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.

Editor's Introduction

This book is an edited transcript of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings at a three-month Vajrasattva retreat held at Land of Medicine Buddha, Soquel, California, from February 1 to April 30, 1999. Venerable Marcel Bertels led the retreat.

About 125 people participated in the three-month retreat, seventy-five of them full time, including twenty nuns and monks. In addition, Rinpoche offered weekend public talks, which were attended by many people from outside of the retreat. The Vajrasattva initiation on February 6 and the long life puja and Amitabha initiation on April 30 were attended by about 250 people.

Rinpoche’s teachings during these three months were essentially of three types: the weekend public teachings, which tended to be discourses two to three hours in length; teachings at special events, such as a light offering meditation, two long life initiations, a Medicine Buddha puja preceding a jang-wa ceremony for the dead, and an animal liberation ceremony; and teachings during Vajrasattva retreat sessions, at which Rinpoche would often arrive unannounced and proceed to explain various parts of the practices being done at the time. Rinpoche’s eagerly awaited drop-ins were more frequent during the first part of the retreat—before he went to India for two weeks in March, to attend the Gelug conference in New Delhi organized by the FPMT—and the long discourses became more frequent after Rinpoche’s return.

Rinpoche expressed his happiness with the retreat several times. For example, on February 9, Rinpoche explained one of the purposes of the retreat and why he was explaining the practices:

“One point I want to emphasize is that my purpose in telling you how to do this and that meditation or prayer is to educate you about how to guide a Vajrasattva retreat. If somebody later asks you how to do a Vajrasattva retreat, you will know what to explain to them. It’s an education in how to do Vajrasattva meditation in order to make it effective. Doing Vajrasattva retreat is not simply about reciting the mantra and saying some prayers. It is about making the practice effective for your mind, making it the quickest, most powerful way to transform your mind. You are learning how to make the Vajrasattva meditation-recitation the most powerful purification. It’s an education in how to guide a Vajrasattva retreat, so that you, both sangha and lay people, can teach others how to do Vajrasattva retreat in the future. As well as this, you are learning how to do Lama Chöpa, or Guru Puja, in an effective way. The arrangement of the prayers helps you do the practice effectively.”

On March 12, Rinpoche referred to the retreat as a learning experience: “This retreat has also been part of your Dharma education. You have gained experience yourself and you will also be able to teach others how to do retreat and the various other practices. This is very important. We always have a shortage of experienced people. We need so many spiritual coordinators at the centers. The number of centers is increasing all the time, and every center needs someone to guide people in the various retreats and practices. This retreat has also become part of your education, so that if you would like to help in one of the centers, you now know how to guide various practices. This is very, very important.... “One point is that it is helpful for you to learn more about various practices—guiding lam-rim meditations is the main one, of course. The other point is that it helps you to help others, to benefit others. You can help others to purify their negative karma and to collect merit, so that they can have realizations of the path to enlightenment.

“We always have a shortage of spiritual coordinators at the centers, of people who can give advice on how to do retreats and various practices. The more such people we have, the more productive and beneficial to sentient beings we can make the centers. Even if there is a geshe at the center, we still need a spiritual coordinator or some other person who can lead meditation and practices and who can be consulted by the students. We still need that.”

Finally, at the long life puja on the last day of the retreat, Rinpoche again expressed his satisfaction with it:

“Some of the retreat people I met expressed the wish to do this retreat again and were hoping another would be organized. This is an extremely good sign. However, by doing this retreat, whether you did the whole three months or just part of it, as much as you did, you have made your future lives that much easier—you have made it much easier to achieve realizations and have decreased the obstacles you will have to overcome.

Many obstacles - negative karma created in relation to your gurus, other holy objects and sentient beings - have been purified during this retreat. You won’t encounter these in future lives....

“Before, you may not have had that much feeling for Dharma, but now, after participating in the retreat, there’s more of a Dharma feeling in your heart. Your heart has become more Dharma than before. That’s a sign of having purified obscurations. You feel more compassion for others —that’s one of the best signs of purification; more devotion to the Triple Gem, more devotion to the guru, more faith in karma than before—those are the best signs of purification.”

Retreat set-up 

Please see Appendix 7 for a detailed retreat schedule. The first session of the day was a combined Lama Chöpa/Jor-chö puja, especially arranged by Rinpoche. This and every other session of the retreat began with prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas. On approximately half the days of the retreat we took the Eight Mahayana Precepts.

There were four or five Vajrasattva sessions every day. On the days there were four, there was a discussion group usually led by one of the nuns or monks, focusing on details of the various levels of precepts and other matters pertaining to purification. After prostrations, each Vajrasattva session would begin with recitation of a glance meditation on the lam-rim, using texts such as Lama Tsongkhapa’s The Foundation of All Good Qualities or Three Principal Aspects of the Path, Losang Jinpa’s All the Important Points of the Lam-rim, or Calling the Lama From Afar.

There were three Vajrasattva sadhanas used: a long, a medium and a short. The long one was usually done for the day’s first Vajrasattva session and was a slightly modified version of the sadhana compiled by Lama Yeshe. Once a week we also did the Heruka Vajrasattva tsog that Lama composed. For these practices and Lama Yeshe’s complete Vajrasattva teachings, see The Tantric Path of Purification (Wisdom Publications).

During the breaks between sessions, and especially during the long afternoon break, retreat participants did their karma yoga jobs, thus ensuring the smooth running of the retreat. The gompa was kept clean and light, many, many water bowls were offered, beautiful flower displays xxiii were made, paths were swept, dishes were washed and in general, everything was well taken care of.

The New Tradition 

During this retreat Rinpoche introduced what he referred to as a “new tradition” within the FPMT. This is greatly clarified during the teachings in this book, but basically, Rinpoche explained how to meditate on regret, impermanence and death, and bodhicitta in the early stages of purification practices like the Thirty-five Buddhas and Vajrasattva recitation meditation, and how to meditate on emptiness before doing dedication.

The FPMT Prayerbook

The retreat also introduced to the FPMT Venerable Connie Miller’s prototype of a standardized book of prayers and practices to be used throughout the organization, prepared on behalf of the International Office’s Education Department. All the practices done during the retreat were to be found in this excellent manual. Each retreat participant was asked to evaluate the book at the end of the retreat and copies have been further distributed to various FPMT centers for wider evaluation. Since everything we did during the retreat is in the Prayer Book, we have not included these practices in this book.

About the Editing

We have not been able to check this work with Rinpoche; therefore it is possible that it contains errors, all of which are our responsibility. If you have questions about anything in the book, please contact the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive or the FPMT Education Department at International Office in Soquel, California.

This book is a slightly more than lightly edited, day by day transcript of Rinpoche’s teachings during the Vajrasattva retreat. The paragraphs in quotation marks are what Rinpoche was suggesting people think. Generally, round brackets are around Rinpoche’s asides, square brackets around the editors’ insertions. Less common Tibetan and Sanskrit terms are italicized the first time only, unless they form a key part of the discussion or might be misunderstood if not in italics; also, they are phoneticized according to their approximate pronunciation, not their transliteration.

The content of Rinpoche’s comments and clarifications during retreat sessions for the most part should reveal the context. Again, we have not included here the relevant parts of the texts or prayers upon which he was commenting as they are all in the Prayer Book.


We would like to thank Rinpoche for his eternal kindness and compassion for his many students and for being the constant and awe-inspiring example of what is possible that he is. With special gratitude we thank him for having organized the Vajrasattva retreat. May we all become like him. We also thank Ven. Marcel for his great leadership of the retreat and Ven. Tenzin Namdag, Ven. Drolkar, Kendall Magnussen and all the other LMB staff who worked so hard to make the retreat the success that it was. We thank Ven. Connie Miller for the FPMT Prayer Book. And we thank our fellow retreaters, without whom none of this would have been possible.

Wendy Cook of the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive taped all the teachings and organized the transcription of the tapes by Vens. Paloma Alba, Chantal Carrerot and Tenzin Namdrol, who completed the entire job within a short time of the retreat finishing. We are grateful for their excellent, dedicated work.

Ailsa Cameron
Chenrezig Institute
Eudlo, Qld., Australia
September, 1999

Nicholas Ribush
Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive
Weston, MA, USA
September, 1999

“I’m not telling you why we should benefit others because it is something that you haven’t heard before. Those who have received lam-rim teachings have heard this many times. I’m doing it to remind or inspire those of you who already know these things and to inform those of you who don’t, but need to know. Why? Because this is the most important education of all. This is more important to know than anything else in life is. This is the most important thing you will ever learn.”

—Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche

Practicing Guru devotion with the nine attitudes

“I am requesting the kind lord root guru, Who is more extraordinary than all the buddhas — Please bless me to be able to devote myself to the qualified lord guru with great respect, in all my future lifetimes. “By realizing that the root of happiness and goodness is correctly devoting myself to the kind lord guru, Who is the foundation of all good qualities, I shall devote myself to him with great respect, Not forsaking him even at the cost of my life.”

Thinking of the importance of the qualified guru, allow yourself to enter under his control.

1. Be like an obedient son—
Act exactly in accordance with the guru’s advice.

2. Even when mares, evil friends and the like
Try to split you from the guru,
Be like a vajra —
Inseparable forever.

3. Whenever the guru gives you work,
No matter how heavy the burden,
Be like the earth—
Bear it all.

4. Whatever suffering occurs (hardship or problems)
When devoting yourself to the guru,
Be like a mountain—
Immovable (your mind should not be upset or discouraged).

5. Even if you are given all the difficult tasks,
Be like a servant of the king—
Perform them with an undisturbed mind.

6. Abandon pride.
Be like a sweeper—
Hold yourself lower than the guru.

7. No matter how difficult or heavy the burden,
Be like a rope—
Hold the guru’s work with joy.

8. Even when the guru criticizes, provokes or ignores you,
Be like a faithful dog—
Never respond with anger.

9. Be like a boat—
Never be upset to come or go for the guru
At any time.

“O glorious and precious root guru,
Please bless me to be able to practice in this way.
From now on, in all my future lifetimes,
May I be able to devote myself to the guru like this.”

If you recite these words aloud and reflect on their meaning in your mind, you will have the good fortune of being able to devote yourself correctly to the precious guru from life to life, in all your future lifetimes. If you offer service and respect and make offerings to the precious guru with these nine attitudes in mind, even if you do not practice intentionally, you will develop many good qualities, collect extensive merit and quickly achieve full enlightenment.


The words in parentheses are not to be read aloud. They are added to clarify the text and should be kept in mind but not recited.


Written by the highly attained lama, Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol. Translated by Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Aptos, California, in February 1999. Edited by Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive Editing Group at Land of Medicine Buddha, March 1999. The editors are responsible for any errors.


First, I want to say that I’m very happy to see everyone. I want to express how extremely happy I am that this Vajrasattva retreat was planned and that so many of you have taken the opportunity to do it, have given yourself time to do the retreat.

Also, some of us are direct disciples of Lama Yeshe, our virtuous friend whose holy name is difficult to mention and who was kinder than all the buddhas of the three times—our doing Vajrasattva retreat would be most pleasing to Lama Yeshe. Others here might be indirect disciples of Lama Yeshe. Previously, there was no such system of giving disciples the commitment of doing a Vajrasattva retreat after they’d taken the Vajrasattva je-nang, or permission to practice.

In other traditions, it is very common to do Vajrasattva retreat before taking a Highest Yoga Tantra initiation and doing the retreat of such a deity. In Solu Khumbu, in the mountains of Nepal, where I was born, there is a system of doing all four major preliminary practices before doing a retreat on each deity. Even though there are many other preliminary practices, the four major ones are guru yoga, Vajrasattva practice, prostrations and mandala offerings. The preliminary practice of guru yoga is mainly done to receive the blessings of the guru in order to achieve realizations of the path to enlightenment; Vajrasattva practice and prostrations with meditation on and recitation of the holy names of the Thirty-five Buddhas are done to pacify obstacles; and mandala offerings are done particularly to collect merit, the necessary condition to have realizations of the path to enlightenment.

I’m not sure whether you have to do 400,000 of each of these four preliminary practices before doing each deity retreat, but this is the general system in the Nyingma tradition in Solu Khumbu. As far as I am aware, this is not a common practice in the Gelug tradition at the present time. The nine preliminaries are done before a three-year retreat on a deity, but there is no precise instruction to do the four preliminary practices before retreat on each deity. It is generally advised that you do some preliminary practices to purify and to collect merit before you begin a retreat, so that no obstacles arise and the retreat can be successful, but no particular number is mentioned. For example, you might make some tsa-tsasor do some Dharma protector pujas for the success of the retreat.

Giving a commitment to do Vajrasattva meditation-recitation in retreat after a Vajrasattva je-nang is not common generally in the Gelug tradition. Lama Yeshe, with his skillful means and his compassion for us, his students, kindly started this tradition of practice. It is extremely good that people have to make the commitment to do the retreat after they have received the Vajrasattva je-nang. In this way, many people have had the opportunity to purify many eons of negative karma through taking a Vajrasattva je-nang, or blessing, and then doing Vajrasattva practice and retreat—not just reciting some big number of mantras but also doing meditation. Since Lama started this tradition, many thousands of people have benefited.

I don’t remember the exact year that Lama started this tradition. It was when we were in Nepal, living in the old house at Kopan. It doesn’t exist any more; it’s now been transformed into another mandala. It was an old house built in the British style by the previous king of Nepal, King Mahindra, for his astrologer. We lived in that house for quite a number of years, perhaps six or seven. Then, around the time of the Sixth Kopan Course, it housed the Western Sangha and was the place where they did morning puja, especially Jor-chö, the preparatory practice. Those times were very good times. It still is a very good time. I think we have to make it a good time.

I think that Lama gave the first Vajrasattva initiation to three students, Jan Willis and Robbie and Randy Solick. These three Americans were the first disciples of Lama’s Vajrasattva initiation. They received the initiation and then did retreat in Ram’s house, which is close to Kopan Monastery. Ram is a Nepalese man who worked at Kopan in the early times; he used to help with the building and at the beginning he sometimes also cooked. Ram and his family lived downstairs, and they rented the upstairs to Western students. They had a fire downstairs, so the upstairs would fill up with smoke. I think they enjoyed very much doing Vajrasattva retreat in a room full of smoke. Actually, I remember that one time they did have some difficulty with the smoke.

Giving Vajrasattva je-nang with the commitment to do Vajrasattva retreat started at that time, and since then groups have been doing retreat at Kopan, at Tushita Meditation Centre in Dharamsala, and at other centers. I think in recent years there has been a group Vajrasattva retreat almost every year at Tushita.

Since Lama started this tradition, there has been unbelievable benefit. Many thousands of people have been saved from the lower realms, from spending many eons suffering as hell beings, hungry ghosts or animals. They purified many negative karmas, the obstacles that interfere with the generation of realizations of the path to enlightenment. By taking the Vajrasattva initiation and doing Vajrasattva practice and retreat, many thousands of people have been brought closer to the path to enlightenment. Thus, they have come closer to enlightenment and closer to being able to free numberless beings from all their suffering and its cause and bring them to full enlightenment. It has had this great benefit.

By making the time to do this retreat, you are also making preparation for death, your own death. Perhaps you will cause all the people who are doing hospice work to lose their jobs! They will have no one to take care of because you will have liberated yourself. By doing this retreat, you are becoming your own guide and liberating yourself.

By making powerful preparation for your own death, you even make it much easier for other people when they die. Your happy, easy, peaceful death enables other people to have less worry and fear at the time of death. Your happy, peaceful death causes others to rejoice and inspires them to practice Dharma, to practice the good heart. Your death causes devotion to develop in the minds of others, and that devotion will bring them to enlightenment. That devotion will bring them so much happiness, including all the realizations of the path to liberation and enlightenment. Through that devotion they can achieve all happiness, up to enlightenment.

We can also use this Vajrasattva retreat as a long life puja for the Buddha of Compassion, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The activities of buddhas depend on the karma of sentient beings, on our state of mind.

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Chapter 1: February 6 »