Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on June 27, 2014

As an American, I never thought about this much, but it is something the Tibetan Buddhists make a very big deal over, and that is "intent"; they call it "Aspiration."

Before starting any dharma practice Buddhists recite an aspiration prayer and after their practice is over they dedicate any merit that accrues from that practice with another prayer. In other words they are sensitive to why we are doing dharma practice in the first place as well as what becomes of any merit that accumulates from that practice. It took me many years to realize how important this instruction is. Why do we practice?

The obvious answer, which makes sense of course, is that we are doing it to improve ourselves, to become clearer minded and more realized. Such an aspiration (use your own words here) might sound like:

"I dedicate the merit of this practice to help me to attain full realization and enlightenment."

Or, if the idea of "merit" is foreign to you, we can say:

"The intent of my practice is to help me to attain full realization and enlightenment."

The Buddhist teachings acknowledge this as a common intent, but they also point out that it is obviously only self-oriented, in a word "selfish" – all about me, myself, and I. They also say that by limiting our aspiration to just ourselves, we also limit our results,

They go on to say that for that same energy we can include everyone in our aspiration, including ourselves, which might sound something like this:

"I dedicate the merit of this practice to benefit all sentient beings to help bring us all to full realization and enlightenment."

You get the idea. And the Tibetans can get way more elaborate than what I have exampled above in an attempt to gather still more accumulation of merit. They might say something like this:

"I dedicate the merit of this practice (and any merit that I have ever accumulated in the past or will ever accumulate in the future, plus the merit that all beings everywhere have accumulated in the three times -- past, present, future -- and in the ten directions) to benefit all sentient beings and help to bring them to full realization and enlightenment."

I don't know the efficacy of trying to jam in everything we can think of (including other people's merit) into an aspiration, but many do this. For me it is more important not to just formally (by rote) recite aspirations/dedications, but to be aware of what I am saying and actually mean it. The Tibetans would call this "developing Bodhicitta" – awakening the heart.

The point the Buddhists are making is that our intent in practicing is very important – the reasons why we do it. And while at first it seemed strange (or at least different) to find myself verbally (or mentally) mumbling an aspiration (like the above), I know Tibetans do it all the time, and religiously at that. Awakening the heart is a good thing all around – anytime we can manage it and actually mean it.

However, it appears that we humans do not just automatically include others in our aspirations, unless it is somehow to our interest. Just look at corporations. They seldom seem to serve the common good unless it is in their own interests. Trying to get corporations to do the right thing is like herding cats. Take organic foods for that matter. It never occurred to corporate giants to provide organic foods because they are healthy, but they did so only after many years of badgering, when they saw that they could charge for organic and for even greater profit.

In fact, it seems that all real change in these times comes from the local level, through coops and grass-root organizations. Government and corporations, for some reason, seem unable to lead and to just do the right thing. So these days we are changing the world from the ground up rather than from the top down. IMO there is no faster way to change the world than by learning to meditate and train the mind, one by one.

Perhaps it is the same way with aspirations and dedication of merit. We may need to better understand why helping everyone also helps ourselves, although it should seem obvious. "A rising tide raises all boats," has always been my motto.

Be that as it may, this concept of reciting aspirations before practice and dedicating the accrued merit after dharma practice is KEY to dharma practice, at least according to the Tibetan Buddhists. Aspiration and dedication are like bookends. The good advice is to never practice without them.

The rationale, as I understand it, is that while performing meritorious actions (dharma practice) without dedication and aspiration is good for the world, like water vapor, it appears and quickly vanishes. If, instead, we dedicate that merit to the benefit of all beings (which includes ourselves), it somehow locks that merit in and it works two-fold.

Like taking money to the bank, dedication to all beings invests that merit and eventually, aside from its benefit in the original moment, it brings additional returns in the future. So, for the best ROI (return on investment), we declare our intent (aspiration) before we practice and we then dedicate the merit accrued after we practice, in both cases including all sentient beings in the mix.

To summarize: in the Tibetan Buddhist view, it is extremely inefficient to perform dharma practice before declaring our intent, and the merit (however small) we accrue from any practices should be dedicated, and preferably dedicated for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Now, early on in my dharma practice I was told about both aspiration and dedication, but it was foreign to me and just made things too complicated. I didn't do it or if I did, it was mindless repetition repeated to just get through it. It seemed like one more thing I had to do and it made my practice-time longer. It took many, many years for it to sink in how essential my dharma teachers considered intent. I would almost say they feel intent is everything.

Without aspiration and dedication, obtaining the merit of our dharma practice is like carrying water in our hands. Very little accumulates. Eventually I just had to slow down and stop rushing through my dharma practice in an attempt to get on with my day.

So if you do practice dharma or are learning to, declare your intent going in with a brief aspiration and follow your practice by dedicating the merit, however small or large, to benefit all sentient beings. I know, our society doesn't know what to think about us saying this kind of prayer to ourselves. There is a quick cure for that, which is to make it heartfelt.

And to quote the title of one of my daughter May's songs "Sing It Like You Mean It." In other words, don't just rattle through your aspiration and dedication, but use your own words and make it heartfelt. It won't hurt us to get our heart involved. That's what it's all about anyway, what the Buddhists call Bodhicitta – awakening the heart.

There is so much verbiage about awakening the mind, as in enlightenment, when really the heart first has to be awakened, and only then can the mind be enlightened.

[Note: I put together a free e-book on some of these more esoteric Buddhist practices.


It is called "Dharma: The Intangibles" for those interested.]