“Pranidhana (Sanskrit, Tibetan: Mon lam) is often translated as an aspirational or ‘wishing prayer’, but it’s not just a wish, it has the power within itself to make that wish or prayer come true. It’s more like a vow, aspiration, prayer, spell and blessing – Pranidhana encompasses all these senses and more. For this reason when I teach I usually don’t translate the word Pranidhana, to encourage my students to open their minds to a totally new and highly significant idea.
Most of the elements contained in the concept of Pranidhanas are familiar to us: like a wishing-well, or being given a wish by a fairy godmother or blowing out candles on a birthday cake. The idea of these kind of wishes is that somehow, because of the specialness of the occasion and the place and time, they have the power to come true: the conditions at the time of the original intention and formulation are enough to set the process in motion, as if it were already accomplished. So these kind of wishes are familiar to us from our traditions or stories, but to find them all united into one fundamental principle underlying the nature of the universe is new to western thought, and to western Buddhists, yet Pranidhanas are essential to the path of Awakening.
All the Bodhisattvas make pranidhanas to be able to carry out their Bodhisattva vow successfully. Generally speaking in Mahayana when it talks about Upaya (skillful means) it is referring to the skill of making pranidhanas and the power to accomplish them.
This power of making pranidhanas – the power of our intention and our resolve, is important for us to understand right from the start of the path because it’s is the same power we use when we decide we are going to do anything at all, such as meditate every day, or follow the path to Awakening. This power of our resolve is a power inherent to our awareness and something we have immediate access to.
The power of pranidhanas is a fundamental aspect of the nature of awareness but at the moment we just don’t understand just what an incredible power of creativity there is in awareness. The more we appreciate the fact that our resolves, prayers or pranidhanas do have a power, even when we have forgotten we have ever made them, the more eager we’ll become to make and reinforce resolves at every possible opportunity.
Pranidhanas rely on the power of our word and as Buddhists, strengthening the power of our word by always keeping it, is important for making commitments to the path and our practice. When the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and vowed not to move until he realised Enlightenment, he was able to do this because of the power of his previous pranidhanas. Making a vow is akin to making pranidhanas. If we have made the right pranidhanas in the past and if we have always kept true to our word, then when we make a vow it is in fact a statement of truth. It will happen as we say it will.
Its translation as ‘wishing prayer’ in English actually sounds rather weak, as though it’s a nice sentiment or optional extra, when in fact pranidhanas are essential and powerful. I compare pranidhanas to the idea of spells because we all have some idea of what it means to cast a spell. Making pranidhanas is like casting a spell: by invoking the power of some super-human force, In stories a witch or wizard can cast a spell with tremendous conviction – although the success of the spell depends on certain conditions being present.
The power of pranidhana is based on the power of our word and the single-mindedness of our intention. It’s our power to decide to do something or make something happen. By saying ‘May it be so’ – it happens. That’s the power of the Buddha’s word and we can discover that power within ourselves.
So how do we get to that point of the power and conviction of the Buddha? It requires a lot of practice and singleness of purpose. There’s no real single-mindedness unless it comes from the heart, so your heart must be in it.
We make various things happen in our lives, such as sitting and meditating for instance, but we forget that the power to do so came from our initial intention, because we might not explicitly state the intention – “This is what I want to happen” – or we might not specifically ask the Buddhas for help in the form of a prayer.
When we make a prayer, resolve or a wish, whether consciously or unconsciously we will usually allow other wishes to get in the way, so we wish various different things and they all contradict each other so that actually none of it happens. Then we end up thinking we don’t have much power to make things happen.
So we have to be very careful about how we make these intentions, prayers and decisions because actually we do have the power to make things happen. We have the power to accomplish what we set out to accomplish, just like the Buddha on the eve of his enlightenment, but we do have to be very clear and careful with that power.
So the first thing we have to learn when making pranidhanas is to make a very clear commitment that protects our power so we can follow through our deepest wish and not overlay it with contradictory, superficial wishes.
For instance, we might wish all sorts of things like: I want to meditate more, I want to read more, I want to be compassionate etc, but as a simple example, let’s use the wish: “I want to be happy”. So we want to be happy but then we might beat ourselves up about something we think we’ve done wrong, telling ourselves we’re no good or the worst person in the world, and then we’re supposed to try and be happy? It’s not going to work is it?
So we have to be really careful with how we use our intention and speech, even with how we speak to ourselves, so we don’t contradict our primary wish. How much time do we put aside to really consider what we want, what we are wishing for and how we’re wishing for it and being careful and considered about it?
With the wish to be happy, there are certain basic conditions that are necessary to be truly happy: your mind has to be free of negative tendencies such as aggression, attachment, delusions and self-deception of various kinds. Once those things have been allowed to dominate your life then all the negative actions of body, speech and mind follow and become a habit and take a hold.
So if we really want to be happy, the first thing we have to decide is that we won’t go along anymore with what is making us unhappy: our anger, hatred, attachment, greediness and self-deception etc. Of course, all that is still going to keep coming up for us, but we must deeply commit ourselves not to go along with it.
We have a choice: we can make a choice every time it comes up that these old negative patterns are not the way we are going to go and we can then strengthen that wish by actually saying “I will not be like that,” even if part of you things, “But you are, you’re always like that.”
The way we train ourselves to have more of a choice over our habits is through meditation and awareness practice. With practice and discipline we will begin to notice a change and will be on our way to fulfilling our primary wish to be happy.
As another example, we might wish to live in a world where there are no wars and no killing. We can commit ourselves not to kill but then a little voice might say, “But sometimes you have to.” So you think, “but I don’t want to kill, I am committing myself not to kill.” And you can do it, that is your wish. So you say it and then your words, your actions, your thoughts and everything will align and follow through and eventually you will find you have created a world in which you don’t kill, a world where killing does not happen.
This might sound like an idealistic or grand example, but if there is ever going to be a world like that, it is going to be because the beings in it are like that. If they are all committed to not killing then you’ll eventually have a world in which killing does not happen. It starts with individuals making it happen, creating a world in their vision, through the power of their intention and the power of their word. This is the Buddhist view.
That view of the universe sounds quite good, doesn’t it? We might start going along with it because it just sounds like a good view of the universe to have. However, as we come to understand the Dharma and begin to understand the nature of reality and our experience more deeply, as time goes by we start to realise that this is not just a nice idea and a little trick of positive thinking. This is actually how the universe is and works, from top to bottom, but we just can’t see it yet.
In Buddhism this view is called Karma, which is causes and effects. The starting point of any discourse on Dharma is to explain the actions that lead to suffering and the actions that lead to happiness.
So there’s a sense that the right conditions have to be there, and these are augmented by the power of the Truth, or power of the word. Making pranidhanas has to be done with tremendous one-pointed conviction, like the Buddha. So where does that conviction come from? What kind of universe is it where this could actually be true? Is it really all driven by volition and conviction?
Well the Buddhist view on this is that the world is created by karma, and karma is driven by the mind, and the mind is driven by intention and conviction, or belief. It might be wrong belief, such as our ego clinging, but we believe the world is a certain way and that makes us behave in a certain way, which creates a certain kind of world and a pattern in the universe, which we then run into again and again. That’s the karmic patterning. So we can start to use this same power of belief or conviction in our lives and make positive changes through the power of our word, by the power of our intentions, wishes, or pranidhanas. That same power of pranidhana that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas use, we can use right at the start of our path to Awakening.
People say that Buddhism is about giving up attachments, so surely we are not supposed to want or wish for anything? Well yes, it is about giving up attachment, but what that actually means is that you become very clear about what you really want, and you make it happen without attachment. It’s not that obvious what the difference is there, so we really have to work on that to try and discover the subtle difference. It’s very important.
The whole Buddhist view is riddled with this principle of pranidhana and the creative power of intention. That’s what runs the universe. My teacher Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamsto Rinpoche always smiles when we tell him about scientists finding the basic principles on which the universe is founded. He says until they include karma and the power of intention they won’t have the full picture.”
Lama Shenpen Hookham
Lama Shenpen’s students are all studying the Living the Awakened Heart Training – a structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight. The training brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a Western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join at www.ahs.org.uk/training
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