- Shaw, Miranda. Buddhist Goddesses of India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Entry into the Sacred
(Part I Pilgrimage to Nepal and Tibet)
Pilgrimage is a powerful thing. The word itself evokes a serious intention travel with a focus the goal of spiritual evolution rather than intellectual pleasure, quite apart from sensual or ego gratification.
I had never thought I would go to Tibet in this lifetime; it seemed too hard and probably too sad since the Chinese invasion. Yet when the email came from Tsultrim Allione's Tara Mandala Center at Pagosa Springs, Colorado, I signed up within five minutes of reading the message. Without knowing how it could happen, I knew I needed to go on this particular trip that would focus on seeking out the lineage of Machig Lapdron. This Tibetan yogini invented the Chöd practice that has informed my life since I was thirty years old.
I sent out a plea for support to the 2,000 names on my email list, and more than fifty people responded with generous contributions that made my travel possible. Thank you, All!
The concept of camping in Tibet and possibly sleeping in caves conjured up immediate challenges: Will I get sick? Am I strong enough? Can I handle the altitude? The Himalayas are higher than anywhere else in the world. My only other significant experience of high altitudes, a visit to Cuzco in Andean Peru, although challenging enough, didn't even compare. And I'm not even a camper I prefer hotels with bathtubs and flush toilets. But Machig's legacy the famous Chöd ritual is based on meditating in "scary places" to confront and subdue our deepest fears. Chöd means "to cut" and the fundamental idea in the practice is to cut our illusions (fears and doubts) at the root, which means especially our self-cherishing and clinging to our bodies. In this context, why not (at the ripe age of 60) go to Tibet to climb the mountains and visit the caves where fearless yoginis are known to have meditated in the past?
Our amazing guides were Tsultrim Allione and Jerome Edou. The thirty participants on the trip were all students of Tsultrim's from over the years and were required to have done at least one Chöd retreat with her. This shared affinity made for a very unified group in which there were almost no serious complaints and very little group friction. Apparently Buddhist practice really does pay off in terms of reducing conflict in a group!
Our meeting point and first stop was Kathmandu, Nepal, a bustling metropolis of Buddhists, Hindus, and animists co-existing in a delightfully chaotic urban mix. The group stayed for five days in the Sechen Guest House (connected to the Sechen Monastery) near the Bodhnath Stupa on the eastern outskirts of Kathmandu. With hundreds of Tibetan refugees, we circumambulated the Stupa daily, turning hundreds of prayer wheels along the way around the base of the structure. We also went in the early morning to do our Chöd practice, to the puzzlement and delight of numerous Tibetans and Nepalis who watched us chanting and playing our drums and bells.
This immersion into the daily devotional life of Tibetans living in Kathmandu set the tone for our entire pilgrimage, which mostly involved visiting monasteries (and sometimes nunneries) where Tibetan Lamas welcomed us and gave us teachings, practices, and empowerments. All this direct contact and profound experience was largely the result of Tsultrim Allione's "good karma" and the powerful links that she has cultivated by a lifetime of dedication, ardent practice, and sustained teaching of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Without denying our own "good karma," I must say it felt as if we were holding onto Tsultrim's coattails and being carried gloriously along from one auspicious meeting to the next. Wonderful, unexpected, and beautiful experiences unfolded again and again in synchronous and magical detail, such as the day we visited the Prajnaparamita Temple in the Patan district of Kathmandu.
Prajnaparamita, known as the "Mother of the Buddhas" and "Mother of Knowledge," is basically the Great Mother. She is called the "Perfection of Wisdom" and considered to be the "highest metaphysical principle envisioned as a cosmic female," in the words of Miranda Shaw in her wonderful new book, Buddhist Goddesses of India. (166) "Perfection of Wisdom literature exalts Prajnaparamita as the highest object of refuge and wisdom," according to Shaw, and this "veneration of Prajnaparamita supersedes that of Buddhas, because she is the 'real eminent cause and condition' of Buddhas' omniscience." (169)
In Tibet Prajnaparamita is "the 'inexhaustible storehouse' of truth that is given voice by all Buddhas of the past, present, and future," and her living embodiment is Machig Lapdron, our famous yogini whose lineage we hoped to discover on this pilgrimage. But perhaps more explicitly, Prajnaparamita refers to a sacred scripture or text called Perfection of Wisdom, and her development of the Chöd is believed to be based on Machig's readings of the Prajnaparamita. The earliest images and dated literary descriptions of Prajnaparamita depict her carrying a manuscript which "merits ritual worship" according to commentators, including that a person "should honour, revere, adore and worship it, with flowers, incense, scents, wreaths, unguents, aromatic powders, strips of cloth, parasols, banners, bells, flags, and rows of lamps all round, and with manifold kinds of worship." (171)
The day our group entered the Prajnaparamita Temple in Patan, we were surprised and delighted to find a group of men painstakingly engaged in careful restoration of a text of the 8,000-line Perfect Wisdom scripture. The 13th-century sacred text normally the kind of thing most of us would never get to see, or at best would be locked behind glass was out in plain sight on a small table covered with a simple red cloth. As our group surrounded the men and watched them painting tiny letters in delicate gold leaf on black handmade paper using special brushes, Tsultrim began to lead us in the Prajnaparamita mantra: Om Gate Gate, Paragate, Para Sam Gate, Bodhi Svaha. The haunting chant took on a completely new resonance for me (and I think for all of us) in this context and soon we were riveted in a profound devotional unity that included the workmen, our group, and all passers-by. Even some Catholic nuns stopped to watch and joined in with us.
I personally experienced an epiphany during the singing, wherein I felt that Buddhism itself anchored in Tibet in the 8th century must have originated as this bittersweet song of love and remembrance to the Goddess religion that had preceded it for so many millennia. The research I have done over two decades, which includes all the recent histories being developed by Tibetan Lamas and scholars and translated to English, suggests that there was meaningful cultural contact between East and West for many thousands of years (at least since 2000 BCE and probably earlier) across the various trade routes we have come to call the "Silk Road." And in this early and sustained contact, the female shaman priestesses were absolutely central. Their magical healing practices and worship of the Great Mother were shared and expressed in similar ways by the "Priestesses" in African Egypt, the "Maenads" of the Mediterranean region, the "Amazons" of Central Asia, and the "Yoginis" of India and Tibet. "OM, gone, gone, all gone; totally all gone," is a (loose) translation of the famous chant a swan song in my mind, celebrating what I now see as both ending and beginning, an unbroken and never-ending circle of devotion to the Mother of All Things.
Before we left the temple that morning, we were allowed the unbelievable privilege of looking at, touching, and photographing the sacred text. Shaw points out that this particular "lavish" text in Patan is especially famed for its ability to cure illness, and that stories "abound of remarkable cures and divine interventions secured through the ritual reading or worship of the text or even through a vow to undertake such an observance." (183)
Normally, during the major ritual occasions in which the text might be brought out into the courtyard of the temple, a priest would officiate. In our case, one of the painters as a tender joke, perhaps, in the beginning offered to bless one of our members by placing pages of the book on her head. Not surprisingly, that started a quasi-formal ritual in which we lined up and each knelt to be blessed with the Prajnaparamita in book form. It was a holy moment, the auspiciousness of which was recognized by everyone in our group, and we left generous donations to help with the reconstruction of the marvelous and blessed book. As Tsultrim pointed out later, the "coincidence" of our happening to arrive there at precisely the time of the restoration process was amazing, since we'd have missed it if we'd arrived two or three days in either direction or even one or two hours later that day. Instead the experience remains one of the most memorable and remarkable of our month-long journey.
The song of Prajnaparamita has transformed in my mind and is with me now in a very new and living way. Shaw says, "Prajnaparamita is also embodied by a mantra, or magical incantation that invokes her divine energies. Mantra recitation establishes a relationship with the goddess and awakens transcendent wisdom within the practitioner's mindstream." (180) Her mantra is believed to protect against tangible dangers: "Those who intone the mantra, the scripture promises, will be free from disease, will not die a violent death, and are assured of an auspicious rebirth The mantra confers all virtues, all spiritual perfections, and full awakening." (181) I've been a natural healer and Goddess-worshiper for the last thirty years, and the experience at the Prajnaparamita Temple touched my heart in a way I couldn't have imagined before the trip. That day proved a perfect gateway into the rest of our pilgrimage.
To be continued in the Samhain 2007 Issue