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Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga, Part 1

Thangka image of Lama Tsongkhapa.
Lama Tsongkhapa (Image © 2017 Himalayan Art Resources Inc.)

Part 1 of a 2-part teaching on Guru Yoga, given at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle in 1994. (Part 2)

Tonight we will learn about the Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga, at least a part of it. And in the first part of it there is essentially a seven-limb prayer. Let’s start by cultivating our motivation.

If we’re going to attain Buddhahood we need to purify our mind and accumulate or create a lot of positive potential because without those it’s difficult to attain enlightenment. Without attaining enlightenment it’s difficult to benefit others consistently. Therefore, to attain enlightenment for the benefit of others we want to purify our mind and create positive potential. We can do this through the practice of Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga. Therefore, we’re going to learn that today.

Lama Tsongkhapa’s life

Lama Tsongkhapa was born in the late, oh dear my history is bad, the late fourteenth early fifteenth or the late fifteenth early sixteenth century. You’d never believe I majored in history, would you? He was born in Amdo which is in the eastern part of Tibet in a place where there’s now Kumbum Monastery. That’s one of the places I visited when I was on a recent trip to Tibet and China. The actual place where he was born and where the placenta dropped, there were all sorts of auspicious things happening with his mother and everything before he was born. When he was born, where the placenta dropped, a tree grew out of the ground. In the tree it had all the different letters–om ah hum–and things like that growing out from the tree. His mother later built a stupa on top of this tree; and that’s still existing even now in Kumbum Monastery.

From the time Tsongkhapa was very young he learned meditation and he learned the teachings. One great yogi took him under his wing and taught him when he was young. Then as he grew older he wanted to go to central Tibet where there were more opportunities to learn and so he travelled from Amdo to central Tibet. It takes about three months across the desert and mountains on yak back or walking. So he went to central Tibet and he studied with some of the greatest masters of the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and the Kadampa traditions alive at that time. He had a very strong feeling for the monastic tradition and so really reestablished that as he began to practice. Lama Tsongkhapa ordained many people in the three great monasteries of Ganden, Drepung, and Sera. Ganden was the largest monastery in the world. It had 10,000 monks at one time. These were all built by Lama Tsongkhapa with his disciples.

Lama Tsongkhapa wrote extensively, I think 18 volumes in all, so he ended up with quite a collection of writings in his lifetime. He wrote a lot about emptiness because he felt that people’s understanding of emptiness was not real clear. He spent a lot of time really clarifying what is the object of negation and what exactly is emptiness. In that way, he really contributed greatly to the understanding of the ultimate truth which is what we have to realize to attain liberation. Although he studied extensively and he taught and wrote extensively, Tsongkhapa was also a great practitioner.

When I was in Tibet in 1987 I had the fortune to go to some of the places where Lama Tsongkhapa had been and where he had practiced. It’s quite amazing. One of the places is along the side of a mountain where he had made Amitabha tsa tsa. Tsa tsa are the small clay images. (There’s also one of Lama Tsongkhapa there, and also of Tara.) He had made I think a hundred thousand of the tsa tsa in a very short time. So there is one place along the side of a mountain and when you go there you’re just reminded of the dedication required to make those over that much time. I say this because one of the great purification practices is to make images of the Buddha. It’s a way of purifying our negative karma—especially physical karma.

While traveling, later on that same day, we came to another place where Lama Tsongkhapa had done prostrations and mandala offering. He had gone with eight of his closest disciples into retreat there. Everyone else was begging him not to go, to stay and teach. But Tsongkhapa felt it was really important to go into retreat. So he did. He did a hundred thousand prostrations to each of the 35 buddhas. So, that’s three and a half million prostrations! The stone is there—because he prostrated on stone—and it’s completely smooth because of going up and down, up and down. And it’s said that he actually had a vision of 35 Buddhas appear to him in a vision through his practice. Also, Tsongkhapa did mandala offerings, and the stone where he did mandala offerings was there too. All these places were mostly destroyed after the Chinese takeover, but there were a few things remaining we got to see. When we do mandala offerings we use a nice comfortable place and a smooth plate. Tsongkhapa had a stone mandala plate. And it’s said, because you have to rub the mandala plate with your forearm as you’re doing the mandala offerings, it’s said that his forearm and wrist was completely raw from doing that. But you look at the stone and again you can see images of flowers and letters and deities on it. It’s quite remarkable.

Then another time I was at Reting and this is over the hill in back of Lhasa in Tibet. And this is out in the middle of nowhere, really nowhere. We were walking there and the Tibetans said, “Oh, it’s just a little way further, a little way further.” And we walked about six hours and we still weren’t anywhere close and then we finally got a ride with a truck. We went to the place, and again it’s destroyed. It’s up the hill from the monastery at Reting. The monastery was also destroyed—every building. But up the hill was the place where Lama Tsongkhapa wrote Lamrim Chenmo. (This text is the basis of the classes we’re having on Monday’s and Wednesday’s teachings.) Lama Tsongkhapa wrote this text because he really wanted to make it as easy as possible for the Tibetans to understand the Dharma. Atisha in the eleventh century had gathered all the teachings and had rearranged them in a systematic order, and Lama Tsongkhapa amplified on that. This was needed because when the Buddha taught he gave many teachings to different crowds at different times—and there wasn’t any systemization. So Atisha and then later Tsongkhapa really systematized the teachings. They set it up so people could really easily understand the three levels of motivation, the three principle aspects of the path, and all the submeditations and the subtopics involved. That was really a great contribution to Buddhism.

Again, so in Reting there was the place where he wrote this great text. It’s just like a little stone now because the building was completely torn down. When we went there we did some prayers, and then we followed some people. There were a couple of monks from the monastery and they were taking some important Chinese officials up to see something so we tagged along. The three of us Westerners. So, we walked up this mountain along the side of another mountain, up this mountain, and we’re like walking and walking and there’s no oxygen and we finally get to this place that’s just boulders. Near the top of the mountain, boulders—that’s all. And I’m going, “We walked all this way to get up here?” And then I began to look at these boulders. I’m not one of these mystical, magical people—I think you people know me well enough to know that. But inside these boulders, I mean, coming out from the boulders—you know how rocks have different colors? I don’t know what you call it. Different colors of rock within a rock? The veins. So, some of these veins—I mean, I saw with my own eyes: om ah hum in the rocks. Boulders with the letters ah. Many of the letters ah in the rocks. And they told us after we saw this that Lama Tsongkhapa had been meditating on emptiness there and the letter ah fell from the sky and imbedded in the rocks. This is because ah is the symbol of emptiness. I mean it was quite remarkable because I don’t usually believe in these things.

Audience: Did it come and go?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): No, it was there all the time. No, it was there. It was part of the rock, of the veins of the rock which were in the form of those letters. It wasn’t me having visions. It was in the rock. So that kind of attested to his meditative ability.

Just the way Lama Tsongkhapa organized the teachings was something I came to appreciate so much when I was in Singapore. I say this because there I met people from all different Buddhist traditions; and people were so confused. This was because you hear a little bit of teaching here, and you hear a little bit there, and a little bit here, and little bit there—and you don’t know how to put it all together. “What do I do? Do I do vipassana meditation? Do I chant Amitabha’s name? Do I generate bodhicitta? Do I generate renunciation? What do I do? And how do I practice it? How do I put it all together?” So then I really began to see the kindness of Lama Tsongkhapa for systematizing the teachings the way he did. It made it much easier to really know: what’s the beginning of the path, what’s the middle of the path, what’s the end of the path, what are the things you meditate on to get to each realization, and how do they fit together.

Remember that chart I gave you? It’s somewhere buried in your papers. It’s the chart about the three scopes of the path, the three levels of practitioner. [See chart at the end of this transcript called ‘Overview of the Path to Enlightenment.’] Just understanding that is so helpful for us to really know how to practice and what to develop. So Atisha and later Lama Tsongkhapa were really responsible for that.

Lama Tsongkhapa was a great yogi as well. They say he was enlightened already when he was born—that he was actually an emanation of Chenrezig, Manjushri and Vajrapani. They say that for the sake of us he showed the aspect of being a monastic and then attaining enlightenment in the intermediate stage. So that’s a little bit about his life—there are all sorts of other stories that are quite remarkable. Also there are some books you can read like The Teachings of Lama Tsongkhapa and some other ones that tell about it. He’s quite remarkable.

Purpose of the Guru Yoga practice

From Lama Tsongkhapa and the way he drew all the different traditions together, then what followed from him was the Gelug tradition. So, when we do the Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga it’s specifically associated with the Gelug tradition. Each of the four main traditions in Tibet, the Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya, and Gelug, they each when they do the Guru Yoga—they have a specific manifestation of Buddha as a human being that they do the Guru Yoga with. So the Sakyas, I think they use Sakya Pandita or perhaps Virupa. I’m not sure. Kagyus use Milarepa. Nyingmas use Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava). And then the Gelugs use Lama Tsongkhapa. They’re actually all the same nature because the realization of all these beings is the same; only the outward appearance is different.

The reason we do the Guru Yoga in that way is because sometimes when we think of the different Buddhist deities, like we think of Chenrezig or Vajrapani or Manjushri, they seem so far away. I mean, you don’t see Chenrezig walking down the street; and if you did they’d probably throw him in a hospital because he has 1 heads and 1,000 arms. So sometimes we get the feeling like the deities are way far away or we feel that Lama Tsongkhapa’s way far away. We feel that Buddha’s way far away. So, the purpose of doing Guru Yoga with a more recent historical figure is the idea of bringing the feeling of the presence of the Buddha very immediately to us.

Also in that way in the Tibetan system they have a way in which you regard your own spiritual teacher either as a representative/manifestation of the Buddha or as the Buddha as a way again of bringing the spirit of the Buddha to us in a real way. The purpose of that is not just to go around gaga eyed, like, “Oh, this person’s the Buddha.” Rather, the idea is that if we listen to teachings and we have the feeling like, “If the Buddha were really here, he would be teaching me exactly the same thing as my teacher’s teaching me.” Then if we have that feeling really strong, then we pay more attention to the teachings and we take it more seriously. I’m sure if Śākyamuni walked in, I mean, he has one head and two arms—they probably wouldn’t throw him in the hospital. But with a golden radiating body they might do something. Take him to Hollywood! But if we had the karma to really listen to teachings from the Buddha himself, we’d probably pay really good attention. It’s because we’d really have a feeling like, “This is the real McCoy. This is somebody who knows what they’re talking about.” In a similar way, even though we don’t have the karma to meet with the actual Buddha, if we have a similar kind of attitude towards whoever’s teaching us, then we tend to take the teachings more seriously. We take them to heart instead of just thinking, “Ah, this person doesn’t know what in the world they’re talking about. They just made it up yesterday.” Something like that.

So the Guru Yoga practice is also a way of bringing that whole spirit of the Buddha, of our teacher, of the deities to us very importantly in our own heart. I say this because we can’t always be near our teachers. We can’t always be near a strong community of practitioners. And so we really have to nurture ourselves through our own meditation and feel that closeness ourselves. The Guru Yoga practice is a way of doing that. It really brings the presence of the deities and the Buddha and Je Rinpoche and our teacher very much into our heart. Then we feel more inspired to practice. That’s why we’re doing this practice.

Due to the extent of the virtue of the Triple Gem, then any karma we create in relationship to them becomes very powerful. Remember when we talked about karma? One of the things that made it powerful was the object that it was created in relationship to—like creating it in relationship to the Triple Gem, or to somebody who was poor and needy, or our parents. That karma is much stronger than doing the same action towards somebody that we don’t have such a close relationship to or that aren’t quite as virtuous. And so, by the power of the Triple Gem, their virtue, their realizations, then any offerings or anything we do in relationship to them becomes very powerful; and so it becomes a very strong way to purify our mind of defilements and to create a lot of positive potential. We need both of those things, the purification and the positive potential or merit in order to gain realizations of the path.

We Westerners come into the Dharma and we think if we only have enough willpower we’ll attain realizations. We think that practicing Dharma is a matter of will because this is the way our society is. “If I will myself to do it, if I try hard enough, I’ll make a million dollars. That’s what America was founded upon, that’s part of the Constitution, and that’s what I’m going to do.” We think that just by sheer will power alone we can do it. Unfortunately, that attitude doesn’t lead us to understanding the Dharma because our mind gets really tight, it gets stiff, we push ourselves, we get very self-judgmental. With this there’s no space in the mind for the understanding of the Dharma to come in the heart.

The mind is like a field. If you’re going to grow a crop, you have to take out the rocks and the stones and the bubblegum wrappers, and you also have to put in the fertilizer and the irrigation. And so, purification and collection of positive potential or merit is like doing this with our mind. We purify our mind of the stains of all the negative karma we created in previous lives, and we create a lot of positive karma or positive potential by doing virtuous practices. That’s like the fertilizer. And then we plant the seeds which is like listening to teachings. As we meditate on the teachings, that’s like the sunshine coming in—and then the crops start to grow and the realizations, the understandings start to come. So the purification and collection of positive potential in these practices are extremely important. They’re extremely important.

Guru Yoga as a ngondro preliminary practice

That’s why in the Tibetan tradition so often they really emphasize the ngondro or the preliminary practices. For example, you do a hundred thousand prostrations or a hundred thousand mandala offerings. One of the ngondro practices is a hundred thousand Guru Yoga mantra. It’s very strong purification for the mindstream. We’ve all had times in our practice when our mind gets stuck, when our mind feels dry, it’s like parched dirt. We listen to teachings and we fall asleep. Or we listen to teachings and our mind is full of doubt and skepticism. Or we go somewhere to listen to teachings and we get angry at the teacher and we get angry at the other people in the room and we sit there like a volcano in the middle of teachings. I’ve had this happen. I talk from experience. If you’d only know. When all this happens we can clearly see that there are many obstacles in our mind that keep us from transforming our mind to being loving and compassionate and wise. These practices of purification and collection of positive potential are really essential for this. And so especially we really need to do that to get us unstuck when we’re stuck.

The practice of Guru Yoga is very important in that respect. And especially this one because it’s actually a very condensed seven-limb prayer. In our regular sessions we do the seven-limb prayer. At that time we have just one line for each limb whereas in this one we have one verse for each limb. Let’s just go through it a little bit—briefly.

Commentary on the Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga sadhana

Refuge and bodhicitta

I take refuge until I have awakened in the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha. By the merit I create by engaging in generosity and the other far-reaching practices, may I attain Buddhahood in order to benefit all sentient beings. [3x]

First, we have the refuge and generating the altruistic intention. We take refuge so we that we know what direction we’re going in our spiritual practice. And we generate the altruistic intention so that we know why we’re going there. We’re not just for fun and games or reputation or to feel good but because we really want to become Buddhas to benefit others. So clarifying the direction and why we’re going at the beginning of the practice is really essential.

Actual Practice: Visualization and offering the seven-limb prayer

From the heart of the Lord Protector of Tushita’s hundred gods,
Floating on fluffy white clouds, piled up like fresh curd
Comes the Omniscient Lord of the Dharma, Losang Dragpa.
Please come here together with your spiritual heirs.

Now in the actual practice the first verse starts out: “From the heart of the lord protector of Tushita’s one hundred gods…” In that verse we’re starting to visualize Lama Tsongkhapa and so the Lord Protector of Tushita’s one hundred gods. Tushita is not just a retreat center in India. It’s a pure land where Shakyamuni Buddha resided before he appeared on this earth. When he left that pure land, he left the forthcoming historical Buddha, Maitreya (or Jampa in Tibetan), in charge of Tushita. So, you’ll often see many statues and prayers to Maitreya because he’s the Buddha of the future. It would be very good to be born at his time and receive teachings from him. He’s the one, coincidentally, who sits in a chair. Have you ever seen the figure of one Buddha who’s sitting and his feet are down? So, you see, he grew up in the West.

So he is the Lord Protector of the various divine beings in this pure land of Tushita. From his heart comes a stream of light that becomes like fluffy white clouds piled up like fresh curd. This is the Tibetan image, okay? In Western image we might say fluffy clouds like cotton. It’s like Maitreya’s here and then from his heart this stream of light comes and you have these fluffy clouds like clouds of offering. Upon that there are three thrones. The center throne is Lama Tsongkhapa. Then on his side you have Gyalsabje and Kedrupje who were his two chief disciples. So this is a picture. You can see at the top, here’s Maitreya. At the very top is a small Maitreya and from his heart the clouds are coming down. And then you have Lama Tsongkhapa and Gyalsabje and Kedrupje his two disciples. That’s what we’re visualizing here.

Losang Dragpa, the name in the first verse, was Lama Tsongkhapa’s ordination name. He’s called Tsongkhapa because Tsong was the name of the particular area in Tibet or village that he came from. But his actual ordination name was Losang Dragpa. We’re asking him please to come here together with his spiritual children—in other words, Gyalsabje and Kedrupje, his two main disciples. We visualize them in the field in the space in front and they become the field of merit or the field of positive potential in the sense that, in relationship to them, we’re going to purify our mind and create positive potential. So they’re called the field of positive potential for that reason.

In the sky before me, on a lion throne with lotus and moon seat,
Sits the holy guru with his beautiful smiling face.
Supreme field of merit for my mind of faith,
Please stay one hundred eons to spread the teachings.

Then the second verse: “In the sky before me, on a lion throne with lotus and moon seats…” Here again we’re visualizing Lama Tsongkhapa (and his two disciples) when we say, “sits the holy guru.” Another name for Lama Tsongkhapa is Je Rinpoche. The three of them are called our holy gurus. They have smiling faces. They are the supreme field of merit or positive potential for our mind of faith—our mind that has faith in the Buddha’s teachings, the mind that really wants to learn, that wants to transform. We direct our faith towards them because they’ve done what we want to do. And we’re asking them, “Please to stay one hundred eons to spread the teachings.” We’re asking them, “Don’t just come here and go away, but please stay a really long time.”

Now when we usually do the seven limbs, there’s one limb about asking the teachers and asking the Buddha to remain for a long time. That one is usually towards the end—it’s usually the fifth or sixth limb. Here it’s up in the front. In our regular seven-limb prayer it’s the fifth one when we say: “Please remain until cyclic existence ends…” So this verse, the one here that ends in “Please stay one hundred eons to spread the teachings” is that particular limb of asking the Buddha, asking the teachers to remain. Except in this practice they moved it up here in the front because we’re visualizing Tsongkhapa first and really kind of making that very firm in front of us. So, that particular limb is moved up to the front.

Your mind of pure genius that spans the whole range of knowledge
Your speech of eloquence, jewel ornament for the fortunate ear,
Your body of beauty, resplendent with the glory of fame,
I bow to you so beneficial to see, hear, and remember.

Then the next verse: Your mind of pure genius…”—this is the limb of prostration. This is usually the first one. The last line is: “I bow to you so beneficial to see, hear, and remember.” So, this is making prostration to Lama Tsongkhapa’s body, speech, and mind. The first line is to his mind—his mind of pure genius that spans the whole range of knowledge. In other words, his mind that is omniscient, that sees everything that is to be known, that has completely transformed itself into the nature of kindness and wisdom. That’s the prostration to the mind.

The prostration of the speech is his “speech of eloquence, jewel ornament for the fortunate ear.” Just to hear Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings, read the books that he wrote, we have fortunate ears to do that because the teachings are very powerful. Our ears are fortunate. To get them in our ears—because by getting them in the ears, there’s the chance that maybe they’ll go in the mind afterwards. And so here we’re recognizing our fortune to come into contact with the teachings as they’re set out by Je Rinpoche.

Then the next line: “Your body of beauty, resplendent with the glory of fame.” Here we’re talking not necessarily about the gross body, but the subtle body that Je Rinpoche actualized through the tantric practices. That is a body which is actually capable of making many different emanations.

We’re kind of bowing down to the body, speech, and mind of Lama Tsongkhapa. Why? Because it’s beneficial for us to see, hear, and remember him. I mean, why does it say “see, hear, and remember” is beneficial? Well, when you see, hear, and remember the Gulf War, how does that make you feel? What does that do to your mind? It has a definite impact. When you see, hear, and remember somebody who has attained Buddhahood it makes your mind happy, it makes your mind light, it makes you feel inspired. It affects you in a totally different way. Thus, again, it’s showing us the importance of doing the visualization and the practice—because when we direct our minds in this way, we become like that.

Various delightful offerings of flowers, perfumes,
Incense, lights and pure sweet waters, those actually presented,
And this ocean of offering clouds created by my imagination,
I offer to you, O supreme field of merit.

Then the next verse is offering. We offer “delightful offerings of flowers, perfumes, incense, lights, pure and sweet waters, those actually presented,”—in other words, the actual objects we have on our shrine. And the offerings that we create in our imagination—so here, in our imagination, we imagine a whole space filled with beautiful things. Usually we fantasize a lot. We fantasize all the nice things we want to buy and beautiful places we want to go. Here you fantasize those things, but you offer them to Lama Tsongkhapa seeing him as the Buddha. So, it’s taking that ability of our mind—that’s usually directed in a self-centered way of what I want, all the nice things—and instead visualizing like just the whole space filled with all these incredible things. And then offering them; and really taking joy in offering. Actually, the visualization of offering is very important. It’s also important for us to put actual offerings on the shrine; that is important too. They say if you don’t have a lot of resources, don’t feel bad because you can still create positive potential (merit) by visualizing the thing. But for those of us who do have resources, visualization isn’t sufficient. Because our mind gets very stingy, thinking, “I want to keep this for myself, and so I’ll just visualize giving the Buddha all these things.” Therefore, it’s really important for us to really put offerings on our shrine. This is quite important.

Now if I can digress here a little bit. This is a custom that you find very readily in Asia. I mean people, when they go to the temple, they always come with offerings. They bring food, they bring flowers, they bring all sorts of stuff because their minds just want to offer. It’s really nice—because then you get these incredible beautiful shrines. And they’re really symbolic of the people’s devotion and their generosity. Similarly, I think when we go to visit temples here in the states to train our minds to do that. And not just to wait until we visit temples. But even in our own homes where we have shrines, to really make a beautiful place and to really give. I mean the Buddhas certainly don’t need these things, but we need to learn how to give. We need to be able to get really beautiful things at the store and then offer them. I say this because it’s precisely our miserliness that keeps us so bound up in samsara and keeps us so unhappy. It’s by training the mind through giving that we overcome our miserliness. That’s why actually doing the physical offerings, I think, is quite important for us. Even though we may not have a whole lot. I mean, whatever we do have we can offer. It’s very important for our mind.

When we offer, we don’t just leave it at one apple. We also do the imagined offerings of the whole space and sky filled with them—so, everything. Just this ability to create beautiful things and give them and to feel happy about giving. Like when we do Chenrezig Puja: when you gather together and do Chenrezig puja, it’s really nice if people bring offerings. It’s not that you bring stuff and then it goes on the table so that everybody can eat it after we do the puja. But when you bring things, you offer it to the Buddha.

Now I’m commenting on that because when we did the memorial for Terri, I’m just realizing slowly that there are some basic things here that, somehow, I haven’t taught—or I taught and you forgot or something. But when things are brought and they go on the altar, like when we offer lights, we offer them to the Buddha. Remember that we set up our altar in a nice and clean high place. We make it quite lovely. If there’s somebody who died and you want to include them in your prayers, we put their picture somewhere aside—not on the altar with the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, but rather somewhere like in a lower place, in another subsidiary place. You’ll see this in the Chinese temples. They have one main shrine for the Buddhas and then another smaller kind of place where they place the tablets with the names of their deceased relatives. It creates a really nice feeling. When we can give and create a beautiful space filled with offerings, then when we meditate—I mean, it just helps our minds so much in meditation.

Audience: [Inaudible]

VTC: Yes. You set your motivation before you offer it, and then you offer it, and then you dedicate it. You motivate for the benefit of others to create positive potential; and to inspire my mind I offer these to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Then when you offer you remember that the Buddhas are empty of inherent existence, you’re empty of inherent existence, and so are the offerings and the act of offering. At the end, you dedicate the offerings for the enlightenment of all beings. Later when you take the offerings down, then you can give them to other people, you can eat them yourself, or you can share them in some way. We don’t take them down just at the time when we’re hungry. Rather, we leave them up and maybe for a day or two days or whatever. The packaged ones you can leave up longer. Fresh ones take down in a day or two—or in a day actually. Don’t let things get dry and stale up on the altar. And then give them to other people or eat them yourself or whatever.

Audience: Can I discard offerings in the trash?

VTC: No, you don’t throw them in the garbage can. Put them in a high space. Give them to other people.

Audience: How about the flowers you take off of your shrine?

VTC: Flowers? I like to throw those in a compost place or somewhere where people won’t walk on them instead of just in the garbage with all the other rubbish. When there was no compost area while I lived, I collected them in a bag and then wrapped them specially in that bag and then put them in the garbage. That was my way, mentally, of acknowledging that these were things that had been offered to the Buddha. Also, when we take the things down we see ourselves as the caretaker of the Buddha’s shrine for the offerings are not our things. It’s not like, “Now I can have them.” Rather it’s that we’re taking care of the offerings and they belong to the Buddha.

All the negativities I have committed with body, speech, and mind
Accumulated from beginningless time,
And especially all transgressions of the three ethical codes,
I confess each one with strong regret from the depth of my heart.

Then the next verse, the one that starts: “All the negativities I have committed with my body, speech, and mind…” This is the limb of confession or revealing our mistakes. This limb is incredibly important—really. It’s because this is the limb that helps us to overcome denial, rationalizations, all these kinds of psychological mechanisms we put up to protect ourselves from seeing our faults. And yet by the fact that we’ve put these things up, we then go around feeling guilty, and inadequate, and having low self-esteem. I mean, it’s real interesting how this works psychologically. The more we build up our defenses against recognizing our mistakes, we actually feel worse about our self.

It’s kind of like if you hide your garbage in the house, nobody sees it but it smells a lot. It’s like that with the mind too. Whereas, if we actually took our garbage out and cleaned it up and cleaned it out and threw it away, then we could have a nice smelling house. Well, it’s the same with our mind. Here we can actually be very frank and honest about our mistakes and reveal them; and here we’re revealing them in the presence of Lama Tsongkhapa who we’re seeing as the nature of the Buddha. Then it’s very relieving psychologically—just tremendously healthy. This is because we’re able to acknowledge our mistakes with a sense of regret; and then actively work to repair the damage by doing some kind of counteractive process—which is the rest of the meditation here that we’re doing, the offerings, the prostrations. Also, those help to counteract the negative karma. So, it’s really healing to spend time with this limb of confession. Again, especially when we feel stuck, when we feel guilty, when we feel like we don’t understand stuff right. Then instead of just feeling guilty and spinning around our own inadequacy, to do this kind of confession and really name the things that open it up. Then we don’t need to feel ashamed for all of our mistakes because there’s a possibility to let go of that negative energy. So, there’s no need for shame, or guilt, or fear, or denial, or any of that.

We’re confessing negativities that we did with body, speech, and mind. In other words, these are things we did physically, said verbally, or thought—things that we’ve accumulated since beginningless time, so not just this lifetime. We’ve had lots of lifetimes to make mistakes—and especially the transgressions of the three sets of vows. Here the three sets of vows are first the vows of individual liberation called the pratimoksa vows. Those include the monk’s and nun’s vows and the lay precepts (like your five lay precepts). The second set is the bodhisattva vows, and the third set of vows are the tantric vows. Some of you have maybe the pratimoksa vows; some of you may have pratimoksa and bodhisattva; some of you may have all three sets of vows. And so, thinking specifically of any transgressions there and really opening those up.

Remember that our vows are things that we take on with a sense of joy, not with a sense of burden. So, it’s not like, “Oh god. I can’t do this, and I can’t do that, and I can’t do the other thing.” Rather, it’s like, “I don’t want to do these things.” But sometimes our old habits get the best of us and we blow it and we do it anyway. So, we confess. We open it up and purifies it; and it helps us to start afresh in the future and really steer our energy properly.

In this degenerate time, you worked for broad learning and accomplishment,
Abandoning the eight worldly concerns to realize the great value
Of freedom and fortune; sincerely, O Protector,
I rejoice at your great deeds.

Then the next verse: “In this degenerate time, you work for broad learning and accomplishment…” This is the verse of rejoicing. Here we’re thinking of Je Rinpoche’s accomplishments in this degenerate time when it’s a short lifespan, and people act really crazy, and a lot of wrong views about, bad behavior about. In spite of the environment he was able to work for broad learning and accomplishment—really teaching people, practicing the teachings themselves, meditating on them. He did all this within the scope of abandoning the eight worldly concerns; so that’s showing that his meditation practice was really pure. It wasn’t like he went off to do all these prostrations knowing that all the people in the city would say, “Wow. Did you know Lama Tsongkhapa’s doing a million and a half prostrations? Isn’t he far out? What a great practitioner. Boy, I think I’m going to run off and give him some offerings because he’s really good. Then he’s going to like me and I’m going to invite him to my house; and then all my friends will think I’m really far out because I’m Lama Tsongkhapa’s benefactor and he came to my house.” There is so much of this attitude—look at how people act sometimes around the lamas.

For ourselves then, so without doing practice because we want fame, reputation, approval, good image, or because we want offerings or we want to feel good. Just really saying, “Do the practice in the same way he did—just because the practice itself is valuable, and you’re doing it for the benefit of others.” This really makes it a pure practice.

Here in the sādhana we’re looking at his pure practice and feeling rejoice at it. Really letting ourselves feel happy. We tend to look at Lama Tsongkhapa’s pure practice and get discouraged. “He went to the mountain and did a million and a half prostrations. I can’t do that. It’s too cold, it’s too hard, I can’t do that.” So, we look at somebody else’s achievements and we feel discouraged. What this verse here is doing is it’s saying, “Don’t feel discouraged but feel happy that somebody was able to do that.” I say this because the thing is, if we let ourselves feel happy about other people’s accomplishments, then pretty soon we’ll be able to do the exact same thing. What we respect we become like. What we respect we become able to do. And so, if we respect and rejoice at his way of practicing, then sooner or later we’ll be able to do it too. Whereas, if we just feel jealous or discouraged then we’ll never improve—and we can sit there and feel stuck.

This practice of rejoicing here is for Lama Tsongkhapa’s qualities. But also to rejoice at the practice of Milarepa, and all the previous people in the lineage, and the practice of Shakyamuni Buddha. Rejoice at the practice of our Dharma friends, the other people in the class. If we really take time and remember all the wonderful things that people are doing and let ourselves feel happy about it, then we actually do feel happy don’t we? And then our mind really begins to grow. Lama Zopa when he used to do this, sometimes after this limb of rejoicing he would just stop. We’re all ready to go on to the next verse and Rinpoche just stops, like fifteen minutes of silence meditating on this. I mean, he was really emphasizing what an important practice this is.

To see it through, “realize the great value of leisure and opportunity.” That leisure and opportunity refers to the precious human life. And so for us to realize its value; and practice and rejoice in the practice of those who do. Therefore, we’re rejoicing and we’re saying, “O Protectors” here. We’re calling Je Rinpoche and his two chief disciples protectors because by teaching us the Dharma they protect us from suffering.

Venerable holy Gurus, in the space of your truth body
From billowing clouds of your wisdom and love,
Let fall the rain of the profound and extensive Dharma
In whatever form is suitable for subduing sentient beings.

Then the next verse “Venerable holy Gurus….” That verse is the one verse of requesting teachings. In Dharamsala when His Holiness teaches, when we all do the mandala offering before teachings, this is the customary thing. Each day before teachings you offer the mandala— you offer the entire universe to the teacher and request teachings. And that’s a way of us training our minds to see the value of the teachings and making offerings because we see the value of the teachings. We always recite this verse when we do the mandala offering. So here it isn’t in the context of offering the mandala for sometimes it’s extracted and we say it.

There’s a very beautiful melody for this verse and it’s quite beautiful when you think of the meaning of it. We say, “In the space of your truth body….” That’s the dharmkaya and it’s referring to the Buddha’s omniscient mind. So, within the space of the Buddha’s omniscient mind there’s wisdom and love; and because of that great wisdom and love it’s like the Buddhas are obligated to give us teachings. Here we’re really kind of playing on the fact that they attained Buddhahood for our benefit. We’re kind of saying “Hey, remember you attained Buddhahood for our benefit? So now teach us.” Thus we’re saying, “Let fall the rain of the profound and extensive Dharma….” The profound Dharma refers to all the teachings on emptiness. The extensive or vast Dharma refers to all the teachings on the stages of the path, developing the bodhisattva’s deeds, developing compassion, and so on.

How do we want them to do it? “In whatever form is suitable for subduing sentient beings.” It’s really showing us that the Buddha is very skillful in teaching different ways for the benefit of sentient beings. The teachings will come out differently because of sentient beings’ different cultures and different inclinations. What we’re really saying is, “Please instruct in a way that fertilizes my mind in according to my disposition so that I can really hear and understand the teachings.” It’s very important to do this. This practice of requesting teachings and all these practices are done because it really helps us to see that the teachings are valuable and not take them for granted.

I was telling Julie in the car yesterday that the old custom is that we go to our teachers and we request teachings three times. Nowadays it’s like our teachers have to come to us and request us to come to the teachings, like, “Please, please. We’ll serve refreshments afterwards. It won’t last very long and you’ll meet lots of nice friends there. Please, please come to the teachings.” But before it used to be that the students went to the teachers. This was my experience in India. We would go and we would go with offerings. We would bow down three times. We would make offerings and we would request our teachers to teach.

It’s funny because there are lots of these things that I did in India because, I mean, everybody did them. The Tibetans did them. I thought this was the way you were supposed to do them. It was kind of I just did it. Really, it’s when I came back here that I now see the value of doing this. How that little ritual—there’s a very definite purpose for that ritual, a very definite meaning for it. This is because it really made us think, and made us prepare, and made us feel a sense of commitment when we asked for teachings. We were asking because we wanted to hear them; and we were committed to going when we asked. It made a really big difference on our mind then when we did go. So, it’s very important.

Also, just to create the karma to be able to receive teachings. I was telling you about the boys in Shanghai. I mean, they really want to receive teachings; and they tell me it’s so difficult to get teachings. It’s difficult to find people who can really teach them from beginning to end; and who have the time and who have the knowledge and everything like that. That’s why it’s important for us to create the karma to be born in a situation where we have access to the teachings. If we’re born in a place where we have no access, then even if we wanted to learn desperately, there’s no opportunity. That’s why I think it would be nice to bring them here—because there’s really that sincerity in wanting to learn. That’s one thing I really came back from China with. It was an appreciation for the freedom we have here to learn the Dharma that we so often take for granted.

Whatever virtue I may have gathered here,
May it bring benefit to the migrating beings and to the Buddha’s teachings.
May it make the essence of Buddha’s doctrine,
And especially the teachings of venerable Losang Dragpa shine for a long time.

The next verse is the verse of dedication: “Whatever virtue I may have gathered here…” We’re sharing. We’re dedicating it for the benefit of migrating beings or sentient beings, and for the existence of the Buddha’s teachings in a pure form. We’re especially praying that the teachings, as Lama Tsongkhapa set them out and all the Buddha’s teachings of all traditions, live for a long time. Not just in the form of texts that are shoved away in some library, but that they are alive in the minds of people and they can get passed down from generation to generation.

That’s the seven-limb prayer. It helps us to purify our negative karma and create a lot of positive potential/merit. Prostrations purifies pride. Offerings purifies attachment and miserliness. Confession purifies denial and rationalizations. Rejoicing purifies jealousy. Requesting for teachings and requesting our teachers to live a long time and for the Buddha to be continually manifest—these purify taking good things for granted. And then the dedication itself helps us to purify attachment to our own positive potential. Again, we share it and give it.

Short mandala offering

This ground, anointed with perfume, flowers strewn,
Mount Meru, four lands, sun and moon,
Imagined as a Buddha land and offered to you
May all beings enjoy this pure land.

Idam guru ratna mandalakam niryatayami

The mandala offering, again to create positive potential, we’re visualizing the whole enormous universe. We’ll get into this when we do the teaching on the mandala with Mt. Meru and so on. The Indian version of the universe is flat with Mount Meru and the four continents. I think maybe we should like—maybe write a new verse; do the old verse and a new verse.

Short request to Je Tsongkhapa (in Tibetan)

mig may tse way ter chen chen re sig
dri may kyen pay wong po jam pel yang
du pung ma lu jom dze sang way dag
gang chen kay pay tsug kyen tsong kha pa
lo zang drag pay zhab la sol wa deb

Short request to Je Tsongkhapa

Avalokiteshvara, great treasure of objectless compassion,
Manjushri, master of flawless wisdom,
Vajrapani, destroyer of all demonic forces,
Tsongkhapa, crown jewel of the Snowy Lands’ sages
Losang Dragpa, I make request at your holy feet.

Then comes the request to Lama Tsongkhapa. There’s a short request here that’s five lines. In the sadhana what follows these five lines is the nine-line request—which is a more amplified version of it. And it’s usually here that we can stop for quite a bit of time and actually meditate. There are a number of visualizations that we do while we recite either the nine line or the five line. Or sometimes people just do the four line; they omit the line to Vajrapani. We repeat this over and over and over again. And so, it’s like instead of reciting a mantra, we recite this praise to Lama Tsongkhapa.

It’s interesting because Lama Tsongkhapa actually wrote this, but he wrote it for one of his teachers, Jetsun Rendawa. Originally it didn’t say, “Tsongkhapa, crown jewel of the snowy lands…” It said Rendawa. That was his teacher. He wrote it for one of his teachers. But his teacher was also one of his disciples. You see this sometimes. Like my root teacher Serkong Rinpoche, he is the Dalai Lama’s teacher. He’s also the Dalai Lama’s disciple. It kind of worked both ways. Because they both have this tremendous regard for each other’s wisdom and learning and practice. So, they became students of each other. For Rendawa and Lama Tsongkhapa it was the same way. When Lama Tsongkhapa offered this to Jetsun Rendawa, Rendawa said, “No, no, no…” and changed the name in it to Tsongkhapa and offered it back. And so it came to us in this form.

Let me just explain the verses. The meaning of this verse—it’s very profound. I often say one line and it’s like, “Wow. I only understand that one line.”

So here we’re seeing Lama Tsongkhapa as the emanation or the embodiment of Avalokiteshvara (or Chenrezig), Manjushri (whose name is Jampelyang in Tibetan), and Vajrapani. We’re seeing him as the emanation of these three. You find these three deities a lot in Tibet. Chenrezig is the manifestation especially of compassion, and Manjushri of wisdom, and Vajrapani of skillful means. It’s also said that those are the three essential qualities of Buddhahood: compassion, wisdom, and skillful means. So, it’s like you have a deity representing each of those; and we’re seeing Lama Tsongkhapa as the embodiment of all of that. By reciting this we’re thinking of those three principle qualities; and by doing that it fertilizes and makes grow within our self the seeds of those qualities that we have already.

Objectless compassion

So the first line, “Avalokiteshvara… (or Chenrezig) …great treasure of objectless compassion.” This term ‘objectless compassion’ is, I mean, there’s whole teachings on this term. When you get into the scriptures it’s like someone will do whole enormous teachings on the two words objectless compassion. Why it’s called objectless is: This is a mind that recognizes that sentient beings are empty of inherent existence. By recognizing that sentient beings are empty of existing independently, inherently, with selves that are there and solid concrete personalities, that need to be protected and defended—when we’re able to see people like that, then we’re also able to recognize that all of their suffering is totally unnecessary. All of our own suffering is totally unnecessary—because, and we can see this, that grasping at having a solid self, a solid personality that needs to be protected and made happy, that that is the root of all the problems in our life. Coming from that feeling of, “Me, me, me, me, me…”, then we get attachment, we get anger, we get jealousy, we get pride. Motivated by those things we get into all sorts of difficult situations in our life. Our attachment makes us wind up in these co-dependent icky, gooey situations. Our anger makes us wind up in conflicts and fights. It becomes real clear.

All those things come from the ignorance that grasps at an inherent solid personality that’s me. When we’re able to see that such a solid personality to defend and protect doesn’t even exist at all, then it’s like all this suffering is totally unnecessary. It isn’t a given in the world. It doesn’t have to be like this. We begin to really see that there’s a way out of suffering. This is because if we and others could realize that there’s not the solid self, then we wouldn’t generate the negative emotions, we wouldn’t do the harmful actions, we wouldn’t find ourselves in all the jams we find ourselves in.

So, when we’re able to really see this in ourselves and others, this lack of inherent existence which is what the term ‘objectless’ means, then the compassion for others becomes very strong. It’s because we really see that sentient beings are not inherently suffering, they’re not inherently evil, the world’s not an inherently screwed up place. These things only happen because of causes and conditions; and if the causes and conditions are removed, then all of that big mess goes away automatically and effortlessly.

The compassion that arises through understanding emptiness is extremely strong compassion. Chenrezig is the great treasure of that kind of compassion—just the embodiment of that extremely profound compassion for our self and for other. And that kind of compassion has such hope behind it. Again, it’s because it sees so clearly that the suffering isn’t necessary; the world doesn’t have to be like this. So, in spite of the compassion that recognizes suffering, there’s a tremendous sense of optimism and hope. You can see that so evidently in His Holiness the Dalai Lama; how he is so optimistic in the face of what’s happening to his country.

Flawless wisdom

Then “Manjushri, master of flawless wisdom”—so, flawless wisdom. This is the wisdom that recognizes emptiness on one hand, and recognizes dependent arising on the other, and can put them together so that they see that they aren’t contradictory. This last point is a big problem that many people have. As they’re progressing along the path and when they go to meditate on emptiness, they fall into nihilism and think nothing exists. And when they meditate on dependent arising, they fall to the other extreme of eternalism or permanence and make everything too solid. For these practitioners, it’s not the real exact realizations of emptiness and dependent arising that they have—because they are flipflopping actually from one extreme to the other extreme. They can’t put them together. Their wisdom can’t put those things together.

In the correct view emptiness shows how things are not inherently existing, and dependent arising shows how they do exist—dependently. So this is the big trick: To see that when you realize emptiness you’re not negating existence. And this is a real big problem. Why? It’s because if people don’t realize emptiness correctly and instead they mistake emptiness for non-existence. Then what happens is they negate karma, they negate ethics, and they start doing all sorts of weird things—because they think nothing exists at all; and then that only becomes the cause for more suffering.

So this balance of dependent arising and emptiness, it takes an incredible amount of skill. You’ve heard the term the “middle way.” This is what we’re referring to. It’s the view that can see that things dependently arise, but that doesn’t give them a self or an entity or an essence. And it also sees that things are non-inherently existent, but that doesn’t make them non-existent. So those two things, emptiness and dependent arising, go together.

Also, you’ll hear the terms “the two truths” a lot. This is something that I want to get into when we get further along in lamrim. But briefly, relative truth, how things function, is talking about dependent arising. Ultimate truth, the deeper nature or mode in which things exist, is talking about emptiness. And those two things exist simultaneously, completely dependent on each other—immersed. So, it’s not like this glass is dependent arising and when we realize the emptiness of the glass we’re creating something that never existed before. The emptiness of the glass exists as the nature of the glass. So, the dependently arising glass, the emptiness of the glass—they exist there at the same time already. We’re not creating any of it when we understand it.

This kind of wisdom, this balanced wisdom, is very delicate. And so, we’re really kind of saying Manjushri is the master of this—meaning his wisdom has it exact without flip flopping to these two extremes.

Skill in means

Then Vajrapani: Vajrapani is the “destroyer of all demonic forces.” This isn’t talking necessarily about external beings that are demonic. It could. But it’s talking especially about our internal demonic forces—our ignorance, anger, and attachment, all of our karma, all of our rubbish. The fact that we’re under the influence of the twelve links, and we get born and sick and old and die and have messes in the middle—that’s demonic forces. So, seeing Vajrapani as the one that is extremely skillful through using wisdom and compassion to overcome these demonic forces, these obscurations.

Next is “Tsongkhapa,” referring to Lama Tsongkhapa, as “crown jewel of the Snowy Lands’ sages.” The snowy land is Tibet. And all their sages—the crown jewel is the one that’s on the top of the crown. It’s kind of like saying, “Lama Tsongkhapa, you’re in the Hall of Fame. You’re the crown jewel of the NFL, the NFL Hall of Fame,”—whatever it is. Losang Dragpa (that’s his ordination name), “I make request at your holy feet.” This is like really seeing Lama Tsongkhapa’s qualities; that there’s another human being who actually was able to become like that; that we actually have some connection. And then we make requests—at his feet, so we’re putting ourselves lower. We’re saying, “I have something to learn. I need inspiration and guidance and help.” So this is the 911 call to the Buddha.

Next come the many different visualizations that we can do with this request.

Audience: Could you lead us through this last part?

VTC: Let’s do the short request again three times and while you’re doing this, let me give you one simple visualization to do with it. I don’t want to make things too long.

At Lama Tsongkhapa’s crown, in his forehead you can imagine a small Chenrezig, and at his throat a small Manjushri, and at his heart a small Vajrapani. Remember sometimes we have om ah hum in white, red, and blue in these three places? Here we have Chenrezig, Manjushri, and Vajrapani. When we say the first line you can imagine white light coming from that Chenrezig into you, just streaming white light into you. When we say the second line to Manjushri, then the red light coming from Manjushri into you purifying speech. The first white light purifies body, this red light purifies speech. Then from the blue light when we say the third line to Vajrapani, blue light from Vajrapani flows into our heart, purifying our mind. With the last two lines you can imagine all three coming at once into you—purifying body, speech, and mind at once.

As you do this visualization really let this white light just kind of fill your crown and flow down. And the red light fills your throat and spread throughout your body. It has an amazing effect on you when you visualize these colors really brilliantly, and think of purifying body, speech, and mind.

So let’s just do the verse three times as a way of concluding and then we’ll dedicate.

mig may tse way ter chen chen re sig
dri may kyen pay wong po jam pel yang
du pung ma lu jom dze sang way dag
gang chen kay pay tsug kyen tsong kha pa
lo zang drag pay zhab la sol wa deb

Avalokiteshvara, great treasure of objectless compassion,
Manjushri, master of flawless wisdom,
Vajrapani, destroyer of all demonic forces,
Tsongkhapa, crown jewel of the Snowy Lands’ sages

Losang Dragpa, I make request at your holy feet.

Continue to Part 2 of this 2-part teaching: Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga, Part 2

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.