So I wrote to B--- and D---, and they said it was fine for me to go ahead and start Ngondro, just relying on Jamgon Kongtrul. Last weekend I went shopping for stuff to set up a shrine -- overcoming huge reluctance to do so -- went to a shop calling itself "Tibet Spirit," a place I had always assiduously avoided: I detest the Dharma Tourist element of Western Buddhism, the New-Age-y doting on thangkas and dorjes and so on, with no understanding of their significance or place in ritual, and certainly no commitment to any of it that would ever entail actually inconveniencing oneself. And the idea of going out and buying sacred objects has always struck me as unwholesome, somehow.
But what is practice for, but to pry ourselves out of our habitual responses and challenge our prejudices? So I took a deep breath and went in. A small place, tended by the owner (I took it), a young Tibetan man with long hair and a wispy beard and moustache. Again stepping outside my usual habit, I simply told him what I was doing, how I was going to be starting Ngondro. It pleased me to be able to rattle off the name of my sangha in, as I fondly believe, a passible Tibetan accent: "Kagyu Changchub Choling." He knew of it. He evinced no surprise, and no approval or disaproval: plainly shopping for articles for a shrine seemed to him the most normal of activities. He showed me the stuff for a shrine, pausing below shelves topped with pictures of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. "I guess this is my shrine," he murmured, with a self-deprecatory smile. I walked out with a butter-lamp and seven silver offering bowls. All of cheap alloys, of course. Spending real money on such things would be still further out of my habitual orbit.
Then I had to shop for a Buddha statue. This was more the sort of experience I had dreaded. Trotting through Chinese import shops and various New Age "Goddess Galleries" and groovy trinket shops, ill from the pervasive stink of incense. I find that the Buddha is passe, nowadays: it's all Kwan Lin and Ganesh. The few Buddhas I saw left me cold, to say the least. The whole enterprise, begun in a flush of enthusiasm, sputtered to dogged determination and then to plodding disgust. The strain of trying to lay aside my habitual contempt for tourists exhausted me. I went home without a Buddha.
So there's M---'s little wooden Buddha on my shrine, a crude figure with almost no distinguishable features. He'll do. In fact I'm fond of him.
So I'm practicing now, as best I can. I'm just doing one session a day. Began with 21 prostrations per session (my legs were extremely sore after the first day. Can you imagine? Sore from just getting down on the floor and back up 21 times?), and now I'm up to 42. At which rate I'll be done with the prostrations, the first part of Ngondro, in about 7 years and 3 months.
I know the Tibetan of the six-line refuge prayer, now. The rest of the liturgy I'm doing in English. I'll replace it with Tibetan, I suppose, as I learn it. So far the visualization is laughable feeble. There's a figure or two in each group I can sort of picture, floating in a vague haze that is what I picture to go with the words, "surrounded by a vast retinue of their own kind." There's S---, in the form of Vajradhara, "blue as the autumn sky." Kalu Rinpoche floating above her shoulder. Occasionally the 17th Karmapa above her, and then a vague column of the lineage, all shadowy except for the keen-eyed, fierce Milarepa near the top. Over in the Buddha crowd, only Buddha Shakyamuni swims occasionally into focus. On the other side the Sangha is represented by Chenrezig, who is always smiling benevolently at me. (Question: why does Chenrezig count as a Bodhisattva? I had always thought of him as a yidam.) Below -- actually they're "on the eastward branch," i.e. the branch coming towards the onlooker, but in the only picture I've seen, that means (for purposes of practical representation) that they're below Vajradara in the picture -- below are the yidams, who, deprived of Chenrezig's presence, are shadowy indeed, a vague glimpse of Mahakala standing on one leg copulating with a consort. And below the throne -- where I can't see them anyway, because the yidams get in the way -- are the crowd I have virtually no image at all for: the dakas, dakinis, and dharma protectors. To my right on the lawn, my father; to my left, my mother. Lake. Tree. Birds. Oh yes, and don't forget the Dharma Texts, murmuring from behind them all, on the westward branch!
Patience. I'll fill in the vague areas. One nice thing about Ngondro is that I need have no fear of running out of time to work on the practice, since at present it looks like seven-some years till I'm done with the first quarter of it.