Where does Ngöndro – the traditional preliminary practices fit into the Awakened Heart Sangha?

A student writes:

Could you explain where Ngöndro fits into the Awakened Heart Sangha, it isn’t mentioned on your website?

Lama Shenpen replies:

Ngöndro in general means preliminary and in the context of Tibetan Buddhism often refers to the practice of the 4 x 100,000 – that is 100,000 Refuge and Bodhisattva recitations with the same number of prostrations, 100,000 mandala offerings to accumulate vast punya, 100,000 Vajrasattva mantras to purify negative karma and 100,000 prayers and mantras as Guru Yoga – connecting to the adhishtana of the lineage.

In Tibet many people had a lot of time they could devote to Dharma practice so having the 4 x 100000 to accomplish gave them a goal and many people made it their main practice and repeated it sometimes a dozen or more times over the course of their lifetime. These days teachers often tell their students to do maybe 10,000 or even just 1000 of each rather than the traditional 100,000 – maybe that is because our lives are so busy with many responsibilities and so on.

You have to remember that the idea of the 4 x 100000 is a relatively late tradition in the Buddhist world. Many people got Enlightened before this idea arose – that includes within our Kagyu Nyingma lineage.

The point is that all 4 Ngöndro practices are really good practices in their own right and in AHS in principle, we practise them all at the Hermitage on an on-going basis – not just as a so-called preliminary practice. Many teachers have made the point that the 4 are full-on practices in their own right so this is a traditional approach.

You are right to suspect that we need preliminary practices to prepare us for the 4 Ngöndro practices. Even just taking Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha takes a lot of understanding and training, both before and even more so after taking Refuge. The same with the Bodhisattva vow.  As the years go by I hope we will be able to gradually extend the training we give in AHS for both of these.  Prostrations are good to do daily and anyone can set themselves the goal of making a chosen number on a daily basis.

In the Kagyu Ngöndro there is not only Refuge in the Three Jewels but also the Three Roots.  A lot of preparatory training is needed to explain the significance of the Three Roots plus strictly speaking you need to have a Guru to give you an Empowerment and that raises all sort of questions.

Vajrasattva is not about preparation really – especially when you do not come from a culture that supports those kinds of ideas. In Tibetan culture faith is understood to be the most important factor, but in the West the word ‘faith’ doesn’t really convey what the Buddhist tradition means by it – so there is a lot of preparatory work needed on that.

There are many ways of accumulating punya but for westerners there is no immediate way of understanding what punya means. Merit – the usual translation for it carries very odd associations. To understand what punya means you need training in the vaster vision of Buddhist world view. [Read a previous feature on what Punya means here.]

In fact you need that for taking Refuge and Bodhisattva vow but in the AHS I allow people to take Refuge and Bodhisattva vow on the understanding that they will continue to spend their lives deepening their understanding of what it is they have vowed to do.

Mandala offerings for accumulating punya are a nice practice but also need quite a lot of preparation in order to understand the world view behind them. In the AHS I encourage people to make punya by reciting the Samantabhadracharya pranidhana and performing feast offerings on the full moon each month – and all their other Dharma practices and good deeds in life.

Guru Yoga is the most important practice of all and I teach on that a lot in the AHS although not always calling it Guru Yoga. To truly practise Guru Yoga deeply requires right view and this is what is taught in AHS at every stage of the journey – it is the Indestructible Heart Essence when looked at properly – directly and genuinely with a non-conceptual direct understanding.

This is actually what all our practice is preparing us to be able to do and the most direct way to do this is through Shamata and Vipashyana Mahamudra style.  This is already a lifetime of practice and all the other preparatory practices are there to support us on our journey – removing obstacles to that ultimate goal.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

Find out more about joining Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Heart Training – the structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight. The training, which is open to all, brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a Western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join at www.ahs.org.uk/training