Rinchen Terdzo

Eye on the Shrine

January 5th, 2009 by Walker Blaine

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.

A Day Off

January 2nd, 2009 by Walker Blaine

January 1st 2009

Not much to say about today. Everyone slept in a bit and the monastery was as silent as silent can be except for the noises of Jinpa getting gyaling lessons in the morning. Members of the Dzogchen retreat are gradually packing to go. It is sad to be saying goodbye to new and old friends. Frank and Katrin Stelzel are headed to the Kagyu Monlam in Bodhgaya while Siobhan Pathe returns to Europe.

Activities today included for some a small excursion to a nearby waterfall. Many of us did laundry. Kusung Christoph Schoenherr divided his time between editing video and guarding the Sakyong’s suite from three busloads of Indian tourists surging through the monastery, trying to open every door they could. The Ripa Monastery, the waterfall and a nearby hot springs are the three major tourist sites in the region. Indians, mostly Hindus, wander through the abhishekas daily. About once a week westerners appear in the shrine during the break after tea and take a lot of pictures.

Today it struck me how amazing it was that the Vidyadhara could receive the Rinchen Terdzo at 12 years old and bestow it for months on end only two years later. Most of the westerners today have found they really needed to rest after the exertion of just staying present in the shrine room for for so many hours each day. And we are not under much pressure to stay on the ball.

An Eventful Day, Relatively Speaking

January 1st, 2009 by Walker Blaine

December 31st, 2008

Today was the final day of the Dzogchen retreat, and it was the end of the western calendar year. While working on the blog near the end of the morning there was a knock on our door. Pema, the solidly built secretary of Jigme Rinpoche, was visiting all the westerners, urging them to hurry up to the monastery steps for the group photo. We had a long session of picture taking in the sun with His Eminence, the Sakyong, Jigme Rinpoche, Lhuntrul Rinpoche and Kunkyab Rinpoche. First, all the monks surrounded the teachers on the steps, then the westerns scrunched in, then all the monks withdrew off camera, and finally some Ripa family photos were taken in the shade of the veranda.

The abhishekas in the afternoon were a bit shorter than usual, and tea was longer as there were offerings made on behalf of the western sanghas at the retreat. Everyone was well dressed, though our faces were smeared by some of the blessing substances. After a formal ceremony for the long life of His Eminence, the westerners had a chance to present a khata individually to Namkha Drimed Rinpoche on his throne. The day concluded with a few more abhishekas, the moving blessing line of His Eminence and the other teachers winding through row after row of us with various tormas and icons, and our usual closing chants.

The plan had been for westerners then to have a dinner at the Ripa Family compound followed by a party, but this changed to dinner at our respective dining areas, and everyone met at the compound later for the party. The Ripa Lhadrang is about a one minute walk from the monastery gate, best done at night with a flash light in case of cow dung. The compound itself is framed by a wall so one enters by a metal door next to a car gate. Inside are about four two-story houses built surrounding a central garden area with enough trees and shrubs to remind one of a tropical jungle in the dark.

Upon entering the party one was struck by two things—very appealing dance music pounding out of the middle of the garden and a very cheerful Tibetan woman offering cups of chang, home-made Tibetan beer. I must say that I like chang a lot after last night. It’s a bit sour, sort of like apple cider in some way. It feels like on could easily drink an enormous quantity of it and be very content. I’ve had a head cold, but it altogether vanished between the time I started drinking chang and when we left the party a few hours later.

One thing was for sure, it is pretty surreal to be dancing to house music in a jungle drinking beer with people from all over the world after 24 days of abhishekas in a monastic environment. Everyone seemed to have an incredibly good time and the party went well past midnight, five and a half hours altogether, though some of us bowed out after a couple hours of steady dancing. I hear that the four Ripa sisters—Khandro Tseyang, Semo Sonam, Semo Pede and Semo Palmo—danced a great deal as the evening wore on. I think the Rinpoches kept a low profile preferring to relax a bit as past few week’s intensity eased up for a bit.

The Juncture of Boredom

December 31st, 2008 by Walker Blaine

December 29th, 2008

Here in Orissa there is an evolving question of how to be at the Rinchen Terdzo, how to receive these abhishekas day after day knowing it’s unlikely we’ll do many of these practices. The answer to the question is simple on one hand, but it has an interesting layer beneath the answer. The simple answer is just that His Eminence is passing on what he received from the Vidyadhara to the Sakyong. All one has to do is have devotion during the empowerments and fulfill the requirement a recitation requirement of 100,000 mantras of Padmasambhava, the guru who embodies all the gurus, and 100,000 mantras of Vajrasattva, the yidam who is the embodiment of all the yidams. One has opens one’s heart in the abhishekas, does the mantras and that’s that.

But telling oneself to have faith and do the mantras can seem a little naïve, especially when one is here for weeks on end. I suppose this is a combination of healthy western skepticism and being thrust deeper than usual into a Tibetan cultural context. The background to this is an instruction many of us in Shambhala have heard, “Don’t run after empowerments for practices you’ll never do.” Although this is a historic event and everyone attending has that reason to be there, we are still faced with how to place our minds without feeling somehow blind.

I don’t exactly know how to explain this, but it’s like I have been burning through the consequences of avoiding receiving lots of abhishekas. There is certainly a neurosis to going to lots of them, to hunting out teachers in a search for blessings. But at the same time, in sitting in the shrine room for more than three weeks and participating in well over 200 empowerments I have relaxed and opened my mind to the idea that there may be contexts when receiving a lot of abhishekas has more to offer than just a credential. Prior to coming here I had a frozen understanding of what this situation is about. There is more going on than just receiving a lot more practices.

The crux of this has to do with repetition and boredom. Whether sitting on a cushion, reciting a mantra, or struggling to memorize a text, the aim of repetition is to soften the mind and work it towards more openness along with better habits like patience and generosity. Abhishekas in the west are infrequent at least for me and I have not had the chance to relax into the experience for very long. At the Rinchen Terdzo abhishekas have become the norm and as a group we are hitting what the Vidyadhara called cool boredom. There is a phase of being bored where one gets past mental fidgeting and starts to genuinely sit and look at one’s world. Buddhist practice emphasizes repetition in order to provoke insight. I never would have thought this could apply to the process of abhisheka until coming here.

At this juncture I am making a connection with what it is during a dathun or when in retreat doing a daily liturgical practice with visualizations and mantras. Walking into monastery every day seems to be about thinking of the teacher, contemplating virtue and relaxing the mind much in the same way that I’ve experienced things in regular daily practice. Only here the practice session is very organic and participatory in terms of relating with a teacher. There is time to actively explore with what it means to be humble and open. It’s really wonderful to see the Sakyong doing this in the front of the room. Maybe all this description of slowing down doesn’t read like a big deal on paper, but personally speaking, this is a big deal.

The schedule of late has been quite tight with evening talks that sometimes take us close to 10 o’clock. Consequently it has been hard to write as much as usual. Last night’s talk was Jigme Rinpoche’s first about vajrayana topics and it turned out to be a real tour-de-force of useful information on view and practice. We have one final talk tomorrow night and the next night there will be a new year’s party at the Ripa family compound. We are wondering what a new year’s party at a monastery looks like. For the guests it will be a celebration with the Ripas and Mukpos along with a farewell party for the western students who’ve come for the Dzogchen Retreat.

We are still receiving the empowerments of wrathful forms of the guru, and the focus continues to be on the form of Padmasambhava known as Guru Trakpo. Soon we’ll shift to Dorje Trollo. In a day or so we’ll move to an entirely new section of the Rinchen Terdzo, the empowerments of the yidams and the famous grouping of them, the Eight Logos.

Food at the Rinchen Terdzo

December 27th, 2008 by Walker Blaine

December 26th 2008

What follows is a short study of food at the Rinchen Terdzo. Yes, that’s today’s secular studies topic because it is the holidays. This study won’t be definitive because the cultural venues for the Rinchen Terdzo are broadening to outside the borders of Tibet. However, I am fairly certain that two things have remained constant: momos or Tibetan dumplings, and salted butter tea. We had the famous salted butter tea a couple of times at the start of the event, and since then we’ve had sweet tea with a bit of chai spice floating in the bottom of the cup now and then.

Another item that is always part of the Rinchen Terzo is torma—roasted ground barley flour mixed with butter and sugar to make a type of cake. This turns up now and again rolled into little balls that are distributed as part of the long life ceremonies. Other things we eat in the shrine room include the yellow sweet tea rolls that look like unsplit hamburger buns, and during the feast at the end of the day, cookies and a drop of blessed liquor that’s been mixed with a lot of orange soda.

Outside the shrine room culinary possibilities open up a tiny bit. There are rumors of chicken momos (and beer, generally off limits during the Rinchen Terdzo) at a small restaurant in settlement camp number three. Meat is not part of the monastery menu (free for the guests here), at the guesthouse or at the little shop behind the monastery run by a cheerful and energetic Tibetan man named Thonga and his family. The shop is like a restaurant and has momos and eggrolls (a thin bread wrapped around a fried egg and some vegetables with a special sauce, quite tasty and filling) along with more Indian fare, rice dhal and so forth. Thonga also sells candy, pens, paper, and soda to a steady stream of monks along with the Tibetans and Westerners here at the event. Occasionally a child (western or robed) is spotted wandering around with neon pink cotton candy.

At the guesthouse we enjoy Indian food with a lot of fresh vegetables, the occasional eggroll and momo, along with different kinds of eggs for breakfast. His Eminence said that the westerners should get a lot of fresh vegetables. These, with the exception of brocolli from Berampur, are organically grown at the settlement. We get a lot of okra which I am growing fond of, along with chapattis, the occasional ting-mo (steamed bread dumpling), and a great many styles of dhal with white rice. One vegetable I’ve not met before is the deep green kati which when sliced in half-moons looks like the back of a stegosaurus. The name means bitter which it certainly is. It’s easiest to get to know when well fried with something that turns it bright red.

I found another sangha member here, Siobhan Pathe, who’s come from Hamburg. I had not met her before, and she seemed suspiciously Shambhalian. There is a distinct flavor to Shambhala culture and community which is easy to spot in mixed sangha gatherings.

Today we nearly finished most of the remaining abhishekas related to Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye’s terma about the Seven Line Supplication. These last abhishekas didn’t fit into the neat groups we had in the preceding days and were more eclectic. Several of them emphasized the union of Padmasambhava with specific groups of gurus (48, 50 or 108) or specific teachers like Shakya Shri or one of the root teachers for the Taksham Lineage, coincidentally the main lineage for the Ripa famil. Also we had the empowerments for the four additional forms of wrathful Padmasambhava.

The teachings with Lungpo Rinpoche in the event went into the famous eight freedoms and ten favorable circumstances or conditions. These point out one’s good fortune in being able to study the dharma by highlighting both what we need (a teacher, interest in the teacher, etc.) and circumstances that we don’t have but would have prevented study and practice (severe handicaps and so on.) Tomorrow his cousin Lungpo Kunkyab Rinpoche will talk about karma, the cause and effect relationship behind our actions. The Sakyong will teach the day after on ground, path and fruition.

Running to Breakfast

December 26th, 2008 by Walker Blaine

Leaving for Tea Break

December 24th, 2008 by Walker Blaine


Here is a photo of the temple steps as people take advantage of the short break after tea.

The Shrine Room, the Quiet

December 23rd, 2008 by Walker Blaine

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.

Cheerful Chubas

December 21st, 2008 by Walker Blaine

Wanting You Here

December 21st, 2008 by Walker Blaine

Dec 20th

After a couple of weeks in Orissa, I find myself now and again wishing lots of western sangha were here. For new and old students this environment provides a tremendous vantage point on how the dharma is being transmitted to the West. For more senior practitioners in particular there is a lot to be learned about the practices we already do. I can’t tell you how fascinating it is to watch the transmission termas, pure visions and so on. The Sakyong likened this to a TV program presenting all the greatest hits. It really is starting to feel like that.

Even without understanding much of the Tibetan, the changes of symbolism in each empowerment have started to fall into some kind of flow. If there is a string of abhishekas from a particular terton one starts to get the flavor of that teacher’s style. Some termas go right into the main sections of the empowerments without much delay, while others will emphasize the preliminaries for quite a while. Some abhishekas will have extensive explanations of the main section’s meanings and visualizations, but the icons used will be quite spare. Some transmissions will have repeated emphasis on pointing out the fruitional formless meditative state, while others will have long presentations of pictures of visualized deities. During the last abhisheka today there were four choppons helping each other rapidly pass icons to His Eminence for nearly half an hour.

The background noises to today’s empowerments were much louder than usual, and for the third of four days we’d watched various toddlers wander unchaperoned to the front of the huge hall. After closing Namkha Drimed Rinpoche took some time to talk to people about being quiet during the transmissions and being more careful with their kids. His Eminence explained how the best way to attend teachings is to be like an empty upright pot being filled to the brim. He went on to describe the consequences of being inattentive, and so forth. He then went on to address the parents. He said that has travelled in the West and he observed that if a child can’t be handled in a teaching, the child is taken out of the room. I found this poignant as East and West seem to have a lot to teach one another. I was suprised Namkha Drimed Rinpoche brought this particular point up.