Sur Commentary: Practicing Aroma Charity for Spirits
A commentary by Lama Zopa Rinpoche on the practice of offering aroma to spirits. Edited by Lorne Ladner and Sandy Smith.
In 2010 Lama Zopa Rinpoche advised FPMT centers and study groups to do the practice of Sur regularly.
Click here to download the sur practice from the FPMT website.
The Tibetan word “sur” (Tib. gsur) refers to the smell of roasted flour that is offered to spirits. The best times for practicing sur are in the evening or at night. You do this practice during a break from sitting meditation—not a break time from Dharma practice but a break time from sitting meditation. The text says “night time”; I think that evening or night time are best because these are the times when spirits wander. This is also the time when dakinis gather. It’s easier for the intermediate state beings to get what you offer at those times. If you cannot do it at those times, then other times are acceptable, but those are best. 1
The container used for sur practice should be clean and unbroken. The fire shouldn’t have much smoke. If you make fire with firewood, then usually there’s smoke.2 If there’s a lot of smoke, then you don’t smell the food because the smoke overwhelms the scent of the food. The food scent gets mixed in the smoke, the smoke’s stronger, and so they might not receive the food.
So, reduce the smoke as much as possible. Let it burn as much as possible until there’s either no smoke at all or very little smoke. The less smoke the better so that the spirits can smell the food. When they smell the food and when you chant the mantra they get something. When the coals are red inside with some white flecks outside, that’s good. So then put food on top of the burning coals.
It’s excellent if you can do this practice every day. If you do it occasionally, then that is OK also. However, if you do it consistently and then stop it’s not so good because the hungry ghosts get into the habit of being fed every day and then they come and there’s no food.
Also, when making offerings to hungry ghosts, it’s good to cover your eyes. We traditionally wear a hat with black threads or strands hanging down to cover our eyes when offering to hungry ghosts.3 When hungry ghosts see a human body and human face, it appears so powerful and magnificent that they get scared, just as we would get scared if we saw a lion in the jungle. So, we wear these things when making charity to them so that they won’t get scared away.
The Materials to be Offered
When doing sur practice, you must have actual food to burn on the coals to offer it. Otherwise, it would be like trying to have lunch with no food. For the actual substance to be burned, it’s best to use the same twenty-five ingredients that are used for making tormas. These are the five types of grain, five types of medicines, five types of scented substances, five types of essence, and five types of jewels.
If you cannot get those ingredients, then the minimum would be to use just roasted flour mixed with butter. Tsampa—roasted barley flour—mixed with men-chey powder is what’s traditionally used. However, you can use different kinds of roasted flour—barley, wheat, or corn—mixed with lots of butter. The butter shouldn’t be wet. Don’t melt it—fold in lots of hard butter. .4
So, the minimal ingredients would be just roasted flour and butter. If you can get men-chey powder, then it’s good include that as well. Then, if you can it’s also good to include the three white substances (butter, milk and curd) and the three sweet substances (sugar, honey, and brown sugar or molasses).
If you can do so, the best thing is to include all twenty-five ingredients. The Kriya Tantra Vase Pill traditionally has these twenty-five ingredients. If you have the pill that goes in the vase for Kriya Tantra or for Highest Yoga Tantra then it’s very good to mix those in with your sur ingredients. You can usually get those from the Tibetan monasteries or from the Tibetan Medical Institute in Dharamsala. There’s also a precious pill called Moon Crystal which can be obtained from a Tibetan doctor or from the Medical Institute as well which traditionally has these twenty-five ingredients. If you have any of these pills, then you crush one and mix that little bit with a large container of roasted flour.
It’s also very good if individuals or Dharma centers can gather together the twenty-five ingredients and mix them with the roasted flour. Using these ingredients is a very powerful method for success.
Another important point related to the materials used is that you should not say anything bad about the substances you are offering to the spirits. His Holiness Song Rinpoche explained that if you say anything bad about the materials while you are preparing them—either before or during the ritual—then the spirits or pretas [hungry ghosts] who are close by waiting around to receive offerings or who have some kind of clairvoyance will actually see the offerings in that way. Rinpoche told stories about this—how people said bad things about the offerings and then they actually appeared like that to the spirits. So, instead say how beautiful or wonderful the materials are and then also recite the words of the ritual and do the visualizations.
Returning to the twenty-five ingredients, they are as follows:
Five scented substances:
1. Red and white sandalwood (offered to Lord Buddha by the goddesses Tsedog and Kyongma, respectively)
2. Akaru (wood incense)5
3. Camphor – offered to Lord Buddha by the goddess Ochajuma
4. Saffron – offered Lord Buddha by the Princess of Scents
5. Nutmeg (zadi) – offered to Lord Buddha by a cannibal
3. Shu Thag (white)
4. Claw of water lion6
5. Wänlog (this is a root of a plant, shaped like a hand having five fingers)
These medicines, Lord Buddha blessed.
Five types of grains:
5. Sesame seeds
5. Lapis lazuli (mumen)
These five jewels were offered to Lord Buddha by Arya Nagarjuna.
1. Gold – essence of earth: offered by Bhaham Namyang
2. Lentsa (Tibetan salt) essence of water: offered by the King of the Nagas
3. Honey – essence of flower: offered by the leader of humans, Khagon
4. Butter – essence of milk: offered by the farmer girl, Lagkyinga
5. Brown sugar – essence of fruit: offered by Hananmum
Benefits of these Substances
Kunkyen Jamyang Shepa, who was an extremely famous, learned, highly attained teacher, wrote about the benefits of these substances for vases and tormas in the root text Kiria Pungzang as follows:
• Place the five medicines inside to eliminate the eons of sickness.
• Place the five scents inside to have pure morality.
• Place the five jewels inside to fulfill all needs and to eliminate the eons of harm from weapons.
• Place the five essences inside to become the heart of all and to fulfill all wishes.
Kunkyen Jamyang Shepa also explained:
• The benefits of the five medicines are to not have disease and to have happiness.
• The benefits of the five scents are to achieve pure morality and to not fall to the bad realms of transmigrators.
• The benefits of the five jewels are to receive all needs according to what one desires/wishes, to pacify war, and to not be harmed by weapons.
• The benefits of the five grains are to increase enjoyments and pacify famines.
• The benefits of the five essences are to help increase all the essences of samsara and nirvana and to fulfill all needs.
If you have all twenty-five ingredients, it has great benefit. I myself tried to collect those materials for doing sur practice. In the United States I tried to do this, but one thing was missing. One ingredient is translated as “lapis lazuli,” but that may not really be the correct translation for bendurya. Bendurya is a dark stone which sometimes contains silver or something like gold inside of it. It’s used for healing and sometimes put in rings. Dr. Dondrub, a very good, expert doctor, told me that. He told me that bendurya is very deep blue; very dark, profound blue and shiny. He’d only seen bendurya once in his life, and he said it’s very expensive. So, anyway, the translation for bendurya is not certain; I’m not sure about that.
So, try to put together all these five families of five ingredients, crushing and baking them. Then whenever you make a Serkyem tea offering, add a little bit of that to the tea. I think that’s why Serkyem is called “golden drink” offering—it’s called “golden” because of these substances which include gold. I’m not sure, but I think that’s why it’s called “golden.”
When you make tea offering, it’s very good to put a little bit [a pinch] into the tea. And, every time you do sur, you can also put a little bit with the grains, or just mix these twenty-give ingredients in with the batch of grains that you have.
Also, if you have these twenty-five substances, then when you do protector pujas, Tara pujas, and especially when you do retreats, if you mix a little bit of these into the tsampa or other grains for making the torma, that makes the torma offering very powerful.
There are two ways to make torma offering very powerful, for success and for attainments. One is your meditation, of course, having good concentration and then blessing and offering them. This is also related to your samaya, your living as much as possible purely in your vows. Samaya is most important one, and then your meditation makes your offering very powerful when offering and asking the deity or the protectors to help you to be successful and to fulfill your wishes.
The other way to make a torma offering very powerful for success is external—putting these twenty-give ingredients into your torma. This also applies to putting these ingredients into your tea offerings to the Triple Gem, the protectors and sentient beings. It also applies to including them in your sur offering.
It’s not difficult to collect these things. I think it’s very good if the Dharma centers can do this and then other people also learn to do so. That way our offering becomes more perfect, more powerful, and so then our wishes and prayers get actualized more quickly.
Refuge and Bodhicitta
Recite the prayer taking refuge and generating bodhicitta three times. Rely on Buddha with your whole heart, for the sake of all sentient beings as well as yourself. You can think of all the numberless buddhas or just think of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha as the object of refuge.
I go for refuge until I am enlightened.
To the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Supreme Assembly.
By my merits from giving and other perfections,
May I become a buddha to benefit all sentient beings. (3x)
Sang gyä chhö dang tshog kyi chhog nam la
Jang chhub bar du dag ni kyab su chhi
Dag gi jin sog gyi pa sö nam kyi
Dro la phän chhir sang gyä drub par shog (3x)
So think that yourself and all sentient beings are taking refuge, relying on the buddhas with your whole hearts. Then generate bodhicitta by considering each beneficiary in the six realms. For example, it’s good to think as follows:
I must free every one of the numberless hell beings, who are the source of all my past, present, and future happiness, from all suffering and its cause, the defilements, and bring them to enlightenment.
I must free all the numberless spirits, who are the source of all my past, present, and future happiness, from all suffering and its cause, the defilements, and bring them to enlightenment.
I must free all the numberless animals, who are the source of all my past, present, and future happiness, from all suffering and its cause, the defilements, and bring them to enlightenment.
Likewise, I must free all humans, gods, demigods, and intermediate state beings, who are the source of all my past, present, and future happiness, from all suffering and its cause, the defilements, and bring them to enlightenment.
To do this I must achieve enlightenment myself. Therefore, I am going to practice the charity of aroma: offering aroma to the merit field and giving aroma to sentient beings.
Self-Generation and Invocation
Instantaneously I appear as Khasarpani (an aspect of Chenrezig), white in color with one face and two arms, the right hand granting sublime realizations, and the left hand resting on a moon cushion and holding the stem of a white lotus. I am seated in the half-vajra posture and have an antelope skin draped over my left shoulder. Light radiates from the syllable HRIH in my heart, inviting the guests of nirvana and samsara9 who take their seats on comfortable cushions.
In connection with this practice, if possible it’s best to visualize yourself as the deity—as Chenrezig—and then make charity to the intermediate state beings. If you have received the initiation, a great initiation of Lower Tantra, or of Highest Yoga Tantra, then it’s best to generate yourself as the deity at this point in the sadhana. The text specifically mentions the two-armed form of Chenrezig, but I think there’s no reason that you can’t visualize yourself in the four-armed or the thousand-armed forms of Chenrezig as well.
So, having visualized yourself in the form of Chenrezig, then invite or hook the guests. You do this by emitting light rays from the syllable HRIH at your heart which go out and invite back the guests of samsara and of peace (who are beyond samsara). The main guests are the spirits or the intermediate state beings, though they aren’t the only guests. The guests of peace who are beyond samsara include the entire Guru Puja merit field. This includes the gurus, the deities, the buddhas of the fortunate eon, the Medicine Buddhas, and then also the bodhisattvas, the arhats, the dakas and dakinis, and the protectors. Included here are the entire Three Jewels: the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and you also invite the guests of samsara who are the objects of your compassion. This category includes all the sentient beings of the six realms. You can particularly think of spirits, of those intermediate state beings who have died recently, and of those towards whom you owe karmic debts. Imagine them all seated comfortably on pleasant cushions.10
OM VAJRA AMRITA KUNDALI HANA HANA HUM PHAT
So here, the mantra OM VAJRA AMRITA KUNDALI HANA HANA HUM PHAT dispels obstacles and interferers. It purifies hindrances.
After you put the ingredients on the fire, then sprinkle water [from the vase in front of you]. You sprinkle using a branch or flowers which you dip into the vase and then sprinkle. As you sprinkle the water you recite the action mantra: OM VAJRA AMRITA KUNDALI HANA HANA HUM PHAT. With this, any spirits’ possessions abiding there that would harm the offering are dispelled away.
The meaning of this mantra contains the name of the deity: VAJRA AMRITA KUNDALI.
VAJRA means indestructible or inseparable—referring to inseparable method and wisdom, inseparable bliss and voidness. So, that experience of wisdom—of the inseparability of those two—is the real nectar.
AMRITA [Tib: dutsi] means nectar and refers to that experience.
KUNDALI [Tib: chil-wa] is water that comes from elsewhere, that swirls and then abides in one spot. So, then it’s “Vajra Swirling Nectar” or “Vajra Abiding Nectar” [for the translation of the name of VAJRA AMRITA KUNDALI].
HANA HANA means control, control. Usually in Tibetan language, HANA HANA has the connotation of putting a sword or a knife through something, whether it’s a living or a non-living thing, which has to be controlled or destroyed. “Control, control” may have this sort of connotation, but that’s not one hundred percent clear.
So, here you are in the form of Chenrezig. As you recite the mantra, many emanations of Vajra Amrita Kundali (Vajra Swirling Nectar) transform out from your heart. Vajra Amrita Kundali is wrathful and green-blue in color with one face and two arms; the left hand holds a bell, and the right hand holds a variegated vajra (a double vajra which has different colors).11 These deities are adorned with wrathful ornaments and emit flames from their holy bodies. Innumerable emanations of Vajra Amrita Kundali chase all interferers beyond the earth and destroy them. Then the wrathful deities are absorbed back into your heart.
Purifying and Blessing the Offerings
OM SVABHAVA SHUDDHA SARVA DHARMA SVABHAVA SHUDDHO HAM
With this mantra you purify the sur into emptiness, as it is empty.
The way the sur appears to you is as real sur, in the sense of something existing from its own side. So, that real, self-existent one, that’s the hallucination. That’s the object to be refuted. That doesn’t exist. Even the slightest atom of that doesn’t exist in reality.
The way it appears to us is a total hallucination. It’s empty. So, you look it as empty of that real one existing from its own side.
Next I’ll explain the meaning of this mantra: OM SVABHAVA SHUDDHA SARVA DHARMA SVABHAVA SHUDDHO HAM.
SVABHAVA SHUDDHA. SVABHAVA is nature; SHUDDHA is pure. So this first one relates to the ultimate purity—the selflessness--of the person.
The second one, SARVA DHARMA SVABHAVA SHUDDHO relates to the selflessness of the aggregates and of all other phenomena as well.
SARVA DHARMA means all dharmas. Dharma here doesn’t refer to the Dharma that we practice as the path to enlightenment. Here, dharma refers to existence—to things that exist. SARVA means all. So, SARVA DHARMA means all of existence. SVABHAVA again means nature and SHUDDHO means pure.
Here you’re meditating on the selflessness of the person, on the selflessness of the aggregates, then also that all the rest of the phenomena are empty as well.
Another way of understanding this mantra is that the first part refers to the subject—the knower—and the second part (SARVA DHARMA) refers to all objects—all objects of knowledge. So, both the knower and the phenomena which are known (which includes all of existence) are empty. The mind is empty and all objects are empty.
The syllable HAM means “This is me.” In the context of Highest Yoga Tantra practice, this refers to the divine pride of the result time dharmakaya—that this is me.
OM SVABHAVA SHUDDHA SARVA DHARMA SVABHAVA SHUDDHO HAM refers to what happens [on the path]: by having realized the emptiness of the person [knower] and the emptiness of all objects of knowledge first imagined [conceptually] and then directly seeing that [emptiness], and then also possessing great compassion for sentient beings and bodhicitta which collects extensive, limitless skies of merit, so then one develops the path. You develop the method [aspect of the path] with bodhicitta, engaging in the six paramitas and so forth, possessed by wisdom. You develop the path of wisdom possessed by method. Then you’re able to remove the disturbing thought obscurations and the subtle defilements, and actualize the meaning of OM: purifying your ordinary body, speech and mind and then achieving Chenrezig’s vajra holy body, vajra holy speech, and vajra holy mind. By achieving that, you’re able to do perfect work for sentient beings.
Don’t stop your understanding of emptiness in order to give rise to an independent, truly existent jewel container, OM AH HUM syllables and offerings. Don’t do it like that; that’s the wrong way to proceed here.
The important thing here is that while you do the rest of the visualizations in this sur practice, at the same time you maintain the awareness of emptiness. There’s no break, where you finish meditating on emptiness and then go on to meditate on truly existent, independent visualizations. That’s wrong; that’s totally the opposite of the correct approach. The correct way is that while it is empty, it appears. With the awareness of your wisdom meditating on emptiness, visualize the different manifestations, the different forms and offerings and so forth. All the while your mind understands they are empty.
You have to continue to sustain your awareness of emptiness throughout the rest of the sadhana. This way all the visualizations, offerings, and so forth become antidotes to samsara, antidotes to delusions, karma, and ignorance. So, that’s the correct way to proceed with the practice.
While it’s empty, the syllable BHRUM appears. Then this becomes a very expansive, extensive jeweled container. Inside of it are the mantra syllables OM AH HUM. These syllables signify the vajra holy body, vajra holy speech, and vajra holy mind respectively. Meditate that these become the five desire enjoyments [offering of form, sound, smell, taste and touch], though the text only mentions perfect smell. Generate the mirror, music, scented water offered to the heart, food, and dress—the five desire enjoyments—all of which have perfect smell. These offerings fill the whole earth and sky. Then recite OM AH HUM with the snapping of fingers three times to bless these offerings. The first recitation can mean the materials are purified; the second can mean they are transformed into nectar; and the third can mean they are increased. There are many different explanations of the meaning of reciting OM AH HUM.
NAMA SARVA TAHTAGATA AVALOKITE OM SAMBHARA SAMBHARA HUM
Recite this mantra seven times, snapping each time. This same mantra is used to bless offering substances here in sur practice and also in the Hundred Torma Offerings Practice. This mantra is extremely beneficial. It blesses the food offering and allows the guests to actually receive skies of enjoyment. The Buddha was so compassionate and kind to teach this mantra. Without this mantra it’s like if you make offerings of water and so forth to pretas [hungry ghosts]; you offer it, but due to their lack of good karma they cannot see the water there, and so they cannot receive the benefit. But, if you offer and then recite this mantra, not only can they see the water but it appears to them as nectar, and it not only fills their stomachs giving them temporary satisfaction but it also purifies their minds allowing them to receive a good rebirth. So, whether you are making water offerings, offering tormas, or dong sur practice, it’s similar. So, it’s important to know how to bless the offerings with this mantra, to benefit others.
There’s a story about spirits that illustrates this point which was told by His Holiness the Dalai Lama once, when he spent three days at a nursing school in Dharamsala. His Holiness was there to persuade young Tibetans about how it’s extremely important to learn Dharma. Around a thousand people from many different countries in the West came as well to listen to the teachings that had been specially organized for young people from Tibet. I read the book of these teachings, and His Holiness taught Dharma, but in a way similar to how one introduces Buddhism to Western people; I think this was because those young Tibetans basically follow the Western tradition in their dress, in their language, and maybe also in their interest in Western science. So, anyway, His Holiness brought up some issues and stories during those teachings about spirits.
In Tibet there was somebody who could see spirits. His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche—who was His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s guru and also Lama Yeshe’s and my own root guru—was doing sur practice. The sur was prepared, but this mantra— NAMA SARVA TAHTAGATA AVALOKITE OM SAMBHARA SAMBHARA HUM—had not been chanted yet. Again I want to emphasize that this mantra is very simple but unbelievably beneficial. It causes those beings to receive food like the sky, food like a whole city! It’s amazing what the spirits are able to receive through the power of that mantra. The Buddha gave that mantra out of his great compassion to benefit sentient beings, and it really makes unbelievable difference for them.
His Holiness said that this person could see the beings—the spirits—there before the mantra had been chanted, and the sur was there but they couldn’t eat. Then, when the mantra was chanted, they could eat. The person even heard the sounds of eating—something like “chomp, chomp, chomp!”
Just burning the sur ingredients isn’t enough. Without reciting the mantra, the sur is there but they cannot eat the food. But if you do the actual practice and chant mantra, then it’s so amazing that they are able to eat food vast like clouds in the sky. They receive so much by the power of the mantra, thru the Buddha’s kindness.
After having recited that mantra seven times, next you also recite the mantra: OM GANDE KAME GUNA PUJA IDAM KHA KHA KHAHI KHAHI seven times as well, snapping each time you recite it.
When making the outer offerings as part of sur practice, if you have them it’s good to use the set of small cymbals (Tib. ting-sha). You use them when offering music to the merit field and to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha of the ten directions. Before doing that, you bless the cymbals. You do that by reciting the mantra: OM PADMO USHNISHA BIMALI HUM PHAT seven times and then blowing on the cymbals. This mantra is unbelievably powerful, and the Buddha has explained many of its benefits in the Kangyur. For example, if you recite it seven times a day to benefit others then when death happens it gives you the opportunity to go to a pure realm, if you recite it and blow on incense or perfume or clothing then those who contact that scent or cloth receive healing and purification of negative karma, and if you place it above a door then anyone who goes under it purifies 1,000 eons of negative karma. So, here if you recite it seven times and then blow on the cymbals, this empowers the cymbals so that anyone who hears their sound will have their negative karma purified, thus liberating them from the lower realms. So, you offer the sound to the merit field, keeping in mind that this includes the three jewels of refuge encompassing the ten directions. And, while you do that, you also benefit the guests who hear the sound of the cymbals.
OM ARGHAM, PADYAM, PUSHPE, DHUPE, ALOKE, GANDHE, NAIVIDYA, SHAPTA PRATICCHA HUM SVAHA
Make various offerings to the merit field as you recite this, as is done in other sadhanas.
Reciting the Buddhas’ Names
Next comes reciting the holy names of four Buddhas, which is very important. As you recite these names, put your palms together at your heart and regard them respectfully. Reciting these buddhas’ names has great power; each name has a specific power to benefit. According to the tradition of Lama Atisha father and sons, the first name—Rinchen Mangla or Tathagata Many Jewels—is Shakyamuni Buddha. The second name—Zug Dza Dam Pala or Tathagata Holy Beautiful Body—is Chenrezig. The third one—Ku Jam Lala or Tathagata Very Gentle Body—is Manjushri. And the next one—Gyal Wa Thug Jig Pa or Tathagata Victorious One, Free of All Fears—is Vajrapani. Now, I’ll explain the benefits of each of the names individually.
1. I prostrate to the Tathagata Many Jewels or in Tibetan: DE ZHIN SHEG PA RIN CHHEN MANG LA CHHAG TSHÄL LO.
Reciting this name and prostrating has the benefit of purifying the karma of miserliness and also of negative karmas motivated by other negative thoughts. As you recite it, think that it purifies this karma and so pacifies the suffering of poverty for hungry ghosts and for all other sentient beings of the six realms as well. Meditate that all poverty and its causes are totally purified and that all those sentient beings receive whatever they desire. They become satisfied, full, and so happy.
Meditate here like you do when practicing tong-len or taking and giving. There are infinite sentient beings in each of the six realms, so, imagine that each of them receives whatever they need. Those in the hot hells get rain; those in the cold hells get sun and warmth, animals get protection; hungry ghosts get food; humans get mountains of millions of dollars, asuras get protection from wars and so forth. All those sentient beings receive whatever they need to make them happy.
2. I prostrate to the Tathagata Holy Beautiful Form or in Tibetan DE ZHIN SHEG PA ZUG DZÄ DAM PA LA CHHAG TSHÄL LO.
Reciting this name and prostrating has the benefit of pacifying the suffering of having an ugly body. I think that this refers mainly to the sufferings of hungry ghosts—hungry ghosts have unbelievably ugly bodies—but it also refers to the sufferings of other sentient beings as well. So, for the hungry ghosts and other beings, their bad, ugly bodies get pacified. And, they receive good, perfect, very powerful bodies with much strength. They receive bodies with the 32 signs and 80 exemplifications, like the holy body of the Buddha. So, as you recite this name, you have to meditate in this way.
3. I prostrate to the Tathagata Very Gentle Body or in Tibetan: DE ZHIN SHEG PA KU JAM LÄ LA CHHAG TSHÄL LO.
Reciting this name and prostrating has the benefit of pacifying all sentient beings’ physical illnesses. It purifies their sufferings of body and mind, healing all the sicknesses in their bodies. Then they enjoy a sublime taste of food and feel very satisfied. All their mental defilements get purified, and all sentient beings of the six realms generate bodhicitta in their hearts. So, as you recite this name, you think or meditate like that.
4. I prostrate to the Tathagata Victorious One, Free of All Fears or in Tibetan: DE ZHIN SHEG PA GYÄL WA THUG JIG PA THAM CHÄ DANG DRÄL WA LA CHHAG TSHÄL LO.
Reciting this name and prostrating has the benefit of protecting sentient beings from being harmed or controlled by others. For those who have so much fear and suffering of being beaten or tortured and for those who are powerless, reciting this name totally frees them from those dangers and fears. So we should meditate in this way as we recite this fourth name. We should think that for those intermediate state beings and other beings of the six realms our recitation pacifies their risk of being harmed, their being controlled by others, and also their fears.
We can recite this name to protect others in daily life; it’s not only for sur practice. For example, once when I was near Taos, New Mexico, the lady who was driving stopped for petrol and there were a lot of rabbits on the ground, close to the road. One rabbit went to the other side of the road, and a coyote went after it to try to eat it. I thought about what I could do and remembered this name from the sur practice. So, I chanted this name, and a minute or two later the coyote came back, looking very disappointed as he hadn’t eaten the rabbit! Another time at Geshe Sopa’s place in Wisconsin, I was going upstairs in the monastic guest house—Geshe-la was letting me stay in the room there where His Holiness the Dalai Lama stays when visiting. So, near the door I saw ants attacking one insect. Suddenly I remembered this Buddha’s name and recited it, thinking that if it’s true that the name has that benefit then the insect should be liberated. It was surprising that as soon as I chanted this name, suddenly the ants left the insect and stopped harming it! This same thing also happened another time when I recited the name for an insect in another house as well. This proved the benefits of this Buddha’s name to me! Anyway, it’s very good to recite this Buddha’s name when you or others are in danger. If someone is attacking you or others or if there are dangers of war, torture, prison, violent dog attacks and so forth, when it’s difficult to help physically, if you recite this Buddha’s name and pray very strongly it may be helpful. Of course, you have to understand that it also depends on karma. But, it may be useful to do.
Extensive Offering Verses
First offer the scent to the gurus, the deities, to the sublime and precious Triple Gem, the dakas and dakinis, and the Dharma protectors. Visualize them as in the Guru Puja merit field. The scent of the sur offering generates infinite bliss within all of them. Then do the extensive offering of the scent to all the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, statues, stupas and scriptures in the ten directions. If you do that, remember that they are all in essence your root guru, and you offer the scent.
Next offer to all mother sentient beings of the six realms and so forth. Meditate that all the hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, devas, asuras and intermediate state beings receive whatever they need or want and then this causes them to actualize the path of method and wisdom in their minds. All their defilements cease and they become enlightened in the aspect of the Buddha of Compassion. The meditation here is just like how you meditate when you do the practice of giving in taking and giving [Tib. tong-len] practice.
Then particularly offer to the smell-eaters—these are spirits, intermediate state beings. Sur practice can be done with the particular aim of offering generosity of food to for them because they are fed or sustained by smell. When a person dies, unless they are going to be reborn in the formless realm they have to go through the intermediate state. During that time their food is smell so if you do sur practice for them, then they receive a little bit of the smell of the food you are offering. After a person has died, I think that if you can, it’s very good to offer sur for them every day for up to 49 days.12 So, here offer sur to any people who have died recently—whether by car accidents, suicide or any other causes—and who have so far been unable to find their next body.
Another important point in the extensive offering verses is that you offer to those to whom you owe karmic debts. When mice, ants or other insects eat your food, that’s because you have karmic debts you owe to them. That’s why they’re coming. Also when insects such as termites eat the wood in your house, again they come and do that because you have karmic debts. Karmic debts are the reason why that happens.
In the past, maybe you were a human being or an animal who drank milk, ate meat or ate butter that came from them. There are so many things you have received from others, and so you have karmic debts; you owe them. So, if you haven’t purified that karma in the past, the karma ripens now and these sentient beings from whom you received things in the past are now reborn as insects eat the wood in your house or eat your food or other things that belong to you. It happens because in the past you incurred a karmic debt to them and you didn’t finish repaying that karmic debt. It’s the same thing when mice, rabbits or other animals come and eat the crops in your fields—it’s the ripening of your karmic debts. If you’ve paid your karmic debts, then they don’t come to eat your crops.
In England, thousands and thousands of rabbits came and ate the crops, so the government sent an airplane, shooting, killing and spraying them, killing thousands and thousands of animals. But that doesn’t help, because you’re creating more negative karma to receive harm from them in their next lives. You’re creating more karma to receive harm from them, so it doesn’t help. Instead, after they’re killed, again thousands come, and again you kill them. So, you create so much karma to receive more and more harm from them from lifetime to lifetime.
A much better solution to such problems is to do pujas and practices such as sur to repay your karmic debts. His Holiness Song Rinpoche explained this point to us. There was a field at one of the monasteries in South India for the monks. The crops were being eaten by lots of insects or worms, so the monks came and asked Rinpoche what to do. The problem was karma; a karmic debt owed due to stealing. A possessed karmic result of stealing is to have no protection for crops that become ruined by drought and/or by getting eaten by insects and animals. This is why one field can have lots of insects while the next field over has very few. Karma explains that. So, Rinpoche advised that they do sur practice using barley flour and butter with the twenty-five ingredients mentioned earlier. When some of the insects die, then they are not yet reincarnated and are in the intermediate state.
As you do the sur practice, when you come to this section of the practice, make charity to the smell-eaters who are in the intermediate state. By making charity to them in this way you repay your karmic debts. Rinpoche didn’t do the practice himself but he had some other lamas who were his disciples do sur practice. He also had them do the practice of One Hundred Torma Offerings as well. That is also an important practice which involves offering one hundred torma pills to the Three Jewels and to the pretas, the nagas, and the sentient beings of the six realms. This practice is related to the “four acts of use” in the mind training [Tib. lo-jong] tradition as mentioned in the Guru Puja and is also very good for repaying karmic debts. So, Rinpoche had his disciples do these pujas and then all the insects left that field. This means that the karmic debts had been repaid and so they had to leave. So, this is an important point for people to understand—this skilful way of dealing with such problems when they arise without creating so many other problems by killing or harming those sentient beings.
Then offer to all transmigrators of the six realms, thinking that they receive skies of everything they want, that all their obstacles are pacified, and that they are fully satisfied. And, request that all your own obstacles be pacified, that you gain a long life, that you have no sicknesses and that you develop wealth. When I meet people, these are the kinds of requests I normally hear. Of course if someone is a student of the Stages of the Path [Tib. lam-rim] they may ask for help to have realizations. But, the common requests I hear when people ask me to pray for them are for long life, no sicknesses and prosperity. Then also pray to have control over the three realms and to completely actualize all of your wishes.
Then pray for all those who have died to be liberated from the fears and sufferings of the intermediate state by remembering the guru’s instructions so as to be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land, Sukhavati. Also pray for all transmigratory sentient beings to have happiness.
Then specifically pray for the deities of the country and region where you are doing the practice as well as for the landlords13 of that place to receive the sur offering without distraction so that they are fully satisfied and always happy.
Next pray that when you die you will be free from karmic torture. Sometimes before people die—before the breath stops—various frightening karmic visions happen. You suffer, hear screaming and have signs that you are going to be reborn in the lower realms. For example, if you killed many animals in your life, then as you’re dying visions of those animals attacking you appear to you in the room despite the fact that no one else can see even one animal there. An example of such karmic torture happened for a man in Amdo, Tibet who was very famous for running a business of selling holy objects such as statues. As he was dying, he had a vision of clouds of ants coming from the windows and from everywhere around him, completely covering and eating his body. The other people helping him couldn’t find even a single ant in the house, but he experienced this terrifying vision. Also, he was suffering terribly and his belly became very big and distended like the stomach of a hungry ghost. He couldn’t drink even a drop of water and he was in extreme pain when he tried to walk or get around. Actually, this man was a benefactor of a monastery, sponsoring pujas. But, before he died he didn’t get to actually do Dharma practice such as strong confession and intense purification. So, although he created some virtue by donating to the monastery which of course will ripen later as a positive karmic result, his non-virtuous karma of selling holy objects for profit ripened as he was approaching death and so he experienced all these karmic tortures which were signs that he was going to be reborn in the lower realms.
You can experience all kinds of things like this if you don’t purify your negative karmas. So, here we pray not to have such experiences when we die.14 We also pray that we may be free from suffering and be reborn in a pure land so as to work for the peace and happiness of all transmigratory beings.
You should also recite either [or both] of the two mantras of the bodhisattva Akashagarbha seven times. One mantra is OM SARVA NIVARANA VISKAMBINI HUM HUM PHAT. The other mantra that can be recited here is OM SHAVADE BISA LINE SVAHA. If you chant these mantras, then you don’t experience karmic tortures or frightening karmic visions at the time of your death, andthrough this, your death doesn’t become very frightening. This also makes it much easier for other people such as your family who may be caring for you at that time. If you are terrified and screaming, it makes those others so unhappy and worried, so sad that they can’t do anything to help you. If you chant these mantras every day now while you are alive, you are looking after yourself. This way, whether there is or isn’t someone there later to take care of you when you are dying, you’ve already been taken care of by yourself. In this way, you won’t have terrifying karmic appearances that are signs of rebirth in the lower realms, and instead you will be able to die very peacefully with a happy mind.
Teaching Dharma to the Spirits
Having made charity of sur to the guests—the intermediate state beings, the spirits, and so forth—satisfying them in that way, next you give them Dharma teachings which liberate their mental continua from causes of suffering—from delusions and karma.
The essence is to tell them to generate bodhicitta and then to tell them to not give harm and only give benefit to other sentient beings. You can also extend this section to add whatever prayers you want to recite and give more teachings to them as you wish.
It’s good to explain karma to them, noting how if you plant a hot seed then a hot plant comes, and if you plant a sweet seed then a sweet plant comes. So, it’s similar in that if they harm others then they will receive suffering, and if they benefit others then they will receive happiness.
Then, it's good to also add some verses of teachings that you can recite to them. From the Vajra Cutter Sutra, it’s good to recite:
As a star, a visual aberration, a lamp;
An illusion, dew, a bubble;
A dream, lightening, and a cloud;
View all the compounded like that.15
After that, it’s good to recite some verses from the Bodhicaryavatara [Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life] in praise of bodhicitta. For example, you can include the following verses:
The moment the mind of bodhicitta arises
In those fettered and weak in the jail of cyclic existence,
They will be named a “Son of the Sugatas,”
And will be revered by both men and gods of the world.
It is like the supreme gold-making elixir,
For it transforms the unclean body we have taken
Into the priceless jewel of a buddha form.
Therefore, firmly seize this mind of bodhicitta.
Since the limitless mind of the Sole Guide of the World
Has upon thorough investigation seen its preciousness,
All beings wishing to be free from worldly abodes
Should firmly take hold of this precious mind of bodhicitta.16
These verses are just an example; you can choose whichever verses you find inspiring on the benefits of bodhicitta.
Then, you can also recite the mantra TADYATHA OM GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA, thinking that all of the guests actualize the whole path to enlightenment. Having recited various prayers and teachings for them, imagine that their minds are liberated and that they all become enlightened.
Once their minds have been liberated by your explaining Dharma to them, next you ask the guests to each return back to their own places.
Then do various dedications. One dedication verse to recite is:
“In order to secure benefit for sentient beings,
By the power of truth of my pure intention, the tathagatha’s charity, the pure sphere of existence, and offerings (made) to the Aryan-Exalted beings;
May each and every pure wish and all (good) intentions
Be actualized without any obstacles.”
Also pray that through these merits you may pacify or subdue your enemy, which means your own delusions and imperfections in order to attain to the state of omniscience so that you can then liberate all transmigrators from the oceans of samsaric suffering in which they are afflicted by violent waves of the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death.
Also dedicate that there may be happiness or auspiciousness during the day time, during the night time, and even in the middle of the day; having happiness all the time, day and night. Also pray here for auspiciousness to come from the Triple Gem. Auspiciousness here does not come from an ordinary being; it comes from Buddha and from the Paramita teachings.
Then recite the dedication for bodhicitta which I often recite:
“Due to the three times’ merits accumulated by myself and others,
May the supreme jewel bodhicitta
That has not arisen, arise and grow;
And may that which has arisen not diminish
But increase more and more.”
Then it’s good to also make extensive dedication prayers such as the following:17
“Due to the three times’ merits accumulated by myself and others,
May all the father and mother sentient beings have happiness,
And may all the lower realms be empty forever.
Wherever there are bodhisattvas,
May all their prayers be accomplished immediately.
May I cause all this by myself alone.”
“Due to the three times’ merits accumulated by myself and others,
May the glorious gurus’ lives be long and stable.
May all beings equaling the extent of space have happiness.
May I and others without exception accumulate merit and purify negativities,
And may we be blessed to quickly attain buddhahood.”
“Due to the merits accumulated over the three times by myself and others,
Which are empty from their own side,
May I, who is empty from its own side,
Achieve the state of enlightenment, which is empty from its own side, and lead all sentient beings, who are empty from their own side,
To that state as quickly as possible by myself alone.”
“Just as the brave Manjushri and Samantabhadra, too,
Realized things as they are,
I, too, dedicate all these merits in the best way,
That I may follow their perfect example.”
“I dedicate all these roots of virtue
With the dedication praised as the best
By the victorious ones thus gone of the three times,
So that I might perform good works.”
“Due to the three times’ merits accumulated by myself and others,
May I, my family, disciples, and all sentient beings
Be able to actualize completely in this very lifetime
Lama Tsongkhapa’s path of unified sutra and tantra,
Which is pure like refined gold.
May this pure teaching of Lama Tsongkhapa
Spread in all directions and flourish forever.”
It’s good to also recite the mantras to increase merits. 18Benefits of Sur Practice
The benefits of sur practice are very extensive. The main benefit is for other sentient beings--especially intermediate state beings, people who have died and have not yet been able to find a new body and be reborn—to get food and Dharma teachings. The aroma that you offer serves as food for them, bringing them happiness, and the Dharma teachings they receive free them from the cause of all their torments and sufferings. Also, for hungry ghosts who are so incredibly hungry, searching for many years to find a tiny bit of spit, they receive your charity of food and of Dharma, and it pacifies their incredible suffering and also the causes of their suffering. Other sentient beings get so much help and benefit from your doing this practice!
One night, my student Ven. Lhundup Ningje (Paula Chichester) went to bed and fell into a semi-conscious state between wakefulness and sleep. At that time, she saw spirits gathered around the fireplace where the smoke was still rising from this practice. They were enjoying this aroma so much and expressed their appreciation and happiness to her. They told her that the person who’d been offering sur was so kind and that they were enjoying the aroma so much.
As I mentioned earlier, when someone you know has died, doing sur practice is a way to benefit them. However, doing sur practice is not exclusively for those who have died and are in the intermediate state. First, you offer to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Master Dharmabhadra gave commentary on Sur practice and said to offer to the merit field as in the Kusali Tsog in the practice of Vajrayogini. Then, offer to those who have died. Then offer to the landlords of your specific area and of the whole world. Then, offer to all sentient beings of the six realms.
Another important benefit of sur practice which I explained earlier in some detail is repaying your karmic debts. Doing sur practice to repay your karmic debts is a way of solving or preventing many problems without creating the causes of future problems as you do so.
This practice is also a way of collecting extensive merit and pacifying obstacles to your Dharma practice, projects, or business. In this way, it brings success to all these endeavors. Furthermore, by making charity, it results in prosperity and wealth, so it naturally brings success in business and other projects.
Doing sur practice is also a method that causes you to be reborn in a pure land when you die. First it brings success in this lifetime, and then in the future it causes you to be reborn in Amitabha’s pure land.
This practice also causes all your wishes to succeed in accord with Dharma. And, it also causes you to have realizations. And, then ultimately you complete the two types of merit and achieve enlightenment. So, those are all benefits of doing sur practice!
It’s very good for individuals to do sur practice. Also, within a family or within a Dharma center, it’s good if people can take turns doing sur practice. One person can do the practice for a month or six months or a year, and then someone else can do the practice and so forth. In this way, you help yourself and your family or your center to have success. By doing the practice on behalf of your family or your Dharma center, it helps the whole family or the whole center. It eliminates whatever obstacles you, your family or the center have. The obstacles get pacified and success comes.
1 Gyumed Khensur Rinpoche Lobsang Jampa has noted that it’s also best to do sur practice outdoors, as some spirits may be too frightened or may not have the karma to be able to come inside a home or building to receive the offering. [Return to text]
2 The fire for sur practice can also be made using charcoal. For a large sur offering, you can use charcoal ordinarily sold for cooking outdoors, but for smaller offerings that are often done as part of your daily practice, you can also use charcoal sold for burning powdered incense. [Return to text]
3 It’s also possible to wear dark sun glasses when offering sur for this same purpose. [Return to text]
4 You usually mix the hard butter with the other ingredients quite well until the consistency is like crumbly sand. [Return to text]
5 Do not include Akaru in Kriya Tantra pills. [Return to text]
6 In Kriya Tantra pills, the claw of a water lion is replaced by ocean bubbles. [Return to text]
7 In Kriya Tantra pills, it can be either coral or shells. [Return to text]
8 According to Kriya Tantra, the five essences are: (1) butter, (2) milk, (3) honey, (4) sugar, (5) curd. [Return to text]
9 The guests of nirvana refers to the merit field, namely the gurus, the Three Jewels of refuge, tantric deities, sutra buddhas (such as Medicine Buddhas), bodhisattvas, arhats, dakas and dakinis, and Dharma protectors. The guests of samsara refers to worldly protectors, the place lords and the objects of compassion, ie, all sentient beings, including those to whom you owe karmic debts. [Return to text]
10 The great master Dharmabhadra gave a commentary on sur practice in which he said that you can visualize the merit field and the guests as you visualizes them in the Kusali Tsog in Vajrayogini practice. So, if you know that visualization, you can use it here. Otherwise, you can visualize the merit field in the aspect of the Guru Puja merit field, with the guests of samsara’s six realms all around. [Return to text]
11 Traditionally the colors of the double vajra would include the colors of the five Buddha families—white, yellow, red, green, and blue. [Return to text]
12 It is common after a friend, student, or loved one has died to specifically include them as a guest for receiving your offering of sur. Rinpoche is here indicating that while they remain in the intermediate state they are able to benefit from such offerings, receiving a portion of the scent that is offered. Later in the practice, as you offer Dharma teachings and advice, you may again think of them and of advising them to remember Dharma teachings during this crucial time between rebirths. [Return to text]
13 Landlord here does not refer to a human landlord but rather to spirits that inhabit and feel that they own a particular place. In the Tibetan Buddhist worldview, nations, regions, mountains, lakes, rivers, forests and so forth are all inhabited by various kinds of spirits as well as by humans and animals. Here you offer sur to the spirits with whom you share the region where you are doing the practice. [Return to text]
14 We are also dedicating the merits we create by helping those who’ve recently died and are in the intermediate state, so that we will not have terrifying or negative experiences when we ourselves die and enter the intermediate state. [Return to text]
15 Extracted from The Exalted Mahayana Sutra on the Wisdom Gone Beyond Called, (The Vajra Cutter), translation by Gelong Thubten Tsultrim (George Churinoff). [Return to text]
16 Verses in praise of bodhicitta from the Bodhicaryavatara (A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life) by Master Shantideva, translation by Stephen Batchelor. (Chapter 1, verses 9-11) Lama Zopa Rinpoche did not specify which verses to recite from this text. You may choose other verses as well. There are many to choose from! [Return to text]
17 See the FPMT dedication prayers and special FPMT dedication prayers in Essential Buddhist Prayers, Vol. 1, Dedications section. Select dedications have been included here for convenience as they were specifically indicated by Rinpoche to recite at the end of this practice. [Return to text]
18 Rinpoche has taught on the multiplying effects of many different mantras. Three mantras for increasing merits created are:
CHOM DAN DA ZHIN SHEG PA DRA CHOM PA YANG DAG PAR DZOG PAI SANG GYA NAM PA NANG DZA O KYI GYAL PO LA CHHAG TSHAL LO (1x);
JANG CHHUB SEM PA SEM PA CHHEN PO KUN TU ZANG PO LA CHHAG TSHAL LO (1x); and
TADYATHA PANCHA GRIYA AVA BODHANI SVAHA OM DHURU DHURU JAYA MUKHE SVAHA 7x). [Return to text]