Three pillars of Tibetan Vajrayāna practice
In this audio teaching, Phakchok Rinpoche advises listeners on the best way to enter the Tibetan Vajrayāna Buddhist path. Even if students come from Buddhist cultures or backgrounds, they may be confused about how to practice. Also, for those of us who come from non-Buddhist backgrounds, all the choices may seem overwhelming. Phakchok Rinpoche here suggests we rely on three pillars to build a strong foundation for our path.
Without a pillar, a building lacks support. Similarly, without pillars to support our practice, we probably will have a shaky situation. So Rinpoche advises that we proceed in the following manner by building our practice on three pillars.
Pillar 1: Mind Training (Tibetan blo sbyong, pronounced “lojong”)
First, we need to investigate our lives and see how to make them meaningful. We begin by examining our own minds — not someone else’s mind — but our own mind that dominates our thoughts, words, and actions. By focusing on our mind, we understand how crucial it is, and how most of the time it is out of control. Slowly and gradually we apply all sorts of methods to tame our minds.
Buddhist teachers instruct us how to work with our emotions and patiently take charge of our minds. So this process involves studying, listening to Dharma talks, reading Dharma books, and getting advice from teachers and older students. Most importantly, it means reflecting on our own minds. We need to actually do some experiments with the techniques we learn. We wouldn’t expect to build big muscles by just reading about lifting weights, right? In the same way, we have to adapt the training methods and then we can see if the results start to show!
Pillar 2: Learn Meditation
Rinpoche notes that in many traditional Buddhist countries, lay people have not spent a lot of effort in learning meditation. Because of this, Tibetan teachers in the past did not teach meditation to large groups or in public very often. He says that now situations have really changed, however, and it is time to learn meditation! Thus, he requests listeners to take the time to learn meditation properly. Meditation is not difficult. It is actually very simple and anyone can do it. And when we learn to meditate, we also learn so much more about our minds. Not only do we learn how to calm our minds, but we also learn how to really see our minds. Most importantly, we can come to see the nature of the mind. As Rinpoche says, we need to actually “taste” the practice. And to do that, we have to learn to meditate.
Phakchok Rinpoche teaches his students primarily through the system of Mahāmudrā (Tibetan phyag chen, pronounced “chagchen”). Here, he explains that he usually guides students through a 3-year course of practice. We begin by practicing with gentle focus on an object and then proceed in stages. In the beginning, we keep our sessions short: only 15-25 minutes. Over time, we begin to extend our practice time and incorporate different techniques.
Samyeinstitute.org offers an on-line study at home program introducing Mahāmudrā. This program includes video instructions from Rinpoche, explanation of practices, a year-long course map, and lots of support materials. You can train your mind by listening and reflecting on the teachings. And then, you follow a step-by-step progression of guided meditation sessions. More information can be found at The Path of Meditation: Level One.
Pillar 3: Practice the Four Foundations (Tibetan sngon ‘gro, pronounced “Ngöndro”)
After we have practiced mind training and meditation for a few years, we may then be ready to begin practicing the four foundations. The practice of Ngöndro begins with physical prostrations while reciting verses of refuge and bodhicitta. We then purify our karmic obscurations and misdeeds through the visualization and recitation of the Vajrasattva mantra. The practice of Vajrasattva helps us purify our anger and aversion. Following that, we accumulate merit and purify our attachment. We do this as we practice generosity by symbolically offering the universe with a mandala. Lastly, we purify our ignorance and delusion through the extraordinary method of Guru Yoga.
Although many texts refer to the Four Foundations as “preliminary practices,” they are fundamental to the Vajrayāna path. Great masters often practice these four foundations daily as a core part of their practice. If you have engaged in the first of the three pillars and you have received the reading transmission and instructions from a lama in this tradition, you can find more information in our on-line support program here. The resources we have collected will help support your Four Foundations practice and you may refer to them repeatedly.