Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Becoming Vajrasattva - Selections

The Tantric Path of Purification

Prologue: Intellectuals, Beware!

During an initiation, the guru calls upon the divine energy of the universe, which manifests as divine, blissful wisdom in the shape of the particular deity—in this case, Heruka Vajrasattva. This energy activates a force largely dormant in the disciple’s nervous system, which now awakens and begins to vibrate. If you generate the proper altruistic state of mind and an understanding of emptiness, and recite the Vajrasattva mantra, you maintain and augment the vibration activated by the guru. If then, through a period of silent contemplation, you induce a calm, reflective mind, free of your usual flow of obscuring, uncontrolled thoughts, your inner wisdom will automatically reveal itself.

But, a word of caution to the intellectual. Reading tantric teachings on your own, without the power of the appropriate initiation, is just an intellectual pastime—only by practicing correctly, under the guidance of a fully qualified and experienced teacher, can you evolve beyond the intellect, beyond conceptual thought, into the true wisdom of a pure, spontaneous being. I am not trying to be mysterious or exclusive here but simply saying that if you think that you can understand, let alone experience, the methods of tantric yoga merely by reading books, you are deceiving yourself—like a terminally ill person doctoring himself with the same methods that made him ill in the first place.

The yoga method of Heruka Vajrasattva should be practiced only by those who have received the initiation and oral commentary from a properly qualified vajra master. Although the commentary published here is potentially of limitless value and should be studied thoroughly before you practice the methods it describes, you must take the initiation and receive some instruction from your guru. Otherwise, instead of giving you the direct experience you seek, it will become a dry, intellectual exercise of relatively little benefit.

The great Tibetan yogi Dharmavajra explained that the highest yoga tantra initiation of Heruka Vajrasattva is a special feature of the Geluk tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Highest yoga tantra contains methods by which you can reach enlightenment in a single lifetime or even, as in Lama Tsongkhapa’s case, three short years. Of course, these profound teachings have never been published, but the methods still exist, undegenerated, in the minds of certain practitioners. These esoteric teachings of Lord Buddha can be transmitted only through unobstructed inner communication between vajra guru and disciple. Few people realize that such powerful methods can still be found in the teachings of the Geluk school.

A whole tradition of Tibetan yogis has made the yoga method of Heruka Vajrasattva a living experience. Before you can actualize the generation (kyerim) and completion (dzok-rim) stages of highest yoga tantra, you must purify yourself: practicing Heruka Vajrasattva is one of the most powerful ways of doing so. After taking the initiation, you enter retreat, in which you recite one hundred thousand Vajrasattva (hundred-syllable) mantras. This allows you to practice the two stages of tantra more effectively. If you have not purified the old defiled habits of your body, speech, and mind, even if you put enormous effort into meditating on the path to enlightenment, you will not gain realizations because there are too many obstacles in your way.

Therefore, you should alternate purification with lamrim meditation. Even trying to achieve single-pointed concentration without purification causes you to become frustrated and feel hopeless and discouraged with your lack of progress. This is because you have not recognized or dealt with the obstacles thrown up by your habitual wrong-conception mind and its byproducts— defiled body and speech.

Some misguided practitioners try to experience emptiness simply by rejecting the existence of all phenomena, obsessed with the idea that shunyata is some kind of vague nothingness. If you want to actualize the right view of emptiness in accordance with, for example, the Madhyamaka or Zen schools of Buddhist philosophy, you have to practice both method and wisdom. Many people have great interest in wisdom but none at all in method. They are like a bird trying to fly with a broken wing.

Whenever you encounter interruptions and obstacles to your practice, don’t get discouraged or depressed. Realize instead that you need to purify, and for a time, concentrate more on method than wisdom. In due course you will gain the realizations that you seek.

 

PART 1: The Main Commentary

 

Chapter 1:  Why and How We Purify

 

This teaching has come at your request, not from my saying, “I want to give you teachings; come here and listen!” In your studies on the graduated path to enlightenment you have come to understand how powerful your minds are and how they create powerful positive and negative actions. Aware of this, you have examined your lives and seen the nature of the actions of your body, speech, and mind. Thus, with knowledge-wisdom, you have requested this teaching to be able to purify the negative forces within you.

The way you requested this teaching is also very good. Based on your understanding of the negative mind, your request is neither ignorant nor emotional. Since you are fortunate, intelligent, and wise enough to be able to practice this powerful yoga method and thereby destroy your negative energy forces completely, I feel that giving you this teaching will be of great benefit.

First of all, you are fortunate just to see that there really is a solution to the negative actions that arise from the ignorant mind. Most people are unaware of how they create actions; they also do not understand the difference between positive and negative actions and their results of happiness and suffering. Even when people discover this reality, it is very difficult for them to see how to purify and free themselves completely from the cycle of cause and effect to which they are bound. This is not easy; it takes a long time. You really are fortunate to know all this and to have reached the conclusion that you can purify yourselves.

Furthermore, you are very lucky that your wisdom can grasp the profound methods of tantric yoga. This is often very difficult for the Western mind. How difficult? Well, when Westerners first meet the Dharma they cannot even understand the purpose of making prostrations: “Why should I do prostrations? Sorry, that’s not for me.” Prostrations are so simple, so easy to understand! In contrast, the profound methods of tantric yoga are extremely deep, much more difficult to grasp.

Let me put this another way. We often find that when we meditate on the lamrim—the path to liberation and enlightened realizations—we encounter many hindrances. We cannot understand why it is so difficult to meditate, to control our minds, to gain realizations. “Why do I meet with so many obstacles whenever I try to do something positive? Leading a worldly life was much easier than this. Even an hour’s meditation is so difficult.” Many such thoughts and questions arise.

It is not just a lack of wisdom. It is that over countless lives the negative energy forces of our body, speech, and mind have accumulated such that now they fill us like a vast ocean. If they were to manifest in physical form, they would occupy all of space. By contrast, our knowledge-wisdom is as weak as the light of a flickering little candle. A little candle isn’t much help on a dark and windy night. It is the energy of our wrong conceptions, our negative mind, that makes it difficult for us to actualize the everlasting peaceful path of liberation and to receive realizations. Therefore, we need a powerful purification practice like the tantric yoga method of Heruka Vajrasattva to destroy both the energy of the ignorant mind and the negative actions of body and speech that arise from it.

The yoga method of Heruka Vajrasattva has the power to purify all negative energy, which is the main thing preventing you from actualizing the path. This impure energy creates both physical and mental hindrances, and also leaves certain imprints. Philosophically, we say that these are neither mind nor form. The negativity I am talking about is conceptually different from your previous understanding of the term. Most Westerners think that negativity refers to just the gross level of the emotions. It goes much deeper than that.

Take, for example, the physical body. The first time people come to a meditation course they have great trouble just sitting. Something in their nervous system pulls their energy down to the base of their spine. The reason we recommend the classical cross-legged meditation posture is that when you sit with your back straight, the psychic energy flows properly, and thus it is much easier for you to control your mind. However, this change in the alignment of the nervous system makes it feel as if all your energy is falling down from your crown chakra to your lower chakra. This gives some people the terrifying sensation that they are losing their minds. Not only do new students have trouble sitting, but they also have difficulty concentrating for long periods while listening to totally new and often unsettling ideas. These physical and mental problems may make them wonder why on earth they are sitting there.

The pressure in the lower chakra is caused by negative physical energy, which comes from the negative mind. In Mahayana Buddhism we place less emphasis on such physical reactions and focus on the root of all problems, the ignorant, negative mind.

While insight meditation on the graduated path is the actual way to liberation, when you feel that you cannot meditate—there are too many interruptions, you cannot concentrate, you cannot solve your problems— remember that there is something else you can do to remove obstacles: purification. In the experience of Tibetan lamas, sessions of insight meditation on the path should alternate with sessions of a powerful purification practice, such as the yoga method of Heruka Vajrasattva. This combined approach ensures that you will gain the realizations you seek without frustration.

Do not, however, have unrealistic expectations: “If I meditate today, tomorrow I’ll be completely pure.” You cannot purify yourself overnight, not even in retreat. Such expectations themselves become obstacles. Just relax; all you need to feel is that in this life you will act as positively as possible. If you can do that, good results will come whether you expect them or not. You won’t have to keep asking your lama for a prediction: “If I control my body, speech, and mind, avoid all negativities, and do only good, will I experience positive results?” If you understand karma, you will always act wisely and keep your actions positive. What need is there to ask?

Just think: “From now until I die, whether realizations come to me or not, I shall act as positively as I can, trying to make my life as beneficial as possible.” What more can you expect? That sort of expectation is far more reasonable and logical than thinking, “If I meditate for a month I’ll become Heruka Vajrasattva.” Such expectations only disturb your mind.

In order to gain higher realizations, it is most important to practice the powerful methods of purification found in the Vajrayana path. Many lamas have found that purification overcomes the hindrances of both negative energy and its imprints. While other Vajrasattva practices emphasize physical purification, the Heruka Vajrasattva yoga method emphasizes mental purification. This makes it especially powerful.
 

The four opponent powers

The Heruka Vajrasattva sadhana is divided into three parts: taking refuge, generating bodhichitta, and the actual yoga method. Why are taking refuge and generating bodhichitta parts of this purification practice? Because negative actions are usually created in relation either to holy objects such as the Three Jewels of refuge, or to other sentient beings.

You can see for yourself that this is true. Most of your problems arise from the people around you, not from bricks, rocks, or trees. And the most common problems can be found between people who are close to each other— the closer the connection, the more mental complications arise. For example, if you stay away from tar, you’ll be okay; but if you touch it, it will get all over you, will be hard to get rid of, and will cause you much difficulty. In the same way, proximity to other people can lead to sticky situations.

Some simple examples of common negativities will clarify this. We ourselves, the subject, act under the influence of our negative minds, but we usually need an object upon which to act. For example, when we kill, there has to be another being whose life we take; when we steal, there has to be an owner of the thing we take; when we lie, there has to be someone to lie to. Of course, our ignorant, dissatisfied, greedy, selfish mind is always there, but other beings have to be there, too. In this way we create negativities in dependence upon others. We purify this kind of negative karma by generating bodhichitta.

We also create negativities in dependence upon holy objects. Sometimes, with a negative mind, we might criticize a buddha, denigrate a bodhisattva, treat books or statues disrespectfully, or complain about monks or nuns. There are countless ways to create such negative karma, and we purify it by taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

To generate bodhichitta we must feel unbearable great compassion for all sentient beings, irrespective of their species, race, nationality, or philosophical and religious beliefs. As well, we must have the strong, enthusiastic will to lead them to perfect enlightenment, taking the responsibility for doing so upon ourselves alone. Simply having this attitude releases us from a great deal of negativity.

For example, your karmic connection with your parents is very strong, but it is out of control. Although they have been so kind to you, you cause them great suffering. You cannot cut the connection with your parents by saying that you are completely fed up with them and running off to the mountains. Separating yourself from them physically is not enough. To exhaust the negative karma with your parents you have to purify it by experiencing great compassion for them and generating bodhichitta with them in mind. Similarly, your karmic connection with other people can’t be cut intellectually, by just saying you’re finished with them. These bonds have to be severed by purification.

The best way to purify negativities is by using the four opponent powers. The first of these is the power of the object, which means taking refuge and generating bodhichitta. In the practice I am describing here, the object of refuge is Heruka Vajrasattva, who is one with the Three Jewels of refuge: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We can also say he is one with the guru, the absolute guru, but I’ll discuss that more fully later. His divine wisdom understands the nature of both positive and negative energy. He becomes your liberator, and you go to him for refuge.

The second power is the power of release. It is sometimes called the power of regret, but this is misleading, for this power derives from wisdom, not from some kind of emotional sorrow or guilt. Such feelings actually reinforce our negative propensities. Think instead of a person who suddenly realizes that he has just swallowed poison: he wants to take the antidote right away. The power of release is the wisdom that understands the negative repercussions of unwholesome actions so well that the moment you become aware that you have created a negative action, you want to purify it immediately.

The third is the power of remedy. It is with this power that you counteract the force of your amassed negativities. With single-pointed concentration on Heruka Vajrasattva—the manifestation of blissful, transcendental, divine wisdom who is one with your guru—you do the yoga method and powerfully recite the purifying mantra. This practice is the actual remedy.

I’m not sure that the fourth power can be succinctly translated into English. It is something like the power of indestructible determination. It is not so much a vow or a promise or a resolution or a decision. Simultaneous with the power of the remedy you have this great determination never to create any negative actions again. There is something complete about it. It is firm and strong and comes from wisdom. Within you there is a subtle energy that protects you from moral falls. It is far more than an intellectually motivated decision; it is a force that totally counteracts the old habits, a realization that instinctively protects you. Of course this power has degrees, but when fully developed it offers perfect protection.

For example, when you take the eight Mahayana precepts for a day, in the early morning you generate the great determination to keep the vows intact. From that moment on you must practice perfect awareness to maintain them throughout the day. Determination to keep the precepts at the time of the ceremony alone is not enough; it has to be maintained minute by minute for the duration of the commitment. Otherwise, as soon as the ordination ceremony is over, you will fall straight back into your old samsaric ways, as if unconscious, completely unaware of what you are doing.

Vows are not broken spontaneously. The motivation for an action that will break a vow evolves gradually in the mind. You have a long history of similarly uncontrolled energy patterns. Therefore, if your early morning determination is accompanied by exceptional continuous conscious awareness, there is no way you can break your vows. Within you there is that very subtle, accumulated energy that completely protects you from defiled actions.
 

Karma

The same thing applies to following the law of karma. When we take refuge, our main obligation is to keep our karma straight, to avoid defiled, negative actions. But often we cannot do so, even though we understand on an intellectual level that if we keep on creating such actions again and again, we shall continue endlessly in the cycle of suffering and conflict. This is because we do not have a deeply integrated understanding of karma. Those with such an understanding never recklessly create negative actions.

I know Westerners quite well. They are intelligent, but their minds are divided. On the one hand they desire to have perfect wisdom and to keep their karma straight. On the other they are impelled by the force of their bad habits, which prevents them from keeping their karma straight. This causes them a lot of suffering. When difficult circumstances arise, the negative energy overpowers the positive because many Westerners have never built up within themselves the force of good habits; they also lack deep, internal understanding of the nature of karma, of cause and effect.

Some people argue that karma is experienced only by those who believe in it; in other words, those who don’t believe in karma don’t experience its effects. This is completely incorrect. The laws of karma function whether you believe in them or not. If you act in a certain way, you are sure to experience the appropriate result, just as surely as taking poison will make you sick—even though you think it is medicine. Once you’ve created the karma to experience a certain result, that outcome is inevitable.

Cows, pigs, and scorpions have no ideas about karma—no beliefs one way or the other—but they must still live out their karma. All their actions are motivated by either greed, ignorance, or hatred, and each definitely brings its own result. Therefore, you must never think that karmic actions and reactions are only a Buddhist thing, a lama thing. Karma is a natural law governing all physical and nonphysical phenomena in the universe. It is extremely important for you to understand this.

When I teach about karma, I don’t usually give technical explanations such as those found in Tibetan texts. I simply tell students to look at the way their minds are working at that very moment. They can easily see how up-and-down their minds are, especially during a meditation course. Once they are aware of this phenomenon, it is easy for them to understand how it has come from their previous experiences, and that karma is exactly that. Simply put, the uncontrolled body, speech, and mind are manifestations of karma.

Thus, we are all under the control of the true law of karma, whether we believe in it or not. Don’t think that followers of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are beyond the reach of karma and do not need to be mindful of it. It’s not true. For example, Jews and Arabs have accumulated karma with each other, and now there are all sorts of problems in the Middle East. Even though butchers may not believe that killing animals will have any negative repercussions, whether they believe it or not, giving such suffering to other beings will definitely come back upon them.

When you first come to Kathmandu you enjoy yourself and make yourself very comfortable. Then when you come up here to the monastery, you feel agitated. You think it’s very dirty and that there are no proper toilets. Your agitation is the result of your previous attachment to comfort. That, too, is karma. If you weren’t attached to your earlier experiences of comfort, you wouldn’t care so much about your surroundings. You can get a clear understanding of karmic action and reaction simply by analyzing your everyday experiences.

I think this is a far better and more powerful way of developing mindfulness of your actions than by becoming obsessed, as so many Westerners are, with the cultivation of single-pointed concentration (samadhi) and mindfulness meditation. If that happens, you run the risk of thinking that sitting meditation is the only form of Dharma practice and that all other activities, such as eating, talking, and sleeping, are completely samsaric and negative. When you believe that these things are negative, they become negative.

There are many ways to meditate. Mindfulness is not the only kind of meditation. Insight can be gained by meditating on any phenomenon in the universe. You don’t have to sit cross-legged to meditate: guarding your karma day in and day out is also meditation and can be a powerful way to develop insight. In this way your entire life can be used to bring you closer to the wisdom of egolessness.

When you understand the nature of karma, you are constantly aware of everything you do. Thus, wherever you go, you cannot escape from meditation. You know that if you do not maintain awareness of the actions of your body, speech, and mind, you will create one negativity after another and will have to experience the resultant suffering of confusion and dissatisfaction. This makes you conscious all the time: when interacting with others, eating in restaurants, shopping in a supermarket, or working at your job.

Usually our dualistic minds interpret the ordinary activities of daily life as being samsaric, dissatisfactory, full of suffering, and undesirable—impossible to use as objects for insight meditation. This is a gross misapprehension. Mahayana Buddhism teaches that if bodily sensations such as physical feelings can be used for the development of insight, then so can any other form of sensory experience, such as the taste of food on the tongue.

Some people say that visualizations cannot be used for insight meditation because they are a mental projection, implying that one’s breath or feelings in the body are more real. Sensations and feelings are just as illusory as visualizations of the Buddha. Bodily sensations are not permanent. They change from moment to moment because the relative mind is constantly changing. The feelings of the body and mind, especially those caused by the negative mind, are projections of ignorance. Your dualistic mind automatically projects a dualistic view of whatever you experience.

Ordinary people who start to practice what they consider to be mindfulness meditation believe that the world of bodily sensations is real. But no matter whether they use an internal or an external object of meditation, it still exists only in their imagination and in the view of their relative mind. Fundamentally, there is no difference between inner and outer phenomena: either both are true or both are hallucinations. Until you have realized nonduality, shunyata, then whatever you experience, either physically or mentally, is a hallucinatory wrong view.

Actually, the taste of food on the tongue is also a physical sensation. To think that it is not is incorrect. The Mahayana tradition contains meditation practices for every action. Tantric yoga teaches us that when we eat, we should first offer and bless the food. While eating, we should be relaxed and aware of whatever we are doing, constantly remembering the dependent nature of ourselves and the food, and not grasping at the sensory pleasure of eating, as we usually do. Any sensory experience can be used for the development of insight.

Mantra recitation can also be a great help in insight meditation. It makes the mind focus single-pointedly, thereby counteracting mental scattering and distractions. However, the recitation does not have to be verbal. Mantra is a sound that has existed within your nervous system since before you were born; it is audible if you listen wisely. Mantra is not something that you receive, all of a sudden, from a lama. Without the natural vibration of sound within your nervous system, you would be deaf—each kind of energy has its own natural sound. This is not religious dogma, but something you can verify empirically. You cannot abandon the natural sound of your nervous system. You might as well try to abandon your head!

However, it is the experience of countless lamas that the unstable, transitory objects of the five senses are more of a hindrance than a help in the development of single-pointed concentration. As long as you continue to perceive things with your relative mind and to grasp at objects of the five senses, you will not be able to realize single-pointed concentration. You will be neither a samadhi meditator nor a mindfulness meditator. Check to see whether or not this is true.

You can understand then how ridiculous it is to think that sitting, trying to gain samadhi, is the only way to practice Dharma, and that anything to do with living in the world is totally negative. You should constantly take care of every aspect of your life—waking, working, eating, sleeping—with understanding wisdom. Whether you are close to your guru, to the Sangha, to your parents, or all alone, you must take care of your karma as best you can. It is quite wrong to believe that you can outsmart karma by locking yourself in your room, thinking that when you are by yourself, you can do whatever you like. There is no escape! Whether you are with others or not, karma-creating reactions come automatically.

If I told you that the only way to meditate was to sit and think of nothing, you would find no time to practice. Karma ensures that most Westerners have to spend their lives either working or doing other external activities. Since you couldn’t find time to sit, you would think that your Dharma practice was history. But meditation is not blank navel-gazing. When you have an understanding of the fundamentals of Dharma, you will see how much there is for you to do and how much you can grow. This gives you constant resources to maintain your practice, and even though you cannot concentrate, you know that you can still practice Dharma. Wherever you go, whether you are with other practitioners or with more worldly people, you know how to make your life one with Dharma. This ability comes from wisdom.

Without wisdom, how can you make the unavoidable activities of eating, sleeping, and excreting one with Dharma? When you have wisdom, you don’t always have to be around your guru to receive teachings. You can see the teachings in everything around you. You can learn from the movement of the planets, the weather, the growth and decay of plants, and all other phenomena. This is what happens when you have wisdom. In fact, your own wisdom that understands reality is your real guru. This is what Tibetan Buddhism teaches.

Integrate your whole life with the experience of Dharma. That is the most powerful thing you can do. That is the way to reach enlightenment in one lifetime, because you do not waste a moment. It’s perfectly logical. If you believe that your one-hour daily meditation is the only chance you have to practice Dharma and that the other twenty-three hours of your day are completely dark, impure, and samsaric, you will definitely take three countless great eons to reach enlightenment! What your mind believes becomes reality for you, whether it is reality or not.

 

How to cite this document:
© Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, Becoming the Compassion Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 2004)

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