While Michael Erlewine and I don't always see eye-to-eye --- his video series on YouTube is incomprehensible to me, for instance --- as a senior student of one of my lamas I can respect his opinions.
Recently, Michael posted about ngöndro to his Facebook page, and while I think his characterization of the practice is somewhat remiss or incomplete at points, I think it covers a lot of good ground and is a decent working definition for those unfamiliar with it.
FIRE & BRIMSTONE DHARMA
I'm on my way out of town for a couple of days, so I may not be able to respond to any comments on this post. And I realize that what I am about to discuss will be a little scary to those of you who are considering learning meditation practice, and I only mention it because, sooner or later, you are going to come across these other practices and you might as well understand what they are all about. I am not by nature a fearmonger, but there is this.
One of the main reasons I left the Catholic church where I was raised is because of all the fire & brimstone teaching. I didn't like the idea of a god who was so punishing, not to mention the nuns who smacked my knuckles with a ruler, etc. As a confirmed naturalist at a young age, I could see all too well the harsh reality of nature, but at the same time I experienced its beauty as well. However the beauty of Christianity, perhaps because of how I was treated, was slowly lost on me. My interest just ran out.
So, while I found myself more comfortable with the Buddhist approach to life, I was also always on the lookout for that Old Testament fire & brimstone specter as well. And, although Buddhism is much more accepting and flexible than the Christianity I grew up in, it too has a no-nonsense component that gradually reared its head in my dharma practice. Let's talk about that for a moment. We all have heard of meditation practice, but there are other practices that you will discover also exist.
To me, the classic or archetypical example of what I am pointing at here is what is called ngöndro practice. When I first heard about ngöndro I wanted to run screaming at the very thought of it. It was scary beyond my imagination, even more so when I would seriously consider the thought of doing it myself.
For those who have never heard of ngöndro, it is a kind of dharma boot-camp, a set of five techniques that are so arduous that when I first heard about them, my thought was "No!, I am not doing this. Not ever."
And what I was reacting to are the following, what ngöndro consists of, which are 111,111 full-length physical prostrations on the floor, as in: hard physical exercise. And while you are prostrating, you also recite a prayer taking refuge in the Buddha, his dharma teachings, and those who can properly teach the dharma 111,111 times. This is then followed by 111,111 recitations of a hundred-syllable mantra, which is further followed by 111,111 very complex offerings of a mandala, placing little heaps of grain on a copper plate. And finally, 111,111 prayers requesting the blessing of your teacher and the Buddhas. That should slow us down, right?
What was not clear when I first heard about ngöndro is why it exists. It is not primarily intended to be a life-long practice, although some do it. It is not something you have to do or that everyone does. It is purely remedial, a simple remedy, but for what? It sounded like a trip to the woodshed when I first heard about it.
Ngöndro is a remedy for those of us who are too clogged up with distractions and obscurations to properly learn basic meditation, as in: we are getting nowhere with our meditating. It is exactly like looking through a pair of dirty glasses. We can't see much so, sooner or later, it is easier to first clean the glasses, before we try to look through them. Ngöndro is about cleaning our mental glasses, removing obscurations and distractions. It is a remedy for obscured inner vision and inflexibility. I was the perfect candidate.
In fact, in Tibet, dharma students often do ngöndro BEFORE they ever try to seriously meditate. Think about that please. Perhaps the only reason that here in the U.S. we first try to learn to meditate is because ngöndro is too difficult for Americans to contemplate. Yet we are very comfortable with various physical exercise programs. Well, ngöndro is essentially the same thing, but it is primarily a mind-exercising regime, as in: the mind is something we also have to get in shape and learn how to use.
Ngöndro is designed for the hard cases, of which I certainly was one. For years I tried and tried and tried to meditate, but I did not get very far. Why? Because my basic mental obscurations were just too thick and I was too easily distracted. Finally, it was suggested that I take a step back from meditation and prepare my mind through this series of exercises (the ngöndro), and THEN try to mediate. It is voluntary, something we can do to help make meditation easier. I finally agreed to do this because I could see I was getting about nowhere and I had real trust in my teacher.
Ngöndro was, as I feared, quite difficult for me, an ordeal of both patience and practice that took several years for me to complete. I worked at it pretty diligently, doing both a morning and an evening round of practice. And although my first take on it was that it was as medieval as all hell, I gradually came to understand that, like physical exercise loosens up our muscles, ngöndro shapes our inner mental approach into something more workable. In fact, looking back on it, ngöndro is a psychologically brilliant way to get in mental shape, which otherwise might take many lifetimes.
I am not going to go into detail about the different parts of ngöndro practice because that is best done with a teacher and spiritual guide, but they all make perfect sense. And now a funny little story of my own experience with ngöndro. Sometime after I had finished ngöndro I had an interview with my dharma teacher, the rinpoche with whom I have worked with for over thirty years now.
I always ask him each year if there is anything he feels I should be doing different with practice than I am. He usually says, "Nothing special. Just keep practicing." But this particular year, he asked me a question. "Do you want to know what I would do now if I were you?" Of course I did. And he responded: "I would do another ngöndro."
After the shock wore off, I did just that, and that second ngöndro made a huge difference. It took that much work to bring my mind around to being flexible enough to really being able to practice meditation properly. But then, I am a hard case, but since then I have learned to actually meditate some. True meditation is the most useful tool I have ever learned in this life that I have lived.
The difficulty of ngöndro practice is not what I am trying to convey here, rather that when we begin to realize the difficulties of our own mental situation, sometimes strong medicine is needed. Mind-training practice also has that available for us in the ngöndro.