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By the following day, nearly fifty people were present to receive the empowerment. In my limited understanding, an empowerment is an initiation or sacred permission to do a specific practice, which a Tibetan lama, usually the retreat (vajra) master, bestows on a group of people. In this case, we received the Royal Lineage of Chenrezig empowerment, dating back to the first major Buddhist King of Tibet – Tsongsen Gampo, from the 8th century (I think this is accurate but please don’t quote me). Chenrezig is the Buddha of Compassion and Skillful Means and his mantra is OM MANI PADME HUNG HRI. Somehow this empowerment lasted nearly four hours. It ended and we had lunch – Indian food brought up the mountain from town. We had a couple of meetings to discuss the rules or conduct for the retreat and to answer our burning questions. We also signed up for various jobs which we would be responsible for once the retreat got under way – like cooking, cleaning, tea water refreshing, bathroom duty, etc. Then we “established our seats.” This is a custom in Tibet, when they do this retreat, they do a little primer or short practice of what is to come. That evening, we had the last free time we would enjoy for the next seven days.
On Sunday morning, at seven am we began the practice. There was a long prayer
we would recite several times a day, plus we would do dedication and opening prayers when appropriate, but for the most part, we chanted the mantra (see above) around the clock. Upon reflection, I realized that at this retreat, someone who was dedicated and desired to sit on their cushion as much as possible could have easily done so for 18 hours a day. Even those retreatants who were sick or wanted to take more frequent breaks still probably got 12 to 15 hours. This retreat was definitely intense, to say the least. There was a melody we chanted for the day time and then several variations at night. We were very blessed to have a Khenpo present from the main monastery in Tibet, Drikung Thil, as he led us through the chants and the prayers. Khenpo Chophel that is. Actually, he was the Umze or Chant Master of Drikung Thil, so we were even more blessed to have those specific sacred melodies which have been handed down from Chant Master teacher to student for 800 years.
The typical schedule was as such: 6 to 6:30 am – everyone chanting then taking turns eating breakfast. 7:30 to 9:30 am Chanting then tea break. 10 am to noon chanting. For lunch one half of the room would go first and then switch. 1 to 3 pm and 3:30 to 5:30 pm opening prayers, chanting and closing prayers. At seven pm the “night practice” would start, with the lamas chanting separate prayers while we chanted the mantra. We rotated in three shifts – the first group chanted from 7 to 11:30 pm then slept, the second group chanted from 11 pm to 2:30 am and hopefully slept before and after their shift and the third group chanted from 2 to 6 am with the option to take a short nap after breakfast if needed.
We did this routine for six days straight. Can you imagine? There are many words to describe the zombie-like, euphoric, flowing rhythms which wove their way through the group. We were all sleep deprived, not the least of which the lamas – as they did so much. It turns out that they had to be present for specific prayers from 7 to 8:30 pm, from 11 to 11:30 pm and from 2 to 2:30 AM. Plus they were nearly always present during the daylight hours. So much for a full night’s rest! We are so blessed to be able to attend these precious teachers!
On a side note, the night shift reminded me a bit of my time in the military (I was in the Army Reserves for four years), in that we would take turns on fire duty or night watch. Someone was always (supposed to be) vigilant. In this context of a Buddhist retreat, I think the underlying motivation is drastically different. But see my later posts for more on the military / Buddhism connection.