What makes your life most beautiful, most satisfying, most fulfilling, most worthwhile, most beneficial and most happy? I mean inner happiness, not just ordinary, excited, hallucinated happiness. What brings Dharma happiness, the happiness that has completion, the happiness that can continue, increase and develop fully? The happiness that is not suffering, that is worth trying for because it never turns into suffering? The happiness that is not suffering in nature and does not become the suffering of pain? Dharma happiness, the happiness that is worth devoting your life to attaining because it does not interfere with the happiness of others or limit your capacity to benefit others? The happiness that makes your actions only of benefit to others without discrimination?
Well, so far I’ve been doing a lot of advertising but I haven’t mentioned the product! So, what is it? It’s living in the bush—going into the redwoods and living in the bush! No, I’m joking! So, what is it that brings all that happiness? It’s cherishing sentient beings; living your life cherishing sentient beings. Not that I actually do this myself, but intellectually, it’s what I think. Cherish sentient beings first; put enlightenment second.
Sentient beings come first
Why do I say put enlightenment second? For example, when you go into the kitchen, you’re looking for food, not crockery; your motivation is not to get a plate but delicious food. You go into the kitchen with food on your mind. But although your main motivation is to get food, you do need something to put it on—unless you can carry soup in your hands! Anyway, I’m joking again.
Of course, enlightenment is extremely important because without it you cannot work perfectly for sentient beings. You cannot be a perfect guide, knowing, seeing directly, every sentient being’s mind, level of karma, intelligence, wishes and characteristics, as well as the various methods that suit their individual dispositions. But what should be in your heart is sentient beings as the reason for your attaining enlightenment. The first priority in your heart should be the happiness of sentient beings; sentient beings in your heart. What should be the first thing in your heart, in your life, the goal of your life? Sentient beings.
At present, who is the most precious person in your life, in your heart? It’s yourself or, if not yourself, then your greatest object of attachment. I don’t think you hold your object of anger most precious. It’s your object of attachment; that particular person. So that’s how you should hold sentient beings, feel them to be most precious.
No matter how much you help the person to whom you are most attached, no matter how kind you are to that person, all you want is for that person to be happy. If that person receives help, achieves happiness, you’re satisfied. That’s your goal; you don’t want anything in return. You don’t need that person to respect you, to praise you or to do something good for you in return; you don’t have any such expectation. Your attitude is such that you are simply satisfied by that person’s receiving happiness or help. What do you call it—unconditional love? Anyway, that kind of attitude, whether it’s all sentient beings or one sentient being.
First in your heart, your first priority, at least intellectually, should be all sentient beings. Then, enlightenment is the method. As in the example above, to enjoy food you need a plate on which to put it. When you’re looking for lunch, you’re not looking for the plate; your main aim is the food. So here, what we’re really looking for is the happiness of sentient beings.
Although you might be thinking, “I’m working for enlightenment, practicing Dharma, doing retreat to attain enlightenment,” sometimes you can make the mistake of leaving one particular sentient being out. Even though your enlightenment depends upon that sentient being’s kindness, you leave that sentient being out; you give that sentient being up as an object of compassion or loving kindness. That sentient being becomes the object of your anger. You say, “I’m meditating to reach enlightenment,” but you use that sentient being who gives you enlightenment as an object of anger—to hurt, to give harm. You treat that person as useless, worse than garbage.
If you have that kind of attitude, it’s not sure that your thought of seeking enlightenment is actual bodhicitta or not. Even though you use the term “enlightenment,” perhaps it’s just your self-centered mind wanting to attain the highest possible level of happiness for yourself. The essence, the very heart of your attitude, what’s really deep within, is the wish to experience the highest happiness yourself. It’s possible for this to happen.
Generally speaking, as much as you think it’s important to attain enlightenment, equally you should be thinking that other sentient beings are important, precious, so precious, the most precious thing in your life. Such thoughts should always accompany your thoughts of enlightenment.
In the process of developing bodhicitta we often use the seven techniques of Mahayana cause and effect. And on the basis of renunciation of this life and renunciation of samsara, we equalize ourselves with and exchange ourselves for others. With effort, we generate the feeling of the preciousness of other sentient beings and then the need to achieve enlightenment ourselves in order to accomplish the aims of others, to fulfill others’ wishes for happiness. This is the usual process.
The mistake is to think of attaining enlightenment but not taking care of sentient beings, giving them up. Who gives you enlightenment? Upon whose kindness do you depend in order to achieve it? And then you don’t take care of them, renounce them, pay them no attention? Instead of treating sentient beings with kindness, compassion and patience, you use them as objects of anger, to give rise to delusions.
Because parents cherish their children most in their lives, if you harm the children you also harm their parents. In general, parents cherish the health, well-being and long lives of their children more than their own. Therefore, if you cherish sentient beings, you are naturally serving and pleasing the numberless buddhas and bodhisattvas; your serving and benefiting sentient beings makes numberless buddhas and bodhisattvas happy. Perhaps not in every case, but generally speaking, by making sentient beings happy, you also make the buddhas and bodhisattvas happy. Generally, this can be said, but I wouldn’t say that this is true in every situation. Thinking that it is could lead you to make big mistakes in your life.
However, offering service to sentient beings is the best offering of service to the buddhas and bodhisattvas; making offerings to sentient beings is the best way of making offerings to the buddhas and bodhisattvas; serving sentient beings is the best offering you can make to the buddhas and bodhisattvas. This doesn’t mean that you should stop making offerings to the buddhas and bodhisattvas: “Oh, I’m serving sentient beings, I don’t need to do other practices”—like prostrations, mandala offerings, other offerings, the seven limb practice and so forth—practices that are recommended for attaining realizations on the path to enlightenment. That, too, is mistaken.
Actually, because of the power of the object, the easiest way of creating good karma, the easiest way of attaining enlightenment, is with holy objects—Buddha, Dharma and Sangha; statues, stupas and scriptures. Normally we need to generate bodhicitta motivation for our actions—working, walking, sitting, sleeping and so forth—to become the cause of enlightenment. Even for these actions to become the cause of our own liberation, we need to generate renunciation of samsara. And for them to become simply the cause of happiness in future lives, samsaric happiness, even for that we need renunciation of this life; we have to create pure, Dharma actions with a mind detached from the happiness of this life. Forget about renunciation of samsara and bodhicitta, even to have the constant thought of renunciation of this life, to maintain a pure mind, twenty-four hours a day is not easy.
But because of the power of the holy object , such as statues of buddha, stupas and scriptures, buddha’s kindness and compassion for us sentient beings, and the inconceivable qualities that buddha has attained, just by circumambulating or prostrating or making offerings to these symbolic holy objects, we can immediately create the causes for enlightenment, liberation and better rebirths. Even if our mind is not one of the three principal paths—I don’t mean the actual realization, but even if it’s not one of the artificial three principal paths, the motivation generated through the effort of thinking about the benefits of achieving enlightenment and wanting to attain it, or of meditating on how the nature of samsara is suffering and arousing detachment—even if our mind has no Dharma motivation at all and is completely non-virtuous, even with that attitude, because of buddha’s incredible compassion for us sentient beings and his inconceivable qualities, by doing those actions we can create the good karma, the merit, for liberation and enlightenment and, by the way, good rebirths in hundreds or thousands of future lives, and experience all happiness and success in this life too.
However, the purpose of collecting such extensive merit by making offerings to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, statues, stupas and scriptures is to be able to dedicate it to the happiness and well-being of other sentient beings. You create this powerful merit, this strong karma, and then dedicate it, use it, to accomplish the aims of numberless other sentient beings, to bring happiness to other sentient beings—the happiness of this life, of future lives, of liberation from samsara and the highest, full enlightenment.
Enlightenment comes from sentient beings
As Shantideva said in his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, “Since we achieve the Dharma by depending equally on the buddhas and sentient beings, why shouldn’t we respect sentient beings as much as we respect the buddhas?”4
Guru Shakyamuni Buddha gave teachings on patience, giving us the opportunity to practice patience. He taught us how to follow the path to enlightenment, how to eradicate our defilements, and how to liberate ourselves from the suffering of samsara by revealing the path, by revealing the teachings. Therefore we think that he is so precious, so kind. However, sentient beings are equally so. Even though it was the Buddha who revealed the teachings, without the existence of sentient beings, without that sentient being who is angry at you, how can you learn to be patient, how can you realize the perfection of patience? Without that being you cannot complete the paramita of patience, you cannot attain enlightenment.
Even through this example, you can see how it is equal. Buddha gives you enlightenment by revealing the path, by giving teachings, by showing you how to practice patience. Similarly, the sentient being who is angry at you gives you enlightenment by giving you the opportunity of putting these teachings of the Buddha into practice. Therefore, just as the Buddha is kind and precious, so too is that sentient being.
The same thing applies to the entire path to enlightenment taught by the Buddha. Actualizing this path depends on the kindness of sentient beings. Without the existence of suffering sentient beings there is no way to generate loving kindness and compassion, no way to actualize bodhicitta, no way to progress along the path. There’s no way to actualize the Mahayana path, to complete it, to eliminate all the defilements and achieve all the qualities of cessation, to attain all realizations without depending on the kindness of sentient beings. No way.
Similarly, the Buddha showed the path to liberation, including the three higher trainings of morality, concentration and wisdom. When you achieve liberation from samsara by following that path, you do so by depending on the Buddha. However, without the existence of the obscured, suffering sentient beings, there is no way to accomplish the three higher trainings—no way to practice morality; no way to achieve shamatha, calm abiding, perfect concentration; and no way to attain great insight by realizing emptiness through analysis and then unifying it with shamatha, producing the extremely refined rapturous ecstasy through which that great insight is derived. Thus, without depending on the existence of sentient beings, you cannot actualize the path and attain liberation from samsara even for yourself.
Similarly, you cannot receive even good rebirths or happiness in future lives without depending on the existence of the suffering, obscured sentient beings. Why not? Because even though the Buddha has taught the practice of morality—the cause of happiness in future lives, including upper rebirths—without the base, the existence of suffering sentient beings, there’s no way to practice it. It is on the basis of sentient beings that we make vows not to kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, lie and so forth. Sentient beings are the foundation of our vows not to give this harm or that. Without the existence of sentient beings, we cannot engage in these practices, the cause of happiness. Without the existence of sentient beings, we have no way to achieve any happiness whatsoever, no way to experience the slightest comfort in our daily lives, any enjoyment or sense pleasure up to the highest enlightenment. Every single happiness we ever experience comes to us through the kindness of sentient beings, depends upon them.
Since all happiness comes from virtue and the virtue we create is the holy action of the Buddha, we depend on the Buddha for whatever happiness we experience, achieve, receive. Similarly, all our happiness also depends on the kindness of sentient beings. That’s why Shantideva asks why don’t we respect sentient beings in the same way we respect the Buddha, why don’t we treat sentient beings in the same way that we treat the Buddha. Whatever benefit, whatever realizations we derive from the Buddha, we derive the same complete benefit from all sentient beings, from each sentient being. The inconceivable benefits we get by making just one light offering, one water bowl offering or one hand prostration to a statue of the Buddha, whichever aspect is taken, we get the same benefits from sentient beings.
In the Tune of Brahma Sutra Clarifying Karma, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha mentions ten benefits of making extensive light offerings.5 You also receive these ten important benefits the moment you put your palms together to a statue or painting of the Buddha, including achieving the path of the arya beings, the actual path that eradicates your gross delusions, or defilements, and through which you attain liberation from samsara. And then with bodhicitta you can eliminate also the subtle defilements and reach enlightenment. Even if the buddha to whom you press your palms together is merely visualized and there’s no actual physical holy object such as a statue, painting or picture, you still derive these ten benefits. All this is through the kindness of sentient beings.
Even though the immediate source of these benefits of prostrating to the holy object is the buddha, when you trace the evolution back you will find that their actual source is sentient beings, that you received these ten benefits through the kindness of each sentient being. The root of all the temporary and ultimate happiness you get from holy objects—statues, stupas or paintings or pictures of buddha—is sentient beings. The inconceivable skies of benefit that you gain by circumambulating, prostrating, putting your palms together, or making offerings to these holy objects derives from sentient beings. Sentient beings are the root of all this happiness, all this good karma.
Rebirth in the lower realms
During each session of a Vajrasattva retreat we purify vast amounts of negative karma. First of all, think just how heavy one single complete negative karma is. For example, gossiping, ill will, stealing, sexual misconduct, killing and so forth. Leave aside the ripening aspect result, rebirth in the lower realms, such as the hell realms, or the hungry ghost realms, where the heaviest hunger and thirst are experienced for tens of thousands of years.
For us humans, it’s not sufficient that we get enough food to fill our stomachs. We have to like it as well. It’s not sufficient that the food we get fills our stomachs and is enough to live on. It should also be something we enjoy.
Compare the lives of us humans with those of the hungry ghosts, who can’t find even a damp patch of ground let alone even a spoonful of water for hundreds of thousands of years. Pretas can’t find a scrap of food for hundreds of thousands of years. Forget about their filling their stomachs every day, they can’t even do it over a lifetime. Imagine what an incredible shock it would be for us if something happened and we had to go without food or water for a week; nothing to eat; nothing to drink. Of course, in the case of nyung-nä, it’s different. It’s only a day without food and drink and we know we’re going to eat the next morning. But we’d find it terrible to have to experience this not under nyung-nä conditions. If our food and drink stopped for a day for reasons other than Dharma practice, we’d freak out. Our bodies would freak out, our minds would freak out. Everything would freak out... even our houses would freak out! Anyway, I’m comparing us to hungry ghosts because I myself am quite fussy about food. However, the hungry ghosts have unbearably heavy sufferings like that.
So, as I often mention, as it says in the teachings, the heat of the fire when the world comes to an end is sixty or seventy times greater than that of all the fires of our human world put together, but one tiny spark from the hell realm is seven times hotter than that. When the world ends, there’s all this wind and fire that destroy everything. For example, when a volcano erupts and lava, that liquid fire, pours out, it melts everything in its path; even the rocks it touches melt. Normally, humans’ fire cannot melt rocks, but lava does. So the end of the world fire is like that—everything, even huge rocky mountains, gets burned. So, one tiny spark in the hell realm is seven times hotter than the world-ending fire.
Similarly, the energy of the cold hells is beyond compare with anything we know. The combined energy of the ice and cold of our world is great pleasure compared to that of the cold hells.
Also, even when you discover one new wrinkle on your body, you get so shocked; your mind is terrified. One more gray hair; one more wrinkle. It’s such a shock. Therefore, there’s no question that after having had this human body you couldn’t stand reincarnating as an animal. Having been born human, it would be unbearable to see your consciousness migrate into an animal body. For example, how would you feel if your body gradually turned into that of a cat? Starting with your face; slowly your face becoming that of a cat. Even though you keep many cats around, you like cats, could you bear it? Not your whole body—just your head. Or perhaps starting from the tail? Or your body gradually turning into that of a snake? You couldn’t stand it. But it’s exactly the same—your consciousness leaves this body and migrates into the next. It’s the same mental continuum, the same continuity of mind. It’s your mind that migrates into the body of a snake, cockroach, mouse or cat. Exactly the same consciousness, the same mind; the one you have now.
So if you can’t stand discovering one more wrinkle, one gray hair, your mind gets so freaked out, how will you be able to bear being reborn into an animal body, your body becoming that of an animal? There’s no way. Even as a human being, while you are a human being, not having an animal body, if something changes, something decays, you can’t stand it. You need so many instruments to repair the damage, so many chemicals to color it, so much effort and expense to reshape, uplift and so forth.
Imagine that you’re born a cat or a dog, eating the same food, drinking the same water every day from that same container, the same thing from the same shop day after day. Even if you visualize yourself like that, a pet living with people, compared to other animals, those who live in the wild, you’re actually very rich, very well-off. But even that you can’t stand, can’t bear.
Other suffering results
To conclude what I’m saying, the ripening aspect result of one single complete negative karma is rebirth in the lower realms, such as I’ve just been describing. However, there are three other types of suffering result, which we experience later, when we’re finally, once again, born human. One is the possessed result, the unhealthy or fearful environment into which you’re born. Even though you’re born human, you find yourself in a place that endangers your life, that is filthy, dirty, full of excrement and garbage, where people cheat each other, where resources are scarce, there’s no food or other means of living, where there’s constant drought, nothing grows, there’s much fighting, many wars—dreadful places like that.
Then there’s the result similar to the cause where what you did to others in the past, the harm you gave them, comes back to harm you in return. Even though you are born human, you receive harm similar to that which you inflicted upon others in the past.
And finally, there’s the result similar to the cause, where you engage in the same negative actions again. You create the same negative karma—gossiping, killing, sexual misconduct, ill will, slander and so forth—over and over again. No matter how much trouble you get into by doing these things, getting punished, imprisoned, fined or penalized, you can’t stop yourself from creating these negative actions. Even though you think they’re bad and that you should stop, you find it difficult to do so; your mind is very uncontrolled.
So again, you create the same negative karma in that life, and that again brings the four suffering results, one of which is creating that same negative karma yet again. That complete action, too, has the four suffering results, including that of doing it again, and so it goes, on and on, like that. If you don’t purify a negative karma created today—such as gossiping, ill will, sexual misconduct and so forth—it will go on and on, and you will keep creating the result similar to the cause, bringing the four suffering results. One of these is again creating the result similar to the cause, which itself brings the four suffering results, and in this way your samsara becomes endless. There’s no end to your suffering, no end at all. Your suffering becomes endless.
Here we’re talking about just one negative karma done today. We’re not talking about all of today’s negative karma, yesterday’s negative karma, this year’s negative karma, this life’s negative karma, previous lives’ negative karma. We’re not talking about all that. We’re just talking about one negative karma done today, such as gossiping or sexual misconduct; just one negative karma. If it is not purified it makes suffering endless; the suffering goes on and on.
Therefore, by doing Vajrasattva practice or even the Thirty-five Buddhas just once—not taking into account all the other different practices but simply considering doing Vajrasattva meditation or reciting the powerful names of the Thirty-five Buddhas just once—you can purify not only having to experience rebirth in the lower realms but also the worst of the four results—that really bad one, the terrifying one, the one that is the worst of all, worse even than rebirth in hell—the result of engaging in the same negative actions again and again. These practices have the power to purify that.
Of the three suffering results that you experience in the human realm, that of creating the same negative karma over and over again is the worst because it makes your suffering endless. It is more terrifying than rebirth in hell because once you have experienced one rebirth in hell, it’s over; that karma has finished. Hell suffering is not endless. You don’t experience it continuously. When that hell karma finishes, the suffering of hell stops; the vision, the karmic appearance of hell, ceases.
Much more terrifying than that is the result similar to the cause where you engage in the same negative karma over and over again. That is the most terrifying of the four karmic results because it ensures that without end, you will be reborn again and again in the lower realms, as well as later having to experience all the other sufferings of the human realm. Therefore, the bad habit is worse than the suffering of hell. Putting it another way, it’s like that.
The four remedial powers
What I’m saying here is that by doing the practice of confession with the four remedial powers [nyen-po tob-zhi], you can stop each of the four suffering results. By practicing the power of dependence [ten gyi tob], you purify the possessed result, finding yourself in a suffering environment. Here, by taking refuge, depending on Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, you purify the negative karma you have created with those holy objects. By generating bodhicitta, depending on sentient beings, you purify the negative karma you have created with them.
Then, the power of feeling regret for the negative actions [nam-pa sün-jin-pa’i tob] purifies the result similar to the cause in experience.
The power that I translate as “the remedy of always enjoying,” which in Tibetan is nyen-po kun-tu chö-pa’i tob—I think the meaning might be that by purifying negative karma, you get to enjoy happiness all the time, but I’m not completely sure—this is the remedy to the ripening aspect result, rebirth in the lower realms.
Finally, the power of determining not to commit those negative actions again [nye-pa lä-lar dog-pa’i tob] is the remedy for the suffering result similar to the cause where you continuously create those negative karmas again and again, which, as I explained, is much more terrifying, much worse than the suffering of hell itself.
The reason I’m going into all this in detail is so that you can understand, feel the kindness of sentient beings and therefore cherish them more than you do.
Through just one practice—reciting the Thirty-five Buddhas’ names or doing the Vajrasattva meditation with the four remedial powers—you can avoid having to experience incredible unbearable suffering; you can purify so much negative karma. For example, one of today’s negative karmas, such as gossiping—through these practices you can either stop its four suffering results from arising altogether, or if you can’t stop them completely, at least you can lighten or shorten their effect. Instead of having to undergo hundreds of thousands of lifetimes of inconceivable suffering for eons in the lower realms, perhaps you can experience the result in this life as some kind of trouble, such as illness or lung [wind disease].
It’s a strange thing about lung. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Theravadins talk about it, but as soon as you encounter Tibetan Buddhism, you come to know about lung. First, you’re introduced to Tibetan Buddhism, second, to lung—that very famous lung! I’m also not sure that Zen practitioners talk about lung; so far I haven’t heard them do so. Anyway, after doing those purifying practices, instead of causing you to experience eons of suffering in the lower realms, your negative karma can manifest in this life as lung.
Frequently, Dharma practitioners who live their lives with a good heart, dedicated to others—or even those who haven’t met Buddhism but have good hearts, strong compassion and loving kindness and dedicate their lives to others—purify much negative karma. Through their dedicated attitude and the service they offer others, they purify so much.
Sometimes you will find that meditators who practice strongly, who lead pure lives of renunciation, experience many sicknesses and problems, one after another. Of course, whether these experiences become a problem to them or not depends on how they think. Something that appears as a problem to others might not be a problem for them. It depends on how they look at the situation. Cancer or other serious illnesses can be taken as a very positive sign, because it means that the person will not have to experience many hundreds of thousands of lifetimes of heavy suffering results in the lower realms for incredible lengths of time from just one negative karma. That karma manifests as an illness in this life and finishes in that way. In such cases, it’s a very positive, very good thing that happened.
Such heavy karmas can also finish simply by manifesting as other people criticizing you. The teachings talk about this as being one of the benefits of bodhicitta. Due to the power of bodhicitta, the good heart, instead of having to experience heavy suffering in either the human realm or the lower realms for incredible lengths of time, certain heavy negative karmas can get purified by manifesting as people criticizing or blaming you in this life. They finish as simply as that. Or they manifest as other experiences in this life such as migraine headaches, toothaches, nightmares, fearful dreams—things like that can finish heavy negative karmas that would otherwise have to be experienced as unbearable sufferings for great lengths of time.
Therefore, the teachings advise us that when problems like this arise, we should see them as positive and recognize them as signs of the power of our practice—that they are the manifestations of negative karma that is finishing much more lightly than it could have—and see them as positive.
Even if by practicing the remedy of vowing not to commit negative actions again—the antidote to the result similar to the cause of creating the same negative karmas again and again—with Vajrasattva or the Thirty-five Buddhas, you could avoid having to experience the four suffering results of just one negative karma, that would still be incredible peace. You would stop the constant suffering that arises from continuously creating the result similar to the cause, which brings suffering without end. You wouldn’t have to go through it again. The absence of that karma and suffering is peace—peace forever. By purifying these negative karmas you stop having to experience the suffering result that happens again and again. So the everlasting peace and happiness that you experience in all your future lives from purifying these negative karmas comes from Vajrasattva or the Thirty-five Buddhas.
Purification comes from sentient beings
How does it come about that Vajrasattva’s mantra has such power; that reciting even the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas has such power? It happens due to sentient beings. Just as crops come from a field, these purifying abilities come from sentient beings. The Thirty-five Buddhas became enlightened by depending on sentient beings. How did they become enlightened? By depending on sentient beings. Similarly, Vajrasattva came about because of sentient beings, through the existence of suffering sentient beings.
So far I’ve been talking about just one negative karma, but by practicing Vajrasattva or the Thirty-five Buddhas, by reciting their names and doing prostrations, we can purify all the countless negative karmas created today, this week, this month, this year, this life; with Vajrasattva or the Thirty-five Buddhas we can purify all our past lives’ negative karmas.
To get an appreciation for this, first we should understand how terrifying all the results of just one negative karma are. How much suffering it brings from life to life, and how unbelievable it is to be able to purify all that with Vajrasattva or the Thirty-five Buddhas; how much unbelievable peace and happiness it brings. We should also understand what an emergency it is that we purify all this; that we should purify it without even a second’s delay. Whether the negative karma be gossiping or ill will or sexual misconduct or telling lies or whatever, it is urgent to purify it without delaying even a moment. That’s just one, but through these practices we can purify all the negative karma we have created not only in this life but in all previous lives as well.
That we have the opportunity to do all this purification with Vajrasattva or the Thirty-five Buddhas is due to the kindness of all sentient beings—those around us now, at home or wherever we are, and all the rest of the sentient beings. Vajrasattva and the Thirty-five Buddhas became enlightened through the kindness of each sentient being. That’s one thing. That’s how each of us has received this opportunity to purify ourselves.
Lama Atisha explained that the Thirty-five Buddhas’ names are so powerful because in the past, when they were bodhisattvas, they made many dedication prayers to be able to benefit sentient beings by purifying their negative karma. One of them made specific dedications to be able to purify this kind of negative karma, another made specific dedications to be able to purify that kind of negative karma, and so forth. As bodhisattvas, they made many prayers to be able to benefit sentient beings, including us, who are reciting the Thirty-five Buddhas’ names right now. They made prayers that when they became buddhas, sentient beings would be able to purify those various specific negative karmas by reciting their names.
A buddha has many good qualities, such as the ten powers, one of which is the power of prayer. So because a buddha has achieved the power of prayer, whatever prayers were made in the past are actualized. Therefore, when we recite the Thirty-five Buddhas’ names, they have the power to purify all those negative karmas. How does it happen that these Buddhas’ names have all that power, that by reciting their names we can purify so much negative karma? Because originally they made many prayers with bodhicitta and generated the great intention to benefit sentient beings in this way. That will, that intention, has power. Then, when they became buddhas, they achieved the quality of possessing the ten powers, one of which is the power of prayer, and that’s what gives power to their names. Now, when we recite their names, it affects our minds. That’s how it works. The reason their names have so much power is because it came from their bodhicitta.
However, their bodhicitta was generated in dependence upon sentient beings—each and every sentient being. Therefore, by reciting each buddha’s name, we can purify all these different negative karmas that we always engage in; the negative karma that we create in this life and have created in our previous lives. That we can purify as much as we want, that we have the opportunity to do this, is basically due to sentient beings, the kindness of each sentient being. So like that, the evolution goes down to the root, sentient beings. It comes from there.
As I’ve mentioned before, if you generate compassion for one sentient being, whether it’s an insect or a human, you achieve enlightenment from that sentient being. The stronger the compassion for that sentient being you can generate, the quicker you reach enlightenment. No matter how much Highest Yoga Tantra you practice, how much you meditate on the generation stage, the completion stage, if you don’t have compassion, if you don’t generate compassion for that sentient being, that insect or that human, you cannot attain enlightenment. And the stronger your compassion, the quicker you get enlightened. That’s why sentient beings are so precious—because you can derive so much from them. Each sentient being is extremely precious to your life.
All the good qualities of Sangha—those of the bodhisattvas, such as the six paramitas, bodhicitta; those of the arhats, their psychic powers; the realizations of the dakas and dakinis, the wisdom of non-dual bliss and voidness; the qualities of the Dharma protectors, their ability to accomplish the four actions and so forth—all this is a result of the kindness of sentient beings. All this is achieved by depending on the kindness of sentient beings.
All the good qualities of Dharma—all the benefits of renunciation, bodhicitta, emptiness, the ten bhumis, the five paths, the qualities of the path, from guru devotion up to the goal, enlightenment—derive from sentient beings, depend on the kindness of sentient beings.
And all the good qualities of Buddha—the state of omniscient mind, complete compassion, perfect power, the skies of good qualities of the Buddha’s holy body, speech and mind—are achieved in dependence upon the kindness of sentient beings. It comes from sentient beings; every single sentient being; by depending on the kindness of each and every one.
The power of compassion
For example, a story about one of the Vajrayogini lineage lamas, the monk Getsul Tsimbulwa, illustrates the power of compassion. In West Bengal there’s a place called Odi. It’s near Buxa, where the refugee monks from Sera, Ganden and Drepung monasteries who wanted to continue their studies lived for eight or nine years after fleeing Tibet. I lived there for about eight years. Not continuously, but on and off. There’s a season that people from Bombay go to Odi on pilgrimage; thousands of them. There are many caves in the rocky mountains there and it can be quite dangerous; you have to hold on to chains as you walk along. You hear sounds or experience other signs, depending on how pure your mind is.
So, Getsul Tsimbulwa’s guru, the great yogi Ngagpa Chöpawa, who was a layman, was on his way to Odi to practice the final stage of tantra that you do just before you get enlightened. It is called “entering the deeds of tantra,” where I think that from ordinary people’s point of view you appear to be crazy. You’re not crazy but you look crazy. So you do that practice—entering the deeds of tantra—before becoming enlightened. He came to a river, and on the bank was a woman whose whole body was covered with leprosy sores, with pus oozing out everywhere. She asked him to carry her on his back to the other side of the river, but he ignored her and went on his way.
A bit later, his disciple Getsul Tsimbulwa came by, and as soon as he saw this poor woman—ravaged by leprosy, covered in sores, pus everywhere; something that most people would be too scared to go near, let alone touch—he felt unbearable compassion for her, and without any thought of how dirty she was, immediately picked her up, put her on his back and started across the river. However, when he reached the middle of the river, suddenly he saw her as the female deity Dorje Pagmo, Vajrayogini, who then took him to her pure land in his ordinary body, without his first having to die.
If you are born in the Vajrayogini pure land, it is definite, one hundred percent certain, that you will become enlightened in that lifetime. If you don’t get enlightened as a human, the quickest way to do so is to go to a pure land such as that of Heruka or Vajrayogini. So, she wasn’t an ordinary being, but because of his impure karma, Getsul Tsimbulwa saw her as an ordinary sentient being; sick, covered in leprosy sores.
Nevertheless, filled with unbearable compassion, with no thought of dirtiness, he sacrificed his life to carry her across the river, and during that short time, his negative, impure karma was completely purified. Because of that compassion and his sacrificing his life for that living being, in the short time it took him to carry her half-way across the river, the negative karma that projected her in an ordinary appearance instead of in her true nature as Vajrayogini, that blocked him from seeing her as an enlightened being, was completely purified.
Therefore, in the middle of the river, because of his unbearable compassion for her, the negative karma that projected the impure view was purified. Since there was no longer any impure view, the impure appearance of a sick woman disappeared and he was able to go to Vajrayogini’s pure land and get enlightened there. The teacher, Ngagpa Chöpawa, the yogi, didn’t do that, but his disciple did.
That shows how precious sentient beings are, in that you can derive infinite benefit from them and achieve every single happiness, and the stronger the compassion you can generate, the quicker you gain realizations and attain enlightenment.
Similarly, even though Maitreya Buddha generated bodhicitta much earlier than Guru Shakyamuni Buddha did, because Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s compassion and bodhicitta were stronger, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha became enlightened before Maitreya Buddha. How this happened was that in a previous life they were brothers and one day they were passing through Namo Buddha, in Nepal, when they came across a family of tigers, a mother and her four cubs, who were starving to death. They continued on their journey home, but because of the unbearable compassion Guru Shakyamuni Buddha felt for the tigers, he came back later and sacrificed his body so that they could live. He and Maitreya Buddha were both bodhisattvas at the time, and Maitreya Buddha also felt compassion, but didn’t give up his life for the tigers. But because his bodhicitta was stronger, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha did, and as a result he became enlightened before Maitreya Buddha.
Therefore, it seems that in our lives, of all the billions of different Dharma practices that we could do, of all the many different forms of practice that there are, the most important is that of compassion for sentient beings.
The best thing in life
As I said at the beginning of this talk, the best thing you can do with your life is to cherish sentient beings. Every day, whatever your circumstances, whether you are happy or unhappy, up or down, any time anywhere, cherish sentient beings. It can happen that when you are unhappy, you give sentient beings up, and only when you are happy do you think of others. Well, it can also happen that when you are happy you give them up too, but anyway, no matter whether you’re happy or unhappy, whatever circumstances you find yourself in, keep as your only goal in life the welfare of sentient beings. Continuously, every day, all the time, always think how precious they are, how they are most precious. Even Buddha, Dharma and Sangha come from sentient beings—the Thirty-five Buddhas, Vajrasattva. Therefore, sentient beings are the most precious thing in your life.
If you live your life with this attitude, even if you don’t do three year retreats or study Dharma extensively, you will have happiness now and in the future. With this attitude, your future will always be good, the best. Living your life with this attitude, think that every sentient being, every person, you meet is most precious—at home, at work, at your Dharma center, feel that every person you see is the most precious one in your life. In this way you will not only experience happiness now but will also experience the best possible future, and at the time of death will feel no regrets—only happiness and joy. Even though your life might have started with suffering, it will end with joy.
With the thought of cherishing others, serving them comes naturally, without difficulty. You will serve others happily, voluntarily, enjoyably. With this thought, serving others will become the best, most enjoyable thing you can do in your life. In that way, even though you might be doing exactly the same things that you were doing before, even though your job or your actions haven’t changed, because your attitude is different, everything you do brings you happiness, fulfillment and joy.
Before, when you did things with ego, self-centered mind, you didn’t enjoy life and encountered many problems. The same job, the same work—in a meditation center or in a city office—but there were always problems with other people, dissatisfaction with your work, a lot of unhappiness . But now, with this change of attitude, thinking that everyone is the most precious thing in your life, serving them comes naturally—not as a burden but as a joy. Serving others becomes enjoyment, not a job. You are giving something to others, so you feel happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment and joy.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave this teaching 27 February 1999.
4. Chapter 6, verse 113 [Return to text]
5. See Teachings from the Vajrasattva Retreat, page 625. [Return to text]