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 22: February 21-a


Questions and Answers

Is there one question? [Silence.] ...half a question?

Judy Lin: I’m wondering if the Vajrasattva meditation can purify the most subtle obscurations?

Rinpoche: Yes, it can help to purify subtle obscurations. Vajrasattva meditation purifies subtle obscurations, but not by itself alone. By purifying the obstacles, negative karma, Vajrasattva practice allows us to actualize the realizations of the path to enlightenment; it helps us to actualize the remedy of the path, which is what ceases the subtle defilements.

Ven. Michel: If we don’t finish the number of mantras, may we continue reciting the Vajrasattva mantra after the retreat but on the basis of another deity instead of Heruka?

Rinpoche:There is no problem with doing that. Since the meditation has to do with visualizing Vajrasattva on your crown, it doesn’t matter what deity you generate yourself as or whether you change the deity. It won’t bring any obstacles. .

For example, when you do the Vajrayogini sadhana, you recite some Vajrasattva mantras at that time, and the same applies when you do the practices of Heruka and Yamantaka. With each sadhana that you do, you can count the Vajrasattva mantras that you recite. There is no problem; it won’t become an obstacle.

Merci beaucoup!

Ven. Paloma: Rinpoche, I would like to know what it means to disturb the mind of the guru.

Rinpoche:I’m speechless! It means to displease the mind. That’s all. Finished.

Julia Hengst:Rinpoche, two reasons are explained as to why we can purify negative karmas—because they are impermanent and because they are dependent arisings. I’m wondering why are we able to purify negative karmas because they are dependent arisings?

Rinpoche: Your question itself is the answer. It’s the same as washing ourselves.

When our body is dirty, we can clean it with soap and water. How do the soap and water clean our body of the dirt? Or, when our clothes are dirty, we can clean them with soap and water. With one set of causes and conditions, our body or our clothes become dirty; with another set of causes and conditions—water, soap and so forth—our body or our clothes can be cleaned. The imprint, the seed of delusions left on our mental continuum, is the main cause for the arising of delusions. When we meet the objects of our delusions (the conditions), since we do not practice Dharma, since we do not practice mindfulness and do not apply the necessary antidotes, we have no protection against the arising of delusions. Because the seed of delusions has not been removed, delusions arise and again leave negative imprints on our mental continuum, and motivate negative karma as well. It transforms our actions into negative karma. Each time a delusion arises it leaves an imprint; it obscures the mind. The negative karma also obscures the mind.

Here, in the case of Vajrasattva, we purify the negative karmas and defilements with a different set of causes and conditions—meditating on Vajrasattva, emptiness or bodhicitta, generating compassion, reciting mantras and so forth. The Vajrasattva mantra has power because of the qualities of Vajrasattva. Vajrasattva, a manifestation of the holy mind of all the buddhas, the absolute guru, is bound by infinite compassion and manifested especially to purify the minds of sentient beings. Because Vajrasattva especially took this aspect for purification, it is very powerful in purifying defilements. Even though reciting any buddha’s name can purify, the Vajrasattva mantra is recited in particular because Vajrasattva manifested specifically to purify defilements. Purification is the main function of Vajrasattva. Due to the power of compassion and the power of this deity’s aspect, which is manifested particularly to perform the function of purification, Vajrasattva is able to purify if you do the meditation- recitation.

Basically, as you mentioned, negative karma is a causative phenomenon.

Therefore, it is not independent; it is a dependent arising. Not only is negative karma a dependent arising, but it is also a causative phenomenon, so you can purify it. In dependence upon one set of causes and conditions, negative karma is created. In dependence upon another set of causes and conditions, it can be purified. That’s all.

And your own faith is another factor. How much negative karma you purify depends on how much faith you can generate that you have purified the negative karma. When we do Vajrasattva meditation-recitation, generating faith that we have purified our negative karma and defilements also has power.

Student: Could Rinpoche explain how we’re supposed to visualize the environment as the mandala.

Rinpoche: How do you visualize the place as the Vajrasattva mandala? When your room or the place you live becomes very disturbing, how do you visualize it as the mandala? Is that the question?

Student: The commentary says that we are supposed to practice seeing the environment as the mandala of the deity and all objects as pure rather than ordinary. I don’t really know what it means or how to do it.

How do I visualize the mandala?

Rinpoche: When you take a great Vajrasattva initiation, there is visualization of the mandala. I had a picture of the Vajrasattva mandala for a long time. I think an old monastery in Solu Khumbu had a Vajrasattva mandala on its ceiling, and for a long time I had a picture of it on the cover of my book. Now I have lost it. It was like the usual mandala of the deity, with Vajrasattva in the center. There are small differences in mandalas according to whether the deity is Guhyasamaja, Yamantaka, Heruka Chakrasamvara or whatever, but the general design is the same.

Now, in relation to you, you can visualize the mandala of any deity whose great initiation you have received, whether it is Heruka, Yamantaka, Hevajra or another deity. Even though in relation to your present practice you are doing a Vajrasattva retreat, in relation to visualizing the mandala, you can visualize that deity’s mandala.

What was your other question? Was it about visualizing things as pure?

Student: I read somewhere that to see things as ordinary breaks a tantric vow. How are we supposed to stop seeing things as ordinary?

Rinpoche: It is mentioned that we should think that every thought that arises is the dharmakaya, every sound we hear is the holy speech of the deity or mantra and every form that appears is the holy body of the deity.

It is like this with the holy body, holy speech and holy mind. This is called the yoga that utilizes the three in the path to enlightenment, or, in Tibetan, ku-sum kyi näl-jor. When you do this yoga, your mind becomes pure, from being an impure mind that projects the impure. Projecting the impure has two aspects, appearance and belief. Things appear to you as ordinary, and you then believe that they are ordinary.

Generally, there are two ways to look at things as pure, which includes looking at the place as a mandala, your body and the bodies of others as the deity’s holy body, and food and drink as nectar. One way is to look at the essence of everything as bliss and voidness. The other way is to also see things with a pure appearance. It is not necessary to change everything into another form; you don’t have to transform everything into a pure aspect. For example, in the mandala there are cemeteries with zombies, guardians, corpses and skeletons—you don’t visualize them as the deity. Even though you stop the appearance of the place as ordinary and the concept that believes it is ordinary and visualize the mandala, it is not necessary to visualize all the beings in the cemeteries as the deity.

In the case of the cemeteries, the meaning of practicing pure appearance is that the essence of everything is the transcendental wisdom of non-dual bliss and voidness, even though it appears as corpses, trees, guardians and so forth. Since everything is a manifestation of the deity’s holy mind, the dharmakaya, it is pure. This is how you look at it as pure.

I think that even looking at the essence of everything as wisdom and bliss, the deity’s holy mind, the dharmakaya, helps a lot. It is one way of looking at things as pure.

For example, in the practice of guru devotion according to the sutra Mahayana, there is no instruction to stop the ordinary appearance of the guru and there is no mention of visualizing the guru as the deity. This is mentioned only in the guru yoga practice of tantra. The teachings of Mahayana sutra mention that you use quotations and logical reasoning, supported by your own particular experiences (if you have any), to see the essence of the guru as buddha. And you see the holy mind of the guru as the dharmakaya. By looking at the guru as buddha, you then see the guru as buddha, as pure, even though his appearance is ordinary. The appearance of the guru doesn’t change into the pure form of the deity’s holy body. When by looking at the guru as buddha, you see the guru as buddha, the appearance of the guru doesn’t change. This is the main point.

In tantra, on top of that, even the external appearance is pure. Tantric guru yoga practice is done on the basis of the sutra practice. First you use logical reasoning and personal experiences to prove to your mind, which sees the guru as ordinary, that the guru in essence is buddha. This is the foundation. On this basis you then see the guru in the aspect of the deity by looking at the guru in the deity’s aspect. Before you visualize the guru as inseparable from the deity, you must have the foundation of the sutra practice of guru devotion. This is the foundation when you do Lama Chöpa, six-session yoga or any other guru yoga practice in which you generate the deity. You have to establish the mind of guru devotion in place of the mind that projects ordinary appearances and concepts of the guru, especially in relation to the mind of the guru. By using quotations, reasoning and your own experiences, you have to prove that the essence, or the mind, of the virtuous friend is dharmakaya.

What I’m trying to explain is that even though the external aspect of the guru doesn’t change into the deity’s aspect when you see that the essence of the guru is dharmakaya, it is an important foundation for that realization. It is very important in the practice of seeing the virtuous friend as pure.

Ven. Ailsa Cameron: Rinpoche, in the visualization of Vajrasattva and the consort is there also a mantra garland around the seed syllable at the heart of the consort?

Rinpoche: I have never thought about that! I have never dreamt about it! I think you can visualize that. You can visualize as many mantra garlands as possible—at the father’s heart, at the mother’s heart, at the daughter’s heart, at the son’s heart....

So far I have not seen any commentary that says to visualize the mantra at the mother’s heart. It usually says at the father’s heart. But if you would really like to visualize the mantra also at the mother’s heart, I don’t think that there should be any problem from doing that. Maybe it would be helpful to have more nectars flowing down.

Todd Ring: If there is awareness that thought and consciousness are not separate, does that suppress the causative power of karmic appearances or purify them? And can one practice that way?

Rinpoche: Does it make karma cease to function? What do you mean by “not separate”?

Todd: Thought and consciousness are both empty and non-dual, so aren’t they therefore not separate? And if one remains in the awareness of this...

Rinpoche: Remaining in the awareness that all phenomena—not only thought and consciousness—are empty, or non-dual, makes negative karma unable to function and good karma able to function. Everything is empty, not just thought and consciousness. If you look at the numberless phenomena as empty, like space, if you can keep your mind in that state, it is only negative karma that is unable to function; good karma functions. It is similar to what was mentioned before about dependent arising.

Todd: I don’t understand how negative karma is unable to function but good karma is still functional.

Rinpoche: To understand that, you need to know more about what emptiness means. It will then become more clear how that can enable good karma to function.

Negative karma is made unable to function by the power of that meditation on the very nature of phenomena. Positive karma is made functional because you collect inconceivable merit when you do that meditation. Meditating on emptiness is the most powerful way to cease the delusions, or defilements. The wisdom that realizes emptiness is actually the only thing that can directly cease the delusions, especially the very root of all delusions, ignorance, the concept of inherent existence.

The wisdom that realizes emptiness is the most powerful agent in purifying negative karma.

Negative karma is the obstacle to many things—happiness, success in business, health, longevity, harmonious relationships, realizations.

Negative karma is the obstacle to our achieving enlightenment and our benefiting and enlightening others. So, the wisdom that realizes emptiness purifies negative karma. Not only that, but it collects inconceivable merit, inconceivable good karma. This wisdom is very powerful, like an atomic bomb. It is the most powerful means of purifying negative karma.

And because you purify negative karma, the past good karma you have collected is strengthened and ripened. For example, if you are eating the wrong diet or something poisonous and you are also taking medicine, the medicine becomes more powerful and works better when you reduce your intake of the wrong food or the poison. Similarly, by meditating on emptiness, you purify more negative karma and at the same time collect inconceivable merit, so your past merit is then experienced. You are then able to have realizations of the path to enlightenment.

Does this make it a little clearer? Anyway, you can think and meditate more on this point, and an understanding of it will then gradually come.

Ven. Michel: On the crown of Vajrasattva, do we visualize Akshobhya alone or with the consort?

Rinpoche: The question from the very famous venerable from Nalanda is, “When you initiate the Vajrasattva on your crown and the surplus water becomes Akshobhya, should you visualize Akshobhya in the aspect of father and mother embraced?” I don’t remember seeing a commentary that specifies the aspect of Akshobhya, but I think that it should be okay to visualize father and mother.

There is a general explanation that shows the purpose of visualizing one of the five types of buddhas on the crown. Even though I’ve been using the term “Dhyani Buddha” for numberless years and many people have become familiar with the term, I don’t really know what Dhyani means in this context. After all these years, I’m still not sure what it means.

The Tibetan term is rig-nga, which could be translated as “five types of buddhas.” The word rig can mean “type” or “race,” as in Mahayana race. Mahayana race has nothing to do with the body; it has to do with the mind. Those who have the realization of bodhicitta are of the Mahayana race, or type. Sometimes rig is translated as “family,” but you can’t really talk about the Mahayana family; it should be the Mahayana race or Mahayana type. Of course, as far as the words are concerned, it doesn’t really matter. Whatever label you use, once its meaning is explained and people understand the meaning, the label itself doesn’t matter very much. Once the meaning of the term is known, it doesn’t really matter if the term is not precise.

This applies to some translations of Tibetan terms. Take “emptiness,” for example. In tantric sadhanas, before we generate something pure, a deity or a mandala, we purify in emptiness the ordinary object, our body or the place. At that time we use the words tong-pa-nyi du-gyur, not simply tong-pa gyur, which means “it becomes empty.” In Tibetan, the extra word nyi, which means “only,” is added after tong-pa, which means “emptiness.” Adding nyi makes the emptiness specific; it is not just ordinary emptiness but a specific emptiness. The Tibetan term, with the addition of the extra word nyi, becomes something special, something specific. The addition of nyi makes it clear that you are not just visualizing empty space or saying that something doesn’t exist there. If you don’t add nyi to tong-pa, you are referring to ordinary emptiness, which is like space or the absence of form. By adding nyi after tong-pa, however, you know that you are not simply visualizing that a substantial phenomena becomes non-existent, which is ordinary emptiness. The nyi makes the emptiness something particular, something special; it cuts the concept of ordinary emptiness. The nyi specifies that the type of emptiness is the emptiness of inherent existence.

The English word “emptiness” is not a precise translation of the Tibetan term tong-pa-nyi, where tong-pa means emptiness and nyi means only. Every single word of the Tibetan has not been translated—the nyi has been left out. However, for quite a number of years now, the term “emptiness” has been used to mean the absence of inherent existence, and people have become familiar with this use. In some contexts, the English word “emptiness” refers to the absence of inherent existence; in other contexts, it does not necessarily have this meaning. The Tibetan term tong-pa-nyi, however, always refers to the absence of inherent existence.

There is no danger of being misled and thinking of ordinary emptiness from the side of the words; this can only happen if someone doesn’t understand the meaning of the words.

You can say that all the buddhas are manifestations of the one, Buddha Vajradhara, who is of the sixth type, or race. Or you can say that all the buddhas are manifestations of the three, the holy body of Vairocana, the holy speech of Amitabha, the holy mind of Akshobhya.

Or you can say that all the buddhas are manifestations of the five Dhyani Buddhas.

Saying this has reminded me that the essence of the hundred syllable Vajrasattva mantra is the one hundred types, or races, of peaceful and wrathful deities—shi-tro tam-pa rig-gya in Tibetan. There is a way of counting one hundred types of deities (rig-gya), five types of deities (rig-nga) and one type of deity (rig-chig), which refers to Vajradhara. The HUM in the center signifies the sixth type (rig-drug-pa), or race, Vajradhara. The hundred syllables signify the hundred types of peaceful and wrathful deities.

The five Dhyani Buddhas are manifestations coming from Buddha Vajradhara, so in that sense rig could perhaps be translated as “lineage.”

Basically, a king’s race has to do with the children born from that king; it has to do with the blood lines. There are many such races in India. Here, the term rig, or “race,” has to do with the mind.

However, according to Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche’s explanation, rig, or “type,” refers to the sentient beings. Rather than referring to the Dhyani Buddhas, it refers to the types of sentient beings. For the type of sentient being whose main delusion is attachment, Amitabha manifests in order to purify their strong attachment. Akshobhya manifests to pacify the anger of those sentient beings whose main delusion is anger. In a similar way, each of the five Dhyani Buddhas acts as a particular remedy to one of the five main delusions. In this case, the “types” in the expression “the five types of the Victorious Ones”—gyal-wa rig-nga in Tibetan—is related to the types of sentient beings in terms of their delusions, and each of the five Dhyani Buddhas manifests in order to purify those types of sentient beings. As I mentioned before, for the “type” of sentient being who has strong attachment, Amitabha Buddha manifests to purify their delusions, particularly their attachment. So, in this context, “five types” seems a more suitable translation of rig-nga than “five lineages.” How you translate the term rig-nga depends on its context.

After some time, before the retreat finishes—or maybe after the retreat finishes—I thought to go through the commentary on the extensive Vajrasattva practice from the long version of the Yamantaka or the Heruka sadhana. In his Vajrasattva commentary, I think Lama Yeshe might have explained the elaborate visualizations from the long Heruka sadhana.

Invoking the wisdom beings and initiating the deity are not done for the deity but for our own mind. Initiating the deity is done to purify our own delusions, because a buddha has nothing to purify. If there were something to purify, the being would not be a buddha, but as in the Jorchö bath offering we’re doing every morning, the reason we still do the meditation is to purify our own mind, as well as to generate strong faith.

It is for this purpose that we invoke the wisdom being.

We might have the idea, “Oh, this is just a visualization. It comes from my own imagination, so how can it purify my mind?” To stop such thoughts, which are obstacles to having strong faith, we invoke the wisdom beings and so forth. We can then develop faith and feel that it is the real Vajrasattva that is purifying us.

The water that comes out of the crown transforms into one of the five types of buddhas. This is to show the particular type of buddha, from the five types, in the essence of which one becomes enlightened. It also helps to generate faith in the existence of this buddha.

Another explanation of the buddha on the crown is also given. Even after they become enlightened, buddhas still respect their guru, because they become enlightened in dependence upon the kindness of their guru.

The buddha on the crown signifies that the deity still pays homage, or respect, to the guru even after becoming enlightened. Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo gave this explanation in the Cittamani Tara commentary, and there are some other commentaries that explain it this way, too.

Again some obstacles happened so that I didn’t get to read the text [that Rinpoche has brought with him several times]. I thought to read you some fantastic stories, something really exciting that would make you levitate five feet in the air! Maybe next time....


“Due to the merits of the three times collected by myself and others, which are empty, may the I, which is empty, achieve Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s or Guru Vajrasattva’s enlightenment, which is also empty, and lead all sentient beings, who are also empty, to that enlightenment, which is also empty, by myself alone—which is not empty! That’s the only one that is not empty! Everything else is empty, except me. No, that one is the most empty of all! I’m joking!"