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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 1: Getting Started > The Six Preparatory Practices and Advice Concerning Ngondro Preliminary Practices > Session Two: The Six Preparatory Practices – Sweeping and Cleaning the Meditation Room

The Six Preparatory Practices and Advice Concerning Ngondro Preliminary Practices

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, November 2012

Session Two: The Six Preparatory Practices – Sweeping and Cleaning the Meditation Room

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:38 hours)

Further Examples of Preliminary Practices

Yesterday we began our discussion of these preliminary practices, and we saw that if we conceive of them as preparation for our spiritual path, then we will avoid or hopefully avoid the attitude that because these are preliminary and we are so advanced – you know, this sort of attitude of arrogance – we don’t need to do them. The main purpose, we saw, of these practices is to help to purify or minimize – I mean, they’re not going to purify completely, obviously – to diminish the negative potentials that we have (sort of the mental blocks, for example) and to build up some positive force (some openness and so on) that will enable us to make some progress.

We have also seen that these practices can be done at the initial stage of our spiritual path. They can also be done later on on the spiritual path – in other words, whenever we are experiencing mental blocks and we’re not really making progress. I gave the example of Tsongkhapa and my own experience with these practices. In both those examples, these more intensive preliminary practices were done further on on the spiritual path, not as the first thing. But there are many very famous examples of those who have done these practices as the initial thing, the most famous example being Milarepa.

Now, if you think of the example of Milarepa, he had built up tremendous negative potential during the early part of his life, practicing black magic and so on to get revenge on relatives who had cheated him and his family, and so obviously he had a lot of obstacles that he needed to overcome in order to be receptive to the teachings. So his teacher Marpa didn’t say “Do 100,000 this and 100,000 that,” but rather he had him build these various towers. This was unbelievably difficult hard work, but I think that the attitude that Milarepa had at this time undoubtedly was one of great regret at what he had done in the past, and he had a very, very sincere wish to be able to somehow make up for that and to work in a much more Dharmic way. So even in the example of Milarepa, I think we would have to admit that he had a strong motivation for doing this very hard work that Marpa set him to do as a preparation before he would ever give him any initiation. And the type of preparation practice or preliminary practice that Marpa set him was specifically designed for Milarepa. And Marpa didn’t relent. He made him build the tower and then said, “No, no. That was no good. Take it down and do another one.”

My very good friend Alan Turner died a few years ago – he was a very close disciple of Serkong Rinpoche as well – and Rinpoche had instructed him on how to do prostrations. After he had done about maybe seventy-five or eighty thousand of them, Rinpoche asked him what was he reciting and how was he doing these prostrations, and Rinpoche then scolded him and said “You’re doing them completely wrong. Start all over again,” and he gave him another visualization and another thing to repeat. And even though Alan was a little bit shocked because the first way that he was doing it was the way that Rinpoche had instructed him, Rinpoche saw that it was very important for him (to overcome various obstacles) to start all over again.

So this structure in which the teacher won’t teach you until you have done this preparation practice and you have eliminated, or at least started to eliminate, certain obstacles is something that we find in many cases. It was my own case as well. As I explained, when I came out of Harvard and I was in India, I was very arrogant, super intellectual, super into just wanting to devour as many teachings and instructions as I could. And it was really quite amazing working with Serkong Rinpoche because he refused to teach me anything privately unless I was translating it for somebody else. In other words, to help me to overcome this self-centeredness, that “I just want the teachings,” he would only teach me if I was sharing the teachings and making it available to others. So this was the basic structure. The only thing that he would teach me privately was Kalachakra, and that he would fit in here and there. In the middle of teaching something, he would say as an aside to me “Well, in Kalachakra it’s like this or it’s like that” and not to translate that but to remember it until the end of the teachings so that I could write it down. Because as I said before, if I ever asked him to repeat something that he had already taught me or explained to me, he would scold me very, very strongly: “You think you’re so smart. You’re an idiot! You can’t even remember what I told you seven years ago. What’s wrong with you?” Very, very helpful.

I think the point that I’m trying to make is that if we have the opportunity, which is rare nowadays, but if we have the opportunity to really establish a personal, individual relationship with a teacher, then we might find that the preliminary practices, the ngondro, that we do will be quite individualized. It doesn’t have to be the standard, formal one. And if we have a lot of mental blocks, a lot of obstacles, then the teacher will specify something that will help us to diminish that.

Now, of course we could look at work that we do in a Dharma center as a preliminary practice, that we are making a facility available for other people to learn and practice the Dharma. So whether our teacher specifically tells us to work on that as an individual – “You do that” – we could nevertheless be involved with that, but we have to be very careful about that. Again, Serkong Rinpoche’s advice:

He was quite discouraged about the development that he saw in the West. (Mind you, this was in the beginning of the 1980s, when I traveled with him in the West.) Before there was really a sufficient interest in the Dharma, various centers would buy a huge old mansion or something like that and then set about renovating it. And although now, many decades later, we can see that these large centers are of great benefit, at the time what often was the case was that people would come there and they would be like… Do you know the term indentured laborer? You are there and you have to all this work, and you never get any money so that you could leave, but you just are fed, so in a sense you have to stay there. And they’re working all the time to rebuild this place and very, very little time for study or practice.

Rinpoche thought that this was a very sad situation. People would get very discouraged. They come in order to get teachings, and they just have to work renovating a building all the time. And to say that they were all as qualified as Milarepa – that they had to do some tremendous hard work to clear off obstacles because underneath all of that there was this tremendous potential to achieve enlightenment in that lifetime – that’s a little bit far-fetched. What he recommended instead was a more modest vision in terms of making centers and facilities available in accordance with a realistic idea of growth, not sort of a Soviet five-year and ten-year plan – you know what I mean, an exaggerated idea (I hope I didn’t offend anybody by saying that) – and have a balanced program. Don’t ignore teaching and study and practice at the expense of building this center. So this is just general advice that perhaps is relevant to those who might be involved in building a center (or taking care of a center, for that matter). Okay.

The Six Preparatory Practices (Jorcho)

Now, today I would like to speak a little bit about the so-called six preparatory practices. This is something that Atisha was taught by his teacher in Indonesia, Serlingpa, and then he transmitted to Tibet. It’s something that would be the preparation that we would do for a meditation session and that we would do for a session of our preliminary practices as well, so they are very essential. We find them in the standard lam-rims as well. And it’s interesting to compare how it is treated and where it actually fits into the graduated stages in the various lam-rims. Just because it’s presented one way in one lam-rim doesn’t mean that this is the exact way and then we grasp onto it, that “It has to be like this.”

Historical Background

If we look in Tsongkhapa’s lam-rim: First he has the presentation of the healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher, and then he presents these six practices – cleaning your meditation room, setting up an altar, having the proper seat, and so on. He sets that after that, and he presents these six as a way to keep your close bond to the teacher. But as I mentioned before, one needs to see the context within which Tsongkhapa taught lam-rim. The context was a tantric empowerment in which first you make a review of the stages of the path. So this was for monks and nuns, primarily monks at that time, who already had a relationship with a spiritual teacher. So presenting the relation with the guru first is something that is within that context – you already have a teacher, now you’re receiving an initiation from that teacher, and here’s how you do it.

The Fifth Dalai Lama in his lam-rim mentions that it really is very important to have already developed safe direction, or refuge, and bodhichitta before you start this whole thing, this whole process, and then he follows Tsongkhapa’s order – the relation with the guru, and then these six preparatory practices. Which, if you think about it, of course makes complete sense, because one of the preparation practices is to take refuge and reaffirm bodhichitta, so how in the world could you do that if you hadn’t already worked on that?

The Fifth Dalai Lama was probably the most practical of these various great masters who wrote these texts, practical and realistic. He’s the one that in his discussion of the relation with the spiritual teacher said that first you need to look at the shortcomings of the teacher and be realistic about that, don’t deny it, they’re not all perfect – but then there’s no benefit in focusing on that and complaining about that (you don’t get inspiration from that) – then you turn to the positive qualities. So not this attitude “They’re all Buddhas, and everything they do is perfect.” That’s very naive, this point of view – not that it’s naive, but it has to fit within a realistic context, and one has to see what the purpose is and what the basis is for such a view.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that he’s not sure really that he is the continuum of the line of all Dalai Lamas. He explains the whole tulku system in a much, much larger context than the traditional one. But he says that he does feel that he is the continuum of the Fifth Dalai Lama and the Thirteenth Dalai lama – their approach, their very practical approach, is really what he instinctively follows.

The Second Panchen Lama in his lam-rim – so this is after the Fifth Dalai Lama (the teacher of the Fifth Dalai Lama was the First Panchen Lama) – so the Second Panchen Lama in his lam-rim, he puts the six preparatory practices first and then the relation with the spiritual teacher. He gives quite extensive instructions on how to meditate on each stage of the lam-rim, and for that reason you start with the preparatory practices (because that’s how you start a meditation session). And then the first topic in lam-rim to reaffirm is the relation with a spiritual teacher.

In some of the presentations of equivalent material to lam-rim that we find in the other Tibetan traditions, you’ll find the discussion of the relation with a spiritual teacher at the end of this whole graded path. His Holiness the Dalai Lama feels that that is much better. It’s less open to misunderstanding, confusion, and, in some cases, abuse. That’s already hinted at by the Fifth Dalai Lama when he says that you already need refuge and bodhichitta to start this whole lam-rim process.

That’s just a little bit of a historical background, but I think that it is very insightful in terms of how we approach the various practices in relation to them, and particularly in terms of the relation with a spiritual teacher. The implication from the Fifth Dalai Lama’s presentation is that one needs already to have a proper motivation of having worked with these teachings before you actually get into very serious practice. Otherwise what is your motivation? It could be quite worldly (if we can use that word). But as I said yesterday as well, for some people just this tremendous inspiration from the example of the teacher is enough, an aspiration to be like that is enough to start with all these preliminaries. But the danger in that of course is projection, that it’s not really coming in terms of the teacher themselves but it’s a projection on the side of the student.

Enumeration of the Six Practices

The Fifth Dalai Lama says to do all six of these preparatory practices before each meditation session in the morning. Then later in the day if you are doing meditation sessions again – and as I said, this can refer to doing your ngondro as well, these sort of sessions – you just do the last four. I suppose it could help to just list what these six are before I explain them:

1. The first one is to sweep the place where you’re going to do your practice, toss out the garbage, and set up a representation of the Buddha’s body, speech, and mind.

2. The second is taking care about obtaining offerings without hypocrisy and setting them up in a beautiful arrangement.

3. The third is setting or laying out a proper seat for your meditation, sitting in the eightfold posture, and then, in a positive frame of mind, taking safe direction and reaffirming your bodhichitta aim. That’s why if you haven’t already developed this beforehand, you can’t possibly do that.

4. Then the fourth is visualizing a bountiful field for spiritual growth (tshogs-zhing, Skt. punyakshetra). That’s sometimes called the guru tree or something like that. But if you look at it more literally, it’s a field in which, in a sense, you plant seeds that will grow into your spiritual growth.

5. Then the fifth is the seven-part practice and mandala offering.

6. And the sixth is to infuse our mental continuum with inspiration from the lineage masters in accord with a specific guideline instruction for making requests.

What is quite significant about this is that just doing these six would be quite sufficient for starting your Buddhist practice.

Quieting Down before Practicing

Many people ask, “Well, I’d like to do some Buddhist practice. What should I do first?” And many people give the instruction “Well, just sit quietly and focus on your breath, and just be aware of your various thoughts and emotions” – because you’re not going to be able to focus totally on your breath with a quiet mind (I mean, who are we kidding?) – “and, in a sense, get to know yourself.”

Most people nowadays are walking around with constant music, the iPod in their ears. They never take any moment to just be alone and examine their thoughts. They always have to be distracted. Or when they are at home, either the radio or some sort of music has to be on, or in some cases the television has to be on. From the moment that they wake up, they turn it on until they go to sleep. I have an aunt who keeps the television on in her room twenty-four hours a day. She needs it to be able to fall asleep, and if she turns over in the night or gets a little bit awake, she feels comforted by having the television on. This is amazing really if you think about it. So just to quiet down with no music and focus on the breath and see what your thoughts are, etc., and what your feelings actually are – that they are not dictated or influenced by the music – this is quite illustrative, quite eye-opening, for a lot of people.

So okay, that’s a way that many people are advised to start. Actually I think that as time goes on, this will be a more and more important practice to do. Because it’s not just the music that people are constantly listening to, not just young people but people of all ages, but it’s also this constant SMS-ing with their cell phone, constantly looking at their cell phone, checking Facebook, Twitter – all these other things going on simultaneously – with this underlying fear that they’re going to miss something, that it’s so important to know what your friend had for breakfast.

A friend of mine was visiting recently who’s a professor at a university in New York City. She teaches a seminar which lasts for three hours, and she absolutely insists that people leave their cell phones at the door – you know, there’s a table – because otherwise what happens in American universities is people are text messaging throughout the lectures. The mentality is that “I can’t experience anything, I can’t feel any emotion or anything, unless I’m texting it.” And what she reported was that there’s so much tension in the room because they don’t have their cell phones in their hands that every hour she has to give the people in the class a five-minute text-messaging break. It’s not a break for smoking a cigarette, not a break for going to the toilet; it’s a break for text messaging. Text messaging now has become more important than the cigarette or the toilet. This is very sad, and this will be a great, great challenge to Buddhist training – to help people to somehow get off this addiction to the constant stream of information and distraction that people crave and become addicted to.

So as a beginning practice, just quieting down, focusing on the breath, and just being comfortable with whatever comes up to your mind – in a sense, getting to know yourself (although that’s a terribly dualistic way of phrasing it) – is helpful. If we talk about a preliminary practice, that [focusing on the breath] would have to come way, way before you advise somebody to do 100,000 prostrations. They’ll really go crazy if they have to do that [100,000] and every time they go down to the ground there’s this cell phone there and they check has anything come in. That sounds silly, but if you think of the mentality that is now developing in the world, this is actually a serious problem. How could you possibly do serious practice for an extended length of time if you can’t tolerate and get completely crazy about not having your cell phone in your hand and not being able to constantly check what’s coming in and commenting: “Ooh, I just went down, and my knee hurts. I have to text that to somebody, put it on Twitter so the whole world knows.”

Buddhism throughout its history has been adapted in various societies to meet the needs of the people and the mentality of the people. And I think that in the future and the near future – in fact, now – Buddhism, and particularly we’re talking now about these preliminary practices, will have to be somehow suited to these problems. Because what is the purpose of the preliminaries? As I said, to overcome obstacles. So there’s a big obstacle in terms of what is developing with all this text messaging and social networking and constant iPod music.

When we talk about discriminating awareness (shes-rab, Skt. prajna) – what’s usually translated as wisdom, which is too vague a word – discriminating awareness to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s harmful, people need to learn to be able to discriminate between when you have your cell phone on and when you have it off, when it is helpful (because one can’t deny that social media and SMS can be helpful) and when it is a hindrance. Unless you develop this discriminating awareness, then it’s very difficult. How do you develop discriminating awareness? It’s very clear in the teachings: for that you need concentration, and for concentration you need discipline, so the three trainings, three higher trainings. It’s perfect in the teachings, how you do that.

These preparatory practices are very, very helpful for giving discipline. But I don’t think that you can really start with these at the very, very beginning with people who have this really serious addiction to social media. They wouldn’t be able to do it. So initially I think you need something even before this. Focusing on the breath and just trying to be with your thoughts would be a start. But once you are able to deal with that without going absolutely crazy, then the structure of these preparatory practices is very helpful.

Approaching the Six Preparatory Practices as Beginners

Then we ask: But what about the Fifth Dalai Lama’s objection here? How can you possibly do these six in which one of them is to reaffirm refuge and bodhichitta if you haven’t already worked on that? So it’s a circular thing, isn’t it? You need these preparation things to meditate on refuge and bodhichitta, but you need refuge and bodhichitta in order to be able to do it. It’s the same issue with the ngondro, with the preliminary practices. How can you do a ngondro of repeating 100,000 times the Refuge and Bodhichitta Prayer if you haven’t developed refuge and bodhichitta? Then you’re just repeating words. If you don’t have an idea of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – the Three Gems – what are you doing prostration to? The wall? A painting? I mean, what? So one has to think a little bit more deeply how to approach these preparatory practices before we have actually developed refuge and bodhichitta. Is there a way to deal with them that would really suit beginners?

You know, I make this difference between Dharma-lite and the Real Thing Dharma:

  • Initially Dharma-lite – which is very beneficial because it’s where most people are at – is just intended to improve things in this lifetime. Very good. That’s necessary.
  • Real Thing Dharma is lam-rim. You’re actually working to improve future lives (not to have a worse rebirth), liberation from rebirth, and enlightenment (you can help everybody get out of rebirth). That’s the real thing, not this lifetime.

Obviously there is a Dharma-lite and a Real Thing Dharma version of refuge and bodhichitta as well. So we need to analyze and think how could this be adapted, then, to people on a Dharma-lite level. Because to be idealistic and think “Well, everybody is so advanced, and everybody is really into this thing sincerely,” and so on, is not realistic. It’s self-deception, I think. It takes a tremendous amount of work and analysis to thoroughly be convinced of beginningless mind (which then implies past and future lives) and to have a sufficient deep understanding of the nature of the mind, beginningless, that makes it possible to gain liberation and enlightenment. If you’re not convinced that liberation and enlightenment are possible, how can you possibly aim for it? So what do you need to do? Preliminaries. Preparation. You have to somehow overcome mental blocks concerning this, as in “Who needs that? Let’s just try to improve this lifetime.” That’s a big mental block, isn’t it, for going deeper? So we have to be open enough to really look deeply into this and build up some positive force, and so that, in a sense, moves us in the right direction.

The assumption here is that these preparatory practices will be beneficial – I’ll use the term that’s always used in the Dharma – at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. Right? Not only these preparatory practices but the ngondro as well – beneficial at the beginning, the middle, and the end. So let us try to look at these six and get some general… think about, analyze, how can this be used on a practical level, realistically, in terms of the way that people are now who are interested in Dharma.

The First Practice: Sweeping and Cleaning the Meditation Room

The first of the six: sweep the place where you’re going to do practice; toss out the garbage. This is something that is emphasized over and over again. Why would you want to clean your room? Well, it’s a way of showing respect. It’s showing respect to the teachings and what you’re actually doing and respect to yourself in doing this. If what you have around you is chaotic and dirty, it tends to affect your mind, and so your mind becomes a little bit chaotic. If everything is orderly and neat and clean, the mind tends to be more orderly and clean.

Think about that. Is that true? You see, this is the process that you always have to do. Don’t just take a point in the teaching and say “Oh yeah, yeah” or at best write it down – most people don’t even write it down (or text it to somebody) – but think about it: “Is this true? Does it make any sense?” This is what I was explaining yesterday that we do with this many-year-long lam-rim thing. Every single point we look at and examine: “Does it make any sense, or is this just nonsense?” If you think it’s nonsense or you don’t even consider whether it’s nonsense or it makes sense, what benefit does it have? Why are you studying it?

A perfect example: Here in Moscow you have probably one of the worst traffic conditions of any city in the world. When you are stuck in traffic and it’s all chaotic and nothing is moving and every car is trying to change lanes, and so on, what is your state of mind? Do you feel calm and open and clear? Or does it affect your mind? Think about that. Then it becomes clear, I think, that when things are chaotic around you, your mind gets chaotic, you get nervous – it’s not a calm state externally or internally – they affect each other. And even if we don’t get upset and our mind isn’t going crazy in the traffic, it’s oppressive; you feel heavy. It’s not that you feel light and uplifted by the traffic, do you?

So sweep the room, clean the room – or vacuum, or whatever you do – and make everything neat and orderly. I do this every single day in the room that I meditate in and in my office where I work. Every single day I do that without fail, like you brush your teeth. And while you do that, don’t just be the janitor; try to transform it as well. You’re not the cleaning lady. So we imagine that the dirt or dust is our unawareness – so-called ignorance – unawareness of reality, cause and effect, and so on, and the broom is the understanding of voidness. Then once you collect all the dust, you transform it with OM AH HUM into the nectar of deep awareness, then the understanding of voidness, and then you feed it to Yama, the Lord of Death, in his mouth. He’s the garbage can.

That’s the Real Thing version of it as Serkong Rinpoche used to teach, but obviously that’s not really very easy to do. If we don’t have some understanding of voidness and we don’t understand this whole transformational process in tantra, we might find it a little bit silly or artificial. So what would be a more acceptable preliminary version of this, Dharma-lite version of this? Well, just simply think of the dirt as the dullness and chaos, and so on, in your mind and in your emotions, and we’re sweeping that away with correct understanding, and then we try to have a more positive attitude.

If you view the obstacles and so on as a horrible enemy and magnify how terrible it is and “How terrible I am for being like that,” this can cause a big problem. That’s guilt. It’s like the dirt. “Dirt’s so horrible. Eww! Get it out of here.” Right? What is indicated here is that somehow you transform it. So you say that “Well, okay, I have these obstacles, and there is this dullness,” and so on, but in a sense one has a… How to describe it? It’s like a sense of equanimity. Equanimity doesn’t mean that you don’t do anything about it, but you’re not upset about it.

It’s like for instance with the sufferings of old age – which I experience – and what happens? Your eyesight diminishes. Your hearing diminishes. Your short-term memory weakens. You walk into a room and you forget what you walked into the room to get. And people’s names, forget it! They’re difficult. You’re not going to remember people’s names. So you can think “Oh, this is so terrible” and “I’m so bad for forgetting and for being like this,” and you get angry with yourself, and it’s a very negative state of mind. It leads to depression. Well, what do you do? The attitude that is helpful here is “Nothing special. What do I expect with getting old (older)?” And with a friendly attitude toward it, you deal with it and compensate and try to use little tricks to remember things, and so on.

My own private guideline instruction is that to remember people’s names – I use this all the time – I go through the alphabet and sound out in my mind the first letter of the alphabet, etc., and usually the letter that the person’s name begins with sounds familiar, and then I remember the name (not all the time but a great deal of the time). I thought I’d share that with you.

The point is to then, with a friendly attitude, you deal with it. You apply some sort of opponent. The same thing with cleaning the room. “I am cleaning away all this dullness in my mind and trying to get my mind sharp, and so on. And okay, I accept it. This is going to be there every day.” And you deal with it; you throw it out. That transforms it from the idea of this being so horrible and dirty to a more beneficial state of mind. So don’t just be the cleaning lady.

The texts mention five benefits:

1. Your own mind becomes clean and tidy and neat. This is what I was explaining.

2. And so will others’ minds who enter your room, your space. So it’s being respectful to others who might visit you. You don’t just welcome them into chaos and dirt.

3. The deities and protectors will be pleased and happy to visit. In other words, if you were inviting a really special, special guest – your teacher or somebody really, really important (your mother, for example) – you would want to clean up your house. They would be more pleased to come. Be respectful to them. Right? Your mother wouldn’t be pleased if she went to your apartment and saw it was an absolute filthy mess, so the Buddhas wouldn’t be pleased either when you are inviting them in your visualization.

The last two advantages are a little bit difficult on a Dharma-lite level:

4. You build up the positive force to be reborn with a handsome body.

5. And you build up the positive force to be reborn in a pure-land Buddha-field (dag-zhing).

In other words, if you make everything around you very pleasing, you yourself will be pleasing in terms of what you look like to others.

Just one last point before we break. His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasizes not only the importance of this type of cleaning before you do any practice, but he says that he washes his hands and face before ever reading a book, taking a book. And before doing any meditation practice, he also washes his hands and face out of respect for what he is doing. This is a very helpful guideline – respect, neat, clean.

Let’s end here for this morning, and then we’ll continue after lunch.

Whatever positive force and understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Thank you.