News Flash! Monks Overcome Death in the Yamantaka Ritual

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My first stop on this journey to visit local gompas is the large and very busy Shechen Monastery, built in KTM in 1980 (by Dilgo Kyentse) after having been completely destroyed by Chinese troops in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution. I learn it has more than 300 monks, one of whom is the well-known writer and speaker, Matthieu Ricard. Many monks of all ages are crowded into a large hall to intone the Yamantaka, which is a hefty teaching about overcoming death.

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I don’t want to belabor the topic but it’s damned interesting, so here’s a crash course. Vajrabhairava is seen as the wrathful manifestation of Manjushri, the buddha of wisdom. He also goes by the name Yamantaka, appearing as a buffalo-headed demon who dances on corpses. The term ‘Yamantaka’ means one who puts an end to death/Yama.

Yamantaka is the fusion of two aspects, one blessed and the other irate, and represents the emanation of the double aspect of Manjushri. He is so fierce as to destroy all forces contrary to the Buddhist Dharma. He is thus a bodhisattva of redemption, one who fights against evil and triumphs. (http://www.exoticindiaart.com/product/TN27/)

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According to another article, there are three kinds of death spoken of in the Yamāntaka Tantra. Mullin and Weber (The Mystical Arts of Tibet, Atlanta, 1996, p. 110) write that meditation on Yamantaka “terrifies and chases away the three kinds of death: outer, inner and secret. The first is ordinary premature death caused by obstacles; inner death refers to the delusions and spiritual distortions, which kill happiness for self and others; and secret death refers to blockages in the subtle energy channels of the body, which produce an according mental distortion.”

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The last two types of death are addressed in the so-called “Tibetan Book of the Dead” (Bardol Thodol) and are responsible for blocking an individual’s entrance to Nirvana and causing them to reincarnate. Lamas, of course, make the conscious choice to reincarnate and thus continue their bodhisattva work to save all living beings before they themselves merge into cosmic energy of sublime emptiness.

Photos are not allowed at Shechen so I ask a senior monk for permission. He is patrolling the rank-and-file to rouse sleepy younger monks with a gentle tap on the shoulder (sadistic Zen monks who whack people with the so-called “stick of compassion,” take note!). He tells me to go the main office, which I do. I ask a man pacing the lobby, who then asks three monks in a separate room, but they just look at me and laugh. “You need permission from the head teacher (the rinpoche) who runs the monastery.” Yeah, right. So I risk getting expelled and take a few photos anyway because the chanting and giant horns and drums are just too impressive and powerful to leave undocumented.

I want to try another place to see if the vibe is as intense as at Shechen, and head to the nearby White Gompa (Ka-Nying Sheldrup Ling Gompa).

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To my delight, it is much more relaxed and a good number of lay people are coming to participate, chanting right along with the monks from texts they have brought themselves. And there are no signs prohibiting photos.

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The afternoon light is streaming through the big windows, creating spotlights on monks making offerings, playing drums, reed instruments, or the giant bass horns that make the hair on my arm stand straight up.

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It’s next to impossible to convey the feeling of a chant intoned by around 50 monks. It is low and soft, with refrains of “Om Ah Hum” anchoring the phrases. “The syllables have outer, inner, and “secret” meanings. At each of these levels, OM stands for the body, AH for the speech, and HUM for the mind…representing the transformative blessings of all the buddhas. Externally OM purifies all the negative actions committed through your body, AH through your speech, and HUM through your mind. OM is also the essence of form, AH the essence of sound, and HUM the essence of mind. So by reciting this mantra, you are also purifying the environment, as well as yourself and all other beings within it. OM purifies all perceptions, AH all sounds, and HUM the mind’s thoughts and emotions.” (http://bhutanbuddhism.blogspot.com.tr/2009/10/om-ah-hum-explained.html)

At several points, the drone-like sound is punctuated with cymbals, triangles, bells, and two big drums; monks pay more attention after the musical interlude and speed up their chanting. One monk jolts awake, eyes big and wide, searching faces around him to note who saw him sleeping.

The sonic atmosphere of horns, bells, drums, cymbals and voices transport and transform consciousness via sound: deluded thoughts can’t compete!

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Around 4:30, a monk comes around and serves everyone a tiny sip of “medicine” or (what I imagine to be) fermented-barley liquor. One takes it in their palm, sips a little, then puts the rest on top of one’s head. What makes this communion remarkable is that the “bowl” holding the “medicine” is the top of a human skull. Yum! Bananas and cookies follow. I head out the door and into the last glancing sunbeams of my last Nepali Wednesday afternoon. Gratitude abounds.

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