What is Ngondro?
Claire asked, what is Ngondro? & I realize it's been a year since I was talking about it in an intelligible way.
Ngondro (actually there's an umlaut on the first 'o') is a set of four Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices. Each requires reciting a liturgy, visualizing something, and then repeating a ritual while reciting a mantra or prayer. When you've accumulated a hundred thousand repetitions for one practice, you go on to the next. I've heard of someone completing Ngondro in six months, but it generally takes more like ten to twenty years.
I started a year ago, and I'm still on the first practice: I've done barely 10,000 so far, so at this rate I should be finishing up in forty years, when I'm in my mid-eighties :-)
So the first of the four practices is the practice of refuge, commonly called "the prostrations." It goes like this:
I change into sweatpants and a long-sleeve shirt, and tie a sweatband around my forehead. Then I dust my shrine, fill the little silver offering bowls with water, and light the "butter lamp" (just a wax candle in a little silver goblet; in Tibet they really use butter). I fold the throw rug over to make some padding for my knees. Lay some coins down on the floor for counters. Lay my meditation cushion down behind the rug. Take my liturgy down from the top of the bookshelf and lay it on the rug. Wander out to the living room to let Martha and the kids know I'm starting. Then I close the door and sit down on the cushion, facing the shrine. Ready to start.
First come some prayers and "contemplations." I read them aloud in English. (Many people do it in Tibetan; some feel it has more oomph that way. My own teacher rather encouraged me to do it in English.) These call to mind the briefness and fragility of life, the more-or-less constant dissatisfaction of an agitated mind, and the slavery of living compulsively.
Then I stand up, putting the cushion and the liturgy aside, and I picture in front of myself a vast tree growing out of a beautiful lake. In this tree are seated, or standing, all the buddhas, bodhisattvas (saints), yidams (meditation deities), et cetera, of Tibetan tradition. At the center is my own teacher, embodied as Vajradhara, a dark blue buddha sitting in a full lotus with his hands crossed at his breast, one hand holding a bell, the other holding a "vajra" or "dorje" -- a small, elaborate, gold-colored ritual object that once upon a time was a stylized thunderbolt. Above Vajradhara sits my teacher's teacher, his teacher above that, and so on, up through some twenty figures of this "lineage." At the very top, is another Vajradhara, he being both the source and the end of the lineage.
Then I begin reciting (in Tibetan this time) a refuge prayer -- "I take refuge in the glorious holy lama, I take refuge in the yidams, the deities of the mandala, I take refuge in the victorious buddhas..." I put my hands together, palm to palm, and raise them over my head, then at my throat, and then at my heart, as I recite the prayer. Then I drop to my knees (the rug nicely absorbing the impact) and thence onto my belly, my arms outstretched toward the shrine. All this while I hold the visualization as best I can, while finishing the refuge prayer. As I stand back up I scoot a coin down, as a counter. Then I do it all again, and again, and again.
When I've done as many as are prudent, for a portly middle-aged man with iffy knees, I do some more prayers, replacing the cushion and the liturgy and sitting down again, red-faced and dripping with sweat. Still holding the visualization. Then I let all the figures dissolve into light, one by one. Last of all Vajradhara, who dissolves into light that beams down onto me and is absorbed into my breast. The whole visualization is then dissolved.
For some time I sit quietly.
Then I recite the ending prayers, "dedicating the merit," as we say, to seal the practice -- basically, giving the practice away. Snuff out the candle, empty the offering bowls in the back garden, note down how many I did today, and put everything away.