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 21: February 19

Making Vajrasattva retreat powerful - The power of regret

Since there are people who are coming to do the Vajrasattva retreat for a short time, sometimes for just a few days, it might be nice to have a page on the power of regret to give them. The main thing that makes the Vajrasattva practice powerful purification is reflecting on all the negative karma, degenerated samaya vows and downfalls that we have done in this life and in past lives. I think I have already seen one page on how to generate the thought of regret; it was available one or two days after I had explained that power.

Since the whole thing cannot be explained every time a new person comes to join the retreat, there needs to be a sheet on how to generate the thought of regret. It can be put together from those few days I talked about, then given to everyone who comes to join the retreat for a few days or for the rest of the time. In this way even if no other explanation is given, the person is aware of the specific things to be purified—unless, of course, the person doesn’t have past lives. I think that if there are no past lives, there is no negative karma and also there is no good karma.

There’s no karma. Well, if there are no past lives, it means that nothing exists....

Reflecting on our negative karma is the main meditation during the Vajrasattva sessions. The most important meditation is to review and recognize our negative karmas, so that they get purified. It would be very helpful to compile a page from the explanations of the power of regret given in those two or three days at the beginning of the retreat, with perhaps the addition of material from some other times. Also, if there is some meditation on generating the thought of regret in Lama Yeshe’s commentary, you could also have a separate page with that. You could have several different pages. In one session you can do the meditation in one way; in another session you can do it in another way. This would be very helpful for the people who were not here during the explanations and for those who come later. Even if people do the retreat for only a few days, that few days of retreat then becomes very powerful purification.

What is a non-virtuous action?

Of the four powers, the most important is the power of regret. The strength of the thought of regret you generate determines how much negative karma gets purified.

First, start by defining negative karma, or non-virtuous action. What is a non-virtuous action? The shortest definition of a non-virtuous action is “any action that results only in suffering.” To make the definition clearer, we can say “any action motivated by non-virtuous thought.” And what is non-virtuous thought? Basically, it is ignorance, particularly ignorance of karma, or anger or attachment.

What attitude dominates our lives? It is not anger but attachment.

Most of the time we live our life with an attitude of attachment, the attachment that clings to this life. We live our life with the thought of the eight worldly dharmas. We are attached not just to our own happiness but to our happiness in this life. It is not just that we have the thought of seeking a good reputation, material rewards, praise and comfort—we can seek these out of a good heart, out of a wish to benefit others. Here it is the thought of seeking these things for our own happiness in this life, for example, seeking a good reputation or power, not to benefit others but for our own happiness, comes from attachment clinging to this life.

If we are seeking a good reputation or power in order to benefit other sentient beings, it becomes Dharma. If this is our motivation in seeking a good reputation, wealth or power, it becomes Dharma, especially if we use our reputation, wealth and power to benefit others. Otherwise, we are just collecting additional suffering. If our attitude is one of clinging to this life, all these things just bring us additional suffering.

One way of putting it is that if we have realized the three principal paths (renunciation of samsara, bodhicitta and right view), our reputation in the world does not become harmful to us; it becomes beneficial to other sentient beings. If we have realizations, our good reputation becomes very worthwhile. It cannot damage our mind or harm us. It is only beneficial for others; it enables us to benefit others.

Many years ago at Kopan I used to spend a lot of time teaching courses—both Nick and Marcel were there for those courses. I think that one time I spent ten days on the thought of the eight worldly dharmas.

In those early times, because I was trying to practice just a tiny bit of Dharma, my mind was very scared of having a reputation. Now, of course, it is not like before—I have totally degenerated! At that time, I would spend weeks talking about the hells and weeks talking about the thought of the eight worldly dharmas, accompanied by the hells, like ice cream with a cherry on top—the eight worldly dharmas are like the ice cream and the hells are like the cherry!

I first saw the text Opening the Door of Dharma: Training the Mind at the Very Beginning when I stayed a long time at Lawudo to supervise the building of the monastery. Opening the Door of Dharma,which has many stories of the Kadampa geshes, is basically about what Dharma is and how to practice Dharma. [Rinpoche’s teachings on this text are published by Wisdom Publications in The Door to Satisfaction.] I hadn’t seen the text before that visit to Lawudo. I was supposed to be watching the workers, checking whether they were just wasting time chatting or cutting the stones to build the temple. Instead, I spent most of the time in the cave and I would go out just before sunset to pay them their money.

Giving wages to the workers felt very strange to me, because I was more accustomed to receiving money from other people as offerings. I knew that some of the people I paid didn’t actually work that day or didn’t do a full day’s work. I was the secretary, I was the bookkeeper—I was everything.

(This was not the case all the time but on one of the times I visited Lawudo.) I kept the money in a small plastic suitcase, and with paying the workers every day, it would go down, down, down. And when it got right down, somebody would appear and it would go up again. I did that job for a little while.

Anyway, compared to then, I have now become totally lazy; at that time I was able to do many things. What I couldn’t do was read texts and watch the workers at the same time. The only time I could see the workers was when I went for pee-pee, and many times they would be sitting around chatting, not working. But what could I say? I found it difficult to scold them. Somebody else might have been able to scold them, but to me, scolding just seemed very strange.

After reading Opening the Door of Dharma for months, I checked back on my life. I was in Buxa for eight years, and during all those years I didn’t really study Dharma. I spent most of my time playing or washing in the river. It was so hot that many monks would go to wash in the nearby river. At night we would wash under a tap, but during the day we would go to the river to wash, mainly because it was unbelievably hot.

All the monks put their red and yellow robes on the bushes and would swim in just their shorts. When you looked down on the river from the mountain, the robes on the bushes would look like flowers. During those years I took teachings, memorized texts and did some debating, but it was like a child playing. After reading this text, I could not see that anything I had done had become Dharma.

I was born in Solu Khumbu but left for Tibet when I was ten or eleven years old. I then lived in Tibet at a place called Pagri for three years. I memorized every morning then went to puja. I spent that three years of my life doing pujas at the houses of benefactors. In the morning I memorized texts or the prayers that had to be recited at Domo Geshe’s monastery, where I was ordained and where I had to do my examination.

There were two volumes of texts to be memorized; I memorized one but I didn’t get to memorize the other. At the time I did my examination, Tibet had already been overtaken by the Chinese Communists. After reading Opening the Door of Dharma, I looked back at this period and could not find anything that had become Dharma. Looking back at my whole life, I could not find anything that had become Dharma.

Because the mind is a dependent arising, which means that it exists in dependence upon causes and conditions, the mind can be transformed this way or that. Because the mind is a causative phenomenon, it is possible to have realizations; because the mind is a dependent arising and not independent, it is possible to have realizations, though having realizations was not my experience.

Through reading Opening the Door of Dharma, my mind became scared when people brought me offerings. In Solu Khumbu the Sherpas often brought offerings to the cave. They would fill with corn (or whatever else they had) the brass container from which they usually drank chang or ate food. Because of having read the text, I was scared to receive these offerings. Even though, unfortunately, having realizations was not my experience, it does show that if one does practice, the mind can change. If one does practice, one can have realizations. Even that immediate small change of mind can be used as a logical proof that it is possible to achieve enlightenment.

However, to return to the point, if you have realizations, it is very worthwhile to have a good reputation in the world because you can then benefit others.

This just happened as side talk, as Geshe Sopa often says during his teachings.

A non-virtuous action is any action that brings only a suffering result, and especially it is any action done with ignorance of karma, anger or, in particular, the attachment that clings to this life. The reason that I say “in particular” is because as ordinary beings, we live our life mostly with attachment. Every action we do with this motivation of attachment, clinging to the happiness of this life, becomes a non-virtue. This applies not only to the actions of this life but to those we have done during beginningless rebirths.

Thinking about non-virtue

Think now about the ten non-virtuous actions. From those ten actions, how many have we committed today? This week? This month? This year? This life? And how many times have we committed the ten nonvirtuous actions during our beginningless past lives?

Now think about the times we have broken our pratimoksha, bodhisattva and tantric vows. We have degenerated our samaya vows in this life, and even though there are some that we haven’t degenerated in this life, we have degenerated them many times in past lives.

Then think about the very heavy negative karma created in relation to the virtuous friend. Think of the samaya you have broken with the guru. This has happened many times in this life, but this is not the first time we have broken our samaya. We have broken it many times in our past lives.

More specific details about all these non-virtues and their results might come later in the teachings. So far I’m just introducing the basic outline so that you can recognize what needs to be purified.

Thinking about death

Then think about death. Today, in this world, many people your age died. Many healthy people, who did not have cancer or any other sickness, died suddenly in car accidents or in other ways. They were very healthy, but suddenly they died today. And there are many people in this world dying right now and heading for the lower realms. Even though they received a human body, they didn’t meet the Dharma—or they met the Dharma, but didn’t get to practice. Many people are dying right now and facing the lower realms.

Generating Bodhicitta

Think, “What is happening to these other people could happen to me today—it could happen even during this session. Death can happen at any moment. So, before my death happens, I must purify completely all my negativities. I can’t stand for even one second not to have purified the causes of eons and eons of suffering in the lower realms and the obstacles to actualizing the path to enlightenment and to my liberating and enlightening all sentient beings. I must purify right now without even a second’s delay.

“Just as my present-life mother has been my mother and kind to me numberless times, every sentient being has been my mother and kind to me numberless times. My present-life mother kindly gave me this precious human body, which allows me to practice Dharma, and she has done the same thing numberless times in past lives. Just like this, every sentient being has been my mother and numberless times has given me a precious human body with which to practice Dharma. Each sentient being has been so kind to me; they are so precious in my life.

“When I was in the womb of my present-life mother and when I was a baby, my mother was also kind in saving me from dangers to my life hundreds of times every day. Every day for many years she protected my life from hundreds of dangers. And she had been kind in protecting my life from danger numberless times in past lives. Every sentient being has also been my mother and protected my life from hundreds of dangers numberless times during beginningless past lives. Each sentient being has been so kind to me; they are so precious in my life.

“My present-life mother also led me in the path of the world; she educated me. And she has been kind in this way numberless times during my beginningless past lives. Just like this, every sentient being has also been kind to me by being my mother and giving me an education numberless times. Each sentient being has been so kind to me; they are so precious in my life.

“My present-life mother also bore many hardships to ensure my happiness and well-being, to ensure my survival. In being my mother, she bore many hardships. She created much negative karma in order to take care of me, and as a result has experienced much suffering—I obliged her to create negative karma; she has had to experience the suffering results.

For my happiness and well-being, for my very survival, she bore hardships numberless times during my beginningless past lives. Exactly like my present-life mother, every sentient being has been my mother and borne much hardship numberless times during beginningless past lives.

Each sentient being has been so kind to me; they are the most precious one in my life.

“Therefore, I must repay their kindness. The best way to repay their kindness is to free them from suffering and its causes and bring them to enlightenment. This is the best way to repay their kindness.

“To do this, I first need to practice Dharma myself. I need to have realizations of the lam-rim so that I can reveal Dharma to the sentient beings and cause them to practice Dharma. This is the best way to repay the kindness of my kind mother sentient beings. Even though my kind mother sentient beings want happiness very much, they are devoid of happiness. Even when they have temporary happiness, they are devoid of the ultimate happiness of liberation from samsara. And even when they have liberation from samsara, they are devoid of the peerless happiness of enlightenment. Therefore, I must cause them to have all happiness and the cause of happiness. No matter how much they don’t want to suffer, my kind mother sentient beings constantly suffer. They keep themselves busy constantly creating the cause of suffering. I must free them from all suffering and its causes. And this work of freeing them from all suffering and of bringing them all happiness, including full enlightenment, I must do by myself alone.”

Take the complete responsibility for this upon yourself. Generate this special attitude of voluntarily doing this work for sentient beings “I will free every hell being from their suffering and bring them to enlightenment by myself alone. I will free every hungry ghost from their suffering and bring them to enlightenment by myself alone. I will free every animal from their suffering and bring them to enlightenment by myself alone. I will free every human being from their suffering and bring them to enlightenment by myself alone. I will free every asura and sura from all their suffering and bring them to enlightenment by myself alone. I will free every intermediate state being from all their suffering and bring them to enlightenment by myself alone.

“There is no other means of accomplishing this work for others except by first achieving full enlightenment myself. I need to have omniscient mind, which directly knows all the levels of mind, wishes, karma and intelligence of every sentient being, as well as all the various methods that are suitable for them. Therefore, I need to actualize the steps of the path to enlightenment. Therefore, I need to purify my defilements, negative karma, downfalls and degenerated samaya vows. Therefore, I am going to practice the meditation and recitation of Vajrasattva...for one minute!”

Visualization during mantra recitation

Especially for the third purification, the instantaneous purification, when Vajrasattva sends strong nectar-beams it might be useful to think that your body becomes in the nature of light. This makes it easy to generate strong faith that you have actually purified the negative karma, downfalls and degenerated samaya vows .

It is also mentioned that as you recite the Vajrasattva mantra, all the sentient beings you have visualized on a moon disc at your heart are also reciting the Vajrasattva mantra at the same time. As you are purifying them, they are also reciting the mantra.

Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche also gave some advice about this particular visualization. Once I asked Rinpoche how to make effective the po-wa meditation, in which you visualize transferring the consciousness of a dead or dying person to a pure land. Rinpoche said that you will be able to do po-wa meditation more effectively for others if, when you do the Vajrasattva meditation, you visualize all sentient beings on a moon disc at your heart, then visualize purifying them with nectar beams emitted from Vajrasattva. This meditation helps you transfer another sentient being’s consciousness to a pure land by doing the po-wa meditation.

When you do Vajrasattva practice in your daily life, visualize all sentient beings on a moon disc at your heart, and as you do the meditation of purifying yourself, also purify them. This is Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche’s special advice.

There are many people, especially in the West, interested in hospice work. As I have been suggesting for some years, po-wa is a very important method of helping someone who has died. It is a very important service that saves other beings from the lower realms. In some pure lands, the sentient being definitely becomes enlightened. In other pure lands, the sentient being doesn’t become enlightened, but it is impossible for them to again be reborn in the lower realms.

It would have been nice to have had the Medicine Buddha celebration today, but it’s been scheduled for tomorrow. Unfortunately, rain has been forecast for tomorrow. However, now let’s do some more prayers—Four-armed Mahakala, the praise and tea offering to Palden Lhamo and perhaps Six-armed Mahakala .

Practices for someone who has died

It came out very beneficial to recite one mala of OM MANI PADME HUM dedicated for Arthur B., who died recently in Boston. Visualize the Thousand-arm Buddha of Compassion. Nectar beams emitted by the Buddha of Compassion purify, in particular, Arthur B. of all the negative karma he collected in this life and during beginningless past lives. You can also think that all sentient beings are purified of all their negative karma as well.

Make a strong request to the Buddha of Compassion that no matter in which realm the consciousness of Arthur B. may be, may it immediately be transferred to a pure land where he can become enlightened or be reborn in a perfect human body and soon achieve enlightenment by meeting a perfectly qualified Mahayana guru and the Mahayana teachings.

[The retreat group recites together one mala of manis.] According to my divination, recitation of King of Prayers also came out very beneficial for this person. [The group recites King of Prayers.] Put yourself in the place of this person who has died. If it was you who had died this morning, how would it be? At the time of death and especially after death, you need so much help from others. If it was you who had died this morning and you knew that a group of people were praying for you, you would be so happy to have such incredible support. Even after death, such practice is very beneficial for the person who has died, and it is also beneficial as a practice that will enable you to benefit sentient beings like all the buddhas and bodhisattvas of the three times do.

When I was in Madison last year, I got translations of some of the eight prayers that are commonly recited in Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism as dedications for yourself and others, one of which is King of Prayers. I don’t know who did the translation, but it is excellent. One is a prayer to be born in the Blissful Realm, the pure land. I thought that it would be good to alternate King of Prayers and the Prayer to be Reborn in the Land of Bliss. It is not necessary to do all eight prayers one after another, but I thought it might be nice to have a change and do different dedication prayers. It is especially good to do Prayer to be Reborn in the Land of Bliss (De-wa-chen gyi mon-lam...). Then we know how to pray for all the important things.

As I mentioned at another time, when I was in Madison studying with Geshe Sopa Rinpoche last year, from time to time Geshe-la would receive requests for prayers from people. Geshe-la would call everybody there—all the other geshes and lamas—to do prayers. I thought it was extremely good that Geshe-la, when requested, took such precise care of people who had died and needed help. Geshe-la specifically decided to do prayers in the gompa room together with all the geshes and lamas there. Geshe Tengye, an old geshe who is one of Geshe-la’s disciples, led the prayers. Even though this Prayer to be Reborn in the Land of Bliss was not new to me, because he led the prayer, I somehow found it very effective and beneficial for my mind. It is actually a common prayer. I had thought to translate it into English and make it available so that students also get the chance to recite this prayer, but it seems that somebody has already translated it. I don’t know who did the translation, but it’s translated extremely well. I have a copy of the English translation, and I think it is very good to recite this to pray for yourself and for others. [See the FPMT Prayer Book.] I think that is all.

Thank you.