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Home > Daily Practice > Prayers and Tantra Practices > Preliminaries for Meditation or Study: The Seven-Limb Practice

Preliminaries for Meditation or Study:
The Seven-Limb Practice

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, January 9, 2001

This evening, I would like to explain in a more down-to-earth way the preliminaries that we do at the beginning of each of our classes on Shantideva's text, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Bodhisattvacharya-avatara). They include the seven-limb practice, which derives from this text. Doing these preliminaries before listening to and learning the Dharma helps us to establish a properly receptive state of mind. We use the same set of practices before daily meditation or Dharma study sessions at home.

Cleaning the Room and Arranging Offerings

If we are doing these practices as a preliminary to meditation at home, we need to sweep and tidy the room beforehand, as we do before class. If papers or clothing are scattered all over the room, for example, we need to put them away. While doing this, we think, "May my mind become clear, clean, and orderly, just as I am making the room."

It is very important to meditate and study in an environment in which everything is neat, clean, and in order. This is also true for our place of work. What we see, even peripherally, greatly affects our states of mind. If everything around us is messy, our minds tend also to be messy. Moreover, it is helpful to have our places of study or meditation be aesthetically pleasing. Seeing a beautiful surrounding usually makes the mind happy, and a happy state of mind is receptive to doing something constructive. If what we see around us is ugly, we tend to want to reject it, which negatively affects our states of mind. Therefore, we usually arrange an attractive altar in the room – some sort of shelf or table, covered in a beautiful cloth, on which we place at minimum a Buddha statue or picture representing what we are doing, our safe direction in life (refuge).

Each morning, after washing ourselves and cleaning the room, we make a water bowl offering. This does not need to be with the usual seven bowls if that is inconvenient. Offering simply a single cup of clean water is sufficient. We are not trying to impress anyone. If we wish, we can also offer candles, flowers, incense, and so on; but that is optional. Not only are we creating a beautiful space for inviting the Buddhas and great masters in our visualizations, as is traditionally explained; we are also arranging the room in such a way that it makes us feel joyous and comfortable to be there. In doing this, it puts us in a state of mind conducive for meditating, studying, or listening to teachings.

Focusing on the Breath

The usual custom is to make three prostrations to the Buddha image on the altar before sitting down. To avoid having our prostrations be mechanical, with no feeling behind them, we need to bring our minds first to a proper state. To do this, we focus on the breath and reaffirm our motivation. Although we often do the two after sitting down, it is better to do them beforehand, while standing.

First, we need to calm down and make a space between what we were doing and what we are about to do. We need to bring our minds to a quiet, neutral state before generating a positive attitude. We do that by focusing on the breath, with our eyes focused loosely on the floor before us. If we are especially disturbed or stressed, we may prefer to close our eyes while quieting down, but leaving them slightly open is the preferred method.

We breathe normally through the nose, not too quickly, not too slowly, not too deeply, and not too shallowly. We do not hold the breath, but pause after exhaling before breathing in again. The usual method is to count silently the cycle of out, pause, and in as one; but if this is confusing, we may also count in, out, and pause as one. Customarily, we count like this up to eleven, and then repeat the cycle of eleven two or three times.

We use the procedure of counting the breath only when our minds are especially agitated, caught up in extraneous thoughts. If our minds are not so distracted, there is no need to count; simply focusing on the sensation of the breath coming in and out of the nostrils is sufficient. Alternatively, we count the cycles for a few rounds and then continue without counting. Whichever ways we focus on the breath, we continue until we have reached at least some level of internal quiet and calm. If our minds are agitated with extraneous thoughts, we will never be able to meditate well or listen attentively to teachings.

Examining the Motivation or Aim

Once our minds are relatively quiet, we examine why we are going to meditate or study, or why we have come to a Dharma class. In other words, we examine our motivation, which in Buddhism means our aim or goal in doing something. Did we come here this evening just out of mechanical habit with no particular aim in mind, or for a social gathering to see friends and to be in a pleasant atmosphere? Or have we come here to actually learn something? Do we want to learn something that is just intellectually interesting or do we wish to learn something practical that we can apply to our lives? If it is something that we want to apply to our lives, why do we want to do that? What is the aim? Is it to make life a bit easier? To overcome some difficulties that we have? Or, in addition, is it to be able to cause less problems for others; is it to be able to help others more? Maybe it is a combination of several of these.

Do we want to go further and learn Shantideva's text in order to establish habits that will bring us fortunate rebirths with more opportunities to continue studying and practicing Dharma? In addition to that, are we doing this to be able to gain liberation from all kinds of uncontrollably recurring rebirths? Or, even beyond that, do we wish to learn this text on bodhisattva behavior so that we can help others avoid or be liberated from uncontrollable rebirth? Even if it is not for these last three motivations, do we at least have the aim to try to develop and go in that direction in our lives?

We follow the same introspective procedure before beginning to meditate and to study Shantideva's text at home. If we discover that our motivations or aims are not very noble, such as meditating out of habit or out of guilt if we were to skip it, we correct our motivations to more wholesome ones. If we already have constructive motivations, we reconfirm them. Following this procedure is very important, because it is easy to come to teachings or to meditate mechanically, and then we get very little out of it.

Prostration, with Refuge and Bodhichitta

Next, we "take refuge and develop bodhichitta." This means that we reaffirm our aim and wish to go in a safe, positive direction in life, which is how I translate "taking refuge." We try to think and feel that I want to go in a safe direction in order to avoid problems and difficulties; I do not want to have them. I dread continuing in my difficult situation. What indicates the positive direction to avoid problems? A state of mind completely free of confusion and filled with all positive good qualities. Such a state of purification and growth is the Dharma. Those who have fully achieved such a state and who show that direction are the Buddhas. Those who have attained such a state in some measure also show this direction. They are the Sangha. That is the direction that I am going to put in my life. Taking refuge means reaffirming this direction in life.

Moreover, I am taking this safe and positive direction in order to be able to help others as fully as is possible, not just to benefit myself. To achieve this aim, I need to travel this direction all the way to the end, to enlightenment, and not give up, not be satisfied with just going part of the way. This is what we do when we reaffirm refuge and bodhichitta.

When we feel this attitude or state of mind of going in a safe direction to be able to help others and going fully in that direction to help others as much as is possible, then we make prostration. If we have already sat down and decide not to get up and physically prostrate, we may simply imagine making prostration. In a sense, prostrating is like throwing ourselves fully in this direction; and doing so with respect – respect for those who have gone in this direction and respect for ourselves and our abilities to do the same. Thus, making prostration is not a self-denigrating act; it is not putting ourselves down, but lifting ourselves up.

That is the first of the seven-limb practice: prostration with refuge and bodhichitta. If we are practicing in class, we sit down at this point.

Offering

Next is offering. The main state of mind to develop when making offerings in this context is: I am going in this direction. I not only throw myself fully into it, I am willing to give of myself, of my way of living, of my time, of my energy to reach this goal. I am willing to give my full heart to go in this direction to help others more. In this state of mind, we make the offering.

Although we usually do this with visualizations, we may make the offering in a physical manner if we are practicing in our meditation rooms. After making prostration and before sitting down, we go to the altar, dip the fourth fingers of our left hands in the bowl of water there and flick a few drops from it three times, symbolic of making the offering. In a sense, we are making an offering to the Buddhas, but not with an attitude of giving a present so that the Buddhas will help us and if we do not give anything, they will ignore us. Rather, we are offering everything to the direction that we are taking in life. We try to do this in a joyous state of mind, happy to be able to offer ourselves.

If we wish, we may make elaborate offerings, as in Shantideva's text. It is not necessary, however, to go through a long list of items that we are giving, although we could imagine all sorts of beautiful objects. The important thing is to feel that we are giving of ourselves. That is the second limb of preliminary practice, offering. If we have done this step at the altar, we now take our seats.

Admitting Shortcomings

The third part is honestly admitting our weaknesses, difficulties, and problems. We regret that we have them, for they prevent us from being of best help to others. We wish we were free of our shortcomings and resolve to try not to repeat our mistakes. We reaffirm the safe and positive direction that we are trying to take in our lives, to be able to help others more fully; and lastly, we remind ourselves that studying Shantideva's text and meditating on it are positive actions we are taking to counter our faults. This third limb is very important because in admitting that we do have problems, we reaffirm our reason and aim in being here. We want to learn and then practice methods to overcome them.

Rejoicing

The fourth limb is rejoicing, which helps us to counter any feelings of low self-worth that might come from acknowledging our problems, mistakes, and difficulties. We need to balance awareness of our shortcomings with reaffirmation of our good qualities. All of us have some good qualities and some positive things that we have done. We may discover, for example, that I have tried to be helpful; I have tried to be patient; I have tried to understand; or whatever it might have been. We remember that and rejoice. We also rejoice in our Buddha-natures: we have the potentials and abilities to grow. We have a working basis; there is hope. We also look at the examples of the good qualities and positive deeds of others and rejoice in them as well, without feeling jealous. It is wonderful that there are others who are so positive and helpful, especially the great masters. This refers not only to the living spiritual teachers, but also to the Buddhas and Shantideva. We think how wonderful it is that Shantideva actually wrote this text. I rejoice in that. Thank you, Shantideva. This is an important state of mind.

Requesting Teachings

After rejoicing in the qualities of the great masters and thanking Shantideva for writing this text, we are ready for the fifth limb, requesting the teaching. We think, Shantideva, it is fantastic that you wrote this text. Teach me something from it; I want to learn. This request counters the attitude with which we read or hear something from the text and only think of the exceptions, such as how could the teachings on patience possibly work in the case of Hitler's atrocities? Although it is important to scrutinize the teachings to see if they are valid, we need to think first in terms of how they would apply in our daily lives. Once we understand and appreciate how they would work, then we may consider if there are any exceptions. Then we can analyze whether extreme examples such as Hitler are cases in which the teachings on patience do not apply at all or are cases in which the teachings can only be applied on an advanced level. When hearing a new teaching, an instant response of "but" is counterproductive to the open attitude of wishing to learn something. Therefore, approaching the text with the attitude of "teach me something" is crucial. With such an attitude, we first try to see how we could apply what we read or hear. We see everything in Shantideva's text as a practical teaching, applicable to us personally – in our homes, in our offices, among our families and friends.

If we are practicing the seven-limb preliminary before a meditation session, we also request the teachers and the texts to teach us more, in the sense that we want to make more advancement through our meditation. We request them to inspire us to gain more insight, more understanding, more realization from what they have taught.

Beseeching the Teachers Not To Pass Away

Then, we are ready for the sixth limb, which is beseeching the teachers not to pass away. We think, please don't ever stop teaching; continue forever! We are not beseeching in this way because of attachment to our teachers. Rather, we are reaffirming that we are serious and sincere in our practice. "I want to go all the way to enlightenment to be able to help everybody. So, don't go away! I have to learn." We also address ourselves to the teachings themselves, continue to teach me - Shantideva and your text. Teach me more and more. Let me gain increasingly more understanding, and make increasingly more progress with this material. Don't ever stop until I achieve enlightenment – until everybody achieves enlightenment.

Dedication

The seventh and final limb is the dedication. We think that whatever I learn, whatever I understand, may it act as a cause for achieving enlightenment and thus being able to benefit others as much as is possible. May my understanding go deeper and deeper. May it sink in and make a deep impression on me so that slowly I am able to apply it along the way to enlightenment. Specifically, may I be able to apply what I have learned in my everyday life so that it starts to make a difference in my dealings with others so that I may slowly bring them more happiness.

Seven-Limb Prayer of Shantideva

If we wish, we may then recite the verses from Shantideva that cover these seven points, together with the verses beforehand for setting the motivation and the verses afterwards of the mandala offering:

I take safe direction, till my purified state,
From the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Highest Assembly.
By the positive force of my giving and so on,
May I actualize Buddhahood to help those who wander.

May the surface of the land in every direction
Be pure, without even a pebble,
As smooth as the palm of a child's hand,
Naturally polished, as is a beryl gem.

May divine and human objects of offering,
Actually arrayed and those envisioned
As peerless clouds of Samantabhadra offerings,
Completely fill the sphere of space.

(1) I prostrate to all you Buddhas who have graced
    the three times,
To the Dharma and to the Highest Assembly,
Bowing down with bodies as numerous
As all the atoms of the world.

(2) Just as Manjushri and others
Have made offerings to you, the Triumphant,
So do I, too, make offerings to you, my Thusly Gone Guardians,
And to your spiritual offspring.

(3) Throughout my beginningless samsaric existence,
In this and other lives,
I 've unwittingly committed negative acts,
Or caused others to commit them, and further,
Oppressed by the confusion of naivety.
I 've rejoiced in them – whatever I've done,
I see them as mistakes and openly declare them
To you, my Guardians, from the depths of my heart.

(4) With pleasure, I rejoice in the ocean of positive force
From your having developed bodhichitta aims
To bring every limited being joy
And in your deeds that have aided limited beings.

(5) With palms pressed together, I beseech
You Buddhas of all directions:
Please shine Dharma's lamp for limited beings
Suffering and groping in darkness.

(6) With palms pressed together, I beseech
You Triumphant who would pass beyond sorrow:
I beg you, remain for countless eons
So as not to leave in their blindness these wandering beings.

(7) By whatever positive force I've built up
Through all of these that I've done like that,
May I remove every suffering
Of all limited beings. 

By directing and offering to the Buddha-fields
This base, anointed with fragrant waters, strewn with flowers,
And decked with Mount Meru, four islands, a sun, and a moon,
May all those who wander be led to pure lands.
Om idam guru ratna mandala-kam nir-yatayami.
I send forth this mandala to you precious gurus.

Final Adjustments for Concentrating

With the receptive state of mind that we have built up, we are almost ready to begin our classes or meditation sessions. First, however, it is helpful to make the conscious decision to listen, study, or meditate with concentration. We decide, if my attention wanders, I shall bring it back and if I start to become sleepy, I shall wake myself up. When we make these decisions consciously, we have a better chance of concentrating.

Lastly, we make a fine adjustment of our concentration and energies. In case we are feeling a bit sleepy or dull, we need to lift our energies and wake ourselves up. To do this, as the Kalachakra teachings instruct, we focus on the point between our eyebrows, with our eyes looking upward, and our heads staying level. Then, in case we are feeling somewhat agitated or stressed and our minds are wandering, we need to ground our energies so that they quiet down. For that, we focus next on a point slightly below the navel in the center of our bodies, with our eyes looking downward, and our heads staying level. As we breathe in normally, we hold the breath until we need to breathe out.

This completes the full set of preliminaries for class, meditation, or private Dharma study. Shantideva himself emphasized the benefits and necessity of doing the seven-limb practice and every Tibetan Buddhist master I have encountered has also stressed them as the basis for daily practice. Even by themselves, they constitute a full daily practice. We may do these preliminaries by reciting verses, such as those in Shantideva's text, or we may do them without verses, but merely in our own words, or just with feeling. The main thing is to have some feeling for each of the seven limbs. Feeling something is what brings the mind to a state conducive for meditation or study.

For our actual meditation sessions after these preliminaries, we may focus on the breath, on a topic from the graded stages of the path (lam-rim), or on some verses from Shantideva. The preliminaries bring us to a properly receptive state of mind no matter what we choose for our actual session. We may even choose only to do the preliminaries, which in themselves are an excellent practice. The amount of time we spend on the preliminaries may vary and is up to us. Whether we do them quickly or slowly, however, we need to avoid doing them as an empty ritual. We need to keep their meanings in mind and try to feel each step sincerely.

Thank you.