In Retreat at Chang Chub Ling
Reminiscences by Ven. Lama Lodu Rinpoche
After a hard journey across Bhutan and finally arriving at Chang Chub Ling Monastery, I was more than a little impatient to begin the three year retreat I had traveled all this way for. But I had another nine months to wait, while my fellow retreatants—there were 13 of us in all—returned from their visits and preparations with their families scattered all over Bhutan.
During these months of waiting I stayed busy with the daily life of the monastery, participating in pujas, celebrations and rituals, as well as seeing to my own practice. Although the monastery provided me with the basic essentials of food and shelter, I was lucky to find a benefactor whose support made life considerably easier. It was interesting how this happened.
A young monk who had come out of the last three year retreat at Chang Chub Ling became involved and fell in love with a girl from a wealthy Bhutanese family. This, of course, was a very serious matter and resulted in the young monk being defrocked amidst great scandal. The monk, suffering from the disapproval and punishment of the community, regretted his actions and saw the seriousness of his error. Feeling he had thrown away a great opportunity and wanting to help someone succeed where he had failed, he introduced me to his girlfriend's rich family, who became my benefactors and helped support me before and during the retreat.
This was a family of landed merchants who had many business and farming concerns in the area, and in the months before the retreat began, I would travel to their house in the countryside, whenever they asked, to conduct religious ceremonies that would bring them merit and clear obstacles from their activities. They paid me with food and old silver coins but since there was no store anywhere for miles, I had no way to spend the money. Years later in India I discovered that those coins were quite ancient and sought after by collectors. By then it was too late—I had spent most of them, unaware of their great value.
The defrocked monk gave me all his religious possessions: robes, books, bell, damaru, and other ritual objects, with the hope that this might help dissolve the negativity he had brought upon himself by breaking his vows. He ended up marrying the girl and as far as I know, they are still living happily together.
Finally, the day arrived. My fellow monks and I lined up at Chang Chub Ling and were led in a somber ceremonial procession out of the monastery walls and up the mountain to the Naro Ling retreat, accompanied by bells, drums and horns and banners as well as a great crowd bidding us goodbye and good luck. All the other monks, lay people and family members of the retreatants were making a great show of emotion as their sons were preparing to leave the world for three long years. There was laughter, tears, and plenty of high drama and I remember feeling lucky there was no one there to cry for me. I could just enjoy the show.
We started the retreat with Vajrakilaya and Ngondro for the first six months then continued with yidam practice, meditation on the bodhisattva path, and then the guru yoga practices of our lineage. There were the Akshobya, Vairocana, and Chakrasamvara sadhanas, Six Yogas of Naropa, Gyalwa Gyatso (Red Chenrezig), Bernakchen (Two-Armed Mahakala), mahamudra, and finally, Amithaba sadhana with phowa. These were some of our major practices but of course there were many more.
The setting of Naro Ling was dramatic, perched high on top of a mountain ridge and partially carved out of the surrounding rock. We drank from a spring that was said to have been made to gush out of the rock, miraculously, centuries before by the mahasiddha Nawa Samten. There was the shrine room, our monks' cells, a small kitchen, and wide porch where we ate our meals together. There was a lot of sky and straight down the sheer mountain slope, the river and valley below.
Because I had had tuberculosis, the retreat was very hard on me physically, especially when we were doing the Six Yogas of Naropa, which takes a lot of physical effort and requires strong, deep breathing. My fellows were frightened for me as they saw my health failing. They summoned me in a group and told me I must ask for permission from Kalu Rinpoche to see a doctor. I refused, thinking about my last retreat which had been cut short because of this illness. I had been close to death last time yet here I was still alive and with this rare opportunity before me again. Even though my body was in great pain, my mind was becoming clear and calm. I felt there was no better medicine than this. Also, I was afraid that if I left the retreat even briefly to see a doctor, I might lose the precious momentum I had gained, or worse, they might forbid me to return. I would rather die than risk losing the conviction and devotion that was growing in me, day by day.
So, against the wishes of my fellows, I carried on and Kalu Rinpoche supported my decision. While my body was very close to death, my mind was getting clearer. In fact, the more I accepted the possibility of my death, the more my illness seemed to subside. Eight or ten months later, I was feeling much better and by the end of the three years, I was fully recovered. Everyone thought it was a miracle: I seemed to have come back from the dead.
At the end of the retreat, when everyone else was leaving, I was asked to stay on and look after Naro Ling, which I did for a few months until I was given another job, one which was quite an honor for a new lama. I was asked to lead a group of seven lamas up-country to stay with a tribe of nomadic herders who lived in tents and followed their animals up into the mountains in summer and back down into the valleys in winter, constantly on the move in search of pasture for their animals. It was my job to lead various rituals of blessing that would ensure the health and welfare of the herd. The head man of the tribe told me the herd was so large (more than 10,000 yaks and dzos) that every day during summer at least 50 animals would die and another 50 would be born. Payment for my work was in butter, milk, tsampa, and the great luxury of meat, given to me by the grateful nomads. These people were subjects of Ashi Wongmo, the Bhutanese princess who had long ago given all these lands and the monastery itself to His Holiness the Karmapa, who in turn placed it in the care of Kalu Rinpoche.
So here I was, just a few months out of retreat and already working as a lama. Although I fully believed that tuberculosis would come back and get me some day, I was enjoying every moment of my life in the present. I also felt that after these three amazing years under the guidance of Kalu Rinpoche, I now had the skill to live as well as to die and I was prepared for either one.
Lama Lodu Rinpoche's Autobiography