This Is A Place Of Practice

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“C’était bien passé?”

People ask this question all the time: it went well? Most of the time I say yes. Sometimes I say definitively no. And periodically, I take the time to truly reflect and express the infinite shades of possibility between the one and the other. Having just returned from a week of retreat and facing this query frequently, I can safely say the experience engenders the latter.

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It went like this.

Bowled over by beauty and the strength of this place of practice. Equally bowled over by the strength of my own mind, both to accept its own nature and to flee in a frenzy from said nature. I’m no expert on the nature of mind, but the Buddha and his disciples said a few things about it, and the ones that stick out to me lately are these:

“The nature of the mind is clarity.”

“The nature of the mind is creativity.”

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At times my mind feels spacious, and I rejoice in the tranquility. At times my mind feels spacious, and I recoil from the openness, unsure what to do with all the empty space. At times my mind is active, and I revel in its dynamism without holding tight to what insights arise. At times my mind is active, and I flutter frantically through my thoughts, trying to gather them all before they pass, as a mouse gathers straw for warmth before the winter. At times I am wonderstruck by where I am in this journey, and at times I am desolate with my own limitations.

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To me, being well means being conscious, neither holding on when what we see is hopeful, nor minding overmuch when it is less than comfortable. I have experienced meditation retreats utterly replete with marvel and exhilaration. This trip was steadier, in some ways harder, but more clear. And not entirely lacking for marvel, either (ahem, the pictures…). It went well.

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And whatever wisdom arises, be it blissful or blindsiding, there’s always beauty to carry the day. The power of this place and the devotion of those who have wrought it, whose dedication permeates every stroke of paint in the nearly-finished temple, every stick of bamboo by the koi pond, which rolls in waves over the gate from the cloisters of long-term retreat—this wells confidence in what we can uncover through practice: our own untarnished wisdom, for the benefit of all beings.

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Mahakala: Anything But A Spectator Sport

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I am worked and wiped. Thoughts in my brain feel like sliding a wet rag over glass. My head is a jumble of dragon faces and lotus banners and the low rumble of mantras issuing from the throats of red-robed monks. My hips ring from hours of sitting cross-legged and the cells in my body still resonate with the beating drum.

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This has been three days of Mahakala puja – ceremony and offering. This is no droning, foreign prayer, no benevolent bless-fest, no ritual hoopla. This is practice. There’s no other way to put it. Yes, there are voices rising together in Tibetan verse. Yes, there is much benefit to be gained from one’s presence here. Yes, there are festive hangings, smoke lamps, and a table full of traditional, edible sculptures accompanied by much timely pouring of tea. And yet, though the monks are reading the prayers and singing the mantras and we, who lack the necessary training, are not, this is no spectator sport.

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Mahakala puja is six to eight hours a day of working with your mind. Invoking the protection – for yourself, your study, your practice, your lineage, and all beings – of a dude that is no rainbow-light-placid-smile type deal. Mahakala is a guardian of the teachings. He has three eyes and six arms, and he wears a crown of skulls and carries a big-ass knife. When you study wisdom passed down from two-thousand years ago in a culture rife with gods and demons, you get the requisite imagery. Mahakala takes no shit from negative emotion, from ignorance, or from beings that don’t do the work to get ourselves less confused.

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The three eyes show his omniscient vision of past, present, and future. The six arms represent his perfect mastery of the qualities of generosity, patience, discipline, joyful perseverance, meditative focus, and wisdom. Each skull in his crown signifies a negative emotion he has transformed into great understanding, and the knife is for the wrathful compassion with which he cuts through our ignorance and self-clinging. Also, he’s shadow black. Because he’s a badass. And for some deeply symbolic reason that my research has yet to uncover.

I just spent three days with this guy. In my head, yes, but also in a room filled with fifty people engaging collectively in supplication and challenge. When we do this practice, we come together to ask for the guidance of those wiser than us who have gone before and for the merit to uncover our own wisdom. Like I said, not a spectator sport. And though I’m fairly beat, I am also incredibly grateful. Having the opportunity to take part in this genuine practice, with lamas who studied its intricate execution and deep significance in three years of retreat, in a traditional temple setting…whoa.

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Though Buddhist practice unfolds most profoundly over years, I can feel the effects of these three days already working on me. I see where I am wavering. I see where I seek comfort that it’s not to be found. I give my doubts less space now, than I habitually have, to run me over and stress me out. They’re here; I’m here; we coexist; it’s cool. Thanks Mahakala. Let’s talk soon.

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A few logistical notes for those who are interested: The Mahakala deity is known as a Wisdom Dharma Protector, a fierce form of Buddha that looks after the teachings and its practitioners, and, generally, all beings. Meditation on Mahakala develops our commitment to our practice and to realizing wisdom for ourselves and all beings; it helps us become unwavering in the face of obstacles. Those who receive in-depth instruction in the practice do a short version every day, while the longer, multi-day ceremony is done on special occasions, such as the year’s end. Tibetan New Year, or Losar, is on Monday; thus we practice the preceding days.

Mahakala is a series of invocation prayers and mantras carried out with a standing drum, a hand drum, and a pair of symbols. Parts of the practice are melodious; others are atonally chanted. Two altars are added to those always present in the temple room. One is an offering table directly to Mahakala; it contains incense, flame, water, grains, money, and many sculptures made from torma, a mix of butter and barley flour that winds up looking like fondant cake. There is also a Tsok table, which is an additional offering of more familiar foodstuffs, like fruit, cookies, and even snack food. At various points in the practice, the torma and tsok items are eaten by the participants, along with traditional Tibetan salt butter tea.

There are many different forms of Mahakala within Tibetan and other schools of Buddhism. His attributes vary depending on the focus of the school and practice applying the symbolism. You can read more about Mahakala here and here (these are the sources I referenced, in addition to the many knowledgeable people at the center). There are also pictures of this week practice in progress on KIBI’s Facebook page, here.

Also, apologies that the photos are ridiculously grainy and awkwardly lit…this remains true about photos and my current camera situation.