1993 interview of the Tantric preliminaries
Tantric Preliminaries (ngondro): Gateway Into Mystery - 1993
Student: You call ngöndro the "gateway into mystery." What exactly do you mean by that?
t.k.: When I was a child I used to love reading stories of the great quests. Jason and the Golden Fleece, King Arthur and Grail, dragon quests and the like. When I was about seven, my mother read the entire Hobbit series to my brothers and me - and also the Narnia tales and the stories of Taran Wanderer. Now I am reading them to my daughter. In Tantra we are setting out on a quest to discover life's deepest meaning and so there might be quite a bit that we can learn from these quest stories.
A lot of work went into preparing for a quest - at least among those who lived to tell the tale. A lot of people went into the dragon's cave on a whim to attain specialness; usually they got eaten. When the seekers did not prepare or assimilate the cryptic instructions before they began, they would be destroyed by the obstacles. Jason did get the Golden Fleece, but a lot of questors before him crashed on the rocks when encountering the siren's song. Nyingma Master Jigme Lingpa said that, when the preliminary practices are not internalized fully, then the obstacles and hindrances can not help but arise and deflect one from the path. So the preliminaries are what we do before setting out on the quest. "Ngön" means before and "dro" means going. So before we board the ship, enter the cave, encounter the dark queen, or slay the dragon, we should prepare. Prostrations are the armor of refuge, Vajrasattva is the weaponry of purity, mandala is the banner of generosity and Guru Yoga is the swift steed of unborn awareness. With these in our bag of tricks, the journey towards wholeness regained is much more likely to succeed. Still we might be eaten by the seven headed Hydra of delusion at any moment.
Student: I must admit that, when I heard of the depth and breadth of the preliminaries, I was a bit daunted. All that - and it was just to get ready. Of course as I delved deeply I began to feel that the "preliminaries" were of such depth that they would be, could be, quite sufficient for my entire lifetime. It is an odd paradox, the goal of accomplishment and diving into the moment.
t.k.: Yes. Again you find this in the stories of great quests. Almost always the journey becomes the destination. The ordinariness of the journey is not considered of import in the beginning as the questor is imagining the "great conclusion." The journey is where the life spirit is cooked in the fire of time and deeds. The conclusion almost always turns out to be the first moment of another journey. For the Tantrica, the practitioner of the resultant path, this is even more true.
What we are questing for is not somewhere else. The discovery of one's own true nature cannot be sought somewhere or sometime else - yet the paradox of the quest, the seeking, without which there is no discovery of what was always already there.
Student: I have heard you say that ngöndro in and of itself is entirely sufficient for realization, enlightenment. Could you comment on that?
t.k.: There is this constant paradox in Tantra, in ngöndro, in life. Paradox is the dynamic and creative tension of form and emptiness, chaos and conservatism, journey and presence, destination and great completeness.
One single prostration done with immaculate, perfect, controlled abandon - with total presence and the unity of motivation, devotion and attentiveness would result in awakening. It is not so much that it would result in awakening but that the result would be inherent within the action and we would be awake in the sphere of that result. The resultant path! Each practice is a doorway into awakening and also prepares us, strengthens us to be able to embrace even swifter methods. Lately I have been newly impressed by the pre-preliminaries - the four thoughts are themselves a treasure trove without measure.
Student: Yes, I have heard you speaking of this. What inspired this renewed emphasis on the pre-preliminaries?
t.k.: The difficulties of my students.
Student: How is that?
t.k.: Well, there are hardly any difficulties which arise in practice that could not be cut through by meditating on the four thoughts which catalyze the fire of spiritual longing. When we deeply internalize the preciousness of our human birth and fully understand that it is precious because of the opportunity it presents for realization of the vast joy of Buddhahood, when we keep the knowledge of death as a constant companion, when we feel the razor's edge of the truth of karma, when we grasp that suffering will not end without embracing the path - well then we have little time for lame excuses for not practicing. The four thoughts help us to see the immense opportunity and preciousness of this human situation and at the same time what Gurdjieff called "the terror of the situation."
We live in a very shallow culture. The great quest has been replaced by quick fix fantasies inspired by a consumer mentality where we think we can buy everything of value. Deep values which arise from the integrity of the human quest are being replaced by superficial consolations - even in the Dharma. Recently I saw a brochure for Dzogchen retreats. Very nicely done, good graphics. When you opened it up there was a picture of a smiling teacher and the slogan: "Dzogchen - it's more fun!" Now I'm not against fun, but what was being "sold" there was not HBO or Disneyland but the quest for life's deepest meaning. Joy arises from the deep of being when we embrace the quest. Fun is a quality of experience in a given moment of entertainment. Joy demands effort, work, courage, creativity - fun is something you can buy. It is sad that the Dharma is being marketed as entertainment and that its value comes from its degree of fun. Oddly enough, these days the Dharma is being marketed as object and entertainment, and simultaneously objects like cars are being marketed as religion. As Volvo says in a recent ad - "The only car that can save your soul." It's all very odd.
Anyway, the four thoughts are an antidote to TV mentality consumerism that would have you trade joy for fun and meaning for greeting card truisms. The four thoughts are the antidote to shallowness and to five minute attention spans. Well, now I'm starting to ramble - would you like to get me back on track?
Student: Not really! I love your rambling. I guess I'd like to ask about another comment you made in last week's teaching. You said that each of the preliminaries flows into the next. Each is the foundation for the next and that each lays the ground for an aspect of realization. Would you elaborate on that?
t.k.: I think I said that each aspect of the preliminaries lays the ground for realization of an aspect of the natural state and the absoluteness of all appearance. What I meant by that is that the pre-preliminaries are an exploration of our impure view which leads to the pure view explored in the extraordinary preliminaries. The four thoughts crystallize the feeling tone of the Dharma's argument against false view. Through them we "hear." In the extraordinary preliminaries we discover pure view - we "see." Through visualization in each practice, we engage the pure vision of the Guru. In mantra we engage the pure speech of the Guru, and in the deep of meditation we engage the unborn mind of the Guru. In all these ways we begin to replace our distorted view with the enlightened vision and life of the lineage and our Guru.
There is no Tantra without profound relationship. There are many paths which are technique. Sutra for example. These paths you can do without deep relationship. There are many paths that are almost entirely relationship, Hindu Bhakti, for example. Tantra is a path that unifies relationship and technique. It is the science of realization and the art of sacred relationship unified. This makes Tantra a very swift path. The preliminaries are a process of applying method in the context of relationship.
Student: What do you mean "in the context of relationship?"
t.k.: Well, you do the preliminaries in the context of your relationship with the Vajra Master and the Sangha. In fact the practices and all of Tantra is a process of entering into the visionary sphere of the Guru and "seeing" and living all relationship within the context of that sphere.
Practically, with ngöndro this means that the Vajra Master determines whether you have sufficiently integrated the meaning of a practice before you go on to the next. The Vajra Master shapes aspects of the practice - whether it is done on retreat or an hour a day, whether you do the prostrations very slowly or very fast. The Teacher is the floatation circle at the end of the lifeline of lineage on which you rely so as not to sink in the ocean of deluded view. The relationship with the Vajra Master is the very heart of Tantra and a very broad subject - perhaps we could delve into it much more deeply in a future interview.
Student: I would like to get back to the idea of each preliminary laying the ground for the next.
t.k.: OK. It is not just the preliminaries but the whole of the path. The Tantric path is a living, organic structure. The whole of the path exists in an interdependent and interpenetrating dynamic. Each phase of growth naturally arises from the work which precedes it. The fire of longing moves us to the path, and then the four thoughts catalyze that longing and work it into tools for realization. When we have sufficiently understood the import of the four thoughts, then we will naturally wish to take refuge. Refuge is the most important moment of one's life. It is the thunderbolt of Buddha nature lighting up the sky of delusion. It is the moment we first truly commit ourselves to awakening rather than delusion.
If we take refuge fully, then we will want to cultivate the connection which refuge is. Refuge is not an act but a way of being. It is a strength which grows the more and more we practice it. The refuge practice of prostration naturally arises from our desire to deepen our connection and our activity of committing to awakening. When we deeply realize the three refuges as aspects of our being, when we have the pride of deep humility and have gotten the taste of Tantric view that cuts the paralytic fear of facing ourselves, then we can engage Vajrasattva practice.
If we have the taste of refuge, then we will want to remove everything that obscures and hinders refuge. This, of course, means that we will have to admit, confess, confront and purify the habits and patterns of our being that have arisen from deluded view. For lifetimes we have taken refuge in deluded view and acted from that view. Now we are taking refuge in Buddha nature, and we are trying to act from that refuge. The problem is that the conditioning of our delusion is very, very, very, very and very once again - strong! But we do not need to hide our heads in shame or despair because we have the vajra, indestructible power of Tantric practice and - ALL THINGS ARE WORKABLE!!! YAHOO! At this point Vajrasattva practice becomes very meaningful. We understand in an organic manner, which has grown from the progression of our practice, why the four powers of purification are so necessary. In Vajrasattva practice we begin to truly make use of the energy and connection discovered in refuge. We discover that the lineage force can be shaped into a stunning variety of tools to enact the processes necessary to actualize our inherent Buddha nature. We begin to understand more deeply the interdependent nature of the path in terms of self power and other power.
When we combine the power of our efforts and right intention with the four powers of the Vajrasattva practice, then there is nothing we can not purify.
Student: What are the four powers?
t.k.: First is the power of the lineage - invoking the Wisdom Being Vajrasattva, or Pemasattva, as we call him in our lineage.
We are very lucky to have this tangible higher power - the lineage, the wisdom awareness and vision of the Guru, to rely upon. The second power is to present our faults, to recognize them and present them without hiding. You cannot purify or transform that which you cannot acknowledge and name. Third, we feel deep remorse for the suffering that these tendencies, arising solely from ignorance, have caused ourselves and others; and we vow never to repeat them. Fourth, we do the practice and unify our intention and awareness with the blessing power of lineage in the form of the Buddha Vajrasattva. With this combination any fault within us can be purified.
As we cleanse our karmic stream and the joy and fierce integrity of refuge grows ever deeper, we wake up to the fact of our limitless depth. In this intuition we become wildly more grateful to the process, the path, the lineage, the Guru, the Sangha - existence. This gratefulness naturally manifests and deepens in the Mandala practice. When we start to recognize that generosity and kindness are our nature, and we discover that the act of giving is the activity of love, then we want to sever the bonds of fretful grasping. True generosity is the act of never grasping. To not grasp is not a passive thing - grasping prevents the natural Buddha activity of giving. Mandala moves us into the sphere of Buddha generosity - a generosity of spirit, feeling, possessions, everything. The worldly beggar always asks for some thing; the beggar of love only asks to give away his/her life.
All of this combines to open the way for Guru Yoga. Guru Yoga is the heart, the life force, the blood, the essence of Tantra. In Guru Yoga we simply cease being who we have always been and step into the vast of visionary dance. Guru Yoga is the antidote to terminal therapy. The whole self help, therapy, self obsession view of the west - though it has some benefits at certain stages of human growth - falls far short of the radical awakening that is the birthright and longing of every human being.
Tantra is astounding. It is beauty and profundity in the form of blessing and joy. Our lives are pure dancing mystery of form and emptiness - Tantra is the path which realizes that. Ngöndro is the gateway to Tantra - the gateway to mystery. It is a small entrance fee indeed!
Student: Thank you.
t.k.: Thank you!