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Introduction to Vajrasattva retreat

Introduction to Vajrasattva retreat

Part of a series of teachings given at the Winter Retreat from December 2011 to March 2012 at Sravasti Abbey.

  • Setting favorable conditions for a beneficial retreat
  • What to do between sessions
  • How to relate to yourself and the things that may arise during retreat
  • How to do the practice in a retreat setting
  • How to count mantra during sessions
  • Transmission of the sadhana

Vajrasattva 01: Introduction to retreat (download)

When we live together, we really need to help each other out and create a good environment. One way the Buddha recommends doing that is through ethical restraint and through developing kindness and compassion. He talked about the five precepts as a way to create a good environment when people are living together.

Five Buddhist precepts

I think most of you have taken the five precepts. We’ll all live according to them while we’re here. So just to review, when you think about it, it’s a structure that helps people get along together.

First precept: Not to kill

The first thing is not to kill—certainly not each other! My mother used to say, “I could kill you.” But I didn’t think she was serious. Although sometimes. . . [laughter]. It actually means not to physically harm anybody. It’s not only each other, but also the animals and insects. Really pay attention to all the various living beings we have here. Even though it’s winter you’ll find spiders and all sorts of other little guys that we share the place with. So taking care of them; not harming them physically. In doing so then everybody here knows that they’re safe. They don’t need to worry about any kind of physical assault and that creates an incredible ambience of safety and trust.

Second precept: Not to steal

The second precept is to avoid taking what hasn’t been given to us – freely given to us. The word freely is important. In other words, we could coerce somebody into giving us something, but that’s still included under the precept of stealing. If we keep this one very well then everybody feels very safe. We can leave our things somewhere and we know somebody’s not going to steal them. They may clean up after us and we may not be able to find it. But that’s not the doing of the other person, that is our own doing. If we clean up after ourselves we’ll know where our things are.

Third precept: Avoid unwise/unkind sexual activity

The third precept is to avoid unwise or unkind sexual behavior. Here in the context of the retreat we’re avoiding all sexual behavior. First of all, you’re at a monastery; you’re not at a retreat center. You’re not at a person’s home; you’re at a monastery where celibacy is the way to live. Please remember that. By not having any sexual contact, we can let go of a lot of the trips that we go on in order to attract people. You know, like, “Well, let’s see, he’s over here. Is he noticing me when I walk across the meditation hall?” We get very self-conscious about ourselves and how we’re going to attract somebody and how are they going to look at us. Then of course, we have to wear ornaments and jewelry, take care of our hair, wear makeup, and all these kinds of things to attract somebody. Here, we’re not trying to do any kind of romantic attraction. So anything that has to do with adorning the body, or perfuming the body, or anything like that, we don’t need to waste our time doing. It’s really quite freeing. You don’t have to worry, “Is somebody looking at me? Why aren’t they looking at me? They’re paying attention to Vajrasattva and not me?” You can just forget about all of that, okay?

Fourth precept: Not lying

The fourth precept is to avoid lying and saying things we know are not true. We get in all sorts of little white lies. You know the little white lies? We just subtly turn something because, actually, “It’s for the benefit of the other person.” Check again. Whenever we’re knowingly distorting the truth, is it really for the other person’s benefit? Or, is it mostly that we don’t want them to think something bad of us. We’re afraid if they know something that we did or something that we were thinking, that they would think poorly of us. Sometimes we’re afraid to be honest, and to say what is, “Oh, what are they going to think about me?” We do all these things to make ourselves look good and cover up certain things that we think somebody else may judge us for. That creates a lot of tension in our own mind, doesn’t it? It’s better just to be truthful.

I think if we did something we should be able to say we did it. If we don’t want to say we did it, then we have to check up, “Why did we do it?” Do you get what I mean? Usually when we look at lying, there’s an action that we did that we don’t want other people to know—something that we don’t feel so good about. Then there’s the lying to cover it up. You have a double action there: the initial action (which wasn’t so good), and the lie that covers it up.

Sometimes what happens is the lying becomes much more of a problem than the initial action. Ask Bill Clinton. His whole thing with Monica wasn’t great, but what got people really upset was his lying, wasn’t it? Lying is really problematic because you have to remember what you told each person the last time you talked to them, and sometimes we forget. Sometimes we have a certain expression when we’re lying. There are certain times I can tell when somebody’s lying. I don’t always say something to them but I know it’s baloney.

One time here at the Abbey, I said something to somebody because I knew he was lying. He maintained that he wasn’t. Then, half an hour later he came over and he said, “Well, actually I thought about it and it was more the way you described it.” He knew good and well before. He just didn’t want to admit it to me. Lying gets confusing and also lying breaks trust. When we can’t trust somebody else’s word, what can we trust about them? Really, what can we trust if we can’t trust their word? What about them can we trust? It becomes really quite difficult. So tell each other the truth.

Also it’s important that we tell ourselves the truth because sometimes our self-talk is a bunch of lies. Now sometimes our self-talk is lying in the sense that we rationalize or justify our negative deeds. That’s one way we lie to each other and to ourselves. But another way we lie to ourselves is by telling ourselves that we’re so bad, and incapable, and not worthwhile, and incompetent, and hopeless, and helpless, and a failure. All of this kind of negative self-talk that goes on in our mind so often is basically not the truth, is it? Is it the truth? “I am a failure.” Is it true? “Nobody loves me.” Is that true? If you think somebody loves all of us, it’s not true that nobody loves me, yes? “I can’t do anything right.” Is that true?

When you start becoming aware of the self-talk, question the things that you tell yourself. Ask yourself if they’re really true. When you have judgments or opinions about other people, question yourself, “Is that true?” You’ll find that even though we keep silence, we’ll get to know each other quite well. In the process of knowing each other sometimes we project all sorts of junk on other people. It’s like, “That person didn’t put the spoon for the cabbage in my hand. That means that they don’t respect me.” Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Or, “That person knew that I was on dishes and I had to go to the bathroom. They didn’t step in and help me and they’re doing it deliberately because they’re mean and cruel.”

Our mind goes off on all these amazing trips sometimes, imputing motivations on other people. “I just know so-and-so in the meditation hall hates me.” Well, how do I know that? “Well, because they didn’t sit next to me when we set out our seats.” Or, “They didn’t smile at me when they sat down for this session.” We have all these kinds of reasons and we make up all these stories that have nothing to do with reality. You’ll see a lot of these during the retreat in your own mind, not in other people’s minds. It’s a real trick to be able to identify these and say they’re not true. Let go of some of these opinions and judgments and this very harsh self-talk.

Fifth precept: Avoid intoxicants

The last precept is to avoid taking intoxicants. That means alcohol and illegal drugs and abusing prescription drugs. If you have prescription drugs, please use them according to your doctor’s prescription. Don’t decide this is the place to go off of them without telling anybody. That’s not too wise. But also don’t take more than what your prescription is. Did you know that more people die in this country from abusing prescription drugs than from illegal drugs? Isn’t that amazing? So that’s included in this precept. Now, in the kind of framework that we’ve set out here, we are actually separating ourselves from a lot of other drugs or, a lot of other intoxicants. There’s no TV; you can’t go online; you can’t use your cell phone; you can’t text message … oooh.

I was reading an article where somebody was saying that texting and cell phone use are addictive. You can see that it is. It’s like, “I’ve got to check my cell phone right away; I’ve got to check my computer.” People just feel so weird without their cell phone. Every time you go somewhere, you sit down, and somebody puts their cell phone right in front of them. You’ve made an appointment to talk with them and they take out their cell phone so that they can talk to other people. You take out your cell phone so you can talk to other people. You don’t spend very much time together because of your phones. But neither one of you can put the phone down and put it away because something really interesting might come.

How many really interesting messages do you get? Think about it. How many do you really get that are tantalizing? It’s the hope that we’ll get one. But they don’t come so often. We’re trying to detach ourselves from all these other objects that we take refuge in that we use for distraction. So please do not go on the Internet. It really will disrupt your retreat and disrupt the retreat for everybody else here. There are some of the Abbey monastics that have reason to go on the Internet because they need to keep this place running. But even with them, no surfing the Internet, no checking your personal email, just Abbey things, okay? And, no TV, this, that and the other thing, okay? So we can really focus on our practice.

You might go through some withdrawal symptoms. “Oh, the messages are building up on my cell phone. They’ll go over the top and then nobody will be able to leave me a message; and I’m sure it’s a message for the perfect job that I always wanted. That someone’s going to call, so I really have to check my cell phone messages and delete the useless ones so that the other ones can come through.” Right? A few years ago we had one person who was here who cheated and she went and listened to her cell phone messages. Completely threw her whole retreat off. What was it…. I can’t remember it so well. Maybe it was the married man she was having an affair with decided to cut off the relationship while she was on retreat. She learned about this through cheating and getting her cell phone messages. The interesting thing is she was doing something that she shouldn’t be doing, and then this happened in retreat, and then, she kind of went bananas.

Living with the five precepts really creates a good container so that all of us can focus on the Dharma. It’s very hard to find a place in this world where you have a good environment where you can just practice without having to worry about things. Think of where else you could go. We’re creating a special environment here. We all came here for that special environment. So let’s all contribute to keeping the environment the one that we all came here to be in, and not let our distracting mind or our mind of attachment go all over the place.

We’ll keep silence in the retreat. Silence means no useless talk. When we’re having the Non-Violent Communication (NVC) class, if you want to have a little discussion, that’s okay. Immediately afterward it there’s silence. There will be talking when we have a community meeting and we have Q&A sessions. Really avoid the chit-chat that we so often have. You’ll laugh and that’s fine. Sometimes the whole room will laugh and that’s okay too. But we don’t want to start chit-chatting because when we talk we create an identity: “Here is who I am, this is what I do, this is what I like, this is what I don’t like, this is what I want, what I don’t want.” We create a whole identity.

In our Buddhist practice, what we are trying to do is realize how constructed that identity is and that it isn’t who we are. All these identities we’ve created for ourselves are actually false identities. When we talk to other people, we create these identities in telling people all about ourselves. Then we judge and evaluate other people according to what they tell us about themselves. But here, none of that really matters. What kind of job you have, how much money you make, or don’t make, it doesn’t matter. Nobody really cares. We’re all here for the purpose of practicing the Dharma, transforming our mind. The five precepts really create a good container that helps us to do what we came here to do.


Something else that’s very important as we do retreat together is being compassionate to each other and compassionate towards ourselves. Like I said, this very harsh self-talk that we often engage in is not very compassionate. We really have to release it. When you’re doing purification practice you’ll see all your boo-boos in life. You’ll see your most horrible boo-boos. We have to give ourselves some real compassion and some kindness to the person who did those things. Practice some self-forgiveness instead of self-flagellation. We have this very weird Judeo-Christian idea that the more we feel guilty and beat up on ourselves mentally and physically, the more we are atoning for our wrongs. That’s exactly one of these thoughts that we have to ask, “Is that true? Does feeling guilty and hating myself because of what I did, atone for what I did?” No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t do anything.

Actually, when you’re doing the Vajrasattva practice, what is helping you to purify is the blissful light from Vajrasattva. Can you imagine? Blissful light from Vajrasattva who has kindness and who loves you is what purifies you. Not, “Argh, You’re evil! Ugh, you’re going to hell!” That’s not purifying us. Hit a few buttons there? Yes? It’s really the opposite. We let the bliss and the compassion and the acceptance purify us.

We need kindness and compassion for ourselves. We also need it for each other because some “people do what people do.” What we try to do is act out our compassion in even the small things that we do together. For example, coming in on-time to sessions is being compassionate to everybody else in the retreat. Keeping the five precepts is being compassionate to everybody else in the retreat. If you see that there’s a job that needs to be done and nobody’s doing it, maybe somebody’s sick, maybe they forgot. Step in and do it. Show your compassion, okay?

We can so easily stand there and go, “This person is always on lunch clean up and they never come until 20 minutes after we’ve all started.” You can spend a whole meditation session on this person who is so inconsiderate and doesn’t do their dishes. In fact, you can spend two or three meditation sessions. “Well, should I tell the retreat leader? Maybe, well, no, maybe that won’t work. Maybe I should write them a note. Well, where do I put the note because I’m not supposed to put the note on their puja table, I’m not supposed to put the note where they sit on the dining room table. That means I have to pass the note to them when they’re walking by. But somebody else might see me do that. And what should I write in the note? Let’s see. NVC says when you click your mala with a loud sound I feel … hatred!! Because, I need peace!” You spend a whole meditation session planning these things out. Sometimes it’s just better to have some compassion for the person. Just have some compassion. You might sit and click your mala loudly deliberately to give them some of their own medicine, but you probably won’t concentrate during that session either.


Mindfulness is another theme of the retreat. What we’re being mindful of, what we’re holding in mind is our precepts. This is the meditation practice we’re doing. We’re bringing our meditation practice with us into the break time. If you’re meditating on Vajrasattva, you don’t leave Vajrasattva in your meditation hall. You take him with you. He’s in your heart or on your head or in front of you so that you maintain your mindfulness of Vajrasattva. Same thing if you’re doing Six Session Guru Yoga retreat. You maintain that mindfulness.

There’s a session to study. It’s very helpful to study, to read, to listen to Dharma talks, or to watch Dharma videos during retreat. When you learn something then that will inform your meditation. It will help you understand how to meditate and it will give you something to think about and to meditate on during the meditation session.

We had different books that we recommended for you to read. We’ll also, one afternoon a week, be showing the video of some talks that Ven. Tenzin Kacho and I gave last year at Vajrapani Institute about the Vajrasattva practice. I really recommend to people that they also read Khensur Jampa Tegchok’s book, Transforming Adversity into Joy and Courage. Especially in it, he talks about all sorts of different thought training techniques; how to transform different situations into the path. As things from our past come up that we have to make peace with, it’s very helpful to know how to think about these things in a different way.

We also have quite a number of thought transformation books in the library: Seven Point Thought Transformation, Advice to a Spiritual Friend, Mind Training Like Rays of the Sun, Wheel of Sharp Weapons. Zopa Rinpoche’s books Door to Satisfaction and Transforming Problems are really quite good.

All these kinds of things are very helpful to teach you how to work with your mind. When you’re meditating and different thoughts and memories and different things come up, remember the teachings that you’ve heard and apply them to that situation. You try and learn things from the teachings and then apply them in your meditation so you know the counter-forces, or the antidotes, to disturbing mental states.


Try not to have a lot of expectations. We always say that and then, of course, we all have expectations. But try not to, okay? Also, don’t judge your meditation sessions. Just do them. Also, very important, don’t compare yourself to anybody else. At some time or another we all sit there and say, “Oh, I am so restless, my mind’s completely crazy. How’s everybody else doing? Oh. They’re all in samadhi. I can’t do it! I’ve got to move my knees. I’ve got to move my back. This hurts and that hurts and I want to get up. But then if I get up and go out I can’t count the mantra for that session. Aaagh! Why is it only me who has trouble and can’t meditate?!” Don’t go there. All those people who look like they’re in samadhi, they have all the same rubbish going on in their minds. Really, don’t waste your time and energy comparing yourself to other people. Just do your practice,

Some sessions you’ll have some insights, some sessions you won’t. But you know what? It’s because of doing the practice in all the sessions that you don’t have insights that you finally get to one where you do. So don’t judge and criticize and compare. We’re not in a contest with each other. We’re just here to do the practice.

Focus on creating the cause

I always recommend to people: just focus on creating the cause. Don’t worry about the result. Create the cause. How do we do that? Keeping good ethical conduct, developing love and compassion, reflecting on selflessness, reflecting of the disadvantages of cyclic existence. Just do your practice. Don’t worry about when something is going to happen and this, that, and the other thing. Definitely don’t compare yourself to other people.

A few retreats ago we had one person who was having all these dreams. She was sure that Tara was giving her initiation in her dreams. That’s nice, but, so? So? The real question is: are you becoming a kinder wiser person, not are you having flashing lights and Tara appearing to you in wild dreams. Don’t worry about all these different things. When I did Vajrasattva retreat the man sitting across from me (he was about 30 years older than I) was having these kundalini experiences with bliss going up and down his spine. He was blissed out. And it was like, “Okay, that’s good. Glad you’re having that. But, I’m sitting here trying to figure out why I’m still mad at my second grade teacher because she didn’t let me be in the class play.” Just do your practice.

When you have a nice experience, that’s good. Use it to say, “Oh, I know that those kinds of things are possible. That’s really good.” But don’t grab onto it and say, “Okay, I’ve got to recreate it in my next session,” because the moment you do that you’re sunk. We can never create a past experience, can we? Never. So don’t try to. It will only wear you out. Just do your practice.


Make sure you get some exercise in the break time. I say this every year, everybody nods, and then they don’t do it. Then at the end of the retreat, after they’re tense, then they come and say, “You know, you were really right. I should have gotten more exercise.” I told you so already! Really try and get some exercise: walk down the hill and back up the hill every day. Do some stretching or yoga or tai chi or something like that. Walk up and down the stairs. Get some exercise. Use your body. Also, what’s very nice to do because we have the Buddha statue in the middle of the garden, circumambulate the Buddha statue. Just circumambulate, get some exercise walking. You’re creating some virtue going around the Buddha statue. Look at the various sentient beings around you and wish them well. So use your body.

In that way doing the various chores, keeping things clean and stuff like that, it’s a way of getting some exercise and also showing our kindness for the other people who are around us. It’s also a way that we bring our practice into that activity. Whenever you’re cleaning you can think that you’re cleaning the defilements of sentient beings with the wisdom realizing emptiness. There are all these little gathas. You can ask Dani. She’s the gatha expert. She can give you something to read about it, or to listen to. You make up these little sayings for the different activities that you’re doing so that you make them part of your practice.

Visualization and the sadhana

Another thing is don’t squeeze yourself when you’re doing the visualization. Sometimes we visualize Vajrasattva or visualize Vajradhara. When your mind gets tight your internal wind energies are just going to get out of focus. Remember that “visualize” means “imagine.” It means see with your mind’s eye. It doesn’t mean try to see it with your eyes. When we visualize we’re not trying to see things the same way we see them with our eyes.

If I say, “Think of the place you live, think of your room.” Do you have an image in your head of what your room looks like? You’re doing that even though your eyes are open. You still have an image in your mind about what your room looks like. That’s visualization: You know where the bed is, where the table is, where the window is. You don’t have to try to see it; you just know it’s there.

If you’re visualizing Vajrasattva or Vajradhara you want to get the feeling of being in the presence of an enlightened being. What would it be like to sit in the presence of an enlightened being? Explore that a little bit and feel like you‘re doing that. Feel like there’s this connection between you and the deity. Don’t get all hung up with, “Are the celestial silks dark blue or red? Does he have celestial silks going this way and that way and what kind of jewels are his jeweled ornaments made out of?” Don’t sweat the small stuff. Just get the feeling of what it’s like to be in the presence of a Buddha. You can be aware of Vajrasattva on your head, but your main focus is on yourself being purified, and light and nectar coming into your body. If you’re focusing too much up here, your winds get imbalanced. You’re likely to get headaches and so forth. So really focus on Vajrasattva, and in your mind’s eye you can see him and the HUM and whatever, and you focus on this feeling of the light and nectar purifying.

Sometimes you may want to focus on the visualization more, sometimes on the mantra more. Some people find it hard to do both at the same time. If you want to do both that’s perfectly fine. Some sessions you may focus on the mantra and just really listen to the sound of the mantra; you know the visualization is there but your mind is really immersed in the sound of the mantra. Other sessions you may really focus on the visualization of the light and nectar purifying; the mantra’s going, it’s in the background somewhere, but you’re really focusing more on the visualization. Some sessions you may focus more just on the feeling of being purified; the visualization and the mantra are going but to lesser degrees. Your main focus then is, “Oh, I’m purified of this. I’m free of this. What does that feel like to set this down?”

Each session is going to be different and you’ll find different ways to work with the sadhana [the Vajrasattva or Six Session Guru Yoga practice]. Be aware that you can do the sadhana very quickly and you can do it very slowly. What I recommend, at least for the people who are going to be here all three months who want to complete the 100,000 mantra, is the first thing in the morning do the sadhana more slowly; and all the other sessions do it more quickly and focus more on the mantra. Sometimes when you’re doing the sadhana there might be one particular part that really reaches out and grabs you (this can happen in the Six Session practice, too), one verse just really calls out to you. Focus on that verse in that session. That’s fine.

In other words, every time you do the sadhana you don’t need to do it the same way, at the same speed, giving each verse the same proportion. Change it: sometimes do it faster or slower, or do one section faster, another section slower. Play with these things. Don’t treat your sadhana as a recipe book, you know, “It said one-half teaspoon and I can’t put 5/8ths of a teaspoon because that will ruin it.” On the other hand, don’t go making up your own sadhana either. Stick with what’s going on there, but you can play with it and do it different speeds and things like that.

Those are some things I thought just to do as a way of introduction to the retreat. Please ask questions. Before you do, I just want to remind you of what I said before, that what we’re retreating from is ignorance, anger and attachment. So just keep that in mind. That’s what we’re retreating from.

Questions and answers

Audience: When we have it memorized, the sadhana, can we go through it in our mind rather than reciting it?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Once you have it memorized, leave the book. When it comes to the descriptions, you don’t have to know it word by word there; you just need to know what to do, or what it looks like. When it comes to saying the different prayers, then try and stick with what’s there. Although sometimes you may find that you feel very inspired, and you know what the meaning of the prayer is, and you want to put it in your own words. That’s fine.

Audience: I have a question on Six Session. Is that true for the Six Session as well?

VTC: Yes. When you get familiar with the visualization, you just visualize Dorje Chang there.

Audience: In most of the books, it refers to Vajrasattva and his consort.

VTC: Here we’re doing the single Vajrasattva. You need an initiation into that particular version of Vajrasattva to do it with consort. Those of you who are reading Lama Yeshe’s book, don’t do that visualization unless, of course, you’ve had that particular initiation.

Audience: That’s also true as for Heruka?

VTC: Yes, you don’t visualize Heruka for refuge; you visualize the Buddha surrounded by all the buddhas and bodhisattvas. So no consort, just because it could be too confusing for people.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Well, that was the particular way that Lama [Yeshe] had us do it in the old days but the usual way in the ngondro practice is this way with the single [version], not with consort] way.

Okay, other questions? Somebody said the Vajrasattva people had questions this morning. This is your time.

Audience: …the counting of mantra?

VTC: Oh yes, the counting! Oh, yes, “One, two, three … how many do I have to do? How long is this session? It takes me approximately 23.5 seconds for each mantra. How many is that times one-hundred and eight? Oh, why couldn’t they make it a nice even number? And, how many seconds, and then I have to divide that by sixty seconds in a minute, and how long is this session? Oh, darn! I’m five mantras short! I’m never going to finish.” You can just spend a whole session or two, or ten, on that. What I recommend regarding counting is: If you’re not doing the 100,000, don’t worry about counting. If you really want to do the 100,000, and it’s a very good thing to be able to do that, then you have your mala. See if your mala has 108 or 111 [beads on it]. Whatever it has just know that. What I do is, I have two little bowls of beans and when I finish a mala I move one bean from this bowl to that bowl. The trick is, remembering from which bowl you’re removing the beans; left to right or right to left. Or you sit down and think, “I’m sure I had more beans in that bowl. Somebody must have knocked it over in the break time, and they just kind of put it back, and….”

Audience: Can the counting continue? Can we continue at home?

VTC: You’re supposed to actually, technically speaking, do it on one seat. But if you’re not here for the whole time then, yes, take it home. Don’t have any break. You have to be doing it every single day to count without missing one day. Even if you’re sick you drag yourself into the meditation hall and do at least one session. When you go home, then you just make your meditation seat and you stay with that one seat and then finish your counting.

Audience: Are you counting the recitations or whole malas?

VTC: You usually count whole malas, there’s such a strict way of counting that if we follow it exactly we probably wouldn’t get any mantra said. So usually we count whole malas. If you feel that your mind is getting under too much stress then count half malas. But don’t start counting, “Oh, twenty-two, twenty-four, twenty-six, oh, twenty- eight this time.” No. It’s much better to try and stick with whole malas. This is because it’s a long mantra. For those of you doing the guru yoga, then just count whole malas because you’re just going to be saying a short mantra. If you leave the session before it’s over, you don’t count the malas.

Audience: I have more about the math. So … does it mean 1,000 malas whether it’s 108 or 111?

VTC: No. It means you do 111,111 mantras. If you have 111 beads on your mala it makes it a little easier for counting. If you have 108, maybe you have to do a few extra malas. Now if you get really distracted you don’t count those malas, but you penalize yourself. If you’re really distracted then you don’t count however many mantra there were. You go back.

Audience: So, just trying to simplify…. So, whatever that math will come out to, then how many mantra….

VTC: No. Forget it. Forget it. You’re going to drive yourself crazy. Just do the mantra. However many you do, you do. However long it takes you, it takes you. Don’t start figuring out how many you have to do each session and the sessions are different lengths, and this and that. You will drive yourself and everybody here crazy. Guaranteed.

Also, you say the mantra faster as you get into the retreat. It doesn’t take you as long. Do not get hung up on the counting, okay? Now I know I’m saying it and I’m saying it strongly, and I know you’re going to ignore it, and somebody’s going to come to me in the middle of retreat and say, “You know, I have all these beans here and I did this but I was distracted. Do I count those mantra or not count those mantra? And I’ve been counting the half mantra cause you said we could but actually I knew you didn’t really mean it,” (because I don’t), “and so do I count those or not count those? I’m never going to make this 111,111. And why do I have to do the extra 10 percent anyway? And, I think my mala had 111 beads but then at the end I counted again and it was only 108 and I have to do all these more mantra. Oh, this is terrible. It’s like paying income tax.” [laughter] You know?

Please remember: your job is not to count mantra. Your job is to transform your mind. Write that in big letters. Okay? “My job is to transform my mind.” Counting the mantras is just one way so that you feel like you’ve done something.

Audience: What if it gets too scary someplace in your mind?

VTC: Yes. If it gets too scary someplace in your mind?

Audience: Or if I’m too scared to go somewhere.

VTC: Yes. Then you just stop and you breathe and you relax and you give yourself some kindness and compassion. Then if you want to talk about it, come see me. Or ask, if there’s somebody in particular who’s an Abbey resident who you’d like to talk to, then ask to speak to that person. But also remember that it’s only thoughts in our mind. Thoughts don’t have physical form. A thought isn’t going to hurt us. It’s just a thought. That helps us not be so reactive to some of the things. On the other hand, just do what’s comfortable for you. Don’t push if you don’t feel you should. Instead, come talk to somebody. Okay?

Audience: Once you’re done with the chanting, if you finish it at home, can we really do the fire ceremony at home?

VTC: Oh, it’s good to do it if you can do it again. But make sure it’s safe. Okay? Don’t burn your house down.

Audience: How do we relate to Vajrasattva as being simultaneously the wisdom and compassion of all the buddhas, but also like a being?

VTC: You can do it. You don’t really have to think of all these things at one time. Just think of the wisdom and compassion of all beings, of all buddhas appearing in the form of Vajrasattva. That’s all. It’s like how an artist has an internal feeling and they express through a picture. These qualities get expressed through the body language and color and so forth of Vajrasattva. That’s all. Don’t focus on Vajrasattva so much as a specific being. Focus more on just being the wisdom and compassion and all the incredible qualities of all the buddhas.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Yes, that mind thinks of all sorts of distractions: you’re doing Vajrasattva mantra and in the middle you realize you’re all of a sudden doing the long Chenrezig mantra instead. So then you go back on your mala. Just keep your mind on Vajrasattva and keep with that.

Don’t spend too many sessions planning all the other retreats you’re going to do after you finish this one. We get notes in the middle of retreat, “Oh, I’m enjoying this retreat so much I’m thinking of coming next year to your one-week Chenrezig retreat. What are the dates for it?” We got a note like this one retreat: “Oh, this is really good. Let’s see, where can I do another three-month retreat? I heard that such-and-such center was really good. Do you recommend I go there?” Please don’t write us notes like this. Just do your practice. Don’t think about everything you’re going to do later, and dada-dada. Just work with your mind right now.

Sometimes we’re meditating and we’re going, “Oh, I’m just sitting here and I’m so distracted. I’m not meditating at all. I should go out and do something to benefit sentient beings and really put my bodhicitta into practice. So I’m going to leave the retreat and I’m going to go start a non-profit organization to help impoverished children who are living in the streets worldwide.” Then you leave your retreat and you go start your nonprofit and then you’re doing all your non-profit work and you’re going, “Oh, I’m so busy doing all this work for sentient beings but I’m not learning the Dharma. It’s really important for me to learn the Dharma. I’ve really got to get out of this work and running around and go do some study.” So you turn your nonprofit over to somebody else, you enroll in some Buddhist college or some study program. You’re doing that. Then when you’re studying you’re going, “I’m just sitting here studying, learning a bunch of words. It’s totally useless. I need to meditate.” Are you getting the idea? This is called dissatisfied mind. Don’t think dissatisfied mind is just, “I don’t like green. I want blue.” Dissatisfied mind is whatever we’re doing: it’s not the right thing, it’s not good enough. We’re telling ourselves, “I should be doing something else. This isn’t having any effect.” That’s all just dissatisfied mind.

Audience: This has to do with preparation for the session and what you would recommend. If I go to disturbing relationships from the past, or things that I’m going to focus on, do you think it’s a good idea to think about that before the session or [inaudible].

VTC: I think it depends on you. I wouldn’t get too hung up doing psychoanalysis of your relationships. This is a purification retreat, not a psychoanalytic retreat. There may be specific deeds that you’ve done that you don’t feel good about that you want to focus on purifying those, and that’s strongly in your mind before you go in the session, so you keep that in the session.

Other times things may come up in your session. It often can be good to give yourself some different things to contemplate in each session, but if something comes up strongly go with that. You might spend a session on killing and stealing and unwise sexual behavior – that one you might need four or five sessions on. And lying, who knows how many sessions you’ll need on that one. Taking intoxicants? That’ll keep us busy for awhile. You might have different things that you focus on in each session that you want to purify. Or you go through all the ten negative actions in that one session. Or there might be something that just comes to mind that you decide, “I really need to purify this.” Or you might find that you’re having some anger come up at somebody and then you need to know how to do the thought training practice to release your anger towards that person.

Oral transmission

I thought I would give you the oral transmission for the Vajrasattva practice. The oral transmission involves me reading and you listening. It’s also good if you do a mandala offering at the beginning and also at the end.

[The retreat participants offer the mandala, Venerable Chodron gives the oral transmission, the retreat participants offer the mandala again]

Questions and answers

Audience: What about if I don’t believe it’s happening … the purification?

VTC: What about if you don’t believe the purification’s happening? You fake it. You just give yourself some mental space, and say to yourself, “I wonder what it would feel like if I put this down. I wonder what it would feel like if this were really purified.” And then just imagine what it might feel like.

Audience: Vajrasattva is looking….

VTC: Yes, he’s facing the same way, same direction we are.

Audience: [inaudible- about the visualization of body, speech, and mind in the sadhana]

VTC: Oh, yes. Also, if you want to, while you’re flushing out all these frogs and scorpions—and by the way, you don’t imagine those things inside your body, you just imagine that when the negativities come out, they come out as that. But don’t imagine that you’re filled with all these snakes and scorpions and stuff. What you can add to the visualization is, when they [snakes, frogs, etc] come out, the earth opens up underneath you and there’s the Lord of Death with his big mouth and fangs, “hisss,” and all this negativity just falls into the mouth of the Lord of Death. He loves it. He’s just going, “Mmmm!” And then at the end, a double vajra crosses his mouth so he can’t burp and spit it all out again [laughter]. And then he disappears under the earth and the earth closes over.

Audience: [inaudible-about the different visualizations associated with body, speech, and mind purification and when to do the above Lord of Death visualization]

VTC: You can imagine it coming out here and then going into his mouth, too … at the end of the session. At the end of the session his mouth closes.

Also, when you’re doing it [these body, speech, and mind visualizations], you don’t have to do all these visualizations in one session. You can alternate different visualizations; you can do one and two [of the visualizations] a session; or one or two or three a session. You can stick with one for 15 sessions if you want because it’s really being effective for you. Again, give yourself some way of being flexible. See what’s appealing to you and what you need to do at a certain time. But, he [the Lord of Death] disappears after your last mantra. So, it’s “eat and run.” He doesn’t hang around after that.

Audience: And do we ever say, om vajrasattva hum?

VTC: No. You do the long mantra. By the way, you only count the mantra that you say when you’re seated, not when you’re walking around.

Audience: …can you hold the mala?

VTC: They say hold it up [in front of the heart], but it gets really tiring after awhile so if your hand’s in your lap, you know….

So, let’s dedicate.

[The group recites the dedication prayer]

VTC: A couple of things. If you want to stay after a session and finish counting that particular mala and dedicate afterwards, that’s perfectly alright. I do advise though taking a break between one session and the other just to get up and walk around. Really try and look long distances. That’s why I say get some exercise. Stand out and look all the way across the valley, and look at the stars at night, and look at the mountains over there. It really expands your mind and is very good for you. Don’t just stay like this during all the break times.

Audience: I want to know if I remember … if I only do six beads, it doesn’t count, right, for my session….

VTC: I don’t know. You decide.

Audience: I’ll ask somebody else.

VTC: Okay, good. And tell that person not to ask me. [laughter] Because then, “Oh, I did four more than half a mala. Oh, I’ve got to count those extra four.” You see what our mind does? We stop being interested in the practice and we’re more interested in counting.

Audience: So why even have a number to count to?

VTC: Because it gives you, as one teacher said, the opportunity to do one mantra with full concentration and right motivation. It keeps you there on the seat—for awhile anyway. Aside from that … I’ve said everything I’m going to say about counting.

If you want to drive yourself crazy, please do so. Just don’t tell me. And don’t break down on me over how many mantra you have or haven’t said, okay?

Audience: [inaudible]…when you haven’t actually done 100,000 mantra.

VTC: People can work that out later.

Audience: What do you recommend as far as singing the mantra, vs. just saying it….

VTC: When you’re doing it silently then I would advise just saying it as quickly as you can without the melody. You may sometimes do it out loud. There’s a lot of force and energy when you do it out loud. But then you might do that for a few minutes during one session but then most of the time you do it quietly. Make sure, because you’re sitting in close proximity to each other, that you’re not making any noise. They say to move your lips when you’re saying it but some people move their lips really loudly. So don’t do that. The people who click their malas and the people who chant loudly, when they’re doing it silently, you can put them in the corner and they can make each other miserable. I’m joking!

Audience: I know you’re kind of joking, but I’m afraid that I might be one of those people who…. How should we let them know?

VTC: You give them a dirty look [laughter]. And then they will figure out what they’re doing. Or you take out your mala and you go, “click! click! click!” One retreat, you know what we had a problem with? Somebody had a down jacket, nylon jacket, well maybe it was down inside. And he kept…, you tell the story.

Audience: Oh, it was so loud. And, it was kind of tight so he would have trouble getting it off. And, I mean, it would disrupt the whole room. It was like … tin foil or something in there.

VTC: Yes, because he would unzip it in the middle of the session and then, it crinkles going off. Then he would get cold so he’d put it back on and it crinkled again. If you’re having hot flashes use something that doesn’t crinkle, okay?

Please do not create an empire at your meditation seat. You need your lamrim outline, your text, your mala, maybe a package of tissues if you need to blow your nose. Do not have water. I’m sure you can go for an hour and a quarter without drinking something. Do not have tea. Do not have chocolate. You might have some cough drops somewhere in the room because sometimes people get a coughing thing and then you can pass them to that person. If you’re sucking a cough drop you don’t count any of your mantra at that time. And, suck it quietly, you know?

Audience: Venerable, what about the prayers, Multiplying Mantra?

VTC: Yes, we do that at the beginning of the day.

Audience: And not in the other sessions?

VTC: No.

Audience: As a Spanish speaker, when you start to read it out loud, can you read it in Spanish?

VTC: Oh sure, that’s fine. One retreat we had people doing the Praises to Tara in Spanish at breakfast time. Yes, feel free to do it in Spanish.

Audience: Also I heard if you have to leave the meditation hall, you have to stay outside.

VTC: Yes, you don’t come back in [for that session] because it’s really disturbing to people. Also, try not to step over each other’s seats. And definitely don’t spill somebody’s beans! You don’t need a thousand beans in order to count. You just have ten and you move your ten over here and then you make some other way to make a mark when you complete that ten. Also, no reading of Dharma texts in the session. No writing journals. Just do your session. If you really can’t concentrate, open your eyes, put your knees up and look into space and see whoever else is sitting there who’s doing the same but don’t laugh.

Audience: If the Dharma outline I have is in the book, I won’t need the rest of the book but I will need the … is that okay?

VTC: Yes, if it’s in the book.

Audience: The commentary on the sadhana about, that helps the generating the visualization, is it okay to read that?

VTC: Yes, oh, yes. I’m talking about people who just take out some other book and read it in the session. If your sadhana has commentary verses between it, then read those commentary verses. But don’t take out a separate book that’s a commentary and read it during the session. Do that kind of study and reading in the break time.

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.

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