This morning I have been cleaning my shrine and the whole area around it in preparation for a week of retreat beginning tomorrow to coincide with Losar, the Tibetan new year. Since the retreat will focus on kriya tantra practice, ritual cleanliness is more important than with more conventional meditation techniques (Alexander Berzin explains this in two excellent talks on kriya (action) tantra found at his website).
As a preparation for retreat this has, for me, achieved a dual purpose of allowing my mind to become more aware of what is to come, and also developing a clarity of purpose and focus. This second development was somewhat surprising to me, although I imagine that most of us are aware of a similar effect which comes with spring cleaning of any kind. Combining a spiritual focus with the cleaning work seems to make the mental clarity even more profound, and is something I will be seeking to utilise again.
Although I would love to claim some kind of originality for discovering this, sweeping the shrine room in preparation for meditation is often included among the preliminary practices in Tibetan Buddhism. It is not to my credit that I have previously put this down to a Tibetan zeal for cleanliness, rather than a useful preparatory method for clearing the mind. It is also not the first time that I have found my own scepticism being trumped by the knowledge and wisdom of those who are considerably more experienced than me in spiritual matters.
Preliminary practices in Tibetan Buddhism consist of practices which are to be done before taking a seat on the cushion, and those done before the main practice while seated. Initial preliminary practices include cleaning the practice room and shrine and also (especially in the case of kriya tantra) personal cleansing of the body, particularly the hands and face. Seated preliminary practices include going for refuge to the three jewels and generating a positive motivation for the practice to benefit all beings (generating bodhicitta). While the cleansing of the space and body provide a sense of clarity and purpose, going for refuge and generating bodhicitta gives focus to the practice for having more than just a personally motivated aspiration.
Tibetan Buddhist teacher and translator Ken McLeod has expressed his dislike for the term ‘preliminary practices’ on more than one occasion, preferring to substitute the word ‘groundwork’. The reasoning behind this is that ‘preliminary practices’ sound optional and not part of the practice itself. Groundwork is a more accurate term indicating the necessity of performing these customs.
I myself have noted a tendency of my mind to want to get through the preliminary practices as quickly as possible in order to get to the meat of the meditation or sadhana which I am preparing for, and often have to bring my attention back to the task in hand. If there is one thing which I am learning, it is that the preliminary practices, or groundwork, are there for a good reason, and the more diligently I carry these out, the better the practice that comes afterwards tends to be. Like many realisations, this comes more as a reminder than rocket science, but hopefully will be useful nonetheless.