There is a prayer that I’ve learned in similar forms from several Tibetan Buddhist teachers. It is normally used as a dedication prayer, a form to follow at the end of any kind of spiritual practice that dedicates the merit of your practice to the welfare of all sentient beings. The translation I’ve come to use, perhaps altered slightly from traditional translations, is
By the power and the truth of this practice,
May all beings have happiness, and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from sorrow, and the causes of sorrow.
May they never be separated from the sacred happiness, which is sorrowless.
May all live without too much attachment and too much aversion,
And live believing in the equality of all that lives.
Galactic Life Forms — John Bamberger
I use this prayer regularly at the end of my meditation practice periods, or as a general way of feeling benevolence toward all life on occasions. I sometimes leave off the first line, “By the power and the truth of this practice,” as I don’t think I do any spiritual practices so well that I can implicitly make claims about their power and truthfulness, at other times I remember to be sure to include that first line in spite of my misgivings, as I have a bad habit of overdoing humility – which, of course, is not humility.
I awoke this morning thinking it would be useful to unpack what this prayer means to me, and to share it with others.
“By the power and the truth of this practice,”
I can appreciate the psychological power of starting with “By the power and truth of this practice.” It reminds us that we are part of a 2500-year-old tradition, not just somebody fooling around on our own. It implies the support of the sangha, other people following Buddhist practices, and especially the psychological, psychic and teaching support of the more realized followers of Buddhism, including various Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
Now, as someone raised as a Christian, I have an idea that to be a “good” member of a religion you are supposed to believe all aspects of it. In that sense, I’m not a “good Buddhist,” because while I have great respect for this tradition, and make it one of my main sources of practical guidance in life, I don’t have a blind faith that all aspects of Buddhism are true. Many followers of Buddhism act as if that’s the case, of course, although Gautama Buddha (in his Sutta to the Kalamas) warned people not to take any of his teachings on faith but to thoroughly test them to see if they indeed made sense and worked for them. I also am someone who is very scientifically oriented. I realize that we humans make observations and have experiences and then we come up with intellectual explanations, theories, to explain them. I’m sure that Buddhism, indeed probably all religions, started with powerful and moving experiences, but then people invented theories, called doctrines in this religious context, to make an acceptable sense of them. As a scientist, I have the pragmatic, working belief that all theories are tentative. They are the best we can do intellectually at the time with the data we have, but it’s important not to get overly attached to them because new data/experiences/understandings coming in may show that they are inadequate and need modification or replacement.
So I regard the doctrines and belief system of Buddhism, indeed of all religions, as theories and practices that probably have some usefulness and truth value, yet are probably inadequate and need revision in other ways. It’s more complicated than formal science, though, as most people in a religion are really strongly attached to doctrines at an emotional as well as an intellectual level. Questioning any of the religion’s doctrines is generally not valued, indeed may be considered heresy. People who think of themselves as scientists may also forget the tentativeness of theories also, believe their science has found The Truth, and get emotionally attached to these apparent truths. But, believing that the methods of essential science can help us clarify many things, I respect doctrines, but ask questions. Hopefully my questions are always based on a desire to be clearer about what more and useful and not just emotional reaction to what I don’t like.
So, I find that a lot of Buddhist ideas and practices make sense and work for me. I can see in my own life experience that I’ve come to understand my mind better and live a somewhat kinder and wiser better life. As to the metaphysical aspects of psychic blessings from the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, I hope that those are real, would be glad to receive them, and will be happy to treat them with respect, but I don’t know whether they are ultimate truths or just good, but perhaps not fully adequate theories, so I can and do ask questions.
The next two lines,
“May all beings have happiness, and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from sorrow, and the causes of sorrow.”
This is a straightforward wish and generally I am wholehearted in wishing it. It’s certainly my intellectual conviction. I must admit though that occasionally when I hear about people who’ve done really nasty things to other people and animals, I am angry and feel they should be punished and suffer, and have feelings of delight when they have suffered for what they’ve done. I then usually feel guilty that I have such vengeful feelings, but I remember to recognize that I’m just being human and those kinds of emotions are built into the human package. But I try not to hold on to negative feelings about anyone. If there were practical consequences, such as being careful in dealing with someone who’s been shown to be manipulative and untrustworthy, for example, I would certainly keep those facts in mind and be careful around them, perhaps needing to take forceful action against them if needed.
“May they never be separated from the sacred happiness, which is sorrowless.”
The two lines of wishes that beings may be happy and not suffer are conventional, but this one about never being separated from the sacred happiness is, I believe, much deeper. Indeed Buddhism considers helping someone else to become enlightened is the greatest gift possible, more important than all others. Although I’ve never personally had any deep mystical experiences, my psychological studies have shown me that it’s possible for human beings to have profound experiences of connection, unity, and love for all life, to feel that the universe is actually harmonious, alive, intelligent and progressing in the right direction in spite of apparent evil, and that such experiences can radically change a person’s life. The changes are in the direction of not simply personal happiness but a wisdom and kindness in dealing with others that is very deep.
My understanding of what this dedication wish is about may be limited, but I certainly wish that all of us could have at least a taste, if not a full realization of the sacred happiness, which makes life sorrowless.
“May all live without too much attachment and too much aversion,”
The previous parts of the prayer had been rather general, but I think of this as the practical advice line. Buddhism is very good in recognizing that attachment and aversion, “I want it, I must have it!” “I can’t stand it, take it away!” create all sorts of unnecessary suffering. Indeed, the usual translation of this line is absolute, “May all live without attachment and aversion.” But this strikes me as extreme and impractical, so I prefer Sogyal Rinpoche’s early translation wishing beings to live without too much attachment and too much aversion. It is possible to be resting quietly and peacefully and not particularly wanting or rejecting anything. But if I’m starving, freezing, or in great physical pain, for example, I’ll quickly discover that I am attached to adequate nutrition, warmth and comfort.
Perhaps I don’t begin to understand Buddhism anywhere near enough to appreciate the power of wanting to live with no attachment and no aversion at all, but I’ll certainly go along with the practical advice to anyone to be careful about attachment and aversion and to live moderately. If I’m outside and the weather is very cold, I need warm clothing to keep from freezing. If I will only accept a fashionable brand of outdoor clothing because I’m attached to the stylish impression I make on others, and it’s not readily available, I’ll freeze to death. If I refuse to wear some raggedy looking but otherwise warm clothing somebody offers me, again because I’m attached to how I appear to others, I’m similarly stupid and freeze to death.
“And live believing in the equality of all that lives.”
This last line of the prayer seems quite good intentioned to me, but I have difficulty with it. We human beings are the top predators on this planet. Even if we are vegetarians, and hold the belief that vegetables have no sentience and so cannot suffer when we kill and eat them, we cannot live without treating other beings as less than us and using and killing them. We take in thousands, if not millions of bacteria from outside every day and our immune system kills them off, with no effort on our part. Perhaps, one could argue, there are degrees of sentience, and bacteria and vegetables, as well as “lower” animals are so much less conscious than we are that they don’t suffer enough for us to worry about, but this strikes me as a slippery moral slope that we have to be very careful of. It is, sadly, the venerable human tradition to consider people of other tribes as significantly less human than you are and therefore it’s all right to kill them.…
My primary formal spiritual practice is in various kinds of meditation. I’m not particularly skilled at it, but I’ve come to enjoy various forms of meditation, and I generally do at least a few minutes of it every day. The above is the prayer I end my formal meditation periods with, and while I don’t know with certainty about the reality of possible psychic effects of such a dedication directly helping other people (I hope they do), I do value the mind set it gives me. My intention is that I’m not meditating simply from my personal benefit, I am doing it to be part of a general field of good intentions for life. I have that feeling about some of my scientific work also, that it may benefit all.
Praying to Who or What?
So who or what, you might ask, am I praying to?
The answer to that is highly variable, and depends on my psychological state at the time.
There certainly times, for example, when the conditioning from my childhood Christian religion adds a flavor to my prayer that I’m hoping there is a super-powerful God somewhere who is listening to my prayer and will respond favorably to it. It’s generally not my conscious intention to have that flavor be in my prayer, although I don’t feel a need to suppress it either. That would dishonor my younger self.
I generally have a more intellectual flavor to my prayers that I don’t understand the universe very well, and I’m not sure there are higher beings that listen to our prayers and respond to them – although I hope so – and I hope they are benevolent. If they exist, the dedication prayer is a gesture of respect to them, as well as a psychological way to help keep me connected to humanity and life as a whole. If the enlightened Buddhas and bodhisattvas who are no longer physically with us still exist as active spiritual beings somewhere, I hope that they hear my prayers and others’ prayers and help us all move toward happiness and enlightenment. And, implicitly, I hope that they are not stuck on formality and respond to my good intentions even, though I’m not a “good Buddhist” in the sense of believing all the doctrines or engaging in traditional ritual behaviors.
Note that I called the above an intellectual attitude of my prayers, but it’s also a deeper emotional tone.
I don’t know how much the truth and power the above writing has, but I do pray that it may help at least some beings have happiness and the causes of happiness, be free from sorrow and the causes of sorrow, connect to that deep, sacred level of being, and treat all beings with wisdom and compassion.