Some preliminaries: ngöndro

“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. These systems can and do serve as tantric ngöndro (although that was not their designed purpose).8 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). So, shi-ne can serve as a tantric ngöndro.

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.9 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 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.10 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 5.In an unfinished post, I describe this as “The State Apparat For The Prevention Of Buddhas.”
  6. 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. 7.Or, anatta rather than emptiness in the case of the Mahasi method; but that is probably close enough for our purposes here.
  8. 8.I do not recommend any of these systems; the rapid progress may be in a direction you do not want. I would particularly advise against the Mind Illuminated system, which has proven disastrous for many people who have practiced it intensively, including its author Culadasa, as he now acknowledges.
  9. 9.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.
  10. 10.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.