I Got To Do A Program!

The last meditation program I did was a year and a half ago when I staffed a dathun. But this time I got to be a participant, which hasn’t happened since…2001? Somebody correct me if I’m wrong.

Theree were other programs I might have done that weekend. In fact I was quite torn since Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche was teaching at his center in Vershire just 45 minutes away. But I ended up doing the program here at Karme Choling, over Labor Day weekend (and into the Tuesday): His Eminence Namkha Drimed Rinpoche gave the empowerment and taught and led us in the practice of a Yeshe Tsogyal sadhana.

A tiny amount of background for those unfamiliar: His Eminence is the father of Khandro Tseyang, the wife of our teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, and while in Tibet prior to 1959, was close to the founder of Shambhala, Chogyam Trunpga Rinpoche, from whom he received important empowerments, including the Rinchen Terdzo. So there are strong family and dharma ties among the teachers.

Among us students, however, we seem to be used to quite different practice styles. Chogyam Trunpga Rinpoche had a brilliant command of the English language (to the point of giving his American students elocution lessons), taught nearly exclusively in English, and liturgies used by his students are beautifully translated and printed by the Nalanda Translation Committee, and recited in English. So we always know what we’re saying (whether we understand the full meaning is of course another question). Now, given a Tibetan original which is often in verse and so has particular rhythms and melodies to it, and an English translation which is quite elegant but generally has an emphasis on meaning rather than on meter, the chanting style developed in the Shambhala community is a one-note unison, a monotone. Which can have quite an energy and drive and rousing quality to it in a group situation.

Pretty much any time you see a documentary on Tibet or on Tibetan Buddhism, or come across one of those old Nonesuch recordings of Tibetan monks, you hear melodious chanting, you hear cymbals and drums and various blaring wind instruments. If you come to a Shambhala Center, you hear some monotone chanting, sometimes with a drum. So it can be hard not to wonder sometimes, what are we missing?

Well, here I was part of that full treatment. Most of the practice was chanted melodically in Tibetan, with the occasional bursts of cacophony on drum, cymbal and conch-shells. Salient sections were repeated in English, and for the most part there was interlinear translation in the text so with a little back-and-forth glancing we could know what we were saying (at the risk of losing one’s place in the text). And, doing four sessions a day, it wasn’t long before there was a general familiarity with what was going on anyhow. Certainly a good deal of the immediacy of the meaning was lost, but a whole other dimension was added, an added emotional quality, a further sense of immersion, clarity, and heartfeltness to the practice. Often when we switched back to the English text there would be a sense of, “Oh, so that’s what I’ve been saying,” but it would also suddenly sound very flat.

At the end of the day, Rinpoche’s daughter, Semo Sonam Palzom, would sing the Yeshe Tsogyal mantra with a haunting, spine-tingling melody.

With the before-breakfast sessions starting at 6:30, and the after-breakfast and after-lunch sessions running usually around three hours with no break, after four days of this I was pretty wiped out but also amazingly energized.

And then I had to go back to work. The next day I was talking on the phone to someone who asked, “Are you sick? You sound different.” And I said, “Oh, no, I’m fine, I’ve just been chanting in Tibetan for four days.”

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