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The shrine and mandala were combined into one on this retreat. I’m not sure if this was due to the constraints of the space (making sure the Zen Center was happy with the set up) or occurred for another reason.
Garchen Rinpoche gave teachings during the morning and afternoon sessions Tues – Thurs. In one of his teachings, he mentioned that the mandala (and shrine) with all of its incredible tormas and offerings was a physical representation of the deity and he said that the tormas were actually vessels for the deities to reside in [if I am in error in this reporting of what he said, the mistake is purely my own; please pardon my afflicted mind].
Honestly, the mandala, sitting in the middle of the front of the shrine room, reminded me of an open Arc of the Covenant. The sacred space, able to be viewed and circumambulated, was very precious. I got to assist a tiny bit with keeping its candles lit, which was special. Garchen Rinpoche made an effort to circumambulate the mandala every time he entered or exited the shrine room. He also playfully and lovingly and in a feisty manner, poked and prodded the young (lay) woman who was acting as shrine attendant into walking around the mandala in the traditional clockwise fashion.
Oh, and I was informed (I did not see for myself) that there was not a sand mandala – there was only one monk prepping for this retreat and he had to spend a lot of time making the tormas. Instead, there was a picture of the Vajrakilaya mandala and phurbas (the sacred ritual stakes) were put on top of that. I arrived after the mandala had been closed and I left before it was opened.