The Confession of Downfalls contains translations along with extensive commentaries to the two main sutra and tantra practices of mental purification in Tibetan Buddhism, the Sutra of Three Heaps and the visualization and mantra recitation of Vajrasattva.
The commentaries include excerpts from a Sastra by the Indian master Nagarjuna to the Sutra of Three Heaps and both practices are supplemented by verbally transmitted commentaries from The Tibetan lamas Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, Ceshe Rabten, Tubten Zopa Rinpoche and Gegen Kyentse.
This volume on the two fundamental methods of Buddhist psychological purification is being reprinted here under a new title Confession of Downfalls. This change has been necessitated by suggestions we have received from our Translation Department and a number of practitioners that the original title was quite unclear and misleading. Included are general explanations on the main sutra and tantra forms of mental purification: the Confession Sutra and the Practice of Vajrasattva.
This comprehensive presentation has been edited and translated by Brian C. Beresford of our Translation Bureau while working closely under the guidance of several Tibetan Lamas and translators. He has extensively annotated the translations with references to other related publications together with explanations and definitions drawn from traditional Tibetan sources in order to clarify newly-coined English terms.
It is hoped that this meditational manual, in shedding more light on the implication behind the rich language of Buddhist philosophy, will be of help to others engaging in the task of translation as we as provide the general reader with the deeper insight into the scope of Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice.
The following work on two fundamental purification practices of the Tibetan Mahayana tradition is intended primarily for those who are seriously interested in approaching the transformational psychology of higher Buddhist meditations. As such it is based purely on the traditional oral teachings of Tibetan meditation masters, supplemented by an explanation from the Indian Buddhist commentaries (bstan- ‘gyur).
Instructions to meditational practices such as these should not be merely a source of intellectual stimulation. Instead, they should be viewed in the context of an individual’s approach to meditation. Although the realisation which is the outcome of such spiritual practices Des beyond intellect, Buddhism stresses the necessity of first gaining a broad understanding of philosophical principles and meditational techniques. With such an understanding as a basis, one becomes better equipped to engage in the actual meditation. Thus, commentaries of this nature should serve to enrich one’s understanding of a specific Dharma practice, which in turn will benefit one’s approach to life.
All terms have been rendered into English in order to convey as precisely as possible the sense they evoke in the original. When a newly-used term first appears it is followed by its Tibetan spelling and Sanskrit equivalent and is generally accompanied by an explanation based on either the Indian or Tibetan traditional sources.
Nagarjuna, the composer of the Indian commentary to the Confession of Downfall, is considered to have lived during the first and second centuries A.D. However, according to and an interpretation of the Wheel of Time (dus-kyi ‘khor-lo, kalacakra) by the Tibetan P’ug-pa Lhun-drub gya-tso, Nagarjuna lived from 481 B.C. till A.D. 120) He is renowned for having codified the Madhyamaka, or Middle Way philosophy, based on the teachings of his master, the great saint Saraha.3 The doctrine of the Middle Way clarifies Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings on the profound subject of emptiness (stong-pa-nyid, Sun yat4 elucidating the true nature of reality. Nagarjuna wrote numerous treatises on sntra, tantra and medicine, and although some scholars believe these commentaries to be written by several people all bearing the name Nagarjuna, the Tibetan tradition considers the authorship to be one and the same.
The excerpts presented here from Nagarjuna’s commentary were translated with the kind assistance of L.T. Doboom Tulku who also checked the translation of the sutra itself. The Tibetan commentary to the Confession of Downfalls is based on an oral explanation given by Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey and translated by Sherpa Tulku at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in October 1974. The additional explanation of an alternate visualization is from a teaching given by Thubten Zopa Rinpoche at the International Mahayana Institute, Kathmandu, in January 1975. The Practice of VaJrasattva is based on an explanation by Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, translated by Sherpa Tulku, and by Geshe Rabten, translated by Gonsar Tulku in July 1975. Additional clarification was given by Gegen Khyents from Manali and translated by Gerado Aboud in May 1976. Suggestions for the English rendition were given Jonathan Landaw, Michael Lewis and Jampa Gendun (Stanford Jaffe). Without their kindness this work would not have been possible. May it be of benefit for those with sincere interest.
Homage to great compassion, exalted Avalokitesvara. All living beings desire happiness and wish to avoid suffering, and there are many ways to achieve this. Although many people endeavour to attain happiness by material means, while yielding a limited amount of satisfaction, such means bring no ultimate peace to the mind. One of the main functions of spiritual systems is the balancing of material progress with mental development and this balance is particularly emphasised in Buddhism.
A Buddhist is distinguished from non-Buddhists by seeking refuge in the Three Rare and Supreme Jewels (dkon-mchog-gsum triratna) — the Fully Awakened Being (sangs rgyas buddha), Truth (chos, dharma) and those Intent on Virtue (dge- ‘dun, sangha). Within Buddhism there are followers of the Low Vehicle (theg-dman, hinayana) and those of the Great Vehicle (theg-chen, mahayana). Low Vehicle practitioners feel trepidation about the pitfalls and pains of the world and seek liberation from these for themselves alone. The Great Vehicle followers also feel these miseries but resolve to attain the fully awakened state, or Buddhahood (byang-chub, bodhi) solely to be able to exercise the skilful means necessary to release all beings from their sufferings. Such practitioners are known as Awakening Warriors (byang-chub sems-dpa’ bodhisattva) because, like a warrior, they courageously undergo any hardship in order to conquer all emotional and psychological afflictions (nyon-mongs, klesa) and their traces.
The initial object of Buddhist meditational practices is the preparations of one’s mind for the most profound topic of meditation, the emptiness of all phenomena, the very nature of reality. The Great Vehicle, as practised in Tibet, accomplishes this preparation by means of purification practices designed to eliminate as rapidly as possible all traces of wrong and detrimental past actions. The predominance of these latent traces of neurotic tendencies presents obstacles to deeper meditational practices. It is for this reason that so great an emphasis is placed on the means by which one cleanses oneself of them.
One must become a suitable vessel to receive the teachings. Prerequisite are such meditations as tranquil absorption (zhi-gnas, samatha) and penetrative insight (Ihag- mthong, vipasyana) which gradually lead one towards the more profound practices such as the Great Middle Way (dbu-ma clien-po, mahamadhyamaka), the Great Seal (phyag-rgya chen-po, mahamudra), the Great Completeness (rdzogs-pa chenpo, mahasandhi) and Tantrayana. If the seeds of wrongs and unskillful. actions are not purified, it will be extremely difficult to see the true nature of reality no matter how much effort one may make.
Since the object of these purification practices is the eradication of neuroses and past evil, or sin (sdig-pa, papa), one might ask, “What is sin?”
Blown about by the winds of their own actions (las, karma) sentient beings from beginningless time have been uncontrollably circling through the various realms of existence. By not being aware (ma-rig-pa, avidya) of the actual nature of reality, they have committed unwholesome actions leading to the experience of suffering in one form or another. Such unskillful actions constitute neuroses or sins,5 and they can be manifested in many different ways.
In everyday life we perform many unskillful actions motivated by greed, jealousy, arrogance and aggression. In addition, if as Buddhists we have taken certain commitments and break these commitments, for instance, that of not harming other beings, this is an instance of neurotic or evil action. Furthermore, if the vows or bonds (sdom-pa, samwara) of the Awakening Warriors or of tantra have been taken, they may be transgressed frequently or weakened through lack of awareness in actions of body, speech and mind!’ The process of cleansing unskillful tendencies can be hastened by engaging in the confession and Vajrasattva practices, either individually or jointly.
Those who wish to experience reality through the meditations of the Great Vehicle should engage in both the ordinary and extraordinary preliminary practices (sngon-‘gro). 7 The former involve meditating on the four topics that revert the mind (blo-Idog rnam-bzhz) from worldly preoccupations. These are the meditations on the precious human body, death and impermanence; actions and their effects; and the faults of cyclic existence (‘khor-ba, samsara). It is essential to perform these four contemplations before each meditation session because they give energy and strength to the mind, ensuring that one will not be distracted from the main object of the practice. They are the foundation of all higher meditations and, if they are neglected in preference to more ‘advanced practices’, it would be like trying to construct a glorious mansion on top of an iceberg. The following is an abbreviated discussion of these four important and fundamental topics.
One should contemplate on how extremely difficult it is to obtain a human birth with all the eighteen freedoms and endowments8 essential for the practice of Dharma. In finding them all present in oneself, one will realise that this is an infinitely rare and precious opportunity to accomplish the ultimate purpose of life through inner development.9 However, although one may have such a precious human birth, it is important to bear in mind the fact that, like all things, one is impermanent and eventually will die. Furthermore, the time of death is uncertain and there are innumerable circumstances leading to the termination of life. When death does come, the only thing that will help in obtaining a fortunate birth again will be the force of the wholesome actions one has performed based on an awareness of the law of actions and their effects.
Skilful actions will lead to happiness while unskilful ones are invariably the cause of misery. Knowing this, one should abandon the three unwholesome actions of body (killing, stealing and sexual misconduct), the four of speech (lying, slander, harsh words and foolish chatter) and the three of mind (greed, hatred and holding wrong views). To realise that even slightly unskilful actions result in obstructions to practice, will impel one to refrain from ever committing them.
If one does not eradicate them, the ripening of a single instinctive propensity (bag-chap, vasana) from one wrong action may, at death, defile one’s next birth. In such a less fortunate state of existence the practice of Dharma and the attainment of happiness will be even more difficult.
The six sub-realms constituting the desire realm (‘dod-khams, kamaloka) of cyclic existence are differentiated according to the degree of misery they entail. Traditionally, these are taught in terms of specific realms but can also be understood as reflections of psychological states of existence. 10 Lowest are the hell realms where beings suffer for extensive lengths of time from the extreme misery of, intense heat or cold. The hungry spirits suffer from insatiable hunger and unquenchable thirst. Animals must endure bondage in service, stupidity and fear of being eaten. Humans undergo the miseries of birth, sickness, aging and death. Demi-gods suffer from intense jealousy towards the gods. The gods indulge in soporific sensory gratification and then at death suffer great distress when they are about to fall into a lower realm.
Sentient beings continually circle through these realms, by committing new unskilful actions. These actions plant propensities on their minds that ripen at death, causing rebirth within anyone of these states. Therefore, when we realise the whole of cyclic existence as unsatisfactory, we will become detached from its enticements and will try with determination to find some way to pass beyond it.
The transcendence of all misery was taught by Buddha Sakyamuni by pointing out the way to its cessation. This complete cessation of all misery is the fully awakened state and is accomplished by removing the two veils that obscure the true radiance of mind. These are known as the obscuring emotional afflictions (nyon-mongs-pa’i sgrib-pa, klesavarana) and the obscuration of omniscience (shes-bya’i sgribpa, jneyavarana). With self-effort and proper instruction from a fully qualified spiritual master, these obscurations can be removed, thus revealing the true nature of mind free from all discursive conceptions (rnam-rtog, vikalpa) and conflicting emotions. The fully awakened state is not far away; rather its potential innately abides within one’s mind and is fully manifested when the mind is purified of grasping at neurotic instincts, unskilful actions and their stains.
There are generally four extraordinary preliminaries in regard to approaching tantric practices. The first, going for refuge, leads the mind away from non-Buddhist paths; the second, activating the awakening mind (byang-chub-kyi-sems, bodhicitta), leads it away from the lesser paths of the Hearers (nyan-thos, sravaka) and Solitary Realisers (rang-rgyal, pratyekabuddha). These two preliminaries are sometimes practised together with prostrations and are common to both sutra and tantra)’ while the remaining two are exclusive to tantra. The third, recitation and meditation of Vajrasattva, the adamantine-minded warrior, purifies adverse circumstances such as neuroses and mental obscurations. And the fourth, unification with the spiritual master (bla-ma’i rnal-’byor, guru-yoga) accumulates merit and instills blessings providing one with circumstances conducive for higher practices.
Tibetan traditions employ various methods by which one can engage in these preliminary practices. Some require the practitioner to perform at least one set of 100,000 repetitions of each preliminary before venturing into higher practices. Other traditions emphasis their concurrent practice with (anti-a and higher studies. Within each tradition, and for individual disciples, details of practice may vary. This variation reflects the skilful means of the masters in leading disciples according to their individual dispositions and capacities. It is not the case that one system is higher than another. All Tibetan traditions employ techniques that lead to the same goal.
The most important prerequisite for successful Buddhist meditation is finding a qualified spiritual master with whom one feels a strong affinity and to follow his teachings with unflinching devotion while not disparaging any other religious tradition.
The following fundamental explanations of the Confession of Downfalls, which is a general means of purification, and Vajrasattva, which is specifically used in meditations involving the tantric path, are meant to be practised while under the guidance of a spiritual master. They may either be followed as presented here, or as modified by his personal instructions. If they are included within one’s daily practice, they will certainly lead to meditational development and insight, which will benefit oneself and, ultimately, others. As in all Great Vehicle meditations, they should be preceded by and accompanied with sincere refuge in the Three Supreme Jewels and the activation of the awakening mind that aspires towards and ventures into the practices for fully awakening one’s pristine awareness (ye-shes, jnana) in order to benefit all sentient beings.
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