Preliminary Practices (Ngöndro) | Thubten Chodron The Thubten Chodron Teaching Archive Wed, 18 Jan 2017 00:20:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Vajrasattva ngondro Mon, 06 Jul 2015 00:42:57 +0000

I just completed the Vajrasattva ngondro—the preliminary practice of meditating on Vajrasattva and reciting 111,111 long mantras. My experience with the Vajrasattva ngondro has been all over the map. There were lots of times that I struggled with it; not connecting in the same way I did with the 35 Buddhas ngondro.

Then there were times that I was almost inseparable from the practice, going to sleep reciting mantra, waking up reciting mantra; whatever it took to turn my mind again and again, because the awareness of suffering was so acute that I had absolutely no focus otherwise. It was as if my life depended on it.

Heather leading morning meditation at the Abbey.

The deeper I understood my situation in samsara, the easier it was to practice. (Photo by Traci Thrasher)

Those days were, strangely enough, great blessings. A steady assault of afflictions didn’t allow me the luxury of complaisance and I found I was able to use the experience to push me deeper into refuge and purification. As you’d expect, the deeper I understood my situation in samsara, the easier it was to practice. 

I spent a lot of time contemplating purification, what it is and why it works. From what I understand from the teachings, the “having happened” (zhigpa) of my unskillful actions exist and are a cause for future suffering, until, that is, the conditions no longer exist for that suffering to ripen. In other words, until I realize emptiness, I can’t actually eliminate the “seeds” that I create in each moment. It happened and I can’t make it unhappen. What I can do though is:

  1. not give it the conditions to ripen until I am able to get at the root, and
  2. overwhelm the propensity with its counterforce so that it’s very unlikely to arise.

Purification is saying, “this action results in suffering and I’m just not going to do it anymore,” and then directing my mind in the opposite direction, creating an energy, a counterforce. So as I recite Vajrasattva mantra again and again, I’m creating this counterforce, this new habitual pattern towards virtue, this determination to refrain from negative action. Recitation after recitation, the energy slowly builds into a momentum that can act as the conditions for virtue in the next moment and the next moment … . That momentum, I’m thinking, is what minimizes or impedes the ripening of negative karma. It just can’t ripen in the same way if my mind is perpetually directed towards virtue, the conditions just aren’t there for certain results to manifest.

Contemplating purification also drove me to a deeper understanding of karma. I think good ethical conduct, when it comes down to it, is really about being able to bear my own afflictions and karma. Purification helps me to do that by directing my mind in a beneficial direction: setting my intention on virtue. Refraining from harm is recognizing that those ants in the kitchen are my ants, it’s my angry husband, it’s my sick dog, it’s my depressed neighbor, it’s my county where someone sits quietly in a bible study and then just starts shooting, it’s my world with poverty and racial injustice. These are the results of my karma and part of the path is recognizing and learning how to bear those results without creating more of the same. And one step further, using those results to create inconceivable virtue by generating bodhicitta.

This takes an incredible amount of fortitude and perhaps that’s what I learned most deeply through this ngondro. Fortitude really speaks to me. I feel like this is an enormous part of my path: the ability to bear my experience without reacting unskillfully, knowing that it is my OWN karma ripening, and instead using that experience to create great virtue. I’m sure I’ll spend lifetimes just on this.

I have so far yet to go, but it seems like a good time to acknowledge that I never in a million years would have come this far without my teacher and the Abbey. THANK YOU so much for your many, many kindnesses—your teachings, patience, encouragement, emails, letting me come to the Abbey to learn and practice alongside you. It is making an incredible difference in my life, my practice, and my capacity to benefit others.

Unloading the garbage mind Tue, 27 May 2014 15:28:55 +0000

One of the things that drew me to attend the Vajrasattva retreat at the Abbey this winter was that it was all about purification. For me, purification practice is about unloading all the garbage I’m carrying around that prevents me from doing what I know is beneficial. It’s looking at my actions and habits head on, seeing the suffering they have caused both others and myself, and changing course, going towards greater wisdom and compassion. It’s about clearing my distracted mind of clutter so that the teachings can penetrate and transform.

Heather with fellow retreatant, Cindy, in front of the Chenrezig Hall altar.

For me, purification practice is about unloading all the garbage I’m carrying around that prevents me from doing what I know is beneficial.

Spending month after month looking at your own garbage mind is humbling. Now, more than two years after I first started my ngöndro (preliminary) practices, the imprints it is making on my mind are ripening in an unmistakable way.

With the hope it might encourage others along the path, I’d like to share a few of the things I’ve learned from doing a daily purification practice.

I create my own happiness or suffering

We take with us on the path whatever we are experiencing. For more than two decades, my health has been a struggle, pain a steady companion. For the last two years, however, I had my health mostly “under control” or so I thought. Then earlier this year, what I’ve been doing for two years to keep the pain at bay stopped working. At first, I responded with anger, fighting bitterly to regain control. When I realized the futility in the fight, I progressed to mourning the loss.

Venerable Thubten Chodron says that grief is nothing more than adjusting to a change you didn’t want and I definitely didn’t want this. My mind quickly gravitated to all the things that I can no longer do, my physical limitations, all the expectations for the future that won’t happen, memories of a life of illness and depression before I met the Dharma.

But now I have met the Dharma. And remembering the many beautiful teachings I’ve received over the years, I am holding onto the one thing that I now know without a doubt: I create my own happiness and suffering. It is my choice how I proceeded from this moment forward, regardless of sickness or health.

There is only one thing in life worth doing

Inspired by the teachings and despite the pain, I have poured myself even more fervently into purification practice. It was time to drop the garbage and get serious about living a meaningful life.

You see, one of the most powerful (and frankly uncomfortable) things I’ve understood through doing purification is just how much I’ve contributed to the suffering of sentient beings—all the harm I’ve done directly, all the ways I’ve set others up to create their own suffering. All the harm I see in the world I’ve contributed to in some way, in some lifetime. In facing all the pain I’ve caused and continue to cause, it becomes clear to me that the only thing worth doing is bringing about its end. And as it turns out, that power resides in me just as it resides in each of us.

Making a connection

There are days when I can function quite normally and then there are days when I can barely move, but what I have to offer the world has nothing to do with the state of my physical body. I have the power to lessen the suffering of the world simply by having a happy mind, by being kind, by doing the taking and giving meditation, by being present to my experience, by transforming my own mind one prostration or one Vajrasattva mantra at a time.

Maybe that’s not enough to bring all beings to awakening today. Maybe right here, right now, I don’t have the wisdom to know how to be of greatest benefit to each sentient being that crosses my path, but what I can give them is an open and loving heart, creating a positive connection with them so that when the time comes (in this life, the next, or 100 lives from now) I can truly be of benefit, perhaps even an instrument of their awakening.

Right here, right now

I’ve heard the teachings. When I act unskillfully, it’s not because I don’t know better, but rather because my mind is distracted from my goals and values. By constantly bringing my mind back to the teachings, back to the right here and now, I’m free to approach life with a calm curiosity and an eagerness to be of benefit. What a different experience from my normal mode of being, when I embrace my experience exactly as it is.

I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know if I’ll live another 40 years or only another 40 minutes. What I do know is that without a doubt, purification practice is transforming my life. All the things I thought mattered pale in the light of the glimpses of wisdom I have realized from the Buddha’s teachings through the kindness of my precious teachers.

Preliminary practice (ngöndro) overview Tue, 01 Sep 2009 21:50:33 +0000

A monastic and lay practitioner meditating together.

We do ngöndro to clear and enrich our minds so that our practice progresses smoothly. (Photo by Davee)

Our mind is often compared to a field, with the potential to bring forth bountiful harvest of wisdom and compassion. For the seeds of listening to teachings to grow easily and quickly, the field needs to be properly prepared: purifying negative karmic imprints is similar to clearing the field of rocks and debris, while enriching our mind with positive potential is similar to irrigating and fertilizing the field. The purpose of preliminary practices is thus to clear and enrich our minds, allowing our practice to progress smoothly and our heart to become the path to enlightenment. This process of clearing and enriching has multiple functions:

It clears away the karmic debris from previous unskillful actions that obscures our mind from understanding the Dharma. Sometimes we go to teachings and doze off. Other times we are distracted by the monkey mind chasing one thing after another. Sometimes we are awake and listen, but we don’t understand very much. Other times we listen to teachings and are filled with doubt or anger. These kinds of obscurations are cleared away by the preliminary practices and when we listen to teachings they are able to touch our hearts deeply.

  1. To continue to practice over many lifetimes, we need to create the causes for a series of precious human lives and to neutralize the causes for unfortunate rebirths that we have previously created. Otherwise, our practice may progress well this lifetime, but we won’t have the opportunity to continue it the next lifetime due to the ripening of negative karma at the time of death. Or we may get a precious human life next rebirth, but be beset by illness, social upheaval, poverty, depression and the like, making practice difficult. It may be difficult to find a qualified spiritual guide or supportive Dharma group. By purifying causes for these obstacles and creating causes for conducive circumstances, our practice will gradually and continuously bear fruit.

  2. When we meditate, our minds may encounter hindrances—mental agitation and laxity, laziness and lack of mindfulness, too little or too much application of antidotes. The preliminary practices clear away many of these hindrances. They also sharpen our mindfulness and introspective alertness so that we can recognize hindrances and apply the antidotes quickly and effectively.

  3. On a psychological level, the preliminary practices alleviate much of the guilt and uncomfortable feelings we have been carrying around for years. Such feelings may be due to previous negative actions that we have done which we have never looked at honestly and resolved. Other feelings may be due to harmful situations we have experienced which have generated unrecognized emotions or otherwise adversely affected our psychological well-being. The preliminary practices give us the opportunity to look at our past honestly, from the perspective of the Dharma, under the kind gaze of Buddha and with the support and encouragement of the Sangha. Processing and resolving these situations, we lay aside cumulative psychological baggage, and we are then able to make strong determinations and aspirations regarding how we want to be and act in the future.

The preliminary practices are sometimes enumerated as five or nine:

  1. Prostrations: These are done to the 35 Buddhas, together with reciting their names and the confession prayer.

  2. Vajrasattva (Dorje Sampa) mantra: This is done with the Vajrasattva practice and visualization.

  3. Refuge: This is reciting Namo Gurubhya, Namo Buddhaya, Namo Dharmaya, Namo Sanghaya while visualizing the field of positive potential.

  4. Mandala offering: This involves reciting the refuge and bodhicitta prayer and the mandala offering verse, while visualizing offering the entire universe and everything beautiful in it to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

  5. Guru Yoga: This is meditating on the inseparability of the Buddha’s mind, our spiritual mentor’s mind and our mind, together with visualization and mantra recitation.

  6. Dorje Khadro (Vajra Daka): Imagining black sesame seeds as the negativities of ourselves and others, we offer them in a fire to the mouth of the fierce deity Dorje Khadro, who swallows them with pleasure as if they were nectar.

  7. Water bowls: This is offering water bowls to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, together with visualization.

  8. Tsa-tsa: This is making clay or plaster images of the Buddha.

  9. Samaya Vajra (Damtsig Dorje) mantra: This is reciting the mantra of this Buddha together with visualization.

Traditionally these practices are done 100,000 times, with an extra 11 percent to make up for any mistakes we may make in doing them. The number itself is not important. As one lama put it, “It’s 100,000 opportunities to do the practice once with full concentration and faith.” The number gives us a goal to work towards and a sense of accomplishment when we have reached it. However, it is essential not to become “business oriented”, always calculating how many we’ve done in what length of time and then how long until we’re done. It’s also important not to compare the number we’ve done with that of our Dharma friends. We are not in competition here, and we are not trying to fulfill a quota set by an outside authority. Doing the preliminary practices is about transforming our hearts and minds. If we don’t try to do this, then it doesn’t matter how many recitations or offerings we’ve done, for we’re still locked in our old ways of competition.

There are various ways of doing the preliminary practices. Some people do a little of each practice every day. What is more common is to select one practice to emphasize, either doing a retreat with four sessions of that practice each day or doing some of that practice each day while living one’s regular life, until 100,000 are completed. With our teacher’s guidance, we select one of the preliminary practices to focus on, and in this latter way, do the practice each day usually in the morning and/or evening before or after work. It is helpful to have a group of Dharma friends who also are the doing the practice and meeting together once a week or so to practice and share experiences.

Doing one of the preliminary practices strengthens our daily practice, for we do that practice each day so that it really becomes part of us in a comfortable way. Having completed 100,000 of whichever practice, we often naturally incorporate it into our daily practices, doing it in a shorter form, although this is not necessary.

Some people may find counting awkward. Ways can be devised to have an approximate idea of how many are done in a certain time and to keep track of that. We don’t want to become “obsessed” with the numbers so that it distracts us from doing the practice.

We may wonder why these are called the preliminary practices, because some of them may seem rather advanced and designed for someone who is already clear about the path. From the viewpoint of a total newcomer, these practices are advanced, because they presuppose an understanding of and faith in the operation of cause and effect and refuge in the Triple Gem. They are preliminary to engaging in practices of the Highest Yoga Tantra, and doing retreats on these practices, and they are preliminary to gaining deep realizations of the path. Some Westerners have questioned their necessity, and to this His Holiness the Dalai Lama responded that for those very few people who have done serious purification, collection of positive potential, and deep meditation in previous lives, these practices are not so necessary now in order to gain realizations. However, for the rest of us, they are important.

Another doubt may arise that these practices seem culturally conditioned and not appropriate for Westerners. It’s true that these practices may seem foreign to us. It takes a while to understand them, and such an understanding comes by doing them, not by having all of our intellectual skepticism satisfied beforehand. That doesn’t mean we should do them with blind faith, but rather we must recognize and resolve the doubts that come up as part of the practice. We are called to examine the Dharma and our conviction in it at a deeper level. We are challenged to learn and explore more, to look at our minds more deeply. Of course, not everything will be clear from the beginning, but the doubts, resistance and obstacles that arise while doing the preliminary practices are among the very things we are trying to purify. If a cloth has been badly soiled, the only way to clean it is for the dirt to come out. If there’s no dirty water, there will be no clean cloth. The only way to purify and enrich our minds is to work with our obstacles, by accepting ourselves and simultaneously having deep confidence in our Buddha potential. The transformation occurs slowly, but if we keep on with our practice, we will definitely experience it.

How does one go about beginning the Preliminary Practices? First, tell your spiritual mentor that you would like to do one or all of them and discuss with him or her which one to start with. It may be that you’re more attracted or more familiar with one practice than the others, so it’s often advisable to begin with that one. However, a mentor who knows you well may recommend that you begin with a specific practice. He or she will then give you either the oral transmission (Tibetan: lung), permission initiation (Tibetan: jenang), or full initiation (Tibetan: wong) for that practice, according to which practice it is. You should then request teachings on how to do the practice and learn well what your teacher instructs. Your mentor may also refer you to books or to transcripts of teachings he or she has given on the practice before. Study these well and ask any questions you may have.

Be clear in your mind if you’re going to do that practice as a retreat or as part of a daily practice and keep the appropriate discipline. For example, many people do Vajrasattva as a group retreat. In that case, part of the retreat discipline is to keep silence, stay for the duration of the retreat, do all 100,000 (actually 111,111) mantra recitations at the same place, and so forth. If you aim to complete 100,000 of any of the Ngondro, it’s essential to do the practice at least once every day to keep the continuity. If you miss a day, then begin counting all over again. If you are very sick, then do at least three mantra or three prostrations, etc. to maintain the continuity until you feel well enough to return to the practice schedule you’d had before.

Knowing the Gradual Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim) and Thought Transformation (Lojong) teachings well before beginning Ngondro is very helpful. Because the Ngondro practices emphasize purification, it’s common for old memories and issues to surface. In fact, these practices will definitely make our dysfunctional emotional patterns, doubts about practice, and so forth arise. This is completely normal and to be expected, because it is exactly these things that we are trying to purify. We must know how to work with these skillfully as well as know how to handle the various distractions that arise. Lamrim and Thought Transformation practice are excellent methods for this. For example, when you find anger arising while you’re practicing, employ the antidotes—meditations on patience and loving kindness. When attachment is preoccupying your mind, meditate on impermanence and the unsatisfactory nature of cyclic existence. If questions come up while you’re working on a particular practice, ask your teacher or a learned Dharma friend for help. Listen to their advice and apply it.

To have the opportunity to do the preliminary practices, we must have accumulated great positive potential in the past. Rejoice in that and determine to continue on the path to enlightenment. Be willing to undergo the difficulties entailed in working with your mind skillfully and be happy that you’ve met the Dharma and have the chance to practice. Generate your bodhicitta motivation again and again and think of how your practice benefits yourself and others.