The Shrine Room, the Quiet

December 22nd

Here is a picture of the shrine hall, the way it often looks after His Eminence has seated himself and just before the abhishekas begin. Today nearly fifty westerners were in the room. That number will swell a bit tomorrow when the final arrivals for the Dzogchen Retreat make their appearance. As you might have deduced, the Dzogchen retreat schedule took a bit of a turn when we learned about having the reading transmissions along with the empowerments. Prior to learning of the lungs the plan was to have morning talks for the westerners and abhishekas for everyone in the afternoons. However, now we’ll have morning reading transmissions, afternoon abhishekas and evening talks. People here for a short time have been encouraged to do their daily practice in the mornings.

The shrine room has been remarkably quiet since His Eminence spoke to us about the noise two days ago. Tibetan culture is impressive in the way it can work from the top down. We started with a general, ragged sense of quiet a few weeks ago. Then, in the last few days, things got out of hand with the occasional wandering toddler and an upswelling of chatter from the young monks and Tibetans on the veranda. While a disciplinary monk quietly walks the rows now and again, he is pretty light-handed. That is, until the situation crested and Namkha Rinpoche addressed the issue. Since then the rinpoches and senior teachers have become more direct, and the elders camped out on the veranda have been noticeably quieter. This process seems very much like how Trungpa Rinpoche worked with energy getting out of hand at his teaching programs. He would let it get to the point where everyone saw it without argument and then he’d abruptly cut in and start fresh.

I spliced six photos together to give you a sense of the layout of the shrine room from my seat. My apologies for the spots where movement makes things look odd. The shrine room has two rows of columns and the westerners fill in starting from the front of the left hand side. I took the photo from the last row of westerners, but more monastics fill in the space behind us. Toward the back of the room, the Tibetan lay sangha starts to fill in.

In the photo the big red curtain is drawn. This is because we have not seen the mandala yet. Mandala is a word that can refer to a complete representation of the world or the world itself. For example, we could talk about the mandala here at the Ripa House, the guesthouse where some of us live next to the monastery. This mandala would include guest house building , Jigme Namgyal our hardworking manager, Tashi and Suraj the cooks, the three young women from the village who help with chores , the various Ripa Sangha and Shambhala guests, and Tashi’s four month old puppy who barks a lot when he’s alone. All these make our world here.

In the case of an empowerment there are several mandalas, the most obvious one being on the shrine. At the Rinchen Terdzo several shrine mandalas are prepared before the start of each day. Each mandala is a symbolic representation of how the world appears to awakened mind. Just as there are there are as many ways to see the world as there are people, many different mandalas can depict an enlightened vision of the world.

In an elaborate empowerment the mandala is often concealed until after the teacher has symbolically entered the students into a particular mandala. At that point the shrine is revealed. Then the teacher explains the mandala in detail and brings the practitioners from the beginning to final stages of sacred outlook. An excellent explanation of this kind of shrine, practice and symbolism can be found in the presentations of the Vajrayogini mandala in Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s collection of essays, The Heart Of The Buddha.

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