The Seven-Branch Prayer Embodies the Essence of Practice; New Emanations of Tseringma

 

January 29, 2016—Tergar Monastery, Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India

[This report has two sections: a briefer account of the morning’s teachings followed by a lightly edited transcript.]

After three days of Karma Pakshi and Tseringma practice, the Gyalwang Karmapa recommenced his teachings on the Ornament of Precious Liberation. He began with a reading transmission from the Seventh Topic, the Ceremony, and within this, the Preparation, which has six parts. Today the Karmapa covered its first part, Making Offerings.

“The key points of all practices is to gather the accumulations and purify misdeeds and obscurations,” he stated. “There is no practice that is not included within these two.” “Gathering the accumulations,” he continued, “means gathering all the favorable conditions for developing the path within our beings. Purifying misdeeds and obscurations means clearing away the conditions that counteract developing the path within.”

If one added prostrations at the beginning, the six parts of the section of Preparation would be the same as the seven parts of the Seven Branch Prayer: [(0) prostrations], (1) making offerings, (2) confessing past wrongs, (3) rejoicing in virtue, 4) requesting the buddhas to teach the Dharma, (5) supplicating the buddhas not to abandon the world, and (6) dedicating the roots of virtue. The Karmapa stated that these the seven branches of the prayer embody all the practices of accumulation and purification.

Turning to the prayer itself, the Karmapa remarked, “It is possible to see all seven branches as offerings. The first two branches, of prostration and making offerings, are physical offerings; the last five are an offering of practice.” He noted that there are many other ways of categorizing the seven branches; for example, there is a way to practice so that in each of the seven branches, accumulation and purification is complete. To illustrate this, he mentioned prostrations, which, as everyone knows, are an accumulation of merit. They are also, he added, an antidote for pride.

The Karmapa continued to explain that prostrations can be understood in three ways: with our body, speech, or mind. The physical prostrations we make with our body everyone knows. Prostrations through our speech, he stated, refer to the verbal praise and tribute we make to celebrate the positive qualities of a teacher. Prostrations with our mind means showing profound respect and feeling great faith in the person to whom we are prostrating. When we make an authentic prostration, our minds are filled with genuine respect.

The Karmapa then talked of how we deviate from these true ways of prostrating. In terms of the body, we could just be following customs without any real feeling. He stated, “This is the biggest danger for religions—a rote following of traditions without any experiential or emotional connection to them. It means that we do not know the nature of what we are doing.” In terms of speech, he said, we should watch to see whether we are praising or faulting others.

Then turning to the mind, the Karmapa emphasized that true prostrations are about transforming our mind and reducing our pride. The other six branches of the prayer also function as antidotes; for example, rejoicing counteracts envy, and requesting the Buddha to teach counteracts delusion or ignorance.
The Karmapa summarized his talk by saying that the Seven-Branch Prayer epitomizes all the practices of gathering the accumulations as well as purifying misdeeds and obscurations. All the major points of practice are present here, so the branches are easy to engage and easily appear in our minds. We should do this practice, he concluded, with great delight and real interest.

At the end of his talk, the Karmapa said that he hoped that in the future when the teachings spread, there would be great beings, who are women with the qualities of being learned, venerable, and good and who would look after the teachings. This is important not just for nuns, but for all living beings. “My hope, my aspiration,” he said, “is that each of the five Tseringma sisters will send an emanation as a nun to support the teachings. Maybe I’m being too bold, but it might just be possible.”

Near the end of the Buddha’s life, the Karmapa related, there was a discussion about the best way to preserve the teachings. On the one hand, they could be entrusted to humans but they are short-lived and the teachings need to last a long time. On the other hand, they could also be entrusted to the gods, who have a long life but are endlessly distracted by the sense pleasures and might not be able to uphold the teachings. The conclusion was to entrust the teachings to both a human, the great regent Kashyapa, and also to the four great kings who lived in the higher realms. The Karmapa stated that Milarepa was thus following the Buddha’s precedent when he similarly appointed the human Gampopa and the goddess Tseringma to uphold his teachings. Asking everyone to keep this in mind, the Karmapa concluded this morning’s teachings.

The Lightly Edited Transcript

After three days of Karma Pakshi and Tseringma practice, the Gyalwang Karmapa recommenced his teachings on the Ornament of Precious Liberation. He began with a reading transmission from the Seventh Topic, the Ceremony, and within this, the Preparation, which has six parts. Today the Karmapa covered its first part, Making Offerings.

“The key points of all practices is to gather the accumulations and purify misdeeds and obscurations,” he stated. “There is no practice that is not included within these two.” “Gathering the accumulations,” he continued, “means gathering all the favorable conditions for developing the path within our beings. Purifying misdeeds and obscurations means clearing away the conditions that counteract developing the path within.” He gave the example of developing bodhichitta: we gather the favorable conditions for it to arise and pacify or eliminate whatever contradicts its development.

If one added prostrations at the beginning, the six parts of the section of Preparation would be the same as the seven parts of the Seven Branch Prayer: [(0) prostrations], (1) making offerings, (2) confessing past wrongs, (3) rejoicing in virtue, 4) requesting the buddhas to teach the Dharma, (5) supplicating the buddhas not to abandon the world, and (6) dedicating the roots of virtue. The Karmapa stated that these the seven branches of the prayer embody all the practices of accumulation and purification.

Since this prayer is chanted so often, we fall into thinking that it is easy and simple, he said, and do not realize its value and importance. He first traced the lineage of the prayer, which comes from the sutra tradition and belongs to the Mahayana, within which is found a sutra called the Gandavyuha. This sutra contains a chapter known as the Aspiration for Excellent Conduct, which gives the clearest presentation of the Seven-Branch Prayer.

To illustrate his point about ignorance of the Seven Branch Prayer, the Karmapa recited a story from the Thirteenth Karmapa’s collected works. It seems that the Karmapa and a former discipline master named Gyaltsen, who was not much educated but loved to give answers, went on pilgrimage to a sacred mountain at the base of the valley where Tsurphu is. This mountain is home to an isolated place where the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje practiced in a cave as did his disciples, eighty of whom became realized masters.

So the Thirteenth Karmapa said to Gyaltsen, “Since we’ve come to a sacred site, you should chant the Seven Branch Prayer.”
“What’s that?” Gyaltsen asked.
“It’s from the beginning of the Noble Aspiration for Excellent Conduct,” replied the Karmapa and chanted the first lines to remind Gyaltsen: “I prostrate to all the buddhas as many as there are….”
“Oh, if I start in on that one” answered Gyaltsen, “I’ll just go around in circles and never finish. Isn’t there something shorter?” (The Karmapa surmised that he had not memorized the text.)
“Well,” said the Thirteenth Karmapa, “you could say the last verse, ‘Whatever little merit I have gathered….’”

These days, the Karmapa remarked, we also are ignorant about the Seven-Branch Prayer, the Karmapa remarked. How many times have we recited the Noble Aspiration for Excellent Conduct and still do not know that the first verses are actually a Seven-Branch Prayer? We seem to be merely repeating the words without knowing the meaning well.

Turning to the prayer itself, the Karmapa remarked, “It is possible to see all seven branches as offerings. The first two branches, of prostration and making offerings, are physical offerings; the last five are an offering of practice.” There are many other ways of categorizing the seven branches, the Karmapa noted. They can be condensed into four aspects: (1) gathering the accumulations, which covers prostrations, offerings, requesting the buddhas to teach, and asking them not to abandon the world; (2) purifying misdeeds and obscurations, which is confession; (3) increasing our virtue, which is rejoicing; and (4) rendering our virtue inexhaustible, which is dedicating. Even more condensed, the Karmapa explained, is a summary into two aspects: (1) purification, which is the confession and (2) the accumulation of merit, which is the remaining six branches.

Further, the Karmapa added that there is a way to practice so that in each of the seven branches, accumulation and purification is complete. For example, prostrations, as everyone knows, are an accumulation of merit. They are also, he added, an antidote for pride. The Karmapa had reflected on this in terms of people who had completed the 100,000 prostrations of the preliminary practices and saw that it was possible that pride did not decrease but increased when people think with some pride, “I’m one who’s done 100,000 prostrations.” So we should look and see if our pride has grown or not.

Actually, the Karmapa noted, pride has two aspects: one is a kind of inflated conceit, where we are all puffed up about ourselves, and the second is distain, when we look down on others. With an attitude like this, we are not accumulating merit but misdeeds.

Instead of focusing on our accomplishments, we should be focusing on the object of our prostration. “Why is it that we prostrate?” the Karmapa asked. “It is to show respect by putting the five main points of our body to the ground,” he replied, “while we are also concentrating on the admirable qualities of the person to whom we are prostrating. Their excellence is so wonderful that it naturally steals away our small mind; we are captivated just thinking of this person and can feel a deep and true respect.” This complete respect is shown, he said, by imagining that we touch our head, the highest part of our body, to the ground, placing it at their feet, the lowest part of the respected person’s body. As we do so, we are also rejoicing in the excellence we see.

The Karmapa continued to explain that prostrations can be understood in three ways: with our body, speech, or mind. The physical prostrations we make with our body everyone knows. There are also variations between countries and times; even the four main traditions in Tibet have slightly different ways of prostrating. Prostrations through our speech, he stated, refer to the verbal praise and tribute we make to celebrate the positive qualities of a teacher. Prostrations with our mind means showing profound respect and feeling great faith in the person to whom we are prostrating. When we make an authentic prostration, our minds are filled with genuine respect.

The Karmapa then talked of how we deviate from these true ways of prostrating. In terms of the body, we could just be following customs, conventions that have been handed down to us, without any real feeling. He stated, “This is the biggest danger for religions—a rote following of traditions without any experiential or emotional connection to them. It means that we do not know the nature of what we are doing.” In terms of speech, he continued, we should look at whether we speak of the qualities of others or their faults. If we talk only of others’ defects, our prostrations have not gone well. They were also not successful if our pride swells, or if seeing others’ qualities does not naturally elicit our respect and rejoicing.

Turning to the mind, the Karmapa emphasized that prostrations are about transforming our mind; they are a means to diminish our pride, so that the Dharma can develop within us. Doing them with doubts or just as an exercise to get fit, he cautioned, is not what is sought in the context of the seven branches. Here, it is all about changing our minds, about developing our bodhichitta. He noted that even in Sanskrit, the word for prostration, namaḥa primarily means “respect,” underlining the understanding of prostrations as showing respect through our body, speech, and mind with the latter being the most important. Since we do prostrations daily, the Karmapa stated counseled that we should do them while aware of their meaning as explained in the teachings.

The Karmapa looked further into the Seven Branch Prayer by saying that the branches function as an antidote for the afflictions. Prostrations are an antidote for pride, and further, he added, rejoicing counteracts envy and requesting the Buddha to teach counteracts delusion (or ignorance). Speaking of these two, he related that the masters of old have said that we are living in degenerate times when favorable conditions are few and obstructing conditions many. Therefore, the Karmapa stated, “When a single person gives rise to just one virtuous thought, we should rejoice and be joyful, considering it to be like a fresh and living jewel of the Dharma.”

We need to learn to think like this, he said. If not, then our taking refuge is just mouthing words. If we lack plentiful virtue in ourselves and cannot rejoice in others’, it would be similar to cutting off access to our own record of wholesome activity. So when we see virtuous actions, it is important to rejoice and be delighted.

Requesting the Buddha to turn the wheel of the dharma, the sixth branch, is a remedy for ignorant delusion. The Karmapa explained, “The Buddha’s turning of the wheel of Dharma eliminates our ignorance of what to do and what not; our blind faith becomes informed.” But supplicating alone is not enough, he advised, for we must also study and practice. If not, the benefit is minimal. “We should know,” he said, “the reason why we are supplicating the Buddha for teachings. It should be that we have a great desire to learn and to connect with them deep within.” It would not be right to ask for the teachings and then just lay them aside, he commented. If we actually practice what the Buddha taught, it will become an antidote for our ignorance.

The Karmapa summarized his talk by saying that the Seven-Branch Prayer epitomizes all the practices of gathering the accumulations as well as purifying misdeeds and obscurations. All the major points of practice are present here, so the branches are easy to engage and easily appear in our minds. We should do this practice, he concluded, with great delight and real interest.

Afterward, as he has often done at the end of his morning talk, the Karmapa spoke about his ideas and plans for supporting women practitioners. First he commented that over the last days, the extensive practice of Tseringma for the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama had gone very well. Then he spoke of his plans to create a great nunnery, which he referred to as a densa, the usual term for an important monastic center or a major lama’s main residence. The Karmapa also referred to the nuns as tsunmo, a respectful term meaning “venerable one” rather than using the term ani, meaning “auntie,” which has been prevalent in the past. He noted that the recent practice of Tseringma was the first time that the nuns had engaged all together in a great Dharma practice and he hoped they would continue to do this one of Tseringma each year. The Karmapa reminded everyone that she is a special protector and also a lineage holder of Milarepa’s teachings.

He also let it be known that during the Tseringma practice he had made an aspiration that great beings would come in a female form to be leaders of the nuns. In Tibet, he said, there were many female scholars and masters, though these days we do not know much about them. He hoped that in the future when the teachings spread, there would be great beings, who are women with the qualities of being learned, venerable, and good and who would look after the teachings. This is important not just for nuns, but for all living beings. “My hope, my aspiration,” he said, “is that each of the five Tseringma sisters will send an emanation as a nun to support the teachings. Maybe I’m being too bold, but it might just be possible.”

The Karmapa again encouraged the nuns to hold the extensive practice of Tseringma each year and commented on the importance of Tseringma for the lineage by drawing a parallel between the Buddha and Milarepa. Near the end of the Buddha’s life, the Karmapa related, there was a discussion about the best way to preserve the teachings. On the one hand, they could be entrusted to humans but they are short-lived and the teachings need to last a long time. On the other hand, they could also be entrusted to the gods, who have a long life but are endlessly distracted by the sense pleasures and might not be able to uphold the teachings. The conclusion was to entrust the teachings to both a human, the great regent Kashyapa, and also to the four great kings who lived in the higher realms. The Karmapa stated that Milarepa was thus following the Buddha’s precedent when he similarly appointed the human Gampopa and goddess Tseringma to uphold his teachings. Asking everyone to keep this in mind, the Karmapa concluded this morning’s teachings.

 

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