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Vajradhara - The Source of the Jivamala Practice

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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One of the fundamental elements of Buddhism is the doctrine of reincarnation. Human beings die and are reborn over and over again because they fail to see things clearly and wake up to the spiritual emptiness which lies behind the phenomenal world. It is this false perception of the nature of things that leads to wrong thinking and wrong behavior, which in turn causes this painful cycle of death and rebirth.

In the sixth century BCE, when prince Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) began his process of awakening, tradition has it that his first stage of meditation involved remembering his past lives.

The Jivamala practice maintains that a similar process can be revealed to and practiced by others who are on the spiritual path. This site contains detailed biographies of many lives, and documents the initiatory Jivamala practice showing how it works. It also contains descriptions of many deaths and many afterlives, where several of the past lives or personalities describe where their actions and experiences in life led them after death.

The Jivamala practice is ideally performed by renunciants (monks or nuns) initiated into a Tantric Buddhist lineage, but is sometimes also practiced by householders. The Jivamala practice should only be performed under the direction of an inner guide, a dakini, or bhairava, or bodhisattva acting as a yidam (spiritual guide or tutelary deity). In this instance, the practice of the Jivamala was revealed to a householder by a bhairava. The practice was therefore not begun in a traditional way, since it was not handed down to a disciple by a living teacher in a recognized spiritual lineage.

This is a description of a meditative practice based on the life of the earthly Buddha.

The Purpose of Remembering Past Lives

Many people have used memories of past lives to bask in the reflected glory of their former selves, thus increasing egotism and ignorance, and even causing confusion of identity in the present life. Past lives have been treated like ancestors, with the individual claiming glory and fame as a kind of inheritance from their previous selves. This use of past lives is unacceptable for the Jivamala practice, and is in direct opposition to the Buddhist notion that the individual's current life and problems are a direct result of mistakes in past lives. Had past lives been lived correctly, the individual would not have required another incarnation.

From a Buddhist perspective, we can ask the questions:

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    Why be proud of the mistakes, confusion, and ignorance of past selves that have led to the prison of one's current circumstances in life? Why take pride in a disability like spiritual blindness? Why be proud of wealth and power that have been misused, leading to rebirth?

The purpose of remembering past lives is not to increase pride, but rather to increase detachment and purify the individual of residual karma from those past personalities (jivas). Knowledge of past lives should bring humility, recognition of the universality of suffering, and spiritual wisdom. The jivamala practice also permits an expansion of personal identity where the self grows beyond the bounds of an individual ego to encompass a broader identity which has knowledge of many past selves.

During such experience, one individual temporarily gains intimate knowledge of a string of individual selves, and as identity widens, compassion tends to increase. This compassion, because it derives from direct experience, can be more powerful than more common notions of compassion, which are based on sympathy for the suffering of others. The basis for these more common feelings of sympathy is limited because it falls short of the intuitive knowledge of individual suffering that can come from the experience of past lives.

The First Stage of the Buddha's Enlightenment

The Jivamala meditation is the first of a set of four practices based on the Buddha's four watches of the night. The later three practices are described at a separate site, and all four practices are known collectively as the Bodhi-Tree meditation.

The basis for the Jivamala practice may be seen in a description of the Buddha's enlightenment in the Buddhacarita, written by Asvaghosha in the second century CE. As the Buddha's enlightenment progressed through various stages, so it is appropriate for a modern day disciple to pass through those same stages. The Buddha's stages of liberation are an example for all who seek liberation.

According to the Buddhacarita, while the Buddha was sitting under the Bodhi Tree, he first gained mastery over all degrees and kinds of trance states. Then, during the first watch of the night, he experienced all his past lives:


    In the first watch of the night he recollected the successive series of his former births. 'There was I so and so; that was my name; deceased from there I came here' - in this way he remembered thousands of births, as though living them over again. When he recalled all his own births and deaths in all these previous lives of his, the Sage, full of pity, turned his compassionate mind towards other living beings, and he thought to himself: 'Again and again they must leave the people they regard as their own, and must go on elsewhere, and that without ever stopping. Surely this world is unprotected and helpless, and like a wheel it turns round and round.' As he continued steadily to recollect his past thus, he came to the definite conviction that the world of samsara is as unsubstantial as the pith of a plantain tree.
    (From the Buddhacarita of Asvaghosha, cited in Ninian Smart, Sacred Texts of the World, (Crossroad, 1982), p. 234. Original translation from E. Conze, Buddhists Texts Through the Ages, (London, Faber, 1954))

At this point, the Buddha proceeded to the second watch of the night in which he acquired the "supreme heavenly eye" which allowed him to see further into the nature of samsara, and explore the six worlds of rebirth.

The Jivamala - The Necklace of Souls

In the meditative practice of the Jivamala, the past lives or personalities of the individual are threaded together like beads on a string in the shape of a necklace. Each individual life with its karma or jiva** is visualized as a pearl, shining and in the shape of perfection.

The dark pearls represent lives that contain destructive karma that acts like a millstone, limiting the individual in various ways even in the present life.

The white pearls represent the lives that have been purified by memory, realization, and atonement. Past passions must be realized and understood as delusion. Past sins must be realized as wrong or destructive actions. Past lives must be understood as combinations of good and bad intentions, as wise choices and errors. The person must be liberated from unconscious bondage to those lives and their passions.

The process of remembering one life after another is like going from bead to bead using a rosary. Each bead contains a mosaic of memories from a previous incarnation.

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To understand the Jivamala practice, it is important to understand the role of the guide.

It is through the compassion of Vajradhara, the primordial Buddha (Adi-Buddha) of indestructible blue light, that the Jivamala practice came to be known. Vajradhara, who is a celestial Buddha in the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, assigns one of his emanations to direct the Jivamala practice for the individual who has been initiated.

The Bhairava Introduces
the Jivamala Practice

    I have been assigned by Vajradhara to direct your progress. My role as bhairava is both guardian and guide. As guardians, we accompany Buddhas on their adventures, make straight the path, clarify the winds, and create the backgrounds. We make the mountains where the Buddhas sit.

    As guides, we also accompany those blessed by the Buddhas. We work with their karma, opening cramped passageways causing the seeds of karma (bijas), which contain past frustrations and anxieties, to blossom. We try to motivate these individuals and direct their minds. We put on terrifying forms to frighten them into obedience.

    There are many bhairavas, and Vajradhara is our lord. We spread out in concentric circles around him. Some circles have archetypal animals, some have yoginis and dakinis. These circles retreat far back into space. They move inward and outward at the same time. The meditator must jump from one spinning wheel to another to pass from the guardians who surround the Buddha, to the Buddha.

    As bhairavas, we are dedicated to Vajradhara, who is the Adi-Bhairava, the primordial Buddha form and bhairava form in one. As Adi-Buddha, he is the origin of [[[moral]] or karmic] order and stability. As Adi-Bhairava, he acts to maintain this order in a continually shifting universe. We are his emanations, and we work in the more manifest worlds.

    We are linked with practitioners through initiation. This ritual creates a karmic link, which allows us to interact in the practitioner's life. It also creates mutual obligations and responsibilities. It is the Buddhist practitioner's obligation to show respect, and to listen to the guide's words. It is the guide's obligation to help the practitioner in meditation, if he or she is distracted, of weak concentration or endangered.


    Bhairavas who act as guides normally specialize in one of three areas. These are karma, purification, and performance of ritual. Karma bhairavas can see the webs of karma in which people are bound, and work with past lives in order to cleanse the mind. Purification bhairavas work primarily with mantras to rid the body of impurities by vibrating each region or aspect of it. Temple bhairavas oversee both temple and private ritual.

    I am a karma bhairava. As karma bhairavas, we look at the karma of the practitioner, analyze the information, and draw conclusions. We act without generating karma ourselves. We do our duty. This is the best way to act in order not to create karma. Figure out your duty and your goals in life, and act without passion to perform your duty and attain those goals.

    Most bhariavas are described in the literature as warthful. This is only one form that we take. Like bodhisattavas, we may appear in both peaceful and frightening forms. But our deeper forms are light.

On the Conclusion page at this site, there is a link to the Bodhi-Tree or wisdom-tree practice web site. This site contains a page that describes some methods that can be used to contact an inner Buddhist spiritual guide or Yidam.

Here is a metaphor provided by the Bhairava to help in understanding the importance of the Jivamala practice.

    The Rosebush - The Bhairava Explains the
    Function of the Jivamala Practice Using a Metaphor

    During spiritual evolution, individuals are like rose bushes, and each blossom is a life. Sometimes, as in the case of difficult and painful lives, the roses are eaten by insects, or harmed by chemicals or disease, but they still stay on the bush, taking nutrients. They need to be taken from the bush, placed in new earth and cured of pests, or scattered on the ground if the harm is too great.

    The individual's past personalities have been damaged, but not destroyed. They need to be separated from the stem of the individual's spirit, where they have been taking vital energy with their rage and fury at imprisonment. They need to be replanted, put in vases, and taken away from the stem, so that the bush can grow new roses.


    The Jivamala brings about this liberation from spiritual death by freeing these past personalities, in order to recapture the bright force of spirit that runs through the individual.

Overview Of Past Life Biographies

The past life biographies at this site can be divided into two general categories: the lives of spiritual weakness, and the lives of spiritual awakening. The biographies of weakness come first, and recounting them is a process of purification.

The lives of spiritual awakening give insight into the direction of the practitioner's spiritual evolution, and remind the practicioner of spiritual skills learned in previous lives. They also show the ways in which spirituality and mysticism are practiced by individuals in different cultures and religious traditions.

Many of the biographies of spiritual weakness contain dramatic magical and religious elements. They are populated with priests and magicians, as well as ancestors and demonic influences. The dramas involve curses and hatreds played out in the physical and psychic arenas. One of the reasons that these particular past lives had to be re-examined (as opposed to many possible others) is that they involved the misuse of power in which the practitioner was either a perpetrator or a victim. Misuse of power and the passions it engenders tend to trap the individual personalities after death, which is why the Jivamala practice is needed to liberate these personalities.

The religious elements in some of these biographies show an openness to the flight of the individual into the inner regions of the mind - the realm of Buddhas, inner gurus, and ancestors. They also show access to the six Buddhist worlds of rebirth. These ideas and the ability to access these inner realms have been largely lost to modern mankind. However, they are still active parts of some schools of Vajrayana Buddhism which emphasize deity yoga, which is the practice of working with inner gurus and Bodhisattvas as an important part of spiritual discipline.

We ask that the reader approach the material presented here with an open mind, in the hope that something unique can be learned about how karma and reincarnation affect our spiritual evolution, and about the structure of the universe where each of us lives our many lives.

We will now go on to examine the Lives of Spiritual Weakness

 Below is a group of past life biographies. In addition to biographical information, these stories also contain descriptions of the Bhairava's actions to free the past personalities from their pain and imprisonment. The set of lives that follow are samples of the past lives that were reviewed. There were a number of other past life biographies that are not listed below.

The biographies describe the highlights of each past life, some lessons that were learned during that life, and the process of freeing each past personality from his or her bondage in the afterlife.

The first life below is unusual because it is an introductory life recounted by the Bhairava, and contains no commentary, and no information about the state of the jiva in the afterlife. The rest of the lives are described by the past personalities, and contain additional information on the state of the jivas in the afterlife.

These are the lives of weakness and pain where the personalities or jivas are bound to the passions of their former lives in the afterlife, and seek release.