Practices for Pilgrimage

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Tibet

Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave this advice to students going on a pilgrimage to Tibet in June and July 2002. Included is advice on practices that will make pilgrimage to the holy places in Nepal and India as meaningful and beneficial as possible.

For more information about the prayers and practices advised by Rinpoche in this teaching, see Essential Buddhist Prayers Vol. I. See also Benefits and Practices Related to Statues and Stupas (Parts 1, 2 and 3) available from the FPMT Foundation Store.

Read more about the pilgrimage to Tibet in an article by Ven. Sarah Thresher in Mandala Magazine, (Dec 2002 edn). Read about the practice of circumambulating holy objects in Mandala Magazine, (Jul 2009 edn).

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching at Royal Holloway College, England, 1975. Photo: Dennis Heslop.

It is good to do different practices on pilgrimage, to make our lives very meaningful and productive. Normally when people go on pilgrimage, they are just like tourists; maybe they take some pictures and that’s it. They don’t use the places to collect merit or to meditate or to get some benefit for their minds. If it’s just like sightseeing, then it won’t be that much benefit.

[During pilgrimage in Tibet in 1987] we went to every temple and did prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas; we made money offerings, bought butter lamps and made light offerings. The whole point was to use that pilgrimage to purify our minds and collect as extensive merit as possible. I felt quite satisfied with that pilgrimage because we didn’t just go and look at one temple after another—we took as much time as possible to collect merit from every holy object, to make our time as meaningful as possible.

How do we make pilgrimage as meaningful, useful and beneficial as possible? The main point of pilgrimage is to subdue our minds. By eliminating mistaken thoughts, not allowing the mind to be under the control of delusion, the mind is better able to actualize the lam-rim realizations, from guru devotion up to enlightenment.

Why do we need to subdue our minds? The creator of samsara and nirvana, of enlightenment and of hell, is our own mind; everything depends on our own mind. When in a state of peace, the mind is protected from delusion. Usually we subdue the mind by studying Dharma, doing meditation practice, and working for others, in order to collect merit and to purify defilements.

One lama made the comment that when the great, holy beings—buddhas, bodhisattvas and yogis —go on pilgrimage, they bless the place. And when ordinary people go there, they receive blessings from that place. So pilgrimage means to receive blessings from the holy places to inspire our mind to transform into the path.

Actually, on pilgrimage it’s very good to have difficulties because they purify the mind. We have to understand that difficulties purify the negativities; it’s like when we do Vajrasattva retreat and become sick.

Think, “I am going to this place to purify my mind—to purify all the negative karmas and defilements—and to collect extensive merit, in order to have the realization of lam-rim.” With such a motivation, when we experience problems or difficulties, these become worthwhile. Yet if hardships are experienced with the thought of the eight worldly dharmas—with attachment clinging to this life—then there is no special benefit; they only become torture.

We can never practice Dharma if we cannot bear hardships. The great lamas of the past bore so much hardship to practice Dharma; they renounced their lives completely, lived in caves and so forth, like Milarepa. All the lineage lamas achieved enlightenment; they achieved realization by bearing hardship to practice Dharma. So therefore, from the beginning, our motivation for pilgrimage has to be Dharma. This makes all the hardships and troubles we bear so meaningful, so worthwhile, and such unbelievable purification. Especially if we think that we are doing pilgrimage to purify our mind, to collect merit, to actualize the path in order to benefit sentient beings—that we are making ourselves perfect to be able to benefit sentient beings.

By doing pilgrimage, we receive blessing from the holy places where enlightened beings, great yogis and bodhisattvas, have practiced. With the blessing entering our hearts, our mental continuum is able to soften, to become subdued, and we are able to decrease the delusions. We are then able to develop bodhicitta, strong compassion, towards other sentient beings, and our guru devotion, renunciation, right view, our meditation on emptiness, all become stronger. That means that our mental continuum becomes Dharma. This is the result of pilgrimage.

How much we receive blessing from the place depends on our devotion, which depends on how deeply we understand the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Great devotion comes from hearing the stories of great yogis and bodhisattvas, which inspire us to pray to become like them. Devotion is very important in pilgrimage, otherwise we are no different from a tourist—taking pictures of that place, that rock, that cave, with no change to the mind, the heart.

It’s important we use our body, speech and mind to make the pilgrimage with devotion to Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and to the place. Having devotion is a good way of collecting merit with the mind. The more Dharma we understand, the easier it is to generate devotion. Life is so rich and so worthwhile for those with a lot of devotion. Having devotion naturally enables us to collect so much merit and to purify so much. With strong devotion, bad thoughts become pacified, just as when cold water is poured on boiling water it becomes peaceful. With devotion, there is no space for delusion to arise, which makes the blessing received from Buddha, Dharma and Sangha stronger, and for realization to come easily. To generate virtue with your mind, I suggest you let your mind focus each day on a different practice: one day guru devotion, one day renunciation, one day bodhicitta, like that. You can also do the tantric practice of pure appearance; seeing oneself as the deity, visualizing the mandala, etc. Whatever you can do to train the mind, do that. Wherever your realization is, start from there.

With a correct motivation in the morning, when our body travels all day long, this activity becomes virtue. If done with bodhicitta, we collect limitless skies of merit with every step we take, every minute of travel. So it’s very important to set up a correct motivation for pilgrimage in the morning, so that the action of the body becomes virtue.

Prostrations are also a way to collect merit with the body. Alak Rinpoche [Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche’s attendant] did prostrations from his home in Amdo up to Lhasa. It took him three years. My driver told me that many people prostrate from Kham to Mt. Kailash, and that drivers on the way will stop and give those people money and warm clothes.

To generate virtue with speech, if possible, chant mantras during the pilgrimage, no matter the duration. Don’t spend so much time gossiping, but chant mantras. The Mitukpa or Vajrasattva mantras are very powerful for purification. So, count Vajrasattva while you are traveling. During a pilgrimage you can finish 100,000 mantras or at least a few thousand. By reciting mantras, you continuously collect merit with your speech.

The main point about doing pilgrimage is not to waste time. Put as much effort as possible into collecting merit with your body, speech and mind.

THE BOUDHANATH STUPA

The story about the Boudhanath Stupa is important, it’s incredibly inspiring. Hearing the story, you will really understand the benefits of circumambulating it, cleaning it and sweeping it the whole day and night.

The stupa was built by the mother, Jadzima, who looked after her chickens. They were an extremely poor family, I think. She wanted to build a stupa very, very much, so she asked the king of Nepal for permission to get the land. Normally, the king wouldn’t give permission, but somehow, maybe due to her karma, the king said, “Okay, it can be done.” This just slipped out of his mouth.

This is why the Tibetans call the Boudhanath Stupa Jarung Kashor Chorten. Jarung means “it can be done”; kashor means “slipped out of the mouth”; chorten is stupa.

The mother passed away after she completed up to the vase, the dome-like structure. She had four sons and they completed the rest of the stupa. After they finished it, they all stood up in front of it and made prayers. Everyone generated a wish.

When they were praying, all the buddhas and bodhisattvas absorbed into the stupa, which is why the name of the stupa is also “all-encompassing.” It’s also called “wish-fulfilling.” Why wish-fulfilling? Because it is so powerful that anybody who makes prayers to the stupa, their wishes are fulfilled. Especially when you see the stupa for the very first time, whatever you pray for, it will succeed. Even from the airplane; the first time you see it, you must do your best prayer.
One Brazilian nun, a Kagyü, knew this story. When she saw the stupa for the first time, she made a prayer to be able to build monasteries. When she went back, everything happened. She made plans and was able to build. There are other stories like this.

Anyway, when the brothers were standing in front of the stupa, the oldest brother made a prayer, “May I become a Dharma king in Tibet, the Snow Land.” The next brother heard his prayer and said, “May I become a minister to help him spread Dharma.” The next son prayed, “May I be an abbot to pass on the lineage of ordinations in Tibet,” and the next one made a prayer, “May I become a powerful yogi when there are obstacles to spreading Dharma in Tibet.”

In the next life, the oldest brother became a Dharma king, Songsten Gampo, in Tibet. This Dharma king had the two princesses who had brought the statues of Shakyamuni Buddha, one at the Jokhang and the other at the Ramoche. He did great activities to benefit all sentient beings, and I think he also helped to build the Jokhang. The second brother became a minister in Tibet, Padma Gungtsen. The third brother became Shantarakshita, the abbot, and the fourth brother became Padmasambhava.

When they were building the first monastery in central Tibet, Samye, during the day the people would build and then at night the spirits would tear it down. One of the ministers suggested that they invite Padmasambhava from India. When he came he manifested as a deity called, I think, “Controlling the Three Realms.” This deity hooked the spirits and subdued them, making them pledge to become Dharma protectors. So they stayed around him on the mountain to protect the Dharma in Tibet.

Therefore, the Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet has spread and been preserved for many years, and so many beings have actualized the path and become enlightened, and because of this, Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism has spread all over the world. Even in the West, many tens of thousands of people every year are able to follow the path to enlightenment, their lives become meaningful and they find peace and happiness.

This includes us. We have the chance to practice the lam-rim, and we are able to do purification every day, becoming closer and closer to liberation from samsara and to enlightenment. By collecting the three principal aspects of the path to enlightenment and, on top of that, the tantric stages, this allows us to achieve enlightenment quickly.

All these opportunities that we and many others have in everyday life; all this benefit comes from the Boudha Stupa.

THE SWAYAMBHUNATH STUPA

Swayambhunath has its own story. The essence is this. At one time Kathmandu was filled with water like a lake. A crystal stupa appeared from the lake, which was the embodiment of the Buddha’s holy mind, the dharmakaya. This crystal stupa is now in the Swayambhunath Stupa. This was predicted by Shakyamuni Buddha himself. It is the most precious one in Kathmandu.

The whole mountain that the stupa is on is regarded as the Buddha Chakrasamvara’s mandala, or palace. Ordinary people see a mountain, but high yogis see a mandala. The whole mountain is a very, very holy place, and that is why people go around the bottom of the mountain. It is so precious.

THE BENEFITS OF CIRCUMAMBULATING STUPAS

There are extensive teachings on the benefits of circumambulations, taught by Buddha to his disciple Sharipu. Before circumambulating, read it out to everyone, then other groups can hear it too.

Stupas are the main holy objects in relation to which sentient beings accumulate merit. The sutra teaching Circumambulating the Stupa says, “By circumambulating stupas, one avoids being born in the naraks, as a preta, an animal, a barbarian, a long-life god, a heretic, a fool, or in a place where Buddha has not descended. One receives a deva or human body, and one has a long life. One is not harmed by pretas, cannibals or other creatures. For hundreds of eons, one is not born blind or crippled with arthritis. By circumambulating stupas, one receives perfect power and perseverance; because there is no laziness, one is able to develop the mind quickly. One receives the six clairvoyances. One also becomes an arhat, having abandoned all delusion and possessing great psychic power. Finally, one achieves the golden holy body of Buddha, adorned with the holy signs."

Many other benefits are mentioned in The Sutra of the Compassionate-eyed One and Advice to King Sengyal, which says, “If a person circumambulates a stupa or statue of Buddha with devotion, in his future lives his enemies will respect and surrender to him. He will become a person of quality, respected by and pleasing to other people. The temporal and ultimate benefits are infinite. Circumambulating is the supreme method to purify obscurations and close the door to the lower realms.” This text also adds, “Any being who does one circumambulation of or one prostration to a stupa is liberated completely from the karma to be born in any of the levels of hell. One becomes a non-returner, and achieves highest enlightenment.”

I’m sure you have often heard the story of Jinpa Pelgye, who became a monk because of circumambulating as a fly. Jinpa Pelgye was more than eighty years old when he decided he wanted to become a monk. His family had annoyed him by making fun of him, so he decided to join a monastery. He went to a monastery but was not accepted by the abbot, the arhat Shariputra, who said to him, “There are many things to memorize, and you are too old to do this. Besides, you don't have the karma to become a monk.”

Jinpa Pelgye was very upset. Returning from the monastery, he went into a park and cried and cried. Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, whose holy mind is constantly observing sentient beings, immediately used his psychic power to appear there in the park. Buddha asked the old man, “What's wrong with you? What's happened to you?” Jinpa Pelgye explained everything, and Buddha then said, “Unlike Shariputra, I have completed the merits of both method and wisdom. I can see that you do have the karma to become a monk.”

Jinpa Pelgye was given into the care of Maudgalyayana, one of Shakyamuni Buddha’s disciples, who had highly-developed psychic powers. But again, the young monks in the monastery made fun of the old man. Jinpa Pelgye got completely fed up. One day, without telling his teacher, he left the monastery to go to jump into the river. After praying, “Since I can't live in a monastery in this life, may I be able to live in a monastery from a very young age in my next life,” the old man jumped into the river.

With his psychic powers, Maudgalyayana checked where the old man had gone. Seeing that Jinpa Pelgye had jumped into the river, Maudgalyayana immediately appeared on the river bank and grabbed him out of the water. The old man was so shocked and embarrassed that for a while he couldn’t even speak. Then he explained everything to his teacher, who said his behavior was due to not having generated renunciation of samsara.

Maudgalyayana then asked Jinpa Pelgye to hold onto a corner of his robe. Together they flew up into space and over an ocean in which there was a huge mountain of bones. They landed on the mountain and the old man asked, "What is this?" Maudgalyayana replied, "These are the bones of one of the largest animals living in this ocean; this is one of your previous incarnations." Suddenly Jinpa Pelgye's hair stood on end, and he generated renunciation of samsara. Even though he only began his Dharma practice after he was eighty years of age, in that life he became an arhat.

Buddha explained that Jinpa Pelgye had the karma to actualize the path through becoming a monk and an arhat because long ago in one of his previous lives he had been a fly that followed the smell of dung around a stupa. By following the odor of the dung, the fly circumambulated a holy object. In other words, even when there is no virtuous motivation, any circumambulation of a holy object becomes a virtuous action because of the power of the holy object. It is useful to remember that a stupa has this power.

Wind that has touched a stupa purifies sentient beings

A stupa filled with the four powerful mantras called the relics of dharmakaya is very powerful. The wind that touches such a stupa and then touches animals or human beings purifies their negative karma to be born in the lower realms. If the dust from a stupa touches sentient beings, it purifies them. Circumambulating holy objects purifies broken pratimoksha vows, the five uninterrupted negative karmas, and all the karmas to be born in the naraks.

Circumambulating with devotion

Circumambulating is a very powerful practice. The very root of the practice is to circumambulate with strong devotion and with an undistracted mind. Since we need to accumulate extensive merit in order to generate realizations and achieve enlightenment quickly, we should attempt to circumambulate as perfectly as possible.

In India there were great siddhas who achieved realizations by circumambulating temples. Lama Atisha and the Kadampa geshes did many circumambulations of stupas.

Once when Lama Atisha was circumambulating, Dromtönpa asked him, “Why don't you relax? Why not practice virtue while sitting? Why are you doing this ordinary practice of circumambulating?” Lama Atisha replied, “You don't understand. A circumambulation contains all three actions of body, speech and mind. If you just sit and meditate, you have only the one action of the mind meditating, with no virtuous actions of body or speech. In terms of creating virtue, there is no greater merit than that from circumambulating.”

Circumambulating with body, speech and mind

Circumambulations should be done with body, speech and mind. If your mind is distracted and you are gossiping while you are circumambulating, there is no great benefit.

Mental circumambulation involves generating devotion by thinking again and again of the qualities of the object you are circumambulating, of the qualities of the Guru-Buddha. Speech circumambulation involves reciting mantras and praises over and over again. Of the three types of circumambulation, the most important is the mental circumambulation, having devotion in the mind. It is the same with prostrations.

Circumambulating to cure illness

I think it would be very beneficial for anyone with a disease that is difficult to cure or incurable, such as AIDS or cancer, to circumambulate a stupa several hundred times a day. This is my personal suggestion. Since depending on these holy objects purifies the cause of the disease, it has to have an effect on the disease.

THE BENEFITS OF MAKING PROSTRATIONS

By doing prostrations, you receive the qualities of the holy body, holy speech and holy mind of Buddha, and you purify obscurations. You should have a Western business approach to any Dharma practice; trying to get the most profit in the shortest time.

Simply putting your hands together at the heart is a prostration. As explained in the sutras, making this simple prostration to a holy object has eight benefits:

1. In future lives you will receive a good body with perfect shape, organs and senses.
2. You will receive perfect conditions so that your practice and wishes are fulfilled, and you can work for the teachings and sentient beings.
3. You will be able to live in morality. (Without morality there is no happiness in future lives, liberation or enlightenment.)
4. You will have devotion. (Without devotion there are no realizations.)
5. You will have a brave mind. (Without a brave mind you cannot continue to practice Dharma or do extensive bodhisattva works for the teachings and sentient beings.)
6. You will be born as a deva or human being.
7. You will achieve the aryan path.
8. You will achieve enlightenment.

When we go inside temples, it is important to remember that a simple prostration to even one Buddha statue has these eight benefits. In one temple there may be hundreds of statues and paintings of Buddha, so prostrating like this to all of them as we look at them is unbelievably beneficial. In addition to the merit we create from circumambulating as we walk around temples or stupas, it is good to use our hands to accumulate merit. Since there is so much merit from prostrating to one holy object, this is such an easy way to accumulate extensive merit.

All holy objects are the Buddha

It is said that holy objects are transformations of Buddha. Even though we don't have the karma to see the actual living Buddha, by manifesting statues, stupas, scriptures and all the other holy objects, Buddha allows us to accumulate merit. Some sentient beings can see these transformations of the Buddha, some cannot. In Tibet there have been people who have not been able to see the Guru Shakyamuni Buddha statue in the Jokhang temple. To them, the temple was completely dark; they couldn't see anything. One person with this problem, after doing much purification, could see the light of the butter lamps, but still could not see the statue. Another person saw big piles of dried meat on the thrones instead of the statues. It does not necessarily follow that everybody can see the statues just because the statues are there. It has to do with the level of the mind.

The teachings say that animals cannot see holy objects. At Kopan, I lift the dogs up to try to get them to look at the thangkas, but I feel they don't see the same thing we see. 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. That we have the karma to see holy objects is unbelievable, and gives us an incredible opportunity to accumulate merit. Use all the holy objects you can see—all the pictures of deities in your room—to accumulate merit. They exist for that reason.

The power of offering to holy objects

Having the karma to see holy objects such as statues and stupas is extremely fortunate because those who have the karma to see these transformations can accumulate much merit. 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 a few coins to Buddha. Even though their offering is small, because of the power of the holy object of Buddha, all these actions of offering become the cause of enlightenment. This is one of Buddha's many skillful ways of guiding suffering sentient beings according to their karma.

Another ten benefits of prostrations are mentioned:

1. You will achieve a perfect golden body like Guru Shakyamuni Buddha.
2. You will be extremely beautiful.
3. You will have an enchanting voice.
4. Without fear or shyness, you will be at ease amongst holy beings and other people.
5. You will make devas and humans happy.
6. You will become magnificent.
7. You will be able to be with Guru Shakyamuni Buddha and his disciples, the bodhisattvas and arhats.
8. You will have great wealth.
9. You will be born in higher realms.
10. You will quickly achieve enlightenment.

When doing a full-length prostration, which is according the tradition of the great pandit-yogi, Naropa, you should not lie on the floor for very long. In some traditions, the palms of the hands are held upwards in the prostration. The main point of the prostration is not so much the form but that it should be done in a respectful manner. Then it becomes good karma. Doing prostrations disrespectfully is negative karma. There will be no confusion about different styles of prostration if you understand that the main point is to do the prostration respectfully. The way the prostration is done is more important than the number of prostrations. It is the same with mandala offerings; it is better to offer mandalas well than to offer them quickly. If you do just one prostration properly, unbelievable merit is accumulated.

How to accumulate the most merit

To accumulate the most merit with prostrations, there are two important points to remember.

1. Visualize as many bodies prostrating as possible, either in human form or in the form of a deity. As you lie down, think that the whole earth in all directions is covered with your body doing prostrations to the stupa or altar. The lam-rim teachings say that even if you cannot prostrate physically because there is something wrong with your limbs or you don't even have limbs, if you visualize your body doing prostrations, you receive the same merit. 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.

The Lankara Sutra and other sutras mention that the number of atoms our body covers from the surface down through the earth to the other side, is equal to the number of rebirths we will take as a wheel-turning king. In his lam-rim teachings, Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo says that we have to accumulate inconceivable merit to be born even once as a wheel-turning king. It's not that the only result of doing prostrations is to be born again and again as a wheel-turning king; Buddha mentions the wheel-turning king to give some idea of the inconceivable merit accumulated by doing one prostration.

There is an uncountable number of atoms from here down to the other side of the earth, and one prostration creates the cause for this number of rebirths as a wheel-turning king. His Holiness Serkong Rinpoche said that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a wheel-turning king, however, I'm not sure if all wheel-turning kings are bodhisattvas. With the power and wealth of a wheel-turning king, one can benefit others immensely by engaging in many Dharma activities.

The merit we accumulate by doing one prostration is beyond our conception. The result, all the temporal happiness up to enlightenment, is beyond the grasp of our mind. Remember that karma is expandable. From a small virtuous action, we can experience many results of happiness for many hundreds of lifetimes. In the same way, because karma is expandable, from even a small non-virtuous action, we can experience many different suffering results in one life and for many lifetimes. If we cannot comprehend the cause, there is no way that we can comprehend the result.

Since there is a difference in merit between doing prostrations on a bed and on the floor, it seems there would be much more merit in doing prostrations on the highest possible mountain. Perhaps we should strap a prostration board to the roof of our car and head for Mount Everest!

2. The second important point is to remember to see the holy object, whether it is a stupa or a statue, as the guru. Do not miss this point. If there is an altar in your house, think that all the pictures of buddha on your altar are the guru. Because the guru is the highest, most powerful object, the most merit comes from prostrating to the guru. Every time we make offerings, every time we prostrate, this is the essential thing to remember. With this awareness your action is the most profitable, accumulating the most extensive merit. The guru, all the buddhas and bodhisattvas, all the 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, all the buddhas and bodhisattvas, of all ten directions. Prostrate to all the holy objects—statues, stupas, scriptures—in Tibet, India, Nepal. This creates more merit, so you are doing prostrations wisely.

When doing prostrations, as with circumambulations, after each prostration dedicate the merit for all sentient beings, especially the narak beings, then the preta beings, animals and so forth.

Practice guru devotion while prostrating

Sometimes combine the prostrations with meditation on guru devotion, thinking of the guru as Buddha, or sometimes think about the kindness of sentient beings and how much they are suffering. In this way, prostrations become your lam-rim meditation, and inspire you to practice more and more. Otherwise, after some time as you become more and more exhausted, you may feel discouraged and think, "What am I doing here? Am I wasting my time?"

Everything can be purified

No matter what vow is broken—tantric root vows, bodhisattva or pratimoksha vows—no matter what negative karma is created, everything can be purified.

The Thirty-five Buddhas

Out of kindness, Buddha revealed different purification methods, such as reciting the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas. Reciting each of these buddha’s names one time purifies many eons of negative karma. For example, reciting the first buddha’s name purifies 80,000 eons of negative karma.

Each buddha, each manifestation of Shakyamuni Buddha, purifies a particular negative karma. When each of the Thirty-five Buddhas generated bodhicitta while following the path, he was motivated to benefit sentient beings by purifying particular negative karmas. Reciting the name of the last buddha purifies negative karma in relationship to the guru. Another of the Thirty-five Buddhas purifies wrong rejoicing.

Wrong rejoicing is feeling happy when someone harms your enemy or a person you don't like, or your enemy gets into trouble or has something bad happen to him. It is also wrong to rejoice when other beings create negative karma.

Depending on what it is you rejoice in, wrong rejoicing can be very heavy negative karma. For example, one million Chinese may be killed and, out of hatred, you feel happy and rejoice. Even though you weren't involved in the fighting, even though you were in your shrine room, while you were sitting there on your meditation cushion, you created very heavy negative karma. By practicing wrong rejoicing, you created the heavy karma of having killed one million people. Even though you did not actually hold a gun, you created that heavy negative karma while sitting on your meditation cushion. If you haven't received many teachings and don't know about the different non-virtuous actions, you are in danger of creating very heavy karma.

We don't hear about Lama Tsongkhapa doing many prostrations to Vajrasattva, but his life story talks very much about his practice of prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas. Lama Tsongkhapa did many, many prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas. Each day before going to bed he recited the prayer, The Confession of Downfalls, thirty-five times. This practice makes the mind very comfortable. In a lam-rim teaching, Kachen Yeshe Gyaltsen says that a fully ordained monk can remain a very pure monk by practicing in this way.

I wrote to Denma Lochö Rinpoche asking him why Lama Tsongkhapa practiced prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas rather than to Vajrasattva. Rinpoche answered that by reciting The Confession of Downfalls well just once—which means with the remedy of the four powers and meditating on the meaning of the prayer—even the five uninterrupted negative karmas can be purified.

These five heavy karmas—killing one's father, one's mother, or an arhat, causing blood to flow from a buddha, and causing disunity among the Sangha—are called uninterrupted because immediately after death they result in rebirth in the naraks. With other karmas we may not necessarily go immediately to the naraks; there may be an interruption, with the experience of the result of another karma before experiencing the result of that particular negative karma. But with these five heaviest karmas, straight after death we have to experience rebirth in the naraks. These are not just heavy negative karmas, but uninterrupted negative karmas. Uninterrupted has meaning.

However, even these uninterrupted negative karmas can be purified by doing the practice of The Confession of Downfalls one time. This is the special reason that Lama Tsongkhapa did this practice. If we cannot do prostrations, even reciting the name of each buddha thirty-five times daily, as Lama Tsongkhapa did, is very good.

Recite the practice quickly

While doing prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas, instead of saying the name very slowly, it is more profitable to recite the name as many times as possible while doing the prostration to that particular buddha. During that one prostration, so many eons of negative karma are purified. If there is some special reason, for example, so that a group of people can repeat the names together, you can say the names slowly; otherwise, say them quickly.

No matter how much heavy negative karma we have accumulated, Buddha has revealed methods to purify it. Through the kindness of Buddha, we have these opportunities to practice purification. Buddha is more to us than a father. A child trusts his father with his life, so whatever suffering or happiness happens, a child's whole life is in the hands of his father; he relies totally upon his father. Buddha is the one we can trust with our whole life. Buddha reveals the methods to eliminate all our problems—our suffering, the true cause of suffering, the two obscurations—and leads us to temporal and ultimate happiness. Buddha guides us from happiness to happiness, up to the peerless happiness of full enlightenment. For sentient beings, Buddha is the only refuge.

THE PRACTICE OF CIRCUMAMBULATION

Normally, when I circumambulate at Boudhanath or Swayambhunath, I buy one or two kilos of rice and I give everybody some, for making offerings as we circumambulate.

First, generate a strong motivation of bodhicitta. Think, “The purpose of my life is to free all sentient beings from suffering and its causes and bring them to full enlightenment. Therefore, I must achieve enlightenment, therefore I need to collect merit; therefore I am going to make offerings and circumambulate.”

Visualize many of your bodies circumambulating

As with prostrations, when you circumambulate, think that you have manifested numberless bodies, either all your past lives in human form, or in the form of a deity. You can also think that you are leading all sentient beings in the circumambulation.

Multiply the merit of circumambulation

To multiply the merit of each circumambulation (or prostration) a thousand times, first recite once:

CHOM DÄN DÄ DE ZHIN SHEG PA DRA CHOM PA YANG DAG PAR DZOG PÄI SANG GYÄ RIN CHHEN GYÄL TSHÄN LA CHHAG TSHÄL LO

Then recite seven times:

NAMO RATNA TRAYAYA OM NAMO BHAGAVATE RATNA KETU RAJAYA / TATHAGATAYA / ARHATE SAMYAK SAMBUDDHAYA /TADYATHA /OM RATNE RATNE MAHA RATNE RATNA BIJA YE SVAHA

Seeing the stupa as your root guru

You can visualize the stupa (as in the guru-yoga meditation) as your root guru and all the buddhas, Dharma and Sangha, as well as all the ten directions’ statues, stupas, scriptures and all the holy objects.

Or you can visualize the stupa as a deity, and absorb all the buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions into it. Remember that the guru encompasses all the buddhas, Dharma and Sangha. Visualize Chenrezig, Vajrasattva, Namgyalma or any deity that you wish, and recite the mantra of that deity. As you recite the mantra, nectar beams are emitted, completely illuminating you and all the other sentient beings.

Think that the holy object you are circumambulating becomes empty. Remember that the absolute nature of this holy object is the absolute nature of all holy objects everywhere.

If there is no holy object to circumambulate, visualize a yellow syllable BHRUM, which transforms into an extensive wish-granting tree in which all the refuge objects abide. Even when you are not in Lhasa, Dharamsala or Nepal, think that you are circumambulating all the holy objects of the ten directions. With this visualization, which is mentioned in lam-rim teachings, you receive the incredible benefit of circumambulating all these holy objects.

Offering skies of diamonds

As you circumambulate, offer rice to the stupa, thinking that it is whole skies of wish-granting jewels or diamonds, like rainfall spilling onto the stupa. Offer it respectfully, throwing the rice up, not down.

For the first circumambulation, think, "I'm going to circumambulate for all sentient beings, particularly for all the narak beings." When you have completed one circumambulation, think that you have purified all the negativities and obscurations of yourself and all other sentient beings.

For the second circumambulation, think of the sufferings of the preta beings and do the circumambulation for them. Doing your practice for others in this way means it is unstained by self-cherishing thought.

When going around stupas, you can also recite the Vajrasattva mantra, Praise to Buddha, Praise to Chenrezig, Tara or Buddha’s mantra, thus purifying and making your body, speech and mind meaningful.

Dedicate the merits of circumambulating the stupa

When you have finished the circumambulations, do the dedications well. As in the practice of tong-len, give the merit you have accumulated to all the other sentient beings, especially the narak beings, who have the greatest suffering. Give all the good results, up to enlightenment, to everyone else; this becomes the cause for them to actualize the path and achieve enlightenment.

As a result of the three-times’ merits of myself and others, may bodhicitta—from which the happiness of all sentient beings comes—
Be generated in the minds of self and other sentient beings
Without delay, even for one second.
And that which has been generated, may it increase.

MAKING PRAYERS AND OFFERINGS AT HOLY PLACES

At Boudha, you can go above the stupa, the first level, then do the preliminary practices.

At every holy place you should make offerings. Offer butter lamps or candles, incense and flowers. Offer one hundred thousand, or whatever you can. There should always be offerings. First light the candles [and make the other offerings]. Everybody should recite OM AH HUM to bless them.

Prostrations

Recite Prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas three times, depending on time, and the prayer at the end just once.

Seven Limb Practice

You can sit down for the rest of the prayers, starting with the seven limbs. At the offering part, if you have time, do the Extensive Offering Practice. Before making offerings, first make charity of the offerings to every hell being, every hungry ghost, every animal, every human being, every asura and sura, and every intermediate state being. Then do the offering practice to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, making offerings on behalf of all sentient beings, so they all get the merit. Doing it on their behalf is very important. It is like making puja for all sentient beings.

In the Extensive Offering prayer, repeat the last prayer over and over again while you do meditation.

When you continue the seven limb prayer, stop for two or three minutes at the rejoicing section, and rejoice in your own and others’ three-times’ merits, including the bodhisattvas and buddhas.

Mandala and Three Great Purposes

After the seven limb practice, do a mandala offering, short or long, and at the end of that make some requests, such as the Three Great Purposes or for the long life of the gurus:

I prostrate and go for refuge to the guru and the three precious gems:
Please bless my mind.
Please bless me and all sentient beings, my mothers, to stop all wrong views
From disrespect to our virtuous friends up to the subtle dualistic view.
Please bless us to easily develop every realization
From guru devotion up to the path of no more learning and to pacify all outer and inner obstacles. (3x)

Lam-rim prayer

Recite one of the lam-rim prayers slowly, doing a direct meditation on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Foundation of All Good Qualities, the Three Principal Aspects of the Path, or the Songs of Experience.

Then chant Guru Shakyamuni’s mantra:

TADYATHA OM MUNÉ MUNÉ MAHAMUNAYÉ SOHA

Dedication prayers

Finish with the dedication prayers. There are various dedication prayers; it’s important to do at least five of those prayers each time. It’s your choice to do others.

As a result of the three-times’ merits of myself and others,
May bodhicitta, from which the happiness of all sentient beings comes,
Be generated in the minds of myself and other sentient beings without delay, even for one second.
And that which has been generated, may it increase.

As a result of the three-times’ merits of myself and others,
May emptiness be generated in the minds of self and other sentient beings, without delay, even for one second.
And that which has been generated, may it increase.

As a result of the three-times’ merits of myself and others, which are empty from their own side,
May I, who am empty from my own side,
Achieve Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment [or Tara’s or Chenrezig’s or whichever buddha one is praying to], 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,
As quickly as possible, by myself, alone.

Meditate very intensely and precisely. Dedicate in emptiness, then when your mind is in that state, labeling the three-times’ merits of myself and others, think, “May I achieve Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment and may I lead all sentient beings to that enlightenment by myself, alone.” In this way you can see that it is just mere imputation; that the three-times’ merits, enlightenment, I, are empty of existing from their own side. Everything appears to you as mere imputation; your dedication is mere imputation. It’s not completely non-existent, but like non-existent. If that kind of idea comes, it is extremely good, correct.

Whatever dedication the Victorious Ones Gone to Bliss
Of the three times have admired as best,
I shall also perfectly dedicate in the same way all these roots of virtue
So that I may perform good works.

This contains the extensive dedication prayer of the bodhisattvas, The King of Prayers, the prayer of the bodhisattva’s holy deeds; it’s a condensed version. That prayer contains numberless hundred thousand bodhisattvas’ prayers. Then after that, recite the prayer for meeting Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings.

Because of the past, present, and future merit created by me and by the buddhas, Bodhisattvas and sentient beings,
May I, my family, students, and all sentient beings
Be able to actualize completely in this very lifetime
Lama Tsongkhapa’s path of unified sutra and tantra,
Which is pure like refined gold.
May this pure teaching of Lama Tsongkhapa
Spread in all directions and flourish forever.

Final Lam-rim Prayer

If there is time, do the Final Lam-rim Prayers. During this recitation, you can stop for fifteen minutes or so and meditate on bodhicitta or emptiness.

Finally, recite the prayers for the longlives of the gurus and of His Holiness, for all his holy wishes to be successful. At that time, give all the merits of your practice—past, present and future, up to enlightenment —give all your merit to sentient beings. Then after that, think precisely about every hell being, every hungry ghost, every sura, asura, etc.

You can also give your body as a wish-fulfilling jewel to all sentient beings—to pretas, hell beings, etc. You can make charity of all your possessions to every hell being, every hungry ghost, every animal, every asura, sura, and the rest of sentient beings.

Then think that all their places, such as the hot hells, become pure lands of the Buddha, Vajrayogini, Amitabha, Shambhala, etc, mainly depending on which pure land you are praying to be born into. This is a pure land where there is no sickness, no poverty, no suffering, no old age, suffering or rebirth.

Then think that they all receive enlightenment, or whatever they want, whatever they need—a guru or teachings, even if they’re not aware that they need them —they receive everything. This causes them to actualize the path of method and wisdom in their minds. Their minds become the dharmakaya, and their bodies become the rupakaya of Shakyamuni Buddha or Chenrezig or whichever buddha’s pure land you visualize.

This practice of giving your merit and its result, happiness, is according to His Holiness Serkong Rinpoche’s advice. It is very good at the end of a practice to do this.

Increasing the merit

Finally, recite the mantras to increase the merit 100,000 times, and recite Buddha’s name, which makes all the prayers to succeed.

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 (3x)

JANG CHHUB SEM PA SEM PA CHHEN PO KÜN TU ZANG PO LA CHHAG TSHÄL LO (3x)

TADYATHA OM PÄNCHA GRIYA AVA BODHANI SVAHA (7x)

OM DHURU DHURU JAYA MUKHE SVAHA (7x)

CHOM DÄN DÄ DE ZHIN SHEG PA DRA CHOM PA YANG DAG PAR DZOG PÄI SANG GYÄ NGÖ WA DANG MÖN LAM THAM CHÄ [RAB TU DU PÄ] GYÄL PO LA CHHAG TSHÄL LO

Due to the blessing of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, the unbetrayable dependent arising and my special attitude, may all my pure prayers succeed immediately.

Basically, this is the way to practice in any holy place you go to, except where there is no place to do prostrations.

ADDITIONAL PRACTICES AT OTHER HOLY PLACES

At Swayambhunath, recite Manjughosha’s prayer. After doing the prostrations and offerings, recite a lam-rim prayer—the Three Principal Aspects of the Path or the lam-rim prayer from Lama Chöpa, which has both sutra and tantra. This plants the seed for the whole path to enlightenment, so it’s very, very good.

Sometimes it is good to do just one set of prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas, followed by prostrations while reciting the Vajrasattva mantra twenty-one times.

On the way up to the main stupa, there are many other stupas. You can have a few kilos of rice and offer rice to every stupa, thinking that you are offering to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

At Pharping, Khen Rinpoche Lama Lhundrup advised that you can recite the Praises to the Twenty-one Taras and do the self-emanation of Tara.

At the Guru Rinpoche site, you can especially pray for world peace and in the Vajrayogini temple you can offer tsog.

At Lumbini, you could recite the Guru Shakyamuni Buddha puja or the daily meditation practice, then Praise to Buddha. You could also recite one mala of Guru Shakyamuni’s name mantra.

TADYATHA OM MUNÉ MUNÉ MAHAMUNAYÉ SOHA

At Kushinagar, where Buddha passed away, there is a place where Buddha’s body was offered to the fire, a very beautiful place. Here you can recite Lama Tsongkhapa’s In Praise of Dependent Arising. You can also meditate on impermanence, which was Buddha’s last teaching, to break the concept of permanence.

Then, after everything else, read Pabongka Rinpoche’s Heart Spoon. Read it very slowly and meditate on impermanence.

It was here that one woman asked Ananda if she could be ordained.

At Nalanda Monastery, you can also recite Songs of Experience, and make strong prayers to become like Lama Atisha and the great pandits, to be able to benefit all sentient beings.

At Rajgir, again, do the same practices, but here, first chant Shakyamuni Buddha’s mantra,

TADYATHA OM MUNÉ MUNÉ MAHAMUNAYÉ SOHA

Then recite the Heart Sutra very slowly, so that you can meditate on the meaning.

At Deer Park, do all the same practices, but here emphasize the four noble truths. Meditate on the twelve links, then the suffering of each realm and the general sufferings of samsara, then the conclusion, the cessation of suffering; that suffering can cease because the path exists. Meditate on the three higher trainings, morality, concentration and great insight, and the benefits of morality. Then meditate on emptiness as the solution or the means to be free of the oceans of suffering and its causes. Come to the conclusion that this is what needs to be practiced to get out of samsara. There is a stupa there. If you are staying one or two days, go to the grounds to meditate on the lam-rim.

At Bodhgaya do the same practices. Inside the temple, recite the daily meditation practice and you could also recite Praise to Buddha in the temple, in front of the Buddha. It’s very good to recite the King of Prayers under the bodhi tree.

At the end of the chöd practice there is a special prayer, “May I be able to follow the path like this bodhisattva; may I do like that also.” That is very good. You must take the chöd text.

It’s also very good to recite Buddha’s life story from that text in some of the places, especially under the bodhi tree. It inspires us to be like Buddha and follow the path to enlightenment.

You could also do Lama Chöpa and tsog there, in the temple or under the tree.

It is also very good to do Chenrezig practice and to recite Khunu Lama’s The Jewel Lamp: A Praise of Bodhicitta [Tib: byang chub sems kyi bstod pa rin chen sgron ma]1 or read all the benefits of bodhicitta from the Bodhicaryavatara, if you have more time; you could do that in another session or you could begin this at another holy place. You must have Khunu Lama’s text.

There is a beautiful place, Sravasti, where Buddha lived for 24 or 25 years. This is a very important place. There is a very large monastery there where many of the Buddha’s teachings were given. It’s an extremely beautiful place. Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche said that it is so calming for the mind. Many people have told me that. This is the place where he wanted to do retreat, and where he first met His Holiness the Dalai Lama in India. One lama from the Tibetan monastery in Sarnath had lung but after he spent one week there, he was so relaxed. I sent one student Stefano there; at every other place it was much effort for him to meditate, but at this place, meditation just came. I thought to build seven retreat rooms there, but it’s difficult to find people for that.

In this way, everyone makes their life most productive and comes much closer to enlightenment.

Notes 

1 Vast as the Heavens, Deep as the Sea, by Khunu Rinpoche Tenzin Gyaltsen, translated by Gareth Sparham, Wisdom Publications. [Return to text]