Only a month late...
About this time last month (February) we undertook a pretty major trip—our “pilgrimage” in celebration of Losar, the Tibetan new year. Losar is traditionally a three-day extravaganza preceded by countless hours of frying kapse (which are still being eaten in many homes) and has three primary aspects: private family gatherings, public religious ceremonies, and large-scale drunken revelry.
This year, though, in commemoration of the current situation inside Tibet (the self-immolations, Chinese crackdowns, etc.), the CTA officially cancelled all celebrations—for the third year in a row. To paraphrase Tara-la, it’s as if the government cancelled Christmas, or at least all the decorations, parades, and other large spectacles, but religious events and small family gatherings still took place. Most of the Sarah students left campus to visit friends, family, home-base monasteries, and the like, but it was a pretty quiet affair.
Without families here in India to visit, we Emory folks experienced the other kind of Losar by going on pilgrimage (of sorts) to some sacred sites to the East of here in Himachal Pradesh. The straight-line distance was pretty small, but driving back from the farthest place we visited basically took all day—there are mountains in the way and the little roads have to do all kinds of snaking around them.
Also, to put a damper on things, Tara-la got sick our first night away, but under the leadership of Passang-la (General Secretary of Sarah College, aka the most competent person I know) and TAs Gordo and the other Tara, we made it just fine. As a bonus, Wendell, a New York-born fellow studying Buddhist Philosophy at Sarah (who just moved up the hill to IBD) came with us too. Here’s a general outline of the trip, as far as my memory allows:
- Day 1: Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s nunnery, Dongyu Gatsal Ling. Watch cham dance at Sherab Ling Monastery, sleep at Sherab Ling’s guesthouse (a huge and rather fancy hotel by our standards)
- Day 2: hat ceremony at Sherab Ling, drive to Tso Pema
- Day 3: Visit Hindu temple, hang prayer flags, visit caves/nunnery at Tso Pema
- Day 4: Visit big Guru Rinpoche statue/temple, split up to explore town. Feed fish.
- Day 5: Drive home, stopping at Dzongsar Shedra and Shiva temple
So, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo (“Jetsunma” is a title given to especially holy women; Tenzin Palmo received this a few years ago. Born in England into a Spiritualist household, she discovered Buddhism at a young age and came to India not long after the Tibetans themselves moved into exile. She proceeded to become a nun in the Drukpa Kagyu lineage (the second Westerner to become a Tibetan Buddhist nun) and spent 12 years in retreat in a cave (really a clay hut built into a hollowed-out bit of rock) way up the the mountains almost at the border with Tibet/China—she has various stories about almost dying from being snowed in and such which she’s tired of telling and doesn’t like to talk about much. After coming out she travelled around promoting women’s status in Buddhism, being famous, giving teachings, and raising funds for the nunnery she founded, Dongyu Gatsal Ling. The goal of this place is to revive the togdenma lineage, certain elite female meditators in the Drukpa Kagyu tradition; the male version has survived but the women’s line unfortunately died out. Though run by a Westerner, the nuns are primarily Tibetan—but since most Tibetans in exile aren’t that interested in becoming monastics these days, the nuns at Dongyu Gatsal Ling, like most young monks and nuns in India, are from the trans-Himalayan region (Spiti, Lahoul and Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, and even Bhutan and Nepal).
First we were taken on a tour by an Irish-born nun there. Here’s their new temple (“We have to have something to show off!” our guide said), currently under construction, with a peek inside the Tara mandala on the ceiling:
View from the roof of the two square retreat houses, one for long-term retreats (traditionally 3 years, sometimes longer), and one for shorter retreats (a few weeks or months). During that time the handful of nuns inside don’t come out and are given food through a little trapdoor thing with a door on each end, so they don’t ever see any outsiders. These are built with a little courtyard in the middle with the roof shaped so that they can see the sky but not any other people. Pretty intense.
Next to that are two round buildings where the ~70 nuns live.
There’s also a classroom building (with shrine room) and a guesthouse/office building where we were received. Except for the temple, all the buildings are built in this very non-Tibetan style—they were designed by some fancy European architects and incorporate all sorts of green building techniques. For the monsoon, overhanging rooves were incorporated as much as possible into the design so the nuns can go outside without getting wet. Anyway, thanks to Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s fame in the West, this place got all the nice funds—most nunneries are significantly poorer than monasteries, since traditionally donors from Buddhist countries (rich Taiwanese largely fund the Tibetan community) give much more to monks than to nuns. So it’s good to see folks working on that.
Anyway this is the shrine room the nuns actually use. The central figure is an unusual choice—Prajnaparamita, the female buddha who is a personification of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras (prajna = “wisom,” paramita = “perfection”). She’s flanked by Manjushri (with the sword, the manifestation of all the buddha’s wisdom) and Green Tara (compassionate action).
Our first Losar torma (butter-and-barley flour sculpture)!
The back wall was adorned with some incredible paintings of various (female) buddhas, bodhisattvas, and tantric deities, painted by the same Dutch thangka painter who occasionally visits the Tibetan Buddhist Center in Philly. Her name escapes me now, but for this she chose to use some non-traditional, almost pastel colors—and to include this nunnery in the landscape too!
We were also taken to see some of the thangkas that will eventually hang in the new temple but are currently under construction. Each one takes lots of people a very long time, and there were a lot of them. Here are a few samples:
Part of the Kagyu lineage:
Detail of some critters in the corner of one of the paintings:
Materials (stone-based pigments), with some scary-looking protector deities in the background:
And here’s one of classrooms we saw. Nice, no?
As for our audience with Tenzin Palmo—for me, that single-handedly made this entire semeser in India worthwhile. Someone asked a question about… I don’t remember quite what it was… and she responded by saying, more or less, “Look, if you want to get enlightened in this lifetime, it is possible, but you’ll need to dedicate all your time and energy to it and spend years and years in retreat. If not, be honest with yourself that you’re not going to get there, but there are still things you can do.” She proceeded to give a teaching on the Six Perfections (generosity, ethics, perseverance/effort, concentration, and wisdom) which was exactly what I needed to hear at the time. Her direct and no-nonsense attitude were frankly quite refreshing, and her eyes were almost frightening in their intensity. But I agreed with every word she said.
So naturally I bought her CD, and some incense for my roommate:
That picture was taken in the car, and the tangerine and banana were given to us by some locals who came up to the car and started handing us fruit through the windows! They’d just come out of some kind of services at a Shiva temple, and the food was prashad, offerings to a deity that are blessed and given out to be distributed and enjoyed. I’m not too knowledgeable about Hinduism, but these were the most delicious fruits I’ve ever eaten.
Being stopped on the road so people can give you surprise sanctified fruit? I’m going to miss India…
But soon enough we weren’t in India anymore, because we were at Sherab Ling Monastery for the cham dances. Sherab Ling (“Wisdom-Place”), which is the seat of the 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche, one of the highest Kagyu lamas and an emanation of Maitreya (I think), was built on land given by the Indian government for Tibetans to settle on. Claiming the land was haunted, the Tibetans refused to move in, so Tai Situ Rinpoche came along, pacified the problematic spirits, and built his monastery there in these gorgeous (and decidedly non-haunted, except by langurs—shy, white-colored, non-problem-causing monkeys; we were lucky enough to see one) pine forests. So here’s the stage, in the monastery courtyard in front of their temple, with a Tibetan child running around before the action starts:
The dance we witnessed was the Black Hat Dance of Guru Rinpoche, which is one of the slowest and most boring spectacles most of us had ever seen—but it was still fascinating to watch. This altar was set up in the middle of the courtyard with huge tormas and pointy thingamajigs on it and a giant mask-like image of Mahakala (a protector deity) inside. Two by two, dozens of monks danced out of the temple and circled around the altar for maybe two hours. With a ritual dagger in one hand and skull cup (made of plastic, not a skull!) in the other, they pulled all the negativities around and put them into the image and tormas in the middle:
Afterwards, they disassembled the structure and brought the pieces outside to burn, thus purifying all our problems from the last year so we won’t have them again this new year:
cham literally means “walk,” and that’s a more fitting description than “dance.” It was slow and methodical, with lots of circular stepping on one foot while moving around clockwise. Some of the younger monks found other ways to amuse themselves:
Also, outside, there was this Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa, the same kind as the one at Bodh Gaya under which the Buddha is said to have attained Enlightenment) with lots of mani prayer stones around it:
Inside the temple were, among other things, an enormous Buddha-statue and an impressive display of tormas:
As we were walking around, this Tibetan grandma came up to me and asked me to help her get change—it took some explaining since we didn’t really have a common language, but basically she wanted to put 10 rupees on the mandala (offering in front of the statue), but only had a 100 rupee note, and was too short to reach up for more bills. Interesting experience that was.
By the time we came out the monks were starting a Mahakala puja, complete with these trumpets.
Walking out, we passed the monks’ dormitories, which are unmistakable based on the clothes hanging out to dry:
After circumambulating 108 little chörtens in a nice long row along the hillside, we called it a day. One thing I’m really going to miss when I’m not in Tibet-land anymore is the lack of things to circumambulate. It’s a really nice thing to do—just walk around some holy object or place in a clockwise manner, often spinning prayer wheels set up along the way. It’s fun, calming, and a way to accumulate merit all at the same time!
The morning we left there was a ritual going on whose significance I still don’t understand. For the Tibetans gathered there, it was straightforward—another occasion to get blessings. Monks were going around handing out colored-paper packets of blessed pills that can be eaten, or put in little bags and worn, or hung up near a doorway to bless your home, etc. Meanwhile, Tai Situ Rinpoche was up there doing something with his hat
I’ve heard several different stories about what was going on. In one version, Tai Situ Rinpoche is, in the very moment in the picture above, going into his true form as Maitreya, though it takes a more subtle sort of awareness than most of us have to see it. In another version, there’s some spirit in his hat that needs to be tamed periodically. What both stories agree on is that it’s very important he keeps hold of the hat lest it fly away. Apparently in the past he (or his previous incarnation(s)) have let go and the hat has gone flying around the room and took a while to get back. Regardless which version is the “true” story, I did see the hat was carefully kept in a box with a lid, carefully brought out, given to Rinpoche, kept on his head for a few minutes, put back in the box, and secured with the lid.