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.