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 38: March 12


Benefits of long life Puja and Initiation

[During Ven. Ingrid Nordzin’s request to Rinpoche to accept a long life puja and to grant a long life initiation on April 30, she asked Rinpoche to remain until samsara is empty.]

Until samsara is empty? Samsara has been empty all the time. So it’s already finished!

I’m sorry, but I’ve been asleep for the past few days. I just woke up today!

From the very beginning of the Vajrasattva retreat, I had planned to give a long life initiation near the end of the retreat, not because I have the qualities necessary to do this, but because of the deity’s blessings and your concentration and faith. From that side there can be some benefit.

The reason that I thought doing it would be worthwhile is because we are trying to practice Dharma. The practice of Dharma involves two things—not harming others and, on the basis of that, benefiting others.

How does it happen? Through subduing our own mind. This makes it worthwhile to have a long life. Even someone reciting OM MANI PADME HUM every day is reason enough to give a long life initiation and to have a long life. It makes it worth doing.

For example, when Khunu Lama Tenzin Gyaltsen Rinpoche did a long life meditation during a teaching, Rinpoche would pray for the long life of even those who simply recite OM MANI PADME HUM.Rinpoche was a great bodhisattva, a great pandit like the pandits of ancient times such as Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti, and a great scholar as well. Besides all that, Rinpoche was a great yogi, a great practitioner of tantra, whose holy mind was well-trained in the Six Yogas of Naropa and other practices of the completion stage of Highest Yoga Tantra.

Anyway, a long life puja is a long life party. We’ll have a party, because it’s also a long life party for every one of you. It is not that by having a long life I can bring much benefit to others. However, as mentioned in the benefits of the seven limb practice, the limb of requesting the guru to have stable life is a particular means to purify the negative karma of having disturbed the guru’s holy mind. It is a means to purify heavy negative karma collected in this and past lives in relation to the guru through disturbing the holy mind and so forth. Each one of the seven limbs is a remedy for particular delusions and negative karmas.

Because we have a Dharma connection, not because of any power or realizations from the side of my mind, offering a long life puja is a very powerful means to purify those heavy negative karmas and to collect extensive merit. The benefit comes from our Dharma connection.

Purifying your negative karma also helps you, the disciple, to have a long life. This is why I am saying that it is also a long life party for every one of you. During the long life puja everybody will have to do a Sherpa dance—or a yak dance!

Vajrasattva retreat as a learning experience

I have already mentioned that if it is difficult for you to complete the mantras during this period, you can complete the number at home. If you want to continue the recitation at home, you can then finish the minimum requirement of 100,000 mantras.

Of course, it’s best to have both a high number and high quality of mantras; but if you can’t have both, then it’s best to have high quality, because the main aim is to purify negative karma. If great purification is done, even if you recite very few mantras, you have achieved the purpose of the retreat.

Even though I myself haven’t come to every session, I feel quite satisfied with this way of doing the Vajrasattva retreat. You have tried very hard to make the retreat as perfect as possible, to have perfect confession and purification. Because you have put your main effort into ensuring the quality of the retreat, I feel that this Vajrasattva retreat has been very good and very satisfying. And this applies even to those people who could not complete the number of mantras during the three-month period.

As I mentioned some time ago [see Chapter 7, Tuesday, February 9], you have also learned many other practices during this period of the Vajrasattva retreat. You have learned not only how to do the Vajrasattva meditation, but also how to do many other practices, such as Guru Puja and so forth, so that they become powerful and effective.

This retreat has also been part of your Dharma education. You have gained experience yourself and you will also be able to teach others how to do retreat and the various other practices. This is very important. We always have a shortage of experienced people. We need so many spiritual coordinators at the centers. The number of centers is increasing all the time, and every center needs someone to guide people in the various retreats and practices. This retreat has also become part of your education, so that if you would like to help in one of the centers, you now know how to guide various practices. This is very, very important.

Some years ago, at one of the CPMT meetings, the center directors’ meetings, I remember that Kabir Saxena brought up the issue that sangha should learn more about how to lead prayers and how to guide various practices. However, this applies to everyone, not just to sangha.

Everyone needs to learn this for their own practice and so that they can help other people, whether individuals or groups, at the centers. This retreat has had many other benefits, in terms of learning and experiencing practices. From time to time there have been explanations of various practices that might prove necessary or beneficial in your life.

One point is that it is helpful for you to learn more about various practices—guiding lam-rim meditations is the main one, of course. The other point is that it helps you to help others, to benefit others. You can help others to purify their negative karma and to collect merit, so that they can have realizations of the path to enlightenment.

We always have a shortage of spiritual coordinators at the centers, of people who can give advice on how to do retreats and various practices.

The more such people we have, the more productive and beneficial to sentient beings we can make the centers. Even if there is a geshe at the center, we still need a spiritual coordinator or some other person who can lead meditations and practices and who can be consulted by the students.

We still need that.

Conduct during retreat sessions

If people are simply reciting mantras and not concentrating, others making a noise during the sessions doesn’t matter. [Sudden noise in the background.]

That’s an example of what I’m talking about. However, in the case of someone who is concentrating single-pointedly, you might disturb their concentration if you make a noise. It is regarded as a great vice to disturb someone’s single-pointed concentration. I saw a story about this in a text. During a puja with a group of other monks, one monk was meditating on Heruka. I think he had realizations of the generation stage and had generated himself as Heruka and established the entire mandala.

It wasn’t like my visualizing the mandala, where everything in the visualization is just words. With the monk’s stable, single-pointed concentration, the mandala was actually appearing to his mind. Another monk then disturbed his meditation. The monk who disturbed the concentration then had to do 100,000 tsog offerings to purify that negative karma.

It is a heavy negative karma to disturb the meditation of anyone with such incredible concentration. Anyway, I’m not sure how many people here have that kind of concentration....

It’s a different matter if it’s a noise that you can’t control—a sudden sneeze, for example. Generally, however, you should cherish the other people who are meditating with you and try to be careful. This is what you should do not only during retreat but even normally in case the people around you are concentrating. If no one is concentrating, there’s no problem. But you should try to reduce the sounds you make as much as possible in case someone is concentrating, especially if the person might have single-pointed concentration, as in the example I mentioned. You can’t stop every noise, but try your best to cut down the noise you make.

Cherish the other people who are meditating.

Another point is that if you make a noise, other people might get angry with you and create negative karma. On the same cushion where we are supposed to achieve enlightenment we might then achieve the hell realms.

We are sitting on the cushion to achieve good rebirth, liberation and enlightenment, but there is then a danger that sitting on the cushion, we will achieve the opposite, the lower realms. We sit on the cushion to achieve inner peace but instead generate anger and other disturbing attitudes. If the noise you make doesn’t bother other people, it’s a different matter.

I might have created many, many negative karmas, because I always call Roger while he is meditating. I will have to do millions and millions and millions of tsog offerings! There is not enough life left to do all the tsog offerings I need to!

As far as drinking—or eating noodles or pizza—during a retreat session, drinking and eating are normally not done while you are reciting mantras.

When His Holiness Zong Rinpoche was giving Yamantaka retreat instructions to the young monks of Ganden Shartse Monastery, Rinpoche mentioned the case of Tepo Tulku, a very high lama of Ganden Shartse, whose incarnation lives in Los Angeles. (Ganden Monastery has two divisions, Shartse and Jangtse.) His Holiness Zong Rinpoche mentioned that Tepo Tulku Rinpoche used to drink during sessions, though I’m not sure whether he drank during mantra recitation.

I guess that Tepo Rinpoche drank very thick butter tea. His Holiness Zong Rinpoche did not say that this was negative, but simply mentioned it as a particular case.

If you have a health problem and it would be difficult for you to complete the session unless you drink, it’s a different matter. Otherwise, if you have no need to drink, it is better not to drink during mantra recitation. You will have fewer distractions if you do not drink during the recitation.

I might have drunk something during one of the sessions of a recent retreat, but in the other retreats I have never drunk anything during sessions, and especially not during the mantra recitation. But if you need to drink for health reasons, so that you can continue the session and the retreat, it’s a different case.

However, remember that it’s important to have an attitude of cherishing the other people who are meditating.

I think that’s all for tonight. If there is anything else, maybe it will come in your dreams....


When you do the dedications, you can visualize the seven Medicine Buddhas and make strong request to them from the bottom of your heart. Dedications are also prayers of request; the only difference is that you dedicate the merit to actualize your wishes. In the past when they were bodhisattvas, the Medicine Buddhas, besides making prayers for sentient beings, specially motivated to be able to accomplish the prayers of sentient beings. This is why it’s good to visualize the Medicine Buddhas when we are making requests even during dedications. Think of the seven Medicine Buddhas and then make the dedications for this and that to happen.

Visualize the seven Medicine Buddhas, then dedicate, “Due to all the past, present and future merits collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings and due to the merits of the three times of the people who have passed away whose names were mentioned, may those who have passed away, if they are in the lower realms, immediately be liberated from the lower realms and from the intermediate state. May they be reborn in a pure land of buddha where they can become enlightened or receive only a perfect human body in all their lives and achieve enlightenment as quickly as possible by meeting perfectly qualified Mahayana gurus and the Mahayana teachings.”

This dedication includes all those who have passed away who rely upon me, whose names were given to me and for whom I promised to pray, as well as all other human beings who have passed away. We can dedicate for everyone.

“And for those who are sick, whose names were mentioned in the request, may the rest of their life be most beneficial. May their life be made most meaningful through being able to actualize the steps of the path to enlightenment, especially bodhicitta, in this life as quickly as possible.

“May all the wishes of all the benefactors whose names were mentioned be accomplished immediately in accordance with the holy Dharma. May they be able to actualize the steps of the path to enlightenment, especially bodhicitta, in this very lifetime.”

Sangha food offering 

Since there are quite a number of monks and nuns here at the Vajrasattva retreat and many people have helped to sponsor the sangha to do the retreat, I would like to mention in this context that it would be good, after the meal is finished, for all the sangha to do together the prayer that is normally done as a group in Tibetan monasteries. Monks and nuns who follow the vinaya well and do the daily practices as Buddha advised make charity to the pretas every day. I don’t know, however, whether Chinese monasteries have this tradition of making charity to the pretas after eating food.

I don’t remember the details of the story of how this practiced started, but it seems that during the time of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha there was a female preta called Togmapo, who had five hundred children [Trog-ma bu-nga-gya]. Many families lost their children because Togmapo used to steal many human babies to feed her own children. To stop her from doing this, Buddha hid some of her children, which caused her great worry and suffering. Buddha said to her, “From now on, don’t take other people’s children. If you vow not to do this any more, my followers will give you food.” This is why good practitioners normally make offerings to the pretas.

I remember many years ago at Kopan Monastery when we used to eat with Geshe Jampa Gyatso, now the resident teacher at Istituto Lama Tsongkhapa, not a lunch went by where Geshe-la didn’t make charity to the pretas. I don’t remember what happened at dinner, but at lunch he would do this every time. It seems that in Italy he still does this practice every day. Lama Lhundrub, during the years he fasted after lunch, would also do this practice every day.

To do the practice of making charity to the pretas, at the end of the meal, you take the last food on your plate, usually rice or bread, and squeeze it in your right hand so that you leave an imprint of your fingers.

You then recite the mantra OM UTSISHTA PANDIASHIBYA SOHA, snap your fingers, then throw the food onto the table to make charity to the pretas.

As you throw the food down, you meditate that you are making charity to the pretas, that you are feeding Nö-jin Togmapo Nga Gya (Harmgiver Togmapo and her five hundred children). It is similar to making water charity to the pretas.

I myself haven’t done this practice much. I have done it with the Thamo nuns during nyung-näs at Lawudo. Even on the fasting day, when there is nothing to eat, the nuns still make charity to the pretas.

They make a torma and put it on the altar. At noon, the usual meal time, they pass the torma around, and each nun takes a piece, squeezes it in her hand and makes charity. Only on those occasions, because the group does, then you have to do it. Unfortunately, I haven’t done the practice much. Only occasionally, when a group of sangha are doing it, it reminds me to do the practice.

If possible, seal your action of making charity to the pretas with emptiness. You yourself are empty, the action of giving is empty and what you give is empty. Everything is empty. And snapping your fingers is to remind you of this emptiness. When you snap your fingers, the sound occurs in dependence upon many causes and conditions coming together. The snapping of your fingers shows emptiness, as does the sound of a bell. The sound of the bell during pujas is to be understood as showing that everything is empty. With that meditation on emptiness and with a bodhicitta motivation, you make charity of food to the pretas.

The benefit of the mantra is that it allows the pretas to find the food that is offered.

You then recite seven times, “I prostrate to the Bhagavan, the Tathagata, the arhat, the fully accomplished Buddha, Precious King of Light, Very Clear Fire Light.” Reciting this specific Buddha’s name seven times purifies any pollution you might receive by eating food that has been offered with devotion to the sangha. If somebody offers something without devotion, I don’t think it carries pollution. This is according to Geshe Rabten Rinpoche.

One time in Dharamsala, Geshe-la brought up this subject and analyzed the meaning of receiving pollution. There is one kind of pollution known as “pollution of the guru,” but it doesn’t mean pollution of the guru’s mind. For example, some meditators in Dharamsala think that receiving money from His Holiness the Dalai Lama brings quite heavy pollution, but it is not that the pollution is coming from His Holiness’s mind. It’s different from the way we normally talk about receiving pollution through contact with someone who has broken their vows or samaya.

The pollution referred to here has mainly to do with the practitioner.

Geshe Rabten Rinpoche asked the question, “What is the definition of pollution?”; then answered it himself. Geshe-la concluded that anything offered with devotion carries pollution [because of the responsibility that then falls upon the recipient], but that anything given without faith, such as a friend giving you money, may not carry any pollution.

The point is that pollution is regarded as a great obstacle to realizations.

There are many stories to illustrate this. I don’t remember the story well, but one famous lama, perhaps Panchen Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen, who composed the Guru Puja, didn’t achieve realizations because of the many offerings he received. After he stopped taking offerings, however, his mind became clearer, and he was able to receive realizations.

Basically, pollution is poison when it comes to realizations. It can also cause you to reincarnate in the lower realms. Like poisonous food harms the body, this kind of pollution from people offering things with devotion to the sangha harms the mind.

Therefore, while you are eating and drinking, if you can maintain the constant visualization of yourself as the deity and make offerings to the deity, what you eat and drink won’t bring pollution. As I mentioned at another time, you should eat and drink with the pure appearance of yourself as the guru-deity and the divine pride of being the guru-deity. In this way, you can enjoy the things offered to you with devotion without their polluting you. Not only will you not receive pollution, but instead of receiving harm, you will collect extensive merit and purify yourself.

You will transform the poison into medicine. Using enjoyments with this meditation of making offerings to yourself visualized as the guru-deity becomes a means of achieving enlightenment quickly. Therefore, this is one solution to the problem of pollution. You can do this meditation if you have received a great initiation of either one of the lower tantras or of Highest Yoga Tantra. You have to have received a great initiation, not just a short blessing of the holy body, holy speech and holy mind.

If you haven’t received a great initiation, visualize Buddha at your heart and offer your food and drink to him. This might also save you from the danger of pollution obscuring your mind and degenerating your realizations or making it difficult to achieve realizations.

The other thing you can do is recite the name of this buddha seven times, which purifies mountains of pollution, because when he was a bodhisattva, this buddha specifically motivated to be able to purify pollution in order to bring sentient beings to enlightenment.


Then dedicate the merit. “Due to the merits of the three times collected by me, my benefactors and all other sentient beings, may those who offered me food achieve bliss. May all those who offered me service, respect and offerings achieve bliss.” Here, “bliss” (or nye-wa shi-pa’i dewa, in Tibetan) means the ultimate happiness of liberation, which is gained through pacifying, or ceasing, karma and delusions, the cause of suffering.

“May all those who make me unhappy, lift up weapons against me, beat me or even kill me, quickly achieve the peerless happiness of full enlightenment.” It is very good to pray for the quick enlightenment of those who harm you, which includes anyone who abuses you in any way.

There are also other dedications for the benefactors and for the naga kings in the prayer that is usually recited.

These prayers are normally recited in sangha communities after meals. It is very good to recite them. Geshe Jampa Tegchog established this practice at Nalanda Monastery, where Vietnamese families would offer lunch to the monks from time to time. I did not eat in the kitchen every day when I was there, but I was there once or twice when it happened.

I remember that the monks did prayers before and after the meal.

The prayers done after the meal were those normally recited in Tibetan monasteries that Geshe-la had taught the monks. These prayers are good for the benefactors and good for the sangha who pray for them. It is very good to make offering prayers before the meal, which collects a lot of merit, and to dedicate all the merits by saying this prayer immediately after the meal.

If possible, you should also recite the Heart Sutra. This is what Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche does. After lunch, Rinpoche recites the prayer that I have just mentioned, one mala of OM MANI PADME HUM and then the Heart Sutra.Because of the meditation on emptiness, it brings incredibly powerful purification and is therefore very good for the benefactors.

Reciting the Heart Sutra is very powerful for the benefactors, pacifying any obstacles they might have to their success in business or other activities.

It’s a very powerful way to pacify your own obstacles and those of others. However, this is what Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche does.

Before the meal you can offer the food according to either sutra or tantra. As part of the sutra offering, you can recite Nagarjuna’s prayer, Seeing this food as medicine, We eat it without attachment or hatred, Not to become fat, not out of pride, Not to look strong, only to sustain the body.

Basically, the only reason for eating the food is to sustain your body so that you can practice Dharma.

After the sutra offering, Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche does the tantra offering, like that. After all this, Rinpoche does a short practice that is related to offering tsog. I think Rinpoche wrote this prayer, which I have translated into English, in his past life. At the very end, Rinpoche does this prayer, in which you visualize yourself as the deity with your guru in your heart and use the food as a tsog offering.

If the food is offered here in the gompa before lunch, it would be very good if all the monks and nuns at the retreat could do this practice together in the dining room after lunch.

What it means to be Sangha

Becoming sangha, an ordained person, means that your life is to be used for practice, nothing else. There is nothing other than Dharma practice in your life. Once you are ordained there are no two ways to think; your mind can only go one way. You’re on the freeway—you can only go in one direction. You cannot have one foot in samsara and the other in nirvana.

Specifically, it means that your attitude and lifestyle point only toward liberation. Everything you do is directed toward liberation, nothing else. This is what it means to be ordained, to be sangha; this is the bottom line of being ordained. Your attitude and everything else in your life are in harmony with the attainment of liberation. Therefore, it means that you have to do more practice. Being ordained means you have to do more practice, be more committed to doing practice.

So, one thing I wanted to mention was this community practice at lunchtime. There was another thing I wanted to mention, but it’s getting late. We’re going overnight; we’re going without sleep. This is extra Vajrasattva, extra purification. It’s double Vajrasattva!

Benefits of group retreat

If you compare the benefits of doing a Vajrasattva retreat alone to those of doing it in a group with other people, it is more powerful to do a group Vajrasattva retreat.

Another example that I have seen mentioned in various teachings is that it is more powerful for a group of people to build a stupa than for one person to build a stupa. Yet another example is related to the reciting of sutras, whether it is the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, specific sutras for purification or other sutras. Monks in the monasteries are requested to recite sutras for various purposes—for healing, for purification, for the removal of business problems, for people who have died and so forth.

For example, it sometimes comes out that the Prajnaparamita text should be recited as a means for success in business. It is mentioned in the teachings that reciting a sutra together with all the other monks in a community is much more powerful than reciting a sutra alone. One other example is mentioned, but I can’t remember it.

Therefore, doing a group retreat is more powerful than doing a retreat alone. Your reciting Vajrasattva mantras together with many people is more powerful than reciting them alone. I remember that the disciplinarian [Tib: ge-kyö] at Kopan Monastery recently told the Kopan monks during a puja how powerful it was to do prayers together. I hadn’t seen a textual reference for the power of group practice until I recently saw it mentioned in a commentary to the Bodhicaryavatara. The lama who wrote the commentary explained this point and used many sutra texts, the teachings of Buddha, as references. I had heard this point previously but until then I hadn’t seen any textual references to prove it.

Therefore, we should rejoice in the fact that reciting prayers and practicing with others gives our own practice more power.

I think that’s it for tonight. If I remember something else after an hour or two, perhaps around two or three o’clock, we’ll ring the gong—the large gong!


“Due to all the past, present and future merits collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings, may all the requests contained in the Prayer to be Reborn in the Land of Bliss be actualized precisely in accordance with the prayer, for me, my family, all the students and benefactors of this organization, all the benefactors of the sangha whose names were mentioned, all the sick people, those who have died, and all other sentient beings. May all the requests contained in this prayer be actualized immediately for me and all other sentient beings.” If we are unsure about how to pray, praying like this covers everything.

“May I actualize in this life the complete teachings of Lama Tsongkhapa, the unification of sutra and tantra, and spread them in the minds of all sentient beings. May these teachings flourish forever.”

Reciting the multiplying mantras multiplies each merit that we have collected today 100,000 times. Reciting the next buddha’s name not only increases all the merits 100,000 times but causes all the prayers we have made to be actualized. This is its specific benefit.

“Due to all the merits of the three times collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings—due to the blessings of the eminent buddhas and bodhisattvas, due to unbetraying dependent arising and due to my special attitude, may all my pure prayers be accomplished immediately.”

Good night and good morning!

Next Chapter:

Chapter 39: March 13 »