Tibetan Buddhist Class, First Week

There is no class today, the third day, because it’s the 49th since the death of the head of the Nyingma, the oldest of the four major Tibetan Buddhist orders.  They wear the red hats.  The Dalai Lama’s Gelug wear yellow ones.  The 49th day after the heart stops beating is very important but I don’t know why because I don’t yet understand about reincarnation.

I prepare for tomorrow’s class then go to buy my bell, vajra and hand drum.  The vajra is held in the right hand, the bell in the left.  I don’t yet know about the drum.

Vajras have a central sphere representing the underlying unity or connectedness of everything.  From it come two eight petaled lotus flowers that represent the world as it appears and as it really is (I don’t yet understand how it really is).  At the center of each lotus are half-fish, half-crocodile creatures from whose mouths come tongues that meet in a point.  Those on one side represent mental states that obscure our mind, those on the other side aspects of enlightened mind.

As instructed, I tell the man in the recommended shop that my friend Lama Tenzin sent me.  That means I get a reasonably good price for my carefully chosen low-end but not bottom-end instruments.  When I arrive the man is carefully examining brocade altar mats that he’s buying from a Muslim man who brought them from Varanasi in India, a famous center of Buddhist studies.  I ask if my bell was made by Muslims.  Some are, he says, others are made by Tibetans.

All around this part of Kathmandu very young boys work in tiny shopfronts making Tibetan Buddhist ritual instruments, hammering designs into copper alloy with a nail punch.  They look like the extremely poor Indians who come here as transient laborers to do the lowest paid work.

Our full-time translator comes on the fourth day, but we continue on the abbreviated schedule with one theory session and one practical each day.  I don’t know if that will change or that I want it to.  It’s hard enough to absorb the material even at this pace.

In the theory sessions we learn what the practice elements mean, what to have in mind at each moment, how to do everything and in what order.  In the practical sessions we’re learning how to make barley dough tormas that represent what we should have in mind at particular stages of the practice.  We will learn hand gestures, bell-ringing and drum-beating to accompany the chants later.

The lama explains everything in detail (but there is an enormous amount more) and he is clear about what is most important.  This learning experience is new for me.  Always before I just wanted to be shown the material and left to dive in but that can’t work for Tibetan Buddhism because this is mind-training.   I could read every text ever written and still not know how to train my mind using them.  It would be like trying to master tennis just by reading books.

On the fifth day we practice the entire ritual.  It takes over an hour and a half.  We’re going to do it every night from now on and lama says we’ll be able to do it on our own by the end.  I’m glad I bought my own bell and drum instead of borrowing them.  I’m starting to feel why it’s considered so important to respect the texts and instruments.  It’s like a craftsman respecting his tools.  It keeps you aware of your sincerity about what you’re doing.

We chant in Tibetan.  Written and spoken Tibetan are very different.  Pronunciation continued to evolve after the written form was fixed with 30 consonants in the 11th century.  There are different transliteration standards using only the letters on an English language keyboard for how Tibetan words are written and how they sound.  The one for the written word has many silent consonants.  Our texts use the one for sound so I have some hope of getting the pronunciation reasonably right by the end of the class.

The overall ritual has many sections and the chants are assembled in three separate texts.  We have a page and a half cheat sheet that shows the sequence of sections and what page of which text to go to when we switch from one text to another.  It’s very confusing.

Last night I lost track altogether of what the sections mean but I did stay on track with the transitions.  The other students seem to be somewhat familiar with the overall flow of the practice.  I guess there must be a standard structure.  I ask why the chant isn’t published in one text.  Lama says in that case we might not realize we need a teacher to explain the practice.

We do the entire practice again on days five and six.  Lama has taught us some hand gestures and what to do when with bell and drum but I haven’t yet attempted to do any of that.  Maybe I’ll try tomorrow.  It’s hard enough just following the text.

Every so often I try to remember what I should have in mind but then I lose focus on the transitions between texts.  That’s a disaster because I can’t yet associate the sound of the chants with what I see on the pages, which means I can’t find where we are in which text.

Everyone is feeling a bit overwhelmed, even the monks who already know the hand gestures and so forth.  I’ve entirely lost interest in world and financial news and am even losing interest in Nepali news.   I’m beginning to feel that I can change myself for the better with this practice.  I’m pretty sure I’m not heading toward becoming a monk, however.

Tantric Buddhism developed for lay practitioners, not just monastics.  Like Protestant Christianity in Europe, Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism were born in India in opposition to long established forms of practice that were controlled by a too often corrupt priestly elite.

One comment on “Tibetan Buddhist Class, First Week

  1. Someone asked: “I’m curious about the drum… it doesn’t seem to fit with Buddhism to have an object made from a dead animal; do you think the drums were incorporated from an earlier system, or is there a significance in the drum skin, or anything?

    I replied: “The drum we use is shaped like two cones connected at the points. We sound them by rotating them back and forth so a ball on a string on either side of the drum is flicked against the drum skin. It’s surprisingly difficult to do. There’s also a drum a couple of feet in diameter with the usual cylindrical shape but thinner. That one is beaten by a designated drummer using a curly stick like a back scratcher. It has the same shape as smaller drums used by shamans up in the mountains although those drums have a carved leg. The drums enable shamans, they say, to travel between the physical and spiritual worlds. Shamanic practices here seem to have come from Siberia and been elaborated by the Tibetans.”

    “The apparent conflict between the Buddhist teaching to save all sentient beings and Tibetan Buddhists’ consumption of animal products, their use of blood and meat in rituals and so on does have me confused. It’s practical in part, e.g., the Dalai Lama was vegetarian for a while but he grew sick and was advised by his Tibetan doctor to return to meat. But there’s also a spiritual/metaphorical dimension that somehow has to do with equality in the sense of everything being connected, nothing being truly separate. The meaning of “identity” for a Tibetan Buddhist seems fundamentally different from my understanding. It’s not at all clear to me yet.”

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