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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.

imgp2593_fullshrine_md

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.

The visualised dissolution of one’s own “stuff” (in the Mandala offering, for instance) can’t compare with the kind of yanking-away of the familiar which comes with prison or any other kind of involuntary confinement.

Having spent about a year and a half myself behind bars (for taking a strong stand on behalf of black guys whose lives were being treated as expendable… at a time when I myself didn’t have to do military service due to being blind in one eye), I can vouch for the shift of view which comes with imprisonment.

It is not terrible – but certainly in some regimes it can be made much worse if one is tortured or berated daily for one’s beliefs. I was mostly left alone in that regard, and actually formed a resolve there to adopt Buddhist practice.

I now have a personal friend in Tibetan China who is not, apparently, so fortunate. I’m not exactly sure how bad the situation has become for her, but my “sense of things” is that she is cut off from family, subjected to intense re-education, and quite probably physically removed from familiar surroundings. I am told by Tibetans familiar with the culture of subservience under Chinese masters that I should leave the situation alone. And that it will iron itself out.

That very well may be. My friend is strong, resilient, a devoted Buddhist practitioner and knows how to survive in adverse circumstances.

Yet I think it perhaps going a bit far to “leave it alone.” Besides doing my quiet best to discretely inquire about her well being, and send her good wishes and encouragement, I also do chöd on her behalf.

There are times I can fully believe that what I diminish in attachment toward myself adds, somehow, to the energetic nourishment of all other beings who struggle with conceptual and real boundaries to their freedom. May it be so.

I invite other practitioners to similarly offer their chöd outcomes on behalf of Tibetan Buddhists under watch or confinement by security forces inside China.

My gratitude for chöd training and drum from Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche.

My gratitude for chöd training and drum from Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche.

tiny tea set

 

It’s just a gentle cup of tea.

It’s not easy to keep track… nowadays… of all the places, people, animals, environments and situations affected by every item of food and drink we take into our bodies.  

Isn’t that true?

tea picking - Rwanda

tea picking - Rwanda

I thought about this more a few years back, after I saw a stunning close-up Sebastião Salgado photograph of the hands of a Rwandan tea-picker.   A tea-picker… who undoubtedly was the second or third, maybe even the fourth generation in his or her family to have been stripped of land, and forced to labour for the contractors of absentee owners – now living in some distant European, Asian or American country.  

Looking closer, you see that the hands extended towards the camera were bloodied with numerous small cuts, almost like the paper-cuts we encounter occasionally in our offices… cuts made by the jagged edges of the leaves.   For tea… for the tea used in our benign and genteel Buddhist ceremonies of “no harm” and gracious hospitality.

So what does this all mean, exactly, then – to dedicate fully one’s drink or one’s meal?  

I guessed there could be a way to at least partially acknowledge everything that and everyone who transpired (and perhaps expired) before the fork-full or gulp hits our mouths.  So looking at a bunch of Tibetan meal-time prayers, and getting the gist of what I was hoping to do, in 2004 I came up with a prayer of my own.

Here it is:

 

This wealth of nourishment before me has been blessed, created, energized and transported to me by many beings.  

Those beings and energies grew, ripened, grew tired and grew older, and were compromised to bring sustenance to my table and my mouth.

May I be mindful of these blessings, and be thankful to those beings and resources who have been worked and been taken from to contribute to my life.

May all that I take into myself be joyfully transformed by my thoughts, my words and my actions for the benefit of all sentient beings.

May my teachers be equally or better nourished, be protected from harm, and be surrounded by attentive and caring students.

 

That should do it.   For a little more about tea-picking, see here.

salgado_teapickershands Salgado – “Tea Picker’s Hands”

June 2017
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