Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s two week long Light of the Path retreat was truly unbelievable. Rinpoche’s intensity, energy, good humor and outpouring of loving kindness have to be experienced to really be understood. Having spent over 30 years teaching Westerners, Lama Zopa knows us better than we know ourselves. He teaches in English in a way that everyone can understand, interspersing lots of “AMAAAAAAZINGS!”, jokes, and references to our favorite addictions.
Frequently, he would start discussing a topic and then to make his point, he’d relate a fascinating story from his life, and the story would get longer and longer until finally Rinpoche would suddenly say “Now, where was I going with this story, I’m lost?” I think he did that intentionally, just to see if we were all paying attention.
We began each day at 5:30 am taking the 8 Mahayana precepts, doing the 35 Buddha confession prayer with prostrations, followed by a combined Lama Chopa/Jorcho puja. After breakfast, either Rinpoche taught or one of his senior students Ven Gyatso from Atisha Center, Australia led a guided meditation and discussion. After lunch, Ven Connie Miller and Ven Renee led discussion groups. Rinpoche then continued teaching. After dinner, Rinpoche taught until about 10 pm and then led prayers which ended at midnight. He exhorted us to sleep only four hours a night so that we would make the best possible use of our precious human rebirth. While most people were nodding off by midnight, Rinpoche was still going strong chanting the prayers with vigor and feeling.
Rinpoche spent a lot of time carefully explaining the preliminary prayers such as Taking Refuge and Bodhicitta, several mantras for blessing the speech, making offerings, the yoga of eating, the seven limbed prayer and many others. He covered a wide range of Lam Rim topics emphasizing guru devotion, karma, the precious human rebirth, and practices for people of different capacities.
His main emphasis was how to put the teachings into practice in daily life by being mindful of every action of our body, speech, and mind. We might mumble our prayers and chase after more and more esoteric tantric teachings, but in doing so, we’re missing the point of the Buddha’s teachings. Lama Zopa Rinpoche explained the importance of purification practices in detail. He also provided an interesting commentary on Lama Chopa.
We were captivated by his explanation and demonstration of how to chant Lama Chopa correctly. The melodies were so complex and rich. Rinpoche encouraged us to chant as much of the Lama Chopa in Tibetan instead of English because the the prayer is a sound offering to the Buddhas. Ven Sarah Thresher also led the Lama Chopa on several occasions and her singing was ethereal. Other om zes (chant masters) included Ven Steve, Ven Gyatso, and Ven Amy Miller who also set the bar high for the rest of us.
Throughout the teaching, Lama Zopa skillfully returned again and again to the subject of emptiness exploring it from many angles challenging us to radically transform our ordinary perception of reality.
At the end of the two week class, Lama Zopa joked that he hadn’t started his commentary on verse 1 of the text but that everything he taught was the path to enlightenment and he’d given us all we need.
Rinpoche so kindly gave us the oral transmission of the Lamp to the Path to Enlightenment as well as the Medicine Buddha and Stainless Beam mantras and the “Heart Spoon” — a prayer by Kyab Je Pabongkha Dechen Nyingpo about emptiness.
As if this wasn’t enough, Rinpoche shared his travelling collection of holy relics with us. The sangha formed a procession and escorted the relics down from Rinpoche’s lodge to the gompa where Rinpoche made offerings to them. We all had a chance to circumambulate them and offer khatas and receive their powerful blessings.
For me, a highlight of the retreat was having my request for the monastic confession ceremony granted, so all the sangha who attended did the sojong with Geshe Gelek presiding. Sadly, it seems as though most of the sangha do not have an opportunity to do sojong regularly. Everyone really enjoyed it. We also had a great time rolling mantras, and then filling and sealing 200 beautiful little Buddha statues that one of the nuns, Ven Yeshe Choden, carried all the way from India.
The volunteers from FPMT and Kadampa Center were so thoughtful and generous. On one occasion, as I was walking up the big hill from the dining hall to the lodge, three people stopped and asked me if I needed a ride! Everyone treated each other with great kindess and respect and everyone helped out with the numerous tasks. Over 2oo people attended the retreat including about 50 ordained sangha — 13 monks and maybe 35 nuns . Many students came from as far away as Singapore, Australia, Taiwan and all over Europe.
The next Light of the Path retreat will most likely take place in either August or September of 2010 at the same lovely YMCA facility in North Carolina. In addition, plans are underway for retreats with Lama Zopa on Lama Chopa in Singapore and Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga in Indonesia. According to Merry Colony, Director of FPMT Education Services, FPMT wants to preserve and transmit the Buddhadharma as taught by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. As such, anyone who plans on teaching the Light of the Path curriculum at a Center is required to attend most of the retreats.
On the long drive back home, I passed through idyllic pastures filled with grazing cattle. I remembered Lama Zopa’s advice to see everything that appeared as illusions resulting from the ripening of my karma. I thought about the cows, how peaceful they seem and yet how sad that they’re unaware of the slaughterhouse that awaits them. Then — even worse — a tractor trailer drove by with hundreds of rusty wire cages piled high crammed with chickens, feathers blowing out everywhere, pale yellow legs sticking out at strange angles, eyes closed, wings held tightly against their bodies. Lama Zopa stressed the importance of taking personal responsibility for bringing each and every sentient being to Enlightenment — “by myself alone” he repeated over and over. Somehow seeing the suffering of these animals really brought the Buddha’s teachings home.
The entire retreat was professionally recorded, and the files are available here. I encourage you to take the time to listen to as much of Lama Zopa’s teachings as possible.
May all sentient beings attain Enlightenment and
May I help them attain this goal.