Eye on the Shrine

January 4th 2009

The shrine room is a lonelier place with 30 guests gone after the Dzogchen Retreat. About the same number remains here with a few more scheduled to depart in the coming weeks. On the up side, there is a bit more space and it is easier to sit close to the front of the room. Today I sat in the front row of westerners for the first time, about eight feet from the huge empowerment shrine.

The shrine faces to the right as you look at it so that it is more oriented towards His Eminence’s seat on the throne. Usually one sees shrines directed outward, towards the assembly, but not so at the Rinchen Terdzo. We were asked not to get to close to the shrine until after the empowerments each day. I am not sure if this tradition has to do with more than making sure a crowd doesn’t jostle something, but today it was nice to be able to get a good look at things before all the implements and offerings had been distributed, and so forth.

As I mentioned before the shrine is about eight feet square. There’s a lower level at the perimeter for what we call the symbolic outer offerings. These are offerings of things in the perceivable outer world as opposed to an inwardly experienced offering like joy. And on the front of the shrine, that is to say the side closest to Eminence, there is a slightly lower table that is covered with offerings and implements, many for the daily token feast practice. Underneath that is are more offerings for things as needed. For example, at the end of the day the chopons take out a number of tea offerings in a long stemmed metal cups called a serkyem. So many of these are needed that the chopons refill the tea (perhaps it is saffron water) from a bucket below this table. Another item under the table is metal bowl with smoldering coals. The coals are occasionally to ignite pine resin which smells similar to frankincense.

In the middle of the outer offering level at the four sides of the shrine is a central group of five offerings that appear to be quite similar the five sense offerings on a Shambhala shrine right down to the mirror for sight and the fabric tied in a bow on a short stick as the offering of touch. Things change every day, so there is nothing definitive here. On the outside of those five, at the corners of the lowest level of the shrine, there is an ever-changing group of tormas and butter lamps. These seem to shift each day according to Jamgon Kongtrul’s instructions and they may also relate to the actual abhishekas given each day.

Above the shrine is an elaborate canopy mirroring the upper section of the palaces that the deities are said to reside in. This is pointing out, as does the abhisheka itself, the richness and power of our own mind. The elaboration of the symbolism is sometimes overwhelming. Tashi, the head chopon burst into laughter the other day when he explained that the following day’s abhisheka set up involved eighteen ritual vases, every single vase available at the monastery. It seems there are a great many subtleties going on with the Rinchen Terdzo. When the full tradition comes to the west there will be a great many interesting things to learn.

Eight of the nine of the abhishekas today were practices discovered by Nyangral Nyima Öser. Of those. three were for protector practices connected to the combined eight logos cycles he revealed. Sometimes the lay sangha is asked to leave the shrine room during protector practice empowerments. This is because some of the protector practices have a very strict commitment of daily practice. At a monastery daily practice is the norm and so it is easy to keep this commitment. The non-monastic sangha as a group is not able to keep such commitments and so people are asked to leave, though some people request to stay.

Today for some reason these empowerments opened up to those of us who have finished ngondro, a set of preliminary practices for a yidam. Ngondro usually requires 100,000 or more recitations of a mantra or short stanza as part of a series of meditations to help a student firmly establish a connection to the dharma and in particular to the vajrayana path. Even with long sessions of daily practice ngondro takes several months to complete. It was a treat to be in the shrine room for one of these sections of the Rinchen Terdzo. The doors to the veranda were closed. The room was markedly more attentive and almost completely silent.

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