of a Buddha on a throne, like we had previously.
I won’t go into terribly much detail here, but just one little point. The posture of the Buddha is that the right hand is in the earth-touching posture – so it’s down, touching the earth, Buddha is calling upon the earth to bear witness to his defeat of Mara. Maras are the offspring of the gods. When we talk about the maras, well, in one way you could call them demons, but also they are strong interferences. Mara actually comes from the Sanskrit word mrta, which is “dead.”
So on the one hand you have Mara in the form of all these interferences that came to Buddha when he was under the bodhi tree manifesting enlightenment, which is a wonderful example, by the way. You would think that Buddha had built up such enormous positive force by the time that he was ready to become enlightened that he wouldn’t have interferences so strong like Mara, the way that it’s depicted – with the dancing girls and the whole bit. But the stronger positive thing that you’re trying to do, the more interferences that it tends to bring about, and the really great bodhisattva is the one that overcomes that. So if we’re trying to do something positive and there are interferences, nothing special. Come on, think of the example of Buddha under the bodhi tree, or think of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the attitude of the Chinese leaders toward him in terms of difficulties to overcome and how he deals with that and how he doesn’t get depressed. So never think “Oh, poor me. I have such troubles.” Compared to His Holiness the Dalai Lama dealing with the Chinese, come on, our troubles are trivial.
Then the Buddha has the begging bowl in his lap, holding it in his left hand, and this has the three nectars. What does that word nectar (bdud-rtsi, Skt. amrita) mean? It doesn’t convey the real flavor of the word. Remember Serkong Rinpoche said to milk the meaning out of each of the words, like milking a cow – the Indian image of the wishing-granting cow – so you get all the fantastic things from it. Amrita is the Sanskrit word. Mrita is again this word “dead,” mara, and with the prefix a, so it is overcome – so these are demon-defying nectars. And Tibetans translate it with a two-syllable word; one syllable is the word for mara (bdud).
The nectars are:
- Medicine – to overcome the mara of the aggregates (so sickness)
- The nectar of long life – to overcome the mara of death
- The nectar of deep awareness – to overcome the mara of the disturbing emotions.
So the deeper that you go into what everything represents, the more that you see so much of the path is included in all these little aspects.
The Fifth Practice: The Seven-Limb Prayer and Mandala Offering
There are many versions of this seven-limb practice. Perhaps the earliest is the one found in the Prayer of Samatabhadra, found at the end of the Gandavyuha Sutra. Then there is one coming from Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland. A very commonly practiced one is the one from Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior.
Prostration. You imagine that your body multiplies into an enormous number of bodies and they’re all prostrating. Each of these seven limbs overcomes a certain type of disturbing emotion. So this helps us to overcome or counter pride and conceit. “I’m so wonderful. I’m not going to bow down.” This type of attitude.
We try to do this with the Samantabhadra type of offerings. So from our heart we emanate a Samantabhadra who is holding a jewel, and from his heart he emanates two Samantabhadras (each of them holding a jewel), and from each of them two more Samantabhadras, and then it gets enormous, as in the subtle yoga on the generation stage of anuttarayoga tantra. We emanate them in order and bring them back in order. Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche always would explain things on this very complex “Real Thing” level, always with an idea that this is in conjunction with more advanced practice. So that’s how we get this type of visualization for Samantabhadra offerings.
I think that that actually is very helpful because it helps very much with arrogance, thinking that “Oh, it’s going to be so simple. I can do that.” You present something that’s really difficult to do, and it’s not only a challenge but “This is something that could in fact take my entire life to be able to do properly.” So the fact you are going to do this every day is not stupid because it is hard to do and so you will need to practice and develop yourself greater and greater. It develops this perseverance, this joyful perseverance, which, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says – what gives him the greatest strength is to think in terms of three zillion eons of building up positive force. If you think in terms of “Well, I’ll attain enlightenment in just one lifetime or three years” – this he calls “Buddhist propaganda.” It is very easy to think in terms of “I want to get a bargain. I don’t want to have to work so hard. And so I’ll get enlightenment cheap.” I mean, it is possible to attain enlightenment in three years – that’s not just complete nonsense – but it can be used as propaganda to attract people because they think it’s easy. It’s not easy. The word propaganda – that’s from His Holiness; I’m not making that up.
A slightly simpler visualization for Samantabhadra offerings is you emanate a Samantabhadra. He has a jewel in his hands. And from the jewel, infinite rays of light emanate forth, and each of them has the various offerings – the water bowls, flowers, incense, etc. Somewhat easier.
Making offerings helps to counter miserliness.
Then next is the open admission of the mistakes and faults that we’ve made in the past, our previous destructive behavior, and applying the four opponents. These four are very important always to invoke:
1. Regret – of our previous mistaken behavior. It’s not guilt but regret. “I really wish I hadn’t done that.” It’s not guilt, which is making a big solid thing out of what I did (“It’s so bad”), and for me, for having done it, “I’m so bad,” and then not letting go.
2. The strong resolve not to repeat the action – one of the guidelines for that is don’t make a promise: “For the rest of my life, I’m never going to do this again,” because probably you won’t be able to keep that. Start slowly: “For the next week, I’m not going to do that.” Then the next month, the next year, and extend the time that you’re going to really make an effort not to repeat the type of destructive behavior that you had done in the past.
3. Reaffirm your positive direction in life and bodhichitta aim.
4. Counterbalance the negativity with positive actions – there’s a whole variety of them that can be used).
This helps us t overcome in general the three poisonous attitudes:
- Longing desire – for something you don’t have; attachment – if you have it, not wanting to let go; and greed – you want even more
- Anger or hostility
- Naivety about either cause and effect or reality, not naive about what time is it.
This is the basis for why we act in a destructive way. We act under the influence of these poisonous attitudes. They poison our mind.
The fourth of the seven branches is to rejoice in the positive things that others and ourselves have done. In terms of others, that’s ordinary beings, shravakas, pratyekabuddhas, bodhisattvas, and Buddhas. This overcomes jealousy and envy.
When we talk about overcoming these disturbing emotions, what you try to do is to really examine yourself – Do I have these disturbing emotions? – and try to see them and work with these types of practices, not just in the meditation here. When you hear about somebody doing well or succeeding, and so on, notice if you have this tendency to be envious: “Oh, I wish I had done that” or “I wish that didn’t happen to them. I wish it happened to me,” and so on. That’s when you need to counter with rejoicing. Feel happy for them. Shantideva says: if you’re wishing everybody to become enlightened, what’s your problem if they succeed in some worldly thing?
Then the fifth one is requesting the Buddhas and the teachers to teach. That helps us to overcome the tendency to abandon or discard the teachings. “I don’t need them. I know everything.”
Beseeching the Teachers Not to Pass Away
Then asking the teachers not to pass away. This helps us to overcome the shortcoming of abusing or despising our teachers – “I don’t like you” or “I don’t like the way that you’re teaching,” and so on – so then of course they would go away. Looking down on the teacher. “I don’t need the teacher.”
Then the dedication to the enlightenment of all beings. That helps us to prevent anger. Anger devastates the positive force that we build up. You build up some positive force, and you want to, in a sense, save it in the liberation or enlightenment folder and not have it in the samsaric folder, and you don’t want to weaken it with anger.
We have two statements about this in the texts of the great Indian masters:
- In Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, he says anger at a bodhisattva destroys the positive force of thousands of eons. In the commentaries it’s explained that this is specifically directing our anger at a bodhisattva of higher level of attainment than ourselves.
- Chandrakirti, in his Engaging in Madhyamaka says that anger devastates hundreds of eons of positive force. According to the commentaries, this is when we’re a bodhisattva and we aim it at another bodhisattva of the same level of attainment as ourselves.
So thousands if the bodhisattva’s higher, hundreds if it’s the same level. That’s why you have this discrepancy of the number in these two texts.
This becomes actually a very difficult topic. First of all, from the texts it seems to be talking just about anger directed at bodhisattvas. And so then the question is: Does it destroy the positive force that I have built up in general, of everything? And I’ve heard one explanation that it is only devastating the positive force that was built up with that particular bodhisattva – that now, by getting angry at that particular bodhisattva, it devastates that positive force. That actually was the main explanation that I heard. Given beginningless lifetime and a finite number of beings, we’ve built up a tremendous amount of karma with everybody. So the karma is quite specific here.
So you need to differentiate between a commentarial explanation of a particular line in a text and general advice. General advice: don’t get angry with others, because it is going to devastate your positive force in general. When the text is giving these fantastic numbers, that’s quite a specific case. So differentiate those two; otherwise you freak out. “Oh, I got angry at my dog, and now I’ve blown it. I’ve ruined thousands of eons of positive force.” This is not using human intelligence to discriminate between when something applies and when it doesn’t apply. What is the context when a certain teaching applies, and when does it not apply? Know the context to apply teachings. Don’t get a fanatic version – that just getting angry with a mosquito is going to totally destroy thousands of eons of positive force. If that’s the case, then there’s no hope for any of us).
The word that is used implies to devastate (bcom) the positive force. It doesn’t mean to delete it completely. It means that it will take a very much longer time for it to ripen and that when it does ripen, it will ripen with a much, much smaller force. That’s what the word means. So again you always have to look at the meaning of the words that are used, and often they will be translated with words that don’t quite convey the correct meaning. So when you’re puzzled by something, always ask the teacher what’s the definition of the word. Tibetan geshes can give you definitions if they are properly trained in debate. They have to memorize all the definitions.
Then we offer a mandala of request [See also: What is Mandala?]. There are tons of instructions about how to do that. This isn’t really the opportunity for being able to share that with you. But on one level we are offering the whole universe. “I want to give everything in order to be able to benefit others.” This is represented by the mandala. Whether we imagine or represent the universe in the form of Mount Meru and the continents or in the form of the earth or the solar system or the galaxy or whatever, it doesn’t matter. The point is it’s everything.
Remember Tsongkhapa’s wonderful teachings on the practice of far-reaching generosity from his Lam-rim chen-mo (Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path). When we make a small offering as an aspiring bodhisattva, this is just a representation of offering everything to everyone. And so within that context of offering everything to everyone, I’m offering a bowl of water to my dog. That one thing that I am offering is representative of everything, and the dog is representative of all beings. So we train ourselves to have that scope with offering the mandala, where it actually is the whole universe and it’s to everybody.
On another level, if you look at the words of the mandala offering verse, we are also imagining that everything is a pure land, and so we are offering the circumstances of a pure land – like what arya bodhisattvas have as their environment when they receive teachings from Buddhas in their Sambhogakaya form. So we imagine “May everybody have the most perfect circumstances for study and practice.”
The Sixth Practice: Infusing Our Mental Continuum with Inspiration from the Lineage Masters
The sixth preparatory is to infuse our mental continuum with the inspiration of the lineage masters in accordance with guideline instructions for making requests. So we request our spiritual master, the Buddha, to come and stay with me throughout not just my meditation session but all the time.
There are so many verses of requests that we have and so many practices, and often it’s translated as bless me for this or that. This again gives quite a misleading connotation. What we want is inspiration, and we’re opening ourselves up: inspire me, uplift me, brighten me. These are all the connotations of the word byin-gyis rlabs that is unfortunately translated as bless me.
The Buddhas are inspiring because of their enlightening activity, trinley (’phrin-las). Their enlightening activity is actually an enlightening influence. The texts always describe that the Buddhas don’t have to do anything; just their very way of being inspires and uplifts everyone. So this is the enlightening activity, which I prefer to translate as the enlightening influence, of a Buddha. It’s not that Buddha’s going out and helping this one and that one – although there are emanations, obviously, that do something like that – but it’s an effortless thing on the side of a Buddha.
So it’s not that we have to request it because if we didn’t request it a Buddha would not exert this enlightening influence. The enlightening influence is like the sun; it’s shining all the time. It’s that by making a request, we’re opening up ourselves to receiving that enlightening influence. We hear in terms of teaching that you always have to request the teacher to teach – the teacher isn’t going to offer on his or her part; he only will teach when it’s requested. You have to understand that properly. A teacher is always teaching. Buddha is always exerting this enlightening influence. The sun is always shining. But we won’t receive that teaching unless we, in a sense, request, so open up. So that’s this making requests.
We request the guru to come, take the seat on the lotus and moon on top of our heads – Buddha’s everywhere, so this is just figuratively – to open up, be with me, take care of me with your bountiful kindness, and bestow on me your actual attainments of body, speech, and mind so I can become like you. So a replica of the Buddha in front comes and sits on the top of your head – it’s small, made of light, transparent, so it’s not “Oh, it’s so heavy” – and you request the Buddha in front to send waves of inspiration to you in the form of rays of light. It enters our heart, this light, fills our body with light, eliminates the darkness of unreceptive attitudes that we might have, mental obstacles. Then this Buddha in front dissolves into the replica on our head – in the actual ritual texts, again we do a short seven-limb practice and mandala offering – and then it stays there throughout our meditation session, on the top of our head, to sort of remind us to concentrate, don’t mentally wander, to be open and receptive to gaining insight, and to actually generate the various states of mind that we are working with in our meditation or, if we’re doing a session of ngondro, our preliminary practices.
Usually if you’re going to do a meditation session after that, you would do the Manjushri Prayer: Praise to the Intelligent One – that’s called Gang-loma (Gang blo-ma) in Tibetan – to gain inspiration and there are various visualizations with that as well and for our mind to become sharp.
For the rest of the day, we can also keep the guru on our head. If we’re doing a lot of ngondro prostrations, don’t get it too literal – the guru is going to fall off the top of my head if I do prostration. Your hair doesn’t fall off the top of your head when you do prostration, does it?
Serkong Rinpoche used to have these wonderful examples when people were worried: “I’m going through the day, so how do I imagine that I’m in the form of this deity with all these arms and legs and so on.” He said, “You’re wearing your clothes all day long, aren’t you?” So whether you are aware of what your clothes look like and how you look, and so on, you still are wearing your clothes all day long, so you still are in the form of this Buddha-figure.
In any case, there’s also an alternative way to visualize in which you could imagine that the guru on the top of your head comes to your heart.
This is the six-part preliminary and a very useful practice to do in some form or another in the beginning of our meditation session or the beginning of a session of preliminary practices. And you see many of them at the beginning of all the long tantric sadhanas as well. There is always refuge, bodhichitta, the lineage prayer and requesting inspiration. They are essential elements of all our practices.