Karma Kagyu Mahamudra: Before Beginning Mahamudra Practice


I make heartfelt obeisance to the precious Kagyu line. Although manifestly enlightened countless ages ago, you have been emanating in whatever bodies have been suited for taming those needing to be tamed, so that even hearing your names eliminates the fears of recurring samsara.
Having prostrated to my guru and his lineage, I shall say a little about mahamudra, the great seal, the innermost heart of the diamond-strong vehicle of mind, Vajrayana, in order to encourage disciples desiring liberation. It is the singular pathway of mind through which all Buddhas have traveled. Moreover, with the undissipated warmth of inspiration from the guidelines transmitted orally, one ear to the next, in succession from the Buddha to my root guru concerning the essence of the minds of all the Buddhas of the three times, it is a method for achieving, in a single lifetime, the extraordinary supreme state of a unified Vajradhara pair.

To listen to or study the Dharma teachings properly, it is essential to have the correct motivation. Remembering how all sentient beings have been your mothers in previous lifetimes and shown you great kindness, you should develop compassion and the wish to repay them. The only way to be able truly to do this and remove their suffering is to become enlightened yourself. To have as your primary thought the wish to become a Buddha or, as in the Tantras, Vajradhara, in order to help others is known as the Enlightened Motive of Bodhicitta. Therefore with this highest motivation you should read, study and practise these teachings.

In addition, there are three faults along the analogy of vessel that you should eliminate. First, do not be like an upside-down vessel that is closed-minded, so that the teachings do not penetrate. Nor should you be like one with a hole in the bottom, retaining nothing of what you learn. Furthermore, unlike a dirty vessel, you should be free of prejudices, preconceptions and strong delusions which might contaminate your mind-stream causing you to be pre-occupied and misconstrue all you hear.

There are also six stains to be removed. The first is pride or closed-minded arrogance; you must listen humbly if you are to learn anything. If you have no faith or are hypercritical, you will be unreceptive. If you are disinterested, you lack motivation and thus need to reconfirm it. Do not be distracted by sense objects such as noise or crowds, but remain focused on the teachings. However, do not let yourself sink into such a deep concentration that you no longer pay attention and are in alert. Such concentration has its place in meditation, but can be a hindrance when listening or studying. Finally, do not indulge yourself in depression or become discouraged if you do not understand at first reading. It will take time and the power of acquaintance.

Further, there are five types of incorrect grasping. Do not grasp only the words of the teachings and ignore their meaning, nor only the meaning but not the words. Nor should you consider both the words and their meaning equally unimportant. Also do not grasp at either an incorrect order of the teachings or at a wrong understanding. If you regard yourself as a sick man, suffering from delusions, the Guru as your doctor and the teachings as medicine, you are sure to benefit.

For elaborating the practice of mahamudra according to the non-degenerated manner of explication of the precious Kagyu, there are three parts: the preliminaries, the actual fundamental part and the concluding material.

Safe Direction, Prostration and the Bodhichitta Aim

For the first of these, there is taking safe direction or refuge and generating a bodhichitta aim.

There are both common and extraordinary preliminary practices. The common are to meditate on the precious human rebirth, death and impermanence, karma or the law of cause and effect, and the disadvantages of samsara or cyclic existence. As a common-ground, they form the context for all Buddhist practice and help set your motivation. The extraordinary preliminaries (ngön-dro) are prostration while taking refuge, Vajrasattva purification, mandala offering and Guru-yoga.

There are many styles in which the latter set may be practised, but the most usual is to perform 100,000 repetitions of each in turn in one continuous effort. Another method is to do a certain portion of each every day as part of your daily practice. The number of repetitions may vary and sometimes you are told to keep count, while at others not, but to continue until you receive signs of success. The set may be repeated several times on different occasions or continued at a slower pace throughout your life. Furthermore, the actual practices you do as preliminaries may vary as well. Your Guru will decide what is best for you. What follows is a general description of the standard preliminaries as practised in the Kar-ma Ka-gyü lineage. The specific, detailed instructions should be received from your Guru.

The purpose of preliminaries is to eliminate or purify yourself of the obstacles that might hinder your practice and to accumulate the merit that will bring you success. Prostration and Vajrasattva meditation accomplish the former, while mandala offering and Guru-yoga the latter. Thinking about the law of cause and effect and about all the non-virtuous actions you have committed in the past and how you will have to experience suffering as their result, you should feel great regret and turn to the Three Jewels for refuge. These are the Buddhas or Fully Awakened Beings, the Dharma or their teachings and the Sangha or spiritual community of those who realise them. Entrusting yourself to these three, you should offer prostration in order to cleanse yourself of unripened suffering.

Furthermore, you should realize how all sentient beings want only happiness and never to suffer, but are unaware of how to bring this about. They do not know that virtuous, kind actions bring happiness, while cruel, non-virtuous ones only pain. Therefore develop compassion for them and wish by your practice to purify them as well. And finally you should set your motivation as Bodhicitta, the Enlightened Motive, wishing that by taking refuge and prostrating you will eliminate all obstacles so that you can attain the enlightened state of a Buddha in order truly to be able to benefit all others.

In the space before you, imagine a wish-granting tree with one trunk and dividing into five branches. On the central one is your guru, on the front one are the Buddha-figures, the yidams, on the right one the Buddhas, on the back one the Dharma scriptures, and on the left one the Sangha community. Each is surrounded by a cluster of figures of its own class.
Imagine yourself situated in a multitude of all motherly limited sentient beings, with yourself standing in front as their leader and all of them joining you in a chorus of taking safe direction. 

This visualisation is of the field of merit or tree of assembled Gurus. Imagine around you is a beautiful park, with soft grassy meadows and gentle animals. In the centre of an exquisite lake is a wish-granting tree as described above. Vajradhara or, Tibetan Dor-je ch’ang, is the form Buddha takes in the Tantras. The meditational deities (yidams) include Vajrayogini, Heruka and so forth; the Buddhas are those of the past, present and future; the Dharma is represented by the scriptural texts of“The Three Baskets (Tripitaka)” and the Sangha by such Bodhisattvas as Avalokiteshvara and Tara, as well as Pratyekabuddhas and Sravakas such as Sariputra and so on. Around the lower portion of the tree are the Dharrnapalas and protectors such as Mahakala. If you do not know what all these figures look like or cannot visualise them clearly, do not worry. At least have faith that they are there before you. Through familiarity and pictures you will learn to see them.

Visualise yourself in your ordinary form, with all your male relatives to your right and female to your left. Imagine you are in an enormous crowd of people and animals, yourself as their leader, and all prostrating and taking refuge. Prostrate by touching clasped hands—palms together, fingers outstretched and thumbs tucked in—to the top of your head, mid-brow, throat and heart, then go down to the ground and stretch out fully with hands extended before you. Arise quickly. Do this while repeating such verses as.”! and all motherly sentient beings as vast as space... go for refuge in the holy venerable Gurus. We go for refuge in the Yidams and host of their mandala deities. We go for refuge in the Blessed Buddhas. We go for refuge in the Holy Dharma. We go for refuge in the Noble Sangha. We go for refuge in the host of Dakas, Dakinis, Dharmapalas and protectors who have the eye of pristine awareness.” Throughout maintain a strong state of concentration, faith and sincerity. These three—bowing, reciting and concentrating—are known as physical, verbal and mental -prostration. You should repeat the verse and physical prostration 100,000 times, as well as begin any meditation session with at least seven.

When prostrating you will experience much suffering. View this like the pain of an injection you are happy to endure in order to be cured of an illness. Your discomfort is proportionate to the amount of unripened suffering and negative karma you are being cleansed of. When you ache, feel that you are not only eliminating, by experiencing now, the suffering you might have had in a more severe form in an unfortunate rebirth, but also that you are taking away this suffering from others. If you are hot or cold, pray that this eliminates that which the hell creatures feel. Take hunger and thirst from hungry ghosts and, if your mind becomes dull and blank with fatigue, imagine that animals are freed from their stupidity. With strong faith and constantly reconfirmed motivation, you will have no doubts about what you are doing. Should thoughts arise to leave it and do something else, regard them as a jeering crowd and pay them no heed.

(Everyone) is reciting what is appropriate for taking safe direction and is in the state of mind that thinks, “Realizing that all limited beings have been my mothers and fathers, may they be endowed with happiness, parted from suffering, and attain the peerless purified state of enlightenment. And so, for that purpose, I shall take safe direction and generate a bodhichitta aim.” (Recite, then), “From the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Highest Assembly….” and meditate on the four immeasurable attitudes: “May all limited beings be endowed with happiness and the causes for happiness,” and so on. 

The stanza, “I go for refuge until I am enlightened to the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Highest Assembly. From the virtuous merit that! collect by practising giving and other perfections, may I attain the state of a Buddha to be able to benefit all sentient beings”, is the most commonly recited one for enhancing your development of Bodhicitta. The four immeasurables are (1) love, wishing all beings to be endowed with happiness and the causes for joy, (2) compassion, wishing them to be parted from suffering and the causes for grief, (3) joy, wishing them never to be parted from the happiness they have and (4) equanimity, wishing that they be freed from all attachment and repulsion and from all notions of some being close and others distant.

At the conclusion, meditate that the objects of safe direction melt into light and dissolve into you.

When you have finished your prostration session, dissolve all the figures into the central one of your Guru as the Buddha Vajradhara and finally him into yourself. Remain in a nonobjectifying state of inseparable Voidness and clarity, not directed at any extreme mode of existence. In other words, do not make anything into a concrete, truly existent object. Rather, remain in the here and now, and feel you are completely purified.

That is the first (preliminary practice): purifying your mental continuum through the meditations for taking safe direction and generating a bodhichitta aim.

Vajrasattva Meditation

Vajrasattva, or in Tibetan Dorjesempa, is a form of the Buddhas dedicated to purifying and eliminating from others suffering, sickness and the unripened, unfortunate consequences of their previously committed non-virtue. He appears in many forms, peaceful or as Heruka Vajrasattva, either alone or with consort. His practice can be either more or less elaborate. What follows is a purification method with the solitary Vajrasattva.

Meditate on the crown of your head your guru as Vajrasattva, white in color, with right hand holding a vajra scepter at his heart, left holding a bell at his hip, and arrayed with the excellent bodily signs and exemplary features. 

On the top of your head in your ordinary form visualise a syllable PAM. This transforms into a white lotus and on it, from a syllable AH, appears a flat, full-moon disc. On top of it, a syllable HUM transforms into a five-pointed vajra or diamond sceptre marked in the centre with a HUM. Light rays are emitted and re-absorbed twice, the first time making offerings to the various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and the second eliminating the suffering of all beings. The vajra then transforms into the solitary Vajrasattva, as described above. His left leg is on top of his right thigh and his right leg is extended downwards. In his heart is a moon disc with an upright, white syllable HUM in its centre.

Vajrasattva has both a hundred and a six-syllable mantra and they may be arranged in several ways, either clockwise or counter-clockwise, revolving or stationary. In this particular meditation, his hundred-syllable mantra, which you will be repeating 100,000 times, is arranged counter-clockwise along the outside rim of the moon-disc in his heart. The letters are white, upright, facing inwards and do not revolve.

Then (having recited), “O Guru Vajrasattva, I beseech you to purify me of all my negative karmic force and obstructions,” and, in addition, having applied what is appropriate for open admission (of your previous mistaken behavior), 

For this meditation to be most effective it must be complete with the four opponent powers used in confession or declaring your previously committed -non-virtuous actions. First you must recall all your mistakes and feel sincere regret. The second is promising to try your hardest not to repeat them. Next you must rely on the basis or object against which your non-virtue has been committed, namely your commitment to the refuges and Bodhicitta. Thus by again taking refuge and enhancing your Enlightened Motive, you reinforce the foundation for your morality. Lastly you apply such purifying practices as those of Vajrasattva to remove all stains. If these four are incomplete, whatever purification you do will be only a temporary whitewashing. But with these four opponents and sincere conviction in their ability to cleanse you, there is no doubt they will work.

imagine white nectar falling from the large toe of Vajrasattva’s (right) foot. It enters you through the crown of your head and fills your entire body. All your negative karmic force and obscurations leave you and, in their place, you are entirely filled with nectar. 

As you recite the hundred-syllable mantra, white lights and purifying nectars are emitted from the moon-disc, seed-syllable HUM and mantra at his heart, completely filling his body, overflowing and entering you as above. Imagine that from the pores and orifices of your body obstacles and unripened, unfortunate consequences leave in the form of soot and black tar, sickness and disease as pus, blood, mucous and snot, and the harmful influence of malevolent spirits as snakes, scorpions, spiders and insects. All these dissolve into the ground and in their place you are filled with white nectar and lights. Visualise this same process occurring for all sentient beings around you, with either each having his own Vajrasattva on the crown of his head or everyone sharing one large figure.

Pleased, your guru melts into light (and dissolves into you). Meditate that your body, speech and mind and the enlightening body, speech and mind of Vajrasattva have become inseparably mixed together.
That is the second (preliminary practice): purifying yourself of negative karmic force and obscurations through Vajrasattva meditation and mantra recitation.

Mandala Offering

Offerings in general are not made in order to please or bribe the object to whom they are presented. They are a symbol of your total dedication to Enlightenment as represented by the Gurus and Three Jewels of Refuge, and are offered in order to gain the merit that will bring you to their state. When you plant crops in a field, it is not the ground that benefits, but you yourself. Likewise, making offerings to the assembled Gurus as the field of merit brings you to Enlightenment so that you can benefit all.

There are many types of mandalas. One classification is the celestial mansions in which the meditational deities dwell. These are three-dimensional structures, the ground-plans of which are depicted in mandala paintings. Another type is the one used in offerings, consisting of a plate-like base, rings, a crown and rice, grain or jewels and is symbolic of the universe.

Meditate (before you) that, in a mandala arranged with five mounds, your guru is in the center, before him are the Buddha-figures, to his right are the Buddhas, behind him are the Dharma scriptures, and on his left is the Sangha community. This is the actualized mandala.

In general, mandala mansions are square with a ground floor and steeple-like structure. In the center of each wall is a door, entrance-corridor, porch and archway, the latter of which is flanked on top by two deer’s and a Dharma wheel. The exact architectural structure and proportions differ slightly for each meditational deity and can be very complex.

In the center of such a transparent building, made of light and visualized before you, is your Guru in the form of Vajradhara. He is on a throne supported by lions with a lotus and moon-cushion seat. Above him are all the lineage Gurus, from Vajradhara himself through Tilopa, Naropa and so forth down to his own root Guru. Around him are four groups of figures as above, similar to the refuge and prostration visualization. This is your field of merit to whom you make offerings.

Then, having arranged another mandala with mounds, offer it to it with, “This base, anointed with fragrant waters, strewn with flowers…” and so on, and, in addition, the appropriate mandala ritual. Then present actually arrayed material offerings and mentally created ones.

With a standard mandala offering set, first hold the base plate and wipe it clean while reciting once Vajrasattva’s hundred-syllable mantra to purify defilements. Next put a drop of water on it to signify your Bodhicitta motivation and the moisture of your compassion. Then placing the first ring on the base, add mounds of rice, grain and so forth in the appropriate directions for each of the places, treasures and goddesses mentioned until all the rings are filled and it is crowned with the jeweled top. This is the actual material offering done while reciting the appropriate stanzas.

The mentally created one is your visualization as described by these stanzas. What you are offering is the entire universe and all its wealth as portrayed by Buddha in the Abhidharma teachings. Buddha described the universe differently on separate occasions to varying people, since depending on your state of purity you see things differently. According to this particular description, there is the golden earth or base with an iron ring or fence around its perimeter and a salt-water ocean on the outside. On the inside of the fence, one in each cardinal direction, are the four continents each with two sub-continents between it and the fence, all separated by oceans. On the other side of the continents, progressively closer to the center are alternating rings of seven golden mountains and seven fresh-water lakes. In the center itself is Mount Meru, square, stupas-shaped, with four steps or levels going up from the bottom. Its eastern face is of white crystal, southern of blue aquamarine, western of red ruby and northern of green emerald. The ocean and sky in each direction are of the corresponding colours. The eastern continent and sub-continents are half-moon shaped with fiat edge towards Mount Meru; the southern are curved trapezoids, with concave sides, concave longer top away from Mount Meru and convex shorter bottom near it; the western are circular and the northern square.

Human life, as we know it, is found on the southern continent, where the oceans and sky are blue. The other continents should not be thought of as places in outer space, which can be reached by rocket ship. You can only go there if you have accumulated the karma for such a rebirth.

The verse you repeat 100,000 times for this preliminary is, “By directing to the Fields of Buddhas this offering of a mandala built on a base resplendent with flowers, saffron water and incense, adorned with Mount Meru and the four continents, as well as with the sun and the moon, may all sentient beings be led to these Fields.”

By the force of having made offerings like that, you will complete your two networks (of positive force and deep awareness). Then, having made requests, “Inspire me to develop sublime boon experiences and stable realizations,” think that the host of deities in the actualized mandala melt into light and dissolve into you.

By presenting to the pure objects in the mandala realized before you both the material offering of the mandala set and the visualized universe, you accumulate merit. By doing so while meditating on the non-objectifying state of Voidness with respect to the offerings, you accumulate insight. By the force of these two collections you overcome the two sets of obstacles, those preventing Liberation and Omniscience. The collection of merit results in your attainment of the Form Bodies of a Buddha, and that of insight in the Wisdom Bodies. The Form Bodies are the Emanation (Nirmanakaya) and Utility Bodies (Sambhogakaya). The former appear to ordinary beings with the karma to see them, while the latter only to Arya Bodhisattvas, that is those with an Enlightened Motive who have bare perception of Voidness. The Wisdom Bodies are the Nature (Svabhavakaya) and Wisdom-Truth Bodies (Dharmakaya). According to this text, the former is the Omniscient mind of a Buddha and the Voidness of that mind, while the latter is the inseparability of the former three. The definitions, however, of these last two bodies are more often reversed and sometimes Dharmakaya is used alone as a general term for both. Moreover, there are many other levels on which the various Buddha bodies can be understood and defined.

That is the third (preliminary practice): completing your two networks like that through earnestly practicing the instructions for the mandala offering.


The last of the extraordinary preliminaries, also for accumulating merit and blessings , is Guru-yoga. For this, you should visualize yourself in the form of a meditational deity. Any will do, but usually Vajrayogini is chosen. She is red, has one face, two arms, two legs and stands on one leg, with her left foot on top of a lotus, corpse and sun-disc, and her right foot bent upwards towards her left thigh. She holds in her right hand a butcher’s cleaver above her head and in her left a skull-cup at her heart. A khatvang-staff rests on her left shoulder. With yourself in this form, proceed with the practices.

Meditate that on the crown of your head is your root guru, either in his own bodily form or in the aspect of a Buddha-figure, whichever you prefer. Meditate that the (lineage) gurus going back to Vajradhara are either stacked one atop the other above his head or meditate that they are in a multitude (clustered around him). Directing toward them immeasurable firm conviction, appreciation and extraordinary fondness, make them requests very strongly and for a long time. When your state of mind has transformed (through their inspiration) and you have made it stable, then meditate that the lineage gurus, together with a host of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, viras, dakinis, Dharma protectors and guardians, dissolve into your root guru and that your root guru is the embodiment incorporating them all.

As indicated above, there are many varieties of Guru-yoga—visualizing your root Guru either in his own form, or as Vajradhara, Mar-pa, Mi-la rä-pa, Gam-po-pa, Kar-ma-pa and so forth. Your Guru may tell you to choose Vajradhara, in which case he would be on a lion-supported throne, lotus and sun-disc, surrounded by four clusters of figures and the lineage Gurus as in the refuge and mandala visualizations. However, a solitary figure of your enthroned Guru surrounded by lineage Gurus will do, since your root Guru embodies all three refuges.

Present the outer, inner and secret offerings and offer the seven-limb prayer. 

Outer offerings are of the desirable objects of the senses, either materially arranged or mentally created. Inner ones are of the purified meats and liquids symbolic of the transformation of your delusions, aggregates and so forth. Secret offerings are of the circumstances for generating the blissful consciousness for the most powerful realization of Voidness.

The seven limbs of prayer or seven-limbed puja include (1) prostrating, (2) making offerings, (3) confessing or declaring your previous non-virtue, (4) rejoicing in the merit of others, (5) requesting the Gurus to teach, (6) beseeching them not to pass away and (7) dedicating your merit. An eighth limb of taking refuge is sometimes added between the second and third.

Then strongly take safe direction, enhance your bodhichitta aim, and make requests with: “(Together with) all motherly limited beings equal to space, I make requests to you, my guru, the precious Buddhas; I make requests to you, my guru, all-pervasive Dharmakaya; I make requests to you, Sambhogakaya of great bliss; I make requests to you, Nirmanakaya of compassion,” and so forth.

Implied by the request to the Guru as the precious Buddhas is that he incorporates all Three Jewels of Refuge. His body stands for the Sangha, his speech the Dharma and his mind the Buddhas.. Thus this verse is to the Guru as the body, speech and mind of the Buddhas, that is the Three Precious Gems, as well as to him as the three Buddha bodies. This may be repeated 100,000 times or, more usually, the following six line verse of the First Kar-ma-pa is said that many times in addition to a million repetitions of the Kar-ma-pa mantra, “Karmapa chenno.”

“I make requests to the precious Guru. Inspire me to clear my mind of grasping for true identities. Inspire me to develop on my mind-stream the insight to see all worldly thoughts as unnecessary. Inspire me that my non-Dharmic thoughts shall cease. Inspire me to realise my mind has no birth. Inspire me that my deceptive notions shall dissolve in their place. Inspire me to realize all appearances of existence as Dharmakaya.”

Then, by your guru dissolving into you, think that your guru’s enlightening body, speech and mind have become inseparably mixed together with your own mind and then set your mind into a state parted from mental fabrication.

At the conclusion of your recitation session, you should visualize your Guru granting you the four tantric empowerments as follows. First white light is emitted from his forehead to yours, eliminating the obstacles due to the non-virtuous actions of your body. It grants you the vase empowerment, permitting you to engage in the development stage practices, and plants the seed for your attaining the Nirmanakaya or Emanation Body of a Buddha.

Red light is emitted from his throat to yours, eliminating the obstacles due to your non-virtuous speech. It grants the secret empowerment, permitting you to meditate on the completing stage practice involving the body’s subtle energy system and plants the seed for the Sambhogakaya.

Blue light from his heart to yours eliminates the obstacles due to mental non-virtue, grants the wisdom empowerment permitting you to engage in the practices of union, and plants the seed for the Dharmakaya.

Finally white, red and blue lights are emitted from all three places simultaneously to yours, eliminating physical, verbal and mental obstacles all together, granting the word empowerment permitting you to practice Mahamudra or the completing stage without signs and planting the seed for the Svabhavakaya.

After all this, visualize that the lineage Gurus dissolve one into each other into your root Guru and that he dissolves into you. Remain in a non-objectifying state of Voidness and then dedicate the merit for the Enlightenment of all.

Earnestly practicing by relying on this method for gaining the stable realizations of mahamudra is the fourth (preliminary practice): causing inspiration to enter you through meditation on guru-yoga.

Death and Impermanence

If you do not meditate on impermanence, you will not turn your mind away from concern for this life. If you do not turn your mind, you will not become liberated from samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Therefore, concerning that, (Nagarjuna has written in his Letter to a Friend, verse 55), “Many things can damage your life: it’s more impermanent than a bubble on a river, tossed by the wind. Any respite (from death) you may have – to breathe out after breathing in and to awaken from having fallen asleep – that’s utterly amazing!”
Like that, then since, in general, all affected phenomena are impermanent and, specifically, since the life force of wandering beings is as impermanent as a bubble, you can never know when it will burst. There is no certainty that you will not die right now. Since, at the time of death, nothing except Dharma is of any help and since, in accomplishing meaningless tasks that are worldly and for this life, you will not pass beyond the causes for suffering, swear an oath that whenever your mind wanders for even a moment toward thoughts of food, clothing and so forth for this life, you will immediately think about death.

All conditioned phenomena, that is those that depend on causes and circumstances, are impermanent. This includes both animate and inanimate objects, sentient beings and their environment. A solid structure today can crumble into dust tomorrow. In particular, your own life is extremely fragile and can be lost very easily. No one can guarantee he will be alive tomorrow and when your time is up, no friends, doctors, medicine, money or fame can prevent your death. The only thing that can help is the practice of Dharma. If you have accumulated many virtuous deeds during your life, you can die in peace assured that as a result of your white karma you will gain a fortunate rebirth.

Therefore do not be fooled into thinking that sensory pleasures can bring you lasting happiness. If you are attracted to beautiful sights, think how the moth is lured to his death by his enchantment with a flame. For sounds, consider how a duck is seduced by a hunter’s duck-call. Bees are attracted to the smell of a Venus fly-trap and flies to that of feces, only to drown in a toilet. Fish are lured on to a hook by their desire for the taste of a worm. Elephants, obsessed with the physical sensation of scratching themselves, are led by their tame brethren between two thorny trees and thus are captured by trainers and taken into bondage. By thinking of these examples, turn your mind from concern for worldly pleasures, seeing that they are only causes for more suffering. Realizing you may die at any moment, do not waste your time on trivial matters. Regard food and clothing as a condemned man would his final meal and costume.

Count those who have previously died from time to time – your own relatives and close ones. (Think about) the manner in which they have died and how their corpses were taken to the cemetery and nothing remains of their bodies. Further, since you, too, do not transcend such a nature, work yourself into a state of trembling fear like a limited being placed into the hands of a hangman. When (you have done that, then) by not letting your mind escape into mental wandering and by completely discarding any interest in this life, meditate completely wrapped up in just that.

These meditations are not designed to make you depressed. If their result were just the pessimistic anguish that “I am going to die and there is nothing I can do”, then meditation would be only a cause for anxiety and suffering. The whole point of death meditation is to urge you into the practice of Dharma, into the consideration of karma and the law of cause and effect and how you can do something to affect your future rebirths. Thus meditation should spur you on like a boxer going into the ring. As Je-tzün Mi-la rä-pa said, “I went to the mountains because I feared death. But now that I see the true Dharmakaya nature of my mind, even if death comes I have no fears.”

That is the fifth (preliminary practice): meditation on death and impermanence.

Karma and Behavioral Cause and Effect

After that, as it is necessary not to mix up what is to be adopted and what is to be discarded in reference to karma and behavioral cause and effect, (think about how) the fruits of whatever karmic actions embodied beings have themselves performed ripen on them individually. Moreover, if you commit the ten destructive actions, you are reborn in one of the worse rebirth states. Depending on (which of) the three poisonous emotions (motivated them), their frequency, whether their objects were mighty or not mighty, and whether what you committed was major, middling or minor (in nature), you are reborn either as a hell being, a clutching ghost or an animal. Once you are born as that, you have to experience these or those (kinds of) hard-to-fathom sufferings. Depending on whether you have committed major, middling or minor constructive actions, you are reborn either as a human or as a god on the plane of sensory desires, on the plane of ethereal forms, or on the plane of formless beings. Therefore, at all times, investigate and scrutinize your three gateways of behavior.

The basic facts of the law of cause and effect are that happiness results from virtuous actions or “white” karma and suffering from non-virtuous or “black” karma. Furthermore, whatever you do ripens on you alone; if you kill someone, the effect will not ripen on your parents or children, only on you. Therefore you must abandon cruel actions and adopt kind ones if you wish to benefit yourself and then others.

The ten non-virtuous actions are divided into three of the body, four of speech and three of mind. Those of the body are killing, taking what is not given or stealing, and indulging in improper sexual conduct such as adultery or rape. The four of speech are lying, using divisive language, speaking abusive and harsh words, and idly gossiping. The three of mind are having covetous thoughts to possess what belongs to others, harboring ill will, and holding distorted views such as disbelief in cause and effect.

The ten merely virtuous actions are to refrain from the ten non-virtuous ones. The ten especially virtuous ones, however, are saving others’ lives, practicing generosity, keeping strict morality and encouraging others to do likewise, speaking the truth without causing confusion, intermediating quarrels and reconciling enemies, talking sweetly and calmly, speaking meaningfully such as by teaching and praying, having few desires and knowing satisfaction, having good-will towards others and holding correct views with faith and conviction in the teachings.

If you save others’ lives and refuse to kill, your own life will be longer, whereas if you persist in killing your life will be short and filled with disease. If you are generous and never steal, you will come into wealth. But if you rob you will be poor and always subject to theft. From strict morality and abandoning sexual misconduct you will have a pleasing appearance and good marital relations and friendships. But if you cause harm by your sexual behavior, you will be ugly, have poor marriages and an unfaithful spouse.

By speaking the truth and never lying, others will believe what you say. But no one will heed or believe your words if you always lie. If you refrain from divisive language and try to bring people together, your relations with friends will always be close. However, if you cause divisions, you will accumulate enemies, be the focus of jealousies and have poor relations with others. From speaking pleasantly and never harshly, others will speak nicely to you. But you will only receive abuse and have to hear unpleasantness if you persist in cursing others. If you speak meaningfully and never gossip, you yourself will hear meaningful things; whereas if you continue to chatter idly, meaningless drivel is all you will hear.

If you are content and never covetous, you will never be in want of anything. But if you always covet your neighbour’s possessions you will become a beggar always in want. By having good-will and no malice for others, people will treat you nicely and regard you well, whereas ill-will only brings you suspicion and harm from others. Lastly, if you hold correct, undistorted views, your intelligence and wisdom will increase and your mind will be ever sharp. However, from clinging to distorted ones you will be narrow-minded, dull-witted and filled with doubts.

The results of karma can be divided in many ways, such as that found in the text. Another way is in terms of the delusions motivating your actions. If you act under the strong influence of pride and arrogance, you will be reborn as a god; from jealousy an anti-god; desire a human; closed mindedness an animal; miserliness a hungry ghost; and from anger as a hell creature. Therefore try to eliminate the delusions and practise virtuous actions in order to become liberated from all six realms of cyclic existence or samsara and ultimately to attain Enlightenment.

Feel joy at whatever constructive acts you have performed and bring to a halt whatever destructive or unspecified actions you have done. In other words, not mixing up what is to be gotten rid of or adopted, what is to be engaged in or rejected, break the continuity of your destructive actions and make the rounds of constructive acts of your three gateways (of action: body, speech and mind) have no breaks in their continuity. That is the very meaning of Buddha’s teachings and is what accomplishes the aim of having done the practices. Therefore, once you have come to know, in great detail, what is to be adopted and what is to be discarded with respect to karma and behavioral cause and effect, train yourself (in accord with that).
That is the sixth (preliminary practice): the teachings on karma and behavioral cause and effect.

The Shortcomings of Samsara

After that, if you have not meditated on the shortcomings of uncontrollably recurring samsaric rebirth, you will not turn away from clinging to it, nor will you develop thoughts of renunciation, the determination to be free. Because of those circumstances, boon experiences and stable realizations will not dawn on your mental continuum. Because you will be depriving yourself of your share of them dawning, you must meditate on the sufferings of samsaric rebirth in order to rid yourself of them.
Further, when limited beings are reborn as hell beings, they have the sufferings of the eight hot hells, the eight cold hells, the neighboring hells, occasional hells, and so on. Clutching ghosts have hunger and thirst. Animals have being killed and slaughtered. Humans have birth, old age, sickness and death. Gods have transference of consciousness and falling. Demigods have fighting and disputes.
Moreover, in those six classes (of rebirth) with such sufferings and more, the experiences of manifold obvious sufferings are the suffering of suffering. That which appears to be happiness is the suffering of change. That which has the tone of abiding with a neutral feeling is the (all-pervasively) affecting suffering. Because you are uninterruptedly harmed (by this last one), then even if, within this circle of samsaric rebirth, you have attained the high state of a universal chakravartin emperor, Brahma, Indra, or the like, you have not passed beyond suffering. Therefore, thinking definitely to separate yourself, as much as is possible, from this (terrible situation) right now, decide that this samsaric circle of rebirth is like a dungeon or a pit of flames and make efforts in the methods for liberating yourself from it.

Samsara means “to circle”, in other words to revolve continually through the cycle of birth, sickness, old age, death, then rebirth, sickness and so :forth. It is propelled and perpetuated by ignorance and its mechanism described by the twelve links of interdependent origination. There are four methods of being born, namely from womb, an egg, heat and moisture and by miraculous transformation. These bring you into one of the six rebirth states as a hell creature, hungry ghost, human, anti-god or god. The first five are in the Desire Realm and the gods span all Three Realms: the Desire, Form and Formless. But no matter where and how you are reborn, there is only suffering.

Each of the rebirth states has its own peculiar disadvantage, as mentioned in the text. The three general sufferings of misery change and that which is all-pervasive and found throughout. The first is the obvious pain of sickness, old age and so forth. The suffering of change comes from seemingly pleasant things such as delicious food or a walk in the country which can turn into an upset stomach or blisters. All-pervasive suffering appears neutral or unobvious to ordinary beings, like the sensation of a piece of hair on your palm but is as sharp as a hair in your eye to Aryas with bare perception of Voidness. It is the suffering inherent in the fact of being born with contaminated aggregates which by their very nature are like a magnet attracting sickness, old age and death.

Meditating on all these disadvantages of samsara, you should develop renunciation or the State of mind that wishes to be completely free of all suffering. This is the Hinayana motivation and with it an understanding of Voidness brings you Liberation. But to overcome not only the obstacles preventing Liberation, but those blocking Omniscience as well, you must go further. In addition to renunciation, you must develop an Enlightened Motive of Bodhicitta. Seeing that all beings experience the, sufferings of samsara and wish as you do for release from its bondage and to attain, ultimate happiness, you should strive to attain Buddhahood in order to liberate both yourself and others. This motive gives the realization of Voidness the added force that will bring you Enlightenment.

But, even if you have achieved a Hinayana purified state with residue, you still have not transmuted to a supreme state of ultimate happiness. Therefore, you need to attain this peerless purified state of enlightenment now, by all means whatsoever. For the sake of that, with the certainty that all limited beings, without exception, have been nothing but your mothers and fathers, kind without any beginning, develop an uncontrived bodhichitta aim, thinking, “I shall definitely place them in the stable happiness of a peerless, perfect, completely purified state of enlightenment.”
That is the seventh (preliminary practice): earnestly practicing just that.

The Precious Human Body

The working basis for actualizing that is the precious human body. Because it is extremely difficult to find, you must wrap yourself completely in the practices, not letting yourself come under the sway of indolence or laziness. If you have to leave, returning empty-handed, from the respites and enrichments (of a precious human body) snatched away by the demons of death and impermanence, then what will you do? In other words, since this precious human body is so difficult to find and so easy to lose, make your attainment of its respites and enrichments meaningful at all times and in all situations.

A human form fully endowed with all the liberties and opportunities to study and practice the Dharma is extremely rare and precious. It is the vehicle through which you will attain Enlightenment or, if you are not careful, a lower rebirth. Its causes are your collections of merit and insight, particularly morality, as well as prayers for such a rebirth state. Shantideva has said that its attainment is as rare as the odds for a blind turtle living on the bottom of an ocean and rising to the surface only once every hundred years to surface at just the spot where it would put its neck through a golden yoke that is floating about blown by the winds. In this analogy, the turtle is sentient beings, being blind is their ignorance, being on the bottom of the ocean is the lower rebirth states, coming to the surface is being reborn, the golden yoke is a precious human rebirth and its being blown by the winds is the vicissitudes of karma.

From the point of view of numbers as well, a human birth is rare. It is said that the number of hell creatures equals the grains of sand in the desert, hungry ghosts the dust particles in the air, animals the stars at night and humans the number of stars seen during the day. If you consider how it is possible to take a census of the number of people in a state, but impossible to count the animals, insects and microbes there, you will gain an appreciation of this. Furthermore, out of the world population, those with a kind heart are even rarer and, of those, the ones who have the liberty, opportunity and inclination to follow the Dharma are practically unheard of.

Therefore, having attained a precious human rebirth, do not waste it, for death will come all too soon. Do not be like a sea expedition going out for treasure and returning empty-handed. Without regard for temporary pleasures, practice the Dharma and gain ultimate and lasting happiness.

That is the eighth (preliminary practice): practicing that extremely earnestly.

The Causal Condition

Of the four conditions for actualizing the practice, the causal condition is earnestly practicing to develop disgust (with samsaric rebirth) and to send off, as something to be turned away, your clinging (to it. Do this) by taming your mental continuum with (thoughts of) impermanence and by seeing the individual and general characteristics of samsaric phenomena.

Just as the causal conditions for a visual cognition are the elements of earth, water, fire, energy-wind and space of the object and of the cognitive base of the eye, likewise these common preliminaries are the building blocks of meditational practice.

That is the ninth (preliminary practice).

The Dominating Condition

Entrust yourself to a perfect spiritual master – a guru who is a person in the lineage, the guru that is the enlightening words of a Blissfully Gone Buddha, the guru that is the deepest actual nature, the guru that is a gesture in a vision, and so on – and practice his or her guideline instructions just as they are.

The main condition for a visual cognition is the cognitive power of the eye. Likewise through the power of your devotion you will be able to realize all insights.

Because being cared for by a perfect spiritual master is the dominating condition (for actualizing the practice), entrusting yourself in that way is the tenth (preliminary practice).

The Focal Condition

Cut off completely all sectarian, biased feelings toward these (tenet systems and lineages) established by convention and mental labeling by concepts. Develop the certainty that they are all non-contradictory and, from all of them (come) a dropping down to the natural state of the actual nature of all things – the especially distinguished, primordial abiding nature.

All the different schools of theories expounded in India and Tibet derive from Shakyamuni Buddha and are expressions of his skilful means to lead disciples of varying dispositions to the realization of ultimate reality. They are different ways of explaining the same thing and, being merely words, are established as schools by people’s mentally labeling them as such. None are in conflict. Just as a visual form is the objective condition for a visual cognition, so is your non-sectarian understanding of the true nature of the mind for successful practice.

As being undeceived about what is to be meditated upon is the focal condition (for actualizing the practice), becoming certain like that is the eleventh (preliminary practice).

The Immediately Preceding Condition

Not only must you develop steadfast effort from the state of mind that is parted from clinging to meditation (in a sectarian manner), you must also not have any sign whatsoever of hopes or worries, such as thinking, “I am doing meditation; I will continue doing it; I have done it; and when (success) has arisen, that will be good.”

The immediately preceding moment of consciousness is the immediate condition for a visual cognition, providing the continuity of its awareness. The above state of mind has a similar function in Mahamudra meditation.

As being parted from hopes and worries is the immediately preceding condition (for actualizing the practice), practicing from a state of mind that is uncontrived is the twelfth (preliminary practice).
This concludes the preliminaries.