December 21, 2006

Refuge - As It Happened

The week after Thanksgiving a Tibetan teacher, Khen Rimpoche, was in Lincoln and I was able to take official vows of refuge. Carla called to give me the address at which he was staying, a furnished apartment normally let to business travelers just across from the clubhouse where the sangha meets. I was to come on Wednesday evening after dinner to take refuge. I was early, as usual, and waited in my car ten minutes because I did not want to be rude and interrupt. I found the apartment and went in through the patio door, as Carla had instructed.

Sure enough, sitting in an overstuffed chair in the living room was a Tibetan monk, complete with dark red robes, yellow sash, and mala. I had never met a Rimpoche before, or any monk or nun in any religious tradition for that mater. He smiled and bid me with a gesture to take my shoes and coat to the entrance. Two other members of my sangha were already waiting on the couch.

When I returned, he held out his hand and I gave him mine, which he clasped between the two of his. I was not sure what the etiquette was for greeting him, so I smiled and said hello and sat in the other chair. He asked my name and what it meant. Monica, I told him, meaning ‘patience’, derived from a French name. Soon Carla arrived and we took seats on the four cushions on the floor in front of his chair. He stood and rearranged his robe, and then hunted for another pillow for his chair before folding himself into it cross-legged. He seemed as unused to a chair as we were to the floor. There was a little box set up like a tiny alter on the end table next to his chair with a little doll-like Buddha made of cloth and an offering of fruit and water.

Then began the talk, and I strained to understand through his accent, though his English was good. After a few minutes, I was listening better. At first his talk seemed to ramble, covering topics I had not heard about before in relation to refuge. He spoke of the Buddha and his four qualities, the Dharma, our two opportunities (internal and external and their various types), the Sangha, the four benefits of taking refuge, and many other things which I have already forgotten. I should see if I can look it up on the internet so I can commit it to memory because it is important.

Then he led us through our vows, first explaining them in English, then showing us how to bow three times to the Buddha and three times to him as the teacher, hands held together at head, mouth, and heart before kneeling. He gave me and Donna Tibetan names. Me he called Tsetan Dolkar and spelled it so I would not forget. Then he slowly spoke, with us faltering in our repetition, through the Tibetan words syllable by syllable of our vows of refuge, repeated three times.

When this was done, he returned again to the topics he had covered earlier and I shifted nervously. There was a pregnant pause when he waited for us to fill in the four qualities of the Buddha. I wished he had told us there would be a test! I was concentrating to make out the words through his accent, and I hadn’t tried to commit the content to memory. Between the four of us, we managed to do alright.

By the time the ‘official’ stuff was finished, I was very cold from sitting right next to the patio door, and very stiff and pained from trying to sit up straight on a cushion on the floor. But I was happy. Rimpoche gave each of us a white ‘kata’ scarf and a little red string blessed by the Dalai Lama, which he tied around our necks. He also gave us a picture of himself with the Dalai Lama. I understand having photos of one’s teacher for one’s shrine is important in Tibetan Buddhism, even though it seems odd to me as a Westerner. Dean, from the sangha had brought his camera and set it up to take a photograph. We rearranged some furniture and the girls squeezed onto the couch with Rimpoche. Dean pushed the delay button and sat on the floor before us. I hope the picture turned out okay, though I’ve not seen it yet.

We fetched out coats and hats and prepared to leave. I stopped to ask Rimpoche what Tsetan Dolkar meant. Tsetan means ‘long lived’ and it sounds like a fairly standard name. I had heard it mentioned as part of Rimpoche’s full name. He gave it to Donna as well and Carla already had Tsetan included in her Tibetan name. Dolkar meant ‘white Tara,’ Tara being the chief (and only, I think) female bodhisattva, or deity/saint, in the Tibetan cannon. He said she stood for liberation. We made our farewells and stopped briefly outside to confirm that we would see each other at the public lecture on Friday.

I was, and am, happy and grateful to have received such teaching and I only wish I could remember it all.

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