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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 1: Getting Started > The Six Preparatory Practices and Advice Concerning Ngondro Preliminary Practices > Session Five: Advice Concerning Cleansing Negative Potentials and Building Up Positive Force

The Six Preparatory Practices and Advice Concerning Ngondro Preliminary Practices

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, November 2012

Session Five: Advice Concerning Cleansing Negative Potentials and Building Up Positive Force

Unedited Transcript
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We have been discussing the preliminary practices (ngondro) just in general, but we have turned our attention primarily to the six preparatory practices that we would do before each session of doing a ngondro practice and before any session of meditation. With these six preparatory practices – since yesterday we had to stop right in the middle of explaining the eightfold posture, then perhaps we can just pick up where we left off.

Remember we discussed that first we need to:

  • Sweep and clean the place where we are meditating – toss out the garbage – and set up representations of a Buddha’s body, speech, and mind.
  • Take care about obtaining offerings without hypocrisy and setting them up in a beautiful arrangement.
  • And then arrange a proper seat, and then do prostration, and then sit down with the proper posture.

Now, there are a few points that I think would be helpful to mention before we go back to the posture.

Setting Our Motivation

One thing is that you’ll notice that this says first you do prostration and then you sit down. And what will come next is that you clear the mind (so focus on the breath), and then you do refuge and bodhichitta. Although it doesn’t specifically state this here, I’ve found from my experience that when people, before a teaching or before meditation, just do prostration without anything before that and then sit down, the prostration is quite mechanical. So because it says to sit down first and then focus on the breath and then the refuge and bodhichitta, I think that this indicates that one also would need to do something like that before that initial prostration; otherwise you have no motivation.

The whole point of focusing on the breath is to get your mind in a neutral state – what’s called unspecified (it’s not specified by Buddha to be either constructive or destructive) – and on that basis, then you can generate a positive state of mind. If you just try to generate a positive state of mind on the basis of starting with your mind all jumbled with the busyness of the day or of the traffic of getting here, and so on, then it’s very difficult. So first a neutral state, which is attained through just focusing on the breath, and then the positive motivation. Therefore in the manner in which I teach, I have added this preliminary or preparatory step of focusing on the breath and setting the motivation before doing the initial prostration and sitting down. One can repeat it again, of course, in the proper order. I think there’s no fault in doing it twice.

What we want to try to avoid is having our practice become mechanical, and that is very, very, very easy to have – a mechanical type of practice in which there’s very little feeling. You just sort of rush through it because you feel – for whatever reason – obligated to do it, you would feel guilty if you didn’t do it, or it becomes such a strong habit it’s like brushing your teeth and you wouldn’t think not to do it but nevertheless there’s no feeling in it. Once your practice becomes mechanical and you’ve built up a habit of doing mechanical type of practice, it’s very hard to break that habit.

So if you’re just starting out, try to be careful not to establish a habit of doing mechanical practice with no feeling behind it. Because it’s very easy to get into that habit. Why? Because our lives are very busy. We don’t have very much time. You have to get ready in the morning and go to work or take care of the kids. You want to get through the practice, and even though you have this very strong intention that you’re always going to do the practice every day, the tendency is that you want to rush through it and get it finished as quickly as possible because there are so many other things you have to do during the day. This is the reality that we have to deal with. This is why it’s important to be able to generate the motivation, the intention, the feeling, etc., instantly. Obviously it’s something that needs to be there all the time on some sort of an almost unconscious level (I think we can use that word).

We talk about unlabored bodhichitta (rtsol-med byang-sems), and all these various practices have a labored (rtsol-bcas) stage and an unlabored (rtsol-med) stage. “Labored” means that you have to work yourself up to the feeling by going through the steps – everybody’s been my mother, they’ve been so kind to me, etc., etc. And eventually – the unlabored state – you can just generate whatever state of mind it is that you’re trying to work yourself up to; you don’t have to go through the line of reasoning or building up to lead to it. Of course when you’re unfamiliar, you have to really work with each stage to gain familiarity with each step. But the next stage is that you’re able to go through the sequence – you still have to build up to the state, bodhichitta or compassion or whatever, but you’re able to go through the sequence very quickly. I think this is very important to keep in mind because otherwise you think of this big contrast between the labored state and the unlabored state and tend to miss the fact that there’s a gradual path of familiarity that leads to this unlabored state, one of being more and more able to generate these states with less and less contemplation (in other words, you do it more quickly and actually get a feeling).

So how do you do that? The reality is that our lives are very busy. We don’t have time. We have to accept that that is the reality. So you have to take advantage – turn negative circumstances into positive ones – take advantage of the situation.

In a busy city like this, Moscow, you have, for most people, a very large chunk of time that is involved with actually getting from one place to another – whether you’re going by metro or you’re going by car – through this unbelievable traffic here. Use that time constructively. Some people have an electronic reader, and so they read. I mean, obviously you can’t do that when you’re driving, but if you’re on the metro and you can somehow keep your balance… But I’ve ridden on your metros. They’re unbelievably crowded, and so it’s not so easy to have a reader, and you’d have to hold it like this because people are right on top of you. So the thing is to use that time to meditate, to think, not just stand there like a zombie or complain about it being so crowded and like that. Use that time: “Everybody here in the metro has been my mother. They’ve been so kind.” Or “We’re all equal. Everybody wants to be happy. Everybody wants to get to their destination quickly. Nobody enjoys being in this crowded metro. Nobody enjoys being in the traffic jams.” If I’m doing a boring job and my work seems to be boring and meaningless – well, everybody else in the office probably feels the same thing as well, so we’re all equal.

That is the only way to be able to make progress living in the type of busy societies that we live in. You have to change – transform – these so-called negative circumstances into positive ones, because it’s only during the day that you’re ever going to have time to be able to work on these more positive attitudes. And the bonus that you get from doing that is that your experience in the traffic, in the crowded metro, or in the boring office becomes much more productive, much more pleasant, much more constructive; it’s not a torture.

This is where self-respect comes in very strongly. We’re in the traffic jam, we’re in the crowded metro, and we’re not very happy being there; we’re very dissatisfied. Either that or what often happens is you just turn off; you become like a zombie. And then you think “Do I want to be like that? Am I enjoying this?” If you have self-respect – a sense of self-confidence and self-worth, and so on – then you have this sense that “I don’t need to be like that. I would like to be in a more positive state of mind.” Although it’s not quite a Dharmic way of saying it, it’s like “I deserve to be happy. I don’t deserve to be miserable in this situation.” We won’t get into the philosophical background of deserving and not deserving. That’s a whole different discussion. (Like you have to earn the right to be happy. I mean, that’s not the point here.) I’m just talking about how we work ourselves up into actually transforming the situation. Otherwise you just stand there like a zombie, or you’re in the traffic like a zombie.

But don’t go to the other extreme. You see these people – I don’t know how you would say this in Russian, but they have this expression in English “to bliss out.” You’re “Oh, it’s so fantastic. It’s a Buddha-field!” and you’re completely off in fantasy land. You don’t want to go to that extreme either, because the conventional truth is that you are in a traffic jam and you have to deal with it. So this blissing out is almost like being high on some psychedelic drug during this thing, and this is a danger that one has to avoid. Don’t use the Dharma as some psychedelic drug to go off into bliss (“It’s so wonderful!”) One has to keep one’s feet on the ground, as we say, with reality. And when you transform it, it’s not that you leave a negative situation. You are changing, but still you have to deal with the difficult situation.

Cleansing Negative Potentials and Building Up Positive Force

So even though I started this discussion by saying “Let’s go immediately into the eightfold posture where we left off,” I have not succeeded in doing that, I’m sorry. But there’s one more thing that I would like to share with you, which I think it is quite important. You read these various teachings, and you see “Well, if you offer the water that is clean, your mind will become clean” and all of that, and for many of us it’s either hard to take that seriously or we think this is a load of rubbish, this is propaganda, or you bliss out (“Oh, it’s so wonderful”). So one needs to really study very carefully the teachings on karma and to understand them.

Karma is dealing with, basically, compulsion. Right? There’s a compulsiveness about our behavior. It’s like a force that, without any control, drives us to act in a negative or a positive way. So when I was speaking about why don’t you lie, why don’t you cheat and steal – well, it doesn’t feel right, we were saying. Yesterday I described the mental factor that would support this, which is a sense of self-dignity (“I have too much respect for myself to act in this type of negative way”). So there’s some ethical discipline there, which is a state of mind that would refrain from something. That’s discipline. But now we could look at the same phenomenon from the point of view of karma. And from a karmic point of view, we’re talking about there’s just this automatic force or drive, like a compulsion, to act properly – to not cheat, to not lie.

So when people ask me in terms of why I am so obsessed with working on my website – I mean, I work on it all the time – am I thinking compassion (“All beings – they’re all my mother. They’re suffering so much. I have to do this”)? To be honest, no, but it’s an underlying consideration. But if I look at my life and the way that it has gone, it’s clearly karmic force. There is a compulsion that drives me to do this. There’s nothing else that I want to do. So with no effort whatsoever, I automatically want to do this, and I do this without any resentment or hesitation. As I was saying, I can’t wait to wake up in the morning to be able to continue working on the website, making more and more material available.

This I think is an example of what they’re talking about in the texts when they talk about positive force and the ripening of positive force. The way that karma ripens is that you want to do something – so that’s a mental factor – and then there’s that force, that drive, that takes you into the action. So what we want to do with our Dharma practice is to build up more and more of this positive force so that automatically, whether in this lifetime or in future lifetimes, nothing else is going to come to our mind to do. You want to work on improving yourself. It doesn’t make any sense to you whatsoever to do anything else in life. That’s positive karma.

Now, of course that could be directed in a samsaric type of way, that I want to be the best gymnast or the best at computer games, or something like that, or make the most money. That’s why the dedication is in terms of liberation and enlightenment. What you try to do is to reinforce this positive force. So when it’s coming automatically because of previous karma, try to amplify it – and not just be mechanical about it, but amplify it with a positive Dharmic drive, motivation, behind it.

Now it becomes very interesting, because if you look at the course of a lifetime, in a lifetime you are born with a tremendous amount of both positive and negative karmic potentials and tendencies. We all are. Come on. We’re samsaric beings. And as Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey always used to say, if you look at yourself objectively in terms of how many positive things have we done in our life and how many negative things, how many positive thoughts and how many negative thoughts, surely the negative outweighs the positive. So in your life… I mean, what I’ve noticed, at least in my life, is that both of them are ripening, the positive and the negative, so there’s an automatic drive to… In my case, nobody ever had to discipline me to study or to learn. That was all that I wanted to do from being a tiny little child. My nickname from when I was four years old was “Professor.” So that’s the positive force that it is automatically ripening. It just feels right. “This is what I want to do. There’s nothing else that I want to do.” On the other hand, there’s the negative potential. So I was very self-centered, very selfish, and very arrogant.

So this is the challenge of a lifetime, it’s to recognize that this negative aspect – the selfishness, arrogance, self-centeredness, etc. – this is the block; this is the hindrance. If you can weaken that more and more, then that positive drive that you have will be able to function much more strongly (and of course supplemented by studying, learning more – in terms of Dharma aspects and so on – so that we can increase this positive force). But I think in the beginning it’s that both of these are working together, and that is exactly what preliminaries and preparatory practices are intended for. You have to weaken those negative tendencies, whether it’s a mental block in terms of understanding something or an emotional block or an emotional hindrance – like being very self-centered (“Oh, I’m so smart”) etc. – and the more that you weaken that, the positive force can become stronger and purer. And you can direct that positive force not in a samsaric way – “I’m going to become a great Harvard professor” – but more in terms of a Dharma motivation and a Dharma aim. This is my experience. And when we read about these things that “You offer the water and it’s cool, you’ll be able to keep ethical discipline. And if it’s smooth, your understanding will be smooth,” and so on, then you have to think of the teachings of karma. Okay, what are the various ways or forms in which karmic potentials and tendencies ripen, the aftermath of the behavior done in this compulsive way? Right?

And what I forgot to add was that when you’re doing positive things, you don’t want to it to be a neurotic compulsive positive. “I’ve got to be the best, because” – it’s a big ego trip. And “I have to be perfect” – a perfectionist. This sort of attitude. That also you need to break down so that the positive actions that you’re doing are not ego-based and neurotic because there’s “I have to be the best.”

The aftermath of karma ripens into, well, feeling happy, unhappy. But because we’ve built up so much positive and negative tendencies, of course it’s going to go up and down. Sometimes you’re going to feel happy, sometimes unhappy. And the intensity of it could be quite low, or it could be quite strong. Nothing special. Lama Yeshe said it very nicely: what do you expect from samsara? Very helpful phrase. You expect everything to be perfect and nice? Come on.

Also what ripens are your aggregates in a future lifetime, so:

  • What you are experiencing.
  • Things happening back to you similar to what you’ve done before (and then you repeating).
  • The environment.
  • The way that material objects and so on – what your experience of them is going to be.

Okay, so you offer this clean, sparkling, refreshing water – not some water filled with chemicals from the city, right? – and this purity of the water, you treat with great respect, and you want to offer that to enlightenment, basically, the Buddhas. The Buddhas aren’t thirsty. I mean, they don’t need to drink. So through the Buddhas, you’re offering it to all beings. That’s the whole point. So we have this – it’s almost like a law of symmetry, in a sense, that because you’re doing something that is clean and pure and wanting to offer that to others, it ripens in terms of your own aggregates, your own mind, being clean and pure, similar to what you are offering. This is the way that it works in terms of talking about the benefits of these various aspects. So you have to think about that: “Does that make any sense?”

That’s why I was mentioning that this karmic force, that’s like a compulsive drive… Compulsive gives the idea that it’s neurotic. It can be nonneurotic, although that’s quite difficult (until you’re an arhat, it’s not going to be totally nonneurotic). But this drive, this automatic drive, is also there in terms of your mind being more clear naturally, spontaneously. This is what we’re aiming for with these practices. That’s why you really have to think in terms of the Real Thing Dharma, that in future lives – maybe it will help in this lifetime, but especially in future lives – automatically you’re going to have a clear mind; automatically you’re going to be generous. A lot of kids – you see this with little children – they stick something in their mouth, and then they give it to you. Where’s that coming from? So, like that, we want to build up these habits so that automatically there’s going to be this drive, this force, that’s going to make our minds automatically clear and we don’t have to work on that.

If we make these types of offerings and set up the water bowls and all of this mechanically – which is very easy to do, because there’s that automatic force that you just, of course, do it – the further energy that will come from this, the further force that will come from this, will be fairly weak. If consciously you are aware and have sort of a dedication (“May this ripen into not only my own mind being more clear and pure but everybody’s”), then that force, the aftermath of it – the force of the aftermath after it – will be stronger, and the ripening of it will be stronger. This is talking about the strength of the ripening. That has to do with how automatically you’re going to want to do a certain type of behavior.

What we want is that automatically, from being a child, “This is the direction I want to go in. There’s nothing else that I want to do.” And what convinced me about the Dharma was that I could not find any other explanation of why I was like that. Absolutely nothing that seemed to have to do with my parents, my family. Growing up in the 1950’s in America? Come on, there was nothing. But that force was so strong, I never wanted to do… I mean, just there it went in a straight line.

Maybe my example is fairly rare. But if you look at yourselves, you’re here. Why are you here? If you look at the qualities of a precious human rebirth, one of them is to be born instinctively without holding a negative antagonistic view. In other words, that means that you are open to the Dharma. Automatically you are driven to find out something about it. That’s a very important factor not to be minimized or trivialized. So you ask yourselves “Why am I interested in this?” And most of us I think would say “Because I’m interested.”

So that’s what you have to analyze. What does it mean to be instinctively, automatically, spontaneously interested in the Dharma? Or in anything? I mean, you could be interested in something worldly. But no, you’re here. You are automatically interested in the Dharma. And it’s not just group pressure, because not everybody comes, do they, who were subject to group pressure. Right? Some people will come to a Buddhist center or a Buddhist lecture, but many people will look at a website, read a book, something like that. Why are you interested in it? Why do you pick up this book? Why do you go to this website and look at it?

And even if you think in terms of a pop star mentality: There are certain Dharma teachers that people will flock to like a pop star. In fact even His Holiness the Dalai Lama, people will go to hear him like a pop star – because he’s so famous and they’re curious – but not everybody goes. The people who do go, why do they go? This is why I say that there are two forces that are underlying why somebody would go:

  • One is this sort of positive karmic drive that makes them automatically interested – even if it’s just curiosity, but it makes them automatically interested. So there’s the drive: “Well, of course I’m going to go.”
  • And then there is the negative one, which could be “Well, it’s cool to go.” Or there’s some sort of more samsaric motivation that is there. It’s not that you really want to learn what His Holiness is teaching or put it into practice, and so on. It’s more “Well, I’ll go see my friends who are there,” etc.

That’s why you need to work on weakening this more samsaric negative force that is going to be combining with the positive force that drives you automatically to go to these types of events. That’s the whole process – cleansing and building up. That’s what preliminaries are all about.

We always talk about cleansing and building up. Those are terms used alternatively for ngondro, for preliminary practices, and I think that we can start to understand now how that is a process that is not just preparation, constructive in the beginning. As in one of the prayers that Tsongkhapa wrote, “Constructive in the beginning, middle, and end,” it’s something that needs to be done and is descriptive of the entire path. So whether we’re talking about ngondro or these sorts of practices that we’re describing here, the six preparatory practices, this is the process that we are doing. While we’re doing all the other types of mediations, like on compassion and so on, we want to always have this process going on as the container for what we’re doing – purifying, cleansing, and building up positive force.

Even within one meditation session, you’re doing this twofold process at the beginning, the middle, and the end:

  • We do these six preparatory practices, so already you’re doing some sort of cleansing, some sort of building-up – cleansing of negativity, build up the positive aspects.
  • Then also in the main part of the session, whether it’s ngondro, whether it’s another type of meditation. Let’s say you’re meditating on compassion, so cleansing selfishness and self-cherishing and building up cherishing others.
  • And then at the end, the dedication. Not dedicating this for selfish reasons – “May I be loved by everybody and everybody really like me because of my compassion” – but “May it enable me to benefit all beings, and may everybody benefit from this.” So that’s also a cleansing and a building-up.

The Sitting Posture: The Eightfold Posture of Vairochana (continued)

So that may be enough. Now we must get back to the eightfold posture before we need to break for lunch. So the legs were in the crossed position – the full vajra one if we can do it – hands in your lap, spine straight.

4. Teeth, lips, and tongue. That’s the fourth part.

You don’t want your teeth clenched like you’ve just drunk four espressos – nnnngh, like that. And also not your lips clenched but your lips relaxed. And your tongue touching the upper part of the palate – not all the way back so that you choke. Sort of the mouth goes like this on the inside if these were the teeth, and so sort of that point where it’s making a curve. The purpose of that is to minimize salivation. Otherwise you’re sitting there and you’re drooling, and it’s not very nice. You have to swallow all the time – that is the distraction – because your mouth is producing more and more saliva. This will minimize the amount of saliva that we produce, so it minimizes how much you have to swallow.

5. Then the fifth one is your head. The head should be slightly down – not all the way down, not all the way up. If it’s too far down, you get dizzy.

6. And the eyes. It’s always recommended that the eyes be half open, they say, looking in the direction of your nose. Then some people think that means cross-eyed, looking at the tip of your nose. It doesn’t mean that. It means looking in that direction, so looking down toward the floor.

There are many reasons for not meditating with your eyes closed. The most general reason of course is that with your eyes closed it’s much easier to get sleepy and fall asleep, although it can help to avoid distraction from external sources.

His Holiness points out that with your eyes closed you have distraction from internal sources. It’s very interesting. If you notice – now, you have to be quite observant – when your eyes are closed, there are some little sparkling flashes of light that are there. He says this is the internal distraction and what you want to avoid by not having your eyelids closed while you’re meditating, particularly when you’re trying to gain concentration.

A more general one that I like to emphasize is that if you have to close your eyes in order to quiet down and generate a positive state of mind, that’s a big block for being able to do that in ordinary life – if you get into the habit that you have to close your eyes in order to calm down or in order to feel compassion for somebody. That just doesn’t work in real life. I must say I’ve never seen that in a text, but it makes quite a lot of sense to me.

7. The seventh one is that the shoulders should be down, not up at attention.

That is really quite important in terms of everyday life. When we are very tense and stressed, our shoulders tend to be up at attention, and there’s all this tension in your neck, and so on. And if you can become aware of how you’re holding your shoulders during the day or during a conversation with somebody, put them down.

It’s the same thing with your facial expression. There are some people who are stone-faced, no expression whatsoever, which is very disconcerting when you’re having a conversation with somebody. There are others that – even when you’re not in conversation, you’re sitting there and you have this frown and all this tension in your forehead, your eyes, your mouth, and so on. Try to relax the muscles. The more relaxed your muscles are, the more relaxed your mind will be. Put the shoulders down. If you have a stone face, it doesn’t mean that now you become some sort of mimic in a circus and make all sorts of artificial expressions, but try to be a little bit more human.

Also, I don’t know about you, but if you use a mouse on the computer and your arm is up like this, and especially if your seat is low and the desk is high, that causes unbelievable stress in your shoulder and your neck. The best solution I found for that is to have your chair higher so that your arm is down rather than up using the mouse.

8. The eighth part is the breathing, which is not to hyperventilate but to just breathe normally through your nose – not too quickly, not too slowly.

It’s after that that you do a breathing exercise. There are many ones that you can do, either just focusing on the breath:

  • By the nose if you’re feeling a bit dull and so you want to focus a little bit higher on the breath.
  • Or down by the navel, with the stomach going in and out, which centers you more if you’re feeling a bit stressed.

There are many ways of just focusing on the breath itself. There’s also counting the breath. The point is it’s not an exercise in – you know the Count in Sesame Street? – just counting. But usually one counts just up to eleven or seven or twenty-one (it doesn’t really matter), and then you can repeat.

Then there’s also the nine rounds of breathing, and there’s a very complex visualization that goes with that. When His Holiness teaches this to large groups when he’s giving teachings, he totally leaves out the visualization. What does that indicate? That indicates that if you put too much emphasis on the visualization, you defeat the purpose of the thing, because you’re worrying “Oh, I can’t get the visualization exactly right. Is this channel going there and that channel going there?” and you get really nervous and upset.

We have all these tantric visualizations of visualizing the process of death (we start out with the deity, and all these sort of things), and His Holiness says that unless you are some super, super practitioner, forget about that when you’re dying, because you’re just going to get very nervous and upset that you’re not able to do the visualization properly – “How am I doing the visualization? Does it look like this? And now this step” – and you will die in a very unsettled state of mind. He says it’s much better to focus on bodhichitta when you’re dying: “May I continue to follow the path. May I be able to continue helping others, be with the spiritual teachers,” and so on. Don’t worry. Don’t make such a big deal about the visualizations, because they’re difficult. It doesn’t mean that the visualizations are totally unimportant. It just means that that’s not the main emphasis.

So with these nine rounds, how His Holiness explains it is that you start with your hands moving up your knees, and then you put the fist, slap the fist, into the armpit. Then with the one finger [blocking your nostril], breathe in slowly; then breathe out the other nostril. It’s not that you’re switching hands – that’s very distracting – but like that for three times. Then the other one three times, like that. Then with your hands on your lap, going like this and like that [in a fist, opening and closing], breathe in and out through both nostrils. And that’s enough. You don’t have to do this complicated visualization in order to bring the mind to an unspecified state, a neutral state – which is the whole point here – for then being able to generate a positive state of mind. Then you have to switch hands (some people say they should be like this and then like that).

So let’s take our break here, and then we’ll continue.