Menri Phowa Retreat 2012 – Some thoughts (and photos) from the participants
This year Menri Lopon invited students to travel to Menri for a 10-day residential Phowa Retreat. Our group was a blend from around the world – England, United States and Mexico. We met in Delhi on November 16 and the next day we were in taxis on our way to the train station. Everyone was carrying the recommended sleeping bag and warm clothes plus who-knows-how-many power bars. Three of us each had a second bag full of socks (over 750 total pairs!) It was quite a site to see all the luggage on top of the taxis. Somehow we managed to stage our way through the train station up and down stairs – WOW – we were so grateful for the guidance of our wonderful Geshe Tenzin. The “luxury” train was pretty comfortable – it was a mix of eating, joking and sleeping.
Four hours later we disembarked the train and Geshela found us 2 large taxis for the last 2 hour leg to Menri. The rest of the day was time to relax and the next morning we went to visit Menri Lopon at his house and then on to meet His Holiness in his house. His Holiness was most gracious and seemed to enjoy that we had come. He took this time to give us the Phowa transmission (pretty amazing in itself) and gave all of us blessing cords and mendrup (medicine powder) packages. Everyone took the rest of the day to relax and settle into their rooms.
The next day began the six days of actual Phowa retreat. Every day we had a teaching session in Lopon’s room (where he also holds classes for senior monks) at 10am after the monks’ class was finished. Lopon’s assistants, Tsepo and Daten would serve us all coffee (a big hit) or sweet tea. Then we went off to the newly built Tantric Temple for practice. Lopon requested that we have four practice sessions per day – with two of them as a group. As the group coalesced – most folks tended to want to practice together. It was lovely and amazing to practice together in such an environment.
We had four birthdays during the retreat, November 22 was Geshe Tenzin’s. He passed around a goodie – which then started a trend of birthday gift giving. I have to say that my Tibetan lama friends have made a big impact on me for gift giving. It is a lovely tradition to always have in mind and hand a gift to pass on – even something as simple as a pen or a piece of fruit.
Giving out the socks turned out to be a multi-day event – Menri has so many different groups with different schedules and activities. The socks for the Dialectic School monks were handed out during a tea ceremony (sponsored by one of our group members) in the main Temple. We detected many a happy face. The next day two of us accompanied Geshe Tenzin as he handed out socks to the Bon Monastic School boys.
Amazingly for us, His Holiness called a gathering of the monastery leaders and they decided to start a 6-day Puja – 100,000 cake offering to Sidpe Gyalmo (a healing puja), which was to start on Nov. 24 and end on the full moon. This meant that the monks would be praying in the main temple all day, and tsok offerings would be handed out each evening. Everyone was invited to khora (circumambulate) around the main temple and also sit in the temple. Meanwhile the Protector Temple was also a wonderful place to visit and sit inside. This significant and powerful puja is only done two times a year, so we felt so lucky and blessed to be here for it.
November 26 was the final morning of the Phowa, and at 8am we met at Lopon’s and all walked to His Holiness’s quarters were we were to receive the grass in our crowns. Some of us were a bit apprehensive (what if I don’t get a hole in my head??…), Lopon assured us that His Holiness was quite capable – and sure enough by 10am we were all doing khora around the temple with grasses sticking out the tops of our heads. There was more than one grin and congratulations coming from the monks and villagers along the walkways.
In the afternoon we went to visit the nunnery. Half of the group took a taxi and the other half walked the road (and enjoyed the scenic shortcuts). The nuns were busy doing the Sidpe Gyalmo puja too. We had fun visiting with some of the little girls and the nunnery treasurer served us hot water – freshly boiled over a wood fire. The nunnery is on the north side of the hill and tends to be colder than the rest of the valley – we were extra glad that we brought socks to help them out a bit and I think we all had a sense of the difficult life here on this side of the valley.
The final day Lopon planned for our whole group (plus monks and two villagers) to travel to Shimla for a field trip. Shimla is a beautiful old British mountain retreat and is now a great tourist spot. We walked along the streets and up to the famous monkey temple on the hill. Many signs along the way warned tourists about the monkeys – “watch out for your glasses!” Despite my efforts to keep everyone on guard – a monkey casually walked up behind me and swiped my eyeglasses right off my face! It was soon clear that the man renting “monkey sticks” to ward off the monkeys had also trained the monkeys to swipe glasses, purses and cameras – so within 5 minutes I was handing over a 50 rupee tip to the stick guy after he traded a food treat to the monkey for my glasses. Lopon treated us to a wonderful lunch and then we shopped our way back to the taxis. Everyone was happy to get to do a little shopping before heading home. Days later I found out that our group was pictured in a local Punjab newspaper with the caption “Tourists enjoying the beauty of Shimla”.
Btw, the monastery gift shop also was a boon for shopping, many great dharma items and gifts. I think we did ourselves proud supporting the monastery!
I think I can speak for the entire group that His Holiness, Menri Lopon and Geshe Tenzin gave us a wonderful experience at Menri. I am humbled by their graciousness and will never forget this time. It was an amazing opportunity to visit the world center of Bön, in the presence of two of the top lamas, and receive their many blessings and have their help as we embraced the beautiful practice of Phowa. To be amongst this community in the beauty of the elements – and to be here for the Sidpe Gyalmo offering – it was all such a gift.
November 29th the group departed for home, according to my plan, I stayed on for two more weeks for a personal retreat. While I certainly missed the companionship of our group, I did enjoy the peaceful time and opportunity to practice.
I heartily recommend a visit to Menri for personal retreat or pilgrimage if you have the time and means to get there. You can plan your trip around particular rituals and events like Losar, but any time is good for rituals. After my group left I found out several senior monks had decided to do a 6 day retreat in the Protector Temple – one of my favorite places to hang out at Menri. They did ritual from 5:30 am to 5:30 pm and were fine with me being present.
The second surprise event during my “personal retreat” was the visit of Jonathan Kramer MD and his friend Mark Hyman MD. Jonathan has been a longtime friend and supporter of His Holiness and Menri. I was pleased to learn more about his work over the years including his original inspired idea and gift of dairy cows for milk to the monastery, nunnery and children of Dholanji. Over the years the dairy has grown to 30 cows, one of which won the regional championship – best dairy cow! Jonathan this year brought his friend and colleague Mark Hyman, a well-known functional medicine doctor to help in the clinic. They opened the clinic everyday at 4pm after school to dispense medicine and give advice to children and monks.
On the early evening before I left Dr. Mark gave a lecture to the Dialectic School monks about the convergence of western and ancient medicine that his is seeing in the relatively recent field of functional medicine. Geshe Samdup (a former monk of Menri, now residing in Bhutan) was visiting and proved to be an adept translator for this impromptu event. Not surprising the monks had several pertinent questions at the end. This event took place in the beautiful library conference room and was highlighted by the lack of electrical power – taken in stride as numerous flashlights appeared from the well-stocked robes of the attendees.
After the lecture, we hurried over to the Bön Monastic school where a rare but welcome treat was unfolding for the boys. Wanting to supplement the boys’ nutrition Dr. Jonathan had made a mo-mo offering for the kids. This meant a money offering was used to purchase the mutton and other foodstuff required for 3000 or so mo-mo’s to be made for the evening meal. About 30 of the boys along with their Geshe supervisors made a fantastic display of their culinary arts. Watching the event transpire, I wondered how so many mo-mo’s could be eaten – but with 200 hungry boys, it was a quick victory.
My final morning of departure was busy with saying goodbyes to His Holiness, Lopon and all of my many friends at Menri. As I prepared to jump in the taxi, out came numerous khatas – and blessings from my friends.
Btw, if you are considering making trip to Menri, keep in mind the Indian government is now requiring a special permit (Protected Area Permit – PAP). It is fairly easy to get, but does require advance planning. One place for advice on the permit is Menri Lopon’s website, Khyungdzong Wodsel Ling (www.kwling.org) under “About” on the menu bar.
It was a wonderful time to be immersed in the tradition, simple effortless bathing in the essence of the practice. To walk past debating monks, to circumambulate the main temple whilst over a hundred monks chant inside. To enter the residence of his Holiness, to sit in the yogi temple or the protector temple. The way melting through ones skin deep into the heart. It was a blessing to visit this living holy site.
As to comments on Menri — it was a once in a lifetime experience with a deep and lasting effect. I can just close my eyes and do khoras around the temple and feel like “everybody is with me” …the lineage tree khora objective as Lopon described it. I’ve re-read my notes numerous times and feel privileged to have been at Lopon’s for tea as an everyday event with his wonderful precise instructions and having met with HH on several occasions not to mention the early morning meditation in the protector temple and being allowed access to the Yoga Temple for our 4 private daily meditations. Learning to make butter lamps and the 3pm Tibetan teatime in the main temple while listening to the chant of over 150 monks. Watching prayer flags and appliqué thangkas being made and meeting the beautiful people of Menri monastery and the nunnery. The group was diverse and each person a real practitioner — so much was to be learned from one another and it made for wonderful meditations.
Here’s a poem from my wonderful experience with the children at Menri…
Precious little ones,
I didn’t know the stories of your short 5 year long lives,
Nor you the adventures of my decades.
No time. No need, in this moment.
Waiting in the nunnery temple courtyard
For an older brother or sister to return from school.
The energy of movement suddenly
Sweeps thru your laughter.
Your tiny fingers grasp my hands.
Off we go — all five of us across, holding hands
Circumambulating the nunnery temple.
A mantra emerges: A B C D E F G
Rhythmically you recite all the way to Z.
Than again, and again yet one more time.
Now the numbers in English: one, two three, four, five, six, seven
All the way to 100 — and more with very little coaching.
Now in Tibetan ….
Why are you suddenly quiet your warm, brown, curious child eyes ask.
No problem — we’ll sing it for you.
Round and round we dance.
Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven times around!!!
Lost in lightness.
The joy of movement.
The connection of love.
It is my pleasure to share some words about this wonderful trip to the Monastery. As the Tibetan name says: Menri is a ‘Medicine Mountain’!! Thank you Lopon for your hospitality and loving care – I pray for very much happiness as possible to everyone who reads this. I still feel very very lucky for just being there. Again thanks.
From Deanna: (after the Menri retreat, Deanna & Dorothy spent a week in Kathmandu)
We had quite an adventure after we left Menri. We ran into Carlos on Fri night in the Tibetan colony. He was hanging out until his flight. And… There was a slight problem with some of the passports. We got in late to the guest house in Delhi and when we got our passports back from the front desk, we didn’t confirm we had the right ones. Chara and I got our passports mixed up and she got to the airline gate before she realized she had the wrong one. Geshe Tenzin rushed to the airport to switch them for her but by then it was too late. She had to come back to the guest house for another night. Good news is we didn’t see her at the airport when we left for Nepal so we are assuming she’s made it back. Hahahahaha….
Nepal – Wow!! I got food poisoning the Monday night we got to Nepal. Dorothy called Geshe Denma Tues AM & he called a doctor to come and see me. I made myself get out of bed at around 12:30p (the worst was over) to go to Triten Norbutse to see Yongdzin Rinpoche & Khenpo Tenpa Yungdrung. There was definitely a pull to get there. Geshe Denma wanted to be helpful by counting the steps as we walked up them (when your stomach is clinching & Dorothy’s knees are hurting – that’s not such a good idea.) There are 100 plus and it’s steep with no railing.
BUT… totally worth it. As you go up the stairs there is that sense of specialness. And then you start to see the structures and the prayer flags and you feel that rush …. Hard to describe but it was like being half way around the world and feeling like you are coming home again (after Menri of course).
To see both Yongdzin Rinpoche and Khenpo again made your heart sing. They were getting ready for the 25th Anniversary but still made time to see us and Khenpo gave us a tour. It’s a beautiful monastery. Very peaceful. I wasn’t sure what to expect. It felt different from Menri but still the same. We got to see some of the deity statues up close that they had made for the anniversary. There were monks preparing one of the sand mandalas. I have a picture if you’d like it. Khenpo was explaining the schedule for the opening ceremony, conference, etc. It was a huge event and we were glad we could see them before it started. I was telling Yongdzin Rinpoche & Khenpo that we were visiting 2 years to the day of the Mexico Stupa consecration (12/4) which was the last time we had seen them. Khenpo pointed out the Kathmandu valley and told us about how much things have changed since the monastery was established. There was nothing but rice fields below the monastery when it was founded. Now you have buildings all the way up & almost to the monastery. Also, some of the wildlife had recently come into the monastery and killed 4 of their dogs. I think it was a leopard. He was explaining their plans for expansion and other future endeavors.
Geshe Denma was, of course, the perfect host. Always making sure we were taken care of and you could see the happiness on his face while we were there. We had many laughs with him. He’s in love w/my iPad. I’m not sure who he was more disappointed to see leave Nepal – me or the iPad. Haha… we’ll have to get him one.