The King of Aspirations: The Noble Aspiration for Excellent Conduct

The King of Aspirations: The Noble Aspiration for Excellent Conduct

This year’s special Kagyu Monlam —the Million Aspiration Monlam—has focused on the recitation of The King of Aspirations [Sangchӧ Monlam as it is known in Tibetan] and Samaya Vajra, in order to accumulate one million recitations of each. Acharya Pema Wangyel of Rumtek Shedra has written this informative piece on the background to Sangchӧ Monlam and the benefits of reciting it.

In an audience with the Kagyu Monlam members and volunteers, Tai Situ Rinpoche urged everyone to make this prayer a daily practice.

Following the kind and compassionate advice of the Pillar of the Teachings of the Practice Lineage, the Dharma King of the Three Realms, Noble Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, and in accordance with the wishes of the Crown Ornament of the Teachings of the Practice Lineage, Guru Vajradhara Kenting Tai Situ Rinpoche, this year the Kagyu Monlam has organised one million recitations of The King of Aspirations: The Noble Aspiration for Excellent Conduct, recitations of the Samaya Vajra prayer and offering of one hundred thousand butter lamps.

It is indeed pleasant to hear and to witness the harmonious group recitations  which roll like thunder through  the Monlam Pavillion, generating pure spontaneous faith and happiness in the hearts of listeners.

The tradition of collecting merit by group recitation of sutras is well-known and well- established in Tibetan Buddhist monastic centres, especially in the Kagyu lineage. Noble beings of the past have made it very clear that this brings vast benefits. Thus, monasteries have monks and nuns recite daily five major texts: purifying Vajra Subjugator Sutra (རྡོ་རྗེ་རྣམ་འཇོམས།), the Prajnaparimita Heart Sutra (ཤེས་རབ་སྙིང་པོ།), the practice sutra On the Wisdom of Passing (འདའ་ཀ་ཡེ་ཤེས།), the excellent conduct prayer King of Aspirations (འཕགས་པ་བཟང་པོ་སྤྱོད་པའི་སྨོན་ལམ།) and the confession Sutra of the Three Sections (ཕུང་པོ་གསུམ་པ།), also known as the Confession of Downfalls from Bodhicitta (བྱང་ཆུབ་ལྟུང་བཤགས།). As we can see, The King of Aspirations is one of the texts recited daily.   
As one sutra says: the three pure conducts  are the highest offering which can be made to  the Tathagatas. By doing these, immeasurable merit is gained. The three are: 1) generating a perfect and unsurpassable bodhicitta, 2) keeping in mind the teachings of the Buddhas and 3) practising these teachings. Reading, writing down, possessing copies and counting recitations of the scriptures qualify as a pure conduct of practising the teachings.
A Brief history of the King of Aspirations and an explanation of its meaning
The first Tibetan commentary to The King of Aspirations was written by Zhang Yeshe De. In it he mentions the existence of four Indian commentaries to this prayer written by masters Dignaga, Shakyamitra, Buddhakirti and Bhadrapana.

The prayer is said to originate from the Gandavyuha Sutra (སྡོང་པོ་བཀོད་པའི་མདོ།) which is part of the Avatamsaka Sutra (ཕལ་པོ་ཆེའི་མདོ།). This sutra belongs to the third turning of the Wheel of Dharma. It teaches how to rely on a guru; what the benefits of following a guru are; how to endure hardships in order to receive teachings; the practice of a bodhisattva and the conduct of Samantabhadra.

The other name of the Gandavyuha Sutra is The Tree Ornament Sutra (སྡོང་པོས་བརྒྱན་པའི་མདོ།). Where did this name come from? The text talks about a merchant named Sudhana (Excellent Riches). When he entered his mother’s womb, a tree ornamented with jewels  appeared and, as soon as the boy was born, his family became very wealthy.

Sudhana’s first and principal teacher was Manjushri. Altogether, he received teachings from 110 teachers, including Maitreya. His final teacher was Samantabhadra. The qualities of Samantabhadra are said to be almost equal to the Buddha’s. The sutra ends with Samantabhadra reciting The King of Aspirations prayer, so it is sometimes called Samantabhadra’s Prayer. All this is explained by Zhang Yeshe De in his commentary.  

Why is it called The King of Aspirations? Tibetan scholar Karma Ngedon Tengye wrote a commentary on its meaning called Summary of All the Good Sayings (ལེགས་བཤད་ཀུན་ལས་བཏུས་པ།) and in it he explains that because the prayer was said by Samantabhadra and his name means “All Good”, this refers to the conduct of the bodhisattvas which is all good or excellent in the beginning, in the middle and in the end. Because Samantabhadra said this prayer, it is his aspiration for excellent conduct.

In the beginning, whoever hears the prayer and understands its meaning will generate pure faith. In the middle, when one contemplates it, the conviction of being able to achieve the aspiration appears and great joy arises. In the end, when one meditates on it, it becomes the cause of the wisdom of knowing the ultimate reality. Since all the excellent aspirations of the Buddhas of the three times are summarised in this prayer, it is the king of all aspirations.  

In reality Samantabhadra is a Buddha. He only acts as the supreme son of the Buddhas of the three times in order to bring benefit to all sentient beings. As it is said in The King of Aspirations itself:
“I fully dedicate all of this virtue
That I may act comparably to him,
The wise, the finest son of all the buddhas
Who’s called Samantabhadra by his name.”

Can the words of Samantabhadra be considered the words of the Buddha himself? In the table of contents of the Kangyur, written by Situ Panchen Chokyi Jungne, it is said that the King of Aspirations belongs to the category of teachings given by the Buddha by way of blessing. Buddha can give teachings by means of the blessed mind or through his ushnisha (the topknot on his head), as when he taught the gods in the heavens [in order not to break his promise that he wouldn’t teach in the absence of Ananda]; by means of blessing when he blesses his disciples to teach, as in the Heart Sutra where Shariputra and Avalokiteshwara express the words of the Buddha; and by actual speech.

As for the middle category – by way of blessing – Tibetan scholars further distinguish three subcategories: by blessing disciples’ minds upon entering in the samadhi (Heart Sutra); by blessing disciples’ minds through an actual blessing ,and by blessing disciples’ minds through the power of truth. An example of this comes from the story of Angulimala.He accumulated many misdeeds before he became a monk.Afterwards, one day when he was on his alms round, encountered a woman in labour. She was suffering greatly   and unable to deliver the child. Angulimala  went back to the Buddha and asked what he could do to help her. Buddha replied that he should tell  her, “Since I was born I have never committed any misdeed. Angulimala protested until Buddha explained that his ordination had been like a second birth, and since then he had not committed any misdeeds. He advised him to say “By the power of truth, may she  deliver this child safely.” Angulimala followed the Buddha’s instructions, and the woman gave birth without any further difficulty. This is the power of the blessing of truth.

According to Situ Panchen Chokyi Jungne The King of Aspirations is an example of blessing the students’ minds through actual blessing. Thus,  Samantabhadra’s mind, through the power of this blessing, becomes inseparable from the Buddha’s mind. Therefore we can have no doubt that The King of Aspirations is the word of the Buddha himself.

The Avatamsaka Sutra contains only a few words actually spoken by the Buddha. For the most part it is a blessing conveyed to Samantabhadra. In the presence of the immeasurable qualities and primordial wisdom of the Buddha, the bodhisattvas on the tenth bhumi are blessed and encouraged to ask questions and give answers. Therefore these questions and answers are considered words of the Buddha who gives his blessing. Thus, the Avatamsaka Sutra must be considered the word of the Buddha.

Tibetan translations of The King of Aspirations
According to Situ Panchen Chokyi Jungne the prayer was first translated into Tibetan by the Indian abbot Jinamitra, Surendra Bodhi, the Tibetan translator Bande Yeshe De and some other translators. The great Tibetan lotsawa Vairochana made a corrected version of the translation. Buton Rinchen Drub in his History of Buddhism in India and Tibet claims that Bande Yeshe De translated 97 shlokas of The King of Aspirations, 30 shlokas of Maitreya’s Aspiration and 23 shlokas of The Supreme Conduct Aspiration.

Jetsun Taranatha in his Secret Treasury of the Supreme Aryas says Vairochana, Rakshita and others translated commentaries to The King of Aspirations. Also the Tibetan scholar Chone Drakpa Shedrub wrote a commentary to it titled The Sun Illuminating the Essential Meaning of the Ocean of Bodhisattvas’ Conduct. He says that at the end of The King of Aspirations no translator is mentioned because the prayer is part of the Avatamsaka Sutra which had been translated by Vairochana, Rakshita and others.

The Benefits of reciting The King of Aspirations
It is said in the prayer itself:

“As far as to the ends of the blue sky,
And likewise to the ends of sentient beings,
Up through the ends of karma and afflictions,
Thus far the ends are of my aspirations.”

Furthermore the prayer says:

“Though one might give the realms of ten directions
Adorned with precious jewelry to the victors,
Or give the best divine and human pleasures
For aeons equal to atoms in all realms,
If someone hears this king of dedications
One single time, develops faith and feels
A longing for supreme enlightenment,
That is the most supreme exalted merit.”

The subsequent stanzas from: “Someone who makes this prayer for excellent conduct...” to “... and turn the Wheel of Dharma” list thirteen benefits of reciting the King of Aspirations. For the detailed explanation of these one may refer to the above mentioned commentaries as well as other texts.