What if our prayers and practice feel contrived and liturgy and imagery doesn’t move us?

A Student writes:

I sense the Indestructible Heart Essence or True Nature in myself and in others quite strongly but I don’t think I am opening to something. There is something about the nature of Sadhanas and Pranidhanas for instance that feel contrived. Maybe only through waiting for that contrivance to lose some forced quality that thought melts? I am unsure.

Lama Shenpen Replies:

I think I understand what you are saying – certainly if you mean what I myself mean when I notice things like that.  For example I do not find Buddha images automatically link me into what for me is the presence of the Buddha’s all-pervading love and compassion.  I have to put the image out of my mind, link into what the Buddha is and then think to myself – well ok so this image is to help me focus on that with my senses right here and now – it’s a kind of expression of that and a focus in terms of the direction I will bow or make offerings.

Over the decades I haven’t found that has changed much to be honest.  I just don’t let that bother me but I do often ask myself how many people are like me and what could be done eventually to develop inspiring imagery if indeed imagery is necessary. I know for example in Islam it is regarded as sinful to use religious imagery – because God cannot be conceptualised.  Originally Buddhists didn’t have images of Buddha for the same reason. I am comfortable with that – aren’t you?

I don’t think there is anything wrong in us to be like that. In fact Khenpo Rinpoche created a whole sadhana not using imagery at Ponlop Rinpoche’s request – so it suggests he too doesn’t really respond much to imagery.

Pranidhanas are a whole different matter for me.  I have reflected for decades on how the worlds we find ourselves in are the inseparable result of my actions of body speech and mind.  What I wish for is what will eventually manifest – so directing my intentions as powerfully as possible makes complete sense to me. Maybe what you mean is that the liturgies with all the words don’t really move you when reciting pranidhanas formally again and again?

I find the more I learn about the Dharma the more I appreciate the words of the formal pranidhanas and I also find they help me focus on the meaning and bring my heart and mind into alignment. Many of my students don’t find that happens and they are just reciting the words meaninglessly.  In that case I suggest slowing down and just focusing on a few lines that really grab you rather than ploughing through the whole thing a bit resentfully.


I used to have more feeling of the power that seems to emanate from all sorts of things but that seems to have become lost.

Lama Shenpen:

I think the important thing is to be clear about why we open to the power and influence of anything.  We open to medical treatment for healing. We open to Dharma teachers for understanding and clarity – we might open to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who have realised all-pervading non-conditional love and compassion for their adhishtana – their blessing, protection, guidance or whatever. We open to non-conceptual spontaneous intelligent wisdom of reality so that we become one with it – that is Guru Yoga.

We always need to open to ‘other’ – even the Buddha after his Enlightenment said ‘to whom shall I now bow?’ and realised he could bow to the Dharma itself – as the compassionate ‘other’ or ‘jnana of other’ as Rigdzin Shikpo calls it – and of course all beings who are Buddhas – even though they don’t realise it.


Lama Shenpen’s students are participating in the Living the Awakened Heart Training – a structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme. The training, which is open to all, 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