January 15, 1997 Awakened Heart, Part 2, Seven Branch Prayer

97.01.15 WC.doc

January 15, 1997

Wednesday Night Group

Awakened Heart, Bodhicitta part 2

Aaron: Good evening and my love to you all, and a deep bow to you for braving the snowstorm. I am always moved by the sincerity and the love of those who come here seeking for deeper understanding, and that you are willing to put yourself to some discomfort in order to nurture that understanding.

For many years we have worked together on a primary distortion which most of you carry. That is, the distortion of the idea that you should not have heavy emotions. So many of you have aspired so deeply to offer your energy with love to the world and have been moved to great judgment and attack of the self because negativity occasionally arises.

Our primary past work together, then, has been to help you deeply to understand that emotion, like physical sensation, will arise when the conditions are present for them to arise, and that as long as you are in human form, you're not going to do away completely with those conditions. Our focus through the years here has been two-fold: the acquisition of wisdom which understands how emotion arises, and a greater equanimity with those emotions so that there's no fixation on them, so that you don't own them nor they own you. You begin to understand arising as not-self. In this way you have come to understand that you need neither be reactive to them nor suppress them, but simply can view them as that dark cloud passing across the sky, noting the passing with kindness. All of you have worked with me on these understandings in depth, and you have all become proficient to some degree at not condemning yourself, nor getting into a relationship with what arose.

In December we began a new phase of our work with just one class, the notes of which have been handed out tonight. This is an ongoing teaching that I will be offering for many weeks through this spring semester. While you understand that heavy emotions will arise if the conditions are present for their arising, you also understand that you do have some say about those conditions. You understand that there are practices you can do which help to minimize the conditions under which heavy emotion will arise. Our present goal is not the cessation of heavy emotion but simply to move deeper into heart-centered practices, purification practices and antidotes to weaken the conditions which give rise to the heavy emotions.

We are not attacking the heavy emotions. If they arise, they arise, and there need be no relationship with them. But they are uncomfortable. Some of the energy of them does leak out regardless of how much you try to confine it, regardless of how centered you may be with the arising. And so it is more skillful not to have them arise, and more comfortable.

The practice that I introduced before Christmas is one phase of a larger practice. I introduced you to 4 steps that have been named the Four Empowerments or Four Powers. Within that practice, first you open your heart to that which supports your resolution to offer your energy to the world in great love, to do no harm, to do only good. You may turn to the Christ energy, or the Buddha, or to any beloved teacher, or merely to the force of Love itself, and from that being find support for your resolve.

The second stage (I pass through these very briefly; you have just received the transcript of that talk with details)—the second stage is one of reflection about the mind state that has arisen in you, such as anger or jealousy or greed, and a reflection on just how that arose. The reflection takes you into the wisdom mind which understands dependent arising, understands how it arose out of conditions, and does not send out blame for it, but simply sees that it arose because of delusion and ignorance and fear. Within this reflection there is regret for, or more accurately, sorrow for, that which has arisen, and an acceptance of responsibility for the delusion, fear and sense of self which did serve as condition for that negative mind state to arise.

The third part is the resolution not to continue that habit. The resolution comes from a deep place of love which sees that the habit, for example, of jealousy, has created suffering for yourself and for others, and that it is merely a habit, that it does not need to be perpetuated. It sees that from the most centered place of loving wisdom, there is no delusion able to give rise to jealousy. The fourth step is a willingness to engage the various specific antidotes to anger or jealousy or greed or whatever that habitual negative pattern may be. I asked those who were present to practice with these 4 steps with some current catalyst and mental formation.

Now I want to take these 4 steps and put them into a larger practice. I would like to state first that while what I am offering here may seem long and intricate, you do reach a point where you can go through these steps very quickly. By way of example, let us use impatience. You may feel impatience arising. Just note it and feel the tension in it. You may note that there is no contraction around the impatience, no need to try and push it away, no need to enact it, but that it does still carry a tension that's uncomfortable. Very quickly, in just a moment, your mind may turn toward whatever Being may be your choice, a Being who you feel in your heart has thoroughly transcended impatience. This may be a being such as Buddha or the Christ, or a recent being such as Mother Theresa, or Gandhi.

Within just a few seconds you can bring the sense of that impatience into your heart and allow yourself to feel real regret for it. The reflection need not be lengthy, you already understand how it arose, so it's not a lengthy process of understanding, just an acknowledgment of the understanding which already exists: this impatience arose because certain conditions were present. Perhaps you may note, “fear and a sense of solid self are present and are causing pain within this mind-body experience.” The resolution is not to get rid of the impatience, the resolution is to work more firmly with that which gave rise to the impatience. We do not chase after the result but attend to the conditions. This is not getting rid of, we're going back to the source, which is not even ignorance itself, but lack of mindfulnness, inattendance to fear so that there is clinging to ignorance.

At this moment you don't know what the antidote is. That is part of the larger practice we are going to get into. But with the resolve not to perpetuate the habit of impatience comes the willingness to apply the antidote. It's not the application of it yet, but the willingness to apply it, which is primary. This is important. If you are willing to apply it then you will find the proper antidote and will learn to apply it. The heart must be there and be willing. There must be willingness not to continue to take refuge in your fear.

When I spoke of these practices in December, I said that they were all a part of a teaching that I find defined very specifically in Buddhism but it is also found in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, in Sufi teachings, in native American teachings of some kinds. I'm going to teach it to you using the Buddhist model not because that model is better but only because it is the one with whose vocabulary I am most familiar. But I'm not teaching you a Buddhist practice, I am teaching you a spiritual practice. I ask you to take it back into your lives and make it your own.

What I teach here comes from an 8th century Buddhist teacher named Shantideva. It is not unique with him. He wrote it out in a very beautiful poem, but he did not originate it. It is the practice of bodhicitta, or awakened heart. This awakened heart is not something you must seek to create, it is something that has always been there but is obscured by the clouds of delusion, ignorance and fear. So all I am teaching you is a way to more deeply open to the bodhicitta already present in the heart.

We begin in a very specific way a practice that is variously called “the seven-fold prayer” or “the seven-branch prayer.” There is a very similar practice in ancient Judaism, whose Hebrew name I will not attempt to offer. I would ask you at this point to sit erect for meditation and I'm going to take you through this process step by step.

The function of this process is to help to open the heart, to help to nurture bodhicitta, or this fully awakened and loving heart. When you have access to this heart, it is a tremendous support in your resolve to move away from the old habits of fear and negativity. Seven steps. The four-part step we have just reviewed, that which I taught in December, is the third step and the most intricate. The others are far simpler.

First. I would ask you to bring to your heart and mind the image of one whom you regard as teacher, or if there is no specific being that fills this function for you, simply bring in either the thought of all beings who have preceded you, who have done this hard work that you now do, and moved beyond third density, have clarified their energy in that way-. All of these are your teachers! Or simply bring in the image of Light itself, the Ever-Perfect, the Divine, in whatever form you experience it.

Open from your own heart to your willingness to honor this energy, be it a specific entity, living or past, or a collection of energies, or be it that which we call Ever-Perfect. I'm going to be quiet for a moment and ask you to offer this love, this devotion, to the principal which this entity stands for and, if applicable, to the entity itself, from your heart.


The second stage is one of offering. You offer all of yourself to this energy. This that is all-good, all-beautiful - what do you offer it? You can offer it the white snow and clear mountain streams, moonlight and sunlight, flowers and the laughter of children. No, these do not belong to you but you are a part of these and they are a part of you, because you are inter-connected to everything, and so you can offer sunlight and laughter. Offer also that which is immediate expression of the self: your body, your mind, your energy. There needs to be a fervent wish here: whatever I have that can be used by the forces of light for the alleviation of suffering, I freely offer it. Use me. Let me be a channel for love and for light. Again I will be quiet.


Then we move on to the third phase. The term that is traditionally used here is confession, but I think that word may have negative emotional connotations of a demeaning of the self, rather than simply as “surrender,” for some of you. This step is simply an opening of your heart that acknowledges, “I have used my energy in ways that have harmed others. I have acted, spoken, or had thoughts that were unskillful, and if fixated upon and perpetuated, would lead to harm.” This is the four part practice of which we just spoke, support, then reflection and regret, and so forth. You have already done the first part, which is support. Then this reflection and regret, then resolve not to perpetuate those habits and a willingness to seek out and apply the antidotes, and to purify the self. I will be quiet while you do this.


The fourth step is to move out of yourself. When you look around you see that there are other beings who have done harm but there are also vast numbers of beings who have done good. The fourth phase is a nurturing of sympathetic joy or mudita. Some of you met this word last year when you worked in meditation class with the heavenly-abode or brahma-vihara practices.

This is simply looking around at those who are able to greet heavy catalyst with an open heart, without greed or jealousy or fear,. Instead of feeling threatened by what they do, you allow yourself to experience a deep joy that beings are able to open their hearts in this way for the good of all beings including yourself. Of course if there is jealousy in seeing that they can do this and you can't, then you simply work with the jealousy, not attacking it, just recognizing it and seeing it as another cloud, seeing it as a habitual cloud. Offer the self deep kindness that it arose but also offer the intention to move past this particular habitual pattern and a willingness to apply the antidotes.

We're touching here on that old question, what if I wasn't feeling fear or anger or greed or separation or whatever? What might I be feeling? As you have worked with that question through the years, you've learned to be very honest with yourselves. Fear is a habit. It grows out of the illusion of separation. You do not need to continue to practice this habit. This practice of sympathetic joy is an essential part of the seven-fold teaching. It's also something quite valuable to practice independently.

In practice of it now, what I would ask you to do is to bring to mind something that happened in the past day or two, somebody who acted in a loving way, somebody who could have been greedy but was generous, somebody who could have acted as if they were threatened but instead was kind and receptive to criticism, and so forth. Choose just one situation. Observe how that person opened in a way that may have been difficult for you in the same situation and, as much as you can, let your heart open to what they gave and offer thanks for it. I pause.


The fifth step. This is to offer thanks that there are those such as the one you just reflected on who are teachers of love, and to ask them to remain available to you. Let us do this.


If it is useful to you to address these thoughts to a very high being such as the Buddha or the Christ, of course you may do that. Please recognize though, that you are addressing teachers at every level, and asking that they continue to be available to you. And the sixth step, which may be merged with step five, is from deep within your heart to ask to be taught. You have acknowledged that there are places where you're stuck. You have acknowledged with joy that there are teachers. Now you ask to be taught. Within that asking there's a sense of surrender; you are not going to cling to old patterns, but offer a willingness to learn. I pause while you do it.


The seventh step is what is traditionally called “dedication of merit.” You simply ask from the heart that any value that grows out of the work we are doing not be kept selfishly for the self but be offered in love to all beings.


This then is what we call the Seven-Fold Prayer. If it feels appropriate to you, I suggest you use it at the beginning of your meditation on a daily basis. It doesn't need to take long, but also you're not taking time away from your meditation. This simply becomes the beginning of the meditation and gives you great support for the practice that follows. Please feel free to amend it to fit your own situation, your own particular religious path.

This practice and what I taught in December comprise the first three chapters of Shantideva's- poem, “The Bodhicaryavatara,” which I am using as a model for this teaching. His entire poem is 10 chapters. The first 3 are about opening bodhicitta, about experiencing the Self, finding that open and loving heart. Further chapters are about very specific instruction about how we stay connected with Bodhicitta, stabilize it and enact it in the world. Through the coming months we will cover those other chapters one at a time. I will not speak on this teaching every week because I'd like to give you some time to work with it. It's not something I want to race through, but regularly through the coming months, perhaps twice a month, I will speak about it. Let it be a balance for you to the wisdom practices that we have done, to insight and clarity.

I will pause now to hear your questions, both about that which I have spoken of or any other personal questions you have carried with you to today's session. That is all.

Barbara: Questions?

Q: In the talk from December, Aaron's description of the second step focused on how fear is a manifestation of the illusion of a separate self. That's fine but it's an intellectual issue for me, especially when I am in the midst of fear. Is he suggesting that we just remind ourselves of that fact, or to try and experience in detail our fear and the details of what we are frightened about? Or just kind of step back and say, “This fear is based on old reasons.” How specifically do we investigate?

Barbara: Thank you.

Aaron: I am Aaron. I hear your question. All of the above, is my answer. You do understand from your meditation experience; it's not just conceptual. Each of you has experienced a place where self seems to fall away and you deeply experience your interconnection. In that space there is no fear. So each of you have the insight that fear is a habit that is resultant from this illusion of separation. Granted, in the moment of fear, this remains conceptual idea: you're not feeling integration of what the heart knows and what the human is able to manifest. This is why we have spent years learning how to work with fear in skillful ways. But you can spend the rest of, not just this lifetime but innumerable lifetimes, working with fear in skillful ways and still practice the habit of fear. At a certain point, just to continue to work with fear is to “practice” it, as would be denial of that fear. Then you must rest in the deepest truth of the Self, which is fearless. To begin this, at some point there's got to be the insight, “this is just a habit. Maybe I don't have to do it this way any more.”

We are working with fear. You know enough to bring kindness to the being that's quaking with fear and not to shame that being. This much you've firmly established. All of these supports, the awareness that others have gone before you and climbed this very steep mountain, the awareness that these teachers are available to you, your deep aspiration to do no harm, to do good; all of these supports help you break the habit of delusion and of fear, and thereby rest in clarity. Perhaps “break” is not the best term, help you transcend that habit. If fear clings, let it cling. You've become quite skilled at not being very reactive to it. Whatever bits of reactivity there are, there will be. Simply remind yourself, “I am not alone here. Teachers and teachings are available. Hope is available. And this great heart of mine can carry through with its resolve not to get quite so stuck.” Note how I'm phrasing it, not “not to get stuck” but “not to get quite so stuck.” Clarity is already present, but you find access to it gradually. We're simply beginning to say, “No, maybe I don't have to get so stuck here, and keep doing it this way.” Does this answer your question? I pause.

Q: For now.

Barbara: Aaron says, what we've essentially done is we've climbed a great big mountain and reached the top and realized that there's another mountain going beyond! And now we're preparing to climb the next mountain.

Q: Now we all want to know: how many mountains are there!

Barbara: Aaron says there is only this one more!

Q's: It's a chain!

Barbara: I'm paraphrasing Aaron. He says there's just this one that started out with foothills and became very steep. As we learned to work with the heavy emotions, and deepened vipassana practice and learned to understand dependent arising, slowly we have come into a kind of plateau. Now we really are becoming aware; when we look back there's a vast view, there's a lot more spaciousness in our lives. But, when we turn ahead and look, heavy emotions, or what Buddhism calls “the defilements,” or unpurified emotions, still exist. There's still the second mountain, he says, but it's not a series of mountains, it's just one more mountain. Then, at the top truly is the place where we no longer experience delusion or fear.

Aaron wants to say here that in December, what he taught which was step three of what he taught today, he taught as a practice to do right there in that moment as your heavy emotion or confusion had arisen, or if you had said or done something very unskillful. He says that there's a subtle difference in what he's teaching tonight in that this third step can be used right in this moment with this arising of the heavy emotion and its enactment, or, as taught tonight, it can be used in this extended practice, simply reflecting on the ways that we've acted with heavy emotions, and with arising regret, offering our resolve not to do them any more. So, one use is in the present and one is reflection back as part of this longer practice.

Q: I am wondering about Aaron's use of the expression, “Offer your energy.” Is that a way to say, Offer yourself without self or “I.”

Aaron: I am Aaron. I hear your question. To “offer your energy” is to offer the purest aspect, that energy which truly is not “yours” but is only your personal experience of the energy of the universe.

Please remember all of this is process and practice. When you offer the self and it comes from a very deep and loving place, it may at first be very selfless. And then you may wonder, “How much is going to be asked of me? I've already given my body, my heart, my energy for the use of that heart of love and light in the universe, and now give more as I offer myself fully as instrument of the Light and Love.. Do I have any qualifications to that offer?” So as you note the qualifications, such as that you will feel no pain, not be destroyed, or so forth it's a wonderful place simply to note fear, to note how the self comes back. That which is not self knows it cannot be destroyed!

I say “offer your energy” to remind you that there is no self to offer it!

You're not asked to become a perfectly clear instrument which Light may use. You are asked to work toward that end. The working toward has as much value as the being of that instrument in itself. So it's very important that you not get fixed into an idea, “Now I am going to totally sacrifice the self,” because there must not be a sense of sacrifice or there's a self that's doing it and there are ulterior motives. You give of yourself what you are able to give from a place of deep joy and love, and you mindfully note whatever fear ends the ability to give with joy. And right there, at that edge, is where you work to open yourself just a bit further. Do you understand? I pause.