Preliminary Practice (Ngondro)
by Venerable Thubten Chodron
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
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.
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.
- 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:
These are done to the 35 Buddhas, together with reciting their
names and the confession prayer.
Sampa) mantra: This is done with the Vajrasattva practice
This is reciting "Namo Gurubhya, Namo Buddhaya, Namo Dharmaya,
Namo Sanghaya" while visualizing the field of positive
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
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.
(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.
This is offering water bowls to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha,
together with visualization.
This is making clay or plaster images of the Buddha.
- Samaya Vajra (Damtsig Dorje) mantra:
This is reciting the mantra of this Buddha together with visualization.
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
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 (Tib: lung), permission initiation
(Tib: jenang), or full initiation (Tib: 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.