Venerable Chöje Lama Phuntsok
in the Context of "The Four Dharmas of Gampopa"
Presented at Karma Theksum Tashi Chöling, Hamburg, in October 2008.
Before beginning to speak about Ngöndro during this short seminar, I wish to greet you kindly and thank you for having invited me. Let us recite "The Refuge Prayer" together.
The preliminary practices of Ngöndro, which can be compared to the foundation of a house, are very important. They are prerequisites that prepare students to have a stable and firm mind in order to be able to engage in the main meditation practices correctly.
Lhaje Gampopa summarized the Buddhadharma in the short prayer that has come to be known as "The Four Dharmas of Gampopa." It is:
"Grant your blessings so that my mind turns towards the Dharma.
Grant your blessings so that my Dharma may progress along the path.
Grant your blessings so that the path may clarify confusion.
Grant your blessings so that confusion may dawn as pristine wisdom."
The fourth line describes the goal of practice, which is transformation of all one's confusion and delusions into pristine wisdom. This isn't as easy as it might seem to appear, so the preparatory practices of clarifying one's delusions need to be practiced by following the path, which is only possible by turning one's mind towards the Dharma. One might think that Ngöndro, i.e., the preliminary practices, aren't important, which is a grave mistake. It's truly important to turn one's mind towards the Dharma, because then one's practice will go well. What does turning one's mind towards the Dharma mean?
Turning one's mind towards the Dharma is possible by understanding the purpose and benefits of practicing the Dharma. Without a founded understanding, one's wish to carry out more advanced practices won't come true. How does one turn one's mind towards the Dharma? It's necessary to contemplate the purpose and benefits of realizing the teachings. This applies to anything one does in life, too.
The Sanskrit term "dharma," chös in Tibetan, refers to every object that can be known, i.e., every phenomenon. In this context, the term "Dharma" encompasses the entire body of Lord Buddha's sacred teachings. So, if one wishes to practice the Dharma, one needs to study and understand Lord Buddha's sacred teachings and become aware of one's confusion and delusions so that one can overcome them by practicing. No matter how sophisticated a practice might seem to be, if it doesn't serve to dispel one's confusion and delusions, then it has nothing to do with the Dharma. If one truly takes to heart the meaning and appreciates the purpose of practicing the Dharma, then one will have turned one's mind towards the Dharma.
There are many different connotations of "taking to heart." Some ways of thinking are positive and pure, others are negative and malicious. The first instruction of "The Four Lines of Gampopa" -
"Grant your blessings so that my mind turns towards the Dharma"
- tells us that one needs to develop and cultivate a way of thinking that accords with the Dharma. For example, one needs medicine in order to be cured of a life-threatening illness or disease and one needs to take that medicine in order to become well. The sacred Dharma that Lord Buddha taught is like medicine and one's mind poisons are like an illness or disease. One needs to acknowledge and appreciate that the Dharma is like medicine so that one will take it. If one doesn't, one will not get well and will not attain the goal.
The way to take the medicine that is the Dharma is practicing the methods of the path, until one has authentic experiences. As long as one has no experiences, one will hardly really know why it's important to turn one's mind towards and unite with the Dharma. One's practice can only become deep if one experiences the Dharma. This applies to everything else one does, too; one needs to have personal experiences if something one does in life is to go well. There are four methods that move one to truly turn one's mind towards the Dharma.
Ngöndro - Section One: The Four General Preliminaries
Ngöndro practice is divided into two sections. To enable practitioners to realize the first line in "The Four Dharmas of Gampopa," the first section of Ngöndro consists of reflecting the general preliminaries, which are that it's really difficult attaining a precious human body, that every phenomenon in the entirety of samsara is impermanent, that every cause has an effect and vice versa, and that samsara only entails suffering. The four preliminaries are not a meditation practice, rather are contemplation practices that serve to win a best understanding of having attained a precious human birth, impermance and death, karma, and samsara.
- The First Two Preliminary Contemplations: The Precious Human Life & Impermanence
The first step is looking at one's life and appreciating that one has been born as a human being, realizing that it's very meaningful, and knowing that one shouldn't waste it. The teachings speak of "the precious human existence." It is special being born as a human being, but being born with good conditions and the fortunate opportunity to practice the Dharma is exceptional and rare, and therefore it is referred to as "precious." Being a human being offers possibilities to develop qualities or to engage in harmful deeds as much as one wants. Taking advantage of one's freedom to practice and perfect the Dharma means one can attain the state like that of a buddha in this life, but it presupposes having the right disposition.
Only few human beings from among the many living in this world have the disposition to give up their mundane concerns and turn their mind towards the Dharma. Even if it is taught that every living being can attain Buddhahood, nevertheless, they need to give up non-virtuous actions, engage in virtuous actions, and practice. Millions of people live in Germany, but how many lead their lives in such a way as to attain enlightenment? Very few. How many people are attending these teachings and are interested in the Dharma? Not many. The value of a human existence is misjudged and underestimated by most people and they live their lives preoccupied with trivialities. There are even people who don't have a fraction of an idea of how difficult it is to attain a human existence and, having an extremely low mental state, commit suicide when they go through slight difficulties.
It's very important to appreciate how precious one's life is and to realize that one is free to make the best use of the limitless possibilities to lead a worthy life. It's very important to have the wish and to resolve to develop and cultivate virtuous qualities. There's no guarantee that one will be born in such invaluable circumstances again and it's rather naive thinking that any luck one has now will last. One should again and again reflect that one's life is precious, until one is certain. Having gained certainty, one resolves to make best use of one's live instead of watching it slip away.
Certainty that one's life is invaluable is gained through heart-felt conviction that it's very hard to attain and that there is no guarantee that one will attain such a good life in the future. Being certain that one's life is a rare opportunity to do good, one will resolve and be able to lead a meaningful life. And what is the most meaningful thing one can do? To do one's best to follow and practice the Dharma.
Many younger people decide to first make lots of money and postpone learning and practicing the Dharma, even thinking it would be a good hobby for the time they get old; or they push it off for tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or next month, or next year. Reflecting the second of the four general preliminaries, which is contemplating impermanence and death, counteracts such excuses. Actually, nobody will deny that all phenomena are impermanent, but few people really take the truth of impermanence to heart. In order to integrate the truth of impermanence deeply in one's life, one needs to contemplate death. Just looking outside oneself and seeing that everything changes isn't a strong impetus to turn one's mind towards the Dharma, whereas contemplating the inevitability of one's own death makes it personal.
Having contemplated and gained certainty in the fact that one's life is precious, one contemplates death and the fact that one will not live forever. Furthermore, one understands that nobody, including oneself, knows when death will occur and that there has never been anybody who could stop it from happening. Reflecting again and again that there is no guarantee that one will live long, one understands that one's life might be short and doesn't brush the thought of this possibility aside. There's no benefit in merely thinking that everything is impermanent and ends, rather it's necessary to clearly and definitely take to heart that one might die any moment. It is a fact that death is on one's heels the very second one was born and can occur at any time.
One couldn't walk when one was born, but grew up and learned as time went on. One went to school, learned to read and write, and so forth. When one learned enough, one took on a job - and all the while the imminence of death remained at one's side. The more one ages, the closer death is. If death never occurred and doesn't take place, then it wouldn't matter if one postponed anything beneficial one planned to do and has failed to carry it out so far. Having thoroughly realized that this isn't the case, that everything is impermanent and ends, one will feel urged to make the best use of one's time and to practice the Dharma. So it's very beneficial and refines one's mind to fully realize the truth of impermanence and death.
There are four marks that validate the truth of impermanence. They are: Whatever is born is subject to death. Whatever rises and flourishes is bound to fall. Whatever is gathered will disperse. Whatever comes together will eventually separate.
Wherever one looks, one can see for oneself that whatever is born is subject to death. For example, a seed that has been sowed grows into a sprout, then into a plant if it is watered regularly and has enough sunlight, but it definitely will wither and die. One can exert as much energy as one can come up with in order to have a nice life, but all efforts are useless when death occurs. Looking at the second mark of impermanence, that whatever rises and flourishes is bound to fall, let us take the example of a building: It, too, will eventually become a ruin, just like the skyscrapers in Manhattan that were destroyed in a matter of minutes. No matter how sturdy something seems to be, everything eventually crumbles and falls. The third mark of impermanence is that everything that is gathered will disperse. The money one tried to save will fall out of one's hands one day, e.g., through business mismanagement or bankruptcy, and the food one bought at the market and carefully cooked is gone after one's family or guests enjoyed the meal. Of course, it's natural to be sad when one experiences a loss of some kind, so it's very helpful to know and remember that everything is impermanent. It's also important to know the fourth mark of impermanence, that whatever comes together will be separated. Eventually one will part from everybody one is close to. For example, parents have to let go of their children when they have grown up, brothers and sisters also go their own ways one day, friendships and partnerships don't last either, and eventually people are separated at death. It's very painful to be separated from persons one loves or likes, so it's very helpful to realize that every relationship is marked by impermanence when one meets people and becomes friends or marries. Remembering the transitory nature of all things, especially when one suffers loss, is extremely helpful.
We have all come together for this seminar, have met each other, and will be together tomorrow and the day after. But we will part, because being together here is also subject to change. It's important to stop denying the truth of impermanence and to give up living one's life as though it is ever-lasting. Instead, it would be very good to realize that everything continuously flows and changes.
Everyone is constantly faced with problems. Most problems are experienced because one doesn't fully realize and accept the truth of impermanence. The barbs of pain that hurt when one experiences problems and pain will be dulled and merely felt like faint pin pricks if one cultivates one's knowledge of impermanence, in which case one is practicing Dharma.
This has been a brief explanation on contemplating the first two general preliminaries of Ngöndro, which are realizing and appreciating one's fortunate opportunity of having attained a precious human birth and not only acknowledging but being deeply touched and therefore moved by the truth of the transitory nature of all things. If not merely taken intellectually, these preliminaries are the foundation, i.e., the ground one stands on when earnestly turning one's mind towards the Dharma.
Subconsciously most people tend to think, "Impermanence and death don't apply for me. I won't die but will live forever." As a result of brushing off the fact that they will die too, people grasp for and cling to themselves and things as though they are permanent and lasting. The more one realizes that everything and everyone, including oneself, is impermanent, continuously changes, and eventually dies, the more the hard edges of one's belief in permanence and one's grasping will soften and eventually cease. Contemplating impermanence and death is a means to become willing and able to turn one's mind towards the Dharma.
Let me add that one's mind determines all one's actions, i.e., if prepared and mature enough, one's practice will develop well. Lacking a founded understanding and firm confidence in the teachings and aim of the Dharma, one's practice won't develop positively. For example, it's necessary to investigate and know what one is doing before jumping over a high hurdle, otherwise one will probably break one's legs if one tries.
The means that inspire and move one to turn one's mind towards the Dharma is contemplating the four preliminaries of Ngöndro. The third practice is contemplating karma, "the law of cause and effect," and the fourth is contemplating samsara, "actions carried out in dependence upon the limitations of conditionality, which is marked by suffering and pain."
- The Third Preliminary Contemplation: Karma
Karma is paramount to Buddhism. What do actions mean when speaking about karma? Karma is the result experienced when causes and conditions come together. There are many treatises that deal with the subject of karma. It's often stated that the connection between a cause and effect are quite far apart, e.g., when it is said that the causes created through one's actions in this life manifest as experiences in one's next life. But one can misinterpret this statement. The most decisive factor is being aware of one's present behaviour and actions. What does this mean?
It's important to recognize that there is a person who carries out an action that is felt by someone, i.e., there is a subject, an action, and a recipient who experiences what one does. It's necessary to look at the blending of all three factors. There are two possibilities that can occur when all three factors come together, either positive or negative. If an action binds with a positive condition, then the result will be good; if an action is bound together with a negative condition, then the result will be bad. Taking a block of wood, if it is thrown into a fireplace, it will warm the room; it won't warm the room if it's thrown into water. This means to say that if a block of wood is connected with a specific condition, then a specific result will manifest. Heat arises when wood and fire are connected, and this ability to bring about heat when causes and conditions prevail and come together is called "karma."
Turning our attention towards our own karma, it's important to understand that any actions that we carry out are based upon our motivation and the way we think. All actions are performed with body, speech, and mind, which are physical deeds, spoken words, and thoughts. An activity that is based upon a benevolent motivation will have a good effect and is said to be positive karma. An activity that is based upon a self-centered or malevolent motivation will have a negative result and is said to be negative karma. A practitioner needs to learn and know this. The meaning is the same, but formulated in terms of Mahayana: Results arise as appearances that can be apperceived when causes and conditions blend together through dependence. When a subject that can perceive and apprehend doesn't perceive or apprehend an object, then claiming that a perceptible object exists isn't valid, i.e., an object only exists inasmuch as it has come together with a subject that apperceives it.
As said, activities are carried out by means of one's body, speech, and mind. One engages in activities with one's body and one speaks with one's speech. Here, too, karma takes place when a subject and object connect. One's physical and verbal activities are carried out in dependence upon one's mind, so it's important to think carefully before acting. Activities that are beneficial are called "virtuous"; those that hurt and harm are called "non-virtuous."
It's important to check one's motivation and to know that one's physical and verbal activities are determined by and depend upon one's motivation and thoughts. If one has a good and pure motivation, then one's activities will have the same quality. If, on the other hand, one has a bad and impure motivation, then one's activities will necessarily be negative. So, it's very important to know what one is thinking and to be aware of one's motivation. Positive and negative activities are called "white actions" and "black actions" respectively and they both depend upon one's mind.
Who engages in activities, i.e., who creates karma? Everybody creates his or her own karma. Having realized that we ourselves create our own karma, it's useless worrying about past karma, but very important to see what one is doing now. One should investigate carefully and scrutinize whether one's actions are beneficial or harmful. One needs to look precisely.
It's often said that one should meditate the law of karma, but there's nothing to meditate, because one's actions have no specific form or color - actions are a force. It's important to examine the source of this force that is so powerful. Before ordering a meal in a restaurant, one also checks whether what one orders is too hot, salty, or sweet, for example.
Students really need to know that they themselves are the source of their own karma and should practice being aware of this fact. How? Let's say a negative thought arises in one's mind. When one sees that it has arisen in one's mind, one is free to tell oneself, "That's not a good thought. If I act according to that thought, then it will be harmful, so I shouldn't do that." For instance, if one sees something one likes and the thought arises to take it, then it would be important to be aware of the fact that living up to that thought means stealing and to know that it is a negative action that harms oneself as well as others. The point is recognizing a thought the moment it arises in one's mind and being able to immediately withdraw from the impulse to steal something, for instance. One realizes that stealing is negative and leads to painful results and thinks, "I should abandon such activities and instead be generous." If one practices in this way, then one is engaging in transforming negative thoughts into positive ones and the quality of one's karma will be transformed too.
When I was about 13 years old, I went to a shrine that was adorned with many wonderful things. I saw a beautiful little statue of Buddha Shakyamuni and thought, "I would really like to have it." I liked it so much. I took it and tucked it under my sleeve. The thought immediately came to me, "Wait a minute, I just stole it and that's really bad. Then I'm a thief." I took the statue out from under my sleeve real fast and placed it on the shrine again. The point of telling you this is that I remembered that stealing is really bad and turns one into a thief. When I was aware of this, I returned the statue. The decisive point is recognizing thoughts that lead to harmful actions, being honest with oneself, and knowing, "That's a bad thought. It will be really negative if I do that, so I must abandon that thought." If one doesn't just do what comes to one's mind and is aware and heedful of one's thoughts, then that's enough. One's actions will become more and more virtuous and one's negative actions will diminish as one continues being very mindful of every thought that one has. Let me repeat that meditating karma is useless. The only point is recognizing what is taking place in one's mind and realizing its worth. It's very important to appreciate and acknowledge karma and to know that the decisive factor is one's own mind, i.e., one's thoughts.
Seeing that karma is paramount to Buddhism, it won't do to just think that one knows about it, rather the truth of karma needs to become a part of oneself - like one's second nature. One needs to look at one's thoughts, differentiate whether they are good or bad, and decide whether one wants to live up to them or not. If one practices in this way again and again, one automatically gets a feeling for looking at one's thoughts and then needn't go into extensive investigations. The practice eventually becomes a habit that continuously takes place and when it does, it is a sign that one's mind has turned towards the Dharma. But, one needs to practice again and again and do one's best. This was a short explanation on how to practice.
- The Fourth Preliminary Contemplation: Samsara
Buddhism differentiates between samsara, "the cycle of conditioned existence that is marked by suffering," and nirvana, "the state free from all suffering and that is marked by happiness."
Everybody experiences suffering and happiness, but one does recall that one experienced more suffering than happiness and that one's experiences of suffering were more intense. The unpleasant feeling of bad luck and misfortune is called "suffering." If nobody experiences suffering, then there is no suffering, so there has to be someone who suffers. Who suffers? All living beings in samsara. But there are differences as to the frequency and intensity of suffering that living beings experience, and many beings suffer more than others.
There is a great variety of living beings, summarized in Buddhism as those living in the six realms of conditioned existence, samsara. The six realms of samsara are the realms of hell, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, jealous gods, and gods. Humans cannot see and perceive the suffering that hell beings, hungry ghosts, and animals experience, and for this reason non-Buddhists do have doubts about the suffering experienced in the three lower realms of samsara. One form of evidence for followers of Buddhism, who do not doubt that there are beings suffering immensely in these three lower realms, is Lord Buddha's Spoken Words.
Do beings in the human realm experience suffering? Do you experience suffering? You are chuckling, so evidently you agree. This doesn't mean that everyone experiences the same kind of suffering, seeing it is an individual matter and varies. Why does it vary? Because every person has different wants, needs, and inclinations. People feel happy when they come across and have things they like and are unhappy when they are faced with things they don't like - they suffer in the latter case. People go through such a great variety of suffering, for example, rich people may be sick and then suffer as a result, or healthy people may be poor and then they suffer. Feeling uncomfortable or deprived denotes suffering. It's important to look at the source of one's feelings. What is the source of feeling unhappy or miserable?
Pondering the suffering that samsara entails and wishing to get rid of it helps no one and is useless. One needs to know the cause for the feelings of misery and discontent that one has. If one investigates the source of suffering and misfortune, one will discover that they are due to one's karma, i.e., the coming together of specific causes and conditions. One needs to look at one's actions - if they are negative, the result will be the experience of suffering or the feeling of misfortune. If one knows that one's actions are the reason one feels the way one does, then one has something to work with. In short: Instead of blaming others or things outside oneself, it's necessary to gain certainty and become convinced of the fact that any suffering one experiences is due to one's own activities of body, speech, and mind.
The four general preliminary contemplations need to become an inner conviction. They are the means that move one to turn one's mind towards the Dharma. And if one understands them well, then one will have prepared the ground to practice the second section of Ngöndro. One would resemble someone shooting an arrow into the dark if one engages in the second section of practices without having realized the first.
It's crucial to train one's mind if one wants to progress along the path. One needs to refine one's attitude and way of thinking by contemplating the four preliminary practices that I explained. Then one will have laid the foundation to practice effectively, without being overwhelmed by hesitations or doubts.
The benefits one experiences by practicing depend upon the state of one's mind. Firstly, one refines one's mind by realizing that one has attained a precious human existence, by knowing why it is precious and that there is no guarantee that one will have a precious human existence in the future. Realizing this fully, one knows that one should not waste it and thus makes best use of one's life. Secondly, one refines one's mind by knowing that one doesn't want to sit back and be complacent and by realizing that death is one's constant escort. Realizing this fully and being aware that one doesn't know when one will die, one sees that one has no time to lose and thus uses one's time as best as one possibly can by practicing. Thirdly, knowing that one has no time to lose because death can occur at any time and realizing the truth of karma, one knows that any happiness or suffering that one will experience in one's future life are created by one's present actions and thus abandons non-virtuous actions and engages in wholesome activities. Fourthly, one refines one's mind by knowing that samsara entails a great variety of suffering and pain that is created by one's own actions. Thus one turns one's mind towards the Dharma in order to attain freedom from suffering.
It would be very good if the four thoughts become one's escort from the time one wakes up in the morning until one goes to sleep at night. One doesn't meditate them, rather one holds the four general preliminaries in one's hand and lives by them. If one sees them like the medicine one takes when one is sick, then one will have prepared the ground for any further practices. If one thinks one can skip them, one will not have refined one's mind. Thinking one can mediate a Yidam of Secret Mantrayana, or Mahamudra, or Maha-Ati, or calm-abiding, or special insight without the foundation is a grave error. The four preliminary contemplations are the foundation for any further practices. If one practices calm-abiding without the foundation, one will fall asleep and there will be no benefit. The practice of calm-abiding, or special insight, or Mahamudra, or Maha-Ati will be easy if one has fully integrated the four contemplations in one's mind.
Calm-abiding meditation is the same as one's mind; special insight meditation is the same as one's mind; Vajrayana meditation is the same as one's mind; Mahamudra meditation is same as one's mind - they are one's own "mind" - sems in Tibetan. One cannot fathom one's mind in one's present state of mind. The mind one refers to in one's present state is blo, "the conceptual mind." One needs to work with one's conceptual mind at this stage by transforming negative thoughts into positive thoughts. When the conceptual mind has become refined, then one can proceed to the next stage of practice.
It's very important not to think that the preliminary practices are ever finished and can ever be laid aside. They are part of the entire path and need to be practiced continuously so that one's everyday mind becomes more and more refined. One's mind is not situated outside oneself, rather is within. Therefore one turns one's attention inwards when practicing.
This has been a short explanation of the starting-point for all practices, which is bringing one's mind that determines all one's actions into a state that accords with the Dharma. For this, one needs a deeply-rooted understanding of the four preliminaries. It won't do to think about them casually or to speak about them as though one has understood them, rather one's understanding has to be ingrained so deeply that one naturally leads one's life in unalterable harmony with them.
Mahamudra Ngöndro - Section Two: The Four Special Practices
The second line of "The Four Dharmas of Gampopa" is: "Grant your blessings so that my Dharma may progress along the path." The methods that enable practitioners to progress along the path of Dharma are the four special practices of the second section of Ngöndro.
The very meaningful first step one takes to engage in Buddhist practice is turning one's mind towards the Dharma. Yet, one can make mistakes and err if one doesn't follow the genuine path of Dharma, i.e., if one doesn't practice just as Lord Buddha taught. Lhaje Gampopa's four-line verse that I am setting in relation to Ngöndro pertains to Mahayana.
Please do not misinterpret me when I give the example that one can make mistakes and go astray by following Hinayana while intending to be a Mahayana practitioner. Every form of Buddhism is authentic and unmistakably pure, but there is a difference between Hinayana and Mahayana in that Hinayana followers aspire to attain freedom from suffering for themselves only, whereas Mahayana followers aspire to attain liberation for the benefit of all living beings. A Mahayana practitioner knows that, like himself, there is nobody who does not want to be free from suffering and who does not want to be happy. For this reason, he or she feels that it's not sufficient to seek personal liberation but has the wish to help everyone become free too. That is the major difference between Hinayana and Mahayana. A Hinayana follower thinks, "I want to attain freedom from suffering and have lasting happiness." A Mahayana practitioner thinks, "Such a motivation is not enough. I'm not the only person who wishes to be free from suffering and wants to experience happiness. All living beings have the very same wish." This isn't belittling Hinayana, seeing both vehicles are the same when it comes to learning how to deal with the mind poisons that impede liberation.
What are mind poisons? For example, it would be detrimental, perhaps even fatal, should one eat a poisonous plant. Mind poisons are like a poisonous plant and both Hinayana and Mahayana practitioners understand that they hinder liberation. The slight difference between the vehicles is that a Hinayana practitioner thinks, "That plant will poison me if I eat it," so he throws it away. A Mahayana practitioner thinks, "If I don't remove that poisonous plant, it might harm someone" and so he removes it. Participant: Actually, the attitude of a Hinayana follower is normal. Rinpoche: It was only an example to illustrate the slight difference and to show how one can forfeit one's vast and all-inclusive motivation that defines a Mahayana practitioner. A disciple of the great vehicle is open enough to wish others the same thing he or she wishes for himself.
In order to not make mistakes while on the path and not to go astray, it's important to take the genuine Dharma as one's path. There are four methods to do this, which are the four special practices of Ngöndro. The first is taking refuge and developing Bodhicitta; the second is the purification practice of Vajrasattva. The third practice is making Mandala offerings, and the fourth is engaging in the practice of Guru-yoga. The means to avoid making mistakes while on the path is taking refuge in the Three Jewels and cultivating Bodhicitta. This is the means to counter going astray.
The basis for taking refuge is having contemplated the four general preliminaries quite well. Also, one needs a qualified Lama who himself is endowed with qualities and is therefore able to explain the special Ngöndro practices to his disciples. There is no special empowerment, but a student needs to have received the reading transmission from the Lama. Having integrated the preliminary practices in one's mind, one should request - in an appropriate manner - an authentic and qualified Lama for permission and instructions on how to engage in the special practices. In our Kagyü tradition, these practices are called "Mahamudra Ngöndro," because they are the foundation for Mahamudra practice.
- The First Special Practice: Refuge & Bodhicitta
The Mahamudra Ngöndro instructions are long and complex. The Glorious Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, recently composed a short and precise summary that I will use while explaining the special preliminaries.
The first special Ngöndro practice consists of two parts, taking refuge and developing Bodhicitta, "the exceptional mind of awakening." The text states: "First take refuge so that all your activities accord with the Dharma. Having taken refuge, give rise to Bodhicitta." Taking refuge and generating Bodhicitta guarantee that all activities carried out with one's body, speech, and mind are in harmony and accord with the Dharma.
Another designation in Tibetan for taking refuge is "seeking refuge," in that one feels that one needs protection from suffering. Who offers refuge from suffering and pain? The object of refuge needs to be able to grant refuge. It makes no sense seeking refuge without feeling the need to receive protection. In Buddhism, Lord Buddha is understood to be the One who offers refuge. He is called Sangye in Tibetan, which means "the Fully Awakened One." Having overcome and eradicated all suffering, Lord Buddha is able to grant refuge. When speaking of the Three Jewels, "the Rare and Perfect Ones," the first is the Perfect Buddha.
How was the Buddha able to overcome and eradicate suffering? He perfected the sacred Dharma, which is the second object of refuge, the "rare and perfect teachings." Is it possible to learn and practice the sacred Dharma on one's own or does one need help? The answer is, yes, one needs help and support, which is the spiritual teacher or friend. Certainly, the Dharma is present in the world, but it won't suffice to learn and practice on one's own and without receiving help. Therefore refuge consists of three aspects, called "the Three Jewels." They are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
Following the example that Lord Buddha set, we too have to work and do our best to overcome and vanquish our mind poisons. Presently, we are all entangled in a great variety of problems and experience different kinds of frustration and anguish. How do we become free? By practicing the instructions that the Buddha presented, which is the Dharma. We all need escorts we can learn from, who we can practice together with, who help us progress in our endeavour to overcome suffering and its causes. When we have dissevered the chains that keep us bound in suffering and pain, then we will have attained Buddhahood.
Developing Bodhicitta depends upon our motivation. If our motivation is pure, i.e., when we are free of self-centeredness and have great compassion, then any activities we carry out will be pure. Bodhicitta means having great compassion for all living beings. Practitioners need to have the Mahayana potential, rigs in Tibetan, in order to cultivate Bodhicitta.
Every living being has rigs, the potential to achieve Buddhahood, but everybody has different tendencies and inclinations, so a disciple needs to have the inner inclination for the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana. If one takes refuge in the Three Jewels and doesn't develop Bodhicitta, i.e., if one aspires to attain freedom from suffering for oneself only, then one's motivation is that of a Hinayana follower. If one aspires to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all living beings, then one's motivation is that of a Mahayana disciple. While reciting "The Refuge Prayer," a Mahayana practitioner includes all living beings and imagines that all past mothers and fathers and all living beings are gathered together and equally pray to attain the same result.
One begins one's practice by leaving worldly activities (like cleaning or cooking) aside and by focusing one's mind on the practice. The length of time one spends in formal practice depends upon how much time one has. If one can practice an hour or two, it would be good. If one can practice for a half-an-hour, then that is very beneficial too. The main factor while sitting comfortably in the meditation posture is keeping one's spine straight. One recites "The Refuge and Bodhicitta Prayer" slowly and with an open heart while visualizing the enlightened beings that are gathered in what is referred to as "the Refuge Tree."
It's not easy for beginners to visualize the Refuge Tree clearly. The main point is having confidence that all enlightened beings are present and being dedicated to them with whole-hearted faith and devotion. One keeps one's eyes closed lightly while imagining that all sacred beings of refuge are gathered in the Refuge Tree. The decisive point is having great faith and devotion in all sacred beings of refuge and being certain that they are present. It's difficult seeing the visualization clearly within, so it's really important being aware of their presence and of their qualities while seeking refuge in them.
Imagining the size of the Refuge Tree is an individual matter, but it isn't advisable visualizing it being as small and limited as the house of this center, rather one imagines that the great number of Buddhas and saints and sages depicted in the Refuge Tree appear in the open and vast expanse of the sky. Since it isn't easy visualizing all images of refuge, a beginner concentrates his or her attention on the central figure, Vajradhara, who is the embodiment of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. When one's mind becomes less distracted as one becomes more and more accustomed to the visualization, it will be easier having an inner vision of all images. For instance, it isn't hard imagining people one knows very well, like one's parents, family members, and friends; it's easy seeing them in one's mind. In the same manner, becoming used to visualizations that one practices becomes easier with time. Of course, one will have times when it's more difficult to concentrate one's attention on the visualization, in which case it would be important to remember the reason why one takes refuge.
There are two aspects of refuge: general and specific. General refuge is comprised of the Three Jewels. The special refuge that characterizes Vajrayana is comprised of the Three Roots, which are the Lineage Lamas, the Yidams, and the Dharma Protectors. When one has turned one's mind to the Buddhas and the assembly of beings in the Refuge Tree and is confident that they are really present, then - imagining that one is together with all sentient beings who were once one's kind parents, no matter if in this life friend or foe - one recites "The Refuge Prayer" together with them. Practicing slowly with one-pointed concentration is a very good means to naturally open one's heart and to have true devotion. One makes prostrations while reciting the special prayer, which is:
"All sentient beings and I take refuge in the Lama.
We take refuge in the Yidams.
We take refuge in the Buddha.
We take refuge in the Dharma.
We take refuge in the Sangha."
One recites this prayer with each prostration one makes. The purpose of this practice is including all aspects of one's activities carried out with one's body, speech, and mind, i.e., one makes prostrations with one's body, recites the prayer with one's speech, and generates devotion and openness in one's mind each time one recites the prayer while making a prostration.
There are two ways of making prostrations. In both cases, one first folds one's hands together and touches one's forehead, then one's throat, and then one's chest, which is the seat of one's heart. Touching these three points of one's body with folded hands means one dedicates one's body to all sacred beings of refuge that one visualizes in the Refuge Tree while making prostrations; one directs one's speech towards them while speaking the refuge prayer, and one integrates and tries to uphold the meaning of refuge in one's mind while engaged in this practice. In this way, one takes refuge with the inseparability of one's body, speech, and mind.
Let me demonstrate how to make both types of prostrations. One can make the full prostration by stretching one's body out in full length to the ground or one can touch the ground with one's forehead by simply going into one's knees after having touched the three points of one's body with folded hands. The possibility to make two types of prostrations depends upon one's physical constitution. Older, sick, or handicapped individuals can merely imagine making physical prostrations while praying and developing their devotion. The decisive point is practicing the three aspects of body, speech, and mind together without giving in to distractions. One does as many prostrations as one can and counts them.
Why does one do prostrations? Everyone has a great number of obcurations that have been created by means of their body, speech, and mind. Prostrations are carried out in order to purify these obscurations, but one needs to know what they mean. There are many obscurations that pertain to physical activities, summarized they are the three negative actions carried out with one's body. The first very negative action of one's body is killing. One might think that one doesn't or hasn't killed, but one unknowingly does so constantly. For instance, if one simply picks up a stone and throws it somewhere, one is probably killing many little insects that lived under the stone before one picked it up. One is probably squishing to death many little insects when one picks flowers, makes a bouquet, and places it in a vase. Such actions also create obscurations that need to be purified.
The second very negative action one carries out with one's body is stealing. One might think that one doesn't steal or hasn't taken anything that wasn't given freely, but one unknowingly takes things all the time. For example, if one has a business or a job, one does try to make as good a profit as possible and keeps it for oneself. In Buddhism, stealing is understood as taking what is not given, so making a profit means taking something that isn't given freely and gladly. The third very negative action is sexual misconduct. The only thing I want to say about this is that it applies to some people and not to others.
Question: Can you explain why some people lift their hands above the back of their head when they do the full prostration? Rinpoche: Some people may do this, but it has no meaning. It is correct to recall at the beginning that one is taking refuge by means of body, speech, and mind, to touch the ground with one's forehead, knees, and hands, and then to stand up again. When one does the small prostration, five parts of one's body touch the ground: one's forehead, the two palms of one's hands, and one's two knees. Student: Can one stand up by rolling to the side when one gets up? Translator: Just like Lama-la demonstrated, otherwise he has to do it again. Rinpoche: One stands up straight. Question: Does one count with one's large Mala? Rinpoche: It's more convenient using the small one.
Which obscurations does one purify by reciting the prayer? The veils one created by means of one's speech. There are four main negative activities one carries out with one's speech, which are lying, slandering others, engaging in idle chatter, and speaking harshly. The obscurations one produced and creates by means of one's mind are having malicious thoughts, being greedy and selfish, and having wrong views.
In which way does the first special Ngöndro practice purify these ten main negative actions? One thing for sure, one doesn't engage in negative physical activities while doing prostrations; one doesn't engage in bad speech while reciting the prayer, and one doesn't have negative thoughts while practicing, because one's mind is directed towards and is concentrated on the objects of refuge.
It's important to know the purpose of doing prostrations. Some people think it's a good way to lose weight or to keep a good figure. One might also hope to train one's voice by reciting "The Refuge Prayer," which also isn't the purpose of reciting the prayer. One might even fear that the big heart one had before one started practicing will become smaller and might even disappear. One needn't have fears like this. The only things that need to decrease are the obstructive veils that one accumulated with one's body, speech, and mind, so something does diminish through practice. Everyone can find out for themselves if negative activities become weaker and diminish through practice. Discovering and experiencing that this is the case is a sign that one's obscurations are being purified. For instance, if one knows that one talks a lot, one will find that the practice purifies this tendency and one sees that it is possible to say a lot by using a few words.
Question: Does one recite the prayer while actually doing the prostration? Rinpoche: Yes. Student: But it takes longer to recite the prayer than to do the prostration. Rinpoche: It's difficult in the beginning. Student: In German or Tibetan? Rinpoche: It would be good to recite the prayer in your native language, but it's most important to know what one is reciting. The German translation is longer, so one can recite it in German until one is really sure of the meaning and then recite it in Tibetan. If one isn't aware of what one is reciting, it's idle chatter.
Question: How can one recite well if one's visualization isn't good? Rinpoche: The words aren't that important, rather having a one-pointed mind that is focused and concentrated on one object - otherwise one's mind wanders off in all directions.
I explained the objects of refuge, the person taking refuge (oneself), and how one takes refuge with one's body, speech, and mind in the Three Jewels and in the Three Roots, the latter being specific for Vajrayana. One needs to keep all aspects in one's mind quite well. Taking the example of planning to visit Nepal for a month: Nepal is the object, the person who is making the plans to visit is oneself, and making plans to travel includes getting a visa, booking the flight, making it to the airport on time, etc. One should keep the three aspects of refuge in one's mind just as clearly.
Recitation of "The Refuge and Bodhicitta Prayer" is never a finished matter and commences every Buddhist practice. It's important to know that one recites it for the rest of one's life. Any practice that doesn't include this prayer is not a Buddhist practice. Meditating Noble Chenrezig, or Arya Tara, or Guru Rinpoche will not engender beneficial experiences if one fails to bring to mind and recites "The Refuge and Bodhicitta Prayer" at the beginning. One understands this when one takes part in the formal refuge ceremony and speaks the prayer, which is:
"In the Buddha, Dharma, and supreme assemblies
I take refuge until awakening.
Through my generosity and so forth
May I achieve Buddhahood for the good of beings."
The first two lines are "The Refuge Prayer" and the second two lines are "The Bodhicitta Prayer." There is a slight difference when taking refuge in the context of Vajrayana, in that one also takes refuge in the Three Roots, which are the Lamas, Yidams, and Protectors.
It is recommended to practice each of the four special preliminary practices 100,000 times while focusing one's attention on each practice, i.e., to make prostrations, repeat the Mantra of Vajrasattva, make Mandala offerings, and do the Guru-Yoga practice 100,000 times each. It's not necessary to do prostrations when one progresses to the next practices, in which case it is correct to make 3 prostrations while reciting the prayers.
Practitioners are different and need to decide for themselves whether they are able to do the prostrations that often; if one has less time, one is free to do 10,000 while engaged in the first special Mahamudra preliminary practice. In any case, it's a very beneficial act. One should not be fixated upon counting and accomplishing the number, since one always takes refuge and tries to increase Bodhicitta until one has become free from all suffering. Stopping to take refuge and to cultivate Bodhicitta before one has attained Buddhahood is not correct.
It's important to be aware of one's own experiences and to see whether taking refuge while doing prostrations is good. If one finds that it's good, then one should continue. I did the 100,000 prostrations 3 times, because I saw that it helped me. Every practitioner needs to find this out for themselves. Some people are sick or handicapped and can practice doing prostrations while reciting the prayers on a meditative basis, just like one does when practicing the Sadhana of Noble Chenrezig or Arya Tara.
It's very beneficial if one can do each special preliminary practice as often as suggested in order to accomplish the second Dharma of Lhaje Gampopa, which is described in the second line of the "The Four Dharmas of Gampopa" that he composed and is:
"Grant your blessings so that my Dharma may progress along the path."
It's not a matter of doing what one usually likes to do. One does need discipline in order to progress along the path and mature spiritually. Beginners have trouble and some people are more capable, so it's very good to help each other and to practice in a group.
It's necessary to rely on a qualified teacher and to receive exact instructions from him if one chooses to do 10,000 or 100,000 prostrations and when one continues by meditating the second special preliminary practice, which is Vajrasattva. It's also necessary to stay in touch with one's teacher, because one should discuss one's experiences with him so that he can advise one. Doubts can arise in one's mind, like, "Am I practicing correctly?" and so forth. One needs to discuss any doubts that one might have with one's teacher, otherwise they turn into big impediments. It's necessary to practice free from doubts. Speaking about one's experiences and doubts regularly also gives one's teacher the possibility to check if everything is going well. If one doesn't, one can succumb to personal attitudes. For instance, we did many prostrations very fast during retreat, got really hungry, and nibbled at Tsampa in between. One day our meditation master visited us and saw the balls of Tsampa. He asked me, "What are they doing there?" I answered, "I'm always hungry and eat a little bit in between." The meditation master replied, "That's not okay and may not be. The prostrations that you do while letting things go good for you and eating do not benefit at all." He continued, "If you're really hungry, then take a break and eat before you continue. Mixing the two is acting like a child. Where is your visualization when you are busy thinking about your growling stomach? Don't mix them." Honestly speaking, while taking refuge I took refuge in my Tsampa and this meant really going astray - it had to be corrected, so we need a helper in order to progress along the path.
Student: What can I do? I only feel hungry and think about eating when I do prostrations. Rinpoche: Then you should eat. The main thing is not mixing things. As stated in the text we are studying, one refrains from worldly activities while practicing, which doesn't mean to say that one shouldn't eat. The point is staying in touch with one's teacher so that he can correct mistakes that one makes and dispel any doubts that might arise about one's practice, e.g., while making prostrations by thinking, "What am I up to?" One also needs to ask one's teacher whether the experiences one has are valid or not.
Question: It's rather difficult communicating with one's Lama, who lives in Tibet or India and who one only sees once or twice a year. Is that enough to ask him questions? Rinpoche: Things have become easier in modern times. It's very important to receive precise instructions before beginning a practice, and if it isn't possible to meet one's Lama, then one can send an email so that he can answer. One can feel comfortable or uncomfortable while practicing, so one can write him and ask how to deal with those experiences. He will respond and tell you what to do. It's important not to feel despondent and wouldn't be good practicing while feeling insecure and uneasy. We all notice that our practice fluctuates immensely - sometimes things go well and sometimes they don't. This depends upon conditions that, like everything else, change. During such times, it's important to ask so that one's doubts can be dispelled. Of course, one shouldn't ask any Lama one meets, rather one should ask the Lama one sees as one's Root Lama, the Lama who knows you. A Lama who is a stranger would not be able to judge and help you. For example, people living in the area of Nepal where I live go to the same doctor when they are sick, because this doctor knows his patients and can recommend a treatment more reliably than another doctor can. It's the same with a spiritual teacher - if he knows one well, then he can help more effectively.
Question: What if one's Lama has passed away? My Lama died 8 years ago and I have a spiritual bond with him, but cannot ask him. Rinpoche: It depends. If you have no doubts, then you can rely upon the spiritual bond. It's important to speak with a living Lama, a Lama you trust the most, when you have inner doubts. One's Root Lama is decisive, because he helps us develop firm dedication and steadfast devotion in the practice. We can only develop spiritually if the teacher who knows us guides and helps us not mix our practice with balls of Tsampa and thus err.
Question: What if one stops in the middle of Ngöndro, because one thinks one needs to know more? Should I just continue where I left off or start anew? Rinpoche: You have to decide for yourself, but your question shows that you are aware that maybe you should start over again. It's all right to start from the beginning or to continue from where you left off. According to my experiences, practice intensifies. My experiences became deeper the second time I did the Ngöndro and even deeper the third time, so there's no harm in starting again. There is a Lama at the great Pullahari Monastery of Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche. This Lama spent many years in retreat there and engaged in each practice of the Ngöndro 100,000 times and did the entire Ngöndro 10 times, starting from the beginning every time. Having completed the first Ngöndro, he saw that it was very beneficial and did it again and again, 10 times in all. He attained unwavering, steadfast inner strength and benefited immensely. It's very important to see for oneself whether and in which way one benefits from a practice. If one discovers that a specific practice is helpful, then it is good to repeat it.
Question: Considering the small vehicle of Hinayana, it seems it teaches its disciples to attain freedom from suffering for themselves, whereas Mahayana teaches to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings. There seems to be a contradiction. Do disciples of the Hinayana automatically become Mahayana followers and develop great compassion when they meditate Chenrezig? Rinpoche: It isn't possible to develop compassion by merely engaging in the practice of Chenrezig, i.e., one's sincere motivation is decisive, no matter which practice one does. Compassion does not arise by meditating Chenrezig, which serves to intensify and increase one's compassion. If one has no compassion, it cannot be intensified or increase. Of course, every follower of Hinayana can generate and develop compassion, but he needs to be open and have the wish to help others. If the seed of compassion is present in the mind of a practitioner, then meditating Chenrezig can intensify this aspect.
Question: In the explanation of karma, Rinpoche taught that three factors need to be present, the cause, the conditions, and the habit or inclination, and that followers need to have the Mahayana potential of great compassion, otherwise the practice doesn't help. Translator: I think the above question was whether a Hinayana follower is doomed never to generate slight compassion. Student: Yes, that was my question. Rinpoche: Chenrezig is the embodiment of the great compassion of all Buddhas. So, opening one's heart for this aspect of enlightenment serves to dispel our self-centered attitude and to intensify our compassion and care for others, which is only possible if one has the motivation, even though one doesn't have the ability. The motivation is wishing to learn to help others and to do good. It's useless trying to meditate Chenrezig if one doesn't have the wish to benefit others. The motivation is the wish, which is like a seed that needs to be present and tended in order to grow into a plant. This is also the reason why taking refuge and developing Bodhicitta are practiced together, i.e., both support each other and need to commence any practice.
If one wishes to practice the four special Mahamudra preliminaries, it's important to practice them in the sequence in which they are presented, which is first getting in touch with a qualified Lama one is connected with and who one trusts and to receive detailed instructions from him. Then one can do prostrations while reciting "The Refuge and Bodhcitta Prayer," meditate Vajrasattva and repeat the Mantra, make Mandala offerings, and practice Guru-Yoga. One needs to be heedful of practicing the instructions one received correctly and one will notice that one can practice more clearly the more one progresses from the first to the second stage, and so on. One will also notice that extraordinary devotion and trust arise in one's heart while practicing Guru-Yoga and that this is the main point of practicing.
As long as one has doubts, sincere trust and devotion cannot arise in one's mind. Therefore it's crucial to practice all preliminaries well, so that one doesn't doubt the words of one's Lama and so that one does as he says. The life stories of the great Kagyü Lineage-holders illustrate that anything Marpa Lotsawa told Jetsün Milarepa to do was fine - it was fine for the Jetsün when Lord Marpa kicked him out of the room and it was just as fine when he told him to enter again. Jetsün Milarepa's devotion and reverence for his beloved Lama never wavered or waned. The relationships between Marpa Lotsawa and his beloved Guru Mahasiddha Naropa and between Naropa and his teacher Shri Tilopa were so pure that nothing the glorious teachers ever requested of their dedicated students every caused them to have doubts. Jetsün Milarepa would never have fully understood the meaning of Lord Marpa's words if Marpa had not expected Milarepa to go through so many hardships, seeing Milarepa still had so many obscurations that needed to be purified before he was able to fully appreciate and take the sacred teachings to heart.
Some of you are practicing Ngöndro, some of you aren't, and yet others might think that it's time to start. It's important to know that one should finish when one has decided to take up the practice. One should check whether one can engage in Ngöndro, whether one has time, and so forth and then complete the practice that one started. Everyone is different and some practitioners see that 100,000 is no problem for them and they finish. Others are fearful and should be honest with themselves before they start; they are free to do 10,000 if they feel comfortable with that. Consistency is important, so one is free to do 100 a day if one is confident that one can. Counting 100,000, or 10,000, or 1,000 isn't the point, rather being determined and integrating the meaning of the practice in one's life. It's the same as taking exams: One was determined to learn and make it. When one has passed the exams, one is happy and takes the next step.
Question: Two years ago a Lama was here and said that one is not a Buddhist if one hasn't completed the Ngöndro. I was shocked to hear this. Rinpoche: It's not like that. It would be correct to say that someone who hasn't taken refuge is not a Buddhist. Student: I've felt tormented ever since. Rinpoche: You should have sent me an email.
I have not been teaching according to the text but have been speaking about my own experiences, because I thought it would help you. Sharing own experiences is usually more helpful.
The text tells us to take refuge in the Three Jewels as often as possible, to keep the visualization in mind, and to develop Bodhicitta. Having made prostrations as many times as one resolved for each session of practice, one sits in the meditative posture and develops Bodhicitta. It's important not to be too demanding upon oneself and to practice slowly, otherwise one can find it hard to continue. Thinking of the number of prostrations one should accomplish makes it difficult to recite the prayer clearly and to keep the visualization of the Refuge Tree upright. It's better to practice slowly and to keep the three aspects of body, speech, and mind together while aware of the meaning.
Sitting in meditation posture after having completed the prostrations, one directs one's prayer to the objects of refuge and speaks "The Refuge and Bodhicitta Prayer" again, which is:
"In the Buddha, Dharma, and supreme assemblies
I take refuge until awakening.
Through my generosity and so forth
May I achieve Buddhahood for the good of beings."
This is a Mahayana prayer. The "supreme assemblies" are the Sangha, the noble Bodhisattvas who are on one of the high levels of attainment. One doesn't take refuge for the rest of one's life, rather - being determined - one takes refuge until one has attained Buddhahood.
One recites the second set of two lines in the prayer above with the sincere wish and request to receive the Bodhisattva vows. Having recited these lines after having done prostrations, one feels that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have granted one's wish. One repeats this practice again and again so that the visualization becomes clearer and clearer in one's mind and so that one doesn't forget. Following, one recites the prayer:
"May Bodhichitta, great and precious,
Arise where it has not arisen.
Never weakening where it has arisen,
May it grow ever more and more."
One resumes the visualization practice according to the instructions in the text and rests in the non-discursive state.
Every visualization practice is meant to help practitioners create the sacred images as clearly as possible in their mind and to feel that they are truly present. Since this practice, which is called "the creation stage," causes students to become attached to solid existents, the dissolution phase of what is called "the completion stage" is carried out. The completion stage serves the purpose of dispelling the belief in permanence, i.e., eternalism, and the creation stage is practiced in order to dispel the belief in nothingness, i.e., nihilism. Dissolving the visualization into oneself and resting in that experience doesn't mean to say that everything is experienced blank like empty space, rather is practiced in order to receive the Buddhas' and Bodhisattvas' blessings of body, speech, and mind and to be inseparably united with them.
What is it like to feel that the principles of enlightenment have dissolved into oneself and that one is united with them? For example, if there is a layer of ice above the water in a bowl and the bowl were heated, then the ice would melt into drops that drip into the water. Having melted completely, there would be no difference between the ice and the water in the bowl - they would be inseparable. Resting in meditation after having engaged in the completion stage of practice doesn't mean one's mind relaxes in emptiness, rather it means resting in the natural state of one's mind, which is the indivisibility of emptiness and luminous clarity. This is Mahamudra meditation. One simply leaves one's mind the way it is, without thinking of the past or future and without manipulating it.
One concludes the practice by dedicating the merit in that one wishes that any good one was able to accomplish through one's practice and through any beneficial actions one was able to carry out becomes the cause for all living beings without exception to achieve the best temporary and lasting peace and happiness.
This has been a discussion of the formal meditation practice, which is followed by instructions on how to engage in daily activities, responsibilities, and chores.
What does one do during what is called "post-meditation"? The text states that one should not be indifferent, should resort to the antidotes, should try to increase one's devotion in one's Guru and one's faith and trust in the Three Jewels, and let more and more loving kindness and compassion for living beings grow and manifest from within. Not being indifferent and resorting to the antidotes mean trying to maintain the atmosphere of one's practice. It would be improper to done benevolence while practicing and to return to old habits afterwards. The point is again and again checking one's motivation, developing awareness, and knowing what one is doing. One needs to recognize any wrongdoing one is about to commit and apply the antidote. For example, if one notices that one is about to tell a lie, one stops and looks, remembers the antidote, and tells the truth. It's also good to take refuge and recite the prayer when one notices that one is about to do something one shouldn't do.
We need to have clear and precise awareness and consciousness, rig-pa, which is the opposite of mental dullness and ignorance, ma-rig-pa. Noticing one is about to do something one shouldn't do and applying the antidote is being aware; not noticing is being in a state of mental dullness or ignorance. Consciously telling the truth when one sees that one is about to tell a lie, taking refuge and reciting "The Refuge Prayer," or repeating the Mantra of Noble Chenrezig or Arya Tara are good antidotes that one is free to resort to when one is aware of about giving in to negative impulses. Practicing being aware of one's thoughts before acting them out and applying the antidotes when one's intentions aren't in harmony with the Dharma, one's negative habitual tendencies diminish and eventually cease. That's how one practices dispelling one's inner obscurations that one has accumulated with body, speech, and mind. This process applies to all ten non-virtuous activities described above, in which case one engages in the respective virtuous activity instead.
The text goes on to state that one should try to increase one's devotion in one's Guru, which is a process one cannot willingly bring about. If one practices the instructions one has received from one's Lama, one will have own experiences and will then see how reliable his words are and how helpful and kind he is. As a result, unfaltering devotion in one's Lama will increase. For whom does one have unwavering devotion? Not for the outer manifestation of a Lama dressed in robes, rather for one's Root Lama with whom one is profoundly connected.
There are two Tibetan terms for "devotion," mös-pa and güs-pa. The first aspect, mös-pa, is devotion that is a deep inner longing. The second aspect, güs-pa, is devotion that is profound veneration and respect. Mös-pa is pure longing openness; without it, güs-pa can never arise in a disciple's heart. Mös-pa is something like love, of which there are four kinds that are different from each other: love for one's Lama, love for one's parents, love for one's partner, and love for the King. It's quite similar to joy; it's like the joy one experiences when one is open for the person one meets.
As to one's Lama, of course one needs to like him from the depth of one's heart; it would be strange having a Lama that one doesn't like. True openness, devotion, love, and dedication for one's Lama are born and increase by realizing his qualities and immense kindness. Compared to the love that couples have for each other, attraction of each partner for the other is not based upon recognizing qualities that the one and the other have but is based upon desire, which is a mind poison. This is referred to as "love arising from lust." So there is a great difference between the love one has for one's Lama and the love one feels for a partner. When sincere love, true devotion, and profound dedication for one's Lama are present in one's mind, it is called "the experience of great bliss."
Love for one's Lama develops and increases as one realizes that he is free from slightest faults and as one sees his immense qualities and immeasurable loving kindness and compassion. The more one sees and experiences his limitless qualities, the deeper one's feelings for him will become, and as a result one will naturally want to prostrate to him with one's body, honour him with one's speech, and revere him most deeply with one's mind. This is what having güs-pa means (translated as "respect" in the following discussion).
His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, is still very young, but he has such exceptional qualities that there are people who have perfect devotion and respect for him when they hear his voice and without having met him personally. It's their reaction to his wondrous and exceptional qualities. When he presents teachings, so many people gathered in huge crowds are touched so deeply that they cry and have spontaneous devotion for him. Their sincere devotion is born from his great qualities.
Being dedicated to one's Lama is very important and needs to be based upon differentiating wisdom-awareness, shes-rab, and not upon blind faith. Earnest dedication is born from clear awareness that a Lama is truly worthy of deepest devotion and respect. It's not right to speak of devotion and respect if somebody is not aware of a Lama's qualities.
In the same way as we develop profound devotion in and respect for our Lama, it's important to develop and increase our sincere faith and steadfast confidence in the Three Jewels by again and again bringing to mind the great qualities of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the supreme assemblies, which is the Sangha.
The text then teaches to try to let more and more loving kindness and compassion for all living beings grow and manifest from within and never to forfeit one's wish to do so. Let me stress that it's very important to cultivate and increase one's devotion for one's Lama, one's faith and confidence in the Three Jewels, and one's loving kindness and compassion for all living beings, to always bring them to mind, and to remember these three aspects of practice.
Students of Madhyamika and practitioners of Mahamudra and Maha-Ati might fall into the belief that everything is empty and therefore nothing exists, in which case they would deny and therefore wouldn't see the importance of developing devotion in the Lama and faith and trust in the Three Jewels and they wouldn't see the necessity of practicing compassion - that would be a grave mistake. It's so important to experience the warmth that arises from having compassion.
For whom should one have compassion? It's not necessary to have compassion for oneself, rather for other living beings. There's one situation in which it's all right to have compassion for oneself, namely when one is aware of the great number of negative thoughts that arise in one's mind - then it's okay to have compassion for oneself. The Tibetan term for "compassion" is sning-rje. It's appropriate to have sning-rje for oneself when one notices that mind poisons have arisen in one's mind or when one realizes that one doesn't have enough devotion for one's Lama. The term sning-rje is also used when one says, "excuse me." We should develop compassion for other living beings and help them as best as we possibly can. For example, it's appropriate to ask someone in a friendly tone to please not do something bad that we see they are about to do. In fact, we should do as much as possible to help others. Compassion mainly arises when one sees others suffer.
This has been a short explanation of the first special preliminary practice that consists of taking refuge and developing Bodhicitta. Let me repeat that the special preliminary practices are carried out 100,000 times during Ngöndro, yet are never finished but commence every next practice. For instance, one adds salt to most meals one cooks, because a dish without salt tastes dull. Are refuge and Bodhicitta like the salt in a meal? Taking refuge and developing Bodhicitta guarantee that one is following the path of the genuine Dharma. Underestimating and ignoring them while practicing can be compared to a meal without salt. If one practices regularly and consistently, one will experience that taking refuge and developing Bodhicitta change oneâ€˜s outlook positively. As a result, one will appreciate their worth and will not neglect them.
Who is really taking refuge? Our own mind. Who really cultivates compassion? Our own mind. Everything is our mind. The way one thinks and develops compassion are different, but both are one's own mind. So the mind is very important.
This has been a short explanation of the first special practice of Ngöndro, which is taking refuge and developing Bodhicitta while making either 10,000 or 100,000 prostrations and that one should never neglect in one's daily practice.
- The Second & Third Special Practices
The second special Mahamudra Ngöndro practice is meditating Vajrasattva, Dorje Sempa in Tibetan. Everybody has a great variety of obscurations that are created by negative karma and that obscure one's true nature. These veils need to be removed if one wishes to attain Buddhahood and one needs special methods in order to accomplish this goal. In Vajrayana, the purification practice of Vajrasattva is taught so that the many obscurations one has are clarified. In accordance with the instructions one has received from one's qualified Lama, meditating Dorje Sempa correctly and carefully is very beneficial.
The third special practice is making Mandala offerings, which is done to accumulate merit. There are various methods to make a Mandala and it is very profound and easy to do. One makes offerings to the Buddhas and all enlightened beings depicted in the Refuge Tree. We are the ones making the offerings, and the Mandala is the offering. The purpose of offering a Mandala is to develop and increase generosity.
People living in other parts of the world have different cultural habits. Tibetans and Nepalis find the practice of offering a Mandala quite easy. Taiwanese like it the most and are joyous when they can practice it. Westerners have difficulties. Therefore it's important to fully understand the meaning and appreciate the possibility to practice offering a Mandala so that it will be easier to be generous.
Mandala offering is an offering practice in which one imagines offering one's body, speech, mind, and all one's possessions to the saintly beings of refuge. This isn't easy - it's really hard. One needs to think about it carefully and learn to become generous slowly. Therefore one imagines that everything one cherishes is gathered in the Mandala, offers it, and requests the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to please accept it. It's a symbolic offering that softens one's heart and helps one not to be terrified when one is forced to give things away in life. As it is, the thought of giving everything away is a frightening thought. Thinking one only has to arrange the rice on the plate, offer it, and throw the rice into the air has nothing to do with the practice. Giving rice to our Lama when he asks us for it is easy enough, but we would think differently if he asked for all the money in our wallet. Our reaction would most likely be, "But I hardly have enough for myself." It's so true - most of us are stingy, hoard possessions, and do not like to share. We have trouble being generous, often regret it afterwards if we were, and then wish to have what we gave back again. The Mandala offering practice serves to dispel such an attitude, and it's important to practice imagining being generous slowly so that it becomes a habit and so that one won't have any regrets, which one has due to miserliness. The purpose of every practice is to become accustomed to the meaning of that specific practice and to purify and train one's mind.
The purpose of Mandala offering is learning to become truly generous. Generosity should be free from three aspects: one shouldn't be hindered, one shouldn't regret having given things away and want them back, and one shouldn't be proud of having been generous when one was. Practicing generosity means: giving and finished. For instance, giving one Euro gladly, not regretting it afterwards, and not being proud might seem like a small practice, but it's an immense accumulation of merit. In contrast, giving 100,000 Euros while biting one's teeth, regretting having done so, and being proud afterwards is not an accumulation of merit. So, engaging in the practice of Mandala offering is very helpful.
- The Fourth Special Practice
Guru-Yoga is the fourth special Mahamudra Ngöndro practice. One receives the blessings of one's Root Guru swiftly and effectively when one engages in Guru-Yoga practice correctly. True realization is impossible if one's hasn't received the blessings of one's Lama.
The basis for Guru-Yoga practice on the side of a disciple is having established a deep and stable relationship with one's Lama, which doesn't happen if one runs from one Lama to the next. The Lama one visualizes in this practice needs to have qualities that by far surpass one's own; he needs to be experienced and have exceptional realization. A disciple needs to be able to see these qualities in the Lama. It's important for a disciple to realize how kind and compassionate the Lama is and that his qualities are based upon his own experiences.
I see the Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, as my Root Lama and one needs a Lama as exceptional as he is in order to practice Guru-Yoga well. Every disciple needs to make his own experiences, but they should know that they need a Root Lama who is completely free from error. Imagining Orgyen Trinley Dorje above the crown of one's head, one recites his short Mantra
and imagines being inseparably united with him. Or one engages in the Guru-Yoga practice of Guru Rinpoche and recites his Mantra. But Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, lived a long time ago and is therefore far away, and we can meet and greet His Holiness Karmapa because he is very near. If one has a good understanding of the Guru-disciple relationship, then the practice is easy. One can visualize any one of the sixteen Karmapas, starting from Düsum Khyenpa, while doing this practice, but they lived a long time ago too. A disciple can reach the present Gyalwa Karmapa by phone.
This has been a short explanation of the four general and four special Mahamudra preliminary practices in the context of "The Four Dharmas of Gampopa." They are methods by which one can tread the authentic path of the Dharma as stated in the second line of the verse composed by Lhaje Gampopa, which is:
"Grant your blessings so that my Dharma may progress along the path."
The third line is:
"Grant your blessings so that the path may clarify confusion."
Calm-abiding and special insight meditation are the means to clarify confusion in the Sutrayana tradition.
The fourth line of "The Four Dharmas of Gampopa" is:
"Grant your blessings so that confusion may dawn as pristine wisdom."
Realization of the fourth Dharma of Gampopa is achieved through the practice of Mahamudra. Calm-abiding and special insight meditation are the bases for Mahamudra meditation, but it isn't possible to see the true face of confusion and delusion through calm-abiding and special insight meditation. Mantrayana teaches the creation and completion stages of practice to clarify confusion, as stated in the third line of the verse by Gampopa, whereas Mahamudra is the means to realize that delusions and confusion are in truth pristine wisdom, as stated in the fourth line of the verse composed by Lhaje Gampopa.
If one aspires to practice Mahamudra either in reliance on the Sutrayana or Mantrayana tradition, one needs to engage in all practices of Ngöndro in the sequence in which they are presented and progressively advance to further practices after having received instructions from one's Root Lama. Thank you very much.
Through this goodness may omniscience be attained
and thereby may every enemy (mental defilement) be overcome.
May beings be liberated from the ocean of samsara
that is troubled by waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death.
By this virtue may I quickly attain the state of Guru Buddha and then
Lead every being without exception to that very state!
May precious and supreme Bodhicitta that has not been generated now be so,
And may precious Bodhicitta that has already been never decline, but continuously increase!
May the life of the Glorious Lama remain steadfast and firm.
May peace and happiness fully arise for beings as limitless in number as space is vast in its extent.
Having accumulated merit and purified negativities,
May I and all living beings without exception swiftly establish the levels and grounds of Buddhahood.
Photo of Chöje Lama Phuntsok courtesy of Lekshey Ling Institute. Sincere gratitude to Khenpo Karma Namgyal for the Tibetan original scripts of the prayers and to Madhavi Maren Simoneit for having made the recording of the teachings available to us. Mostly in reliance on the simultaneous translation of Tibetan into German by Rosemarie Fuchs, translated into English, edited, & arranged by Gaby Hollmann, responsible for all mistakes. Copyright Lama Chöje Phuntsok, Karma Lekshey Ling Institute, as well as Karma Theksum Tashi Chöling, 2008. May goodliness increase!