Developing the Mind Through Sadhana Practice

SADHANAS (Skt.) or pujas (Tib.) are chanted practices that embody the essence of the Buddhist path, from the taking of refuge and engendering of loving-kindness and compassion through the accumulation of merit and the completion stages of the practice, culminating in the dedication of merit to the benefit of all sentient beings as numerous as the sky is vast. Each is rich, complete, profound and vast.

There are many teachings on sadhana practice for practitioners who have the necessary blessings and permission to actually engage in the practice. The teachings shown here illustrate some of the profound aspects that apply to all of the practices.

The Teaching on the Practice of Chenrezik

By Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

THE PRACTICE OF CHENREZIG is presented here from the perspective of someone who is starting their practice of Dharma at the beginning stage and working toward the experience of complete enlightenment. This is a very strong approach: beginning the practice of Dharma as an ordinary being with the goal of full enlightenment. Here, as indicated in the text, you visualize Chenrezig above the crown of your head and above the crowns of the heads of all beings. There is a sense of a limitless number of sentient beings as boundless as space. Above the crowns of the heads of all beings, you develop the visualization of Chenrezig. You visualize Chenrezig above the crown of your head as an expression of acknowledgment that a fully enlightened being is superior to yourself as an ordinary being, in the sense that they have actualized the potential we all have. So Chenrezig is visualized higher than yourself.

Chenrezig appears brilliantly, spotlessly white, free of stains or defects of any kind. This is an expression of the quality of the enlightened mind of Chenrezig. From the beginning of generating the enlightened mind until it is fulfilled, there have never been the stains of selfishness and attachment, aversion toward and rejection of others, or indifference and lack of concern. This freedom from stains is signified by the brilliant white appearance.

From the body of Chenrezig emanates predominantly clear white light, along with light of the other five colors. This indicates that Chenrezig, when benefiting sentient beings, does so mainly through gentle and peaceful means. Among the different enlightened activities, this is how Chenrezig benefits beings. But Chenrezig also benefits beings in any and all necessary ways (such as enriching or magnetizing), which is signified by the colors. Therefore, it is possible that the Chenrezig practice by itself can completely accomplish whatever we need to realize.

In this way, you visualize Chenrezig above the crown of your head, facing the same direction you are. This Chenrezig has a most beautiful or handsome appearance. This is not just facial beauty but encompasses the entire body, in terms of right proportion, so when you look at Chenrezig, you see the beauty, elegance, dignity and majesty of that form. It is a form completely free of any defects whatsoever. Anyone with the good fortune to be able to look at Chenrezig face to face would be completely captivated by his most handsome and majestic appearance. If an individual is experiencing tremendous pain, grief, or suffering of any kind, the sight of Chenrezig's appearance would so fully captivate his or her mind that the pain and the suffering would, in that instant, be forgotten. The captivating quality of the form of Chenrezig cannot be measured, it is immeasurably wonderful. Again, this is the result of having indulged in nothing harmful or egocentric.

A form that has a soothing, healing effect is the result of a mind that is free from harmfulness and defects. The whole form of Chenrezig is like that, and Chenrezig's face is constantly smiling. His eyes are constantly gazing, not closing for a moment, gazing with a very gentle and soothing smile. In the context of our experience, probably the best example we could draw is how a loving mother looks at her infant child: the eyes, the face with the smile, and the concentrated look at the child. You can see on that face and in those eyes the care, affection, sincerity, and gentleness she has toward her child. Similarly, and unceasingly, Chenrezig has this feeling toward all beings without exception. This is indicated by his constant gaze and the smile on his face, which is an expression of limitless and constant loving-kindness and compassion toward beings.

The visualization of Chenrezig in this practice, unlike many other deities, has four arms and four hands. The four arms and hands signify the four immeasurables: immeasurable loving-kindness, immeasurable compassion, immeasurable joy, and immeasurable equanimity. Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Boundless Compassion, is the very embodiment and realization of the four immeasurables. The four immeasurables are the vehicles through which Chenrezig benefits beings; therefore, Chenrezig has four arms.

The first two, the inner arms, have palms joined at the heart, holding a sky-blue, wish fulfilling jewel. This symbolizes that in whatever way Chenrezig manifests to benefit beings, the quality of Chenrezig's mind is never separate from the all-pervasive, nonreferential state of dharmakaya (primordial wisdom). In the outer right hand, Chenrezig is holding crystal beads and moving them the way we use a mala to count mantras. This symbolizes that there is not one moment when Chenrezig does not benefit beings. Like the steady movement of counting the beads, Chenrezig is continuously benefiting sentient beings and turning the wheel of enlightened activity. In the outer left hand, Chenrezig holds a lotus flower. This symbolizes that, in benefiting sentient beings, Chenrezig manifests in whatever forms are necessary in accordance with the mental capacities, circumstances, and aptitudes of sentient beings. For instance, if Chenrezig appeared in the form of a human among certain kinds of sentient beings, (animals, for instance), these animals might run away. For this reason, Chenrezig may appear in the form of an animal. In a similar way, Chenrezig may appear in any of the different realms, such as the hell realm or the hungry ghost realm. However Chenrezig may appear, he remains free from any of the samsaric stains of the various realms, the way a lotus flower growing in a swamp appears free of the stain of the mud. The left hand of Chenrezig, holding the flower, symbolizes that stainlessness.

The being to whom we make a sincere request or petition must be worthy of such a request, which is to say the being must have the qualities to be able to grant the requests we make. If the being of whom we are requesting something lacks those qualities, it would not help, because there would not be anything that could be granted. So here we must also take into account the fact that we are relating to worthy objects in this very practical way. There is a saying in Tibetan about an incident where a huge hawk picks up a rabbit and takes it into the sky. When the poor rabbit is up in midair with this hawk, it screams and shouts for help, but there is no one to help it. This is not that kind of situation; we are involved with a workable, practical situation. That is why we make the earnest request here to not just anybody but to Lama Chenrezig, lama meaning one who has superior realization, superior knowledge, who has overcome all defilements, and who is thus capable of helping those with defilements become free of them. We also make supplication to Chenrezig as having the qualities of a yidam. The nature of a yidam is such that, when the practitioner's mind makes a connection with it, he or she can rely on that connection, and the yidam can provide the necessary benefit for which the connection is made. A yidam is a supreme connection that is made through the mind, and Chenrezig is capable of facilitating that connection. Therefore we petition Chenrezig as a yidam.

Since Chenrezig is the embodiment of so many noble qualities, the qualities of a lama, the qualities of a yidam, the qualities of the perfectly noble one among realized beings, then Chenrezig is the lord of protection, or KYAP GON CHENREZIG. KYAP means "to protect" and GON means "lord," the leader. So KYAP GON means "lord of protection," indicating that Chenrezig embodies all of these qualities, is worthy of leading beings toward liberation, and is capable of protecting beings from their confusion and suffering. On our relative level, even if certain individuals have the power or the authority or the ability to protect others in some simple mundane circumstances, they may not necessarily initiate the act of protecting others. By comparison, Chenrezig is the embodiment of the realization of spontaneous enlightened mind of loving-kindness and compassion. Such qualities of kindness are the spontaneous expression of Chenrezig, the quality of the nonreferential flow of Chenrezig's mind, so Chenrezig is also the lord of loving-kindness, of warm consideration toward the benefit of others. Not even for a moment does Chenrezig close his eyes. He is constantly gazing, never taking his attention from benefiting sentient beings. In this way, we make an earnest request to Chenrezig, the Lord of Loving-Kindness .

In this prayer we are earnestly and sincerely calling to Chenrezig, referring to who he is and by what we need from him. Since Chenrezig is the embodiment of spontaneous compassion, we ask Chenrezig, as the one of great compassion, to hold beings like ourselves, the practitioners, fast in his compassion. We are making a very sincere, straightforward point. To put it simply we are saying: "what is your compassion and realization, what is it all for?" We are saying it is for nothing other than benefiting beings, and here we are, we who need to be benefited, so extend the compassionate qualities of your mind. On a very relative and mundane level, this is like saying "Mother, you have wealth and I am your only child. I am in need of your wealth, and you should help me." It is almost as simple as that. What is a mother if she is not going to help her only child when she has the capacity to do so? What is this relationship for, what is the purpose of being the mother and having wealth, if the child is deprived? So we make this earnest request to Chenrezig on that basic level.

The reason we so earnestly want to be held fast in the compassion of Chenrezig is that sentient beings have been caught up in samsara from time without beginning. We are developing the wish that all sentient beings will be liberated from the suffering of samsara. Generally, the Dharma teaching is that there are six different realms where sentient beings experience tremendous, unbearable suffering. The experience of suffering of the majority of sentient beings in the different realms of existence is as if we were thrown naked into blazing fire. They have that kind of experience all the time, of pain and torment due to the intensity of their accumulation of defilements. This is the normal state of affairs of sentient beings, so we pray with the attitude that there is no other protection for sentient beings than that which Chenrezig can provide. Chenrezig is the protector, since he is the embodiment of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas who are capable of providing such protection. We take the attitude that "there is no one other than you that sentient beings like us can turn to." Although there are beings close to us (our parents, for instance), when it comes to guiding us toward the experience of complete enlightened mind and protection, because they themselves are sentient beings, caught up in the confusion of such realms, they are not in a position to protect us or lead us from confusion and suffering. There are people among us who play leadership roles, but they themselves are subject to the suffering and confusion of cyclic existence. Beyond that, there are devas, nagas, higher categories of devas such as Brahma or Shiva, and so on. Even they are not free from cyclic existence. Thus there is no one to turn to other than Chenrezig.

The key point is "May you, Chenrezig, hold all beings fast in your enlightened compassion until all sentient beings have established themselves in the state of Buddhahood." This is an earnest request, a very direct, sincere, and heartfelt request we are making on behalf of all sentient beings.

While we are doing the Chenrezig prayer we pray that all beings of the six realms may be established in the pure realm of Amitabha or of Chenrezig, whichever you are aiming for. There is ultimately no difference, since the basic point here is aiming toward their liberation from the six realms.

Then, having prayed first for the establishment of all beings in a pure realm, we pray that we ourselves may be able to benefit living beings with as much strength and power as Chenrezig, not only in this lifetime, but in all our future births, throughout our many existences. We pray that we may be able to develop the qualities that Chenrezig developed, and having developed enlightenment ourselves, we pray that we may be able to benefit beings through removing defilements, just as Chenrezig does, with the six-syllable mantra. It is really a prayer that we ourselves will have the capacity to benefit others.


Taken from a transcript of a teaching given by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche at KTD in July, 1986. This transcript is available in its entirety from Namse Bangdzo Bookstore.

Relating to the Mahakala Practice

By Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

IN A PUJA, OR RITUAL SADHANA PRACTICE, we invoke and relate to the Guru, the Yidam, and the three roots, or in this case, the protector, Mahakala, who can also be understood as the embodiment of the three roots. What we are primarily focusing on in a puja, is the enlightened activity which pervades space and time. Since the Yidams (enlightened Buddhist deities) are more specifically the activity aspect of the Dharma, through their names their activity becomes obvious. When the ritual of Mahakala is being performed, Mahakala appears in the form of a wrathful deity. It is not because there is something ferocious about Mahakala or that he is aggressive. Mahakala is none other than the inseparability of compassion and loving-kindness. In the view of ultimate wisdom, there is no separation between the Awakened Mind of Buddha and that of Mahakala. Mahakala is a manifestation of the awakened mind.

Appearing in very majestic form, splendid yet frightening, Mahakala stands in the midst of a mountain of flames to symbolize that no enemy can stand this appearance aspect; the sharp chopper, which he holds aloft in one hand, symbolizes the cutting through of negative patterns, aggression, hatred, ignorance--any of the five poisons. No neurosis or negativity can tolerate this very majestic form; the frightening form symbolizes Mahakala as totally devoid of fear or hesitation in his spontaneous yet consistent work toward the benefit and liberation of all beings.

Mahakala is seen standing on the corpse of two human bodies, thus symbolizing the death of negativities and the complete uprooting of negative patterns to such a point that, like a dead body, they will not come to life. It is very important that we know these symbols of Mahakala because many times we have mistaken notions that he may be a clinging spirit or harmful, evil being, perhaps even the Lord of Death ready to devour and attack. One would find great difficulty in relating to the various symbols without understanding that our awakened compassion is the essential quality of the being of Mahakala. Mahakala has never been known to harm one being, even in the slightest manner, because he is constantly benefiting beings through the continuous play of the enlightened mind.

Proper attitude and sincere motivation are necessary when one participates in rituals. One should make supplication that through this participation one's negativities are completely uplifted and that the protection and guidance of enlightened beings remain inseparable from oneself until perfect awakening is experienced. One asks that one's presence here and one's invocation may contribute toward continuous world peace, harmony, friendship, happiness, understanding and goodwill and that all beings be uplifted from the negative patterns which cause chaos. One asks that the blessings and awakened presence of these enlightened deities pervade in all directions. With this attitude, participating in the pujas is of greatest benefit and most practical.


From a teaching given by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche on February 2, 1981 at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra; translated by Ngodrup Burkhar and edited by Agnes M. Ruch.

Comments on the Practice of the Chenrezik Sadhana

 By Kalu Rinpoche

IN HIS GREAT COMPASSION THE BUDDHA also emanated as Chenrezig, a form of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Practices such as the Chenrezig and Tara sadhanas can be approached by someone leading an ordinary life, and the Chenrezig meditation is uncommon both in the ease of its performance and the blessing that it bestows. It too is development stage practice, and regardless of which yidam is practiced, this practice is important because in it we work with our attachment to "I" or "I am." As long as we have the idea "I am my body," we cannot obtain Buddhahood. The Vajrayana teaches precise and skillful methods to transcend or abandon this clinging, and all of these involve changing one's attachment to physical existence.

Instead of conceiving of oneself in an ordinary body, one visualizes oneself as Chenrezig. For example, one thinks, "I am Chenrezig, my form is that of Chenrezig." However, one does not think of the deity's body as solid or material, made of flesh and blood like one's ordinary body, or made of metal or stone like an idol. One thinks of it as appearance that is inseparable from emptiness, like a rainbow or like a reflection in a mirror. Although the visualization of oneself as Chenrezig is a mental attitude, it has been said that one's attitude can change phenomena. This means that if one maintains, over a period of time, the conviction that one is the deity, one will eventually become the deity.

There is a story to illustrate this. Near the town of Madras in India were many forests, and within them were small villages where many families lived. In one village the children always played near the house of an old woman who lived all by herself. Whenever she came outside, the children taunted her and threw stones at her. She became very depressed about this, and angry as well, until one day she remembered hearing that one can change phenomena by means of one's attitude. She thought of all the tigers in the forest, animals known to eat people. So the old woman began to think, "I am a tiger, I am a tiger," and after a while she actually became a tiger. The children were terrified and their families moved from the village to somewhere else.

If such a transformation into a worldly form is possible, then transformation into the form of Chenrezig is even easier, because the yidam exists as a yeshe sempa, which means wisdom being. With faith, aspiration, and the proper attitude--with meditation on one hand and actual compassion on the other--transformation can actually occur. Because of this, it is possible to obtain liberation in one lifetime if one's practice is strong enough.

Since the practice of Chenrezig is so easy, it is regularly done at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra and at all Karma Thegsum Choling centers, and there is great blessing in many people chanting together. But it can be done on one's own as well, and one can recite the mantra OM MANI PEME HUNG at any time one wishes--while walking around, while eating, while working, any time at all. Anyone can learn about the mantra and the Chenrezig meditation by requesting lamas such as Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche to explain it.

The practice of tranquillity meditation, or shamatha, is common to the teaching of both the sutras and the tantras, and it can also be performed within tantric practice. During the Chenrezig meditation, one can direct one's awareness to the body of the deity, or to the syllable HRI visualized in the heart of the deity, or simply to the sound of the mantra as one recites it. Any of these, especially the latter, will give rise to extraordinary tranquillity.

Insight or vipasyana meditation can also be combined with Vajrayana practice. If one recognizes that it is the mind that creates the body of the deity, and that the mind is empty--and if one comes to actually experience the inseparability of these things--then an insight develops that becomes the essence of prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom.

If one wishes to gather the accumulations of merit and awareness, one can do so by visualizing the syllable HRI in the heart of the deity, surrounded by the deity's mantra. Think that countless rays of light emanate from these syllables, and they shine in the ten directions, which are the four cardinal points, the four points between them, and the two points above and below. On the end of each ray of light are beautiful offerings that please the five senses--forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations. One offers these to all the Buddhas and their sons, who return them as blessings in the form of rays of light that dissolve into one's heart. It is said that there is no more profound means than this for accumulating merit.

One can also visualize the syllables in one's own heart, with rays of light emanating to the ten directions to touch all sentient beings, transforming their bodies into the body of the deity and purifying their obscurations. One visualizes that all sentient beings, who have become like Chenrezig, are reciting the mantra OM MANI PEME HUNG, and the entire universe hums with its sound. It is said that there is no more effective means than this for purifying obscurations.

The visualization of oneself and all sentient beings in the form of Chenrezig is the development stage, and this is method. Recognizing that both the visualization and the form visualized are empty is the fulfillment stage, and this is wisdom. One should always combine these two aspects of practice, method and wisdom.

Finally one visualizes that the entire universe and all sentient beings in it are in the form of Chenrezig, which melts into light and dissolves into oneself. One's own body, as Chenrezig, then melts into light and dissolves into the syllable HRI in one's heart. The HRI dissolves upward and finally disappears into emptiness. Remaining in this meditation is said to be the most profound way to realize emptiness and Mahamudra, and this is the practice of the fulfillment stage itself.

The development and fulfillment stage practices of Chenrezig are easy to do, easy to understand, and easily explained, and no matter how long one practices it, its benefit will continue to grow. If in the future one should do a three-year retreat, then meditation upon other yidams will be all the easier because of one's experience with the methods and visualizations of Chenrezig.

In America we make a great deal out of highways, and we depend on them to get where we are going. We need to understand, therefore, that the development and fulfillment stages of tantric practice are the highway that all the siddhas of the precious Kagyu have traveled to reach enlightenment and full Buddhahood, with incalculable benefits for sentient beings. It is only fitting that we travel the same highway.


Taken from a teaching given by Second Kalu Rinpoche titled "Following in the Footsteps of the Great Kagyu Forefathers," given at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra on the weekend of October 24, 1986. It was translated by LamaYeshe Gyamtso and edited by Sally Clay.

Questions & Answers

Q: What is the way to open oneself to the blessing [of the teacher and the blessing of the deity practice]?

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: Basically with confidence and devotion. If you have a strong devotion to the teacher, then usually you experience the blessing of the teacher, or of the deities. To do this you need to develop a very open confidence toward the Buddha or toward a teacher. Practically, I think this has to do with an understanding of meditation. By meditating, you open up until one day it becomes possible for the teacher's blessing to wake you up. The teacher can then use different methods to give you blessings, but first you have to develop openness. This means working with your mind, developing confidence, and acquiring a strong experience of what is basic through meditation. Buddha nature has two qualities: one is luminosity, one is emptiness. They are inseparable. Luminosity is clarity of the mind, for the mind it is not absolutely blank. When this clarity is refined more and more, then we reach the realization of buddha nature.

Q: How is it that particular forms and rituals arise in Buddhism, and what is the relationship of these to sunyata?

H.E. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche: Buddhist rituals are based on the understanding of sunyata. Without that, the ritual gestures, offerings, and all the rest become just an act, an external game with no content and no meaning. The nature of all ritual is that symbolic devices are used to create a certain mental attitude. When we offer our body, speech, and mind, we do this though a system of gestures that create that particular meaning. But if the ritual is not based on an understanding of emptiness, then it lacks meaning, and the symbolic gestures could cause confusion. For example, in the Mahakala rituals, meat and alcohol are used in the offerings. We are not really giving these to the deity, because Mahakala doesn't eat meat and drink booze. In this ritual the visualization of Mahakala represents the aspect of enlightenment called Rakshisa, and the offering is in deference to that meaning, not to the actuality of Mahakala. So in order to understand any of these rituals, it is essential to understand that emptiness is the underlying reality and ground for the ritual activity.

Q: You said that all the Buddha's teachings could be expressed as the syllable AH. I had always thought that OM was the most important syllable.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: The syllable AH is the essence of all phenomena, known as sunyata or emptiness, which is absolutely unfabricated. The syllable OM embodies a slight fabrication or conditioned quality. If you know the Tibetan language, you can understand what we are saying. The written syllable OM starts with the basic AH syllable, then it has a NARO, which is what gives it the "O" sound, on top of the AH, and there is also the little circle above the NARO (which is called a NADA in scriptural Tibetan) which gives the "M" ending. By contrast, the syllable AH is completely fundamental and unadorned. This expresses that with OM there is the development of a very small fabrication. The idea of fabrication here does not mean something negative; it shows that from the ultimate nature of phenomena, which is dharmakaya, enlightened beings emanate to benefit sentient beings. That emanation is a slight fabrication which corresponds to the fabrication embodied in the syllable OM. Vairocana, if you are aware of that deity, is also connected with the syllable OM.

Q: Will ritual practices such as pujas and [traditional representations of Buddhist deities in the] thangkas stay the same in the West?

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: My approach to understanding Buddhism is to look at its early development. I always refer to the original Buddhism of ancient India. We should go back to this original sense, the original way of practice. Actually pujas are very much like notebooks describing the stages of practice--what you have to do first, what you have to do second and third, and what you have to do last. If you had an understanding of all the stages of meditation, then you might not need to read pujas. When we do not clearly understand these stages, the pujas help us through them without losing any part of the visualization. As for the thangkas, we need these to help us practice, and we don't need them if we are not practicing. We don't paint thangkas for decoration, but for practice. We have to get the thangka we need for practice, and then bring it to the right place. If it is a tantric practice, then we need to hang it in the shrine room; if it is a general thangka like the Buddha, then we can hang it in the sitting room.