Article Jan. 2023

Aspiration for a Higher Life

By Rev. Master Seikai

The following dedication comes from Lama Shenpen Hookham’s book There’s More to Dying than Death: A Buddhist Perspective:

Through the power of the truth of the true nature of our being,

The indestructible essence of the heart,

Through the power of the truth of our inherent qualities

Of openness, clarity and sensitivity,

Through the power of our inescapable connection with each other

And the all-pervading Truth of the Buddha,

Through the power of all the good we have done,

Do or ever will do,

May you and all beings always find your way on the path to Awakening,

Without fear, obstacle or hindrance.

May you be protected from fear—be relaxed and fearless

May you be protected from grasping and clinging—remember, everything passes

May you be protected from anger and hatred—let go of everything, good and bad.

With thoughts full of love and joy,

Thinking of how we will all meet again and again,

Determined to repay the kindness of all beings

And repair the harm we have ever done or will do,

May we pass in peace from this life into the next.1

              At the point in a year when our star, the sun, dips to its lowest point in the sky at noon—the winter solstice—it seems appropriate to reflect on what the deeper meaning of our life is, and what exactly we truly aspire to. The minimum amount of daylight is reaching us at whatever latitude we live, and so it is naturally a time of death and renewal, of looking inward and thinking of what aspects of life we find troublesome, and what aspects we would like to cultivate.

              Ancient cultures throughout the world have marked this point in the year with some sort of returning-of-the-light ceremony or festival—it seems to be an innately human thing to do, particularly for people living some distance away from the equator where there are marked seasonal changes. “Saturnalia, held in mid-December, is an ancient Roman pagan festival honoring the agricultural god Saturn. Because of when the holiday occurred—near the winter solstice—Saturnalia celebrations are the source of many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas, such as wreaths, candles, feasting and gift-giving.”2 In Buddhism, the festival marking the Buddha’s Enlightenment has traditionally been held in December, either on the 8th or on the full moon day.

              The above dedication of intent, or declaration of aspiration, seems to summarize into one short stanza how we, as Buddhists, view our lives and what gives meaning to them. It starts by invoking our higher nature and our loftiest qualities as human beings. The indestructible essence of the heart is something that we can actually experience by sitting still within ourselves, allowing our attention to reside in the heart. For a person new to such a practice, it can seem daunting if not impossible, because the human mind is so full of distractions, worries, fears, misgivings. It takes a certain level of determination and persistence to learn to just sit still in the warmth of your heart. Lots of feelings and emotions show themselves, seemingly to divert us away from such a simple but important human experience. The true nature of our heart, its inherent qualities of openness, clarity and sensitivity, allows us to embrace all such experiences and allow them to fade away.

              The human heart does speak, but it speaks softly. In order to hear it, the brain has to quiet down enough so that our higher nature—our better judgment—can tune in to what it has to say. What the heart has to say might well be contrary to what we are hearing all around us, or what society as a whole would like us to believe. Thus, for those who decide to look for something deeper, it is necessary to face the resistance that we are likely to encounter. All of us have a comfort zone within which we feel relatively safe, and that usually means we are not going to encounter too much resistance to the path we have chosen, but once we start listening to the heart, the decisions we make and the path we follow may be unpopular. While it may be easier to follow the crowd, on the other hand doing so might very well prove to be an unsatisfactory way to live. That is the choice: choosing a more difficult path based on the knowledge of your heart versus the safe path of doing what everyone else does.

              The “power of our inescapable connection with each other and the all-pervading truth of the Buddha” points to the benefits of being part of a Sangha, those who band together to practice the teaching of the Buddha. There is a collective energy that is created by such a group, not just in Buddhism but in any religious tradition, and this too seems to be an innately human thing to do. If the aspirations of the larger group are pure, i.e. not tainted by desires to wield power, accumulate unnecessary wealth and money, or give in to any one of a hundred other human desires, we will benefit from the collective energy. A lot can go wrong, and often religious groups create more suffering than they alleviate, which leads many people to want nothing to do with organized religion. I completely understand why. So here again is another point of having to make a choice: choosing a religious path in life which involves both listening to your heart and sharing space with other people whose aspirations and behaviors may not be completely pure, versus going it alone.

              The Buddha himself faced exactly this choice, and on at least one occasion he walked away from his own religious community and went to live alone in the forest. Human nature is such that there are always going to be moments of friction and difficulty whenever people live and practice together, and we should not expect that it will ever be otherwise. So taking this fact of life on board, we can nevertheless create what we call in Buddhism a “harmonious Sangha”, a group of relatively like-minded people who put their devotion to a well-established, liberating path ahead of their own individual desires. The “all-pervading truth of the Buddha” takes all of this into account. It is a truth which holds everything in a delicate balance and is forgiving of human error. And, first and foremost, if we really look honestly within ourselves, it quickly becomes apparent that what we all need to do is purify our own hearts. That is the real on-going work; a religious group’s primary function is to facilitate that work and shed light on how to go about it.

              Another way to look at our inescapable connection with each other is to recognize that as human beings living on the same planet, together with all other forms of life, we are interconnected. There is both individuality and inescapable interconnectedness. All beings depend on other beings for their continued livelihood and wellbeing. We cannot really go it alone no matter how hard we try: we are part of an immense interwoven fabric of life forms, pulsing with an inconceivable number of interactions, births and deaths. The question is whether we can be individuals in a way which benefits all other beings, or whether selfishness takes over and we live from that self-centered place which has the aspiration of greed: more stuff, more money, more power, more, more, more. So our most fundamental task as human beings is to transform greed into generosity; learning to give as well as take; learning to care for other beings as well as ourselves.

              At one end of the human spectrum there are amazingly generous, altruistic people who make it their purpose in life to help others; conversely, at the other end, are troublemakers, people who have nothing but their own selfish interests at heart. Most people lie somewhere between these extremes, trying to do a little bit of good but mostly just getting by, and not above a bit of lying and cheating to get what they want. The overall impetus of the modern world is to get more, to have more, to achieve some sort of status in the hope that it will make you happy. The most fundamental shift takes place when you realize that this just doesn’t work. If you sincerely aspire to a deeper inner peace, tranquility of mind, you have to realize that, “wait a minute. By some miracle I’m still alive and have a functioning body and mind. However I live, however I relate to other people will come back to me in the course of time. Now I wish to move in the direction of awakening from this dream state and do good both for myself and others.”

              When you reach this point, the universe steps in and offers you innumerable opportunities to make this happen. It is almost always challenging, but then again, what is life without that challenge? Usually either boring or meaningless. Your own heart will also step in and offer quiet but sound advice on how to move forward. To this end, it is extremely helpful to allow your brain and your heart to be on good terms and communicate with each other. Rather than having your brain run the show all the time, it is better to train it to consult with the heart on any matter of importance. The ego-driven brain is always wanting something, always a little bit unsatisfied, always in a hurry to get somewhere. Just look at how people drive their cars. The heart tells us to slow down, take the time to do things right, don’t try to get ahead, just be with whatever you are doing and let it take time. If you take this step of listening to your heart, it will be a radical departure from how the world currently works.

              Good things happen when you live this way, when the brain and the heart are on good terms. Most of all, you can be at peace within yourself. And you will be helping others around you by exhibiting a sense of calm in an ego-driven, competitive world. This is what Zen practice really is: to stop chasing after stuff, to settle down within yourself and just be with things as they already are. It is not a magic formula, it is not all that popular, it doesn’t get headlines, but it does radically change how you experience life.

              Being a force for good generates its own energy, which we call merit. The dedication goes on to invoke all the good we have done, do or will ever do—a sea of merit—and through the power of that merit makes the wish that we will find our way on the path to awakening. That is essentially how awakening is arrived at: through the accumulation of merit and the positive, wholesome effects of it. I recall an exchange between a fellow trainee and our Zen teacher, Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, in which the monk stated her desire to arrive at a deeper level of awakening than the level she had already experienced. Rev. Master Jiyu said, “Well, my dear, then you should generate a lot of merit.”

              The dedication makes the wish that all beings find their way on the path to awakening without fear, obstacle or hindrance. I haven’t yet met anyone on a religious path who has not met with and had to overcome fears, obstacles and hindrances, and although it is a nice thing to wish for, on the face of it, it seems like magical thinking. Is there really a way to wave a magic wand and have obstacles disappear? No, but on the other hand there might be a different way of looking at it. Suppose that when you feel afraid, something in you recognizes that “this is just fear: I don’t have to be ruled by it.” Then you can take a breath and start to relax within the feeling of fear. Then you have entered into a transformative process which takes fear and turns it into confidence. Similarly with an obstacle or a hindrance, at first we will usually regard the situation as standing in our way, preventing us from moving forward. But again, something in you says, “don’t worry, this is temporary; it is an opportunity to learn something,” and the transformative process continues. In the Heart Sutra, a scripture we use in our daily practice, there is line which says: In the mind of the Bodhisattva, who is one with great wisdom, the obstacles dissolve. Dissolve is the key word. Time, effort and patience dissolve obstacles. And that is one of the ways to create a lot of merit.

              One practice which I’ve found invaluable in my life, and which has to do with this transformative process, is to have gratitude for everything. I’m still not able to do it immediately in the face of any and all difficult situations, but the inward discipline of bowing to everything radically changes life for the better. The sooner the better. Normally we feel we are justified in complaining about unfairness, of being mistreated in some way, of being wronged. But there actually is a fleeting moment in which we choose, one way or another, to complain or harbor resentment versus accepting things as they are, bowing to them, and then deciding to do the best you can, whatever that might happen to be. Bitterness is the accumulated habit energy of choosing to be bitter; contentment is the accumulated habit energy of acceptance, bowing to difficulty. It is very easy to live in denial of this and to try to blame somebody else for our problems. The road to happiness begins with accepting that at every step of our life’s journey, we have made little decisions which have accumulated into the state we currently occupy.

              May you be protected from grasping and clinging—remember, everything passes. May you be protected from anger and hatred—let go of everything, good and bad. These two sentences are pointing directly to how the human mind works, and how we essentially go through our lives creating our own unhappiness and frustration. Reaching the point I mentioned above of thinking that “this just doesn’t work” is to recognize that the key to everything is how we use our own minds. There are two polar opposites: at one end, grasping and clinging—innate human tendencies—and, at the other end, anger and aversion—also innate human reactions. Grasping and pushing away. What my Zen teacher called “the third position”, i.e. a neutral place in between grasping and aversion, is the place of acceptance and meditation. An easy mistake to make within any spiritual discipline which includes the practice of meditation, is to try to achieve something in your meditation. Trying to reach a place of bliss. This only works for a while, and then you will run up against an immutable truth, which is that the trying itself gets in your way. Our society is totally goal-oriented; it is simply how we think about everything. So to let go of goal-orientation itself is not easy to do. It means coming back again and again to the neutral position of just being, just accepting, just observing the way things are. Let go of everything, good and bad does Snot mean to adopt an apathetic, “whatever” attitude. Rather, it means putting your efforts in the direction of doing good for others without holding on to the results. Real letting go means accepting our human limitations, giving up our insistence that a particular happy outcome is always reached. Fairy tale endings are nice, but they aren’t always reality; reality is far more complex.

              With thoughts full of love and joy, thinking how we will all meet again and again, determined to repay the kindness of all beings and repair the harm we have done or will do, may you pass in peace from this life into the next. This is really a dedication of your own life to work for the benefit of all beings, which in Mahayana Buddhism—the branch of Buddhism practiced in the Far East—is a Bodhisattva Vow. Giving up a purely selfish orientation to life, recognizing our interconnectedness, and then doing what you can with your own particular set of abilities and talents to help other beings is a Bodhisattva Vow. On a doctrinal level, this vow is usually expressed as vowing to help all other beings to realize their own unity with all of creation not just in this life but for an indefinite number of lives into the future. My own thinking in this regard is that we can only live one life at a time, and so it is probably not helpful to most people to think beyond this life. We might very well meet again and again, but the main point is to do the best you can do in this life, right here and now, and to not worry about the indefinite future. In fact we can only live one day at a time, and within a day, you can only ever live from one moment to the next. So on a purely practical level, a Bodhisattva Vow is to live in the moment, giving up grasping and aversion.

              Sooner or later we will all have to face death. It may come suddenly or it may be a slow decline as the body simply wears out. Most of us simply don’t know how this is going to play out, and when we die we will take nothing with us of a material nature; all we take with us is the merit we have created by  living unselfishly or the reverse, the ill effects of being a grasping, selfish human being who does not care much for anyone else. All of us will enter the ocean of death with a mixed bag, but what is of utmost importance is the aspiration we have cultivated as a human being. Our aspirations and intentions set the tone for the whole of our lives. They will have a direct bearing in determining what sort of life we will enter into at the end of this one.

              One of my favorite dedications within the liturgy that I’ve been exposed to as a monk comes from the Pure Land tradition of Buddhism, which is widely practiced in the Far East, and in sheer numbers is a much bigger school than the Zen tradition. The dedication, which is normally sung at the end of a ceremony, is as follows:

May we meet the end of life without impediments

And may the great and holy ones come from afar to receive us.

May the holy water held by Avalokiteshwara be sprinkled upon our heads

And the golden platform of Mahasthamaprapta be set beneath our feet.

May we leave this world and its five kinds of pollution in the twinkling of a second,

And in a flash, reach the sea of the lotuses; after our lotuses have bloomed

We shall fully see the kind, honored one and, in person, listen to and hear his voice clearly.

Having heard him we shall rest in peace beyond rebirth: this is our true belief.

Without abandoning this holy place we may, if it so be his wish, re-enter the human world,

Thereafter being well versed in those expediences to enlighten sentient beings and adroitly to

Convert all earthly toils to Buddhist service. These are our sincere wishes and are, of course, known to Buddha.

Because of our sincerity of purpose they will finally be realized in the future.

Wholeheartedly we honor the one who preached the truth, Shakyamuni Tathagata,

Together with his thousands and millions of Nirmanakayas

And all Buddhas throughout the Dharma World.3


1. Lama Shenpen Hookham, There’s More to Dying Than Death: A Buddhist Perspective; Windhorse Publications, Birmingham, UK, 2006; p. 166.

2. On-line Google search; original source not cited.

3. PTNH Jiyu-Kennett, The Liturgy of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives for the Laity; Shasta Abbey Press, Mt. Shasta, CA, 1990; pp. 201-204.