Some preliminaries: ngöndro

Reinventing the preparatory curriculum for Buddhist tantra

“Ngöndro” is a Tibetan word that means “going before.”1 In everyday language, it can mean “pioneer,” for example. In its technical religious meaning, it refers to sets of preliminary practices.

The job of a ngondro is to get you ready to practice a corresponding Buddhist system—that is, a particular yana. “Yana” literally means “vehicle.” A yana takes you from a starting point (called its base) to a destination (the result) using a collection of methods (the path). To begin to practice a yana, you have to be at its starting point. This is not a matter of bureaucratic box-ticking requirements; it’s a matter of functional capacity. If you don’t know basic algebra, you can’t start learning calculus; it would be meaningless to try. None of it would make any sense and you wouldn’t get anywhere. So highschool algebra class is the ngöndro for calculus, one might say.

The idea of a religion with functional prerequisites is foreign to Western culture. The evangelizing Biblical religions want to become mandatory for everyone, so they have none. Accordingly, the only prerequisite for “Consensus Buddhism”—the generic watered-down version typically presented in the West—is a collection of vaguely leftish social opinions. Westerners encountering religious prerequisites usually suspect they are arbitrary exclusionary devices used to preserve elite privileges.

For mainstream traditional Buddhism (sutrayana), the base was revulsion for samsara: disgust with everything in the world, and an overwhelming desire to escape it permanently. If you are not at that base, you cannot begin to practice sutrayana. In that case, you could practice a ngöndro, The Four Thoughts That Turn The Mind To The Dharma, which convince you that everything is unspeakably awful and Buddhism is the only way out.

A well-designed ngöndro has the “style” or “texture” of the system it prepares you for. The Four Thoughts are dreary and dogmatic, and therefore good preparation for a dreary, dogmatic yana.

The base for Buddhist tantra is familiarity with emptiness.2 Without that, tantra can’t function. You can go through the motions, which may be quite interesting, exotic, and enjoyable, but you’ll be missing the point.

Experiences of emptiness arise naturally in everyday life, but usually they are brief, shallow, and overlooked. You don’t know what they signify—you feel odd for a moment, and wonder if something’s wrong with your head, and put the TV on to make it go away. To become familiar with emptiness, most people need intensive practice with explicit instructions and personal guidance.

Whereas emptiness is the base of tantra, it is the result of sutrayana. They fit together neatly end-to-end, so sutrayana can function as a ngöndro for tantra. Traditionally, it did. However, most Westerners can’t practice sutrayana, because we don’t hate life sufficiently, so we have a problem.

Tibetan Buddhism has an alternative ngöndro for tantra.3 In fact, “ngöndro” usually refers specifically to this, rather than to preliminary practices in general. This ngöndro was invented around 1600, and adopted as a response to emerging social problems of the era. It became politically imperative to get armies of teenage boys to the base of tantra. The ngöndro was structured as a crash course in sutrayana, which could take a batch of a hundred conscripts through the whole thing in a few months of regimented full-time training, bootcamp-style.

This ngöndro now has a different function in the West, which is to prevent most Westerners from getting to the base of tantra. The ngöndro is highly efficient for training teenage Tibetan monks. For Western laypeople, it’s usually an insuperable obstacle. That’s not because we aren’t holy enough, it’s because our goals and circumstances are different.

Most Tibetan lamas insist that if you attempt to practice tantra without having completed the ngöndro, demons will swarm out of cracks in the earth to drag you down to hell. Or, anyway, it’s extremely bad, and also tantra would magically fail to work for you. There’s no scriptural or pre-1600 traditional basis for this. It’s an arbitrary exclusionary device used to preserve elite privileges.4

The style of this ngöndro reflects a style of tantric practice also invented in the 1600s, which in turn reflects social changes of that time. Tibet developed from an irregular patchwork of one-town kingdoms with tiny monasteries, in which tantrikas were eccentric wandering sorcerers, into a centralized, bureaucratic, militarized nation-state, with gigantic monastic institutions, in which tantrikas were conscripts in armies tightly controlled by hierarchical authorities.5 This version of tantra is not one many modern people would prefer to practice. Its ngöndro is not a good fit for most modern people either.6 It’s reminiscent of Bill Hamilton’s famous description of meditation instruction in Consensus Buddhism as “like growing mushrooms: keep them in the dark and feed them bullshit.”

So the project of reinventing Buddhist tantra has to include reconsidering how people can get to the base—that is, how to gain familiarity with emptiness. Several other possibilities present themselves.

Contemporary American meditation systems are derived mainly from the Mahasi method and the Sanbokyodan system, both of which aimed to get modern lay people to an experience of emptiness as quickly as possible.7 Ideally, in the original formulations, that was in a few months of intensive bootcamp-style retreat. So these are functionally similar to tantric ngöndro, in a style that may be a better fit for us now.

The most effective innovation in American Buddhism in the last decade has been the development of “hardcore,” sequential, rational, systematic presentations of this type of meditation, in enough explicit detail that individuals can make rapid progress without lengthy retreats. (I’m thinking of Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, Culadasa’s The Mind Illuminated, and Shinzen Young’s The Science of Enlightenment, for instance.) These systems can and do serve as tantric ngöndro (although that was not their designed purpose). Students often come to Vajrayana having gone through one, wondering what comes next.

On the other hand, these are not ideal, because although their styles are modern, they are not stylistically tantric. They derive from sutrayana traditions, and although not overtly sutric, they retain some of that flavor and framework. Students who come to Vajrayana from there may have quite a lot of unlearning to do: letting go of ideas, attitudes, and habits they had taken as cosmic truths.

Another possible approach is through a Dzogchen ngöndro called “the four naljors.” The result of tantra is the base for Dzogchen, so to practice Dzogchen you have to have done the equivalent of both sutrayana and tantra first. The first of the four naljors, shi-ne, has the same function as sutrayana (and the middle two are equivalent to tantra).8 So, shi-ne can serve as a tantric ngöndro.9 This is explicitly the approach taken in the Aro gTér. It’s also de facto the approach taken in the original version of Shambhala Training.

That’s the way I approached tantra, and it worked well enough for me. It’s not ideal, though, because the Dzogchen ngöndro is in the style of Dzogchen, not tantra. Like Dzogchen, shi-ne is difficult because it’s “too close, too accessible, too present, and too simple.” To satirize a bit, the complete instructions are: “Just sit, doing nothing in particular, until you find you are familiar with emptiness. Then you can move on to the second naljor, in order to skip tantra as well.” People are diverse, and doing nothing for thousands of hours does not suit everyone. Tantra is all about doing exciting things, and a ngöndro full of concrete colorful activities would be more to many people’s taste.

So ideally someone would invent a ngöndro that efficiently induces emptiness, is well-suited to contemporary people, and is in the style of contemporary Buddhist tantra.

Except we don’t have any contemporary Buddhist tantra, so who knows what that style would be!

A preliminary post

The title of this post, “Some preliminaries,” is a poor attempt at a joke. The post itself is preliminary to an unwritten one titled “Reinventing the sequential path of Vajrayana.” I have officially abandoned the whole “reinventing tantra” project, so probably I’ll never write that.10 Maybe it would be helpful to explain why this is a prerequisite, nonetheless.

The new hardcore, sequential, systematic presentations of secularized sutrayana-derived meditation practices have proven highly effective and valuable for many people—especially for technical sorts of people, who appreciate detail, conceptual coherence, and precision. I find this success inspiring. It prompts the question: can’t we have a similar presentation of tantric practice?

Historically tantra has been presented in hardcore, sequential, systematic, detailed, conceptually coherent and precise terms, so it seems likely the answer is “yes.” However, the existing systematic versions are mainly in the post-1600 military-bureaucratic style, and therefore not helpful for most contemporary people. The modernist presentations of the 1970s and ’80s were, for whatever reasons, not as systematic. It seems that a new systematization is needed.

The hypothetical “Sequential path of Vajrayana” post isn’t meant to actually provide such a systematization; I’m not capable of that, which is why I abandoned the whole project. Instead it’s supposed to explain some of the conceptual issues involved in creating one. (You would probably find it disappointingly abstract.)

A minimal sequencing is: beginning, middle, and end—or base, path, and result. Ngöndro is relevant to each.

A ngöndro defines the base, by forming “step zero” which ends there. Understanding how and why familiarity with emptiness is the base for tantra goes a long way toward understanding the path and result as well.

This post is a prerequisite due also to a peculiar feature of ngöndros that I haven’t yet mentioned. The last step of a ngöndro is a condensed version of the main practice of the system it is the preliminary to. If you master that last bit, you’ve sneakily completed the whole next yana—so the ngöndro isn’t altogether “preliminary” after all!

The last step of the usual tantric ngöndro is guru yoga, which condenses the entire path of tantra. This is a problem. Even just the word “guru” triggers contemporary Westerners, for a mixture of good and bad reasons. Renaming the practice could sidestep the knee-jerk revulsion, and revising the method might eliminate its genuinely problematic features, but I’m not sure quite how.

Finally, just as sutrayana was the traditional preparation for tantra, tantra was the traditional preparation for Dzogchen.11 One difficulty in setting out a systematic path for tantra is that its endpoint, “enlightenment,” is quite unclear and appears to be understood quite differently in different texts. Viewing tantra as ngöndro for Dzogchen anchors its endpoint: it needs to end where Dzogchen begins, which is reasonably clearly defined.

  1. It’s spelled sngon ’gro, inconveniently. sNgon means “before” and is pronounced “ngön”; ’gro means “goes” and is pronounced “dro.” If you find “ngön” difficult, you can say “nun-dro,” and many people do, but it’s worth trying to get it right, because tantra is difficult, so you might as well get started. The ng sound is just the same as in the English “ring,” except at the beginning of the word, where English doesn’t want to hear it. 
  2. Although emptiness is the functional base for tantra, texts stress that it is also important to have a sound base of śila (obedience to norms) and karuna (compassion) before starting. Ngöndro develops those too. Since tantra can produce personal power, I agree that sound morals are critical, and have some thoughts about how that might work in a reinvented contemporary system. I won’t go into that in this post, lest it grow over-long. 
  3. Each Tibetan sect has its own version of tantric ngöndro, so one can speak of “tantric ngöndros” plural; but they’re all pretty similar. 
  4. Not all lamas insist on ngöndro. And, among those who do, I don’t think most are just deliberately exclusionary. Few seem to know that ngöndro was invented only relatively recently, or why. They just accept its necessity as a matter of received dogma. On the other hand, I do believe powerful conservatives, who wanted to keep Vajrayana exclusively Tibetan, reinforced the theory that ngöndro is absolutely necessary or the sky will fall; and they forced that on more liberal lamas. 
  5. In an unfinished post, I describe this as “The State Apparat For The Prevention Of Buddhas.” 
  6. This is not to suggest that the ngöndro lacks value. The practices work; they are indeed one way to become familiar with emptiness. Most Western people who have completed them say they are glad that they did. On the other hand, survivorship bias: most Westerners who start do not finish. 
  7. Or, anatta rather than emptiness in the case of the Mahasi method; but that is probably close enough for our purposes here. 
  8. The middle two naljors, lhatong and nyime, together have the same function as tantra. It seems to me that lhatong corresponds well with the “generation phase” of tantra and nyime with the “completion phase,” but this is not part of the Aro gTér presentation, which does not distinguish those phases. A good question for “reinventing the sequential path of tantra” is whether the traditional generation/completion dichotomy is a useful one, and if so where to draw the line. Different systems put different material into those two categories. 
  9. Shi-ne is explained in detail in Roaring Silence: Discovering the Mind of Dzogchen by Ngakpa Chögyam and Khandro Déchen. Alternatively, you can try the free Aro gTér email meditation course, which sends you an incrementally more advanced set of practice instructions each week. Shi-ne (spelled zhi gnas) is the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit shamatha “peaceful abiding”; lhatong (lhag mthong) is the translation of vipashyana (or vipassana in Pali) “seeing beyond”; and nyime (gnyis med) is advaya in Sanskrit, “non-dual.” However, these terms mean rather different things in Dzogchen than in other yanas, which could be confusing. Vipassana is not analogous to tantra. Rin’dzin Pamo, who teaches the four naljors, has recently practiced the Mind Illuminated system, in order to understand the differences and similarities, and is blogging about her experience
  10. On the other hand, I wrote a draft of this post in 2013. I didn’t look at it again for six years, but somehow it popped out in 2019 on a day when I was trying to do something else. I get almost no say in what I write or when. My brain decides; and in my opinion its judgements are awful. I had excellent reasons for abandoning this whole project years ago, and they haven’t changed. Unfortunately, my brain may decide it’s imperative to write that next post tomorrow. Or never. 
  11. There are other Dzogchen ngöndros, although completing the whole path of tantra was the main way to access it. I know of two accelerated Dzogchen ngöndros: the four naljors, and one called khorde rushen. The four naljors have no defined prerequisite; khorde rushen would be impossible without significant experience in tantra. 

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

6 thoughts on “Some preliminaries: ngöndro”

  1. “The only way to teach is by example”.

    When talking about Guru Yoga, you summed up all points.

    We don’t need technicalities. No matter how good your writings and your vision might be, the one single point is missing: a LIVING example of the result.

    Nobody cares for systems anymore if they don’t lead to a really good result. Today there’s enough direct knowledge of Tibetans and other Asians to see where Tantra leads. After more than a millennium, all that is left from it are legends of better human beings.

    The good examples are more than scarce: they’re almost inexistent.

    Almost nobody will understand a mahasiddha such as Dombipa and very, very few are the lamas that were arrested for, let’s say, 20 years to emerge even more noble than before. Not to mention that they’re almost all gone to death, leaving only precarious inheritors.

    The majority of lamas both from East & West are no more than regular human beings, with nothing to show rather than technicalities and theories they themselves have no real use for.

    Before naturalizing Tantra values & techniques, you should worry to make Shunyata/Anatman more practical, to make it relevant. It seems to be the highest philosophical standpoint humankind achieved and yet most of the masters don’t display even the tiniest sign of it.

    I don’t care if Vajra masters are this or that, if they received Owl or Fox dakini texts, when they don’t have the same compassion as, e.g., the Zen master Ejo Takata, the dare of leaving their cosy developed-world lives to come to poor & violent countries and teach without restraints not only Dharma, but practical things to make our lives better. I don’t care if all the masters I’ve learned technicalities from believe in hocus-pocus because the bogus from Vajra is no pair to real life, that is drowning us in poverty and injustices that no Dharma or religion can deal with.

    How difficult is to see a Thang Tong Gyalpo in the world! All we see are lamas, geshes and Radical Dzokchen evangelists that have no sign of compassion, talking about creativity, but struggling to pay the bills of their own institutions or being so complicated and arrogant that they make it very difficult even if one wants to translate their translations into other languages.

    As the great former Dudjom used to say, it’s all poop packed in silk. Vajra is already dead. Long live to the mahasiddhas!

  2. “The only way to teach is by example”.

    Yup. That’s why I abandoned this project, and feel stupid every time my brain insists on adding to it. I hope it somehow benefits someone somehow somewhen. Perhaps a future era will have better circumstances, and our third-hand stories of glories past, preserved in a web archive, will prove useful. Perhaps that era will come sooner than we expect.

  3. No, please. You shouldn’t feel stupid. The work you’re doing here is impeccable. The problem is not with you, it’s with superstition surrounding the subject, which is exactly what you’re trying to avoid. There’s much light in your work. I’ve already said somewhere that I’d love to translate it into Portuguese and Spanish. You more compassionate than all the Aro gTer masters together, especially the lineage holders. You dare to FACE and speak the truth, no matter how it hurts.

    The problem is with masters and students that value more the traditions, the techniques and/or the supernatural claims rather than the love and wisdom that should prevail. If people like Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil are more right than wrong, an era of material abundance is about to disclose. Maybe at that moment people will have more room for getting more clearly in touch with the goodness at their own hearts and care more for each other instead of doing potato-mouths and rolling their eyeballs because they’ve received some exclusive wang and we not.

    If you allow me one suggestion, would be that you list and tell not third-hand past glories, but all you’ve seen in Vajra that really works, for you and others. Please, tell the happenings, even if you need to change names and use yourself a pen name, I don’t know. We just need to understand when and why you and Aro gTer are no more in the same vibe.

    We need truth, love and wisdom. Not killer apps. However, we could be wrong about some supernatural claims. As I said in another comment, you should look for Phowa. You said nothing about it and I myself had some strange occurrences from it. The former Chagdud Tulku, when he taught it to me, said that this is the quickest practice in terms of result.

    Maybe you could try to go deeper in your practice in many terms so you can hatch some shells that will enlighten your work here.

  4. So ideally someone would invent a ngöndro that efficiently induces emptiness, is well-suited to contemporary people, and is in the style of contemporary Buddhist tantra.

    A historical tidbit on fairly recent innovation (within the last 25 years or so) in ngöndro: I know that Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpche got his students — or at least, some of them — to practice from his teachings on Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness as a ngöndro. PSME starts from sravaka view and then moves through some study/reflection/meditation on increasingly subtle views on emptiness until the student gets some sort of introduction to Clarity-Emptiness, and presumably arrives at a required the base; understanding/experience of emptiness. Whether that is a) effective and b) in the style of contemporary Buddhist tantra is a different matter, of course.

  5. I always love finding a new post from one of your sites in my feed reader; thanks again!

    I’m reading thru the posts linked-to from the “Reinventing Buddhist Tantra” post and they’re all great too.

    I do still feel like I’m waiting for juicy details about ‘how’ and ‘what’ is to be done with all of this, but then, like many times before, I think that maybe a big point (or the point) of all of the stuff about which you write is that there’s no real way for it not to be ‘left as an exercise for the reader’!

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