The seven branches of prayer begin with salutations, which traditionally take the form of bowing and prostrations. The idea is that we honour the Awakened ones with our body, speech and mind, giving up our pride and egocentricity in order to be open to the vision of the Buddhas. So the gesture of salutation or bowing is one of acknowledging, aligning, honouring and celebrating.
This continues in the giving of praise and offerings. It is not just about giving up attachment, but also about energy exchange. It is about giving in order to prepare the ground to receive. The more we give, the more we value what we receive and the whole process empowers the teaching mandala.
This is followed by the confession. This is the great letting go of the ego-mandala. Although we regret our negative deeds and all the harm they have done and will continue to cause, it is important to have the confidence that all of that can be transformed in an instant into positive connections and means to benefit others. Each time we repent our negative actions we are reminding ourselves and reaffirming to ourselves our confidence in this. It requires conviction, determination and an openness to the adhistana of the truth, the adhistana of Awakening itself, to let that truth transform our negativity into the mandala of Awakening. This has to be done.
We have to let go of the ego-mandala. We have to both acknowledge it and let it go at the same time. Sometimes we are prepared to acknowledge it, but then we are so horrified that we cannot let it go. It seems so terrible and real that we cannot just let it go. It seems to haunt us and have a reality of its own. The confession is to help us let it go. On the other hand, we are often not even aware of the ego-mandala and all the negativity associated with it. We cannot acknowledge it and let it go because we are pretending it’s not there or it is not as bad as all that really. Not only do we not realise its emptiness, we do not even recognise it at all. This is worse than taking it as too real. The confession is the turning towards negativity that we do in our meditation and daily life practice all the time. It is complete and properly done when we have the confidence that all we have to do is expose it and let it go. In itself it has no power, unless we try to ignore it.
Then we rejoice in the good done by others, the antidote for pride and jealousy. It is a terrible fact that the ego-mandala is so structured that it establishes its credentials in relation to others, by comparing itself to others and trying to measure itself in reference to others. This leads to an obsessive preoccupation with issues and emotions associated with being worse, better or equal to others. Rejoicing in the good done by others is about cutting through this whole project. We do not need to refer to ourselves at all when contemplating the goodness and happiness of others. If we can do this we have cut through layer upon layer of obsessive, negative thinking that destroys our happiness and obstructs our progress on the path to Awakening.
Having opened up in this way through our salutations, praising, offering, confession and rejoicing in the good done by others, we are as open as we can be for the teaching which we now ask for. We request the Awakened Ones to teach us and all beings and for them to remain in the world to teach beings for as long as possible. The teaching mandala operates through the energy exchange between students and teacher. The teacher teaches because students ask him or her to teach. That there are people open enough to receive the teaching and that there is someone there asking for the teaching is the key condition for a teaching mandala to arise and function. From the time of the Buddha Shakyamuni until now there have always been students asking and inspiring teachers to teach. When that ceases, the teachings will cease.
Similarly, when there is nobody asking the teachers to stay, they will disappear from this world. So we ask the teachers to remain and live long to help beings as a key condition for their doing so. Since there must be teachers in worlds where there is nobody aware enough to ask them to stay, we ask on their behalf. Through our intention to help others, we think we ask the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in all worlds to teach and not pass away in order to complete the conditions for them to appear in all worlds.
To complete the seven branches of prayer (the first six being: obeisance, offering, confession, rejoicing in the good done by others, asking for the teaching and for teachers to remain) there is a verse to dedicate punya, in which we give all the good arising from our positive deeds to the Awakening of all beings.
Lama Shenpen Hookham
There is also a video teaching from 2014 on the Seven Branches of Prayer:
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