An Interview with Lama Sonam Tsering on Ngondro (1996)

Source: The Wind Horse ~ Spring 1996

Lama Sonam Tsering received his first dharma teachings from his father, who was a lay practitioner. When he was six years old his family escaped from Tibet to India. He attended school in Dharamsala, Simla, and then Orissa where he had his first formal teachings on ngondro (the preliminary practices) at age thirteen. He lived in Nepal at H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche ‘s (Jigdral Yeshe Dorje) shedra (dharma school) for nine years, where he received extensive teachings and training in the philosophy, practices, and ritual arts of the Vajrayana. He has received teachings from many precious lamas. In 1984 H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche invited him to the United States. Since then, he has resided in Oregon and is now the resident lama of Dechhen Ling, the Chagdud Gonpa center in Cottage Grove. He has taught the Vajrayana arts many times, including a cycle of ritual dances at Rigdzin Ling. He recently offered a series of ngondro teachings at Dechhen Ling. The following comments were made in response to the question, “Why is ngondro so important?”

Ngondro is very important. Ngondro is the first essential step to rely upon to reach enlightenment. But ngondro is not only that, it maintains all spiritual qualities, Buddhist and non -Buddhist. It has two main categories, outer and inner. Outer ngondro is called the foundation because it discusses the four thoughts: the preciousness of human birth, impermanence, the cycle of samsara, and cause and effect (karma). These are the foundation of all spirituality from ordinary mind to meditative absorption. According to Buddhism, the four thoughts turn the mind towards the dharma.

The Four Thoughts
Among the six realms of samsara the human birth is the best. It is difficult to obtain. It can be used in many different ways. Practitioners call it the precious human birth when it has the thirty-six qualities that support practice in the proper way. It can then be used to go beyond samsara in a single lifetime.

The recognition of impermanence encourages us in our practice and decreases dualistic habits and grasping at phenomena as real. Contemplation of impermanence takes us beyond the idea of change to the realization that nobody really owns anything: there is no self and that is why everything is illusion. If the practitioner recognizes the true nature of mind, beyond all substance, it is not necessary to meditate on impermanence because he or she can remain in the nature of mind, without any time, direction, form, sound, taste, feeling, or concept. It is unobstructed by illusion .

Looking at the suffering of samsara helps to motivate our dharma path. If you want to go somewhere else you need to feel that there is something wrong with where you are . Most sentient beings, through ignorance, wander and suffer in samsara. When you see samsara’ s suffering it can be depressing, but then you recognize that you are looking for another way . These ideas are found not only in Buddhism . All spiritual paths have similar ideas, though with different goals. In Buddhism, to contemplate the cycle of samsara means to detach oneself from samsara’s phenomena, to break the wall of habits and turn toward the true path by which one’s own buddha nature blossoms.

Karma, whether you believe in it or not, is the foundation of everyone’s experience in samsara. Practitioners really need to have a deep understanding of karma or else confusion will arise. These days so many different lamas are giving information in so many different ways that there is even more confusion. In his book Magic Dance,* Thinley Norbu Rinpoche said,

Many saints have said, if you really want to practice, you must always remain in one place until you reach enlightenment. But even though I remain in one place just as they said, my distracted fantasy mind flies in the ten directions. I think maybe the saints are judging from their own experience according to their own faculties, because for me nothing works if I cannot lure my eagle ego into the samadhi cage through concentration. So I had better fly in the ten directions even though I have lost the social custom and people call me aimless 

Many saints have said, if you really want to practice, you must always wander in uncertain places. But even though I wander as they said, my distracted fantasy mind exhausts itself in the ten directions. I think maybe the saints are judging from their own experience according to their own faculties, because for me nothing works if I cannot tame my wild horse ego into the samadhi stable. So I had better stay in one place even though I have lost the gypsy custom and people call me lazy.”

If you don’t understand karma, for example, you might worry about why other people are the way they are, or why you are. You may judge others and become more confused and doubtful. Karma is extremely subtle. You can’t always know why things are the way they are . Even bodhisattvas don’t know subtle karma. They don’t have the omniscience of a buddha. Good practice really depends on how well you understand karma. Whether people think you’re a good practitioner or not doesn’t matter. You really need to know your own qualities, where you stand.

Eventually your body is going to exhaust. Your mind will separate from your body. At that time practice is your only wealth. What people say about you will not help you, but your real qualities will.

How much practice you’ve done, which practice you do, how sincerely you practice, or how diligent you are will not necessarily lead to enlightenment. You need the right understanding of how to practice, which means you need a realized teacher and correct instruction according to your individual faculties-not necessarily what you like, but what you need. It’s not like you think, “I have to do my commitment” or “I am a lama and others are supporting me.” If you practice dharma truly, then the display of your mind is focused, vast, open. No matter what the circumstances, your mind is not going to be shaken. Then your own natural mind will blossom.

Inner Ngondro
Inner ngondro is specific to Buddhism. It has five main sections, refuge, bodhicitta, mandala offering, Vajrasattva, and guru yoga, which lead one to enlightenment. This practice is so vast and direct that one can have a clear introduction to the nature of mind . For example, there are two ways to practice refuge. First, when you visualize the object that you take refuge in and then practice according to instruction, this is called causal refuge. At the end of practice, the dissolution stage, when you remain in the state of natural mind, is called the fruit of refuge practice. This can be the same as Dzogchen practice, relaxing in the nature of mind, but only through the wisdom teacher’s guidance. For example, while taking refuge, your wisdom teacher is transformed into Padmasambhava. He is the protector, the object of one’s refuge. Similarly, during bodhicitta training, he is the source of compassion, the witness to one’s intention. When you are offering the mandala, he is the source of merit. In Lama Vajrasattva practice, he is the lama. He is also the yidam, or deity, source of all spiritual accomplishment. During guru yoga practice, your infallible wisdom teacher is the source of blessings.

Inner ngondro maintains all 84,000 teachings of the Buddha. It is the antidote of the three poisons. It includes nine stages, or yanas, which correspond to sentient beings’ differing faculties. The Buddha synthesized all these teachings and stages as methods to tame your mind. To reach enlightenment you must purify all obscurations and defilements and completely accumulate merit and wisdom. This also means you must have perfect recognition of view. To do this you must know how to apply practice. Ngondro maintains practice in a very simple way, according to each individual’s faculties. All Buddhist disciplines are maintained within the single practice of refuge. Bodhicitta training
maintains all sutrayana practices. Lama Vajrasattva practice includes all tantrayana deities and meditation. Like the view from a mountain, the higher you go the better it gets. When you get to the peak, you can see in all directions within your view.

Guru yoga is the heart of all Buddhist
practice. It is an extremely profound and
essential teaching. The only way to reach enlightenment in a single lifetime is through the path of blessing that is guru yoga.

It is not like the sutrayana path, which takes countless aeons. It is not like the outer tantric path that first relies on ordinary siddhis, which are then applied to attaining extraordinary siddhis. It is not like other tantric paths that rely on three initiations to produce recognition of what is called the fourth initiation. It is also not like sadhana practice with the two stages of tantric visualization and dissolution , because one cannot gain recogni- tion of the true nature of mind from them. That ‘ s why practitio- ners of the past have said, “One moment of remembering a quality of your own teacher is better than billions of deity visualizations. A single prayer to your lama is better than aeons of mantra recitation.”

Longchenpa said, “The practice of the two stages will guide you and help your progress on the path, but these alone will not introduce you to the nature of your mind. Only guru yoga will lead you there.”

Nagarjuna said, “No practice can liberate you except guru yoga. Only it can liberate you. It is like falling off the highest mountain. You don’t feel yourself falling, but still you are falling. With guru yoga, even if you don’t intend to achieve liberation, you will.”

Saraha said, “The deepest practice is guru yoga; nothing more profound exists on the path. It is like a treasure within your palm.”

Ngondro is the greatest path. If it doesn’t make sense to you, then other practices won’t either . You may be excited about finishing ngondro or doing other practices but you will lack any real qualities. Even if people think your practice is good, their praise doesn’t change your mind. Inside you’re still suffering through confusion. If you don’t have qualities, but pretend you do, then you have to hide the truth. This only makes more difficulties. There is nothing to hide. For those with small tight mind, those who want fame, power, or elaborate displays, those who lack faculties or who have attachment to worldly existence, those with shallow, superficial, or egocentric minds, this path is self-secret. Practice can be quite simple and easy. It reduces the suffering and confusion in the mind. Regardless of how karma manifests in your physical condition, even if others think of it as difficult, you will have calmed down inwardly and will see dharma as a natural consequence within samsara. Ngondro more than any other practice can free the mind. As it lessens one’s hope and fear, one’s understanding of dharma grows.

How to Practice
If you’ re going to practice, first clean yourself and your shrine. whatever offerings are appropriate for your shrine – water bowls, flowers, incense, fruit, candles, or whatever fresh, clean, and otherwise unused offering you have.

Then do three prostrations earnestly with faith, devotion, and prayers. After that sit in a relaxed and comfortable way to expand and correct your compassion- ate motivation with your aspiration to achieve enlightenment. This is very im- portant, for your practice depends on your intention and aspiration. Then practice according to your instructions. If your practice is not going well, start at the beginning again. Whenever practice is good, try to complete your practice in that state, including your closing prayers and dedication. Rest awhile.

Re-entering daily life after practice may not be easy. That’s why you have to prepare your correct motivation, kindness, and patience. As things arise in life, you won’t snap because you have positive energy developed through your mindfulness. The important thing is not to lose your mindfulness. You have to have mindfulness and patience to reveal the nature of mind. The next time you practice, it’s easier because you’ve ended the past practice with good energy. Whether you are at home or a shopping center, whether the situation is good or bad, all deities are within your mind; you can make offerings to them anytime, whether visualized offerings or what arises to your senses. There is no need to explain what you are doing because your mind is free. All great realized lamas have said that how good a practi- tioner you become depends on how well you have done ngondro; if you didn’t change through ngondro, then no other practice will be able to change you.

This is the greatest path for those who have the greatest mind, those with Vajrayana faculties. It is a very profound path. Within a short time, with little effort you can achieve incom- parable results . That is why it is the path of skillful means, the path of wisdom blessings.

Wind Horse Spring 1996