The following is a paper written in fall of 2010 for an Anthropology of Religion course at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette
It was a brisk Wednesday November-night in 2010 when I entered the white house of Katog Choling Ratna Ling – the Tibetan Cultural Center in Lafayette, Louisiana – for the practicing of the Heart Sūtra – otherwise known as Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya in Sanskrit, which translates to “Heart of the Perfection of Transcendental Wisdom” in English – by the practitioners of the Nyingma tradition, the oldest of the for major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The Nyingma tradition has its origins with Padmasambhava, The Lotus Born – otherwise known as Guru Rinpoche, the Precious Teacher – to whom the Nyignmapa show respect before every meditation or practice. Guru Rinpoche is said to have been a great yogi who brought buddhism to Tibet. He is highly revered in the entirety of Tibetan Buddhism. (Amnyi N.d.)
The environment was light and friendly. Of the small group of practitioners of ages from early adulthood to middle age, all greeted my presence with a warm smile. The meditation room of the house was neat and tidy, with dim lighting. On the wall, in front of where the practitioners would be sitting, was a glass case which contained several bronze artifacts. Among them were a statue of Guru Rinpoche, the Dharma Wheel, and candles inside of Lotus shaped holders. There were tapestries on the walls emanating with bright colours the depiction of Guru Rinpoche and several other figures. On the wooden lay red cushions on which the practitioners sat during meditation. In front of each cushion were small tables upon which they placed cards containing the texts which were soon to be read.
Upon entering the room, many of the practitioners prostrate three times as a sign of respect to their teachers. They take their places on the cushions and wait several minutes before beginning. The practice begins with the reciting of the Vajra seven line prayer to Guru Ripoche as a way of invoking him for guidance and to show their respect for him. This prayer is, by many practitioners of Nyingma, recited incessantly throughout their waking hours and is considered to be the most important prayer of the tradition. This prayer is recited three times before any other prayers, meditations, or ceremonies are done. (Nepalese 2009) The prayer, like many prayers and mantras in Buddhism, is repeated in a chant like manner, the voices of the members of Katog Choling Ratna Ling harmonizing, resonating, and amplifying one another into a conglomerated sound which emanated with energy. Once the prayer has been recited three times the begin the recitation of the Vajra Guru mantra. For this one of the members removes his mala, the Buddhist prayer beads, from around his neck to count the number of recitations. This is a mantra for healing, transformation, and protection. In Sanskrit it reads: Om Am Hum Vajra Guru Padme Siddhi Hum. The great teacher Karma Lingpa, who lived in the 14th century, commented greatly on the meaning behind these. The first three syllables, Om Am Hum, are symbolic of the the vajras – the body, speech and mind. Vajra is unlimited power – wisdom which is indestructible to ignorance. Guru is a wise compassionate master of the inner and outer essences of being. Padme is the lotus, a symbol of enlightenment to Buddhists and is, according to tradition, from what Guru Rinpoche emerged after his incarnation as an eight year-old child. Siddhi is the attainment of wisdom of the Buddhas. The mantra closes on Hum, the essence of mind and spirituality. (Nepalese 2007) The mantra is repeated aloud five times before the group enters into a period of silent meditation. By virtue of the fact that he continued counting with his mala, I assume that the group was reciting the mantra silently, meditating on its meaning. After some time, they begin to recite the mantra aloud once more, again five times.
After finishing the mantra, the begin to recite a praise of the realm of sublime knowing, which then transitioned into the Heart Essence of the Perfection of Sublime Knowing, or The Heart Sutra. Traditionally a condensed version of the sutra is recited, but at Katog Choling Ratna Ling, they recite the entirety of the story of The Heart Sutra. The story is of an encounter of “The Blessed One” Shariputra and Avalokitsevara, the bodhisattva – a bodhisattva is an enlightened being who, motivated by compassion, has decided to delay his Buddha-hood in order to help other beings attain Buddha-hood. The condensed version of the text reads:
Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, practicing deep prajna paramita,
clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty, transforming all suffering and distress.
Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form.
Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.
Sensation, thought, impulse, consciousness are also like this.
Shariputra, all things are marked by emptiness -
not born, not destroyed,
not stained, not pure,
without gain, without loss.
Therefore in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, thought, impulse, consciousness.
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind.
No color, sound, smell, taste, touch, object of thought.
No realm of sight to no realm of thought.
No ignorance and also no ending of ignorance to no old age and death and also no ending of old age and death.
No suffering, and also no source of suffering, no annihilation, no path.
No wisdom, also no attainment.
Having nothing to attain, Bodhisattvas live prajna paramita with no hindrance in the mind.
No hindrance, thus no fear.
Far beyond delusive thinking, they attain complete Nirvana.
All Buddhas past, present and future live prajna paramita and thus attain anuttara samyak sambodhi.
Therefore, know that prajna paramita is the great mantra, the wisdom mantra, the unsurpassed mantra, the supreme mantra, which completely removes all suffering. This is truth, not deception. Therefore set forth the prajna paramita mantra, set forth this mantra and say:
Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha [Dzogchen 2003]
After answering Shariputra, Shariputra praised the bodhisattva. After reading the story of The Heart Sutra, the group begin to recite the mantra contained there within. After several recitations, they entered into an extend period of silent meditation on the the meaning of the mantra – Beyond, beyond, totally beyond, perfectly beyond: Awakening, Yes! – which is the essence of the heart sutra. After the many minutes spent meditation on the mantra, they began to recite it once more, completing five recitations.
From here they went on to reciting the Averting Prayer in which they pay homage to the Buddha, the Tara, the Sangha and the Supreme Mother of the Essence of Sublime Knowing in hopes of averting counter-productive forces, offering that they may be neutralized, that they may be pacified, that they may be utterly pacified, clapping after each. The prayer ends with presenting the essence of the sutra – that all things are unceasing and unborn, that they are not permanent, that they do not come nor go, and that are not separate but not identical – and paying homage to it.
Next they began the recitation of the Dedication of Merit, which is a prayer for people who are facing hardships. One of the members retrieves a document which has on it the names of many individuals to whom they are dedicating the prayer. Then the prayer is said first in Sanskrit twice and then the English translation is read. This prayer is a wish for all to obtain buddha-hood and thus to be free of suffering. It reads in English as:
Through this goodness, may omniscience be attained
And thereby may ever enemy (mental defilement) be overcome
May beings be liberated from the ocean of samsara
Which is troubled by waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death. [Rinpoche N.d.]
The ocean of samsara is the continuous flow of birth, life, death and rebirth. Buddhism is an attempt to achieve Nirvana which is an escape from this flow.
Following this, the recited the Prayer to Avert Obstacles from the Elements. This prayer is asking for the blessings of Guru Rinpoche so that they can pacify the elements and remove the suffering that occurs when the elements of earth, wind, water, and fire place obstacles in our way. This is read once in English and is then Recited in Tibetan seven times. The ceremony ended with a Prayer for the Longevity of Khentral Lodrö Thayé Rinpoche – the current abbot of Mardo Tashi Choling in Easter Tibet –in Tibetan and a Prayer for the Katog Monastery. Khentral Rinpoche often visits the Katog Choling Ratna Ling as he does many Nyingma monasteries to give teachings. He took his monastic vows when he was only seven years of age, leaving his home and family behind him, he went to a monastery and received thre Khenpo degrees, which are the equivalent of a Doctor of Philosophy. The members of Katog Coling Ratna Ling hold great respect and reverence towards Rinpoche. (Katog 2010)
Because of the nature of the beliefs of the Buddhists, especially those presented in The Heart Sutra, the practitioners did not recognize the concept of self in the ceremony. The recited everything in a rather egalitarian manner, such that there was no leader, as they were all equal and connected. Throughout the ceremony the practitioners continually showed respect and reverence to the culture from which the school derives, to the elders of the school, and the great teachers. They all showed great compassion for all things, as was indicative in the Dedication of Merit, which was dedicated to all those who are going through hardships. Earlier that day, as I was passing by the house, they even offered me a bagged lunch. There was a gentleness in the way that the ceremony was carried out. The calmness that came upon the practitioners as the practiced and the relaxed peaceful way in which they did their recitations demonstrated the calm, sereneness of the Buddhist culture.
Amnyi Trulchung Rinpoche N.d. Guru Rinpoche. http://www.amnyitrulchung.org/lineage/masters/guru_rinpoche.html, accessed November 20, 2010.
2003 Mahaprajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra – The Heart Sutra. http://www.dzogchen.org/chant/heartsutra.htm, accessed November 20, 2010.
Katog Choling Tibetan Cultural Center
2010 Katog Choling Tiberan Cultural Center FAQ Log. http://katogcholing.faqlog.com, accessed November 20, 2010.
Nepalese and Tibetan Arts Blog
2007 Vajra Guru Mantra. http://mydzi.blogspot.com/2007/12/vajra-guru-mantra.html, accessed November 20, 2010.
2009 The Vajra Seven-Line Prayer to Guru Rimpoche. http://mydzi.blogspot.com/2009/01/vajra-seven-line-prayer-to-guru.html, accessed November 20, 2010.
N.d. Dedication of Merit Prayer. http://www.rinpoche.com/merit.htm, accessed November 20, 2010.