The Best Time to Practice Dharma

The Best Time to Practice Dharma

Date of Advice:
May 2017
Date Posted:
October 2021

Rinpoche outlined the entire path to enlightenment for a student who asked for direction on their spiritual path. The student had several tattoos of deities and mantras on their body, and Rinpoche also advised what to do about these.  

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching during the 9th Meditation Course, Kopan Monastery, Nepal, 1976.

My most dear, most kind, most precious, wish-fulfilling one,
Thank you very much your kind letter. I am sorry for the delay in replying.

I want to tell you, yes, it’s the best time to practice, to meet and practice Dharma, and not just the four noble truths. As you know, that is the basis to be free from samsara, from which the oceans of samsaric suffering has no beginning; it is from beginningless rebirths. We have been suffering in samsara up to now, so if we don’t become free from samsara then we will have to experience the oceans of samsaric suffering without end.

This is just about one time that we have received this human rebirth, we have met the Lesser Vehicle path, the four noble truths, and not only that, we have met the Mahayana sutra path, the Paramitayana teachings, and we have the ability to learn and actualize them. Not only that, we have met the Mahayana tantra path—as you said in the letter, you have met this path.

In Buddhist countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, etc., they have Theravada, the Lesser Vehicle teachings, then in China and other Chinese countries, they have the Mahayana sutra teachings and also Mahayana tantra teachings, but the lower tantras not the highest tantra. There are some masters who practice the highest tantra, who have met these teachings, like Changkya Rölpä Dorje, who received initiations and teachings, and then maybe practiced Mahayana tantra teachings.

Tibet is the only place that has the complete teachings of Buddha, the Lesser Vehicle teachings, Theravada, as well as Mahayana sutra and Mahayana tantra. Tibet is the only place that has the complete studies of Buddha’s teachings.

Maybe it might help if I explain this to you. Without the Lesser Vehicle teachings, Theravada teachings, the main subject is the four noble truths and the five paths in order to achieve liberation from samsara. Then on that basis, keeping pratimoksha vows, etc., so on that basis, we practice Mahayana sutra, the paramita path. The first path is about generating renunciation for our own samsara, seeing it is in the nature of suffering and generating renunciation. Then from that we generate renunciation, the wish to be free from that, and on that basis we enter the Mahayana sutra path and then generate bodhicitta. This is generated by first generating great compassion for all sentient beings suffering in samsara, and practicing the six paramitas and bodhicitta.

There are also the higher paths, the five Mahayana paths and ten bhumis. Then on the basis of Mahayana sutra, bodhicitta, the six paramitas, there is Mahayana tantra, the practice of Vajrayana.

Therefore, there is no way to practice [Mahayana tantra] if we don’t practice Theravada, the Lesser Vehicle path, the pratimoksha vows and the three higher trainings of morality, concentration and wisdom. Without practicing renunciation of our own samsara, there is no way to practice Mahayana sutra, and without practicing Mahayana sutra there is no way to practice Mahayana tantra. For us to achieve enlightenment, it is by practicing the Mahayana sutra teachings. Only then can we achieve enlightenment, by practicing the six paramitas with bodhicitta for three countless great eons, but by practicing tantra, even the lower tantras, we can achieve enlightenment in one life.

In tantra there are four types: Kriya (Action), Charya (Performance), Yoga and Maha-anuttara Yoga Tantra (Highest Yoga Tantra). By practicing Mahayana tantra we can achieve enlightenment in a much shorter time, in a brief lifetime of degenerate time. We can achieve enlightenment in one life, by achieving a long life, so we are able to live for one thousand years and then we can achieve enlightenment by practicing the path.

The main reason for us to practice Maha-anuttara Yoga Tantra is that it is the quickest way to achieve enlightenment. The longer we take to achieve enlightenment, the longer the sentient beings have to suffer. That is so unbearable, and even if we can achieve enlightenment by postponing death, so we can live for one thousand years in this life, still sentient beings have to suffer for an unbearably long time. We can’t stand it, therefore we need to practice Highest Yoga Tantra, Maha-anuttara Yoga Tantra, in order to quickly free the sentient beings from the oceans of suffering and bring them to peerless happiness, buddhahood—this is the quickest way. That is the main reason to practice Highest Yoga Tantra.

I checked for you and the deity you have a connection with is Kurukulla, however, first you need to receive the initiation and then you can do the meditation.

Until you receive the initiation, maybe you can recite the mantra, but you can’t visualize yourself as the deity. You can visualize the deity in front of you, sending light beams to you which purify all disease, spirt harm, negative karma and defilements from beginningless rebirths. First recite one mala, thinking that you are mainly purifying sentient beings, and if you want to recite more, after one mala purifying sentient beings and yourself, then mainly focus on the six-realm sentient beings, thinking that all their negative karma and defilements are purified.

At the end, when you stop, think that you receive all of Kurukulla’s qualities and all sentient beings receive all the qualities of Kurukulla’s holy body, speech and mind.

The introduction above on why we need to practice tantra is very important, so please read it very carefully and not just one time.

For you, the Middle-Length Lamrim is the main lamrim to read and study. This is best. If you can, do Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga daily. This practice contains meditation on the lamrim. You can recite The Foundation of All Good Qualities and sometimes you can change the lamrim prayer, for example, change to The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, or Lama Tsongkhapa’s Hymn of Experience. There are other different lamrim prayers you can use or change to, but mostly do The Foundation of All Good Qualities.

Other practices for you:

Four immeasurable thoughts: 100,000.

Tonglen: 200,000. Both of these practices collect merit more than skies, because you are praying for the numberless sentient beings to be free from anger and attachment and to attain enlightenment, so to be free from all the sufferings and to not be separated from happiness up to enlightenment. This is the most powerful purification and it is a quick way to be free from samsara and a quick way to achieve enlightenment.

Tsa tsas of Padmasambhava: 40,000. If you have no space after you make them, you can put them on shelves near the roof, inside the rooms, so they will be lined up. Another thing you can do is offer Christmas lights in front of each one. So you can do like that, putting three or four shelves in different rooms. Some students use them that way and what is left over then if there is somebody building a stupa, you can offer some of the tsa tsas, to fill up the stupa. Stupas need to have mantras inside, but they also can have tsa tsas. You can also give them away.

In your own house you can also set up a table and have many tsa tsas around. You can read here what I have done with tsa tsas in my house in Aptos, California. So you can put one stupa on the top and many tsa tsas around, then you go around that. The two small stupas in Aptos were made when I was in Madison, Wisconsin. They were made for me to go around to stop increasing the diabetes, but the main thing is to purify negative karma and defilements and to develop bodhicitta and attain enlightenment. I also have a larger stupa now, in the back garden.

I want to send you some books. The books I want to send you are How to Practice Dharma, Bodhisattva Attitude and The Heart of the Path. When you get these books please read them and practice.

In one week, if you can, read the Golden Light Sutra. This means reading some every day until you finish the sutra. If possible, try to complete it in one week, then the next week read the Arya Sanghata Sutra.

If you can practice like this for your whole life, you will collect unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable merits and from there you are able to achieve realizations quickly, to be free from samsara and achieve enlightenment.

Study the Middle-Length Lamrim twice from beginning to the end, and anything that you don’t know or don’t understand, you can write that down in a notebook and later check with geshes or students who have studied the lamrim extremely well. This is important otherwise you get mistaken understanding.

Please see my advice regarding how many months to meditate on each section of the lamrim. This doesn’t mean you only meditate on that; it just means that is the main focus of your lamrim meditation, for that many months. Then after that do effortless meditation.

I am sorry to say this about your tattoos. Where are the Chenrezig and Medicine Buddha tattoos? If they are on your back, then really you should not lie down on your back. I am not sure if this is possible, but if you can erase them, then please do so. The reason is so that you don’t create any more negative karma. You can’t lie down on the buddhas, this creates so much disrespect. There are many people who do this without knowing. They put buddhas and deities on their body, but that can be a great disrespect and obscuration for the mind. It interferes with your enlightenment—your own mind and all sentient beings. Anyway, I am sorry to say this.

Please make your life most meaningful with the thought of bodhicitta, day and night and in every action you do.

With much love and prayers ...