Presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Saturday, September 27, 2014.
Note: This article is still a work in progress and may contain inaccuracies or be incomplete.
Ngondro is the fundamental preliminary practice common to all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon. Literally, the word means “something that goes before, something that precedes.” The equivalent Sanskrit word is purvaka.
Vajrayana teachers point out, however, that ngondro practice in and of itself is able to carry the aspirant all the way to enlightenment, and is therefore to be regarded as fundamental rather than as inferior.
Ngondro originated in India, where the practices of Vajrasattva, mandala offering, and guru yoga as a preliminary to anuttarayogatantra were well established. The complete practice did not appear in Tibet before the 14th century. Some ngondros are very recent. For instance, the Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro only originated in the 18th century, based on a terma text by Jikme Lingpa. Jamyang Kyentse Wangpo’s Excellent Path to Enlightenment and the Dudjom Tersar ngondros both originated in the 19th century. So far in my research I have not been able to identify the first ngondro. Some ngondros are very elaborate ecclesiastical exercises that can take half an hour or longer to perform. The Tibetans added prostration and large numbers of repetitions to the Indian model.
Despite the rather rigid presentation of ngondro in many Western dharma centres today, and the rather petty pecking order that that creates, according to Dr. Alex Berzin the historical and also the contemporary practice of ngondro both in Tibet and in India is actually very flexible, individualistic, and practical. One can practise ngondro at any stage of spiritual development, especially amongst the Gelugpas. The great Tsongkapa (1357-1419) undertook many practices including advanced retreats for many years before he undertook any ngondro-type practices, and according to Dr. Berzin, he never practised prostration. Milarepa (1052-1135) did not know ngondro, but was famously required to build and rebuild a stone tower many times by Marpa, in order to purify his negative karma, before Marpa would teach him anything. Clearly, this practice resembles ngondro. In the Tibetan system, it is the student who decides when and which practices are appropriate, in consultation with the teacher. Dr. Berzin, who studied in the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan refugee community for 29 years, states that he was directly advised to undertake a practice by his lama once only in all that time. The initiative must come from the student’s side. The teacher is only an adviser. Compare this with the rigid organizationalism of Western Buddhism, and the naïve transference psychology that this creates.
Ngondro is actually a compendium of five practices, which may be undertaken together or separately. It can be practised alone or together with others. It is recommended that the full practice be performed 100,000 times, which can take years. Dudjom Rinpoche’s Concise Recitation of the Preliminary Practice According to the New Treasure of Dudjom takes just about two minutes to recite. However, when one combines the mechanics of prostration and mandala offering with this, this can easily double to four minutes or more per repetition, equivalent to almost 7,000 hours of practice. If one practices four hours per day, it would thus take about five years to complete. However, a large part of the extended practices is devoted to describing the concepts and visualizations. If one strips the practice down to its essential elements – basically, the mantras – it can be reduced to about one minute, about 1,500 to 2,000 hours, which would take about two years if you practice two hours per day. This seems to be the type of practice that most Westerners are engaged in. However, if you do practice in this way you must study the practice intensively and practise the visualizations so they become automatic and you understand every aspect of the practice deeply. Otherwise, there’s not much point. As with everything, you get what you put into it!
Some Ngondro Recensions (table under construction)
|Instructions on the Meditation on Naturally Liberated Mind, the Great Perfection||Longchen Rabjam||1308-1363|
|Natural Liberation of the Nature of Mind: The Four Session Yoga of the Preliminary Practice||Karma Lingpa||1326-1386|
|Chariot for Travelling on the Path to Freedom||Wangchuk Dorje||16th cent.|
|Nam Cho||Mingyo Dorje||17th cent.|
|Longchen Nyingthig||Jigme Lingpa||18th cent.|
|Dudjum Tersar||19th cent.|
|Ranjjung Pema Nyingthig|
|Dudjum Short Nyongdro|
|Excellent Path to Enlightenment||Jamyang Kyentse Wangpo||19th cent.|
It is clear from the foregoing that there are many variations of ngondro, from a preliminary practice that can be completed in as short a time as 1,500 hours to extensive practices that can take a lifetime. One can practice ngondro in its entirely, or one can take refuge, generate bodhicitta, purify negative karma using the Vajrasattva practice, offer the mandala, or practice guru devotion as separate practices in themselves.
One can also offer prostrations as a practice in its own right. A common practice is to offer three prostrations first thing in the morning and last thing at night, in conjunction with the refuge or bodhicitta formulas. At this rate, one could complete 100,000 prostrations in about 50 years.
Ngondro consists of three aspects: physical, verbal, and mental. The mental aspect refers to visualizations that accompany the actions and words, which are often very complex. Visualization involves the right brain. It is known that the brain responds to visualizations in the same way as physical experiences. The brain also processes images far more efficiently than language, so visualization can affect subtle levels of consciousness that might otherwise be inaccessible. The karmic benefits of ngondro include purifying pride (taking refuge + prostrations), purifying jealousy (cultivating bodhicitta), purifying hatred and aversion (reciting the Vajrasattva mantra), purifying attachment (offering mandalas), and purifying delusion (guru yoga).
Although we speak of 100,000 repetitions, in practice 111,111 are often recommended. This is explained as a device for allowing for miscalculation, but also has numerological significance. In the West, the amulet of ‘abracadabra’ is well known. It first appeared in a third century medical book (Liber Medicinalis) in the form of an amulet and was recommended as a cure for disease. Some authorities derive it from the Gnostic deity Abraxas, whose association with health and protection connects with medicine through the symbolism of the snake or the serpent. In any case, my point is that the word appears on the amulet in the form of an inverted triangle.
The idea is that as the magical word ‘abracadabra’ is progressively diminished so the sickness itself will wane. However, it is also interesting to examine this word as a Western example of a mantra. In Sanskrit and Tibetan mantras, the letter ‘a’ also has special significance, as the first letter of AUM, representing the seed syllable by which the cosmos was created out of nothingness.
It is therefore a representation of the original creative impulse. When one looks at how the number 111,111 was arrived at in relation to 100,000, one can see a similar process of reduction. Thus, 111,111 is arrived at by adding 10% of the previous number until one arrives at unity, thus:
The symbolism of ‘a’ and the number 1 are essentially identical, ‘a’ being the first letter of many alphabets. Moreover, the sequence consists of five numbers, corresponding to the number of divisions of ngondro. There are also five elements, proceeding in order from the most gross to the most subtle: earth, fire, water, air, space. The meaning is that the first 100,000 repetitions pertain to the gross physical level, followed by progressively subtle levels of consciousness until finally the 111,111th repetition, which is singular, represents the attainment of ultimate siddhi (success). In order to get to the number 1, however, one has to proceed through the previous 111,110, by which practice one is progressively purified. This is the essential meaning of ngondro.
The Ordinary Preliminaries
Ngondro is divided into the Ordinary and Extraordinary Preliminaries. The Ordinary Preliminaries consist of four essential realizations, which together constitute Right View and thus constitute one a stream winner. These are called “four thoughts that turn the mind to dharma.” They are:
- The freedoms and advantages of precious human rebirth;
- The truth of impermanence and change;
- The workings of karma;
- The suffering of living beings within samsara.
One must cultivate deep realization, understanding, and acceptance of these four points to establish a solid basis for practising ngondro, though one would not necessarily be expected to develop non-conceptual cognition of them. Non-conceptual realization of these principles constitutes the essence of Right View, the first step of the Noble Eightfold Path, and would constitute one either an ariya bodhisattva or a stream-winner.
The Extraordinary Preliminaries
The Extraordinary Preliminaries consist of five practices, which may also be practised independently, as we have discussed. These are: (1) Taking Refuge; (2) Generation of Bodhicitta, (3) the Vajrasattva mantra, (4) mandala offering, and (5) guru yoga. These practices purify negative karma and generate merit (punya), the first two phases of the path also described in the Pali Canon. However, when one examines the practices as a series one realizes that ngondro is essentially a ritual that magically enacts and so facilitates the path of spiritual development itself. One sees this already in the Ordinary Preliminaries, which crystallize Right View, the essential condition of stream entry.
In the sections that follow, we will discuss refuge, prostration, bodhicitta, Vajrasattva practice, mandala offering, and guru yoga. Although the Buddha himself did not teach or practise ngondro as such, the essential principles on which it is based are all found in Pali Buddhism. Thus, ngondro is an example of an original application of universal principles to create a new practice specifically suited to its time and place. We will discuss this further in the conclusion to this talk.
Taking Refuge is an affirmation of one’s confidence in the truth or “factuality” of the fundamental principles of Buddhism, non-conceptual cognition of which constitutes Right View, the first step of the Noble Eightfold Path. Karmically, taking refuge purifies pride and protects one from inferior rebirths. The Buddha said that after his death we should regard the Dharma as the Buddha, whereas the sangha is the community of dharma believers, followers, and realizers. In the Tibetan tradition the lama or guru is added as a fourth principle of refuge, but is understood as the crystallization of the previous three, so refuge consists of the Dharma as its basis, the Buddha and the Sangha as its expression, and the lama as its realization – corresponding to the Body, Speech, and Mind of the Buddha.
By lama here, we do not mean any particular person, but rather the Absolute or Inner Lama, which is none other than the vajra or Buddha nature or potentiality itself. As the object of guru yoga, we refer to Padmasambhava, the psychopomp. We do not refer to any human lama as the lama of refuge.
As I have said, there are many ngondro variations, but in order to illustrate ngondro in this talk, we will take the Excellent Path to Omniscience: the Dzoghcen Preliminary Practice of Longchen Nyingtik. The Refuge formula used in this practice is in Tibetan, which am not even going to attempt to pronounce, but in English translation it reads:
In the Three Jewels, and their essence, the sugatas [Buddhas or Buddhist teachers], in the three roots: lama, yidam, and khandro [“sky-dancers,” female spirits],
In the channels, inner air, and tiklés [seed-essence], and their nature, the bodhicitta,
In the maṇḍala of essence, nature, and compassion,
I take refuge until enlightenment is fully realized.
This is repeated three times.
Prostration may be practised in connection with Taking Refuge, Guru Yoga, or as a practice in its own right. There are various ways of doing prostrations, including long form, short form, and hand or mudra “prostration.” Prostration is based on the recognition of the centrality and importance of the body, “the first foundation of mindfulness,” in Pali Buddhism, which, Buddhaghosa, the great Theravadin Buddhist scholar and commentator of 5th century CE India, identified as the unique contribution of the Buddhadharma. The centrality of the body is also the essential insight of Tantra.
Recognizing that there are numerous variants, the essential practice of prostration consists of placing the palms together, thumbs in, and then touching the hands in sequence to the top of the head, representing the sahasrara chakra; the forehead, representing the ajna-chjakra; the throat, representing the vishuddha-chakra; and the heart, representing the anahata-chakra. These correspond to the qualities of body, speech, and mind of the Buddha, and many other things besides. I think everybody here is already familiar with the chakras, so I won’t go into this further. One then lies on the ground in which the hands, knees, feet, and forehead touch the ground. This is called the sevenfold prostration. From this position, one then rises quickly.
In the long or outstretched prostration, one stretches the arms out on the floor in front of one. This type of prostration is specially associated with the 100,000-repetition practice. A variant involves joining the palms as before and placing them above the head while lying on the ground.
Finally, one can do a basic mudra prostration with two variants. The basic mudra is that you join the palms, thumbs in, as before, and touch the heart. The main variant is that you turn the right hand palm so that the palm faces left, thumb in, and then raise the tips of the fingers towards the nose and bow the head; or you do the same as the previous but with just the forefinger outstretched. The latter is unusual apparently but interestingly corresponds to a “sign” or mudra in the Western esoteric tradition, called the Sign of Harpocrates.
In the Longchen Nyingtik practice, prostration is associated with the Guru Yoga practice rather than with Taking Refuge. Again, the words are in Tibetan and translate as follows:
As many times as there are atoms in the universe,
I multiply my body and offer you prostrations.
Taking Refuge is followed by the generation of bodhicitta, the essential vow of a bodhisattva to aspire to emancipation in order to benefit all beings in every possible way including teaching the dharma. Each ngondro practice liberates its own corresponding energy – taking refuge liberates the energy of the body, generating bodhicitta liberates the power of truth. The literal meaning of bodhicitta is “enlightenment-mind.”
The Longchen Nyintik formula for bodhicitta is in Tibetan and translates as:
Ho! Mesmerized by the sheer variety of perceptions, which are like the illusory reflections of the moon in water,
Beings wander endlessly astray in saṃsāra’s vicious cycle.
In order that they may find comfort and ease in the luminosity and all-pervading space of the true nature of their minds,
I generate the immeasurable love, compassion, joy and equanimity of the awakened mind, the heart of bodhicitta.
The Vajrasattva mantra is the mantra of Vajrasattva that purifies negative karma. Vajrasattva is the name of a bodhisattva. His name means “Diamond Mind” or “Thunderbolt Mind.” Ironically, given the context, Vajrasattva is reputed to have asked the Buddha why rituals and objects are needed if truth is beyond form. The Buddha responds that these are expedient means (upaya) that accelerate enlightenment. The Vajrasattva mantra is chanted to purify obscurations, bring peace, and promote enlightened activity generally. The Vajrasattva mantra consists of 100 syllables, and a six syllable condensation may be chanted – OM VAJRASATTVA HUM.
The previous two practices utilize karma and the power of truth, well- established concepts in the Buddhist canon, but did the Buddha teach the efficacy of mantra for the eradication of negative karma? There are references in the Pali Canon to chanting, especially in the context of protection, and the Buddha refers positively to Vedic seers who were reciters of mantras. Chanting plays a significant role in all subsequent Buddhist schools, both Hinayana and Mahayana. Peter Masefield also emphasizes the importance of “audition” (“drumming the Deathless”) in the context of initiatory transmission. Mantras are simply the crystallization of consciousness or mind as sound that in turn are heard and thus amplified in the mind with reference to the auditory sense, much as visualizations with reference to the visual sense. The ontological status of mind as a “sixth sense” is fundamental.
There are also passages in the Pali Canon in which the Buddha implies that negative karma can be at least partially eradicated through renunciation and meditation.
The Vajrasattva mantra appears initially as a direct invocation of Vajrasattva, including visualization. The psychological power of visualization is well known. Although Vajrasattva appears to be an external figure of dubious biography, in fact in the mantra he is identified finally with the Vajra nature, the thunderbolt experience of Bodhi or enlightenment a.k.a. Buddha nature (Tathagatagarbha) – “Grant me the realization of the Vajra Nature.”
The Vajrasattva 100-syllable mantra is recited in Sanskrit. Rather than torture you with my uncouth pronunciation, I have found a YouTube video that gives a nice rendition of the mantra. I’ll post the link as well as the text of the mantra in chat. We will return in one minute. The YouTube video will repeat the mantra several times, but we will return after one repetition in just under one minute.
om benza sato samaya | manupalaya | benza sato tenopa tishta dridho mé bhava | sutokhayo mé bhava | supokhayo mé bhava | anurakto mé bhava | sarva siddhi mé prayaccha | sarva karma su tsa mé | tsittam shreyang | kuru hung | ha ha ha ha ho | bhagavan | sarva tatagata benza ma mé muntsa benzi bhava maha samaya sato ah
Mantras are notoriously difficult to translate. The following is a translation that I found online:
Oṃ Vajrasattva! Preserve the bond!
As Vajrasattva stand before me.
Be firm for me.
Be greatly pleased for me.
Deeply nourish me.
Love me passionately.
Grant me siddhi in all things,
And in all actions make my mind most excellent. hūṃ!
ha ha ha ha ho!
Blessed One! Vajra of all the Tathāgatas! Do not abandon me.
Be the Vajra-bearer, Being of the Great Bond!
āḥ (hūṃ phaṭ)
In the mandala offering, one presents a symbolic representation of the universe as a gift to the higher spiritual beings in order to generate merit, which one then dedicates to all sentient beings in order to amplify the merit by the merit of generosity. The mandala offering is intended to overcome attachment. This practice is based on the same concept as the transfer of merit with which we also end our talks, which we find in the canonical writings of the Pali Canon despite the statements by some scholars that the doctrine of transferring merit is Mahayana in origin. This is perhaps the most explicitly “magical” practice in the set.
Rather than describe the practice further I found quite a decent short demonstration on YouTube. Here is the URL. We will return in 3 minutes.
The words associated with the mandala offering appear in Tibetan and are quite long. I will quote the conclusion only:
Phaṭ! The guests above—the root and lineage lamas and yidams—by my offering are pleased,
Whereby merit and wisdom are accumulated, and ordinary and supreme siddhis attained.
The guests below, belonging to saṃsāra, are satisfied by my offering; karmic debts are repaid.
In particular, by satisfying malicious and negative forces,
All illnesses, destructive influences, and obstacles are pacified, dissolving into all-pervading space;
Harmful circumstances and clinging to self are exploded.
Finally offering, offerer and guests—all
Dissolve into the nature of Dzogpachenpo, the great simplicity: A
Finally, in guru yoga one worships and finally comes to realize oneself as the Inner Guru. Thus, the final stage of ngondro recapitulates emancipation itself. In the Pali Canon, the Buddha praises spiritual friendship and the relationship with the teacher, stating that this is the whole path. Ananda associates it with male energy, which the ancient Indians believed was closely allied with the energy of enlightenment itself.
Each of these practices is performed 100,000 or 111,111 times, generally separately, as a preliminary to Dzogchen or other Tantric practices. For those for whom the thought of 111,111 repetitions is too much, one can beneficially practise one or a number of ngondro on a daily basis, whatever one can do. The benefit of even a small number of ngondro repetitions is very great. I have written a short ngondro for just this purpose.
However, in order for ngondro practice to be effective one must understand what one is actually doing. Ritual in itself is devoid of merit. In this case, one would run through the entire series in one go, as a mind of purification.
The core of this practice is the famous Seven Line Prayer of Padmasambhava, through the recitation of which we come into immediate relationship with his mind stream. Although written in Tibetan, this prayer does have the force of a mantra. I’ll give the Tibetan and English translation in the local chat and at the same time, we will listen to the beautiful Tibetan rendition by Ani Choying:
hung orgyen yul gyi nubjang tsam
Hūṃ! In the north-west of the land of Oḍḍiyāṇa,
pema gesar dongpo la
In the heart of a lotus flower,
yatsen chok gi ngödrub nyé
Endowed with the most marvellous attainments,
pema jungné shyé su drak
You are renowned as the ‘Lotus Born’,
khor du khandro mangpö kor
Surrounded by many hosts of ḍākinīs.
khyé kyi jesu dak drub kyi
Following in your footsteps,
jingyi lab chir shek su sol
I pray to you: Come, inspire me with your blessing!
guru pema siddhi hung
Elements of Ngondro
Although ngondro may be a post-Pali and indeed a Tibetan practice, the essential principles that make it effective are rooted in the pre-sectarian Buddhist texts. We find the roots of all of these doctrines throughout the Pali Canon. Thus, ngondro represents the application of the universal science of spirituality to a specific cultural situation. Ngondro is neither irrational nor superstitious, nor is it non-Buddhist. It is based on a sophisticated and subtle understanding of the nature of reality for which Western science is finding ever-increasing confirmation.
Ngondro combines physical prostration, chanting, visualization, realization, and ritual action, and is based on specific Buddhist ideas concerning causality and enlightenment, including:
- Vajra-nature (Buddha-nature)
- Mind as ontological (sixth sense)
- Power of dharma
- Power of intention
- Power of meditation
- Power of speech
- Power of truth
- Act of truth
- The Body
- Mantra (chanting)
- Purification of karma
- Production, accumulation and transfer of merit (dedication of merit)
As I have discussed in my talk, “Deconstructing Tantra,” ngondro is a construction, and therefore it can be deconstructed and it can be reconstructed in different cultural and historical contexts. For one thing, many traditional ngondro texts are extremely ecclesiastical, developed during a time when monastics were able to spend their entire lives in intensive spiritual culture. Those who demand that Westerners practice ngondro in the traditional Tibetan way, reciting in Tibetan and memorizing complex unintuitive symbolic systems are doing a disservice to ngondro, Tibetan Buddhism, and the Dharma Transmission to the West. Nevertheless, the study of ngondro can reveal much of real spiritual value.
1. Anuttarayogatantra is equivalent to Mahayoga in the Dzogchen system. The essential practice is realizing the identity of the mind stream (samtana) and a meditational deity (yidam), divided into generation and completion stage yogas. Dr. Alex Berzin mentions that success in generation stage yoga is a requirement of becoming a tulku. In the Western esoteric system, the practice of Deity Yoga is called the Assumption of God-Forms and is a basic practice. In Pali Buddhism, this is equivalent to visualizing oneself as the Buddha, called the “recollection of the Buddha” (Buddhanussati) (Anguttanikaya; see also Sarah Shaw, Buddhist Meditation: An Anthology of Texts from the Pali Canon [London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 113-16).
2. On the somewhat controversial topic of whether these rituals should be practiced in Tibetan or English, I am reminded of a woman in a Rigpa Toronto group of which I was a member. She insisted that everything be recited in Tibetan, a language none of us understood, because “Tibetan is a mystical language.” It never occurred to her that the Buddha had probably never heard of Tibetan or understood it. Of course, the Tibetans knew and understood their own language and so they used Tibetan. Thus, wherever Tibetan occurs I take that as a reference to the vernacular language of the people performing the practice. Based on this, one should recite in English wherever Tibetan occurs, the only exception being the mantras, which are usually written in Sanskrit in Tibetan texts and as such should be recited by English speakers in Sanskrit. This approach also facilitates understanding.
3. See Shaw, op. cit., “28. Mindfulness of the Body,” pp. 140-46.
4. “The Dhamma as sound,” in Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism (London: geo. Allen & Unwin, 1986), pp. 45-50.
Ngondro is an exceptionally interesting distillation of wisdom. I am currently engaged in an extensive comparative study of ngondro, and developing a short ngondro specifically designed for independent non-sectarian Western practitioners. This new ngondro will improve upon my post, “The Four Gates: A Western Ngondro,” for which reason I have deleted the latter.
Placing the palms together, thumbs turned in, bring the hands to the crown of the head. Say, “OM.”
Bring the hands to the forehead. Say, “NAMO MANJUSHRIYE.”
Bring the hands to the throat. Say, “NAMO SUSHRIYE.”
Bring the hands to the heart. Say, “NAMO UTTAMA SHRIYE.”
Place the palms flat on the floor, kneeling, touching the forehead to the floor. Say, “SOHA.”
Immediately stand erect. Repeat three times.
[English translation: “Om! I bow to Manjushri (the bodhisattva of Transcendent Wisdom)! I bow to the Auspicious and Fortunate (One)! I bow to the Excellent, Auspicious and Fortunate (One)! So be it!”]
Repeat the foregoing three times, repeating continuously throughout, “OM VAJRASATTVA HUM.”
Foundational Practices of Vajrayana (accessed 2014, Oct. 3). http://www.yogichen.org/gurulin/efiles/e0/e0104.html.
Guide to Ngondro Refuge Practice (accessed 2014, Oct. 3). http://www.thranguhk.org/buddhism/en_ngondro.html.
Hundred Syllable VajrasattvaMantra. http://www.westernbuddhistreview.com/vol5/vajrasattva-mantra.pdf.
Longchen Nyingthig Ngondro (accessed 2014, Oct. 3). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_p1Syo0BR8.
Lotsawa House. “Ngondro Practices and Commentaries.” (accessed 2014, Oct. 3). http://www.lotsawahouse.org/topics/ngondro.
Ngondro (accessed 2014, Oct. 3). http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Ng%C3%B6ndro.
Ngondro Documentary (accessed 2014, Oct. 3). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rG1j1BS-1ks.
Padmasambhava and Ngondro (accessed 2014, Oct. 3). http://www.turtlehill.org/khen/mw1.html.
Ray, Reginald A. Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. The World of Tibetan Buddhism. Vol. 2. Boston: Shambhala, 2001. “Chapter 9: Entering the Vajrayana Path” discusses the practice of ngondro on pp. 178-91.
The Six Preparatory Practices and Advice Concerning Ngondro Preliminary Practices (accessed 2014, Oct. 3). http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/x/nav/group.html_1235562651.html.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States (2005; rpt. London: Penguin 2006), trans. Gyurme Dorje. “Chap. 1: Natural Liberation of the Nature of Mind: the Four-Session Yoga of the Preliminary Practice,” pp. 5-11 is a ngondro. It was “discovered” during the 14th century.