An Interview with Ngak’chang Rinpoche


Q Ngöndro is the foundation practice for all Tibetan Buddhist Schools; can you say a little about these practices?

R Certainly, but I may have to be a little semantic. I need to start by clarifying something about the use of the word Ngöndro. Ngön means ‘before’, and dro means ‘going’ – it’s the same syllable ‘dro’ as in the word Khandro (which together literally mean Sky-goer). So Ngöndro means ‘before going or starting’ or, perhaps, ‘before setting out’. Before setting out on a journey, we have to know something about our intended destination and something about the route we propose to take. We have to look at the routes that are available to us, which means we have to make some inquiries. If we’re beyond journeys, that is to say, if we have the realization that our destination is exactly where we are, then whether we journey or not is irrelevant. We could wander, or we could remain in one place, it wouldn’t matter. Conversely, if we experience our world as decidedly unsatisfactory and if the quality of our experience still alternates energetically between happiness and sadness, the idea of taking the journey beyond dualistic fixations could be rather significant.

In Tantra, the idea of ‘Journey’ is vital – Rig’dzin Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche described the practice of Tantra as a ‘Journey Without Goal’. This would seem rather poignant in terms of the fact that we’re not trying to get to any place other than where we are. There is, in fact, nowhere to be other than where we are. So, when we can learn to commit ourselves to the journey, rather than the destination, we may possibly discover that we arrive sooner than we might have imagined. (Laughter) Or that’s the theory… We just have to set out and see where the journey goes. But if we harbour ambitions for a destination, it makes that destination impossible to reach. The journey has to be the destination, if you really want to be a Tantrika. When the journey becomes the destination you discover that you’ve always been there. Where we are is home. Until then, there are many wonderful journeys we can set out on and Ngöndro is one of them.

Q Does this mean that it is not really necessary to go through this quite demanding routine…?

R [laughs] That’s like asking whether you can dispense with the procedure of taking your clothes off before having a bath. If you have clothes on, then you need to take them off. But if you happen to be naked then the removing of clothes becomes somewhat irrelevant. But here, I should say something about the fact that there is not one solitary institution called Ngöndro. There are may kinds of Ngöndro. The kind of Ngöndro you are asking about is the Tantric Ngöndro. This is what is commonly called Ngöndro. But there are other kinds of Ngöndro. In fact there are Ngöndros for every level of practice. There is the Ngöndro of Dzogchen Sem-dé, which is known as the Four Naljors – the practices I will discuss in the book Roaring Silence. Maybe an alternative translation for Ngöndro could be preparation, or method of establishing the experiential ground for practice. I have come across people who regard Tantric Ngöndro as some sort of ordeal to get through before they get to the real practice. Alternatively, of course, there are people who imagine that by outwardly performing Ngöndro they’ll change in some mysterious way. The point is that practicing Ngöndro might not change you at all. It is you who must change yourself through the practice of Ngöndro. Tantric Ngöndro is a prerequisite for certain Tantric practices but is not an essential preparation for all practices. Every practice has its unique function and purpose whether at the level of Sutra, Tantra or Dzogchen. These multifarious practices are each specifically tailored to practitioners of varying abilities. It would be sheer spiritual bureaucracy for anyone to insist that everybody had to follow precisely the same set of steps as everyone else, irrespective of their capacity. People are different and their practice requirements are different. If your Teacher tells you that you must practice Ngöndro, it means that your Teacher has recognised this practice is an appropriate one for you. The same Teacher may tell somebody else they are not ready for such a practice and tell another that there is no need to go through Tantric Ngöndro. These questions only really arise when you have a real relationship with a Teacher.

Many people talk about higher and lower practices as if only the ‘highest’ practices facilitated the discovery of enlightenment. But this is really like saying a chisel isn’t as good as a shovel or that a drill is better than a saw. All Buddhist practices lead to enlightenment. In essence this means there are no higher or lower practices, only higher and lower practitioners. Each practice is perfect in its function. Each practice is perfect for the capacity or the level of practitioner to whom it is geared. The practice that is geared to your capacity is the highest possible practice. Tantric Ngöndro can be described as the gateway to Tantra, but it would be foolish to imagine that once we have ‘got it out of the way’ we’ll be able to get on to more ‘advanced practice’ which will lead to enlightenment. Ngöndro, itself, will lead to realization of enlightenment – if you practice it properly.

Q Would you mind describing what exactly Tantric Ngöndro consists of?

R Essentially, Ngöndro consists of four sets of 100,000 repetitions of practice. Firstly, there are 100,000 prostrations performed. These are performed in the awareness of Refuge and whilst generating the wish to enable all beings to realize Enlightenment. There are 100,000 Kyil-khor practices of giving away the entire visualized universe. This kyil-khor offering is made in order to cultivate the capacity for unlimited generosity and to eradicate self-protective meanness. There are 100,000 recitations of the One Hundred Syllable Ngak (Awareness Spell - mantra) of Dorje Sempa (Indestructible Mind Warrior Vajrasattva) which is a practice of purification. Lastly, there are 100,000 practices of Lama’i Naljor (unification with the Mind of the Lama). In the Nyingma School the Lama is almost always visualized as Padmasambhava (Pema Jung-ne or Guru Rinpoche), because he represents the unity of all the Masters of all traditions. He is the Buddha of the six Tantric Vehicles. He is the one who brought the Tantras to Tibet, as prophesized by Shakyamuni Buddha. In this last practice (which in itself is the most important practice of Tantra) the Lama is visualized as dissolving into light and merging inseparably with your very Being. In that moment we recognize the nature of the Lama as being the naked awareness of Space.

Q The Tantric path is spoken of as being dangerous …

R Yes. Being alive is also dangerous… Being dead is dangerous … That is why the practice of some form of preparation is vital. The Tantric path is very swift and powerful like pure white-water rapids. Unless you know how to ride these rapids, certainly you could be in danger of battering yourself to death on the sharp edges of your own arrogance. Lamas of all Lineages give grave warnings about the practice of Tantra and stress that we must be well equipped with the correct motivation. In order to practice Tantra, you need to be well equipped for your journey. You need a guide who knows the destination. You need maps, provisions and suitable clothing. You need the determination to follow through. If you don’t have these things, your journey may lead you into danger! At the most benign or banal level your ‘journey’ might just lead you round in ever decreasing circles…

Q Could give us some picture or taste of what Tantra is like in terms of having established the ground through Ngöndro?

R Possibly… but we would still need to approach that from the perspective of preparation… Let’s take the analogy of going to a party… If you are going to a party you need to prepare. Tantra is a great feast, so you shouldn’t bloat yourself with junk food before you set out. It would be preferable to develop a keen and discriminating appetite. It would be preferable to have listened to the advice of the Lama, the Tantric gourmet who is well versed in feasting. You need to wash before you go. You need to put on some fresh, clean clothes that you reserve specially for festive occasions and, dare I say it (laughter), you need to look as sharp as hell! In short, you need to be in the right frame of mind. The Tantric feast is incredibly sharp and witty, so your communication must be impeccable. If you shovel food into your mouth and behave in a disgusting way, you insult your host and abuse the generous hospitality you’ve been offered. If you sit in the corner and do not communicate, if you refuse to let anyone know anything about you, you fail to enter into the spirit of the party and gain nothing from it. The chances are that this sort of behavior will result in you not being invited again.

Q What would you say was involved in entering into the spirit of the party?

R Damtsig (Samaya); that is to say, commitment. The wholehearted willingness to celebrate. This celebration, in Tantric terms, is complete commitment to the texture of existence and non-existence, through the relationship with the Teacher. The Tibetan word for this commitment is Damtsig or terminal connectedness… that’s my word… The party of Tantra is not a rowdy, head-banging affair where you can slump senseless in the corner and where the loudness of mechanical fashion-music hides the sound of two-part monologues that are either vain, aggressive or trivial. This is not some sort of acrid smoke-filled escape into oblivion with people weeping in the bathroom or throwing up in the garden. Neither is it some sleazy gathering where people are out to polish their vanity at your expense. The Tantric party is a wonderfully organized, well-provided picnic, and the company are your Vajra sisters and Vajra brothers. The scenery is magnificent and inspiring. The communication is totally honest. It is the last moment before the end of the world, so there’s no need for pretence. There is no need even for terror because acceptance of circumstances, exactly as they are, is the only possible option. There is an electric sense of hilarity!

Q So to get back to Ngöndro, I get the sense of Ngöndro being quite Tantric, in some respects, at the same time as preparing us for it.

R Yes. Ngöndro prepares us for Tantra, whilst actually being Tantra itself. So in a sense the preparation for the journey is in itself the first step. The Tantric Ngöndro comprises methods that work directly with the energy of the five elemental configurations of perception. The prostrations are a method that works with the air element in terms of exhausting the confusion caused by physical and intellectual hyperactivity.

Q Can you say something about the importance of 100,000 as the number required in these practices.

R It’s a large number.

Q [laughs] I mean…

R It’s the take-off point. It’s the speed that the plane has to hit on the runway before it leaves the ground. But there’s nothing absolute about the number. It’s a little bit like 40 days and 40 nights; it simply means ‘a lot’. There’s no guarantee whatsoever that 100,000 repetitions of any set of acts in themselves will bring about beneficial results. It simply represents a large number in Tibetan terms. It has also been found from the experience of practitioners that at a certain level of practice, 100,000 is the smallest number of times it takes for the repetition of a practice to have a worthwhile effect. This discovery is obviously a generalized one and cannot apply to all practitioners. We should look on each prostration as an opportunity to realize our Beginningless Enlightenment, so it could take as little as one, two or three prostrations to realize the fruit of practice, but it could take 100,000…or maybe more. If you’re still proud and lacking humility, even if you’ve performed 300,000 prostrations, it is not enough. If you’re still mean, then even though you’ve given away the visualized universe 300,000 times it is not enough. If you’re still full of negative emotions, hostility and resentment, even if you have recited 300,000 Ögyen Dorsem Awareness spells (mantras), it is not enough. If you lack respect for your Lama (criticize instructions you’re given because you think you know better) then even if you’ve practiced Lama’i Naljor 100,000 times, it is not even a start!

Q So practice in that sense would just be a waste of time.

R Yes, exactly. Endless repetition of Ngöndro practice without kind hearted motivation would have little effect apart from seeding your consciousness with a link for some future time when your motivation might be more open and honest. If Ngöndro is practiced with spiritual ambition and spiritual pride, it becomes merely an exercise in spiritual materialism. This is incredibly harmful to spiritual progress and it would almost be better if you’d never engaged in practice at all. Spiritual materialism seeds negative causes which make it very difficult even to change and to start practicing properly. Basically, if you treat your Teacher with disrespect by pretending you’re a sincere practitioner (whilst all along keeping the world of your real emotions private) then the practice of Ngöndro could become completely hollow. Without genuine openness, without real self-disclosure and the willingness to abandon masks, Ngöndro could become nonsense.

Unless you’re prepared to be real, Ngöndro becomes 100,000 aerobic exercises; 100,000 sandcastles; 100,000 meaningless mumbles; and, 100,000 daydreams. You’d do better to engage in some activity that had some real benefit for others, such as voluntary work for the elderly, underprivileged, hungry, homeless or handicapped. But if you entered into voluntary work out of ambition you’d just end up playing the same sad game. You’d have to rise in importance so that you could hob-nob with the higher echelons of the voluntary organization. If you want to practice Ngöndro, you must make sure that you have the right motivation. The only possible motivation is the strong and deep-rooted wish to liberate all beings of suffering. This motivation when galvanized by a good, true and open relationship with an authentic Teacher is the only possible combination of causes that opens the gateless gate of Tantric practice in all its multicoloured vibrancy.

If you receive Ngöndro Teachings and decide to commit yourself to them, you shouldn’t go to your Teacher and say: I’ve finished prostrations and started Kyil-khor practice. If you were to do this, you may as well start your prostrations all over again. To act in this way shows no real respect for your Teacher. If it doesn’t occur to you that you should seek permission from your Teacher to continue to the next practice, you have the wrong attitude. You should say you have completed the prostrations and ask whether your Teacher considers that you have benefited sufficiently from the practice to continue. If you complain that activities inaugurated by the Lama, whatever they may be, get in the way of practice, then you’ve not only failed miserably in your cultivation of generosity, but you have never really understood the value of anything your Teacher has ever taught you. This lack of gratitude and lack of generosity toward your Teacher damages your spiritual lifeline, the Damtsig or Tantric commitment that is the lifeblood of practice. If you erode this vital commitment you degenerate your practice into meaninglessness. Throughout Ngöndro, tremendous respect should arise for the Lama, along with the energy to follow through in terms of promises.

Q Does this mean that for practice to actually have any effect you must put your Lama before yourself. That you must place his or her interests before you own, or perhaps you must offer absolute obedience? Or is it something else you must generate or find within yourself toward your Lama that if you have to ‘think about what you should be doing’ means you are not?

R It’s confidence. Working with the Lama in the Tantric system is a very powerful and excruciatingly direct method. You must be very, very sure of your Teacher – because once you’ve established that confidence, once you have entered into that relationship, all doubt has to be treated as your confusion rather than the fault or unsuitability of the Teacher. Many people in the West are seduced by the prospect of such a fantastic relationship and attempt to establish it with the first Lama they meet. But this is wishful thinking of an outrageous order. It is quite understandable that people should be deeply moved by the stories of Marpa and Milarépa and I do not want to deflate such enthusiasm. But it is important to realize that this kind of relationship is only possible when you are willing to give up absolutely everything, completely, for ever. So you should be honest with yourself and with your Teacher. You should not whisper sweet nothings in the Lama’s ear that you can’t really fulfil. You shouldn’t get too ‘blissed out’ and promise things that are unrealistic in terms of your everyday knowledge of yourself. You should avoid the temptation to ‘say the right thing’, or seek approval by offering more of yourself than you can possibly give.

Approaching a Teacher in the same way that you customarily approach a lover leads to all kinds of problems. You become carried away with some kind of inflated emotionality that poses as spiritual thirst. When this happens people tend to make all kinds of commitments which are in fact, on their part, often simply props for self-image. Some people just want the prestige, or emotional buzz of having such a relationship with a Teacher; so they can say: He or She is MY Teacher! But that creates all kinds of problems. As soon as there are aspects of the practice that you can’t stomach too easily, the idea of divorce occurs. Then people say: Oh such and such a Lama isn’t my Teacher any more, I’ve gone over to Lama so and so whose Teachings are more suitable. You might even throw in a bit of scandal to add spice to your justification. And so, sadly, some people go on from one Lama to the next. Falling in love with Lamas is very easy. They are very lovable (Laughter). I’m not talking about myself you understand. So… you must learn to temper your own need for the ‘love to end all loves’ and think about the real function of such a relationship. If you ask a Lama to guide you in the practice of Tantra, you’re making the ultimate commitment, so unless you’re absolutely confident, you shouldn’t take such a step. You shouldn’t contemplate Vajra Commitment to the Vajra Master in Tantric practice until your relationship with him or her is unshakable. This should and must take exactly as long as it takes.

Q It could take a lifetime then?

R No, not that long (laughter) unless you don’t intend to stick around that long! His Holiness the Dala’i Lama has said on various occasions that you can take up to 13 years to be sure of your Tantric Teacher before making Vajra Commitment. He has also said that you should wait at least 5 years before entering Tantric relationship with the Vajra Master. You cannot rush such a relationship on the basis of desire or wishful thinking. Although I am saying this relationship cannot be hurried, if you practice Shi-né with regularity, determination and commitment, if you study the View with the motivation of completely internalizing it, then you should quickly arrive at a point where such a commitment is possible.

Q So then it’s possible to move more quickly if you really have the determination and devotion?

R Yes, but people shouldn’t be too greedy. Students must learn to work with the Lama first as the Spiritual Friend. You need to do this to open yourself. You shouldn’t ask your Spiritual Friend to become your Lama, in the Tantric sense, unless you’re absolutely certain. There is certainly no rush from the Lama’s point of view. When you’re ready, you’re ready. Teachers are often so completely and utterly generous that they would rather let you move on too quickly – they’d often rather do that, than dampen your enthusiasm by telling you that you’re not ready to make the commitments that you’re offering to make. They have more trust in you than you have in yourself, because they see and trust your intrinsic enlightened nature. Lamas will often work with whatever you present them with. This obviously puts a high degree of responsibility on your shoulders. Being the disciple of a Lama is not like being a fan of a superstar. A relationship with a superstar is a relationship with which you may become disenchanted. The relationship with the Lama is one that lasts throughout your life and lives.

Q What does the word Lama mean?

R The word Lama means Teacher, but it doesn’t just mean the external Teacher who manifestly Teaches you. It also refers to your own Beginningless Enlightened Nature. The frustration and sense of unsatisfactoriness you experience as you live your life is your own intrinsic Teacher telling you that you are struggling to maintain the illusion of duality. Your personal parallax of Enlightenment and dualism is Teaching you all the time, but you need the external Teacher to reflect that to you.

Q Thank you very much Rinpoche.