A teaching by Lama Tsultrim Yeshe on August 7, 2022

All quotations, unless noted, are from the book, Wish Fulfilling Jewel by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche.

Vajrayana is a branch of Mahayana so in order to be meaningful and effective, listening, teaching, and practicing Dharma must be motivated by altruistic aspirations: Bodhicitta or the mind of awakening. Without it, listening, teaching and practice become selfish. 

Developing proper motivation begins with being empathetic. You must be careful not to think you will be relieved of suffering through practice and study and it’s okay as long as you keep others in mind.

Sentient beings are ignorant of the causes of happiness and the causes of suffering. They try to be happy but don’t do what it takes to be happy. They want to avoid suffering but engage in actions that cause suffering in the future.

“As long as beings are selfish — as long as they only want their own happiness — they will never achieve it. Nothing they do, not even spiritual practice, can possibly make them happy. Thus, whether or not spiritual practice produces qualities in you depends solely upon whether or not you possess the motivation of bodhicitta.” 

Khenpo Karthar Rinoche

The proper motivation for practice includes love, compassion, and an aspiration to liberate all sentient beings completely from suffering. We must practice diligently so we can be able to free all sentient beings. Additionally, we must continually renew and strengthen our motivation based on bodhicitta.

With many visualizations, it’s important not to get too judgmental about your ability. It has nothing to do with IQ or even how long you have been a practitioner. You do what you can and try to improve over time. Like with shamatha meditation, don’t judge yourself on the basis of any one session. Work with what you can do while at the same time visualize to the best of your ability.

A frequent mistake is seeing the deity as solid vs. transparent like a rainbow or a reflection. You should be able to see through them. Poor visualization also involves feeling the deity is not present. However, the deity cannot not be present because they are everywhere. On the other hand, it’s easy to have the klesha of pride about how complete and exact your visualization is or to have the opposite klesha—feeling like a failure because you can’t “see” the deity or you have what you feel are too many thoughts.

I attended a teaching by Mingyur Rinpoche during which he asked for a show of hands if his audience had a few thoughts when meditating and a couple of hands were raised. Then he asked who had some thoughts and a few more hands went up. Finally, he asked who had many thoughts and the majority of hands were raised. In other words, don’t be discouraged by intrusive thoughts while meditating. While it’s important to be aware of your thoughts when visualizing just do your best and don’t expect to be perfect.

Your physical body doesn’t disappear when you visualize. You just don’t pay attention to it.  You identify with the image of the deity you are visualizing—all their attire, ornaments, hand position, etc.

In his book, Chenrezig: Lord of Love, Bokar Rinpoche lists 10 different ways to visualize a deity using Chenrezig as an example. While the associations below are examples for Chenrezig, they also apply, with some adjustments, to most deity practices. As described by Bokar Rinpoche, numbers 1, 2, 3, and 8 emphasize the experience of shamatha/shine, while 7 and 9 are associated with superior vision (lha tong). Compassion is associated with numbers 5, 6, and 10 while devotion is paired with number 4.

  1. Concentrate on the appearance of the deity. You can visualize the complete body as in a thangka or other visual representation. Or, you can successively focus on different elements in the deity’s representation, like a hand position, an elongated ear, or the face. The capacity to visualize can be developed while practicing calm abiding also called shamatha, or shine (pronounced-sheenay). Once your mind is still and focused, take a few minutes to visualize a deity. Or visualize while saying mantras.
  2. Concentrate on the seed syllable at the heart center and what it is on, for example, a lotus, a moon disc, a wheel, etc. Meditate resting the mind on the syllable while in shamatha/shine. Visualizing the seed syllable is a good way to gain experience.
  3. Add the syllables of the mantra that circle the seed syllable. For example, Chenrezig has a six-petaled lotus with a syllable on each petal facing inward and circling clockwise. You start with OM which is directly in front. Chenrezig’s six-syllable mantra has different colors: OM—white, MA—green, NI—yellow, PAD/PE—blue, ME—red, HUNG—black. Visualizing the petals is a more difficult form of shamatha and helps develop concentration.
  4. The HRI emits continuous light rays to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that transform into offerings like agreeable sounds, objects, fragrances, the eight auspicious symbols, and the eight auspicious substances (treasure mirror, Giwang medicine, yogurt, durva grass, bilva fruit, a right-spiraling conch, vermillion powder, and mustard seed). The offerings are made and the light returns to the HRI bringing blessings and benefits. It’s important to understand that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas don’t need offerings but they are pleased because it is an indication of our devotion and accumulates merit. Different practices use a varying number of offerings. Shrine offerings are water for drinking and washing, flowers, incense, light, fragrance, food, and music.
  5. White light radiates from Chenrezig’s heart to each of the six realms which are slowly visualized one at a time. As the light reaches each realm it becomes a pure realm. For example, the cold hell realm becomes warm. In the hungry ghost realm, Chenrezig’s light calms hunger and alleviates thirst. This purification is similar throughout all six realms.
  6. Light radiates from each syllable in its specific color, going out to each and every realm in samsara but is specific to the realm with which it is associated. This light pacifies the sufferings of that realm and transforms each realm into a pure one. Beings in the realm are released from their suffering and the afflictive states of mind that cause the suffering of that realm. OM—white, to the god realm. MA—green to the demigod realm. NI—yellow, to the human realm. PE—blue, to the animal realm. ME—red, to the hungry ghost realm. And HUNG—black, to the hell realm. As the lights go out to each realm they turn into elaborate offerings with an offering goddess at the tip of each ray. Practitioners often ask if these realms are real. They are no more real than the human realm that we think of as real. All the realms are created by the mind of the sentient being who is in it.
  7. If you have “some comprehension of superior vision” (emptiness) you could meditate on the deity’s body as being empty, devoid of substantiality yet appearing. Chenrezig appears in this form made of light like a reflection in a mirror, or a rainbow. It’s not traditionally taught this way, but you could also see the deity as a hologram in virtual reality or the metaverse. Appearance is the only thing there.
  8. Practice mental calming using the sound of the mantra recitation as support. Be the sound instead of listening to it. There should be no separation between you and the mantra’s sound. This technique works for all sounds, even the braying of the donkeys across the road from me. You can also think the external sound is the deity’s mantra. Distractions and problems can be viewed as emptiness and sound. This is much better than feeling environmental sounds are disturbing your meditation.
  9. Meditate that all sounds are perceived as the mantra. They are empty of inherent existence yet you hear them. This is the union of sound and emptiness.
  10. If you are doing Chenrezig for a person who is sick or deceased, you can visualize Chenrezig above your head or in the space in front and above you. Light radiates from his heart to the sick or dead person, relieves their suffering, purifies karmic accumulations, faults, veils, confusion, and brings happiness. End the mantra repetition with Chenrezig melting into light and dissolving into the person you are practicing for. Their body, speech, and mind then become inseparable from Chenrezig.

Appearance is the relative of the ultimate

and emptiness is the ultimate of the relative.

Contemplate this until you understand it.

Following are general instructions on individual practices.

Offerings are usually made by offering goddesses who are enlightened beings. Remember that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas don’t need offerings. They accept them and are pleased because we are accumulating merit by doing so. Offerings are also an act of devotion.

There are eight types of offerings used on the shrine: drinking water, washing water, flowers, incense, light, fragrance, food, and music. Start with visualizing the offering, next a goddess holding it, then many goddesses holding the offerings at the end of light rays.

In many of our pujas/sadhanas/practices (however you like to call them), the important syllables—OM, AH, HUNG, HRI—radiate light of various colors depending on the deity being invoked through our prayers. Specific visualizations will be covered as I give additional teachings about visualizing the deities.


It’s helpful to memorize these seed syllables.

Transcribed and annotated by Ellie Strand.                     All mistakes are mine.