Throat chanting in great dark rooms surrounded by Hieronymus Bosch-like murals of wondrous deities and terrifying devils, eight foot long trumpets, giant conch shell trumpets, human thigh bone trumpets, Arab-style clarinets, brass cymbals, yoyo-like hand drums and hand bells, Catholic-like rosaries and censors, it is beyond exotic.
It’s more than half a century since I was first fascinated by “Seven Years in Tibet”. Now I’ve been among Tibetan lamas doing these practices in monasteries in Sikkim, Nepal and Tibet and met teachers whose extraordinary kindness results, inevitably they say, from doing these practices all their life.
It’s the meditation, they say, not so much the colorful rituals, that really makes the difference. So I tried to meditate. I read books about how to meditate. But nothing happened, nothing changed. Perhaps if I go somewhere where people meditate, I thought? I went for two very long days of silent meditation at a Zen Buddhist monastery and did notice flickers of something positive. I went back for a week of silent sitting. Moss beside a path, pollen exploding from sun-drenched pines, a sudden breeze… Toward the end of the week, just for a moment, I did see their beauty fresh.
Surprised by that sense of sacredness, I think maybe I really can learn how to live more alertly. But the Zen way feels too hard for me. I’ve been so habituated to thinking for so many years. Maybe I could unlearn I’m not sure what with a different training program, one with more structure and detail that would give my over-active brain something to chomp on? Perhaps that’s the point of the Tibetan rituals? They might be preparation for meditation that really works?
So now (October/November 2011) I’ve come for a month-long class at a Kathmandu monastery. I’ll be taught the details of a ritual practice but beyond that, I have no idea what to expect.
The first two days remind me of mountain treks when the crew is getting organized. Each day starts with a destination and a plan. Nothing goes as planned but the destination is reached.
We are scheduled to get “empowerment” at 8:30 on the first morning. Empowerment means being authorized to learn a practice. We hear periodically about changes to the schedule as 8:30, 9:30, 10 and 11 come and go, then we’re told we will be empowered at noon by Phakchok Rinpoche. I know nothing about him but the other 11 students are very happy.
At noon we file into a large inner chamber where Phakchok Rinpoche has for more than an hour been preparing. I’m nervous. I don’t know what I may have to do later but I do know to prostrate to Phakchok Rinpoche before I sit. I would never have prostrated to a boss in the world of business and it felt odd the first time I prostrated to a teacher but it’s a very different situation. I could not prostrate to someone just because they had been granted power over me. Showing respect for the qualities teachers have worked so hard for, however, feels entirely natural and right.
Phakchok Rinpoche watches us closely. As I sit he says: “Your prostrations are no good. Have you learned nothing?” I wonder what I did wrong? He’s very fierce. In a business context I would feel attacked but here I don’t. He’s just telling me there’s something I must learn. He is equally direct and very clear for two hours of explanation of what we are promising to do while we study and after. I’m happy that I can understand most of what he says, to some extent. What I understand completely is the approach he’s pointing out, total sincerity.
“People told me Western people are practicing Buddhism very well these days,” he says. “I thought, that’s good news, I will go to see them. But I found them saying: ‘Ritual is not important. We do not need to do that.’ They are practicing one-legged Buddhism! They think it is OK not to do ritual but who am I to say it is OK not to practice the way people practiced successfully for two thousand years?”
Our first teachings from 3:30 to 5 are not by the scheduled lama because he was suddenly given a different assignment. We are told we are “so lucky” to get the one who teaches folks doing three year retreats. He’s very methodical, proceeds in a structured way and is clear. Indeed, we are lucky!
We can’t start at 8 on the second day because the nun who is scheduled to be our translator for the whole four weeks is sick. We can only get teachings when one of the senior translation students is free. We start at 10:30 and go to noon. Again I understand, at some level, almost everything. Our translator yesterday was outstanding. Today’s is not quite so clear but is very good.
In today’s second session, from 3:30 to 5, we begin learning how to make tormas, statues of barley flour paste that are placed on the altar to represent offerings to deities or malign spirits. They’re not deities or spirits as we normally think of them but representatives of particular virtues or vices like greed and hatred, habits so to say that we are aiming to strengthen or quell.
Our scheduled translator hopes to be back the day after tomorrow. We can then follow the regular 8 – 5:30 schedule, learning the meaning of the ritual each morning and how to perform it in the afternoon. It is all very odd but I can study with sincerity because this has been so effective for so many people for so long. I don’t need to worry about which parts are “true” and which are not.
Ancient Mariner poet Coleridge called the approach we must adopt a “willing suspension of disbelief”. We must give our intuitive faculty the opportunity to sense what’s being revealed. We’d miss important aspects of what we’re shown if we let our rational faculty focus on details.
My fellow students include monks from Brazil, New Zealand and Colorado, a very serious German man and a French woman who live together in France, a beautiful young Mexican woman and an older Danish man with dreadlocks and white robes who live together in India, a fellow from Glasgow, a fellow from New Orleans and one from LA, all of whom spend a lot of time on the road.
What else? The monastery guesthouse where I’m staying is fine. My room faces the monastery so I’m woken at 4:30 by the clangor of bells, bray of trumpets, clash of cymbals and whatnot. It’s surprisingly pleasant. There’s also an evening practice but after that it’s very quiet, so much better than being blasted by rock bands in Thamel, the tourist part of Kathmandu.
Oh, the monk from Brazil explained about prostrations. “Did you go to a Zen monastery?” he asked with a kindly smile. “Yes?” “I thought so. We do prostrations differently.” It’s a subtle difference that makes all the difference.