Stressed out? — do foundation practices, including meditation. No time to meditate? — give up some TV time. Too many commitments? — meditate precisely and concisely. After giving up TV, still too busy to meditate? — meditate anywhere you can, even when walking the dog. Still too busy? — you’re making excuses.
As topics for meditation, many great Tibetan Buddhist teachers coach students to regularly go back to the basics of Ngondro foundation practices — no matter how senior your practice — especially meditations on precious human birth, death, karma and impermanence. If your impending death doesn’t motivate your practice, probably nothing will. [See a full teaching video introducing Ngondro embedded below — first of four parts (links to the other three below.]
Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron explained: ” the purpose of preliminary practices is thus to clear and enrich our minds, allowing our practice to progress smoothly and our heart to become the path to enlightenment.”
Ngondro purifies the obstacles to practice
The Ngondro inner preliminaries are designed to purify five obstacles:
- Pride, purified by “Taking Refuge”
- Jealousy purified by “Cultivating Bodhichitta”
- Hatred (and aversion) purified by “Vajrasattva mantra recitation”
- Attachment and clinging purified by “Mandala offerings”
- Delusions (incorrect view) purified by “Guru yoga.”
Thubten Chodron explained, during introductory teachings:
“When we meditate, our minds may encounter hindrances—mental agitation and laxity, laziness and lack of mindfulness, too little or too much application of antidotes. The preliminary practices clear away many of these hindrances. They also sharpen our mindfulness and introspective alertness so that we can recognize hindrances and apply the antidotes quickly and effectively.”
The outer preliminaries are various meditations on death (impermanence), karma, suffering and human birth — and are designed to motivate practice. All of these practices create “merit” and positive karma.
During the teaching, Thubten Chodron outlined the nine preliminaries:
- Prostrations: These are done to the 35 Buddhas, together with reciting their names and the confession prayer.
- Vajrasattva (Dorje Sampa) : This is done with the Vajrasattva practice and visualization.
- Refuge: This is reciting Namo Gurubhya, Namo Buddhaya, Namo Dharmaya, Namo Sanghaya while visualizing the field of positive potential.
- : This involves reciting the refuge and prayer and the mandala offering verse, while visualizing offering the entire universe and everything beautiful in it to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
- Yoga: This is meditating on the inseparability of the Buddha’s mind, our spiritual mentor’s mind and our mind, together with visualization and mantra recitation.
- Dorje Khadro (Vajra Daka): Imagining black sesame seeds as the negativities of ourselves and others, we offer them in a fire to the mouth of the fierce Dorje Khadro, who swallows them with pleasure as if they were nectar.
- Water bowls: This is offering water bowls to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, together with visualization.
- Tsa-tsa: This is making clay or plaster images of the Buddha.
- Samaya Vajra (Damtsig Dorje) mantra: This is reciting the mantra of this Buddha together with visualization.
Part 1 of a 4-part video teaching on Ngondro, with Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche [Transcript at bottom of feature, links to parts 2-4 on bottom of feature]:
Ngondro always part of Sadhanas
Most of us, with a daily practice, still do foundations as a preliminary to our main meditation. In fact, most sadhanas (guided meditations) given by teachers at empowerments include all of: prostrations, taking refuge, mandala offering, guru yoga, water bowl offering, and Vajrasattva (Dorje Sampa) mantra. Pretty much the only preliminaries left out of typical sadhanas are Dorje Khadro and tsa-tsa making.
The goal of Ngondro is nothing less than full Enlightenment, and many regard it as a “complete path” rather than preliminary to a higher practice. Many of us continue with Ngondro practices as their main practices virtually for life. Since these “preliminary” practices represent an entire path, it can take a lifetime just to complete them. Most of us would consider that a life well spent.
Lama Tsongkhapa, an Enlightened Being, as example
Famously, Lama Tsongkhapa spent many years on foundation practices and continued them all of his life.
Venerable Zasep Rinpoche explained, during Ngondro teachings [see video below]: “Lama Tsongkhapa himself, did millions of prostrations. He did many mandala offerings. He was a simple Buddhist monk; on a material
“Lama Tsongkhapa himself, did millions of prostrations. He did many mandala offerings. He was a simple Buddhist monk; on a material level he was poor monk… He took a vow of poverty. He didn’t even have a mandala plate [for offerings]… Instead, he did the mandala offering on slate — on a piece of rock. He used sand and pebbles. He did thousands and thousands of times. He did it so much he had calluses on his hand from the stone.”
Weak foundation leads to obstacles
Zasep Tulku Rinpoche explains that the sign of not having proper “foundation” is if your practice has obstacles: “That’s the most important. If the preliminary practices, or foundation practices, are not properly done, or if there is a lack of solid foundation, then your practice will be a difficult one. Always, there will be obstacles, hindrances and difficulties.”
Ngondro (sometimes spelt Ngon-do) practices — and the broader umbrella of Lamrim, the Great Path to Enlightenment — are there to help us start out in Buddhist practice, yes; but they are also meant to be practised for life. Even a Vajrayana Buddhist practising Highest Yoga Tantra generation and completion still needs Ngondro as a regular practice, if only to settle the mind, motivate practice and focus our higher meditations. You never outgrow Ngondro.
Depending on school or tradition, there are “outer” and “inner” preliminaries. The “outer” preliminaries are topics of contemplation (at first this sounds like a contradiction):
- meditating on the advantages of precious human birth
- contemplating the truth of impermanence (meditations on death)
- meditating on karma (a very big topic!)
- meditating, as Shakyamuni instructed, on the suffering of beings in Samsara.
The four outer preliminaries are also called the “four reminders” or the “four mind-changers” — in other words, these are topics that should motivate us to embrace and practice Dharma with increasing commitment.
The inner preliminaries, also called the “extraordinary” preliminaries feel more outer than inner — at first glance — because they represent various actions. However, they involve all of “body, speech, and mind”, also known as the “three vajras”, and they are designed to purify us within.
In other words, these activities “cleanse” us — bring us to a state where we are ready to truly appreciate and understand and practice of both wisdom and compassion — to the point where we can develop realizations or insights. They are also designed to “accrue” merit as much as to remove negative karmic imprints. These inner preliminaries, in many schools, are repeated at least 100,000 times each — often in concentrated retreats, or just as an accumulation of merit in various sessions. In the Gelug school, a student can undertake preliminaries congruent with other higher practices, provided they continue the practice consistently. In other schools, the preliminaries literally must be fully completed first.
The inner preliminaries (100,000 of each) are designed to “purify” specific obstacles:
- Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels (Three Roots, or Buddha Dharma Sangha) — which purifies pride
- Cultivation of Bodhichitta — which purifies jealousy
- Vajrasattva hundred-syllable mantra — which purifies hatred and aversion
- Mandala offerings (see Lama Tsongkhapa story above) — which purifies attachment
- Guru yoga — which purifies delusions.
Emma Slade, a Buddhist Nun, keeps motivated in practice with compassionate acts of kindness. Another way to stay motivated is to return to the practices of Ngondro — the Foundation Practices. The Bodhicitta (compassion for all beings) aspiration is a foundation practice for most traditions. For a full story on Emma Slade, see>>
Short initial practices
Even if you don’t currently have a teacher, most Mahayana practices already include “Taking Refuge” and “Cultivating Bodhicitta.” The principle of building merit and purifying pride and jealousy apply whether you’ve had formal instruction from a teacher or not. Performing 100,000 prostrations and taking refuge 100,000 times is not only healthy — imagine your abs after 100,000 full prostrations! — it’s healthy for the mind. Taking refuge definitely does help us tromp all over our rampant egos (reduce pride.)
In other words, don’t wait for a teacher to start Refuge and Bodhichitta; they are fundamental to all Mahayana Buddhist practice.
A short easy Refuge prayer, which includes Bodhichitta is:
Until I attain Enlightenment, I take Refuge in the Three Jewels, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. By the virtues of practising Refuge, may I attain Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Repeat 100,000 times, preferably with a prostration.
Note: check with your doctor first, if doing prostrations, but if your health professional approves it is very good exercise!
Combining this practice with mindfulness meditation — and, ideally — formal contemplation of impermanence and other “outer” preliminaries — is already a very strong daily practice that can only bring merit and help you purify delusions.
Video teachings on Ngondro from Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche:
Video: Part 2 of Buddhist Teachings on Ngondro, the Foundation Practices with Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche: Teachings on the Truth of Suffering, the Importance of Taking Refuge, and a Guided Meditation Visualizing Shakyamuni Buddha
Partial Transcript of Video with teaching by Zasep Tulku Rinpoche
“There are many levels for practising Foundation practices. The Tibetan term for preliminary practices or foundation practice is called Ngondro (pronounced, more or less, Hoong-do). “Ngon” means preliminary preparation, and “do” means go. So, the preliminary practice, the Foundation practice has to go has to be done first. That’s the most important. If the preliminary practices, or foundation practices, is not properly done, or if there is a lack of solid foundation, then your practice will be a difficult one. Always, there will be obstacles, hindrances and difficulties.
The simple example is, when you build a house, or a cabin, or put the yurt [large Mongolian tent]. In the yurt, if the foundation is not level, you can’t build. It will be lopsided. It doesn’t work. If there’s a wind it will be blown away or collapse if there’s a weight of snow — and so on. Also, if you’re building a house, you’re talking about long term. You want a house that will last for long term. So, if your foundation is not so good, you’ll have trouble over time.
So, likewise, for Dharma practice, especially Vajrayana practice, it’s important to have a good foundation. This is why, in Tibet, in the old days, serious practitioners, like yogis, yoginis and lamas, disciplined themselves for many years doing foundation practices.
For example, Lama Tsongkhapa himself did millions of prostrations. He did many mandala offerings. He was a simple Buddhist monk; on a material level, he was a poor monk. On a spiritual level, he was very resourceful. He took a vow of poverty. He didn’t even have a mandala plate [for offerings]. He couldn’t buy a mandala plate with the rings and so on. Instead, he did the mandala offering on slate — on a piece of rock. He used sand and pebbles. He did thousands and thousands of times. He did it so much he had calluses on his hand from the stone.
There are lots of foundation practices. Lama Tsongkhapa did recitation of the Sutra of the Three Heaps — in other words, confession sutra — and reciting the names of the thirty-five Buddhas. He did it so much, that eventually, he had a vision of the thirty-five Buddhas…
He did lots of foundation practice.
Some of you may know, may have read, the life story of Milarepa…. (Transcript in progress…)”
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Author | Buddha Weekly
Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.