Ngondro provides the foundation for all Buddhist practice until enlightenment.
The Buddha taught eighty-four thousand methods of taming the mind. We would have difficulty listening to eighty-four thousand different teachings, let alone applying them as practices.
Ngondro condenses the essence of all of these into a few practices that are relatively easy to accomplish and profoundly transformative. The meditative realization gained through ngondro continues as an integral support of practice, particularly Vajrayana practice.
In this respect the preliminaries resemble the alphabet, which is not simply learned and cast aside, but is utilized constantly as the basis of all written communication.
The Tibetan word ngondro means “to go before” or “preliminary,” and these preliminary practices fall into two basic categories.
The first, that of the outer preliminaries, common to both the Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhist paths, consists of contemplation of the four thoughts that turn the mind.
Then there are the extraordinary preliminaries special to the Mahayana and Vajrayana paths: refuge, bodhicitta, mandala offerings, Vajrasattva purification, guru yoga, and transference of consciousness.
The vehicles (Skt. yanas) of Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana evolved from the Buddha’s teachings to meet the different needs of practitioners according to their individual capabilities.
At the Hinayana level, weariness with the suffering of cyclic existence (Skt. samsara) leads to renunciation of worldly attachments and care in maintaining moral discipline. Practitioners hope that they as individuals will find liberation from samsara and achieve the peace of nirvana.
Mahayana practitioners likewise see cyclic existence as an ocean of suffering and long for liberation, but they recognize that countless others are also helplessly foundering and drowning in samsara. Compassion wells forth and, with it, the powerful wish to alleviate their suffering. Liberation for themselves alone cannot satisfy the spiritual aspirations of Mahayana practitioners. They vow to benefit all others through their practice of the Buddhist path and to attain enlightenment in order to lead them to ultimate liberation.
Vajrayana subsumes both Hinayana and Mahayana, particularly the Mahayana commitment to lead all beings to enlightenment.
Vajrayana, however, cultivates ongoing recognition of the mind as both the source of suffering and the source of liberation.
Although mind is the source of the entire spectrum of experience, if we look for mind itself we cannot find it. Mind’s actual nature is emptiness. We cannot point to any substantial entity and say, “That is mind.”
At the same time, we cannot deny the phenomena that arise in the mind, the continual experience of emotions, thoughts, and perceptions.
Mind’s nature remains beyond limiting concepts of existence or nonexistence.
For the Vajrayana practitioner, this means that all experience is viewed as inseparable from its source, mind’s pure, empty nature. Thus, whatever arises is perceived as a sacred display of pure appearances.
Practice of the outer and the extraordinary preliminaries provides a strong foundation for spiritual development.
The teachings on the four thoughts give rise to the renunciation of ordinary attachments and guide us toward what is beneficial.
Refuge creates a sense of protection and blessing.
Bodhicitta clarifies our motivation and arouses our compassion—we acknowledge our highest spiritual aspirations.
Mandala offerings generate the accumulation of merit and the revelation of pristine awareness that we will need to fulfill our aspirations.
Vajrasattva provides a method by which we can purify the obstacles to enlightenment—the mind’s poisons, habitual patterns, negative karma, and intellectual obscurations.
Guru yoga enables us to receive the pure qualities of the lama’s realization.
Transference of consciousness allows us to continue our path uninterrupted after this lifetime by finding rebirth in the pureland.
As we undertake ngondro, we acquire certain skills that we will use again and again in Vajrayana practice. We learn to contemplate, to develop a visualization, to recite prayers and mantra, to perform prostrations and mandala offerings, to dissolve the visualization, and to rest in nonconceptual meditation.
We begin our practice with pure motivation, follow the lineage instructions in each section, redirect our attention whenever it wanders, and close with the pure dedication of virtue to all sentient beings.
In general, we learn how to meditate. Meditation means directing the mind, training it by repetition until it complies with our highest spiritual intentions. At first, hindered by mental poisons, habits, and obscurations, we must exert great effort. But once we have freed ourselves from tangles and confusion, meditation becomes effortless and carries over from formal practice into daily life, from day into night, from one life to another. No moment exists apart from the enriching revelation of meditation.
However, most practitioners find ngondro rigorous, strenuous, sometimes frustrating. Even to begin ngondro, we must have some measure of faith in the Buddhist path. Practice itself increases faith, which in turn carries us through all the challenges ngondro poses.
Faith is an unsurpassed quality for a spiritual practitioner. Initially it may awaken when we hear some fragment of a teaching, when we see a lama or an image. The mind is momentarily jolted out of its ordinary habits and experiences a freshness, a clarity and joy. This first level of faith is called “clear faith.”
If that first awakening propels one into spiritual practice, faith will deepen through the transformative experience of hearing the teachings and applying them. This is called “deep faith.”
Someone who sincerely contemplates and meditates on the dharma usually feels positive changes day by day, or certainly week by week. These changes include a lessening of the mind’s poisons and habitual tendencies, as well as increased compassion for others and a clearer perspective. The faith that develops when we fully rely on spirituality to guide our lives is called “irreversible faith.”
Once such faith develops, we will not turn back no matter what obstacles arise on the path. Actually, since our practice becomes stronger in the face of obstacles, we may no longer fear obstacles or even feel an aversion to them. We acquire confidence that we can transform whatever life brings us into an opportunity for spiritual growth.
In classical Vajrayana practice, the student, inspired by some facet of Buddhism, would approach a qualified lama and request teachings. The lama would first explain contemplation of the four thoughts. If this contemplation succeeded in ripening the student’s interest in dharma, the student would next ask for refuge and bodhisattva vows.
These would be followed by teachings on ngondro, empowerments for Vajrasattva and Guru Rinpoche, and an oral transmission in which the lama would read the practice in Tibetan so that the blessing of the words fell on the student’s ears.
Upon completing the ngondro, the student would be examined by the lama, who, if satisfied, would give the student empowerment (wang), oral transmission (lung), and teachings (tri) for the practice of a special meditational deity (yidam).
Other empowerments would follow, and when the lama felt the student’s mind had been sufficiently ripened through blessing and practice, the empowerment and oral transmission for Great Perfection practice would be offered.
Great Perfection transmission pivots on the accomplishment of guru yoga.
The term “guru yoga” literally means “union with the nature of the guru,” and through the practice we blend our own mind with the enlightened mind of the lama.
Guru yoga surpasses every other method as a direct, exalted means to reach enlightenment. All buddhas in the past relied on a spiritual teacher to achieve buddhahood; all buddhas in the future will likewise do so.
Both unwavering devotion for the teacher and recognition that the teacher’s qualities are no different from those of an enlightened buddha signal mastery of guru yoga.
Ultimately, the blessing of guru yoga expresses itself through full transmission from the lama’s enlightened mind to the student’s mind.
In ngondro, guru yoga follows prostrations, mandala offerings, and Vajrasattva, but the key points can be incorporated into practice from the beginning.
By seeing our teacher as inseparable from Guru Rinpoche, Vajrasattva, and Buddha Amitabha, and by blending our mind nondually with the teacher’s upon the dissolution of visualizations, we greatly enhance the power of our practice.
Each section of the ngondro becomes a preparation for the consummate guru yoga practices of the Great Perfection.
Source: Tromge, Jane. Ngondro Commentary: Instructions for the Concise Preliminary Practices of the New Treasure of Dudjom. Compiled from the teachings of H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche by Jane Tromge. Junction City, CA: Padma Publishing, 1995.