As the great Lama Atisha said, taking refuge is the gateway to Buddhist practice.
Refuge ngondro is the first item that I was given by my teacher. It involves doing recitation of the refuge lines:
I go for refuge to the Guru
I go for refuge to the Buddha
I go for refuge to the Dharma
I go for refuge to the Sangha
It’s then often recited in either Sanskrit, or in Tibetan, depending on the instructions of the teacher. People wonder why “the guru” is included within the Tibetan refuge recitation, because there are supposed to be 3 jewels of refuge, mainly Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Refuge in Guru would make 4 refuges. Guru here is more of an embodiment of all the three refuges, so all three are intact without additions.
Within the Gelug tradition, refuge ngondro is something that one does as a sit alone practice, where as in other traditions of Tibetan buddhism, refuge ngondro is often combined with the ngondro of prostrations.
Often, one does at least 100,000 recitations, plus 11% to cover for mistakes.
Why Refuge Ngondro Matters
I think you can learn a lot about someone based on the advice they give.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche said that a scholar will tell someone to study more. A meditator will tell someone to meditate more. A person who has gained attainments, will tell someone to purify their karma. This is in line with what Lama Yeshe said, which was that purifying karma is for many people, more important than meditating on lamrim or the stages of the path to enlightenment.
Accumulation and Purification
Taking sincere refuge, and not merely reciting the refuge lines, creates vast amounts of merit or positive potential. It also purifies a huge amount of negative karma done in relation to spiritual teachers, holy objects and scriptures.
Without accumulation and purification, it will be hard to generate realization in practice. I think if someone is serious about progressing in their Buddhist practice and it isn’t merely some passing hobby, they have to really take a look at this.
Most People Don’t Complete Ngondro
This is because in order to do 100,000 recitations of an item of ngondro, someone has to do it continuously. If they miss a day, they have to start all over. This is a matter of consistency, and faith in your practice and spiritual teacher.
My teacher’s advice was to start ngondro on an auspicious holy day, so I picked the day that was Buddha’s descent from the heavenly realm. He said to make offerings every morning before starting and really have a strong motivation that was inspired. When I look back, all this was suggested to probably create merit and remove obstacles for me to finish the practice. For that reason, I would say that his kindness was very extraordinary.
The Need For Mind Training
I noticed that with every ngondro I do, certain emotions rise up, depending on the ngondro I’m doing. Reading other people’s experience, I’ve found this common, that delusions arise very strongly and clearly during ngondro.
Without having practiced Lojong or Mind Training, doing ngondro will be like pulling teeth. Mind Training provides the tools to deal with strong emotions when they come up. During refuge ngondro, I encountered strong feelings of doubt, inadequacy and fear mixed with wanting to run away. I didn’t entertain these thoughts enough to quit, partly because of Lojong or mind training, and also because of blessings from my teacher.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama Says About Refuge
His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, you really have to understand the three jewels of refuge from the background of emptiness to really be a Buddhist. Of course, from this criteria it would eliminate more than 90% of the world’s Buddhist population from being Buddhist because most don’t have this understanding. However, it’s a good thing to contemplate I think, to really challenge one’s understanding and practice.
I can’t say I have realizations of this understanding, but doing refuge ngondro helped purify karma and create merit to even start to think about this more deeply.
Helpful Videos on Refuge Ngondro
The following is an interesting set of videos that you might find interesting, by Venerable Thubten Chodron, the abbess of Sravasti Abbey. It’s a series on meditations and contemplations to do during the refuge ngondro practice, the visualizations and everything else to help prepare for this practice of refuge ngondro.