Words of Inspiration From Past Ngondro Practitioners

Whenever a student has completed the Ngondro, we often ask them to write a short essay, describing the benefits that the practice brought them; the difficutlies that they encountered; and some words of advice for their Dharma friends who are still working on their Ngondro. These essays get published in our periodic online newsletter, and are sources of great inspiration.

This is a collection of advice and experience from thirteen students who have completed the Ngondro, between 2008 and 2015. Our students come from all walks of life, all kinds of lifestyle situations, and different cultures. Their testimonies show that a practice such as Ngondro can be accomplished regardless of your life situation. Full time parents, students, those with health challenges, single parents, retirees, those with demanding jobs – all find ways to make time to dedicate to this important practice. Read about their trials, tribulations, and triumphs, and know that you can do it too!

Besides the students who have shared their stories below, other students who have completed the Ngondro include: Juanita Strait, Pancho Arandas, Timothy Clark, Michael Bartlett (Sherab Dorje), Charlie Thomas (Rigdzin Dorje), Jampa Chodron, Zim Pickens, Hamid Drake, Lama Orgyen Dorje, Choyin Dorje, Hermilio Lopez (Yeshe Rangrol), Jigme Dorje, Andres Barto. Tito Sanchez (Orgyen Dorje), Rosie Briceno (Pema), Kristen Baum, Sangye Chodron, Kim Schafer, Diane Ansel (Karma Khandro), Ola Holm, Ankur Kumar, Binita Adhikari, Allan Ma.

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 5.41.25 PMSophie Greenwalt, Aug, 2008, Vermont

I started ngon-dro about four years ago. I think that what makes practice hard is when I expect it to be a certain way and then I worry that I am doing it wrong when it is not that way. Of course we know that devotion is important and being undistracted is important, but I have found that when I try too hard to create these states of mind and get discouraged when they are not there, practice becomes a struggle that I dread.
If I remember correctly, in the beginning it was a struggle most of the time. First of all, it was a really weird thing to be doing and on top of that I never seemed to be able to do it as it had been described to me. The good thing about sticking with something is that it becomes familiar and with familiarity comes some kind of comfort and acceptance. It is still quite rare that I enjoy an undistracted moment, but for the most part I don’t get so frustrated with myself.
I think devotion is also related to familiarity. There must have been something like devotion in the beginning, otherwise I would never have started, but as the strangeness fades away due to repetition it gets easier to return to that initial inspiration so that when I have a bad day I don’t need to freak-out, thinking that I will never be able to do this right. I know that there is some basic connection I have made with the practice that I will be able to come back to again and again. I also know that I have a long way to go, but the only way I am going to get there is by giving it a try everyday and somehow the accumulated effort starts to have an effect without needing to force it.

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 5.49.15 PMVicki Grant, Jan. 2009, California

“I live a quiet life with my life partner of 29 years which allows time for practice.  The situation in which I practiced Ngondro  was a challenge as I have a chronic illness for over 16 years which limits what I can do, is unpredictable and sometime causes pain and sometimes sent me to bed. Travel is too painful as was just to sit or lie down sometimes.  I got up when I could and continued Ngondro even if a few days or more went  by until my health was strong enough. Setting aside a regular time for Ngondro, (I like early mornings) helped me through obstacles.  Sometimes I lost my focus and saw accumulations as a goal.  I would gently bring my mind back to the transformation Ngondro offers even if I had to slow down the practice for awhile.  I would encourage anyone doing Ngondro to do steady practice and no matter what keep on going.   I find this encouraging and want to tell the sangha that Ngondro is deepening, purifying and inspiring.  I did not find Ngondro always an easy practice and want to let people know that determination and perseverance through all obstacles gives encouragement to finish in love and devoition. The practice itself helps overcome obstacles and benefits all beings.. Ngondro is a wonderful foundation and will stay  with me for the rest of my life to  benefit all sentient beings.  I do not know what the chronic illness will do but I can always practice in some way.”

May all beings benefit,
Vicki Grant

Maggie Olszewski, May 2009, Chicago, IL

“I still have moments of disbelief that I actually finished my Ngondro. It took me almost five years to finish, with time being my biggest challenge. Being a single mother and working full time, my schedule is very tight. I would practice whenever and wherever I could, trying to have a set time and routine practice, but that did not always work. Waking up at 4 in the morning would work some days and other days practicing late at night was better. There were also days when exhaustion would completely take over and I would completely pass out at night without getting a single session in. I was even caught snoring on my mat a few times. In the end I had to let go and be at peace with what I could get done.

In the very beginning I was obsessed with numbers and with finishing the Ngondro as fast as I could. Khandro Kunzang would often remind me that it wasn’t about finishing and quickly trying to get to the next practice, it was about the process and the journey. Whenever I would have a weak moment and try to find excuses not to practice, I would think of the Four Thoughts. Especially what luck to have such a precious human life, and to have met Lama Dawa and Khandro Kunzang in this lifetime, that was my biggest motivation. My advice is – keep at it, don’t ever give up, even if you take a break, even if you are not able to stick to a schedule, this is a precious gift, you will get it done. “


Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 6.00.36 PMRyan Zander, July 2009, Thailand

“It feels really strange to be “done” with ngondro now.  I must admit that I’m probably Lama Dawa Rinpoche’s slowest and laziest student.  I first received the ngondro teachings way back in October 2000 in Chicago.  I remember having a conversation with Orgyen at that time.  He was then blazing through his ngondro, and he said something like, “I don’t want to be one of the people who take 6 years to finish ngondro”.  And I agreed and was determined to finish mine in 2 years max.  Now, almost nine years later, I can finally say I’ve finished accumulating 100,000 of each section, and what have I learned?  My biggest mistake was probably not properly giving enough attention to the Four Thoughts.  Unlike other, more dedicated, students who struggled with health problems or raising children, my only difficulty is that my monkey-mind is so good at finding other ways to waste time.  The one good thing that I’ve been able to do is study a lot of dharma texts.  Because I have so much down-time at my teaching job, I have been able to read a lot of books.  In particular, Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, and it’s commentary titled The Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech by Kunzang Pelden have really helped me to recharge my motivation whenever I feel myself slipping into a mental funk.  So the only real advice I feel qualified to give is to study the dharma as much as you can when you aren’t on the cushion and please, don’t take as long as me to finish your ngondro.”

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 6.08.21 PMSilvia Ibarra (Chokie Lhamo), Jan. 2010, Ensenada, Mexico

Although I am Mexican, I am not “Speedy Gonzalez”, so it took me 8.5 years to finish my Ngondro practice.  I never stopped, so at a certain point I understood that I was following my internal rhythm. I could not force it, although when I arrived to the last third of each section I could accelerate the pace.

As many women, I have a full time job and a family to take care of, so I realized that if I was going to engage into a spiritual practice the only way to do it was reducing my sleep hours. And so I did. I will get up at 4 AM to have enough time to do practice before starting my working day. But the time I spend in practice was so rewarding, that I was able to do it again, and again, and again.

As I am a researcher, my mental structure requires a theoretical base to function, so before starting a new series of Ngondro accumulations I would read the corresponding chapter in Word of my Perfect Teacher´s book, to make sure that I have fully understood the meaning of what I was going to do, its right visualization and dissolution. After that, the practice was live, so the added dimension was always there.

Another thing I found very helpful was to spend time thinking on The Four Thoughts that Reverse the Mind. I would allow my mind to “wonder” in each of them having the book´s guidance. This helped me to relax about the “non thinking concept” while I was achieving an in-depth meaning of the Four Thoughts. After this, I would engage my practice with more consciousness and enthusiasm, willing to accumulate “a little more before my death”.

I was not aware I could do prostrations and Bodhicitta together, so obviously, I did them separately.

Prostrations were hard on my knees, bur invigorating.

Bodhicitta helped me start “seeing” people.

Mandala offerings were rejoicing.

Vajrassattva accumulations seemed never ending. This section was particularly hard on me, as during this time I had two surgeries and a minor accident. I guess I was purifying karma. I would do mantra repetitions during flights, airport attendance time, or visits to my parent´s house in Mexico City. After each surgery I noticed that mantra repetitions helped me recover my energy faster.

Guru Yoga was fast and easy, to such degree that I couldn´t realize it went so fast. For this reason, I keep accumulating repetitions of the Guru Vajra mantra until now. So I guess I have become attached to Ngondro!!

I am sure Ngondro is a self transforming practice. I really can´t tell how many things have changed in me in these years. A few things I have noticed. For example I am now conscious of my capacity to remember several things I have to do during the day, so I feel like an octopus, pulling strings from different corners of my mind in order to do the tasks I am supposed to do in a working session, or at home. Is like being focused without being focused.  Also, in everyday situations, I can now leave my mind in blank. I don´t have a prejudice of what the outcome is going to be. I stay in emptiness and that helps me remain relaxed and be more opened to whatever is required from me.

With my practice I have learned to spend time getting to know myself without judgments, realizing that whatever I see in me is transitory, as it can be purified to achieve the same qualities of the deity I imagine in front of me. I have the Buddha nature and developing this nature will be this life´s task.

I hope other members of the Ensenda sangha realize that it is possible to finish. It just requires discipline and trust.

Chökye Lhamo, also known as Silvia Ibarra


Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 6.16.51 PMShikha Aggarwal, June 2010, Goa, India

On May 21st 2010, or Medicine Buddha Day of the month of Saga Dawa, I completed the Ngondro practices which I had begun almost to the day five years ago, in May 2005.  When the last round of Guru yoga had come to an end and the closing prayers had been said, at first I felt nothing, then a sense of accomplishment arose.  I felt at peace with myself.  There also was a sense of confidence: Yes, I have done something worthwhile, and since I was able to do so, I will have the strength to do more and travel the path.  With the completion of Ngondro I have come one full circle. Because if the completion of Ngondro felt like settling down and getting deeply rooted in the reality that I had always aspired, getting started five years ago had been quite the opposite experience: greatly unsettling, challenging and in some ways even traumatic. 

In order to even think of starting something like Ngondro, or follow the path of the Buddhas, I had had to run away from my parents’ home twice, I had to face great uncertainty, and in a way totally leave the social network that had kept me safe and in which I had grown up.  I was a young unmarried Hindu woman, and I was supposed to follow my mother’s and every other woman’s example: I was expected to get married to someone from the right caste, naturally from a rich family and a doctor on top (as I am a doctor), have kids, serve my in-laws and may be, but only may be, work in a hospital. In short I was destined to become the perfect Hindu wife and daughter-in-law. Since I went against this very powerful conditioning, the beginning of my path was not easy, and at some point my teacher had to bluntly put the choice before me. He said, “You can either be my student or your father’s daughter.  You cannot be both.”  I chose the path because I had to, but this choice caused a lot of guilt feelings and grief.  But the emotional turmoil fired my spirit to practice even more fervently. As I  did my prostrations, the suppressed feelings of guilt and hurt that I had suffered in the course of the previous two years started to arise again.  This time I let them flow through me.  With continued practice I realized one basic truth:” Whatever I or my parents have suffered is no one’s fault.  I am not guilty of hurting them.  If they had just let me be and follow my heart no emotional drama would have come to pass.  And on their part, it was years of conditioning and possessive love for me that could not allow them to do so.” Including them in prostrations every time, I felt waves of soothing energy pass over into their mindstream and helping them.  This took away whatever was left of that wretched guilt feeling.  The physical labor of prostrations brought clarity to my mind.  With the constant guidance of my teacher, my trust in dharma and myself continued to grow.  I finished my prostrations in three years.

Mandala offerings went quickly. Offering my whole self and world to the root and lineage gurus made me feel worthy of receiving such precious teachings from them. It helped me to loosen up ‘my ego’, or the idea of a ‘concrete me’ separating itself from everything else.  Vajrasattva mantras lightened me, as I felt being cleaned up by Vajrasattva’s bright white light.Guru yoga was very intense.  Initially I thought I would be able to go pretty fast. But as I sat down to visualize myself as Vajrayogini and my Guru in front of me as Padmasambhava, looking at him with a great longing to merge with him, I realized  this is no joke of a practice.  In the beginning, it needed intense focus and courage to stay with Padmasambhava’s immense energy, his unwavering focus and immeasurable compassion.  Every time I felt that intensity, my heart would contract as if to keep itself closed.  But with awareness, I could relax my heart, and let the blessings flow into me.  Some days were more powerful than others.  There were days when I could hardly feel a thing.  I would question myself, and automatically get the answer, “Let it be. You cannot control Padmasambhava and his displays.”

I thank Acharya Dawa Chhodak Rinpoche, Ngakpa Choyin Dorje and all the lineage gurus for providing me with their immense support. May all beings be benefitted.

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 6.20.16 PMDan Mariner (Pema Tenzin), Sept., 2010, Chicago, IL

“Although I don’t feel especially qualified to give practice advice, as I seem to spend all of my time sleeping, eating, and watching movies, here are a few thoughts regarding the Ngondro: I would recommend giving a lot of attention to the ‘Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind to the Dharma,’ and to Bodhicitta. Even if we think we’ve taken these to heart, we probably haven’t. These are like a fuel for the practice.  Anytime my practice was overcome by laziness, distraction, etc., I was able to see in retrospect that I hadn’t taken these to heart. The longest and more trying sections were prostrations and Vajrasattva. I experienced some physical hardship with the prostrations (as I’m sure everyone does).  But I think the problem really was the mental whining, which tends to blow minor discomfort out of proportion. Vajrasattva really took a long time. I think up to that point I had been encouraged by watching the numbers increase daily. But Vajrasattva was so long that if even if I put in a fair amount of hours  in a day, the number of mantras seemed relatively small. As a result, I think I developed a tiny bit of patience during this section. I think my main advice would be: don’t follow your moods! It seems best, if possible, to set up a schedule and stick to it as best as you can. If you practice only when you feel like it, you probably won’t really get anywhere. During the course of the Ngondro, I had numerous ‘upheavals,’ but like all things, not one lasted.  Even during a single session, states might come up and pass away.  It didn’t matter if it was drowsiness, agitation, inability to concentrate, sadness, doubts about my own capacity, or whatever. Conversely, even other states like overwhelming compassion, devotion, etc. would also come and go. I remember one instance during prostrations, between sessions, being on the verge of tears thinking about how many I had to do and how much physical trouble I was having, how I hated prostrations and wished I didn’t have to do them, and then starting the next session and being totally fine. So don’t take whatever comes up as being too concrete or permanent, and just go ahead and do your practice.

Also, if you ending up missing a session, then not only have you missed an opportunity for practice, but you have created (or strengthened) the habit of not doing your practice. Other than that, I found that occasionally reading the lives and songs of past masters to be beneficial. Take care of yourselves and just do your best.

Yours, Pema Tenzin

Andres Barto (Rigdzin Dorje), Nov. 2012, Cholula, Mexico

When I first knew about Ngondro practice, I thought I could never be able to complete it, it seemed so long and difficult for me. I tried to put effort and finally I was able to prove myself that I could do it, I realized that with conviction and determination there is no obstacle that can stop me, I am my own obstacle.

I had the chance to be in Nepal and India during the process of my practice and had the fortune to visit some of Buddha’s as well as Guru Rinpoche’s holy sites. I have no doubt that it brought a lot of blessings to my practice and it helped me to gain at least a little of devotion and inspiration from the example of some great practitioners I met. But also I have no doubt that it is not necessary to travel to the other side of the world to find something you can find in your own meditation room. I frequently found myself looking at dates and trying to fix my travel schedule so I could be able to complete one or other part of the ngondro here or there at an auspicious date; I also found myself rarely achieving it as I planned, so at the end I just let it go and it felt so nice, I realized that the right moment is now and the right place is wherever I am.

For me was very important during the first months of practice to meditate and take my time on the ‘four thoughts that turn the mind’, that brought a lot of strength on me and after those first months, until now, there was not a single day I missed my practice.

I enjoyed and had difficult time in every part of the practice. For me prostrations was a big challenge since I had a knee injury and I remember sometimes feeling very sad and disappointed because I had to slow down, but the Sangha was a big support for me. On the other hand and after the hard work, I am finding Guru Yoga very enjoyable, my mind is calmer and I can feel very close to the Guru and his unceasing blessing.

But the most important for me was trying to keep the Bodhichitta motivation along the course of the Ngöndro. It is pointless for me to follow the path without it and it helped me to put more effort and to not give up; not meaning that I have accomplished it, I just tried to follow the example of our fully compassionate teachers. I remember one time a Dharma friend telling Rinpoche that she did not wanted to fail him, Rinpoche’s answer was, “You won’t fail me, you would fail all sentient beings”, I will try never to forget his words.

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 7.00.28 PMDavid Brower, June 2013, Virginia

I first encountered the details of  the Ngondro in a newsletter that Khandro Kunzang wrote many years ago. I was very discouraged, thinking that I could never be able to complete 100,000 prostrations, let alone the rest of Ngondro.  Years later, I took refuge in the Kagyu lineage and began prostrations  – but at a rate that would have taken me many, many years to complete them. But, as I read the essays from Sangha members who had completed Ngondro in a reasonable time in spite of living very busy lives, I became much more optimistic about my ability to do the same. I decided to take Refuge with Lama Dawa and begin prostrations anew. I began with much energy and excitement, but as time went on, became discouraged again and feared that I would never finish. Surrendering to the daily practice and not looking at the future helped me overcome this obstacle.  Half way through the prostrations, I experienced a great deal of depression and then again encountered the same about half way through the Vajra Sattva practice. I was told through mirror divination that these were a result of the purification that Ngondro practice was doing. I pushed through the depressions and discouragement and was able to finish both practices. During prostrations, something always hurt, but fortunately, it rotated around my body and so was not too much of an obstacle. Also, I did struggle with the visualizations, but those became easier as time went on. It’s now been several months since I completed Ngondro and looking back I can more clearly see some of the benefits – purification, building resolve, improving concentration and the satisfaction of completing a very arduous and very important practice. I spent about two hours a day on average and completed the practice in 40 months. I would encourage anyone who is considering the practice to start soon and just take it one day at a time. With the blessings of the Lama it will eventually be completed!

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 7.03.43 PMJudith Steinbrenner (Rigzin Tsomo), Aug., 2013, Reno, NV

I can’t speak highly enough about the amazing practice of Ngondro.   We are so fortunate to be able to do this practice and to have found our teacher who can guide us on the whole path up to enlightenment.  

 I would like to share my experience with Ngondro in the hopes of being an encouragement to anybody.

 Maybe it’s because I am a Westerner that I liked to take shortcuts like taking two steps at a time on the stairs.  And better yet, at least two steps at a time on the escalator. Once I embarked on Ngondro, I found out pretty fast just how many numbers there are between 1 and 100,000.  I found all those numbers just one at a time. No shortcuts. But that’s the good news. What this did for me was to allow me to become more focused and to become more present then before. I found that the more I slowed down the easier the accumulations became.  And then the slower I went, the better the focus on visualization, and with that, especially with prostrations, the pain would just melt away. In a nutshell, the more I slowed down and the more I surrendered to the practice, the easier things became.  It’s as simple as that.  Thank you for letting me share.”

Rigzin Tsomo

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 7.13.45 PMArt Baird (Jigme Dorje), April 2014, Sacramento, CA

The practice of Ngondro began with the same enthusiasm for which I have embraced most things I have sought to accomplish in my life. As the practice unfolded though this enthusiasm associated with a more ordinary form of mind, quickly eroded leaving me searching for a more durable form of motivation for when times got tough–which was more common than not—at least during the prostration/Bodhisattva portion of Ngondro,  Relying on  teachings such as the Four Noble Truths, The Four Things that Turn your Mind to the Dharma, Refuge and Bodhisattva Path, as well as biographies of great practitioners (including those teachings of Lama Dawa) helped to overcome my doubt, allowing me to overcome obstacles and slowly, but consistently, further my practice. In sticking with the practice, especially in those more difficult periods when my motivation was lacking, I was able to slowly improve my confidence in myself and the path, which I believed transferred to my more mundane life experience, allowing me to become a better person as well. At some point in the practice the doubt became noticeable less–though obstacles would still arise—with the net effect being less overall struggle, more positive momentum to the point where the practice almost become almost self-sustaining.

Each stage of the Ngondro practice brought forth a different set of experiences and challenges that had to be overcome, with each one having in the end what I believe to be a positive impact on my life. I do believe that Ngondro is a complete practice in itself. I have realized that there are few things in my life to date that have had more meaning even though you never quite seem to complete it. I move forward with my practice under the guidance of my precious root Guru knowing that my experience with the Ngondro practice has truly been truly transformative to my character allowing me to hopefully be less of a burden, and more of a benefit to beings. May all beings find peace and avoid the causes of suffering.

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 7.38.56 PMJulie Nguyen (Dechen Palmo), March 2015, Sacramento, CA

Although blessed with the opportunity to have practiced Ngondro, it has not been without its challenges.  By staying calm and analyzing obstacles as they arose, I developed and implemented strategies allowing me to persist in my practice and strengthen my confidence in the process.

A Little Goes a Long Way
Having many other obligations in my life, I found lengthy practice sessions not conducive to consistent practice.  I found it best to routinely practice in many little spurts, at set times, throughout everyday.  Once able to slowly incorporate Dharma throughout my busy life, I later added more sessions of practice as opportunities arose.

Staying Calm is Fundamental
The Shamatha, Calm Abiding, practice and later, the power of the Guru Yoga section of Ngondro, are powerful tools for calming the mind.  It was common for me to experience different emotional disturbances while practicing.  My willingness to stay calm to reflect—usually a process that required I peel back self-deceptions to honestly appraise my experience(s)—helped me developed a greater mindfulness.

The 10 Virtues Are No Joke
I tried to live in accordance with the 10-virtuous actions, and made confessions whenever I veered away from my understanding of the virtuous actions.  Without confession and a re-commitment to my efforts, I felt guilty and would be mentally discouraged to practice.  I believe the 10-virtues helped increase my “energy” to sustain my practice.

The Ngondro practice is a profound practice with days of set backs and days of seeming ease.  I hope other practitioners find my insight helpful to their own Ngondro journey.

Finally, I am greatly indebted to the kindness of our precious Rinpoche and to those Dharma practitioners and Lamas who have helped me along my way.  I thank them and Rinpoche from the depths of my heart.

May you all have a long life full of happiness and joy!

Julie of Sacramento, California

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 7.41.04 PMHideko Kawanishi, June 2015, Ensenada, Mexico

“I believe that all of us, who finished the Preliminary Practice of Ngondro, had to develop great patience at the beginning in order to have success in carrying it out.  We also had to find adequate time within our everyday life activities -family and work related ones, and most of all, we had to fight all mental and physical obstacles which kept coming up.

Something that reaffirmed my faith in the Dharma was meditating on the Four Thoughts which Reverse the Mind, and thinking that I have the wonderful opportunity to practice Dharma before the arrival of death and being reborn in a life worse than the current one due to negative actions accumulated in this life and in previous ones.  This helped me in being extremely disciplined no matter what the difficulties.

The Refuge and Bodhicitta stage really tested my commitment.  It was the most difficult -mentally and physically; visualization was a difficult mental function and each prostration was painful. Everyday was a battle to tame the enormous ego, which kept creeping up at every moment.  Later, merit accumulations, the purification, and the blessing of the Guru Yoga helped me in learning how to open my heart, and in the accumulation of merit in order to progress without further obstacles.

With great joy I accomplished this Practice with the confidence of being in the correct spiritual path that gives my life meaning, but more than that, the fact that I developed a greater devotion towards my teacher, who was my guide and support through all this process. 

May all be of benefit!”


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