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Home > Daily Practice > Prayers and Tantra Practices > Down-to-Earth Explanation of the Seven-Limb Preliminary Practice

Down-to-Earth Explanation of the Seven-Limb Preliminary Practice

Alexander Berzin
Mexico City, Mexico, 21 September 2001

Quieting Down by Focusing on the Breath

The first thing we need to do before we begin any meditation practice or attend a teaching is to quiet down. We do this by focusing on the breath. We breathe normally through the nose, not too quickly, not too slowly, not too deeply, not too shallowly, and we count the cycles of breath. There are several ways of counting. The standard way is to have the cycle begin with an out-breath, then without a pause, an in-breath, and count after the in-breath, but without holding the breath. Most people find it easier, however, to start the cycle by breathing in, breathing out naturally, then pausing slightly on the out-breath and counting at the pause. Following either of these two methods, we count to eleven and then repeat the cycle of eleven two or three times depending on our speed. Please do this.

By the way, we only count the breath if our mind is distracted. If it is not, there is no need to count. We can just focus on the sensation of the breath going in and out as we breathe normally. We can either look down at the floor or close our eyes, but it is preferable to keep the eyes open. If our eyes are slightly open, we stay grounded rather than dissociating from other people and going off into the fairylands of our mind. Mahayana emphasizes staying connected with people. That is why the Mahayana methods stress meditating with the eyes open, not closed.

Reaffirming Our Motivation

Next, we examine and reaffirm our motivation for being here. In Buddhism, “motivation” does not mean merely what it does in our Western languages. In our Western languages, it usually refers only to the emotional reasons behind what we are doing. So the emphasis is more psychological or emotional. Our psychological orientation is important, but in Buddhism, motivation refers primarily to our intention. What is our aim? What do we want to get out of our coming here? When we sit down to meditate or study or when we go to a class, we need to reaffirm what we want to accomplish. Then on top of this, in support of our aim, we reaffirm the reasons for wanting to accomplish it, both the rational ones and the emotional ones.

What we are trying to do in listening to a teaching or in meditating on what we learn from it is part of a whole process of what I call “going in a safe and positive direction in our life.” It is usually called “refuge.” Most of us here have this direction in life, which we have chosen very consciously. This direction is indicated by the Dharma. The Dharma refers to the totally realized state of a Buddha, in which all the shortcomings and limitations of the mind have been removed and all the positive qualities and potentials have been fully realized. That is what we want to achieve. The teachings are just indicating how to do that.

The Buddhas indicate this direction, as they have completely achieved this totally purified and realized state. The Sangha refers to the highly realized beings, the aryas, those who have had straightforward nonconceptual cognition of voidness. They have actually achieved some purification. They have gotten rid forever of some of the limitations and realized some of the positive potentials of the mind. They have actually gotten somewhere.

The monastic community is a symbol representing the Sangha. The usage of the word Sangha to refer to people who go to a Dharma center is purely a Western convention. It is translating “congregation of a church” into Buddhist terms. It has absolutely nothing to do with traditional Buddhism. Although the community of a Dharma center is important, it is certainly not an object of refuge. People who come to the Dharma center can be very disturbed. A center is just a group of people who may or may not be going in the direction of liberation and Buddhahood. The Sangha Gem are those who have actually made certain steps in that direction. It is important to understand this.

It is very interesting that it is said very specifically that when we take safe direction it is not from the personality of the Buddha or the aryas. Personality is quite a variable. What provide safe direction are their realizations and the states they have achieved of the elimination of their shortcomings.

Also, in the Tibetan formulation of refuge in which we include the guru, we are never taking refuge in the personality of a guru. Rather the guru is representing Buddha-nature and the possibility of working on and purifying and achieving the full realization of Buddha-nature. That is what the Buddha represents. That is so important because if it is very clear that our direction in life has nothing to do with personalities, the politics of a Dharma center, with all this samsaric junk, then our refuge is very firm. It is Buddha, Dharma, and the highly realized beings. As I say over and over again: What do you expect from samsara? Samsara is going to deliver us garbage and suffering. Our direction in life is not indicated by samsara. That needs to be very clear.

So, coming to this teaching is a step in our positive direction; we reaffirm our refuge. We want to achieve the purification of all the junk in our minds and to realize all of our potentials the way the Buddhas have done in full, and the way the highly realized beings have started to do. The emotional support for that is our dread and disgust with uncontrollably recurring samsara and confidence that going in this safe direction will enable us to get out of it.

We also reaffirm our bodhichitta. In coming to a lecture about karma and learning about karma, our aim is to be able to help others as much as is possible. What is preventing us from helping others as much as possible? All the karmic junk that we experience. So, we want to learn how to understand and overcome that to be able to help others more. That is our aim. That is what we reaffirm. Secondarily, we need also to reaffirm and strengthen our love and compassion, which are the emotional support for our aim of reaching enlightenment to best benefit others.

If we do all of this before meditation, it makes our meditation much more meaningful. We know what we want to accomplish. This is why we are sitting down. We are not talking about other factors like feeling obligated or doing it mechanically, which are important to look at. Our aim is essential. The question is: What am I doing here and why? We need to make our reasons conscious. If we are clear about them, we reaffirm them. This is a very meaningful step. It is not trivial. It is not just reciting a verse. Let us do that for a moment.

The Seven-Limb Practice

Then we do the seven-limb practice. It can be done in a very ritualistic way, and that certainly has its benefits, but we need to be clear about what we are doing. So let me explain it. And rather than giving the traditional explanations, let me give a more down-to-earth, practical explanation.

It is always said that the first daily practice for a beginner would be this seven-limb practice. We are talking this weekend about karma. How do we build up karma doing this sort of practice? If it is done with a bodhichitta motivation, which means that we direct whatever positive force from doing this practice toward enlightenment, then it acts as a cause for enlightenment. If we don’t dedicate it, if we don’t have this aim before and finish up with it at the end, then it is just doing something positive. What does that result in? Just having a good time in samsara. That’s not what we’re aiming for, is it?

Prostration

First, we do prostration. Having reaffirmed the direction we want to go in – namely, to reach enlightenment so that we can best help others, and not just to have a good time – prostration is throwing ourselves completely into this direction. We send ourselves in this direction, showing respect to those who have gone in this direction and achieved it, respect for our own future enlightenments that we are aiming to achieve with bodhichitta, and respect to our own Buddha-natures that will enable us to reach that goal. In this way, we show respect on resultant, pathway, and basis levels.

We look at the representation we are using to remind ourselves of our source of safe direction – a painting or statue, usually of a Buddha – and we try to become mindful of what it represents: the qualities of the body, speech and mind of a Buddha. That is what we want to achieve to be able to help others as fully as is possible. With this attitude, we make prostration. Then it is very meaningful. We put ourselves fully into it. We don’t just prostrate without any thought.

When we do the seven-limb prayer, we imagine prostrating. At other times, we prostrate physically, recite the verses – the language doesn’t matter – and think of the qualities of the Three Gems as something that we want to achieve and that we are confident that we can achieve, with bodhichitta, on the basis of our Buddha-natures. In that way, we throw our speech and mind, as well as our body in this direction. Let us imagine that.

Making Offerings with the Offerings of Samadhi

When we make offerings, the main theme is also refuge and bodhichitta. What are we willing to give to be able to go in that safe direction, to reach enlightenment, and to benefit others? A bowl of water is not very significant. Water is just representing something. What we are willing to give is ourselves. We are willing to give our time, our energy, all our effort, our hearts, into going in this direction of working on ourselves to be able to help others more and more.

This can be done elaborately or simply. Often, we offer seven water bowls. These can represent the seven parts of this seven-limb practice. On another level, we have what are called the outer offerings, which are offerings of water, flowers, incense, and so on. There is a very lovely teaching, however, by a great Sakya master, Chogyel Pagpa (Chos-rgyal ‘Phags-pa). He was the teacher of Kublai Khan. He brought Buddhism to the Mongols in the middle of the thirteenth century. He taught that these seven offering items have a deeper representation, which he called the “offerings of samadhi, absorbed concentration.” In other words, we concentrate on what these things represent when we make the offering. I find this very helpful in doing the seven-limb practice. It makes it more meaningful.

The first offering is water. Water represents our reading, our study. We will use whatever we read or study to be able to help others. We are not just reading comic books to have a good time, but things that are more significant, that will teach us how to help others, to understand ourselves, to work on ourselves. This is what we are offering. And we are not just offering this to the Buddhas; we are offering it to everybody, to those we want to help. We offer everything we have learned to everyone. This is what we are going to use to help everybody.

Flowers are next. Flowers grow from water. What grows from all our reading and study is our knowledge. We offer this in the form of flowers.

Incense represents ethical discipline, the ethical discipline that we are going to use to help others. We are not just going to act in any old way. We will discipline ourselves to act in a beneficial, helpful way, and to not hurt anyone. We offer this commitment to the Buddhas, our teachers and everyone. The Buddhas don’t need our discipline. We are saying to the Buddhas and our teachers, “This is what I am going to do.” We offer our discipline and service to them. Incense, by the way, has a beautiful fragrance. When someone has pure ethical discipline, they give off a wonderful beautiful fragrance, known as the “fragrance of ethical discipline.” This is why incense represents an offering of pure ethical discipline.

The next offering is light, represented by butter lamps, candles, and the like. It represents the insights that we have gained, which we want to use to illuminate others.

Next is perfume water or cologne, fragrant water to sprinkle on the body to refresh it. This represents a firm conviction. We have read and studied (water), we have gained knowledge (flowers), we are using discipline (incense) to meditate on it and to use it to help others, and with this discipline, we have gained some insight and understanding (light). Now we have firm conviction in the teachings (cologne). It refreshes us from doubt and indecisive wavering. That is a great gift. If we are firmly convinced based on real understanding and experience, not just fanaticism, it helps others to gain some confidence, security, and firmness too.

Food represents absorbed concentration. When we attain very high stages of meditation, we are sustained by our absorbed concentration and do not need food. Only when we have firm conviction in the teachings can we place our absorbed concentration single-pointedly on them. If we have doubts, we cannot really apply absorbed concentration. When we are helping others, we need to be concentrated, not thinking about something else or falling asleep. We need to be there. It is a great gift to offer to others.

The last offering is music, which represents actually teaching and explaining to others. It does not have to be a formal teaching or deep and serious. It can just be speaking in a meaningful way, heart-to-heart, without exaggeration or shyness. That is the greatest music we can give to others.

This offering can be very far-reaching. It is not just trivial. Of course, we can also give flowers, water and incense to make a nice atmosphere. There is that level of meaning, but we have to understand that there are many levels of meaning to everything in the Dharma. It is helpful to start to go to the deeper levels.

As I explained, in general we say we are willing to give everything, our time, our energy, or whatever it takes to help others. Shantideva, the great Indian master, defines the attitude of generosity as the “willingness to give,” whether we have something to give or not. Otherwise, poor people could not develop it. We can certainly give our energy, time and hearts to this safe direction of working on ourselves to be able to help others more.

Openly Admitting Our Mistakes and Shortcomings

The third limb of the practice is usually translated as “confession.” But that brings in unnecessary and perhaps misleading associations from non-Buddhist systems of thought. Rather, we are openly admitting that we are not always able to help others; sometimes we are lazy, distracted, selfish, and so on. In the context of karma, we admit that we sometimes act very destructively, but we regret that and really wish that we were not like that. It is not that we have to feel guilty. We really don’t want to be like that. That is quite different from guilt.

Then we say we will try our best not to repeat it. We will try. We cannot promise never to be destructive again. That would be absurd. But we will try. How are we going to overcome this? It is by going in the safe direction of refuge and bodhichitta. We reaffirm that that is what we are going to do. That is our foundation. Then finally we apply opponent forces to counteract our mistakes and shortcomings, which means we will apply whatever we learn here as an opponent. We are going to use it to go in this direction, not just do it for no reason. That is the third limb, openly admitting our mistakes and shortcomings.

Rejoicing

The fourth is rejoicing. I feel it is quite important for us, as Westerners, to change the order here. Usually, we first rejoice in the Buddhas and so on. I think that for us, since so many of us have a problem with low self-esteem, after pointing out our shortcomings, we need to first rejoice in our own good qualities. We have admitted that sometimes we act destructively and selfishly, but sometimes we act constructively as well. We need to reaffirm and rejoice in everything positive and constructive we have ever done. On a more basic level, we all have Buddha-natures, which means that we all have the ability to be helpful, to be compassionate, to be understanding. That is fantastic. It is wonderful. It is on this basis that we can grow and become Buddhas through all the positive and constructive things we do. It is important to feel positive about ourselves and our abilities after we have admitted our shortcomings.

Then we rejoice in the Buddhas, those who have actually realized their Buddha-natures, and in others who have been working in that direction. “I am happy for you! You did it! Bravo!” But even more, we rejoice in the fact that they taught how to do it. This we rejoice in enormously. “I cannot thank you enough, Buddhas and great masters of India and Tibet, for having taught this, explained it, and written it down. That is unbelievably fantastic and kind! Thank you! I really appreciate it deeply.” That is the sentiment that we want to have here. They could have very easily gained realizations and gone off to a Buddha-field to rest and not be bothered with us.

Requesting the Teachings

The next limb is requesting the teachings. It is usually called “turning the wheel of the Dharma,” but that sounds a bit abstract. We are so thankful that the Buddhas have taught. Now we are saying, “Please teach me! I want to learn. I am totally receptive.” We can do that before a class, before meditating or before studying a Dharma text at home. It is not that we are asking someone to grant something to us, but in making this request, we are really inspiring ourselves. We want to gain something, to learn something. Can you see how this is building up to a more receptive state of mind?

Beseeching the Teachers Not To Go Away

The sixth limb is beseeching the teachers not to enter parinirvana, which means not to go away. What does this mean on a practical level? It is saying to the Buddhas and teachers, “I am serious. Don’t go away. Teach me all the way up to my enlightenment. I want to go the full path. Don’t leave in the middle.” That is the main thing: we are really going to do it, no matter how long it takes, no matter how many lifetimes it takes.

Dedication

The final step is the dedication. That is the most important step of all. We dedicate whatever positive force and deep awareness have been built up from this practice for us and for everyone to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Enlightenment-Building Networks

When we speak about karma, it is very important to realize that we don’t just want to build up positive karma from these preliminary practices. That’s not the point. We want to get rid of karma completely. So, when we talk about dedicating our constructive actions, we have to differentiate what I would call “samsara-building constructive actions” from “enlightenment-building constructive actions.”

I was just in India for a month and I learned something new about the term that is usually translated as “collection,” as in “the two collections” or “the collections of merit and wisdom.” I never liked those terms. “Merit” has a connotation of points. But it actually has to do with positive force. “Collection” sounds as though if we collect enough points, we win. It is not that. I decided to translate this term as “network” because all the positive forces work together like a network and get stronger and stronger. I didn’t like “wisdom” either, because on the one hand it is a vague word and, on the other hand, here we can include with this term certain aspects that a worm has as well. So I prefer to translate the term as “deep awareness.” It refers not only to deep awareness of reality, but also to different aspects of the basic way the mind works. So it is an awareness that goes down very deep – to the deepest reality and to the deepest features of the mind.

I had a discussion about this term collection with a very great teacher in India named Geshe Wangchen. His Holiness the Dalai Lama appointed him to be the tutor of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama’s own main teacher, Ling Rinpoche. Geshe Wangchen pointed out that the main Sanskrit commentary to a text called The Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs rgyan, Skt. Abhisamayalamkara) addresses this. The Filigree of Realizations is the main text studied in the Geshe training. They study it for six years and the main Sanskrit commentary is by a master named Haribhadra. Haribhadra explains the meaning of the Sanskrit word sambhara, which was translated into Tibetan as the word tsog (tshogs) and into English as collection, which I translated as network.

Based on Haribhadra’s explanation, Geshela pointed out that the Tibetans translated the term incorrectly. One meaning of sambhara is “to gather together.” Sam can mean “ together” and bhara can mean “to gather or collect.” Haribhadra makes it very clear that it doesn’t mean this in this context. Rather, here sam is a prefix indicating some sort of higher or more perfect thing and bhara means to build or to construct. Therefore, we are not talking about a collection at all, but positive force and deep awareness that are enlightenment-building. These are forces and deep awareness that, if dedicated with bodhichitta, act to construct or to build enlightenment. If not dedicated to that goal, then they will be samsara-constructing. They will be positive forces and deep awareness that will construct being wealthy, well-liked, intelligent, very clever, and so on in samsara. My explanation of “network” is still valid, because all these forces and deep awareness network with each other and get stronger and stronger, but that is not the meaning of the word sambhara. It is better, then, to translate the term as "enlightenment-building network."

The whole process of working in the direction of refuge and bodhichitta is then much clearer. We have to be very, very careful. We are doing a lot of positive things. We are coming to a Dharma center, listening to teachings, building stupas, and so on. These are a positive force. We need to be careful that we do not make them a samsara-building positive force. If we are not conscious about what we are doing, they will be. In some future life, things will be a little easier for a little while and then it will go back down again. That is a waste. The aim of what we are doing would be for something little. But if we are very conscious before we start to do something constructive and make a conscious dedication at the end, we make it very clear that we want this positive force to be enlightenment-building. We want it to be a cause for achieving the various Corpuses or Bodies of a Buddha.

What Geshe Wangchen went on to explain was that even if our bodhichitta aim is artificial or contrived and we don’t really sincerely feel it, and even if we do feel something, but it is labored: we have to build it up in order to feel it – it doesn’t matter. We don’t have to wait until we have a building-up pathway mind, the so-called “path of accumulation,” the first of the five pathway minds with which we really have uncontrived and unlabored bodhichitta, before we start building up this enlightenment-building positive force. Even at our level, where bodhichitta is not our primary motivation twenty-four hours a day, if we dedicate as sincerely as possible, it counts. “May any positive force go toward becoming a Buddha.” Then whatever we do becomes much more positive and beneficial.

Conclusion

We do this seven-limb preliminary practice before class, before studying, before meditating, or doing anything positive. Although we have taken up most of an evening with this topic despite it being a seminar on karma, we are starting off already with the emphasis on practice rather than theory, and that is good.

The main point is that we don’t just want to make good karma; we want to do enlightenment-building actions. So if we do this seven-limb practice as an enlightenment-building action, it is fantastic as a daily practice. It doesn’t have to take very long. We can do it in a minute, or in a half-hour or an hour. It depends on how we like to do it. If we want to recite some verses, lovely. We can recite some verses after we have generated their meaning in our hearts. If we generate the meaning first, then the verses are not just empty. Even if we don’t go on to do any other formal meditation, this in itself is a significant practice.

[For a version in verse, see:  Preliminaries for Meditation or Study: The Seven-Limb Practice.]

Please don’t trivialize the seven-part practice. It is very easy to trivialize it, just as it is very easy to trivialize refuge.

Questions about Making Offerings

Participant: Sometimes we put out eight bowls and the first two have water, then flowers, and so on. Why is that?

Alex: In Buddhist traditions there are many ways of doing everything, and so there is no one “right” way. That is very important to realize. Our tendency in the West is Biblical thinking: one truth, one God, one right way, and everything else is wrong, heresy. Eight water bowls include two water offerings; with nine, three water offerings; with ten, four water offerings, and so on.

On the literal level, we are inviting the Buddhas and bodhisattvas to come to our house as if they were coming barefoot on a dusty, hot Indian road. First, we give them some water to drink. Then some water to wash their feet. That is if we are only offering two water bowls. The third would be to sprinkle over them a shower. Next, we invite them to a meal, so the fourth water bowl would be to invite them to wash out their mouth.

At the table, we have very beautiful flowers. Often the Indians will sprinkle flowers on the floor as an honored guest goes to the table. Or they put a flower garland of marigolds around their guest’s neck. Then they will light incense. Often if it is a guru, they will light the incense and lead them to the table with it or put some incense by the table so it smells nice. Then they light a candle on the table. The cologne is like napkins that have nice fragrance on them. We have a similar custom don’t we? Then we offer a nice meal and some lovely music. This is the literal origin of these offerings – they are what we would offer when welcoming the Buddhas and bodhisattvas to our homes so that they are nice and comfortable.

Making this type of offering is a very good way not only of giving joy to the teachers and the Buddhas, but also as we imagine this, we try to enjoy it ourselves and feel pleasure from it in a non-disturbing way. We are not complaining that the flowers are not nice enough, the incense will make us cough, the food will make us fat, and on and on. None of these worries are there, just simple pure enjoyment and pleasure. It is a very wonderful thing to be able to cultivate: no complaints.

Participant: Not all the bowls have water. Some have rice. What is the meaning of the rice? Should the bowl with the flower have water or rice?

Alex: Both are okay. The flowers the Tibetans use are usually these dried seedpods that one finds in south India. They do not do very well in water. We would not want to put them or a stick of lit incense into a bowl of water. It is just for practical reasons that we put them in rice. It makes no difference.

I cannot stress enough that there are many ways of doing the same thing. When we go to another center or go to India to a different monastery and we see that it is slightly different, we do not need to be self-righteously shocked that they are doing it “wrong” and our way of doing it is “ right.” Even within the same tradition, different monasteries will do things differently. What is important in making offerings is the state of mind and to have some sort of form or structure that is at least respectful and aesthetically pleasing, because we want to generate joy in the mind.

Final Dedication

May whatever we have learned be enlightenment-building. May it become causes for becoming a Buddha to be able to help others as much as is possible. May it go deeper and deeper within us and network with everything else we have ever learned and all the positive things we have ever done. May it network with all these other positive forces and make a real impression on our mental continuums, so that it eventually brings about enlightenment and bears fruit all along the way to enlightenment in terms of being able to increasingly apply our understanding to be able to benefit others.

Closing Reminder about the Nature of Samsara

One more point. In making a dedication, it is important to remember how samsara works. It goes up and down. It will continue to go up and down until we become a liberated being, an arhat. That is a very high attainment. So no matter how advanced we are before that, our moods and situations will go up and down. Don’t be surprised. It’s not going to get better everyday. It’s not always going to be wonderful. If we are sincerely practicing, the general trend will be more up than down, but it will still go up and down. If we know this, we will not get discouraged. When we think in terms of some positive force ripening along the way to benefit others, it will not be consistent, but that is okay. May it help along the way as much as is possible.

What do we expect from samsara? Of course there will be wars; there will be deaths; there will be tragedies. When we know this, we continue through the difficulties and never give up. That is the way to reach enlightenment. Thank you.