The following brief discussion on the life of Padmasambhava and the Ngondro is excerpted from an interview with Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche conducted by their student - writer and poet - Michael White, (Padma Dorje) in September, 1992 at Padma Gochen Ling , a retreat center located on the Cumberland Plateau near Monterey Tennessee.
MW: Did Padmasambhava teach ngöndro practice?
KPSR: Yes, he gave many teachings about the ngöndro.
MW: Was he the first to introduce ngöndro?
KPSR: No, this is really the Buddha's teachings. I'm not saying the Buddha used the title "ngöndro" but the Buddha taught that this type of practice was necessary to lead to enlightenment. Guru Padmasambhava also taught this but it was not called ngöndro at that time. Now these teachings are more condensed and are brought together and given the name ngöndro.
MW: Could you talk about the etymology of the word ngöndro?
KPSR: Ngön is the Tibetan word for first and do means go. Different lamas and teachers interpret this in different ways. If you look carefully with a panoramic view then it really means simply... go first. This must be done first for you to reach enlightenment; if this goes first then enlightenment will follow. Many people translate it as preliminary practice,because in order to do more serious practices this must be done first. It is really establishing yourself so that you stand firmly.
MW: With ngondro practice we begin to learn visualizations. Here in Tennessee you have taught us to start ngöndro with Guru Yoga which involves a visualization of Padmasambhava. Next you taught us the visualization of Vajrasattva. So it seems that the Vajrayana techniques involve learning to visualize. How is it that creating a visualized image deepens meditation practice?
KPSR: It is true that I generally teach practitioners to begin with practice on Guru Padmasambahva. In the Vajrayana tradition, the practice on Guru Padmasambhava is very important. It is important to establish a connection with the founder of these Vajrayana teachings. This meditation technique brings about an immediate connection to the teacher who exemplifies the state of realization gained by this practice. When you connect with him you have an auspicious arrangement just like the original twenty-five Tibetan students. These students all obtained enlightenment and, with these techniques, you have the same opportunity to reach enlightenment. He was a historical living Buddha and the embodiment of all the Buddhas, so it is very important to have this connection and this assistance in understanding the nature of the mind.
When you practice on Guru Padmasambhava, it includes practice on vipashyana and practice on shamatha, as well as practice on pure perception and the discovery of primordial nature. Therefore it is more advanced and more profound than just shamatha or vipashyana. When you visualize the image of Guru Padmasambhava and continue to concentrate on that image, it is a form of shamatha meditation. To see Guru Padmasambhava's wisdom light and to see those wisdom lights reflecting in all directions is the discovery stage of pure perception.
All human beings are caught in samsara but, according to the Vajrayana tradition, by meditating in this way, it is possible to understand the true nature of the universe. This creates the realization that every existing thing is a display of primordial wisdom. This primordial wisdom is an inherent quality in each person. This type of meditation helps reveal this quality. At the end of this meditation you dissolve the image of Padmasambhava and meditate on the emptiness of the true nature state. This aspect of the practice is a form of vipashyana.
MW: As we learn more techniques we learn to visualize more and more different images. There seems to be an almost unending array of images that we learn to create in our visualizations. For example, there is Manjushri, Avalokitesvara, Tara, all the great bodhisattvas, the dakas and dakinis, the herukas and the dharmapalas, mamos and on and on. Could you speak about the necessity for all these images.
KPSR: It is not really necessary to learn to visualize all of these different images. Practice on any one of these will bring about full understanding. For example, Guru Yoga will be enough to bring full enlightenment. You can use the images that you find most interesting and don't have to practice on all of them.
MW: What type of reality should we consider these beings to have? Are they simply mind created or do they have a reality beyond that?
KPSR: Both, they are existing Buddhas and they are displays of our wisdom. For example, Manjushri is the wisdom deity, as such Manjushri represents wisdom and consequently enhances our wisdom.
MW: When you talk about visualizations you sometimes refer to them as pure perception. We have different kinds of perception; we have our ordinary direct perception, then we have the perception in the dream state and we have these visualized perceptions. What is the difference between pure perception and ordinary perception?
KPSR: The difference between pure perception and ordinary perception is clinging and duality. As long as there is clinging and duality our perceptions are ordinary regular perceptions. When we remove clinging and duality our perception is known as pure perception.
MW: We have heard that Padmasambhava was a great Indian master who was called to Tibet in the eighth century by the king to help establish Buddhism. There seem to be many legends concerning his stay in Tibet. How long was Padmasambhava in Tibet?
KPSR: In the histories there are many stories but the most popular say that he stayed one hundred and eleven years, but this counts the waxing and waning of the moon as two months, so this is really only fifty-five years and six months. About eighty to ninety per cent of the histories written by the great masters agree with this figure.
MW: I have heard that he only stayed eighteen months.
KPSR: Yes, that is true, some say that he only stayed six months or eighteen months or only for a few years. It could appear that way because the activities of Guru Rinpoche don't necessarily conform to our mundane conceptions. His activities are not always compatible with conceptions which are based on duality. Some people say he only spent a period of a few months in the capital and the rest of the time he spent in the mountains and caves. Then he would occasionally visit the capital or the king would go to the mountains to see him. These events took place over a thousand years ago. Even in modem times, if we take something that happened to a renowned person and write a history about it, the different people who write about it will not necessarily agree about what they write. We want to believe that these accounts are realistic and accurate and are based on direct perception. However, even books about Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan will contain different accounts.
MW: There are several biographies of Padmasmbhava that are now available and they all tell about his birth and the stories of his youth and his education in India and his travels in Tibet. Do you know any accounts about what happened after he left Tibet?
KPSR: There is a reason that Guru Rinpoche stayed fifty-five years and six months. After finishing Samye monastery both Padmasambhava and Santarakshita said they were going back to India. King Trisong Detsen told them that he and the Tibetan people really needed them to stay. He made offerings and did many prostrations and asked them both to stay until his death and they both agreed. The king's sons were also working for the dharma and Padmasambhava stayed for another five years after the death of the king to help them. Just before he left he told the ministers, the court and his students that he was going to a country to the west. When he made this announcement he gave final instructions about maintaining the dharma and the practices. Then he told them that on a certain day he would leave. On that day the king and the court and many students went with him to a mountain named Gungthang Lathog on the border of Tibet and Nepal. At this mountain pass he stopped and told everyone that he would leave from this spot and no one should follow him any further. All the people were very emotional. He began giving his final teaching and then began levitating up into the sky. He continued teaching as he went up and as he was rising into the air a horse appeared and he rode the horse off into the western direction. He said that to the west was a country filled with cannibals and that he was going there to teach them to be bodhisattvas. All the histories agree that this is how he left and where he went. Yeshe Tsogyal reported that he reached his destination safely. Other students who had developed great powers of meditation also reported that he had arrived safely. He went to a country named Copper Glory Mountain.
MW: Is this a legendary country or a geographic location?
KPSR: We can't tell exactly. It is similar to Shambhala. According to Buddhist geography there are four major continents and eight sub-continents. This is one of the sub-continents. After he left he returned many times. He came back to see Yeshe Tsogyal and in later times returned to give teachings to many of the great masters.
MW: Was this in the visionary state or in person?
KPSR: He came in visions, in dreams and in person. All the great tertons have had this experience. The tertons all go to Copper Glory Mountain either in visions or in dreams or in the direct perception state. All the great masters report this in their biographies. They go at least one time and some go many times. They get instructions and teaching and then come back and reveal the teachings they received. Just like United States Senators go to Washington D.C., the tertons go to Copper Glory Mountain!