Happy Tara Day: Bringing our seven-limb prayer to life

This is the eighth installment of the 12-part series sharing my understanding of the practice Liberation from Sorrow.

Prayer of seven limbs

To Venerable Arya Tara
And all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas
Residing in the ten directions and the three times,
I prostrate with sincere faith.

Actual prostration is an inner wish to become just like whatever we are prostrating to.  When we prostrate to the good qualities of Buddhas, we are not trying to flatter them, rather we are humbly acknowledging that they have qualities we aspire towards, and our prostration is a commitment that we will rely upon them until we gain these same qualities ourself.  When we recite this verse, we should imagine that all of the countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of all three times are joining us in prostrating towards Arya Tara, our common spiritual mother.  Every Buddha and every bodhisattva is different, but we all share a common respect for our kind spiritual mother, and we pay respect to her wishing to become just like her.  We might wonder why Buddhas need to prostrate to other Buddhas since they have already attained every good quality.  They do so for two reasons, as a sign of respect recognizing all of the good that Tara does and to show a good example to everybody else by reaffirming that she is the spiritual mother of us all. 

I offer you flowers, incense, lights,
Perfumes, foods, music and other offerings,
Both actually set out and mentally imagined;
Please accept these, O Assembly of Aryas.

Buddhas do not need offerings from their own side since they already have everything they need.  We, however, need to make offerings because we need the merit, or good karma.  Gaining Dharma realizations depends primarily upon three conditions:  a mind free from negative karma, an abundance of merit, and a steady flow of blessings.  This can be likened to sea lanes free from obstacles, good sails, and plenty of wind.  When we recite this verse, we should imagine that ourself and all living beings surrounding us all fill the entire universe with countless breathtaking offerings.  We should imagine that the assembly of Taras accepts our offerings out of delight, knowing that we are now karmically closer to her and our minds our rich with merit she can subsequently bless.

I confess all negative actions,
The five heinous actions and the ten non-virtues,
That I have committed since beginningless time
Through my mind being overcome by delusions.

The strength of our purification depends upon the extent to which we generate the four opponent powers.  The power of regret is admitting that we have made mistakes and recognizing that if we do not purify, we will suffer the karmic consequences – not as a punishment, but more an issue of spiritual gravity.  This primarily purifies the effects similar to the cause.  The power of reliance means we turn to the three jewels for purification of our negative karma and to seek their help so that we can change our ways.  This primarily purifies the environmental effect of our negative karma.  The power of the opponent force is some virtuous action we engage in to counteract or oppose the negative karma we previously created.  Venerable Tharchin explains that negative karma is like tiny vibrations on our very subtle mind, but if we send an opposite wave towards it, we can neutralize our past negative deeds.  This primarily purifies the ripened effect, or the substantial cause of future lower rebirth.  The power of the promise is a personal commitment that we will not repeat our past mistakes, but instead do something positive.  This primarily purifies the tendency to engage again in negative actions.  If all four powers are assembled, we can quickly purify all of our negative karma, but if we fail to generate these four causes, then our purification will be incomplete.  Any virtuous action can be an opponent force if performed motivated by regret. 

To purification in this context, we should first generate regret for all the negative karma that remains in our mind which can result in lower rebirth, create obstacles to our practice of Lamrim, and interfere with our ability to generate pure faith in Arya Tara.  We then recall the assembly of Taras in front of us and generate faith and reliance in them.  When we engage in the opponent action of confession, we are coming clean with our mistakes acknowledging them as mistakes, without our typical rationalization or minimization for why they don’t matter.  Understanding them clearly as the wrong way to go, we then commit to both ourself and Guru Tara that we will change our ways.  We can then imagine that countless purifying nectars stream down from Tara’s heart, filling our heart and purifying all of our negative karma.

 We can sometimes confuse Buddhist confession with Catholic confession.  In Christian traditions, we confess our wrong deeds in the hopes that God will forgive us.  In Buddhism, we do not need some outside power to forgive us, but we do need to receive purifying blessings.  Receiving Tara’s purifying blessings does not depend upon her forgiving us, rather they will spontaneously come down every time the conditions for them to occur arise, just like sunlight will flood in each time we open the blinds without the Sun having to decide to fill our room with light.

I rejoice in the merit of all the virtues
Collected throughout the three times
By Bodhisattvas, Solitary Conquerors,
Hearers, ordinary beings and others.

When we rejoice in virtue we create a similitude of the virtuous karma we are rejoicing in, as if we engaged in the virtuous action ourself.  Since Tara is the Lamrim Buddha and she has committed herself to protecting the followers of Atisha, when we engage in this practice, we should particularly rejoice in all of the virtue of the Kadam lineage gurus and the millions of old and new Kadampa practitioners.  All of these virtuous deeds are inspired by Tara and rejoicing in these Kadampa virtues aligns us with not only her blessings, but the karmic current of the Kadampas.  We can then ride the “great wave” of their deeds all the way to enlightenment.

Please turn the Wheel of Dharma
Of the great, small and common vehicles,
According to the different wishes
And capacities of living beings.

Buddhas appear in countless Buddhist and non-Buddhist form depending upon the karmic dispositions of different disciples around the world.  We don’t in any way need more Buddhists per se, we are content with anybody moving in virtuous directions depending upon wherever they are starting from.  But here, since this is a practice of Tara, in particular we request the turning of the wheel of Kadam Dharma, the Kadam Lamrim.  Geshe-la says everyone needs Lamrim, whether we are Buddhist or not.  Lamrim is inseparable from living with wisdom.  If we look at the world and social media, we can find countless examples of Lamrim-like wisdom appearing in a variety of different forms that are acceptable to different audiences.  This is a wonderful thing, and is the direct result of Kadampa practitioners praying for the turning of the wheel of Kadam Dharma.  Likewise, Milarepa said he does not need Dharma books because everything reveals to him the truth of Dharma.  Part of the Buddhas turning the Wheel of Dharma includes blessing the minds of living beings to learn Dharma lessons from whatever arises in the world.  When we recite this verse, we should strongly request Tara continue to pour down the wisdom of the Kadam Lamrim in this world in whatever form living beings can accept – which usually means Facebook quotes or funny memes!

For as long as samsara has not ceased,
Please do not pass beyond sorrow;
But with compassion care for all living beings
Drowning in the ocean of suffering.

A Buddha is a deathless being.  They have quite literally conquered death and have the ability to remain in this world, life after life, gradually guiding living beings along the path to enlightenment.  They can do so without ever being subject to samsara’s sufferings.  Their emanation bodies will be born, age, get sick, and eventually pass away, but the actual Buddha remains in this world forever.  When we recite this verse, we pray that Buddhas emanations continue to appear forever.  Buddhas are everywhere, but whether they can help living beings depends upon whether they appear or not.  Them appearing helping living beings is a dependent arising, dependent upon our creating the karma for them to appear.  When we recite this verse, we create the karmic causes for them to continue to appear.  It is important that when we recite this verse we do so for the sake of others.  We can sometimes think, “well I’ve already found the Dharma, so why do I need to pray for this?”  The answer is (1) other living beings matter too, and (2) by praying that emanations continue to appear for others we create the karmic causes for them to continue to appear to us in all of our future lives.

May all the merit I have collected
Become the cause of enlightenment;
And before too long may I become
The Glorious Guide of migrators.

Dedicating our merit is like investing our money.  We put it away in for a particular cause and then it continues to work towards the fulfillment of that cause.  There is a big difference between investing our money and spending it on our present needs.  Here, we dedicate all our merit to our swiftest possible enlightenment so we can then help others attain the same state.  In this way, we ourselves become part of the great wave of Tara’s family.

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