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. 

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