What Is Needed before Ngondro or Preparatory Practices?

Both the standard ngondro preliminary practices and the six preparatory practices done before any meditation session include taking refuge (safe direction) and reaffirming our bodhichitta motivation. But if we are supposed to do these practices from the start, how can we do them without already having developed refuge and bodhichitta? This is the question.

Historical Background

It’s interesting to compare how the six preparatory practices are treated and where they actually fit into the graduated stages in the various lam-rim graded path texts. Just because they’re presented one way in one lam-rim doesn’t mean that this is the exact way and then we grasp onto it, that “It has to be like this.”

If we look in Tsongkhapa’s lam-rim, A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path (Lam-rim chen-mo), first he has the presentation of the healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher, and then he presents these six practices – cleaning your meditation room, setting up an altar, having the proper seat, and so on. He presents these six as a way to keep your close bond to the teacher. But one needs to see the context within which Tsongkhapa taught lam-rim. The context was a tantric empowerment in which first you make a review of the stages of the path. So this was for monks and nuns, primarily monks at that time, who already had a relationship with a spiritual teacher. So presenting the relation with the guru first is something that is within that context – you already have a teacher, now you’re receiving an initiation from that teacher, and here’s how you do it.

The Fifth Dalai Lama mentions in his lam-rim text, The Graded Stages of the Path: Personal Instructions from Manjushri (Lam-rim ‘jam-dpal zhal-lung), that it really is very important to have already developed safe direction, or refuge, and bodhichitta before you start this whole lam-rim process, and then he follows Tsongkhapa’s order – the relation with the guru, and then these six preparatory practices. If you think about it, this of course makes complete sense, because one of the preparatory practices is to take refuge and reaffirm bodhichitta, so how in the world could you do that if you hadn’t already worked on that?

The Fifth Dalai Lama was probably the most practical of these various great masters who wrote these texts, practical and realistic. He’s the one that in his discussion of the relation with the spiritual teacher said that first you need to look at the shortcomings of the teacher and be realistic about that, don’t deny it, they’re not all perfect – but then there’s no benefit in focusing on that and complaining about that. You don’t get inspiration from focusing on shortcomings and complaining. Then you turn to the positive qualities. So not this attitude “They’re all Buddhas, and everything they do is perfect.” That’s can be quite naive. This point about the teacher is a Buddha has to fit within a realistic context, and one has to see what the purpose is and what the basis is for such a view.

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama always says that he’s not sure really that he is the continuum of the line of all Dalai Lamas. He explains the whole tulku system in a much, much larger context than the traditional one. But he says that he does feel that he is the continuum of the Fifth Dalai Lama and the Thirteenth Dalai lama. Their very practical approach is what he instinctively follows.

The Fifth Panchen Lama in his lam-rim, The Graded Stages of the Path: A Speedy Path (Lam-rim myur-lam) – so this is after the Fifth Dalai Lama (the teacher of the Fifth Dalai Lama was the Fourth Panchen Lama) – puts the six preparatory practices first and then the relation with the spiritual teacher. He gives quite extensive instructions on how to meditate on each stage of the lam-rim, and for that reason you start with the preparatory practices, because that’s how you start a meditation session. And then the first topic in lam-rim to reaffirm is the relation with a spiritual teacher.

In some of the presentations of equivalent material to lam-rim that we find in the other Tibetan traditions, you’ll find the discussion of the relation with a spiritual teacher at the end of this whole graded path. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama feels that that is much better. It’s less open to misunderstanding, confusion, and, in some cases, abuse. That’s already hinted at by the Fifth Dalai Lama when he says that you already need refuge and bodhichitta to start this whole lam-rim process.

That’s just a little bit of a historical background, but I think that it is very insightful in terms of how we approach the various practices in relation to them, and particularly in terms of the relation with a spiritual teacher. The implication from the Fifth Dalai Lama’s presentation is that one needs already to have a proper motivation of having worked with these teachings before you actually get into serious practice. Otherwise what is your motivation? It could be quite worldly (if we can use that word). But for some people just the tremendous inspiration from the example of the teacher is enough – an aspiration to be like that is enough to start with all these preliminaries. But the danger in that, of course, is projection, that the inspiration is not really arising in relation to the teacher’s actual qualities, but from a projection by the student.

Quieting Down before Practicing

Many people ask, “Well, I’d like to do some Buddhist practice. What should I do first?” And many people give the instruction “Well, just sit quietly and focus on your breath, and just be aware of your various thoughts and emotions” – because you’re not going to be able to focus totally on your breath with a quiet mind (I mean, who are we kidding?) – “and, in a sense, get to know yourself.”

Most people nowadays are walking around with constant music, the iPod in their ears. They never take any moment to just be alone and examine their thoughts. They always have to be distracted. Or when they are at home, either the radio or some sort of music has to be on, or in some cases the television has to be on. From the moment that they wake up, they turn it on until they go to sleep. I have an aunt who keeps the television on in her room twenty-four hours a day. She needs it to be able to fall asleep, and if she turns over in the night or gets a little bit awake, she feels comforted by having the television on. This is amazing really if you think about it. So just to quiet down with no music and focus on the breath and see what your thoughts are, etc., and what your feelings actually are – that they are not dictated or influenced by the music – this is quite illustrative, quite eye-opening, for a lot of people.

So okay, that’s a way that many people are advised to start. Actually I think that as time goes on, this will be a more and more important practice to do. Because it’s not just the music that people are constantly listening to, not just young people but people of all ages, but it’s also this constant messaging with their cell phone, constantly looking at their cell phone, checking their Facebook and Twitter feeds– all these other things going on simultaneously – with this underlying fear that they’re going to miss something, that it’s so important to know what your friend had for breakfast.

A friend of mine was visiting recently who’s a professor at a university in New York City. She teaches a seminar which lasts for three hours, and she absolutely insists that people leave their cell phones on a table at the door because otherwise what happens in American universities is people are text messaging throughout the lectures. The mentality is that “I can’t experience anything, I can’t feel any emotion or anything, unless I’m texting it.” And what she reported was that there’s so much tension in the room because they don’t have their cell phones in their hands that every hour she has to give the people in the class a five-minute text-messaging break. It’s not a break for smoking a cigarette, not a break for going to the toilet; it’s a break for text messaging. Text messaging now has become more important than the cigarette or the toilet. This is very sad, and this will be a great, great challenge to Buddhist training – to help people to somehow get off this addiction to the constant stream of information and distraction that people crave and become addicted to.

So as a beginning practice, just quieting down, focusing on the breath, and just being comfortable with whatever comes up to your mind – in a sense, getting to know yourself (although that’s a terribly dualistic way of phrasing it) – is helpful. If we talk about a preliminary practice, focusing on the breath would have to come way, way before you advise somebody to do 100,000 prostrations. They’ll really go crazy if they have to do 100,000 repetitions and every time they go down to the ground there’s this cell phone there and they check has anything come in. That sounds silly, but if you think of the mentality that is now developing in the world, this is actually a serious problem. How could you possibly do serious practice for an extended length of time if you can’t tolerate and get completely crazy about not having your cell phone in your hand and not being able to constantly check what’s coming in and commenting: “Ooh, I just went down, and my knee hurts. I have to text that to somebody, put it on Twitter so the whole world knows.”

Throughout its history Buddhism has been adapted in various societies to meet the needs of the people and the mentality of the people. And I think that in the future and the near future – in fact, now – Buddhism, and particularly we’re talking now about these preliminary practices, will have to be somehow suited to these problems. Because what is the purpose of the preliminaries? It’s to overcome obstacles. So there’s a big obstacle in terms of what is developing with all this text messaging and social networking and constant iPod music.

When we talk about discriminating awareness (shes-rab, Skt. prajna) – what’s usually translated as wisdom, which is too vague a word – discriminating awareness: to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s harmful, people need to learn to be able to discriminate between when you have your cell phone on and when you have it off, when it is helpful (because one can’t deny that social media and SMS can be helpful) and when it is a hindrance. Unless you develop this discriminating awareness, then it’s very difficult. How do you develop discriminating awareness? It’s very clear in the teachings: for that you need concentration, and for concentration you need discipline, so the three trainings, three higher trainings. It’s perfect in the teachings, how you do that.

These preparatory practices are very, very helpful for giving discipline. But I don’t think that you can really start with these at the very, very beginning with people who have this really serious addiction to social media. They wouldn’t be able to do it. So initially I think you need something even before this. Focusing on the breath and just trying to be with your thoughts would be a start. But once you are able to deal with that without going absolutely crazy, then the structure of these preparatory practices is very helpful.

Approaching the Six Preparatory Practices as Beginners

Then we ask: But what about the Fifth Dalai Lama’s objection here? How can you possibly do these six in which one of them is to reaffirm refuge and bodhichitta if you haven’t already worked on that? So it’s a circular thing, isn’t it? You need these preparation things to meditate on refuge and bodhichitta, but you need refuge and bodhichitta in order to be able to do it. It’s the same issue with the ngondro, with the preliminary practices. How can you do a ngondro of repeating 100,000 times the Refuge and Bodhichitta Prayer if you haven’t developed refuge and bodhichitta? Then you’re just repeating words. If you don’t have an idea of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – the Three Gems – what are you doing prostration to? The wall? A painting? I mean, what? So one has to think a little bit more deeply how to approach these preparatory practices before we have actually developed refuge and bodhichitta. Is there a way to deal with them that would really suit beginners?

I make the difference between Dharma-lite and the Real Thing Dharma:

Initially Dharma-lite – this is very beneficial because it’s where most people are at – is just intended to improve things in this lifetime. Very good. That’s necessary.

Real Thing Dharma is lam-rim. You’re actually working to improve future lives (not to have a worse rebirth), liberation from rebirth, and enlightenment (you can help everybody get out of rebirth). That’s the real thing, not this lifetime.

Obviously there is a Dharma-lite and a Real Thing Dharma version of refuge and bodhichitta as well. So we need to analyze and think how could this be adapted, then, to people on a Dharma-lite level. Because to be idealistic and think “Well, everybody is so advanced, and everybody is really into this thing sincerely,” and so on, is not realistic. It’s self-deception, I think. It takes a tremendous amount of work and analysis to thoroughly be convinced of beginningless mind (which then implies past and future lives) and to have a sufficient deep understanding of the nature of the mind, beginningless, that makes it possible to gain liberation and enlightenment. If you’re not convinced that liberation and enlightenment are possible, how can you possibly aim for it? So what do you need to do? Preliminaries. Preparation. You have to somehow overcome mental blocks concerning this, as in “Who needs that? Let’s just try to improve this lifetime.” That’s a big mental block, isn’t it, for going deeper? So we have to be open enough to really look deeply into this and build up some positive force, and so that, in a sense, moves us in the right direction.

The assumption here is that these preparatory practices will be beneficial – I’ll use the term that’s always used in the Dharma – at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. Right? Not only these preparatory practices but the ngondro as well – beneficial at the beginning, the middle, and the end. So try to look at these six and analyze and think about how can they be used on a practical level, realistically, in terms of the way that people are now who are interested in Dharma.