Becoming Vajrasattva - Preface
Lama Thubten Yeshe (1935–84) first gave the Heruka Vajrasattva initiation and practice in public to about twenty-five of his Western students at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, in April 1974.
Details of Lama Yeshe’s remarkable life can now be found in several places, from Vicki Mackenzie’s excellent book Reincarnation: The Boy Lama to the introductions to his previously published works, Wisdom Energy and Introduction to Tantra. Adèle Hulse is also writing an official biography. Perhaps the most eloquent accounts of Lama Yeshe’s extraordinary qualities are those given by Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe’s chief and heart disciple, in the foreword to The Bliss of Inner Fire and in his tributes to Lama Yeshe after Lama passed away in 1984.
Lama Yeshe was not only a quintessential vajra master, he was also the inspiration behind the creation of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), a worldwide organization of Buddhist meditation and teaching centers, both urban and rural, monasteries, retreat facilities, healing centers, and publishing houses.
I first met Lama in November 1972 while attending the third Kopan meditation course, my first. The teachings were being given by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and most of the fifty students in attendance were unaware that there was another lama at Kopan. Someone found out that I was a physician, and about a week into the course, I was asked to go see “Lama,” who had an infection on his leg. I was taken round the back of the old house at Kopan where a humble Tibetan monk, smiling broadly, greeted me with profuse thanks for nothing I’d yet done. He knew what I didn’t—that my life had already begun to change completely.
When my first shot of penicillin squirted all over the room instead of into Lama’s buttock, I was invited, with a smile, to return to “try again tomorrow, dear.” Thus I saw Lama daily for the next week or so, my Dharma career beginning to flourish even as my medical one began to peter out. Eighteen months later, the now-famous Kopan courses—held twice a year, back then—were attracting well over two hundred people at a time, most of them young Westerners traveling in India and Nepal. Twenty of us, inspired by the peerless example of our teachers, had taken ordination as monks and nuns. In the spring of 1974, just after the sixth Kopan course and several years of sutra teachings on the graduated path to enlightenment, Lama felt we were ready for tantra. He chose the purification practice of Heruka Vajrasattva, and compiled for our use a sadhana, or method of accomplishment, from the Chakrasamvara tantra. He then gave a five-lecture commentary on the sadhana and an extensive discourse on how to make a meditational retreat.
This book comprises Lama’s commentary on the Vajrasattva practice, detailed retreat instructions based mainly on that initial teaching, six occasional discourses—mostly given as introductions to Heruka Vajrasattva initiations at FPMT centers around the world—and two commentaries on the Heruka Vajrasattva tsok that Lama himself composed in 1982. In the appendices are the sadhana and tsok text in Tibetan script, phoneticized Tibetan, for ease of chanting, and English, and a method for blessing the offering to the local spirits, the shi-dak torma. But it must be emphasized, as Lama says in his introduction, that to do the Heruka Vajrasattva practice, you require a highest yoga tantra initiation and instruction from a fully qualified lama.
In this vein, readers should also note that since the teachings in this book are from the oral tradition and aimed at practitioners, Sanskrit and Tibetan terms have not been rendered with scholars in mind but in phonetics approximating their correct pronunciation, devoid of diacritics. Foreign terms are not necessarily italicized within the text, but all foreign terms are defined for the reader in the glossary.
In these teachings, Lama Yeshe frequently uses the word “Westerners,” which reflects his audience at the time and has not been edited out. However, non-Western readers should not feel left out, as Lama’s wisdom and compassion radiated in the ten directions with complete impartiality.
Lama’s 1974 commentary was taped and transcribed by the monks and nuns of the International Mahayana Institute prior to their undertaking the Heruka Vajrasattva retreat in the summer of 1974. I spent more than four months with this commentary in the Charok Cave at Lawudo, not far from the Lawudo Gompa, the site of the hermitage of the Lawudo Lama, of whom Lama Zopa Rinpoche is the reincarnation. This was the high point of my life, and I would recommend making retreat with Lama’s commentary to anybody. And having ten or so vajra brothers and sisters up and down the Lawudo mountain around me, doing the same practice, was a great inspiration. It was a wonderful time.
Simultaneously, twenty or so meditators inaugurated group retreat within the FPMT at Kopan Gompa, and three-month Heruka Vajrasattva group retreats are still conducted annually at Tushita Retreat Centre, above Dharamsala, India, and occasionally at other centers.
After the retreat, Lama worked with Ven. Marcel Bertels and Ven. Yeshe Khadro to augment both the initial sadhana and commentary. For almost twenty years, scores of Heruka Vajrasattva retreaters have relied upon Marcel’s excellent edition of the commentary, which has been reprinted in transcript form many times by both Kopan Monastery and Wisdom. It forms the basis of parts 1 and 2 of this book.
I began work on this book after Lama Yeshe had appointed me Wisdom’s editorial director in 1981. Following Lama’s teachings on the Six Yogas of Naropa at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in early 1983, seven of us, as detailed by Jon Landaw in Introduction to Tantra, got together at an editing retreat near Cecina, Italy, to work on a number of Lama’s other teachings for publication. Among many other things, we learned that so unique was Lama’s “extremely creative use of English,” as retreater Robyn Brentano tactfully put it, that editing his words was akin to translation. The challenge presented by editing Lama’s teachings is to come up with a text that is true to his meaning, is grammatically correct, and sounds like Lama. Those of us presented with this challenge do the best we can!
I read my first draft of the main commentary to Lama at Tushita Retreat Centre in April 1983, and he made many corrections, additions, and suggestions. I treasure my tapes of those meetings, as I do my memories of all the other times I spent with Lama. All his suggestions have been incorporated in this book.
I edited the later teachings—Lama’s occasional Heruka Vajrasattva lectures and his commentaries to the Heruka Vajrasattva tsok offering he composed—in 1993, at Kinglake, Victoria, Australia.
Lama Yeshe was a great advocate of the Heruka Vajrasattva purification practice. He once expressed the hope that all his students would make the time to do the retreat at least once before they died. After Lama passed away, according to his wishes, a group of students maintained a round-the-clock schedule of Heruka Vajrasattva practice for twelve months at Kopan Monastery, and for shorter periods at Ösel Ling Retreat Center, Spain, and Mahamudra Centre, New Zealand.
Out of Lama’s great compassion and his students’ somewhat shaky karma, on February 12, 1985, he returned to earth as Lama Tenzin Ösel Rinpoche, and we pray for the day that he will once again teach the Heruka Vajrasattva practice to his disciples and, perhaps, correct whatever errors have been introduced into this book.
“Thank you, Rinpoche, for changing my life,” I said to Lama Zopa Rinpoche at the end of my first Kopan meditation course (he just laughed). All of us in the FPMT give continual thanks to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, our shining beacon of wisdom and compassion and a living example of enlightened realizations. When Lama Yeshe passed away, Rinpoche seamlessly maintained the development of the FPMT until it now comprises more than one hundred centers and study groups in thirty-one countries around the world, while continuing to lead an ever-growing number of international disciples spiritually, both by his incomparable demeanor and by his profound teachings.
This project and many others have benefited from the exceptional work done by Peter and Nicole Kedge and Ven. Ailsa Cameron in establishing the archive of teachings by Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. This computerized diamond mine is now being developed by the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive and will continue to produce teachings for the benefit of all sentient beings for a long time to come.
Without detailing their individual contributions, I would also like to thank Ven. Geshe Lama Lhundrup Rigsel, director of Kopan Monastery, Ven. Marcel Bertels, Ven. Yeshe Khadro, Martin Willson, Ven. Connie Miller, T. Yeshe, Ven. Sangye Khadro, Ven. Thubten Pemo, Ven. Thubten Wongmo, Ursula Bernis, Ven. Ann McNeil, Ven. Max Mathews, Jonathan Landaw, Ven. Robina Courtin, Ven. Roger Kunsang, Tim McNeill, Thubten Chödak, Piero Cerri, members of the Cecina Mare editing retreat, Mary Moffat, Cookie Claire Ritter, my mother Beatrice Ribush, Dorian and Alison Ribush, Wendy Cook, Ven. Geshe Tsulga (Tsultrim Chöpel), David Molk, Ven. George Churinoff, and Vincent Montenegro. Thanks are also due to the FPMT centers where the teachings in this book were given, and to the dedicated students who transcribed the tapes. We are especially grateful to Peter Iseli for the beautiful painting of Heruka Vajrasattva that adorns the cover of this book.