bodhicitta

The big turn-around (Day 88)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I started this 100 Days of Lovingkindness just after our new year drive to get people meditating regularly — our 100 Day Meditation Challenge — was coming to an end.

Naturally there was a lot of discussion on our Google+ community about what we were going to do to follow on from our first 100 days, and many people were keen on exploring mindfulness, using a wonderful book by Jan Chozen Bays, called How to Train a Wild Elephant. But I really wanted to explore lovingkindness practice and the other Brahmaviharas.

There are no doubt many reasons for this. One is that I’d lost my temper a couple of times, and although I’d been able to let that pass very quickly I was aware that I still had a lot of work to in deeply imbuing my mind with love, patience, kindness, and compassion. I needed to rewire my brain for love, at a much deeper level than before.

Not long after that I was leading an online Dharma Study group one night, and we were exploring the Buddhist precepts and the basis of Buddhist ethics. (This group meets in a Google+ Hangout, which is a form of videoconferencing.) And as part of our studies we explored the following passage, which is from The Ten Pillars of Buddhism, a book Sangharakshita wrote on Buddhist ethics. Take a deep breath — it’s a long quotation and it includes other quotations.

Killing is tantamount to the rejection of the most basic principle of ethics, just as the cultivation of love represents this principle in its positive form. As Shelley so finely says:

“The great secret of morals is love, or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his own species must become his own.”

In the Bodhicaryāvatāra, or “Entry into the Way of Enlightenment,” Śāntideva gives this principle what is probably its highest expression in Buddhist literature. In his chapter on “Meditation,” after describing how a man stills vain imaginings and strengthens his “Will to Enlightenment” (Bodhicitta), he proceeds:

“First he will diligently foster the thought that his fellow creatures are the same as himself. “All have the same sorrows, the same joys as myself, and I must guard them like myself. The body, manifold of parts in its division of members, must be preserved as a whole; and so likewise this manifold universe has its sorrow and its joy in common…I must destroy the pain of another as though it were my own…I must show kindness to others, for they are creatures as I am myself…Then, as I would guard myself from evil repute, so I will frame a spirit of helpfulness and tenderness towards others.”

…I will cease to live as self, and will take as myself my fellow creatures. We love our hands and other limbs, as members of the body; then why not love other living beings, as members of the universe?…Thus in doing service to others pride, admiration and desire for reward find no place, for thereby we satisfy the wants of our own self. Then, as thou wouldst guard thyself against suffering and sorrow, so exercise the spirit of helpfulness and tenderness towards the world.”

Avalokitesvara_BodhisattvaThis is what is known as the practice of equality of self and other, and the substitution of self and others. Blake gives succinct expression to the same principle when he declares “To put another before you is the most sublime act.”

I’d read this book several times, and this particular passage even more often, but I found myself more receptive to it that night than ever before. And I thought, Yes, I want to live a life that embodies and exemplifies compassion. I want compassion to be the main thing I do.

And so I proposed that we do 100 Days of Lovingkindness, and fortunately it turned out to be the more popular of the two options. (Bear in mind though that we’ll start to explore How to Train a Wild Elephant when the current 100 Days is over.)

The Mahāyāna, a Buddhist movement that began a few hundred years after the time of the Buddha, strongly emphasized compassion. Śāntideva, who is quoted above, wrote passionately about developing compassion, and saw it as being central to the path of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is one who is not only set on enlightenment, but whose deepest wish is to help others attain the peace of enlightenment too.

The compassion that Śāntideva describes, and that was central to the Mahāyāna, is actually identical to upekkha. Now that statement makes little sense if you take upekkha to be “equanimity,” which is the standard translation. But upekkha literally means “closely watching” and is a brahmavihara, which means it’s a loving quality. The peace or equanimity of upekkha is what we experience when we closely watch our own experience, and peace is what we wish for others. In other words, in upekkhā bhāvanā our deepest wish is to help others attain the peace of enlightenment. The compassion that the Mahāyāna teaches is actually a bit different from the compassion of the brahma viharas. It’s deeper, more far-reaching. It includes an acute awareness that the only way we can help someone to be completely free of suffering is to help them become awakened. It’s more closely aligned with insight, as upekkha is.

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As Buddhism developed, somehow the loving and compassionate nature of upekkha as a brahmavihara became overlooked, and the quality of even-mindedness or equanimity was seen as being its defining characteristic. This gave the impression that in the brahmaviharas we start with love, then develop compassion, then develop joy, and then cool everything off by becoming equanimous. The word equanimous has a “straight from the fridge” coolness, or even frostiness, about it that can be very off-putting. It’s hard to be inspired by the ideal of equanimity.

But upekkha isn’t fundamentally about equanimity. It’s closely watching other beings and guiding them to the peace of awakening. And that is inspiring.

There’s a mythic Bodhisattva (Bodhisattvas can be people like you and me, but sometimes they are human images of enlightenment) called Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara literally is “The Lord Who Looks Down” with compassion upon beings, although I like to think of him as the Lord Who Watches Closely Over beings with compassion. So I see upekkha and the Mahāyāna take on compassion as being the same: closely watching over beings with the desire that they find the peace and equanimity of awakening. And that’s not a cold quality at all; it’s warm, and loving — and wise, and it brings about in ourselves and others the biggest turn-around you can have.

Om manipadme hum.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Avalokitesvara: The heart of the rainbow

As a child growing up in Scotland I had a strong relationship with the Holy Spirit. I would pray for the Holy Spirit to fill me with the love that existed between God the Father and God the Son. I have no idea where I got this sophisticated understanding of the Holy Spirit — but he was the personification of the love that enabled God to let his son be sacrificed to redeem mankind. I prayed that this mighty love would free me and others from the suffering I saw around me. Perhaps it made sense of how God could be a god of love and yet, alongside the beauty and marvels of the world, he could allow so much violence and poverty to exist.

I would escape from home and go to our local Catholic church. I sang in the choir, and climbing up to the choir loft was more than taking a few steps, it was entering a world far from Glasgow’s gang-fights, alcoholism, and pain. High Mass on Sundays, Ave Maria at weddings, masses for the dead — we sang them all. The Holy Spirit was certainly there: I begged for his divine help and was blessed by his presence. (The Father held no promise for me, and the son was too pained.) Sometimes a white dove of peace hovered over me, sometimes tongues of fire, but always the Holy Spirit was love. I had experiences of bliss, of grace, and a burning love for humanity — states of mind that I now understand as the absorbed state of dhyana.

Then came the fall from grace. Aged 13 1 could use reason to question, and Roman Catholicism no longer satisfactorily answered me. I lost my faith. I hid my skepticism and continued in the choir and doing charitable deeds for the sick and elderly. I carried on with everything except God until my integrity stopped me. I argued with everyone about the mysteries of religion and the existence of a creator god. At 15 1 declared myself an atheist and joined the Young Communist League. The rhetoric and sense of comradeship was even better there, but I did miss the Holy Spirit.

So, I put the opiate of the people behind me and concentrated on making the world a better place by other means. Ten years later, disillusioned by the political options and nearing a nervous breakdown after a series of bereavements, I found myself in the Glasgow Buddhist Centre. I was listening to a taped lecture by an English gentleman with a somniferous voice. The lecture had an electrifying effect. I had come home. I immediately immersed myself in Buddhism.

Here was a more rigorous analysis of the world’s wrongs than anything I had so far discovered. Here was the possibility of change: personal and global — and, in meditation, the methods to bring about that change. Here, too, was the possibility of religious experience. I set about examining Buddhism under the spotlight of philosophical questioning. I was suspicious of devotional practices but at the same time I loved them. I felt transported as I chanted mantras. My voice could again be lifted in worship.

I am glad I encountered the Dharma in Glasgow. I heard it in a voice which, not only in accent but in discourse and rhetoric, sounded enough like my own to reach me. Yet what it was saying was new enough to intrigue me. Most importantly I learnt about the Bodhisattva Ideal, that most sublime of human ideals. The heart of this ideal is the desire to gain Enlightenment not only for oneself but for all beings — with the purpose of ending the world’s suffering. So, I met the true love of my life: the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

Our love affair began with immediate recognition, followed by periods of less interest and then a growing appreciation and deepening love. At least on my side. As he is an archetypal Bodhisattva, existing outside time and space, I can’t speak for him. From the start I loved his mantra: om mani padme hum — homage to the jewel in the lotus. As I understood more layers of meaning to the mantra I loved it even more, but initially it was just the reverberating sound. And I was delighted to learn that while chanting his mantra practitioners imagine each of the six syllables entering the hearts of suffering beings in the six realms of existence.

A few years later, when I committed myself through ordination, I decided to take up visualising Avalokitesvara The quintessence of Compassion, he is one of the best known Bodhisattvas and is worshipped all over the Buddhist world. He is contemplated in many forms, the most popular variations having either four or 1,000 arms. And each of the hands has an eye to ensure that the altruism informed with clarity.

He appears in various Mahayana Sutras, for example in the Karanda-Vyuha Sutra where he is the typical Bodhisattva who will ‘enter Nirvana’ until all beings are saved. His task is to ‘help all sufferers, to save them from every distress, and to exercise infinite pity that does not even shrink from sin nor does it stop at the gates of hell’. In the Surangama Sutra Avalokitesvara gains Enlightenment through deep meditation on sound. Interestingly enough the Bodhisattva of Compassion is the principal figure in the Heart Sutra, one of the Perfection of Wisdom texts — a reminder that Compassion is not separate from Wisdom.

Just before pledging myself to his practice, however, I had doubts — he seemed a bit white and wimpy, and the mantra (as we chanted it) sometimes sounded like a funeral dirge. But these doubts evaporated when I heard a talk on ‘The Glorious Array of Bodhisattvas’. I was waiting with anticipation to hear about Manjushri; but as the speaker began to talk about Avalokitesvara, I felt transported to another world. And I wept.

I recalled an experience from an earlier solitary retreat. During a Metta Bhavana (loving-kindness) meditation, as I became concentrated and peaceful, I was filled with bliss. Then a sound arose, from both outside and inside me. It was like the sound of keening, of a thousand lament,.; for the dead from ages immemorial down to the present, and into the future. It was the sound of battle cries and children wailing with hunger. It was the sound of women being raped and men being slaughtered, of small whimpers and loud clamors It was the sound of all suffering — and my heart felt fit to break.

I could not listen to this sound nor could I stop listening. It filled me and it filled the universe. I wanted to escape but there was nowhere to go because this sound was universal — of all times and all places. The pain in my chest became so unbearable I thought I might die.

Then I remembered some verses about Avalokitesvara from the White Lotus Sutra:

In quarrels disputes and in strife,
In the battles of men and in any great danger,
To recollect the name of Avalokitesvara
Will appease the troops of evil foes.

His voice is like that of a cloud or a drum
Like a rain cloud lie thunders, sweet in voice like Brahma.
His voice is the most perfect that can be.
So one should recall Avalokitesvara.

Think of him, think of him, without hesitation,
Of Avalokitesvara, that pure being.
In death, disaster and calamity
He is the savior, refuge and recourse.

As these verses came to mind, the sound changed and my breathing calmed. I saw the four-armed figure of Avalokitesvara and felt a white light stream from him towards me. It was like being bathed in warm rain, which cleansed and soothed me. It probably lasted only seconds but it was powerful. I chanted the mantra aloud and slowly hope returned.

So, recalling that experience during the talk, I decided: OK, I am yours. At my private ordination ceremony I told my teacher Sangharakshita about these experiences, and he laughed. He thought Avalokitesvara was appropriate for me as a visualisation practice primarily because Compassion is the core of the Bodhisattva Ideal and Sangharakshita recognised that this ideal was my North Star and guiding light.

As an ideal it is precious and beautiful, while as a practice it is demanding and, in a way impossible to fulfill. How can we ever relieve the suffering of all beings? How can we overcome our embedded ego-identity and reach out lovingly to all — beyond all likes and dislikes? How can I embrace the abuser and rapist with the same tenderness as the abused and raped; Avalokitesvara is the answer.

He is the end and the means. It doesn’t matter that the ideal seems impossible to realise. What matters is the willingness not to put a limit on what we will give. And believing that by trying to alleviate suffering, we can render the world a better place. As ecologists remind us, we can ‘think global and act local’. Moved by Avalokitesvara’s beauty, by his mantra or by what he symbolises, we can be inspired to approach each small act in our daily lives with loving-kindness.

For two decades I have visualised myself as the four-armed Avalokitesvara, seated in meditation and made of luminous white light surrounded by rainbows. He holds a jewel within one pair of folded hands before his heart while the other hands hold a rosary and a lotus flower. The jewel is the mani of his mantra and is the highest part of us, a jewel to be found within the lotus of our lives. The lotus flower grows out of the muddy bottom of a lake yet blossoms to .1 beauty that far transcends its soiled origins. So, too, can we blossom and shine, regardless of our beginnings. Our own jewel is found in the down-to-earth experiences of worldly life. Avalokitesvara suggests a way of being within the world but unsullied by it. This is the significance of his mantra: om mani padme hum, the jewel of our aspirations covered in the mud of the mundane.

The sounds of suffering are all around. True compassion means opening tip to those cries and being neither overwhelmed nor indifferent. Avalokitesvara’s name means ‘he who hears the cries of the world’. This is the attitude of the Bodhisattva: one who hears and acts upon that hearing.

Avalokitesvara’s jewel also signifies the Bodhicitta: the will to attain Enlightenment for the sake of all beings. The arising of the Bodhicitta is the ‘experience’ that makes one a Bodhisattva and as such it is of crucial importance in the life of every practitioner who has taken the Bodhisattva Ideal as their guiding star. It is not merely the wish for Enlightenment but a reorientation of one’s whole life and being in that direction. It is a burning love for all humanity and a commitment to acting in accordance with it, purifying all those unskilful acts that prevent us embodying the vision.

I have now come full circle. I am no longer the frightened child of the 1950s seeking divine help, but I still want to open my heart to a love that can alleviate the ills of our world. In Buddhism I have found a philosophy that acknowledges suffering and gives it a framework. When necessary I can articulate that philosophy — but that is not enough. I am inspired by the love of Avalokitesvara to help create a world without suffering.

I want to be transformed. I want the tongues, of fire to descend and to serve the dove of peace. When I imagine myself as the rainbow figure of Avalokitesvara, I offer my flesh-and-blood being as a vehicle for his transcendent qualities. In the end, with all my imperfections, I try to serve him, not as a god but as Compassion manifest in the universe.

According to the legend Avalokitesvara saw he could not save all beings through will-power alone — so great was his despair that his body shattered and he cried out for help. The Buddha Amitabha appeared and healed his broken form, giving Avalokitesvara 11 heads to see in all directions and 1,000 arms to act more comprehensively. This is a beautiful symbol for spiritual community. We are each an outstretched hand offering our unique talents. We’re also joined together in something much greater than ourselves — a true spiritual community which fosters both diversity and unity.

This is the body of Avalokitesvara, in whose heart is the jewel of the Bodhicitta. We need the Bodhisattva of Compassion because the battle cries are loud and the world is aching. May his mantra sound ever more clearly throughout our suffering world.

This article was previously published in Dharma Life magazine.

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“Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind,” Michael Stone (ed.)

Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind

This summer I led yoga on a month-long Buddhist meditation retreat in The Santa Cruz mountains, and when I returned home to the city this book, “Freeing the Body Freeing the Mind” was in my mailbox. It appeared like a welcome-home gift and a tool for reflecting more deeply on my own joyful exploration of Hatha Yoga and Buddhist mediation as one practice.

I had been pondering the relationship between the two traditions and how the two practices support one another, and this book is a deep reflection of these very themes. In a compilation of 13 essays from a variety of perspectives, the authors of this book explore this intersection and how Hatha Yoga and Buddhist meditation can inform and inspire one another.

Title: Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind: Writings on the Connections Between Yoga and Buddhism
Author: Michael Stone (ed.)
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-801-1
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.com, and Amazon.co.uk.

Michael Stone, in his essay “Practice Maps of the Great Yogis”, asks practitioners to ponder where the mind ends and the body begins, and where the body ends and the world begins. In “Zen Body”, Eido Shimano Roshi writes that studying “the way with the body” means to study the way with our own bodies, directly and with curiosity. And Frank Jude Boccio, in “Mindfulness Yoga”, reminds us that, according to the Buddha, in our exploration of bodily experience we can find discomfort, pain and suffering, but also peace and liberation.

“In order to meditate,” writes Eido Shimano Roshi, “we need our body. We also need our breath.” In his eloquent description of the Ch’an spatial breathing practice, Ming Qing Sifu, in “The Broad Tongue of the Tathagata”, writes of a “great circulation of breath”. “The breath, in a free space,” he writes, “will accomplish the absence of limits”.

“Just stop, look up, breathe in and breathe out,” advises Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, in “Body and Mind Dropped Away”. “Breathing is an experience of prana,” writes Chip Hartranft in “Awakening to Prana”, the body being “energetic by nature”, what the Buddha called “a body within the body”. “The yogi abides,” Hartranft says, “observing the body within the body.” He continues that “the yogi’s vision is yoked to the moment of unfolding, of arising and passing away.”

We enter into yoga postures not to complete some perfected image or gesture, but rather to wake up the intelligent union of mind, body and heart. (from Michael Stone’s essay “Practice Maps of the Great Yogis”)

Ari Goldfield and Rose Taylor, in “Joining with Naturalness”, say that “Buddhist yoga is ideally suited to being practiced right within our daily activities.” and invite practicioners to “arouse the mind of bodhicitta before every practice”, infusing “our whole practice with compassion’s power”. O’Hara quotes the Vimalakirti, urging us to “let go of every shred of self-clinging, to drop all notions of a separate self, all ideas of reality, of body and mind, let it all drop away.” “What is left,” he teaches, “is the ceremony of daily life.”

Ari Goldfield and Rose Taylor, in “Joining with Naturalness”, say that “Buddhist Yoga is ideally suited to being practiced right within our daily activities”, and they invite practitioners to “arouse the mind of bodhicitta before every practice”, to “infuse the whole practice with compassion’s power”. O’Hara quotes the Vimalakirti, urging us to “let go of every shred of self-clinging, to drop all notions of a separate self, all ideas of reality, of body and mind, let it all drop away.” Then “what is left,” he teaches, “is the ceremony of daily life.”

Several of the book’s authors challenge the dualistic view of the mind and body as separate, as well as the popular misconception that yoga is for the body and Buddhism for the mind. In “The Body of Truth”, Ajahn Amaro Bikkhu says that “the Buddha encouraged the kinds of practices that would keep the mind full of the body”, while Shosan Victoria Austin, in “Zen or Yoga” reminds us that “mind is not in the brain: mind permeates the whole.” And Sarah Powers, in “Mind and Body at Ease”, describes a practice of “receptive attention”, becoming “fluid, flexible and adaptable” and “coming home to our bodies in a dignified way”.

The deepest yoga makes us realize that the infinite space of our heart is free of any form and is all forms at the same time. (Ming Qing Sifu, in “The Broad Tongue of the Tathagata: Spatial Breathing in Ch’an)

In “Brahma Vihara, Emptiness and Ethics” Christopher Key Chapple explores three points of contact between Buddhism and classical yoga; the practice of the Brahma Viharas of friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity; an understanding of emptiness as described in The Heart Sutra; and the practice of ethics, compiled as the yamas and niyamas. Many of the essays relate Hatha Yoga practice to the Buddha’s instructions on The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, as well as practice instructions which focus on the body and the breath, in The Anapanati and Satipattana Suttas.

Michael Stone explains that “what Yogic and Buddhist teachings share is a radical challenge to the way we conceive spirituality.” New to me were the ways Patanjali, the author of “The Yoga Sutras” was influenced by the Buddha, and the counter culture roots of both the Buddhist and Hatha Yoga traditions. Both Shakyamuni Buddha and Patanjali questioned Brahminical orthodoxy and the rituals of the Vedic tradition.

Chip Hartranft describes how both the Buddhist path and Patanjali’s Hatha Yoga path rely on “direct seeing”, in a practice centered in the present moment.

What struck me as I finished the book was the depth of the commitment to practice of each of the authors, and their clarity in sharing their wisdom. I read the essays out of order, depending on my mood each day, and when I finished the last one I felt like I had been on an intensive Buddhist Yoga Retreat, led by the authors of these 13 beautiful essays. This book itself was an experience and, for me, the reading of it became a daily practice. I recommend this book as a valuable resource and encourage taking time to savor it.

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From Snow White to sadhana: Growing up under the influence of Ratnasambhava

RatnasambhavaRatnasambhava is, amongst other things, the Buddha of generosity. Danamaya explores the open-handed Buddha of the south.

In some ways, I may have known Ratnasambhava all my life, although I didn’t learn about Buddhism until high school, and then only from an introductory article in a comparative religion class. But looking back I can see all sorts of important themes in my life that got their start in little experiences long before. As a kid, I loved fairy tales, especially the Grimm Brothers. There were always buried treasures uncovered, or led to for someone who’d been set an impossible task who was a small, weak or humble person but who was actually a worthy, noble person in the making.

At around that same time, when I was about 7 years old, a couple of movies came out that fascinated me. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs impressed me with the gem-mine that the Dwarfs labored in — sparkling, perfectly faceted and finished jewels of all colors, right from the black rocks. And then there was Journey to the Center of the Earth — especially the part where the explorers’ lamps are failing, and they turn them off only to find that walls glow on their own, and they wander through galleries of huge jewel-like crystal formations.

Back then, I walked to school, and got to thinking about how we never really know what’s under the ground we walk on. Why, for all we know, there could be, right in this spot, if we dug down, a chest full of rubies and pearls and gold! Who knows how long it’d been there? And all these people walking over it with no idea, whatsoever! Years later, I’d understand more about the power of the mythic and the archetypal.

 Sometimes, it’s not you who chooses your yidam, the Buddha whose visualization you will take up. They sometimes choose you!  

When I first encountered the Dharma through the Triratna Buddhist Community, I came across the Mandala of the Five Buddhas. Such a rich collection of symbols and associations, organized to reflect so many layers of meaning! About a year before I was ordained, I mysteriously began to be attracted to the color yellow — the kind of deep, rich golden yellow like turmeric or saffron. I’d go into a bead shop and get drawn immediately to the golden yellow beads — citrine, amber, topaz. And also, mysteriously there were piles of glowing jewels that appeared spontaneously in my mind’s eye with no logical reason for them to be there. Often, these events would be accompanied by a sense of being loved or feeling sudden confidence in the goodness and the bounty of the world. So, who is golden yellow, associated with jewels and bounty and joy and beauty? Oh, right! Ratnasambhava. I didn’t know it then, but sometimes, it’s not you who chooses your yidam, the Buddha whose visualization you will take up. They can choose you! Very mysterious, indeed!

Ratnasambhava is one of the Five Transcendent Buddhas, sometimes known as the Five Jinas (Victorious Ones), who are depicted as a Mandala. The Five Buddha Mandala is thought to have originated early in the Mahayana renaissance, perhaps in the 4th century CE. Amitabha and Akshobhya were the first to be portrayed as visualizations of Wisdom and Compassion. In the Sutra of Golden Light, two more figures, Dundubishvara and Ratnaketu became Amoghasiddhi and Ratnasambhava, respectively. Vairocana emerged as the central, unifying concept, although all five were regarded as aspects of the Dharmakaya — as manifestations of reality. As archetypal figures, they are evocative of the deepest, purest qualities we all have, at least in seed-form, in the depths of the heart of our psyches. Contemplating the Jinas, dwelling in their mandala, it’s possible to reorient ourselves towards true refuge.

 Ratnasambhava’s hand is tipped so far forward that nothing could ever stay in that hand  

Located in the South of the Mandala, in his Pure Land Srimat, the Glorious, the Harmonious, Ratnasambhava is the great jewel-becoming, jewel-producing Buddha of Generosity and Beauty.

Incandescent golden yellow as the noon sun on Midsummer’s Day, he sits on a yellow lotus which is supported by four splendid horses in the vast blue sky of Boundlessness. And yet he is Earth Element purified. He purifies the skandha of vedana (feeling/emotion). He transforms the addictive poisons of arrogant pride, avaricious greed and the three conceits (I’m better than everyone, I’m worse than everyone, I’m the same as everyone). These become Ratnasambhava’s wisdom of the equality, the boundless sunya nature, of all things.

Clothed in russet silk robes, embroidered with gems, his left hand holds the Wish-Fulfilling Gem, the Bodhicitta. His right hand stretches out over his knee, palm outwards. This is the varada mudra, the infinite giving of the greatest gift, which is always just the very thing that’s needed, and no holding anything back. A friend once said that she finds it compelling that Ratnasambhava’s hand is tipped so far forward that nothing could ever stay in that hand — something I have found immensely beneficial to reflect on. If I want to become that — become the perfection of generosity — how could I give so completely that nothing could ever stay in my hand?

 I’ve never seen his face in meditation — and I think that’s him teaching me not to get conceptual  

There are said to be four types of generosity. You can give material objects or aid such as food, money or items. You can give your time and energy. You can give the Dharma. And you can give the gift of fearlessness. The perfection of such giving is when there is no difference experienced between the giver, the receiver or the gift! It’s the act itself, spontaneous, selfless.

Dana paramita (perfect, egoless giving) is also a wonderful antidote to craving. Looking at the world, all the catastrophes, all the suffering, it is so easy to slip in to thinking that there is never enough, there are too many wants and needs. This is a hazard in the spiritual life — craving caused by poverty-mentality. It’s delusion, of course, and our challenge is to see through these confusions — not only are there so many resources of so many types, and even though they’re strewn around, right under our noses, we can easily get stuck on the material aspects or how little time or energy we think we have, forgetting that there are those two other types! Think of it — truth and fearlessness–how far those could take us!

 Selfless open-handedness is far from mindless…  

I also think there is such a thing as ‘bad’ generosity. ‘Bad’ not in the sense of evil; more like something that’s gone bad in the fridge, maybe. It gets that way when the motive is corrupted, such as when a person gives in order to be liked. The second precept encourages us to abstain from taking the not given. But I’ve also been thinking about how unskillful it is to try to give what other people neither want nor need. For instance, if you don’t believe you can get your own needs met, or have developed the unskillful habit of ignoring your own needs, it could be easy to then project that onto others and focus your energy on ‘helping’ them. Perhaps it’s one of the types of co-dependence. Selfless open-handedness is never mindless and it is always kind. Awareness is our friend in so many ways.

After coming home from my ordination retreat in 2002, I set about finding out how to integrate this whole experience of ordination, of taking on Ratnasambhava’s sadhana (visualization) practice, of now being Danamaya and not this other person I had been, but not different, exactly. Choosing, or, in my case, being chosen by, a transcendental figure, is not your everyday experience. What remains with me now, from that magical time when I was formally ‘introduced’ to my yidam, is that there’s just an awful lot a human being can’t really know. It’s not straightforward. For one thing, I’ve never seen his face in meditation — and I think that’s him teaching me not to get conceptual about it. But then, he will ‘appear’ as the light between the cracks in the world, between one thing and another — expanding my heart from the center outwards. Relaxing into how things are, their essential nature, right now: boundless, endless, free.

How Ratnasambhava and I ‘chose’ each other is another story, for another time, but that I have been changed (and continue to be!) by my experience of this beautiful and immense Jina is a continually unfolding delight for me. We are all on our own mythic journeys. These great archetypes are wonderful guides and protectors. I am content to be ‘under the influence’ and also under the protection of Ratnasambhava.


DanamayaOrdained in 2002, Danamaya practices at the San Francisco Buddhist Center, where she regularly leads evenings on chanting, ritual, and sometimes themed Dharma study series in which multimedia art figures strongly.

By day she works as a nurse practitioner at a multidisciplinary clinic serving youth 13-22 yrs. She also plays viola in a local orchestra.

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