Ngöndro – the real thing!

by Ngala Nor’dzin Pamo

‘Ngön-dro’ means ‘before going’. The ‘dro’ is the same as the dro in khan-dro, sky-goer. So one who engages in the practice of ngöndro, is involved in foundation, or preliminary practices – the practice that goes before the main body of practices connected with a particular yana. This suggests that ngöndro is some sort of warm-up that leads to the ‘real’ thing, but this is not an accurate view. It is a characteristic of ngöndro that these practices encompass the complete path, just as all method is a fractal of the whole path. If one fully engages in the practice of ngöndro at an experiential level, realisation can be achieved. If the depth and breadth of ngöndro is appreciated and realised then the whole path can be understood and practised from this perspective. Ngöndro is not a warm up, or ‘something-less-than-the-real-thing’! It could be possible to make ngöndro one’s whole practice.

From the Dzogchen perspective there are the three yanas of Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen, each of which have a base, a path and a fruit. It is the base that is the focus of ngöndro. The ngöndro enables the practitioner to arrive at the base of the yana in order to then engage in the path fully and realise the fruit. Though described as a preliminary practice, ngön-dro, paradoxically, also encompasses elements of the path and the fruit of the yana as well. As stated above, all Buddhist method, including ngöndro practice, represents a microcosmic reflection of the macrocosm. Within Buddhism any practice can lead to realisation, irrespective of its yana and designated purpose.

The base of sutra is experientially common – it is the experience of dissatisfaction. The realisation that whatever we acquire, whatever we experience, however much we love and hate, buy and sell, create and destroy, however deeply we take the experiences of the sense fields and intellect, all will eventually prove dissatisfying if we seek to find our security in the form of experience. Thus the ngöndro of sutra is to live a full life, to experience a variety of experience and a range of emotion, to discover the ebb and flow of ordinary life through loss and pain, through happiness and laughter. Generally no practice of ngöndro is specified as preliminary to the base of sutra, but the four thoughts that turn the mind to practice, lo-tog nam-zhi, could be viewed as foundation practices.

Düd’jom Rinpoche gives the lo-tog nam-zhi as the practices which generate appropriate motivation. These four thoughts comprise: contemplation of the difficulty of gaining a perfect human rebirth; reflection on impermanence and death; understanding of the patterning of karma; and seeing the unsatisfactory nature of cyclic existence based in dualistic view. Though not generally described as a ngöndro, these four thoughts, if contemplated in depth, make practice imperative. In this way they do bring one to the base of practice, bring one to understand the need to engage in spiritual activity. They bring us to the situation where it would be impossible not to engage in practice, if their import is truly understood.

The precious human rebirth does not simply refer to being born human, we also have to be human within the human-looking body. To regard being human as precious or rare in the material sense of being born into that form of body, requires a level of faith in the notion of rebirth and transmigration between realms of existence. In traditional Tibetan teachings, the six realms of existence are given as hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, demi-gods and gods. Generally we are not aware of other realms, and may dismiss them as fantasy, but we are aware of the animal realm and can think about the difficulty of engaging in practice within that realm. Animals’ lives are governed by the need to acquire food, shelter and the urge to procreate, without leisure and freedom to engage in intellectual or insightful practice, and with a continual fear of predators. Such an existence prevents (or makes extremely rare) acts of selflessness and compassion. Such acts may only be seen within the context of the mother/child relationship and not often even there. Thus spiritual activity, even at the level of simple kindness, is difficult to engage with in the animal realm.

This realm may be the limit of an ordinary view of realms of being, so it is more useful and approachable to understand the six realms as psychological mind sets. How often are we truly human? When we seek mind-numbing oblivion in alcohol, TV or other such pursuits, or are overwhelmed by desire, compulsion and craving, or simply cannot be bothered to engage at all, we are closer to the animal realm. If our lives are happy and joyful, so that we just squander our time and energy on frivolity, then we are dwelling in the god realm. When we consume more than we need and become fixated on possessing and devouring, unable to see the needs of others around us and share what we have, the hungry ghost has arisen within us. If our minds and hearts are tarnished by an inward spiral of self-referencing anger and fear, that sees all objects and situations as threatening and responds with aggression, then we are living in a personal hell realm. The times that we feel every one is better off than us and laughing at us or talking about us, so that our behaviour becomes full of suspicion and edgy confrontation, we have created the realm of the demi-god. The human realm offers a balance of the experience of dissatisfaction, without the extremes of total suffering or blissed-out euphoria, that sparks the possibility of realisation of our condition. Thus the preciousness of being human is the moments within a human life that we actually spend in the human realm, and this can be rare unless we are actively engaged in a spiritual path. Even if we are able to dwell in our humanity, there may be other factors that keep us from spiritual practice, such as extreme poverty and lack of capacity, either physical or mental; lack of free time due to our burden of responsibility; or the impossibility of establishing contact with a spiritual tradition because of our family or geographical situation. In this way we can start to understand the preciousness and rarity of the moment in which we are both human and able to engage in practice, and we may come to value and encourage these moments into our lives.

The second thought that will turn our minds to practice, is the contemplation of impermanence and death. In the West it is quite difficult to come into contact with death. At the time of writing, I am nearly forty-five years old and I have never seen a dead body. At seventeen I was not allowed to see the body of my brother, or of my father at twenty-three. In less economically well developed countries it would be common to come into contact with the dead and dying and to be more aware of our mortality, and this could be seen as a more healthy and realistic approach. Considerable scientific effort is concentrated into finding a ‘cure’ for ageing and some scientists seem to really believe that one day they will succeed in preventing human beings from dying. Deprived of the contemplation of death in such a real and tangible way, we can still be aware of day-to-day impermanence of persons and objects. The person I was at forty, thirty, twenty, ten, five or one year ago is dead to me now – and so is the person who just typed that sentence! Every object of perception is only ‘alive’ in the moment of its perception, and thereafter exists only as memory or fantasy. If we truly grasp the meaning of presence and the death of each moment, it starts to be come important to us that we are actually there in that moment – that we’re not off on some flight of imagination or lost in a memory or just dull and unaware of anything. The present moment starts to flicker as a vibrant spark of immediacy that is compellingly potent and vivid. The way to inspire our connection with this vibrancy is through practice.

The experience of dissatisfaction is generally known as the experientially common base of sutra. Dissatisfaction arrives through trying samsara over and over again, and discovering that however good you get at it, however much happiness one discovers, however much material comfort one achieves or experiences one accumulates … it is never enough. Eventually a point of exhaustion arrives when we feel that we can’t go round the cycle again, of building things up because we recognise that they will fall down. Everyone experiences this dissatisfaction, but only a few are inspired to seek spiritual practice because of it. It is more common for comfort to be sought through consuming some experience or commodity; or to find someone or something to blame for the feeling, so that one feels real again in the experience of emotion; or to seek oblivion in mindlessness and switch off to the experience altogether, to allow oneself to become a little more numb. From the perspective of the elements, this realisation is the lack of solidity, permanence, separation, continuity and definition of ourselves and our situation. The form of ourselves and our situation will naturally change, and we perceive that change as emptiness. Our addiction to form means that we experience this emptiness as uncomfortable and unsatisfactory, and wish for the form to remain – but it never does. It is the nature of form to be transient.

The sutric path leads us to the experiential understanding of emptiness, so that we can become familiar and comfortable with letting go of form. This letting go (renunciation) and allowing ourselves to see could happen in the blink of an eye. If we instantaneously realise that whatever arises is impermanent, that no sense of a solid separate self can be found in our lives; if understanding arises that there is no unit – however small we succeed in dividing phenomena – that continues from moment to moment, or life to life; if we discover that attempting to define ourselves through material manifestation and experience simply does not work … then this is all that is needed. Thus the ngöndro encompasses the path as well as being preliminary. Such realisation could be direct introduction into the state of rigpa so that all we need to do is remain without doubt, and continue in that state of realisation.

The fourth thought that turns the mind to practice is karma – the law of cause and effect. Karma is often taught in terms of skilful and unskilful actions, and the accumulation of merit to eradicate our accumulation of wrong deeds. This can become a rather fatalistic view and turn us all into accountants – attempting to balance our books on a daily basis and discover whether or not we have tipped things in the direction of merit today. We can become rather closed, overly watchful and guarded people lacking in spontaneity and vibrancy, through this perspective on karma. The Dzogchen approach is that karma exists in the present moment alone. Karma is perception and response. We perceive and we respond, and that response has either locked us more firmly into a habit pattern, created a new neurotic habit or has been an opportunity for realisation. The choice is always ours at the point of perception, on a moment by moment basis, if we practice and develop the capacity to realise this.

The thread that runs through these four thoughts of the rarity of the precious human rebirth, impermanence and death, the experience of dissatisfaction, and karma, is non-duality. It is our attachment to form that creates the problem, and our inability to allow form to ebb and flow, change and move. Thus the whole of the Buddhist path is present in these four thoughts as in all of the teachings.

The sutric path works with form at the level of nirmanakaya, the manifestation of being at the level of form, to enable us to realise emptiness. The sutric path aims at the realisation of the emptiness of self and phenomena, at the understanding of lack of solidity, permanence, separateness, continuity and definition. Thus the sutric path is characterised by the primary practice of letting go. To engage in the sutric path we have to let go of our habitual perspective on life. Ordinary life is approached from the perspective of mindfulness and analysis in order to gain realisation of emptiness. The practice of letting go may be taken as far as to retire from ordinary life and to place oneself within the regulated confines of monastic life. The powerful energy of desire is encouraged to subside to enable the discovery of the quiet, empty, potent vastness underlying it. Our relationship with ourselves and our experience changes as we let go of our habitual view. This practice of continually letting go allows the creation of a juncture where realisation can sudden explode into being. Essentially the sutric path is one of letting go of ordinary view, of stopping ourselves getting in the way, so that realised view can naturally, spontaneously arise.

At the sutric level the body is a problem because we cling to it as a reference point and this hinders our progress towards the realisation of emptiness. So the needs of the body are seen as needing to be subdued and controlled. This is no longer true in Tantra, because Tantra is concerned with the sambhogakaya level, the sphere of energy and vision. Tantra begins at the base of realisation of emptiness, allowing form to re-arise in order for form to be played with from the perspective of experience of emptiness. Here we are working with the subtle body of thig-lé, rLung and rTsa, rather than the gross body of mind, speech and physicality, though each are affected by the practice. The body is no longer viewed as a potential snare for attachment, but as a tool kit for realisation. The subtle, or psychic body, is directly affected by the practices of the Tantric ngöndro. rTsa are influenced by the practice of prostration; rLung is influenced by the recitation of Ögyen Dorsem mantra; and thig-lé are influenced by the mandala offerings.

Tantra engages with form from the perspective of having gained experience of emptiness. In this sphere tantra conjures with the energy of existence and non-existence: there was form and that was familiar and comfortable; then there was emptiness and that was explosive and uncomfortable, but we had begun to be able to dwell there. Now in tantra there is emptiness and form – but the form is emptiness … no it’s not, it’s form again … no it’s not it’s emptiness once more … When we practice Tantra, we play with the energy we discover which is naturally present in everything we are and experience – the energy of desire, anger, joy, confusion, etc. The emphasis is no longer on letting go, but on transforming. We have experienced the explosion of realisation (closely followed by the whimper of ordinary view re-emerging!) and thus have gained some experience of potential. By using the knowledge of this experience of this potential, we create the circumstances to allow it to continually re-arise. The transformation that is attempted is that of seeing emptiness and seeing form, becoming confused about which is which continually and repeatedly, and feeling the energy of that confusion, until it transforms into the realisation of their non-duality. We attempt to transform dualistic view into non-dual view, ordinary living into enlightened living.

The ngöndro of Tantra is therefore quite different to that of sutra. This ngöndro consists of the four foundation practices of 100,000 prostrations, mandala offerings, purification mantra recitations and practices of guru yoga (Lama’i naljor). These practices make use of the speed, movement and rhythm of the confused mind. There is a lot of activity and energy in the practices. They relate to the true nature of body, speech and mind and conjure with this intermediary place of energy between confusion and clarity. The focus of the Tantric ngöndro is the lama in various forms and with differing approaches, and the method employed is symbol. This demands a degree of confidence in the lama as an accessible representation of enlightenment, and readiness to engage at the level of sambhogakaya, the sphere of energy, visualisation and mantra. The principle of Tantra is continuity, and this underlies the ngöndro practice. In sutra the emphasis was on creating the opportunity of a juncture for the explosion of realisation. In Tantra the emphasis is on creating the circumstances for the continuity of that juncture, so that the mind moment explosions become an empty thread of realisation, a continuity.

While we are caught up in endless dualistic projections, experiencing delusory dissatisfaction, we have to view our refuge as external. We take refuge in sang-gyé, the awakened one, chö the methods that lead to awakening to reality as it is, and gendün, the practitioners on the path who are our source of inspiration and aspiration. While practising prostrations, we recite the refuge formula. With mind we visualise Padmasambhava, with our speech we recite the refuge formula, and with our body we perform the physical activity of prostration. Padmasambhava is the Tantric Buddha, the realised master who brought the Tantric teachings to Tibet. So we visualise him rather than Shakyamuni Buddha, the Sutric master. Gradually one comes to realise that the objects of refuge are not external, but internal. We prostrate to an externally visualised Padmasambhava who is the fully awakened one, but our Mind is not separate and different to the Mind of our lama. The mind that can visualise full awakening must contain the seed of full awakening. The speech that can recite mantra and communicate with the energy of Padmasambhava through the mantra must contain the seed of realised energy. The body that can prostrate to Padmasambhava and feel the devotion of this activity, must contain the seed of the realisation of the body of joy. Thus the objects of our prostrations are realised body, speech and mind, and are performed by our own body, speech and mind. If one can read a book and understand its contents, then one cannot be separate from the understanding expressed by the words in the book. If one can engage in the practice of prostration, mantra recitation and visualisation, then one has a thread of connection with those practices that can only get stronger and deeper through repetition.

While practising prostrations, we also recite the formula for the generation of Bodhicitta – that is the wish to free all beings from samsara. From a relative perspective there is a Mind to generate this wish, and there are beings to liberate; there is compassionate view to be generated and compassionate activity to engage in. From an ultimate perspective, however, samsara and nirvana are illusory and there is no being to generate Bodhicitta and no beings to be the objects of bodhicitta. Hence through the practice of prostration, an experiential perspective on the emptiness of subject and object can arise. Prostrations are a physically demanding practice that cuts through our addiction to intellectualism. It is difficult to maintain concept while continually throwing oneself on the ground and getting up again. There is something so profoundly futile in this activity that makes your knees ache, gets you sweaty and out of breath, that concept is dissolved. One becomes focused in the rhythm of the movement and can only concentrate on the moment, losing a feeling of self. Ngak’chang Rinpoche says that:
prostrations are a method that exhaust the confusion caused by physical and intellectual hyperactivity. Prostrations are also said to work against pride and arrogance. During a prostration we touch ourselves at four places with our hands, palms together: first the top of the head, and then at the forehead, throat and heart.

The forehead, throat and heart centres relate to the purification of body speech and mind and touching at the top of the head, links us to enlightened beings. These centres reflect the four levels of empowerment, and connect us to the transmission we receive in empowerment, so that we can re-establish our connection with transmission through this practice. The activity of prostrations has an effect on the rTsa rLung system, purifying the rLung and enabling us to achieve direct experience of the subtle body.

The practice of mandala offering works with the energy of desire. We create a symbolic mandala out of rice and precious objects in order to give it all away. The mandala represents everything we hold of value: precious metals, jewels, all the wealth of past, present and future lives, every good thought or deed we have ever had and performed, all that we can think of as worthwhile and of value. In the traditional description, we offer the whole cosmos of Mount Méru surrounded by the four continents and sub continents, auspicious symbols, gems, elephants, generals, etc. This is the outer offering that we visualise and physically create with an offering set and offer to the objects of refuge whilst reciting the mandala offering formula. In this practice we create form in order to allow it to dissolve in giving it away. We build up a symbol of everything we might attach to and use as a reference point … and then give it all away. We view external phenomena and beings as ‘other’ and believe that therefore ‘I’ must exist in relation to it. Buddhist practice undermines this view of the ‘I’ as a solid, permanent, separate, continuous and defined being. Having experienced a glimpse of the emptiness of ourselves through the relentless practice of prostration, we have understood that there is no-one to prostrate or to prostrate to, nothing to take refuge in or to need refuge and no-one to save from samsara or engage in trying to help. Now we say: ‘Yes it is true that everything is illusory, but it is also true that there are all these wonderful, valuable things. Look I can show you them all in this mandala. Here, have it all and be fulfilled!’ From the perspective of emptiness we look at form in all its wonderful and multifarious variations, and then allow it to dissolve into emptiness again.

The third practice in the Tantric ngöndro is the recitation of the 100 syllable mantra of Ögyen Dorsem This is a practice of purification. The practice is said to transform our nature into the pure adamantine nature of the vajra (dorje/ rDo rJe), diamond sceptre – which is non other than beginningless indestructible wisdom Mind. From a relative perspective our dualistic confusion means that we need to purify mind, speech and body. This practice functions in the sphere of sambhogakaya and symbol. The only connection with physicality and activity is the movement of mouth and breath during the mantra recitation. The ‘form’ of our impurity, dualistic neurosis, is visualised, and the power to dissolve this into emptiness is also visualised. Once again we have the paradox of the impure purifying itself. The ‘pure’ Ögyen Dorsem is visualised by the ‘impure’ me. The mantra of purification is pronounced by my impure body and speech. Thus we are working with emptiness and form at the level of energy and communication. This is non-duality beginning to be a reality. There is the duality of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ mixed with the non-duality of the object of purification and the method of purification being the same. Having finished the preliminaries of prostration and mandala offering, we are familiar with allowing form to arise and dissolve. Ögyen Dorsem begins at a deeper and more subtle level, cutting our attachment to justification and emotional neurosis. We have worn away at the more gross manifestations of our pride and attachment, and compulsive addiction to concept through mechanical physical repetition. Now we wear away more subtle levels of attachment to solidity, permanence, separation, continuity and definition. With the purification of Ögyen Dorsem, we start to experience passionate space and spacious passion in a more energetic sphere that pervades all levels of our existence. From an ultimate perspective there is no self-existent mind, speech or body that can be purified and no concept of purity or impurity. Thus the practice introduces us to the nature of reality at the level of symbol. We connect with the glittering, pristine nature of the diamond sceptre through the practice of Ögyen Dorsem and recognise this quality within ourselves and all phenomena.

The final practice of tantric ngöndro is Lama’i naljor, guru yoga, where we recognise that our body, speech and mind is indistinguishable from the body, speech and mind of the lama. We visualise all our teachers and our own Lama in the single form of Padmasambhava (or Yeshé Tsogyel, Ma gÇig Labdrön or other yidam) and receive transmission from them through vision. Lama’i naljor offers the opportunity to spontaneously enter the enlightened state, become familiar and certain of that state, and ultimately remain there. This practice is tantra, the method of transformation. It is the heart of tantra and is its fundamental practice, because it introduces us to non-duality through symbol, the communicative method of the sambhogakaya path. Lama’i naljor is non-duality – the non-duality of the enlightened being of the lama and our own enlightened being. Through arising as the lama and keeping that with us at all times through the practice of vajra pride and pure vision, we complete the transformation of dualistic view into non-dual view. Vajra pride ensures that all thought, emotion and activity is congruent with being the lama. Pure vision enables us to view all beings as Buddhas, all sound as mantra and all activity as compassion. This is the practice of continuity – of allowing the non-duality of emptiness and form, of purity and impurity, of the external and internal lama remain with us on a moment-by-moment basis. Ultimately every Buddhist method is Lama’i naljor. The understanding that there is a purified state we can aspire to, is the lama. The understanding that all that we are can be transformed into purity, is the lama. The spontaneous realisation of experience, is the lama.

The ngöndro of Dzogchen sem-dé consists of the practice of the four naljors and the realisation of the four ting-ngé-dzin. The four naljors are shi-nè, lha-tong, nyid’mèd and lhündrup. The four ting-ngé’dzin are né-pa, mi-gYo-wa, nyam-nyid and lhündrup. Shi-nè is the practice of letting go and letting be to arrive at né-pa, absence with presence. This is the practice of realising emptiness. Lha-tong allows form back in and observes it from the perspective of emptiness to arrive at mi gYowa, remaining uninvolved. Here stillness within movement is recognised. Nyi-mèd takes lha-tong a step farther by moving between the experience of né-pa and mi-gYowa, the nyams of emptiness and form, to realise nyam-nyid, the nature of the nyams of emptiness and form. Emptiness and form are the ornaments of existence. They describe, but do not define phenomena at any given moment. Lhündrup is the practice of nyid’mèd that has become spontaneous and the fruit is also lhündrup, the spontaneous experience of the non-duality of emptiness and form. This is the enlightened state and the practice of Dzogchen. Dzogchen is the path that gives us direct introduction into the realised state, and teaches us how to remain there without doubt and then continue in that state, always, without interruption in all situations. Dzogchen deals directly with the nature of Mind, and as such is a path of the dharmakaya sphere.

The different yanas can be associated with the ku-sum. The three kayas cannot truly be separated and are actually one: nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya and dharmakaya are svabhavikakaya, the inseparable unity of the three spheres of being. We tease reality apart in order to look at it. Chögyam Trungpa talks of dharmakaya as being the embryonic stage of form in that it is already pregnant with the form that will arise. The first communication of that pregnant possibility with the manifest world moves us into sambhogakaya and then when that communication makes contact, manifests, it is in the sphere of nirmanakaya. Trungpa Rinpoche says that the kayas are all connected with form because kaya means body. The emptiness of the dharmakaya is a pregnant emptiness, not simply a void. Although we may associate the sutric path with Nirmanakaya, the Tantric path with Sambhogakaya and the Dzogchen path with Dharmakaya, this does not mean that these three have to be practised and realised in a linear way, or even that they function and produce effect only at those levels. There are physical yogic practices in Dzogchen. There are meditations on the nature of mind within sutra. Neither does it mean that we can only access the method of each path within that path. Each method within Buddhism can be viewed from the perspective of each path, and its practice understood form that perspective. One can gain realisation through any and all of these paths, and the relevance of any path at any time depends on where we begin. There is no point in taking the M4 to get from Bristol to Birmingham, as that is a south to north journey and the M4 runs from east to west. But if you are actually starting your journey in Cardiff (in the West) then it may make sense to use this road for at least part of the journey. If we are actually travelling by train or plane, then the M4 is irrelevant anyway!

The practice of ngöndro is preliminary and fundamental. Each of the sets of foundation practices can be seen as encompassing the whole path and can be viewed from the Sutric, Tantric and Dzogchen perspective, once the principle and function of the practices is understood. Ngöndro enables us to enter the Buddhist path at whatever level and in whatever way is appropriate. There is great value in having experience in each of these practices. The correlations and comparisons between levels given in the table below, should be viewed loosely and not regarded as a definitive view. The practice of prostration can be said to correlate to the sutric path, in that it leads to an experiential understanding of emptiness through the completion of a vast number of these exercises. Shi-nè can also be said to relate to the Sutric path in that it is a practice of letting go and experientially realising the emptiness of Mind. Karma, Lama’i naljor and lhündrup each introduce us to the non-duality of emptiness and form, characterised by the flavour of the path they represent. The focus of the four thoughts is our common experience; a clarified or focused way of seeing of how things are, gained from everyday experience in the world. The focus of the Tantric preliminary practices of prostration, mandala offerings, Ögyen Dorsem recitations and Lama’i naljor is the lama and the transformation of ordinary experience into realised experience. The focus of the four naljors of Dzogchen sem-dé is the nature of mind, and demands the ability to move beyond materiality and symbolism, into the sphere of direct experience.

The four thoughts that turn the mind to practice:
Precious human rebirth
Impermanence and death
Unsatisfactoriness of samsara

Tantric ngöndro:
Prostrations with refuge and Bodhicitta
Ögyen Dorsem recitation
Mandala offering
Lama’i naljor

Dzogchen ngöndro:

This article first appeared in 2000.