A few weeks ago, in the Tibetan colony of Bir in Himachal Pradesh, my good friend Tenzin Drakpa (“Renowned Holder of the Teachings”), whose father was one of the core members of the most resilient group of freedom fighters for Tibet, gave me a strip of red cloth. This cloth was blessed and considered a holy object, which a devout Buddhist would place on his head when receiving it. It was blessed by being placed on the very spot where the Buddha manifested the appearance of passing away and leaving his Indian body for mahaparinirvana — all as a skillful teaching to show that all compounded phenomena are impermanent, even the physical forms of buddhas.
The cloth is placed on the holy spot of Buddha’s death in Kushinagar, one of the four main Buddhist pilgrimage sites, for one week. During this week it soaks up the blessings. It is then sold by the meter. Drakpa bought a few meters and cut strips to give to his friends. A good idea, I thought.
The cloth is not itself a holy object, but is made so by its physical contact with a specific physical location that is charged with spiritual energy, namely that of the passing away of a fully enlightened buddha, with all of the attendant miracles.
The basic concept here is that ordinary physical objects can be transformed into holy objects, capable of transferring blessings and spiritual power, by virtue of their physical association with sacred physical objects or sacred living beings. Most of the sacred physical objects in religious traditions are made so by their association with sacred living beings, who are in and of themselves sacred. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, things that touch things that touched holy beings can be considered holy and worthy of reverence.
It brings to mind the fact that it’s quite likely that every single one of us may have breathed or may currently be breathing the same air that Jesus and Buddha breathed; that we may even be breathing in the very atoms that composed their exalted forms; and that we ourselves — that is, our own bodies — may be, at this moment, composed of some of the same molecules that composed the revered forms of any number of spiritual masters.
By extension, since all phenomena, physical or otherwise, are utterly interconnected, then every single molecule and atom could be considered blessed by the reverberating, pulsing network of sanctifying connection. Everything is literally connected to something (and everything) that is holy and sacred. Remember that next time you turn on the evening news.
It is said in certain teachings from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that, from the Buddhist Tantric viewpoint, wherein all phenomena are already of the nature of enlightenment, one can receive blessings, immense positive karma, and realization through one’s interaction with seemingly ordinary things.
According to this system, all physical phenomena are composed of the five elements. This may seem to be an incorrect and primitive scientific worldview, but it is really a practical way of thinking of the physical world, which has correlations with modern science. Fire corresponds to heat and warmth; water to wetness and liquid; wind to movement and vibration; space to the absence of physical obstruction; earth to solidity and hardness, and so on. All physical phenomena can be categorized according to the five elements, and this schema has many, many correlations, extending infinitely to include the whole of phenomenal, mental, emotional, cultural, and psychological experience, in a broad five-fold net.
The ultimate nature of the five elements is the five kinds of pristine wakefulness, or primordial wisdom (ye-shes). This means that inherent within the qualities of ordinary physical and mental phenomena is a deep and pure nature, which expresses itself in different facets.
In other words, our worlds, both inner and outer, display a multitude of qualities and aspects on an “ordinary” level, which is apprehended through the lens of defiled perception, which operates under the power of bewilderment and non-recognition of their true nature. This true nature is of one essence — emptiness, luminosity, and clarity — but also displays a multitude of qualities. These qualities, rather than mundane differences, are different kinds of wisdom, which arise out of that one wisdom-essence’s spontaneously arising compassion, because the infinite number of sentient beings have an infinite number of varieties of defiled perception, which must be addressed on their own terms in ways that they can understand.
The five ordinary elements are really the five extraordinary elements of deep awareness; the five ordinary afflictive mental states are really the five extraordinary states of pristine wisdom. Thus it’s said that with devotion and pure perception, one can accumulate vast merit and virtue (the causes of future happiness and positive circumstances) through praying to otherwise ordinary objects such as statues of the buddhas and so on, because, being composed of the five ordinary elements, their real nature is enlightened pristine awareness.
By extension, one could cultivate an attitude of devotion to the whole phenomenal world, based on this pure perception. Imagine what THAT would feel like?
Take a walk in the woods and recognize the utterly innate purity of everything you see, hear, smell, and touch. Pray to everything as a manifestation of utmost wisdom, reality, and compassion.
Objects like the blessed red cloth are, on one level, merely skillful devices to inspire the cultivation of devotion and other positive mental states, and a reminder of sacredness in general. Since all phenomena must have some kind of connection with all people and objects that are considered holy, then all phenomena, all things, are blessed by virtue of this connection, and are sources of blessings. Even the screen you are looking at right now, even the mouse that you use to navigate this blog, and even the eyes you use to read it.
And since all phenomena are, from the beginning, primordially of one taste with absolute wisdom — emptiness of which compassion is the very essence — then they are blessed already, in and of themselves, without needing blessings from some outside source. Even the trash on the side of the road, even the endless barrage of advertisements, even hair clogged in your bathtub drain.
It would be amazing if the whole world could entertain these ideas. Even the non-religious and non-spiritual would be given pause for contemplation, and a re-thinking of their habitual reactions to things. No matter how awful you might feel, no matter how dirty and mundane some physical thing might seem, if people could entertain the view of primordial purity, even just slightly, it would do much to lesson the arising of disturbing thoughts and harmful words and actions, and thus create greater peace and evolved behavior throughout the world.
This piece of cloth is blessed. It laid for a week where the complete and perfect Buddha Shakyamuni rested his 81 year-old body for the last time, to let it be known that we’d better make use of our precious human lives. Strive on with diligence! Shall I cut you off a piece?
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