Excerpted from An Introduction to Ngöndro by Kandro Rinpoche. Source: https://www.khandrorinpoche.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/MJKR-Introduction-to-Ngondro.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3Jl0YWWd7sxHvsLilS5XlPFx6gDBQqPGV5gEDToSEK-ASAghSFouOpAS8
It is very common, for western and eastern practitioners alike, to think we want to attain enlightenment and benefit sentient beings. But there is a tremendous difference between aspiration and actualization. We want to, we hope to, we wish to—but we may not actually have the courage to actualize our aspiration. Therefore the tendency is to take an intellectual approach to the teachings. The pitfall, then, is the tendency to come up with many impediments and obstacles to the path of practice.
Ego Will Never Say I’m Sorry
One very big obstacle on the path is imagining there is plenty of time to retain habitual patterns. Then certain seemingly intelligent ideas may be sustained—ideas that are actually very foolish because they arise from a neurotic mind. But we listen to these messages because they sound good. We may put off practicing because we’re “not ready.” Now, from all appearances, that sounds very sensible. There are many instances in the mundane world where this would be taught: a simple logic like “Don’t cook until you know how.” So you apply that samsaric* logic to the path of practice. You think that you shouldn’t begin something unless you know everything about it, or until you really feel ready. You think, “That’s just being honest with yourself.”
Now, is ego ever going to be honest with itself or say, “Look, I’m really sorry I’ve been so negative my whole life, I’ll never get it, it’s time to give me up”? We would like ego to come up that kind of honesty, but it’s not going to happen. Instead ego is going to continue to promote the message of mundane-ness and sustain mundane ideas and samsaric tendencies, so that its survival is completely secured.
It is essential, therefore, to reflect on the passage of time.
Over the years, many of you have done exceptionally well. You have been walking the path as dedicatedly as anyone possibly could, with sincerity, diligence, and exertion; and you have maintained a kind of continuum of stability, which is very excellent. But there are also people with tremendous potential and qualities, people with clear sharp minds and good kind hearts—which is exceptionally important; people who are generous, skilled, and able to pick up things well; who have real inspiration and devotion to the path—until they encounter the indulgences of mundane mind.
There may only be one or two weaknesses. Some of you dwell on a single thought for a very long time. Or, you are just unable to get beyond some quagmire you’ve created for yourself, whether it’s being so busy with your life, or so attracted to certain ambitions, or simply unable to cut through certain habitual patterns.
For three to five years, such occurrences may be fine. But when someone has not progressed on the path as they could have, as they should have, after struggling with the same things for ten or fifteen years or more—that is very worrisome. It leads us to know that you are sustaining everything on theory. You may be feeling good, fulfilled, useful, dharmic, and able to incorporate dharma into your life as an expression of devotion, love, and gratitude. But your physical body may simply be holding onto words, and agreeing with those words, and nothing beyond that.
As practitioners who have been so fortunate to receive teachings from many different teachers over a period of time, it is essential to come to a point of understanding the importance of transcending. To go beyond theorizing and intellectualizing the teachings, you must incorporate all those words into your own practice. And for this, it is essential to enter the vajrayana path.
Vajrayana** Is Not Difficult…
Vajrayana is not difficult, but we make it difficult. When you examine this particular difficulty, you see that the only point of resistance is in actualizing what you thought was your motivation. Much of the difficulty is sparked by the “rumors” of those people who struggle with what—when you examine it—comes down to just one point. That one point is resistance to actualizing what you thought was your motivation. And of course that is difficult. Because at some point, the dharma must be powerful enough to completely sever all familiarities: familiar attachments, habitual ways of thinking, and the familiar ways you color those projected thoughts. It means your familiar ways of articulating labels, and your ways of defining, characterizing, and exaggerating concepts. These are extremely difficult things to let go of.
On the one hand, you do understand being kind, being selfless, and being able to rest in the nature of mind—all of these things are good. But you don’t actually see that in order to be kind, to practice selflessness, or to rest in your own true nature, simultaneously there must be a giving up of that familiar way you think; the way you articulate; the way you designate or label thoughts; and the way you allow the characteristics of a concept to proliferate.
When we begin to sense what this giving up actually entails, fear sets in. Reluctance sets in. Discouragement sets in. All the habitual neuroses kick up a big fight. They join forces and come up with all kinds of ideas. Some of these ideas place blame on the outside: these practices don’t make sense; they are very traditional, very dated. I don’t feel connected. Why would anyone do this?
Some good Buddhists resist putting blame on “other,” so you blame yourself: you’re not adequate; the potential isn’t there; you have so much work to do on yourself and you don’t have the time. All sorts of good-sounding ideas will come up—meanwhile, the ground you’re walking on is continuously shifting. It is a continuous, impermanent flow. Time passes—yet the repetition of the same habits goes on.
A practitioner must see this shifting ground and passage of time. In everything you do, sense this passage of time. Everything is moving; life is moving. You’ve been with the dharma ten, twenty, thirty years—that’s a long time, more than half of your life. For some of us, much of our life has moved on. Yet still you sustain a sense of discouragement or doubt or hesitation, or you nurture some impediment—which is nothing but a concept, but you allow this concept to become so very strong. Meanwhile time passes.
And what are you left with? A very big head, as we say in Tibetan—filled with lots of theories, lots of profound words and understanding of the view—but somehow, a head that seems severed from the body. When the head is not attached to the body, there is no life in it. Likewise, there will not be enough power in your profound knowledge of dharma to do the necessary job of completely uprooting the basic tendencies of ignorance.
A meditator who is satisfied with theory alone is like someone who holds onto the seed of a fruit tree, visualizing the tree it could become in the future. But will you be absolutely satisfied with the taste of visualized fruit—while others plant trees and produce fruit that can actually satisfy not only their own hunger, but the hunger of others? If you truly think you will be content with a seed and some theory about its potential, while others have an actual tree and fruit that satisfies hunger and taste—that’s your choice.
Ultimately, in the nature of mind, yes, even the tree is illusory. If you have truly realized the mahayana and madhyamika teachings to such a degree that all appearances, sounds, and thoughts are truly seen as illusory in nature—that’s fine. One can’t argue with that. But in that case, you shouldn’t have any of the dualistic tendencies of ordinary life. There should be no hope, no fear, and no clinging even to the need for a seed.
But you can’t be clinging to a seed, and pretend the fruit doesn’t matter. From that perspective it is essential to understand that, yes, all these aspects and details of vajrayana— especially when we talk about ngöndro†—are difficult. But what is not difficult in life? Everything is difficult. The mess we’ve created in life is very difficult. Therefore the broom that sweeps up that mess must, of course, be very powerful.
Therefore it is necessary to understand ngöndro correctly, and to work to realize the mahayana view.
Cultivating the Vajrayana Spirit
All of you who have begun to understand vajrayana must try to be vajrayanists. Otherwise, you cannot study, understand, and benefit from the vajrayana teachings.
To being a vajrayanist means that you cannot approach the path of practice with mentality of someone who is constantly meek. Meekness should be most prevalent when you’re about to do something horribly negative. You’re about to get angry, or you’re about to demonstrate your arrogance, or you’re about to get terribly jealous—that’s the time to be meek. Otherwise, meekness is not good.
Instead, be brave. Be courageous. Even when you don’t feel courageous, always remember to trust the blessings and the power of the aspirations from which these teachings have evolved and been given to you.
Sometimes it is good to work with your own mind’s ability; but sometimes it is better to trust the courage of the gurus and bodhisattvas. When we read the aspiration chants, for example, in my own mind I always think: More than whatever I could possibly think of, may that be the better aspiration. In this way, I put more trust in the words of the bodhisattvas. It is their words of aspiration that form the basis of my courage. And it is their aspirations that actually hook my meek mind and make it more flexible, more open, and vast.
Train yourself to think in this way, and allow the rigidity and tightness of your hesitation to be taken care of by the words of the bodhisattvas. Allow their words to nourish and protect you, and assist you to open up your mind. By skillfully going beyond doubts and hesitation, you will truly be able to “merge your mind with the mind of the Buddha,” as is said in the vajrayana teachings.
This is what it means to “cultivate the vajrayana spirit.” It is a mind vast enough to take in a sense of all things being possible: being open is possible; being flexible is possible; letting go is possible. Having nothing but awareness is possible—and giving yourself every opportunity to merge your mind with that possibility is essential.
When Something Really Matters…
Truthfully speaking, it is understandable that many of the transmissions and teachings you take won’t all be put into practice. You will try, but the mind is very tricky. There are always changes of mind; and the repetitiveness of habitual patterns; and the time it takes for the teachings to be fully incorporated and engaged in. You may make a commitment to do certain things, such as ngöndro, which is good. And it’s quite all right to aspire to incorporate other transmissions and teachings in the future. You have to keep that aspiration in mind.
However, when you do them in the future, it is also quite possible there may not be a teacher. There may not be a text or an explanation. This may or may not be the case. So with that in mind, if there is something that would be useful to learn or practice in the future— even if you’re not doing ngöndro at this time—you should not hesitate to learn about it and keep the aspiration to incorporate it into your practice.
When something really matters to us, like falling in love, you have lots of time to give to it. You sleep less. You make yourself available. You give up other situations, without it being a sacrifice. And you never say, “I don’t have time for this.” Which confirms the suspicion that you actually do have time—but Dharma is not the priority.
Where Dharma is not the priority, it comes back to not understanding the value of Dharma. The antidote to that is to really learn the qualities of the dharma. And then it is absolutely important to truly take refuge in the Dharma and generate devotion to the dharma. The mind will then open up and the vastness of the entire view of dharma can be contained.
It Comes Back to This
When, through the stages of ngöndro, you yourself come up with confidence in your Buddha nature, from that moment on you are no longer reliant upon any method, practice, or meditation. But as long as some obscuration is more powerful than your confidence in your Buddha nature, you will always have someone to prostrate to, something to purify, and something to obtain.
How long will you be in need of more blessings before having more confidence in your Buddha nature? I leave that up to you. How many more purifications will you have to do before confidence in your primordially enlightened mind—which needs no contribution from you—arises? Until then, you will be reliant on the practice of purification.
If, as of today, you can rest and relax without obscurations, you are done with ngöndro. But if the belief in your obscurations is stronger than your belief in the nature of your mind, then 100,000 of each practice is what you start with. You’ll have 100,000 moments to think about it. Ultimately, it comes back to this.
Guru Yoga is the supposed to be the last ngöndro practice. But what does it mean to dissolve the guru’s mind—Vajrasattva’s mind, the mind of the Buddha—into your own mind? It means is that they are, by nature, indistinct. If you can truly rest with confidence in that, then you can also truly meet all appearances as mere projections of your mind.
Until then you, yourself, are deciding that there are impediments stronger than your Buddha nature and impurities that need more purification. Because you feel inadequate, you need to prostrate to those superior to you. Because you think you’re submerged in impurities, you have a Vajrasattva practice to do. Because you feel incapable of being nothing but bodhichitta, you have a bodhichitta practice to recite. Because you think all the skandhas and elements are distinct from you, you will actually give away mandalas. And you will keep putting yourself into the guru and the guru into yourself, until you come to the point of knowing either you are two or you are one.
If you are two, go back to the refuge and, again, place the guru on the lineage tree. If you truly see your mind and the guru’s mind as indistinct, then your ngöndro practice is complete.
This is the way to look at ngöndro from an essential perspective. Those of you who have confidence in your Buddha nature and can rest in that don’t need to come back for the next session. [Laughter.] That would be best. That’s the way it should be.
These are some things to keep in mind, especially as you begin to enter into the vajrayana practices.
*Samsara: the suffering-laden world of ego, karma, and the cycle of life, death, & rebirth, without beginning or end.
**Vajrayana: the third of three successive levels of Tibetan buddhist practice; Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.
†Ngöndro: the preliminary practices that prepare one for entering the Vajrayana.