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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 1: Getting Started > The Six Preparatory Practices and Advice Concerning Ngondro Preliminary Practices > Session Seven: The Last Three Preparatory Practices and Questions on the Preliminary Practices (Ngondro)

The Six Preparatory Practices and Advice Concerning Ngondro Preliminary Practices

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, November 2012

Session Seven: The Last Three Preparatory Practices and Questions on the Preliminary Practices (Ngondro)

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, November 2012

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:44 hours)

The Third Practice: Arranging a Proper Seat, Posture, Refuge and Bodhichitta (continued)

As I was mentioning last time – before we ran out of space with the video – the bodhichitta aim is aiming at our own individual enlightenments which have not yet happened but which can happen on the basis of Buddha-nature (so the purity of the mind and the two networks of positive force and deep awareness, the so-called collection of merit and wisdom). If we are convinced that the goal is attainable in terms of the natural purity of the mind and so on, then the various Buddha-nature factors will be causes in relation to that (a cause can only be a cause in relation to the possibility of there being an effect).

Actually the deeper that you think, aside from the whole emotional side of it (compassion, love, and so on), the bodhichitta aim requires a tremendous amount of understanding – based on this safe direction of the true stopping and the true pathway leading to it being possible – understanding the cause and effect (and the voidness of cause and effect) in terms of how the various factors on my own mental continuum can act as causes for bringing that about. This becomes a very deep, profound topic, which we unfortunately don’t have time to go into. But when we speak in terms of bodhichitta, the conventional bodhichitta and the deepest bodhichitta, the deepest one is the understanding of voidness. Really that is very important to have in order for the conventional bodhichitta (aiming for our individual enlightenments) to be firm.

Now, the guru and Buddha in front of us, inseparable from each other, represent that aim of what we are striving for. This is very interesting. You have this comment from Gampopa: when I realized the inseparability of my own mind and the spiritual teacher and Buddha, then I understood mahamudra.

Then after reaffirming our safe direction and bodhichitta aim (this is from Serkong Rinpoche’s instructions):

  • We can imagine that a duplicate of Buddha Shakyamuni dissolves into us.
  • We transform into a Shakyamuni Buddha with a HUM in our heart.
  • We send out various rays of light, and this purifies and transforms and brings all beings to a state of Buddhahood, and they all transform into Shakyamuni (so we imagine them all in the form of Shakyamuni Buddha).

Then we realize, we understand, that this is just a visualization: they’re not yet enlightened (neither are we, for that matter). So why aren’t they enlightened? Because they don’t have equanimity, to start with. So this leads, in a logical progression, to the meditation on the four immeasurables:

1. Immeasurable equanimity. “How wonderful it would be if they had equanimity. May they have equanimity. I will definitely bring it to them. Inspire me,” etc.

So the usual progression, but now starting with equanimity. Remember I told you that there are many different ways of ordering the four immeasurable attitudes practice.

2. Then immeasurable love. “May they all be happy and have the causes of happiness.”

3. “May they all be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.” So immeasurable compassion.

4. And not just the usual type of sufferings, but “May they attain the bliss of enlightenment and never be parted from that.” So immeasurable joy.

And then the more usual instructions that you find – and then following from that, the next step:

  • The visualized Buddha in front of us gets smaller and smaller and enters between our brows and disappears like melted butter. That’s a less tantric flavor of practice.
  • The alternative visualization is that the Buddha raises up, and when we visualize the bountiful field in the next step, the Buddha comes back down and merges with it.

So there are two variants.

The Fourth Practice: Visualizing a Bountiful Field for Spiritual Growth

The fourth of the six preparatory practices is to visualize a bountiful field for spiritual growth (tshogs-zhing, Skt. punyakshetra). That’s usually called the merit field, but there is a meaning to that: It’s a field in which we plant more and more seeds of our positive force to grow. And it’s a bountiful field; it will yield an abundant crop. Again this can be an extremely complicated visualization or just a simpler one (with our root guru in the form of a Buddha on a throne, like we had previously).

Since we don’t have very much time, I won’t go into terribly much detail here – well, maybe just one little point. The posture of the Buddha is that the right hand is in the earth-touching posture – so it’s down, touching the earth – and this is to indicate Buddha’s defeat of Mara. Maras are the offspring of the gods. When we talk about the maras, maras are – well, in one way you could call them demons, but also they are strong interferences. Mara actually comes from the Sanskrit word mrta, which is “death.”

So on the one hand you have Mara in the form of all these interferences that came to Buddha when he was under the bodhi tree manifesting enlightenment, which is a wonderful example, by the way. You would think that Buddha had built up such enormous positive force by the time that he was ready to become enlightened that he wouldn’t have interferences so strong like Mara, the way that it’s depicted – with the dancing girls and the whole bit. But the stronger positive thing that you’re trying to do, the more interferences that it tends to bring about, and the really great bodhisattva is the one that overcomes that. So if we’re trying to do something positive and there are interferences, nothing special. Come on, think of the example of Buddha under the bodhi tree, or think of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the attitude of the Chinese toward him in terms of difficulties to overcome and how he deals with that and how he doesn’t get depressed. So never think “Oh, poor me. I have such troubles.” Compared to His Holiness the Dalai Lama dealing with the Chinese, come on, our troubles are trivial.

And the symbolism here – not the symbolism but what it represents – is the Buddha overcoming the four maras, the four strong interferences. He touches the earth, so he was able to overcome the maras, or the offspring of the gods. Here it’s referring to the specific incident in Buddha Shakyamuni’s life. In general, the offspring of the gods is referring to non-Buddhist conflicting views that might throw you off.

Then the Buddha has the begging bowl in his lap, holding it in his left hand, and this has the three nectars. Well, what does that word nectar (bdud-rtsi, Skt. amrita) mean? It doesn’t convey the real flavor – the flavor of nectars? – of the word. Remember Serkong Rinpoche said to milk the meaning out of each of the words, like milking a cow – the Indian image of the wishing-granting cow – so you get all the fantastic things from it. Amrita is the Sanskrit word. Mrita is again this word “death,” mara, and with the prefix a, so it is overcome – so these are demon-defying nectars. And Tibetans translate it with a two-syllable word; one syllable is the word for mara (bdud).

The nectars are:

  • Medicine to overcome the mara of the aggregates (so sickness).
  • The nectar of long life, which is to overcome the mara of death.
  • And the nectar of deep awareness to overcome the mara of the disturbing emotions.

So the deeper that you go into what everything represents, the more that you see so much of the path is included in all these little aspects.

The Fifth Practice: the Seven-Limb Practice and Mandala Offering

Then the fifth preparatory practice is offering the seven-branch (or the seven-limb) prayer and a mandala offering.

The Seven-Limb Practice

There are many versions of this seven-limb practice. We have one coming from Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland. A very commonly practiced one is the one from Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior.

[See: Seven-Limb Prayer.]

We spoke about this before in relation to the practice of The Inseparability of the Spiritual Master and Avalokiteshvara, these seven limbs, just in brief.

Prostration

Prostration. You imagine that your body multiplies into an enormous number of bodies and they’re all prostrating. Each of these seven [limbs] overcomes a certain type of disturbing emotion. So this overcomes, helps us to overcome or counter, pride and conceit. “I’m so wonderful. I’m not going to bow down.” This type of attitude.

Making Offerings

Making offerings. We try to do this with the Samantabhadra type of offerings. So from our heart we emanate a Samantabhadra who is holding a jewel, and from his heart he emanates two Samantabhadras (each of them holding a jewel), and from each of them two more Samantabhadras, and then it gets enormous, as in the subtle yoga on the generation stage of anuttarayoga tantra. We emanate them in order and bring them back in order. Serkong Rinpoche always would explain things on this very complex “Real Thing” level, always with an idea that this is in conjunction with more advanced practice. So that’s how we get this type of visualization for Samantabhadra offerings.

I think that that actually is very helpful because it gives us some sort of… First of all, it helps very much with arrogance, thinking that “Oh, it’s going to be so simple. I can do that.” You present something that’s really difficult to do, and it’s not only a challenge but “This is something that could in fact take my entire life to be able to do properly.” So the fact you are going to do this every day is not stupid because it is hard to do and so you will need to practice and develop yourself greater and greater. It develops this perseverance, this joyful perseverance, which, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says – what gives him the greatest strength is to think in terms of three zillion eons of building up positive force. If you think in terms of “Well, I’ll attain enlightenment in just one lifetime or three years” – this he calls Buddhist propaganda. It is very easy to think in terms of “I want to get a bargain. I don’t want to have to work so hard. And so I’ll get enlightenment cheap.” I mean, it is possible to attain enlightenment in three years – that’s not just complete nonsense – but it can be used as propaganda to try to get people to… I don’t know what. It attracts people because they think it’s easy. It’s not easy. The word propaganda – that’s from His Holiness; I’m not making that up.

A slightly more simple visualization for Samantabhadra offerings is: You emanate a Samantabhadra. He has a jewel in his hands. And from the jewel, infinite rays of light emanate forth, and each of them has the various offerings – the water bowls, flowers, incense, etc. Somewhat easier.

Making offerings helps to counter miserliness.

Admitting Shortcomings

Then next is the open admission of the mistakes and faults that we’ve made in the past, our previous destructive behavior, and applying the four opponents.

These four opponents are very, very important always to invoke:

Regret of our previous mistaken behavior. It’s not guilt but regret. “I really wish I hadn’t done that.” It’s not guilt, which is making a big solid thing out of what I did (“It’s so bad”), and for me, for having done it, “I’m so bad,” and then not letting go.

Then making the strong resolve that “I’m going to try not to repeat it again.” One of the guidelines for that is don’t make a promise – “For the rest of my life, I’m never going to do this again” – because probably you won’t be able to keep that. Start slowly: “For the next week, I’m not going to do that.” Then the next month, the next year, and extend the time that you’re going to really make an effort not to repeat the type of destructive behavior that you had done in the past.

This helps us to overcome in general the three poisonous attitudes:

  • Longing desire if we don’t have something. Attachment – if you have it, you don’t want to let go. And greed – you want even more. So there are these three aspects of this first poisonous attitude.
  • Then anger, hostility.
  • And naivety, being naive about either cause and effect or reality, not naive about what time is it.

This is the basis for why we act in a destructive way. We act under the influence of these poisonous attitudes. They poison our mind.

So (1) regret, (2) resolve not to repeat the action, then (3) counter it by again reaffirming the positive direction we’re going in life, the safe direction, and bodhichitta, and (4) counterbalance the negativity with more positive actions (and there’s a whole variety of them that can be used).

Rejoicing

Then the fourth of the seven branches is to rejoice in the positive things that others and ourselves have done. In terms of others, that’s ordinary beings, shravakas, pratyekabuddhas, bodhisattvas, and Buddhas. This overcomes jealousy.

I mean, when we talk about overcoming these disturbing emotions, what you try to do is to really examine yourself (do I have these disturbing emotions?) and try to see these and work with these types of practices not just in the meditation here. When you hear about somebody doing well or succeeding, and so on, notice you have this tendency to be jealous: “Oh, I wish I had done that” or “I wish that didn’t happen to them. I wish it happened to me,” and so on. That’s when you need to counter with rejoicing. Feel happy for them. Shantideva says: if you’re wishing everybody to become enlightened, what’s your problem if they succeed in some worldly thing?

Requesting Teachings

Then the fifth one is requesting the Buddhas and the teachers to teach. That helps us to overcome the tendency to abandon or discard the teachings. “Oh, I don’t need them. I know everything.”

Beseeching the Teachers Not To Pass Away

Then asking the teachers not to pass away. This helps us to overcome the shortcoming of abusing or despising our teachers – “Oh, I don’t like you” or “I don’t like the way that you’re teaching,” and so on – so then of course they would go away. Looking down on the teacher. “I don’t need the teacher.”

Dedication

Then the dedication to enlightenment of all beings. That helps us to prevent anger. Anger devastates the positive force that we build up. You build up some positive force, and you want to, in a sense, save it in the liberation or enlightenment folder and not have it in the samsaric folder, and you don’t want to… it’s not so much delete it as weaken it with anger.

We have two statements about this in the texts of the great Indian masters:

  • In Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, he says anger at a bodhisattva destroys the positive force of thousands of eons. In the commentaries it’s explained that this is specifically directing our anger at a bodhisattva of higher level of attainment than ourselves.
  • Chandrakirti, in his Engaging in Madhyamaka, the Middle Way, says that anger devastates hundreds of eons of positive force. According to the commentaries, this is when we’re a bodhisattva and we aim it at another bodhisattva of the same level of attainment as ourselves.

So thousands if the bodhisattva’s higher, hundreds if it’s the same level. That’s why you have this discrepancy of the number in these two texts.

This becomes actually a very difficult topic. First of all, from the texts it seems to be talking just about anger directed at bodhisattvas. And so then the question is: Does it destroy the positive force that I have built up in general, of everything? And I’ve heard one explanation that it is only devastating the positive force that was built up with that particular bodhisattva – that now, by getting angry at that particular bodhisattva, it devastates that positive force. That actually was the main explanation that I heard. Given beginningless lifetime and a finite number of beings, we’ve built up a tremendous amount of karma with everybody. So the karma is quite specific here.

So you need to differentiate between a commentarial explanation of a particular line in a text and general advice. General advice: don’t get angry with others, because it is going to devastate your positive force in general. When the text is giving these fantastic numbers, that’s quite a specific case. So differentiate those two; otherwise you freak out. “Oh, I got angry at my dog, and now I’ve blown it. I’ve ruined thousands of eons of positive force.” This is not using human intelligence to discriminate between when something applies and when it doesn’t apply. What is the context when a certain teaching applies, and when does it not apply? Know the context to apply teachings. Don’t get a fanatic version – that just getting angry with a mosquito is going to totally destroy thousands of eons of positive force (then there’s no hope for any of us).

The word that is used implies to devastate (bcom) the positive force. It doesn’t mean to delete it completely. It means that it will take a very much longer time for it to ripen and that when it does ripen, it will ripen with a much, much smaller force. That’s what the word means. So again you always have to look at the meaning of the words that are used, and often they will be translated with words that don’t quite convey the correct meaning. So when you’re puzzled by something, always ask the teacher what’s the definition of the word. Tibetan geshes can give you definitions if they are properly trained in debate. They have to memorize all the definitions.

Mandala Offering

Then we offer a mandala of request. There are tons of instructions about how to do that. This isn’t really the opportunity for being able to share that with you. But on one level we are offering the whole universe. “I want to give everything in order to be able to benefit others.” This is symbolized or represented by the mandala. Whether we imagine or represent the universe in the form of Mount Meru and the continents or in the form of the earth or the solar system or the galaxy or whatever, it doesn’t matter. The point is it’s everything.

Remember Tsongkhapa’s wonderful teachings on the practice of far-reaching generosity from his Lam-rim chen-mo (Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path). When we make a small offering as an aspiring bodhisattva, this is just a representation of offering everything to everyone. And so within that context of offering everything to everyone, I’m offering a bowl of water to my dog. That one thing that I am offering is representative of everything, and the dog is representative of all beings. So we train ourselves to have that scope with offering the mandala, where it actually is the whole universe and it’s to everybody.

On another level, if you look at the words of the mandala offering verse, we are also imagining that everything is a pure land, and so we are offering the circumstances of a pure land – like what arya bodhisattvas have as their environment when they receive teachings from Sambhogakaya. So we imagine “May everybody have the most perfect circumstances for study and practice.”

The Sixth Practice: Infusing Our Mental Continuum with Inspiration from the Lineage Masters

The sixth one is to infuse our mental continuum with the inspiration of the lineage masters in accordance with guideline instructions for making requests. So we request our spiritual master, the Buddha, to come and stay with me throughout not just my meditation session but all the time.

There are so many verses of requests that we have and so many practices, and often it’s translated as bless me for this or that. This again gives quite a misleading connotation. What we want is inspiration, and we’re opening ourselves up: inspire me, uplift me, brighten me. These are all the connotations of the word [byin-gyis rlabs] that is unfortunately translated as bless me.

I mean, it’s really funny when you think about it. The Buddhas are inspiring – I think you’d have to say that – because of their enlightening activity, trinley (’phrin-las). The enlightening activity is an enlightening influence. Actually it always describes in the texts that the Buddhas don’t have to do anything; just their very way of being inspires and uplifts everyone. So this is the enlightening activity (which I prefer to translate as the enlightening influence) of a Buddha. It’s not that Buddha’s going out and helping this one and that one – although there are emanations, obviously, that do something like that – but it’s an effortless thing on the side of a Buddha.

So it’s not that we have to request it because if we didn’t request it a Buddha would not exert this enlightening influence. The enlightening influence is like the sun; it’s shining all the time. It’s that by making a request, we’re opening up ourselves to receiving that enlightening influence. We hear in terms of teaching that you always have to request the teacher to teach – the teacher isn’t going to offer on his or her part; he only will teach when it’s requested. You have to understand that properly. A teacher is always teaching. Buddha is always exerting this enlightening influence. The sun is always shining. But we won’t receive that teaching unless we, in a sense, request, so open up. So that’s this making requests.

We request the guru to come, take the seat on the lotus and moon on top of our heads – Buddha’s everywhere, so this is just figuratively – to open up, be with me, take care of me with your bountiful kindness, and bestow on me your actual attainments of body, speech, and mind so I can become like you. So a replica of the Buddha in front comes and sits on the top of your head – it’s small, made of light, transparent, so it’s not “Oh, it’s so heavy” – and you request the Buddha in front to send waves of inspiration to you in the form of rays of light. It enters our heart, this light, fills our body with light, eliminates the darkness of unreceptive attitudes that we might have, mental obstacles. Then this Buddha in front dissolves into the replica on our head – in the actual ritual texts, again we do a short seven-limb practice and mandala offering – and then it stays there throughout our meditation session, on the top of our head, to sort of remind us to concentrate, don’t mentally wander, to be open and receptive to gaining insight, and to actually generate the various states of mind that we are working with in our meditation or, if we’re doing a session of ngondro, our preliminary practices.

Usually if you’re going to do a meditation session after that, you would do the Manjushri Prayer – that’s called Gang-loma (Gang blo-ma) – to gain inspiration (and there are various visualizations with that as well) and for our mind to become sharp.

[See: Praise to the Intelligent One (Manjushri Prayer, Gang-loma).]

For the rest of the day, we can also keep the guru on our head. If we’re doing a lot of ngondro prostrations, don’t get it too literal – the guru is going to fall off the top of my head if I do prostration. Your hair doesn’t fall off the top of your head when you do prostration, does it?

Serkong Rinpoche used to have these wonderful examples when people were worried about “Well, I’m going through the day, so how do I imagine that I’m in the form of this deity with all these arms and legs and so on.” He said, “You’re wearing your clothes all day long, aren’t you?” So whether you are aware of what your clothes look like and how you look, and so on, you still are wearing your clothes all day long, so you still are in the form of this Buddha-figure.

Anyway, there’s an alternative way, a variant, in which you could imagine that the guru on the top of your head comes to your heart.

Conclusion

This is the six-part preliminary and a very useful practice to do in some form or another in the beginning of our meditation session or the beginning of a session of preliminary practices. And you see this in all sadhanas as well, the long ones, that we always have the refuge and the bodhichitta and the lineage prayer and inspiration, and all these things – it’s always in the beginning.

Further Points about the Preliminary Practices (Ngondro)

Now, I have some questions here about the actual ngondro practices, and perhaps I can just try to go through them very quickly.

Common and Uncommon Preliminary Practices

We have common (mthun-mong-ba’i sngon-’gro) and uncommon preliminaries (mthun-mong ma-yin-pa’i sngon-’gro). Common just means shared between sutra and tantra practice. I think a much better way of translating it is shared and unshared; otherwise you think “Common. Eww, that’s low.” But it’s shared between sutra and tantra or unshared (just specifically for tantra).

The shared ones are basically what is called the lam-rim teachings in the Gelug tradition. We have the four thoughts that turn your mind to the Dharma, we have the separation from the four clingings – we have so many different ways of structuring the same material in the different Tibetan traditions. It doesn’t matter really which one we work with, but certainly we’re going to need – besides safe direction – renunciation, bodhichitta, and the understanding of voidness. That’s assumed, that we have refuge. So studying this material in these various traditions will give a little bit more detail about this, a little bit more detail about that. They all can supplement each other.

When I have asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama what’s the best order and way of teaching in the West to newcomers, His Holiness said that he prefers the Sakya approach, which is to structure this material in terms of the four noble truths – after all, that’s how Buddha first taught it – so first recognizing sufferings before you would ever think to do something about it.

And then the unshared ones, the ones that are specific preparation for tantra practice. On the basis of these common practices, these shared practices, one does these uncommon ones, these unshared ones. I think there’s a significance in saying that first you have the shared ones and then when you have this context of renunciation, bodhichitta, voidness, etc., and you have a motivation and you have secure safe direction, you do the unshared ones. Even in traditions in which basically you work on both at the same time (you start at the same time), I think that you really need to go back and do these unshared, uncommon preliminaries again after you have a firm basis of the shared ones. So you might need to do it twice – actually you might to do it many times – during your Dharma career.

In terms of these unshared ones: if we look at the various traditions, we find quite a large array of ones that can be done. Personally I think that, from a broader point of view, it makes absolutely no difference which type of preliminary practices (ngondro) you do. A specific one will make a close bond for you with a specific lineage. That is true. However, since all the lineages are leading to enlightenment, I don’t think it makes any difference which one we do. You can’t say that one is better than another.

The Nine Preliminary Practices in the Gelug Tradition

In the Gelug tradition, there are nine traditional ones (but that doesn’t mean you have to do all nine, or your teacher may ask suggest you do something else):

We have prostration first, and that is done while reciting the names of the thirty-five so-called Confession Buddhas and eight Medicine Buddhas. Serkong Rinpoche said you just recite all the names in a round. It isn’t that “Well, with each name, I have to do one prostration,” like that. It’s not tied to one prostration and to one name. You just go through, reciting the names, and while you’re doing that you’re prostrating. Otherwise you can get very confused and quite hung up in the rhythm of how you’re doing it and “Well, I have to pause now because I already said one name,” and so on. So don’t get caught up in that.

In some traditions, while you’re doing prostration you recite a seven-limb prayer. There are many different things that you can recite while doing prostration. So, as I say, ultimately I don’t think it makes any difference. You just do whatever is the particular lineage of practice of ngondro that you’re doing.

Then the second and third are done together in the Gelug tradition. There’s the mandala offering, and you say the mandala verse, and then you also say: “I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha all the way to a purified state. Whatever positive force I’ve built up from giving and so on, may that act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.” So that is refuge and bodhichitta together at the same time as the mandala offering. In some other lineages, these are all done separately, individually.

Then the next one is offering water bowls.

The fifth one is the guru yoga. In the Gelug tradition it’s done with Migtsema (dmigs-brtse-ma), this particular verse that first Tsongkhapa dedicated to his teacher – I think that was Rendawa – and then Rendawa, if I’m not mistaken, dedicated it back to Tsongkhapa. So whether you do the five-line version or the nine-line version – again, whatever your teacher recommends. I don’t think ultimately it makes any difference.

There are so many different guru yogas with so many different figures, whether you do it with Guru Rinpoche or Karma Pakshi (the Second Karmapa) or with Gampopa or Milarepa or Marpa or Virupa – I mean, there’s so many different ones. It doesn’t make any difference, I don’t think. On an ultimate level, what you want to do is merge, in a sense, your body, speech, and mind with that of the Buddha. Merge isn’t a good word. It’s yoke. So you have two things, and you join them. You still retain your individuality. So whoever is the figure in your lineage, this is the conduit through which you’re yoking yourself to enlightenment, as represented by the lineage guru.

If you’re going to do a guru-yoga practice in which you visualize or imagine the guru in the form of a lineage master, it will be very helpful if you know something about the life story of that lineage master and actually find the life story of that lineage master inspiring. It has to be inspiring; if it’s not inspiring, that’s not going to be very effective for you.

Then we have Vajrasattva practice as the next preliminary practice here in Gelugpa. And again there are various forms of Vajrasattva – a single deity, with partner or consort. With the mantra itself, there’s Vajrasattva (that’s basically Guhyasamaja, the main template or form of it), but there’s a Yamantaka version of it, there’s a Heruka version of it, there’s a Padma version of it (for Guru Rinpoche and Avalokiteshvara). Sometimes some of the lines are reversed, in a different order, within it. Same, same. Ultimately it doesn’t make any difference. Whichever one is recommended by your teacher and done in your lineage is fine. They’re all effective. Buddhism – many, many variants of absolutely everything.

Then there is Samayavajra, which is a figure coming from the Guhyasamaja tantra again, and this is for purifying any breaks that you might have in the close bond with the teacher.

And then there’s the making of these tsa-tsas, these little clay statues of various Buddha-figures. That’s actually very difficult. Where are you going to put all them, 100,000 of them?

You said it was Lama Zopa who came up with this method? Right. Some people are doing it where you somehow get lots and lots of ice-cube trays with a mold, and you make it with the water, and you freeze it, and afterwards you let it melt, and so on. I don’t know. I would think that the principle is the same, so why not? Because it’s terribly impractical to make these 100,000. You can’t just throw them in the garbage. After all, when you make 100,000 water bowl offerings, you don’t have a large tank and keep all the water from 100,000 bowls. As I was explaining with the water bowls, you dispose of them, not throw it down the toilet. But the tsa-tsas obviously are to build up causes for a body of a Buddha.

Then there is Vajradaka – sometimes people know of that by the Tibetan name, Zachey-kadro (Za-byed mkha’-’gro) – which is another way, similar to Vajrasattva, of burning off negative potentials. That’s in a fire burner with coals and sesame seeds, so it’s a much more graphic, physical process of imagining purification.

Ways of Doing the Preliminary Practices

So how do you do these? There are some people that make a great event out of the preliminaries and do it all for a period of time. So, for instance, if you’re going to do a three-year retreat, in some traditions the first portion of the three-year retreat is that you do this full time. So you see Tibetans going to Bodhgaya and by the stupa there or by the stupa in Boudhanath in Kathmandu, and they will do, for a period of time, a hundred thousand prostrations. Tibetans are unbelievable. They can do three thousand in a day. For most of us, that would be almost impossible.

But we can also just do a little bit each day. In doing that, it’s very important to, first of all, the first day, in the first session, only do three. Don’t do any more than three in the first session because this is the minimal amount that you will need to do every day. So if you’re sick or if you’re traveling or something, you make it convenient. This is the same instruction for doing a retreat of a deity – only do three mantra recitations the first time. Serkong Rinpoche emphasized that very much, because people do get sick, and it’s difficult. You don’t want to break the continuity. If you break the continuity, you have to start all over again. And if you do it properly, then you need to do your practice in the same spot, on the same seat, every day.

Sometimes there are exceptions. My own experience: I was doing a retreat in Dharamsala, and I was requested to go to Manali to translate some initiation and teachings that His Holiness was giving. And Serkong Rinpoche said, “Of course you go. Don’t even question or doubt about going. Just do your minimal amount each day and then come back and continue.” That’s the type of exception that is okay. And 100,000 is not so much, if you think about it. Like Vajrasattva – the way that I did that was 300 a day for a year, and that’s 100,000. So it’s not such a horrible, difficult thing to do 300 of anything in a day.

How to Avoid Becoming Mechanical

There are many questions here, but just one last one – since I need to get to the airport – is about becoming mechanical, intellectual (which I always find a weird word to use here). But how do you make a balance? Again it depends. Are we doing these sorts of preliminary practices as maybe one session in the morning – or one session in the morning and one session in the evening – and going about all our other practices and our daily life, and so on, or are we doing it as one event all day long?

Motivation obviously. Do you have the right motivation? It’s not mechanical. And know when to take a break. The stronger that you have the understanding of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and the proper motivation – the stronger that is before you start, the less problems you’re going to have in doing it, because you will see the necessity for doing it. It’s not just “I’m doing it because my teacher told me to do it” or “I want to get this nasty part over with,” sort of like a nasty tax that you have to pay in order to get to the good stuff, the tantra stuff, that will follow from it.

Group Practice

One last point. There are some people that do these types of practices as a group activity, a so-called group retreat, group meditation, led meditation. Things like that are not traditionally done – were not traditionally done – in the Tibetan context. This was something that was developed particularly for Westerners. There may be other people at the Bodhgaya stupa doing the prostrations, but it’s not as though you are in a group and somebody says “Now you start” and you do it all together, like that. Everybody is doing it individually at their own speed.

The main advantage of a group retreat or group activity, whether it’s ngondro or any deity practice or lam-rim, whatever it might be, is that it gives you the discipline. If you didn’t have the group doing it and the group pressure, you wouldn’t do it. It’s like going to the fitness club and working with a trainer. You do rigorous exercise for an hour because it’s either a class or you’re working individually with a trainer and that’s the circumstance. You’d never do it by yourself, for most people. So, like that, you get this advantage from doing it in a group. Even people who do a workout by themselves with the weights and the machines, they wouldn’t do it at home. They need to go to a specific place and a specific atmosphere where other people are doing it too, and then they get the discipline to do that. Fine, very good, if this is helpful to us.

The disadvantage of these group practices is that you’re not going at your own speed. So either the group is going too quickly or too slowly for you, and that could get you very annoyed. For some people it is much better to set their own speed. That way they feel comfortable with what they are doing.

So if you’re doing a group retreat, again I think that a lot will depend on how much individual freedom the leader gives you. So if you’re going to do a group retreat, be careful to avoid that frustration and hostility that comes up if the speed of the group is different from your own comfortable speed.

I think that unfortunately we’re going to have to end here. I know that it would have been nice to have some questions from you, but I really have to go. So we think whatever positive force and whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everyone to reach enlightenment for the benefit of us all.

Thank you very much.