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 27: February 23


Reasons for giving long life initiation

Today we’re going to do the long life initiation of Buddha Amitayus. I think we’ve been doing too much meditation on impermanence and death, especially on the imminence of death! You think of impending death but I make your life longer! It’s a good deal! By thinking of impermanence and death, your life gets longer instead of shorter. You believe your life is going to be short, and that makes it longer....

Some time ago I thought to give a long-life initiation near the end of the Vajrasattva retreat, because doing it would be worthwhile. Since all of you are trying to practice Dharma and make your lives meaningful by benefiting others, it is worthwhile for you to have long lives and therefore to do a long-life initiation. However, Venerable Marcel has not been well for the last few days and, according to my divinations, there are some obstacles, so the long life initiation is needed immediately. This is why it is happening now. Also, it might benefit others, especially those who are in a similar situation with obstacles to their life. This initiation has the power to eliminate life obstacles not because I have the necessary qualities to give the initiation but because of both the compassion and blessings of Buddha Amitayus and your own faith and concentration.

There are many methods of prolonging life—right now, however, I need to prolong my nose! [Rinpoche blows his nose.] This is the first time I have done a Vajrasattva group retreat, and because of my laziness and other obstacles I myself haven’t attended all the sessions. Also, in the middle of March I have to go to India for a couple of weeks as I have been given the responsibility of organizing a meeting of Gelug lamas. When I come back, I will rejoin the retreat for the remaining month. However, my feeling is that all of you have been trying very hard, and it seems that the practice has been effective. Everyone seems to be doing the Vajrasattva retreat as perfectly as possible, and my feeling is that it is being very beneficial. You are not just fulfilling the mantra count but doing the many other practices that make the retreat most effective and most powerful. For this reason, it is extremely worthwhile for all of you to have long lives.

Venerable Marcel's qualities

Venerable Marcel is one of the people in the FPMT who is like gold.

Bearing many hardships, he has offered service to Lama Yeshe and this organization for a long, long time. No matter how hard or complicated things were, no matter how many obstacles he encountered in doing what Lama asked, Marcel was like a rock. With a brave heart he continued to offer service for many years during Lama’s time, and then after Lama’s time. After all that service I then gave him the burden of building the 500-foot statue of Maitreya Buddha, the future Buddha—after all that, I gave Marcel that big mountain to carry. So he has to have a long life! He has to live long; he has to live until that statue is finished and then until all the FPMT students have become enlightened.


At this time we have found a perfect human body, which is qualified by eight freedoms and ten richnesses, or endowments. Once found, this perfect human body has great meaning, and it will be extremely difficult to find such a body again. So, at this time we have achieved this perfect human body and also we have met the precious teachings of the Buddha, which are extremely difficult to meet, and we are being guided by not just a virtuous friend who reveals the unmistaken path, who shows virtue, who leads us in a virtuous path—which is the only way to achieve happiness —who leads us to liberation from samsara, not just that, but by a Mahayana virtuous friend, who guides us to enlightenment, the great liberation, the non-abiding sorrowless state. A virtuous friend who shows us the unmistaken path, the Mahayana path—not only the unmistaken path but the complete path to enlightenment—such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama and our other lamas. We have met not just one, but many.

And then, from your own side, by having learned the Dharma, you have the wisdom to see what is right to practice and what is wrong, to be abandoned. Therefore, you should think, “At this time I must do pure holy Dharma, and I must do it right now, because it is uncertain when my death will occur; there’s no certainty at all. It is not definite which will come first, tomorrow or the next life. I have to die—that’s definite.

At the moment, I am not beyond death; I have not overcome death.

With this present level of mind, I have not overcome death, therefore it is definite that I will experience death.”

After death, you don’t become non-existent, like Theravadins believe—those who follow, of the four schools of Buddhist philosophy, the first school, Che-tra-mra-wa.They believe that after achieving arhatship, the sorrowless state, the continuity of consciousness ceases at that time; the aggregates, including the consciousness, cease. That’s what those lower schools believe—that when you achieve liberation, the aggregates, the consciousness, cease. However, it’s not like that.

I also heard that there is a Western philosophy that says that after a person has died, the person’s soul hangs around, like a cloud hanging around in the sky, floating around up there somewhere. I’m not sure whether they call it the consciousness or the soul—maybe the soul—but after death, it floats around like a cloud. Have you heard this? I think some people believe it, which means they believe that something exists after death. I don’t think it’s a very popular belief, but some people hold it.

However, you need to take rebirth after death. And there is no third destination; there are only two—rebirth as either a happy migratory being or a suffering migratory being. If you reincarnate, get reborn, as a suffering transmigratory being, you find yourself as either a hell being— experiencing the heaviest sufferings of hot and cold—a preta—experiencing the heaviest sufferings of hunger and thirst—or an animal, whose major suffering is being extremely foolish, very ignorant, and being tortured by getting killed for meat, skin and so forth, which even happens to animals who live among humans. However, being eaten by enemies— people and other animals—they experience unimaginable suffering, day and night; all the time.

Even if you are able to receive the body of a happy migratory being, it’s still suffering in nature, with rebirth, old age, sicknesses, death and so forth. In the six realms of samsara—including even the form and formless realms, the highest realms of samsara—from the lowest hot hell—the unbearable hell realm, the very bottom hell, which has the heaviest suffering of all the hells—up to the highest formless realm, the tip of samsara —there is not even one single second’s experience of happiness that is not suffering; there is no pleasure that is not suffering.

Wherever in the desire, form or formless realms you reincarnate, it is all only suffering in nature. At the moment, because through meditation we haven’t realized how all these realms—desire, form and formless—are totally suffering in nature, because our minds are ignorant of this—not only ignorant, not knowing, but also hallucinating, looking at them as pleasurable—we look at samsara, at these desire, form and formless realms—as the Guru Puja mentions—as a beautiful park, as something whose nature is happiness, as something to enjoy, as something that is worth being attached to, as good, as beautiful. However, in reality, it is only suffering in nature. We have been born in these desire, form and formless realms numberless times; since beginningless time, we have experienced numberless rebirths in these realms; there’s nothing new.

Therefore, think, “This time, I must liberate myself from all these suffering samsaric realms. But just liberating myself alone is not sufficient.

Sentient beings equaling the sky—due to ignorance and life changes, birth and death—do not recognize that we have all been each other’s father and mother in the past. In reality, there is not one single sentient being who has not been my own father and mother in the past, who has not been kind, who has not helped me in the past. They are so very precious.”

You can also think—if you think that friends are more important than parents, more precious than parents—that there is not one sentient being who has not been your friend in the past.

However, “These kind mother sentient beings need to be liberated from all these oceans of samsaric sufferings, but at the moment, I don’t have the capacity to liberate them completely from all these oceans of samsaric suffering. Who does have that capacity? Who has the power to do that? Only the fully enlightened one; no one else. Only the fully enlightened being. Therefore, I must achieve full enlightenment at this time. For that purpose, I’m going to take the long life initiation of Buddha Amitayus, according to the tradition of the victorious ones who achieved the One Mother, and by taking this initiation I am going to accomplish extensive work for all sentient beings.”

Generate the strong thought of bodhicitta like this—you are going to take the initiation for the benefit of all sentient beings and after that are going to do extensive work for sentient beings, to make your own life as productive, as beneficial as possible, for others. In other words, you are taking this initiation for others. Your having a long life is for the benefit of others.

Rechungpa's tale

There’s a story about Milarepa’s disciple, his heart son Rechungpa. Once Rechungpa went to India, where he took the very profound teachings of the “Dakini with no body”—I don’t know what that is—in the presence of Drilbupa, the incarnation of Guru Marpa’s son, Tarma Dode.

About the time that Rechungpa was due to return to Tibet, Lama Drilbupa advised him, “Today, go into the city where the people gather.”

Accordingly, Rechungpa went into the center of the city, where people gather. There he saw a yogi with a bluish body, probably a bit like Milarepa’s, which had turned green because of all the nettles Milarepa ate. Anyway, this yogi had a blue holy body and was holding a horn in his hand. He stared at Rechungpa with very big eyes and said, “Oh, little Tibetan man—you are so beautiful, youthful and attractive, but you have only seven days to live.” Then the yogi disappeared.

Rechungpa was very unhappy, very disturbed by this, so he quickly went to see Drilbupa and told him what had happened. Drilbupa said, “I already knew that you have only seven days to live, but I sent you into the city to hear it from someone else so that you would have faith in that prediction.” Then Drilbupa said, “But you don’t need to be afraid. I have a method. In western India there is a sandalwood devi forest where Machig Drubpa’i Lhamo, the Queen who has achieved the One Mother lives.”

Usually “One Mother” refers to the wisdom Prajnaparamita mother.

That’s probably what it means here. The real meaning of “One Mother” is the wisdom realizing emptiness. Of the gone beyond wisdom of the scriptures, the gone beyond wisdom of path and the gone beyond wisdom of the result, the result is the complete one. The wisdom realizing emptiness that is the complete one is Buddha’s wisdom. Buddhas, bodhisattvas and arhats, both solitary realizers (pratyekabuddhas) and hearer-listeners (shravakas), are all born from the wisdom gone beyond.

Therefore, that wisdom is called the Mother. That is the actual meaning.

Then that manifests as this deity. That is the interpretive meaning. The Queen, who lived in this forest, had achieved the One Mother and gained the realization of immortality, so even though she had been alive for hundreds of thousands of years, she still looked as young and beautiful as a sixteen year-old girl.

Drilbupa told Rechungpa to go there and take long life instructions, so he went there and offered her many gold coins, and received the long life instructions. At that time, Rechungpa was forty years old, and that initiation enabled him to live to the age of eighty-four.

However, after receiving this initiation, Rechungpa went to Tibet, where he met Milarepa, who said to him, “Show me some profound teachings that I don’t have, that here in Tibet we don’t have.” Then Rechungpa offered this instruction, the Amitayus long life initiation, as a present to his guru, Milarepa. Milarepa, in turn, gave it to Tagpo Lharje, Gampopa, Milarepa’s unequaled heart son. The lineage of this initiation passed down from there, and I received it from His Holiness Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche at Kopan Monastery, when Rinpoche gave us the Rinjung Gyatsa or Sukha Gyatsa, those sets of hundreds of initiations. I have also received it from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and from other lamas. In this way, the blessing of the lineage of this initiation has continued without interruption.

The Initiation 

[Initiation continues with bodhisattva vows and instruction on the four black and the four white actions. See Liberation, p. 717. The four black actions to be abandoned are: trying to dupe your abbot, ordination master and so forth with lies; feeling distress when others do something virtuous; saying unpleasant things to bodhisattvas out of hostility; and acting deceitfully, without any altruism. The four white actions to be cultivated are: vigilantly abandoning deliberate lies; keeping honest intentions towards sentient beings and not deceiving them; developing the attitude that bodhisattvas are teachers and giving them due praise; and causing the sentient beings who are maturing under your care to uphold bodhicitta.]

Now purify yourself in emptiness. Observe how the self appears to you—whether it appears to you as not merely labeled by mind or as merely labeled by mind. There are four schools of Buddhist philosophy.

The fourth is the Madhyamika school, which has two divisions. The second of these is the Prasangika school. If the I appears to you as not merely labeled by the mind, that is the object to be refuted according to the view of the Madhyamika Prasangika school. This is a very subtle hallucination, a very subtle object to be refuted, an extremely subtle object to be refuted. That’s why realizing the Prasangika school’s view of emptiness is very subtle. It is subtle because the object to be refuted is very subtle, not gross. It’s not even like the object to be refuted according to the view of the Svatantrika school, the other division of the Madhyamika.

Appearing to you as not merely labeled by the mind, that extremely subtle one is there, something is left there—that’s the object to be refuted according to the view of the Prasangika school. That means it is a hallucination.

So, while your mind one-pointedly concentrates on the hallucination, that it is a hallucination, at the same time think of the meaning of its being a hallucination—that it is totally non-existent, totally nonexistent right there. Not even an atom of it exists. [Long meditation on emptiness.]

Then, the wisdom seeing emptiness manifests as the deity, Buddha Amitayus, the victorious one who has infinite, inconceivable life, wisdom —red in color, one face and two arms, holding a vase filled with the nectar of immortality, legs in the vajra posture, adorned with the holy marks and signs, in the aspect of the complete enjoyment body, the sambhogakaya, adorned with jewel ornaments and scarves. Visualize OM at his crown, AH at his throat and HUM at his heart.

[Initiation continues...concludes with Rinpoche placing the vase on everybody’s head.]