Between 2007 and 2013 I spent a great deal of time in solitary retreats practicing the meditation instructions I had received from my teachers. By a strange and beautiful process of synchronicity I was always able to find powerful places to practice, places that despite being on a very limited budget I could afford to do retreat. Traditionally it is somewhat embarrassing to talk about these things and I have refrained until now, however in the hope that it may be inspiring to other practitioners who also would like to undertake such retreats, I have decided to talk a little about each of these places in turn, in a series of short articles. This is the fourth article about Tashi Ding in Sikkim.
I remember the cave of bats, the vast underground chambers, and the two young monks who showed us the caves, and who we scalded when one of them threw a rock at the bats, causing them to fly in great ripples of darkness about us.
Following Mingyur Rinpoche’s teachings in Bodhgaya in early spring 2009, five of us travelled to Sikkim on pilgrimage and to sit retreat. Already having journeyed through Darjeeling and further up into the mountains, now within Sikkim we travelled in the jeeps that provide a kind of bus service across the state, along the often deadly roads, to Tashi Ding monastery, The Devoted Central Glory.
A story about Guru Rinpoche holds that he shot an arrow into the air. Where it landed he sat in meditation and later this spot would become Tashi Ding. The gompa or monastery is extraordinarily beautiful. It is perched high on a hill, an hour’s walk from the small town. Secluded and rural, in the small, irregular terraced fields the labourers still tear up the soil using horse driven ploughs. It is a profoundly peaceful place. There is a guest house in the monastery itself but a lovely Sikkimese gentleman that I sat next to in one of the jeep-buses gave me the number of a family I could stay with, just outside of the monastery’s walls, where he said they would be very helpful if I wanted to do retreat.
I have forgotten the name of the husband and wife who owned the house. They were both devoted practitioners. The husband had worked through the ngondro practices twice and was hoping to do so again. Like many of the Himalayan folk he consulted a calendar that he had pinned to the door to see which days would be most auspicious to cut his hair. His wife almost always wore a tracksuit, and on the holy days of the lunar month she joined in the temple with many other women of the community to do a day of practices connected to Avalokiteshvara. I would walk past and see them chanting and moving their prayer beads in concentration, or sometimes gossiping and drinking butter tea.
In one of the rooms of their house I began for the first time to work through ngondro myself. These are the beginning practices undertaken by those who wish to enter the Vajrayana Buddhist teachings. Ngondro takes many months or years to complete and, before one starts the main part of the ngondro, the student is advised first to reflect deeply on the four thoughts that turn the mind to dharma, a fourfold set of pithy contemplations that create a powerful incentive to practice. Therefore my retreat at Tashi Ding was devoted to thinking about these in order to develop a strong foundation. On the advice of Mingyur Rinpoche I alternated short periods of contemplation with short periods of meditation, and often broke it up with walks around the monastery and the chorten area.
The chorten area lay behind the monastery. A white stone wall ringed a number of chortens or stupas that had, over hundreds of years, been built into a dense complex. A chorten is considered to be a representation of awake mind, built in accordance with the principles of sacred architecture and containing relics of great practitioners. Most are dazzling white in the sunshine but at Tashi Ding there is a gold one, built for the great meditator Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö over fifty years ago.
Around the white stone wall, hundreds and hundreds of flat stones have been carved meticulously with the words of Tibetan mantras inscribed and painted carefully in bright, primary colours. They are all the work of the same skilled hands; I would see him loping to work each day – the stone cutter yogi, and often walked past the small workshop that he has built there. The local community, and beyond, hold him in very high regard and it is in no small part due to him that Tashi Ding is as beautiful and peaceful as it is.
I set up my routine much the same as my other retreats, waking early and dividing the day into four main sessions. The family would fill a large metal flask, the outside painted with flowers, with hot water in the morning that I would drink throughout the day, and on my afternoon break they would make me a nice cup of coffee. The food was excellent but once I asked for butter to go with some bread and regretted it because it was quite rancid.
I divided my retreat into four weeks, spending a week on each of the four thoughts that turn the mind to dharma. The first of these is to reflect on the extraordinary luck it is to be born human, and even more so the good fortune to have a proclivity toward dharma and the freedom and resources to practice. In one of the classical contemplations – an image I always find humorous – it is said to be as rare as throwing a hard pea at a flat vertical wall and getting it to stick.
For the second week I thought about death. Sometimes I used the traditional guided contemplations to imagine myself dying in a variety of ways, contemplating that death can come suddenly, and that when it comes I will leave everything behind. And thinking how even the earth itself will in time be destroyed, so – as Patrul Rinpoche says – us humans will surely fall like flies at the end of summer! The point of this is to help one focus on what really matters in the short time we have left in this world.
Contemplating actions and their consequences is the third of the four thoughts. Whenever I turn my mind to this it seems to me that the only real leverage we have over our future is in this moment now. Mostly we are buffeted about unconsciously by conditions and our reactions to those conditions – a kind of dull fogginess pervades everything, but in this moment now there is a possibility of being awake and thereby a tiny possibility of having influence over our own destiny.
Finally in the fourth week I thought about suffering and the many types of suffering that existence invariably entails. The pain of cancer or bipolar or being a mouse hunted by a monstrous cat. The pain of losing a teddy bear or a loved one, of being born into a war zone, of being born into captivity. The suffering of being beaten or bullied or raped. More subtle sufferings that pervade existence. The suffering of being attached to particular states of mind. And I thought of stories of suffering that I had heard about in the past: A medieval king who tied a prisoner to an metal throne and heated it until he died screaming, the english settlers who buried aboriginal children in the sand up to their necks and tried to kick their heads off like footballs. And I suspect that I cried a great deal that week as I am crying a little now. The Buddha’s first teaching was that this life is suffering and the value of contemplating this is that it inspires one to gain freedom from self clinging which is the cause of our trouble.
These are crucial teachings said by many teachers to be more important than the main Vajrayana practices that follow them. And although I have very little experience to go on I’ve always felt intuitively that that must be right. They are simple ideas that go on and on. The Buddha said: “Of all the footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all meditations, that on death is supreme.”
At Tashi Ding there are said to be certain rocks – I don’t know which ones – behind which you could step accidentally into hidden lands, old portals to other places. Tashi Ding is itself a hidden land and I am very happy to have had the great good fortune to go there.
Thank you Heather Elton for letting me use two of your photographs. You can see more of Heather’s work here.
Llew Watkins is a writer and artist based in Limehouse, East London.