Slicing through selfish motivations and self-centered aims,
You brandish the flaming sword of wisdom high above your head.
Bearing the condensation of scriptures, you shine bright with wisdom.
To you, Gentle Voice Protector, I bow down and pray!
For a period of ten days from the 23rd of November to the 3rd of December 2016, the reincarnation of the great treasure revealer Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa bestowed to thousands upon thousands of dedicated students the portion of his Treasure Teachings known as the Guru’s Heart Practice, Dispeller of All Obstacles. This was a unique and historic event with Dharma students gathering from all corners of the world to receive the empowerments.
In the midst of the frenzy of people, showers of rice and flowers, and haunting melodies, I reflected on the wealth of literature that was being recited day after day—from prose to verse, strings of mantra to ecstatic song, confessions and praises, petitions and offerings, and so on. There is much that can be, and has been, said about the history, transmission, and status of the Tibetan treasure texts that we were being initiated into. However, I found myself reflecting more so on the standard recitations. What I mean by this are the stock liturgies that serve as template into which the particular text of that occasion can be inserted. These are the refuge verse, mandala offerings, and dedications that many of us are familiar with. During the empowerments, I had the feeling that we were expected to know them. Some of them I had memorized from daily prayers, yet others I was being newly introduced to.
Despite the claim of these standard prayers being standard, many Western students find the lack of information regarding what texts to bring, what time to chant what prayer, and even “what page number are we on right now?” confusing. For some, this disarray may suggest a fundamental lack of organization on the part of the organizers. I confess, I have often found this critical mind brewing inside myself. For many of us with Judeo-Christian backgrounds, we are accustomed to the Church bulletins that neatly tell you which hymns are to be sung and on which page they are to be found in the hymnal. This leads us to wonder why someone couldn’t assemble a playlist of all the prayers and aspirations that are to be chanted during the puja or empowerment that day. Surely, if the chant master knows what he is supposed to chant, it should be possible for us to know too.
This type of thinking comes from a wanting to know what is happening and, perhaps, a need for control. We want to be constantly informed. And why shouldn’t an aspiration for knowledge not be a good thing? Yet, as I came to discover in myself over the past week, this needing to know represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the type of texts that are at hand, that is, living literature.
There are three main qualities to the Buddhist liturgical literature that is recited during pujas that I came to understand during the Barchel Kunsel empowerments. These three are the socio-cultural milieu of the texts, their esoteric nature, and the ultimate purpose behind their usage. For me, these three natures explain the seeming disconnect between myself and the texts, the way in which I came to know next texts, and the true reason for why I was interacting with the text. What I share here is merely my own mental drivel. Better to close your browser now and read Words of My Perfect Teacher.
I. The first is socio-cultural. Historically speaking, the majority of the Tibetan people were illiterate. The centers of learning were located almost exclusively inside monastery walls, save for the few aristocrats who had private tutors or studied outside. Most of the rest of the population either worked the barley fields or practiced animal husbandry and thus lacked the leisure to study reading, writing, and the other sciences.
The recitation of texts required education that only the elite were privy to. Additionally, texts were hand printed on woodblocks and thus labor intensive and expensive. It wouldn’t be feasible to distribute the texts to the laity had the possessed the learning. Thus, it was simply unrealistic to put texts in the hands of the masses and expect them to keep up with the chant masters.
As Westerners, we find ourselves in an awkward historical position, somewhere between the masses and the ritual masters. We want to follow each and every step, we have the skills to read Tibetan and operate a text, but at the same time we lack the necessary background. We have essentially stepped into a different time and must learn to navigate it. ~The first step towards this would be to talk with a more experienced practitioner and read up a bit on ritual theory to begin to understand the basic structures common to all Tibetan rituals.
II. Empowerments are unique unto the Vehicle of Secret Mantra, also known as Vajrayana or even Tibetan Buddhism. Hence, the practices and the texts they are contained in are necessarily secretive. The meaning of “secret” should be nuanced though. Secret doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t talk about it. Instead, it means you shouldn’t blab about it to just anyone at any time or in any context and likewise should exercise respect and reverence when discussing it with your vajra brothers, sisters, and teacher.
There is an understanding that you are only supposed to know the texts if you know the texts. To encounter the Buddha’s teachings requires great merit and a unique karmic connection is formed between you and each scripture. They can therefore be thought of as friends who you gradually get to know over time.
During the empowerment, this process was mutually shared in a WeChat chat group. Someone would ask which particular text is being recited at a particular time and someone else would reply back with a digital copy of the Samantabhadra’s Aspiration Prayer, for instance. Some folks would ask for the specific title of the text Rinpoche mention in his evening talk and it would be provided. In that way, we all worked together to share our knowledge and introduce these jewels to each other, thereby coming to discover the texts on a more personal level. ~After all, what is the point of acquiring vast knowledge if you don’t use it to help others?
III. The third point is the most important. The ultimate aim of empowerments and Buddhist practice as a whole is not about information and the knowing mind. True, we do need to study and understand the various presentations of the path and its result, however, in the end, it is about the meaning contained within the text (awakening, to put it briefly) more so than the texts for their own sake, for the sake of literature, or for the sake of academic inquiry. Therefore, not understanding exactly what is going on at all times during the empowerment is not problematic so long as the intend result—ripening of the mindstream—occurs.
Yet some may doubt the efficacy of the ritual if one is merely passively receiving it and not actively participating in it. This is the tension known as self-power and other-power. Self-power suggests that a result is dependent on the volition of the practitioner, whereas other- power denies any efficacy on the part of the individual, thus attributing the result to something other, such as the innate power of the mantra, the capability of the ritual master, etc. This dyad is not unique to Buddhism as it is paralleled by works and grace in Christian theology, respectively. At any rate, it would seem that attributing the efficacy of the empowerment ritual solely to the master or solely to the practitioner is a bit one sided, a bit too black and white.
Instead, when the two are set in mutual interdependence then great things are possible—as it is said, “It is impossible for the hook of compassion, to catch you without the ring of faith.”
Phakchok Rinpoche gave the example of the stereotypical old granny who attends empowerments. You may ask her where Guru Rinpoche was born or something similar and she won’t know the answer. However, her faith and devotion in the Lotus Born Guru is unquestionable and reaches to the very bottom of her heart. We, on the other hand, may know all the details of Guru Rinpoche’s life stories and have written several PhD dissertations on him. However, still, our devotion is shaky at best. Now ask yourself, at the time of death, who would you rather be? ~Again, it is not about what you can fit in your head, but what you can find in your heart. To put it simply, all I wish to say is that we should have respect and cultivate pure perception not only for these inspiring texts but also for the way in which the tradition handles them.
Residing in the epicenter of the lotus mandala,
You hold the key to the treasury of siddhis and realization.
O precious guru, laden with all enlightened qualities,
Bless us & those around us that true devotion take hold of our hearts!
This nonsensical verbal outpour was typed out by Lowell Cook (Ari Lobsang) as a form a reflection and a way to say thank you to his Dharma siblings a few weeks following the profound empowerments bestowed by Lord of Refuge, Chokgyur Lingpa. May it be a cause of virtue!
Suggested reading: Words of My Perfect Teacher.
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