Reflect on the first four topics which help to turn the mind toward spiritual practice. These comprise the general part of the preliminaries. Two other vital topics are addressed (topics #5 and #6).

(1) The rarity and preciousness of a human birth

First, reflect upon the rarity of human existence; this will turn your mind towards wards the Dharma.

A human birth endowed with all the freedoms and favourable conditions for practicing the Dharma is a precious human birth. Why is it precious? Because, by using this human birth, enlightenment can be achieved in this very lifetime. All the great accomplished beings of the past were born ordinary beings, but, by entering the door of the Dharma, following a realized teacher and devoting their whole lives to practicing the instructions they received, they were able to display play the enlightened activities of great Bodhisattvas.

Ask yourself how many of the billions of inhabitants of this planet realize how rare it is to have been born a human man being. How many of those who realize this think of using this chance to practice the Dharma? How many of these actually start to practice? How many of those who start continue to practice? How many of those who continue attain ultimate realization? The number of those who attain ultimate realization is like the number of stars you can see at daybreak compared to the number you can see on a clear night.

(2) Death and impermanence

Second, contemplate death and impermanence; this will make you realize how urgent it is to practice the Dharma, and will spur your endeavour.

To have obtained this human birth is not enough: at any moment death may take it away from us. How and when we shall die are completely uncertain.

No one can say, “I will live this many or that many years and months.” Any of the daily events in our lives, like walking, eating, playing, crossing a river and so forth, could turn out to be the cause of our death.

Impermanence affects not only living beings but the outer universe as well. The world seems very solid to us, but at the end of the kalpa it will be destroyed by fire and water. Throughout the seasons of the year, we can see how the mountains, forests, and the various features of the landscape scape change from day to day, from month to month.

Every hour of every day the weather, the light, the river flowing before our eyes are never the same – as each instant passes everything changes.

Nations are powerful for a period of their history and later are conquered by other nations. Within a single lifetime, people who are immensely rich can end up utterly destitute. So no aspect of the outer phenomenal world is permanent or certain.

Why do we need to reflect again and again on impermanence? We have a strong tendency to think that we and all the conditions in which we live will last, to think that there is some inherent permanence in them. Because of this, we cling strongly to outer phenomena. This is a mistake.

If, instead, we constantly reflect on impermanence, we will have a powerful incentive for turning to the Dharma.

We need to be constantly aware that from the very moment we are born, we come closer and closer to death. There is no way to avoid death. With every day that passes, our lives are running out.

When the time comes for us to die, even if we are very powerful, we cannot possibly persuade death to wait. However rich we are, we cannot bribe it. The mightiest of generals cannot send an army against it. Even if we are very beautiful, we cannot seduce it. Whatever ever we do, death cannot be stopped.

At the moment of death, nothing but the Dharma will be of any use. Of all the fears we experience in this life there is none greater than the fear of death.

So to be ready for death, we should not wait until the last moment to practice the Dharma. If we want to practice the Dharma now, we can; but at the time of death, we will not be able to. We will be overwhelmed by physical pain and mental anguish. That is not the time to start thinking of practice.

So, like an intelligent person who plans ahead, get ready right now to face death with the firmness that comes from mature practice.

Do not waste a single moment, like a warrior who, pierced to the heart by an arrow, knows that he has only a few minutes to live.

It is now, while we are in good health and in possession of all our physical and mental faculties, that we should practice the Dharma. We must not postpone pone it, thinking, “I will practice later.”

We should realize that death is a very frightening event for those who are not prepared for it. We must not think, “I have so many years ahead of me….” The food we have just eaten could turn out to be poisonous and make us die tonight.

Examples of the causes of unexpected death are many. We can see them all around us. Impermanence can be found in all aspects of life. People who have attained high status can suddenly find themselves selves in humble positions. Many of those who have amassed a lot of money will later lose it. No one remains wealthy forever. Those who have formed strong attachments to family and friends will be separated from them sooner or later, if not now then certainly at the time of death.

Once we are aware of the constant threat of death, we will not want to continue the meaningless activities in which we have been so heedlessly engaged, day after day.

(3) Karma, the law of cause and effect

Next, reflect on the third topic, the law of karma, of cause and effect, actions and their results, so that you understand clearly how this law works.

If death were simply like a fire going out or like water drying up, everything would be fine. There would then be little use in practicing the Dharma. But this is not what happens.

When the mind and the body separate, the body is left behind, but the mind goes on to take many more rebirths. At that point, only one thing determines where our next life will be, that is, the balance of positive and negative actions committed in the past that are embedded in our consciousness.

If negative actions predominate, we will experience the suffering of rebirth in the lower realms.

If positive ones predominate, we will experience rebirth in the higher states of existence.

It is not on our deathbed or in the bardo that we should start to think about positive and negative actions.

We may very well recognize at that time that negative actions are the cause of our suffering, and that we would be happier if we had done positive deeds. But when we are dying there is nothing much we can do-our karma has already built up.

It is now, when we have the freedom to choose between what we should do and what we should not, that we must consider the law of karma.

It is a serious mistake to think that we can do whatever we want, good or bad, and that by practicing a little Dharma on the side we will be taken to enlightenment as though by airplane.

In the bardo, even if we regret all our negative actions, it is too late: karma has been accumulated and nothing can stop us falling, like a stone thrown into the air. We cannot reverse the process.

So it is now that we must be able to recognize and discern positive and negative actions. Even if a positive action seems insignificant, we should do it. Even if a negative action seems trivial, we should avoid it. Water dripping for a long time can fill a huge basin; a single spark can set fire to a mountain of grass.

Likewise, every action has its result. Never think that a minor action leaves no trace.

On the other hand, we should not think that the negative  actions we have done need mark us forever. However heavy our negative actions may be, they can be purified. There is nothing that cannot be purified.

So we must regret and repair all our negative actions. As we have said, since small drops of water can fill a huge vessel, we must constantly endeavour in daily life to use our body, speech and mind for positive actions. This will build up an accumulation of merit and virtue that will help us when we are faced with the fear of death.

The magnitude of positive and negative actions does not depend upon how they appear from outside. It is easy to accumulate great positive karma or great negative karma with a small action. It all depends upon our intention or attitude.

For example, to help someone in a small way, but with great loving-kindness, will accumulate a lot of positive karma. Likewise, a single word, easily uttered, may accumulate boundless negative karma if, for instance, it is used to criticize a Bodhisattva.

The general condition of beings in samsara is one of delusion, a state that always produces suffering. So if we ignore our negative actions, and do nothing to purify, confess and repair them, we shall gradually accumulate negative karma.

We shall not be able to receive the blessings of the Buddhas and spiritual teachers, neither shall we be able to develop spiritual experience and realization.

We need, therefore, to be constantly aware and mindful of the difference between virtuous and non-virtuous actions, to cultivate the former and avoid the latter.

When you wake up in the morning, think: “Not only have I the good fortune to have been born a human being, but I have entered the door of the Dharma, I have met a spiritual teacher and received his instructions. So today I shall do my best to follow the Dharma and practice only what is positive. This I shall do not only for my own sake, but for the benefit of all living beings, without a single exception.”

When it is time to rest in the evening, examine everything thing that you have thought, said and done during the day. If you have done something positive for yourself or others, you should rejoice, dedicate the merit to all sentient beings and pray that by this merit they may all attain enlightenment. Make a wish that the next day you may cultivate even more virtuous actions.

If you realize that you have lapsed into negative action, think: “I have this precious human birth, I have met a teacher, and yet this is how I behave!” You must feel strong regret and determine not to make such mistakes again.

To acquire mindfulness, we need to constantly examine our intentions and actions. It does not even occur to ordinary beings who are going round and round in samsara that their negative actions are negative, that they will have harmful consequences. Even if they do realize this briefly, they do not keep it in mind, and hardly any of them put into action the means for counteracting these negative actions. This is the very reason why they stay in samsara.

So we have to make an effort to be acutely mindful of our intentions and actions. We need first to remember clearly which actions should be avoided and which should be carried out, and, second, to observe whether or not we are acting in accordance with what we know to be right or wrong.

In order to develop steadfast and diligent mindfulness, we have to realize that our present condition, our suffering in samsara, is nothing but the result of our negative actions. If we do not stop these negative actions, and just carry on as before, we will continue to experience suffering. By cultivating positive actions, words and thoughts, we are earning our own happiness. Once we know this, we will naturally be alert and diligent in watching our minds.

(4) Suffering

After that, reflection on the fourth topic will help you recognize that the deluded condition of samsara is never without suffering.

What is the reason for cultivating virtue and avoiding non-virtue? virtue? In the ordinary samsaric condition there is nothing but suffering. This is evident if we look at the various realms of samsara. The three lower realms are all conditions of the utmost misery.

Then there are the realms of the human beings, demi-gods, and gods. These are called the three higher realms because the suffering there is less oppressive.

Human beings have eight different types of suffering. They suffer from birth, sickness, old age, and death. They suffer when they meet enemies, part from friends, encounter circumstances they do not want, and are deprived of the circumstances they like.

(5) The unsurpassable qualities of liberation

With the fifth, you should recognize that through receiving and practicing the teachings you can free yourself from samsara and ultimately reach the unsurpassable level of omniscience, or enlightenment.

If you think about all the different states you can experience in samsara, and realize that nothing is beyond suffering, strong feelings of weariness and sadness will arise in you. You will wonder, “How can I ever free myself from this suffering?” This is called the feeling of renunciation, the desire to get out of samsara. It is the basis and starting point of Dharma practice.

When someone is thrown into prison by a tyrant, night and day he will think, “How miserable I am! How can I get out of here? Who can help me?” These will be his only thoughts.

In the same way, once you recognize that there is no satisfaction in samsara, but only suffering, you will think, “How can I get free? Who can help me? What are the means to obtain liberation?”

When you reflect on this very deeply, it will become clear that you need the help of a spiritual teacher, that you must avoid the kind of actions that lead to suffering, and that you must cultivate those that bring happiness. This is the way to tread the path of the Dharma.

Crossing the threshold of the Dharma does not mean outwardly adopting different manners and appearance.

It means becoming aware of the shortcomings and endless misery of samsara and of the unchanging qualities of liberation.

Otherwise, if you fail to recognize the suffering inherent in samsara, and lack the incentive to get out of it, however interesting you may find the teachings, you will be more concerned with how to become richer, how to increase your status, how to become more powerful, and so on.

With this sort of motivation, any seemingly good actions you may do will have little effect in freeing you and other beings from samsara.

You must realize that, just like yourself, all living beings are subject to suffering. Have the courage to think, “I have to be able to free all sentient beings by myself.

In order to do this, the first step is to free myself, to achieve perfection  and attain enlightenment.” This must be the root motivation for practicing the Dharma. With such an attitude, you will gradually deepen your spiritual experience, achieve realization and thus become truly able to help other beings.

(6) The need to follow a spiritual master

Finally, you should recognize that in order to achieve that level you have to rely on the blessings and instructions of a spiritual teacher.

Parents, friends and ordinary teachers cannot help you achieve liberation, for they are not free from samsara themselves.

To attain enlightenment you must have the guidance of an authentic spiritual master.

Without a spiritual master you will get nowhere, like a passenger in an airplane without a pilot. So do not overestimate your capacities.

Having sought and found a qualified master endowed with wisdom, compassion and ability, follow him with confidence, receive his instructions and practice them with diligence.

The contemplation of these six topics, and the practices that follow, are commonly known as ngondro or “preliminary practices,” but “preliminary” does not imply that these practices are of lesser importance. A solid foundation is essential if the house is to be sound. The same is true of Dharma practice.

The real point of these preliminaries is to appreciate that this human life offers a rare opportunity for one to achieve liberation, to realize the urgency of doing so, to generate a strong conviction that the ordinary samsaric condition produces only suffering, and to realize that suffering comes about through karma, and is the effect of negative actions.

When we have a genuine understanding of these four points, the main point of ngondro has been realized. You should not merely think about them, but experience them in your very being. The correct practice of the preliminaries is to make this experience part of yourself.

Do not think that the ngondro is a sort of simple beginner’s practice, or that it is not as profound as Mahamudra, the Great Seal, or Ati Yoga, the Great Perfection.

In fact, the preliminary practice comes at the beginning precisely because it is of such crucial importance and is the very basis of all other practices.

If we were to go straight to the so-called main practice without the preparation of the ngondro, it would not help us at all. Our minds would be unprepared and untamed. It would be like building a beautiful house on the surface of a frozen lake—it simply would not last.

The purpose of generating a strong feeling of renunciation or disgust towards samsara is to lead one gradually to the state of Buddhahood.

Dharma practice is a little difficult in the beginning, but as one progresses it becomes easier and easier. Worldly activities, on the other hand, are very easy and enjoyable to start with, but in the long run they bring more and more suffering.

In all the stages of the practice, we must always remember clearly that we are practicing for the sake of all sentient beings. “All” sentient beings is not a definite number, for the number of sentient beings is boundless and infinite, like space.

If we dedicate every one of our actions to the welfare of all beings, the benefit of these actions will remain and grow until we achieve enlightenment. In fact, the aspiration to practice for the sake of all others is the very root of attaining enlightenment. …

What must change is the way we perceive the outer world. We must become truly convinced that in the ordinary state of samsara there is nothing but suffering. We must constantly keep in mind impermanence, the relentless passage of time, and the imminence of death. We need to be careful of our actions and should never dismiss the law of karma, or cause and effect, as unimportant. We must recognize the need to achieve liberation, and the need to rely upon a spiritual teacher to do so.

Then the meaning of the teachings will truly become a part of ourselves. This is very important.

Source: Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. The Excellent Path to Enlightenment. Kindle Edition.