- The Preliminary Practices
- Dr. Peter Della Santina
In Chapters 22 through 26, I tried to outline what we might call the
universe of experience of the Vajrayana. That is why I began with a consideration of the
cultural and intellectual climate in which the Vajrayana first appeared, and only then
went on to consider its religious and philosophical background, methodology, myth and
symbol, and psychology, physiology, and cosmology. In Chapters 27 through 29, I will look
at the actual stages in the practice of the Vajrayana path. In general, there are three
such stages: (1) the preliminary or preparatory stage, (2) the stage of entry, and (3) the
actual practice. I have divided the preliminary stage into two categories: general and
As mentioned in Chapter 22, the Mahayana and Vajrayana are in fact two
components of a single tradition. Their starting point and goal are identical; they differ
only in the methods employed in getting from that starting point to the goal. From this we
can understand that, in terms of general preliminaries, there is a great deal of
similarity between what is required for Mahayana practice and what is required for
We need to touch on the preliminaries briefly to emphasize again that
the Vajrayana practices are not ones that can be undertaken without the proper kind of
preparation. In fact, the general preliminaries required for Vajrayana practice are those
required for the whole of the Mahayana path. In this category of general preliminary
practices, we have (1) the taking of refuge, followed by (2) contemplation of suffering,
(3) the law of karma, (4) death and impermanence, and (5) the opportune and fortunate
nature of the human situation; (6) cultivation of love and compassion; and (7) production
of the enlightenment thought. We conclude with (8) cultivation of one-pointedness, or
concentration, and penetrative insight. All these serve as a general prerequisite to
With a few exceptions, the general preliminary practices of the
Vajrayana are similar to those of the Mahayana. One of the exceptions is the way the
taking of refuge is practiced. Whereas in the Mahayana tradition there are the three
objects of refuge--the Enlightened One, his teaching, and the Noble Assembly of the
irreversible Bodhisattvas or Bodhisattvas who have attained the seventh stage of the
Bodhisattva path and are therefore not liable to relapse, in the Vajrayana there is also
the fourth refuge--the preceptor (the guru or lama). In certain traditions within the
Vajrayana fold, there may be as many as six objects of refuge, the two additional ones
being the tutelary deities and the dakinis. The tutelary deities are the special esoteric
forms of the Buddha who are any one of the major tantric deities--Hevajra, Chakrasamvara,
and the like--meditation upon whom is a complete path to enlightenment. The dakinis are
female deities who are symbolic or representative of insubstantiality. In the Vajrayana
pantheon, the dakinis occupy a position in some ways analogous to that of the Noble
Assembly, being the special tantric or Vajrayana forms of the Sangha. Although in certain
traditions and contexts we do have references to these six objects of refuge, it is far
more common to find the four objects of refuge, that is, the preceptor and the Triple Gem.
The preceptor is particularly important in the Vajrayana tradition. Let
me refer to two ideas that illustrate the role and importance of the preceptor in the
Vajrayana tradition. First, the preceptor performs a function similar to that of a
magnifying glass. We know that the sun is very hot and has great power, yet without a
device like the magnifying glass we cannot harness its heat to kindle a fire. Similarly,
although the Buddha and his teachings are very powerful, without the preceptor they are
unable to kindle the fire of wisdom within a disciple. The preceptor functions as a means
of concentrating and harnessing the power of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in such a way
as to make that power effective and immediately applicable to the disciple's own needs.
Recognizing this role of the preceptor has always been of the greatest
importance. We will understand this better if we consider the story of Marpa, one of the
more famous Tibetans who journeyed to India in order to receive the Vajrayana teaching
from Naropa. Marpa made three journeys to India and studied at length with Naropa. It is
said that on one occasion, when the manifestation of a tutelary deity appeared before him,
Marpa made the mistake of bowing to the appearance of the deity rather than to his
preceptor, Naropa. The karmic consequences of this lapse were that Marpa later lost his
sons to accidents and had no descendants to whom he could pass on the teachings he had
received. This is one of a number of stories which indicate the need to recognize the
importance of the preceptor in the Vajrayana tradition.
In Chapter 29, I will show how the last two components in these general
preliminaries--the cultivation of single-pointedness and penetrative insight--are applied
to one's practice in the context of Vajrayana meditation. For the time being, let me
repeat that these general preliminaries are indispensable prerequisites to serious
Vajrayana practice. No tradition within Tibetan Buddhism encourages the commencement of
Vajrayana practice without having spent a really substantial amount of time on these
preliminary practices. All the Tibetan Vajrayana traditions have extensive oral and
written material on the cultivation and practice of these preliminaries. Although it does
sometimes happen that people go on to Vajrayana practice without having spent an
appropriate amount of time on these general preliminaries, they do so at their own risk.
However, I do not mean to indulge in scare mongering. What I mean is that if you do
somehow manage to go on to your university education without having undergone
pre-university training you are liable to have a much more difficult time in your
I would like to make one more observation before treating the
particular preliminary practices that are special to the Vajrayana. I have gone to great
lengths to show the integrated nature of the three major Buddhist traditions of Theravada,
Mahayana, and Vajrayana, and have tried to show that the Vajrayana represents a natural
extension of elements found in other Buddhist traditions. I would therefore like to draw
your attention to two steps in these general preliminary practices: the taking of refuge,
and the awakening of the enlightenment thought, or acceptance of the Bodhisattva vows. I
would like to suggest that these can be regarded as initiations of a kind. Another
practice which may be seen as analogous to initiation is the novitiate, or entrance into
the Buddhist Order.
All three of these practices may be thought of as varieties of
initiations. All involve entrance into a community with a particular set of practices: in
the case of taking refuge, the ceremony represents entry into the Buddhist community; in
the case of the novitiate, it represents entry into the monastic community; and in the
case of the Bodhisattva vows, entry into the lineage or family of the Buddha. These three
ceremonies are, in a sense, initiations that involve taking on certain commitments: taking
refuge brings along with it the commitment to try to observe the precepts of a layperson;
entering the monastic order brings with it the commitment to observe the precepts of a
novice; and taking the Bodhisattva vows brings with it the commitments of the Bodhisattva.
There are aspects of the institutions of refuge, novitiate, and Bodhisattva vows that are
similar to important elements in the Vajrayana initiation.
Let us go on to look at the specific preliminary practices generally
required for Vajrayana practice. It is not imperative that one complete the preliminaries
before beginning any kind of Vajrayana practice. It is also not imperative that one
complete these preliminaries before receiving Vajrayana initiation. It is, however,
imperative that one complete them before undertaking meditational retreat on one of the
major Vajrayana tutelary deities. For really serious Vajrayana practice, these specific
preliminaries are required.The term for these preliminaries in Tibetan is ngon-dro, which
literally means 'going before.' Hence these practices go before serious practice. There
are four specific preliminary practices common to all the Vajrayana traditions: (1)
refuge, (2) confession, (3) preceptor yoga, and (4) mandala offering. Each has to be
performed one hundred thousand times. In addition to these four, certain traditions
require the performance of prostrations, and others require alternative rituals.
Refuge. As already mentioned, in the Vajrayana tradition one takes
refuge in four 'objects'--the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and preceptor, or guru. Taking
refuge involves visualization of the objects of refuge either separately or together: (a)
one can visualize one's preceptor, the Buddha, the texts, and the Noble Assembly
separately, or (b) one can visualize the four objects of refuge integrated or combined
into the single figure of the tutelary deity. Some of you may have seen this visualization
portrayed in painted scrolls, with the objects of refuge pictured in a tree, on a jeweled
throne, on a lotus and a sun or moon disk (for more on some of these symbols, see Chapter
25). Using this visualization of the four objects of refuge, we recite a refuge formula
one hundred thousand times.
Confession. For convenience, I have called the second specific
preliminary practice 'confession' because it is commonly referred to by this name.
However, it is important to remember here that we are not concerned with confession as a
means of securing forgiveness. We do not use the term in the same sense in which it is
used in Christianity, where the confession of sins is followed by forgiveness from an
external power. In this context, confession merely implies our own recognition of
unwholesome actions done in the past, and our resolve not to repeat them. Especially
important in this practice of confession of unwholesome actions is the Buddha Vajrasattva,
another special form of the Buddha similar to the Buddhas of the Five Families.
Vajrasattva is an archetypal form of the Buddha who embodies the state of enlightenment
for the special purpose of the confession and purification of unwholesome actions.
Vajrasattva appears in the Mahayana pantheon as well, and the practice
of confession of unwholesome actions is one of the preliminaries performed by all who
embark on the Bodhisattva path. Vajrasattva is white in color. He has a single face and
two hands, and holds a vajra and a bell, which stand for skillful means and wisdom,
respectively. In the specific preliminary practice of confession, we meditate on
Vajrasattva and recite the hundred-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva one hundred thousand
It is said that four powers issue from the practice of the confession
and purification of unwholesome actions. The first power is the 'power of the shrine,'
which refers to the power of Vajrasattva as a symbol of purification. There is a certain
power which issues from visualization of the form of Vajrasattva. This is a symbolic
power, similar to the kind of power that issues, in the mundane context, from a symbol
such as the national flag. The national flag has a symbolic power; similarly, in the
sacred context of meditation, the image of Vajrasattva has a certain power, the power of
The second of the four powers is the 'power of transcendence,' of going
beyond. This refers to a sincere renunciation of unwholesome actions. In other words, in
the course of the meditation, unwholesome actions are transcended.
The third power that issues from this practice is the 'power of
habitual antidote,' or the power of persistent correction, which refers to the sincere
resolve not to repeat the unwholesome actions one has done in the past. This is the power
to refrain from doing unwholesome actions again in the future.
The fourth power is the 'power of restoration.' This refers to the fact
that, insofar as unwholesome actions belong to the level of conditioned reality, they do
not really penetrate to the core of one's own being, which is the Buddha mind, or the
nature of emptiness. Unwholesome actions are, in reality, adventitious. They are like the
dirt that soils a white cloth, or the smoke or cloud that obscures the sky. Because of
this, meditation on Vajrasattva results in the power of restoration, which is the
realization of our intrinsic purity.
Preceptor Yoga. The third preliminary is called preceptor yoga. The
preceptor (guru or lama) is an accomplished master who bestows tantric initiations and
special spiritual attainments. Although it is quite common for those not conversant with
the Tibetan tradition to refer to any Tibetan monk as a lama, in the Tibetan tradition
this term is reserved for such qualified masters, while ordinary monks are referred to
simply as gelong (bhikshu). The term yoga means 'yoking together,' connecting or
The purpose of preceptor yoga is to establish a close bond between
disciple and master. Here again, we can see the importance of the preceptor in the
Vajrayana tradition. This practice can take different forms, which differ slightly.
However, in general it involves the recitation, one hundred thousand times, of a formula
that expresses a disciple's devotion to and regard for the qualities of the preceptor.
I would like to expand on what I said earlier about the importance of
the preceptor in the Vajrayana tradition--why this is and must be so. The Vajrayana
tradition is first and foremost an oral tradition, handed down from master to disciple.
The association or connection between master and disciple is particularly important. This
association leads to the formation of lineage. Lineage is, of course, important not only
in the Vajrayana but also in the Buddhist tradition as a whole, especially when it comes
to monastic ordination. If you look at the history of monasticism in Sri Lanka and
Thailand, you will notice the importance accorded to it. Because of discontinuation of the
lineage of monastic ordination, special envoys had to be sent from one Theravada country
to another on a number of occasions, simply to renew the lineage.
Lineage is like an electric circuit. When the lineage is broken, the
ordination of new disciples cannot take place. This also occurred in the monastic history
of Tibet when, after the persecution of Buddhism under King Lan-dar-ma, the lineage of
monastic ordination had to be reestablished with the help of Chinese monks. Thus lineage
is extremely important. It is important in the Vajrayana tradition because it is by means
of lineage--the unbroken chain connecting master and disciple--that the Vajrayana
teachings are handed down from one generation to the next.
The concept of lineage implies the identity of each link in the chain,
each member of the lineage. Consequently, the figure of the preceptor secures
identification between the master, disciple, and tutelary deity. Later, the disciple him
or herself forges this bond as he or she develops his or her own sense of identification
with the preceptor and then with the tutelary deity.
The institution of the lineage, as it is embodied in the figure of the
preceptor, cuts across time and space. It bridges the gulf that separates us, here and
now, from the time and place and mode of being of the Buddha. This is why, in Vajrayana
initiation and meditation practice, the preceptor is identified with the tutelary deity,
and it is then the task of the practitioner to identify with the deity through the
preceptor. This practice of union with the guru is important for creating the foundation
of the special relationship between practitioner and preceptor.
Mandala Offering. The fourth preliminary practice is the offering of
the mandala. In general, a mandala is a sacred, symbolic (or magic) circle. In the context
of the offering ritual, the mandala represents in symbolic form the whole mundane
universe, as it is pictured in traditional Buddhist cosmology. Traditionally, the universe
is said to have Mount Sumeru at its center, the four continents on each side of Mount
Sumeru, four intermediate continents, and so forth. The mandala is a symbolic
representation of this traditional cosmology.
In the practice of mandala offering, the practitioner offers to the
four objects of refuge (the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and preceptor) all his own merit, born
of wholesome actions, in the symbolic form of the universe. He offers all his wholesome
actions to these four objects, which are the repositories of all excellent qualities, for
the sake of the enlightenment of all sentient beings. This offering is done a hundred
thousand times. Along with the recitation, the practitioner performs a ritual using a disk
of metal, stone, or wood and grains of rice, wheat, or sand, by means of which he creates
symbolically the salient features of the traditional cosmology of the universe.
This practice of mandala offering is effective because it is the most
excellent form of karma. There are five modifying conditions that intensify the weight of
karma--three subjective and two objective. The three subjective conditions are (a)
persistence or repetition of an action, (b) willful intention, and (c) absence of regret.
The objective conditions are (d) quality and (e) indebtedness toward whom the action is
directed (see also Chapter 8).
In the mandala offering, we have all the conditions conducive to
enhancing the weight of this wholesome karma. We have persistence, in that the offering is
done a hundred thousand times. We have the intention of the practitioner to offer all his
merits in this symbolic form to the enlightened ones. We also have a complete absence of
regret. If we were to offer material objects, we might be liable to experience some
feeling of regret. For example, if I offer a financial endowment to a monastery, I may
later think that I have offered too much. But with a symbolic offering of this sort, there
is no ground for that kind of feeling to arise, so the wholesome karma it generates is
unopposed. Last, who is more worthy of offering than the enlightened ones, who are of the
highest worth and greatest benefit to us, since it is they who make enlightenment
accessible? The practice of mandala offering thus creates the merit required to make rapid
progress along the Vajrayana path.
In short, the four specific preliminary practices have a special
contribution to make in the preparation for serious Vajrayana practice. The recitation of
the refuge formula establishes one firmly on the path, creating a secure shelter that
protects one from discouragement and distractions. The practice of confession purifies
unwholesome actions. The practice of preceptor yoga identifies practitioner and preceptor,
establishing the relationship so crucial to one's progress on the Vajrayana path. Finally,
the practice of mandala offering creates the positive potential, the wholesome energy,
that one needs in making rapid and efficient strides.
[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan:
The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 243-253].
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing