Turning Confusion into Clarity is now available at the Tergar Store.
Tibetan Buddhism abounds with different lineages, philosophies, and forms of meditation. Amidst this dizzying array of teachings, the foundation practices - or ngondro, as they are known in Tibet - hold a place of special importance.
Ngondro is a set of meditations that form the first step on the path of awakening. Though they are preliminary practices, in the sense that they are meant to till the hardened soil of the heart and mind and prepare them for the spiritual journey, many of Tibet's greatest meditation masters have taken them as a daily practice throughout their lives. Indeed, it is often said that the foundation practices are even more profound than the supposedly more "advanced" meditations that one encounters later in the path.
Ngondro is not a meditation, but a series of contemplations and meditative practices. It is actually an entire path unto itself. The first stage of the ngondro journey is termed the "common" or "outer" foundation practices and consists of a series of contemplations. These contemplations cover core Buddhist teachings, such as impermanence and the truth of suffering, but in this context they serve a specific function: their purpose is to help us to divert our attention away from the causes of chronic dissatisfaction and toward the path of liberation. In other words, these contemplations are designed to help us rethink our priorities in life and focus on what is truly meaningful.
The second part of the ngondro journey, referred to as the "unique" or "inner" foundation practices, takes a different approach. This set of meditations uses imagery, symbolism, and active visualization to embody important aspects of the Buddhist path. Some of the practices help us to open our hearts, while others focus on purification or creating conditions that will support our spiritual practice.
How on earth did Mingyur Rinpoche manage to write a new book when he's been wandering in the Himalayas for three years?
It would be a nice image to think of Mingyur Rinpoche sitting in a cave somewhere with a laptop and a good satellite connection, beaming his writings around the world between meditation sessions, but the truth is that these teachings were compiled before he left on retreat. In writing this book, Rinpoche was fortunate to be assisted by Helen Tworkov, a close student of his who happens to be a gifted writer and co-founder of Tricycle Magazine. Helen spent months with Rinpoche before he left. Together, they worked out the structure of the book, fleshed out the content, and went over the teachings in great detail. After Rinpoche's departure, Helen continued to work on the book. She spent a few years organizing the teachings, editing them with incredible sensitivity and care, and eventually passing them on to the publisher. As a community, we are extremely lucky that Helen was willing to shoulder this great responsibility.
Why did Mingyur Rinpoche choose to write a book about the foundation practices?
Mingyur Rinpoche's first two books, The Joy of Living and Joyful Wisdom, were accessible presentations of meditation practice. Despite their conversational style, both books contain a wealth of profound hints about meditation practice. In many ways these writings capture the core of Rinpoche's approach to the path of awakening.
Having written two books that he hoped would reach both Buddhist and non-Buddhist readers, Mingyur Rinpoche chose to write this book to support those who are already engaged in Buddhist practice, or who are interested in doing so. This is not to say that he wrote this book only for Buddhists. It may very well be that this will also inspire those who are not practicing Buddhists. But this book is primarily intended for those who are looking to deepen their knowledge - and especially their experience - of the Buddha's teachings.
Within the domain of Buddhist teachings, it wasn't difficult to choose a topic to write about. Along with nature of mind teachings, the foundation practices are a core part of the Path of Liberation, the course of formal Buddhist practice presented in the Tergar community. They are widely practiced throughout Tibetan Buddhism as well, and for good reason; this collection of practices contains distillations of the most important forms of Buddhist contemplation and meditation. In addition, the foundation practices also cover many core principles of the Buddha's teachings, providing practical tools to encounter these teachings directly in one's own experience. Thus, this profound set of practices encompasses both the main principles and meditation practices of the entire Buddhist path.
With this in mind, Rinpoche's hopes in writing this book are that those who are interested in Buddhism, or who are already practicing, will be inspired and informed by his reflections on ngondro practice. Yet this isn't the only motivation. The ngondro teachings are both comprehensive and profound, but they are also very complex. The truth is that the foundation practices can be pretty intimidating, even for experienced practitioners. With this in mind, his hope is that sharing his own experiences with these practices, and highlighting key points that may go unnoticed amidst all the minutiae, will help new and experienced meditators stay focused on the core message of the Buddha's teachings, and not get lost in the details.
What's unique about this book?
There are many books on the foundation practices. Many of them are excellent, and some - such as Patrul Rinpoche's Words of My Perfect Teacher - are even considered classics. So why write another book about ngondro? Rinpoche's approach here is unlike any other book on the topic. One unique feature is that Rinpoche talks about his own experience in learning these practices and teachings from his own teachers. In relating his own personal journey, we get a glimpse not only of the theoretical teachings, but how they are actually embodied and practiced by someone immersed in the tradition. We also get to hear a lot of great stories about some pretty remarkable individuals.
Another unique feature is that Rinpoche highlights important points about ngondro practice that he learned from his own teachers. These are special teachings, not simply because they are important and profound - though they are - but also because they were passed down to Mingyur Rinpoche as part of an oral lineage based on direct experience. When reading them, you'll get a sense of the fresh, living energy of the teachings.
Though Turning Confusion into Clarity is certainly unique, that isn't to say that it is meant to replace other writings on the topic. Jamgon Kongtrul's Torch of Certainty, Patrul Rinpoche's Words of My Perfect Teacher, and other masterpieces of the Tibetan literary tradition are essential reading for anyone who practices ngondro. Rinpoche envisioned his new book as a support to these wonderful teachings. So if you are following the Buddhist path, or are curious to learn what it's all about, his book is sure to inform and inspire. It might even give you a few new tools to connect directly with your buddha nature, which is what it's all about.
- Cortland Dahl