The term ngöndro literally denotes "something that goes before, something which precedes." The preliminary practices establish the foundation for the more advanced Vajrayana practices, such as sādhanā practices, or Dzogchen and Mahamudra.
Vajrayana teachers emphasize that "foundational" does not mean "lesser", that the practice of Ngöndro is a complete and sufficient practice of the spiritual path, and that it can take the practitioner all the way to full enlightenment.
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said:
"When we take our first steps on the Path, we are not yet capable of helping others. To accomplish the good of others, we must first perfect ourselves, by purifying and transforming our minds. This is the aim of what we call the preliminary practices, which establish the foundations of all spiritual progress. You may feel like dispensing with these foundations in order to practice teachings that you think are more profound, but if you do so, you are building a palace on the surface of a frozen lake."
Stages of the practice
In general, the preliminary practices are divided into two sections: the outer preliminary practices, and the inner preliminary practices.
- the preciousness of this human birth - for example, several versions of the ngondro emphasize reflection on the eighteen freedoms and advantages
- the truth of impermanence and change
- the workings of karma
- the suffering of living beings within samsara
These reflections are intended to inspire a strong sense of renunciation, an urgent desire to emerge from samsara and follow the path to liberation.
The above four contemplations are sometimes referred to as "the four reminders" or "the four mind-changers" or "the four thoughts which turn the mind towards Dharma." Additional reflections may be included in the specific instructions on the outer preliminaries within different lineages, but the above four topics are the main reflections.
The outer preliminaries are typically followed by the inner preliminary practices.
The inner preliminaries (aka uncommon or extraordinary preliminaries) consist of:
- taking refuge in the Buddha as the guide, the truth of his teaching (the Dharma) as the path, and the example of his practitioners (the Sangha) as companions on the path, so awakening a confidence and trust in our own inner buddha nature;
- giving birth to love and compassion—bodhichitta, the heart of the enlightened mind—and training the mind to work with ourselves, with others, and with the difficulties of life;
- removing obscurations of all kinds through the purification and healing practice of meditating on Vajrasattva and reciting his mantra;
- accumulating merit and wisdom by developing universal generosity and creating auspicious circumstances, through the mandala offering;
- finally, in the practice of guru yoga, which is the most crucial, moving and powerful practice of all, we unite our mind with the wisdom mind of all the buddhas and so awaken the wisdom of realization.
Purifying the Obscurations
It is sometimes said that:
- prostrations remove the obscurations associated with the body,
- recitation of the mantra of Vajrasattva removes obscurations associated with speech,
- mandala offering removes obscurations associated with mind, and
- guru yoga removes the obscurations of all three: body, speech and mind.
Most texts recommend specific targets for practice accumulations. For example, texts typically recommend for a practitioner to complete:
- 100,000 prostrations with refuge prayers
- 100,000 mantras of Vajrasattva
- 100,000 mandala offerings
- 100,000 mantras of guru yoga
However, these practice instructions are at the discretion of the teacher. For example, a teacher might modify the recommended number of prostrations for a student who is physically unable to complete 100,000 prostrations. Or in some cases, a teacher might suggest that a student's dharma activity, such as volunteering at a dharma center, can be a substitute for more formal practices.
Versions of ngöndros
The various subsects of the Kagyu lineage tend to practice slightly different ngöndro practices. One of the most common in the Karma Kagyu lineage, called the Chariot for Travelling the Path to Freedom, was written by 9th Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje.
Well-known versions of the ngondro practices include:
- Longchen Nyingthig Ngöndro
- Dudjom Tersar Ngöndro
- Chokling Tersar Ngöndro
- Könchok Chidü Ngöndro
- Rangjung Pema Nyingthig Ngöndro
Ngondros for specific practices
In addition to general ngöndro practices that are required before entering into any advanced practice, specific preliminary practices may also be prescribed for some advanced practices. For example, the preliminary practice of "differentiating saṃsāra and nirvāṇa" (Wylie: 'khor 'das ru shan) is done specifically in preparation for the advanced practice of kadag khregschod (Wyl.) or "cutting through to primordial purity."
- Dharma Dictionary (2008). Preliminary Practices (sngon 'gro). Source:  (accessed: January 29, 2008)
- Charles Rockwell Lanman; Albert Payson Terhune (May 2009). A Sanskrit Reader - With Vocabulary and Notes. Read Books. pp. 193–. ISBN 978-1-4446-4005-2.
- Dharma Fellowship (2009). The Way of the Yogi. Source:  (accessed: Thursday February 4, 2010)
- Rangjung Yeshe Tibetan-English Dictionary of Buddhist Culture. Source "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-02-24. Retrieved 2010-10-18. (accessed: June 17, 2008),
- Khyentse, Dzongsar Jamyang (2012). Not for happiness : a guide to the so-called preliminary practices (First edition. ed.). Boston, Mass.: Shambhala. p. 42. ISBN 978-1-61180-030-2.
- Jamgon Kongtrul (2000). The torch of certainty. Boston: Shambhala. p. 24. ISBN 978-1-57062-713-2.
- Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, 1996, p. 10
- Patrul Rinpoche 1998, p. xxxv.
- Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche & Trulshik Adeu Rinpoche 2011, p. 39.
- Robert E. Buswell Jr., Donald S. Lopez Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton: 2014), entry for sngon'gro
- Pettit, John W. (1999). Mipham's Beacon of certainty : illuminating the view of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection. Boston: Wisdom Publications. p. 81. ISBN 0-86171-157-2.
- Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press
- Khandro Rinpoche (2003), This Precious Life, Shambala
- Patrul Rinpoche (1998), The Words of My Perfect Teacher, Altamira
- Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche; Trulshik Adeu Rinpoche (2011), Skillful Grace: Tara Practice for Our Times, Random House
- Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. Ngondro Commentary: Instructions for the Concise Preliminary Practices of the New Treasure of Dudjom. Padma Publishing, Junction City, CA., 1995.
- Jamgon Kongtrul. (trans. by Judith Hanson). The Torch of Certainty. Shambhala Publications, Boston 1994.
- Kalu Rinpoche. The Foundations of Tibetan Buddhism: The Gem Ornament of Manifold Oral Instructions Which Benefits Each and Everyone Appropriately. Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York, 1999.
- Patrul Rinpoche, Words of My Perfect Teacher, translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1994
- Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang, A Guide to the Words of My Perfect Teacher translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, Shambhala Publications, Boston, 2004
- Dilgo Khytentse Rinpoche, The Excellent Path to Enlightenment translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca NY, 1996
- Jigme Lingpa, Dzogchen - Innermost Essence Preliminary Practice translated by Tulku Thondup, ISBN 81-85102-19-8, 1982/2002
- Third Dzogchen Rinpoche, Great Perfection: Outer and Inner Preliminaries, translated by Cortland Dahl, ISBN 1-55939-285-1, 2008, 
- Entrance to the Great Perfection: A Guide to the Dzogchen Preliminary Practices, translated by Cortland Dahl, ISBN 978-1-55939-339-3 
- Ngöndro Series with translations of texts on ngöndro by Patrul Rinpoche, et al
- Dudjom Short Ngondro
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