It is impossible to overestimate the value of the Ngondro, the four foundational practices of Tibetan Buddhism. In a direct and very practical way, these preliminary practices bring forth our potential while removing the veils which keep us from experiencing and expressing our Enlightened nature. What especially hinders us is the mind's tendency to cling to its constantly changing impressions. For example, though we may not have experienced any anger five minutes earlier, and it will most likely be gone five minutes later, our mind still treats the feeling as it were substantial and real. It then acts from that basis, setting things in motion in the outer world as well as planting seeds in its store-consciousness which will bring about suffering in the future. This cycle, which is largely out of one's control, is the normal state of most beings; people are not free to choose what they wish to experience.
The Buddha's goal, then, is to enable us to know that freedom which we've actually always had, to help beings experience the open, clear, unobstructed nature of mind. He shows us that its timeless essence is perfect: open like space, radiantly intelligent and alive, and without any limits; that although intangible and not a thing in itself, still it is capable of experiencing and knowing all things. Resting in this primordial awareness brings fearlessness, spontaneous joy, and active compassion; it is perfection itself.
Mind in its true essence is uncontrived and timeless. It would be experienced that way if its impressions weren't forced into systems of judgment and evaluation. What makes our actions pure is our contact with this underlying essence. The accumulation of good impressions produces spontaneous insight, which then motivates more positive actions, and the resulting growth allows us to see things ever more as they are. Without filters, we can work directly with what's there.
In order to enhance and secure our development, the 9th Karmapa, Wangchug Dorje, gave the Chag Chen Ngondro. The goal of its four practices is the realization of Mahamudra, the highest insight, and the name 'Chag Chen Ngondro' means 'the preparatory way to Mahamudra.' In each of the four practices, this highest realization serves as the basis, the way, and the goal. The process is the same: first we open our body, speech, and mind to aspects of Enlightenment, knowing that they are no different from our own true nature. Then we practice the repetitions, the physical exercises, visualizations, and mantras which make them come alive. Finally, we merge with them, manifesting fully their Enlightened energy. The power of our mind to do this lifts all experience to the level of a Pure Land, a state of mind where all things are seen in a jovial light and further our growth. Building increasing levels of good Karma and insight, the Ngondro thus leads us to the ultimate wisdom of Mahamudra.
The first preliminary, Refuge with Prostrations, aims at clearing away obscurations and accumulating good impressions. It is a very physical and powerful practice, focusing mainly on activities of the body.
The second foundation, Dorje Sempa, purifies our speech and mind and develops both merit and insight, though mostly the former. Dreams and daily experiences will already begin to reflect greater wisdom. Life will still be taken quite personally, but moments of space and clarity will grow more frequent.
In the third practice, Mandala offerings, wisdom and merit are equally emphasized. We understand that the Refuge to which we make offerings and our own essence are really one. Here, the unity of subject, object, and action becomes much clearer.
The last foundation, Guru Yoga, is basically the Three Lights meditation preceded by a number of prayers. It primarily develops our wisdom. The purification from the first two practices along with the inner richness produced by the Mandala offerings make possible the timeless merging of the Buddha's body, speech, and mind with our own. Through this, glimpses of intuitive wisdom begin to really affect our lives, becoming more constant as we progress along the path.
If we have confidence in our inherent nature, and in the 2,500 years of unbroken Buddhist experience, we'll find that the use of these repetitions, digging out the roots of ignorance again and again, is the best way to bring forth our Enlightened essence. Even the wisest and most convincing thoughts are like bubbles in the air when we die; they cannot help us. On the other hand, strong dharmic habits influencing our totality will not only help us in this life, but also at and after death.
At that time, when sense impressions stop and both habitual tendencies and the timeless Buddha energies of our mind awaken, we can then recognize those aspects we have meditated on and merge with them at a level beyond time and place. Just as mental disturbances consist of repetitive patterns, so repetition is also the antidote which removes them. Through constantly hitting in the same place until the veils of ignorance have been pierced, the mind's steady power begins to manifest naturally.
Four times 111,111 repetitions (of Refuge and Prostrations, Dorje Sempa, Mandala offerings, and Guru Yoga) thus cut away countless hindrances and prepare us for the direct experience of our primordial nature. Ordinarily, when we try to meditate, our mind wanders and gets dull. Even if we sit for long periods in the same place, this lack of clarity and concentration remains. We will see that there isn't much value in just sitting in one's unreformed state, that it makes people robot-like or dependent. That is why Shamata (or Shinay, in Tibetan) was not given in authentic Tibetan Buddhism until after the Ngondro was completed or, in rare cases, alongside it. We have here an important reason why maturity, freshness, and flexibility characterize those who follow the traditional way.
How then do we practice? We work in an integrated way with body, speech, and mind using these very effective tools. If our mind strays from the Buddha aspect, we hold it with the energy of the mantras. If this is also difficult, we shift our emphasis to the senses of the body, focusing on the prostrations, on the mala in our hand or, eventually, on the experience of our Buddha body and its energy-channels. This prevents stiffness and discouragement, and makes the best possible use of our time.
- An excerpt from the book "Ngondro - The Four Foundational Practices of Tibetan Buddhism"