bodhisattvas

Do Buddhists pray?

Woman saluting the Buddha, with a lighted incense stick between her clasped hands

Do Buddhists pray? It certainly looks like it sometimes.

Since Buddhism has no creator God you might assume that the Buddhist tradition has no room for prayer. The Buddha wasn’t a God. So would be the point of praying to him, or of praying at all?

Some forms of Buddhist practice that look like prayer don’t in fact involve the Buddha or any other enlightened figure. When Buddhists are cultivating lovingkindness and they’re repeating phrases like “May all beings be well; May all beings be happy,” they’re not invoking any kind of outside agency. What they’re doing is strengthening their own desire to see beings flourish and be free from suffering. By repeating the thought, and the intention, “May all beings be well; May all beings be happy,” they’re exercising and strengthening the faculty of kindness. So while this may resemble prayer, there isn’t really any petition (asking a deity for benefits) going on.

But depending on what kind of Buddhism you’re looking at, you’ll also see practitioners asking to be reborn in a Pure Land paradise after death, or using mantras to call repetitively on the name of a Buddha or Bodhisattva figure, or even asking one of them for a favor, or giving thanks for a blessing. And Tibetan Buddhism uses prayer flags and prayer wheels. What are all those about?

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When Pure Land Buddhists call upon the saving grace of Amida Buddha in the hope of being reborn in his paradise after death, they’re doing something that to all intents and purposes is a form of prayer. For example here’s one Pure Land prayer: “I single-mindedly take refuge in Amitābha Buddha in the World of Ultimate Bliss. Illuminate me with Your pure light and draw me in with Your loving, kind vows! Thinking only of You, I now call the name of the Tathāgata. For the sake of the Bodhi Way, I supplicate to be reborn in Your Pure Land.”

This isn’t the form of Buddhism I practice, and it doesn’t particularly appeal to me, but it’s not something I want to dismiss or be condescending about, Although it’s tempting for westerners to see these beliefs and practices as superstitious or naive, there is in fact a well-developed “theology” based around Pure Land practice, and it’s based on meditations that the Buddha himself encouraged: namely, Buddhānusati, or “Recollection of the Buddha.” In Buddhānusati we reflect on the qualities of the Buddha, and in doing so we develop an affinity with those qualities, and with enlightenment. And so Buddhānusati helps us move toward becoming enlightened ourselves.

Reciting mantras is a very similar practice. When you hear a Buddhist reciting Om Manipadme Hum, what they’re actually doing is repeating the name of the Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. One of this figure’s other names was Manipadma (The Lotus-Jewel One). This kind of mantra practice can be very effective even if you don’t believe Avalokiteshvara exists. Mantra works to a large extent by giving the mind a rest from the incessant angry, grasping, and anxious thoughts that plague us in our daily lives. When you’re reciting a mantra you just aren’t able to keep up a negative inner monologue the way you normally might. And again the mantra is a form of Buddhānusati, and can help us to call to mind the qualities of a compassionate presence, and help those qualities manifest in our own minds.

But it’s clear from Tibetan teachings on devotional practice that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are not separate from the nature of our own minds. It’s only a slight simplification to say that when you pray to Avalokiteshvara, you are invoking the power of your own potential awakened mind.

Prayer flags and prayer wheels fall somewhere in between lovingkindness practice and mantra. In fact prayer flags and prayer wheels are really “mantra flags” and “mantra wheels,” for the most part, since mantras are prominent on both forms of device. Tibetans believe that as prayer flags flap in the wind, or as a prayer wheel is spun, the blessings of the mantras will spread out on the wind and have a beneficial effect on all beings. Prayer flags and prayer wheels are a kind of “prayer technology.”

It’s hard to say how many westerners believe that prayer flags and prayer wheels work in this way. My guess is that only a small percentage does, and that for most of us prayer flags are a form of spiritual decoration, with mostly symbolic value.

With these various forms of practice going on within Buddhism, it would be hard to claim that there is no prayer in Buddhism. It is possible to point to differences between Buddhist prayer and the prayer of the mainstream theistic traditions, but the similarities are much stronger than the differences.

Nevertheless, sometimes people feel the need to pray, even though prayer strikes them as being a bit silly. My own teacher, when asked about this, advised, “If you feel like praying, then pray, and worry about the theology afterwards.” That’s wise advice.

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Myth-busting the bodhisattvas

Adam Savage, star of TV’s popular Myth Busters, gave an impassioned speech at the recent Reason Rally in Washington, DC. At the conclusion of his talk he had the following to say:

I have concluded through careful, empirical analysis and much thought that somebody is looking out for me, keeping track of what I think about things, forgiving me when I do less than I ought, giving me strength to shoot for more than I think I’m capable of.

I believe they know everything that I do and think and they still love me, and I’ve concluded after careful consideration that this person keeping score is me. (Source)

This is very much the take I have on the bodhisattvas of the Mahayana. (See “What is a Bodhisattva.“) Some people evidently regard Avalokiteshvara, Tara, etc., as actually existing entities, qnd in fact in Tibetan Buddhism they’ve been coming to blows over whether one of these figures is in fact a force of good or otherwise. But to me they are symbolic archetypes through which experiences of compassion, wisdom, etc., can manifest themselves to us.

To give a mild flavor of this, psychology experiments have shown that if someone is asked to thinking about a professor before they take a quiz, they perform better. The idea of a professor seems to help people get in touch with their own intelligence. Similarly, I believe, the archetypal bodhisattvas and Buddhas can help us get in touch with our own wisdom and compassion.

I’ve had bodhisattvas appear to me in my dreams, but I don’t take that as a “visitation” from a actually existing entity. I’ve even had “communication” from bodhisattvas, but again I take that as being one part of my brain communicating with another through an imagined image and voice.

As Roshi Bernie Glassman says, in Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen, “Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is the manifestation, or embodiment, of both prajna wisdom and compassion. Who is this Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva? It is nothing other than us, it is nothing other than who we intrinsically are … We must realize that Avalokitesvara is not separate — it’s us!”

So I love Savage’s reframing of the language of theism, and of the notion of “someone looking out for us.” One reason for reflecting on, growing to love, and developing a devotional relationship to the bodhisattvas is that it makes it easer for us to hear from that part of us that is doing the looking out.

I’d recommend listening to the whole of Savage’s talk. It’s rather lovely.

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“A Little Book of Love” by Moh Hardin

A Little Book of Love

This is the first book by Moh Hardin, an acarya, or senior teacher, in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and teaches classes on Buddhism and meditation in Canada and the U.S.

Hardin tells us that A Little Book of Love is written for anyone who is interested in exploring wisdom from the Buddhist tradition for awakening, deepening and expanding love in our lives and in the world. Unfortunately, Hardin gives only tiny snippets of Buddhist wisdom and neglects to describe how this wisdom relates to his suggestions for deepening and expanding love.

Hardin begins by telling us we should be our own best friend, that our friendship with ourselves should not be based on conditions or a certain image we have of ourselves, not as we would like to be, but as we are. Making friends with ourselves is accepting ourselves just as we are, unconditionally in the same way we accept our children. While this is good advice, it is not an easy mission to accomplish. Buddhist wisdom teaches us that we are a product of our conditions including our upbringing, our relationships, our family interactions, our education, our work environments etc. To say we should love ourselves unconditionally without exploring how to do this falls short.

Title: A Little Book of Love: Heart Advice on Bringing Happiness to Ourselves and Our World
Author: Moh Hardin
Publisher: Shambhala (Dec, 2011)
ISBN: 978-1-59030-900-1
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Kindle Store (US), and Kindle Store (UK).

According to Buddhism, Hardin tells us, our basic nature is awake, enlightened, basic goodness, independent of conditions, naturally loving, compassionate, gentle, intelligent and wise. Confusion and suffering come when we are separate from this natural goodness and feel the need to protect ourselves and feel anger or jealousy. I agree with this premise, however, it is one thing to understand an idea and another thing to have the tools and time to integrate it. This would be a perfect place for Hardin to describe how meditation can help us to come to that basic nature.

Hardin tells how to love our partners. He states the most important ingredient for a good, healthy and long-lasting relationship is giving each other the gift of space by stopping habitual reactions and patterns and keeping things in perspective. He cites Chogyam Trungpa who said, “Being in love does not mean possessing the other person; it simply means appreciate the other person” and recommends giving a “flash” of generosity to our partner by looking at them as if for the first time and being receptive. I would have loved to have read examples of partners working on their relationships in the way Hardin suggests. Examples of people who have gone through difficulties and have used the tool of “flashes of generosity” would have brought this book to life.

Regarding loving our children, Hardin states, “We want to create situations to nurture children’s basic goodness and encourage their inherent curiosity and give them space for self-expression. He encourages us to ask ourselves “How do we manifest our love for our children in day-to-day life?” and to allow children to become our guides in teaching us how to perfect our love rather than seeking to perfect them. He also recommends spending time giving our children focused attention, thus enjoying genuine encounters. There is one example of Hardin doing this with his child, and more personal examples or examples from other parents would have been appreciated.

Hardin discusses the connection between our wishes, thoughts and motivation. What we wish for, according to Hardin, has a powerful motivating force in our lives and gives rise to our thoughts and our thought motivate us to action. Bringing love to ourselves, our partners, our children and the world is Bodhisattva (“awake being”) activity. The Bodhisattva path is based on: equanimity (a sense of balance and inner peace), love (desire for the happiness of others), compassion (a wish for freedom from suffering of others) and joy (a flow of free energy). Bodhisattva activity is a concept that deserves much more attention and discussion than was offered here.

As potential Bodhisattvas, according to Hardin, we begin to see through our own opinions and projections of who we think others are and develop “the mind of an awakened heart”. We begin to understand the interconnection of our worlds and gain confidence and trust in basic goodness (our own and that of other people). I wish that Hardin, as an acarya, would have taken the opportunity to share some of his experiences in this realm and also described how he has witnessed others develop Bodhisattva activity.

The ideas of unconditional love for ourselves, our partners and our children; generosity towards those we love and all people; skillful communication that comes from a place of open-heartedness and an open mind and Bodhisattva activity (including equanimity, loving kindness, compassion, and joy), are certainly important components of accepting and loving ourselves and others. They are inspired ideas, ideas I believe in and yet I finished the book feeling disappointed and uninspired due to the lack of depth of the exploration.

These ideas, these basic tenets of Buddhism, could have been explained in more depth and illustrated with examples from the author’s experience to provide inspiration and guidelines for increasing our understanding of and capacity for what we think of and know of love and Bodhisattva activity and offer a richer experience for the reader.

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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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White magic

In his devotion to White Tara, Jnanagarbha yearns to be filled with her beauty so that he can make the world a better place.

It is a summer evening in the mountains of southern Spain. Above the occasional whir of an insect’s wings, voices drift on the warm breeze from a shrine room 100 meters away. They are raised in unison, chanting a puja: a ritual of Buddhist worship. As I sit quietly on a sun-chair in the dark I conduct a solitary, silent puja. My eyes rest on the point where the steely rocks marking the southern side of the valley meet the deep, deep blue of the Mediterranean night sky. Little by little, the sky begins to lighten above the cliff wall. Patiently, but with a gentle thrill of excitement, I await the appearance of the Buddha with whom I have made a connection. For tonight is the night of the full moon, and I am conducting a puja to White Tara.

Before my ordination retreat I do not recall ever experiencing a moonrise. The moon is just one of many lights in the urban night. Living for four months in the rustic simplicity of Guhyaloka retreat center in Spain brought me closer to nature and its cycles than I had been before, even though I used to work as a conservationist. As I contemplated the junction between earth and sky on those two full moon nights following my ordination, I was filled with a simple delight when the first gleaming sliver of moon broke the horizon, followed by the rest of her silver orb. Near the horizon the moon appears at its largest, and her progress through the night sky seems at once serene and purposeful. Once she is overhead, far from other points of reference, she seems to rest in perpetual equipoise.

During the Buddha’s lifetime the year was measured by the phases of the moon. Key events of the Buddha’s life — his birth, his attainment of Enlightenment, his first communication of the Dharma and his death — are said to have occurred on the full moon. Today many Buddhist traditions continue to use a lunar calendar to mark the liturgical year, and most Buddhist festivals are held on full moon days. Through these associations the full moon has come to symbolize perfect Enlightenment, so that in their peaceful aspects most Buddha and Bodhisattva figures are depicted sitting on a moon-mat. In parts of the tantric tradition the full moon symbolizes the wisdom aspect of Enlightenment.

It is no surprise, therefore, that White Tara is associated with the moon; her wisdom complementing the compassion of her more famous ‘sister’, Green Tara. In Buddhist symbolism, however, whiteness symbolizes the full spectrum of Enlightened consciousness.

Like Green Tara, White Tara is a beautiful young woman. Her skin is the purest white, and is often compared to the radiance of 100 autumn moons. She wears the Bodhisattva’s adornments — beautiful silks and jeweled ornaments — and she is sometimes said to wear a garland of pure white pearls. Her right hand rests on her right knee, open towards us in the mudra (gesture) of generosity. Her left hand faces us at her heart where it holds the stems of three lotuses — sometimes white but often the blue utpala lotus that opens at night. One is a bud, one is partly opened and the third is in full bloom. This hand is in the mudra of bestowing refuge or protection, although it is sometimes described as the gesture of blessing.

In contrast to her sister, whose right leg is stepping down into the world, White Tara is seated in vajrasana, the full-lotus position. Her most mysterious and unusual aspect, however, is her eyes. They are a beautiful blue and are usually described as dark and long; she also has seven of them. In addition to the usual pair, she has an eye in the sole of each of her upturned feet, one in the palm of each hand, while the seventh and most striking is placed vertically in the center of her forehead. Much of her rich, black hair falls around her shoulders, and above her crescent-moon tiara the remainder is piled into a topknot. The tiara contains the jewels of the five Wisdoms, and enthroned in the topknot sits Amitabha, the deep red Buddha of meditation and love, who is the head of the Lotus family with which White Tara is associated.

Tara sits on a brilliant moon-mat, which rests on a pure white eight-petalled lotus. Behind her is the orb of the full moon, and around her radiate moonbeams and rainbows. The moon is also a universal symbol of the feminine, and White Tara expresses femininity in several aspects of her form. She is sometimes described as ‘the mother of the Buddhas’, and her gesture of generosity can be seen as a maternal, compassionate response to beings. Like a princess she wears a crown and is regally adorned, suggesting nobility, dignity and even mindfulness. Her youth suggests energy and joyful spontaneity.

White Tara reflects a paradox in the spiritual path. The Bodhisattva is committed to supporting all beings in their progress towards Enlightenment, so her hands are held in the gestures of generosity and bestowing. But her legs remain folded in the full-lotus position. She does not step down into the world to help all beings as does Green Tara.

White Tara

This paradox reminds me of an important teaching. I used to live in a retreat center in southern England. Sometimes people had a romantic view of retreat center life. It was easy for them to imagine that I spent my time either on retreat or, when no retreat was happening, that I had nothing to do but meditate and reflect. My life wasn’t quite like that. Once a colleague and I were at the local supermarket buying groceries for a retreat. Seeing the large quantities of bread and milk the lady on the checkout asked us what we did. When we told her we ran a Buddhist retreat center she looked wistful and sighed, ‘That must be such a serene life’. This became a catch phrase in the community. When I was struggling with e-mails and phone messages, trying to co-ordinate a year’s program of retreats, hurrying to finish some redecoration before 25 retreatants arrived, or was driving around looking for a replacement for a retreatant’s punctured motorcycle tire, I often found myself ironically muttering, ‘Such a serene life …’

With the practical demands of running a retreat center (or bringing up a family, or even of simply trying to fit meditation, Dharma study, retreats, friendship and so on into one’s life) it is easy to lose sight of the ultimate objective: attaining Insight. With her still and centered posture, and her seven wide-open wise eyes, White Tara brings me back to this fact. Unless I constantly strive to take my Dharma practice deeper, I have nothing substantial to give other people. Without awareness, our attempts at kindness are well-intentioned blunderings. There is no true kindness without awareness, and I am gradually coming to see that there is no true awareness without kindness.

So what does White Tara offer us from the depths of her wisdom? There are clues in her mantra: om tare tuttare ture mama ayur punya jnana pushtim kuru svaha. There are many Tara mantras, and most of them follow the form of the general mantra om tare tuttare ture svaha with various insertions. In White Tara’s case the insertions form a request to increase our life, merit and wisdom. White Tara’s response is to suffuse her devotees (indeed all beings) in a succession of beautiful colored lights imbued with magical qualities. These surround us in concentric spheres of white, yellow, red, blue, green and violet, to form a Mandala of Protection.

The heart of this Mandala (or magic circle) is a sphere of white, the color of Tara herself, of purity and the tantric rite of pacification. The white light purifies us of diseases and unethical actions. In Tibetan culture White Tara is best known for her capacity to bestow long life. There are two sides to prolonging life: avoiding disease and promoting well-being. The next ring of the Mandala is thus a rich yellow color, which extends our life and enriches our wisdom. In the tantra, yellow is associated with the rite of prospering, and it is the color of Ratnasambhava, the jewel-bearing Buddha of abundance and beauty.

Although Tibetan tradition emphasizes White Tara’s capacity to increase life, few of the western devotees of White Tara that I know pay much attention to this. Perhaps this is because we tend to take our human existence for granted. With all the developments in public health, our relative affluence and the extraordinary efficacy of medical science, it seems that we expect to live comfortably to a ripe old age. But Buddhist traditions, particularly in Tibet, have emphasized that we are fortunate to be alive, and particularly lucky to have the liberty and opportunity to develop ourselves through practicing the Dharma.

White Tara’s association with longevity encourages me to reflect on how precarious life is. Tibetan tradition exhorts us to make the most of the precious opportunity of a human birth through wholehearted spiritual practice, working to become more kind, generous and honest while we can. Through developing these qualities, and not getting caught up in the many distractions of 21st-century life, we can allow our minds to settle into the meditative calm that springs from a clear conscience, and find release from the tyrannies of stress.

The Buddha’s earliest recorded teachings offer another perspective on longevity. In the Pali canon a word meaning ‘undying’ or ‘immortal’ was one of the original terms for Enlightenment. In the Dhammapada the Buddha explains that: ‘Awareness is the path to the deathless. Those who are fully aware do not die, those who are not aware are as if already dead’. When I am aware, my life seems rich, vibrant and fulfilling. However, as soon as I lose awareness life appears dull and uninteresting, and I find myself looking for distractions. White Tara’s seven eyes remind me to ‘keep my eyes open’ in all areas of life. They suggest that her awareness has risen to a point where it has become Transcendental Wisdom, and I sometimes think of the seven eyes as including the usual two of the human form, while the remaining five represent the Wisdoms of the five Buddhas.

Returning to the Mandala of Protection we enter the red sphere, the color of the rite of fascination, or love, and of Buddha Amitabha. The red light increases our capacity to communicate with others, especially fellow Dharma practitioners. The spiritual community is represented by a red jewel, and the Buddha famously said that the practice of spiritual friendship (kalyana mitrata) is the whole of the spiritual life. Spending time with others who practice the spiritual life (especially those who are doing so more effectively than we are) can have a dramatically beneficial effect, especially if we are able to connect deeply with them.

We then come to the blue and green spheres. The blue light subdues obstacles, while the green light helps one to achieve one’s aims in the face of such difficulties. The blue light is related to the tantric black rite of destruction, and to the imperturbability of the Buddha Akshobhya. The green light evokes the fearlessness that Green Tara represents in her aspect as consort to the Buddha Amoghasiddhi.

White Tara

Practicing the Dharma will inevitably be difficult at times. Some difficulties are of our own making, some the result of the conditions in which we find ourselves. It is easy to become frustrated with oneself, or with others whom we see as ‘blocking’ us. We can think, ‘I’d be able to feel loving kindness all the time if so-and-so wasn’t so irritating’. We need to address life’s difficulties — whether subjective or objective with determination and initiative, and these must be imbued with awareness and kindness.

The outer ring of the Mandala of Protection is violet, and this is said to make our spiritual achievements firm and unshakable. It suggests to me the need to consolidate the changes. We purify ourselves by replacing unhelpful habits, but new habits of ethical speech, meditation and generosity can be fragile. just one late night can leave me irritable or undermine my morning meditation practice. Like the tender shoots of a seedling we need to protect new habits of skillful activity until our resourcefulness and creativity become unshakable.

In this way Tara’s Mandala of Protection surrounds us with a beautiful sphere of skillful activity. These concentric layers of clarity, generosity, friendliness, determination, resourcefulness and consistency protect us from the buffetings of the world.

At dinner on a recent retreat, somebody asked what purity meant to me. It was one of those occasions when an answer seemed to come to my lips almost magically. ‘Purity is Beauty in action’, I replied. When I sit in meditative contemplation of White Tara it is to her beauty and purity that my heart responds. Meditating on her can be an experience of such incredible beauty that it leaves me in a state of wordless bliss. Such experiences fill me with a yearning to make the world a more beautiful place. They inspire me to purify myself of petty self-interest and free me to act in a way that will illuminate the world with the silvery light of 100 autumn moons.

Suddenly, appearing from emptiness
A snow white. eight-petaled, white lotus
A moon disc clear and shining
And TAM, vividly defined.
Essence of Tara’s wisdom-compassion
Dazzling white and radiating moonbeams
From the midst of which appears Tara.

White as a hundred full autumn moons
Clear and translucent as a crystal gem.
Eyes long and dark, with fine long eyelashes
Seven beautiful smiling eyes of wisdom.

Hair black as onyx, partly bound up,
The rest falling over the shoulders and breasts.
Her neck is round and delicate,
Her earlobes long.

The line of her lips is pure and red.
Her teeth a fine-textured garland.
Tongue fine and soft.
Her breath the sweet scent of lotuses

The right hand stretching out in kindness
Fingers soft like lotus petals
Left hand holding by her heart
The stem of a blue utpala blossom.

A smiling and passionate youthful manner
With her round breasts
And the slimness of her waist
She gives inexhaustible bliss.

On her head, Wisdom’s five jewels
In a garland of golden lotuses.
She is adorned with finest silks
Precious jewels and celestial blossoms
And surrounded by rainbows and moonbeams.

From a White Tara puja by Pabongka Rinpoche

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G.K. Chesterton: “The true object of all human life is play.”

G.K. Chesterton

The bodhisattva moves through life elegantly, “in the zone” and in a state of playful “flow,” and he can do this because he has abandoned any clinging to the idea of self. “Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering,” Bodhipaksa tells us.

I think Chesterton was absolutely right when he said that the object of life is play. The best kind of life we can live, I believe, is one in which we love, laugh, and learn: one in which we can be serious without being down, and can laugh irreverently at life’s difficulties without being facetious or trivializing them.

One problem is that we sometimes get into a habit of deferring happiness. We know we’re overdoing things now, taking life way too seriously and failing to nourish ourselves. We know that our needs aren’t being met. We’re aware that we’re stressed. That we’re over-working and spiritually under-nourished. But we live in hope that in six months, or next year, or after this big project is over, we’ll be able to start enjoying life. But we’ve been through this before, and we forget that six months, or a year ago, or before the last big project, we thought exactly the same thing. And here we are. And life’s still hard.

Because we think it’s “over there” we don’t try to create heaven here

Chesterton seems to fall into this way of thinking as well. In the full quotation he adds, after “The true object of all human life is play” the words, “Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” Even if he’s being metaphorical, the metaphor serves to distance us from happiness. Here we are on earth, with all our worldly cares. Heaven is somewhere over the horizon, and because we think it’s “over there” we don’t try to create heaven here.

Buddhist language sometimes can be interpreted in the same way. We talk about the life of frustration, stress, and suffering as being samsara. The literal meaning of samsara, “the faring on” suggests a long, hard slog. And then there’s nirvana, which is the “extinction” of delusion and suffering (although not, as some people used to argue, individual existence).

Also see:

Nirvana, as the end of suffering, is the beginning of an unshakable state of peace; a joyful equanimity; a wise, compassionate, and serene way of being. It’s rather like earth and heaven, and often I hear people talk about the two as being separate places.

Other Buddhist metaphors reinforce that notion; we talk about practice as being “a path” and what does a path do but lead from one place to another place. And if there are two places they must be separate, and they may even be separated by a great distance. Some Buddhist schools (mainly now extinct, interestingly enough) used to see nirvana as being immeasurably far off, and only attainable after millions of lifetime of practice. While that may have emphasized how amazing enlightenment is, it also made it hard to take it seriously as a realistic goal.

Nirvana is ‘arriving’

But earth and heaven are not places separated in space. It’s not that samsara is one place and nirvana is another. There’s only one reality, and we can see it in different ways. We can look at the world we live in with a mind that’s always seeking — always “faring on” through experiences, never really resting in the present moment, never really appreciating what’s going on right now, but always hoping that things are going to be better later on. We’re always thinking about what we’re going to do next, but when we get to that next thing we’ll be thinking of what’s coming after that. There’s always the promise of fulfillment, but it never quite arrives because we’ve not arrived. That is samsara.

And nirvana? That’s the same world — the world of children and commuting and deadlines and international conflicts — but seen with a different attitude. Nirvana is “arriving.” It’s letting go of the “faring on” attitude. It’s letting go of looking for fulfillment just over the horizon, and realizing that fulfillment is possible right here, right now.

Spatially, samsara and nirvana are the same place, but mentally they’re very different. When we talk about “the path”, we’re talking purely metaphorically. We’re not fundamentally talking about getting away from our current lives, but about changing our relationship to our current lives.

Samsara and nirvana are the same reality seem through different mental lenses

Sometimes, to be true, there are times when we do have to move on from a job, a relationship, a place, in order to find happiness. Sometimes the particular circumstances we find ourselves in are so difficult that we really need to get out. But in the end we realize that we take ourselves with us. We carry our own attitudes along with us wherever we go, and it’s all too often those attitudes that get us into difficult circumstances in the first place. Eventually we have to let go of the idea that happiness will come from getting circumstances in the outside world right, and accept that happiness will come by getting our attitude to life right.

As Sunada points out in her post, Playing our way through life, the life of the bodhisattva — the person who is “arriving” in life rather than “faring on” — is characterized by play, or līla. Līla means not just play, but grace, beauty, elegance, and loveliness. The idea is a life where we deal with difficulties gracefully, where our attitude is beautiful, where find elegant solutions to problems, where we appreciate the loveliness in others.

Another aspect of līla is “mere appearance, semblance, pretence, [and] disguise.” This doesn’t mean that spiritually advanced Buddhists are running around in disguise! It suggests that the bodhisattva is living in the world in a different way from the rest of us. Samsara and nirvana, remember, are the same reality seem through different mental lenses. The bodhisattva is living in the same world as we are, but isn’t confined by the same self-imposed limitations and assumptions. Crucially, the bodhisattva is aware that protecting our “selves” is the worst thing that we can do for ourselves. Let me give an analogy to explain.

Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering.

Imagine a basketball player “in the zone” or in a state of “flow.” There’s no thought of “Oh, here I am, and I have the ball, and there’s the opposition, and there’s the hoop, and I have to get past all those guys and score.” Instead, what you have is the complete absence of any sense of self and other. There’s simply a playful and spontaneous response to circumstances. He’s flowing around the court in a state of līla, with grace, beauty, elegance, and loveliness. Now consider the basketball player who does think all those things: he’s dead on the court. He’s wooden, because he’s either afraid or trying too hard for results. He’s paralyzed by his own self-consciousness and his awareness of others as obstacles who might stop him getting what he wants.

Bodhisattvas are very like that, but in terms of life as a whole rather than just what goes on on a basketball court. There’s freedom from the idea of there being beings to help, which is how the bodhisattva can help them. He can also help them because he has no idea that he is helping other beings — he just responds spontaneously, in the zone, in a state of flow.

Two different attitudes within one reality. It’s up to us to choose. And we can make remarkable changes in our attitude in the space of a moment. When we let go of our mental rigidity, relax, and create a mental space for creativity to appear, we can very quickly find a sense of play, of līla, bubbling up from within. Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering.

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Playing our way through life

Girl playing, blowing bubbles

Many people think of play as a fringe benefit of life. Work comes first. Play is an “extra” that we reward ourselves with only after finishing our work. But Sunada sees it differently. On the one hand, play has a generative quality that can help us navigate successfully through life. But even more so, she sees it as an essential way of expressing life itself.

I recently listened to a fascinating podcast on National Public Radio’s show called Speaking of Faith. It REALLY made me rethink all my ideas about play! It was an interview with Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder and president of the National Institute for Play — a non-profit that sponsors research on the role of play in the development of human potential.

Play may be purposeless, but that doesn’t make it pointless.

According to Brown, “When one really doesn’t play at all or very little in adulthood, there are consequences: rigidities, depression, no irony — things that are pretty important, that enable us to cope in a world of many demands.” He suggests that play helps us learn empathy, trust, and problem solving, and also enables us to develop our talents and character over our entire lifespan.

Play as a positive approach to life issues

Play may be purposeless, but that doesn’t make it pointless. Play has a generative quality to it. It brings out our sense of curiosity and imagination, and allows us to explore unfamiliar territory in an open-minded, open-hearted way. It’s free of judgment, or the need to perform or be perfect. “Mistakes” and “wrong turns” are a natural part of the process. It also reframes notions of work and effort, and allows us to explore and learn in a joyful way.

These ideas can have some big implications for how we go about navigating and creating in our own lives. Think about it. When we’re faced with something new and unfamiliar – fearful even – which approach seems more likely to elicit a helpful and creative response: one filled with methodical problem-solving, fretful worrying, and willful effort, or one filled with a more open sense of imaginative curiosity? A friend of mine recently told me of a quote (unfortunately she couldn’t remember the author) that goes: “Adults typically only use their imaginations to worry.” What a waste is that?

What I’m talking about here is a state of mind – more about HOW we do things than WHAT we do.

Some people might at this point object by saying that their problems are very complicated and risky, and couldn’t possibly be resolved just by playing through them. But what I’m talking about here is a state of mind – more about HOW we do things than WHAT we do. From a Buddhist perspective, it’s our mental state as we go about doing things that determines the nature of what happens in our future. We certainly do need to analyze and plan our way through things. But rather than seeing them as problems, how can we view them with an attitude of openness and curiosity rather than constriction and timidity?

As a life coach, I often hear clients tell me they feel stuck with their problems because they don’t know what to do next. The way they say “I don’t know” has a tone of resignation and shutting down. Rather than throwing up the proverbial stop sign, what if we looked at the situation more like being on vacation in a new, exotic place? We might have no idea what to do or where to go, but there’s a sense of wanting to find out, and being willing to try things. Wouldn’t we do things very differently if we approached the “I don’t know” situations of life in that sort of way?

The spiritual dimension of play

In his interview, Dr. Brown also talked about a more profound, spiritual side of play. In one segment of the show he says:

“I was watching a pride of lions and two sub-adult female lionesses got up, looked at each other — and there’s a picture of this in the National Geographic magazine, what looked from a distance kind of like a fight, but it was a ballet. And while I was watching this, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that this is — I’m almost brought to tears talking about it now — that this is divine.”

It turns out that this idea of a spiritual dimension in play is part of the Buddhist world as well. In the Mahayana tradition there is the figure of the bodhisattva – an enlightened being who takes on a human birth for the sole purpose of benefiting others. An essential quality of a bodhisattva is lila – Sanskrit for “play.” Far from being serious-minded martyrs, bodhisattvas joyfully play at everything they do. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, says, “One can regard this as a spontaneous overflowing of [their] inner realization, which transcends the immediate situation.1

My interpretation is that the play of the lionesses and bodhisattvas are essential expressions of life itself. There’s nothing frivolous about it. It’s not some nice “extra”. When they play, they are in effect saying “I am alive. I am here. In this moment, I am expressing my innermost nature.” It’s like saying “yes” to life, opening up to it in a full-bodied, wholehearted way.

When seen in this light, play isn’t something we relegate to our spare time, if and when we happen to have some. It’s an entire attitude toward life that ideally permeates everything we do. Life isn’t about problems to be solved, or to-do lists to be slogged through. It’s is something to be met full-on – lived and played in with 100% of our being.


1. From The Bodhisattva Ideal by Sangharakshita. Birmingham, UK: 1999, Windhorse Publications, p 139.

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New article on Vajrasattva mantra

VajrasattvaDid you know that the most popular section of our site is the Mantra Meditations? In fact, four out of the ten most-visited pages on Wildmind are on mantras!

Just a few months ago we added an extensive article on the Medicine Buddha, and today we added an article on the Bodhisattva of purification, Vajrasattva, and his 100-syllable mantra.

Vajrasattva’s name means “diamond being” and he represents the innate purity of the mind. As the article says,

You can imagine your mind as being like a sky through which clouds pass. The clouds come and they go, but the sky remains untouched. The sky is inherently blue and clear, and although its blueness and clarity can be obscured it can never be destroyed. The clouds are like the greed, hatred, and delusion that pollute the mind. Because of the transient nature of these mental states, they cannot be said to be an inherent part of the mind. They may obscure the mind’s inherent awareness and compassion, but those qualities are never absent.

The 100-syllable mantra is an evocation of the path to full awakening, from the first invocation of Vajrasattva as a protector, to the wish to save all sentient beings.

The article is accompanied by an MP3 recording of the mantra.

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Vajrapani: Breaking free

VajrapaniWrathful Vajrapani, the bold blue Buddha of energy, is helping Vajradevi to transform her demons.

A few years ago I was sitting in a London office one winter day as the rain came down in slick sheets. Lightning flashed across the low sky and, as the thunder suddenly crescendoed, a half-dozen car alarms shrieked out to the surprise of pedestrians. No-one had touched the vehicles. The unseen power of the thunder had set the alarms off. It seemed a mischievous reminder from nature of the power at her disposal.

It also brought to my mind Wrathful Vajrapani, the Bodhisattva of energy or power. This is the figure I took on as a focus of my visualization meditation practice when I was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order. Vajrapani means “bearer or holder of the vajra” and one translation of the word vajra is thunderbolt. In Indian mythology the thunderbolt was the weapon of Indra, the chief of the gods, who used it to destroy spells or charms. Vajra can also be defined as: “denunciation in strong language – compared to thunder.”

It is easy to see how associations with thunder and with nature in general come to be associated with Vajrapani. When I try to sense the Transcendental that he embodies, all sorts of physical comparisons come to mind. I think of wild cyclones sucking up the earth and throwing down everything in their way: volcanoes vomiting boulders and liquid heat and submerging whole islands in their fiery spew; roaring waterfalls that are terrifying and beautiful in equal measure. These images make me aware of my smallness and insignificance, but something inside me is also thrilled at the possibility of meeting that power and eventually becoming it. In An Introduction to Tantra Lama Yeshe writes: “the West has discovered how to tap many powerful sources of energy in nature, but still remains largely unaware of the tremendous force, even more powerful than nuclear energy, contained within each of us. As long as this powerful internal energy lies undiscovered, our life is doomed to remain fragmented and purposeless, and we will continue to fall victim to the mental and emotional pressures so characteristic of our age.”

Vajrapani’s energy is not mere force, nor even power in a neutral sense. It is what the Buddhist tradition calls virya: “energy in pursuit of the good.” This means energy that is directed towards the goal of Enlightenment for all beings. It is energy that sees things as they really are rather than through the lens of the ego.

My connection with Wrathful Vajrapani started soon after I had begun to meditate, on a week-long retreat dedicated to him. I found Vajrapani visually intriguing. His body is heavy-set and he is deep blue. With his angry bulging eyes, matted brown hair and aura of flames, he was hardly beautiful but he was compelling. I remember being particularly fascinated by his huge blue belly.

Up to this point my knowledge of Bodhisattvas was limited to beautiful and refined peaceful deities, such as Tara and Amitabha. Vajrapani seemed unconventional to say the least. He wore a tiger skin (or sometimes an elephant hide) around his body. A live snake coiled around his neck. He held a vajra high above his head ready to use as a weapon. Vajrapani seemed to be “the Bodhisattva as Transcendental Thug” and I did not know what to make of him. His companions were a bunch of unlikely-sounding goddesses — Vajra-Hook, Vajra-Chain, Strong-Armed and Vajra-Army. He seemed more likely to have been at home in a heavymetal band or riding a 1,000 cc motorbike than residing in the sky, waiting to be visualized!

But the stories about him from various Buddhist scriptures caught my imagination. Through them come a sense of Vajrapani’s personal history. Unlike most Bodhisattvas his beginnings are humble. In his first canonical appearance (in the Pali Sutta Nipata) he starts out as a lowly yaksa (a kind of coarse sprite). In later texts he has been promoted to “the great general of the yaksas.” And later still he becomes one of the bodily forms of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. Eventually he emerges as a Bodhisattva in his own right and in some scriptures he is also referred to as a fully Enlightened Buddha.

I like the progression of Vajrapani’s “life story.” As well as his associations with power, Vajrapani, like Vajrasattva, is connected with purity But while Vajrasattva represents purity achieved, or the essence of purity, Vajrapani is “the process of becoming pure.” The fallibility and humility in the stories about Vajrapani appeal greatly to me. He makes occasional mistakes, bears the consequences, and then continues his quest in service of “the good.”

According to one story, at one point Vajrapani was pure white. But while guarding the elixir of life for the peaceful Buddhas he became unmindful for a second, and the demons stole it. He wrestled back the elixir but the demons had defiled it by urinating in it. As a punishment Vajrapani was made by the Buddhas to drink the now poisonous liquid, and this turned him dark blue. Hence also his mudra (hand gesture) of “warding off demons.”

The first tale I ever heard about Vajrapani comes from The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava. Vajrapani’s role is comparatively minor but he manages to make a strong impression.

Tarpa Nagpo (or Black Salvation) was a monk who was full of pride and arrogance. He used the Dharma to his own advantage, deliberately miscommunicating the teachings to amass power for himself. After he was found out and stripped of his robes, he joined his friends (ogres, brigands and demons of the twilight) and travelled around Tibet causing wars, famines and other calamities.

By doing all this, he created terrible karmic consequences for himself, and suffered highly unfavorable rebirths. These included 500 rebirth as, respectively, a nimble worm, a wandering mastiff, a sucker of toes and an eater of vomit! Finally he was reborn “with neck and shoulders rotten” as a “pus ghost” named “Eager to make inquiry.” He took rebirth again as Rudra (or “He who devoured his mother”) and, not in the least deterred by his three-headed vile form, he continued spreading chaos and devastation throughout the world

The peaceful deities were at a loss to know what to do. Rudra was beyond their reach. They decided that Rudra needed to be dealt with by “force and restrain” so Vajrapani and Hayagriva (also known as Horsehead and Swine-face) were called up. Vajrapani climbed up Rudra’s urethra and Hayagriva into his anus. They met somewhere in the middle, and Rudra, the force of negativity and destruction, was subjugated and brought under the power of the good.

In his lecture Breaking through to Buddhahood (MP3 or PDF), Sangharakshita comments that the spiritual life may involve inner forcefulness. This idea, he suggests, is not a popular one. But if we are to break through to the Unconditioned, sometimes violence towards recalcitrant aspects of ourselves is necessary. At these times, love is just not enough. This is where Vajrapani comes in. He is not going to seduce us into the spiritual life with his beauty. He is there to help us to force our way through intractable bad habits and psychological traps. Whatever demons we have within us, Vajrapani is equal to them all. He presents a fierce, raw face of reality, and something deep within me resonates with that. He often shocks me — sometimes into laughter that opens me up to seeing myself a little more clearly.

In another text Vajrapani’s unconventional methods are described in a teaching to Tsong Khapa and Karmavajra. He gives a long discourse on dealing with hindrances to meditation, which ends with a vivid and unexpected tip. “If you want to avoid the pitfalls (of distraction) whack the pig on the snout with a club!”

Vajrapani’s mantra — om vajrapani ah hum — is deep, untuneful and resolute. It has a mysterious sound. Sometimes when I chant it, I imagine that the mantra is hurtling along the corridors of the universe, revealing glimpses of his immeasurable power. Perhaps, I feel, I can hear an echo of his heartbeat, or see a faint blue light that will pass within light years of his huge, golden vajra. When meditating on his figure, I listen for the sound of the dust that is moved by his magnificent footsteps.

Vajrapani is unpredictable. You never know what he might do, because he is associated with the wisdom that goes beyond the rational mind. He is also associated with the Tantra. Tantra means both the movement of energy and direct experience. The tantric tradition of spiritual practice is concerned with looking beyond the realm of the conceptual to the non-rational. Through the non-rational we can experience ourselves directly as pure energy or pure awareness that is unmediated by concepts.

Most of our energy is unconscious. We are like icebergs — largely submerged, with just a visible tip. In opening up to Vajrapani we look to make the remainder conscious, awake, and working in support of our desire to grow and change.

Vajrapani is sometimes portrayed as the Buddha’s protector — or the protective aspect of the Buddha. Some sutras recount people arguing with the Buddha, or insulting him. Vajrapani can be found hovering in the air above the Buddha, his vajra raised threateningly, just waiting to split open the person’s head.

Vajrapani mourningEven Vajrapani’s tenderness is frequently portrayed in terms of his might. When the Buddha died, it is said that: “letting fall his vajra in despair, Vajrapani rolled himself in the dust.” It is as if the earth shuddered from the weight of the fallen vajra — and from Vajrapani’s grief.

Sometimes I find things that help me to deepen my connection with Vajrapani in unexpected places. Recently I was in Barcelona and was introduced to some buildings designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi. The spontaneity, creativity and freedom in the buildings brought Vajrapani to my mind. The exultant playfulness in Gaudi’s placing of a bunch of grapes or an ice-cream cone in marble perched on top of a fish-scaled roof is reminiscent of Vajrapani’s willingness to go anywhere or do anything in pursuit of the good.

A friend, who was formerly a Quaker and is now a Buddhist, told me of a label that was given to her by Quaker friends: Holy Boldness. I immediately thought of Vajrapani. It is him to a tee. I love the contradiction in the words and their suggestion of irreverence. Holy Boldness is vigorous, brave and pure. I want to develop Holy Boldness. I want to be like Vajrapani.

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