Sunday, 16 September 2012

You have no power over me

Ah, long time no Blog.  I had intended. . . but as they say, the road to Croydon is paved with good intentions (or was that Hell, I forget?).  Perhaps the Goblin King's magic has caused me to forget - like Sarah in the Labyrinth.  To be honest, I hadn't imagined that Jim Henson would be the first thing that came into my mind when I was sitting down to muse about the power of ritual and symbol in spiritual practice.  Perhaps it is because my father was interviewed on television last week, celebrating the achievements of Bowie - a local Beckenham boy (our family hometown).  Some symbols are not forever it seems - and whilst Bowie himself remains idolised, his Labyrinthine haircut is perhaps best forgotten.  There is a glorious eighties cheesiness about the Labyrinth movie that - whilst charming - hasn't really transcended the decades.  Like Sarah in the Labyrinth, I look at David Bowie's haircut and although I love his music, I think - truly - 'You have no power over me.'  Still, it reminded me...

I think it is important to talk about symbols *in general* before turning to symbolism in a Buddhist context later in this Blog - particularly in the specific context of namkha.  I have met people who tell me they feel symbols have no meaning.  And I would agree.  They have no inherent meaning - no absolute true meaning that transcends our use or perception of the symbol - no intrinsic value that is separate to the value that we place in the symbol.  It does not follow that they are utterly without meaning however.  They carry the transient meaning which we invest in them, which enables them to act as an interface between the image we see before us, and the experience, emotion or idea that the symbol represents.  That meaning might last millenia, like the swastika, and again like the swastika a given symbol might have multiple meanings in different contexts.  Unfortunately symbolism in a spiritual context has attracted a fair amount of attention from those who have an eternalistic viewpoint, and the modern rational scientific approach to the world finds it easy to refute such views as hogwash.  This is understandable, but doesn't mean that all symbol is without value - rather that an eternalistic view of symbol is untenable.  Indeed science itself finds symbol invaluable - and to the non-scientist the symbolism of thermodynamics can seem no less of an occult art than that of the masons, or the writing of Eliphas Levi.  So, symbol may not have inherent meaning, but it has value nonetheless.

Even without an inherent meaning, it is evident that some symbols have a powerful emotional or intellectual affect on us, that drives our behaviour at a very basic level.  If I were to parade down a public street wearing a full length white robe, and white high conical hat that masked my face, in the company of many others similarly shrouded, bearing a wooden cross, you might think me a member of a very particular sect, with strong views on race and religion. . . but if we were in Semanta Spain rather than the southern USA you might be surprised to find something somewhat different to what you had first conceived.  There are plenty of other examples like this, such as the look of surprise when some people new to Indian religion see their first swastika outside of the context of grainy WWII film footage.  A white man with a swastika symbol, even dressed in Buddhist robes, can cause people to do a double take.

My own personal experience of the power of symbol in a Buddhist context starts back before Shé-zér & I were together.  I was living and working in London, and was at a waterfront bar with a couple of old school friends.  Two young ladies at a nearby table kept glancing and smiling in our direction - unknown to my two friends who had their backs turned.  I was just about to suggest that we invite the ladies to our table and buy them a drink when suddenly a disapproving look came across the face of one of them.  She tugged the sleeve of her companion, and tapped her ring finger.  It was bare. . . but mine was not, since one of the vows of wearing associated with ngak'phang ordination include the wearing of golden rings on both ring fingers.  I was single, but how were they to know I was not some miscreant behaving badly out of sight of an absent wife.  They abandoned their empty glasses, and left the bar. . .

If you still doubt the power of image and symbol, then it is worth considering that clearly other people do recognise symbolic influence.  As I started with one music icon, perhaps I should close with another.  John Lennon  is clearly held to be such an iconic figure in British culture - even though he has been dead so long - that the olympics closing ceremony dedicated a whole section to him and a 'from beyond the grave' performance of his classic piece, Imagine.  And at the end of that piece we the audience come face to face with a symbol that communicates everything about Lennon - the symbol of his face - the symbol of those classic Lennon specs, and we are left simply to imagine. . .

Saturday, 1 September 2012

The sByin-sreg - homa Fire Ceremony

Although we've been focussing on our Drala Jong blog of late, it is good to return here to the Sky Weaving site, and what better occasion that to mark our first ever apprentice event at our home in Monmouthshire.  The sun shone in Wales this weekend and the flames licked upwards, as our inaugural retreat was concluded with a Jin-sreg (Tib. sByin-sreg / Skt. homa).  The Jin-sreg is a fire ceremony whose roots are over three millenia old and which were certainly establish at the time of the Rig Veda and used to venerate the Vedic god of fire, Agni.

Within the Aro gTér Tradition the Jin-sreg most commonly occurs either as a method of consigning namkha to the elements (as here), or as part of an ordination ceremony for those joining the gö-kar-chang-lo'i-dé.  Namkhas were completed by all the apprentices including visitors from Lama Rig'dzin's sangha, and our vajra sister Naljorma Tsul'dzin (seen here, appearing to be immolated as the flames are enticed upwards by the offering of ghee).

Everyone managed to complete a weave during the weekend, which was excellent as none of the participants had practised namkha before.  With intermittant rain it wasn't certain we'd be able to have the fire ceremony, and for a while the sky weavings were all displayed on the patio.  If you've practised a great deal of namkha, especially if you tend to see them arise and dissolve as single weavings, it can be easy to forget how different they can appear even using only relatively simple combinations of increasing and decreasing elements.

One thing they all have in common of course is that they all end up in the same place - in the flames.  Jean-Michel battled the water element in the form of damp wood and intermittant downpours to build a fire over the hearth (Tib. sByin sreg me thba / Skt. homakunda).  For a while we had to place an umbrella over the site to keep the worst of the rain off.  His patient building and tending of the first spark was rewarded when the whole tower caught and was consumed.

The ground had first been prepared with a simple dKhyil 'khor (Skt. mandala).  In the style of the Aro gTér Ogyen Rig-nga this is circular, and in the wider mahayoga cycles there are different hearths for each of the four Buddha Karmas - Lé-kyi (Tib. las bzhi / Skt. chaturkriya) - circular for pacification (Tib. zhi ba) square for enrichment (Tib. rgyas pa), bow-shaped for 'influence' (Tib. dbang) and triangular for the wrathful activity of destruction (Tib. drag po).  In the Aro gTér the term magnetising is used instead of influence.

Once the fire has started, the sky weavings are added by their creators.  The stepped structure of the fire made it possible to insert the namkha vertically, and the flames licked up from their base, rapidly consuming them all. Jean-Michel, master of the hearth, is here placing the latest weave into the flames.
Whilst the weavings are added mantra is sung, and once they are all on the offering (in this case of ghee) is made as the mantra cycles through each of the elemental Buddha families.
Beer writes that the ceremony is traditional for the end of a long Vajrayana retreat, to 'purfiy any faults or transgressions that may have arisen during the course of the retreat'.  Fortunately for this first apprentice retreat there were no faults (save perhaps the rain - and that resulting in rainbows in the sky) but nonetheless Drowang said that he had enjoyed the ceremony so much that all our retreats should end on one.

It appears we have established our first sangha tradition.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Sky Weaving - an overview

Shé-zér creating a namkha

Several years ago we wrote an overview of the practice of Sky Weaving for Sacred Hoop magazine  The article is available as a free download from the magazine, but we also reproduce the core of it here for blogfollowers:

Vajrayana Buddhism contains myriad practices for the discovery of our individual energetic being. Once discovered this energy can be transformed through its own enlightened potential. This is called self-liberation.  One such practice – from the section of vajrayana called mahayoga - is ‘sky weaving’.  The name derives from the Tibetan term namkha (nam mKha’) - literally ‘sky’.  The practice of namkha is ancient, with roots beyond the arrival of vajrayana in the Himalayas.  Sky weaving is found within the Aro Lineage of the Nyingma Tradition. Nyingma is the oldest of the four Buddhist traditions of the Himalayan countries.

Mahayoga employs symbolic activity to engage with our emotional and perceptual circumstances.  Through weaving five coloured threads into the five elemental skies of the namkha, our positive intentions become tangibly manifest in the world.  In the case of the namkha in the Aro Tradition, the practice combines mantra recitation, visualisation, and an understanding of the five elements – earth, water, fire, air, and space.  Through understanding the subtle psychology and interplay of the elements, namkha taps our innate artistry.  Our complete open perception and responsive appreciation becomes a vehicle by which means we can transform our selves, and simultaneously benefit the lives of others. 

Once acquainted with the logic of namkha, the method of the practice is simple – even though the mechanics can initially seem complex.  The basic form of namkha in the Aro Tradition is a cross which bears five elemental ‘skies’ – each equal in size. One sky is formed at each cardinal direction – with a fifth sky in the centre. The natural position for a namkha has the space element—coloured blue—at the centre.  Earth—yellow—is in the South. Water—white—in the east; Fire—red—west; and, Air—green—north.  Each element represents both a neurotic—dualistically deranged—state, and a non-dual liberated state. The practitioner therefore requires both an intellectual and experiential understanding of the psychology of the elements.  Dualised Earth is greed – and its liberated quality is generosity.  The other elemental pairings are: Water - anger and clarity; Fire – obsession and appreciative empathy; Air – paranoia (envy and jealousy) and spontaneous freedom of action; Space – depression (denial / deliberate ignorance) and unrestricted awareness. 

Through practice and contemplation one can recognise the continuum which exists between the physical elements and emotional experience.  The earth is solid, immobile, slow to change, and heavy.  Earth neurosis feels its territory under threat. We entrench—attempt to throw up higher  fortifications to stem the tide of change.  Readers interested in exploring this further should see Spectrum of Ecstasy by Ngakpa Chögyam and Khandro Dechen or Magic Dance by Thinley Norbu for teachings on the elements both in terms of symbolism, and elemental psychology.

The practitioner considers situations in need of change, determines the primary element with which they will work - and establishes whether they need to decrease the neurotic dualised quality, or increase the liberated quality.  As this is a Buddhist practice practitioners’ intentions are in accordance with the wish to strive for the liberation of all beings – as the main criterion.  This - of course - does not preclude oneself. Mundane improvements in personal circumstances are included in the overall scheme of an enhanced situation for everyone and everything else.  

Space is the prime central element – but if an element other than Space is chosen as the primary focus, then that element moves from its cardinal position on the namkha to the central position.

A basic namkha - a single decrease to space element
For example, practitioners may wish to either wish to reduce the Water element neurosis (to reduce anger). or increase the Water element wisdom (to increase clarity).  With either case the white sky of the Water element moves to the centre – and Space moves to the East.

The term ‘sky’ in the language of vajrayana, has wealth of meaning.  Mind is described as a sky because it is vast and boundless. It is unaffected by the natural emergence and dissolution of thought – symbolised by the movement of clouds across the sky.  Sky means ‘dimension’ or ‘dimension of experience’ in a similar sense to the western notion of a ‘field’ of knowledge’.  Sky here means a totality in which everything is encompassed.

With namkha, each sky contains one or more cycles of five sets of coloured threads. These symbolise the indivisibility of the five elements – making each sky within the namkha – a totality.  It is impossible to affect one element without affecting the others. Likewise it is impossible for one element to be isolated in its distortion. Either everything is dualistically deranged or everything is liberated. 

Once the primary element and direction of change have been determined, practitioners begin to weave the central sky.  The weaving starts with the central elemental colour of the sky in question. White for Water. The next colour is then determined by the direction of change.  To decrease the neurosis, the weaving is threaded in the direction of Space to Earth. To increase the wisdom potential, the weaving is threaded in the direction of Earth to Space. Decreasing a Water sky would involve weaving water (white) into Fire (red).  Increasing a Water sky would involve weaving water (white) into Earth (yellow).
The central elemental sky chosen, dictates the element most strongly affected - and also the dominant direction of each sky in the sky-weaving as an entirety.   If the central sky is decreasing then the other skies will also decrease – as their fundamental pattern. 

One might commonly undertake anything from a single to a triple weave, either as increase or decrease, on each of the skies.  So for example, a namkha may have a triple decreased Earth at the centre (decreasing avarice and territoriality), a single increase Water at the east (increasing clarity), and a double increase in Fire at the west (increasing appreciative empathy).  As one comes to appreciate the interplay of the elements, it becomes evident that the variations are colossal.

As practitioners weaves, they recite one of the elemental mantras of the awareness being (yidam / meditational deity) Ögyen Rig-nga, and visualise themselves manifesting in his form.  Readers interested in this practice should consult Wearing the Body of Visions by Ngakpa Chögyam or any of a number of books by Chögyam Trungpa on Buddhist tantra.  Ogyen Rig-nga is Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel the male and female Tantric Buddhas in Yabyum (sexual union) manifesting as the wisdom embodiments of the five elements.  Each of these five forms wears different robes and carries different implements. Each has a unique mantra. 

Once each sky is completed, the practitioner moves to the next, until all five are woven. At this point that the namkha is complete – and the intention is fulfilled.  The namkha must then be authenticated and eventually consigned to the natural elements.  Traditionally this should be undertaken within a year of the completion of the namkha – when the namkha is burnt during a jin-sreg or ‘fire ceremony’.  As the wood and wool are consumed by flames the elemental mantras are recited from Earth in the direction of Space.  

Variations on this core practice also exist.  An experienced practitioner gradually finds that it is possible to apply the practice to external circumstances, and can engage in the practice for the direct benefit of others.  Much larger namkhas are also made, for example as part of a long retreat on which a major event such as an ordination takes place.  Larger namkha can be made in an open box shape, with one empty end. Within the Aro Tradition there are further variations, including the practice of ‘the skies of vajra romance’ in which a couple who are both practitioners weave a more complex variation on the Ogyen Rig-nga namkha – two namkhas conjoined by a double sized central sky.  In this variation, the couple pass the frame back and forth, each weaving in turn.

As with any vajrayana practice, it is necessary to receive instruction and permission from ones personal Lama (Vajrayana teacher) before engaging in sky weaving. A pre-requisite may well be the completion of certain preliminary practices, including mantra accumulation.  Regardless of the Buddhist or shamanic lineage from which a particular form of sky weaving practice emanates, namkha is a vivid, dynamic, tactile practice which engages and energises the senses. It draws upon vajrayana methods of yidam practice, mandala, and a comprehension of the interplay of the elements. 

Friday, 14 October 2011

Some fun namkha photos

Apprentices on the namkha retreat in Finland June 2011

Children often enjoy beginning to practice namkha - here Robert is being helped by his little sister Raechel

Here is a Ogyen Rigna namkha working on all increasing all five elements
this is a namkha created by a couple practising together - the skies of vajra romance namkha
here I am working on the couple namkha

Monday, 19 September 2011


Before I kick this Blog is earnest, I thought I'd post a little something on wossitabllabowtthen

The reason for creating this Blog is twofold. 

Firstly it is a working document - a sketch book - as my wife Lama Shé-zér & I prepare our book 'Sky Weaving' on the subject of the Namkha Practice of the Aro gTér Tradition.  We hope that some of the readership will ask questions here, and help shape our thoughts and the direction of the book overall.  For this book in particular we think this is important because in explaining Sky Weaving we have to touch on the visualisation practices of the Inner Tantras, along with the View of the Five Elements.  All this explanation has to happen as well as covering the simple and also symbolic mechanics of Sky Weaving itself.  This Blog will give us a chance to play with the depth and breadth of detail we'll need to make the book itself as effective as possible.

Secondly, early on the in preparation of the book it became apparent that we were coming into contact with a lot of material that wouldn't be wholly appropriate for the book.  This material was interesting, despite in some cases being a little peripheral or simply so academic in style as to be unhelpful to many practitioners.  That said we felt much of it might be of interest to readers.  As a result we thought we could make some of this material available for the readership of the book via a different means.  An example of this is the academic and pseudo-academic material that is already out there on the web or in print form that covers Sky Weaving.  We've touched on some of this material already in the Blog series.  Were we to include it in the book itself, it would increase the breadth of the work, and in all likelyhood made the work drier and somewhat tangential.

It's worth noting here the reasons for creating the book at all.  Firstly, it is because it was suggested by our Root Teachers Ngak'chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen.  At time of writing there is no generally available text on Sky Weaving in the public eye (the book by Namkha'i Norbu Rinpoche is reserved for his personal students only).  There is no particular reason for this - the core practice is not normally a 'reserved' one - so it is a shame to have no titles on this subject at all when there are hundreds of titles on things like tantric ngondro.  We're also writing the book because it is a practice that we really enjoy, and enables us to write about some aspects of Buddhism (and religion in general) which we feel are oft misunderstood - namely symbolism, and ritual.  The book itself - whilst we hardly expect to top the Amazon best seller list - will provide a secondary benefit because all proceeds from its sale will go towards the Drala Jong Retreat Centre appeal - which we blog about here.

So, having covered a little of wotitsallabowtthen we'll dive into symbolism in the next in this Blog series.

In the mean time, do feel free to ask questions, challenge or discuss anything on this Blog.  And, certainly feel free to go over to the Drala Jong Blogsite both to read, and to donate money to this cause which was inspired by Kyabjé Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche and Jomo Samphel Déchen.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Cult of Tara (Resources - part 4)

The final book that readers might find interesting by way of some background academic material on namkha is the Cult of Tara - Magic and Ritual in Tibet by Stephan Beyer. Unlike the other texts to which I've referred, I have found links to e-book downloads of this text. I'm not including links here because the initial sites I saw that carried those download options didn't look entirely reputable.  Readers can make their own minds up about that option (the book is still in print).

I say that this is the final book I recommend to provide an academic background to namkha practice, but I should acknowledge there are other options. Using one of these texts and tracing back the references will find you a host of material of course.  I also thought I should note the other entries on the Wikipedia page on namkha as they are most obviously in the public domain. Of these, I've not had a chance to read:

- Peter Gold's Navajo and Tibetan Sacred Wisdom: The Circle of The Spirit which is a comparative anthropological study of the two cultures.
- Claudia Muller-Ebelling & Christian Rasch's Shamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas explores the practices of Nepalese Shamen and how pre-Buddhist traditions informed Vajrayana.
- Nebesky-Wojkowitz' Tibetan Religious Dances

I have read the Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava and Ellen Pearlman's Sacred Dance, but both carry scant reference to namkha which are not worth mentioning here.

Having noted other publically referenced sources, I shall return to Beyer. Beyer's work focusses solely on practices surrounding Tara (sGrol ma).  It has a similar bent to Nebesky-Wojkowitz' work, in terms of being something of a catalogue of mantra and symbolic activity. It contains a section which walks through one particular Tara namkha practice from start to end, and in so doing Beyer provides some incrementally useful background information about Vajarayana in general and namkha in particular.

Namkha is clearly a practice that is associated with a range of different awareness beings (yidams / meditational deities) and protectors and can be employed for a range of different effects. Different lineages clearly use different yidams in association with their own namkha traditions.

Beyer mentions that Tara, as a peaceful yidam, is associated with the first two more peaceful of the four Buddha Karmas - in Beyer's terms these are pacifying and increasing (although in the Aro gTér Tradition they are magnetising and enriching).  Nebesky-Wojkowitz' work mentions namkha in connection with a range of both peaceful and wrathful yidams, making accessible the wrathful Buddha Karmas of pacifying and destroying.

Beyer is the first of the writers referenced here who recognises four general modes of practice, sometimes employed in isolation across the range of Tara practices, sometimes all present - as in the Tara namkha.  This is valuable as the other writers have tended not to look beyond or through the elaborate external symbolism of the practice of namkha, and thus have failed to fully understand the practice.

These modes include self  arising - a soteriological practice where the practitioner dissolves their experience of self into emptiness, and then self-arises as the yidam; generation - where the yidam is visualised as external, used to effectuate practice, and thirdly the yidam is used to empower objects - such as the namkha itself, or the bumpa (water vase) during a tantric empowerment - used to apply the effects of practice.

The next blog will explore symbolism and the practice of self-arising.  There we shall start to square the circle of the highly ritualised, symbolic even magical world of mahayoga (which Nebesky-Wojkowitz did not see beyond) and the far less symbolic and in some ways mundane world of Dzogchen. Once this circle is squared, we'll then go on to address the namkha practice of the Aro gTér.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Oracles and Demons of Tibet (Resources part 3)

Oracles and Demons of Tibet by Rene De Nebesky-Wojkowitz contains comprehensive depictions of a range of namkhas, the yidams and protectors with which they are associated, and their various applications. It has a full chapter dedicated to 'Thread-crosses and thread-cross ceremonies' as well as a range of other references. This single source has the greatest breadth of material describing the practice that is easily available. It's strength as a work is also somewhat of a weakness, because it reads like a catalogue of textual imagery and iconography - so much so that fellow Tibetologists have often jested that the author's ultimate crime was to take interesting material and turn it into a boring academic work. (His supposed 'criminality' was that he had revealed the secrets of Dharma Protectors - he died tragically young, shortly after finishing this work, and a Tutankhamun-like curse was said to follow this 'terrible act'). In fact the writing is fairly dull - but does provide a flavour of the variety of namkha that can be created.

Be it a catalogue, it worth noting it is a well referenced caalogue and thus if anyone wishes to obtain a springboard for academic investigation into the primary and secondary sources about a range of Mahayoga practices this is a great starting point (although a working knowledge of Tibetan, German and French would be useful).

In terms of this Blog, Oracles & Demons flags a number of items that are noteworthy:

- the thread-cross constructs (mDos, in Nebesky-Wojkowitz' terms) are generally highly complex. The term mDos applies to the full structure, which can often include a base, whereas nam mKha' describes the individual thread-crosses around this central structure. Because in the Aro gTér Mahayoga is approached from the basis of Dzogchen View, the symbolic activity in Aro gTér Mahayoga is in relative terms minimalist. In the basic form of Ogyen Rig-nga namkha practice a single namkha is created - hence the slightly different focus on terminology.

Complexity is possible however. Lama Rig'dzin Dorje has overseen the creation of the most complex Aro gTér namkha although a comparison with the Tara namkha (see an earlier post) shows even this is relatively simple in design

- the term thread-cross seems to have been adopted from use in other anthropological studies around the world, where similar symbolic practices are found (including in South Africa, Peru, Australia, Sweden, and throughout the Himalayas including Naga tribe, Siberian Shamanic and Bön practice). Perhaps for this reason the academics never thought to investigate why the term nam mKha' was used for the crosses themselves. I will define namkha later in this series

- Oracles & Demons is the first work to distinguish between the outer, physical practice, and an inner, visualised practice, as well as alluding to the interaction between them. Again, we'll look at this later in the series

- finally, Oracles & Demons describes clearly that to release the potency of a completed namkha, it is necessary to destroy it, either through breaking it or burning it. This effectuates the practice, and in the Aro gTér this effectuation is achieved most commonly through a fire ceremony - jin sreg (sbying sreg)