Pranidhanas - part one

The power of the word of truth

Tue 20 Feb 2024

The theme of this year is Pranidhana. This is the first part of a transcript from a teaching given by Lama Shenpen on the theme, with the rest of the teaching to follow in parts over the coming weeks.


The area of pranidhana is linked very closely to the whole topic of death and dying, and how to prepare for death. This has something to do with directing our intention in a powerful way. We make sure that at the time of death, either our own or that of others, we muster that power of pranidhana to direct ourselves or others into the rebirth, a positive, happy rebirth that is conducive to awakening. 

At the turn of a New Year, we are often thinking about making new year's resolutions.  Take a moment to reflect on how New Year's resolutions have a habit of falling by the wayside fairly quickly. It's interesting to think about what we already know about making a resolution and knowing you're going to keep it or not. 

The main thing that prevents us keeping the pranidhana, from following through with a resolution, is because we're divided. We are divided within ourselves. One part of us wants one thing and another part wants different things - and how at different moments, one part takes over from the other. So we don't actually accomplish our purpose. 

And often, we haven't even clarified it very well in the first place. We haven't even discussed it with the various parts within ourselves, if you like. Once we can't even trust ourselves to do what we say we're going to do, to keep to our commitments, keep to our resolutions. We lose confidence in ourselves and there's very little for other people to have confidence in. So it's from the dharma point of view, it's very serious not to be able to trust your own resolutions, commitments and your word. Therefore, we can't really muster the single mindedness of following the path of the Dharma. 

I've placed this topic of Pranidhanas to follow on from love and compassion, view of emptiness or ultimate reality, being able to practice in our daily life, and vaster vision because all of that is integral to making effective pranidhanas.

Every morning in the Shakyamuni puja (click here to join us for the practice at 9am each morning), we talk about how, when we make a pranidhana in the presence of the Buddha, it will definitely be accomplished. But it doesn't say when. And it could be a long torturous journey!

If we have actually lost all the different powers that are implicit in the making of a pranidhana. I think it's important and helpful to think of a pranidhana, in terms of mandala principle. If you really get the central principles really clear. Then it will determine the nature of that whole mandala which, in a way is a kind of Samadhi, stabilizing our intention in a direction that we wish to go. When that's done skillfully it creates a very strong and emotional boundary. As soon as you start to stray, you start to feel the tension, you get warning bells going everywhere telling you, this is not the right direction! These are the mandala guardians, you have all the elements of Mandala Principle; the connections, the energy exchange, the Evam, the guardians and gateways. (Aspects of Mandala Principle - DHB book 7) 

I don't think it is difficult when you have a sense of the mandala as a whole. And all the elements in it. You will be able to see how you create a pranidhana mandala that then holds you, and creates a vehicle for carrying you towards your goal, in this case it. is full Awakening. 

Leter this year I am hoping to link into the Samantabhadracharya Pranidhana and make comments as I go through that. (you can pick up a copy here) But also I want to highlight the Shakyamuni puja and how the theme of pranidhana is so central to all the practices we do.

So we start with having confidence in the Openness, Clarity and Sensitivity of our being, in order to find the Heart Wish, to be clear about what it is that we really want, that we can single-mindedly and wholeheartedly commit ourselves to and follow through. It can be as detailed as you like. The Samantabhadracharya pranidhana is about spelling out all the different conditions and elements that need to come together for that Bodhichitta Heart Wish to be accomplished. 

So it is that sense of discovering that wish within ourselves, and then applying ourselves to bringing the right conditions about, in being as committed to those conditions and making them happen as the wish itself. The central principle is the Heart Wish and the details are like the body of the mandala.

One of the things that is not so obvious to us, is that the power of the pranidhana relies on having a sufficient punya. Is punya is something that you have? I think augmenting the whole mandala in the direction you want to go is probably what we mean when we are talking about punya. You will notice in the sutras, the teachings and in the life stories of the practitioners that you have to have sufficient punya, sufficient power and momentum, which is augmented by repetition. Once isn't enough. Repetition is like the energy that is required for the mandala to perform its function. It won't augment in power unless we keep repeating the actions that are needed for that to be brought about.

This relates to Evam. We focus the pranidhana and then it sort of spreads out - and you could think that is sufficient, it spreads out in an unlimited way. But unless you focus again, you are not going to see the effect you are looking for. There won't be the same energy exchange, or dynamic of 'E' and 'Vam' - you need to have more 'Vams', as it were. They need to be balanced out with that spaciousness, allowing the effect to percolate through the whole mandala.

A lot of the practices you see in Buddhist countries are very much associated with this energy exchange. One meets and makes offerings to the teachers, and when they are received, one receives the adhisthana, this  augments the power of the whole mandala.

The other power that is really important in this area is shila. We tend to translate it as morality, right action or discipline. Something like that. But all that rests on having made a commitment and keeping it. Keeping your word. Doing what you say you will do. Doing good actions isn't particularly shila. It produces punya, but it doesn't strengthen the power of your word. It doesn't build the body of the mandala on the basis of intention and one's word. Bokar Rinpoche gave an example of a cat that doesn't kill. It just happens not to kill, so of course, it doesn't make the bad karma of killing. But it doesn't have the intention or resolve not to kill, it's just lazy. Whereas a cat that had actually decided it wasn't going to kill would be practicing shila. And as long as it didn't kill, that would become very powerful. But if it did kill, it would have broken the shila mandala in some way.

In the same way, if we make a resolution and keep it, obviously in line with the intention of the mandala to benefit all beings... although if we had an intention to do something bad and we keep that, we are developing a certain skill to keep our word, bu obviosly, that is going in the wrong direction. The story of Angulimala comes to mind, he was keeping his word by killing all these people and that had a power. When the Buddha told him to stop, he did as soon as he decided to. because he had the power of shila.

Shila is, in a way, very close to this idea of pranidhana. A pranidhana is more all-encompassing, but if you have decided to keep a precept and have gone off course, shila is a mandala in its own right and you begin to feel uneasy - increasingly so when you get to the edge where you might break that commitment. When it's badly broken, the guardians become lazy and don't have the power they would have if you had always kept the shila. 

This all relates to the other power inherent in the nature of the universe, if you like, the power of a word of truth.

The power of truth is like a living truth. If we are in line with the truth, our whole mantra becomes powerful. Therefore, whatever our intention is becomes powerful because of our commitment to truth. That is expressed by our word.

This is inseparable from the point I was making about shila, and how you give your word. It is augmented by it being witnessed by a truthful person.

There are so many stories, folk stories, myths, legends, novels and films that hang on the poignancy of losing the power of your word. There is a very strong emotion around that, isn't there? Someone who can't keep their word, cant be trusted, and the power of someone who keeps their word and can be trusted This is the mandala boundary. 

To make a powerful pranidhana you have to be honest, especially with yourself. If you are deceiving yourself, trying to justify yourself by saying you are going to do something when you are not being totally honest, either with yourself or the world. If you say what you think you ought to be saying, trying to kid yourself that it is what you are really going to do, making promises. And after a while you start to learn that it doesn't really mean anything.

Whereas someone who keeps their word makes a promise and the world can trust it. And they can trust themselves.

I think it's an important principle. Thesedays we do a lot of justifying ourselves for our dishonesty, hoping it doesn't really matter. When we run into it in others, we are outraged. If we can't be trusted to keep our word, what kind of society is that? What would our relationships be? That's on an everyday level, but on a much deeper level it is actually how the world is created - through the word. It sounds like St. John's gospel doesn't it?

There is a lot to consider there about that truth. The word of truth.

Part two of this teaching from Lama Shenpen will follow soon.