Advice from Tsoknyi Rinpoche on how to structure your daily practice sessions, excerpted from the following retreats: Distinguishing Awareness from Subtly Deluded States of Mind, Bruton, England, UK, April 2008, and Dzogchen and the Nature of Mind, Garrison, NY, 2006.
“I would like to discuss a little bit on how to put together the whole suitable package of practice and structure it in a certain way for you. For a practice session to be complete, there are four steps that must be present (five if you have a yidam or deity visualization practice): 1) refuge; 2) bodhichitta; 2(a) optional deity visualization with mantra practice; 3) meditation (shamatha and/or rigpa); and, 4) dedication. I have also included some additional practices here you may include if you wish as well, but the four or five steps must all be present.
“In terms of the duration of a session it should not be less than 45 minutes. If you practice more than 45 minutes, then you can improve your practice, but one is at least able to maintain the quality of the practice if done for 45 minutes per session every day. You may do a session of practice in the morning or in the afternoon or night—however you wish, but when you decide that is the session, then don’t allow any interruptions. You have to put your full attention into the session and not start to think about what will come later, like what you’re going to do for the rest of the day. Just have complete dedication to the session.
“So in the morning when you wake up, the first thing that one usually does is to clear the dullness that comes from the deep sleep of ignorance. When we wake up, the first thing we do, if we have a gong, then we can hit it a number of times (Rinpoche demonstrates a roll down on the gong). Or if we have also a damaru or bell, then we can start to play them for some time. And together with that, then we imagine in the space in front of us dakas and dakinis are also playing the bell and damaru, and they’re telling us, ‘Now don’t be distracted. You’ve been sleeping. You have the dullness of sleep that is ignorance. You’re wasting half of your life sleeping, so wake up.’ There is a prayer that you can use that says all these things. *[Note: please see the prayer ‘Awakening At Dawn From the Sleep of Unknowing’ at the bottom of the page.] We can read the prayer while playing the damaru and bell, or we can leave the damaru and bell and just recite the prayer. So then you feel that you have awakened from sleep.
“After that, then we have to expel the air of the three poisons—that kind of wind energy of the three poisons. So first we start by blocking the right nostril. This is purifying the stale breath and consists of nine exhalations. First blocking the right nostril one breathes three times from the left. Then the opposite, blocking the left one, one breathes three times from the right. And then without any blocking, exhale three times from both nostrils. Then you feel that you have expelled the wind energies of passion, aggression and ignorance. Okay? We’re still not Buddhists yet.
“After expelling the stale breath, if you need some lung balance in the beginning, it’s very good to do a bit of this vase breathing or the kumbha ka by inhaling, bringing the speedy wind restlessness of lung down with the aid of inhalation. So do this gentle vase practice just a few times—perhaps three to nine times, something like two or three minutes to ‘cool down.’ How much would be the time when you think, ‘I feel okay. I think my body and my lung is okay. Now if I do Buddhist practice, it could be good.’ This depends on the individual; some only need a little bit of time, some need more.
“And if one still does not feel right, then it’s good to start practicing shamatha a little bit. Once you feel good then you continue by reflecting on the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind: 1) the preciousness of human existence; 2) impermanence and death; 3) the karmic law of cause and effect; and, 4) the consequences of remaining in samsara.
“Then if you wish, you can recite the prayer, Calling the Lama from Afar. That is sometimes recited before the Four Thoughts, or sometimes after. You can choose either way, but after the Four Thoughts may be better because then you already have some feeling. The meaning of reflecting on the Four Thoughts is to feel something, you know? To develop some feeling.
“There is a prayer called A Small Song of Yearning, Calling the Lama from Afar written by the first Tsoknyi Rinpoche. You could sing it with [omitted]¹ your own tune. Every single morning all the nuns in Tibet, 4000 people in Tibet chant this ‘Lama Khyeno’ (Calling the Lama from Afar). So after praying to the lama in this way, you feel that the lama’s enlightened body, speech and mind, merge with your body speech and mind and become one.
“At this point you can begin a formal practice session. You do the refuge and bodhichitta steps of your practice session by visualizing the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha while reciting the outer, inner, and extraordinary refuge and bodhichitta prayers in the chant book.
“After reciting the extraordinary bodhichitta prayer, then you start to do the sadhana of a yidam or a deity yoga. Vajrasattva, Manjushri, Tara, whatever you have you go with that. Chant the mantra, do the visualization, purify yourself, purify all sentient beings, whatever you do. Then at the end of that the deity dissolves into you. There’s no outside, there’s no inside, it is inseparable with you, okay? From there you can go directly into Dzogchen.
“If you don’t have a yidam practice, then you would go straight into the practice of mind practice of meditation after refuge and bodhichitta. If you can go directly into rigpa then do that, otherwise you do some shamatha and then rigpa. You can do shamatha with support, then shamatha without support, then rigpa, then again go back and do alternatively any of these, as they’re all in the same kind of sphere.
“Maybe you start to feel a bit tired of doing mind practice at some point. Then at that point you can do tonglen, the practice of giving and taking, or also you can start to recite supplications to your teacher. And all these have to be done within the whole session of practice that you’re doing. Sometimes while you’re doing the mind practice maybe you’re becoming attached or you’re having some kind of fixation happening. At that point then either you shout Phet! or you completely just destroy the meditation, shake a little bit, interrupt it for some time, then you go back into that practice again. You don’t walk away, that is still part of the session. Then you practice again.
“Then from time to time it’s good to pay attention to the different aspects of rigpa. You’re practicing mostly in essence rigpa, but as we saw there is the expression, display and also ornament. These things should come automatically and naturally out of stability of the practice, but still there is some kind of training that we can do in order to help that to happen. It is like an exercise. So while you’re meditating in this mind practice and resting in essence rigpa then you start to pay a little bit more attention on the expression rigpa, the juicy part of the rigpa, rather than empty part of the rigpa. Make it more like homey rigpa. And then see whether you are attached or stuck or covered by that hominess or not. It’s very good if you’re not.
“Because our conceptual mind is very used to having an object during the session of practice, sometimes we need to feed it with some objects. So that’s why we leave that mind practice and maybe practice tonglen or some other type of practice in which there is an object. So alternating within this part of the session is no problem. It’s not like a completely frozen state. You can move from here and there, okay? You can do shamatha without, with support, then practice resting in the nature of mind for quite a long time. Then when you start to feel you need something to chew, some object in the meditation, go back into shamatha with support. When you feel a little bit tired of practicing with support and you need some more refined practice go back into rigpa or shamatha without support.
“So you do a session for 45 minutes to two hours, and then at the end of the session you distribute the merit and dedicate it properly. To close the session you can recite the whole chant book except for the Mandala Offering and Request for Teachings. You may or may not recite the one hundred syllables of Vajrasattva as you like. If you can, recite it maybe eight or 21 times while visualizing Vajrasattva for a short time for purification. Then you finish up the chant book. But follow the meaning. If you have more time, reflect on the meaning of each chant you chant. This is the right way of doing the chants: you chant and then reflect, then the next one: chant, reflect.
“Once you have finished, at the end dedicate the merit and your aspirations. If you already have some aspirations then recite them as usual, like aspirations for the health of your family and your father and mother and so forth, for global warming, aspirations that the world may improve, aspirations particularly how the situation in Tibet may improve, and for help with that since the teachings of the Buddha are also in danger. Any aspiration in that way. When we recite these aspirations for a certain objective, then by the force of the prayers there’s a certain energy that will help that objective be met. Then pray for your practice, I think you can pray for your life a little bit at the end. Why not? So at that point the session is over.
“So in general, one by one maybe you can spend 10 minutes on each of the four or five sections sometimes, but all together it’s 45 minutes or more. Sometimes you can spend more time on refuge, sometimes more time on bodhichitta, sometimes more time on visualization, sometimes more time on resting meditation, nature of mind. Traditionally in Tibet we spend more time on the deity visualization with mantra, and also resting at the beginning, and not as much time on the refuge, bodhichitta and dedication. So you can adjust a little bit here and there according to what you need to transform.”
*Awakening at Dawn from the Sleep of Unknowing
All are dancing,
Voicing mantra tunes and songs in the symbolic language,
Minds in the awakened state, the essence of the natural knowing,
Turned towards me,
With the sounds of bells and hand drums,
They appear in awesome splendor,
Right before me in the sky.
Look on me with your kind, loving eyes.
Right now the beings of the three realms
In mindlessness they all are asleep.
Your yogi child who sees self-knowing mind
Shall lead to the celestial realms
All mother beings of the six types.So father, I will go where you are,
And not leave thought, word and deed indolent.
To be sure I will hear, think and train;
Four sessions shall be cores in my life.While here in this delightful retreat,
I will reach others’ aim and my own.
Please guru, hosts of dakinis,
(c) Erik Pema Kunsang, 2014. It can be freely used for readings and teachings, when not for resale.
¹[Omitted: ” . . . the tune Patrick Hammond from Crestone developed or . . . .” Note to reader: We do not have a recording of Patrick Hammond’s version of this chant, however you can listen to Jen Laun’s version here: Calling the Lama from Afar.]