My thoughts and activities in Dharamsala

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The True MCees

I would not have guessed how this puja that I have attended at the Tsechen Tenpai Gatsal Shedup Chokhorling Monastery a.k.a Sakya Centre for the pass eleven days would have culminated the way that it did. To correct myself from my last blog post, the name of the puja is called Dorje Phurpa in Tibetan and Vajrakilaya (see picture) in Sanskrit, both meaning literally something like "Invincible Thunderbolt Dagger". There was not too much that I was able to find regarding Vajrakilaya on the net, but there was a scholar who attended the puja who is currently doing extensive research on it. This man's name is Stephen K. Hayes and he turned out to be a quite interesting guy with some hardcore martial arts experience. From what I have gathering from him, he helped with the security for HHDL when he traveled around the middle United States in the 1990's. He was extremely impressed with HHDL during the time that he had spent around him and it seems like that is how he got involved in this whole business. It also turned out that he has been to Berea when HHDL visited in 1994 and remembers Berea distinctly. He was quite surprised to know that Dagmo Kusho la had also attended Berea College. Stephen is also making a documentary film about the pilgrimage of some monks from Pokhara, Nepal from a monastery called Pematsal (not sure on the correct spelling). These monks received an audience from H.H. Sakya Trizin and participated in the Vajrakilaya puja.

The first day of the puja was the 3rd of September or the 10th day of the 7th month of the Tibetan lunar calendar. It went on until the 13th of September or the 21st day of the 7th month of the Tibetan lunar calendar. The first day it started at 2 o'clock in the morning with H.H. Sakya Trizin and His Eminence Ratna Vajra Rinpoche his eldest sons and future Sakya throne holder and H.E. Gyana Vajra Rinpoche his youngest son. H.H. Sakya Trizin is seated toward the back of the temple on a high throne with a huge shiny statue of Shakyamuni Buddha behind him. On his left seated on a lower throne was H.E. Gyana Vajra Rinpoche and on his right was H.E. Ratna Vajra Rinpoche. This puja is special from this lineage which is said to have been performed unbrokenly for hundreds of years. The Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism unlike the other sects (Geluk, Kagyu, and Nyingma) use a hereditary lineage system passed on from father to eldest son for the head of their sect. The others use a reincarnation lineage system. Thus with that in mind this family trio's blood goes back for hundreds of years.

So in front of them seated perpendicular from the thrones are about 144 monks, who have memorized or are suppose to have memorized the entire ritual. It is truly quite amazing to watch some of them reciting these long texts with out a book in sight. At this particular puja, the monks of the various class levels are tested on their knowledge of the puja. Class VI are tested on the memorization of the entire Vajrakilaya text and class VII are tested as the chant master which is taken in turns and class VIII are tested on ritual music, torma making, and the making of sand mandalas. Some of them did better than others.

It was not my intention to attend the puja regularly, but it drew on me. I actually enjoyed it, while I know that most folks will have been bored out of their minds by the first 30 minutes. Some of the chant masters were very confident and totally rocked out, while others were a bit shy to say the least. Then not only did they memorized the Vajrakilaya text, but they had to do the Mahakala puja, which is the protector deity of the Sakya sect and this puja must be done everyday at all Sakya monasteries. Also all the various hand gestures called mudras in Sanskrit accompanied all this. There was music, big huge bassy horns (Dungchen) that are feet long, a oboe type instrument called the Gyaling that is high pitched and in which the player use circular breathing to sustain playing for long periods of time, short horns, conch shells, tons of drum that are played with a curved stick and is what the chant master leads the chants with. And to my surprise they have very specific drum rhythms for the all the various chants. There were two huge bass drums, and tons of cymbals with specific techniques in how to play them. H.E. Gyana Vajra Rinpoche was the main ritual master or to use the modern term M.C., Master of Ceremonies, leading with his damaru, small hand held double-headed drum. He was the man running the show.

This is such an elaborate puja with subtleties that I am not aware of and don't have the room or time to describe in this post. For me it was such a pleasure to witness it. Every single thing done had a complex meaning behind it. I was continually amazed at the detail that has to be taken and it took 11 days to finish with one hard core schedule. The first day was from 2am to 7am and then from 9am to 12pm. The rest of the days, it started at 6am to 11:45am and then from 1:45pm to 5pm and on special days an extra 2 hours were added on, making it 5pm to 7pm. As for me, I was aching by sitting or more like trying to attempt to sit cross-legged for that long. For the Rinpoches and the monks it was not a problem since they have been doing it since they were very young. After awhile I started to think of the Shakira song, "Hips don't lie", for my hips were not lying, they were in pain along with my thighs, knees, and ankles. Every morning I was woken up by the sound of conch shells blown by monks on the roof of the monastery to announce the start of the puja.

After a while the chants started to stick to me, though I couldn't understand what they were saying and some of the drum rhythms were easy enough for me to catch on to. Even now these chants and rhythms run through my head. Sakya monks are not the ones who chant using the deep overtone throat singing technique that most people associate with Tibetan religious chanting, but with the chanting that they did overtones were produced and are quite prominent. I often found myself listening to the rhythms of the overtones against the fundamental tones; those overtones resonated throughout the temple with a seemingly aerial source of origination.

On a side note, my Tibetan Tutor Pema from McLeod Ganj son lives in the Dekyiling Tibetan Settlement near by, and I ran into him at the monastery and he invited me over to his place for dinner a few nights ago. There at his apartment he had a guest who was in a Chinese prison in Tibet for three years accused of "Hitting a Chinese policeman with an iron bar and orchestrating splittist against the Motherland in Lhasa, Tibet" by the Chinese government. This man is a monk from Ganden Monastery named the Venerable Bagdro. He wrote a book called A Hell on Earth in which he describes in detail some of the torture that he went through and I tell you that it was some pretty gruesome and gory stuff. Anyway, right before our meal, Ven. Bagdro blessed the food with that deep Tibetan overtone chanting. It was so strong that the filling in my tooth and my eyeballs vibrated from its resonance. It is interesting that I met him here in Dehra Dun for I have seen him tons of times cruising the streets of McLeod Ganj.

So back to the puja, another thing that surprised me was that considering that there are three high lamas, and about 144 monks chanting away with the chant master using a microphone, and some 40 odd drums, 40 cymbals, 2 huge horns, 2 huge drums, 4 conch shells and various other instruments and sometimes all playing at the same time. There was never a point that it was too loud. With all the noise that was being produced it was never unbearable. Shoot!! I have been in nightclubs where after a night of "gettin' yo freak on"; one can't hear nothing for days afterwards. I told Stephen that not even the Rolling Stones or Metallica got anything on these monks, chanting sometimes 10 or more hours a day with drums and cymbals!!

H.H. Sakya Trizin was only there for certain days, especially for the first and last day, and sometimes with H.E. Ratna Vajra Rinpoche. The entire puja was led like I said by H.E. Gyana Vajra Rinpoche.

A sand mandala was created before the first day and in it were placed several daggers (Phurba in Tibetan) making it three dimensional. Also ritual sculptures (Torma) made from barley flour (Tsampa) and colored with colored butter was created. At the end, the torma was destroyed and so was the sand mandala and then the phurbas are used to bless people with them.

The folks from the Palace of H.H. Sakya Trizin (Dolma Phodrang or Tara's Palace) and the monks were telling me that thousands of Tibetans come from all over to receive this blessing from the daggers. For as far as I have understood, Vajrakilaya is suppose to destroy ones preconceived notions of reality. What the temple used to do was to have persons get the blessing one by one with the head lama placing the numerous phurbas on the heads of the faithful. But due to the amount of phurbas, which are also many and quite heavy and with one huge mama phurba that is placed in the middle of the mandala, what the Sakya monastery have devised was a tall table in which all the phurbas are placed on top of it and the people can pass underneath it to receive its blessing.

Previous to this, there was the destruction of the torma sculptures on the roof of the monastery and then the destruction of the sand mandala. At this moment when the mandala is being destroyed, the energy level inside the temple and outside became extremely electric. As the phurbas were taken off of the mandala and before they were placed on the tall table the monks who were to place them on the table, first went to all the monks and quickly placed the phurbas on everyone's forehead including mine. It is hard for me to describe this kind of energy; it was a bit on the frantic side for also the music that was playing now at this point was climatic. A finally afterwards, that huge mama phurba had been placed on all our heads and then placed on the table and the people waiting outside were allowed to walk underneath it. What happened next was pretty intense. Below the temple steps they had built a wooden gate to keep crowd control and there was also security personnel stationed there, but with the thousands of people there in front of them and with one way up and one way down, well at least initially, it was difficult from them to have ultimate control. Eventually, the crowds were starting to push and shove at each other. Some of the monks were telling me that in the pass more people used to come. From where I was sitting close to the phurba table with some monks, I could see how all the people squeezed together were all moving in sync and oscillating form one side to the other like a wave. I even heard several screams of pain from being mashed.

Once some people made it up on to the stairs they started hauling children over the side railing of the stairs. Little babies and children were just being picked up and thus bypassing the security guards. I felt sorry for the security guards for all they could do was just watch since they had thousands of peoples in front of them shoving to get in.

At the phurba table, one girl had gotten sick and totally passed out right on the floor. Even a few hours later she was still in pretty bad shape. She might have been dehydrated or suffered from a heat stroke. Some of the monks told me that is was "Jib ki Na Tsha" which means something like when tons of ones previous karma is burned up in an instant due to a powerful cleansing force and the person is not ready for such power, in this case being the power of the phurbas. Now I see why the monks called this day "wang" power.

As the people walked under the phurba table, they all placed silk offering scarves (katak) on the table. Some placed money and many touched their heads on to the table or on the phurbas themselves if they could reach it. Others placed theirs prayer beads on the phurbas. Initially there were tons of people coming through. This phurba table was placed right outside the door to the main temple as inside the end of the puja was happening. The three Sakya Rinpoches were on their thrones while orange marigolds were dispersed throughout the temple.

I had even ran into my previous host brother, Tenzin Tashi from my home stay in McLeod Ganj, who is attending nursing school in Dehra Dun. It was great to see him.

All in all, this moment was just as intense though in a different way as was the full moon night at the Amaravati stupa at the Kalachakra empowerment in Andhra Pradesh, South India.

Throughout all the time that I have spent here at the monastery I have befriended many of the monks. There are some very adorable younger monks. I saw some of them today walking to His Holiness' palace and I asked them how old they were. The youngest one of this group was six years old. The youngest that I have seen by far was about four years old. A lot of the monks come from Nepal; some of them are from Tibetan ancestry or are Tibetan, Nepali or Indian. I even think that the "Buddha Boy" Ram Bahadur was a monk at this monastery. There was a Mongolian monk here and there is a guy from Taiwan or Singapore who is about to become a monk.

I have spoken with many of them. They are very curious over me, especially with my curly hair and the uni-dread that I now don. There were many times when I would be sitting on a bench at the monastery waiting for the afternoon puja to start after lunch to find myself totally surrounded by a bunch of monks of different sizes. They have given my various nicknames like, "hip hop", "Bob Marley", and my favorite "inji nakpo sempa karpo" which means something like "Black Westerner with a white heart". For all the monks who have dark skinned either, Nepali or Indian, they called them, "Gyagar mi nakpo" or "Nepali mi nakpo", Indian black man and Nepali Black man respectfully.

Many of them like hip hop so they always requested me to rap or sing a song. They even got me to sing a Tibetan song, well only the chorus (since was all that I knew). At this they laughed so hard. This particular song, I do not really like for it is a bit on the cheesy side to say to least, but it is rather popular. I have heard it so many times in McLeod Ganj that the chorus was easy to catch. The chorus in Tibetan goes, "Nyamdu Tro, Nyamdu Tro, Nyamdu Tro, Nga dang Nyamdu tro" which translates something like, "We go together, We go together, We go together, me and you go together". It can drive a brother nuts. My friend Wangyal, who was living in McLeod Ganj, totally does not like this artist's was of singing for he puts some kind of effects on his voice. I knew another song from this artist, Phurbu T. Namgyal, called I think "Jampa Dolma la" and Wangyal told me that I shouldn't learn such crappy Tibetan songs. This artist lives in the US and the monks were joking with me saying that in India he is known as a singer, but in the states he is probably scrubbing toilets!!

I have been having a lot of fun with these monks; they just crack me up in so many different aspects. They tried to get me to play soccer with them one day. I can't play soccer. I met up with some of them and we walked over to the Dekyiling Tibetan Settlement's soccer field. When we arrived, there were some Tibetan guys chatting away. They suddenly stopped and starring looking at me. The monks had told them that I was going to be their new goalie!!! since we were also conversing in Tibetan that caused them to give me some bewildering looks. After the game, which I did not play, on the way back to the monastery, I explained some things that they have asked me questions about the US. Terrorism, 9-11, trash in the country side, how black people ended up in the US, and the like. Many of these monks are extremely bright and mature, but in their education system they do not receive the world knowledge as other Tibetan who attends TCV, or other schools do. For example, a Tibetan who attended TCV at the age of 6, by the time that they are 20 years old will speak near fluent English, but more than likely their Tibetan will be rather poor in the literary field. On the other hand, a monk who is placed into a monastery at the same age as the TCV kid, by the time they reach 20 years old might not know English at all or very brokenly, but they will have full command over the Tibetan language. This I have also noticed with many of the monks that I have met in McLeod Ganj.

The monastery does have English teachers, but according to Dagmo Kusho la and some of the monks, they not that good, and the classes are mainly for the younger monks only. Dagmo Kusho la had spoken to H.E. Gyana Vajra Rinpoche about me teaching an English class during my stay but it seems that he was not in favor of this due to the fact that they already have English teachers. So Dagmo Kusho la asked me if I could help Ngawang, one of the servants of the Dolma Phodrang, with his English instead. I have been helping him for the pass few days now.

I was able to get an audience with H.H. Sakya Trizin which was a highlight for me and I was able to ask him some question pertinent on my mind.

Now, my time in India is almost up. September 9th made it one full year that I have been in India, September 11th of course you know. I fly out of New Delhi on the 24th of September. This will be the last blog entry that I will write in India. I have received confirmation from Sarah College for Higher Tibetan Studies for their next year Tibetan language course, so the raising of funds for this course will be the next goal for me. I have to say thanks to all those who have supported me financially and morally for my trip to India to live with Tibetan refugees. Because of this trip I have found something that I truly enjoy and want to study for the rest of my life. My life is owned to you: my Berea College Asian Studies Advisor Dr. Jeffrey L. Richey, Berea College President Larry Shinn, Dr. David Porter, Alina and Jim Strand, Berea Friends Meeting, Pastor Kent Gilbert and the congregation of Union Church, My loving parents Anthony and Otilia Naidoo, all my friends and classmates from Berea College, with especial gratefulness to all the Tibetans students that I have befriended since being admitted to Berea and for sparking my interest in many different aspects of Tibetan Culture. To Kalden aka Dagmo Kusho la my first Tibetan friend of many years and who have put me in Dehra Dun with great hospitality from the Dolma Phodrang. To Tsering Ten who first taught me the Tibetan alphabet and sparked my love for the Tibetan language. To Tenzin Palkyi, for the long walks around the soccer field dealing with my horrible Tibetan language skills, Thupten Dhondup for helping me with Tibetan conversation when he remembered to show up. To Tenzin Nangkyi and her family who hooked my up in McLeod Ganj and lastly to the Tibet Charity Multi-Education Centre for allowing me the great volunteering experience.

To all of you I send as much love as I am capable, this would not have been possible with out any of you.


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