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 6: February 9-b


Motivation for the thirty-five Buddha practice

“The purpose of my life is to free all sentient beings from all their suffering and its causes and bring them to full enlightenment. To do this, I myself must achieve enlightenment, and for this, I must actualize the steps of the path to enlightenment. Therefore, I need to purify all my defilements, negative karmas, and downfalls.”

Think, “If I were now in the hell realm, how would it be? I would be completely overwhelmed by the heaviest suffering of samsara.”

If a burning incense stick drops on your body, you can’t stand it; you immediately have to brush it off. If even a spark lands on your body, you can’t stand it; without even a seconds delay, you have to put it out or brush it off. If you find unbearable even a tiny spark of fire from the human realm, there is no way you could bear to suffer for many eons in the hell realm. One second of hell fire is unbelievably hot, many billions of times hotter that the fire of the human realm. Because it is extremely heavy suffering, experiencing even one second of hell fire is like suffering for many billions of years. Besides that, you have no freedom to practice Dharma.

“Now, this could actually happen to me, even in this moment, because death can come at any time. It could happen right now. Therefore, I must purify all my defilements, negative karma and downfalls right now. Without delaying even a second, I must purify right now. Also, in order to cause all happiness up to enlightenment to every one of the numberless sentient beings, I’m going to do prostrations with the Confession of Downfalls, reciting the names of, and meditating on, the Thirty-five Buddhas.”

The importance of memorizing the names of the thirty-five Buddhas

If one person leads the prayer and the rest of the people do not recite it because no one has memorized the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas, only that person will get the benefits of reciting the names. Those who haven’t memorized the names will get the benefits of making prostrations, but they won’t get the benefit of reciting the names of the thirty-five Buddhas. This is a great loss. How is it a great loss? Take the very first name, that of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, for example. By reciting Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s name, you purify 80,000 eons of negative karma; if you don’t recite his name, this doesn’t happen. Reciting each of the thirty-five Buddhas’ names purifies a certain number of eons of negative karma or a particular negative karma. Reciting each name just one time purifies many eons of negative karma.

If someone told us that we would not get cancer for six eons, we would think it was fantastic. Or that we would not get a migraine headache for sixty years. We can understand that very clearly, and we would think, “Oh, that’s fantastic!” Leaving aside the six eons, even if someone told us that we would not get cancer in this life, we would regard it as fantastic, as unbelievable good fortune. Now here, in relation to the practice of the thirty-five Buddhas, we are talking about not getting cancer and other problems for six thousand eons, seven thousand eons, because we have purified that many eons of negative karma, which is the cause of not only sickness but all problems and obstacles. Cancer is just one tiny drop from the ocean of samsaric sufferings. Being able to purify even two thousand eons of negative karma is an incredible advantage. If death is going to happen right now, in the next moment, the most important thing is purification. The most urgent thing to do is to purify our negative karma. [The lights suddenly come on.] We must be actualizing the clear light of death! Anyway, bless the lights with OM AH HUM, OM AH HUM, OM AH HUM.

If you were about to die, which would you prefer to be given—a billion dollars or the chance to purify this life’s negative karma? Which is more important? Which is more precious? Of course, purifying even one negative karma before we die is much better than receiving a billion or even a trillion dollars.

My point is that if only one person recites the names of the thirty-five Buddhas, only that person receives the advantage of all this purification. The people who don’t recite don’t receive this advantage. This is like one person eating a meal on behalf of a group of people, while the rest of the people do not eat. That one person eating food doesn’t fill the stomachs of the other people; it doesn’t stop their hunger, does it? It is similar here. For the one person who recites the prayer, reciting the name of each buddha purifies many eons of negative karma, but this doesn’t happen to the rest of the people. Each one of the Thirty-five Buddhas purifies many eons of negative karmas, but the people who do not recite the names do not receive all this advantage. When we were doing the Hayagriva retreat at Vajrapani Institute, I made a regulation that during the retreat everybody had to memorize the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas.

When I hear some of the names in English, they sound different. When I say “Buddha of Sandalwood” in English, it makes me think of sandalwood; but that picture of sandalwood doesn’t come in my mind when I say the name in Tibetan, even though it has the same meaning. After the thirty-five Buddhas, recite the names of the seven Medicine Buddhas, who are extremely powerful not only for healing but for success generally. The Medicine Buddha did many prayers in the past for sentient beings to be granted all their wishes, to have their prayers actualized, through reciting the name and the mantra of Medicine Buddha. It is very important to do this practice. Kachen Yeshe Gyaltsen and other recent lineage lamas also recited the names of the Seven Medicine Buddhas after reciting the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas. This is very good and makes the practice very powerful.

The conclusion of the practice

At the end of the prostrations, think that nectar beams are emitted by all the beings in the merit field and enter within you and purify all your defilements, negative karma and downfalls. Everything is purified. Nothing in the slightest is left in your mental continuum. Then meditate that in emptiness, there is no creator of negative karma, there is no action of creating negative karma, there is no negative karma created.

Finally, dedicate. “Due to the merits collected by having done prostrations, made offerings, confessed, rejoiced and requested the gurus to have stable lives and to turn the Dharma wheel, may I achieve enlightenment in order to enlighten all sentient beings.”

Benefits of reciting lam-rim prayers

One purpose of reciting the lam-rim prayer is to use it as a motivation. The other point is that each time we recite a prayer that contains the essence of the whole path, it makes our mind closer to the realizations of the path to enlightenment. In other words, it makes us closer to enlightenment and to our being able to enlighten all sentient beings. This is the main reason that we are doing this Vajrasattva retreat. The main reason for doing Vajrasattva purification practice is not to be healthy or to have a long life, but to have realizations of the path to enlightenment so that we can benefit others by liberating them from all their suffering and bringing them to enlightenment.

Therefore, as often as possible, at the beginning of each session we should recite one of the lam-rim prayers as the motivation, to bring our mind closer to the realizations of the path to enlightenment. Because each lam-rim prayer has a different presentation, reciting different lam-rim prayers, like eating different types of food, has a different effect on the mind. Also, you’d get bored if you recited the same prayer all the time.

Generating as Heruka

Since we are not doing the Heruka practice, you can leave the part about generating yourself as Heruka. Recite the refuge verse, then leave a short silence in which to generate a strong motivation of bodhicitta.

Motivation for Varjrasattva practice

Feel strong regret, then generate strong thoughts of impermanence and death, that death might happen right now. After that, generate strong bodhicitta motivation. Think of the lower realm sufferings, the general sufferings of samsara and of the living beings who are experiencing all

these sufferings. Remember how kind and precious other living beings are, then think, “I, myself alone, must take full responsibility for freeing all living beings from the ocean of samsaric suffering and its cause, the defilements, and for leading them to enlightenment. I must achieve enlightenment in the quickest way possible, because it is so unbearable that sentient beings are suffering in samsara for even one second; it’s like they are suffering for eons. Therefore, I am going to do the Vajrasattva meditation-recitation to purify all my obscurations, defilements, negative karma and downfalls.”


Before making the dedication to achieve Vajrasattva, we should meditate on emptiness as follows: “In emptiness there is no I, no creator; there is no action of creating; there is no negative karma created. Everything is totally empty, non-existent from its own side. Everything is empty—not space, but like space.” We are not meditating on space, but that everything is empty, like space; empty of existence from its own side, like space.

With our mind in the state of this awareness we then dedicate the merits.

“Due to all the merits of the three times collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings, may I achieve Guru Vajrasattva’s enlightenment and lead all sentient beings to that enlightenment by myself alone.”

I’d just like to make a few comments about the dedications. There are some additional general dedications in the Guru Shakyamuni Buddha meditation booklet, A Daily Meditation Practice, which are good to do at the end of the sessions. You can divide these dedications so that you do a few at the end of each session. In this way, they all get done each day without your needing to do them all together at the end of the final session, which would take a long time.

At the end of the morning session of Guru Puja, which is basically guru yoga practice, you should do the very important dedication, “Due to the merits of the three times created by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings, may I, the members of my family, all the students and benefactors of this organization, and all the rest of the sentient beings meet only perfectly qualified Mahayana gurus in all our future lifetimes. From our side may we see them only as enlightened beings. May we do only actions most pleasing to the holy minds of the virtuous friends. May we be able to fulfill all their holy wishes immediately.”

This dedication contains four very, very important prayers: to meet perfectly qualified gurus, to see them only as enlightened beings, to do actions only most pleasing to their holy minds and to fulfill their holy wishes. We should do this dedication every day, because without the accomplishment of these prayers, nothing can succeed. We cannot achieve realizations or enlightenment. This dedication is extremely important as a means of ensuring that in this life and in all our coming lives we will be able to practice better. If we can practice in accordance with these four prayers, we will achieve enlightenment without any obstacles. This is the essential key to our ultimate success—completing our Dharma practice and being a perfect guide to lead other sentient beings to enlightenment.

Do this dedication prayer at the end of the morning session and divide the others among the remaining sessions so that you do a few at the end of each.

“Due to all the merits of the three times collected by me, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings, may any sentient being who hears me, touches me, remembers me, thinks about me, talks about me (whether praising or criticizing), abuses me or treats me badly, simply by having made that connection with me, never ever be reborn in the lower realms. May those sentient beings immediately be liberated from all disease, spirit harms, negative karma and defilements and quickly achieve enlightenment, by actualizing the whole path, especially bodhicitta.

“May I immediately be able to heal anyone with a sickness that is difficult to cure or has no cure, such as cancer, AIDS or arthritis, and especially anyone whose mind has become crazy and uncontrolled because of spirit possession and so forth. When that person is dying, simply by seeing me, hearing my voice or being touched by me, may they immediately be freed from all their worry and fear and feel incredible bliss and peace in their heart; and may they be able to reincarnate in a pure land where they can become enlightened.”

We need to specify “a pure land where they can become enlightened” because there are pure lands from which sentient beings can again be reborn in the lower realms. We are dedicating for rebirth in a specific type of pure land, one from which sentient beings can never be reborn in the lower realms and where they can become enlightened.

This prayer can be added to the dedications in the meditation booklet. Generating this wish every day builds the potential to sooner or later be able to benefit others in this way.

Generating as Heruka

I now see why Lama wrote here in the long sadhana to generate yourself as Heruka. It is because later you have to make an inner offering. In order to bless the inner offering you have to generate yourself as a deity; the ordinary I cannot bless the inner offering. To bless the inner offering you need the pure appearance of yourself in the deity’s holy body and to hold divine pride, “I am Heruka.” It is only with this deity yoga that you can bless the inner offering, in order to dispel interferers and purify the offerings—which appear ordinary, or inherently existent, to you—in emptiness. In Highest Yoga Tantra, you have to generate offerings with three qualities: the aspect is the offering, the essence is emptiness of inherent existence and the function is to give great bliss. To generate offerings with these three qualities, you need to generate yourself as a deity.

If you haven’t received a Heruka initiation but have received a Yamantaka initiation, for example, you can generate yourself as Yamantaka and do the blessing, visualizing as nectar and so forth according to Yamantaka practice. The same applies if you have received the Kalachakra great initiation.

If you haven’t received a Highest Yoga Tantra initiation, you don’t need to bother about generating yourself as a deity. You just make the offerings.

Making offerings

Each time we make offerings with argham, padyam, pushpe, dhupe..., whether in the section of offering in the Guru Puja or in the Vajrasattva practice, it is good to remember all the offerings—all the lights, all the flowers, all the waterbowls—that have been made here. You can also visualize offerings. Then you collect unbelievable merit. Some people can visualize clearly; others cannot. However, everyone can offer all these many physically performed offerings.

Take the many lights here in this gompa, for example. I’m not sure how many there are, but let’s say that there are one thousand lights here. By offering these one thousand lights to Vajrasattva or to the Guru Puja merit field, you immediately create one thousand causes of enlightenment. If there are five thousand lights, simply by thinking, “I am offering all these lights,” in that second you create five thousand causes of enlightenment—and that means incidentally, you also create five thousand causes to achieve liberation from samsara and five thousand causes to achieve good rebirths in your future lives.

This is my daily advertisement—an advertisement to inspire people to create good karma. People advertise hotels or companies on huge billboards on major roads. Before you reach the hotel it has already been advertised for miles. There are advertisements everywhere—in Time magazine, in airline magazines. So this is my advertisement.

Making one offering to Buddha results in a good rebirth not just in one life but in hundreds, thousands, of lives. Why? Because karma is expandable. From even one small good karma, you can experience the result for many lifetimes. It affects not just one life, but many different lifetimes, because karma is more expandable than external phenomena. If you plant one small seed, you can grow a huge tree with many thousands of branches, and hundreds of thousands of seeds can come from that tree. Karma, however, is even more expandable than such external phenomena.

Making offerings is just one means of creating good karma; there are many other practices. With each of these practices, you incidentally take care of this life. You incidentally take care of everything in this life—your health, long life, wealth, success. Even if you are not attached to this life, your Dharma practice incidentally takes care of this life. Even though it is not your motivation, you achieve the result. As is said in the lam-rim teachings, if you plant a seed in the ground and it has all the conditions (water, nutrients and so forth) necessary for growth, no matter how much you pray for it not to grow, it will grow. It is similar with the merit that we create through making offerings, prostrations and so forth to the merit field. No matter how much you pray not to achieve enlightenment, you will achieve enlightenment from that, because once there is the cause of enlightenment, you achieve the result of enlightenment.

Many offerings might have been physically arranged, but you don’t think of them when you are actually making offerings. However, your visualization of offerings might not be clear—perhaps not even one offering is clear; so sometimes it might be better to think of the physical offerings. They are already there, so it’s just a question of your mind thinking to offer them. That is all you have to do. Someone else has put effort into setting up all the offerings—the only effort you need to make is to think of them and offer them mentally. With these water bowls, for example, you create many thousands of causes of enlightenment in that second.

I started this tradition of making extensive offerings in Taiwan about five years ago. In Kaohsiung there is a nunnery that has supported the Kopan monks and nuns. I led a Medicine Buddha retreat there, during which I gave a complete commentary on the mandala offering, as well as some commentary on the seven limb practice and some other preliminary practices. Not all, but some of the nuns are interested in lam-rim. They had been studying lam-rim before with some other Chinese students involved in lam-rim study groups.

When I said that I wanted to make extensive offerings, the abbess of the nunnery went to buy many orchids, which are very expensive flowers, and the other nuns were very energetic in setting up very beautiful offerings.

From Kaohsiung I went to the Taipei Center, where I started the same tradition, with the setting up of many sets of seven offerings in the gompa. I also started the tradition at the Taichung Center. When I went to Nepal, I then started water bowl offerings in a room on the roof of the gompa. The room, which has glass walls, was actually built as an outside dining room, but after I got back it turned out not to be for eating but for water bowls. I bought about seven hundred stainless steel bowls in Nepal. They are very good because they are light, shiny and very easy to keep clean; they don’t become covered inside with rust the way brass bowls do. Some people offer water in rusty brass bowls because they think they must be very holy, or something, because they are Tibetan bowls. But brass bowls are very dirty and sometimes even the water becomes dirty.

I wasn’t satisfied with the one room because all the bowls could not be used, so I had another room built on the roof. Two nuns have been offering these bowls there for a long time. One nun, Gloria from Hong Kong, offered the bowls for two or three months. Zug-ku also offered for some time. Gloria spent so much time out in the sun offering the bowls that her right arm, which was not covered by her zen, became dark while her left arm was white. Maybe in Western terms this was a good thing, some kind of success!

When I was staying at Tushita in Dharamsala, I thought to build a similar room there for offerings as there is a lot of space outside. So I’ve produced the idea, but my stay in Tushita was too short to get anything built.

My main concern regarding the house in Aptos was to have a large room for offerings. In the offering room there, which is not an actual room, there are about 4,000 lights, many small ones and some big ones, the beautiful Chinese lotus lights. There are now also more than 250 water bowls—probably 257, as Pam and Karuna gave another set of crystal bowls yesterday. There are also flowers in our garden, but the flowers are now asleep, doing sleep meditation—in the clear light! [So we can’t offer them.]

I thought that if some people have the time and there is the space out here on the verandah for some tables, more offerings of water bowls could be done.

It is very good for meditation centers even to hire people to do the offerings. Paying people to make extensive offerings is extremely worthwhile. It is not a waste of money, because those people get paid for their work of making offerings, and the people who sponsor them gain much merit. Tibetan monasteries and even rich Tibetan families have someone to make offerings every day. Rich families have a shrine room, so they support one monk, whose responsibility it is to clean the shrine room and make very good offerings every day. The monk takes care of the shrine room and the family takes care of the monk, offering him food and a bed in the shrine room. Even if the family members themselves don’t have time to do more than come to the gompa to make three prostrations and to pray, the monk takes care of the work of cleaning and making offerings.

I suggested to Tara Institute in Melbourne that they hire one person especially to make extensive offerings. Everybody else could then put some money into the cost of buying the offerings. Each time the students from the center do a sadhana, they could then think of the offerings that had been set up on the altar at the center and offer them. Also, while they were travelling back and forth to work in their cars, they could simply think of the offerings and offer them. This is such an easy way to collect extensive merit. Even if you yourself don’t have time to make such offerings, you can collect unbelievable merit by organizing something like this.

This would help many people with difficulties in their life, those who have problems finding a job, who have problems with their work or who have obstacles to success in business. Arranging these extensive offerings would help all the students, because it helps everybody to create good karma, which can change their lives and make them easier. It is very profitable. Just as there are many ways to make business, there are many ways to create merit, or good karma, the cause of enlightenment. It is also helpful for the people who need to offer many water bowls as part of their preliminary practices.

We are coming now to the time of the Chinese and Tibetan New Year, with the start of the fifteen special days when Buddha showed his miraculous powers to subdue particular sentient beings. For every one of these fifteen days the merits from every practice we do are multiplied one hundred million times. The merit from each offering is increased one hundred million times. One light offering becomes one hundred million light offerings, one water bowl offering becomes one hundred million water bowl offerings, and it is the same with prostrations. It is good to make more offerings during this period; everybody can then make the offerings. Some people have to put in the effort of physically making the offerings, but then everybody gets the chance to make extensive offerings, so it’s very good. Giving other people the chance to make many offerings is also a way that you can help bring happiness to others and enable them to achieve enlightenment quickly.

Generating as a deity

Now, those people who haven’t received a great initiation don’t need to bother about generating themselves as a deity. Those who have received a great initiation can visualize themselves as Heruka, Yamantaka, Kalachakra or any other deity whose initiation they have received; you can individually generate yourself as that deity. Basically, the offerings in the various Highest Yoga Tantra practices are similar; there are different mantras, but the visualization and blessing of the offerings are basically the same.

Even though the self-generation as Heruka can be recited, each individual can decide which deity to practice, and it should be specified that those who haven’t received initiation don’t need to do that, you can drop that out.

Use of bell alone for invocation

I don’t know the reason for it, but normally the bell is rung without playing the damaru for the invocation of [and offerings to] the wisdom beings and the initiating deities. There is just the ringing of the bell. Sometimes there is no music offering to these deities, not even the mudra, but it seems to depend on which tantric tradition a particular monastery follows. Most Gelug monasteries usually follow the traditions of the Upper Tantric College or the Lower Tantric College, but some Gelug monasteries have their own tradition, based on the practices of their founding lama.

It seems, however, that normally only the bell is played for the wisdom and empowering deities. With Vajrasattva itself you can play the damaru as well.

The power of regret

The outline in the FPMT Prayer Book has “The prayer of the opponent power”—in other words, the power of regret—at the end, after you have already recited the Vajrasattva mantra. As I mentioned yesterday, you should generate regret for the negative karma you have created either before you start to recite the Vajrasattva mantra or along with the recitation. Your Vajrasattva meditation then becomes very powerful. The outline in the Prayer Book should be changed, so that it comes before the mantra recitation at the point where you request Vajrasattva to purify all your negative karmas; otherwise, you are practicing the power of regret after you have already finished the meditation.

Also, the sub-heading “Absorption” is in the wrong place. It should not be where Vajrasattva says, “O child of good family...,” but just before “Dorje Nyem-ma Karmo is transformed into light....” Yesterday I left out one point. I forgot to mention that after you generate the thought of regret in a broad way by considering the general definition of non-virtuous actions of body, speech and mind, you then think about the ten non-virtuous actions; you reflect on how many of the ten non-virtuous actions you committed today, on the way you have committed them again and again in this life, and on how you have committed so many during beginningless rebirths. After that, if you have taken pratimoksha, bodhisattva or tantric vows, you consider all the vows that you have broken. On top of that, you then reflect on how many times you have created negative karma in relation to your gurus, the heaviest obstacle of all. By reflecting on negative karma in this way, you get the broad view of what you need to purify and your regret becomes very strong. It is very, very good to practice in this way because you cover everything that needs to be purified.

Meditating on emptiness

At the point in the sadhana where Lama talks about bliss and voidness, “the bliss of shunyata” and so forth, you should meditate on emptiness. You can also think, as I often mention, that there is no creator, no action of creating and no creation.

Right after you have meditated on emptiness, with continuation of the same awareness, you dedicate with Ge-wa di... and Jang-chub semchog.... The dedications then become very powerful.

The power of not committing negative actions again

After Vajrasattva tells you that your broken pledges are cleansed and purified, stop for a short while to practice the power of not committing negative actions again. As I mentioned yesterday, you promise to abstain from negative karma—with the subtle negative karmas that are very difficult to abstain from completely, you promise to abstain from them for one hour, one minute or at least a few seconds. By making this strong determination, you perfect the remedy of the four powers, which makes your confession very powerful.

You must do this practice of the power not to commit negative actions again. It is not mentioned here in the sub-headings, so it would be good to write it in as a guide to the practice.

If you practice the remedy of the four powers, your confession is perfect. Therefore, you won’t have to experience the four suffering results of a complete negative karma—the ripening aspect result, rebirth in the lower realms; and the three results that are later experienced in the human realm. These three are creating the result similar to the cause, experiencing the result similar to the cause and the possessed result. Experiencing the result similar to the cause of killing, for example, means that your life is harmed or shortened by others or you experience a lot of sickness. The possessed result of killing is that you are born in an unhealthy environment where there are many dangers to life from sickness and so forth and a lot of fear. With perfect confession, you won’t have to experience these four suffering results.