By Daniel Scharpenburg
When I reflect on my practice, I realize that I’ve been on at least a dozen retreats with Vajrayana Buddhist teachers, but there are really three that stand out in my memory.
Not to say that the others were bad, but a lot of the teachings I’ve received didn’t do much for me.
There were a few times when I was told that an amazing teacher was coming and then when they came I just didn’t get what the big deal was. Some of my favorite retreats have been with Zen teachers like Karen Maezen Miller and Theravada teachers like Santikaro, but I’ve had more retreats with Tibetan Vajrayana teachers because there have been numerous opportunities for me.
The three that really stick out in my mind are these: the retreat where I received Lojong teachings from Phakyab Rinpoche, the retreat where I received Chod teachings from Tulku Yeshi, and the retreat I’m going to write about today.
It wasn’t my first retreat with Lama Lena. She has visited Kansas City every year, and I’ve had the opportunity to go on retreats with her three times. I’ve received teachings from her on Mahamudra (the Great Seal), and Dzogchen (the Great Perfection).
But this retreat is the one that stands out.
Lama Lena was a student of Wangdor Rinpoche. When she was a young woman in the 1970s, she went to India and wandered around looking for a guru. She found her teacher living in a cave all those years ago and now she also lives in a cave, but travels around giving teachings.
I knew about this retreat a few months in advance: it was to be a weekend retreat—Friday night, all day Saturday, and Sunday morning. It was one of those weekends that I have my kids, so I knew if I wanted to go I had to make arrangements. I was able to arrange a sitter for Saturday with relative ease, but not for Friday night. I thought that would be okay. Often, at these things, the best and most important teachings happen Saturday morning. It wasn’t my first rodeo (as the kids say these days) so I thought I knew what to expect.
Circumstances changed as the retreat grew closer. A week before the retreat, my son’s mother asked if she could take him to a wedding that night—of course I agreed. When I realized I’d only have to make arrangements for my daughter, I thought I could probably go Friday night and experience the whole retreat. I called up my friend Ruthie and asked if she’d mind having my daughter come over and hang out with her daughter. It all lined up perfectly and I didn’t expect it to.
There’s a reason this is important.
Lama Lena did something that she hadn’t done previously; she gave the teaching and empowerment on Friday night and spent all day Saturday clarifying and answering questions about it. If I had missed Friday, as I had planned to, I would have missed the most essential part of the retreat. These kinds of meditations usually don’t do much for me, but this one meant a lot. The empowerment was called 1000 armed Chenrezig. The guided meditation was called The Practice That Takes The Open Heart As The Path To Ati. It’s a Dzogchen teaching.
Normally Vajrayana practices seem silly to me. When people are sitting and visualizing elaborate mandalas, I often wonder if they’re really doing it. And when people are doing dozens of full body prostrations or banging a damaru in one hand while pointing a vajra in the other, I often think, “What the hell is happening?” But this guided meditation moved and inspired me. It did open my heart.
In my estimation, that’s how Vajrayana is. There are some good teachings but lots of nonsense you have to wade through first to get there.
My heart and mind were awakened that night, and sometimes I feel myself slipping back into that state, both during meditation and in daily life. It’s a state of pure gentleness and compassion. It’s what Vajrayana Buddhism should be and often isn’t.
I wanted to share it.
I’ve shared this practice with some of my students several times. Every time I lead this meditation, they rave about how much they absolutely love it, how much it means to them. So, I wanted to transmit these teachings to you.
Here is a guided meditation, I hope I haven’t oversold it:
Editor: Dana Gornall