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 39: March 13


The necessity of compassion

In previous discourses I’ve been talking about the necessity of having a good heart and the urgency of developing the realization of compassion within you, the one person’s mind. I mentioned, for example, how compassion is the best remedy to any kind of obstacle. If you encounter obstacles in your Dharma practice, in actualizing the realizations of the path to enlightenment, compassion is the most important activity in which you can engage.

The greatest success you can have is the development of your mind in the path to not just liberation from samsara but to full enlightenment, the great liberation, at which time you can liberate numberless other beings from all the sufferings of samsara and their cause, karma and delusion, and bring them to the peerless happiness of full enlightenment.

Developing compassion is the best way of overcoming obstacles to that.

Compassion is also the best remedy to life obstacles, the best puja for eliminating the danger of an untimely death—where you still have the karma to live, but some heavy negative karma has suddenly brought hindrances to your life’s continuing. Compassion is the best way of overcoming obstacles to your life.

As I also mentioned the other day, compassion is the best way of eliminating other obstacles, such as those to success in your work or in business. It is also the best medicine when you are sick. With compassion, your positive way of thinking, the healthiest of minds, you can heal yourself, you can become your own doctor, the best psychologist.

Amongst positive minds, the most positive, the most powerful is compassion.

Even if you are sick, you can heal yourself with compassion.

Like the Chinese student I told you about—the one who had AIDS and cured himself by generating unbelievable strong compassion doing the meditation of taking onto himself the suffering of others, especially that of AIDS; taking suffering onto and destroying his ego, the source of all problems.

The evolution of harm

It is your ego that brings and obliges you to experience all your problems.

It’s your ego that has tortured you all the time, not only from when you were born into this life but from beginningless rebirths, in all your past samsaric lives. From beginningless samsaric rebirths up until now, it is your ego that has been torturing you, has brought all undesirable things, has made others criticize you. The main cause of all this has been your own ego.

It is also your own ego that causes others to abuse you. Why? Because either earlier in this life or in a previous life, your ego—your self-centered mind—attachment, anger and other emotional disturbing thoughts arose and caused you to create non-virtuous actions, to harm others.

Because of that motivation, caused mainly by your ego, your self-centered mind, these actions became negative karma. Having harmed others, the result similar to the cause comes back on you now. You have to experience the result, such as others abusing you, back on yourself in this life.

You must relate such experiences to yourself. You established a connection with a certain sentient being by harming that being in the past, therefore, in this life, that sentient being’s present incarnation responds to you in a similar way. There’s a reason for that sentient being treating you badly with abuse or harming you in some other way—it’s a causative phenomenon.

The Tibetan term ngo-po means a phenomenon that has the ability to bring its own result; something that occurs as a result of causes and conditions, that is able to function. Therefore, the way the other person treats you is not a permanent phenomenon. It is ngo-po,an impermanent phenomenon, which functions, which brings its own result. Therefore, since it is ngo-po, an impermanent phenomenon, it depends on, happens as a result of, causes and conditions. The cause has to exist before the result it brings; that cause is karma, how you treated that person, that sentient being, in the past.

The cause—which existed before this situation happened, this undesirable experience that hurt your mind, that you do not like—is your own inner factor, the mind. The cause is your delusions and the intention, the karma, which is not positive karma but negative. Your delusions and karma, your ignorance, anger and attachment, arise due to your own self-centered mind.

As the great bodhisattva Shantideva said in his Entering the Bodhisattva’s Holy Deeds, “My karma compels me to receive this harm. After all, wasn’t it I that caused other sentient beings to get lost from the human realm and fall into the pit of hell?” [Chapter 6, verse 47.]

Here he’s talking about the evolution—how first you create karma with another sentient being by treating that being badly, with self-centered mind, delusion, anger and attachment—and then because of that harm, in this life, you receive harm back from that person, that sentient being you treated badly in the past. By harming you, that sentient being creates the karma to be reborn in the hell realms. Instead of being born human, getting another good rebirth, that sentient being gets lost in the pit of hell, doesn’t get born human again. Instead, that sentient being falls into hell, gets lost from the human realm.

This is what happens to the person who gives you harm, who mistreats you, abuses you. This is the situation of sentient beings who treat you badly. Therefore, they are never objects of retaliation; you should never, ever get angry back at them. They are only objects of compassion.

Instead of harming, you should help them. Instead of getting angry, you should feel compassion. It is your responsibility to save those beings from falling into the lower realms, to protect them from negative thoughts and negative karma. By understanding their situation, by looking at their position, you have no choice. They can be only objects of compassion. Instead of harming, you must help them. Your only concern should be how to help the person who is treating you badly, creating negative karma with you.

As I said before, trace back the evolution of this situation. Why is this happening? It is happening because in the past, you created similar negative karma with that being; you gave harm to that person in the past.

That’s what is now causing, obliging, that person to harm you in return.

You put him into this situation of having to treat you badly. If you hadn’t harmed him in the past, there’d be not one single reason for him to treat you badly in this life. No reason at all. If there’s no reason, no cause, it doesn’t happen. Because this experience is a causative phenomenon, it has a preceding reason, a cause. That cause is why it happens. It’s the same thing, no matter what we experience. A happy life, a miserable life, whatever effect we experience in daily life, it all comes from somewhere, it has a reason. Everything has a reason for its existence and the reason exists before the event. Before we experience an effect, its cause has to exist. That cause is the karma we have created in the past.

Therefore, when you check back, how you treated that sentient being badly in the past, how you gave harm, you can see how everything started from there. That’s why the great bodhisattva Shantideva said, “My karma compels me to receive this harm. After all, wasn’t it I that caused other sentient beings to get lost from the human realm and fall into the pit of hell?”

Responding to harm with compassion: Letting others win

It can be extremely effective to recall Shantideva’s advice, as contained in this quotation, in your daily life. Whenever you encounter a problem— somebody criticizes you, treats you badly, gets angry at you, abuses you—whatever happens, this quotation enables you to practice tolerance, to control your anger, to keep your mind in a state of peace and happiness through not letting anger arise.

Not only that. In particular, this quotation allows you to feel compassion for that person, which is extremely important. You use the problem to develop compassion instead of using that person to generate anger and other negative emotional thoughts, which destroy you, your peace and happiness, your good personality, your well-being, your healthy mind and your healthy body. By destroying your healthy mind you destroy your healthy body. Besides all this, getting angry also harms your realizations, your development of the good heart, bodhicitta, the altruistic mind wanting to achieve enlightenment for the sake of sentient beings, the altruistic mind renouncing I, cherishing numberless other living beings, who, like yourself, want happiness and do not want suffering.

Numberless other beings also want happiness and do not want suffering —you are just one, they are numberless. Therefore, there is no limit to the importance of other sentient beings or to how important it is for you to bring them happiness and stop their suffering. You yourself are just one. Even if you attain liberation from samsara, everlasting happiness, it is nothing to get excited about—you are just one. Even if you are reborn in hell, you are just one. Even when you compare yourself to one other person, one other sentient being, who is more important? Just one on one. Whether it’s an insect or another human being, an elephant or an ant—you and that other sentient being—who is more important?

All your past, present and future happiness—temporary happiness, ultimate happiness, liberation from samsara, the peerless happiness of full enlightenment, everything, the happiness of all your beginningless past lives, all you present happiness, all your future happiness including that of enlightenment—comes from your good karma, your positive intention. Where does your good karma come from? That is the action of buddha.

Buddha has two types of action. One works within the minds of us sentient beings—all virtuous thoughts are buddha’s actions working within us. The other kind of buddha’s action is that possessed only by buddha’s holy mind. There are these two types of action of buddha. That means all good karma, the cause of all your past, present and future happiness, comes from buddha. Buddha comes from bodhisattva, bodhisattva comes form bodhicitta, bodhicitta comes from great compassion and great compassion is generated in dependence on the existence of the suffering sentient beings.

How is great compassion, the cause of bodhicitta, generated? By focusing on all sentient beings without exception, without discrimination, without omitting even one sentient being. Great compassion covers the numberless obscured, suffering sentient beings—sentient beings whose minds are obscured and suffering, sentient beings equaling the limitless sky. Great compassion covers the object, all sentient beings, without exception, omitting not even one. Not only does great compassion wish them all to be free of all defilements; it also wishes you to cause them to be free from all defilements and suffering yourself. That’s great compassion, the cause of bodhicitta.

That means the root cause of all your past, present and future happiness, every single comfort, all realizations up to full enlightenment, is all sentient beings. They’re the root from which all your happiness comes— the numberless obscured, suffering sentient beings. They are the field of all your happiness, the field from which you receive all your enjoyments.

Sentient beings are like the crops, the means of living, all your food, that you receive from the fields you cultivate. Sentient beings are the field, the root, of all your past, present and future happiness, every single comfort, all your realizations and enlightenment.

Therefore, now, you and that one sentient being—not numberless, just one—that sentient being is the source of all your past, present and future happiness, of every single comfort, of all your enjoyment. It is due to the kindness of that sentient being that you survive each day, every minute, every second; that you are human, that you have this perfect human body with which you can fulfill any of the three great purposes and gain whatever happiness you wish, that gives you unbelievable freedom.

All this comes through the kindness of each sentient being, which means also that sentient being—the one giving you harm.

Therefore, that person, that one sentient being, is more precious than skies filled with millions of dollars, skies full of ice-cream and chocolate!

If you don’t think money is precious, you can visualize chocolate or ice-cream!

Or maybe, if you like antiques, broken things, old bones, you can visualize skies full of those things—broken furniture, old bones! Visualize skies full of old bones or broken antiques and then one sentient being, then ask yourself which is more precious? Or, skies full of wish-granting jewels and compare the value of those with the value of this one sentient being. Which is more precious? You can’t generate compassion on wish-granting jewels; you can’t develop bodhicitta from wish-granting jewels.

First of all, without bodhicitta, without compassion, without loving kindness, you cannot cease all mental errors. Even if you have realized the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness, ultimate nature, have attained the arya path, if you don’t have compassion, great compassion, loving kindness, bodhicitta, it’s impossible to cease all mental errors. In order to eradicate all defilements, you have to eliminate the subtle ones, but if you have realized only the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness, even if you have achieved the arya path, it’s impossible. It is only if you have realized great compassion, loving kindness, bodhicitta, that your mind can be liberated, that you can completely cease all mental errors, complete the qualities of cessation and realization and liberate numberless other sentient beings from all the unbearable, unimaginable sufferings of samsara—the general sufferings of samsara and the specific sufferings of 388 each of the six realms—and bring them to full enlightenment.

What I’m saying is that if you practice great compassion, loving kindness, bodhicitta, on this sentient being, this one sentient being, you can gain all these other benefits—you can complete all the qualities of cessation and realization, which I just mentioned, and enlighten numberless other sentient beings. Without depending on the obscured, suffering sentient beings, even if you possess skies of wish-granting jewels, you cannot generate compassion, loving kindness, bodhicitta; you cannot achieve this realization. You can’t generate these realizations on jewels.

But on this sentient being, you can achieve all those realizations, you can meditate, you can realize all those other infinite benefits.

On the other hand, if you do not cherish this one insect or this one person giving you harm, if you do not practice compassion on this one sentient being, there’s no enlightenment, no Mahayana realization. No way. No way to develop those perfect qualities with which you can enlighten all sentient beings; no way. But if you do cherish this one sentient being, you can have them all. If you practice compassion on this sentient being, if you cherish this sentient being, this one person or insect, whoever it is, you can gain all those infinite benefits. Therefore, skies of wish-granting jewels mean nothing. They are valueless when compared with the preciousness of one sentient being, whether it’s an insect or a human. The benefits you can get from one sentient being are beyond compare with those you get from a wish-granting jewel. When you compare the benefits you get from a wish-granting jewel with those you get from a tiny insect or a human being, they are nothing, they get lost.

Therefore, if the most precious thing in your life is this one sentient being, there’s no question how precious numberless sentient beings are.

This one sentient being is the most precious thing in your life, the source of all your past, present and future happiness, while cherishing your I is the door to all problems and suffering, everything undesirable, all obstacles.

In other words, where do all obstacles, problems, undesirable things and suffering come from? From the I. Therefore, your I is an object to be renounced forever, and, for all the reasons already explained, other sentient beings are an object to be cherished forever.

Once in Tibet there was a monastery whose monks were very critical of the Kadampa Geshe Langri Tangpa. One day he went to this monastery especially to make offerings to the monks who criticized him. To practice taking the loss upon oneself and giving the victory to others, he offered them tea. I don’t think it was coffee or even Indian chai! He offered them Tibetan chai, butter tea. The reason he went there to practice taking the loss on himself and giving the victory to others was that, just as all suffering comes from the I and all happiness comes from others, so too does all loss come from the I and all gain come from others.

In other words, our self-cherishing thought always tries to give the victory to ourselves and the loss to others.

Because of this big mistake, this mistaken attitude, the self-centered mind—always giving the loss to others and taking the victory oneself— we are still not liberated from the ocean of samsaric suffering. Because of this mistaken thought, we’re not free from all suffering. Ask yourself, “Even though numberless other sentient beings, including Guru Shakyamuni Buddha himself, have already become enlightened, why haven’t I? Before Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, numberless sentient beings got enlightened; after Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, numberless sentient beings got enlightened. Why not me? Why am I still suffering? Forget about enlightenment, why am I not even liberated from samsara? Why?

Why am I still here?” It is because of this mistaken thought, the self-centered mind—always giving victory to yourself and the loss to others.

Therefore, if you want profit, not loss, you have to change your attitude.

If you want the victory of completing the qualities of cessation and realizations and the victory of being able to cause all happiness for all sentient beings, if you want all this benefit, all this victory, it can happen only if you change your self-centered mind, the attitude that always tries to give loss to others and victory to yourself.

As I often say, and it’s such a simple thing, but in your daily life, the moment you start to cherish another sentient being, be it an insect or another human being, the very second you change your attitude, change the object that you cherish from your I to the other—that insect, that person—you find peace and happiness in your heart. As long as you’re cherishing yourself, your I, you experience tension and unhappiness; there’s no rest or relaxation in your mind, no inner peace. You cannot get satisfaction, and especially, there’s no fulfillment in your heart. In daily life, your attitude has a huge effect on your mental continuum. Do this simple test: suddenly change your mind and cherish someone else, think of others, then switch back and cherish your I. You can see what a great 390 difference there is in the effect these two attitudes have on your mind.

One is happy and peaceful, the other is not.

Therefore, we can understand how precious sentient beings are and how they are the source of all our happiness and good things not only through the explanations of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha and Shantideva and those other great bodhisattvas, but through our own daily experiences.

Whenever you think of others instead of cherishing your I, there’s light in your life; whenever you cherish your I, there’s depression and darkness in your life; no happiness, no smiles.

Cherishing all sentient beings

That’s why, as I mentioned the other day, in our lives, whenever we encounter any sentient being—animal, insect, human, whatever—we should always keep in mind, “This is the most precious, most important being in my life. I am here to serve this being.” Although I mentioned this before, after all the explanations above, I just wanted to reemphasize this conclusion, especially in case there’s anybody here who feeds animals with other animals, who has a pet that lives on other animals, to which you have to feed live animals—like lizards to whom you have to give insects.

Not long ago, in Singapore, I met a feng-shui consultant who has done feng-shui for many important people, such as the president of China, the prime minister of Singapore and so forth. I went to his home, which is in a kind of secure place in Singapore; I don’t know exactly what that area is. Anyway, when you enter the door, there’s a big fish-tank, about as long as this side-table [the table alongside Rinpoche’s throne, about a meter long] but very narrow. In it there’s a really big fish—a very expensive, extremely expensive fish! I don’t remember what kind. Lillian Too told me, but I forget. I think at one time she might have had one of these herself. Because the tank is not that long, when the big fish swims it has to turn frequently, but because the tank is also very narrow, the fish has some difficulty bending its body; it seems quite uncomfortable. But the worst thing is that the big fish lives on small ones, many of which are fed to it every day.

The feng-shui man and his wife seemed to be good-hearted people, but due to ignorance, lack of Dharma wisdom—I mean, generally, there are many good-hearted people, many of whom lack Dharma wisdom— they fed many small fish to the big one so that it would survive. The man told me that if the big fish died, his business would collapse. All I could do was recite a few mantras and try to blow on the water. I couldn’t tell him then and there that feeding all those small fish to the big one, hundreds of them, every day, was actually harming him and his family. I really didn’t feel at all comfortable, but I couldn’t say straight out, “Don’t do that.” I tried to approach the subject indirectly by hinting. I don’t remember exactly what I said—“Can’t he eat any other food?”

Something like that.

Anyway, this conversation happened just as we were leaving. He said, “Our view is that we give him life, he gives us life, and we then give that life to others.” In other words, he does feng-shui for other people. “We give him life, he gives us life, we give life to others” is all well and good, but he never asks the question, “What about the lives of those small fish?” Somehow he never thinks of the small ones, the lives of those hundreds of little fish.

Anyway, animals who live on other animals in the wild—in forests, under water, whatever their habitat—create the negative karma of killing every day, but if you keep them as pets, the extra thing is that you get involved. By feeding them live animals, you too create the negative karma of killing. You think you’re benefiting them, but that’s an extremely limited outlook. You are not thinking of worms or insects that get eaten. We’re all the same. All beings—worms, insects, pets, people—are looking for happiness all the time. Just as we people cherish our bodies above all else, so too does every insect cherish its body more than anything.

It’s the same.

In the forest, wherever they live, those animals’ karma compels them to kill. The only way they can stay alive is by eating other animals, other living beings. When you keep them as pets, the extra factor is your involvement. You put yourself in the position of creating a negative karma that you didn’t have to—and a very heavy negative karma, at that.

Killing even one insect is very heavy karma. If killing even one insect is so heavy, what about those many live worms, live insects that you feed your pet every day? Doing that is very unwise. You want to benefit your pet, so you harm many other living beings. Harming many to benefit one is not a wise thing to do; this is not a wise way to think. Your concept of benefit is very limited. Therefore, you must abandon such activity. It is totally unnecessary. We have enough difficulties and problems in our lives already. Why create the cause for more? Even though we’ve been born human, we still experience much suffering. We don’t need to create the cause for any more, especially in such a totally unnecessary way.

Anyway, I meant to write this feng-shui man about his fish. I thought maybe it’s easier to tell him in writing, to communicate from a distance.

But I didn’t do it right away, and then after some time, somehow, I forgot.

Last time I was in Hong Kong he was there too. I tried to meet him, but I didn’t get a chance to do so.

However, the richest living being is Buddha. Buddha is the wealthiest of all living beings. Buddha’s enjoyments are like the sky. But all that wealth, enjoyment and success came from not harming others, from refraining from giving them harm. It didn’t come from keeping a big fish in a little tank and feeding it many small ones. Anyway, the richest person in the world is the one who needs nothing, who wants nothing. Like it says in the short version of Calling the Guru From Afar, “Please bless me to generate the thought of no need in my mind.” The richest person in the world is the one who is totally detached.

And as far as friends are concerned, the best friend you can have in your life is your own good heart, compassion. That friend will never cheat you, never betray you. The most stable friend you can have, the friend who will help and support you, is stable compassion, a stable good heart. And what brings you all good fortune and luck; what fulfills your wishes? That, too, is your good heart, compassion.

Never abandon Bodhicitta

As the great bodhisattva Shantideva said in Bodhicaryavatara, “Whoever wants to put a stop to hundreds of samsaric sufferings, benefit all sentient beings without exception (I’m not sure about this line), and enjoy hundreds of happinesses should never abandon bodhicitta.” [Chapter 1, verse 8.]

Here, when Shantideva says “hundreds,” he doesn’t mean literally hundreds. It’s a way of saying many—like the title of the guru yoga practice Gan-dän lha-gya-ma (Hundreds of Devas of Tushita) doesn’t mean just hundreds, but many, many. If you want to stop all the many sufferings of samsara, enjoy all happiness—samsaric happiness and ultimate happiness, happiness beyond samsara—benefit all sentient beings (that’s the line I’m not sure about) and enjoy all success, you should never ever give up bodhicitta.

What he’s emphasizing is that since what you want is happiness and what you do not want is suffering, then every day, wherever you are, whoever you’re with, whatever your circumstances, your life situation, you must never abandon bodhicitta. No matter how depressed you are, how many problems you have, even if you’re dying, never ever give up bodhicitta, always practice bodhicitta, because it’s the best thing. If you live with bodhicitta, you are making the best use of your life. Practice bodhicitta if you’re sick, if you’re dying, if you’re experiencing relationship problems. No matter what happens to you, practice compassion, bodhicitta. That’s the best way to live, to be sick, to die. Experiencing problems with bodhicitta makes your problems useful, most meaningful for all sentient beings.

As Shantideva also says in the Bodhicaryavatara, “Like the best alchemy creates gold, it transforms this impure body we have taken into the priceless holy body of the victorious one. Therefore, keep that which is called bodhicitta most stable.” [Chapter 1, verse 10.]

In other words, in your daily life, make every possible effort to keep your mind in this attitude; make your bodhicitta most stable. Or, if you have the realization of bodhicitta, do everything you can not to lose it. It can also be read that way.

The karmic result of killing

Now perhaps I’ll read a few lines from Shantideva’s teaching, Lab-dü [Skt: Shiksa-samuccaya].

“On the harms of the path of the ten non-virtues, The Holy Dharma Mindfulness explains the very heavy ripening-aspect result. Here I’m going to explain just a little of that, the ripening-aspect result of killing, taking the lives of others.

“Extremely happily, the bird known as ‘running on fire,’ which never gets burned, even when it sits in flames, pecks open the heads of the sentient beings in hell and drinks their blood.”

This means that due to the karma of killing, you are born in the hell realm, you have that karmic appearance—this is the appearance to your obscured mind of your negative karma, negative intention. At the moment, due to our past good karma, the practice of morality, we have the appearance of this human body with the sense enjoyments that we wish. Having this human body, these enjoyments, wealth, everything, all these appearances are produced by past good karma—basically, the practice of morality, and charity as well. Now we have the precious human body and all the sense objects that we see around us. This present appearance, today, at this hour, this minute, what we see, what we have, all this comfort and enjoyment, is the product of our past good karma.

It’s the same for the hell beings, except that their karma is totally opposite from ours. Theirs is the product of negative karma; the appearance they have is only suffering, terrifying suffering—the appearance of the evil mind, the negative mind.

This perfect, precious human body and all the sense enjoyments we have at the moment are produced by the positive mind. We’re enjoying all this, we’ve been enjoying it up until now, but we can’t be sure when this appearance will finish. It can just stop at any time. It can change at any moment and in its place arise the appearance of hell. The appearances that this text is describing, the results of the ten non-virtuous actions, can happen to us even today. Those appearances, which are produced by negative karma, the impure mind, which have nothing attractive about them and are only most terrifying and unbearable, could arise for us right now. Such appearances, the hell realms, can manifest to us at any time, even today.

Therefore, it’s the karma of the sentient beings suffering in hell to see those terrifying birds and experience the great suffering of having the birds peck open their heads with their sharp beaks and drink their blood.

Then, there’s another bird called “running over the skull,” which pecks at the brain, which bursts into flames and burns the sentient being severely. The bird then sucks up the brain fluid. Another bird called “eating the tongue flesh” appears according to the hell being’s karma, pulls out the being’s tongue and eats it. Due to karma, the tongue re-grows and the bird pulls it out and eats it again, over and over.

There are also other birds such as the one called “extracting teeth”and another that brings up the hell being’s internal organs—stomach, liver, intestines and so forth—through its throat and eats them. Other birds like to eat the hell beings’ vertebrae, sex organs and lungs, while there’s another that bores holes in the body, and while the hell being is screaming in pain and terror, sucks the marrow from its bones.

Then there’s the bird called “eye of the needle”, which has a long, fine beak that pierces the hell being’s body and drinks its blood, and other birds that eat bones, skin, fat, spreading it with their claws, and muscle.

Another bird called “mixed hair” pulls the hair out by the roots and eats it.

Near the edge of the lowest, most unbearable hot hell there’s a bird called chha-dab-zhig,whose body is three hundred thousand pag-tsä [Skt: yojana] in size. I don’t remember one hundred percent, you should check, but there are two ways of defining pag-tsä, one according to the Abhidharmakosha and the other according to the Kalachakra tantra.

According to the Abhidharmakosha method, twenty-four inches equal one cubit; four cubits equal one bow-span; five hundred bow-spans equal one “range of hearing” (gyang-tag); and eight “ranges of hearing” equal one pag-tsä. [See The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, Wisdom Publications, volume 2, page 38, note 518, where it also states that a yojana is “generally held by Buddhists to be four thousand arm-spans, i.e., about eight thousand yards.”]

As a karmic result of killing, all these hell realm birds together devour you for hundreds of thousands of years. Of course, these are not human years; these are hell realm years, which are much, much longer. Hell years are equal to millions, trillions, zillions of human years; they’re unbelievably longer. All these birds eat you, then you die, and immediately, you are reborn in the same realm and get eaten all over again. This happens over and over again. It goes on and on like this until eventually that karma is exhausted, but no sooner are you free from that than you are surrounded by another type of suffering.

After that, you find yourself in a place where there are high cliffs. You run towards them looking for refuge, protection, someone to help you, but then suddenly, due to your karma, eleven huge circles of fire surround you and friendless, without guide, surrounded by enemies, you are caught in a karmic noose and find yourself in an isolated place with multitudes of other hell beings, where you again experience much suffering.

Trying to escape, you run towards a cliff called nam-trog rab-lhun.

Trog means landslide, a place on a mountain where there are no trees, just rocks, sand and rubble, where it’s very easy to fall down. The hell being runs towards those cliffs, falls down, and his legs and everything melt. When he lifts them up they grow again, but his skin is extremely thin and tender, like that covering a healing wound—whatever touches it, even a tiny hair, causes pain. Hell beings’ skin is very, very thin, extremely thin, and due to karma their suffering is unbelievably heavy.

The hell beings are completely disturbed by all these terrors. Their limbs all melt and they fall three hundred pag-tsä down the cliffs called namtrog, get tormented by a karmic wind and then again get eaten by different kinds of bird, such as gan-ga, kha-ta, eagles and owls. All these are the hell being’s karmic appearance; they exist due to karma.

Anything can happen

If you want an example similar to this in the human realm, think about a person who’s driving along in his car when all of a sudden somebody shoots him. We’ve all heard of things like this. You’re just walking along and suddenly, out of nowhere, someone attacks you. It’s the same thing—a projection of your past karma. These things happen because of past negative karma. A particular negative karma ripens and at that moment you have the appearance of someone known or unknown to you suddenly harming you. I mean, whenever your karma ripens [finger snap], you experience that event, then and there. In this world, it happens like that all the time.

Even though this hasn’t happened to us yet...well, maybe it has! Not that long ago, at our center in Bodhgaya, someone was shot, but not killed. An Israeli soldier. I don’t know how long he’d been in the army, but he never took any bullets while serving. Then he came to Root Institute, put his rucksack in the office, went out to the gate and got shot by a bandit. After all those injury-free years in the Israeli army, he comes to India, to the holy place of Bodhgaya, where one would never expect something like that to happen, and he gets shot. Something similar happened a month later to a French lady called Beatrice. She got shot in the leg just inside the Root Institute gate. It looks like those bandits planned quite well. They never shot people in the head, which would send them to another realm, but just in the leg. It seems they had some kind of rule or agreement not to shoot people in the heart or brain, which is obviously more dangerous.

When I talk about this happening in Bodhgaya I don’t mean it only happens there. In the West, this kind of thing happens all the time. You read in the paper or see on TV that people shoot and kill each other every day. The people involved don’t necessarily have to know each other, either. Strangers kill each other all the time.

It’s the same thing as in the hell realms—it’s karma. Whenever a particular past karma ripens, manifests, suddenly you have this karmic vision of somebody shooting you, of your receiving that harm. Whenever the karma ripens, at that moment, anything can happen.

For example, I heard about something that happened in France some years ago. A woman discovered that her husband was having an affair and tried to commit suicide by jumping out her apartment window. It so happened that just as she jumped her husband was entering the front door of the building, which was right below. She landed on her husband, who was killed as a result, and instead of dying, as she intended, she survived.

You see how the karma is. According to her wish, she was supposed to die, not him, but according to karma, it happened the other way round.

There’s another story showing what happens when the karma to die ripens suddenly, this one from Malaysia, or maybe Indonesia. A zoo elephant was badly constipated, so its keeper gave it a powerful laxative, but nothing happened. So the keeper went behind the elephant and started poking around, when all of a sudden the elephant released an avalanche of kaka, which knocked the keeper to the ground. As he fell, he hit his head on the ground and lost consciousness. The rest of the kaka buried him and he died of suffocation! So that’s how his life ended. When the karma ripens, anything can happen.

For example, say there’s a big tree in the middle of the road. Normally, you never think that this tree will fall over and kill you. But if in the past you have created the karma for that to happen, it’s just a matter of time.

It will happen as if somebody had purposely arranged it or the tree had a mind of its own. However, what arranges for that tree to fall onto your car and kill you is your past karma. Nobody else arranges it, not God or anybody else. It’s arranged by your past karma. If you have created the karma to die under the big tree that you never suspected would ever fall down, when that karma ripens, the tree will fall and kill you.

Anything can change. Even huge pieces of iron, which look so solid that it seems impossible they could ever bend, will bend if a person’s karma to experience suffering with that iron as a condition ripens. Due to the power of karma, when it ripens, things change; anything can happen.

When the karma ripens, huge mountains that once looked so stable can disintegrate completely—during an earthquake, for instance.

Anyway, this bit about the hells is almost finished, then we can take a break—a break from the hell realm or a break from the human realm!

I’m joking.

More hellish karma of killing

We were talking about the cliff called nam-trog rab-lhun. According to your karmic appearance, all these birds come to eat you, then your body is lifted up and again falls down another precipice, and so the suffering goes on for hundreds of thousands of years.

The lam-rim teachings contain basically similar descriptions of the hells, but here in Lab-dü, Shantideva goes into a little more specific detail than usual.

After a long time experiencing that kind of suffering, the hell being becomes free from that but is immediately surrounded by a new kind of hell suffering, a very sharp wheel that spins around the being’s body, slicing it to pieces. At the hub of the wheel is a vajra emitting flames, which burn his body. The being is surrounded by a thousand such wheels, and gets cut to pieces and completely burned in that way.

Then, in another kind of suffering, the being is skewered from his heel to the top of his head and spit-roasted over a fire, while every cell in his body is devoured by worms, causing intense pain in every atom. The monk Bob, who works as a nurse in a hospital, said there was once a patient there who complained of severe pain in every cell of her body, so there’s some similarity there.

After that, due to heavy negative karma, the being’s body revives, but is fleshier and covered with very thin, tender skin. It then gets eaten all over again causing even more pain than before. So each time this happens, more and more flesh builds up so that getting eaten is increasingly painful. Shantideva explained that these experiences are karmic results of killing, taking the lives of others.

So, I’ll stop here.

A daily practice to stop the suffering

The conclusion, however, is that we must do two things. One is to purify the negative karma already created by doing practices such as the Vajrasattva that we’re doing here. That purifies the negative actions we’ve done every day of our lives, especially the ten non-virtues, and also the negativities that we’ve been creating since beginningless time in our infinite previous lives. That’s one solution, but that alone is not enough. We also have to change our minds and our actions and abstain from creating further negativities. If we don’t, there’ll be no end to our having to purify.

If we don’t change our minds and our actions, if we don’t stop creating negative karma, there will always be more negativity to purify.

Therefore, to avoid experiencing suffering, especially that of the lower realms as well as that of the human and deva realms, to avoid experiencing the results of negative karma, one solution is to engage in powerful purification practices, such as Vajrasattva meditation, confession before the Thirty-five Buddhas and the many and varied other purification practices.

Let me explain how to apply these in everyday life. The moment you get up, generate bodhicitta motivation. Determine to make the best use of your life by making it beneficial for other sentient beings. In other words, make the strong determination to live your life with bodhicitta all the time. Start by rejoicing that you are still alive, that you didn’t die during the night but were born again today as a human being with the opportunity to practice Dharma, to achieve any of the three great meanings —the happiness of future lives, liberation from samsara and full enlightenment. In each second, you can create the cause of any happiness you wish from those three great purposes.

Therefore, make the strong determination that from now on, especially in this life, especially during this day, you will never separate from bodhicitta, not even for a minute or a second, and you will never allow yourself to fall under the influence of the self-cherishing thought. “I will never allow myself to be controlled by the self-cherishing thought.” If you don’t make this strong determination, you won’t be able to practice bodhicitta, compassion for others. “I will not allow myself to be controlled by the self-cherishing thought, especially in this life, especially today, not for a minute or even a second.” Make that kind of strong determination.

Briefly, without expanding but just mentioning the essence, this should be your attitude towards life, as explained in the five powers of a lifetime’s practice, or a lifetime’s practice integrated into the five powers.

[See Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, pp. 612–16 and Advice From a Spiritual Friend, Wisdom Publications, 1996 edition pp. 111–12. The five powers are the power of the white seed, the power of familiarity, the power of determination, the power of repudiation and the power of prayer.] Even if you don’t know many prayers, many different practices, if you can practice these five powers, you are doing the most important practice you can. Even if you aren’t familiar with many Dharma teachings or texts—if you haven’t studied, haven’t had time to learn—if you know what the five powers are and live your life in their practice, you make your life incredibly free; you give yourself so much freedom, peace and happiness. In this way you can achieve enlightenment quickly. That’s the greatest advantage, the greatest benefit.

After generating that morning motivation, do prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas.

Every night, before going to bed, do Vajrasattva practice, reciting one mala, a half mala, or at least twenty-one repetitions of the long mantra.

If you can combine these with prostrations, it will be very, very powerful; two powerful practices combined. You will collect extensive merit and purify those unbelievably heavy negative karmas. You can do your Vajrasattva recitation with prostrations or just sitting. It depends on if you have the opportunity to do prostrations and on how you feel. You can decide.

However, if you can begin your evening Vajrasattva practice with prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas, just going straight through, not repeating each name over and over with each prostration, that will be very powerful, because reciting each buddha’s name even once purifies many thousands of eons of negative karma—many different negative karmas collected over thousands of eons. It is unbelievably powerful.

For example, if you recite the first name, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s, it has the power to purify 80,000 eons of negative karma.

Similarly, each of the Thirty-five Buddhas’ names is extremely precious— like an atomic bomb, when it comes to purifying negative karma. Each buddha’s name is so precious; much more precious than skies of wish-granting jewels. Each buddha’s name is much more precious than skies full of millions of dollars. Whether you do your Vajrasattva recitation sitting or with prostrations, either way is very, very good.

In the mornings, therefore, generate bodhicitta motivation and do prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas. I’m not going to explain bodhicitta motivation today or the meditation you do at the end of the session.

We don’t have time now, but you can read how to do it elsewhere in this book or listen to some of the tapes [from the retreat]. However, I will explain the meditation that you do with prostrations so that you’ll be able to give yourself the opportunity of collecting more merit. The more meditation skills you have—such as when you do prostrations— the more extensive merit you create, the sooner you gain realizations, and the closer you and all sentient beings come to enlightenment. If you have the skills, you can collect extensive skies of merit with each prostration.

The meaning of the prostration mantra

First, to multiply the effect of each prostration one thousand times, recite the mantra OM NAMO MANJUSHRIYE NAMO SUSHRIYE NAMO UTTAMA SHRIYE SOHA. His Holiness Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche once explained the meaning of this mantra to me, but I’ve kind of forgotten.

NAMO means prostration and MANJUSHRIYE is Manjughosha, so this is paying homage, or prostrating, to Manjushri. The Tibetan translation is Jampalyang-la chag-tsel-lo.

So, OM—it seems that almost every mantra begins with OM, for example, the mantra (TADYA THA) OM MUNÉ MUNÉ MAHAMUNA-YE SVAHA starts with OM and, like the above one, ends in SVAOHA. Many other mantras end in HUM.

Manjushri, in Tibetan, is Jampalyang. Jam means soft, pacified. Pal (Skt: shri) means glorious, or soft. What His Holiness Tsenshab Rinpoche explained was that jam, soft, means Manjushri’s holy mind is soft, gentle. How has it become soft? By his having ceased the disturbing thoughts, the delusions, the disturbing thought obscurations (nyön-drib, in Tibetan). That is the meaning of soft.

What is the meaning of pal, shri? It means that Manjushri’s holy mind is free from even the subtle defilements, she-drib, which we can abbreviate as “knowledge obscurations”—the defilements that interfere with the mind’s fully and directly seeing all existence, all phenomena.

Those subtle defilements are called knowledge obscurations, she-drib.

What are they? They are subtle negative imprints that have been left on the mental continuum by the concept of inherent existence.

Until we become enlightened, we sentient beings constantly experience the appearance of inherent existence—except for when we become arya beings and are absorbed in single-pointed concentration on emptiness.

During such times of meditative equipoise on emptiness, like water poured into water, our dualistic view is temporarily stopped. Stopped, but not forever. During meditation we don’t have the dualistic view, but when we arise from meditation, it’s there again—the appearance of inherent existence, which is the projection of the subtle negative imprints. Those imprints, along with the hallucinated appearance of inherent existence, are the subtle defilements, the she-drib, the knowledge obscurations. Pal—Jam-pal-yang—means that Manjushri’s holy mind is free of even these subtle defilements, and therefore of all mental errors, all defilements of mind. That also means that he has completed all the qualities of realization—when you complete the qualities of cessation, you automatically complete the qualities of realization.

Then comes NAMO SUSHRIYE. NAMO again means prostration. Then SUSHRIYE, leg-pa’i pal—glorious goodness. Then NAMO UTTAMA SHRIYE SOHA—chog-gyi pal—glorious supreme sublimity. I think that’s the literal word for word translation from the Sanskrit. I don’t remember if His Holiness Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche explained the meaning of all that, but later I also saw a text that had the translation of this mantra. I didn’t see the meaning of it explained there either, but my assumption is that, like many other mantras, it contains within it the whole path to enlightenment.

For example, the mantras OM MANI PADME HUM and OM MUNÉ MUNÉ MAHAMUNA-YE SVAHA contain the entire lam-rim—the lower path, middle path and higher path. The whole lam-rim is encompassed by the MUNÉ MUNÉ MAHAMUNA-YE; the Lesser Vehicle, the Mahayana Paramitayana, the Mahayana Tantra is all there. It’s usually the same—OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SOHA as well—basically, most mantras are like that. They contain the whole package, the entire path to enlightenment.

So SUSHRIYE, glorious goodness, might contain the Lesser Vehicle path and UTTAMA SHRIYE SOHA, glorious supreme sublimity, the Mahayana path. It’s my guess that this contains the whole path to enlightenment—the basis, the four noble truths, and then the Mahayana path—but I haven’t seen this explained in any commentaries.

Of course, just Manjushri’s name itself contains everything—how to achieve true cessation and the rest of the path to enlightenment. The two truths, the paths of method and wisdom, the results to be achieved, Dharmakaya and Rupakaya. Everything is contained in there, just like any mantra.

Finally, there’s the OM. OM is what you achieve by actualizing the meaning of these mantras. Your impure body, speech and mind are purified and you achieve the vajra holy body, vajra holy speech and vajra holy mind. These are signified by the three sounds A-O-MA; OM is the integration of these three sounds. That is what is to be achieved by actualizing the meaning signified by SUSHRIYENAMOUTTAMASHRIYE.

How to do prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas and the seven Medicine Buddhas

When you recite the Thirty-five Buddhas’ names, it would be extremely good if you could do three sets as a daily practice. That means you’d be doing 115 or more prostrations each time. Also, if you have room, you should always do full-length prostrations. You create unbelievably extensive merit if you do. Cover as much ground with your body as you possibly can; when you go down, make your body as long as you can.

Do three prostrations with the mantra OM NAMO MANJUSHRIYE... and then, in English or Tibetan, recite the refuge formula. If it’s Tibetan, make prostrations while reciting Lama-la kyab su chi wo as many times as you can during one prostration. Then, when your forehead touches the ground, change to Sangye-la kyab su chi wo, and keep reciting that until, on your next prostration, your forehead touches the ground again. Then change to Chö-la kyab su chi wo and keep prostrating through Gendun-la kyab su chi wo.

Then, when you next touch the ground with your forehead, change to Tön-pa chom-dän-dä de-zhin-sheg-pa... Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s name. If you have memorized it, you should recite it as fast as you can.

It’s unbelievable—each time you say it you purify 80,000 eons of negative karma. That’s why you should memorize all of the Thirty-five Buddhas’ names. The more times you can recite each one, the better.

When you do business, you try to maximize your profits. You try to get as many dollars as you can from each transaction. It’s the same here, except that with reciting the buddhas’ names, the profits are so much greater. Reciting just one buddha’s name is much more profitable than billions of dollars of business profit. Reciting the name of just one of the Thirty-five Buddhas, not all thirty-five, purifies many thousands of eons of negative karma. The merit you collect in this way is much more profitable than billions of dollars. Receiving a billion dollars or reciting one buddha’s name just once—which is more profitable? There’s no comparison.

Those billions of dollars are worth nothing compared to that. No amount of money has the power to purify many eons of negative karma or to generate extensive merit, but reciting the buddhas’ names does.

After your forehead touches the ground, change to the next buddha’s name and recite that as fast and as many times as you can. Keep going through all their names until you have recited all thirty-five. I recite the last one three times. Why? Not because other people do but because the thirty-fifth buddha’s name, De-zhin-sheg-pa...wang-gyi gyäl-po, purifies any negative karma and broken samayas collected with gurus, which are the heaviest negative karmas of all. Therefore, I think it’s necessary to recite the last buddha’s name three times.

Then there are the seven Medicine Buddhas. If you can add those, all your prayers—for special realizations from your Dharma practice, for good things to happen to you, for the benefit of others—will be successful.

All your prayers will be successful, and you will also receive the beneficial effects of all the prayers that the seven Medicine Buddhas made in the past. Therefore, it’s very important and very good to recite the names of the Medicine Buddhas. You also recite each name as many times as possible during each prostration. However, you only need to recite the seven Medicine Buddhas’ names once each session—after the first repetition of the Thirty-five Buddhas. You don’t need to do them the second or third time.

In the first set, recite the Thirty-five Buddhas and the seven Medicine Buddhas, then go back to the refuge for the second time. After the second set of Thirty-five Buddhas, start back at refuge again, like that.

Three sets. If you can make this your regular practice it would be extremely, unbelievably good. If three sets are not possible, then two. If not two, then one. And remember, with each prostration, recite that buddha’s name as many times as you can, over and over, rather than reciting it slowly, just once. Each day that you recite the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas, each day that you recite just one buddha’s name, makes your life so much different, like the difference between earth and sky. Your mind carries much less negative karma, and that which it does carry is much lighter. Your life will be much more successful, especially in attaining realizations, and you will be able to benefit others much more in both this life and future lives.

I think I’ll stop here today.

The reason I bring up all these issues is not so much for the people doing retreat but more for those who don’t get the chance to retreat and those who I don’t get to meet very often. Not that I have much to offer, but I want to give those people I meet only rarely in teachings some understanding of how to practice, something to make their daily lives most profitable, something practical. That’s the main reason. It’s not only for the people here doing retreat. I never seem to have time to give individual people instructions for practice—sometimes it’s possible, but not all the time. Therefore, on an occasion such as this, one of those rare opportunities where we meet during a teaching, I’m offering you something that I hope might be helpful, beneficial.

Those of you who don’t know these things, especially those of you who don’t practice, need to hear and learn them so that you can make your life better, more useful and as beneficial as possible for both yourselves and sentient beings equaling the sky. So that you can make this life, and especially your future lives, easier and more successful, benefit more sentient beings, gain more realizations, and gradually achieve enlightenment. That’s the reason I bring all this up.


“Due to all the present, past and future merits collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings, may bodhicitta, the source of all happiness and success for me and all other sentient beings be actualized within my mind and in the minds of my family members, all the students and benefactors of this organization, especially those who sacrifice their lives serving others and the teaching of the Buddha through this organization, and all other sentient beings without even one second’s delay. May the bodhicitta that has been generated increase.

“Due to all the merits of the three times collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings, may His Holiness the Dalai Lama have a stable life and may the obstacle to His Holiness’s health that has been taken, the pneumonia, according to the karma of us sentient beings, be pacified immediately, and may all his holy wishes succeed immediately as well as those of all other virtuous friends and all other holy beings who live their lives for the benefit of sentient beings.

“Due to all the past, present and future merits collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings, may I be able to offer extensive benefit like the sky to all sentient beings as Lama Tsongkhapa did, by having within me the same qualities that Lama Tsongkhapa had, from now on, in all my future lifetimes.

“Due to all the past, present and future merits collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all sentient beings—which appear to my hallucinated mind as something real, something real existing from there, but which in reality are totally non-existent, totally empty—may the I— which appears to be a real I appearing to my hallucinating mind from there, but which, that one, is in reality totally non-existent—achieve my own deity’s enlightenment, or Vajrasattva’s enlightenment, or Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, whatever—which appears to my hallucinating mind as something real from there, from its own side, which is according to the point of view of my ignorance and is the view of my hallucinating mind, my ignorance, and which is in reality totally non-existent—and lead all sentient beings—who also appear to me to be real ones from there, which is according to the point of view of my ignorance, my belief, and also the appearance to my hallucinating mind, that which is totally non-existent—to that enlightenment—which also appears real from there, which is the point of view of my ignorance, what it believes, what it apprehends, the hallucination that appears to my hallucinating mind and which is totally non-existent”—that doesn’t mean enlightenment itself but something extra on the enlightenment, the real one that appears from there, that extra thing, that not-merely-labeled enlightened, but that enlightenment that appears to you as something more than merely labeled, something extra, so that one is totally nonexistent —“by myself alone—who also appears to be real, from there, according to the point of view of my ignorance, my hallucinating mind.”

That real I appearing from there is what’s totally non-existent.

When you meditate like this, it’s not just thinking that they don’t exist. You should really see very intensively that they don’t exist from their own side. There should be a very strong, intensive perception that they are totally, absolutely non-existent—non-existent from their own side—something that either makes you feel so unbelievably happy that you rejoice or causes deep fear to arise within your heart. If you have either of these two experiences, the way you have been meditating is correct.

As a beginning experience, you should feel either incredible joy or deep fear. If you do, your experience is correct.

Finally, dedicate to actualize Lama Tsongkhapa’s teaching, which unifies sutra and tantra, in your own mind, for it to spread in the minds of the students and benefactors of this organization, especially those who sacrifice their lives serving others and the teaching of the Buddha through this organization, and in the minds of all sentient beings, for this teaching to flourish forever in this world, and to cause all this to happen by yourself, alone.

Next Chapter:

Chapter 40: March 16 »