In The Hymns of Experience of the Graduated Path to Enlightenment, Lama Tsongkhapa explained his own experience of the path to enlightenment. He put his complete experience of the path into these hymns.
I find this text very effective. You can even use it during retreat. It is a little too long to use at the beginning of every session, but every day you could begin one of the sessions by reading this text as the motivation. The words are unbelievably effective, very powerful and condensed.
Generally, any of Lama Tsongkhapa's teachings of sutra or tantra contain much commentary even in two or three words. Each verse is very rich and very effective for the mind. With a few words, Lama Tsongkhapa gives the very essence of the meditation, the whole depth of the meaning from the bottom. It is not unclear or half done.
Also, consider the working of black and white actions,
Practicing correctly is your own responsibility,
The venerable lama practiced like this,
You who are seeking liberation should do likewise.
Should you not find a suitable rebirth,
It will not be possible to progress along the path;
Cultivate the causes of a perfect rebirth,
Especially appreciate the importance of purifying
The three doors from stains of evil;
Cherish always the practice of the complete four powers.
The venerable lama practiced like this,
You who are seeking liberation should do likewise.
Your mental continuum is obscured by the stains of the negative karma and downfalls of having degenerated moral conduct by breaking the pratimoksha vows, the vows of self-liberation, that you have taken, such as the five precepts, the eight precepts, the 36 precepts, the 253 precepts and the 364 precepts of a full nun. It is also obscured by the downfalls of having taken bodhisattva vows, and broken and degenerated them. And somebody who has taken Maha-anuttara Yoga Tantra initiation receives the root falls of the bodhisattva and tantric vows. For those who have taken vows, and even for those who have not taken any vows—not even one precept—the mental continuum is continuously obscured by the stains of negative karma. Even if there is not such a thing as receiving downfalls, there is negative karma: for example, the ten nonvirtuous actions. The ten nonvirtuous actions are not the only negative karmas, but they are the basic ones.
Besides human beings who are not involved in Dharma practice, even animals and creatures such as ants accumulate negative karma. Their minds are obscured by continuously creating negative karma such as this basic example of the ten nonvirtues. The mind is obscured by the stains of negative karmas done with the body, speech and mind. It is especially important for these beings—and for us—to purify these karmic obscurations. The most important thing for beginners to do to develop their minds and be able to generate realizations of the path to enlightenment within their minds, is to purify. It is extremely important to purify karmic obscurations.
In the first verse, Lama Tsongkhapa is describing the first sentient being, yourself. The second verse contains what should be done if you want to make your life highly meaningful by making progress in the graduated path to enlightenment, year by year, month by month, week by week, even day by day. It explains what you should do to become nearer to enlightenment for the sake of sentient beings. For such a person, what practice is important? It is extremely important to purify; it is especially important to purify karmic obscurations. This is very sensible advice from Lama Tsongkhapa, from his own experience of what he himself did to become enlightened.
What is the block? Why is your mind not developing? Why are you not getting better and better? Over many years you have been listening, reflecting and meditating on the path. You have heard and read many times the most profound secret tantric teachings, especially of Maha-anuttara Yoga Tantra. You have even done some retreat. But your mind is still the same as before. A rock that has been under the ocean for many eons is still hard, with only wetness on the outside, no wetness inside. There is no change - nothing goes inside. Your mind is like this: not having any change, any development, any realizations of the path. Nothing of what is mentioned by Buddha in the texts of sutra and tantra is being actualized in your mind.
This is all because of not having done powerful, continual purification. Your mind is blocked by all these heavy collections of the various negative karmas and root downfalls accumulated with your body, speech and mind in this life, and in beginningless past rebirths. The first thing is not having done perfect, powerful, continual purification. The second thing is not having changed your actions. Particularly those who have taken the three levels of vows, even if you do some purification, you continue to create the negative karmas by receiving the vices or root downfalls of those vows. You continue to obscure your mind. Even if you have done some purification, by not changing your actions, you continually obscure your mind.
This is like an elephant washing. After the elephant has washed, it comes out of the water and rolls in the dust. After becoming covered with dust, it then goes back into the water. Then again it rolls in the dust and gets covered by dust. Like this, the second thing is not having changed your actions in regard to karma, not living purely in the three levels of vows by eliminating the four causes which allow you to receive the root falls. That is why, even though you have done some retreat, some purification, and you think: "I have done this and that", you still do not see much progress in your mind.
Lama Tsongkhapa says in the next verse that you should always cherish the practice of the complete four powers. Not only did you not purify, but you did not try to abstain from negative karma, so continuously your mind gets obscured. Firstly, it is especially important to purify the obscurations. Secondly, you should always cherish practicing the complete four powers. The perfect way to purify karmic obscurations is to do confession perfected in the four powers all the time. You can understand how important this practice is by Lama Tsongkhapa's use of the word "cherish". Lama Tsongkhapa means that you should cherish this practice the way you cherish your passport and money, for example. Because of the great disadvantages of not having your passport and money, and the great advantages of having them, you cherish them and think them to be very important. It is similar with the four powers.
With the first power, the power of putting the blame, you think of the shortcomings of suffering and the suffering results. This is like a person who has eaten poison and is experiencing pain, and is in danger of death. Now, because he realizes the shortcoming of having eaten the poison, he blames the pain and the danger of death on the action of taking the poison. Thinking of all the suffering results of all your negative karmas—"By doing such and such a negative karma, I will experience a suffering result like this"—is one power. By thinking like this, you feel repentance. The person who has taken poison and is getting sick realizes that all the trouble he is experiencing is because of the shortcomings of taking the poison. He feels much repentance that he has eaten the poison, and wishes to be free from that. Similarly, by thinking of all the shortcomings of the negative karmas, you should feel much repentance at having created that negative karma, and wish to be free from that. The translation of nam pa su"n jin pai tob is "the power of putting the blame", but this is sometimes translated as "the power of repentance". The power of putting the blame means you recognize the aspect of that suffering as the shortcoming of that negative karma.
Practicing this power particularly stops the completion of these basic negative karmas of killing, stealing and sexual misconduct. Each complete negative karma has four suffering results. One result is experiencing the suffering of lower rebirth as an animal, preta or narak being. This first power particularly stops the experience of this result. Let us say that you have created these various negative karmas. The length of time you will experience that particular suffering result of rebirth in the lower realms depends on whether you do confession with this power of repentance or not, and how strongly it is done. If this power of repentance is practiced strongly, you do not need to experience those suffering rebirths in the lower realms. You do not need to experience those heavy sufferings.
Saying prayers and reciting mantras, or the holy names of the Thirty-five Buddhas, are like the person who has taken the poison taking the medicine which is the remedy to that poison. This is called the power of the remedy. Nya"n po ku"n cho" kyi tob means "the power of always enjoying" or "the power of always conducting". Perhaps it is like this patient who is in danger of death: he is so happy to take the medicine. Maybe nya"n po ku" cho" kyi tob has a meaning like that: the power of always enjoying the remedy. It could have that meaning. By seeing the benefits, you enjoy doing prostrations, reciting the holy names of the Thirty-five Buddhas and saying mantras. Or it could mean conducting or doing that. Generally, any virtue that you accumulate is this power of the remedy, this power of always enjoying.
By having done negative karmas, even if you are born in the upper realms as a human being or deva, you experience the suffering result of that previous negative karma. This is called "experiencing the result similar to the cause". If you have caused shortage of life to other sentient beings by killing them, after some time when you are born as a human being, other beings cause you shortage of life. When other beings steal your things, cheat you and tell you lies, you are experiencing the result similar to the cause. In the past you have stolen others' belongings, cheated them and told them lies. This power of the remedy particularly stops this experiencing of the result similar to the cause. The suffering results of receiving harm from other beings, and from fire, water, air and earth, are stopped.
This person who has taken the poison, as he has a very strong power of repentance, and realizes all the problems and shortcomings of taking poison, makes a strong determination to never take that poison again. He makes a very strong determination. This is the most important point. If this person did not make the decision to not take the poison again, even if he took all the medicine in a medical store, the problem would continue. If he was not careful in his actions, if he did not stop taking the poison, the problem would go on and on. If he makes this decision from the beginning, immediately after his experience, and stops the action of taking the poison, he does not need to experience all those problems - and does not need to go to the trouble of taking a whole store full of medicine. So it is extremely important that he stops the action of taking the poison.
It is similar with the power of the determination to not commit the negative karma again. This particular power stops the experience of the suffering result of doing the same negative action again, creating the cause for another four suffering results. If you do not apply this power, after some time when you are again born in the realm of the happy migratory being, again you do the actions of killing, stealing, lying and sexual misconduct, which become the cause of another four suffering results. You create the same negative karma, so it goes on and on like this. This is how, if you do not stop the negative karma, you experience the suffering of samsara without end. If you do not do something to change your karma, you will experience suffering without end. The power of making the determination to not create negative karma again particularly stops the experience of these continual suffering results.
The fourth power is the power of the object. That patient who has taken the poison has to rely upon the doctor and the nurse. By relying upon the doctor and nurse, he can recover from his pain and the danger of death. Similarly, you practice relying upon the power of the object by taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. You can regard the realizations of the buddhas as Dharma. The absolute Sangha of Vajrayana and Paramitayana have actualized the absolute Dharma: the wisdom directly perceiving sunyata, and the cessation of suffering.
You develop your mind by doing practices of purification such as reciting the holy names of the Thirty-five Buddhas, and relying upon them. With each of the Thirty-five Buddhas, you can think that their holy body is Sangha, their holy mind is Buddha, their holy speech is Dharma. The first thing is that, by relying upon and taking refuge in the power of the objects of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, you purify. The second thing is that you generate loving kindness, compassion and bodhicitta on the object of the sentient beings. The negative karmas that you have accumulated in relationship to sentient beings is purified by generating loving kindness, compassion and bodhicitta on the object of sentient beings. Particular negative karmas you have accumulated in relationship to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are purified by the practice of taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. If a person falls down on the ground, he stands up by depending on the ground. You create negative karma with sentient beings, so you purify by depending on sentient beings. You create negative karma with the holy objects of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha; by doing the practice of refuge, you purify this. That is the power of the object.
From the four suffering results, the power of the object stops the possessed result similar to the cause, which is to do with the place. Even if you are born in the realms of happy migratory beings, experiencing the possessed result of negative karma means that you are born in an undesirable place, a dirty place where there are a lot of diseases, a lot of problems such as fighting, or a lot of inner dangers. It depends on the type of negative karma you have created. The power of the object particularly stops the possessed result similar to the cause.
Lama Tsongkhapa says to always cherish practicing the complete four powers. This word "cherish" could contain these explanations of how important these four powers are. Like the example of the money and passport without which you cannot travel or do anything, without practicing the four powers, you do not have the freedom for happiness; you cannot do anything. The word "always" means that it is not enough to do this practice for one week, one month, one year. This is not enough. You should do it all the time - every day. If possible you should be like Lama Atisha: whenever you see that you have received a root fall, broken a vow or created negative karma, immediately, without any delay, you should purify it. Without allowing the negative karma to increase, immediately purify it.
The Bodhicaryavatara says to do this prayer, The Bodhisattva's Confession of Moral Downfalls, with recitation of the holy names of the Thirty-five Buddhas, three times in the morning and three times at night. This prayer contains the practice of the four powers. In this way, negative karmas accumulated during the night are purified in the morning; negative karmas accumulated during the day are purified in the evening. By doing this prayer which contains confession with the four powers, these negative karmas are purified so that that do not increase. If that is not possible, at least at the end of the day, you should purify by doing the practice of confession with this method.
Every day, Lama Tsongkhapa, who actualized the graduated path to enlightenment and achieved the fully enlightened state, recited this prayer with prostrations. He did many hundreds of thousands of prostrations. Even in everyday life, Lama Tsongkhapa used to recite this confession prayer to the Thirty-five Buddhas thirty-five times. If you are a monk or a nun, by doing this perfect confession with the Thirty-five Buddhas' prayer at the end of the day like Lama Tsongkhapa, you purify whatever vows you have broken or negative karma you have accumulated in that day. If you are a bhikshu, by doing this perfect confession at the end of every day, you become a pure bhikshu.
The power of repentance comes after reciting the holy names of the Thirty-five Buddhas, but it is good to begin the prostrations with the power of repentance. You can use the generation of a strong power of repentance to lead to a motivation of bodhicitta. Because of strong renunciation and strong compassion for others, strong bodhicitta comes. Besides the inconceivable merit you accumulate by doing prostrations and reciting these holy names of the buddhas, because these are done with bodhicitta, they become very powerful and you accumulate much more merit.
Use the example of three people who have taken poison. One person, by taking the poison, has already died. Another person, by having taken the poison, is experiencing much pain and is near to death. You yourself have taken the poison, but are not yet dead. Relate like this: "Some sentient beings who have created the same negative karmas as I have, have already died and are now experiencing the heaviest sufferings in the lower realms. Some sentient beings who have created this same negative karma are dying now. I have also created this same negative karma; I am also in this group." Think of the person who has already died, and of the one who is dying. When you look around and see the others like this, and you see that you yourself have taken the same poison, it is so unbearable. The same thing that is happening to them is going to happen to you. Relate this to your negative karmas.
"If I die, how will it be to have the body of a suffering migratory being?" Remember the unbearable sufferings of the lower realms: the narak, preta and animal beings. "These are the result of negative karmas created by the unsubdued mind—my unsubdued mind! My taking birth and my suffering in the narak, preta and animal realms come from my actions, which come from my unsubdued mind, my disturbing thoughts of ignorance, anger and attachment." After thinking about the evolution of this suffering, of how it comes from your own mind, then think: "What are my own attitudes like in everyday life?" Having a virtuous mind unstained by ignorance, anger and attachment is very rare. Mostly your mind is stained by disturbing thoughts and nonvirtue. One after another, your mind is overwhelmed by different delusions. One after another. It is so difficult and so rare for a virtuous thought unstained by the disturbing thoughts to arise.
Accumulating virtue is like rolling a huge rock to the top of a hill. Creating negative karma with your body, speech and mind is so easy; it happens uncontrollably, like the rock falling down from the top of the mountain. Or like a waterfall coming down a mountain. Negative karma and disturbing thoughts arise so much and so strongly; they happen uncontrollably. Remember these verses from Bodhicaryavatara: "The negative karma accumulated in one second causes me to abide in the unbearable suffering state of the naraks for eons. Needless to say that I will not be reborn in the realm of the happy migratory beings." This refers to the result of rising anger for one second to a bodhisattva, if you yourself are not a bodhisattva. Starting from the object of a bodhisattva up to the guru, the result worsens. Thinking of these verses, remember how many times you have got angry to a holy being, someone you know is a holy being, or someone you do not recognize as a bodhisattva. Remember how many times you have got angry, in this life and in other lifetimes.
Also remember this verse from Bodhicaryavatara: "With behavior such as this, I won't even achieve a human body. There will be no virtue, only nonvirtue. If I don't accumulate virtue when I have the freedom and opportunity to do so, but accumulate negative karma, for hundreds of eons I won't even hear the sound of happy migratory beings." This is saying that for many eons you will not even hear a human voice, like creatures born on the bottom of the ocean, or under the earth. For so many hundreds of eons, so many millions of eons, the suffering beings born in those places cannot even hear a human voice. "With behavior such as this, I won't even achieve a human rebirth" means that you should remember your behavior. Mostly, your mind is overwhelmed by attachment, by worldly concern clinging to this life. Actions done out of that become non-virtue. Also remember your anger and heresy.
Those who have taken vows are constantly creating negative karma by constantly breaking the branch vows, and also the root vows. Remember that degenerating the branches of the tantric vows is 100,000 times greater than breaking a root bodhisattva vow. Remember these things, and then think: "With behavior such as this, I won't even achieve a human rebirth. If I am reborn in the lower realms, there will be no virtue, only negative karma. It will be impossible to work for the benefit of other sentient beings, if even I myself have no opportunity to practice Dharma. Even if I am reborn in the realm of the happy migratory beings, since I will still be completely under the control of karma and disturbing thoughts, this will be only in the nature of suffering."
"Cherishing myself is the source of all my sufferings and all my failures. Cherishing others is the source of all happiness and all desirable things. Therefore I renounce my I forever, and will cherish others forever. This is what I should do. My responsibility should be to free sentient beings from all their obscurations and sufferings that they do not want, and lead them to the peerless happiness they need." At this time, remember the sufferings of sentient beings in the lower realms, and of those who are devas and human beings. Again look at their sufferings while you are generating bodhicitta. "To do that I must generate the path to enlightenment; I must achieve the state of omniscient mind. To purify the obstacles to this, I am going to do prostrations with the practice of confession by reciting the holy names of the Thirty-five Buddhas."
Even though you may feel upset and repentant thinking about how you have lived your life creating so much negative karma, you should feel great happiness when you think that there is such an extraordinary method of purification. "I have the opportunity to purify so that I don't have to experience this negative karma at all. I am very fortunate. I should not waste my time; I should not waste my life. I must take this opportunity....".