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 41: April 10


[Rinpoche’s first discourse after returning from India.]

Good afternoon. Sorry, I disappeared for a long time! However, I think you’ve been having the best, most meaningful time; an excellent, most productive time, making your life as meaningful as possible.

There's nothing better than purification

You see, what we’re doing here, even if the Third World War that people talk about were happening, other than Vajrasattva practice, what else could you do? Even if the Third World War had broken out, there’d be no other way to spend your life than practicing Vajrasattva to purify yourself and benefit others. When you practice Vajrasattva you also purify others. Even in the face of nuclear danger, there’s nothing better to do than practicing purification. The immediate thing to do is to practice purification...purifying not good karma but the other kind!

Even if you discover you have cancer—you go to a hospital for a check up and the doctor diagnoses cancer—there’s nothing else to do but practice purification, to purify your mind of the causes of suffering rebirths, the negative karma that causes your consciousness to migrate into the lower realms. Even if you find out that you are terminally ill with cancer, AIDS or any other life-threatening disease, the immediate solution is to purify as much negative karma as you can, to ensure that your next rebirth will be a good one, so that in your next life you can continue to practice Dharma, to actualize the path to enlightenment.

When some people find out that they have cancer or AIDS, they go on vacation to some pure land like Goa, Tahiti or Rio de Janeiro—which I used to call Rio Degenerated, but I haven’t been there for a while!— anyway, to some place that Westerners consider to be pure lands! But that doesn’t help. That doesn’t solve your problem; that doesn’t heal your sickness or purify your negative karma. It just distracts your mind from the problem. Similarly, drinking alcohol or taking other substances to suppress your fear, to not feel afraid, works for only a short time and is simply cheating yourself. Not only does getting intoxicated not solve your problem but it also leads to additional life problems. Therefore, even if you are going to die tomorrow, tonight, this hour, there’s nothing else to do but purify your mind.

Besides benefiting yourself, to be successful in benefiting others, to have no obstacles for that, you also need to purify your mind. To free numberless sentient beings, the source of all your past, present and future happiness, including not only temporary happiness but also ultimate happiness—liberation from samsara and the great liberation of full enlightenment—to bring these numberless sentient beings to full enlightenment by yourself alone, you need to actualize the steps of the path to enlightenment. What interferes with your doing that is your negative karma, your defilements. Therefore, purification is very important; a key point in your practice. Even to liberate yourself forever from the oceans of samsaric suffering, the continuity of which has no beginning, you need to actualize the path that ceases the defilements, the cause of all suffering—karma and delusion, including the seed of delusion. Even for your own liberation from samsara, purification is the essential practice.

Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo advised that, out of meditation on that path and collecting merit and practicing purification, it is more important to spend time collecting merit and practicing purification than meditating.

Here, meditating means meditating on the path. Of course, practicing purification and collecting merit all involves meditation, but the specific meditation Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo was referring to was meditation on the path.

As we know from our own experience, we’ve tried a lot to meditate on the lam-rim, starting from guru devotion, the perfect human rebirth and so forth, spending time on that, but not much has happened in our minds. Even though we’ve spent much time meditating on the lam-rim, there’s been no real change in our hearts. The words on which we’ve been meditating remain just words and haven’t connected with our hearts.

There’s a gap between our hearts and the words we’ve been repeating or reciting during meditation. Sometimes, instead of getting transformed, our minds have even gotten worse.

You might have heard this example used by Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo. A rock might have been immersed under water for a long time, but it still remains very hard and solid. Similarly, our minds have been around Dharma for a long time, we’ve been reading and listening to teachings for ages, but nothing has happened; there’s been no change in our minds. We have no realizations and our egos are just as big as they were before we met the Dharma, if not bigger! Perhaps our egos have become even more professional, more sophisticated, better qualified than they ever were! Anyway, I’m joking. However, if you’ve been meditating on the lam-rim for a long time and feel no benefit, your mistake is that you have not practiced enough purification or collected enough merit.

Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo also said in his lam-rim teachings that even if you have been doing many preliminary practices [of purification and collecting merit] along with your lam-rim meditation, if there’s been no change in your mind, you need to examine your guru devotion.

There might be something wrong in your practice of that. You have to analyze what might have gone wrong in your guru devotion and fix any mistakes that you find by confessing past errors and correcting your future practice. If you fail to do this, you’ll continue to collect the heaviest of negative karmas, the greatest obstacles to realization and the development of your mind in the spiritual path, the path to enlightenment. If you are unaware of this and continue to do mainly preliminary practices and lam-rim meditation, not much will happen in your mind. What you are doing is good, but it won’t transform your mind, won’t bring you realizations.

Even in this case, therefore, purification is required. You have to recognize your mistakes and confess them, refrain from making them in future, and do whatever else should be done. In Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand,Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo said that of all the things you do in your life, the practice of purifying negativities and collecting merit is more important than meditation. This is what we are doing here, what’s happening now.

Also, for old students who knew Lama Yeshe, who was kinder than the buddhas of the three times, doing Vajrasattva practice is the best offering we can make to Lama. He wrote these teachings on the Vajrasattva practice and tsog offering, put together the sadhanas and so forth, so our doing one of Lama’s favorite practices would please him a lot and is repaying his kindness. Whether you’re a direct or indirect disciple, it’s the same.

[Rinpoche spends some time looking through a text.]

I can’t find my favorite subject. I think it’s hiding! I can’t find it, so we’d better do something else.

But before we do, since there are some people who want to take refuge and precepts next week, it would be good if first you could hear some preliminary teachings so that you will have a deeper understanding of the subject. In that way, the reasons for your taking refuge and precepts will be clearer and deeper.

Questions and Answers

Is there is a question? Maybe half a question?

Ven. Marcel: Rinpoche, in the confession verse in Lama Chöpa [Verse 38] we vow never to commit any negative action again, but when we do the Vajrasattva practice, we promise never to do again only those that we can avoid and don’t promise to do more than we actually can. This seems a little contradictory. Please could Rinpoche explain?

Rinpoche: No, I cannot explain! Impossible! Actually, yes, I did want to say something on this point. Even though it’s quite correct to say, “I will abstain from, I will not commit, any negativities as much as I possibly can,” it’s very general and sounds to me like a pretty weak promise. I think it’s stronger to say, “I will abstain from the gross negativities from now on, and those that are more difficult to avoid, I will abstain from for...” and here you commit to a certain period of time—a few seconds, a minute, an hour, one day; whatever you can. This commitment is stronger. You are taking more responsibility than you do when you make the general promise, “I will do my best.” That seems weak.

Even though you recite the words of Lama Chöpa together as a group—and not just Lama Chöpa; there are many other similar prayers—in your heart you should think what I’ve just explained.

Verbally, you do the prayers as written in the text, but the merit field will understand what you mean. I think they’ll have enough sympathy for you! Here at the retreat, when we do the general confession and the Thirty-five Buddhas, and at the end of the Vajrasattva sessions, as it’s guided meditation, we specifically mention the stronger promise as I’ve described in order to make our negative karma as light as possible and to not cheat the merit field. But when you do prayers in a group and the text does not specifically emphasize the promise in that way, you can think it in your heart.

Nick Ribush: Rinpoche, I have two questions. The first is, at the beginning of the long Vajrasattva sadhana, we set up the visualization with the PAM, lotus, vajra, HUM, radiant light and Vajrasattva, and then make offerings to Heruka Vajrasattva, starting with OM KHANDAROHI... and OM SVABHAVA... and everything becoming empty. Does that mean the visualization disappears?

Rinpoche: No, it means your ego disappears! Anyway, here the focus is the emptiness of the offerings, which appear to you as ordinary. This has two meanings. One is the emptiness of inherent existence. The other is the emptiness of the offerings that you believe are there, but are not there on the base; the offerings that appear to you, that your mind believes are there—the water, food, music and other offerings—but in reality are not there, cannot be found on their base. So that is purified. Meditate that those inherently existent offerings—which are not there but appear to your hallucinating mind as though they were, which your hallucinating mind believes are there—are totally non-existent, as they are totally nonexistent; not space, but empty like space. So at that time the ordinary appearance of the offerings is purified in emptiness. The offerings—the food, water and so forth—which appear inherently existent or ordinary, which appear to you not in the way they appear to the buddhas, which is in the nature of greatest bliss, are purified in emptiness. Focus mainly on the emptiness of the offerings, but if you can extend your mind to think of the emptiness of all existence, that’s even better.

Doing this, you should not have any confusion with your visualization of Vajrasattva, because you are supposed to visualize the deity as inseparable method and wisdom. That’s the correct way to meditate on the deity. It’s not only when you practice deity yoga, when you visualize yourself as the deity, that you generate the transcendental wisdom of non-dual clarity and profundity, the mind of inseparable method and wisdom, which is what makes deity yoga “vajra.” When you practice method, you create the cause to attain the enlightened holy body, rupakaya; when you practice wisdom, you create the cause to attain the enlightened holy wisdom, dharmakaya. Therefore, when you practice method and wisdom together by meditating on the deity as the inseparability of these two, you continuously create the cause to attain the two enlightened holy bodies.

Jon [Rinpoche asking Jon Landaw], can you say “unified”—”the mind that is unified method and wisdom”? Yes? I used to say that for a long time, until a few years ago, when I did some work here at LMB with “mandala” Michael. I was helping check his English translation of the Heruka body mandala sadhana. He had translated the words in the same order as they appear in Tibetan, which is opposite to the order in which you say them in English. Usually when you translate Tibetan into English you reverse the order of the words. It’s OK, but his was a slightly more difficult way of making a translation. So we had finished the prayer of request to the lineage lamas and were just about up to the yoga of the three purifications, and I wanted to say “unified” for the mind that is unified of method and wisdom, but he indicated that that meant two things become one and I shouldn’t use that word. Since then my mind has been quite discouraged about saying unified! Up till then I was very proud of that translation! Anyway, I think that this point is something to analyze.

You can also instantly generate yourself as the mandala deity out of emptiness, but what I was going to say was that even when you visualize the deity in front of you, you have to visualize it with wisdom that is inseparable from method and wisdom. For example, at the beginning of the Guru Puja, after generating refuge and bodhicitta, the refuge merit field absorbs into you, and then out of emptiness, you generate yourself as the deity that you are actually going to achieve in the future—for instance, Yamantaka. At that time, you are the deity. The way you’re supposed to meditate, or feel, is that the resultant deity that you will achieve in the future has actually happened now, and your mind is in the state of non-dual bliss and wisdom. The deity that you visualize in front of you is a manifestation of your mind, which is dharmakaya.

While you are focusing on the deity’s holy body, at the same time, that wisdom understands, recognizes, that it has no nature, that it doesn’t have inherent existence. At the moment, when things appear, our ignorance holds them to be inherently existent, as if that’s the actual nature of phenomena, as if that’s the way they exist. While your wisdom focuses on the holy body of the deity in front of you, it also understands that it has no nature, no inherent existence. The focus on the holy body is method and the understanding that it has no inherent existence, no nature, is wisdom. In the lower tantras, the term for the method of focus on the deity’s holy body is “clarity” and the term for the wisdom of simultaneous understanding that it has no inherent existence is “profundity” — the non-dual wisdom of profundity and clarity. In highest yoga tantra, the [experience of this is called] great bliss.

What I’m saying is that you should think that everything is empty.

The more phenomena that you can think are empty, the better.

Therefore, if you’re thinking that everything is empty, when you think of the aspect of Vajrasattva, you don’t have to go through it all again.

Otherwise you’ll never get to the mantra recitation; you’ll just be repeating, “This is empty, that is empty” and will never get to start your retreat!

When you visualize Vajrasattva by degrees, build up the steps of the visualization, every single aspect has meaning. Does Lama explain all these things in his commentary? [Student: No, Rinpoche.] Basically, every single thing in the visualization signifies Vajrasattva’s qualities. The lotus, the sun and moon discs, everything else—all those things express Vajrasattva’s qualities. And when you invoke wisdom, initiate Vajrasattva and so forth, you don’t do all that because Vajrasattva’s missing something.

There are no blessings or qualities missing in Vajrasattva. It’s not like Vajrasattva is empty before you invoke wisdom; that Vajrasattva has no mind and you have to invoke mind from somewhere else. The invocation of wisdom, the initiation—these are not for Vajrasattva but are done to dispel our wrong thoughts, our ordinary concepts, such as, “Oh, it’s just me visualizing this; this is just my own visualization.” You see?

Not much faith.

When you do the visualization invoking wisdom, you feel better; you have more faith. This is done according to the psychology of us ordinary beings; to generate more faith, to make it more powerful. Similarly, there’s no need to initiate or purify Vajrasattva, just as when in the Jorchö practice we offer a bath to the merit field, there’s no dirt to wash off.

As it says in that prayer, “Buddha’s holy body has no stains, but in order to purify the stains of us sentient beings, I am going to offer this bath to the buddhas.” It’s like that. When we do the visualization initiating Vajrasattva, purifying all stains, and the initiating nectar overflows and becomes Akshobhya, Vajrasattva has no stains to purify; it’s to purify our own.

Anyway, even if you meditate that everything is empty, you can still do instant visualization, as I described.

The meaning of the OM SVABHAVA... MANTRA

With respect to the mantra OM SVABHAVA SHUDDAH SARVA DHARMA SVABHAVA SHUDDHO HAM, the first part indicates selflessness of the aggregates and the second, selflessness of the person. The first shows that the aggregates, which are the base to be labeled I, are also empty. The second shows the I, the self, is empty. That’s one interpretation. In general, SVABHAVA means “nature” and SHUDDHO means “pure,” so together they mean pure nature. SARVA means “all” and DHARMA means “existence” [“existent phenomena”].

The general meaning is that all objects are empty. All objects of mind—forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects, I, aggregates, all objects perceived—are empty; they don’t have inherent existence, even though they appear to our hallucinating minds as inherently existent. From the very beginning, they have never been inherently existent—that is the nature of all phenomena and that is pure. It’s pure because they have never been inherently existent, even though they appear as inherently existent to our hallucinating minds, as if they’re covered by inherent existence, like a floor is covered by a carpet or a table by a tablecloth.

Neither the object that is perceived, nor the mind—the cognition, she-pa—that perceives it, has inherent existence. Neil, how do you translate that mind, she-pa? Knower? Knowing phenomenon? [Ven. Neil: Knower.] What about the person whose mind that is? Is that also knower? Both the mind and the person are knower? In Tibetan, they’re different. She-pa is the mind that has the function of knowing, and the person whose mind it is is called she-pa-po, the one who knows.

Anyway, both the objects perceived and the cognition, or mind, that perceives them, that has the function of knowing, exist by being merely labeled by the mind. Therefore, they have no inherent existence whatsoever— not the slightest atom of it—even though all these merely labeled phenomena, the objects, and the mind, the knower that has the function of knowing, appear to have inherent existence. So that appearance and the belief in it block us from seeing that the way all these phenomena really exist is in mere name; not only the appearance but also the belief, or apprehension, that it’s true, prevent us from seeing the way in which phenomena exist—in mere name.

However, ...SVABHAVA SHUDDAH SARVA DHARMA SVABHAVA SHUDDHO...shows that all objects perceived by the mind are empty, that their nature is pure, empty of inherent existence. The meaning of pure here is unstained by inherent existence. Not only are these objects of the mind pure in nature, but the subject, the mind that perceives, is also SVABHAVA SHUDDHO—pure in nature. Even though our mind and all other phenomena appear to our mind as if they exist from their own side, they’re totally empty of that mode of existence, therefore, they’re pure. The whole of existence is empty.

After that, the way you meditate on O-HAM depends on the level of tantra that you’re practicing. For example, Kriya or Highest Yoga Tantra. If you’re meditating according to Highest Yoga Tantra, it’s similar to dharmakaya meditation. I’m just mentioning this so that those who understand will get the idea. It doesn’t mean you have to go through the absorptions. Then, the very last thing you think is O-HAM, “This is me.” After you have created a pure base, you label it. Normally we apply our labels to impure bases, on these samsaric aggregates. Our mind labels “I” on the impure base of our samsaric aggregates. Here, however, you first create a pure base, then you label it I, and similarly, when you visualize the deity, you do the same thing.

After meditating that the object is empty, meditate that the subject, the mind that knows, is also empty. The object is empty; the mind that knows the object is also empty. SARVA DHARMA SVABHAVA—the whole of existence is empty. The non-dual wisdom seeing the object, emptiness, that’s the very basic, fundamental meditation contained in the mantra OM SVABHAVA SHUDDAH SARVA DHARMA SVABHAVA SHUDDHO O-HAM. With the support of bodhicitta, that realization of emptiness ceases not only the gross but also the subtle defilements. Then your ordinary body, speech and mind are transformed into the vajra holy body, vajra holy speech and vajra holy mind, which the three sounds A-AU-MA, OM, signify. OM is the integration of the three sounds A, AU and MA.That’s the goal; that’s what we achieve by completely realizing the meaning contained in the mantra OM SVABHAVA SHUDDAH SARVA DHARMA SVABHAVA SHUDDHO HAM. By meditating on that, you achieve that which is contained in OM.

What was your second question?

Nick: Rinpoche, when my ignorant mind apprehends that object that has the function of standing on the table and emitting light, I label it “table lamp,” and then a real table lamp appears from that side. So that’s how the table lamp appears. How does the base exist? The base itself?

Rinpoche: The base of the lamp? That’s exactly the same. As the lamp is labeled, the base is also labeled. If the lamp that you see is merely labeled, in the same way, the base is also labeled. That cannot be different from the lamp. Do you mean the label “lamp” comes from your mind but the base comes from the shop—the base is bought in a shop? The label “lamp” is applied by your very kind mind, which helps to have light on this table? I’m joking! So, we’ll stop here.


“Due to the merits of the three times collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings, may bodhicitta—the altruistic mind determined to reach enlightenment for sentient beings, which cherishes others, from which all success and other desirable things come, by letting go the I, from which all unhappiness and problems arise—be generated in my mind and in the minds of all my family members, all the students and benefactors of this organization and all other sentient beings without even a second’s delay, and may that which has already been generated increase.”

It’s not that this mind, bodhicitta, has nothing to cherish. “...by letting go the I” doesn’t mean there’s nothing left. Cherish others; that’s the best thing to do. By letting go your I, you get all happiness; by letting go your I, you free yourself from all obstacles and achieve all happiness up to enlightenment.

“Due to all the past, present and future merits collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings—which, while they exist, are totally non-existent from their own side—may the I—which, while it exists, is totally empty, non-existent, from its own side—achieve Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s or Vajrasattva’s enlightenment—which, while it exists, is totally non-existent from its own side—and lead all sentient beings—which, while they exist, are totally non-existent from their own side—to that enlightenment—which, while it exists, is totally non-existent from its own side—by myself alone—which, while it exists, is totally non-existent, totally empty, from its own side.

“May the complete teaching of Lama Tsongkhapa, the unification of sutra and tantra, be completely actualized within my own mind, the minds of my family members and the minds of all the students and benefactors of this organization, especially those who sacrifice their lives serving others through this organization, in this very lifetime, without even a second’s delay, spread in the minds of all sentient beings and flourish in all directions.”

I thought at this point to mention a little bit about the Gelugpa meeting in New Delhi from which I’ve just returned...I’m saying, “I thought”—I thought to mention—but perhaps another time. Right now it’s dinner time—time for bliss in the stomach!

Next Chapter:

Chapter 42: April 11 »