thumb b common prayer

My introduction to the first edition of this book, published in 2007, began with a caution against denigrating liturgical literature in the Buddhist tradition. I explained that every major Tibetan lineage of Buddhism treats study, reflection, and meditation as a seamless continuum of spiritual training, in which prayer recitation plays an integral role.


Indeed, the Buddhist sutras were first preserved and transmitted as an oral tradition, and are still recited aloud as a form of study, meditation, and worship.  Other types of prayers, composed in open or metered verse, embody profound expressions of spiritual views, goals and methods of practice in summary form.  Je Tsong Khapa's "Three Principal Aspects of the Path" (infra, page XX) is a prime example, as it introduces the practitioner step by step to the general Mahayana teachings.

After attending six consecutive annual prayer festivals for world peace at Blue Valley Sanctuary of the Buddha's Teachings, our monastery in Golog, Tibet, and presiding over four annual companion prayer convocations at Blazing Wisdom Institute here in the United States, I have had much opportunity to reflect more broadly upon and address questions concerning the meaning of prayer in Buddhist practice.

In fact, the term 'prayer' hardly captures the sense of any of the Tibetan terms which it is employed to translate.  In particular, the term mon lam denotes a way, an approach, to formulating and realizing our highest aspirations.  It is an articulation of purpose: a mission statement.  Thus, a mon lam belies any sense of helplessness or desperation with which the notion of prayer might be associated.  It also rejects the notion of prayer as mere wishful thinking.

Rather, for practicing Buddhists, a mon lam harnesses and directs the natural power of our own minds, and invokes the power of the reality or truth of interdependence to yield actual results or benefits from that effort, dedication and purpose.  This dynamic is conveyed by the den tsig, or declaration of truth, with which an aspiration prayer typically concludes.  An example is found in the final stanza of the Dewachen Aspiration (infra, page xx),  which says:

By the blessings of Buddhas who have attained
the three kayas, by the blessing of the truth
of immutable dharmata,[1] and by the blessing
of the undivided purpose of the sangha,
may this aspiration prayer be accomplished
exactly as intended!

Thus, when we pray, "may that to which we have just aspired come to pass,” we assemble the causal factors and articulate the reasons why the desired outcome should transpire, rather than ask for a result that magically circumvents the conventional truth of interdependence.  Through our aspiration prayers themselves, all necessary and supporting factors of relative and ultimate truth are invoked, such that, through the reality of interdependence, the effect to which we aspire is brought that much closer to becoming true.

Prayer, in other words, is about bridging the gap from ‘aspiring’ to ‘transpiring.’ In the Buddhist view, everything good that we do, everything we can accomplish, begins as an aspiration.  Mon lams both crystallize our intentions, and help us to realize them; they help us resolve our goals, and lead us toward them.   We recite mon lams to chart the course of our own spiritual practice and progress.

The liberating examples of great bodhisattvas of the past illustrate how all great works start as aspirations.   The particular paths pursued by Tara and Amitabha, Manjushri and Samantabhadra, and the results they each achieved, followed and flowed from the aspirations they made.  Through their pure view and aspirations, they developed unique abilities to perform enlightened activity on behalf of sentient beings, and manifested unique pure realms of existence.

As practitioners we seek to emulate their examples.  That is why their stories are called models or exemplars of liberation—nam tar.   We even say in many aspiration prayers: “I seek to follow in the footsteps, to reproduce the examples of these great bodhisattvas.”

My teacher, His Holiness Orgyen Kusum Lingpa, often reminded students of this key point.  According to the Buddha, he explained, true improvement requires the coordination of three primary factors.  First, the basic cause of our development—whether in this life or from lifetime to lifetime—is proper conduct.  Second, the supportive conditions for our growth are acts of kindness and charity.  Third, what gathers the force of these two factors and directs it in a specific, positive direction, is the power of pure aspiration.  It is clear that these three factors of which he spoke are in accord with the operation of cause and effect.

Aspirations thus channel our life force, enabling us to cross the gap, or leap over the divide, between where we find ourselves in one moment, and strive to be in another.  It is, once again, through powerful aspirations to serve the needs of living beings, fueled by the power of mental and physical energies gathered through arduous practice, focused prayer, and virtuous acts, that evolved beings—bodhisattvas—incarnate to show us the way forward, and to preserve and uphold the lineages and teachings of Buddhadharma.

Among the well-known 'four dharmas' or principles of Gampopa and Longchenpa, the practice of monlams therefore pertains most closely or specifically to the second: turning dharma into (onto) the path.  Once we have turned our minds or attention towards spiritual values (the first principle), we must define and follow a path to enact and live out those values.

By adhering to the path we have defined and to which we are committed, we remove confusion (the third principle), so as, finally, to reveal the underlying wisdom that stands behind the appearance of confusion within our thinking minds and emotions (the fourth principle).

To summarize this point, as the Master Mipham explains in his instructions on how to practice the sadhana ritual of Buddha Shakyamuni (infra, page xx), quoting from the sutra entitled "Demonstrating the Qualities of the Realm of Manjusri,"

"All dharmas are consistent with conditions.
They are poised on the tip of volition.
Whatever one may aspire towards,
one will obtain a result consistent with that."

Invoking the power of speech through prayer and other recitations is also an important element of the path of skillful means in the Vajrayana vehicle of Buddhism.  It is one of the principal tenets of Secret Mantra that fully integrated engagement of body, speech and mind (through mudra, mantra, and samadhi) greatly increases the potency and efficacy of meditation practice.  These are all dimensions of our being, and both the source and conventional expression of the full range of kayas (dimensions) of enlightenment.   In the Mantra vehicle, therefore, recitations of prayer are hardly superfluous or insignificant.  Sadhana practices, in particular, invariably contain many types of prayers, though their significance is often underappreciated by practitioners racing through them to get to some later stage of meditation.  This is an enormous topic on which I shall not expound here.

The term mon lam also may refer to the totality of an arrangement of recitations performed (typically) by an assembly or convocation of (usually) ordained practitioners, in a monastery or at a holy site, over the course of several days.  In this sense, a mon lam is a special practice event, a great prayer festival, termed a mon lam chenmo.

Thus, every year, tens of thousands of ordained and lay Tibetan Buddhist practitioners gather at auspicious times in sacred locations around the world to spend several days together reciting aspiration prayers, following in the footsteps of the great beings, like Bodhisattvas Manjusri and Samantabhadra, who came before, and showed the way.  Many of these convocations bring together the members of a particular lineage, school or community, while others are designed to be ri med, or ecumenical (non-sectarian).

A mon lam chenmo is not just a ceremonial recitation of prayers; it is structured to review or rehearse the entire Buddhist path of training in the course of a single day.  It is bounded by the dam pa sum, or three excellent features. The daily program begins with renewal of the refuge and bodhicitta commitments; progresses through ever more sublime meditation rituals; and concludes with a series of aspiration and dedication prayers.

All of the recitations are performed as don gom, i.e., with undistracted attention to both the words and their meaning at all times.  Thus, recitation and meditation are both synonymous, and mutually reinforcing.  Concentrating on the words one is reciting undistractedly while seated in meditation posture, and even visualizing clearly what the words describe, is calm abiding, samatha.  The insights to which the words direct you, blossoming within your own mind, are vipassana.  Don gom is therefore an instance of the unity of samatha and vipassana, the two components of all Buddhist meditation systems.

The mon lam chenmo program encompasses all three major vehicles of Buddhist practice, and the trainings in view, meditation and conduct of both sutra and tantra.  It is designed to expedite and enhance the two accumulations of relative merit and ultimate wisdom.

It would be a mistake, in other words, to identify the practice of mon lam exclusively with the sutra vehicles.  The practice of mon lam is not only don gom, it is also mos gom.   Mos gom means that we are not just aspiring to, but actually modeling the state of liberation, of universal enlightenment, consistent with the view and approach of Mantrayana.

Interestingly, therefore, whether as Buddhists we conceive that we are praying to enlightened beings imagined to be out there somewhere, or whether we see our prayers as simply a skillful means to connect with the Buddha Nature that is the ground and ultimate state of our own being, really makes no difference.

Either view, being conceptual, is simply provisional and indicative.  Our efforts will bear fruit, no matter which concept fits our minds better.  Bodhisattvas at high levels of realization practice with full dedication, even while they realize that the one who is praying, that to which they are praying, and the act of prayer—the three spheres of action—are illusory, without any true existence.  In short, there is no contradiction between the relative virtue of prayer and any level of the view along the Buddhist path, as, in the end, relative and ultimate truth are themselves not distinct.

Whether it is lineage-specific or universalist, there is a common core of prayers at the heart of a mon lam chenmo, including, typically, the Zang Chod Monlam (Aspiration for Outstanding Conduct), the Jam Pal Tsen Jod (Professing the Qualities of Manjusri), the Dewachen Monlam (Aspiration for Rebirth in Dewachen), the dedication chapter from Santideva's Bodhisattva-caryavatara (Undertaking the Conduct of A Bodhisattva), and others.

Accordingly, these essential prayers that Tibetan Buddhists have been reciting for many hundreds of years—which, indeed, are a central vertebra in the very backbone of their tradition—are all included in this volume.  Also included are a handful of important sutras that are recited daily in virtually every Tibetan Buddhist monastery, and incorporated into a mon lam chenmo, such as Sherab Nyingpo (Essence of Wisdom), Pungpo Sum (Three Heaps), and Kon Chog Sum Je Dren (Recalling The Three Jewels).

The tantric component includes a complete two-stage yoga sadhana ritual based on a mandala of Manjusri, arranged by Dodrupchen Jigme Tenpa'i Nyima, and supplemented with verses composed by Tulku Hung Kar Dorje, the abbot of our Lung Ngon (Blue Valley) Monastery, and founder of its mon lam chenmo.

Moreover, as in all tantric practices, the mon lam program includes a variety of skillful techniques for stabilizing, enhancing and guarding the results of spiritual practice, as  taught by my principal teacher, the great Vajra Master Tulku Urgyen.  The protector rituals, praises, supplications, the Vajra Knot dedication (infra, page xx), and so forth, fulfill these special purposes.

Another refinement in this Second Edition is the inclusion of annotative notes on the background of each prayer.  We will also make the full Tibetan text available for free download from the website as soon as practicable.

While the contents of this volume may not match perfectly the recitations used in any given mon lam chenmo, anyone planning or wishing to attend such a festival in Bodh Gaya, India, or elsewhere, should find here much or most of what might be needed to follow and participate fully, including the phonetics for all prayers.  Those with no plans at present to attend a prayer festival might still discover in this volume a wealth of material to aid in their study and practice of Buddhadharma according to the Tibetan tradition.

The materials here translated are drawn from many historical periods and sources, with styles ranging from the repetitive, rhythmic structure of ancient sutras, to the playful poetic imagery and devices employed by His Holiness Dodrup Jigme Tenpa'i Nyima.

Moreover, these texts, by and large, were composed to be recited aloud.  While I strove to reproduce, in English, the euphonic and lyrical character of the words and phrases in the original Tibetan, this proved difficult, as Tibetan is highly conducive to metered composition, and full of homonyms.

I therefore prioritized accuracy, clarity, concision and alliterative flow in translating texts like the eponymous Jam Pal Tsen Jod, where my efforts were guided first and foremost by the master Vimalamitra’s authoritative word commentary, written a millenium ago.

Moreover, the rules and forms of Tibetan poetics, as exemplified by several of the works found here (like the praises to Manjusri), are rather different from what this translator, at least, learned as a student and editor of English literature.   Truly beautiful variations on images of clouds and oceans and space, which in the original Tibetan artfully convey both grandeur and great depth, can sound like mixed metaphors when translated into English.  Perhaps this is my fault.  I apologize repeatedly for failing to do the original authors justice.

The phonetic system employed here is meant to be as simple as possible, and not at all a transliteration scheme, whole or partial.  It does not presume familiarity with diacritical or accent marks from foreign language or philology, and, perhaps arbitrarily, makes final, hard consonants explicit, as they are pronounced in the Amdo/Golog dialects.

Aspirates that conflict with ordinary English pronunciation are ignored.  Thus, the consonants that would be transliterated as 'ta' and 'tha' respectively in the Wylie system are both phoneticized here as 'ta'.  The consonant 'zha' is pronounced like the French soft letter j, as in the personal pronoun je or proper name Jacques.  Apostrophes are used to indicate Tibetan dipthongs or double vowels, like de'i, just as in the Wylie system.

I pray that this work serve as one small step in our moving forward from "working" to "definitive" English language translations of these important texts.  I would be grateful for any corrections or suggestions for improvement.

I extend heartfelt thanks to those who helped with this project: James Elkin and Thuy Do for the initial drafts of the phonetics in the first edition; Heinz Insu Fenkl and Bo Leaf Press for contributions to graphics and layout; Hung Kar Dorje Rinpoche for his helpful insights into the layers of meaning within the praises to Manjusri; Lama Yeshe Gyamtso for permission to work from his fine earlier translation of the Sampa Lhundrupma; Stephen Batchelor for posting his outstanding translation of the Chod Jug Ngo Wa Le'u for public use on the web; and the unidentified translator of Lam Tso Nam Sum for doing the same.  I saw no reason to try to improve on their works.  Finally, I re-dedicate this work:

To all the iconic, iconoclastic, wisdom personae,

oldest in spirit and freshest of heart,

who stormed center stage into my life

from beyond the curtain of snows,

like exhilarating, crystal clear winds

that pierced my porous shell and whipped my attention

back on course to their home, pure lands,

where my habits and wanderings never would trespass

but for the spur and embrace of their intent
and loving rebuke.

Sherab Dorje

Blazing Wisdom Institute

Catskills, New York

November 2010


[1] Here the 'truth of immutable dharmata' is a reference to the reality and validity of dharma, completing the triad of jewels of refuge (Buddhas, Dharmas, and Sanghas), as dharmata is the final dharma of realization.