IS PRACTICE AN INFORMED CHOICE?
by Lama Choedak Rinpoche
This text addresses some of the most fundamental and delicate religious issues. Therefore, it should be read, quoted and analysed in a mindful way.
Ngondro is an indispensable foundation practice for all those who have embarked on the path of Vajrayana Buddhism. By practising Ngondro with firm faith, inspiration, diligence and patience according to the unmistaken practices of the lineage and completing at least the prescribed number, one will cultivate a solid foundation which is so vital in one's Dharma practice. Even if one has mastered the knowledge of many Buddhist Sutras and Shastras, the true realisation and blessings of the Triple Gem, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and the lineage Gurus cannot be obtained until one truly cultivates Ngondro practices. While it is stimulating to hear the teachings on "Mahamudra", "Dzogchen" or "sudden realisation", the true realisation develops from the lesser to the greater degree by purifying one's negativities and accumulating virtuous deeds. In this real conventional world, application of the basic pinciples of the teachings are more important than the end result, as results whether obtained gradually or suddenly, are determined by the relevant causes and conditions. If it was not for the accumulation of merit and purification of negativitive deeds, there will be nothing to do on the path of enlightenment. Philosophers and dialectics can indulge in endless and obssessive debates on the differences of gradual and sudden paths, but humble devotees of the Dharma have to work for the cultivation of a firm foundation through faith in the Triple Gem, diligence in the purification of one's negativities; and unshakeable devotion in the Guru and his lineage.
Practitioners who have not set their feet on the Ngondro practices can be seen drifting from one teacher to another or from one tradition another without any sense of direction and discipline in their practices. Disciples who appear to have had many teachers but lack true faith and discipline in themselves are lost for they fail to practise their instructions. Without considering requirements and committment of themselves as disciples, they will run hither and thither between different lineages like a person, who has failed to secure a healthy relationship. They will not have any idea of loyalty, friendship and endurance that is required on the path of Dharma, because they have not understood the meaning of refuge and will therefore be reluctant to adopt foundation practices as they are enslaved by their own ego and procrastination. Until one can break one's old habitual pattern through the prescribed foundation practices one cannot modify one's old habit. It will be equally difficult to be able to see the amount of negativies which are haunting one's mind, so one fails to see how the three poisons of one's own mind are creating the sufferings. One will be so benumbed by one's own illusion that the need of the purification practice through Vajrasattva meditation will not even occur in the mind. Under these circumstances, the notion of restraining from non-virtuous deeds and accumulating virtue through the rite of Mandala offering will be almost impossible to imagine, let alone doing it with faith and devotion. For practitioners who are in that state of mind, even if the Buddha himself manifested in person, they will fail to see him, but will be looking for something else. This is the reason why people must become familiar with the four common foundations until their minds and hearts are matured by those basic teachings before learning the uncommon practices and leaping forward for high teachings. For those who haven't cultivated their foundation, no high teachings or high teachers will be able to help them as their faith in the lineages and teachings are yet to be cultivated. People who have not adopted a sound practice in their lives will not find happiness with whatever they might do with themselves.
Unfortunately there are some teachers who profess the unsuitability of traditional practices such as prostrations and Mandala offering to their Western Dharma students. It is very likely that those teachers who dissuade people from following these traditional practices, never completed the preliminary practices themselves. Or else they may have lost faith in such practices due to their own failure to experience the real benefit of those practices. Deliberately telling the unsuitability of such practices is dangerous and misleading for they will water down the traditional practices. The over-emphasis on the reactive feeling of the individuals rather than how to overcome such feelings and their causes will loose the depth and quality of these practices. Authentic practices are aimed for the long term benefit of oneself and others. It is different from short term emotional patch up sessions. The practice of Dharma is not a sprint run, it is rather like a marathon. Trees which bear fruit take number of years to grow even if one takes all the appropriate care for the seed, sprout and so forth. One can buy artificial plastic trees made in Hong Kong for instantaneous decoration for an emotional party but they are not comparable with the natural trees. To be a stable practitioner, one must be patient and diligent for without these two basic qualities, it is difficult to be a practitioner. Diligence and patience will be truly tested when one experiences the difficulties of maintaining the practice. Why is it easier to start many shortlived relationships but very difficult to maintain one healthy relationship? Practising Ngondro not only establishes a healthy relationship with oneself but it is probably the best thing one can offer to oneself. While we may have come several hundred years after the eminent teacher who prescribed these practices, we still have the same negativities for which these practices were prescribed in the first place. One must have the wisdom to distinguish between authentic teachings of the past realised masters and the over-simplified version of ancient teachings into modern theraphy sessions. Sakya Pandita said:
"The precious gems stay at the bottom of the sea-bed, but the unwanted rubbish floats on the surface of the sea".
Fortunately there are still few true lineage holders who will protect such practices from the danger of deliberate degeneration caused by carelessness and disrepect. In order to find the precious gems of realisations, one must dive deeper into the ocean of practice without being disheartened by the discharge of one's own emotional negativities. True practice begins when one resolves to modify one's old behaviour by discovering one's own weaknesses and failures by adopting the foundation practices. One will prioritize one's practice, if it an informed choice which gives rise to have faith in the practice. As each day, week and year comes to their conclusions, one often wonders whether anything has been achieved or not. Well, if one is to faithfully follow the prescriptions of the Dharma by adopting these basic and yet most crucial practices in our daily lives, such question will not arise even at the time of death. Attending the Wednesday night practice sessions with fellow Dharma friends at the centre is a good opportunity where one can start to build a sound discipline in one's life.