My anticipation prior to arriving here in Pharping was huge and the Shedra, just a few weeks in, is surpassing my wildest expectations and breaking through my self-imposed limitations. I am fortified with gratitude and in awe of the preciousness this experience is presenting.
The first week greeted us with bitter cold weather and the requirement of some 'slight' adjustments to a Nepali lifestyle were all embraced with grace and good humour. We are the largest group yet to participate in a Shedra East programme. There are over forty of us, with nearly half having participated in the Three-Year Retreat and a good mix of newer and experienced Shedra students.
This year there are two classes, one studying the Bodhicharyavatara using Khenpo Kunpal's commentary and the other studying Mipham Rinpoche's commentary Essence of Clear Light on the Guhyagharba tantra. I am following the latter.
The Shedra commenced with a peaceful deities empowerment from Khenchen Namdrol Rinpoche and a tri-lung the following day. Being in the presence of Rinpoche is an intimate and powerful experience. During the empowerment session Rinpoche spontaneously announced that rather than giving the lung over one or two days, he would be granting us weekly tri-lung sessions. Rinpoche rarely teaches these days, devoting the majority of his time to study and practice; with the Guhyagharba tantra being a main focus. I pray to be worthy of these teachings because to receive teachings on this tantra from Khenchen Namdrol Rinpoche is something nobler beings than myself would dream about. Rinpoche says in his introduction to Sangye Khandro's translation of Essence of Clear Light: “When I really consider that, for most of my adult life, I have been inseparable from this profound tantra, I feel an overwhelming sense of heartfelt joy and gratitude.”
The weekly schedule is intense. Khenpo Sonam Tobden covers vast ground in each session. We're encouraged to come to class having read ahead a few times so that we already have in mind any sections which need unpacking or clarifying and Khenpo kindly answers questions at the end of sessions. Clarification class is on alternate days, when we can ask questions and discuss the text as a group. One of our names is also drawn from 'the bowl' and we have up to 15 minutes to recite the topical outline to date and then cover the main points from the teaching that morning. Initially the prospect of having my name drawn was terrifying, a test every fortnight to check our understanding even more so. I'm starting to learn that they are not just about torture and humiliation. They are in actuality skillful techniques to assist us in our studies. I am indeed studying, questioning and understanding like I have never done before.
We have 5 hours of Tibetan class each week and we're becoming quite familiar with a mysterious white rabbit, who drinks a lot of tea and hangs out with princesses on mountains. We've been told the first 4 to 5 weeks of Tibetan are the most painful; roll on week 6 and beyond! Though I do admit, I have trust in Stefan's unorthodox teaching methods; I'm determined to be reading Tibetan by the end of this Shedra.
At the end of each day we gather for group practice in the temple. It's wonderful to be part of a sangha again; to practice together, this really completes the day for me. On the first Monday at Shedra we joined Rinpoche for practice on Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche's anniversary. Practising with Rinpoche is incredibly special, it is impossible for your mind not to be transformed in this atmosphere; which is further inspired by the beautiful chanting whilst gazing at the huge Guru Rinpoche statue.
Just a few days into our schedule, the Three-Year retreatants gathered for Sogyal Rinpoche's final teaching at the Winter Retreat. It was amazing to come together at Rinpoche's feet to receive such incredible teachings. My sense of time and space was beyond concepts with all of us gathered around the world as one mandala. The five perfections were in place then, as they are now. With this transmission Rinpoche auspiciously blessed our study time here in Pharping.
I can't begin to express how blessed I feel to be here studying this wonderful commentary. I'm being stretched and I'm often encountering resistance but this experience is exactly what I need right now. In many ways this Shedra is a natural progression post Three-Year Retreat. I'm finally learning to study, with joyful enthusiasm, a text which is enriching my Dharma knowledge and practice. We are regularly receiving precious teachings from Khenchen Namdrol Rinpoche, who teaches with clarity that dispels confusion. I am continually inspired by my beautiful Sangha family. Despite the bitterly cold weather, cold water, lack of water, pollution, burning plastic and general lack of infrastructure in Nepal, I feel remarkably healthy in body and mind. I'm planning to return next year to receive further teachings on the Guhyagarbha tantra.