Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Manjushri and the three vehicles

Pali tradition, Sanskrit tradition, and Vajrayana: Background to the Manjushri practice

Part of a series of teachings on the Manjushri practice given at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, Washington.

  • Placing the Manjushri sadhana into the context of the three vehicles
  • Historical progression of the three vehicles
  • Motivation, precepts, and view in the three vehicles
  • How to prepare the mind for meditation on emptiness
  • Questions and answers regarding the sadhana
    • Could you talk about the DHIH in the back of the throat?
    • How can I prepare my mind for the meditation on emptiness?
    • In what order do I chant the mantras?
    • If one has not actually generated the four opponent powers, does this practice actually purify negativities?

Manjushri sadhana and commentary 02 (download)

I thought I would put the Manjushri practice1 in the context of the whole Dharma path, and talk about where it fits in.

Thangka image of Manjushri.

Manjushri (Photo by Himalayan Art Resources)

Let’s start with the Tibetan presentation of the three vehicles. There are three vehicles of Buddhist practice: the vehicles of the hearers, solitary realizers, and bodhisattvas. The aim of the first two is individual liberation from cyclic existence. The aim of the bodhisattva path is full enlightenment in order to guide all sentient beings to full awakening as well.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama also speaks of the hearers and solitary realizer vehicles together as the Pali tradition, and the bodhisattva vehicle as the Sanskrit tradition. This refers to the languages in which these traditions were written down. You’ll also hear people refer to the bodhisattva vehicle as the Mahayana. The Vajrayana—or Diamond Vehicle—is a subsection of the bodhisattva vehicle.

In the Tibetan tradition, a person can be a follower of the Pali tradition or of the Sankrit tradition in two ways. One way is in terms of motivation and practice, and the second way is in terms of tenet system. These are two different ways that the Tibetans classify it.

If we look in terms of someone’s motivation for practice: the motivation of a practitioner from either of the two vehicles of the Pali tradition would be for one’s own liberation from samsara. For followers of the Sanskrit tradition—the bodhisattva vehicle—the motivation would be to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings. So the Pali tradition practitioner would aspire for arhatship, their own liberation; the Sanskrit tradition practitioner would go through the bodhisattva stages to arrive at full enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.

Many people call themselves Mahayana practitioners, but if they look in their own minds, they will see they’re actually Pali tradition practitioners. Some of them aren’t even that, meaning they’re not even seeking their own liberation. Instead, they are basically motivated by the eight worldly concerns, in which case there’s no Dharma practice there at all, even though there are a lot of words, talk, ritual, and blah, blah, blah.

What I’m getting at here is this: calling oneself a Mahayana practitioner does not make one a Mahayana practitioner. You have to check your state of mind. For example, do any of us have full renunciation of samsara? We think samsara’s kind of a nice place, don’t we? We want to get as much pleasure as we can from samsara. We don’t even have a Buddhist motivation. So getting on some big trip about, “Well, the arhats are selfish.” Well, excuse me. When we don’t even have their noble realization of emptiness or their motivation to be free of samsara, there’s no need for that kind of trip to go on.

Also, someone who calls him or herself a Pali tradition practitioner may actually have a Sanskrit tradition motivation. If you think about it, Buddhas and bodhisattvas surely manifest in many countries and in many different forms. I’m sure they manifest in countries where the Pali tradition is taught. And I’m sure sometimes Buddhas and bodhisattvas appear as Jews and Christians and Muslims and everybody else. So, again, you can’t say what anybody’s motivation is based on what they call themselves. For societal reasons, somebody may not be practicing under the name of Sanskrit tradition, but they may have a bodhisattva motivation.

The tenet system of Tibet

The other way the Tibetans delineate the Pali tradition vehicles and the Sanskrit tradition vehicle is according to philosophical tenet system.

In ancient India, as Buddhism was developing, they had a very vibrant system of debate, textual commentary, interpretation, and discussion. The idea behind this was to go to the depths of what the Buddha was talking about. The Tibetans took these fairly loosely arranged views and put them in a system of Buddhist tenets. They delineated four philosophical schools: the Vaibashika, the Sautrantika, the Cittamatra (or Yogacharya), and the Madhyamaka. And each of these has various subdivisions to it.

In ancient India, the practitioners were not as clearly defined as this and that. In fact a lot of these categories—let’s say the Madhyamaka category, for example—is further divided into Svatantrika Madhyamakas and Prasangika Madhyamakas. They didn’t even have those terms in ancient India. The Tibetans said, “Oh, well, Bhavaviveka thought differently than Chandrakirti, so they belong to two different schools.” But I don’t think Bhavaviveka and Chandrakirti saw themselves that way. So when we get to the study of tenet systems, it’s very helpful to remember that the Tibetans classified these systems as a very skillful way to help you develop your philosophical view gradually going step by step.

When studying the tenet systems, you start with the Vaibashika view—its view of reality, and its views of the stages of the path, which challenge your ordinary view a little bit. So you get used to that until it feels comfortable. Then you move on to the Sautrantika system, which says, “Oh, some of these Vaibashika things are wrong. Here’s how it is.” And you think, “Hmmm! Oh, actually come to think of it, that does make more sense than Vaibashika.” And so you become a Sautrantika.

Then, after a while, you study Yogachara or Cittamatra, and they say, “Oh, these Sautrantikas are too limited. Actually, reality is like this.” They give their presentation, and you go, “Ah yes, much better.” Then you go on and study Madhyamaka, and the Madhyamikas say, “Listen, the Cittamatras say, ‘mind only.’ What do they know? Here is the real meaning of the middle way that the Buddha taught.” And then you go on to that.

The Tibetans defined these systems and schools so that we could gradually progress in the development of the view of emptiness, and the development of our view of what the path entails. But in ancient India it was not divided so clearly. You didn’t have card-carrying Sautrantikas, for example. Practitioners of different schools intermingled, they debated, and it was very free and loose. You could have somebody who from the viewpoint of philosophical tenets practiced in the Pali tradition (identified by the Tibetans as the first two: the Vaibashika and the Sautrantika), but maybe they had a bodhicitta motivation. Or you could have somebody who by tenet system followed the Cittamatra—a Mahayana system—but by motivation they’re more in the Pali tradition. Or you could have somebody that’s Sanskrit tradition in terms of motivation and in terms of tenet system (their view). Or you could have somebody who’s Pali tradition in terms of their view and in terms of their motivation. And you can have somebody who’s not any of them at all.

The historical point of view

Now if we look at the Pali tradition, the Sanskrit tradition, and Vajrayana, there’s also a historical progression. This is how the historians tell it, not necessarily as the Buddhists do. But it’s nice to have a little bit of history.

According to academic historians, the way they look at it, the Pali tradition is comprised of the initial Buddhist teachings—and that came to be systematized into what the Tibetans call the hearer vehicle and the solitary realizer vehicle. Those scriptures or teachings are the sutras that the Buddha gave as he wandered around ancient India talking to different people. These consist of the three baskets of teaching: the vinaya, the sutra, and the abhidharma. The vinaya outlines the monastic vows, and it talks a lot about karma and behavior. There’s the sutra, which are the Dharma teachings themselves. And then the abhidharma, which from the Pali tradition viewpoint came later. It was not actually spoken by the Buddha, but was systematized by later pundits after the Buddha passed away. So the Pali tradition began in the 6th century BC at the time of the Buddha’s life, and then the abhidharma, that third basket, developed in the first few centuries after that.

What we know as the Sanskrit tradition (i.e., the Mahayana tradition or the bodhisattva vehicle) did not become obvious on this planet until about the first century BC. It started to become a little bit more prominent in the first century AD and subsequent centuries, and it became the rage after that. But it was not there, promulgated publicly, at the time of the Buddha. It was several centuries after the Buddha that Mahayana became prominent or even known. And the Vajrayana subtradition didn’t become known until well after that—maybe the 5th century AD. Slowly after that more and more texts came to be known, and by the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries there were a lot of Vajrayana teachings and texts and practices.

That’s how the historians describe the history. So from their point of view the historians often say, “The Pali scriptures are the actual words of the Buddha.” Of course they were passed down orally for five centuries and then written down, so I’m sure there must have been some interpretation, but who’s to say what.

Then the historians tend to say the Sanskrit scriptures were made up by people, that the Mayahana was like a reformist movement. (I’m giving you the historical party line here. Next you’ll get the Buddhist party line.) Buddhism had gotten so locked into this basic Pali scripture way of viewing things, wherein the monastics were at the center of the doctrine and the only people who could really practice. A lot of people were getting fed up with that, and they wanted a wider spread practice whereby more people could participate. So, it’s said, they developed the bodhisattva ideal, in which you didn’t have to be a monastic to practice because your motivation was to benefit everybody. In that way, you weren’t limited to just going in a monastery and keeping rigorous discipline.

Since, according to the historians, the Mahayana was a reformist movement to include many more people, the Mahayana scriptures reflect that. Instead of just monastics having discourses with the Buddha, you also have lay people—lay bodhisattvas—having discourses with the Buddha. The Vimalakirti Sutra is a very famous example of that. The idea here is that you have a lay person like Vimalakirti—who far outshines the arhats in terms of his realization of emptiness and his bodhicitta—who is acting as a role model for lay people so that many more people, who don’t want to leave their family life, can become involved in the Dharma. This is how historians have seen the movement.

And then, again, historians see the Vajrayana (also called Mantrayana or Tantrayana) as a reformist movement to include more people. With Vajrayana, you really got into the nitty-gritty—lots of rituals, and sexual activity, and this kind of stuff. And so, they see it as a movement to make the Dharma more grassroots.

The Tibetan point of view

Now the Tibetan viewpoint is a very different way of looking at it. From the Tibetan viewpoint the Buddha taught the Pali scriptures while he was alive on Earth; and those were propagated after his parinirvana because that was according to the mentality of the people who lived on Earth at that time. They say he also taught the Prajnaparamita—which is the essence of the Mahayana scriptures—on Vulture’s Peak, but he didn’t teach in a way where everybody could see him. If you’ve ever been to Vulture’s Peak, you know it’s not a huge place where he taught. And yet in the sutras it says there were millions and billions of bodhisattvas present. So either the bodhisattvas were really small or something else was going on!

They say that the Mahayana scriptures were taught to high level bodhisattvas. Now bodhisattvas, especially on the path of seeing and above, can manifest in multiple forms. They can fly in from other parts of the world system, from other parts of the universe. They can put their seating cloth out in space. They don’t have to sit on the ground. So you can have millions and billions of bodhisattvas all around there sitting in a very small space, listening to the Buddha, who is teaching directly to them. And they can perceive these teachings because of their karma. Whereas people who didn’t have the good karma due to their lack of realizations, they couldn’t see the Buddha. The people who had the karma, who were already bodhisattvas, could see the Buddha and they heard the Mahayana scriptures directly when the Buddha taught them.

As the Tibetans tell it, because the karma of the people on Earth at that time was not such that they were really prepared to practice the Mahayana teachings, these Mahayana scriptures were taken to the land of the nagas. The nagas are these serpent-like beings, but they’re a little bit human. They have tremendous wealth, and they live under the ocean. So the Prajnaparamita scriptures were taken there for safekeeping, because people on our Earth didn’t have the karma to be able to understand them. After the Buddha’s parinirvana they would not be taught here.

Then Nagarjuna came along. From the Tibetan viewpoint he lived for six hundred years. Nagarjuna went down to the land of the nagas, got the texts, brought them back to Earth, and began to spread them. And so it was in that way that the Mahayana texts became known in India, and spread, and were taught. From the Tibetan viewpoint (and from the Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese viewpoints too, because those are all Mahayana traditions), all those scriptures were taught by the Buddha himself, but they were kept safely until the karma was such on this Earth that people could practice them, and then Nagarjuna brought them here.

Similarly, from the Tibetan viewpoint, the Tantrayana was also taught by the Buddha, but he didn’t appear as Buddha Shakyamuni. He appeared in the form of Vajradhara when he taught the tantra. Again, Vajradhara doesn’t have a flesh and bones body like we do; Vajradhara has a body of light. So you would have to have been somebody with incredibly good karma to be able to sit in on those teachings, to perceive the Buddha in the form of Vajradhara with a body of light. He taught them to really high level practitioners. Again, from the Tibetan viewpoint, those teachings were kept secret and passed on in very small lineages—extremely secretly—until maybe the 6th, 7th, 8th century AD, when they began to be more widely promulgated.

The Tibetans also see the system of Buddhism that they practice as encompassing all these traditions: Pali tradition, Sanskrit tradition, and Vajrayana. Many people in the West call the Tibetan system Vajrayana. That’s incorrect. The Tibetan system includes all these practices, and actually, Vajrayana itself is a subdivision of Mahayana. So when we look, for example, at our pratimoksha vows—the monk’s and nun’s precepts and the five lay people’s precepts—they all come from the Pali tradition. Of course they actually came to Tibet in Sanskrit, not Pali, but they’re considered Pali tradition precepts.

Both the Tibetans and the historians hold that the Pali tradition subdivided into at least 18 minor schools in India. And Buddhism spread orally. They didn’t have telephones and fax machines; they didn’t have the scriptures on CD drives, so certain little things got changed a little bit. Actually though, considering that the pratimoksha was passed down orally for at least five centuries before it was written down, it’s amazing how similar the different vinaya systems are in these 18 schools. That they were all passed down just by memory is really remarkable.

Of these 18 initial Pali tradition schools, three still exist today: the Theravada, the Dharmagupta, and the Mulasarvastivada. The Theravada tradition is what is practiced in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Burma, and parts of Vietnam. So from a Tibetan viewpoint that is considered part of the Pali tradition. The Tibetans themselves practice the Mulasarvastivada vinaya, and the Chinese follow the Dharmagupta vinaya, so their monastic codes are also from the Pali tradition, even though the bodhisattva vehicle is practiced in Tibet and China.

Tibetan Buddhism includes the Pali tradition, Sanskrit, and Vajrayana

I’m saying this because sometimes you may go to a Theravada temple. And, for example, in the discussion about the reinstitution of the bhikshuni lineage of full ordination for women in some of the Theravada countries, some of the Theravada elders protest, “But that’s a Mahayana ordination.” They say that because the bhikshuni lineage exists in some of the countries that practice Mahayana Buddhism. But from the viewpoint of the Mahayana practitioners that vinaya lineage comes from the Pali tradition. Are you with me?

This is actually quite an important point. I’m hoping that some of you will go to some of the ethnic temples and will make friends with Buddhists from other traditions. It’s extremely valuable. It’s really helpful to have the kind of background that we’re talking about here when you do. It’s important to know that the monks’ and nuns’ vows all come from the same tradition; they have nothing to do with Mahayana. In fact, when you’re ordained as a monk or a nun, or when you take the five lay precepts, the basic motivation for taking them is renunciation from cyclic existence. That’s the minimum motivation—and that’s what’s emphasized in the Pali tradition. Of course if you practice in the Mahayana tradition, everybody tries to get you to generate bodhicitta as much as possible, so they spruce it up with that. But that’s not necessary for actually taking those ordinations, including your five lay precepts.

So you can see, from the Tibetan viewpoint, when you first start practicing your first level of practice is out of the Pali tradition. The first thing you do is take refuge, you take the five precepts, and you try to develop some renunciation and some determination to be free from cyclic existence. In fact you have to practice that before you can go on to the Mahayana tradition. That basic practice is a required foundation for taking the the bodhisattva vows of the Mahayana tradition.

Atisha said you can’t take the bodhisattva vows unless you’ve taken at least some of the vinaya vows, so for lay people, that’s the five lay precepts. Some people have other interpretations of this, but that’s what Atisha said. Therefore, from the Tibetan viewpoint, you don’t take bodhisattva vows until you’ve taken some level of vinaya vows. Remember, the vinaya includes your five lay precepts; you don’t need to be a monk or a nun to take the bodhisattva precepts.

Also, you can’t have the bodhisattva vehicle motivation until you’ve developed a Pali tradition motivation, that is, you see cyclic existence as a disastrous pit of disgusting going-around-in-circles for eons, and you want out because you have compassion for yourself and you want yourself to be happy. What we often call renunciation, put in other language, is compassion for yourself.

We’re talking here about the determination to be free: the wish to obtain liberation that is based on compassion for yourself. Don’t think that the word renunciation means hating yourself and denying yourself happiness. In English, many people associate the word renunciation with an attitude that says, “Oh, I can’t do this, and I can’t do that, and my life is so miserable because I’m renounced and I’m suffering.” Actually, you renounce because you love yourself. You renounce because you respect yourself, and you have compassion for yourself, and you want yourself to be happy.

The Mahayana motivation

The Mahayana motivation, the bodhicitta motivation, is when you look at others being caught in this messed-up net of samsara and you want them to be free of it too. Now we can’t have compassion for others and the determination to free them from samsara unless we first have that motivation for ourselves. That’s why we need to develop renunciation before we develop bodhicitta. Clear? This is extremely important!

I say this is very important because when they study the lamrim, many people don’t like doing the meditations from the initial and middle scopes that lead to developing renunciation. They don’t like meditating on death. They don’t want to think about the six sufferings and the eight sufferings and the three sufferings and the six root delusions and the six factors that cause them to arise. They don’t want to talk about the god realms and the hell realms and all the lower realms. They say, “I don’t want to study about that. I like bodhicitta because it’s about love and compassion and makes me feel good.” Actually, there’s no possible way you can generate bodhicitta unless you have some renunciation first, because all you’re doing in generating bodhicitta is shifting the object of compassion from yourself to all living beings. So people who want to skip the first two levels of practice in the lamrim and go directly to the level of the highest advanced practitioner aren’t going to be able to actualize that.

Vajrayana and the place of vipassana

If you want to practice Vajrayana, you do it on the basis of at least the five lay precepts and the bodhisattva vows. And then in the Vajrayana, depending upon which level of tantric initiation you take, you may have certain vows and commitments according to that class of tantra. In highest yoga tantra you take what’s called the tantric vows and the samaya of the five Dhyani Buddhas.

If you’re going to practice Vajrayana, you have to have a strong base in what is called the Pali tradition, what is called the Sanskrit tradition, and then—on top of that—you do the Vajrayana.

People often say, “Well, we have three kinds of Buddhism in the West: we have vipassana, Zen and Vajrayana.” This is wrong! First of all, vipassana is a meditation technique, it’s not a school. You have vipassana meditation in Zen and in Tibetan Buddhism.

Vipassana meditation isn’t a school of its own; all the traditions have it. Even if you call that system “Theravada,” then say that “Zen” covers all the Mahayana schools, that’s not accurate at all. I think it’s actually very Euro-American-centric to say that there’s vipassana, Zen, and Vajrayana—because in America there are lots of Asian Buddhists who don’t fall into any of those three categories.

You have the Buddhist Churches of America, which is centered in Berkeley, which is the Jodo School—the Pure Land School—that’s very popular in Israel and in Japan. And many people in America practice Pure Land Buddhism. It’s not the Zen tradition.

You have Thai Buddhists who are Theravada. You have Chinese and Japanese Buddhists who maybe practice Zen—it’s called Chan in Chinese—or they may practice Pure Land. And even in Chinese Buddhism, there are more subdivisions in addition to that. And even in Japanese Buddhism there’s Tendai, which is not Zen. So there are all sorts of other Buddhists, not just Pure Land and Chan or Zen.

And then as happens in America, to say Vajrayana is a school of its own—like it’s unrelated to vipassana and Mahayana—is also completely wrong. As I’ve just shown, you don’t practice Vajrayana unless you practice many of the things in the Pali and Sankrit tradition paths. Also, the Vajrayana tradition is found in Japan. It spread to China too although it never became very popular there.

So looking at things from this viewpoint as I’ve just explained is quite different from the historical viewpoint. From the historical viewpoint it looks like the reform of Mahayana and the reform of Vajrayana were done to spread Buddhism to more people. But if you think about it in the sense of people being very serious practitioners, actually you would have more people who practice on the level of Theravada, fewer who practice on the level of Mahayana, and very few who actually practice the Vajrayana. Why? Because one is based on the other, and because the level of precepts you take is much more complicated as you progress from one to another. The practices you do are also much more technical, much more complicated, as you go up.

I’ve just given you the view from the Tibetan Gelugpa tradition. You might get different views from other people, but it’s up to you to think and analyze for yourself and see what makes sense and how the different traditions and the different systems fit together.

Questions and answers

Buddhism before Buddha and karma

Audience: I have a question. You made a comment about these beings that were so advanced, that had such good karma, that came to the Buddha’s teachings at Vulture’s Peak. But since there wasn’t any Buddhism before the Buddha, what did those people do to create the good karma to be able to attend those teachings?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): To rephrase your question: If all these bodhisattvas were able to come and listen to the Buddha when he gave the Prajnaparamita teachings—the Perfection of Wisdom teachings—how did they get to that level of realization if Buddhism started with the Buddha?

Previous lives. People have done a lot of practice in previous lives, so that when they’re born in this lifetime they have these abilities. We actually say that the Buddha was enlightened before he appeared on this Earth too.

We always hear the story of Milarepa getting enlightened in this one lifetime. Well, they didn’t tell you what he did for the previous five hundred. He was this incredibly diligent practitioner in the previous five hundred lifetimes. It wasn’t like he started from scratch in that one.

Audience: But what was he practicing?

VTC: Shakyamuni was just the historical Buddha on our little speck of dust called planet Earth. Wherever there are beings with the karma to learn the Dharma, the Buddhas have to manifest. So if you have the karma, do not worry about not getting teachings, because it is your karma that invokes the Buddhas and bodhisattvas there to teach you. That’s why we need to create a lot of good karma. Even to have Dharma teachings right here, without the karma of you people, teachers are not going to come here to teach. We can write 10 million letters of invitation, but if the students here don’t have the karma, nobody’s going to come.

That’s why it’s incredibly important that people create good karma and practice. And when you have the opportunity to go to teachings and to practice, it’s important to take that opportunity. Because if your good karma gets burnt up you may not get the teachings. I mean there are lots of people who live in this city who could very easily come here and learn. It’s right here. But they don’t have the karma. It’s so easy: they don’t have to buy airplane tickets; they didn’t have to do anything. When there’s no karma, forget it. That’s also why it’s so important to do purification and create merit. If you don’t have the karma, the Buddha could come and sit right in front of you, and you’re going to throw a shoe at him. Well I mean there’s a whole story about Asanga, isn’t there? You remember that one.

Audience: Well, that makes more sense of that story you told about the first time you spoke at a college in California, and some folks you knew came, and they were just, “Ho hum.”

VTC: Yes, when there’s no karma it doesn’t matter. Look at the Beijing government. They call His Holiness the Dalai Lama a “splitter of the motherland.” He’s an anathema. According to your karmic view, that’s how you see somebody like His Holiness. Who wants to have karma like that? Then think of the karma you create when you have that view, and where that takes you in your future lives. So much depends on karma; we have to be really careful.

Audience: There’s a lovely text called, The Faces of Buddhism in America. It came out of University of California Press. It’s a nice encapsulation of a lot of what you’ve just said, and it also ties into which immigrant groups brought Buddhism to America and why. It explains, historically, what was going on in the countries they came from; and then, which groups in America took heart from their arrival. It’s a nice intersection of American history.

More on Vajrayana practice

Audience: You said, from the historical perspective, that the Vajrayana was meant to be more grassroots, but then you said it was more difficult to practice. How does that make sense?

VTC: Oh, in the sense of how could it have been more grassroots? Because you have stories of people who were barmaids and farmers—people who were illiterate and didn’t know “nothing from nothing”—who became Vajrayana practitioners. Now, from the Tibetan viewpoint, these people were very realized practitioners who manifested in those forms as a skillful means to break down other people’s conceptions, and to breakdown their own preconceptions too. In that light, we have somebody like Tilopa, who is just this nobody sitting by the side of the road, who everybody thought was a derelict, who, in fact, was this highly realized Vajrayana practitioner. So he kept his practice very secret.

That’s the way Vajrayana was initially practiced. And then it became much more spread out. Actually a lot of the Mahayana practice in general was quite secret. When you study the seven-point thought transformation, for example, they talk about the taking-and-giving meditation as one that was initially taught in secret until Geshe Che-ka-wa, made it more publicly known. He got permission from his teacher and taught it publicly.

So even the taking-and-giving meditation was something that was very secret. When you really look at it, it’s quite a powerful meditation, isn’t it? And you need to either have very little mental development or a lot of mental development to be able to do it, because if you’re in between those, you get frightened. It’s a scary meditation if you’re in between. If you have no mental development, you think, “Sure, I can take on everybody’s suffering, it’s no problem.” If you have great mental development, you can do it. But if you’re in the middle it’s like, “Hey, I don’t want this.” So even that Mahayana practice was very secret.

Expansive Buddhist view of time and space

Audience: I’m still back on all the bodhisattvas hanging around for teachings. Does it have anything to do with our sense of time too?

VTC: Yes, I’m sure it also has to do with the idea of time. The Mahayana scriptures are so beautiful to read, because you get transported out of time and space. You’ll have a scripture where, from the curl at the Buddha’s forehead, light emanates going fifty billion kilocosims away, and telling all the bodhisattvas there that a teaching is about to begin. Then all those bodhisattvas in that kilocosim come to planet Earth immediately, without getting lost, without time. Actually, they don’t come to planet Earth; they come to wherever the teaching is given.

It doesn’t say in the sutras, “On planet Earth,” although sometimes it says, “While the Buddha was in Sravasti,” or something like that. The Diamond Sutra, for example, was taught in Sravasti. But the bodhisattvas just fly there, and the sutra describes a scene of all these zillions and zillions of bodhisattvas coming. And you think, “Well, how are they all going to fit there?” But there’s a whole different idea of space, and I think a whole different idea of time too.

Actually they say that in the god realms—even the lowest level of god realms—one morning in the god realms is comparable to 50 years here. So what we do in 50 years, they only age one morning. I won’t tell you how many years is a day in the hell realms, but it’s a very different notion of time too. When you read the King of Prayers don’t you find the imagery in there just stupendous? “On every atom there’s a Buddha,” surrounded by all these bodhisattvas. On each atom? It’s beautiful!

What about the nagas and the Mahayana teachings?

Audience: Every time I hear the explanation about the Mahayana teachings being protected by the nagas at bottom of the sea, and Nagarjuna going to the bottom of the sea to keep them, I’m waiting for the follow-up. What does it symbolize? I don’t get it.

VTC: Okay. So with the story of Nagarjuna, you’re waiting for the interpretation, wanting to know what it symbolizes.

It was very interesting. I was at one of these meetings of the Western Buddhist teachers with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Martin Kalff was there. He’s Dora Kalff’s son. She was the very famous Jungian psychologist who invented sand play therapy; actually she was a Buddhist and he’s a Buddhist. So he said to His Holiness, “Can’t we see that story as a symbol? Can’t it really be that Nagarjuna was fully enlightened, and the Prajnaparamita text came out of the very depths of his mind? So what he went to is not a physical place, but the depths of his own realization, and brought forth those sutras.” Martin continued, “If we look at it like that, then the historical view and the Buddhist view wouldn’t be contradictory.”

And His Holiness just said, “I don’t like that.”

Personally speaking, I don’t find any problem with the story. All these people at the academies and the universities say, “Well, you know, this isn’t the real word of the Buddha and blah, blah, blah.” And sometimes the Theravada people say, “This philosophy was invented afterwards. It’s not the word of the Buddha.” For me those kinds of debates aren’t very interesting, because I’ve studied the Mahayana tradition. It’s fantastic! I think, “If it didn’t come from the Buddha, I don’t know who it came from! And if it didn’t come from the Buddha, then whoever it came from was a Buddha!” So the history, personally speaking, I don’t care much about it. Does it bother you?

Audience: No, that makes some sense. I’ve felt that too. What difference does it make? Why am I getting so hung up on, “The Buddha said this, and the Buddha said that,” when the teachings makes so much sense to me? I can just accept it for what it is and not really worry about the naga stories.

VTC: Yes, exactly. If the Mahayana makes sense to you—and if you can tell me where you’re going to find anything better than bodhicitta to practice—if you can do that, then maybe, you can doubt the naga story. Or if you get into studying the Perfection of Wisdom sutras and you’ve realized emptiness, if you can find something better than that, all the better to you. But just in my ignorant view, and the little study I’ve done of the Prajnaparamita sutras, the view of emptiness is just amazing. Incredible!! It’s like, “Whoa! I can’t think of anything better.”

Scientific theories of reality

Audience: Think about the scientific theories there are right now about the cosmology and the universe. I mean those are pretty fantastic ideas; all the universes and how they’re all folded into each other. I don’t have very much problem thinking about this, because it’s more familiar for me.

VTC: It’s true. Sometimes if you study mathematical theory and how the shortest distance between two points is a curve—if you have a center of gravity and the light curves in—that’s the shortest way to get somewhere. And it makes sense. I remember as a kid reading this book called A Wrinkle in Time and another one called Flatland. Between that and the movie Fantasia, this isn’t so difficult. And The Wizard of Oz. I mean, you click your heels and you go somewhere else. You click your heels and you go listen to the Prajnaparamita sutras above Rajagriha with the Buddha.

About Manjushri practice

Some of you had questions about the practice, and the sadhana; so, let’s get to those right now.

Audience: Can you explain again how you do the DHIH?

VTC: Oh, the DHIH in the back of your throat. Look in the section where it says “mantra recitation.” You do the, “Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih,” and there are all these different visualizations that you do during the mantra recitation. At the very end of the mantra recitation—no matter which visualization you did—at the back of your tongue you visualize the letter DHIH lying flat—with the top of the DHIH towards the back of your mouth. Then you imagine light rays going out from the DHIH in all directions, and you can imagine the light rays making offerings if you want to. The light rays invoke all of the Buddhas’ wisdom in the form of DHIHs that then come and dissolve into that DHIH on your tongue. Then you take a very deep breath and say 108 DHIHs if you can. With each DHIH you say, you imagine that another DHIH—a replica—goes from the one on your tongue and dissolves into the one in your heart. It creates a constant stream of DHIHs, replica DHIHs, going from the one on your tongue into your heart.

When you finally run out of breath—however many DHIHs you’ve done—then you swallow a little bit of saliva silently and imagine that the DHIH that’s on your tongue, it itself goes down and merges into the DHIH that’s at your heart. Then you feel like you really have Manjushri’s wisdom in your heart. And then that letter DHIH can emanate light that fills your body.

It’s like having an upright letter DHIH on a Popsicle stick, and then you put the Popsicle in your mouth, so the DHIH is lying flat on your tongue.

Audience: 108 in one breath?

VTC: Yes, if you can. If you can’t do 108 DHIHs, just do however many DHIHs you can do in one breath. You go, “Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih, Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih, Om ah ra pa tsa na [in breath] dhih dhih dhih dhih dhih…,” and do as many as you can. Then, you swallow at the end, a little saliva, imagining it going down.

Manjushri practice, lamrim, and Vajrasattva

And then you do the Vajrasattva mantra after the Manjushri mantra, and then your lamrim meditation after that.

You tag the Vajrasattva mantra onto the end of your “Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih” recitation to purify any mispronunciations of the “Om ah ra pa tsa na dhihmantra.

You do, “Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih, Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih, Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih dhih dhih dhih dhih …,” and then you go, “Om Vajrasattva samaya ….”

After that, you do some lamrim meditation—your lamrim meditation comes after your mantra recitation. It’s very effective to do lamrim meditation after you do the mantra, because you’ve just done this visualization of invoking the wisdom of all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Now, if you do just a little bit of lamrim, your mind’s going to be very clear, very sharp, and it’s going to be really easy to understand.

By the way, to prepare for the retreat, I want people to take with them Transforming Adversity into Joy and Courage by Geshe Jampa Tegchok. It’s a really excellent book to use as the basis for your lamrim meditations. Spend time going through that book because there’s a lot to meditate on there.

Audience: So after lamrim you do the short offering?

VTC: Yes, you do the short offerings and the praise, which are optional, but they’re nice to do, and then you do the visualization involving the entire universe.

Audience: I’ve always wondered, when you’re doing the Vajrasattva recitation, are you visualizing anything particular, like Vajrasattva?

VTC: When you do the Vajrasattva recitation you can imagine a small Vajrasattva on your head and purifying. Yes, you’re Manjushri and Vajrasattva is there, and they get along very well. The recitation purifies in case you’ve done any faults in your mantra recitation. Sometimes, you’ll be doing “Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih,” and then you’ll realize you’re saying, “Om mani padme hum.” I never thought that could happen, until it did. I remember hearing teachings and they used to say, “If you find yourself saying another mantra then you penalize yourself.” I thought, “Who in the world would do that?” Well, now I know.

Meditation on emptiness

[In response to audience] The meditation on emptiness comes early in the sadhana, and you’re saying you don’t feel ready to get into that deep of a meditation, right?

The reason it comes early in the sadhana is because the whole sadhana is basically a meditation on emptiness and dependent arising. So it has to be introduced earlier. Here’s the way to make your mind more ready for it: you see where it says refuge and bodhicitta above there? Now you just heard my whole explanation about bodhicitta, and how you generate bodhicitta, based on what? Renunciation. So don’t just go, “In my heart I go to the Three Jewels of refuge… blah, blah, blah, may all sentient beings be happy.” If you do, you’re not going to be warmed up. Spend some time.

First of all, cultivate the motivation for taking refuge. There are three causes for taking refuge, what are they? Fear of the lower realms, faith and confidence in the Three Jewels, and bodhicitta; this is the Mahayana refuge. So you spend some time generating those feelings in your mind before you say the refuge prayer. You really visualize the Buddha and think of the Buddha’s qualities, and that makes you feel uplifted and happy.

Then do the same when you’re generating bodhicitta, and when you’re meditating on the four immeasurables. To really get those so that you feel them in your mind, go through some of the earlier lamrim meditations. That’s why it could be very advantageous, actually, before you do refuge and bodhicitta, to recite one of the glance meditations on lamrim: to help you warm up for your motivation.

By the way, another good place if you like to recite glance meditations, is to do it after the mantra recitation (and when I say that, that means after the Vajrasattva too). That’s a good point also to do a glance meditation if you want to. Either before the refuge, as a way of cultivating your motivation, or after the mantra as a way of reflecting on all the realizations.

Doing the mantra, purification, and integrating the practice

[In response to audience] Your question is: without the four opponent powers, when you have the DHIH that’s inside the egg, as it’s filling up and filling your whole body with light, can it really purify your negativities?

Well, you’ve done refuge and bodhicitta before this, and you supposedly have a feeling of regret and a determination not to do the negativities again. And so you can think about that regret and determination while you’re imagining the light coming from the DHIH.

Audience: And then, doing the mantra recitation is the remedial action aspect of the four opponent powers. Right? I’m trying to find those places where I can take this really personally, developing the three different kinds of faith that you were talking about to get the faith part of this going.

VTC: This is really good: how to make it personal and how to bring the different lamrim topics into the sadhana. When I talked about the three kinds of faith, use that for when you’re doing refuge. Contemplate that because the three kinds of faith come right out of the refuge chapter of lamrim. So you think about those three kinds of faith—admiring faith, aspiring faith, and the faith of conviction—and you develop all three kinds, and then you take refuge. If the four opponent powers is a good framework for you to practice in—if that’s a way for you to feel like you’re really engaged with it—then before you take refuge, remember that one of the motivations for taking refuge is a sense of the danger of falling into the lower realms, or a sense of danger of staying in cyclic existence. Why do we fall into the lower realms or stay in cyclic existence? Because of our negative karma. So when you think about that motivation, then that naturally generates in you a feeling of regret for any kind of negative karma that you’ve done in the past, as well as the determination to try and avoid it in the future. And that can set the stage for the rest of the sadhana.

Don’t think that when you do things it has to be super formal. Just to give you an idea of how I practice: I was teaching a class at “Discover U” Friday night. At the break time, I went into the bathroom. I said, “Hello,” to the other lady there, and she said, “Hello,” back to me. Her voice was very odd. And, it made me think, “Oh my goodness. I wonder how many times I’ve been born with a voice that has sounded very odd and distasteful to other people.” It reminded me of the story of the guy who offered the bell to the stupa. I forget the details. But, I started thinking, “If you criticize the Dharma, or if you spend a lot of your verbal energy saying ugly words, you come out with an ugly voice.” Then I thought how it would be if you want to share the Dharma with other living beings, but you’re born with an ugly voice. You might have a wonderful mind, but people aren’t going to want to come and hear you.

So I was doing this whole thought process and realized, “Wow, what kind of karma have I created in the past? Because who knows? We’ve all had infinitely beginningless lifetimes where I’ve created karma to have a horrible voice.” And I thought, “What do I do? How do I help sentient beings?”

Immediately I started to think, “Well, any time that I spoke in an ugly way, that I criticized the Dharma, that I criticized the holy beings, anything that would cause me to be born with that kind of voice that would prevent me from sharing the Dharma with anybody, I now confess that. And I don’t want to do that again. I don’t remember what I did in past lives, but that karma could very well be there, and I don’t want to do it again.” So this whole purification practice was prompted by somebody simply saying “Hello” to me.

So, you see, this is what I mean. It’s not like you have to sit down and say, “Okay, I’m going to meditate on the four opponent powers now: one, two, three, four.” And it’s not like when you’re walking around and doing other things that you can’t think about the Dharma. Daily life things—so many things—teach you.

What about the offerings?

Audience: I want to clarify: at the conclusion where it says optionally make offerings, someone said “short offering.”

VTC: You can either do short or long.

Audience: What is short and what is long?

VTC: With the offerings and praise, when we do the long version we recite:

Om arya vagih shara saparivara argham pratichcha hum svaha,
Om arya vagih shara saparivara padyam pratichcha hum svaha,
Om arya vagih shara saparivara pushpe pratichcha hum svaha,
Om arya vagih shara saparivara dhupe pratichcha hum svaha,
Om arya vagih shara saparivara aloke pratichcha hum svaha,
Om arya vagih shara saparivara gandhe pratichcha hum svaha,,
Om arya vagih shara saparivara naivedya pratichcha hum svaha,
Om arya vagih shara saparivara shabde pratichchha hum svaha,

… naming each offering within the mantra. That’s the long way.

The short way is just saying, “Om arya vagih shara saparivara argham, padyam, pushpe, dhupe, aloke, gandhe, naivedya, shabde pratichcha hum svaha,” all in a row. Clear?

  1. The sadhana used in this retreat is a kriya tantra practice. To do the self-generation, you must have received the jenang of this deity. (A jenang is often called initiation. It is a short ceremony conferred by a tantric lama). You must also have received a wong (This is a two-day empowerment, initiation into a performance tantra, yoga tantra, or highest yoga tantra practice). Otherwise, please do the front generation sadhana

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.