First, a translation point. Ngöndro is a typical Tibetan compound word — two words are juxtaposed two create a third word. The first word is the word for before. The second is the word for go. Literally, it means what goes before and a reasonable translation (that is, able to be justified by reason or logic) would be preparation orpreparatory practices While accurate, in today's performance-based culture, it doesn't work very well Most people, whatever the task at hand, see preparation as a sometimes necessary step before they get to the real matter. Consequently, they usually don't give preparations their full attention and want to get them over with as quickly as possible. Such an attitude undermines their effectiveness. Another term that has been used isfoundation, or foundational practices. This rendering is a little better in some regards but few people see these practices as foundational to mahamudra or vajrayana practice. Why would something so simple as mahamudra require such elaborate and complex preparatory or foundational work? A few years ago, I decided to try the termgroundwork. It carries the same meaning as something that is to be done first, and that it is important. More successful as a translation? Probably not, but one has to keep trying.
Whichever English term you find speaks to you most, a few questions are worth considering. If the practices are groundwork, for exactly what they are groundwork? What is the ground that is being prepared -- you, your mind, your body, your heart, all of the above? And how do these practices do the groundwork?
Traditionally, there are two sets of groundwork or preparatory practices: common and special. In some traditions of meditation, a third set is added, specific groundwork for that particular practice.
Today, I'm going to offer a few thoughts on the common groundwork in the Tibetan tradition.
The first task of any teacher (and, the first step for any student) is to increase urgency. As it is said in many traditions, to bring about change, motivation has to change. Thus, the first step is to change motivation. The intention behind the common groundwork practices is to increase urgency. In every tradition there are tales of teachers presenting a new student with difficult challenges -- keeping the student waiting for days before meeting with him or her, putting a new student through hardship (building stone towers with bare hands). These tales are often interpreted as a test of the student's seriousness, and this is no doubt one purpose of these challenges. But I want to suggest another. In the course of working through the challenge, the student has to repeatedly reconnect and clarity his or her own motivation. In other words, the challenges serve to increase the urgency for the student.
Most people who come into Buddhist practice today do so for one of two reasons. Some are looking for ways to improve their ability to function in life: be less reactive, be more disciplined, heal old wounds, be more empathetic, etc. MBSR and MBCT have successfully adapted the traditional practice of attention and created practice protocols that are highly accessible and address a wide range of challenges and problems that people encounter in today's world -- the mcmindfulness juggernaut as one friend of mine likes to call it. The other principal reason is that people are looking for a community of like-minded people with whom they can practice. In other words, they are looking for what we usually call churches or synagogues -- an institution, small or large, in which congregations meet to practice their religion, help and support those who form the community and often play an important role in providing needed services to the society at large. Yet, as the Sufis learned centuries ago, such practice groups inevitably become social groups, more concerned with continuity, cohesion, and identity than with actual practice. In short, they are taken over by the three marks of existence.
Groundwork practice, common or special, is a different kettle of fish. It is preparation for mystical practice. Mystical practice is not concerned with either the utilitarian or the societal. People who are drawn to such practice are seeking a certain kind of knowledge or experience. That interest may evolve out of the utilitarian approach. It may evolve out of communal religious practice. In either case, it is a different sort of beast. It has more to do with a calling, a calling to a different understanding or relationship with life itself. As that sense of calling evolves, the utilitarian motivation becomes increasingly secondary or drops away completely and the societal one may, too, depending on the individual.
In the Tibetan tradition, the common groundwork usually consists of four contemplations: the precious human birth, death and impermanence, karma-seed-result and the shortcomings of samsara. Each of these practices has a specific intention. Through contemplation on the precious human birth, you come to appreciate that you have a once-in-an-infinity opportunity to practice. Through contemplation on death and impermanence, you expose the illusions of conventional notions of success and failure. Contemplations on karma and the shortcomings of samsara show you how you are enslaved by reactive patterns and they also point to a way out. The whole purpose of these practices is to increase the sense of urgency. I've written about these extensively in Wake Up to Your Life and you can find more traditional descriptions in any number of books -- The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Words of My Perfect Teacher, The Way of the Bodhisattva, to name just a few.
There is no denying that these practices can and do change the way you see the world and your place in it. However, I'm no longer entirely convinced that they always work as advertised, for the simple reason that they are, in their own way, based on the same rational choice theory that has so disastrously underpinned modern economics and sociology. These disciplines make the assumption that we are rational beings and when presented with all the evidence, we make decisions that maximize our well-being. Well-being in the economic or sociological sense is about how we live in this world. In the spiritual sense, the scope is considerably expanded to the totality of beings in the universe and the infinities of time past and future, but the logic is essentially the same. And that is why I now distrust it.
Still, the need to increase urgency remains. For that, I have increasingly moved in the direction that Stephen Batchelor once referred to as "the small stammering voice" inside. Rather than trying to accept and absorb the logic of Indian and Tibetan cosmology, I feel that listening to your heart may be a more reliable way to increase your urgency, listening to your heart until you hear what it is saying so clearly and completely that your path and the place of your path in your life is clear. This is what I tried to convey in my commentary on the first practice verse of The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva in Reflections on Silver River. When you are clear about where your heart wants to go, then reflections on mortality, etc., quickly clarify and focus intention.