This past Saturday was the first time I had attended His Holiness’ birthday celebration in Charlottesville (Virginia). I did not know what to expect. I have attended this event with His Holiness present in Washington DC – when he gave the Kalachakra initiation. And I have attended this event in Ladakh, India; I also blogged about that event – you can find it back in the Ladakh Pilgrimage posts.
So I knew there would be many Tibetans and that there would be a fire puja or Sang offering (offering of burnt substances). Khenpo Nawang Dorje had told me: “Oh we are going to do a quick prayer ceremony, do the smoke offering and then most people will head over to the picnic.” I did not quite believe the word ‘quick’ considering what I know about Tibetans and time management (it is precious how they embody true wisdom and compassion, but that often times does not translate to being able to manage a Western rat-race lifestyle).
Anywho, I arrived at Tashi Choeling having driven four other people – mostly students from the Tibetan Summer Language program. We were some of the first to arrive. They had been having a retreat already at the Dharma center, so there were a few practitioners there who had gotten there early to sit (I’m assuming). It took about ten to fifteen minutes for there to be around 40 people, mostly ethnic Tibetans.
Once we got started, first we offered katas to the shrine and to (a picture of) His Holiness. This was precious and sacred. Some people did prostrations as well. Then once people had done so, we chanted prayers for about ten minutes out of their prayer book (all in Tibetan U Me script). Then it was time to start the fire puja outside.
I was asked to help bring out a ladder to put up fresh prayer flags, which is always fun (I would rather be the one doing something than standing around watching it being done). While we were hanging the long strand of new flags, the others started the prayers for the Sang offering. People put dried juniper powder, roasted barley flour (tsampa), cedar branches and old katas on the fire. We took turns sprinkling water on the fire to keep it mostly smoking (low flames are okay).
Then the Tibetan children – all ages and about ten or eleven of them – sang the Tashi Delek (Auspicious Welcome) song to the shrine and His Holiness and then they sang a Tibetan version of happy birthday. And then we ate cup cakes! Yummy!
This took about two hours plus since we arrived at the center. And then we were complete there and people went home to briefly change clothes before heading out to Mint Springs – a beautiful bucolic mountain park set in the valleys West of Crozet and Charlottesville. Some of its trails go right up to the edge of the Shenandoah National Park (which is entirely in the Blue Ridge Mountains). There we set out blankets and mats and set up to have an incredibly relaxing afternoon. Some of us played some badminton while others set up the tables with food and drinks. At least forty people showed up at the park, so we had a large group. Therefore some people went swimming while others threw around a frisbee, while there were always a dozen people sitting around chatting or playing Sho – a Tibetan dice game often involving gambling.
After eating, I went in the water as it was warmer later in the afternoon. Very soothing and refreshing! There were pockets of cooler water as one went deeper, so we could determine our comfort levels by how far out we went. Then some kids started throwing around a football in the water and myself and couple other younger adults joined in to a game of water football. Note to self: if you tackle a kid in water thinking that might make them less rambunctious, then you are wrong in this line of reasoning. So long story short, I played for a while and got properly roasted in spite of having applied sun screen. But it was so worth it.
This was one of the most enjoyable days I have had in some time. I am a sensitive individual, and when everyone around me is relaxed and enjoying themselves and the beautiful scenery, then I can’t help but do the same! I am hoping to continue my connection with the Tibetan community even though I am most likely moving this fall.