A Daily Practice to Stop All Suffering 16
The Confession of Downfalls to the Thirty-five Buddhas
To put an end to our samsaric suffering, we must do two things. One is to purify the negative actions that we’ve done every day of our lives and the negativities we’ve created since beginningless time in our infinite previous lives as well. 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. Practicing purification with the four opponent powers can help us both purify negative karma already created and not create more.
To avoid experiencing the suffering results of negative karma, especially rebirth in the lower realms as well as the suffering experienced in the human and deva realms, we should engage in powerful purification practices, such as Vajrasattva meditation, confession before the Thirty-five Buddhas and the various other purification practices. Here I would like to explain briefly how to apply these in everyday life, with emphasis on prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas.17
The moment you get up in the morning, 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, the happiness of liberation from samsara and the peerless happiness of full enlightenment. In every moment of this life, you can create the cause of any of these happinesses you wish.
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 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.
Basically, this should be your attitude towards the whole of your life, as explained in the teaching on a lifetime’s practice integrated with the five powers.18 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 there is. Even if you aren’t familiar with many Dharma teachings or texts, if you know what the five powers are and live your life accordingly, you give yourself much freedom, peace and happiness and can achieve enlightenment quickly. That’s the greatest advantage, the greatest benefit.
After generating your morning motivation, do prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas. I am going to give you a few details of the meditation that is done with this practice so that you’ll be able to create more merit when you do it. The more meditation skills you have, the more extensive the 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 every prostration that you do.
Before you start the actual practice, you should generate a strong feeling for wanting to purify by thinking along these lines: “The purpose of my life is to free all sentient beings from all their suffering and bring them to full enlightenment. To do this, I myself must first achieve enlightenment, so I must actualize the steps of the path to enlightenment. Therefore, I need to purify all my defilements, negative karmas and downfalls.”
Generate regret. First recall the definition of negative karma—any action that results in suffering, usually an action motivated by ignorance, attachment or aversion—and think, “Almost every action I do, twenty-four hours a day, is motivated by worldly concern, attachment to the comfort of this life. It is like this from birth to death in this life and has been like that from beginningless rebirths. Nearly every action I have ever created has been non-virtuous, the cause of suffering. Not only that, but continuously I have also been breaking my pratimoksha, bodhisattva and tantric vows. Worst of all, I have created the heaviest of negative karmas in relation to my virtuous friends—getting angry at them, not believing what they say, having non-devotional thoughts towards them, harming their holy body and disobeying their advice.
“Having these negative imprints on my mental continuum is unbearable. It’s as if I’ve swallowed a lethal poison. I must practice the antidote right away and purify all this negative karma immediately, without a second’s delay.”
Think of the lower realms, of the hell realms. “If I were now in a hell realm, how would it be? I would be totally overwhelmed by suffering, by the heaviest suffering of samsara. I would have no freedom to practice Dharma.”
Then think, “Even though I’m not dead yet, my death could happen at any moment. At any moment, I could be there in the most terrifying hell realm, the unbearable suffering state. Therefore, without even a second’s delay, I must purify all my defilements, all my negative karmas, all my downfalls. Therefore, I’m going to do prostrations with the meditation-recitation of the Confession of Downfalls to the Thirty-five Buddhas to cause all sentient beings to receive all happiness up to that of enlightenment; in other words, to benefit all sentient beings.”
With such thoughts, generate a strong feeling of urgency and regret. Your attitude should be one of wishing to purify yourself, but at the end, expand your attitude to include others with the wish to benefit all sentient beings by bringing them all happiness up to that of enlightenment. With the strong wish to purify yourself in order to benefit others, you then do the prostrations. Even if you do just a few prostrations, if they are done with this strong thought of purifying yourself in order to benefit others, each prostration and recitation of each of the Thirty-five Buddhas’ names becomes extremely powerful.
The importance of memorizing the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas
If you are doing this practice in a group and one person leads the chanting while the others do not recite the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas because they have not memorized them, only one person gets the benefit of the recitation. 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. This is a great loss. How? 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 you that you would not get cancer for six eons, you would think that that was fantastic. Forget about the six eons, even if someone told you that you would not get cancer in this life, you would think it fantastic, unbelievably good fortune. Now here, in relation to the practice of the Thirty-five Buddhas, we are talking about your not getting cancer or any other problem for thousands of eons because you have purified that many eons of negative karma, which is the cause of not only sickness but that of all other problems and obstacles. Cancer is just a tiny drop in the ocean of samsaric suffering. Purifying even two thousand eons of negative karma is incredibly advantageous. If you were going to die right now, in the next moment, the most important thing, the most urgent thing, you could do would be to purify your negative karma. 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 you 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. Those who don’t recite the names don’t receive the benefit. It’s like one person trying to eat a meal on behalf of a group of people while they don’t eat. The food that person eats doesn’t fill the other people’s stomachs, doesn’t satisfy their hunger. The great advantage of having memorized the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas is that you can recite them in the car or train while going to work. Since you spend so much time going back and forth between home and work, it is good to spend that time doing prayers or reciting the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas.
You can also recite them when you are flying by plane. It’s all right to read them from a book, but it is much easier if you know the names by heart, because then you can purify at any time. Since reciting these buddhas’ names even once purifies many eons of negative karma, it’s a great loss if you don’t recite them. It will take you longer to purify your negative karma and gain realizations, and longer to achieve enlightenment, which means that the numberless other sentient beings who are karmically connected to you will have to experience more suffering.
Therefore, you must realize what a precious opportunity you have right now. This present time is the most precious time. If you don’t take this opportunity to practice, it is a great loss. There is no greater loss than this; it’s a greater loss than losing a million dollars, zillions of dollars. Some people, when their business collapses or they lose a million dollars, become crazy and want to jump off a bridge or the roof of a building. Such losses are nothing, just something material, meaningless. But here, if you don’t take the incredible opportunity to practice confession with the Thirty-five Buddhas, to purify your negative karma and collect merit in such an easy way, you have suffered the greatest loss.
Even if you owned skies of diamonds, gold or wish-fulfilling gems, that alone could not purify your negative karma or stop you from being reborn in the lower realms. However, even if you don’t own any of this wealth, if you recite Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s name just once, you purify 80,000 eons of negative karma.
Reciting the name of any of the Thirty-five Buddhas purifies many thousands of eons of negative karma. Even if you were to lose that much wealth, it would be nothing compared to losing the chance of practicing the Thirty-five Buddhas. This is such an easy way to purify and to collect extensive merit. Simply by reciting the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas, you can achieve unbelievable purification.
The seven Medicine Buddhas
After reciting the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas, you recite the names of the seven Medicine Buddhas, who are extremely powerful not only for healing but for success in general. This is because when those seven buddhas were bodhisattvas they prayed and dedicated for sentient beings to be able to overcome their problems and achieve all success. Therefore, praying to the Medicine Buddhas and reciting their names is an extremely precious practice and is very effective for both healing and success. Those who recite the seven Medicine Buddhas’ names and the Medicine Buddha mantra in their daily lives will never be reborn in the lower realms and, no matter what happens, will have no fear of death. Any human being or animal who at the time of death simply hears the name or mantra of the Medicine Buddha will also not be reborn in the lower realms. This practice is very important. Kachen Yeshe Gyaltsen 19 and other recent lineage lamas recited the names of the seven Medicine Buddhas right after reciting the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas. This addition makes this powerful purification practice even more powerful.
How to do prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas and the seven Medicine Buddhas
When you recite these buddhas’ names, it would be extremely beneficial if you could do three sets as a daily practice. That means you could be doing as many as 150 prostrations each session, depending on how many you make during the confession prayer.
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.
Start by doing three prostrations with the mantra OM NAMO MANJUSHRIYE NAMAH SUSHRIYE NAMA UTTAMA SHRIYE SVAHA. Then, in English or Tibetan, recite the refuge formula. If you do it in Tibetan, make prostrations while reciting La ma la kyab su chhi wo (I take refuge in the Guru) as many times as you can during one prostration. Then, when your forehead touches the ground, change to Sang gyä la kyab su chhi wo (I take refuge in the Buddha), and keep reciting that until, on your next prostration, your forehead touches the ground again. Then change to Chhö la kyab su chhi wo (I take refuge in the Dharma) and keep prostrating through Ge dün la kyab su chhi wo (I take refuge in the Sangha).
Then, when you next touch the ground with your forehead, change to Tön pa chom dän dä de zhin sheg pa dra chom pa… (Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s name). If you have memorized it, you should recite it as fast as you can. It’s unbelievable—each repetition purifies 80,000 eons of negative karma. That’s why you should memorize all of the Thirty-five Buddhas’ names. The more times you 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. As I have been saying, reciting the name of just one of the Thirty-five Buddhas, not even 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. Which is more profitable—making a billion dollars or reciting one buddha’s name just once? There’s no comparison. A billion dollars is worth nothing compared to that. No amount of money can purify many eons of negative karma or generate extensive merit, but reciting a buddha’s name can.
After your forehead touches the ground, change to the next buddha’s name and recite it 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 dra chom pa yang dag par dzog päi sang gyä rin po chhe dang pä ma la rab tu zhug pa ri wang gi gyäl po (Tathagata, arhat, perfectly completed buddha, King, Lord of Mountains Firmly Seated on Jewel and Lotus) purifies broken samayas and negative karma created in relation to your gurus, which are the heaviest negative karmas of all. Therefore, I think it’s necessary to recite the last buddha’s name three times.
By then adding the names of the seven Medicine Buddhas, 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. Your own prayers will be successful and you will also receive the beneficial effects of all the prayers made by the seven Medicine Buddhas in the past. Therefore, it is very important to recite the names of the Medicine Buddhas in addition to those of the Thirty-five Buddhas. Again 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.
If you recite them a second or third time 20, 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, go back to the 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, do two. If not two, then one. But remember, with each prostration, recite that buddha’s name as many times as you can, over and over, rather than reciting it slowly throughout the prostration, 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 very 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 and future lives.
The visualization and the absolute guru
When you visualize Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, visualize Avalokiteshvara at his heart. The psychology of this was explained by the great yogi Sangye Yeshe, who said, “Without the guru, there is no buddha,” which means that all buddhas come from the guru. At the heart of the explanation of guru yoga lies the dharmakaya. In general, we can call this omniscient mind, but to be specific we should call it the extremely subtle mind of the wisdom of great bliss non-dual with the emptiness of all existence.
“Non-dual” means the wisdom that sees the emptiness of all existence directly—not from afar, like when we look at distant things, but through having thoroughly pervaded all phenomena—the wisdom of great bliss seeing all emptiness directly and non-dualistically, like water mixed with water, through having completely eradicated the dualistic view. This is dharmakaya; this is what is called the absolute guru.
When we talk about the guru we can refer to either the absolute or the conventional guru. But even if the absolute guru manifested right now in the aspect of the Buddha, we wouldn’t be able to see him because our minds are obscured. Therefore, the only way in which the absolute guru can communicate with us is by manifesting in an ordinary human body, a form with samsaric suffering, delusions and mistaken actions. It is only by taking this imperfect form that the absolute guru can communicate with us, manifesting in an ordinary mistaken aspect according to our impure, obscured, mistaken mind; this ordinary aspect is all we can see with our present state of mind.
Thus, the only way the absolute guru can guide us, especially when it comes to giving teachings, is through this ordinary, mistaken, human form. We don’t have the karma to see an aspect purer than this. Even if the guru were to manifest in a pure form, we couldn’t see it. On the other hand, if the absolute guru manifested in a lower form, like that of an animal, that too would be difficult for us to recognize, and it would also be hard to communicate through such a form, to give teachings and so forth. Therefore, this ordinary aspect, which shows delusion and suffering, is very precious, very important, because it is through manifesting in this form that all the buddhas guide us.
If we can understand this, we will realize just how kind the guru is. In this human aspect, the guru grants us the three vows—pratimoksha, bodhisattva and tantric—leading us to happiness in future lives, better rebirths, freedom from samsara and, ultimately, highest enlightenment, cessation of the two levels of obscuration, gross and subtle, and completion of all realizations.
In Tibet and neighboring countries, even the person who taught you the alphabet was regarded as a guru. The only reason people learned the alphabet was so that they could study Dharma, and that was also why the teacher taught it. It was quite different from ordinary school.
Therefore, we refer to the person who teaches the alphabet, who gives oral transmissions of and commentaries on the sutras, and who gives initiations and explanations, commentaries and meditation instructions on tantra—freeing us from all samsaric suffering and obscurations and leading us to enlightenment in these various ways—as the conventional guru. This is the dharmakaya, the absolute guru, guiding us to enlightenment by revealing the entire path through the ordinary mistaken form we call the conventional guru. This happens not so much because of the omniscient mind and perfect power of the absolute guru, the dharmakaya, the transcendent wisdom of non-dual bliss and void, but because the absolute guru is bound by infinite compassion that encompasses us and all other sentient beings, without a single exception. This infinite compassion compels the dharmakaya to manifest in numberless different forms according to the minds of sentient beings, leading us to enlightenment gradually—from life to life, from happiness to happiness.
Therefore, whenever we say “Guru Shakyamuni Buddha,” we should remember that “Guru” refers to the absolute guru, who guides us by manifesting in the ordinary form of the conventional guru. Guru Shakyamuni Buddha is the absolute guru manifesting as Shakyamuni Buddha to guide us to enlightenment. Therefore, “Guru Shakyamuni Buddha” implies the oneness of the absolute and conventional gurus, and the mind that sees this oneness is the mind of guru yoga. Previously, you saw the Buddha and the guru as separate; that mind was not the guru yoga mind. When you see them with devotion as one, you have transformed your mind into the guru yoga mind.
Why do we visualize the Compassionate Buddha Avalokiteshvara at the heart of Shakyamuni Buddha? 21 The Thirty-five Buddhas who transform from the heart of Shakyamuni Buddha do so out of compassion, in order to purify us, so we visualize compassion at the heart of Shakyamuni Buddha to signify this. Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, at the center of the visualization, is the first of the Thirty-five Buddhas, the rest of whom are in the aspect of the five Dhyani Buddhas. Beams emanate from Avalokiteshvara at the heart of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha. At the end of each beam is a throne adorned with pearls and supported by a white elephant, and on each throne is seated one of the remaining thirty-four buddhas. The first six are in the aspect of Akshobhya and are blue in color, with the exception of the Naga King, whose body is blue and head is white. They are seated, showing the same earth-touching mudra as Guru Shakyamuni Buddha.
The next seven are white in color and in the aspect of Vairochana. The next seven are yellow in color and in the aspect of Ratnasambhava. The next seven are red in color and in the aspect of Amitabha. The next seven are green in color and in the aspect of Amoghasiddhi. Their postures are those of the respective Dhyani Buddha.
Visualizing elephants supporting the thrones makes the purification more powerful. Adorning them with pearls makes it even stronger.
There are many different ways of visualizing the Thirty-five Buddhas, in accordance with the various traditions of this practice. For example, there is the way Lama Tsongkhapa did it when he made hundreds of thousands of prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas in his cave at Wölka, in Tibet. The simplest way to do it is as above, dividing the Thirty-five Buddhas into five groups of seven and visualizing them in the aspect of the five Dhyani Buddhas.
Before you start prostrating, take refuge in Guru, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Then, as you start to prostrate, recite the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas one by one. As you recite the name of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, you prostrate to all Thirty-five Buddhas, but especially to Guru Shakyamuni Buddha. As you recite the name of the second buddha, you again prostrate to all, but especially to that one. Repeat this as you complete the recitation of all Thirty-five Buddhas’ names.
Lama Atisha once explained why this practice is so powerful. When these buddhas were bodhisattvas following the Mahayana path to enlightenment, they made many prayers and dedications, such as, “When I become enlightened, may the negative karma of anybody who prays or prostrates to me be completely purified.” Because of the power of these prayers, made with compassion for the benefit of others, even one repetition of these buddhas’ names purifies a vast amount of negative karma. Buddhas have many qualities, one of which is the power of prayer, or aspiration. This power ensures that whatever prayers that buddha made in the past are realized. Therefore, we benefit from the prayers made for sentient beings’ purification by the Thirty-five Buddhas.
Purification before going to bed
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 your recitation with prostrations, it will be very, very powerful; two powerful practices combined. You will collect extensive merit and purify unbelievably heavy negative karma. Otherwise, you can do your Vajrasattva recitation while seated. It depends on whether or not you have the opportunity to do prostrations and on how you feel. You can decide for yourself.
And if you can begin your evening Vajrasattva practice with prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas, going straight through and not necessarily repeating each buddha’s name over and over with each prostration as in the morning practice described above, that will also be very powerful because, as I have said, reciting each buddha’s name even once purifies many thousands of eons of negative karma. This practice is unbelievably powerful.
The benefits of prostrations
By doing prostrations, you purify obscurations and receive the enlightened qualities of the holy body, speech and mind of a buddha. Even putting your hands together at your heart is a prostration. The sutras explain that making even this simple gesture to a holy object has eight benefits:
- In future lives you will receive a good body with perfect shape, organs and senses.
- You will receive perfect conditions so that your practice will be successful and your wishes fulfilled, and you will be able to work for the teachings and sentient beings.
- You will be able to live in morality. (Without morality, there is no happiness in future lives, liberation or enlightenment.)
- You will have devotion. (Without devotion, there are no realizations.)
- You will have a courageous mind. (Without a courageous mind you cannot continue to practice Dharma or do extensive bodhisattva work for the teachings and sentient beings.)
- You will be reborn as a deva or a human being.
- You will achieve the arya path.
- You will achieve enlightenment.
Whenever you go into a temple, remember that even a simple prostration to just one Buddha statue has these eight benefits. However, in a single temple there may be hundreds of statues and paintings of the Buddha, so prostrating like this to each one as you look at them is unbelievably beneficial. In addition to the merit you create by circumambulating temples and stupas, it is good to use your hands to accumulate merit by making simple prostrations in this way. Since prostrating to even one holy object creates great merit, this is an easy way for you to accumulate extensive merit.
It is said that holy objects are manifestations of the Buddha. Even though we don’t have the karma to see the actual living Buddha, by appearing as statues, stupas, scriptures and other holy objects, the Buddha allows us to accumulate merit. Some sentient beings can see these manifestations of the Buddha, others cannot. In Tibet there were people who were unable to see the Guru Shakyamuni Buddha statue in the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa’s holiest shrine. To them, the temple appeared to be completely dark; they couldn’t see anything. After much purification, one person who had this problem was eventually able to see the light of the butter lamps but he still could not see the statue. Another person saw only piles of dried meat on the thrones instead of the statues. Just because the statues are there does not mean that everybody can see them. It depends on one’s level of the mind.
The teachings say that animals cannot see holy objects. At Kopan I lift the dogs up to show them the thangkas, but I don’t think that they see what we do. It may be very rare for an animal to be able to see a statue; the texts say they don’t see them at all.
Therefore, it is amazing that we have the karma to see holy objects. We are extremely fortunate because it gives us an incredible opportunity to accumulate merit. You should use every holy object that you lay eyes on, for example, all the pictures of deities in your room, to accumulate merit. That’s the reason they exist.
Think of all the stupas, temples and statues in Bodhgaya. Hundreds and hundreds of Indians come to Bodhgaya from all over the country to offer just a few coins to the Buddha statue in the main stupa. Even though their offering is small, because of the power of the holy object, each offering becomes the cause of enlightenment. This is one of the Buddha’s many skillful ways of guiding sentient beings according to their karma.
Another ten benefits of prostrations are mentioned:
- You will achieve a perfect golden body like Guru Shakyamuni Buddha.
- You will be extremely beautiful.
- You will have an enchanting voice.
- You will be at ease among holy beings and other people without fear or shyness.
- You will make devas and human beings happy.
- You will become magnificent in appearance.
- You will be able to be with Guru Shakyamuni Buddha and his disciples, the bodhisattvas and arhats.
- You will have great wealth.
- You will be reborn in the higher realms.
- You will quickly achieve enlightenment.
When doing full-length prostrations, which accords with the tradition of the great pandit-yogi, Naropa, you should get up quickly and not stay down on the floor very long. In some traditions, the palms of the hands are held upwards in the prostration. However, the main point of prostrations is not so much their form but that they are done respectfully. Doing prostrations disrespectfully creates negative karma. If you understand this point, you will not be confused by the different styles of prostration. Also, the way you do prostrations is more important than the number you do. It is the same with mandala offerings; it is better to offer a mandala well than to offer it quickly. If you do just one prostration properly, you accumulate unbelievable merit.
If you want to accumulate as much merit as possible by doing prostrations, there are two important points to remember. The first is to visualize as many bodies as possible—either in human form or in the form of a deity—prostrating with you. Also, as you prostrate to the stupa or altar, think that your body covers the entire earth in all directions. The lam-rim teachings say that even if you cannot do physical prostrations because there is something wrong with your limbs or you don’t even have any, if you simply visualize your body doing prostrations, you receive the same merit as if you had actually done them.
Therefore, by visualizing as many bodies as you can, you gain unbelievable merit, creating the cause to be born many times as a wheel-turning king. In his lam-rim teachings, Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo said that to be born as a wheel-turning king even once, you have to accumulate inconceivable merit. The Lankavatara and other sutras mention that you take rebirth as a wheel-turning king as many times as the number of atoms your prostrating body covers from the surface of the earth through to the other side. Of course, it’s not that the only result of doing prostrations is repeated rebirth as a wheel-turning king; the Buddha only mentioned this result to give us an idea of the inconceivable merit we create by doing even one prostration. However, you cover innumerable atoms between one side of the earth and the other when you prostrate, and one prostration creates the cause for that number of rebirths as a wheel-turning king.
His Holiness Serkong Rinpoche once said that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a wheel-turning king, but I’m not sure if all wheel-turning kings are bodhisattvas. With the power and wealth of a wheel-turning king, you can engage in many Dharma activities and benefit others immensely.
The merit we accumulate by doing one prostration is beyond our conception. The result—all the temporal and ultimate happiness up to enlightenment—is beyond the grasp of our mind. Furthermore, remember that karma is expandable. From one small virtuous action, you can experience many happy results for many hundreds of lifetimes, just as from one small non-virtuous action you can experience many different suffering results both in one life and for many lifetimes. But if you cannot comprehend the cause, there is no way you can comprehend the result.
The second important point is to remember that whenever you see a holy object such as a thangka, stupa, statue or scripture, you must see it as your guru. Do not miss this point. If there is an altar in your house, think that all the buddha pictures on your altar are your guru. In terms of creating merit, your guru is the highest, most powerful object. You get the most merit from prostrating to your guru. Therefore, when you prostrate to holy objects on your altar or elsewhere with the concentration that they are your guru, you create the most extensive merit; much greater merit than you do by prostrating without this awareness.
In a way, you should have a business-like approach to your Dharma practice. Business people try to earn the greatest profit in the shortest period of time. You should practice Dharma with this efficiency. Every time you prostrate or make offerings to holy objects, the essential thing to remember is that they are your guru. With this awareness, what you do becomes most profitable, accumulates the most extensive merit. Your guru, all buddhas and bodhisattvas, all holy objects, are there on your altar. Thinking that your altar holds the essence of all the holy objects of the ten directions, prostrate. Then prostrate to all the holy beings, the buddhas and bodhisattvas, of the ten directions. Then prostrate to all the holy objects—statues, stupas and scriptures—in Tibet, India and Nepal. Using your mind in this way, you create much more merit from basically the same action. This is the wise way of doing prostrations.
After prostrating, dedicate the merit to all sentient beings in the six realms and the intermediate state. Think first of the narak beings, then the pretas, then the animals and so forth, dedicating consciously to the sentient beings of each realm, your merit becoming everything they need to alleviate their suffering and all realizations of the path up to enlightenment.
Sometimes you can combine your prostrations with meditation on guru devotion, thinking that your guru is buddha. At other times, recall the kindness of sentient beings and how much they are suffering. In this way, you combine prostrations with lam-rim meditation, which can inspire you to practice more and more. Otherwise, after you’ve been prostrating for a while, you might start to feel exhausted and discouraged, thinking, “What on earth am I doing here? Am I wasting my time?” Reflecting on the lam-rim can prevent this from happening.
No matter what vows you might have broken—tantric root vows or pratimoksha or bodhisattva vows—no matter what negative karma you have created, everything can be purified. Out of his incomparable kindness, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha revealed different purification methods, such as prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas, who are all manifestations of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, and recitation of their names. As I mentioned before, recitation of each buddha’s name purifies thousands of eons of negative karma. Also, due to the prayers made by these buddhas when they were following the path, each one purifies a specific negative karma.
One of the Thirty-five Buddhas purifies wrong rejoicing, which is feeling happy when somebody harms your enemy or some other person you don’t like, or when your enemy gets into trouble or something bad happens to him. It is also wrong to rejoice when other beings create negative karma. Depending on what it is that you rejoice about, wrong rejoicing can create very heavy negative karma. For example, if a Tibetan hears that a million communist Chinese have been killed in battle and, out of hatred, feels happy and rejoices, he creates incredible negative karma. Even though he hasn’t been involved in the fighting himself, even though he might have been just sitting on a meditation cushion in his shrine room, by practicing wrong rejoicing, he creates the extremely heavy karma of having killed a million people himself. If you haven’t received many teachings and don’t know the details of how non-virtuous actions are created, you are in danger of creating very heavy karma.
You don’t hear of Lama Tsongkhapa’s doing many prostrations to Vajrasattva, but his life story talks a great deal about his practice of prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas. Lama Tsongkhapa did 100,000 prostrations to each of the Thirty-five Buddhas. Each day before going to bed he would recite The Confession of Downfalls to the Thirty-five Buddhas thirty-five times. This practice makes your mind very comfortable. In one of his lam-rim teachings, Kachen Yeshe Gyaltsen said that a full monk (gelong) can remain very pure if he practices in this way.
I asked one of my gurus, Denma Lochö Rinpoche, why Lama Tsongkhapa practiced prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas rather than to Vajrasattva.22 Rinpoche replied that with one proper recitation of The Confession of Downfalls—which means with correct application of the four powers and meditation on the meaning of the prayer — even the five uninterrupted negative karmas can be purified.
These five heavy karmas—killing your father, your mother or an arhat, causing, with harmful intent, blood to flow from a buddha and causing disunity among the Sangha—are called uninterrupted because if you create them, immediately after death you are reborn in the hell realm. Other negative karmas do not necessarily cause you to go to hell immediately; there may be the interruption of some other karmic result before that one. But if you have created one of these five particularly heavy karmas, as soon as you die you get reborn in hell.
These are not just heavy negative karmas, but uninterrupted heavy negative karmas. However, even these can be purified by practicing The Confession of Downfalls just once. This was the special reason for Lama Tsongkhapa’s doing this practice. If for some reason you cannot do prostrations, it is still good to at least recite the name of each of the Thirty-five Buddhas every day, like he did.
No matter how heavy the negative karma we have accumulated, the Buddha has revealed a method to purify it. Through his kindness, we have many opportunities to practice purification. Buddha is more kind to us than a father. Children trust their fathers with their lives. Whatever happens, children’s lives are completely in the hands of their fathers; they totally rely on their fathers. Similarly, we can entrust our entire life to the Buddha. He has shown us that the way to eliminate all suffering is to eradicate the true cause of suffering, the two obscurations, and has taught us the methods for doing so, leading us to temporal and ultimate happiness. The Buddha guides us from happiness to happiness, up to the peerless happiness of full enlightenment. For us sentient beings, the Buddha is our only refuge.
Because of the infinite merit of this practice, may whatever suffering sentient beings experience ripen on me, right now. May whatever happiness and virtue I have accumulated—any realizations of the path up to the highest enlightenment—ripen on each hell being, each preta, each animal, each human, each asura, each sura and each intermediate state being.
I rejoice at the infinite merit accumulated by this dedication.
May the precious, sublime mind of enlightenment, source of my own and all other sentient beings’ happiness and success, that has not yet arisen in my mind, arise without a moment’s delay, and may that which has already arisen increase forever without degeneration.
Because of the merit of the three times accumulated by myself, buddhas, bodhisattvas and all other sentient beings, which are empty from their own side, may the I, which is empty from its own side, attain enlightenment, which is empty from its own side, and lead all sentient beings, who are empty from their own side, to that enlightenment, which is empty from its own side, by myself alone, who is empty from its own side.
Whatever white virtue I have thus created, I dedicate to be able to uphold the holy Dharma of scripture and insight and to fulfill without exception, the prayers and deeds of the buddhas and the bodhisattvas of the three times.
Through the power of this merit, may I never be parted in any future life from the four spheres of the Mahayana,24 and reach the end of my journey along the paths of renunciation, bodhicitta, right view and the two stages.
Special mantras to increase merit created 100,000 times
CHOM DÄN DÄ DE ZHIN SHEG PA DRA CHOM PA YANG DAG PAR DZOG PÄI SANG GYÄ NAM PAR NANG DZÄ Ö KYI GYÄL PO LA CHHAG TSHÄL LO (1X)
JANG CHHUB SEM PA SEM PA CHHEN PO KÜN T U ZANG PO LA CHHAG T SHÄL LO (1X)
TADYATHA PÄNCHA GRIYA AVA BODHANI SVAHA / OM DHURU DHURU JAYA MUKHE SVAHA (7X)
To actualize all our prayers as well as to multiply the benefits by 100,000
CHOM DÄN DÄ DE ZHIN SHEG PA DRA CHOM PA YANG DAG PAR DZOG PÄI SANG GYÄ MÄN GYI LHA BAIDURYA Ö KYI GYÄL PO LA CHHAG TSHÄL LO (1X)
CHOM DÄN DÄ DE ZHIN SHEG PA DRA CHOM PA YANG DAG PAR DZOG PÄI SANG GYÄ NGO WA DANG MÖN LAM [THAM CHÄ RAB TU] DRUB PÄ GYÄL PO LA CHHAG TSHÄL LO (1X)
Due to the power of the blessings of the eminent buddhas and bodhisattvas, infallible dependent arising and my pure special attitude, may all my pure prayers succeed immediately.
With Lama Tsongkhapa as our direct guru in all future lifetimes, may I, my family and all other sentient beings never be separated from the complete pure path praised by all victorious ones for even a second.
Due to the merits of myself and others, may the victorious teachings of Lama Tsongkhapa, Losang Dragpa, flourish for a long time. May all the centers and projects of the FPMT immediately receive all the conditions necessary to preserve and spread these teachings. May all obstacles be pacified and may the FPMT organization in general and the meditation centers in particular—all our activities to preserve and spread the Dharma, particularly Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings—cause these teachings to continue without degeneration and to spread in the minds of all sentient beings. May those who have sacrificed their lives to benefit others through this organization have long, healthy lives, may all their activities please the virtuous friend, and in all their lives, may they always be guided by perfectly qualified Mahayana virtuous friends. May all their wishes succeed immediately, in accordance with the holy Dharma.
16. This chapter was compiled from various teachings by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, including Teachings from the Vajrasattva Retreat. “The Confession of Downfalls to the Thirty-five Buddhas: The Sutra of the Three Heaps” (Tib. Dung-shag), translated by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, is from Essential Buddhist Prayers: An FPMT Prayer Book, Vol. 1, pp. 39–54. The part about prostrations in general comes from Rinpoche’s 1990 Bodhgaya teachings and was originally edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron and revised for this book by Nicholas Ribush. [Return to text]
17. See Appendix 3. [Return to text]
18. See Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, pp. 560–63 and Advice From a Spiritual Friend, pp. 103-06 (1996 edition). The five are the powers of the white seed, familiarity, determination, repudiation and prayer. [Return to text]
19. Tutor of the Eighth Dalai Lama, founder of Tsechok Ling Monastery, Lhasa, and author of many important texts. [Return to text]
20. In Appendix 3, Rinpoche suggests an alternative way of doing this. [Return to text]
22. See Teachings from the Vajrasattva Retreat, pp. 81–82 [Return to text]
23. For other and more extensive dedications with commentary, see Teachings from the Vajrasattva Retreat and Essential Buddhist Prayers, Vol. 1. [Return to text]
24. These are (1) to be reborn or to be in a conducive environment; (2) to meet and be able to rely properly on a sublime being—a Mahayana guru; (3) to possess the merit of having made profound prayers in this and previous lifetimes; and (4) to have immense merit. [Return to text]