COLUMN: Dharma Teachings
by Russell Rodgers, Nelson, BC
This simple, four line supplication composed by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has a lot in it. There is one meaning on the level of ordinary thoughts and associations. Then, there is another level that words cannot directly express but can only point to. If we look beneath the surface to this hidden meaning, another dimension opens up.
As with many of the chants, if we read it on a surface level, we might find the wording puzzling, or even jarring. If one doesn’t have faith in the author, one might reject the whole chanting experience. Sometimes newcomers fall into this trap. However if some faith and patience exists, one might be stimulated to look for a hidden meaning. In doing so, one starts a virtuous process of contemplation.
The first line reads: May basic goodness dawn. Ordinarily, goodness is a concept, and concepts generally work by comparing and distinguishing one thing from another. For instance, we might say that goodness happens when we eat something tasty. We say “Oh, that was good!”, with the implied meaning that compared to other food, it wasn’t neutral or bad. So this first line might be saying something like “May my life be full of pleasure and nice things”.
Here, the word “basic” inserts a puzzling element and hints at a hidden meaning. At this level, the words point to, but cannot fully describe, what is being pointed at. The author, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, trusts that actual experiences of what is being pointed to have arisen at some time in our lives. Because of that, he can point us towards those experiences. We may not fully understand them, or be able to put them into words, but the word “basic” starts the process of questioning.
In this context, “basic” hints at something that is primordial: an experience that is uncontaminated by second thought or interpretation – just raw experience itself. Usually this happens in a moment of nowness. Thoughts of good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant haven’t yet arisen. It is pre-thought: a state that Buddhists describe as is-ness or that-ness. The word “pure” might be applied.
If this is “basic”, then what is “good” about? Generally speaking, when we are in direct contact with the world, it feels fresh and spacious. We are not thinking about something, we are experiencing it, now. We might feel open and even exposed, but we might also find a tender feeling towards what we are in touch with. It might be a small drop of water on a leaf, reflecting sunlight like an emerald. Or, it could be a pungent whiff of garbage that stops our mind with its sweet tang. If we don’t automatically dive into rejection, we might savor the moment. We might feel a sense of harmony, a sense of our place in the vastness of a universe that has a place for everything, including garbage. In spite of our habitual thoughts, the moment might feel poignant, full and complete in itself, but empty of our thoughts about it. We might feel alone, because we couldn’t describe it to others – that would be talking about it, not experiencing it.
“May the confidence of goodness be eternal”. Like “goodness”, “confidence” is another one of those concepts that usually reflect evaluation and comparison. Ordinarily, you would read the line above thinking of confidence as something you have because your circumstances are overwhelmingly supportive. Maybe you have lots of money, and powerful friends, or perhaps you just feel that luck is on your side.
So what is the hidden meaning here? Notice the phrasing “confidence of goodness”. It could have been phrased “confidence in goodness”, but it wasn’t. So here the words are pointing beyond themselves to confidence that exists by itself in the state of basic goodness. This kind of confidence doesn’t depend on an evaluation of one’s resources or relative strengths. It is complete within itself. It doesn’t lean on anything that could be taken away.
So what is this state of basic goodness that is inherently confident? Here, we are talking about basic wakeful awareness. Usually we think of awareness in terms of what we are aware of, not the state awareness itself. The chant is saying that just being, awake and aware, is basic and good in itself.
You may have met or heard of dying people who experience a kind of grace at the end of their lives. They achieve this by giving up clinging. Their grace is unconditional because whatever happens, they willing to be. Like those dying people, our awareness is our constant friend, because no matter what occurs, we have this good, wakeful awareness. So this is the confidence of basic goodness. It is opposed to confidence in some kind of goodness that is external to our state of being.
The word “eternal” is a jarring element in this line. How can confidence be eternal when everything is impermanent? If we look closely at the actual experience of basic goodness, it is always in the now. When one is in nowness, the past is a memory — just a kind of thought that comes up. The future hasn’t happened yet, so it is just imagination. If there is no past and no future, there is no time. So confidence can be eternal, beyond time, because it is always now. It is always there whenever you look for it in nowness.
May goodness be all victorious: Conventionally, we might think of good triumphing over bad, but that has an element of aggression. The hidden meaning here is that goodness underlies even what we interpret as bad. It is primordially present, so there is never any question of goodness needing to be victorious. It is victorious in own nature.
May that goodness bring profound, brilliant glory. Again, we have to acknowledge two levels. Conceptually, some of these words have complex associations for us. “Glory” might describe adulation by others following a victory in sports. Glory is also commonly associated with praise to God.
The hidden meaning has to do with the nature of reality. Mind has two aspects: the first is the awake, empty quality that provides the space experience in which all experience can occur. This is felt as a sense of spaciousness. Then there is the luminous, knowing, expressive, brilliant quality. This is what forms thoughts and images of the world in the space of our mind. Sometimes this ability is called the “clear light” nature. In the experience of nowness, we get just a hint of this nature. Our perceptions become fresh, vivid and powerful and maybe even glorious.