One of the fundamental practices in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is the powerful purification practice called the Confession of Downfalls (sometimes translated as the Confession to the 35 Buddhas or the Practice of Prostrations to the 35 Confession Buddhas to name a few). The practice involves taking refuge, visualizing the 35 Buddhas, chanting their names and offering prostrations. This purification practice clears away the negative karma that prevents us from realizing emptiness and attaining Enlightenment.
I would like to offer a few basic suggestions on how to do this important practice in order to make it easier for you to get started.
First, the main hurdle to overcome is memorizing the Buddhas’ names. There are only 35 names, so it’s not that difficult. What I found after much trial and error, is that it’s better to first memorize the names by repeating them aloud over and over again until you really know them by heart. The names are beautiful, meaningful, but quite long! Learn one or two names per day. If you don’t know Tibetan, then learn the names in English first. Later, you can learn the names in Tibetan. I find they are much easier to recite in Tibetan.
Once you know the names individually, the next goal is to learn the names in the correct order. To do this, I tried repeating each name three times and then moving to the next name. I also tried repeating them in sets of three. In the end, I found it was best to simply repeat the entire list of 35 Buddhas several times. Chanting the names out loud helps a lot. The best time for learning anything new is in the early morning, so you could do a few sets of recitations before breakfast and then whenever you have a minute during the day, recite them again. Make a recording on your phone and listen to it.
Once you’ve thoroughly memorized the Buddhas’ names, you are ready to chant the names in combination with doing the prostrations. You might be tempted to learn the names and do the prostrations but if you’ve ever tried doing long prostrations while reading the names from the prayer book and losing your place in the book etc. you know exactly what I mean! It takes forever and the feeling of remorse and regret which is the purpose of the practice quickly disappears. The prostrations can be tiring in the beginning and the combination of stumbling on the names and running low on time and energy can be discouraging. So that’s why I’d suggest memorizing the names first and when you can chant them effortlessly, only then combine them with the prostrations.
Once you’re comfortable with chanting the Buddhas’ names and doing the prostrations, you can concentrate on visualizing each Buddha. For example, as described by Nagarjuna in his commentary on the practice, “Glorious Sandalwood sits in the north western direction in the celestial field pervaded by a sweet perfume. He is orange and holds the truck of a sandalwood tree and a glorious fruit. “Sandalwood” refers to his primordial awareness since it cools and cleanses the pain of emotional afflictions such as ignorance; it also refers to his excellence since, (just as the scent of sandalwood pervades a whole room), all things are likewise imbued with his supreme qualities such as his powers; and “Glorious” refers to his function as noted above.” (source: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. The Confession of Downfalls. Dharamsala, India. 2003.) Having a picture of the 35 Buddhas is helpful.
In addition, each Buddha purifies a non-virtuous actions for a certain amount of time. For example, the “Glorious Sandalwood” eliminates the traces of wrongdoing for seven thousand eons (ibid).
The meaning of confession is to bring out into the open any negative actions no matter how small that you committed. The degree to which the practice is effective depends on the sincerity and depth of your regret. Understanding a little bit about each of the 35 Buddhas helps deepen the practice by making it more meaningful.
Also, it is taught that when doing the prostrations, you can think that all sentient beings are also prostrating with you so that everywhere in all ten directions sentient beings are prostrating and Buddhas are rejoicing in your merit.
Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. The Confession of Downfalls. Dharamsala, India: 2003. Contains The Confession Sutra with commentary by Arya Nagarjuna along with commentaries by Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, Geshe Rabten, Geshe Khyenste and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Also contains the Practice of Vajrasattva with sadhana.
Geshe Jampa Gyatso. Everlasting Rain of Nectar: purification practice in Tibetan Buddhism. Wisdom Publications. Boston: 1996. Geshe la introduces the Confession to the 35 Buddhas practice by explaining the practice of purification through applying the four opponent powers. The Appendices include woodblock prints of the 35 tathagathas, and copies of the practice in English, Tibetan phonetics and Tibetan. It also includes a clear description with drawings of how to do a full prostration.
Helpful supplies for doing the prostrations:
- Fold a yoga mat in half lengthwise or use a blanket or towel.
- Use two small pieces of thick cloth (one for each hand) so you can slide smoothly on a hard wood floor.
- If you don’t have a wood floor, you can make or buy a prostration board — basically just a very smooth piece of wood.