Ngöndro is a set of Buddhist practices that one chooses to complete at the request of one’s lama. Ngöndro can be translated as “to go before” It is therefore known as the four preliminary practices or the four uncommon or extraordinary preliminaries. The full practice may be compared to earning a bachelors degree in meditation as the practices usually take years to complete and when one is finished one normally receives a Yidam practice from his or her lama as sort of a graduation gift. Yidam means mind bond and is usually a lifelong practice. I will be describing the Karma Kagyu Chag Chen Ngöndro from the Ninth Karmapa here as this is what I practice.
The Ngöndro consists of four and sometimes five practices the four practices are:
1. Refuge and Enlightened Mind (prostrations)
2. Vajrasattva (diamond mind)
3. Mandala Offering
4. Guru Yoga
The fifth is commonly referred to as the small refuge and is completed prior to the four main practices sometimes as a trial to see if one is suited for the Ngöndro as it usually entails only 11111 repetitions. The four main practises increase in complexity and difficulty of visualization. They all consist of a mantra or exercise that must be repeated 111 111 times, yes that’s correct, one hundred and eleven thousand one hundred and eleven repetitions per practice. I am not kidding here this is why it takes years to do.
The total package of the Ngöndro can be compared to that of renovating a house or in this case your mind. When one has a house that needs total renovation one tears down the walls replaces the wiring and water pipes and anything else that is in poor repair. This is the prostrations, they are hard work require time and sweat, and you will feel them the next day actually for me it really hurt. But they do come with many benefits, as one develops in the practice so does one’s devotion, dedication, and one-pointedness to the lama and the entire transmission lineage. One purifies all Karma that is connected to the body and its physical actions; one can also become quite fit in the process and they open up blocked energies from our chakras. In each prostration we are aligning our body, speech, and mind chakras on a physical level with our prayer mudras that touches each of these centers and on an inner level as we alternate our inner focus or attention from one place to another. On the physical side, I found it very beneficial that as one develops their core body strength one can easily maintain excellent body posture both in and out of meditation. Correct body posture is incredibly helpful. It’s even not uncommon for a 1 pack to finally become a 6 pack. Likely the most important benefit is two-fold, firstly one begins to repeat the promise of the Bhodisatva every time we meditate. Being a Bhodisatva is not always easy but with practice, it can be. As motivation to do the prostrations one can imagine that we do the prostrations for others. I have personally met one yogi who traveled 500km doing prostrations as he went all for those who could not do them for themselves. Secondly, we begin to work with altruistic wishes such as “may all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness, may all beings be free from suffering and the cause of suffering, may they always experience happiness which is totally free from suffering, and may they remain in the great equanimity which is without attachment and aversion. These are very important steps on the path of the Bhodisatva.
The second practice of Vajrasattva or Diamond Mind is compared to the cleaning out of all the dust and dirt that has accumulated over the years and in the first part of the renovation once all the rough work is finished. Vajrasattva is intrinsically connected to emotions like anger, as one purifies even the most subtle and hidden aspects of the negative things that we have said, thought, or done since beginningless time. The mantra is quite long, 100 syllables to be exact, and one mala takes a minimum of 15 minutes. Here one can hone their concentration skills and enjoy the blessing and relief of removing even more negative Karma from one’s store consciousness. The practice of holding ones concentration so intensely can often, but not always lead to feelings similar to that of anger. This happens because we are in a subtle way creating the mental or inner conditions that are reminiscent of anger. As we develop with the practice we begin to see this narrowness or tightening in everyday situations as we really do become angry. The meditation is skillfully showing us that anger is coming, we then have realized the great gift of then being able to choose to react negatively or not. This is the essence of Vajrasattvas neckar it purifies our past response to anger and we are now only left with an unobscured observation of the situation. This deep wisdom can only grow from here into the openness we begin to develop in the next practice of the mandala offering.
The third practice is called mandala offering and it is for sure the most intricate and beautiful of all four practices. This is the fresh paint, new carpets, and beautiful decorating phase after the hard work of the renovation. Here one imagines universes of amazing and fantastic offerings for all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas from all times and directions as one places piles of rice and semi-precious stones on a silver plate and wipes them away. We practice giving without regret or attachment and a deeper sense of thankfulness spills over into our everyday lives as one repeats the manta both on and off the meditation cushion. We may even begin to have an idea of what emptiness is, but don’t worry this idea is certain to change as do all ideas and concepts in Buddhism.
The fourth and final practice of the Ngöndro is Guru Yoga, this is meditation like many others in Tibetian Buddism because one directly meditates on the lama and in this case all the lamas of the transmission lineage. This seems only natural to invite everyone over to celebrate after your house is renovated and here the guests bring immense blessing for one’s future practice. On the subject of guru yoga, it would be irresponsible not to mention that when one is meditating “on” the Lama we are not meditating on a person with flesh and blood, we are meditating on a form of enlightened energy and light. This is a very skillful way in which to dissolve our selfish egos and to take on the profoundly positive and enlightening qualities that the lama represents. This effect is multiplied when the entire lineage is placed in mind above one’s head. Devotion and perseverance develop in the practitioner when one begins to realize and identify with the many exemplary examples of lives that were dedicated to the practice and teaching of the Buddha Dharma.
With an overview of the entire Ngondro practice, it is easy to see how all the individual parts fit in with one another. This is what is known as skillful means. Prostrations and Diamond Mind are heavily slanted to the Shinè side. While Mandala practice is almost entirely Laktong and the Guru Yoga is a combination of them both. The building up phase or the Kyerim phase is longer and more detailed in each subsequent practice and very clearly the Dzogrim phase moves from blessing to emptiness to a full Mahamudra experience. With this in mind, it is easy to see how the Ngondro really is the preparation for understanding the highest of the Kagyu Mahamudra teachings.
I have learned something very powerful from each and every practice and even as I am more than halfway through my second Ngöndro I can say that this experience keeps developing deepening far beyond what I could have imagined in the beginning. I have even considered doing Ngondro for the rest of my life as I personally know quite a few people who have done 5 or more Ngöndros and I am sure that they would say the same. If you are thinking that you may wish to undertake such a profound experience for yourself please ask many questions and find a Buddhist Centre near to you to get qualified explanations. The traditional “lung” or wind or word can only be received from a lama. Although it might seem oldfashioned or simply unnecessary a little tradition can go a long way.