Kopan Course No. 36 (2003)

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kopan Monastery, Nepal (Archive #1441)

These teachings were given by Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche at the 36th Kopan Meditation Course, held at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, in 2003. Lightly edited by Gordon McDougall.

Rinpoche teaches on a range of lamrim topics, including refuge, motivation, Medicine Buddha and seven-limb practice, the purpose of our life, emptiness and much more. The edited transcript is freely available for download as a PDF file.

Lecture 18: How Vajrasattva Practice Purifies Negative Karma
Believing incredible stories

[Chanting by nuns and monks]

[Rinpoche speaks in Tibetan]

Dr Adrian brought a book for me with things in it that are hard to believe. The title is Whether You Believe It or Not. This is the same, what the Buddha explained in the sutra, and what Lama Tsongkhapa then quoted in his lamrim. There are stories there that are hard to believe, especially those stories explaining how the karma is inexpressible, unimaginable, how karma is unimaginable. If there is an unimaginable result from good karma, from one small good karma, for many lifetimes, many hundreds of thousands of lifetimes, such unbelievable things from a small good karma, then there is also unimaginable suffering from one small negative karma.

What I was trying to say is that Lama Tsongkhapa and the other lamas chose these stories that are hard to believe from the Buddha, from what the Buddha explained, especially taking those stories to explain about karma, how from a small negative karma the suffering result can be so unbearable in order that sentient beings pay more attention in daily life to karma. That means you pay attention to your motivation in daily life by always practicing mindfulness and then watching the motivation of the act. Before you act, you know, watching what the motivation is and always keeping a Dharma motivation. The best, of course, is bodhicitta.

It is similar here. The stories in the lamrim, taken from the Buddha’s teachings, the sutras, which are hard to believe, these are similar to the ones in these books in the West with titles like Whether You Believe It or Not. It’s hard to believe but it actually happened. This body is unbelievable; it shows incredible, unbelievable things. There is a whole book of incredible things. So it’s exactly the same. If somebody could predict that you would be born like this, or in your past life you were like this, that in future you will be born like this, your body will become like this, or even in this life that your body will change totally, if somebody predicted that, you may not believe it, you may think it’s impossible. But it happens. Once that negative karma is collected, once that particular negative karma is collected, the result is experienced, if it is not purified before experiencing the result.

So, in the West there are these books like Whether You Believe It or Not. Similarly, there are stories mentioned in lamrim, by Lama Tsongkhapa and by great lamas, taken from the Buddha’s teaching, the sutras, and whether you believe them or not they did happen, those sentient beings did experience these things.

What I was saying, there is one story I used to mention in the past many, many years ago, in the courses and many people had difficulty with it. It was about a golden elephant. A family had seven golden elephants, they materialized, they actualized in the field or at home or something. The seven golden elephants were solid gold, even all their kaka was gold—not made of gold, not beaten with a hammer but the sentient being’s whole body was gold. There are similar stories. I haven’t gone through the different stories about karma this time, but in France or somewhere there was a person born with a wooden leg. It was either in the newspapers or somewhere. Some years ago, a person was born from their mother’s womb with a wooden leg. So these things happen.

So there is no surprise in golden elephants, in elephants that have a gold body. A king during that time in India, King Sangyal— it might be King Sangyal, I am not sure—when he heard about these seven golden elephants he wanted them for himself so he confiscated them. He confiscated them but he didn’t have the karma to have the golden elephants so they disappeared. By the time they got to his property, they disappeared and returned to the family. Hearing the golden elephants were back there, he confiscated them again, and again, when they arrived at his property, they disappeared. This happened seven times, I think, seven times. This was because he didn’t have karma to have them, the other family had.

That is because in the past life of the head of the family, in Buddha Kashyapa’s time, when Buddha Kashyapa was in India, outside Buddha Kashyapa’s house there was an elephant made of earth. So this person offered gold, he painted it gold. So the seven golden elephants are due to that merit.

I was talking about heresy, talking about definition of negative karma. You know, it’s not only the ten nonvirtuous actions, negative karma, there are so many others, just in daily life, from morning until night, twenty-four hours, sleeping, washing and eating, whatever we do, if it is done with attachment, clinging to this life, it is negative. Reciting prayers, doing meditation and all those things, all those hours, so many hours of sleeping, done with attachment, clinging to this life. What I was saying, at the end of the day you are tired, so it is very difficult to generate a Dharma motivation before going to sleep, when you are very tired, exhausted. As quickly as possible, you throw your body into the bed. Then how many hours you sleep, it’s all negative karma. It is the cause of rebirth in the lower realms because you are tired and you can’t remember to generate a Dharma motivation, leave aside a bodhicitta motivation. It is purely done with attachment, clinging to the comfort of this life, to the pleasure of this.

This is true of whatever is done in the twenty-four hours, except for offering service to guru or circumambulating, prostration, cleaning, making offering to statues, stupas, scriptures those holy objects. Due to the power of the holy objects, even if your motivation is nonvirtue, due to the power of the holy object those actions even become the cause of enlightenment and, by the way, liberation from samsara, and, by the way, the happiness of future lives. Except those, otherwise the rest, which depend on your motivation becoming Dharma, those actions just become the pure cause of rebirth in the lower realms and nonvirtue.

What I was mentioning is that gossiping, idle talk doesn’t reduce delusions; it makes delusions increase. So, from the ten nonvirtues, the one that we always collect is gossiping. That is our normal daily life practice, that is our daily sadhana.

Another one is covetousness. When we go shopping, when we go to the market, if it is done with neither bodhicitta, renunciation, nor emptiness—if there are none of the three principal aspects of the path in the mind while doing the shopping—then it is a negative action. I am not saying all three but if there is no bodhicitta, you need at least renunciation, or if not, then right view. Right view, looking at everything as empty or looking at everything as merely imputed by the mind—the I, the object, the action, the whole thing, merely imputed by mind, using the Prasangika’s extremely subtle dependent arising. With that meditation, if you do shopping, that helps to stop delusion from arising. Even if what you buy is only what you really need, if you see that what you are buying is empty, merely imputed by mind, it helps to stop attachment arising.

So, you need lamrim even when you are shopping. Lamrim is not just something to meditate on when you are on the cushion, in the gompa or in the meditation room. You need lamrim even when you go to a restaurant. You need lamrim to eat the food; you need to eat the food with lamrim. When you go shopping, you need to do shopping with lamrim. Even when you go sightseeing, you need to go sightseeing with lamrim, otherwise everything becomes negative karma.

Another one of the ten nonvirtuous actions is covetousness. What I was telling you before, when you come back from shopping then you come back with a huge amount of negative karma, of covetousness. Not a huge load of coughing, a huge load of covetousness!

If you analyze your own mind, the way you live your life then you’ll see how many nonvirtuous actions happen; you’ll find so many. Without examining, we all think we are good, pure. None of us think we create the ten nonvirtuous actions. But if you examine your own life, you’ll find many.

Avoiding heresy

I was talking about heresy. From time to time, it’s maybe possible due to past strong imprints, you suddenly think, “Oh, there’s no Buddha. There’s no such thing as enlightenment,” or “There are no such things as reincarnation or karma.” Suddenly the thought arises, without effort. It just comes due to some strong past negative karma. Even while you are doing a practice, even while doing Vajrasattva, purifying, this kind of thought arises, because of some strong negative imprint from a past life. Or sometimes a person who has been very strongly devoted to Buddhism, after some years totally, totally changes their mind, and they have no faith at all in reincarnation or karma. They have no faith at all in the path to enlightenment. They seem to have totally lost their faith. That person totally changes. This can happen, it can happen like that.

It’s very terrifying. There are many imprints from past negative karma, from past lives, there is lots of heresy, for so many lifetimes, believing the opposite to Buddhadharma, that there is no karma, there is no liberation and so forth. There is this very strong negative karma left from the past.

In this life, even if they have become very strongly devoted, doing practice, after some years, some people totally change the other way round. For that person’s mind, you see, all that is wrong. From that person’s viewpoint, their mind has a kind of conviction, but when negative imprints manifest then their whole belief changes. For that person, the other one is totally wrong and this one is right, this path which is not the path shown by Buddha, the omniscient one. This path is totally the opposite, not believing in reincarnation, karma or liberation, it’s totally opposite. When negative imprints arise, in the view of that person this opposite path is completely true. That comes from the negative imprint left on the mental continuum by the past heresy and those things, those negative thoughts in the past. This is very terrifying, very terrifying, because when it comes, you really a hundred percent believe in this other totally opposite view; you really feel faith in it.

Therefore, we need purification. We need so much purification to destroy those negative imprints, those obscurations. And in this life we need to make very strong prayers every day dedicating the merit, continuously to not lose faith, to have total realizations, devotion to the path, to be able to complete the path. We need very strong dedications, making request prayers to the Guru, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in our everyday life. And we need to be aware, in case this kind of thought comes, even while we are doing practice, this total disbelief, with no faith at all. It can even happen while we are doing practice. If it does suddenly come up, we need to remember, to check up, how this has come from past negative imprints, therefore this is totally wrong. We need to see that this is not what our mind is, this is not what we are. But usually people in the West seem to think that because this is what arises in their mind, this is what their mind is and this is what they should believe. That is totally wrong. If we believe whatever thought arises in our mind, thinking “This is my mind, this is me,” then we become crazy, we become totally crazy.

It is very important to have that awareness, that this total change of mind can happen, that we can totally lose faith due to negative karma, generating heresy toward the Buddhadharma on these subjects, reincarnation, karma, liberation and so forth. If there is that awareness normally, if we are cautious that this can happen, then we are able to protect ourselves from this heresy, these wrong beliefs. Otherwise, we believe in that and our life totally changes, and we are totally on the wrong path. Then we live life only engaging in the cause of samsara, only engaging in the cause of the lower realms. Only engaging in the wrong path becomes a very heavy obstacle to actualizing the four noble truths, to achieving liberation and enlightenment.

What I am talking about here isn’t necessarily heresy toward reincarnation, karma, liberation, but we must make sure we don’t develop heresy by assuming these stories that are difficult to believe, such as the Buddha uses to illustrate karma, or that are used in the lamrim texts such as in Lamrim Chenmo or Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, are not true. When we read these and we think that what the Buddha said can’t be true, that it is not possible, then we develop heresy. Whenever we refuse to accept what the Buddha has said as truth, we commit heresy, even if that story is difficult to believe from our limited perspective. That’s heresy and that heresy leaves a negative imprint on our mind, which makes it easier for heresy to arise again in the future. This is an obstacle to realizations, to attainments.

And then I was talking about the heresy to the Guru. It is very easy to develop heresy toward the Guru, and that is the heaviest negative karma. Generally any negative action or negative thought that arises toward the Guru is very, very heavy; it’s the heaviest obstacle to realizations, to achieving any happiness but particularly to realizations.

Therefore, it is said in the tantric text drag po rang jung rang shar chen poi gyu13 that if you break the Guru’s advice you will be reborn in the hell realm. If you think the Guru is angry or impatient, if a thought like this arises, you will fall down into the hell realms and suffer there for sixty eons.

In the tantra requested by Vajrapani, it is mentioned by the Buddha about making mistakes in devoting to the virtuous friend. He said, “If I were to express the karmic result of that, it is so heavy that the bodhisattvas or those born of the blood [?] would be terrified. But I will hint to you.” He then said that if you commit one of the five uninterrupted negative karmas—killing your father or mother, killing an arhat, harming a buddha or causing disunity amongst the Sangha—you will be reborn in the very lowest hell, the most unbearable hot hell. Making a mistake in devoting to the virtuous friend also results in such a rebirth. He said he didn’t want to go further because it was too terrifying, so he would just hint at it in this way.

Therefore, we should never belittle or criticize the vajra master. What I was saying is that even if we don’t develop the very heavy negative karma of this type of heresy, where we belittle or criticize the Guru, there is this other type of heresy, where we read the Buddha’s teachings and we don’t believe it, like the stories of karma. It is very easy for heresy to arise. This is to give an idea when we meditate on karma, the ten nonvirtues, when we examine the other areas. There are other types of heresy. We need more details, more elaborations so that we can purify, so the thought to purify comes. Then we become free from obstacles, from obscurations, from negative karma, and free from the result, all the unbearable suffering which we would have to experience for many eons. Then, it makes it easy to achieve liberation and enlightenment, and to benefit sentient beings. By being aware, by knowing about negative karma and all the suffering results, we are persuaded to practice purification.

The benefits of Vajrasattva practice

Besides the general negative karma I already explained, on top of those ten nonvirtues, there are so many others we commit every day. On top of those, we break the pratimoksha vows, the bodhisattva vows, the tantric vows. It is said that if we break even one of the forty-six secondary downfalls of the bodhisattva vows, that is heavier than breaking any of the pratimoksha vows. And breaking not just a root tantric vow but a secondary one is a hundred thousand times heavier than breaking a root bodhisattva vow.

So as I mentioned, as Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo says in the commentary in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, there are all these additional negative karmas. If we break one and don’t practice Vajrasattva at the end of the day, then it multiplies. If we kill a tiny insect today, that negative karma increases, double tomorrow and triple the third day and then it increases and increases and after fifteen or eighteen days, it becomes as heavy as having killed a human being. If we kill a tiny insect today and if we don’t do purification with Vajrasattva, then after fifteen or eighteen days it increases 131,072 times and becomes the same negative karma as having killed a human being. Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo says that negative karma increases that much.

By the time of our death, after increasing month by month and year by year, it becomes the size of this earth. One negative karma by multiplying becomes the size of this earth or the mountains. It becomes so heavy. With all these karmas we have to be born in the lower realms and for eons we will experience the most unbearable suffering. I am not sure whether we can come back to the deva or human realm. So, one negative karma like a dust particle increases to the size of a mountain, to the size of this earth.

Therefore, by doing Vajrasattva even twenty-one times at the end of the day, it stops this one negative karma multiplying and becoming that many. That is unbelievable, unbelievable profit, unbelievable profit. Therefore, it becomes so important, so important; how urgent it is to practice Vajrasattva, to stop that one negative karma multiplying. It becomes so urgent.

But there are so many other negative karmas we have committed in these twenty-four hours, there are so many. Each one multiplies day by day, each one becomes like the size of a mountain, the size of this earth. That is so terrifying. Therefore, by doing Vajrasattva at the end of the day, we completely stop all these negative karmas multiplying.

That is an unimaginable achievement. What we gain, just by reciting the Vajrasattva mantra twenty-one times, is unbelievable unhappiness. It stops all those negative karmas from increasing. So, it makes it so light, when we die. That heavy negative karma becomes so thin, so light, and our mind is so much happier at the time of death. There is not much regret, feeling sad, thinking badly of ourselves. We don’t look negatively at ourselves at the time of death.

Not only that, not only does it stop today’s negative karma multiplying, it also purifies today’s negative karma, it purifies this life’s negative karma and it purifies past lives’ negative karma. So, the second benefit is purifying the negative karma already collected. That’s another unbelievable advantage of reciting the Vajrasattva mantra even twenty-one times before going to bed, at the end of the day.

By doing the Vajrasattva practice it stops our negative karma multiplying and it purifies our past negative karma. It is said,

For the learned ones, even though they have created very heavy negative karma it becomes very small, very thin. But for the foolish ones, who don’t know Vajrasattva, even though they have only created very light negative karma, it becomes very heavy.

In tantra there is the incredible skill of allowing us to purify all these heavy negative karmas. The foolish ones, those who don’t know this skill, even though the negative karma they create is small, can’t do this and so it gets multiplied and becomes very heavy.

Lama Atisha explained that it’s important to know, if we take a higher tantric initiation and we have taken the vows, we must keep even the secondary vows purely. We must always practice pure appearance, with ourselves as the deity, with other sentient beings as deities, with the environment as the mandala of the deity and so forth. If we cannot do that, if we are unable to do that, not having stable concentration, then vices fall like rainfall, vices fall like dust. This is not mentioned in the texts, but if we leave our car outside then very quickly it gets completely covered in dust. We must think about that. If we are unable to keep these commitments very seriously, it’s better we don’t take a great initiation. This is what Lama Atisha said. That is because of not knowing that tantra has the skillful means of Vajrasattva practice, which is like a cloth that can wipe all the dust from our car. It’s not knowing that tantra has this skillful means of the Vajrasattva practice where we can wash, where we clean all this at one time. The text says that the mandala is covered with dust, but we can clean it by doing the Vajrasattva practice once. All the vices get cleaned up. Lama Atisha says people who think it can’t be cleaned are mistaken, not knowing that there is such skill in tantra.

His Holiness Zong Rinpoche, from whom I received many teachings and initiations, and also other gurus, have said that after we have taken a great initiation, even if we are unable to keep the root vows and the secondary vows and because of that we get reborn in the hell realms, after some time when we are reborn in the human realm, we will meet tantra again because we have met tantra before and received the initiation, and it has left an imprint already from the past. Because of that imprint, we are born in the human realm, we meet the tantra teaching, receive initiation and practice tantra. At that time, we will practice it much better and then be able to achieve enlightenment.

The comparison is with a person who follows the lesser vehicle path and achieves arhatship. They can abide in that blissful state of peace for many eons, for so many eons and then, when the karma ripens, they enter the Mahayana path and achieve enlightenment. Compared with this practitioner, who follows the Hinayana path, becomes an arhat and abides like that for so many eons in that state, this other person who has taken an initiation but has been unable to keep the vows, then is born in the hell realm and has to experience its suffering then is born in the human realm, and again takes tantric teaching because of the past imprint, takes an initiation, then practices and achieves enlightenment—comparing the two practitioners, the one who takes the initiation will be enlightened far quicker While the arhats are abiding in the blissful state for many eons, the other one will have experienced the hell realm and then practiced as a human and become enlightened. You understand? This is what His Holiness Zong Rinpoche often used to say.

Lamrim motivation

Then think, “At this time, we have received the most precious human rebirth qualified with the eight freedoms and ten richnesses, we have met the Buddhadharma, and not only the Buddhadharma where we can achieve happiness, but also the Mahayana teaching, which enables us to achieve enlightenment.” For those who have received a great initiation, a higher tantra, great initiation or tantra, you have entered the door of tantra, secret mantra. You have met tantra. Those who have met the virtuous friend, the perfectly qualified virtuous friend, like His Holiness and many other great lamas, who are extremely rare to find in this world, in the universe, this great opportunity doesn’t last long, this is not here all the time because of death. Death will definitely happen and it can happen any day, at any moment.

Therefore, think, “Before death happens I must make sure to achieve the happiness of future lives. Right after this life, I must make sure to achieve happiness, a good rebirth in the next life, where I can practice Dharma again and then actualize the path. But that alone is not sufficient. This life I am born into with a human body is totally in the nature of suffering, being under the control of karma and delusion. This is only in the nature of suffering. Because of that I can be tormented by the suffering of pain, the suffering of change and pervasive compounding suffering. Temporary samsaric pleasure are only in the nature of suffering. Therefore, I must be free from samsara, the oceans of samsaric suffering and its cause.

“But achieving this for myself alone is not sufficient. All the suffering, all the obstacles, all the undesirable things, all come from the self-cherishing thought, from the I. And all happiness comes from bodhicitta, and that means all happiness comes from sentient beings. Therefore, in my life, other sentient beings are most precious, the most kind ones, the most precious ones. What sentient beings want is happiness and they don’t want suffering. In my life there is nobody to cherish except only sentient beings, and in my life there is nobody to work for except only sentient beings. What they like is happiness, what they don’t want is suffering, therefore I must free them from all sufferings and causes and bring them to enlightenment. To do that is not possible without achieving the omniscient mind myself, the mind that knows all sentient beings’ minds and karma and the level of intelligence and all the methods that fits them exactly. Therefore, I must achieve enlightenment.

“To see my mother sentient beings, from whom I have received all my past, present and future happiness, suffering for even one second is unbearable for me and they have been suffering in samsara for eons. So, I need to liberate them from the oceans of samsaric suffering and bring them to enlightenment as quickly as possible. Therefore I need to achieve enlightenment as quickly as possible. Therefore I need to actualize the path, I need to purify the defilements, negative karma, therefore I am going to take the Vajrasattva general permission to practice, for the benefit of all sentient beings.”



13 Wyl: drag po rang 'byung rang shar chen po'i rgyud; Eng: The Great Tantra That Is Fierce, Self-emergent and Self-Arisen. This is a terma text, part of the Great Northern Terma collection, that was discovered by Rigdzin Goedem. [Return to text]