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While some might argue that it is entirely too formal to create a formal shrine or practice area in one’s home, I suggest that the effect is entirely beneficial.

In a family situation, having a formal area reserved for practice… and going there from time to time… becomes a comfortable signal to other family members.  “This is something I do.”   Rather than “sneak in” your practice around the edges of your life, opening a shrine and creating a quasi-formal practice environment openly declares to yourself (and others) this is for real.

ThiYour prayers, ngöndro, visualisations and chants need not be just something you do under your breath.  And sitting down to meditate in a corner chair… while family traffic flows by or near you…  may feel like the only practice you can afford.  But often-enough such practice is  in danger of being eroded by intercessions from children, shopping list questions from one’s partner, and other matters (including ringing telephones) which seemingly must be responded to.  One’s practice becomes the first sacrifice you make to a busy life, and the last to be picked up again after interruption.

Creating a special area in your house or apartment for focussed practice is a gift to yourself, to your teacher and to your practice.  Erecting a small or formal shrine table… which you “open” by making offerings as part of your practice… becomes leverage for yet more benefits through attention, intention and action.

What the shrine exactly means is entirely in your own perception.  But in general it is a visual  and  tactile mini-environment containing all the reinforcing symbols which support wherever you are, in your path.  Perhaps you can create the formal shrine with a stupa and text symbolising the never-ending presence of Buddha energy & teachings.

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Because we host Tibetan lamas here, our house shrine is fairly “traditional” and has a number of formal elements which need not appear in a typical household shrine.

Such a shrine may certainly also include a statue (rupa) of the yidam-presence you feel most attracted to, as your idealised means for self-realisation… whether the endless compassionate activities of Chenrezig/Avalokitesvara, the skillful lightning-like rising-to-the-moment of Green Tara, the discriminating cutting-through-the-dross perceptiveness of Manjusri, or the perserverance and unprejudiced open-mindedness of Sakyamuni Buddha himself… as examples.

And you may choose also to include images of favourite teachers, or other exemplars in your order or lineage of Buddhism, or of the invisible protectors whose practices may be part of your promise to yourself and your mentor/lama… your personal samaya.

The most important offering at your shrine, believe it or not, is yourself.

Your intention, your attention and your good heart are wonderful qualities.  There is a phrase in certain Drikung Kagyu texts saying, “I offer this torma.”  Torma is an energy being (or representation of such) and your present, fully-attentive self… no matter how limited you might feel sometimes… is a delightful and delighting offering.  Your attitude and your care become your offering as you prepare objects to put on your shrine such as water, fresh flowers, or a sample of good food.

The eight (or seven) shrine offerings have extensive meanings, and on many levels.  In my own tradition the 8 are: water to wash the face or cleanse the mouth; water to purify the body or wash the feet; flowers to please the eye (dried or, preferably, fresh);  incense;  “light” in the form of a candle or small lamp: scented water to please the nose; nourishment-food; and musical sound (symbolised by a small bell or string of bells, or a small replica instrument).

The symbolism is to focus your mind upon that which you can contribute… as a sign of gratefulness and humility.  So even the simplest offering… which would be 8 (or 7) bowls of clear water… can serve if you aren’t in a position to make up anything “fancy.”  Fancy-ness (or exotic-ness) is not the point.  Your clarity and gratitude are.

Offerings may be simple or complex, and can become a beacon of genuine appreciation which you engage with every day.

Offerings may be simple or complex, and can become a beacon of genuine appreciation which you engage with every day.

Whatever you offer – either just water in bowls, or a combination of elements including flowers and food – it is best if kept fresh.  Doing so can be a very meditative practice in itself… positioning the bowls, replacing the water, and keeping all surfaces clean and items dusted. Avoid “getting casual” about your actions with respect to the shrine – as the prelude to giving focussed attention to your studies and practice.

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While much can be written about offerings, their context and their symbolism, that is outside the scope of this modest essay.  I offer a link to a very clear presentation put together by students of Khandro Rinpoche, along with a discussion by my own lama, Khenchen Könchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche (presently the Master Abbot for the Drikung Kagyu lineage). http://www.khandro.net/practice_shrine.htm

In a future discussion I will try to cover this in greater detail, but for now hopefully you will be inspired to make a shrine in your own household.  I also intend to again provide an illustrated guide to the “hand offerings” or mudras.

Important Note:  The shrine stand or table, by the way, need not be at all elaborate… and can even be a cardboard box with a piece of flat gypsum board on it.  In respect, make every effort to assure that the highest level of  your shrine and its rupa statue of a Buddha energy… is higher than the eye level of a person sitting down, either on a cushion or low chair.

May all beings be happy, and know the happiness which is beyond sorrow.  And may your practice be fruitful.

During my childhood I learned from a close elder who was born in Ireland (and was herself taught the “old ways”) that a person must be attentive to the presence of sentient, invisible energies.  All one’s bounty (I was told) is only attained with the collaboration of the “invisible beings” – the ageless sidhe.

Thankful acknowledgement along with alert observation of one’s actions in the natural environment (to be sure one is not being careless or rude to “the invisibles,” and to sense their response)… are taken for granted by people raised in the “Old Faith” of Ireland.  One must stay on one’s toes, and never be ungrateful or arrogant.

©2008 Michael Cerulli Billingsley

Offering “clooties” tied to trees by a County Tipperary sacred spring.

Ireland’s old creation stories make it clear that the earliest successful settlers made a pact with the sidhe.  They promised not only to thank and acknowledge such “invisible help” in creating and providing the natural bounty that the people receive from the land, the sea, the air.  The early Irish also promised to teach their children, grandchildren and all Ireland’s future generations to maintain the same responsive, grateful relationship with the “invisible ones.”

It was hence with enormous gratitute that I discovered, when first encountering Tibetan Buddhism in my mid-20’s, that the Tibetan people (and my teachers) were also in the habit of gratefully acknowledging “the earth, water and sky beings” of the countryside, rivers and mountains.  My heart-lama and first long-term teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was an earth-healer; a master of the mo system of earth-divination; and had been instructed in the arts of rain and hail-making (by becoming self-identified with the sky beings and energies).  He also blessed farm animals and led seasonal observances of gratitude.

Trungpa Rinpoche proved to be personally fascinated with the comparable earth/sky/water-spirit practices of the Old Irish folks – people who understood intertwined-life as my grandmother did.  He respected and had plans to use my training in that work.  He involved me deeply (along with several others) in the design of his Maitri Buddha-family system of mind-healing and understanding of neurosis.  He also trained me to use my natural sensitivities in a more focussed way.  He made several visits during his lifetime to Ireland to investigate for himself.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche chose unothodox methods in order to reach and engage Western students – diverse people, most of whom were preoccupied with competitive materialism even as hippies (us even acquisitively grasping at “spiritual attainment” like a merit badge, for rising in social hierarchy).  Nonetheless I have come to understand that he was firmly grounded in traditional Tibetan methods, principles and intended outcomes.  He was not an “out-lyer” but rather a risk-taking pioneer, hoping we would catch up to the importance of the invisible world… if we could approach it humbly and respectfully rather than as a source of personal power and “oh, wow” ego entertainment.

Certainly even His Holiness the Dalai Lama, when asked what he believed was the outcome for everyone attending a teaching he had given in NYC, replied, “for invisible or for visible beings?”

The Irish have their own time-honoured means to listen to, and show respect for, the beings of the invisible such as leaving out bits of food and milk; tied-cloth offerings (clooties);  thanking out loud those beings in one’s presence who have contributed to one’s well-being; or walking 3 times clockwise around the dwelling place of the person within (be she visible or invisible) while singing their praise… as a sign of respect.

Tibetan Buddhist practice encourages altar gifts (hopefully kept fresh and well-tended) as well as offering our prostrations; mudras made with one’s hands while offering to one or another invisible yidam (a perfected spiritual quality in cogent, sentient, timeless form); and torma.  All such actions focus us to thankfully acknowledge the invisible energies inspiring us, moving about the world of beings on everyone’s behalf, and certainly “set in motion” by our visualisations and intentions.

This is the magic of our relation with the naturally-balanced universe.

Offering torma, with lamp & water offerings

Offering torma, with lamp & water offerings

Torma barley flour & butter (or, silver/gold, plasticine) sculptures attempt to directly display the true form of such energy beings… utterly foreign to the usual I-Thou “visual” world as perceived with our physical senses.  Rather, these spinning discs and columns of “invisible” pure intention and energy are seamlessly interactive in the infinite fabric of all creation – what we call the Buddha (or as the Lakota suggest, Wakan-tanka… the endless presence which cannot be known or described with words).

• • • Hopefully my limited grasp successful portrays these qualities in a non-grasping way.  I dedicate my attempt to His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche of the Drikung Kagyu.  May All Beings Be Truly Happy.

Offered by ngakpa k jigme tonpa – Michael Cerulli Billingsley, today in Brattleboro, VT, USA

When I began this intermittent blog, my first reference was to the interconnected web of actions and beneficence that accompanies us, including having food to eat during the day.  Using a photograph of tea-pickers, I wrote that no food or drink comes to our table without considerable and an equally-balancing sacrifice of energy and effort somewhere in the world.

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Since that time and similarly to before I had first-publised this Mealtime Prayer, I have spoken it aloud at least once a day… wherever I happened to be.  And the consequence has been that I’ve slowly “fine-tuned” the prayer to reduce ambiguity and to ease “seeing” the words as a tangible, energetic tribute.

So now, many months later, I pass along this refined version of our Mealtime Prayer.  It echoes and contains all the elements of traditional Tibetan mealtime prayers.  This includes 3 repetitions of “Taking Refuge” at the beginning… something not intrinsically expected of non-Buddhists (who may want to recite the dedication in the centre section, without the other Buddhist elements).

• In the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha most excellent, I take Refuge until enlightment is reached.  Through the benefit of Generousity and the other Good Deeds, may I attain Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings.

In the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha most excellent, I take Refuge until enlightment is reached.  Through the benefit of Generousity and the other Good Deeds, may I attain Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings.

In the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha most excellent, I take Refuge until enlightment is reached.  Through the benefit of Generousity and the other Good Deeds, may I attain Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings.

May the energy, effort, blessings, sacrifice and good will which created this meal and brought it here for me to eat, be transformed through my actions, words and thoughts for the benefit of all I may encounter in the coming day… or may affect in any way.

May all the teachers, lamas and lineage leaders be equally well nourished and blessed.

This dedication of food and your own actions can become part of your own thoughtful “balancing” of the otherwise disproportionate wealth and nourishment we acquire at the unavoidable expense to others.  Most Buddhist practitioners in North America and Europe are significantly better cared-for and fed than the people who provide us with our food and many household “goods.”  The expenditure of their effort cannot be truly balanced by a few words, but our connection with them is inescapable and so knowing-that becomes part of a balance.

Our frequently-repeated conceptual evocation of this relationship (and our vow to transmute the food provided us into will and effort to benefit others) will absolutely keep all this in mind, and make “guilt” an un-useful outcome.  Guilt is a closed system of self-blame.  Dedication creates an open environment for beneficial intention… which consciously engages with outcomes for the entire connected world.

We can indeed use well the sustenance we have received… especially when such is how we truly intend the energy to be re-cycled and given to others.  Like many other Buddhist prayers (such as the Four Immeasurables), when such a recitation is “perfectly” conceptualised when spoken, it has an excellent chance of becoming true.  May it likewise be so for you.

A small collection of practice & meditation objects

A small collection of practice & meditation objects

During an extended trip last year to British Columbia and also on a recent research excursion to the DC region, I knew it would help me accomplish my goals if I maintained some kind of personal “centre.” I don’t travel well, and have an especially difficult pulling up stakes & heading out the door.

Occasionally and for very good reasons, I must “go.” So it has become important for me define and provide for some kind of sacred space, wherever I travel.

Typically a sacred space is dedicated with special attention and “made special” by objects which assist with focus, practice, meditation and quiet contemplation/reading of texts. Hopefully this space is also adequately lit and ventilated, free from distracting noises (especially intermittent ones) and provides a modicum of privacy.

A sacred space can be bare. It can be spare. Or it can be crowded in amongst the objects of the situation, many of which may belong to other people – as part of their lives. Or it could be in a hotel or lodging house, where the activities of others around you may be focussed upon entertainment or business.

Certainly it is your/my own attention and focus which contributes most to the “sacred-ness” of a specially-made place. I have found that if I attempt to create a small shrine with offerings and key objects, it serves to anchor the room and also provide me with a good focus for unruffled, quiet meditation.

For myself, apart from my practice texts (which I keep off the direct floor) and a tiny gong I made for myself at age 26 from a brass incense-burner, I bring a few ritual objects (such as a dorje and bell set, a small damaru – hand drum, and perhaps my larger chöd drum) I also like to have reproductions of a couple of my favourite thangkas which have traveled with me since the ’70’s – one of Milarepa and one of Mahakali, as well as a photo of my key teaching lama. Lastly I always travel with a sweet little “sky metal” (meteoric iron) rupa… shrine statue… of Tara. Somehow this little black Tara has been a terrific focal point for my attention and motivation. Perhaps you have a similar shrine object.

A beautifully handcast Tara of meteoric iron, given to me by Ontul Rinpoche

A beautifully handcast Tara of meteoric iron, given to me by Ontul Rinpoche

My point is – make it easy for yourself to shift the energy of a borrowed space while in your temporary travel lodgings. Make it your own, and carefully pack everything which will help you focus and practice. You will have more energy and more balance for anything you might undertake.

May you succeed in finding the solution which works best for yourself.

December 2013
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