Today a friend asked me what the shrine room of Dzongsar Institute was like during the Dam Ngak Dzö transmission. A valid question, but not one I find easy to answer.
Visually, it was frustrating. The photograph below is a very accurate representation of ‘my view.’ But don’t get me wrong, I had nothing to complain about. OK, so I sat behind a pillar, but I was right at the front with the most glorious side view of Rinpoche and all the tulkus and khenpos who attended.
Everything happened on quite a large scale (2,500 people in all, including lots of monks, gomchens, Tibetan laypeople and more foreigners than expected) and Rinpoche spoke only in Tibetan, so it was a bit like watching a marvellously exotic but very slow-moving movie by Tarkovsky. No subtitles, of course, but some very courageous, if sometimes breathless, on-the-spot dubbing.
Those who attended the whole 72 days appeared to be very much at home in the shrine room. Fortunately the organizers had the forethought to lay fairly thick carpets on the marble floors, which were comfy, and as long as each person felt their territory was respected by their neighbours, things went swimmingly. The occasional influx of ‘new’ attendees tended to create a little tension, so those who had already taken root photographed their neighbours to guard against alien infiltration.
Horrifying as this may seem to many of you, after a quarter of a century of attending Tibetan Buddhist shindigs, to me one traditional Tibetan shrine room looks much the same as another. I must say, though, that the cylindrical brocade confections hanging from the ceiling fascinated me. They were gargantuan, yet, as far as I could see, completely pointless. I don’t remember the last time I saw one in a European shrine room, which Philip explained, is because the fire regulations prohibit them. I couldn’t help wondering how many strange and exotic beasts had made their homes in the folds of all that expensive silk.
And how many monks does it take to serve four men a cup of tea each? Eight, as it turns out. One for each of the cups, then one for each of the thermoses.
There was a great deal to be charmed by, though. Being India, sparrows had no trouble finding their way into the shrine itself and when they landed on the super-shiny marble floors, slid expertly towards the largest patch of scattered offering rice, hoovering it all up with delicate efficiency.
One of the traditions that I really admired the monastery for upholding was the regular morning and afternoon service of butter tea accompanied by corn bread or sweet rice. Imagine putting that together twice a day for 2,500 people! And everything they offered us was quite delicious.
On the other hand, the usual shawn voluntary to announce Rinpoche’s arrival in the shrine room was replaced by the altogether softer beating of a drum—a very typically ‘Rinpoche’ adjustment.
But is any of this ‘what it was like’ there? Not really…