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Approaching Preliminary Practices

A teaching by the Eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche on commencing the preliminary practices
By Khamtrul Rinpoche
Himachal Pradesh, India
This teaching by the Eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche was given at Tashi Jong Craft Community, Himachal Pradesh, India. Translated by Gerado Aboud; compiled and prepared by Brian Beresford.

When beginning the preliminary practices (sngon gro) of Tibetan Buddhist meditation, it is extremely important to have complete faith in your teacher and in the teaching that he expounds. You should have no doubt that he is a Fully Awakened Being, or Buddha. Especially in regards to the Truth, or Dharma, you should not disparage the teachings of other traditions, holding yours to be superior. Simply consider that the teaching you follow is best suited to yourself. The various spiritual traditions are in accordance with the diverse dispositions and inclinations of the individuals.

The different schools of Buddhism that developed in Tibet, Japan and elsewhere are all teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni. Within the Tibetan traditions there are four main schools—Nyingma, Kagyü, Sakya and Gelug. Do not consider the teachings of a particular school to be more advanced, for all traditions teach tantric meditations that can lead to ultimate realization within one lifetime. However, when commencing the preliminary practices it should be clear which system of teaching is more beneficial to your mind, according to your past karmic connections. By following the tradition most suited to you, you should have faith in the Fully Awakened Being and his Truth without any discrimination, because sectarianism is not only detrimental to your practice but is also an unwholesome action leading to miserable results. If you avoid this error, your practice will flourish and will proceed rapidly through all stages of the path.

To arouse energy and enthusiasm in taking the teachings to heart (nyams. len) there are four contemplations that should precede and accompany all levels of meditation. These are the four topics that reverse the tendency of the mind (blo.ldog.rnam.bzhi) from being attracted to worldly occupations: (1) the freedoms and endowments1 of the precious human form, (2) death and impermanence, (3) actions, their cause and effect, and (4) the faults of cyclic existence, or samsara. If well contemplated these will ensure that your Dharma practice will proceed satisfactorily. Try to gain a thorough understanding of these topics as found in various texts and translations. However, merely to read and understand them intellectually is not sufficient. It is vital to keep them alive in your mind from now until the final attainment of the realization of the true nature of the mind and all phenomena. It is not enough merely to see a delicious banquet: you must eat and digest it before its pleasures are known! It is incorrect to assume that because these four topics have been contemplated initially they can later be disregarded.

Why then are these four contemplations so essential?

Firstly, they lead to sustained perseverance in the practice. Buddha Shakyamuni taught that cyclic existence is by nature suffering. In whichever realm of cyclic existence one takes birth, it is pervaded by suffering that arises because of unskillful actions committed out of ignorance, attachment or aversion to the objects that appear in the world. Through the principle of cause and effect of actions, or karma, skillful actions lead to happiness and unskillful actions lead to suffering. Diligence and enthusiasm for intensive meditation arise from the contemplation of suffering and its causes and the appreciation of the fragility of the precious human form: “precious” because it presents one with the most effective means for transforming sorrow. The Tibetan Kadampa masters of the past always emphasized that impermanence and the uncertainty of the time of death should always be remembered, as this alone will lead to buddhahood.

Secondly, the contemplation on these four topics leads to an understanding of refuge in the Three Supreme Jewels. If you realize that the nature of cyclic existence is suffering you will seek to overcome it. As a Fully Awakened Being has transcended the play of worldly sorrows, he has the understanding to lead you beyond misery. The Truth, or Dharma, that he teaches is not separate from him and its validity is confirmed by those intent on virtue, or Sangha, who have realized high levels on the path to the cessation of suffering. In such a way these four contemplations lead to faith in the Three Supreme Jewels.

Thus the essence of going for refuge is said to be fear and faith: fear of the pains of the round of existence and faith in the Three Jewels which give protection from them. This refuge is common to all vehicles of Buddhism, but in the Adamantine Vehicle (rdo.rje.theg.pa; Vajrayana) there are other reasons that can form the basis of refuge such as the Three Roots—of the lama, the yidam, and the dakinis. However, the fundamental refuge is the Three Supreme Jewels.

In the tantric traditions it is stressed that one’s lama, or spiritual master, is the embodiment of the Three Supreme Jewels and is the basis for all other aspects of refuge. All powerful attainments (dngos.grub; siddhis) and realizations arise from devotion to him. This stress on the spiritual master may lead some people to think that the teaching he expounds is his own and not that of the Buddha. However, his practice is consummated because of the means that derive from Buddha and when this fulfillment takes place the Buddha becomes embodied in him. This is because when the spiritual master has realization of the ultimate truth his mind-form is the same as all previous Fully Awakened Beings, and thus there is no difference between the Buddha and him.

The word Buddha, Sang-gyä (sangs.rgyas) in Tibetan, has two meanings. The first means a being who has “awakened” (sangs.ba) from the sleep of ignorance. This signifies all that is to be abandoned on the path, that is the abandonment of the two levels of obscurations: the obscuration of the afflictions (nyon.mongs.pa’i.sgrib.pa; klesa-varana) and the obscuration preventing the realization of all that is knowable (shes.bya’i.sgrib.pa; jneyavarana). The second meaning of the word is a being who has “spread” (rgyas.pa) his intellect to all that is known. This refers to his insight and completion of what is to be attained on the path, the primordial awareness (ye.shes; jnana) of a Fully Awakened Being. Because a Lama has realized both these qualities he is no different from all buddhas.

Dharma, Chö (chos) in Tibetan, also generally has two meanings: written Dharma, as in texts and Dharma that is the realization. When a spiritual teacher has gained full realization, his thoughts arise from a mind that has fully awakened. Such a mind is known as the Dharma of realization.

The disciples of the Buddhadharma are known as the Sangha, Gen-dun (dge. ‘dun) in Tibetan dun, or those Intent on Virtue. In the Lesser Vehicle (theg.dman; Hinayana) they are the monastic community and in the Great Vehicle (theg.chen; Mahayana) they are the awakening warriors, or bodhisattvas.2 However, this difference is not so important as usually the Sangha means all who are disciples of Buddha and his teachings.

The spiritual master, in whom these Three Supreme Jewels are embodied, not only has the experience of what is to be attained and abandoned but also shows kindness in excess of even Buddha Shakyamuni. Since at present we are unable to perceive a universal Buddha such as Shakyamuni, the lama is here to teach from his own experience what must be practiced on the path to complete liberation from all confusion and dissatisfaction.

In Tibet, Buddhist practitioners take refuge in the doctrine of the Great Vehicle until the fully awakened state of being is attained. However, the practitioner himself must also be an awakening warrior because the Great Vehicle doctrine must be in the minds of those who practice it and not just in the texts of past great masters.

You should not seek refuge in the Great Vehicle simply because you dislike the suffering experienced in cyclic existence, which is the motivation of practitioners of the Lesser Vehicle. Nor should you follow the Great Vehicle in order to benefit your relatives and those close to you because, in fact, over beginningless lifetimes we have had similar relationships with all sentient beings. All living beings have been our parents at some time or other and it is for their sake that we endeavor to follow the Great Vehicle.

Embracing all sentient beings with this motivation of an awakening warrior has two aspects: loving kindness and compassion. Just as you do not want to be afflicted with suffering and wish to be happy, so do all living beings. Loving kindness is the wish that all beings may achieve the happiness they desire, while compassion is the wish that they may be separated from suffering and situations that create pain. The numerous methods for developing these two feelings depend upon overcoming the attitude of cherishing oneself more than others, and on developing the attitude that all other beings are more important than oneself. You should never think only of your personal benefit; your thoughts should embrace the needs of all others. This is the basis of the awakening mind, or bodhicitta, that aspires to and ventures into the practices of awakening the primordial awareness for the sake of all other beings.

In the path of an awakening warrior, the four preliminary contemplations, refuge, loving kindness and compassion, should always be maintained.

At present our mind abides in cyclic existence and dwells in ignorance and confusion, yet it is this same mind that proceeds on the path and awakens to the ultimate realization. Just as a man changes his clothes yet does not change his name, the mind that achieves enlightenment is not some other mind from the one we now have. When the man removes all his clothes and stands naked, people still know him as the same man; just so, our mind, bare of the clothes of conflicting emotions, such as passion, aggression, jealousy and their instincts, is the same mind we have now.

The main creator of all emotional afflictions is the ignorance that grasps at “I” and “mine”. From this fundamental defilement all other defilements arise. However, although you may intellectually understand that you do not have an ego it is not easy to eliminate the mental grasping at it. Because of the great strengths of prior tendencies and obscurations it is very difficult to purify this grasping, just as it is not possible to clean thoroughly at once an extremely dirty object.

The method to eliminate the confusion of believing in an ego identity is to avoid grasping at the “self” in your activities. Although the best method for this is meditation on emptiness, most people are unable to meditate on this from the outset. At present you should have faith and then mentally examine which of the five main defilements of passion, aggression, arrogance, jealousy or ignorance is the heaviest. Like cutting weeds in a garden, first you have to cut off the conflicting emotions that are the strongest. If at this initial stage of mental development you let whatever negative emotions arise in the mind and follow them, actions leaving a propensity for future unsatisfactory results are created.

So for a beginner the purpose of practice should be the subduing of mental afflictions. You must think of aggression, desire and so forth as your real enemies and destroy them. Furthermore, you must develop mindfulness so that you can be aware of hatred and other conflicting emotions whenever they arise within your mind. Because most people have poor mindfulness, defilements simply arise and develop, leading to conflict within and without. As your mindfulness increases the opportunity for conflicting emotions to develop decreases. This is how you should practice now.

However, conflicting emotions will not always have to be approached in this way. The approach to them depends on the individual’s level of mental development. At first you have to acknowledge conflicting emotions as your enemy and eliminate them. Later, with increased mindfulness, you may simply watch them arise without trying to destroy them yet not falling under their influence. When you gain realization of emptiness afflicting emotions may be taken in and crystallized into the five primordial wisdoms. Aggression, for instance, may be transmuted into the mirror-like wisdom.

When commencing the preliminary practices your mind can still be easily distracted so you must develop mindfulness and eliminate any mental wandering. If you attempt to deal with negative emotions without the force of concentration then there will be no certainty that your approach will be beneficial. Although there are many ways of dealing with mental afflictions, the main practices you must have throughout the whole path are mindfulness and lack of mental wandering. They both go together since without one the other will not arise, although generally lack of mental wandering is said to be the cause of mindfulness.

These two practices will give you the ability to watch the mind and how it proceeds. For both to develop it is important to meditate on the suffering of the round of existence and impermanence. I personally feel that these two topics are especially effective for integrating the mind and propelling you into practice. Even if you meditate intensely on them for several weeks and then proceed onto other practices, the awareness of these fundamental preliminaries as well as the precious human form and cause and effect should always be maintained.

The spiritual teacher who guides you through the practices speaks out of his own experience since he has achieved the states of being of which he is speaking. Traditionally a teacher would closely examine any disciple coming to him before consenting to give instructions. Only if he was satisfied with the disciple’s qualifications would he give teachings such as those on the extraordinary preliminaries (refuge and prostration, Vajrasattva purification and recitation of the hundred syllable mantra, offering the mandala of the whole universe, and union with the spiritual master) and on further meditations leading to the understanding of the nature of reality.

However, at this present time it is difficult for the teacher to make such an intimate investigation. Therefore you should examine your own inclinations towards the various lineages of teachings. The faith you feel in your spiritual master must grow into the highest devotion, so it is advisable to spend more time investigating different traditions in order that you have no doubt once the commitment has been made.

When Milarepa first went to a Nyingma Lama he had neither much devotion to him nor did he do much practice. Then when he went to Marpa, the holder of the Mahamudra teachings, he was so intent on receiving the teachings that even though he was always rejected, his devotion and enthusiasm never decreased. Eventually, because of his profound devotion to Marpa he was given the complete teachings and went on to achieve full realization. Similarly, you must investigate your own connection with a specific teacher and his teachings. If you have a strong connection with your teacher, then the instructions you receive will be of complete benefit to you. However, this should not lead you to think that your own teacher and teachings are superior to others. To make such a discrimination between the traditions, especially when beginning preliminary practices, will create many obstacles.

The schools of Nyingma, Kagyü, Sakya and Gelug are of the Great Vehicle and all lineages come from Buddha. With the visualization of the assembly tree in the Drukpa Kagyü’s extraordinary preliminary practices prostrations are made to Dorje Chang (Vajradhara) and the specific lineage masters, but they are visualized as being surrounded by the masters from all Indian and Tibetan traditions. Thus the practices must be followed without any trace of sectarian bias.

Think that the lineage you choose to follow is that which is best for you but do not think that it is actually superior to any other lineage. Once you have committed yourself to your teacher it is not advisable to forsake him for another. There is a risk then that apparent contradictions will arise sowing the seeds of doubt within you. This would mean that there would be no certainty of benefits accruing from your practice. The Buddha himself gave many teachings, all of which were meant to suit the different capacities and inclinations of the practitioners present at the time. In the same way the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism are suited to the varying dispositions of students.

From beginningless time we have been under the power of confusion and ego-grasping. It is not a simple matter to purify oneself of these, but if you now have attained a precious human birth and have made contact with the Dharma and teachers it means that you must have had some connection from a previous life. Now you have the opportunity to free yourself from the net of emotional and psychological afflictions. However, it is not sufficient merely to collect many teachings and to read many books. You must actually put whatever you learn into practice and prepare yourself for death. Dharma instructions are only of value if practiced and applied to the activities of life itself. By taking the teachings to heart it gives them weight and significance.


Notes

1  Thogme Zangpo in his Commentary to Shantideva’s “Venturing into the Activities of the Bodhisattva” says, “Life in hell, as a ghost or animal, as a barbarian or long-living celestial being, holding perverted views, born when a fully awakened being has not appeared, or born as an idiot are the eight states that lack freedom for Dharma practice. By abandoning them the eight freedoms are gained. Being human, in a central (Buddhist) country, having complete senses, not having committed the five heinous actions, having faith in the Doctrine, living when a fully awakened being has appeared and taught the Truth, when the Doctrine is flourishing and when there are followers and benefactors. These are the ten endowments.” [Return to text]

2  Päl-trül Rinpoche in his Word Commentary to (Shantideva’s) “Venturing Into the Activities of the Bodhisattva” states that an awakening warrior (Byang.chub.sems.dpa’; bodhisattva) “is a warrior (sems.dpa’; sattva) since without any timidity in his mind he courageously practices that which is difficult, performing deeds such as giving his head and limbs to others in order to attain the fully awakened state of being (byang.chub; bodhi).” [Return to text]

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