Wednesday, 2 March 2011

My First Time

Before leaving Australia for the Rigpa Shedra East programme of 2011, many fears took hold of me. Would I fit in with the people I would meet, would I understand the teachings, would I be healthy and safe in Nepal? My arrival at Kathmandu airport was not a strong start. I was ripped off by the porter who demanded a $10 - $20 tip for carrying my bag 30 metres to the taxi. I didn't think he would ask me for money; he was not a tout, he was inside the airport proper, and he was wearing a fluorescent yellow vest, a universal symbol of official authority and trustworthiness. What a barbaric place where you can't trust someone in a yellow vest. After meekly handing over $10 I became convinced of everyone's intention to separate me from my money, and my naïve inability to prevent it.

Having spent 2 days in Kathmandu, and feeling nervous, I arrived in Pharping. Rita, our shedra manager, and Damien, our study and care manager, came to meet me, and we chatted over the 5 minute walk from the centre of town to the Nyingma Palyul Retreat Centre, which hosts the shedra. They immediately put me at ease. I then got acquainted with Stefan and Maisie over lunch and I started laughing and relaxing, while learning a lot about the Dharma from them. I've since found one of the most valuable aspects of the shedra is the conversations you have with the dedicated practitioners you meet. There is an absolute wealth of knowledge and experience here.

After lunch, Maisie, Stefan, and I walked up a nearby mountain to one of 2 very holy Guru Rinpoche caves in the area: the Asura cave. This is where Guru Rinpoche accomplished Vajrakilaya and attained enlightenment. According to Tsoknyi Rinpoche, it's as holy a site for Vajrayana practitioners as Bodhgaya is. What I saw when we got there was amazing. Guru Rinpoche's hand print is embedded in the rock face at the cave's entrance – and I mean embedded, as if his hand were made of molten lava!

Stefan had also heard that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche was in the area at the moment. After breakfast the next morning I went with Stefan and Jurek (who would shortly begin teaching us Tibetan) back up the mountain. We found Dzongsar Khyentse doing a practice on a grassy outcropping above the Asura cave monastery, with Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche by his side. Happening upon such high lamas in this way would be totally inconceivable in Australia; it was clear I wasn't in Kansas anymore.

Dzongsar Khyentse & Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche with monks

Classes began the next day. My beginner's Tibetan class runs from 8.30am -9.30am, 6 mornings a week. It is a beautiful script. Jurek's love of the language really comes across to the students. We are receiving an introduction to the classical literal aspect of the Tibetan language. We won't be able to speak Tibetan for a few years unless we do the translator training at Namdroling monastery in India. We have just translated, from Tibetan into English, a story (that reads like an acid trip) about a king, a princess, and a giant rabbit, who apparently doesn't need money since his ears are so big and white. Next we'll move on to Gampopa's Jewel Ornament of Liberation, which I am excited about. I have wanted to get stuck into translating a Dharma text since learning more about the Buddhist Literary Heritage Project from Adam Pearcey.

Adam, Rigpa's Shedra Director, spoke to us about the issues surrounding the translation of the Buddhadharma into European languages, and Rigpa's potential role in this process. Adam speaks with such clarity and precision that the talk was enjoyable in itself – I want to be just like him when I grow up. More importantly, the information lent gravity and excitement to taking part in the shedra programme. The translation project is massive, and it will be crucial to the flourishing of the Buddhist tradition in the West. A similar process took place when Buddhism was translated from the Sanskrit (and Pali) languages into Tibetan; now the same process is happening in our lifetime!

The text class runs from 10am – 12pm, 6 days a week. We receive teachings from Khenpo Sonam Tobden on Maitreya's Ornament of Clear Realization. We are using Mipham Rinpoche's White Lotus Garland-commentary: 'A commentary in the form of pith instructions on the transcendent perfection of wisdom called the Ornament of Clear Realization.' It expands upon the meaning of the original text, transmitted from the future Buddha Maitreya to the 5th century Indian master, Asanga. It is an amazing text, explaining the entire path to Buddhahood. It has helped me understand more about who Sogyal Rinpoche is, and the preciousness of his teachings.

Khenpo Sonam Tobden with translator Stefan Eckel

After the text class we have lunch and free time until our clarification class from 3.45pm – 5.00pm, 5 days a week. This class really keeps you from getting lost amidst a jungle of unfamiliar terminology and concepts. Damien, our teacher, has a real interest in helping students progress on their path. We are encouraged to memorize the main points of each day's teaching during the lunch break. This allows us to revise and discuss the teaching without referring to our notes, and trains us in remembering the teachings in general. We have also started learning the Tibetan style of debate. The purpose is to expose the gaps in your understanding, and strengthen the links between the many seemingly disparate philosophical concepts that compose the Buddhist view. It can be very fun as long as your head doesn't explode.

Then at the end of each day we practice Riwo Sangchö and Tendrel Nyesel Tsok in the incredibly beautiful temple which sits several metres from our doorstep. It's great to gather together as a sangha at the end of each day. From then it's just chatting over dinner and personal study and practice in our rooms until bed. You really have to study or you will not keep up.

The weekends provide an opportunity to explore the surrounding area, which has many beautiful and sacred monasteries and retreat centres. A few weeks into our studies, a group of us, along with Khenpo-la, hiked to the top of a tall mountain nearby, where you can get outrageously overpriced food and drink at Hatibaan restaurant. To keep us entertained while climbing, Damien pumped everyone up into a brainstorming frenzy, trying to think of possible names for the new shedra blog. Some sparkled with literary genius and others fell short. I thought 'Shitfaced on Wisdom' had a lot to offer, but despite it's plebeian charm, it didn't reach the shortlist.

The weekends are also a chance to visit Kathmandu. At the beginning of February the whole shedra attended Khenchen Appey Rinpoche's cremation ceremony in Boudha; he was a tutor to Sogyal Rinpoche. We arrived in Kathmandu the day before, since the ceremony would take place early the next morning, and a few of us played a full court basketball game against some boys from a school in Boudha. Trying to keep up with these kids was such a shock to the system, I had to concentrate on not vomiting blood for the duration. Even better was the massive audience we weren't impressing, even with our skills of being really tall.

Four high lamas from the Sakya tradition presided over the cremation ceremony the next day, most notably His Holiness Sakya Trizin. As the ceremony progressed, I read a teaching by Khenpo Appey entitled 'The Importance of Studying the Buddhadharma.' It helped me understand the significance and rarity of this master the world was saying goodbye to. We prayed for his swift rebirth.

His Holiness Sakya Trizin during the cremation ceremony

Soon after the shedra began, we were asked about our motivation. Why were we here? What did we want from this time? Setting aside my deepest wish to be quickly, simply, and painlessly zapped into wisdom and clarity, I wanted an environment that increased my capacity for study and practice. This is definitely happening. I am being pushed to my limits, and my familiar distractions and escape routes are unavailable. I have been forced to keep going despite experiencing frustration and despair; I am learning to accept these feelings without turning away. The shedra has allowed me to sharpen my mind and deepen my understanding, and I am achieving more than I thought I was capable of. It is unfamiliar but exciting territory.

Story by Aaron Coote, Photos by Jurek Schreiner.

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