Teachings From the Vajrasattva Retreat

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Soquel, CA USA 1999 (Archive #1055)

This book is an edited transcript of Lama Zopa Rinpoche's teachings at a three-month Vajrasattva retreat held at Land of Medicine Buddha, from February 1 to April 30, 1999. The teachings cover many lam-rim topics, purification practices, mantras, pujas and more.

Chapter 2: February 7-a

Afternoon: Questions and Answers

Rinpoche: Are there one or two questions?

Nick Ribush: In the Vajrasattva sadhana, Lama Yeshe said to visualize either Heruka or Vajradhara as the object of refuge. Then, before the nine-round breathing meditation is done, Lama said to absorb the object of refuge and yourself appear as Heruka or Vajradhara, according to what you had visualized. After the absorption, you have the clear appearance of yourself as Heruka or Vajradhara, but without holding divine pride. If you haven’t had a Highest Yoga Tantra initiation, what should you do at that point?

Rinpoche: Then you hold ordinary divine pride. Not special divine pride, but ordinary divine pride, whose continuity has no beginning and which thinks not only that the I is not merely labeled but also that “I’m ordinary.”

Nick: Rinpoche, my question is, because you are not supposed to visualize yourself as a deity if you haven’t had the initiation, do you then just visualize yourself in your ordinary form?

Rinpoche: You can generate yourself as an American guy or an Australian guy! I think Lama’s explanation might be based on people who have received a Highest Tantra initiation such as Heruka. If you haven’t received a great initiation, you can think that the refuge merit field, whether you have visualized Heruka or Vajradhara, melts into light and is absorbed at the point between your eyebrows. This is what is normally explained in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand and in other commentaries. The texts explain that even if you cannot visualize the merit field melting into light and absorbing into you through your crown, you can think that it absorbs into you at the point between your eyebrows and then blesses your body, speech and mind. The blessing can be received in this way.

In the case of the Guru Shakyamuni Buddha meditation, when I checked with Denma Lochö Rinpoche, Rinpoche said that even if you haven’t received a great initiation, which means from one of the lower tantras or from Highest Yoga Tantra, you can still visualize yourself as Guru Shakyamuni Buddha. This is an exceptional case because Guru Shakyamuni Buddha is the founder of the present Buddhadharma. This was Rinpoche’s answer, though I’m not sure whether every lama would say the same thing. I asked the question because in the early Kopan courses we started this tradition of becoming Guru Shakyamuni Buddha.

You become Guru Shakyamuni Buddha for a little while, and then become a sentient being again. For a little while you are high, and then you have to come down....

This was Denma Lochö Rinpoche’s answer. When I then asked about visualizing yourself as Medicine Buddha, Rinpoche said that in the case of Medicine Buddha, you might first need to receive a great initiation. I think that Lama’s advice was for people who had already received a great initiation of Highest Yoga Tantra, such as Heruka.

Student:If we were at the empowerment last night, are we empowered to visualize ourselves as Vajrasattva if we haven’t received a Highest Yoga Tantra initiation?

Rinpoche: No, you are only permitted to visualize your nose as Vajrasattva! The blessing of the holy body, holy speech and holy mind, which is called a je-nang, or permission to practice, is actually supposed to come after a great initiation, according to Lama Tsongkhapa’s Great Graduated Path of Tantra and the main tantric scriptures. This short initiation, the permission to practice, is based on having first received a great initiation. This is why the meditation during the initiation involves generating yourself as a deity.

Of course, this is not strictly true because during the preparation for a great initiation, there is the inner initiation. After the bodhisattva and tantric vows are granted, in the case of Highest Yoga Tantra, or just the bodhisattva vows in the case of the lower tantras, an inner initiation is given to generate the disciple as the son of the vajra master. The term “son” is not used in dependence upon the characteristics of the body but of the mind. This term is used because it is normally the son who becomes the king. The daughter becomes the queen, but does not become the king. Because this example is applied here, the disciple is called “the son of the vajra master,” but it has nothing to do with the body.

The ordinary form of the disciple melts into light and goes through the mother’s body into the womb, where the disciple then generates into the deity. Before this, however, the disciple has not necessarily received a great initiation.

Initiations like the Vajrasattva je-nang should be based on generating oneself as the deity. The foundation should be the disciple generating as the deity after having taken the vows. On that basis, the blessings of the deity’s holy body, holy speech and holy mind are then granted. This is why, generally speaking, you should have previously taken a great initiation, which permits you to generate yourself as a deity and to practice tantra, either the yoga with signs or the yoga without signs of the lower tantras or the generation and completion stages of Highest Yoga Tantra. Therefore, if you have previously taken a great initiation, either of one of the lower tantras or of Highest Yoga Tantra, you are qualified to receive the complete blessing, the complete je-nang, when you take any of the blessings of the deity’s holy body, holy speech or holy mind because you are allowed to do all the meditations of generating yourself as the deity and so forth.

Otherwise, without a great initiation, you receive some blessing rather than the actual je-nang, and the blessing that you receive depends on the qualities of the lama and on the devotion of you, the disciple. In dependence upon the disciple’s devotion and the lama’s qualities, the disciple receives at least some blessing, some protection. The lama visualizing the disciple as the deity can give some protection to the disciple.

Through the disciple’s devotion and the lama’s qualities, the disciple receives some blessing of the deity, but not the complete je-nang. If you can take a great initiation, it means that when you take all these short initiations, or blessings of the deity, you then receive the complete jenang, or permission to practice.

Of course, after you have taken a great initiation, either of the lower tantras or Highest Yoga Tantra, you have to attempt as much as possible to keep the samaya vows. To be able to keep everything purely, first of all you need stable realization of the three principal aspects of the path to enlightenment. With stable concentration, you then practice the yoga of the generation stage, in which you look at everything as pure. You look at your own body as the deity’s holy body, the place as the deity’s mandala and so forth. On the basis of the lam-rim, you are able to keep vows, including tantric vows, more purely.

With stable realization of the generation stage, everything appears to us as pure—our own body and those of others appear as the deity’s holy body, and the place appears as the mandala of the deity. By looking at everything as pure, as manifestations of the deity, you then see everything as pure. Without this realization, we constantly collect negativities because in every second we see so many objects as ordinary. After discussing this point, two geshes reached the conclusion that it is better not to practice tantra because otherwise you collect so many negativities in each second through seeing objects as ordinary. Since it is impossible to keep difficult vows such as seeing everything as pure, they thought it better not to take a great initiation of tantra. Their conclusion is that taking a tantric initiation creates more obstacles to achieving enlightenment.

Lama Atisha responded that the view of the two geshes was like a blind yak eating grass. When a blind yak eats grass, because it cannot see all the grass that is available, it eats just a small part of what is there.

Lama Atisha said that the two geshes made their comment because of their lack of knowledge that there is a powerful practice of purification called Vajrasattva with which you can purify these negativities. Lama Atisha explained, “Practicing Vajrasattva is like throwing one stone and chasing away a hundred birds.” Vajrasattva, a powerful purification practice, can be used to purify at one time all the negativities collected from breaking the subtle tantric vows, which are very difficult to keep. Even though you have collected negativities like a car collects dust when left out in the open, Lama Atisha advises that you can wipe them all out at once by doing Vajrasattva practice.

Therefore, the conclusion is that even though we are unable to keep all the tantric vows, especially the subtle ones, after we have taken a great initiation, if we do the powerful practice of Vajrasattva we can still achieve enlightenment.

The rarity of Tantra

Generally speaking, most of the people who take a great initiation cannot keep every single tantric vow, but it is a great and very rare opportunity. It is just this one time that we have a precious human body. And we have not only a precious human body but a perfect human body qualified by eight freedoms and ten richnesses, which is much more rare. It is just this one time that we have this, so it is just this one time that we have the opportunity to practice Dharma. Being able to be a human being again in our next life depends on our creating the cause to be born human, which means living in pure morality. It is only on the basis of this that we can receive a human body, and there are many obstacles to living purely in vows. There are many obstacles from within our mind, and because of these there are also many external obstacles. To achieve a perfect human body we need to create all the causes for all eighteen qualities, and it is extremely difficult to create these causes.

On top of this, meeting the Buddhadharma, even the Hinayana teachings, is extremely rare. It is even more rare and difficult to meet the Mahayana teachings, which enable us to cease not only the gross defilements but even the subtle ones; which contain the skillful means of achieving enlightenment. It is especially rare to meet the Mahayana tantra, which has the skillful means of achieving enlightenment in one lifetime, and even more rare to meet Highest Yoga Tantra, which contains the greatest skillful means of all. Through practicing Highest Yoga Tantra, we can achieve enlightenment in the brief lifetime of the degenerate age or even within a few years.

Meeting tantric teachings is much rarer than meeting the Mahayana Paramitayana teachings. As often mentioned during initiations, the uttamvara flower grows only when Buddha descends on this earth, only in that fortunate time. It does not grow during all the other eons. When Buddha passes away, this flower then decays. This flower is used as an example for the rarity of Buddha’s descent and of our meeting Buddha. Meeting tantric teachings, however, is much rarer than Buddha’s descent in this world and our meeting Buddha. This example is normally mentioned during initiations to help us to generate happiness at having met the tantric teachings.

The door to enter Buddhadharma is refuge and the door to enter tantra is initiation. It is also mentioned during initiations that of the one thousand buddhas who will descend in this fortunate eon, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha is the first one to teach tantra. Most of the other buddhas will not teach tantra. The seventh one, Gyalwa Senge Nada, who is an embodiment of Lama Tsongkhapa, will teach tantra, but after that, so many buddhas will not teach tantra. The last buddha promised to teach whatever Dharma the previous buddhas taught, so for this reason, it is assumed that the last buddha will also teach tantra. It is not that only Guru Shakyamuni Buddha and the other two buddhas know tantra and the rest of the buddhas do not. It is because the sentient beings who live during the times of the other buddhas do not have the karma to meet and to practice tantra.

Analyzing in this way makes us realize how fortunate we are. It enables us to recognize our incredible opportunity and to appreciate the good karma that we must have created in the past. It then inspires us to practice tantra. It gives us the courage to take tantric vows and to attempt to practice tantra. When our mind is weak and we feel unable to take initiation and practice tantric vows, we can strengthen our minds by clearly recognizing how rare this one-time opportunity is and how fortunate we are to have it.

Sorry, I talked for a long time.

Student:Could you give some instructions as to how you should practice if you have not had an initiation and cannot visualize yourself as a deity?

Rinpoche: You can visualize Vajrasattva on your crown or in front of you and do the meditation. Not being able to visualize yourself as the deity doesn’t mean that you do not have an object of concentration. Your meditation object is Vajrasattva. When you do the practice, Vajrasattva is the main object of meditation.

Christina Lundberg: If you took the Vajrasattva initiation as a great initiation, during the mantra recitation and the sadhana, do you see yourself as your own special deity saying the Vajrasattva mantra?

Rinpoche: If you have taken a great initiation, you can see yourself as Vajrasattva. If the Vajrasattva is from Highest Yoga Tantra, which means embracing the wisdom mother, you need to have had a great initiation of Highest Yoga Tantra. A lower tantra initiation is not enough. The single aspect of Vajrasattva, which means the father alone, is a lower tantra aspect, but I’m not sure whether it belongs to Charya Tantra or Kriya Tantra. It needs to be checked. Kriya Tantra has three divisions: lotus race, tathagata race and vajra race; I think lotus race is the lowest division. To visualize yourself as a Kriya Tantra deity, I’m not sure whether, strictly speaking, you need to have received the initiation of that deity or of one from a higher race. It is something that also needs to be checked. If the single aspect of Vajrasattva belongs to Kriya Tantra, I think it would be okay to visualize yourself as Vajrasattva if you had received a great Chenrezig initiation. If it is Charya Tantra, however, I don’t think that a great Chenrezig initiation qualifies you to do that. It needs to be checked.

If you have received a Yamantaka or Kalachakra initiation, for example, you can visualize yourself as Vajrasattva father-mother. In a great initiation of Highest Yoga Tantra, you visualize Vajrasattva during the vajra master initiation. Therefore, if you have received a Highest Yoga Tantra initiation, you can definitely visualize yourself as Vajrasattva father-mother and recite the mantra at your heart.

As I explained before, having received a great initiation in the past means that you are fully qualified, so you actually receive the complete je-nang, the permission to practice a deity. Otherwise, in dependence upon the lama’s qualities and your devotion, you receive some blessing of the deity; but you do not receive the complete permission to practice, the complete blessing of the deity. This is always specified by the lama during the initiation.

Actually, the strict way of giving je-nangs is by restricting them to people who have received a great initiation. People who haven’t received a great initiation are not meant to hear the meditations of generating themselves as a deity. There is a tradition of certain je-nangs—the initiations of long-life deities, for example—being given publicly by great lamas, such as the tutors of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. During the jenang, however, the lamas specify the meditations that the disciples are and are not allowed to do if they have not received a great initiation. There is a tradition of giving je-nangs in this way, but to be really strict, only people who have received a great initiation should be there. It seems to mainly depend on the lama. I think from the initiations I’ve given, I’ll be making many visits to the hell realms.

The permission to practice given last night does not qualify you to visualize yourself as Vajrasattva; it was not a great initiation. To visualize yourself as Vajrasattva father-mother you need to have received a great initiation, which involves the vase, secret, wisdom and word initiations. These four initiations definitely plant the seeds of the four kayas, which we need to achieve in order to do perfect work for all sentient beings. At the very least you need to receive the first one, the vase initiation, which gives you permission to visualize yourself as a deity. Unless you receive that, whether from the lower tantras or from Highest Yoga Tantra, you cannot visualize yourself as a deity.

For example, His Holiness Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche used to advise that it would be better for people to take the great Chenrezig initiation before they do nyung-näs, because they are then more qualified to do nyung-nä practice. Their nyung-nä practice then becomes perfect. Rinpoche emphasized that I should give the great Chenrezig initiation before nyung-näs. In one way giving the initiation also helps the lama to keep the vow not to reveal the secrets of tantra. There is no question of this with the great lamas, who are enlightened beings, but it helps Mickey Mouse lamas like me.