The Foundational Practices of Vajrayana: A Summary of the Essential Points
All schools of Vajrayana teach certain foundational or preliminary practices (Ngondro) that enable practitioners to settle their minds in the Dharma, to remove karmic hindrances, and to increase merits and wisdom. Thereby novices will be able to make smoother progress on the path. Tantric teachings should be learned from authentic lineage teachers, hence the foundational practices are to be conducted as taught by a tantric teacher.
Nowadays Vajrayana Buddhism has propagated widely, and many practitioners are able to receive teachings of different lineages from various tantric teachers. Many teachings of the major traditions have also been published and are available in bookstores. As a result, we can learn from many sources to deepen our understanding of the theoretical aspects of the Dharma, and then digest and assimilate them into a correct view, so as to direct us on the path of practice.
II. GENERAL OVERVIEW
There are two categories of foundational practices: common and uncommon. The former ones are condensed teachings derived from the common principles of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana, and are organized in a systematic way. Practitioners should begin by contemplating on these reasonings so as to develop a guiding thought toward diligent practice. The uncommon foundational practices are teachings specific to Vajrayana Buddhism, and their main purpose is to eliminate karmic hindrances and increase merits and wisdom.
A. Common foundational practices
I. Traditional teachings
They are classified into six points:
- 1) Recognize the rarity of the opportunity to practice the Dharma
- 2) Remember the impermanence of life
- 3) Observe the suffering of all sentient beings in the six realms
- 4) Believe in the law of Karma
- 5) Understand the superiority of the path to liberation
- 6) Rely on a qualified spiritual guide
The above classification is in accordance with the teachings of Nyingma tradition, while the Kagyu tradition lists only the first four. It is not enough just to understand these teachings. One must have thoroughly contemplated on them in concentration meditation so as to solidify them into central guiding thoughts. Only then would one be able to renounce worldly engagements and continue to practice diligently without regress.
2. My proposed reorganization
a. Understand thoroughly the law of Causation
Causation is a fundamental universal law. There are two aspects of this fundamental law: certainty and cultivatability. There is a definite linkage between cause and effect, so one is unable to avoid the effect after committing certain action; this explains the reason of transmigration in the six realms (Samsara). Nevertheless, it is also possible to work on certain causes to induce certain effects, and this is the cultivatability of causes and effects. Therefore, it is possible to cultivate the fruit of liberation.
Suffering pervades in all six realms of sentient beings. Since beginningless time, sentient beings have been trapped deeply in cyclic existence but cannot get out. Therefore, cyclic existence as a grand collection of all sufferings is an inconceivable extreme suffering.
The root of cyclic existence is the attachment to self. If the attachment to self is completely eliminated, one would be able to escape from cyclic existence. In order to attain the ultimate accomplishment of Buddhahood, one would need to eliminate also the attachment to all phenomena. Although we cannot yet experience the result of liberation, we can find out the reasons for achieving the joy of Nirvana. A detailed explanation of this item should include the distinction among Arhat, Pratyeka-buddha, Bodhisattva and Buddha, as well as the Bodhicitta of Will, of Conduct, and of Victorious Significance.
Who would not want to leave Samsara upon observing its sufferings? Who would not want to attain liberation upon understanding its joy? According to the law of Causation, we should cultivate causes of liberation in order to obtain such a result. All other religions and philosophies are still within Samsara because they do not understand the cause, path and result of liberation. Therefore, only the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha (monastic community)) are our ultimate refuge. After taking the refuge, we should practice according to the teachings in order to realize the fruition of liberation and ultimate joy.
The human body that has the opportunity to practice the Dharma is very rare, so one should use it well. All things in life are impermanent. Sickness, aging, and death could arrive in any moment, and then one would either be pulled away from Dharma practice or fall back into the wheel of Samara. We can only hope to transcend Samsara by renouncing worldly engagements and practice diligently. Furthermore, once the fruit is realized, we would then be able to turn energetically the wheel of Dharma and bring salvation to all sorts of sentient beings. How joyful would that be!
3. A comparison of traditional teaching and my reorganization
My reorganized system is based on the traditional teaching and embraces it entirely. "Treasure the opportunity to practice the Dharma" follows from "Recognize the rarity of the opportunity to practice the Dharma" and "Remember the impermanence of life." "Observe the suffering of cyclic existence" includes not only "Observe the suffering of all sentient beings in the six realms," but also the grand suffering of infinite beings trapped in Samara for infinite time and not being able to get out. "Understand thoroughly the law of Causation" help explain cyclic existence as results of Karma, and thereby promote "Believe in the law of Karma" on the one hand, and, on the other hand, explains the possibility to achieve liberation, and thereby causing people to endeavor toward that goal. "Comprehend the joy that is free from suffering" is in fact the substance of "Understand the superiority of the path to liberation." "Rely on a qualified spiritual guide" is included in the first step of "Practice the Dharma toward liberation," i.e., taking refuge. That explains how my reorganized system can include all of the traditional teaching. The flow of reasoning along the traditional six points is as follows: Opportunities to practice the Dharma in this human life are rare and could easily be lost. Once this life is lost, one would be driven by Karma and thus drifts again in cyclic existence. Within cyclic existence, all the six classes of beings suffer; and the ultimate joy can be attained only through transcendence from cyclic existence. In order to practice the Dharma toward liberation without going astray, one must rely on a qualified spiritual guide. The steps of reasoning in brief are: a) treasure the opportunity to practice the Dharma, b) weary of suffering and aspire toward joy, c) taking refuge and begin to practice the Dharma.The steps of reasoning according to my reorganized points are: a) immutable law of Causation, b) divergent paths to suffering and joy, c) select the joyful path and begin to practice the Dharma.
- a) weary of suffering and aspire toward joy,
- b) treasure the opportunity to practice the Dharma,
- c) taking refuge and begin to practice the Dharma.
Thus, the six points would be rearranged as:
- 1) Observe the suffering of all sentient beings in the six realms,
- 2) Believe in the law of Karma,
- 3) Understand the superiority of the path to liberation,
- 4) Recognize the rarity of the opportunity to practice the Dharma,
- 5) Remember the impermanence of life,
- 6) Rely on a qualified spiritual guide. Please take the suggestion above into consideration.
As to the five points organized by me, first of all, the well-accepted law of Causation is refered to, then the two paths to suffering and joy are described. Both these paths can be explained in terms of Causation: Samsara is based on Karma, and Karma is the causal relationship among ignorance, activities, and their results. The possibility of liberation is based on the cultivatability of results, and the means to liberation is to eliminate the root cause of suffering. We would undoubtedly choose the joyful path after understanding the two divergent paths of suffering and joy. However, according to the law of Causation, we need to cultivate causes for joyful fruits. Therefore, we need to practice the Dharma. The above reasoning is already sufficient to demonstrate the need to practice the Dharma. However, lest beginners would become lazy or procrastinate, based on the consideration of time, a reminder is added as to the rarity of the opportunity to practice the Dharma. With that in mind, those who have not started to practice the Dharma would start immediately, and those who have already started to practice would persevere with diligence, and never regress. Perfection of the conditions for practicing the Dharma is still within the scope of the law of Causation. A schematic representation is given below to demonstrate the structure of this argument in a glance:
It is worth mentioning, in passing, that within the above scheme of argument, if "Understand thoroughly the law of Causation" is replaced with "Understand thoroughly the theory of Dependent Origination," and Dependent Origination is interpreted as that of Karma, Alaya (the Eighth Consciousness), Tathata (Ultimate Suchness) or Dharmadhatu, then the resulting arguments will all hold, even though the intents are all different. However, the explanation of the linkages would be more complicated. Furthermore, as beginners would seldom be familiar with the various kinds of Dependent Origination, it would be unsuitable for inclusion in foundational practices. Using the law of Causation as a basis, the logic and reasoning can be clearly understood and accepted by a wide audience.
4. Compatibility between my system and principles of exoteric vehicles
|The Four Noble Truth||Three Seals of the Dharma||Bodhicitta||Six Paramita|
|Understand thoroughly the law of Causation||Collection Path||All phenomena are without self||Will Conduct||Ethics|
|Observe the suffering of Samsara||Suffering||All phenomena are impermanent||Will||Almsgiving|
|Comprehend the joy that is free from suffering||Cessation||Nirvana is peaceful||Victorious Significance||Wisdom|
|Practice the Dharma toward liberation||Path||All phenomena are without self||Conduct||Tolerance Meditation|
|Treasure the opportunity to practice the Dharma||Path||All phenomena are impermanent||Conduct||Diligence|
B. Uncommon foundational practices
All Vajrayana schools of Buddhism in Tibet have their requirements for uncommon foundational practices. Those are usually called the Four Foundational Practices or Four Preliminary Practices (Ngondro) and constitute basic trainings prior to practicing any Highest Yoga Tantra (Anuttara Tantra) practice. The various schools have not exactly the same items of Foundational Practices. Even when the names of the items are the same, the details in content and the quantity required may vary. In general, the Four Foundational Practices amount to 100,000 (or 111,111) repetitions of each of the following four practices:
- 1) Taking fourfold refuge, usually including 100,000 great prostrations and 100,000 repetitions of the stanza of Generating Bodhicitta
- 2) Hundred Syllable Mantra (Vajrasattva Purification Practice)
- 3) Mandala Offering, usually the seven-offerings Mandala
- 4) Supplication prayer to lineage Gurus (Guru Yoga), may include mantras of lineage patriarchs
1. Functions of the Four Foundational Practices
The main function of the Four Foundational Practices is to purify negative Karma and to accumulate merits so that the practitioner will have sufficient resources to engage in practice without encountering obstacles and hindrances. Speaking in the given sequence: the foundation of faith is developed through taking refuge, generating Bodhicitta and doing prostration; the Karmic hindrances are purified through the Vajrasattva Purification Practice; wisdom and merits are accumulated through offering of Mandala; and lineage blessings are received through practicing Guru Yoga. Going one step further, each foundational practice may be liken to pouring pure water into a cup of muddy water. With perseverance, the water in the cup will eventually become all pure. Therefore, each foundational practice contains all four aspects of: a) refuge and faith, b) receiving blessings, c) purifying negative Karma, and d) increasing merits. Viewing in their entirety, all four foundational practices are mutually complementary in preparing the practitioner to become a crude model of a Dharma instrument.
2. Supplementary guidance of precepts
Using the analogy above of pouring pure water into a cup of muddy water, we can understand that, in order to obtain full benefits of the Four Foundational Practices, a practitioner also needs to prevent negative deeds, just as not adding any more muddy water and preventing the cup from leaking. Therefore, it is also necessary to take precepts and learn about proper conduct from the Guru. In general, the main precepts at this stage are: five precepts, ten virtues, Bodhisattva's vows, Tantric root precepts, fifty stanzas on attending the Guru.
3. Relationship among the Four Foundational Practices
This topic can be understood through the explanation given in the Functions of the Four Foundational Practices above. The following figure is added as a supplementary explanation:
The above figure looks like a double vajra; each of its four ends also contains a small double vajra. The four cardinal directions are traditionally associated with the four tantric activities of pacifying (East), increasing (South), attracting (West), and subduing (North) respectively. Traditionally the four directions are assigned on a map with East to the bottom and then South, West and North are assigned clockwise in the given order to the remaining cardinal directions. Arranging the Four Foundational Practices according to their affinity with those tantric activities, the names of the four practices are filled into the centers of the four small vajras in the order of: Taking refuge (R), Mandala offering (M), Guru Yoga (G), and Vajrasattva purification (V). Each practice in turn contains four functions which are indicated in the four directions of each small vajra by F (Immovable Faith), I (Increasing Merits and Wisdom), B (Blessing from Guru and Lineage), and P (Purifying Karmic Hindrances). At the center of the large vajra is the practitioner who pulls together all these activities and functions through diligent practices. Each end of the large vajra is connected to the center by two straight lines representing the parallel use of emptiness wisdom and skillful means in the practices.
In summary, the relationships of the Four Foundational Practices are: each practice includes the effects of all four, and all four practices together complete the functions of each practice.
4. Relationship with practices that precede or succeed the foundational ones
The exoteric practices are skillful means in the position of cause, therefore the Paths of Accumulation and Preparation take one Asamkhyeya-Kalpa to complete. The Four Foundational Practices belong to Vajrayana which consists of skillful means in the position of consequence. When the Foundational Practices are properly carried out, the Accumulations can be perfected within a few years. This is the distinctive point of their superiority. The common foundations are practices to develop foundations for a correct view; the uncommon foundations are the first steps of practice based on the correct view.
After completion of the Four Foundational Practices, one can progress further to the Development Stage practices and then the Perfection Stage ones. In fact, the Four Foundational Practices already include certain visualizations of the Development and the Perfection Stages, such as visualizing the bestowal of empowerment by the Guru and the union of Vajrasattva Father and Mother. However, those visualizations have been simplified to cater for the novices. The practice of great prostrations can straighten one's channels, thus laying a foundation for smoother wind and channel development in the Perfection Stage. Within refuge taking, Gelugpas also include the Nine Receptions of Buddha Wind, while the Nyingmapas sometimes include inhaling Karmic air of sentient beings and exhaling virtuous air to benefit sentient beings in order to cultivate Bodhicitta. Both of these are preparations for wind practices of the Perfection Stage.
5. Sequences of practicing the Four Foundational Practices
a. Complete 100,000 times of one practice before proceeding to another
The sequence of these practices varies with each school. Guru Yoga is the first one for the Gelugpas, and yet the final one for the Nyingmapas and the Kagyupas. The most common sequence is the one listed above, i.e., Refuge, Vajrasattva Purification, Mandala, and then Guru Yoga. However, it is not rigidly required to follow such an order, and the practitioner may arrange his or her own sequence.
b. Doing several practices concurrently
Sadhanas (ritual texts) of the Four Foundational Practices are usually arranged for practicing only one kind of such practices in a given session. Nevertheless, within one such Sadhana may be found two or three items that need to be repeated 100,000 times. For example, the practice of taking refuge may include great prostrations, and Guru Yoga may include supplication prayer to lineage patriarchs as well as the mantra of a lineage patriarch. Some Sadhanas also combine the four practices so that all four practices are taken up sequentially within each session. The practitioner may also do several session of different practices each day. For example, when getting tired from doing prostrations, one switches to Vajrasattva purification; when getting tired from chanting, it is followed by Mandala offering. It would become easier to persevere in practice, when one adjusts physically and mentally in this way.
Among the two methods of (a) and (b) above, the practitioner can choose either one by himself or herself. These two methods can also be coordinated together. For example, during short weekend retreats, one can use the method (a) to concentrate on repeating the refuge formula or the mantra of a patriarch in order to complete one item in several retreats. As to lay practitioners burdened with worldly engagements, for their daily session they can adopt a Sadhana which includes all four practices, thus they could hope to complete all the Foundational Practices in several years. As to practitioners who have completely renounced worldly engagements to practice full time, they can adopt sequential sessions of different practices daily in order to complete all the Foundational Practices in the near future.
6. Key points that are common to all the Four Foundational Practices
a. Common basic trainings
Besides the common foundations as described in previous sections, we can conclude from the perspective of Three-Yanas-in-one (i.e., Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana as a coherent, step by step, system toward total liberation) that the Four Foundational Practices share the following basic trainings: all phenomena as empty of independent existence, skillful application of Dependent Origination, and unification of concentration and observation in meditation. If a practitioner has sufficient meritorious Karma to enter Vajrayana without prior training in exoteric Buddhism, he or she should learn the essential teachings of Hinayana and Mahayana, especially to understand the concepts mentioned above and to practice the concentration and observation meditations.
In the practices of taking refuge, prostrations, and Mandala offering, one visualizes holy beings forming a field of refuge. Each Vajrayana school has its particular field of refuge, but all of them consists of Gurus, Buddhas, Dharma, Sangha, Yidams, Dakinis and Dharma Protectors. Setting up an image of the field of refuge on the altar would help one in the visualization. In both Vajrasattva Purification and Guru Yoga, the Wisdom Being above the practitioner's head is visualized to be identical to the Guru, who is also the essence of all holy beings and scriptures in the entire field of refuge. According to the oral instruction of Yogi Chen, one can visualize the face of the Vajradhara or Vajrasattva above one's head as that of the Guru in order to receive blessings. When reciting supplication prayer to the lineage Gurus whose appearances are not known, one can visualize all of them as Vajradhara.
When doing each practice, one should first visualize one's father by the right side and mother by the left side, all sentient beings related through Karma to the practitioner are in front, and all other sentient beings are encircling behind, in the order of hell beings, ghosts, animals, human beings, asuras, and gods. All these sentient beings are doing the same practice as the practitioner. At the end of the session, dedicate all the merits to each and every sentient being. This belongs to the Victorious Significance of the Bodhicitta of Conduct.
All these common visualizations are, based on the principle of the indifferentiability of mind and phenomena, to practice using the power of mind to purify phenomena, and to liberate the ordinary consciousness which is confined within the limits of phenomena. These visualizations are not conceptual imaginations; when the visualizations mature, one would experience lineage blessings and expand one's mind to the entire Dharmadhatu. Although beginners can seldom perfect the visualizations, as long as one has genuine Bodhicitta and immovable faith, one could still receive blessings from the holy beings. In addition, all objects of these visualizations should be like rainbow, vivid and yet without any concrete substance.
7. Evaluation in terms of quantity and measure of realization
Yogi Chen taught that: Measure of time is inferior to that of quantity, and measure of quantity is inferior to that of realization. That means in evaluating one's progress on the path, the number of accumulation is more reliable than the amount of time spent in practice, and the signs of realization are more reliable than the number of accumulation. Realizations vary as appearing in dreams, visions (a state between awake and dream), or meditation. Appearance in meditation is further divided into occasionally appearing to oneself, to others, and frequently appearing. Therefore, a practitioner should carefully examine his or her level of progress, and not become complacent with completing the required numbers of accumulations. Many Tibetan adepts had repeated the complete set of Four Foundational practices several times in their lifetimes. Some Gurus would require their students, after having completed the required accumulations, to continue in the Foundational Practices until auspicious signs are obtained; and only then would allow the students to progress to higher level practices. In short, a practitioner needs to rely completely on the Guru's guidance while proceeding on the path of Vajrayana; nevertheless, a practitioner should be careful and strict while assessing his or her own progress.
III. INDIVIDUAL DESCRIPTION OF THE UNCOMMON PRACTICES
Taking refuge is the first step of practice in Buddhism. In exoteric Buddhism one takes refuge in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha (monastic community). Vajrayana emphasizes the role of the Guru as the embodiment of all Three Jewels, hence Guru is included as one of the objects of refuge. The grace of the Guru in his teaching in person is most important to the students, hence the Guru is listed as the first and foremost object of refuge. The Guru also represents the whole lineage, therefore taking refuge in the Guru actually includes taking refuge in all the patriarchs of the lineage. In Vajrayana the importance of lineage is particularly emphasized. In addition to the Guru's blessings, practice and realization in Vajrayana also depend on the favor bestowed from Yidams, Dakinis, and Protectors. The traditional teaching of Three Roots indicates that Guru is the root of blessings, Yidam is the root of accomplishments (Siddhi), and that Dakinis and Protectors are the root of activities. Yogi Chen emphasized the special importance of Dakinis and proposed that Dakinis are the root of the bliss of emptiness. The Kagyu tradition teaches sixfold refuge which consists of taking refuge in the Three Jewels and the Three Roots.
Immediately following the refuge formula, a stanza for the generation of Bodhicitta or the stanza of Four Boundless Minds is usually recited and is included in the 100,000 repetition requirement. In my humble opinion, the Four Boundless Minds relates not only to the Bodhicitta of Will, but also to those of Conduct and Victorious Significance. Its recitation would be more effective and comprehensive, therefore I propose to adopt the stanza of Four Boundless Minds instead of the stanza for the generation of Bodhicitta.
In summary, taking refuge includes 100,000 repetitions of each of the three kinds of recitations given below:
- 1) I take refuge in Vajra Guru, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
- 2) Namo Guru, Yidam, Dakini, Protector.
- 3) May all beings have happiness and its causes!
- May all beings leave suffering and its causes!
- May all beings be inseparable from the joy of no more suffering!
- May all beings abide in the equanimity of non-discrimination!
B. Great prostrations
Great prostrations are usually practiced along with the recitation of refuge taking. In the Gelug school, great prostrations are sometimes included in the 35-Buddha Purification Practice to replace the Vajrasattva Purification Practice. If one finds it difficult to count the numbers of refuge recitations and prostrations together, it would be better to keep count only of the number of prostrations, and then count the refuge recitations separately in additional recitations. For this practice it is convenient to use a long board in the length of one's body plus one arm. Raise the end toward Buddha about 4 inches high and cover the front half with a surface, such as wall paper, smooth enough for sliding of hands. The area for standing and kneeling should not be smooth lest it cannot yield support. Use a pair of small hand cushion or wear cotton gloves. Beginners may need to use elbow and knee caps (as sold in sports supplies stores) for protection from bruises. After about 20,000 prostrations, the body would feel light and easy, and then these caps would no longer be needed. It is much more convenient to use a tally counter than a mala for counting prostrations. The tally counter can be placed near the kneeling position and pressed once when getting up after each prostration.
The great prostration is done as follows: One stands at the lower end of the board and starts to recite the Great Prostration Mantra. Raise both hands from the sides so that they form a circle that meets in front of the forehead where the palms fold together. Chant "Om" while raising hands, "Namo Man Ju Shi Er Ye" while folding palms at the forehead. Then lower the folded palms to the throat and recite: "Namo Su Shi Er Ye." Again lower the folded palms to the heart and say, "Namo U Da Ma Shi Er Ye." Then bow down while reciting "Soh Ha," and stretch both hands as wide as the shoulder to the front to reach the board, then push out until the whole body touches the ground. Fold the hands briefly in front of the head and then stand back up to complete one great prostration which includes one repetition of the Great Prostration Mantra. Therefore, the accumulation of 100,000 great prostrations actually include also 100,000 repetitions of the Great Prostration Mantra. When refuge taking is combined with prostrations, one should start reciting the refuge formulas right after "Soh Ha" until one stands up. The recitations can be done silently if it is difficult to coordinate the action with chanting.
C. Hundred Syllable Mantra (i.e., Vajrasattva Purification)
The Hundred Syllable Mantra is the long mantra recited in the purification practice of Vajrasattva, and the requirement of this foundational practice amounts to 100,000 repetitions of this mantra. In addition to the foundational practice, one can recite this mantra seven times before sleep every night to purify all misdeeds done in the day. This mantra is often recited at the end of ritual ceremonies to compensate for any imperfection of the processes. Students of Vajrayana usually have received quite a few empowerments, and thus become unable to keep up with the daily practices of so many Yidams as vowed during the initiations. On the one hand, one should practice with the understanding that the Yidam being practiced unifies and is indifferentiable from all other Yidams; on the other hand, one should recite the Hundred Syllable Mantra at least seven times nightly to compensate for all such infringements. The following is a simplified Sadhana of this purification practice. In my view, a foundational practice had better be simple than complicated, so that beginners can concentrate more easily on the practice.
Visualize a thousand petaled silvery white lotus at one forearm's length above one's head, with a moon disc, lying flat like a white cushion, on top. A white flat syllable Hung ( ) stands on top of the moon disc facing right; the syllable is about one fist's height.
The syllable Hung suddenly transforms into Vajrasattva Father and Mother in union. Their height is about one forearm's length. They are white and luminescent like a thousand suns but cool as the autumn moon. (Minors may be taught to visualize only Vajrasattva without his consort.)
In the center of the heart chakra (near the heart in the middle of the body) of the Vajrasattva, there is a thousand petaled white lotus with moon disc and white syllable Hung atop. The moon disc is about the size of a quarter (US 25-cent coin). The hundred syllable mantra in white Tibetan script encircles the small Hung in counter-clockwise direction (when viewed from above) at the rim of the moon disc. As the Hundred Syllable Mantra is used here mainly for purifying sins, it ends at "AH" which signifies the "unborn original purity," while the remaining "Hum" and "Pei" are omitted. The full Hundred Syllable Mantra in Tibetan script with English transliteration is provided as Appendix A below and hence not repeated here.
4) Exposing sins
Visualize that all sentient beings are concurrently doing this practice, with one Vajrasattva atop each sentient being. All sins and negative Karma of all beings transform into black smoke, poisonous creatures, filthy stuffs, etc., and are absorbed into the practitioner's body. One's body becomes full of sins and negative Karma, in the form of dirty and poisonous stuffs, of all sentient beings (including oneself) accumulated since beginningless time.
Start reciting the Hundred Syllable Mantra. While reciting the mantra, visualize the mantra script in Vajrasattva's heart chakra revolves around the syllable Hung in clockwise direction. The Hung syllable, moon disc and lotus remain stationary.
Drops of pure white and cool nectar of wisdom and compassion drip out from the syllable Hung and the circling mantra. The bodies of Vajrasattva Father and Mother become full of nectar, which then drips out from their place of union (or the right big toe if only Vajrasattva Father is visualized) and drips into the practitioner's Central Channel through the crown. The nectar gradually fills the entire body, and purifies all sins and negative Karma.
7) Sinful excrements
Purified sins and negative Karma in the form of black water, black smoke, poisonous stuffs, etc., are washed out of one's body through the urinary and anal openings and all pores of the skin. It then goes down a big hole on the ground in front of the practitioner and falls all the way down to hell. In hell, the Lord of Death, who has an Ox head but a human body and is red in color, together with his retinue all open their mouth upward to receive those substances, which have been blessed and purified by Vajrasattva's nectar.
Visualizations at the conclusion of the session:
8) When one is about to conclude the session, the mantra recitation gradually slows down, and the mantra wheel also winds down to a complete stop. Visualize that one's body is filled with nectar and becomes white and transparent, that one is thoroughly purified and free from sins and negative Karma, and that one's merits and wisdom have greatly increased. The Lord of Death with his retinue are all full, satisfied and asleep without caring any more about the practitioner's life span. The practitioner can therefore increase his or her longevity. The hole on the ground also closes up.
9) The Vajrasattva atop each sentient being transforms into light and enters the sentient being below. In this way all sentient beings are transformed into Vajrasattvas. All these Vajrasattvas then dissolve into light and enter the Vajrasattva atop the practitioner. Finally, the Vajrasattva above dissolves into light and enters the practitioner who is then transformed into Vajrasattva instantaneously.
Visualization while not in session:
- a) Power of reliance: visualization of Vajrasattva, i.e., steps (1) to (3) above;
- b) Power of destruction: confession and exposure of sins, i.e., step (4) above;
- c) Power of prevention: vowing not to commit wrongful deeds again, i.e., the intention and will that one should maintain in steps (4) to (7) above;
- d) Power of antidote: the purification practice, i.e., steps (5) to (10) above.
I propose two changes in the four powers: (i) changing the name of "power of destruction" to that of "power of confession and exposure" to make its meaning evident. Besides, the distinction between "destruction" and "antidote" is not very clear, hence it would be better to avoid using both in a group. (ii)After confessing and exposing sins, the priority should be purification by means of antidote instead of prevention. Only after purification will prevention become proper. Hence the "power of prevention" should be listed after the "power of antidote."
In accordance with the above proposal, the association of the four powers with this practice becomes as follows:
- a) Power of reliance: steps (1) to (3);
- b) Power of confession and exposure: step (4);
- c) Power of antidote: steps (5) to (7);
- d) Power of prevention: steps (8) to (10). Visualize Vajrasattva and his Pureland in order to purify one's body, speech and mind, and to exclude worldly contamination.
The main purpose of making offerings of Mandala is to accumulate the stocks of wisdom and merits. Death is sometimes caused by depletion of merits, hence Mandala offering could also increase life span. Both making offerings and almsgiving can eliminate greed and miserliness, therefore it would be most beneficial if one actively practices almsgiving along with doing this foundational practice. The practitioner should, within his or her means, try to procure a good quality Mandala plate for use in this practice. The universe visualized in Mandala offerings was taught by the Buddha; we should not cast doubt into its truthfulness based on the limitation of our senses. We should understand the indifferentiability of mind and matter, so as to trust that the merits obtained from visualized offerings are no different from those gathered from actual material offerings, and that it is certainly not like child's play.
If there are two Mandala plates, one is used as representing the object of offering and the other for the act of making offerings. However, the following description of this practice use the visualized field of refuge as the object of offering, and therefore only one Mandala plate is needed.
The Kagyupas and Gelugpas both emphasize the visualization of 37-offering Mandala. However, the requirement is to make 100,000 repetitions of offering the 7-offering Mandala while repeating the following stanza:
Earth, the foundation, has been purified
With incense, Sumeru, the continents four,
The sun and the moon, I offer up to thee,
Together with the Pureland's radiant store.
May all sentient beings, that suffer pain,
Everlasting Supreme Enlightenment obtain.
(p. 412, Yogi Chen's Buddhist Meditation, 2nd ed.)
The Nyingmapas make offerings of Three-Kaya Mandala, which involves visualization of the thousand million world systems, the Sambhogakaya Pureland, and the Dharmakaya Pureland of Ever Tranquil Luminescence as offerings respectively to the three bodies of the Buddha: the Emanation Body (Nirmanakaya), the Pure Enjoyment Body (Sambhogakaya), and the Truth Body (Dharmakaya). What is actually required to be accumulated for 100,000 times is the offering of 5-offering (or 15-offering) Mandala which includes reciting the following Three-Kaya Mandala stanzas:
Offerings to the Nirmanakaya:
Thousand million of thousand million world systems,
Each full of seven treasures and wealth of gods and humans,
Together with my entire body and belongings are completely offered,
May I attain the throne of the universal monarch of Dharma.
Offerings to the Sambhogakaya:
The Pureland of Secret Adornment with unexcelled great bliss,
Complete with five definite attributes and the five aspects of Wisdom,
Offered with supreme offerings gathering as inconceivable masses of clouds,
May I attain the enjoyment of Sambhogakaya Pureland.
Offerings to the Dharmakaya:
The originally present, pure and youthful body in the vessel,
Being adorned with immutable compassion,
Identified with the Land purified of the attachments to body and drops,
By offering it, may I abide in the realm of the Dharmakaya.
This Nyingma method of offering is far superior to the 37-offering one because it includes much more than the latter. Therefore, I propose to practice as follows: the practitioner first becomes familiar with the content of the 37 offerings to assist in visualizing the Emanation Body offerings. Please refer to other works for the details of the 37-offering Mandala; e.g., Jamgon Kongtrul, Judith Hanson Trans., The Torch of Certainty, Shambhala, Boston, 1977. In practice, repeat the 7-offering Mandala and the stanzas of the Three-Kaya Mandala for 100,000 times. Since the Kagyupas require 1,000 repetitions of offering the 37-offering Mandala, we had better practice the three-layer Three-Kaya Mandala offerings 1,000 times. While Yogi Chen's Three-Kaya Mandala offerings take about 20 minutes each time, one can offer it at least once on each of the 10th, 15th, 25th and 29th days of the lunar months as those are special dates for making offerings to Gurus, Yidams, Dakinis and Protectors respectively. See Appendix B for a description of the Three-Kaya Mandala offerings.
The 7-offering Mandala is done as follows: While sitting on the ground, put a tray or wide container of rice on the lap or in front. With small amount of rice in both hands, hold the rim of the Mandala plate with the left hand. Rub the peripheral surface of the plate with the right inner wrist in clockwise rotation for 3 times, while reciting "Om Samaya, Ah Samaya, Hung Samaya" and then the Hundred Syllable Mantra. At the same time, visualize the negative Karma of oneself and all beings is thereby purified. Then rub in counter-clockwise rotation for 3 times (or more until finishing the Hundred Syllable Mantra), while visualizing the merits of the Buddha's three bodies descend into the practitioner and all sentient beings. After finishing the Hundred Syllable Mantra, sprinkle the rice in the right hand on the plate surface and recite "Om Benza Bumi Ah Hung" while visualizing a Vajra earth foundation. Take some rice with the right hand and sprinkle them clockwise along the rim of the surface while reciting "Om Benza La Ka Ah Hung" and visualize an iron mountain range along the edge of the world; it represents a protective wall of precepts. Then, while repeating "Om Ah Hung" place seven small heaps of rice on the plate surface. The order and symbolism of the seven heaps are shown in the following diagram:
When the seven heaps of rice have been placed, raise the Mandala with both hands up to the front of the forehead and recite the Three-Kaya Mandala stanzas and visualize accordingly. Then pour the rice toward oneself into the rice container and visualize Buddha returns blessings after receiving the offerings. Thus completes this 7-offering Mandala offering once. Then repeat a desired amount for the given session. After one session, most of the rice used should be given away outdoors for the birds, while a small portion is kept in the container to symbolize the continuing blessings of the Buddha. Adequate amount of unoffered rice is added for each subsequent session. The repetitions of the Hundred Syllable Mantra recited during Mandala offerings are not counted in the 100,000 repetitions of the same mantra in Vajrasattva Purification.
In Nyingma school, the Chod practice originated from the female Chodpa master Machig Labdron is also listed as a Foundational Practice. It is mentioned here because this practice is also a method for gathering the two accumulations of merits and wisdom by practitioners of extreme poverty. My book Chod in Limitless-Oneness and the references listed there contain valuable teachings on this practice. Interested readers please refer to those works.
E. Guru Yoga
Vajrayana teachings puts great emphases in a disciple's faith and submission toward the Guru. On one hand, blessings of the lineage can easily be received only by disciples with deep and thorough faith. On the other hand, the self-attachment of a disciple would gradually be eradicated through his or her total submission to the Guru's instructions, so as to enable him or her to experience seeing the real face of original purity. A disciple's faith and submission to the Guru is also based on his or her understanding of the Guru's accomplishments and on his or her experiences of the great wisdom and great compassion as revealed through the Guru's speeches and activities. In other words, a true relationship between a Guru and a disciple should be built completely on the Bodhicitta. Therefore, for disciples who aspire to become in harmonious correspondence with the Guru in order to receive blessings, it is most important to examine constantly whether the activities of their body, speech and mind are in accordance with the Bodhicitta. As long as the disciple's Bodhicitta is genuine, blessings of the Guru and the Lineage Patriarchs would descend regardless of any distance in time or space.
Practicing the Guru Yoga would certainly increase the harmonious correspondence between the Guru and the disciple. However, in my humble opinion, if a disciple can truly renounce all worldly engagements to rely on the Guru and share the load of the Guru's Dharma activities, then it would be even easier to attain harmonious correspondence with the Guru. Almost all the great Siddhas have done the same. Those among us who are dedicated to the Dharma should endeavor to follow their examples.
- 1) Visualize oneself as the Vajra-yogini who is indistinguishable in essence from Yeshe Tsogyal, a prominent consort of Guru Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava as visualized throughout this practice should be recognized as identical to one's Guru.
- 2) Visualize Padmasambhava, in the form of an eight-year old boy, sitting in the space about one-arm length above one's head and providing blessings to the practitioner. Recite the mantra of Padmasambhava:
- Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung
- Usually, the basic requirement of accumulation for this practice is 1,200,000 repetitions of this mantra.
- 3) Visualize oneself in one's ordinary form and Padmasambhava appears in the space in front. While repeating Padmasambhava's mantra, visualize Padmasambhava bestows the four empowerments successively as follows:
- a) The white syllable "Om" in Padmasambhava's crown chakra emits white light ray into the practitioner's crown chakra. This is the first empowerment.
- b) The red syllable "Ah" in Padmasambhava's throat chakra emits red light ray into the practitioner's throat chakra. This is the second empowerment.
- c) The blue syllable "Hung" in Padmasambhava's heart chakra emits blue light ray into the practitioner's heart chakra. This is the third empowerment.
- d) A second blue "Hung" emerges from the blue "Hung" in Padmasambhava's heart chakra and then flies into the heart of the practitioner and melts into oneness with the practitioner's essence. This is the fourth empowerment.
- The significance and functions of these four empowerments are detailed in Yogi Chen's monumental work in Chinese: "A Treatise on Vajrayana Empowerments."
- 4) Again, visualize oneself as Vajra-yogini. The Padmasambhava in the space in front emits a warm red light ray from his heart chakra. When the red light ray touches the body of Vajra-yogini, the latter dissolves into red light and contracts to the size of a pea. This tiny red light ball then flies into Padmasambhava's heart and melts into oneness with the essence of Padmasambhava.
- 5) Padmasambhava dissolves into rainbow light and melts away into the boundless space of luminescence. Remain in this state of meditation for as long as possible.
IV. COMBINING THE FOUR FOUNDATIONAL PRACTICES IN ONE SADHANA
Following the above order of presentation, a practitioner may practice in one session all of: taking refuge (including three kinds of recitation), great prostrations, Vajrasattva purification, Mandala offerings, and Guru Yoga. The practitioner can determine the amount of repetitions of each practice during such a session based on the time available and the speed of each practice. This arrangement is suitable for lay practitioners in general who can practice only one session a day. If there is not enough time in each session, one may reduce the number of items practiced.