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Jun 10
Dharma Teachings
Concluding Request to the Protectors

Understanding apparent contradictions in a text that many Shambhalians chant daily as an ongoing part of their practice

by Russell Rodgers

Doesn’t the Concluding Request to the Protectors contradict other Buddhist teachings? Certainly, this is the most frequent comment I hear about this chant. The line requesting “glory, fame, good fortune and all great and vast enjoyments” sounds suspicious—it seems to refer to situations we are supposed to renounce. Perhaps it even contradicts the previous protector chants by suggesting that the dharma could be used for personal worldly gain. Didn’t we just ask the Four Armed Mahakala and Vetali to stand on guard against this sort of perversion of dharma?

In order to understand the Concluding Request, it is helpful to have some understanding of how the different schools of Buddhism have dealt with the problem of attachment to worldly things.

For the Hinayana, or foundation teachings, the part of this chant that asks for “glory, fame, good fortune and all great and vast enjoyments” would indeed be problematic. It seems to be asking for things that could carry immense dangers of ego enhancement and attachment. Sometimes the Hinayana, because it names situations to be avoided, can seem moralistic. However the intent is very simple: avoid situations that are traps. Keep it simple.

The Mahayana Rangtong school takes a deeper, more subtle approach to the problem of attachment and ego enhancement. It’s not so much a question of having a simplistic list of things to be renounced, but of seeing those things, and oneself, to be empty of the conceptual projection that they have real, independent existence from our minds. One cannot be attached to something if oneself and the object aren’t really there.

The Rangtong logic runs something like this: we aren’t really in touch with the true nature of existence because we have created a conceptual web that stands in for reality. For instance, the concept of “good” fortune depends on the concept of “bad”. “Bad” in turn depends on the idea of a self that something is bad for. The concept of a self doesn’t actually result from a direct perception of reality in any given moment. The idea of self results from giving a conceptual name, John or Mary, to a collection of thoughts about body, memories, feelings, labels and so forth. Each of these thoughts in turn depends on other circumstances in the conceptual web. All of this together is called “samsara”, and it leads to suffering because the thoughts, concepts and names substitute imperfectly for reality, which is empty of names and concepts.

From the Rangtong point of view, “glory, fame, good fortune and all great and vast enjoyments” are just as empty as their opposites: being inconspicuous, unknown, and having bad luck and suffering. Rangtong people wouldn’t be as threatened by this chant as Hinayana people, because they have understood the problem of attachment at a deeper level.

House of cards

We used what was essentially a Rangtong perspective to examine the question of whether the protectors exist in objective reality. When we looked at the protectors from that point of view, we found that, on the level of ultimate, absolute reality, it is impossible to find a truly existent entity like a protector, or even our own self. Likewise, any qualities we might describe, such as glory or fame, would be relegated to the realm of artificial concept: thoughts that interpret reality dependent on a framework of other thoughts. The thought of fame, for instance, is meaningless without the thought of being inconspicuous and unknown. At first this kind of logic seems like mere word play. However we may eventually begin to realize that our conventional way of conceiving reality is just a house of cards leaning on each other.

The Rangtong point of view teaches us a lot about concepts and their limitations. “Glory, fame, good fortune and all great and vast enjoyments” are not a problem, but they aren’t a promise either. The result of the Rangtong analysis is egolessness and groundlessness. However, it doesn’t explain the positive qualities of enlightened mind. It doesn’t explain the qualities of compassion that we see in a Buddha, or in great teachers. For that we have to turn to experience beyond concept. At this level, the Shentong school of Mahayana is helpful. If we understand the Shentong perspective, then the Concluding Request will start to make some sense. Once again, Shentong does not abandon the Hinayana requirement of non attachment, or the Rangtong way of working with non attachment through emptiness. Each of those stages is still appropriate for practitioners at different levels of understanding and practice. If one moves through the Hinayana or Rangtong too quickly, the Shentong view will become mere pretense and an obstacle to one’s path. If one has thoroughly mastered the previous schools, then the Shentong offers an opportunity to go even deeper.

In Shentong, essentially, what we are appreciating is the capacity of our minds to be empty yet luminous in terms of the endless thoughts, energies and appearances that manifest in it. One aspect of this radiance is compassion. Sometimes compassion may seem like something we have to manufacture conceptually. However, if we think about it, the less obstructed we are by our own concepts and projections, the more naturally connected, empathetic and warm we become. We can empathize with how people struggle with their fixations. That insight naturally manifests on a relative level as being able to say or do those things that will actually help.

When we think of great teachers like the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, Trungpa Rinpoche or the Sakyong, we realize that their compassion is unobstructed. They are without arrogance or self-cherishing. Their minds may be empty, but they shine forth with immense intelligence, humor and curiosity. So the “absolute” truth, or enlightenment, is not devoid of empty yet radiant qualities.

The vajrayana builds on the Shentong perspective through a variety of skillful means, such as visualization, offerings, chants and so on. Although we aren’t ready to practice or live our lives at the level of Shentong understanding, we are allowed brief glimpses of it in vajrayana chants like the Concluding Request. We can have a sense that, at least potentially, worldly fame and good fortune might no longer be a problem. In the Shentong/vajrayana perspective, glory, fame and good fortune are not personal in the usual sense. They are expressions of benefit to others and provide the circumstances that are conducive to the practice of the dharma and the release of many people from suffering.

The Dalai Lama is a great example of this kind of understanding. His title is “His Holiness”, and he won the Nobel prize, so he has glory. He is the most famous and respected of religious leaders. He has set the highest example of enlightened statesmanship. Personally, however, he is completely humble, and that is the reason we love him.

Turning to the chant itself, we ask the existent/nonexistent protectors, who are the symbolic agents of change, to create the worldly conditions for dharma to flourish.

Assemblies of oceans of samaya-bound, Accept this offering gift of torma.

This chant is a generic request that can be used in different contexts. In some liturgies, it may refer to ghosts, local deities and other non-enlightened beings who have promised (samaya) to protect the sacredness of situations, but who need to be reminded or bribed with offerings. When done in the context of the Four Armed Mahakala and Vetali, this chant refers to the wisdom protectors who carry out enlightened action. We mentally offer them torma. Usually, torma is a sculptured offering made of butter and barley flour. For convenience, we substitute tea, which is offered to the shrine at this point in the chant, and then taken out and poured onto a clean place where no one walks. One might ask, if they are wisdom protectors, why to they need to be bribed or reminded? Perhaps, in this case, the offering is more about ourselves extending awareness and openness towards the active aspect of open space.

May we yogins with our disciples
Obtain power, freedom from disease, long life, Glory, fame, good fortune,
And all great and vast enjoyments.

Because we are dealing with the empty radiance of the mind, whatever appears is beyond concepts of good or bad. It just is. It is pure, not stained by concepts. It is primordial. It is basic goodness. In fact, with this understanding, we could celebrate whatever appears as a feast of experience of great and vast enjoyments.

Grant us the siddhis
Of the pacifying and enriching actions and so on.
Samaya holders, guard us. Support us with all the siddhis.

“Siddhis” are yogic accomplishments. “Supreme” siddhis have to do with enlightened compassion and realization of the nature of appearance and mind. “Ordinary” siddhis involve mastery over phenomenal world, such as reading people’s minds and making money. The pacifying and enriching actions and so on refer to the “four karmas”, or enlightened actions. These were explained in the previous essay on the Four Armed Mahakala.

May there be no untimely death, illness, Döns, or obstructing spirits for us.
May we have no nightmares, Ill omens, or bad dealings.

Döns are a type of malevolent spirit, usually from the so-called “hungry ghost” realm. They tend to cause physical or psychological disease and are provoked by lack of mindfulness on the part of the practitioner. As with all such beings, the Buddhist view is that ultimately they are not separate from one’s own mind. When one loses mindfulness, mishaps happen.

May the world enjoy peace, have good harvests, Abundant grain, expansion of dharma,

In order for the dharma to flourish, we need suitable conditions so that we have the time and resources to practice. It may be possible for advanced yogis to live on practically nothing, but most of us need good luck and a lot of help from the phenomenal world in order to have the time and energy to practice.

And glorious auspiciousness. Accomplish whatever mind desires.

“Glorious auspiciousness” refers to synchronicity or good fortune. “Accomplish whatever mind desires” means to fulfill the aspirations of the practitioner. It could also refer to the mind’s fulfillment of itself in the course of it’s own play. In keeping with other vajrayana practices, what is presented in this chant is sanity manifesting outrageously.

Russell Rodgers has been wondering about this kind of topic for the 39 years that he has been practicing. He resides in the Kootenay mountains of British Columbia, in the town of Nelson, and has graciously agreed to allow publication of his beautiful essays on the Shambhala chants here in the Times.

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3 responses to “ Concluding Request to the Protectors ”
  1. Faith Miller
    Jul 2, 2017

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have had this open in my browser for months and finally read it today! What a treasure! I’m deeply grateful.

  2. Karin Paties
    Jun 17, 2017

    What a wunderful and deep commentary. Thank you very much for sharing your insight with us.

  3. Jody Zemel
    Jun 16, 2017

    Thanks for such a complete explanation!

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