The Six Preparatory Practices and Advice Concerning Ngondro Preliminary Practices
Moscow, Russia, November 2012
Session One: Personal Experience and Advice on Preliminary Practices and the example of Tsongkhapa
This evening we are going to start our seminar about the preliminary practices. This is the Tibetan word ngondro (sngon-’gro). Although that is translated as preliminary practices, Serkong Rinpoche, one of my main teachers (in addition to His Holiness the Dalai Lama), always emphasized that that’s not really the flavor of the word. Although literally it means “to go ahead,” so something that goes ahead of what comes next, the primary connotation of it is “preparation.” If you think of going on a caravan journey in Tibet, you need to prepare before you go on the journey. You have to get together all your luggage. You have to pack it on the pack animals. It is impossible to make the journey on the caravan without preparation. And so this is the main idea of these practices. It’s preparation, something that is absolutely necessary in order to make the so-called spiritual journey. If you conceive of it as a preliminary, then you might also conceive of not doing it, because “I don’t need to do a preliminary. I just want to get onto the main thing.”
Now, there are many, many things that can be said about how we prepare for our spiritual journey, but I didn’t think to present sort of a sequential, orderly presentation of the topic, but rather I was given a list of questions and points to cover. So I think to just go through this list in the order that we have them listed here and see how it turns out.
The first thing that I was asked to do is to explain my own personal experience with these preparation practices. So let me tell you a story. I think that everything in my life has been stages of preparation.
Well, we don’t have to go all the way back to my childhood. But in any case, at university I studied Asian languages and philosophy and history. So I started studying Chinese when I was eighteen, the next year I started Japanese, and then – I think it was two years later – Sanskrit, and then the next year Tibetan. So I studied all these languages, and actually they were very, very helpful in a progressive order.
When I studied Tibetan at university – I’m talking about 1967 – there really weren’t textbooks available. The only thing that was available explained Tibetan grammar in terms of Latin, which I had studied when I was much younger – I started studying Latin when I was twelve – but Latin grammar has nothing to do with Tibetan grammar. But the teacher who taught me Tibetan was Japanese, and he taught Tibetan in terms of Japanese grammar. So having studied Japanese before, it was very helpful.
I went to India on the Fulbright fellowship to do my doctorate dissertation. I was twenty-four, and this was in 1969. Already I had a strong background in Buddhist history. I knew what the major Indian texts were. I had this preparation, this preparation to be able to study there. But you have to remember that this was a time when there was almost nothing available about Tibetan Buddhism in Western languages. The only things that were available were Evans-Wentz – I don’t know if you have that in Russian – Evans-Wentz and Lama Govinda. So it was a big adventure. Everything was open to explore and to find out, and no real idea of the extent of what was available in Tibetan studies. And I was the first to have this Fulbright fellowship to go study with the Tibetans. That’s a pattern in my life. I’ve always been a pioneer for many, many things.
My Japanese professor didn’t know how to speak Tibetan. In fact, he had no idea even how to pronounce Tibetan. We had only learned the classical language to compare Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese translations of various Indian Buddhist texts. That was my training. So it was like being an anthropologist going to Borneo and trying to figure out a spoken language. But I had preparation because I had studied many languages already. Chinese was particularly helpful because my ear was already accustomed to tones, so I was able to figure out the sound structure of the language. So everything was building up, more and more preparation, to go onto the next steps.
In India everything happened very quickly. I was able to find a teacher. I was given a house to live in. Everything happened within one week of getting there. No preparation. No plans before that. Well, without going into too much detail about how, although I went to study Guhyasamaja, eventually I did my dissertation about the oral tradition of lam-rim. That I explained last week. But very early on I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and I was overwhelmed by the realization that here was somebody who actually knew what everything meant; it wasn’t a matter of guesswork as it was at the university, where all these texts were like a giant crossword puzzle and you try to figure it out. I met His Holiness’s teachers and other great lamas there, and I was totally convinced that this was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life and not become a university professor, which was my plan beforehand.
Basically, I offered myself to His Holiness. I said, “Please give me the chance to be trained, to learn as much as is possible, and I will serve you as best as I can.” And His Holiness agreed. I started early on to do some short translations of texts for His Holiness that would then be published – these were the very early ones – with my teacher Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey. Mind you, I already had done a great deal of preparation at this point. I had learned the languages. I learned the spoken Tibetan language as well while I was in India. I studied the history. I knew the major texts. So I already had many, many years of Buddhist study behind me.
His Holiness then suggested at that point that I do 600,000 repetitions of OM MANI PADME HUM to, in a sense, try to improve my motivation for what I was hoping to do, and 600,000 repetitions of the Manjushri practice and the mantra OM A RA PA TSA NA DHIH in order to gain more clarity of mind. Mind you, I had already at that point received initiations. I was there in March of 1970 when His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave the Kalachakra initiation for the first time outside of Tibet. So I’d already received highest initiation. And I can’t quite remember when I received Guhyasamaja from his Holiness, but it was also around that time – before His Holiness asking me to do these further preparations. And I had already started a daily practice after receiving that empowerment, Kalachakra, and I’d already taken the five lay vows. His Holiness didn’t call doing these two practices a ngondro, but it was further preparation.
Then His Holiness built the library, and I wanted to continue to help there, and His Holiness said, “Go back to Harvard, hand in the dissertation, and then come back.” So I came back, helped start the translation bureau at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, and continued my studies. His Holiness made it possible for me to stay in India for twenty-nine years without any visa problems, because I was invited by His Holiness – by the Private Office, I should say.
Eventually I started studying with Serkong Rinpoche, and he prepared me to be able to not only translate for him, but I’ve realized that he was preparing me to be able to translate for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. So I continued with very intensive study, and Serkong Rinpoche trained me, as I said, to be a translator. In fact, it all came from his side. It’s very interesting. I mean, he had this amazing ability to know karmic connections and potentials of people. So from his side, from the very beginning he said, “Stay in my room and watch how I interact with others,” and so on, and then he would be teaching me words and things like that as the day went by. Anyway, this is not the time to go into detail about how he trained me to be a translator. He also trained me to be a teacher. I would be translating for him, and at the end of a lesson to a group of people, he would turn to me and ask me to summarize the whole thing for everybody. In that way he trained me to be able to teach. And one small part of training me to be a translator was any time of day or night when I was with him, without any warning, he would turn to me and say “Repeat what I just said” or tell me to repeat what I just said. Very, very good training.
Right. Now, about these preliminaries. It came from my initiative that after many years of doing daily practice – and doing a lot of daily practice, because I did the long sadhanas of everything, every deity that I received empowerment to – I felt that it would be beneficial for me to do Vajrasattva practice, 100,000 Vajrasattvas. And as Rinpoche always trained me, the way that you ask a teacher is not “Oh Lama, Lama, tell me what to do.” He says that’s a child’s way of asking and just encourages dependency. He said the proper way to ask is that from your own initiative you make a suggestion and you say, “Do you have any objections to that?”
You see, it’s very, very important in terms of striving for enlightenment that you be self-motivated. You can gain inspiration from the teacher, but you shouldn’t be dependent on the teacher in order to get your motivation. Making any sort of progress on the spiritual path has to come from your own effort, and you have to develop perseverance and energy and willpower. This has to come from your own side, from your own efforts. And as Tsongkhapa describes in Lam-rim chen-mo with regard to the different persons who develop bodhichitta, he says that the most stable development of bodhichitta is in those who instinctively from birth, as a result of previous life habits, just instinctively want to go in that direction and are self-motivated to follow the path based on compassion and so on and aiming for enlightenment. So if it seems to you as though there’s nothing else that is worthwhile to do in life and you just sort of instinctively want to go in this direction, this is the most stable way. Whereas if you have to be convinced to put this direction in your life and to work on the spiritual path, you’re always going to waver. It’s not going to be very stable. That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, but it’s going to be more difficult. This is what Tsongkhapa said. So fortunately from childhood, from early, early childhood, I was self-driven. Nobody ever had to tell me to study or to work to advance myself.
After doing this Vajrasattva practice, then, a few years later – and then I was continuing with my study and with my meditation practice – then I thought to do the long retreats of the various deities that I was practicing. That came from my side. It was my suggestion, not Rinpoche’s suggestion or anybody else’s suggestion. I wanted to do it because I saw, based on so many years now of preparation, that this was necessary; this was the next step. And it was only at that point when I asked Rinpoche’s permission (if he had any objections), then he suggested that it would be good before I do that to do the Tsongkhapa guru-yoga practice, the migtsema (dmigs-brtse-ma), 100,000 times. That was the only particular practice that he recommended that I do. The migtsema practice of Tsongkhapa has a tremendous amount of emphasis on Manjushri type of practice to gain the various types of discriminating awareness (there’s a whole set of them that you do in that practice). So this was again to get my mind more sharp. And then I did one after another of the long retreats of all the various major deities that I was practicing, and it was all from my own suggestion because I wanted to do it; I saw that I needed to do it.
And now I remember there was one more thing. In this whole series of retreats that I did, Serkong Rinpoche suggested that I do White Tara for long life. That was something that I wouldn’t have thought to do myself. He never suggested that I do prostration or mandala offering or anything like that. This was sufficient preparation, so-called preliminaries. In fact, I conceived of all the work that I did for Rinpoche as another preliminary practice, another preparation practice, because I would write all his letters, arrange his tours, run around getting the visas for him and the attendants, and so on, and translated for him. So that I saw as, again, preparation to build up a lot of positive force. That was my ngondro. Everything is a preparation for the next step.
If I look at what I do now: I’m doing this website. I’m working with eighteen languages. It’s an enormous project in terms of organization and being able to work with many, many languages, not being afraid of languages. But I was fully prepared for that. I had traveled around the world – I taught in seventy different countries around the world – so I was very familiar with most of the parts of the world and most of the cultures. I’d organized some very large projects for His Holiness, international projects. And so I had all this background, all this experience, so that I could take on something as enormous as the website without any problem. And even moving to Berlin in Germany and living there after India, I was prepared for that. I had studied German for four years when I was a teenager in school. And once you’ve learned Chinese, no alphabet is scary after that. It’s just an alphabet. No big deal to learn the Arabic script, so I learned it. I mean, no problem.
So I think my entire life is a good example of preparation and why I like so much what I was teaching earlier this week of integrating one’s entire life. I think I have very successfully integrated everything that I’ve learned and studied in my life in order to be able to do what I do now. I use everything.
I’m certainly not as highly developed as my teacher Serkong Rinpoche. I remember so clearly – he was about maybe my age now, in his late sixties – and he said to me once, “I remember everything that I ever studied.” I don’t remember everything that I studied, but that’s a fantastic goal to have. And he wouldn’t lie to me or put on airs. He demonstrated that once to me: I was translating for him, and I didn’t understand a word, one word, and so I asked him what that word meant. And most of the time he scolded me. That was his mode of teaching me, which was very helpful for helping me to deal with arrogance (which I had a great deal of). So he yelled at me: “What do you mean asking me that word? I explained that word to you seven years ago. I remember; why don’t you? What’s wrong with you?”
In the beginning, I saw the way that Serkong Rinpoche was teaching was like a very, very fast galloping horse, and I needed to prepare and train myself to run quickly enough to be able to get on and then, riding the horse, to be able to go fast enough to catch up to the speeding train of His Holiness the Dalai Lama – to jump on, to be able to understand the speed and the abbreviation of so many profound points in so many little words of His Holiness. That was the goal, and with the feeling, the motivation, that “This is too good to just learn for myself. I have to make it available to everybody.” That was a very sincere drive on my part – and it still is, with my archives and website.
To get to the point here about these so-called preliminary practices, it is very important to see them as preparation for going further. The purpose of course is to build up more positive force and to wear away a little bit of negative force, negative potential, that you have, and there are two styles of doing it (within those subcategories, of course). That’s the Tibetan way of thinking – all of a sudden, you have a big structure and all the outline and possibilities. But the division or distinction that I want to make is between doing all of the preliminaries first, all this preparation first, before you really get into your studies and doing it further along on the way:
- Now, there are many traditions, Tibetan traditions, and many lamas who recommend doing these preparation practices, these preliminaries, right from the start. The point of that is to break through whatever mental blocks you might have and to make you a little bit more receptive to actually progressing beyond that to the next steps. Although you may get some basic teachings during the process, the main emphasis is to do your 100,000 prostrations and 100,000 this and 100,000 that.
- In the Gelugpa tradition, then, that’s not the style that is done. The preparatory practices are done along the way, not as a start. In other words, you have to know what you’re doing, you have to really have a sincere motivation for doing these practices, and you fit it in along the way. That’s the way that the retreats are done as well. You don’t do a big three-year retreat of a little bit of this practice, a little bit of that practice, a little bit of that practice – which is the way it’s done in the Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya traditions. But rather, when it fits into your schedule, you would do one of the deity retreats for three months, or however long it takes, and then at another time you would do another one – have it fit into your schedule. And if you are doing the geshe studies in the monasteries, you’re not supposed to do any of that until you’ve finished, although obviously some people do some of it before.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods.
Now, let me speak from experience. I was there in India starting these types of practices, doing a daily meditation practice from 1970, every day since then. There were very, very few people who were around and interested in Tibetan Buddhism at that time in India. This was before the wave of hippies came. The people who were around where I was living were the ex-girlfriend of Bob Dylan, one of the ex-managers of the Rolling Stones… I mean, it was sort of the vanguard people that were there at the time. And we had no idea of really what was going on because nothing was translated, and nothing was explained because hardly any of the Tibetans spoke English. And I’d studied the classical language, so I was ahead of most people. I had an advantage but still no idea really what was going on. The few of us who were at these early ceremonies and rituals that were done had no idea what was going on, no idea at all.
I was there in Kathmandu – it was December 1969 – for the first time the Karmapa did the black hat ceremony in public. That was this famous thing that Ole Nydahl went to. Well, anyway, there were only ten Westerners, and most everybody was completely stoned and had no idea what was going on, just sort of “Wow. Far out!” You have to get the flavor of the times. These were the vanguards of the hippies. The characters I remember – Three-Finger Eddie, Acid Arthur. These were the characters that were there. It was like out of some comic book. Acid Arthur, that’s LSD.
So I started doing these practices in Tibetan, having no idea of what I was saying. I think that this is what a lot of people do nowadays as well. Mind you, I came there… I was a little bit different from the rest of them. I was the top student at Harvard, right? So I was arrogant like you can’t believe. And the way that I approached these texts that I was reciting every day was that “I have to overcome this arrogance which says that I’m not going to do this unless I understand it, as if I’m so important that of course they have to explain it to me before I will deign to practice it for them.” You know, this arrogance. So based on admiration for my teachers, that “Hey, the Dalai Lama does this, and his teachers do this, and there must be something to it,” and confidence that it must mean something, then I saw that reciting these things and trying to do the practice – well, I didn’t try to do the practice, because I had no idea what the practice was, so just reciting it – that this would prepare me eventually to be able to study and know what’s in it. But remember this was a very different time, so there was no idea really what was in there. It was a big unknown that lay ahead. So the flavor of it was that it was a great adventure. It was exciting to try to go forward with this and discover something new – new to the West, I should say.
This is my experience with doing what some people do now, of just immediately doing the prostrations and so on. However, there was a big difference. I had already studied all the languages and the history and the major texts that were available in the West in Sanskrit, and so on. I had done that for many years already. So I wasn’t approaching this like the original hippie few people who were there – who were doing it basically completely stoned – who would look at it maybe like some sort of magic. But as I said, I found it very helpful in the beginning to start to deal with my arrogance. And then Serkong Rinpoche was the best teacher to do that because his only name for me was idiot, durak in Russian. He never called me anything else. Very, very helpful.
So those are the advantages.
The disadvantages of course of doing these preliminaries straight off the street type of thing is that if you have the attitude that this is sort of the magic pill and you do this and then all your troubles are going to go away. Well, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. There are many people that I know who after doing 100,000 prostrations and 100,000 repetitions of the refuge formula, and so on – at that point, after doing that, then they’re questioning “Do I really want to follow the Buddhist path?” And then I think “What in the world was going on in their minds while they were doing these 100,000 repetitions?” Supposedly you have already developed these states of mind that you’re going to strengthen in these preparatory practices, these preliminaries. You already have a good idea of refuge, of safe direction, and now you’re just strengthening it, making it more firm by repetition. It’s not the time when you first think about it or don’t even think about it.
The model in the Gelug tradition is Tsongkhapa himself. So I wanted to tell you a little bit, if you’re not aware, of Tsongkhapa’s experience. Tsongkhapa obviously had a tremendous amount of strong instincts from previous lives. When he was in his twenties, he’d studied the entire Kangyur and Tengyur – all the translated texts of the Buddha’s teachings and the Indian commentaries. He went through the whole thing. Of course he had a super photographic memory, so he remembered them. And he’d already started teaching when he was in his twenties. He first taught abhidharma, these “special topics of knowledge,” the classification schemes.
When he was thirty-two, after all this study, he wrote The Golden Rosary of Excellent Explanations (Legs-bshad gser-’phreng). This is his huge commentary on Abhisamayalamkara, Filigree of Realizations – this text that goes through all the different stages along the path – quoting from everywhere in the Kangyur and Tengyur. And he gave tantric empowerments already, particularly Sarasvati. That is the female counterpart of Manjushri that is mostly practiced to gain elegance of your words – so for teaching, for writing, composing. And he continued his study of tantra, especially Kalachakra. He did his first major retreat – before doing any of these prostrations and so on – which was Chakrasamvara. During that retreat, he also practiced and mastered the six yogas of Naropa and the six yogas of Niguma.
Then at the age of thirty-four, he did intensive study of the four classes of tantra, especially the complete stage of Guhyasamaja and Kalachakra. Then he went to study Madhyamaka further with a great Karma Kagyu lama, Lama Umapa. This lama had daily visions of Manjushri – I’ve no idea really what that means – but anyway he had daily visions of Manjushri, and Tsongkhapa would ask questions of Manjushri through Lama Umapa about Madhyamaka. Then the two of them, Tsongkhapa and Lama Umapa – they sort of had a student-disciple mutual back-and-forth relationship – did a retreat on Manjushri. Tsongkhapa had then started to receive direct instruction from Manjushri himself.
So Tsongkhapa at this point felt that he still didn’t have a correct understanding of Madhyamaka and Guhyasamaja, and Manjushri advised him what to do. Manjushri advised him to do a long retreat of these preparatory practices. It’s at this point that Tsongkhapa did them. He said, “If you do this long retreat, then you will understand the notes that you’ve taken from my instructions.” And so at that point, Tsongkhapa did a four-year retreat with eight of his disciples. They did thirty-five sets of 100,000 prostrations – one each to the thirty-five so-called confession Buddhas – and eighteen sets of 100,000 mandala offerings. (Tsongkhapa did this on a rock that he would rub his hand on. Serkong Rinpoche said that that rock, which still had the bloodstains from Tsongkhapa’s wrist, was in the area where he was born. It’s like a pilgrimage place.) And every day they did the Yamantaka self-initiation, which is not at all a short ritual. That renews the vows. And they studied the Avatamsaka Sutra, which is this enormous, enormous sutra which delineates all the various deeds of bodhisattvas. This is one of the few sutras that was translated into Tibetan from Chinese. The original Sanskrit had been lost. Tsongkhapa said that it was because of this sutra that the full teachings on bodhisattva activity were preserved and available. Without this, we wouldn’t have it.
Then after this four-year retreat – and actually I think that the precedent for His Holiness suggesting that I do Manjushri and Avalokiteshvara practice as a preparation is this model of super practice of Manjushri and Avatamsaka (so compassion, Avalokiteshvara) – at the end of this retreat, Tsongkhapa had a vision of Maitreya. When they left retreat, he restored the Maitreya statue – this huge Maitreya statue in the main temple in Lhasa – which is considered his first great deed. Why is that considered a great deed? Because Maitreya is the next Buddha, the future Buddha, and so building up some positive force – through all that positive force that he’d built up in retreat, to bring the coming of the next Buddha more quickly and help people to make that connection with Maitreya.
Then he went back into another five months of retreat with these eight disciples to continue. Then after that, he did a retreat on the Kalachakra complete stage and then another retreat, a one-year-long retreat, on Madhyamaka, and it was in that retreat that he finally got nonconceptual cognition of voidness and completely revolutionized the teachings and way of explaining voidness.
This is very illustrative. I mean, it’s very inspiring and very illustrative. Tsongkhapa was no dummy. He was very intelligent. He was the most learned and most advanced and had done all these retreats already. He wasn’t satisfied with his understanding. He certainly wasn’t satisfied with everybody else’s understanding. Most of his life he went around and checked with everybody to see what their understanding was. He debated with them. And Manjushri is the wisdom – whether you take that as actually Manjushri as a being or some inner voice, or who knows what it means that Manjushri advised him – but intelligence, if you think in terms of that, intelligence advised him that at that point, being so super-advanced, he had to build up more positive force to be able to break through and get this nonconceptual cognition of voidness. That’s when he did the practices.
So we can see these preparatory practices, these preliminaries, can be done at various stages in our progress, and they are not done just once.
- We can do it at the very beginning, when we really have no background. That for some people can be very helpful. For other people, you might as well be doing 100,000 pushups – it doesn’t have very much effect. But it can help very much to overcome arrogance and to basically open up (in a sense, you almost surrender).
- But much more forceful is if you already have a strong background and you do these further preparation practices in order to make that more firm.
- Or if you are really very advanced on the path, like Tsongkhapa, and you still have a certain mental block that is preventing you from going up to the next stage, then because you see that it’s absolutely necessary to build up more positive force, you do it again.
I found that when I was living in India (I lived there for twenty-nine years as my base) that I would be writing something or working on something and I was experiencing a block – it wasn’t really going anywhere – and I would take what I called a “bodhichitta retreat.” This was going on a teaching tour – in other words, going around teaching, sharing, trying to help people, and so on. After doing a tour, I would come back and my mind would be much more fresh, and I’d usually be able to get through whatever it was that was blocking me before. This is how I conceived of my lecture tours over all those years.
Now as well when I am writing or translating and I can’t get the correct expression, I can’t figure out how can I say this in a simple clear way, I stop and I do some Manjushri mantra and Sarasvati mantra for a little while, and then usually my mind is clear enough to be able to come up with a solution. And I’m not thinking of that in terms of “Say the magic words, and then all of a sudden it’s going to come from heaven and I get the solution.” I certainly don’t look at it like that. But I see this as… I mean, first of all there’s some really super forceful visualizations that go with it, which are very, very sharp, and the whole idea is to get your mind extremely sharp, and it works. With any of these practices, it’s not just an exercise in visualization; it’s what you do with your mind, with your understanding, that gives power to the visualization.
So, anyway, that is a little bit of an introduction to our theme and a little bit of my experience working with and doing preparation, always preparation for the next step. You have to look at the whole spiritual path as a great adventure. Of course it’s going to be rough – if you take a caravan and walk from one part of Tibet to another, it’s going to be rough – but it’s an adventure. Those of you who have gone to India, you know it’s a challenging adventure, difficult. Bodhgaya, for example, is not an easy place. But if you view all of this and all the practice as an adventure that’s something exciting, this helps you to develop joyful perseverance.
Perseverance isn’t just hard work; it’s taking joy in it even in the difficult parts. It’s interesting how you can do that. I go to a fitness club and I do very strenuous physical exercise with a trainer, and it is rough – I mean, I really do very, very strenuous things – and it’s difficult, and it hurts, but I love it. I enjoy it – not as a masochist but because I see how beneficial it is for me. So the same thing with training our minds, training ourselves, our emotions, and so on, as we do with Dharma.
We have a few minutes for some questions. Yes, you always have a question.
Participant: It’s a simple question. First, why did you move to Berlin after having lived in India for twenty-nine years? Second, what will we be doing tomorrow and the day after tomorrow? What’s the plan? What will we be doing throughout the weekend?
Alex: Well, first I should say that when you talk about karma, karma is a certain compulsion, a certain drive. You might experience at various phases in your life that the energy that is keeping you in a relationship, or keeping you in a job, or keeping you in a place, is finished. There was a certain energy or compulsion that kept you there, and then that karma is spent, and you need to have the courage to change. This has happened twice in my life.
I was at Harvard. I loved Harvard. I was one of the best students at Harvard. I was on the track – my dream – to become a Harvard professor. But that energy finished because I also saw that if I stayed there I wouldn’t grow any further. It was one dimensional, intellectual. But in terms of social skills and relating to others, and so on, these professors were really very lacking. So although I could have stayed very comfortably in the Harvard type of atmosphere, and my professor had even set up an initial teaching job for me (not at Harvard, but you always start at another place and then come back), I said “No, thank you.” So I felt I had learned enough, as much as I could, and gained as much as I could from the academic atmosphere – especially Harvard, the best – and if I wanted to grow more, I needed to go to India. So I moved to India with the Tibetans, with His Holiness and his teachers
The same thing happened in India after twenty-nine years. I was there maybe half the time. The rest of the time, I traveled around the world teaching or doing various projects for His Holiness. But I felt that I wasn’t progressing further and that if I really wanted to develop myself further, I wanted to have the experience of long-term students – not just like here in Moscow, where I come… I mean, now I come once or twice a year. But in those days, I’d come maybe once every year and a half, every two years, and I’d come for a few days and then “Bye bye. See you again in a few years.” That wasn’t enough. I wanted to have the experience of long-term students that I work with every week, and I couldn’t do that in Dharamsala – too many other great teachers there; they don’t need yet another one (not that I’m great, but that’s not the place). And also I wanted to share more of what I had learned, and it was very difficult communicating with my publisher at that time, and I had the idea eventually to make a website, and it’s too inefficient to try to do that from India. So I took a year of trying out many different places that offered me situations, and Berlin was the best. Also, in terms of my own development and challenge, and so on: In India I lived in a very quiet part of Dharamsala. In Berlin I live on a very, very busy, noisy corner (both streets quite noisy). So that became quite an interesting challenge. Also, I was getting older, and I lived very primitively in India. I had no toilet, I had no water in my house, I lived in just a regular Indian hut – stone, mud, tin roof, no glass on the windows – and enough already. I did it, and I’m very happy that I did it, but I needed a more efficient atmosphere in order to really be able to share what I had learned. And I already knew German, so it was easy.
What are we going to do the rest of this weekend? Basically go through these questions. I don’t know that I’ll be able to do all of them. One thing was to speak about the six preparatory practices, the so-called jorcho (sbyor-chos, sbyor-ba’i chos-drug), and then various questions that are here: Why are we doing these practices? How do you do them? What about the different traditions? and so on. We’ll see what people’s interests are. I don’t have a fixed program – that this session we do this and that session we do that, and so on. That’s not the way that I teach. But what I didn’t plan to do was to speak about the specific visualizations that you do with specific preliminary practices. That I don’t think you need me for. What I always like to emphasize in my teachings is a practical, down-to-earth, realistic approach. So how can we approach these types of practices in a realistic type of way?
Participant: From a biological point of view, we can establish neuron connections in two ways – we can do the action itself, or we can imagine that we are doing the action – and it will affect our neurons in the same way (the connections will be established pretty much the same). Why then can’t we do these practices from the onset, from the very beginning, and expect the understanding of them to appear through the process while we’re doing that? Because ideally that is what’s supposed to happen.
Alex: I think that in general it certainly does build up a certain habit, to do these practices from the very beginning without an understanding, and based on study from previous lifetimes – because there’s no other way of explaining it – some people may be able to understand, gain some understanding. It has to come from a cause, so there has to be a seed, and the prostrations and so on would just be the circumstance for uncovering it and stimulating it to grow.
Now, you could of course say that everybody has the seed because everybody has Buddha-nature. However, that could be buried pretty deep. So if without any study in this lifetime, just doing some preliminaries, you get some insight and realization that is valid, not something that is just a crazy idea, then I think that you’d have to say that you have worked on the Buddha-nature factors in previous lifetimes, so it’s ready; it’s almost ripe.
There are certainly examples of that. Serkong Rinpoche was one of the teachers of His Holiness and so went to all his lessons with him. He said that you only had to explain something to His Holiness once, you never had to repeat it, he always got it immediately, so it was just reminding His Holiness. But for others – you can do all these practices, and you have built up a certain habit, but you have built up a habit just of the physical act, not necessarily of the state of mind that we’re aiming through these practices to strengthen and develop (well, not just develop; strengthen, basically).
So like that. I mean, I think it’s very important to get instructions, not just technical instructions of what you visualize and how you actually offer the mandala, and so on, but you really need instructions in terms of what you need to do with your mind. What state of mind do you need to be in in order to do these practices successfully? If you don’t know what Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are, how does refuge make any sense, for example?
Participant: Even though you said that ngondro is not really a preliminary, why isn’t it enough to just do that? I’m very underdeveloped, so maybe it is more than enough for me. Teachers actually do say that, like Patrul Rinpoche. So why isn’t this enough?
Alex: The question is: Can’t we do ngondro for the rest of our life as our main practice? Isn’t that enough? Because as Patrul Rinpoche says, just visualizing the tree of refuge is enough; everything is included in that. Do we need to do anything more? Particularly you were pointing out tantra practice.
I think that it’s not necessary for everyone to go on to tantra practice. Most people enter into it prematurely anyway and get very confused because of it. But is doing preliminary practices enough just by itself? I would say no. His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasizes everywhere, repeatedly, over and over again, the necessity to study. If we’re going to practice Buddhism, we have to learn what the Buddha’s teaching are. If you don’t know what the Buddha’s teachings are, to just say “I take refuge in them” has no basis. So everywhere that he goes, he emphasizes to people: don’t just leave your Buddhist practice on the level of devotional prayers and ritual. He says that you have to study.
Now, if you supplement your study with the prayers and ritual, that’s something else. Obviously we need a balance between the two. Either of them without the other is not as effective. In order to be able to see the entire path within the refuge tree, you have to have studied the entire path, and then the refuge tree of the gurus incorporates everything. That’s fine. But I think that it’s very important, despite all the initiations that all these lamas give as they travel around, not to feel it imperative that “I have to practice tantra,” that “This is the only thing.” I think that is quite a misconception. Tantra is extremely effective, extremely fantastic. However, to do it when you’re not prepared just causes a lot of confusion and problems.
One more question and then we go. Someone else had their hand up.
Participant: In what language do you give teachings in Berlin? And is it possible to participate in your classes?
Alex: I teach in English. I don’t have a German translator. I used to have someone translate for me when I was teaching the voidness chapter of Bodhicharyavatara, Shantideva’s text, but since then I’ve been doing my classes just in English, and there are enough people who understand it without need for translation. I teach a weekly class – once a week – actually in my apartment. It’s very small; generally about ten, twelve people come. Most of them have been my students for years. It is very interactive, very informal. Everybody knows everybody else. We’re all friends outside of the class as well. Most of us go out to the nearby Tibetan restaurant after class. It’s a lovely, lovely time.
And what I’m doing is going through the lam-rim, the graded stages of the path, these days. We’ve been on it I think for, I don’t know, two and a half, three years? Something like that. We are doing it extremely slowly, analytically, questioning every single point in it, examining in ourselves: Why would we believe this. Why would we do this?
Just to give you an example: In terms of ethics, why don’t you rob and cheat personally? Why? And so then people respond. Nobody is going to say the lam-rim reason: “Well, because I don’t want to get a worse rebirth and so on.” Who are you kidding? Nobody thinks like that. So the answer that most people come up with is that it just doesn’t feel right to do that. Then we examine why doesn’t it feel right. What’s behind that? What is the reason why it doesn’t feel right?
So it’s not really your standard way of teaching lam-rim, but it is going into every little point and questioning it, questioning it in ourselves.
It’s all on the website – every class gets put on the website – and it’s podcast. It’s being transcribed. I think we’ve had, I don’t know, let’s say roughly 130 classes so far, and I would say probably around 60-70% of it has been transcribed already. That will have to be proofread, and eventually it will go online so that people can read it as well, and eventually, if the English gets improved, it will be translated into other languages. This we’re doing with all the long courses that I’ve taught. For example, Shantideva – Bodhicharyavatara, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior – I taught it in I think it was something like 278 classes. Except for eleven, we have the recordings of all of them. A lot of it has been transcribed, we’ve edited the audio, and so on. Eventually all of that will go on the website.
People listen to these classes all over the world. I get emails from people saying that they feel that they are there, in a sense, because some of the people who are in class are very distinctive – you can hear their voice, and they come from different countries, and so on – and so they feel as though they know the people in the class as well. So it’s very nice. I mean, it’s very nice teaching large groups like this, but you don’t really have the personal interaction that you have in a small group in which everybody knows everybody and they know their background, what they do, and what their family is doing, and it’s like family.
But what I don’t do is go on what I call the “great white guru” trip – that I’m the great guru and on a throne, and I dress in some strange clothes and call myself lama, you know? Come on! People respect me, but we’re all friends. It’s very informal. And actually I don’t instruct people in terms of “You should do this type of prostration (or do this practice or do that practice).” Absolutely none of that whatsoever. It has to come from their side.
So that’s how I teach, but that’s not my main activity. You can’t believe how much work the website is, so that’s what I do most of the time – and then I go to the fitness club in order to keep some sort of balance. It’s very important to have balance.
So let’s end with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.
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