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Swimming through the Lion’s Mane

Once a year in Tibet, some mountain monasteries conduct very long non-stop ceremonies called Drupchen. The roots go back into the pre-Buddhist Bön religions of Tibet, but these week- sometimes month-long festivals of chanting and prayer still today create a formidable battery of energy, aimed at dispelling evil and facilitating good.

Each Drupchen honours a different ‘awareness aspect’ of the human condition, symbolized by a Tibetan yiddam or deity which represents that quality – so it might be Compassion represented by the bright-faced boy, Chenrezig, the compassionate action of Green fleet-footed Tara or the fierce protection of skull-crunching Mahakala.

In July I went up to Holy Island for a Drupchen being held there. They’re extremely rare in the West and this one was dedicated to Dorje Phurba – a particularly potent and wrathful yiddam which represents the energy that clears the Path, bashes away all the negative obstacles to enlightened activity and urges us to bold and exhilarated action. The abbot of the Scottish monastery, Samye Ling, Lama Yeshe, was advised to to hold one of these ceremonies on Holy Island and although the tried it couple of years ago, he wasn’t satisfied by the quality of the ritual – so he organized another with monks flown in from Sherab Ling monastery in Tibet, led by Dulma Choje Rinpoche, one of the highest Lamas in Tibet.

Basically – the 11-day ritual was the most complicated, intense thing I’ve ever encountered. Just the intricacy of the preparations – the coloured tormas, the flowers, the altar decorations, the organisation of the thousand pages of tibetan text – this was enough to melt the brain.

Many of the western monks and teachers – including Lama Yeshe himself – admitted that they didn’t know exactly what was going on. It was like some Gormenghast ritual that was so elaborate that no one person understood it. We all just did our part as well as possible. It took a couple of days to complete the preparations. We processed around the buildings of the Island, sealing ourselves into a ‘vajra tent’ of energy early one morning, with Rinpoche wearing the most crazily elaborate robes and sheltered by a golden umbrella.

What completely washed me away was not only the tsunami-like power of the chanting rolling over you in waves, punctuated by crashes of cymbals or long earth-wobbling wails from the ceremonial horns. Nor was it the fact that by Day Three people were able to survive on 2 or 3 hours of sleep a night, the energy building up was so intense. What really impressed me was how willful it was.

The Western mind and media would look at all this as the most elaborate waste. Thousands of pounds flying monks and lamas from Tibet? Thousands of pounds on brocade and silk, on intricately carved wooden figures and minutely detailed altar decorations? Worse still, eleven days of work – more than 250 hours of labour throw away on what? Prayers? Feel good?

What does it achieve? Who was helped? What was the point?

From a Western perspective it seemed pointless. But in the vajra tent, participating in this chaotically complex ritual – with every hand gesture choreographed and significant – there it seemed like one of the most noble things i’ve ever taken part it. The sheer bloodymindedness or the sheer devotion to this practice which clears obstabcles not only for the participants, but for the whole of Scotland, for the whole of Western Europe. That sort of faith in the practice was overwhelming.

It’s not something I necessarily have. I’ve always been on the more puritan, Zen wing of Buddhism – but I’m starting to see that there is more in the world than my little logical brain can see and appreciate. Just taking off my know-it-all hat and admitting that maybe – just maybe – these old, wise men from Tibet who have studied continuously for decades and practiced in solitary confinement for years and years – might just know something when it comes to spirituality. Imagine that! A Tibetan lama knowing more than me.

The western mind bridles completely at the idea of reverence and submission to a wiser teacher. I bristle at the idea. I am wedded to the Buddhist concept of trying everything in one’s own heart. But the problem is that so often we never give things a change to enter into our hearts to be tested because we’re so sure that they’re worthless.

This bonanza of bizarre ritual really shook me in way that my logical mind barely comprehends. It ties in very strongly with the work I’ve been doing with Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way (what a seminal book that was) which priveledges the intuitive and the natural over the thought through and technical.

And it was amplified when I swam out one evening into the inky black waters around the island and tangled myself in the poisonous tentacles of a Lion’s Mane jellyfish. This left me with the sensation of being gently brushed with nettles – and a night of extraordinary physical hallucination. The toxin goes straight to the nervous system and blinks colours aroung your nerves until 3 hours have gone by in a heightened sense of awareness. When I woke up and went to sit with the chanting monks the next morning I was feeling turned inside out by the whole experience.

At the end of the 10 days the elaborate 3-D mandala that has been built up in the main shrine room (one of 3 where the chanting goes on 24-hours a day) is cracked open, bursting full of blessing, and the benefit is shared around the vajra tent and then up over our heads into the blue sky of Ayrshire, up over Scotland and West Europe, swirling up and blasting any obstacles to goodness. The blockages that stop people being happy and keep them endarkened. It’s a magic wish but after the intensity of 10 days it explodes like a bomb of incredible power coloured with jellyfish toxin, 250 hours of chanting, mantras and magic.

I’ve been increasingly sensitive to the magic in life since the Drupchen. Lots of things have gone pear-shaped but they’ve gone beautifully pear-shaped. The idea of obstacles includes the bad karma that needs to be burned through — which might mean a slew of bad luck, ill health, catastrophe. But in the context of the wrathful Dorje Phurba (and ‘wrathful’ is such an arcane word that it can only point to the positive aspects of rage and anger) the bad becomes relative. To clear the Path, there’s a lot of weeds, soil, rocks and rubbish that is cleared to one side. Like the jellyfish sting it might seem bad but actually be beautiful.

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