Prostration is a purification practice
Apart from engaging in the practice of the Six Perfections,
the five formal preliminary practices are:
(1) taking Refuge
(4) mandala offering
(5) Guru Yoga
Taking Refuge is establishing a profound trust based on investigation in the power and efficacy of the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha) to relieve suffering
Prostration is a purification practice that is used as a tool to transcend the personal ego and overcome arrogance. The practitioner begins by standing
with legs together. The base of the palm and the tips of the fingers are pressed together and point upward, making a space in the middle that the thumbs are tucked into. The practitioner raises the hands a couple of inches above the head, and with the hands still pointing upward, touches the top of the
head, the throat, and the heart. These symbolize the three doors: the body, speech, and mind of a buddha; touching each of these places symbolizes one’s wish to attain these qualities in oneself. The practitioner then kneels down and places the forehead on the floor and the palms flat on either side. S/he
then stands, brings the palms together overhead, and the process is repeated. In a full prostration, instead of kneeling, the whole body is laid flat out on the floor and the arms are stretched above the head before rising. One
imagines the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas all around. One acknowledges their superior compassion and wisdom and, at the same time, aligns oneself with one’s own potential for attaining their state of Enlightenment. In order to enter into Tantric practice a practitioner is generally required to carry out one
hundred thousand prostrations. Westerners often misunderstand prostrations to be an act of personal obeisance, but when Buddhist students prostrate before
their teacher they are not bowing to the teacher’s personality, but to what s/he represents—Buddhahood itself. Teachers in turn prostrate before they give teachings and before their own gurus for the same reasons.
Vajrasattva is a Buddha who represents the purified mind. His name means “Spiritual Hero of Indestructible Reality.” This practice usually requires a
Vajrasattva empowerment. You visualize a throne, on the seat of which is a lotus flower. On the flower are two circular cushions: the bottom one is a moon
disc, and the top one is a sun disc. Upon them is the syllable HUM. This HUM turns into Vajrasattva, and the HUM syllable rests at his heart. His body is a brilliant white, and he is sitting in a half-lotus position. The toe of his right foot gently touches the top of your head. His right hand is close to his
heart and holds a golden dorje, a scepter-like object sometimes called a vajra. His left hand is at his left hip and holds a bell, turned slightly upward so that you can see the hollow space inside. The vajra symbolizes skillful means or the enlightened method of love, compassion and bodhicitta, and the bell
symbolizes the wisdom that understands emptiness. Vajrasattva’s one-hundred syllable mantra surrounds him from left to right, the short version of which is OM VAJRASATTVA HUM. The HUM syllable radiates
light all around, a light that travels through space and eliminates the ignorance of sentient beings everywhere. Then you confide to Vajrasattva all the things you regret having done, said, and thought, and you resolve not to engage in these actions again. As you say the mantra, you visualize Vajrasattva’s
wisdom and compassion as a stream of nectar emanating from his heart and flowing through him into your body from the top of your head. This light purifies all negative emotions and negative karma that is emitted from your pores, palms of your hands, and soles of your feet. This negativity is replaced by
healing nectar that fills your body with a sense of well-being. You feel that you have actually been transformed into Vajrasattva, with all his wonderful qualities of body, speech, and mind.
All four Tantras require the use of a mandala. The Sanskrit word mandala means “extracting the essence,” whereas the Tibetan translation suggests “wholeness” or “circumference.” A mandala offers a conceptual framework for one’s meditation, and in Tibetan Buddhism it represents the enlightened state.
It is a sacred environment, a Pure Land in which the perfected qualities of a particular Buddha are represented. Mandalas are used as a meditation tool to align the microcosm with the macrocosm—the conventional mind with the mind of Enlightenment. The outer mandala offering utilizes material images and the
practitioner offers the entire universe through this image to the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Dalai Lama says that this symbolizes “the overcoming of even a subtle form of possessiveness and attachment.” The inner mandala offering practice takes place in the mind, during which one offers
one’s own physical existence, visualizing parts of the body as parts of the universe. Mandalas are images that represent specific Buddhas and the perfected state that one is attempting to realize in oneself. They can be made from cloth or
colored sand or be generated from the meditator’s own imagination. They usually include concentric circles bounded by a square within an outer circle. The square has an opening on each side, symbolizing the doors to the Buddha’s palace. This is the central focus of the meditation, representing the creation of the deity’s enlightened mind.
You will need a round plate about eight inches in diameter. Regardless of what it’s made from, it should be visualized as pure gold, symbolizing one’s pure Buddha-nature. For offerings you can use small grains, rice, colored sand, or precious stones. The following example uses grain as the offering:
1. Hold the plate at heart level with your left hand.
2. Drop some grain from the right hand onto the center of the plate while generating Bodhicitta and reciting the refuge prayer.
I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha
Sanskrit: Namo Buddhaya, Namo Dharmaya, Namo Sanghaya
3. Using the right forearm, you then wipe the grain off the plate in a clockwise motion three times. This symbolizes the wiping out of desire, hatred, and ignorance.
4. Drop some more grain on the plate and wipe it three times in a counterclockwise direction. This symbolizes the aspiration to develop positive qualities of body, speech, and mind.
1. Let the grain pour slowly from the right hand to make a circle around the center of the plate.
2. Form a hill of grain in the center of this circle. This symbolizes Mount Meru, the symbolic center of the universe.
3. At each of the four points of the compass make four piles of grain, symbolic of the four main continents of the primordial universe.
4. Make two more piles on either side of the central one, symbolizing the sun and the moon.
5. One should bring to mind the vastness of the entire universe and should offer it up to the buddhas in order that all sentient beings within it can receive their qualities.
6. Tip the plate toward yourself and pour the grain onto your lap. This symbolizes the blessings you and all beings in the universe receive from making these offerings. If you are making requests, tip the plate towards an image of the guru (either actual or mental).
Here, one’s own body becomes the mandala. This is a practice that helps to purge negative attitudes toward the body. You imagine that your skin and hair is pure gold, your blood is nectar, and your flesh is beautiful heavenly flowers. The trunk of your body is Mount Meru, the center of the universe, and is
made of precious stones and metals. Your arms and legs are the four continents and the fingers and toes are smaller lands. Your head is the abode of the Lord of Deities who resides at the peak of Mount Meru, and your eyes are the sun and the moon. Your heart is seen as the most wondrous gem in the universe
and the other organs are seen as stores of treasure. Then the whole mandala, seen as a Pure Land, is offered to the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) and you receive the blessings of all the enlightened beings.
The secret mandala offering is found in highest yoga tantra. Here, the mandala is the mind of Enlightenment itself. This is a more difficult and subtle practice where one transforms the mind into the bodies of a Buddha.
5. Guru Yoga
Pabongka Rinpoche describes Guru Yoga as “the very life-blood of the Tantric path.” The meaning of Guru Yoga is “uniting with the teacher’s nature.” It involves practices in which one meditates upon one’s spiritual mentor as a living Buddha. This practice instills in the student the possibility of
attaining Buddhahood in human form and the teacher becomes a template for the student’s spiritual aspirations. By having a human model of Enlightenment the practitioner can more easily identify with and develop enlightened qualities within her/himself. Westerners are suspicious of hierarchy. However, as Lama
Edward Kanga Vassel explains, an authentic lama never places her/himself above anyone but allows her/himself to be used as an object of Refuge. “We might be completely unable to get beyond our perception of the lama as being human just like us.... At the other extreme a naive deification of the lama may
result in a kind of emotionally dominated delusional state that exaggerates our vulnerability to our own personal weaknesses and those of others.” No teachers are entirely free of imperfections, but the point of guru
yoga is to learn to see perfection incarnate. As John Powers writes, “Those who critically focus on the guru’s faults remain trapped by the ordinary.” However, it is important that the student rely upon a fully qualified spiritual guide. Pabongka Rinpoche says that at the very least the guru should have a
mind pacified by ethics, concentration and wisdom and possess the qualities of love, compassion, and realization into emptiness. Through Guru Yoga, Enlightenment becomes a more tangible reality, accessible through a living breathing being, and not merely through disincarnate entities. Ultimately, the practitioner comes to see that there is no fundamental difference between the meditational deities, the guru, and the student.