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I study, and try to practice, Vajrayana Buddhism. My main areas of interest are Chod, Kagyu and Nyingma traditions as well as Buddhisms interactions with the West, pop-culture and engaged Buddhism.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

If we claim to be compassionate, or in the process of developing compassion or that we aspire to develop compassion, then this is completely useless unless there is some engagement with the world in terms of trying to relieve the suffering that is all pervasive. Whether this engagement is taking direct action to end the global culture of greed and exploitation or spending ones life in retreat isn't really the issue. The issue is actually doing something.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


I've posted a slightly edited version of my independent research project below. Due to the formatting of this blog I've left out the footnotes. They were pretty boring anyway. Similarly the bibliography, although that was not boring.

The Preliminary Practices of Tibetan Vajrayana.


When beginning any process, whether it is travelling, building a house or making a meal, it is essential that all the necessary factors for successful completion of the process are in place. This is also true in Vajrayana Buddhism. The so called Tantric preliminary practices, or Ngondro (sngon 'gro), are common to all schools of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. The differences in how they are practiced are relatively minor and primarily focus on factors such as which figures are visualised and liturgies chanted, although there can also be some differences in actual practices performed as part of a ‘complete’ Ngondro (Kongtrul, 1977: 11). The main focus of this paper is how preliminaries are practiced in the Karma Kagyu (karma bka' brgyud) and Nyingma (rnying ma), with only occasional reference made to other lineages. In the case of the Nyingma Ngondro, the main information comes from the Longchen Nyingthig (klong chen snying thig) lineage . Availability of material and word limit is the reason for focussing on these two lineages, as well as wanting to explore Ngondro from both new translation (gsar ma) and the old translation or Nyingma schools.

Ngondro overview

The word Ngondro literally means ‘that which goes before’, however it might be better to view the practices of the Ngondro as foundation practices rather than preliminaries in the sense of something which is simply done and then forgotten about. One does not build a house and neglect the foundations whilst maintaining the other parts of the house. As such there are many practitioners who complete Ngondro multiple times (Kongtrul, 1977: 22). A complete Ngondro generally consists of the Four Ordinary Foundations, or thoughts which turn the mind to Dharma (blo do nam shi). These are precious human birth, impermanence, karma and the suffering of conditioned existence or samsara ('khor ba). These contemplations are also common to Hinayana and Mahayana schools of Buddhism. Following these are the Four Extraordinary Foundations consisting of taking of refuge and engendering Bodhicitta 100,000 times, followed by meditation on Vajrasattva (rdo rje sems pas), Mandala offering and Guru Yoga (bla ma'i rnal 'byor ), which are also done 100.000 times each. With taking refuge 100,000 full prostrations are also performed. The Four Extraordinary Foundations are specific to Vajrayana Buddhism and are seen as the foundations for advanced Tantric practices as well as Mahamudra (phyag rgya chen po) and Dzogchen (rdzogs pa chen po). Generally Mahamudra is seen as a Kagyu practice whilst Dzogchen is associated with the Nyingma.

The Four Ordinary Foundations

"The first meditation topic concerns the precious human life endowed with every freedom and asset. It is difficult to get and can easily be destroyed, so now is the time to make it meaningful." (Wangchuk Dorje, 1984: 3a)

The first of the Four Ordinary Foundations is precious human birth. Whilst there are various definitions as to what makes a human birth precious, it is generally seen as such primarily in terms of it being an opportunity to engage in spiritual practice (Ringu Tulku, 2008: 19). This opportunity presents itself as human birth is generally viewed as having less of the obstacles that other births come with. Gampopa classifies precious human birth into two factors of body and three of mind. The two factors of body are leisure and endowment, whilst the three factors of mind are trust, longing and clarity (Gampopa, 1998: 59).

Leisure and endowment effectively mean having the freedom, time and ability to engage in spiritual practice. Human birth entails suffering; however it is not on the scale of the lower realms or with the distractions of the upper realms. Birth in the non-human realms are seen as lacking the freedom to practice for the following reasons: The hell realms, whether hot, cold or ‘miscellaneous’ involve unrelenting constant pain and misery making anything other than suffering impossible. The pretas (yi dags), or hungry ghosts are similarly in constant pain caused by thirst and hunger as well as exposure to the elements. Animals are constantly busy trying to feed themselves whilst avoiding being eaten or exploited by humans . In brief the lower realms are believed to be too painful as to allow the freedom to anything other than suffer, let alone engage in spiritual practice. Those born in the god realms are too busy indulging in what appears unending pleasure to be interested in spiritual practice whilst the Auras (lha min) or jealous gods are too busy fighting the god and being jealous of their pleasure (Kongtrul, 1977: 43-44).

Gampopa goes on to classify endowment into two groups of five personal qualities and five external qualities of a precious human life. The five personal qualities are being human, being born somewhere with access to Buddhist teachings, having all senses, some sense of morality and some devotion to the Buddhist teachings. The external factors are: the appearance of a Buddha in the world, the Buddha teaching, the teachings continuing, and followers of the teachings being around and there being “love and kind support” from others (Gampopa, 1998; 60-61). Having these qualities and circumstances present is also seen as precious due to the relative rarity of this happening, Gampopa, Patrul Rinpoche, Shantideva and numerous others use the example of the blind turtle to illustrate the statistical chances of precious human birth.

"Suppose this whole earth were an ocean and a person threw in a yoke that only had one hole. The yoke would float back and forth in all the four directions. Underneath that ocean, there is a blind tortoise who lives for many thousands of years but who comes up above the surface once every hundred years. It would be very difficult for the tortoise’s head to meet with the yoke’s hole; still it is possible. To be born in a precious human life is much more difficult." (Gampopa: 1998: 62)

Gampopa the continues to describe the three factors of mind trust, longing and clarity in the following way: Trusting faith is the belief in the law of karma, longing faith is the wish to become Enlightened and clear faith is taking refuge in the Three Jewels .

The practitioner meditates on the precious human life in order to motivate themselves to really use the opportunity to practice whilst they have the chance, before moving on to contemplate impermanence and certain death.

"Secondly, the universe and everything that lives therein is impermanent – particularly the lives of beings which are like water-bubbles. The time of death is uncertain and when you die you will become a corpse. Dharma will help you at that time, therefore practice it diligently now." (Wangchuk Dorje, 1984: 3b)

Impermanence is one of the key doctrines of Buddhism. In the context of the Four Ordinary Foundations it is essential to understand that impermanence here isn’t a doctrine to be understood intellectually as an abstract concept, or something to be believe in as an article of faith, but rather it is to be experienced and internalised as this will then make the practitioner more able to deal with it as it arises in everyday experience and be less affected by it as well as being mindful that the opportunity to engage in spiritual practice is itself not something to be taken for granted and as such must be prioritised. According to the 9th Gyalwa Karmapa who quotes Nagarjuna when explaining how failure to meditate on impermanence will make liberation impossible (Wangchuk Dorje, 1977: 19).

Patrul Rinpoche devotes the second chapter of Words of my Perfect Teacher to explaining how to meditate on impermanence. He suggests progressively contemplating the impermanence of the external universe, sentient beings, holy beings and the impermanence of those in positions of power. He then moves on to miscellaneous examples of impermanence. The function of this is to remind the practitioner of his own mortality and thus spur him on to practice. Linked from this is a reminder that the uncertainty that comes with impermanence also applies to the moment of death as the causes and circumstances of death are varied. He quotes Aryadeva :

"Causes of death are numerous, Causes of life are few, and even they may become causes of death." (Patrul Rinpoche, 1994: 53)

The remainder of the chapter is devoted to extolling the benefits of meditation on impermanence. He does this by quoting a number of sources including Jetsun Milarepa , Gampopa and Buddha Shakyamuni, whilst illustrating the points using examples and language which is highly accessible and clearly intended as a manual for practitioners rather than simply for intellectual study. Patrul Rinpoche states that meditation on impermanence will engender deep renunciation and as such serves as a gateway for spiritual practice (Patrul Rinpoche, 1994: 56). Kongtrul concurs on this describing it as the “root of the entire Dharma” (Kongtrul, 1977: 47). Gampopa states that the benefits of mediation on impermanence are renunciation, the development of faith as well as something which leads to less attachment and aversion (Gampopa, 1998: 91).

Summarising the meditation on impermanence we can say that it is practiced to develop renunciation and to serve as an antidote to procrastination encouraging the practitioner to make use of their precious human birth. It logically follows the meditation on precious human birth and precedes the meditation on karma.

"Thirdly, after your death you will have to experience your own karma, having no degree of control over what happens. So give up harmful actions – all your time should be spent in the practice of virtue. Thinking this was, evaluate your life daily." (Wangchuk Dorje, 1984: 4a)

The third of the Four Ordinary foundations is the meditation on karma (las). Karma is a fundamental doctrine in Buddhism and one that is very often misunderstood. Whilst acknowledging its centrality and complexity, Kongtrul sums it up by stating that a negative cause will generate a negative result, whilst a positive cause will generate a positive result (Kongtrul, 1977: 38). After this he lists actions which lead to Samsaric birth and those which lead to liberation. At the end of his chapter on karma he talks about the primacy of motivation in the formation of karmic results, citing examples of seemingly positive acts which will yield negative results due to their motivation, whilst at the same time warning against committing negative actions even if they are positively motivated, urging the practitioner to avoid judgement of others actions (Kongtrul, 1977: 42).

In The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Gampopa deals with karma in a similar way to Kongtrul, but goes into greater detail generally, including when talking about the actions which lead to birth in formless realms (Gampopa, 1998: 118). The reasons for the greater details are probably due to the Jewel Ornament of Liberation being a somewhat scholarly text dealing which covers topics such as the six Bodhisattva perfections, Buddha nature and the ten Bodhisattva Bhumis or levels (lam lnga), whereas Kongtrul’s The Torch of Certainty is purely a practice guide. It is also worth pointing out that karma is acknowledged to be so profound that only a Buddha fully understands its working as it is said to be “unthinkable” (Harvey, 1990: 41).

The meditation on karma as part of the Four Ordinary foundations is to make the practitioner mindful of his actions in general, but more specifically to think how karma will affect him even after inevitable death. This is why it comes after the meditation on impermanence and before the meditation on the suffering of samsara.

"One is constantly tormented by the three kinds of suffering. Therefore samsaric places, friends, pleasures and possessions are like a party given by an executioner who will then lead on to the place of execution. Cutting through the snares of attachment, strive for enlightenment with diligence." (Wangchuk Dorje, 1984: 4b)

The suffering of samsara is the final of the Four Ordinary Foundations. Gampopa, Kongtrul and Patrul Rinpoche all list the specific forms of suffering associated with each realm as described previously when discussing the precious human birth. The “three sufferings” mentioned in the above quote are: suffering itself, the suffering of change and what is generally referred to as all pervasive (Kongtrul, 1977: 46). Suffering itself includes the physical pain involved in birth, sickness, ageing and death as well as the emotional pain that can go with these. Gampopa and Patrul Rinpoche elaborate on these in great detail, whilst Kongtrul is much more concise. The suffering of change is losing that and those one is attached to as well as being faced with that and those whom one finds unpleasant, such as meeting a carjacker and consequently losing one’s car. All pervasive suffering is the sense of not having what we want or being attached to conceptual ideals and then suffering when experienced reality fails to live up to them. Jamgon Kongtrul states that the first two sufferings are rooted in the coming together of the five aggregates and that it is latent in all samsaric existence (Kongtrul, 1977: 46). Samsara is also described as a state of mind where there is continuous fear and attachment (Ringu Tulku, 2008: 38). As with the preceding meditations, the practice of meditating on the suffering of samsara is seen has having multiple benefits.

"The meditation on the sufferings of samsara is the basis and support for all the good qualities of the path. It turns your mind towards the Dharma. It gives you confidence in the principle of cause and effect in all your actions. And it makes you feel love and compassion for all beings." (Patrul Rinpoche, 1994: 99)

The Four Extraordinary Foundations

According to the Ngondro text The Chariot for Travelling the Path to Freedom, after completing the Four Ordinary Foundations one should be a “fit vessel” for taking refuge. Refuge and Bodhicitta, performed with prostrations, make up the first of the Four Extraordinary Foundations. In this practice the yogi recites a refuge prayer whilst performing full prostrations in front of a visualised assembly of the sources of refuge. Vajrayana refuge includes the teacher (bla ma), meditational deities (yi dam) and Dakinis (mkha' 'gro ma) as well as the Three Jewels or Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, which are common to all Buddhist schools. The Lama is seen as corresponding to the Buddha in terms of giving the teachings, the Yidam corresponding to the Dharma path one is practicing, and the Dakinis to the Sangha as the spiritual community (Ringu Tulku, 2008: 48). Kongtrul refers to these six sources of refuge as the Three Jewels and Three Roots, whilst stating that they are all embodied in the Lama (Kongtrul, 1977: 56). The purpose of this practice is to prepare the mind for advanced practices as well as to purify negative karma.

The visualisation varies depending on the lineage, although there are several similarities. Both the Karma Kagyu and Longchen Nyingthig Ngondro describe the refuge visualisation as a three on an island in a lake with the various lineage gurus seated on the branches and various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on other branches. Protector deities (chos skyong) are lined at the front branch. In the centre of the tree is the practitioners own root teacher, visualised in the form of Vajradhara (rdo rje ‘chang) for Kagyupa practitioners and Padmasambhava (gu ru rin po che) for Nyingma practitioners. The yogi prostrates to the visualised refuge tree, whilst imagining his parents, and all sentient beings surrounding him. At the same time he chants a refuge prayer with each prostration. Jamgon Kongtrul and Patrul Rinpoche both describe their respective refuge trees in great detail and describe the benefits of refuge. Kongtrul states:

"If you practice Taking Refuge continuously and it never leaves your thoughts, you become a Buddhist. Your minor wrong-doings are purified; your major ones decrease. Human and non-human obstacles cannot affect you. Your vows, studies and other wholesome activities become more and more fruitful. If you truly rely on the Precious Ones, you will not be born in the lower realms even if you feel yourself being pushed in that direction." (Kongtrul, 1977: 60)

And Patrul Rinpoche concurs by saying taking refuge is the source of all goodness in samsara and ultimately will lead to Buddhahood (Patrul Rinpoche, 1994: 187). Once the main visualisation and prostrations are done, the practitioner visualises the refuge tree melting into themselves and then rest in the natural state (Kongtrul, 1977: 56).

After taking refuge comes the engendering of Bodhicitta (byang chub kyi sems), or the Enlightened attitude. Bodhicitta is an integral part of Mahayana, and consequently Vajrayana, practice and philosophy. Liturgically this is done in theThe Chariot for Travelling the Path to Freedom , by chanting the four immeasurable contemplations ; that all beings have happiness and its causes, are separated from suffering and its causes, have happiness untainted by suffering and that they may have unbiased impartiality free from attachment and aversion. In addition to the four immeasurable contemplations, Jamgon Kongtrul also recommends generating Bodhicitta by, practicing the six perfections and reflecting that all being have at some point been ones kind parents, and as such one would not wish to see them suffer, but rather to help them have the freedom of Enlightenment. He also recommends practicing “sending and receiving”:

"When you are beset by illness or demons, tormented by gossip or by an upsurge of conflicting emotions, take on the misfortunes of all other sentient beings. Knowing that your former deeds are the cause (of present sorrow), do not be depressed when sorrow strikes, but take up the sorrows of others. When you are happy, use your wealth, influence and merit to perform wholesome acts. Do not sit idly by, but engage your body and speech in wholesome acts such as praying for the happiness of all sentient beings." (Kongtrul, 1977: 66)

Patrul Rinpoche approaches generating Bodhicitta by starting with the four immeasurable contemplations, followed by a classification of the types of Bodhicitta, before moving on to the Bodhisattva perfections (Patrul Rinpoche, 1994: 195-261). He classifies Bodhicitta by degrees of courage as well as distinguishing between relative and ultimate Bodhicitta. The degrees of courage are that of a king, a boatman and a shepherd. The king rules over his subjects, so this type of courage is described as being that which aspires to attain Buddhahood in order to bring others to the same state. The boatman like courage is taking others along on the path to Buddhahood. The shepherd puts the safety of his sheep first and as such this form of arousing Bodhicitta is when one wishes for others to have Buddhahood first.

"The king’s way, called “arousing Bodhicitta with the great wish,” is the least courageous of the three. The boatman’s way, called arousing Bodhicitta with sacred wisdom,” is more courageous. It is said that Lord Maitreya aroused Bodhicitta in this way. The shepherd’s way, called “the arousing of Bodhicitta beyond compare,” is the most courageous of all. It is said to be the way Lord Manjushri aroused Bodhicitta." (Patrul Rinpoche, 1994: 218)

The benefits of Bodhicitta are universally lauded in the Vajrayana tradition, according to Patrul Rinpoche it represents the “quintessence” of the Buddha’s teaching (Patrul Rinpoche, 1994: 221), Jamgon Kongtrul calls it the “Heart of the entire Dharma” (Kongtrul, 1977: 68) and Kalu Rinpoche states that a single instant of it purifies aeons worth of negative karma (Kalu Rinpoche, 1995: 69).

After Refuge and Bodhicitta follows the purifying practice of Vajrasattva (rdo rje sems pa). The purpose of this practice is to purify the “four veils” which obscure our own true nature of mind, which, according to Vajrayana theory, is Enlightenment. Ignorance of one’s own Buddha nature, the dualistic belief in inherently existing self and other, negative emotions and karma.

"The fundamental purity of our mind is hindered by veils and faults. Veils refer here to what prevents us from recognising the real nature of our mind. Faults designate negative karma we experience with painful consequences, as if we were beating ourselves." (Kalu Rinpoche, 1995: 126)

At this point it is worth commenting on this “fundamental purity of mind” or Buddha nature. An understanding of Buddha nature and faith in it is essential in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. The practice of Vajrasattva highlights the importance of this belief and understanding as the whole practice would be futile without this as a basis. To this end Gampopa devotes the first chapter of The Jewel Ornament of Liberation to it. Similarly the third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje , in his Aspiration of Mahamudra, goes to great lengths throughout this text to point out Buddha nature and Enlightenment as never being separate from ones experience, even in the depths of samsara (Rangjung Dorje, 1979).

The importance of confidence in one’s own Buddha nature, and the acknowledgement of possible lack of this confidence, is played out in the visualisation of Vajrasattva. The initial visualisation (dam tshig pa) after being built up is then effectively empowered by invoking the wisdom deity (ye she pa) who consecrates the initial visualisation giving it power and vitality (Kalu Rinpoche, 1995: 128-129). The wisdom deity could be seen as the ‘real’ Vajrasattva, although this is a less than ideal explanation and could easily be misinterpreted as theistic. To counter this, the yogi should remember to keep the visualisation as transparent rather than solid. Vajrasattva is also seen as being a manifestation of the yogi’s root teacher. In the Longchen Nyingthig Ngondro, Vajrasattva is visualised with a consort, whilst in the Karma Kagyu this is not always the case. Kongtrul acknowledges that both are done in the Karma Kagyu (Kongtrul, 1977: 80).

Once the visualisation is in place the yogi then chants a liturgy of confession and imagines white elixir pouring from Vajrasattva. If the visualisation is of Vajrasattva without a consort it is seen as flowing into the yogi via his right foot (Kongtrul, 1977: 81), whereas if it is from Vajrasattva with consort it drips from where they are joined in sexual union (Patrul Rinpoche, 1994: 269). This forms the main part of the practice and is done whilst simultaneous reciting the one hundred syllable mantra of Vajrasattva. Whilst this is taking place the yogi imagines all their negative karma, illness, broken vows and so on are washed out of their lower body by the elixir coming from above. This process of taking on what is positive and eliminating what is negative is done whilst imagining one’s own body to be hollow and light. Once this is done, the six syllable mantra of Vajrasattva is also recited, after which a prayer of confession is recited before the visualisation is dissolved into light which then dissolves into the yogi (Kongtrul, 1977: 81).

It is emphasised by Jamgon Kongtrul, Patrul Rinpoche and Kalu Rinpoche that Vajrasattva practice, or any other purification practice, must be done in conjunction with the Four Powers. These are the power of regretting past negativity, the power of making the resolve not to commit it again, the power of support, which means taking Refuge and Bodhicitta, and the power of positive action as antidote (Patrul Rinpoche, 1994: 265-267). Another point of agreement is that the practice of Vajrasattva is beneficial in accordance with the effort put into it by the yogi.

"It is said that if you strenuously (practice this meditation and recite this mantra) your minor and moderate misdeeds will be completely purified. Your major misdeeds will not increase but be suppressed and gradually purified. Generally speaking, if you truly believe in (the doctrine of) action and result you will inevitably regret your harmful deeds. Then your confession will be genuine. All this seem to imply that realisation will inevitably follow purification. But those of us who merely mouth the prayers and affect the practices of the monastic life, without true faith or regret, will achieve no more realisation than a tortoise has hair." (Kongtrul, 1977: 87-88)

Having completed the purifying practice of Vajrasattva, the yogi then moves on to the third of the Four Extraordinary Foundations, the Mandala (dkyil khor) offering. The Mandala is an imagined universe containing anything of value one could offer; the purpose is the accumulation of the two accumulations of merit and wisdom.

"In this practice, the aspirant perfects his accumulation of merit by the supremely meritorious act of repeatedly offering the entire universe to the sources of refuge. He perfects his accumulation of transcending awareness (wisdom) by maintaining the understanding that this offering, its recipients and the giver himself are not things in themselves but empty." (Kongtrul, 1977: 93)

The accumulation of merit also functions as part of the Bodhisattva training in the six perfections and on a psychological level deals with attachment (Ringu Tulku, 2008: 70).

In the visualisation the object of offering is the refuge tree is as in the first of the Four Ordinary Foundations, although here the tree is inside a palace rather than in a lake. Again the central figure is seen as inseparable from the yogi’s root teacher. The Mandala which is offered takes a physical and visualised form, the physical acting as a support for the visualised. In some cases two physical Mandalas are offered, one which is more elaborate and is placed on the shrine (sgrub pa’i), representing the sources of refuge, and a second more simple version (mchod pa’i) which is the one which is offered 100,000 times. The physical and visualised Mandalas represent the traditional universe of Buddhist cosmology, along with the symbols of the seven possessions of a Chakravartin , the eight auspicious symbols and the eight auspicious objects (Kongtrul, 1977: 96-105). The visualisation can be even more elaborate, but what is most important is that the yogi really generates a sense of giving everything he can imagine as generosity and non-attachment are the goals of this practice. The practice session finishes with the visualisation of light from the sources of refuge granting the completion of the two accumulations and then dissolving into light which dissolves into the yogi, as with all Vajrayana practice the session is ‘sealed’ with the dedication of merit.

The Mandala offering is obviously a key component to Ngondro practice, but like the other practices it is also something that has a place central place in Vajrayana outside Ngondro, as it is always part on any big ritual (Beyer, 1978: 168).

"In order to practice true Dharma, it is of great importance first to seek an authentic spiritual friend, a teacher who has all the necessary qualifications. Then you should obey his every instruction, praying to him from the very depths of your heart and considering him to be a real Buddha." (Patrul Rinpoche, 1994: 309)

The Final of the Four Extraordinary Foundations is Guru Yoga (bla ma'i rnal 'byor). The purpose of this practice is for the yogi to receive the blessing of his Guru in order to realise Mahamudra or Dzogchen. The visualisation and ritual here is almost identical in Karma Kagyu and Longchen Nyingthig. First the yogi visualises his root teacher, in the form of Vajradhara or Padmasambhava, surrounded by the various masters of the lineage in front of him in space. Then the seven branch prayer is offered as a succinct method of gathering the two accumulations (Dilgo Khyentse, 1999: 41). The seven branches are prostration, offering, confession, rejoicing in the virtues of others, requesting the teachings, requesting the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to remain and dedication of merit. After this there are more prayers, mantra recitation , after which come the Four Empowerments, which could be described as the primary section of the Guru Yoga. Here the yogi visualises a white syllable OM radiating light from the forehead of the visualised deity, this is absorbed into the forehead of the yogi, purifying obscurations of the body and empowers him to meditate on the development stage (bskyed rim) and to realise Nirmanakaya (sprul ku). The process is then repeated with a red AH at the throat which removes obscurations of speech and enables the yogi to meditate on the subtle channels (rtsa rlung) as well as to realise the Sambhogakaya (longs spyod rdzogs pa'i sku). The third empowerment takes the form of a blue syllable HUM, radiating from the heart of the deity to the yogi as before which this time purifies the obscurations of mind enabling the yogi to practice “absorptions” (Tib. snyom 'jug) and to realise the Dharmakaya (Tib. chos sku). Finally the all three lights simultaneously radiate into the same parts of the yogi as before, enabling him to practice Mahamudra, the fourth empowerment also makes the yogi a Svabhavikakaya (ngo bo nyid sku). After receiving the four empowerments the visualisation is dissolved into light which is then absorbed through the top of the yogi’s head (Kongtrul, 1977: 120-122). The yogi then rests in this state, before dedicating merit. Kongtrul describes the signs of successful practice as lessening mental attachment to the concerns of this life and glimpses of realisation (Kongtrul, 1977: 133). It is crucial that the yogi tries to keep a sense of unity with the Guru at all times, in between sessions. This is done by doing things like visualising the Guru in the throat when eating and similar activities (Dilgo Khyentse, 1999: 71-74).


The preliminary practices as we have seen are very much interconnected and not something to be completed by the yogi in a linear process, simply to move on to something else. For the yogi these practices become something do be done now and not something to be aspired to at some future point in time.

"This very moment is the watershed between the right and wrong direction of your entire existence. This opportunity is like finding something to eat when you have only had one meal in a hundred throughout your whole life. So make use of the Dharma to free yourself while you still can, taking death as your spur at all times. Cut short your plans for this life, and diligently try to practice good and give up evil – even at the risk of your life. Follow an authentic teacher and accept whatever he tells you without hesitation. Give yourself, in body and mind, to the Three Jewels. When happiness comes recognise it as their compassion. When suffering comes, recognise it as the result of your own past actions. Apply yourself to the practices of accumulation and purification with the perfectly pure motivation of Bodhicitta. Ultimately, through immaculate devotion and samaya, unite you mind indissolubly with that of a sublime teacher in an authentic lineage. Capture the stronghold of the absolute in this very life, courageously taking on the responsibility of freeing all beings, our old mothers, from samsara’s dungeon. This includes all the most crucial instructions." (Patrul Rinpoche, 1994: 370)

The Four Ordinary Foundations set the worldview and motivation for the yogi who, once convinced on more than an intellectual level of the futility of samsaric existence, is the spurred into the practice of the Four Extraordinary Foundations which all to some extent contain each other and which also further detach the yogi from attachment to samsaric illusory existence and thoroughly preparing him for the higher Tantric practices and possibly Enlightenment itself.

The way the preliminaries are presented above is somewhat misleading. Whilst this is the way they are most commonly done, it is really something that one should discuss with ones teacher.

Similarly the idea of accumulating numbers is also misleading. People often talk about how they have "completed" Ngondro or how many mantras/prostrations they have done, when really this is completely irrelevant. What matters is how the practice is affecting us and in turn how this is making us more compassionate, content and so on. It really isn't a numbers game or something to be done as a warm-up to more exotic and excting practices.

This was originally written, quite badly, as an academic piece and is in no way a Dharma teaching.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

So it looks like I've survived swine flu for the time being at least. There are plenty of blogs which talk about the way the media play things up and how something like swine flu can be used by the govt. as an excuse for removing the remaining civil rights we have so I won't bore you, or me, with that here.

One thing that was really cool about being ill was the minor reminder of impermanence and suffering. When you are acutely aware of your own inevitable death as something other than an abstract reality, there is a possibility of real focus and genuine renunciation.

I've noticed I don't get really angry much these days. Various things, mostly relating to activism, have happened this week which would normally make me rage a bit. But instead they have given insights into the complex phenomena which came together to make them happen. And then watching other people rage over them and get upset gives way to empathy and compassion.

At some point I will write a vaguely readable blog again. The fact nobody reads any of this does not make me less self-conscious about putting this stuff here.

Monday, July 13, 2009

This morning I was awoken by a less than pleasant combination of a dream about dead soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and the sound of a cat killing a bird. It's amazing to be reminded of samsara first thing.

On the retreat front, a friend of mine said she would sponsor me for a total of four months. This really blew me away as it's a lot of money to support some guy to sit in the same room for four years, but it made me really happy that people here are in some cases taking a similar approach to the Dharma as in Asia.

I'm currently reading this. It is pretty intense, but as with all of Ranjung Dorje's writing I find it easier to engage with than most other texts on the same topics.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

This weekend has been a bit emotionally strange, mostly a combination of seeing people I've not seen for a long time as well as coming to the end of a project that started as a joke and ended up taking up a lot of time and energy. I'm glad it's over.

On the school front I'm close to starting to actually write my dissertation now. In some ways I prefer to just get on with it with minimal preparation, but it's not going to work that way this time it would appear. The kicker with this is that once more I'll be only partially reading books rather than getting the full experience. This is also a silver lining when it comes to certain authors.

Practice is steady and stable, although I still feel it would be awesome to be doing it all the time rather than having to juggle it with 'mundane' life and so on. But then integrating it into everyday experience is part of it I guess.