I promised to write about celebrating my first Buddhist holiday, Lhabab Duchen and am just now getting around to it. Sorry! I’m sure you all don’t really mind but I hope you are interested in hearing about this because it was an incredible experience.
This celebration or more appropriately, puja* was my first participation in a Buddhist holiday. I celebrated with a group of people gathered in a cozy room above a Japanese restaurant and Tibetan store in Old Town Alexandria. The teacher leading the ceremony was Khenchen Tsewang Gyatso Rinpoche* a cheerful and warm man with a rhythmic tone to his voice that makes it easy to slip into a meditative state during chants. I heard about this gathering through my weekly meditation group which I attend every Sunday in the same space. The leaders of the group, Keith and Geoff were in attendance along with a couple other familiar faces but out of about the 15-20 people there, I did not know most of them.
Both Keith and Geoff are students of Khenchen and have been practicing Buddhism for several years. I have spoken to Keith many times after group meditation and he was again helpful at the puja. We spoke for a few minutes about what we were celebrating, what would happen, and the rest of Khenchen’s schedule during his visit. As we waited to start I also socialized with the people around me and got comfortable in a seat with the binder and pamphlets set out for everyone in attendance. The room we were gathered in is not very big but several cushions and chairs were laid out facing the alter and podium. To the right of the seating arrangements was a table with every inch covered in bowls of food. There were dorritos, crackers, dried fruit, clementines, a roasted chicken! I was amazed and wondered for a second if I would be able to concentrate with all the food nearby (it turned out to not be an issue).
After 10 or 15 minutes of waiting and people rushing in to find seats, it began. We all stood as Khenchen entered the room following a woman carrying lit incense gracefully swirling it in front of her as she walked. Everyone placed their hands in front of their chest with their hands forming the Namaskara Mudra* and bowed in respect as Khenchen walked past. Once he was at the front of the room he began to perform three prostrations* then a soon as he was finished everyone else followed suit, except of course, me (an my boyfriend who attended). It was awkward for a second but then I realized no one was there to judge me and they probably didn’t care. I wanted to be respectful and look like I knew what I was doing but I think it was too late for that. I was aware of what prostrations were but admittedly had never done one and even if I wanted to, I just had hip surgery so I don’t think it would have been possible. I wish I knew that it was a part of the ritual and perhaps an alternative for someone unable to fully participate but it was too late for that as well so I bowed my head for a few moments and had a seat.
Almost immediately we began chanting with Khenchen’s apprentices instructing which page of which pamphlet we should flip to. I was confused and amazed yet again. All of the chants are of course written in Tibetan and thankfully there was a phonetical translation underneath for me (and probably everyone else) to follow along. However, this definitely did not make it easy. I guessed at pronunciation most of the time and there was more than one occasion when I lost my place and had to look at my neighbors for what page we were on. There were also moments when we were to repeat mantras and although the first time went well and I repeated with little difficulty, the second time I had no idea what mantra everyone was reading and repeating because they were speaking so quickly! It wasn’t too bad though because I decided to just fall back on the one I know well, Om Mani Padme Hum, I figured it was better than nothing.
At one point during the chants Geoff walked around the group giving a small amount of wine or juice to each person. At first I had no idea what was happening so I observed intently. Each person was given about a teaspoon of liquid into their palm which they scooped into their mouths, after doing so they brushed their hand over the top of their head. I was not at all familiar with what we were doing but I copied what I saw. I still am trying to figure out what the ritual was and I can’t help but compare it to the Christian communion during church. It was similar but I am still researching to find the purpose in Buddhist practice. I may just ask Keith on Sunday.
The chanting continued for I guess almost 2 hours but it did not feel anywhere close to that long. My concentration stuck on the page (and yes sometimes the anxiety of not knowing what I was doing) and the rhytmic sounds of the chants so eloquently recited by Khenchen and many of the participants. I enjoyed it very much and on several occasions slipped into a meditative state while following along. It was nice and I felt very glad that I was able to participate.
As we reached the ending of the chants, several volunteers began passing out the food. Every dish that was presented was shared as the volunteers first gave out plates an napkins then proceeded to give food. Everyone got a fair share and by the end our plates were piled high with yummy treats. It was a light-hearted activity full of smiles and laughter as pieces fell off the overfilled plates and onto the floor. There was also a great sense of community derived from this mass sharing with people I had never even met before. It was very enjoyable and once the chants finished, we began to eat and Khenchen quietly exited the room as gracious “thank yous” whispered behind him. We all continued to eat and bags were passed out to take home any leftovers. I chatted with the people around me and enjoyed their company before taking off with many others after about 20-30 minutes.
This was a great experience and I am so glad I have participated in my first Buddhist celebration!! Let me know if you all have any questions and I hope this wasn’t too long. :)
Puja: The name given to a wide variety of devotional and offering ceremonies practiced in all Buddhist traditions.
Khenchen Tsewang Gyatso Rinpoche: Khen Rinpoche is one of the three senior-most Khenchens from Palyul Namdroling Moanstery in South India. He speaks fluent English and travels worldwide yearly to offer teachings to students interested in Buddhism. (he’s on Facebook!)
Namaskara Mudra: Gesture of greeting, prayer, and adoration. Buddhas no longer make this gesture because they do not have to show devotion to anything. (also what you use in yoga forming ‘prayer hands’ or when you say Namaste)
Prostrations: a gesture used in Buddhist practice to show reverence to the Triple Gem (comprising the Buddha, his teachings, and the spiritual community) and other objects of veneration. Watch this if interested in how to do prostrations —-> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LI4xHU44P3o&feature=youtube_gdata_player
Lhabab Duchen: One of the four Buddhist festivals commemorating four events in the life of the Buddha, according to Tibetan traditions. Lhabab Düchen occurs on the 22nd day of the ninth month on a Tibetan calendar. This is a Buddhist festival celebrated to observe the descent of Buddha from heaven back to earth. Buddha had left for heaven at the age of 41, having ascended to The Heaven of Thirty-Three (Trayastrimsa) in order to give teachings to benefit the gods in the desire realms and to repay the kindness of his mother by liberating her from Samsara. He was exhorted by his follower and representative Maugalyayana to return, and after a long debate managed to return. This is considered to be one of the eight great deeds of the Buddha. He returned to earth by a special triple ladder prepared by Viswakarma, the god of machines. On Lhabab Duchen, the effects of positive or negative actions are multiplied ten million times. It is part of Tibetan Buddhist tradition to engage in virtuous activities and prayer on this day.