Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Mantra Machine

That’s what those Chinese ladies in Richman’s Hill were. On both Saturday and Sunday, they/we began with a Morning practice. Virtually every practice includes what are called the preliminaries…the Refuge prayer, Four Immeasurables, the Seven-Limb prayer, offering of the Mandala…followed by invocations of the lineage masters, supplications, aspirations, dedications. This particular Morning practice also included a short Tara practice. Tara is a female deity who represents beneficial action on the earthly plane.

The Tibetan definition of “short” is not like ours. The Morning practice, done properly, takes at least one hour.

Tibetan books are also not like ours. Traditionally, they are loose-leaf sheets about ten inches wide and three or four inches long. The Morning practice book, including the Tara practice, is over 150 pages. But each one of those pages must include, at least in the west, the Tibetan script, a phonetic transliteration, and an English translation. So a single page usually only manages to have four lines of text at most. After four or five years of attending Tibetan teachings and rituals, I have managed to become somewhat comfortable with reading the phonetic versions (although they do not reproduce precisely the Tibetan pronunciations…you just have to learn some of the rules…) So, I can read along, chant along, if the pace is relatively slow.

But with these ladies it was utterly impossible. They motored along like Ferraris on the Autobahn. At most I was able to get the first two words and the last two, sometimes when I was able to look ahead, an entire phrase. Sometimes I knew the phrase, or recognized it. But most of the time I just followed along silently, hoping not to lose my place. I remember being at the Kalachakra initiation listening to the monks chanting, performing rituals in the mornings…it was really nothing but a drone to me. There are those who, with long familiarity, are able to join in. Not I.

That’s what it was like with these women too. Since I had the book in front of me, I could see how this drone occurred, the syllables and the techniques that were creating it. It’s a fascinating phenomenon to me. Everybody goes at top speed for as long as they can. When you run out of breath, you have to suck it in fast. Others are still going. When you start again, you might be at a slightly higher pitch, a different intensity, a syllable behind. It all mingles to create a hypnotic, undulating rhythm, punctuated now and then by brief silent mantras, low murmuring mantras, bells and even finger snapping. (All of which have a specific purpose I can’t necessarily explain.) In addition, many of the prayers have a certain melody which is used for the chanting. Through the course of the Morning practice there are, I think, two different melodies, each with their own rhythm. I’m embarrassed to admit, being a musician, that for some reason these melodies do not stick with me. They’re not hard or complex. But I can never seem to remember them afterwards. (Something karmic happening there, I think.) In five years, I’ve learned one melody – the one that goes with Om Mani Padme Hum – and I think that’s because it reminds of a Native American type of melody. I can imagine rain dance drums beating behind it.

The women were obviously well-practised in the Morning ritual. In fact, Lama Phuntsok said it was just like being in the monastery…(except that these were women…) But they recited just as quickly in the Manjushri practice, which I thought they might not be very familiar with.

The Sunday, especially, was a day devoted mostly to ritual. That’s what the women want. They value the devotional aspect. But since it was an empowerment, I think Lama Phuntsok insisted on giving them some teaching as well. Devotion is one thing. But the reason why we have devotion, the meaning of the Dharma, is the heart of it all. So he taught – what the Vajrayana means, why we visualize Manjushri…and the women seemed to appreciate it.

I have the impression these women, seven or eight of them, are the backbone of this Dharma centre. They organized. They cooked! Cooked for Lama Phuntsok and the rest of us too. Fabulous meals. They cleaned the centre. Looked after the altar and shrine. Water bowls, candles, all the statuary. They prepared the food and materials for the tsog (which is an offering ceremony). They take care of Lama Tashi, the resident Lama. They are devoted. To the Dharma. To the centre. To the Lama. Fine examples of guru devotion. And I suppose that’s why their practice consists of devotion, moreso than instruction and analysis. Did Francis of Assisi analyse the birds? I think not.

They have something to teach westerners about valuing Dharma and its teachers. I guess, really, it’s not so different from a congregation making sure the minister has what he needs to tend to the flock. But western Dharma practitioners are still somewhat rare. We’re not sure how to take care of the Lama. And by and large, we’re not especially rich. A wealthy benefactor is what every Dharma centre needs. And devoted practitioners.

1 comment:

Dove Taler said...

Sounds like what every writer needs too - a wealthy benefactor (lol).

I enjoyed your post. Yes, in some ways it sounds like "The Ladies Auxiliary."

It's wonderful when some of the most seemingly ordinary people or those most ostracized from regular society have these rich lives that are secret to us... where they are important and revered and have a place in their circle.

I remember an older man who was retired, and couldn't read well. He took literacy sessions at Core Literacy. The man died, and his family were surprised when the whole literacy staff turned out - all young adults outside the man's regular circle or "tribe" - and then they were also surprised at the fact we held him in such esteem, and that he had participated as a member of the Board of Directors. That view of their father (who had little formal education) was outside their normal realm of understanding of him.

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