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 4: February 8

Morning: Eight Mahayama Precepts Ceremony

The Eight Mahayana precepts

Taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts [see Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s The Direct and Unmistaken Method] today is for your happiness and the happiness of all other sentient beings from now up to enlightenment. Taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts becomes the means to accomplish all that. In regard even to your own happiness, relying upon or practicing this is of the utmost need. Your need to do this practice is a billion times more urgent than your need to go as quickly as possible to a hospital when you have a heart attack. You should feel an urgent need to do this practice for your own happiness, from now up to enlightenment, as well as for the happiness of the numberless other sentient beings.

Living in these eight precepts means abstaining from eight negative karmas that harm you and other sentient beings directly or indirectly. You can understand that abstaining from these eight negative karmas naturally becomes a source of happiness. It is a root of happiness for you and for other sentient beings.

Specific benefits of the individual precepts

Explanations are given of the general benefits of the eight precepts and of the specific benefits of the individual precepts. From those two, today we will concentrate on the specific benefits of the individual vows.

The benefits of avoiding taking the life of others, or killing. This is the basic cause of long life—you will live long and not have sicknesses in all your future lives. No matter how many hospitals you visit and how much treatment you have, if you haven’t created the good karma from your side—for example, by living in the morality of abstaining from killing or harming others—you cannot have a long life no matter how many hospitals and other health organizations or medicines exist. No matter how many hospitals, doctors and medicines there are in the world, having a long life is based on first having good karma. It is all based on morality. There has to be good karma from the side of the person. Without this, no matter what is set up externally, nothing can help give someone a long life. External factors can help only on the basis of the person having good karma, such as that from practicing the morality of abstaining from killing.

Many diseases are based on this negative karma of killing, including even the inability to digest food. Many people have problems with their digestion throughout their whole life. This sickness is not the only one caused by the negative karma of killing; it is one of many. This is mentioned in the Tenth Bhumi Sutra.

Another benefit of abstaining from killing is that you become glorious, or magnificent, now and in the future. These good results are not related only to future lives; when the karma is powerful, it can also affect this life. You become glorious, or radiant, similar to the way we see His Holiness the Dalai Lama or we saw His Holiness Ling Rinpoche.

The benefits of avoiding taking what has not been given, or stealing. In all lifetimes, you will have perfect enjoyments and receive them effortlessly. You will receive things just by wishing for them. Also, no one will interfere with your enjoyments by confiscating or stealing them.

These benefits will not only come in future lives. When the karma is powerful, changes can happen even in this life, so don’t think that karma begins only after this life and there is nothing you can experience in this life. For example, at the beginning you might be able to make very few or very poor quality offerings, but as you continue the practice of making offerings to holy objects or of making charity to other sentient beings, you are gradually able to make more extensive and better quality offerings and more extensive charity. As a result of your good karma, you can have perfect enjoyments, so your offerings to the merit field and your charity to others can become better and better and more and more extensive. Because you created the cause through your previous small offerings and small acts of charity, sooner or later in this life, you can make better and more extensive offerings.

Kadampa Geshe Potowa, I think it was, explained this in relation to the offering of incense. At the beginning, he offered incense using a plant that grows on high mountains; it looks like hair and has a very nice scent. Because he offered this incense to holy objects, later he gained many advantages and was able to make better and more extensive offerings of incense. This is an example of how karma works, of how your life can become better even in the immediate future.

The benefits of living in the morality of abstaining from the sexual act. The eight precepts of the Lesser Vehicle path refer to abstaining from any sexual misconduct, but here in the Eight Mahayana Precepts it is any sexual act. The benefits of living in this vow are that in all lifetimes you will have a beautiful body and a beautiful complexion. I guess this will save a lot of expenses on cosmetics and plastic surgery. You won’t need to have a big operation on your face to straighten this bit and stretch that bit back and forth. I heard that it’s very expensive! Keeping this precept will also incidentally save you a lot of money. The only problem is perhaps that it will cause other people to lose their jobs. There won’t be any need for shops full of cosmetics, for all those billions of different cosmetics in different colors. Anyway, I’m joking.

Another benefit is that you will have perfect sense organs. When we know the benefits, we can automatically understand that someone has some physical disability as a result of not having practiced this or that morality. When you hear about the shortcomings of the complete ten non-virtuous actions, you naturally understand the good results that you will achieve through living in the morality of the ten virtues. By hearing about the positive results, the benefits, of living in the precepts, you come to know the causes of various problems such as being born with an imperfect or ugly body, with missing limbs or imperfect senses.

Physical disabilities cannot be explained simply by an imperfect egg or sperm, as scientists tend to do. It is just a condition for the problem, not its main cause. There might be an imperfect egg, with some cells missing or something, but you need to explain why the imperfect egg happens. The answer is incomplete. Even though the cause is traced back to a defective egg or sperm, this is not the final answer because it is talking only about the physical condition. We are still left with the question, “But what causes the defective egg?” Here, by understanding the benefits of abstaining from the sexual act, you come to know its opposite, the result of sexual misconduct, or the sexual act that becomes negative karma.

The benefits of abstaining from telling lies. In all lifetimes you will not be cheated by others. In our daily lives, whenever we find that somebody has cheated us, we should immediately remember that we are experiencing the result of having told lies in the past. Rather than just becoming upset and angry and making ourselves unhappy and rather than putting all the blame on someone else, we should think, “This is the result of my past negative karma of telling lies.”

In this way, our delusions—the three poisonous minds of ignorance, anger and attachment—and our negative karmas become only inspirations; they remind us that from now on we should be careful in our practice of morality, we should practice the morality of abstaining from telling lies. When we encounter problems in our life, remembering the cause that we created in the past only encourages us; it gives us the strong determination to abandon the cause of the problems. We resolve, “From now on I will not create the cause of this problem. Instead I will create its opposite, the cause of happiness.”

Another benefit of abstaining from lying is that everyone values our speech, everyone believes what we say. In our daily lives, when we say something and other people don’t listen to or don’t believe us, when our speech is powerless, we should realize that this is the result of our past negative karma of telling lies. This sometimes happens in our daily lives. The other way, someone who normally doesn’t listen to others somehow has to accept a particular person’s request, even though it is a difficult one. This is because that particular person has power in his speech. He comes in, asks for something, and somehow the other person naturally has to accept. There is a reason for this. It comes from the past good karma that person created by living in the morality of abstaining from telling lies.

The benefits of abstaining from drinking alcohol. In all lifetimes you will have a great memory. This can be to do with past lives, but I also think you can tell that much of it is the result of this life. The memory of a person who lives in pure vows is very clear. Take Geshe Sopa Rinpoche, for example. There are eight prayers, including The King of Prayers, a praise to Maitreya Buddha and a prayer to be born in Maitreya’s pure land, that are normally recited for others.

[The morning tea bell is heard outside.] The donkeys are coming! From Tibet. The horses and mules in Tibet always have bells, so that sound reminded me of Tibet, of donkey bells.

Geshe-la said that he had not recited those eight prayers since leaving Tibet, which was about forty years ago. In Tibet, those prayers are recited every day when all the monks do puja in the assembly. When I was in Madison during the commentary on great insight, it happened a few times that a Tibetan or Western person passed away and Geshe Sopa Rinpoche was asked to pray for them. I respected very much the way that Geshe-la took care of each request very precisely. I thought it was fantastic. He paid very special attention when he was requested to pray for someone who had died. He called the monks who were around and had everyone pray together in the room. This is fantastic, because there is a lot of benefit for the people who have passed away. Because those praying, principally Geshe-la himself but also the other geshes, are all living in pure vows, their prayers have a lot of power.

One of the people Geshe-la did prayers for was a Tibetan man who used to take tourists to the very high mountains in Nepal. I think he died when his airplane crashed. He was a very good man with a big family; it seems that everyone loved him very much because he was so kindhearted. I think that his daughter has some association with the Hyatt Hotel in Chicago. After he finished reciting the eight prayers, Geshe-la said, “I haven’t recited these prayers since I left Tibet, but it is OK—I can remember all of them!” I mean, forty years is a long time.

The point I am trying to make is that it seems the good memory is the result not only of past lives but of this life. The way you live your life has an immediate effect on your mind. There can be a positive result even in this life if you lived in morality in the earlier part of your life. Other benefits of living in the morality of abstaining from alcohol, abandoning alcohol, are that all your senses become clear and that you have perfect wisdom.

Many people become like vegetables later in life; they are not dead but they are unable to function. It could be the result of past karma, but I think much of it has to do with the karma of this life, with how they lived earlier this life. If you study how these people lived, if you analyzed their attitudes and their behavior, you might be able to see how this particular problem happened; otherwise, there is no way to explain it without knowing the karma, there is no way to explain it.

The benefits of avoiding sitting on high or expensive thrones and beds. This means sitting on such a throne or bed without a Dharma reason, without the thought to benefit others or show respect to the teachings. Sitting on high or expensive thrones and beds with a motivation of attachment that clings to this life, pride and so forth becomes negative karma. Here, “high” means higher than a cubit.

By living in this vow, you will always be praised and respected by others. In this way, you will be able to benefit others. When others praise and respect you, you can bring them into Dharma, into the path to enlightenment. Also, especially if you are a bodhisattva or an ordained person, praising and respecting you helps others to create good karma. Another benefit is that you have many enjoyments, such as comfortable bedding and animals to ride when you travel. The text says specifically that you receive many things to ride on, which means animals, but I think you can include here other vehicles such as cars and airplanes.

The benefits of avoiding eating at the wrong time. In all lifetimes you will have perfect crops and you will receive drink and food without any effort. Difficulty in obtaining the means of living comes from not practicing the morality of abstaining from eating at the wrong time in the past and from eating with attachment.

The benefits of avoiding perfumes and wearing garlands and ornaments. In all lifetimes your body will have a scented smell—not a scented smell from the shops, but one that comes naturally from the body. I remember in Solu Khumbu when I was very young, there was a small incarnate lama with a naturally scented smell. It made a strong impression on my mind. You also notice this smell when you meet some lamas. It is not like the smell of perfume; it is a holy kind of smell.

Different scents such as different manufactured perfumes have different effects on the mind. Some perfumes make you feel serene and peaceful; others have the opposite effect, causing you to generate attachment.

Other benefits are that your body will have a good color, a beautiful shape, and many special signs similar to those on the bodies of holy beings.

The benefits of living in the vow of avoiding singing and dancing. In all lifetimes you will have subdued conduct, with a very subdued mind and body. The sound of Dharma will also come continuously from you. We meet people like this in our daily life; when the person talks, the Dharma always comes out in their conversation. This could also refer to reciting prayers and mantras.

Motivation for taking the eight Mahayana precepts

Think, “It is not sufficient just to receive a deva or human body in my next life, just to avoid being reborn in the lower realms. This alone is not the ultimate meaning of my life. And even to be free from samsara is not the ultimate meaning of my life. Sentient beings, who are numberless, who are like the sky, are the source of all my past, present and future happiness. The ultimate goal of my life is to free them from all their suffering and bring them to enlightenment. To do that, I need to achieve enlightenment, and for that, I need to actualize the path to enlightenment, which depends on the root, living in morality. Therefore, for the benefit of each sentient being, for all happiness up to enlightenment of each sentient being, I’m going to take the Eight Mahayana Precepts.”

Visualizing the Lama as Guru Shakyamuni Buddha

Because the practice of the Eight Mahayana Precepts comes from Kriya Tantra, in addition to looking at the lama as the Buddha in essence, you have to visualize the lama as the Buddha in aspect. Visualize the lama from whom you take the precepts as Guru Shakyamuni Buddha [or Avalokiteshvara, as in Direct and Unmistaken Method]. Think that he is surrounded by all buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions and that you are taking the precepts in their presence.

The significance of the wise horse and great elephant

The precept ceremony text might sound a bit funny when it says that Buddha is like a horse or an elephant, but there are reasons for this. “The wise horse” is a horse with the capacity, or skill, to carry its rider very carefully to wherever the person wants to go. Even on a dangerous road, the wise horse walks so carefully that it never disturbs its rider. Buddha carefully guides sentient beings to enlightenment in a similar way, so that they are not harmed or disturbed. As talked about in stories, the wise horse is a special horse that can fly.

The reason that Buddha is likened to “the great elephant” is that just as the elephant is very powerful and can carry very heavy loads, Buddha takes on the total responsibility of freeing the numberless suffering sentient beings from all their oceans of samsaric suffering and its cause, and bringing them all happiness, including that of enlightenment. By understanding the essential meaning of these examples, you feel devotion to Buddha; you feel closer to Buddha.

The definition of sunrise

If you are doing practices such as nyung-näs, there are different ways of defining sunrise. It can refer to the sun rising in your area, with sunlight actually reaching your area. Or, as explained by Pabongka Rinpoche and in the sutras, it can refer to dawn-time, when a whitish light starts to appear in the east. Even though the rest of the sky is dark, when there is a little bit of white in the east, this beginning of the dawn is the very beginning of the day. In nyung-näs, soup or some other food is offered early on the third morning. When you made the commitment not to eat “until sunrise tomorrow,” if sunrise is defined as the beginning of the day, when the sky is whitish in the east, you can then eat something at this point, before you start another nyung-nä. This is just to be more precise in keeping the commitment. If you have defined “sunrise” as when it is light at the place where you are, however, you should then eat after that time.

The prayer of the precepts

When you read the phrase “in order to benefit them,” think of bringing temporary happiness to other sentient beings; and with “in order to liberate them,” think of bringing them ultimate happiness and benefit— liberation from all the sufferings of samsara and complete enlightenment. Ultimate benefit, or happiness, refers to both liberation from samsara and great liberation, enlightenment.

While saying “...in order to benefit them, in order to liberate them, in order to eliminate famine, in order to eliminate sickness...,” think that the reason you are taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts is to bring all these benefits to sentient beings and to stop all their problems.

Remember all the sick people in hospitals or at home and think, “I am taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts for all the sentient beings who have the karma to be sick.” Think of all the people who are dying from AIDS; think of all the people who are dying from cancer. Here today you are doing something that is of the most practical benefit to them.

The prayer at the end can be abbreviated as follows: “Just as the previous tathagatas practiced the Eight Mahayana Precepts to benefit all sentient beings, I’m also going to keep the Eight Mahayana precepts until sunrise tomorrow in order to cause all these benefits to all sentient beings.”

Without a wandering mind you must then generate the strong determination that you have received pure ordination of the Eight Mahayana Precepts in the presence of your guru, visualized as Buddha, and of all the ten direction buddhas and bodhisattvas.


“Due to all the past, present and future merits collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings, may I, the members of my family, all the students and benefactors of this organization, as well as all other sentient beings complete the paramita of morality by keeping morality purely and without pride.”

Next dedicate for everyone to generate bodhicitta within their mind. “Due to all the merits of the three times collected by others and myself, may the father and mother sentient beings have happiness, may the three lower realms be empty forever, may all the bodhisattvas’ prayers be accomplished immediately and may I be able to cause all this, by myself, alone.

“Due to all the past, present and future merits collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings, which are empty from their own side, may I, who am empty from my own side, achieve Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, which is also empty from its own side, and lead all sentient beings, who are all empty from their own side, to that enlightenment, which is also empty from its own side, by myself alone, who is also empty from its own side.”