(1) Taking Refuge
Taking refuge – the entrance to the Path
Once we have considered the causes and conditions of cyclic existence in the context of the four thoughts, the need to find release from this turbulent ocean of suffering becomes urgent. We long to go beyond relative reality to absolute truth.
Seeking protection from samsara, seeking enlightenment, we find refuge in the Three Jewels of the Buddhadharma—in the Buddha Shakyamuni, who flawlessly demonstrated the path to enlightenment; in the dharma, his teachings; and in the sangha, those who follow the path he demonstrated and hold unbroken lineage transmission.
By taking refuge continuously, we develop irrevocable faith, and the flow of blessings—especially of protection and progress on the spiritual path—likewise becomes irreversible.
Here in the West, we are very fortunate not to be confronted with life-and-death decisions about practicing the religion of our choice. In Tibet this was not so after the Chinese Communist takeover. However, even in terrible times of persecution, most Tibetans sustained inner faith in the Three Jewels.
We do not need to say anything aloud or show anything outwardly in order to practice. If we carry our practice in our heart and display it only at appropriate moments and to sympathetic people, we will avoid many conflicts.
This is important not only for our well-being. Remembering the wisdom qualities of the Three Jewels again and again uplifts our mind to its highest aspirations and guides our conduct on the path.
Finally, if negativity about members of the sangha creeps into our mind, we should not act on it or try to rationalize it in any ordinary way. Particularly, we should not talk divisively.
This is an easy mistake to make and it immediately sullies the purity of our path.
Instead of finding fault outwardly, we should look back at our own mind and see the corresponding fault there. If our own mind were flawless, it would perceive only the essential purity of whatever arises. Since it is flawed by afflictive emotions and intellectual obscurations, it perceives impurities.
Knowing this, we should use the dharma as a mirror to discover the imperfections of our own mind and eliminate them.
This is not common-sense advice—others have faults and of course we can observe them. Should we blind ourselves to the obvious?
Yet we have habitually observed, judged, analyzed, and criticized others for quite a while, and this has not fulfilled our spiritual aspirations.
To the contrary, such actions make denser the layers of concepts we are trying to clear away. We would be wiser to work with our own mind and simply pray that our sangha companions find whatever guidance they need to perfect their paths.
(2) Bodhichitta – the Thought of Enlightenment
Arousing the mind set on supreme enlightenment – the root of the whole Path
Compassion, equanimity, love, and joy—these are the four qualities of wishing bodhicitta, the aspiration to benefit all beings by attaining enlightenment.
These qualities act as catalysts of spiritual development, dissolving self-centeredness and creating a sense of connectedness with all sentient beings.
Through meditation we may experience them non-dually as the qualities of absolute bodhicitta, arising unobstructed within the realization of emptiness, immeasurable.
To cultivate these four qualities, we move through stages of reflection, prayer, and commitment, allowing the mind to rest in nonconceptual meditation after each stage.
Engaging bodhicitta – Bodhisattvas go beyond merely wishing for enlightenment; they engage in the path to enlightenment by practicing the six perfections (Skt. paramitas) of generosity, moral discipline, patience, joyful perseverance, concentration, and transcendent knowledge.
For great bodhisattvas, perfect enactment of the path brings spontaneous, moment-to-moment opportunities to benefit beings combined with ongoing recognition of mind’s absolute nature.
For less mature practitioners, these six trainings refine away the self-centred perspective that obscures recognition of mind’s nature and impedes fulfillment of the compassionate wish to lift others out of the pit of samsara.
Purifying negative actions and obscuration which are unfavourable conditions on the Path – meditation of Vajrasattva
Vajrasattva represents the mind aspect of all the buddhas, and “buddha” refers to one completely free of faults, who has fully realized the pure qualities of absolute nature.
In practice, purification and the attainment of pure qualities are interdependent, because as we eliminate the stains and obscurations of non-virtue, qualities such as compassion, love, and omniscience are uncovered and made obvious.
For countless lifetimes we have established patterns based on nonrecognition of our buddha nature. In our ignorant holding to self and other, we have constantly responded with attachment and aversion to the fleeting appearances of relative reality.
Our attachment and aversion cause all manner of non-virtue through body, speech, and mind. These can be generally categorized as the ten non-virtues, but negative actions are endless in their variety and provide countless karmic causes for suffering.
All beings find themselves in predicaments arising from their self-created negative karma.
The bodhisattva Vajrasattva, before crossing the threshold of enlightenment, surveyed the realms of sentient beings. Compassion arose in his mind as he saw how most were mired in their own non-virtue and perceived no way out.
He then made a bodhisattva vow: “May all sentient beings, by merely hearing, remembering, or uttering my name in prayer, be purified of their karmic negativity and be liberated from the depths of cyclic existence.”
Thus, Vajrasattva is aware of whatever non-virtue takes place and can manifest as a force of purification for the benefit of beings.
Through Vajrasattva, we can purify the whole mass of our defiled samaya commitments, including broken refuge vows, downfalls in our bodhisattva training, and impairments of our Vajrayana view.
It is extremely important that Vajrayana practitioners do Vajrasattva purification every day, because their vows are so difficult to maintain.
As soon as the mind slips from the view of the inherent purity of all appearance—as soon as we judge those feces as dirty, that person as stupid or irritating, that sickness or feeling as bad—we have defiled our Vajrayana vow to adhere to the recognition of the innate purity of all phenomena.
Grosser infractions are to drop practice commitments, to fall into conflict with sangha members, or to displease our lama.
In his infinite mercy, Vajrasattva has provided us with a method to remedy all broken vows.
If we allow defilements to accumulate, this will affect our practice. Our mind may become dull and unreceptive, we may become sluggish or sick, few positive signs will arise to encourage us, and we may lose confidence, despairing of ever reaching enlightenment.
Even if this has already begun to occur, we can use the four powers of purification to stop the erosion of our spirituality and regain the clarity and momentum of our path.
Vajrasattva represents a superb practice to bring into daily life. We can silently chant the mantra and visualize Vajrasattva and consort over our head and over the heads of others, white nectar flowing into all of our crown chakras.
If we maintain the practice as we go about our ordinary activities, we will become sensitive to any negative impulse that arises in our mind.
It is easy to refine negativity away at that point, before it flares into a full-fledged emotion or obsession, before it carries over into non-virtuous actions of body or speech.
We shouldn’t be discouraged, however, if our non-virtuous tendencies and negative karma seem denser and more intractable than before we began Vajrasattva practice.
As we focus attention on patterns ingrained over many lifetimes of obliviousness, seeing them brings undeniable pain. Yet, equally, we can rejoice that we have discovered an unsurpassed method of purification that can lift any practitioner from the very depths of samsara.
(4) Mandala Offering
Gathering the accumulations which are favourable conditions on the path – offering the mandala
The two accumulations, merit and pristine awareness (yeshey), must be fully accomplished in order to reach enlightenment.
In ngondro practice, mandala offerings represent a direct method to gather these accumulations. The formal practice involves placing heaps of grains and jewels on a mandala pan and reciting an offering prayer.
At the same time we visualize the entire cosmos, extending limitlessly, with its full store of wealth, beauty, and pleasure. Guru Rinpoche, embodiment of all sources of refuge, receives our offering, which creates immeasurable merit.
Resting non-dually in recognition of emptiness as the actual nature of the offering brings forth pristine awareness.
Within this cosmos lies our world system composed of Mount Meru, four continents that surround Meru in the cardinal directions, eight subcontinents, the sun, and the moon.
Each continent is flanked by two subcontinents, which resemble it in shape and characteristics but are half its size. The sub-continents of our own continent of Dzambuling are named Ngayab and Ngayab-Zhan.
The offering of the “three-thousand-fold universe” (meaning one thousand to the power of three) refers to the billion such world systems that are encompassed by the enlightened influence of a single buddha such as our own Shakyamuni.
Since countless other buddhas also exert their spheres of enlightened intention in countless other universes, the total number of world systems exceeds ordinary limitations of comprehension.
Through expansive visualization, the three-thousand-fold universe with its billion world systems—including the wealth, virtue, positive qualities, and attainments we ourselves have amassed in the course of innumerable lifetimes—is presented to Guru Rinpoche as the outer offering.
Our body itself forms the inner offering, with the skin as a golden land, the spine as Mount Meru, the four limbs as gatekeepers, the eyes as the sun and moon, the five aggregates and elements as the five dhyani buddhas and their consorts, the eight consciousnesses and the objects of consciousness as the eight bodhisattvas and their consorts, and so forth. The secret offering is mind’s nature as intrinsic awareness (rigpa) inseparable from emptiness.
Holding nothing back, we offer until we no longer grasp at appearances. Full and expansive mandala offerings purify the fundamental downfall of sentient beings, which is attachment.
When attachment is purified, we attain the vast perspective that recognizes and experiences the empty nature of all phenomena.
Within this recognition the delineations of our ordinary perspective—of ourselves as the offerer, mandalas as the offering, and Guru Rinpoche as the recipient of the offering—simply fall away and the single, empty nature of offerer, offering, and recipient becomes apparent to us. It is this realization that brings about the accumulation of pristine awareness.
By establishing the bodhicitta aspiration that our mandala offerings purify the obscurations and increase the merit of all sentient beings, we enhance the accumulation of merit to an inconceivable scale. Having set this motivation, we apply the six perfections to each step of the practice.
Offering the best substances on the best mandala pan we can afford expresses generosity. Cleaning the pan and offering in a correct manner involve discipline. Offering even though we are tired or have other obstacles of mind and body requires patience. Offering consistently develops joyful perseverance.
Banishing distractions while offering focuses concentration. Offering with transcendent knowledge of the essential emptiness of the offering makes evident our mind’s absolute nature as pristine awareness.
In daily life, the mentality of offering can enrich the most ordinary actions. Each meal is an opportunity to offer food and drink to the mandala of deities within our body. Any pleasurable experience—the beauty of nature, the glitter of a luxurious shop, the freshness of a child’s response—can be offered to Guru Rinpoche.
We do not have to own a jewel or flowers or silk to envision them as boundless offerings to the buddhas and bodhisattvas and to sentient beings everywhere.
This mentality of limitless generosity antidotes envy and a sense of impoverishment, and instills contentment. The merit of such an attitude brings forth wealth, first in terms of mental well-being and then in terms of actual material abundance, as naturally as fire generates warmth and radiance.
We must take care, however, that we are not motivated merely by selfish desire for prosperity, because when we die, we will not be able to take one penny with us.
Only merit generated with the underlying intention to benefit beings will stand us in good stead during the transitions of death, the bardo, and future rebirth.
(5) Guru Yoga
Training in Guru yoga and receiving the teacher’s blessings – the heart of the whole Path
“It is imperative to exert yourselves in the practice of guru yoga until you have grasped the vital essence of this practice. If you do not do this, your meditation will grow weaker and even though it creates some benefit, many obstacles will arise. Producing genuine understanding in the mind is not easy, so pray to your guru with uncontrived, fervent devotion. Eventually you will receive direct transmission from the enlightened mind of the guru and extraordinary realization, beyond expression in words, will arise.” (His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje)
“The guru is like a wish-fulfilling jewel granting all the qualities of realization … he is the equal of all the buddhas. To make any connection with him, whether through seeing him, hearing his voice, remembering him, or being touched by his hand, will lead us toward liberation. To have full confidence in him is the sure way to progress toward enlightenment.” (His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche)
No one ever reached enlightenment without a mastery of guru yoga so profound that he or she was able to receive—without any resistance, distortion, or doubt—the transmission of the guru’s pristine awareness.
The Buddha Shakyamuni himself said that, without the lama, there can be no buddha.
The supreme good fortune to receive this mind-to-mind transference of realization arises from pure samaya with our lama, and preparation of our mind through purification and the accumulation of vast stores of merit.
Our mind stands ready and receptive, like a well-tilled field waiting to be sown. Transmission may occur in a formal empowerment or teaching, or it may come when we are least expecting it.
Usually, however, transmission unfolds gradually rather than in a single, dramatic moment.
Each time we hear the teachings, their meaning for us reaches a deeper level. Each time we interact with our lama, our resistance softens. We begin to see the barriers set up by our own karmic patterns and habitual concepts.
The teachings of the dharma provide us with manifold methods to overcome those barriers, and each time we use them successfully we increase both our faith in the effectiveness of dharma and our faith in the lama’s realization.
Our inner resonance with the lama grows stronger, and our longing for union, our devotion, our reliance on the lama evolve into a kind of spontaneous responsiveness.
Outwardly everything may appear the same; inwardly our heart is full and our mind expansive. Boundaries fall away before transcendent knowledge of the empty nature of everything. We realize that all along the lama’s realization has penetrated the dense layers of our obscurations. Now, as those layers clear away, our openness allows us to receive our teacher’s mind-to-mind transmission, nondually, beyond words.
Words cannot capture the experience or even the individual qualities of the lama’s pristine awareness—boundless compassion, transcendent knowledge, nondual recognition of the three kayas as inseparable.
Naming points the way, but in actual moments of transmission, all the complexities of names and concepts fall away before infinite, ineffable simplicity. We rest in the absolute lama. Anyone who has truly experienced this extraordinary transmission has no less than the deepest reverence for his or her guru and will never turn back before attaining enlightenment.
(6) Transference of Consciousness
The Dudjom Tersar Ngondro, includes a very abbreviated form of p’howa, transference of consciousness into the pureland.
By visualizing the Buddha Amitabha above our head, we train ourselves to direct our consciousness toward Dewachan, his pureland of great bliss, when we die.
Even if we are not able to fully accomplish this level of transference at the moment of death—perhaps because we die suddenly amid great chaos—this training equips us with the means to find liberation in the bardos after death, or at least an auspicious rebirth.
This is assured for two reasons.
First, exiting of the consciousness from the crown chakra leads to a higher rebirth than does its exiting from one of the lower orifices.
Second, Amitabha’s enlightened intention establishes that all those who pray to him with faith and who longingly direct their mind toward him will find rebirth in his pureland.
At the moment of death, the consciousness can move upward along the avenue we have prepared by visualizing Amitabha over our head. This provides a shortcut out of samsaric suffering.
Having attained the pureland, we can remain until enlightenment, receiving the dharma transmissions that finally clear residual obscurations, or we can choose to come back and continue our spiritual development in this realm. In either case we gain great ability to benefit beings.
This p’howa training, like the practices that precede it in the ngondro, can be undertaken as an aspect of guru yoga if we understand that our lama is inseparable from Amitabha. We need take only a small step beyond the recognition of the lama as inseparable from Guru Rinpoche, because Guru Rinpoche is the nirmanakaya emanation of Amitabha.
Another way to fathom the meaning of our lama’s inseparability from Amitabha is to ask, “Who will I rely on when I die? Who really has the power to support me in that moment?”
Most of us would turn to our lama, knowing that his or her power and blessing surpass any ordinary kindness or help a doctor or a loved one could offer us.
Our lama’s ability to extend help in life-threatening situations and the transitions of death, the bardo of becoming, and rebirth stems from his or her realization of buddha nature, no different from Guru Rinpoche’s or Amitabha’s. This power supports us even when the lama is not directly present.
Distance, even death, does not separate us from our lama. Only our own wavering faith and obscurations come between us. If by prayer and meditation in this lifetime we can overcome these obstacles, in death we can find ultimate unity with the absolute lama.
(7) Dedication of Merit
When we conclude a practice session and pause on the cusp of meditation and post-meditation, we have come to a pivotal point.
We can stand up, walk away, and feel full and satisfied with our accomplishment.
Or, we can offer that accomplishment to the welfare of all, adding the virtue we have created through practice to the store of merit of sentient beings.
If we conclude without dedicating the merit, we risk everything—merit can be destroyed by anger, saturated with pride, diminished through jealousy.
If we offer our merit through dedication, we only increase it. Like water added to the ocean, nothing limits its expansion. Like oil added to a lamp, it increases the illumination of everything within the sphere of its radiance.
Source: Tromge, Jane. Ngondro Commentary: Instructions for the Concise Preliminary Practices of the New Treasure of Dudjom. Compiled from the teachings of H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche by Jane Tromge. Padma Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Also referred to for section headings and lead-ins: Rinpoche, Dudjom. A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.