All Buddhist practices could ultimately be described by the goal “purification of the five aggregates” — through various forms of meditation and virtues (actions and thoughts.) Purification is a core concept.
Vajrasattva meditation and mantra is the best-known of the purification pratices in Tibetan Buddhism — practices that psychologist Robert Preece in his book, The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, demonstrated are based on sound psychological concepts:
“The primary obscuration to be purified is dualistic thinking and its consequences… Increasingly, our health, both physical and psychological, is affected by the environments in which we live and work. The intensity of emotional stress from work will invariably leave a residue within our nervous systems… Healing and purification visualizations are usually of light and blissful nectar washing through the body… this gradually cleanses, heals or purifies…”
When Shakyamuni Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, seeking Enlightenment, the sutras record the many things he visualized as he sat. Many of these, such as Mara’s “attack” can be seen as defilements being purified — a core practice in Buddhism. Foundation practice in Buddhism is generally thought of as the process of purifying obstacles and misconceptions and negative karmas, and generating merit. Ultimately, even generating merit is a purification practice itself.
Although all Buddhists practices can be thought of as “purifying”, Vajrayana visualization practices and mantra are particularly effective, incorporating meditation that fully engages all of Body (breath and posture), Speech (mantra) and Mind (visualization). [Full video teaching on Purification from Venerable Zasep Rinpoche below.]
Why do we describe purification practices as healing practices? Ultimately, the purification of negativities and obstacles is the most perfect of healing practices. It is said that our defilements and negative karmas are the cause of our suffering, including illness.
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Vajrasattva, the great purifyer
In Tibetan Buddhism, Vajrasattva’s role as the “great purifyer” is top-of-mind — a necessary first step in Buddhist practice, working on the negative karmas and obstacles that obscure our Buddha Nature. It is one of the core “foundation” practices of Vajrayana. Yet, Vajrasattva practice is much more than this.
“Vajrasattva is a manifestation of Buddha Conquerer Vajradhara and his practice is one of the most powerful healing and purification techniques in Vajrayana Buddhism.” — Gaden Choling description for a December 2017 Vajrasattva initiation.
Vajrasattva is one of the earliest practices in Vajrayana Buddhism and is also central to Shingon Buddhism. Vajrasattva is a beautiful manisfestation of Vajradhara (in the dKar-hGya-pa and DGel-lugs-pa schools of Vajrayana) or of Samantabadra (in the older schools and Shingon.). Vajradhara and Samatabadra are two names for the same concept — the ultimate Dharmakaya aspect of Buddha.
“According to Tantra, one of the most powerful purifications is meditations on Vajrasattva. Recite the mantra of Vajrasattva, the 100-syllable mantra. If you don’t have initiation, you can say the mantra, no problem, you can visualize Vajrasattva in front of you. [Or] Above your crown, as well.’ — H.E. Zasep Tulku Rinpoche (Video teaching below.)
Purifying mental defilements and bad karma
The five aggregates [see below] are the very things that make up the sentient being. Obstacles and incorrect perceptions of the true nature of reality prevent us from wisdom — and ultimately — Enlightenment. For this reason, it could be argued that purification in all its forms is the main and most important Buddhist practice. This can take many forms: mindful meditation, insight meditation, visualized and deity meditations, mantra — or ultiamtely all of these, which represent Body (minfulness), Mind (insight and visualization) and Speech (mantra.)
Purification is the “ultimate” remedy. Psychological treatments often include elements of “confronting and purifying” negative past trauma. The principle, in Buddhist terms, is similar. Our “selves” — in fact our very existance— is thought of in terms of aggregates. To avoid the impure obstacle of “ego-clinging” we are taught that all beings are made up of “five aggregates” – none of which contain the “I” or “self.” Each of these aggregates can collect “impurities” — which can be thought of as wrong views and illusory. Purification practice helps us meditate on those impurities, and clear the incorrect perceptions from our confused mindstreams.
Those aggregates (“Skandhas” in Sanskrit) are:
- Form: or matter (in Sanskrit “rupa” and Tibetan “gzugs”): our material form or body
- Sensation: or feeling (Sansktrit “vedana and Tibetan “tshor-ba”): sensory experiences
- Perceptions: or how we comprhehend and process things (Sankrit “sanna” or Tibetan “du-shes”): often these perceptions lead to labels, which are an obstacle.
- Mental Formations: conditioning and karmic activities (good or bad) (Sanskrit “samskara” and Tibetan “du-byed”): the mental imprints and reactions that cause us to act.
- Consciousness: awareness and discrimination (avoiding the word “self awareness” Sanskrit “Vijnana” and Tibetan “rnam-par-shes-pa”): there are six type sof conciousness.
A video teaching on purification from Venerable Zasep Rinpoche:
Who is Vajrasattva?
Vajrasattva, like all Buddhist deities, defies the notion of ego. Therefore, there is no “who” and there is no “what.” It can be said that Vajrasattva is none other than ourselves, visualized as a pure Buddha. It can be said that Vajrasattva is an emanation of Akshobya — or of Vajradhara, or of Samantabhadra. It can be said that Vajrasattva, in ultimate reality is no different from any other Buddha. But, it can be said, in relative reality, that Vajrasattva is a caring and loving deity. All of these are true at the same time and none of them really define Vajrasattva.
Perhas, what defines Vajrasttva is the result. Vajrasattva, for many centuries, has been the “go-to” practice for Buddhists for purification practices. Since most of our progress in Buddhism relies on purification, it would be fair to say that in Vajrayana Buddhism, Vajrasattva practice is of pre-eminent importance. It is often the first deity practiced by students. In foundation practices, for Tibetan Buddhism, many schools have a requirement that the student perform 100,000 mantras of Vajrasattva; which is no small feat given the length of the mantra (which, of course, should be first committed to memory.)
What makes the practice so perfect?
We know we can rely on the Vajrasattva practice because of a lineage of masters who have used the practice for thousands of years — many of whom achieved great insights on the path. But what makes it so profoundly effective?
Vajasattva incorporate meditation of mind, body and speech. Our mind is engaged by visualization of the beautiful deity Vajrasattva — the perfected ideal of an Enlightened being. If we practice deeper, we visulaize Vajrasattva with his consort, the Wisdom mother. We visualize purifying light from Vajrasattva entering the crown of our heads and filling us. We engage body with mudra, posture (sitting position) and breath. We engage speech with the sacred Sanskrit 100-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva:
OM VAJRASATTVA SAMAYA MANUPALAYA
DRIDHO ME BHAVA
SUTOSHYO ME BHAVA
SUPOSHYO ME BHAVA
ANURAKTO ME BHAVA
SARVA SIDDHIM ME PRAYACCHA
SARVA KARMA SU CHAME
CHITTAM SHRIYAM KURU HUM
HA HA HA HA HO
BHAGAVAN SARVA TATHAGATA
VAJRA MAME MUNCHA
VAJRA BHAVA MAHA SAMAYA SATTVA
AH HUM PHAT
Or, we might prnounce it in the common Tibetan pronunciation (for example, Benza instead of Vajra), if our teacher gave it to us in this form:
OM BENZA SATA SAMAYA MANU PALAYA
BENZA SATA TEY NO PA TEETA DEEDO MEY BAWA
SUTO KAYO MEY BAWA
SUPO KAYO MEY BAWA
A NU RATO MEY BAWA
SARWA SIDDI MEY PRA YA TSA
SARWA KARMA SU TSA MEY
TSEE TAM SHRI YAM KURU HUNG
HA HA HA HA HO BAGAWAN
SARWA TATAGATA BENZA MA MEY MUN TSA
BENZA BAWA MAHA SAMAYA SATA AH HUNG PEY
What does the mantra mean?
The mantra has been translated various ways, but it is more important to focus on the meaning of the mantra. In a teaching on Vajrasattva mediation and recitation, Lati Rinpoche explained the meaning this way:
OM = syllable of the vajra body (It is spelled A-U-M, which represent the body, speech and mind of the
VAJRA = indivisible nature, the inseparability of wisdom and bliss.
SATTVA = the being who has the wisdom of inseparable bliss and emptiness.
SAMAYA MANU PALAYA = sustain me by the commitment (protect my commitment)
VAJRASATTVA TVENO PATISHTA = O Vajrasattva, may I achieve you, may I become closer to you
(cause me to be supported by you)
DRIDHO ME BHAVA = may this achievement be stabilized (remain firmly with me)
SUTOSHKYO ME BHAVA = may your nature become pleased (may you be pleased with me)
SUPOSHKYO ME BHAVA = may you make me into the nature of passion (may you be happy with me)
ANURAKTO ME BHAVA = may you make me the victor (have affection for me)
SARVA SIDDHI ME PRAYACCHA = grant me all the powerful attainments
SARVA KARMA SUCHAME = grant me all the activities (make all my actions good)
CITTTAM SHRIYAM KURU = may your glory abide within my heart (make my mind most glorious)
HUM = (represents primordial awareness)
HA HA HA HA HO = I shall delight in the powerful attainments and in all the activities (the five types of
BHAGAVAN SARVA TATHAGATA = calling out to all the Buddhas by name
MAME MUNCHA = do not part from me (do not abandon me)
VAJRA BHAVA = make me the one who can hold a vajra
MAHA SAMAYA SATTVA = call to Vajrasattva by saying, “O One with the great commitment.” The
significance of calling out like this is to say, “Just as I have requested, may this request be granted.”
AH = syllable of the vajra speech (shows the empty nature of all phenomena. The main function of
Buddhas’ speech is to teach that phenomena lack inherent existence.)
HUM = (blissful state of Vajrasattva’s wisdom)
PHAT = destroy all the delusions and sufferings.
The mechanics of the practice
With most Buddhist meditations there is a reason for every method. This practice is profoundly effective by virtue of its complex simplicity. The complexity of memorizing a 100-syllable mantra, then reciting it with full concentration while visualizing not only a perfect Buddha, but also the mantra script and purifying light — all the while keeping our body relaxed and mindful, with perfect breathing. Yet, once mastered, it is one of the simpler practices. Complex, yet simple.
Many teachers tell their students Vajrasattva practice is all they need. After all, most lay Buddhists work day jobs and have family lives, so undertaking Vajrasattva practice is already a major — yet important — undertaking. But the main reason a teacher might say “Vajrasattva is all you need” is because it can be considered a complete and profound practice.
The Four Opponent Powers
Beyond the perfection of a practice involving all three of Body, Speech and Mind, Varjasattva practice also includes the profound “Four Opponent Powers”:
The Power of Dependence: Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
The Power of Regret: recalling all of our negative actions in the past motivated by ignorance, attachment or aversion.
The Power of Remedy: the mantra and visualization and mental focus on purification.
The Power of Restraint: or undertaking to refrain from creating negative karma (actions) in future.
When we practice Vajrasattva, as we visualize and chant mantras, we meditate on the four opponent powers. We meditate on the importance of our refuge in the Three Jewels — our true protection. We consider all the things we regret, and we focus on (visualize) our regrets being purifying by the wondrous nectar or white light of Vajrasattva. We then make a promise to ourselves to refrain from negative karmas again — because we know this opportunity to practice Dharma in this human life is so precious.
When we visualize the power of Remedy — while chanting mantra and visualizing the light and deity — we focus on the light or nectar filling our bodies. Usually, the teachers instruct us to visualize. Lati Rinpoche explained it this way, in a teaching on the Vajrasattva practice:
“According to oral instructions, visualize the bodily negativities are purged during the visualization expelling downwards, the negativities of the speech while expelling upwards, the negativities of mind while expelling spontaneously. The negativities of body, speech and mind and their imprints are expelled by doing all three of the above visualization simultaneously. If you meditate like this, then divide the 21 recitations of the mantra into groups of five each: five repetitions for expelling downward, five for expelling upward, five for expelling spontaneously and five for all three simultaneously. Recite the mantra once more to make 21. Another way is to count seven each for the first three visualizations to make 21, without doing the three visualizations simultaneously.
“There are different ways to do it. You can choose. There are many visualizations that can be done during the Vajrasattva meditation and recitation. At the end of however many mantras you recite, develop the strong conviction, “I have actually purified all negativities.” It’s important to generate this conviction because having lingering doubts about whether the negativities have actually been purified is harmful.
“If this purification practice is undertaken properly, with all the four opponents powers complete, then there is no reason why you should not be able to purify the negativities.”
For a visualization intended for meditators who do not yet have Vajrasattva empowerment, see the last section with a description by Venerable Zasep Rinpoche (or watch the embedded movie above.)
Is initiation necessary?
For Vajrasattva, initiation is not necessary, as long as you do not visualize yourself as Vajrasattva. Until you find a teacher who has lineage and can offer empowerment, it is quite effective and permissible to practice Vajrasattva visualization and mantra where you visualize the deity either in front of you, or on top of your head, with nectar or purifying light flowing into you.” Venerable Zasep Rinpoche explained, “According to Tantra, one of the most powerful purifications is meditations on Vajrasattva. Recite the mantra of Vajrasattva, the 100-syllable mantra [mantra below transcript]. If you don’t have initiation, you can say the mantra, no problem, you can visualize Vajrasattva in front of you. [Or] Above your crown, as well.”
Ideally, though, empowerment not only makes the practice more profound and effective, it helps with the transformative understanding of Emptiness and ego-lessnesses. If we have empowerment, we can visualize ourselves as deity — helping us understand the true nature of reality. Intellectually, we might understand the concept of Emptiness, but that’s not the same as developing a realization derived from real, empowered practice.
Visualization for the uninitiated
Venerable Zasep Rinpoche offers this simplified visualization (or listen to the embedded video above):
“Imagine — as you say the mantra — imagine purifying nectar coming from the heart of Vajrasattva, and the nectar enters through your your crown [of your head] and enters into your body, first purifying the body. The nectar flowing down through the body. And as if flows down it purifies all the bodily karmas: disease, sickness, unwholesome karmas of the past, unwholesome karmas of the bodies are purified. Say the mantra, lets say 21 times.
Then you do the purification again, this time purifying the speech, the speech karmas. This time, the nectar comes down from the heart of Vajrasattva dissolves into you, into your body, and slowly fills up your body, and then [you visualize] the unwholesome karmas of the speech coming out from the mouth. They are expelled. Gone. Imagine your speech karma is purified.
The third time, nectar comes down from Vajrasattva’s heart, dissolving into you directly into your heart, and then you mind is purified, mental karmas such as fear, attachment, ignorance, and confusion disappear, are dispersed. Disappeared straight from your heart. This is very powerful.
Say the mantra, the 100-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva, and then imagine Vajrasattva becoming smaller and smaller entering through your crown and dissolving into your heart. Imagine Vajrasattva is always with you as a personal yidam deity. This is very powerful way to purify your body, speech and mind. There are other purifications, but I think this is good enough for the beginner.”