His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Vajrasattva Practice

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: “Each one of us wants only happiness and does not want suffering”.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: “Each one of us wants only happiness and does not want suffering”.

Vajrasattva Practice

By His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Labsum Shedrub Ling, Washington, New Jersey (Last Updated Nov 8, 2012). A commentary on Vajrasattva practice by His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Labsum Shedrub Ling, Washington, New Jersey, on September 23, 1984. Lightly edited from an unchecked manuscript by Sandra Smith, November 2012.

Brothers and sisters, I am really happy once again to be in this place. As soon as I entered to this place yesterday it reminded me very clearly of my old friend [Geshe Ngawang Wangyal], so naturally I feel some sadness. However, as Buddhists we believe that if we committed good deeds in our life it will bring good results in the future, so there is no reason to worry. The final thing I felt very happy about when I found this place where our old friend passed away, is that his spirit is still living; it is kept alive by his followers and old friends, who are really determined to keep his words and wishes. I am really happy to see that, so thank you.

Today I am going to teach the meditation and recitation of Vajrasattva. For that, first we will recite the Heart Sutra and then we will offer the mandala. After that, I will give a general Buddhist teaching explaining Vajrasattva practice. It is quite hot today, so if you have an umbrella or hat, please use it. Please listen in a relaxed way, as if you have come to a picnic.

[Recitation of the Heart Sutra and offering of the mandala.]

First of all we will recite the refuge formula and the formula for the generation of the altruistic intention to become enlightened three times.

[Recitation of the refuge  and bodhicitta prayers, three times.]

Many days have passed since we met last time. During that period, many things have happened and in fact we can see that things are always changing. Buddha said: “Those things which are composed are impermanent in nature, and are changing all the time.” So, past things remain only as memories. From the Buddhist viewpoint, in the past the thing which you…it’s better if I speak in Tibetan, because my English is so imperfect.

Those things which occurred in the past are only like a memory now, much like objects in a dream. However, the Buddhist texts say: “Actions done in the past establish predispositions or potencies in the mind capable of issuing forth effects in the future.” In the past we did certain actions that have already passed away, however, the predispositions or potencies established by those actions are fresh in our mind, ready to issue forth effects in the future.

Now basically each one of us wants only happiness and does not want suffering, and we make great exertion to achieve that happiness and get rid of that suffering, in accordance with our own estimation of the best techniques for achieving that. The techniques which are widely known in the world to bring about happiness and get rid of suffering are to try to accumulate money, friends and great fame. However, there is another technique which cannot be seen by the eyes, but which is a means of achieving happiness and getting rid of suffering—Dharma practice. There are similar techniques for improving the mind, for teaching patience, for making us into better people, but what I am going to be speaking about today is the Buddhist religion and within Buddhism, among the division into Small and Great Vehicles, and among the division into the four philosophical tenets, what I am going to explain here today is the Great Vehicle. The philosophical view will be mainly explained from the point of view of the Middle Way school.

The Great Vehicle itself has a greater thought or motivation. Due to that greater thought or motivation it has a greater path, and due to that greater path it has a greater effect. Within the Greater Vehicle there are two different systems, that of sutra and mantra, also known as tantra. There are two systems of the Great Vehicle—the sutra system and the mantra system, but it is not a case that a person who practices the mantra system does not practice the sutra system. The sutra practices are to be taken as common or fundamental practices for both the sutra and mantra systems, so a person who is able to, should practice both the sutra and mantra systems.

What I am going to explain today is within the mantra system. As a basis for practising the mantra vehicle we need to have developed the wish to get out of cyclic existence, to have love and compassion for others and to have some degree of realization of the emptiness of inherent existence. We need some degree of realization of these principals in order to practice mantra and we also need to have an initiation.

The mode or procedure of the mantra path is for the mind to be ripened or matured through initiation, then by keeping the pledges and vows, we sustain our practice and in dependence on that we can bring about the fruits or the effects of the mantra vehicle. Therefore it is necessary to keep the pledges and vows that we have taken in a pure way. One of the methods for this is to know them well and to refrain from engaging in these activities, but with regard to any transgressions which we have already done, there are methods of purification.

What I am explaining today is a technique for purifying negative actions such as the infraction of vows. It is called Vajrasattva meditation and recitation.

As Nagarjuna says in his Sixty Stanzas of Reasoning:

Through this virtue may all beings
Accumulate the collection of all merit and wisdom,
And thereupon obtain the two excellent bodies
Which arise from merit and wisdom.

We need to engage in the practice of merit, in order to attain the two excellent bodies of a buddha. The form body and truth body are attained in dependence upon having completed the two collections of merit and wisdom in a unified way. In order to accumulate the collections of merit and wisdom, it is necessary to know the presentation of the basis or the ground of the two truths, conventional truth and ultimate truth. Having come to know the two truths— conventional truth and ultimate truth—we can engage in the stages of the path that mainly involve conventional truth and the stages of the path that mainly involve ultimate truth, and thereby accumulate these two collections on the path.

In dependence on developing love, compassion, and altruism, we proceed to develop the form body of a buddha. By developing love, compassion and altruism we recognize the limitless number of beings and we develop good wishes for their happiness and freedom from suffering. If we practice on the path in this way, then on the occasion of the fruit of buddhahood, automatically, spontaneously and without effort, we appear in the form body of a buddha in whatever way is appropriate to bring about help for sentient beings. The form bodies are therefore called, “those which are for the sake of others”. The basis on which the form body appears is called the truth body, “that which fulfills one’s own welfare”.

The basis for all of this development is our own mental continuum, and from within the mental continuum, the basis for the development into these marvelous qualities of buddhahood is the most subtle level of consciousness. In some systems this is called the “self-arisen pristine wisdom” and in some it is called “the fundamental innate mind of clear light”. It’s also called the “all good”; it is an “all good” consciousness devoid of any beginning or end. It is not something we need to achieve newly; it is inherently with us. It is called the buddha nature; the nature of “one gone thus.”

So then we ask, if we do have such a wonderful basic consciousness ,what are all of these attitudes of desire and hatred which bring us suffering? These are adventitious. The defilements appear in the mind due to temporary or adventitious causes and conditions, and do not reside in the very nature of the mind, therefore, they can be removed.

To given an example of this, the protector Nagarjuna says in his Praise of the Element of Superior Qualities:

When a metal garment which has become stained with contaminations
And is to be cleansed by fire, is put in fire,
Its stains are burned but it is not.

Applying this to what is exemplified, he then says:

So with regard to the mind of clear light
Which has the stains of desire and so forth,
Its stains are burned by wisdom’s fire
But its nature, clear light, is not.

Therefore the temporary faults can be purified or removed. The direct antidote to removing these defilements is the wisdom realizing the emptiness of inherent existence. In order for that antidotal consciousness realizing emptiness to be powerful, it is necessary for it to be accompanied by a compassionate method. Therefore, it is necessary to generate wisdom accompanied by compassionate method.

In the sutra system, the union of method and wisdom is posited by the compassionate method and the wisdom realizing emptiness as different entities—one assists the other or is influenced by the other. However, in the mantra system, compassionate method and the wisdom realizing emptiness are posited within the entity of one consciousness, not as different consciousnesses with different entities. They are found within one undifferentiable entity that can be conceptually isolated into different factors, but they are of one entity.

Because of this very powerful meditative stabilization, the union of calm abiding of the mind and special insight can be generated. A special form of this can be generated in mantra. The glorious Chandrakirti talks about the need to engage in a path which is the union of compassionate method and wisdom. Chandrakirti says in his Supplement to the Middle Way (Madhyamakavatara):

The king of the swans, with the vast, broad, white wings of the conventional and the ultimate, moving in front of the swans of beings, goes through the force of the winds of virtue to the supreme far shore of the qualities of the conqueror, Buddha.

Therefore, it is necessary to engage in a practice which is the union of compassionate method and wisdom realizing emptiness. Many different paths which are a profound expression of the union of compassionate method and wisdom are set forth in the mantra vehicle itself. In the three lower tantras there are the yogas of paths with signs and the yogas of paths without signs. In the higher tantras there are the stages of generation and the stages of completion.

This type of practice is called the collection of accumulation of merit and wisdom. One way of doing this is to meditate on the various stages of the path. Another way is to engage in a technique for purifying ill deeds and defilements. In any case what we need is a combined mode of practice in which we accumulate the positive and purify the negative.

For overcoming ill deeds and defilements we engage in disclosure, confession and the practice of restraint. For this we need what are called the four powers, which are:

  • the power of the object

  • the power of regret

  • the power of resolve

  • the power of the remedy

The power of the object is refuge and generating an altruistic intention to become enlightened. With regard to refuge there are vast explanations of the external, internal and secret refuge. In one procedure, we go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and spiritual community which have already been established in other’s continuums. Refuge in something external is called the causal procedure of going for refuge. This means going for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and spiritual community which will be generated within our continuum in the future.

In the causal refuge, when we go for refuge externally, the purpose is our own attainment of buddhahood. We will attain the Buddha, Dharma and spiritual community in the future.

The other factor with regard to the power of the object is altruism. When we just think about ourselves the scope of our attitude is very small, but when we think about as many others as we can, our attitude is much more vast. To generate this positive mind of altruism, we engage in the seven-fold quintessential instructions of cause and effect. This is one method for generating an altruistic attitude; the other method is engaging in the practice of equalizing and exchanging oneself and others.

If we have a little experience in the attitudes involved in going for refuge and altruism, then when we do the Vajrasattva practice about which I will be speaking today; when we begin with refuge and the generation of the altruistic mind, we will be really moved because of our previous practice. Therefore it is necessary to engage in a continual form of practice of refuge and altruism. If we do not have such experience, when we read the text it will be just words and the mind will not be moved, so it won’t have much effect. Therefore, it is necessary to continually take the practice of refuge and development of altruism as the very inner structure of our daily practice.

The second power is called the power of regret. This means that we generate feelings of regret with regard to the negative actions we have done in the past. In order to generate such feelings we need to reflect over and over again on the disadvantages of those negative actions. As it says in the text: “We need to generate a sense of contrition, a feeling of regret; feeling sorry as if we have swallowed poison and want to remove it our body.”

If we have a strong sense of regret, feeling sorry, then this itself induces a feeling of restraint from the activity in the future, and we determine not to engage in that activity anymore in the future. If we don’t have a strong sense of contrition—regret, feeling sorry—then we can’t possibly have a strong sense of restraint in the future. Without a strong sense of contrition and restraint, if we engage in some method of confession, disclosure and purification of that negative action, it would be as if we were eating poison, then doing a little bit of confession, then eating more poison, doing a little confession and eating more poison. The only result over time, is that it will ruin your body. Thus it is necessary to have the second power, the power of regret, in a strong form.

This will induce the third power, the power of resolve, then on the basis of that, we can engage in the fourth power, the power of the remedy of those ill deeds.

The fourth power, the power of the remedy, involves engaging in a virtuous activity, such as circumambulating, building a stupa, generating compassion in meditation, generating the realization of emptiness and so forth. That is why the preliminary practices are so important, so valuable.

With regard to the mode of practicing the Vajrasattva meditation and recitation, there is one mode in connection with Yoga Tantra and a different mode in connection with Highest Yoga Tantra. When you do the practice in conjunction with Highest Yoga Tantra, imagine yourself as Vajrasattva along with a consort. When you do this practice in conjunction with Yoga Tantra, do not meditate on yourself as Vajrasattva but visualize Vajrasattva sitting on top of your head or residing in your heart. Imagine whatever deity you have a connection with in the mandala—whether it is Guhyasamaja, Kalachakra or whatever deity it is—as the object to whom you are going for refuge. And having done that, go for refuge. Now having imagined the object of refuge, you can also extend the object of refuge to include the male and female sky-goers (dakas and dakinis), bodhisattvas and so forth.

With regard to generating the altruistic intention to become enlightened, imagine that all sentient beings from all the ten directions surround you, and no matter what type of beings they are, imagine that they are all humans and that they are close to you, and generate a strong sense of love and compassion. Generate compassion—wishing that all beings may be free from suffering, and love—wishing that they have happiness, and within that generate the altruistic aspiration to become enlightened for their sake. Another method is to imagine your father and all female relatives as illustrated by your mother of this life. In front of you are all those beings, humans and otherwise, who are your enemies, and behind you are all beings that are close to you and who give you support. Then imagine all other beings that you don’t know surrounding you on the outside. Now especially imagine your enemies in front of you—not so you can watch them or keep on your guard against them, but rather so you will have a special close sense with regard to them. As Shantideva says in his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

Enemies are very valuable, they are very helpful
From an enemy we can learn very much
Therefore we should value an enemy very highly.

Thus, value the enemy very highly. This is how we reflect on the altruistic intention to become enlightened. It is for them that we are becoming enlightened. We are seeking to become enlightened and we are training in the wish to become enlightened for their sake.

The members of this religious community, of this monastery, already know these practices, therefore, because of lack of time I won’t go into them in great details.

After generating refuge and the altruistic mind, imagine that the objects of refuge dissolve into you. In mantra practice, it is very important to view the lama, your special deity and your own mind as undifferentiable. As a mantric practitioner, you are engaged in the continual practice of deity yoga, thus you are generated as a particular deity. Imagine Vajrasattva sitting on top of your head while you are generated as that usual deity. The actual entity of Vajrasattva sitting on your head is the exalted wisdom endowed with the multitude of compassionate methods, thus it is capable of acting as an antidote to the obstructions to omniscience or buddhahood. This entity of the deity appears in the form of Vajrasattva.

Now generate what is called a pledge-being. There are different ways of generating the divine being on top of your head; visualize either a hand-seal or a syllable and generate the deity from that. Invite the wisdom-being to dissolve into the pledge-being, then the deities of initiation come and bestow the initiation. After that, there is an imprint with the sign or seal of the lineage, then make a petition, prayer or supplication, asking Vajrasattva to cleanse all the ill deeds, defilements and obstructions of yourself and all sentient beings.

Among the various ways of practicing the ritual there are minor differences, but this is the general procedure. The deity is holding different hand symbols but we don’t need to go into them here. You are engaging in the practice of Highest Yoga Tantra in which you also imagine a consort. There is a moon disc at the heart of both the male and female and in the center of the moon disc is the letter HUM. The 100-syllable mantra stands around the moon disc surrounding the HUM in the center. Repeat after me, as I say the mantra three times:


Imagine this mantra at the hearts of the male and female deities, and from that, ambrosia or nectar descends downward. When you engage in the process of meditation, imagine the ambrosia or nectar flowing downward. There are different ways of visualizing this. Usually in daily practice you do this 21 times in three groups of seven times.

The first mode of purification, using the first style of visualization is called purification from above, because what is in the nature of the exalted wisdom realizing emptiness is appearing in the aspect of ambrosia or nectar, and is flowing down from the top of your head into your body. This drives out various impurities in the form of smoky water, or dirty colored water, from the bottom of your body. Therefore it is called purification from above.

Another style of visualization you can do is what is called purification from below. In this case, even though the nectar or ambrosia is flowing down from the deities on top of your head, it’s filling the body from the bottom upwards and the impurities of the body and mind are like dirty water that comes out near the top of your body. This method is called purification from below.

The third style of visualization and purification is for those people who are engaged in the yoga of gathering all the energies or winds into yourself. This is not helpful if you are imagining your energies going out from your body. In this case, all the impurities and so forth are imagined as a mass of darkness at your heart and the nectar or ambrosia enters in the form of light that immediately, instantaneously, clears away the darkness without anything going outside. This method is like turning on a light to get rid of the darkness in a room.

Sometimes, when you do this visualization and repetition it is good to divide the number of repetitions into three groups of seven—the first group of seven, the second group of seven and so forth. In this case it’s very good to think the objects being purified are three-fold. First, the faults of the body, second, the faults of the speech, and third, the faults of the mind.

There are people who are involved in the practice of the completion stage of Highest Yoga Tantra. In this case they do the visualization and repetition in four groups of seven, therefore there are twenty-eight repetitions, in connection with the four initiations. There would be the visualization of the central channel, in connection with each of the four groups of seven, but I don’t need to explain this today.

For those people who have steady meditation, it is possible to use this visualization and recitation to overcome physical faults. For instance, if we have a heart or blood problem in the upper part of the body, imagine the nectar as being cool. On the other hand, if we have a problem with a cold disorder in the lower part of the body, imagine the ambrosia having the nature of heat. Thus it would be suitable or reasonable, if we have a particular disease or problem of the body, to imagine that the nectar of ambrosia is affecting that particular part of that body. However, except for those persons who have a steady visualization, it would seem to be difficult to get much result.

For those who have a very steady visualization and meditation, it is possible through deep meditation to emanate or cause to appear various forms of mastery. In other words, if we are at the level of doing the earth-totality meditation, we are capable of manifesting objects which others can see.

There is a very good meditation and practice where we do the Vajrasattva meditation and recitation 100,000 times. As we count on the rosary, we can engage in vaster types of meditation, thinking about the various types of ill deeds and infractions we have engaged in previously. We can also think about those sentient beings surrounding us; that each of those beings has Vajrasattva on top of their head and they are similarly engaged in purifying their ill deeds, infractions, defilements and so forth. There are many ways of making the practice even more vast.

For those engaged in this practice for long sessions, for example one or two hours, it is very helpful at the beginning of the session to engage in the visualization just as I have explained it and then after that to think about important topics such as impermanence, suffering and so forth, while doing the recitation.

If your ability to visualize and meditate is not steady, it is very easy when doing this type of repetition for the mind to wander or become scattered; to think about various other topics, such as affairs of money and so forth. It would be better to wander to a virtuous topic, rather than to be scattered and wandering to non-virtuous or neutral topics. It would be better to wander to a virtuous topic, but it is still wandering or scattering, because you are not thinking about a particular object of meditation, such as Vajrasattva and so forth. However, directing the mind to a virtuous topic is better than wandering to non-virtuous or neutral topics.

When you make a little progress in this meditation, you actually feel better. You may have dreams such as finding some necessary kinds of foods, or throwing up some bad substances or meeting with a deity in a dream. It is explained that these good dreams do happen. If this happens not just once or every now and then, but happens on a regular basis, it is a sign that you really have made some progress. This is due to the fact that you’ve been engaged in this type of disclosure of ill deeds and purification through meditation and recitation over a long period of time. Those topics which were formerly difficult for you to realize, like generating compassion or realizing emptiness, will become easier.

Thus, we need to practice in an alternating way, accumulating positive forces and purifying negative forces. Through engaging in such practices continually over a long period of time, we will gradually progress over the five paths:

  • the path of accumulation

  • the path of preparation

  • the path of seeing

  • the path of meditation

  • the path of no more learning.

These paths are presented in different ways for the sutra path and mantra path, but they are the general five paths leading to omniscience, or buddhahood.

At the end of the session, whatever number of repetitions of the 100-syllable mantra you have done, make a statement to Vajrasattva about how sorry you are for all the ill deeds you have done in the past, and declare your strong intention to avoid these ill deeds in the future. Then imagine that the Vajrasattva that you have been meditating on dissolves into you. That finishes the meditation session, then you can go out and do more ill deeds. So, this finishes the explanation of the Vajrasattva meditation and recitation.

Now it’s 3.30pm, so our time has finished. As I mentioned earlier, I am really happy. It is our custom at the end of a virtuous session to dedicate the merit to the person who is the patron for the session. If the person is alive, everyone joins in to dedicate the merit to that person. We see that person in front of us and dedicate the merit to that person. However, if that person has passed away, then we imagine her and dedicate the virtuous merit to her. In this case, Alice Scudder Rayburn is the patron, but she has passed away, so I would ask that everyone imagine her and dedicate the virtue of the session to her well-being. Indeed she was very close to our old Bakshi, and he achieved great merit and virtue himself through all of his great, good deeds.

Finally, I really enjoyed this and I am very happy to be here once more. Despite the strong sun, you all listened very peacefully and carefully, so I want to thank you. Whether you are a believer or non-believer, the most important thing is to be a good human being—a gentle, honest and warm-hearted person. As long as we are members of the human family, we should try to be good people, and if possible we should be good contributors. At least, we should not make a disturbance to the human community. This is my last wish. Through this we not only bring some benefit to the community, but we also get more peace and more happiness. So thank you very much, and now, the last dedication. http://www.lamayeshe.com/index.php?sect=article&id=857