The Tibetan word ngondro (sngon-’gro) is usually translated as “preliminary practices,” but Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, one of my main teachers, always emphasized that that’s not really the flavor of the word. Although literally it means “to go before,” so something that goes before something and leads to what comes next, the primary connotation of it is “preparation.” If you think of going on a caravan journey in Tibet, you need to prepare before you set out on the journey. You have to get together all your luggage and you have to load it on the pack animals. It’s impossible to make the journey on the caravan without proper preparation. Similarly, to keep on going each day after you stop to rest for the night, you need to reload the animals. Each day requires preparation before going further on the track.
This is the main idea of these ngondro practices. They are absolutely necessary in order to undertake and sustain the so-called “spiritual journey.” If we conceive of them as a preliminary, we might also conceive of not doing them, thinking, “I don’t need to do a preliminary; I just want to get on with the main thing.” But if we understand them as preparing us for the journey and as energizing ourselves for continuing the journey, we will gain appreciation and enthusiasm for doing them.
The way in which the ngondro practices prepare us for our spiritual journey is that they build up positive force or energy and wear away negative force or potential. After all, with no beginning, we have built up the habit of thinking and acting on the basis of ignorance and unawareness of reality. This has built up an enormous strength of negative force that unconsciously drives us to continue compulsively acting in the same way. It will take an enormous effort to override and eventually wipe out these inborn pathways and build up positive ones. The hundreds of thousands of repetitions we do with the ngondro practices are a good way to start. Although 100,000 repetitions of something positive is miniscule in comparison to beginningless lifetimes repeating negative patterns, still the ngondro practices start to build up new neural pathways in our minds.
There are two styles of doing the ngondro practices: as preparation at the start of our Buddhist study and practice, or as a boost to enhance them along the way. Of course, there is also the style of doing both.
(1) In many Tibetan traditions, teachers instruct new students to do a ngondro from the start. If newcomers actually agree to do them, it is usually because they had come to the teacher seeking help in overcoming some difficulties they were having in life. Because they have faith and confidence in the spiritual teacher, they follow his or her advice to do a ngondro. Doing the ngondro practices tests their commitment and builds up discipline and perseverance.
The point is to help the students break through whatever mental blocks they might have and make them more receptive for the next steps of their training. Specifically, the next steps are tantric practice. Although the new students may get some basic sutra teachings along the way, the main instruction they receive for their ngondro concerns the details of the visualizations and ritual. In the process of doing their ngondro, the students develop the states of mind and motivation that go with the physical and verbal practices. But the main aim seems to be to do the 100,000 prostrations and the like, and then get on with tantra.
(2) In the Gelugpa tradition, ngondro practices are done along the way, not as a start for Buddhist practice, and are done to enhance both sutra and tantra practice. The emphasis is on first learning about and developing to some extent the states of mind that will accompany the physical and verbal repetitions, and also on developing a sincere motivation for doing the practices. Students then fit the practices in along the course of their studies, and engage in them at the advice of their teachers or under their own initiative, in order to strengthen their motivation and understanding.
With either method, the main danger to avoid is having the practices become mechanical, with either nothing going on in our minds while doing them, or with a negative attitude toward the practices. When done properly, however, both methods are equally effective. We can see this from classic examples.
The Example of Milarepa
The great Kagyu yogi, Milarepa, had built up tremendous negative potential during the early part of his life, practicing black magic and so on to get revenge on relatives who had cheated him and his family. Obviously he had a lot of obstacles that he needed to overcome in order to be successful with the teachings. As a ngondro, his teacher Marpa didn’t say, “Do 100,000 of this and 100,000 of that,” but rather had him build stone towers. This was unbelievably difficult hard work, but Milarepa had great regret for what he had done in the past and a sincere wish to be able somehow to make up for that and follow the Buddhist path. So Milarepa had a strong positive motivation for doing this hard work that Marpa specifically designed for him as a preparation before he would ever give him any tantric initiations. And Marpa didn’t relent until he felt that Milarepa had burned off enough negative karmic force. After Milarepa had completed the tower, he told him, “No good. Take it down and build another one!”
The Example of Tsongkhapa
A classic example of the other style of doing ngondro is with Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition. Tsongkhapa had a tremendous amount of strong Dharma instincts from previous lives. When he was in his twenties, he’d already studied the entire Kangyur and Tengyur– all the translated texts of the Buddha’s teachings and their Indian commentaries and he’d already started teaching, first abhidharma, special topics of knowledge.
When he was 32, he wrote his first major text, The Golden Rosary of Excellent Explanations (Legs-bshad gser-’phreng, a huge commentary on Abhisamayalamkara, A Filigree of Realizations, quoting from everywhere in the Kangyur and Tengyur. This text details all the different stages of realization of prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom along the path to liberation and enlightenment. At this age, he also started giving tantric initiations, particularly into Sarasvati practice, the female counterpart of Manjushri. He also continued his study of tantra, especially Kalachakra. Before doing any formal ngondro, like prostrations, he also did his first major tantric retreat, which was on Chakrasamvara. During that retreat, he also practiced and mastered the six yogas of Naropa and the six yogas of Niguma.
Then at the age of 34, he did intensive study of the four classes of tantra, especially the complete stage of Guhyasamaja and Kalachakra. After that, he went to study the Madhyamaka teachings on emptiness (voidness) further with a great Karma Kagyu lama, Lama Umapa. This lama had daily visions of Manjushri, and Tsongkhapa would ask Manjushri questions about Madhyamaka through him. Then Tsongkhapa and Lama did an intensive retreat together on Manjushri, after which Tsongkhapa started to receive direct instruction from Manjushri himself.
At this point, Tsongkhapa felt that he still didn’t have a correct understanding of Madhyamaka and Guhyasamaja, and so he sought Manjushri’s advice. Manjushri advised him to do a long retreat of ngondro practices and then he would understand fully. And so at that point, Tsongkhapa did a four-year retreat with eight of his disciples. They each completed 35 sets of 100,000 prostrations – one set each to the 35 so-called “confession Buddhas” – and 18 sets of 100,000 mandala offerings. In addition, every day they did the long Yamantaka self-initiation to renew their vows. They also studied the Avatamsaka Sutra, which is an enormous sutra delineating all the various deeds of bodhisattvas. This is one of the few sutras that was translated into Tibetan from Chinese; the original Sanskrit had been lost. Tsongkhapa said that it was because of this sutra that the full teachings on bodhisattva activity were preserved and available. Without this, we wouldn’t have them any more.
At the end of this four-year retreat, Tsongkhapa had a vision of Maitreya. So when he left the retreat, he restored the Maitreya statue in the main temple in Lhasa. Maitreya will be the next Buddha and, by restoring the statue, he built up even more positive force by helping people who would see the statue make a connection with Maitreya.
Then he went back into another five months of retreat with these eight disciples to continue more preliminaries. After that, he did a retreat on the Kalachakra complete stage and then a one-year-long retreat on Madhyamaka. It was during that Madhyamaka retreat that he finally had non-conceptual cognition of voidness and completely revolutionized the teachings on voidness and the way of explaining it.
Tsongkhapa’s example is very inspiring and very illustrative. Tsongkhapa was no dummy; he was extremely intelligent. He was the most learned and most advanced scholar-practitioner of his day and he had done all these tantric retreats already. But he wasn’t satisfied with his understanding of voidness and he certainly wasn’t satisfied with everybody else’s understanding either. And it was Manjushri, the embodiment of wisdom and intelligence, who told him that to break through to a correct non-conceptual understanding, he needed to do intensive ngondro practices to build up more positive force and rid himself of more negative potential. That’s the model for doing them during the course of your studies and practice as a way to enhance their effectiveness.
I have somewhat followed Tsongkhapa’s model in a modified way. While living in India and writing or translating something, sometimes I would experience a block. My work wasn’t really going anywhere. At such times, I would accept the invitations I had received to visit different countries and give Dharma lectures at Buddhist centers and universities. I called these tours “bodhichitta retreats,” since I was going around teaching, sharing, and trying to help people, and so building up more positive force. When I would come back to India, my mind would be much fresher, and I’d usually be able to get through whatever it was that was blocking me before.
Now as well when I’m writing or translating and I can’t get the correct expression or I can’t figure out how to say something in a simple clear way, I stop and repeat Manjushri mantras and Sarasvati mantras for a little while, with special visualizations. Inevitably, my mind becomes clearer and I’m able to come up with a solution.
There are two stages of ngondro practice. In the Nyingma tradition they are called “external ngondro” and “internal ngondro,” while other Tibetan traditions specify a “common ngondro” and “uncommon ngondro.” “Common” means shared in common with sutra and tantra practice, while “uncommon” means as preparation specifically for tantra practice. Perhaps a clearer way of translating these terms is “shared” and “unshared” ngondro practices. However, regardless of what they’re called, many of the internal and unshared practices, such as refuge and bodhichitta, are common to both sutra and tantra.
The shared ones are basically what are called the “lam-rim graded stage” teachings in the Gelug tradition. In Kagyu there are “the four thoughts that turn your mind to the Dharma,” which correspond to the external ngondro practices in Nyingma. The Sakya tradition presents “the separation from the four clingings.” There are so many different ways of structuring the same sutra material in the different Tibetan traditions. It doesn’t really matter really which one we work with. Some may give more detail than others on certain points, but basically they are all the same.
As for the unshared ones, there is a large array of ones that can be done, with each practice repeated 100,000 or 108,000 or 130,000 times. The standard Kagyu ngondro entails prostration, Vajrasattva 100-syllable mantra, mandala offerings and guru-yoga. Each Nyingma treasure text (terma) tradition has its own set of ngondro practices. But teachers can modify the standard ngondros and design individual practices for specific students. In my own case, His Holiness the Dalai Lama instructed me to do 600,000 Avalokiteshvara mantras and 600,000 Manjushri mantras early on in my Dharma studies. Later, on my own initiative, I did 100,000 Vajrasattva mantras and, before doing my first long tantric retreat, Serkong Rinpoche had me do 100,000 repetitions of the Tsongkhapa guru-yoga verse. Each of these practices, of course, involved not only visualization, but generation of the specific accompanying states of mind.
Personally, I think that ultimately it makes no difference which type of preliminary practices you do. The specific one you do makes a close bond for you with a specific lineage, and that is very beneficial and necessary. However, all the lineages lead to the same goal, enlightenment. So in the end, they’re all the same. You can’t say one is better than another: their effectiveness all depends on your motivation, accompanying state of mind and level of concentration.
Further, no matter what Tibetan tradition you follow, each full tantric sadhana practice you do contains a preparatory section with prostration, mandala offering, Vajrasattva and guru-yoga. This clearly indicates that we need these main ngondro practices throughout the path.
In the Gelug tradition, there are nine traditional uncommon ngondro practices, each of which you repeat 100,000 times. Although there are nine, that doesn’t mean everyone has to do all nine of them. Your teacher may suggest you do only some of them or do something else. The nine are done in the context of the prayer “Hundreds of Deities of Tushita” (Ganden Lhagyama).
(1) Prostration – done while taking refuge in and reciting the names of the 35 Confession Buddhas and 8 Medicine Buddhas. Serkong Rinpoche said you just recite all the names in a round. It isn’t that with each name, you do one prostration. You just go through the round of reciting the names, and while doing that you’re prostrating. Otherwise you can get very confused and quite hung up trying to coordinate the prostrations and the names. In some other traditions, while doing prostration you recite a seven-limb prayer. In fact, there are many different variations of things you can recite while doing prostration. Ultimately, I don’t think it makes any difference. You just do whatever is the particular lineage of practice of ngondro that you’re following.
(2 & 3) Mandala offering together with refuge and bodhichitta – these second and third ngondro practices are done together in the Gelug tradition. You offering a mandala while reciting not only the standard mandala offering verse, but adding each time the standard verse for refuge and bodhichitta. In some other lineages, these two practices are done separately.
(4) Water bowls – you fill and offer 100,000 of them with pure, clean water.
(5) Guru-yoga – in the Gelug tradition, done by reciting the “migtsema” verse (dmigs-brtse-ma) that Tsongkhapa wrote dedicated to his Sakya teacher Rendawa, who then dedicated it back to Tsongkhapa. Whether you do the five-line version or the nine-line version, I don’t think ultimately it makes any difference. Again, you do whatever your teacher recommends.
There are so many different guru yogas with so many different figures. So whether you do it with Guru Rinpoche or Karma Pakshi (the Second Karmapa) or with Gampopa, Milarepa, Marpa or Virupa, again I don’t think it makes any difference. It connects you with the particular lineage of that figure, but on an ultimate level, they’re all Buddhas. The point is to yoke or join your body, speech, and mind with those of a Buddha as represented by the lineage guru, but of course you still retain your individuality.
If you’re going to do a guru-yoga practice in which you visualize or imagine the guru in the form of a lineage master, it’s very helpful if you know something about the life story of that master and actually find it inspiring. It has to be inspiring. If it’s not inspiring, that’s not going to be very effective for you.
(6) Vajrasattva 100-syllable mantra – there are various forms of Vajrasattva – as a single figure or with partner. With the mantra itself, there’s the standard version based on Guhyasamaja, but there are also Yamantaka versions, Heruka versions and Padma versions. In each of these variants, a few words are replaced. Sometimes some of the lines are reversed in their order. Ultimately, it doesn’t make any difference which version you recite. Whichever one is recommended by your teacher and done in your lineage is fine. They’re all effective. In Buddhism there are many, many variants of almost everything.
(7) Samayavajra mantra – Samayavajra (Dam-tshig rdo-rje) is a form of Amoghasiddhi coming from the Guhyasamaja tantra. Repeating his mantra purifies any breaks you might have in your close bond (dam-tsig, samaya) with your teacher.
(8) Tsa-tsa votive tablets – tsa-tsas are little clay relief statues of various Buddha-figures that you make with a mold. In Tibet there was plenty of open space where you could build a small shrine to keep 100,000 of these in, but in the West this is more difficult. I believe it was Lama Zopa that came up with the idea of using lots of ice-cube trays with a mold. You make the tsa-tsas out of water and freeze them. Afterwards, you let them melt and then fill the trays again. Making tsa-tsas build up causes for attaining the physical body of a Buddha.
(9) Vajradaka burnt offerings – sometimes people know this figure by the Tibetan name, Zachey-kadro (Za-byed mkha’-’gro). This is a practice, similar to Vajrasattva, for burning off negative potentials. You do it by reciting a mantra while offering sesame seeds into a fire burner with red-hot coals. It’s a much more graphic, physical process for imagining purification.
So how do you do these ngondro practices? In some traditions, especially those in which you do a ngondro at the start of your Dharma practice, you do all these preliminaries in a row. It’s the same if you’re going to do a three-year retreat. In some traditions, the first portion of the three-year retreat is doing the ngondro once more.
Some people can do these practices all day long. For instance, in Bodh Gaya or Boudanath you see Tibetans doing a 100,000 prostrations at a rate of 3,000 a day. For most of us, that would be almost impossible. But you can also just do a more modest amount each day – either in four sessions a day, or just one session in the morning and one at night, or just once a day. Regardless of how you do them, it’s very important to do only three recitations for the first session of the first day and no more. This number then becomes the minimal amount that you will need to do every day. So if you’re sick or if you’re traveling or something, you make it convenient. This is the same instruction for doing a retreat of a deity – only do three mantra recitations the first time. Serkong Rinpoche emphasized that very much, because people do get sick, and it’s difficult. You don’t want to break the continuity. If you break the continuity, you have to start all over again. And if you do it properly, then you need to do your practice in the same spot, on the same seat, every day.
Sometimes there are exceptions. My own experience: I was doing a retreat in Dharamsala and I was requested to go to Manali to translate some initiation and teachings that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was giving. I was hesitant to break my retreat and go, but Serkong Rinpoche scolded me, saying, “Of course you go. Don’t even question or doubt about going. Just do your minimal amount each day and then come back and continue.” That’s the type of exception that is okay. And 100,000 is not so much, if you think about it. Like Vajrasattva – the way that I did that was 300 repetitions of the mantra a day for a year, and that made 100,000. It’s not such a horrible, difficult thing to do 300 of anything in a day.
The main factor that will prevent these ngondro practices from becoming mechanical is having the proper motivation for doing them – refuge and bodhichitta. In addition, we need to know when to take a short break and not push too hard during a session. The stronger our understanding is of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and the stronger we reaffirm this before starting a session, the less problems we’ll have in doing it. Then it won’t be: “I’m doing it because my teacher told me to do it and I want to be a good boy or girl and want my teacher to like me” or “I want to get this nasty part over with,” sort of like a nasty tax that I have to pay in order to get to the good stuff, the tantra stuff, that will follow from it.
One last point. There are some people that do ngondro practices as a group retreat. This is not a traditional method, but one developed particularly for Westerners. There may be other people at the Bodhgaya stupa doing 100,000 prostrations, but it’s not as though they are in a group and a leader says “Now start” and they all do it together. Everybody is making prostrations individually at their own speed.
The main advantage of a group retreat or group activity – whether ngondro, some deity practice or lam-rim meditation – is that it gives you the discipline. If you didn’t have the group doing it and the group pressure, you wouldn’t do it. It’s like going to a fitness club and working with a trainer. You do rigorous exercise for an hour because it’s either a class or you’re working individually with the trainer and that’s the circumstance. You’d never do it by yourself, for most people. So, like that, you get this advantage from doing it in a group. Even people who do a workout by themselves with the weights and the machines, they wouldn’t do it at home. They need to go to a specific place and a specific atmosphere where other people are doing it too, and then they get the discipline to do that. Fine, very good, if this is helpful.
The disadvantage of these group practices is that you’re not going at your own speed. Either the group is going too quickly or too slowly for you, and that could get you very annoyed. For some people it is much better to set their own speed. That way they feel comfortable with what they’re doing. So if you’re going to do a group retreat, be careful to avoid that frustration and hostility that comes up if the speed of the group is different from your own comfortable speed.
This is a little bit of an introduction to ngondro practice – practices we do to prepare ourselves for the next step.
It’s helpful to look at the whole spiritual path as a great adventure. Of course it’s going to be rough – if you take a caravan and walk from one part of Tibet to another, it’s going to be rough – but it’s an adventure, a worthwhile adventure. There will be many challenges along the way. But if we prepare ourselves with these ngondro practices, and revitalize ourselves with them from time to time along the way, we’ll eventually reach our goals.