During the summer of 2008, Ven. Paula Chichester and Ven. Roger Munro trekked the Scottish Highlands completing an extensive Chöd Retreat. They discuss the inspiration they received from Tsongkhapa’s ear-whispered lineage of which Chöd is a part, and also their direct experience with the powerful effects of the practice on the environment and its inhabitants. When Geshe Khenrab told them it was so powerful for developing compassion to do it, he was right it really does. Gelugpas had to do it in secret. It wasn’t something they were allowed to do in the monasteries.
The actual practice lineage includes all the practices that Lama Tsongkhapa received from Manjushri directly on how to become enlightened in one lifetime in these degenerate times. When Lama Tsongkhapa was first practicing Dharma in Tibet, when he had learned everything, he looked around and he didn’t think it was possible to still become enlightened particularly because the emptiness teachings had become slightly unclear. And also the morality was changing at the time. He was skeptical and when he finally got to talk to Manjushri directly, he asked if it’s still possible to attain enlightenment in one lifetime like we hear in the great texts. Lama Manjushri said, “Yes.” And Lama Tsongkhapa asked, “How is that?”
Lama Manjushri outlined a whole series of teachings of which the Lama Chöpa practice is the embodiment of all. It contains them all. But it also includes the three deities, extensive sadhana practice, Chöd practice, ngöndro practices – this is really what you call Lama Tsongkhapa’s practice lineage. It was originally called the Ganden Kagyu lineage, meaning this is the Ganden practice lineage. Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche explained that some of the lineages that Lama Tsongkhapa incorporated into his practice lineage came through the Kagyu lineages, but not all of them. They also came from the Sakya and even from the Nyingma. It’s called the Ganden Kagyu lineage because it’s the Ganden practice lineage
After doing Heruka retreat, I decided to take the “Dedicating the Illusory Body” Chöd text, and make it into a chantable English version. I’d already received permission from Lama Zopa Rinpoche to do that. It’s the common Ganden Chöd lineage. The one we practiced in the retreat we just finished is the uncommon Ganden Chöd lineage. The sadhanas are different and the initiations you receive and the deities you practice while you do them are a little different in the uncommon lineage.I didn’t know about the uncommon lineage at the first Dharma Celebration because Song Rinpoche taught us about the common lineage. Just after we finished the Great Retreat, we serendipitously encountered David Molk who was willing to translate the common text for us into a chantable version.
David encouraged us to come to Toronto for teachings from Khalkha Jetsun Dampa Rinpoche, who is said to be like the Dalai Lama of Mongolia. He was in Toronto at Zasep Tulku Rinpoche’s center giving the initiations and transmissions for the uncommon Ganden Chöd, which is the 108 Springs retreat. As the title implies, that involves going to one hundred and eight different springs consecutively and performing the Chöd practice at those sites. You have to be in a different place every night without interruption. Preferably it’s a spring, but it can also be a river, a lake or an ocean – somewhere there is water around.
The empowerment that enables one to do this retreat takes seven days of teachings and seven nights of going to scary places. Khalkha Jetsun Dampa Rinpoche would give initiations and teachings all day long, and then at night he would send us off to a different graveyard where we were supposed to do the Chöd practice every night. Because it was twenty degrees below zero in Toronto winter, we went instead to a different student’s house every night and did Chöd as a group all night. That’s the prerequisite and commitment to 108 Springs Retreat.
It was a very intense seven-day long retreat. There were exactly thirty-eight people, like in Vajrayogini’s body mandala (thirty seven, plus the teacher in this case). We were given teachings and initiations all morning. At sunset we would do the practice together, and from the time we left him until we saw him the next morning, we couldn’t speak. We traveled with David and Minoshi Gould. We did the practice four times in the night, the last time just before dawn. We would drive back to the center in the morning after sleeping an hour or so, and then go back to receive teachings. We slept a little in the middle of the night, but not much. We moved to Land of Medicine Buddha where we met Ribur Rinpoche, who asked us to do a Yamantaka Great Retreat to benefit the FPMT. That took eight years from the time he asked us to do it until the time we finished.
In 2005, I went to Scotland to visit my friend Ven. Angie Muir who introduced me to Thubten Dechen there, who was six at the time. We took a walk across Leckmelm Farm on Loch Broom and came across a ruin of a house which I had no idea was a clearance1 house. I didn’t know what the clearances were.Out of the blue I said to Thubten Dechen, “What’s the wind telling you?” What the wind told me was, “Come back and do the 108 Springs retreat.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Lama Zopa Rinpoche who did a mo that came out “excellent” to live, teach and retreat in Scotland.
We found out that you can camp anywhere in Scotland. There is a “right of access” law on the books that allows you to put up a tent pretty much anywhere in Scotland. You can’t drive a car anywhere, but you can walk and camp in most places. That’s one of the reasons we picked Scotland: we had access almost everywhere. There are tons of creeks and springs – lots of water. Scotland has a very powerful spiritual tradition from the Celts. As much as some people tried to beat it out of the place, it’s still there. I feel called to do spiritual practice when I am in Scotland. Last year I went to Tibet for two weeks, thanks to Ven. Robina. Afterwards I came back and went to Scotland, and I felt more inclined to do retreat there than in Tibet. Part of that might be my DNA connection with Scotland, but it’s also an extraordinary place. Physically and energetically, it’s beautiful. Despite the bad weather, I loved it. Roger has a strong connection too his family is from there. Basically, when I was at a clearance the first time, I could feel sadness there. You can also see deserted houses and hear personal stories from people about the clearances. The stories are basically about ghosts!
The practice has several parts to it. The main things you’re dealing with are gods and ghosts – the local gods and ghosts of the place, land and country. There’s a whole hierarchy in those realms – the realms of the hungry ghosts, the gods, the types of ghosts. There are different levels of health and wealth and well-being. Some of them are suffering quite a bit, and they are the ones that usually hang around scary places. They are in terrible states of suffering and don’t know they don’t have to be there.
The particular 108 Spring practices involves three different practices a day: you take possession of the ground in the name of Prajñaparamita, then you do the practices, then you satiate them by making extensive offerings to them based on your own body and the Dharma, which pacifies their delusions. With this particular retreat, every place you go, you have a certain amount of boundary stones you use for protection during the practice that you bless. When the practice is over you gather them up and request Mother Prajñaparamita to come and stay in that place in order to continue to teach and care for the gods and spirits in that place.
We got positive feedback from people wherever we went. Whenever anyone with any level of clairvoyance came around, they said they could see or feel what we were doing as we were doing it. We did the practice in a very famous castle near Loch Ness, and something definitely happened in the water. Our dear friend Victoria who came with us said she could see the naga spirits coming to us at that offering. I couldn’t see anything, but I could see a big upwelling in the place she was talking about. You can expect things like that to happen, but the most important thing is how our minds felt.
It’s called 108 Springs, but the whole retreat was 126 days. We spent seven days at the first spring, seven at the 54th spring, and seven at the last spring. We started April 1 at Shambhala Retreat Center. It was still snowing and sleeting there. The first seven days were in the yard of the center.From there we moved around during the day to springs all around and we had to stay inside at night. It was just too cold at night. Tibet is even lower latitude than Scotland. Scotland is way up there, and the sun went down at 11 pm during the summer and came up at 3 in the morning. It was like dusk all night because it never really got dark. The opposite is true in the winter, where they have long, dark nights. What happened in Scotland was even more brutal than what happened in Tibet. One hundred fifty years later and they’re still reeling. You can just feel it in the people. It has a very high suicide rate and alcoholism, and it has to do with the country’s trauma.
Post script from Ven. Paula: I’ve noticed now that I’ve been back awhile that the main impact of the Chöd retreat is that I have no desire for anything. It’s pretty interesting. I usually have little desire for stuff, but now it is really no desire for anything. In the Chöd, you spend a lot of time satisfying all beings of all their desires by offering your body and transforming it into total bliss that satisfies all beings’ wishes – and then, you offer them Dharma, which they can hear because they are satisfied. You can see then that the result would be that the practitioner becomes totally satisfied. So easy and so profound.I spoke to Roger the other day on the phone while he was out winter food shopping and he said he is feeling the same way. No desire, but plenty of bliss and void a very good retreat!
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