January 2nd 2009
When I got up today I noted that tomorrow, the 3rd, was called the day of ten auspicious things happening together in my Tibetan datebook/practice log. Tibetan astrological days along with anniversaries of various important historical events like the birth of the Buddha create an elaborate calendar. The Tibetan New Year—this year the 25th of February—can fall weeks before or after the previous year, and different monasteries can even run on different calendars. Some calendars go so far as to specify bad days to cut your hair.
At breakfast we found out that today was the day of seven bad omens, or seven demon day, and therefore it was a bad day to resume the Rinchen Terdzo. So, we had another day off. Since no empowerments were happening several of us decided to visit the Gesar temple on the roof of the monastery. There seemed to be activity everywhere outside the guesthouse. A group of monks were starting brushfires in the overgrown grass and weeds just past the guesthouse lawn to make way for planting later. The chopons were busy making more tormas and the head chopon was studying the abhishekas for the upcoming days. Crews of monks were hauling large bamboo poles and rebar to the upper deck of the monastery in order to build scaffolding to place the sertok, the golden top ornament that attracts wealth and beautifies a building like a monastery. The sertok will be formally placed on the fourth, in two days.
The Gesar temple is actually one level down from the top floor of the monastery. It is still under construction. The walls are not yet painted but there are several remarkable statues on the shrine. Right now the shrine room is set up for a Vajrakilaya puja. Part of the format of a Rinchen Terdzo is to have a specific style of Vajrakilaya, the yidam best at dispelling obstacles, performed during different sections of the empowerment program. This temple looks like it could hold 100 or more people.
Gesar, the warrior king of the ancient buddhist kingdom of Ling, is both a historical and semi-mythic figure from Eastern Tibet. As a member of the Mukpa clan he is also an ancestor of the Sakyong. The central figure of the Gesar shrine is a form of Gesar known as Dorje Tsegyal. This manifestation comes from a famous Gesar practice text written by Mipham the Great that is currently being translated by the Nalanda Translation Committee. The main figure is surrounded by several other manifestations of Gesar and his retinue, all from His Eminence Namkha Drimed Rinpoche’s Gesar terma cycle. These include the drala form of Gesar, the wrathful form of Gesar, and key figures from Gesar’s life story such as his brothers Gyalsa and Drala, and the general Denma. These last three have been reborn as His Eminence, the Vidyadhara and the Sakyong respectively.
On the highest level of the monastery, above the Gesar temple, is another unfinished shrine room. This one is quite small with enough room for six or eight people to practice in front of a beautiful Shakyamuni statue with a small Samantabhadra with consort overhead, Vajrasattva with consort on one side and Amitayus on the other. These were all crafted by Bhutanese sculptors.
On the way out of the monastery Kristine McCutcheon, Patricia and I stopped by to visit Tashi, the head chopon in his room near the main shrine room. The long chamber is destined for some other purpose in the long run, but right now it is brimming with Tibetan texts, carefully wrapped packages of tsakali or pictures of deities (about 5,347 are needed to perform the Rinchen Terdzo) and all manner of boxes of offerings, medicines and so forth. Tashi spent three months preparing for the event. He was able to prepare extra offerings and has been sharing these with the Rinchen Terdzo happening concurrently at Mindrolling. We have been using their torma manual because it is the most complete.
Tashi showed us the notes he compiled for the event, two volumes to keep track of what is going on moment by moment. The Rinchen Terdzo has a section of the second volume devoted to how the shrines are set up, but this is written in an extreme form of short hand so each individual text in the collection needs to be checked against the compressed list. I noted that the tsakali were photographs and enquired if they were the collection put together by Dodrubchen Rinpoche. Tashi told us that although that set has the best colors we’re using photographs of Dudjom Rinpoche’s collection which includes woodblock prints of the tsakali made during Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye’s lifetime.
Later in the day we went for a walk through Settlement Four. Because we arrived in the dark of night and because it’s been very busy till now, Patricia and I had no idea what things looked like beyond the street leading to Namkha Drimed Rinpoche’s house near the monastery. The town, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, is very poor by western standards. Many of the houses have adjacent stilted corn hutches. Underneath many of the hutches are one or two cows with a tethered calf here and there. These cows are much smaller than what we see in the west. Most are not much larger or heavier than a Great Dane or St. Bernard.
If you’ve travelled though India you know that it can be messy anywhere and everywhere. Messy and somehow beautiful. On the one hand, there are bits of trash here and there by the road and in the fields. The houses, roadside projects and paths all have a half-finished look with piles of wood or stone nearby. On the other hand, the valley is remarkable looking because there are short, dry but greening hills vaulting out of flat earth in all directions around the monastery. One can easily imagine how paradisiacal everything looks in the rainy season with the ground and grass hungrily soaking in every bit of moisture.
At the edge of the town is an enormous white stupa, 40 or 50 feet high, with a statue of Padmasambhava in the gau window at the front. Each side of the base is supported by a pair of anatomically correct, bas-relief male and female snow lions with jewels in their front paws. Surrounding this central stupa are eight more stupas, the traditional group of eight styles corresponding to the eight deeds of the Buddha’s life. Some of these had a buddha in the gau, and others had a wrathful deity. Afterwards we walked home amongst a loose confederation of about a hundred cows.