On Sunday morning, June 2, I visited the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism. I was eager and excited to go, and in addition to the main service, I went to an earlier class, so I could have a better understanding of things.
The class started promptly at 8:30 am and lasted until a few minutes before 10:00, at which time we rushed into the sanctuary to be part of the main service, which lasted until a little before noon.
The building was beautiful. It was like a very large house in a residential neighborhood, painted in bright colors with gargoyles and prayer wheels outside. It’s just the sort of thing you’d expect a Buddhist monastery to look like. Someone was outside spinning the wheels, and they made a sort of ringing bell sound.
I asked someone outside what the prayer wheels were for, and she said she thought they were to scare away evil spirits. Turns out that’s not what they’re for, I looked it up. They’re supposed to help you visualize the mantras printed on them. Buddhists are all about visualizing things, because that’s how they believe you create reality.
Of course, if you visualize chasing away evil spirits, I guess that could work too.
Anyway, I went inside and downstairs to a library space, where a teacher, a nice Mexican-American former Catholic from Texas was there to give some instructions. He went through the prayer book we would be using and described what each bit was for, and he also gave some instruction on how to sit, how to hold your hands, and how to chant.
A note on definitions here: I’m probably not using the terms “mantra,” and “chanting” properly. To me, any words spoken or sang out loud, I’m calling “chanting.” Some of it is actually singing, some of it is praying, and some of it is reciting a mantra. I can’t tell them apart, so I’m just calling it “chanting.”
The chanting would all be in Tibetan. In the book, under the Tibetan script was some transliterated English phonetic pronunciations, so we would know how to say the words properly in Tibetan, even if we couldn’t read the Tibetan alphabet. Under that was the English translation.
By contrast, when I was at the minyon at Beth Shalom, the congregation read the Hebrew directly and chanted it. If you couldn’t read Hebrew, you couldn’t chant along.
The Catholic chanting was done entirely in English, but there was nothing to read along. Everyone there (except me) knew it by heart.
But there were a lot of similarities between this Tibetan chanting and the Hebrew and Christian chanting. The Hebrew and Christian chanting were mostly about glory to God. This Tibetan chanting was also mostly about glory. Glory to Buddha, glory to the Sakya lineage (the family that runs this Monastery), and glory to lots and lots of people who either knew the Buddha, studied the Buddha, or taught about the Buddha. There were also some spiritual beings in there that were given glory.
There were chants that were supposed to bring about internal clarity, and a few mystic syllables (I’ll talk about in a moment). But most of the chanting was about praising and honoring and spouting glory. I would say, 90% glory.
Many of the chants were repeated numerous times. The teacher explained that repetition was necessary for clarity.
Om Ma Ni Pad Me Hum
These are the six mystical syllables. You chant these over and over and over and over again, and they help you get closer to enlightenment and clarity, and help you visualize things that will become real. Each syllable has thirteen different meanings. During the service, we would chant these, first in Tibetan, then in turn, each of the thirteen meanings for each of the six syllables in English, and then chant the Tibetan again hundreds of times very quickly. But more about that later.
We talked mostly about the chanting, but we did get a little bit into philosophy in the class. I’ve used the word “visualize” a few times. It’s important to Buddhists. The service is really to help you visualize “deity” who you create, and merge with, to become perfect. They believe that going through this process makes you calmer, saner, nicer, and in turn, that makes the world better.
After the class was over, we rushed upstairs, took off our shoes, and sat down in the Sanctuary on pillows, a small book holder on the floor in front of us with the several books and laminated handouts that contained the prayers, songs, and chants that we would be using.
I need to describe the sanctuary: This place was awesome. It was very colorful, and filled bursting to the brim with statuettes, pictures, tapestries, lamps, candles, things hanging from the ceiling, and Buddhas. One of the Buddhas was enormous. I mentioned before that the Catholic church held treasures and art every where I looked. That place was spartan compared to the inside of this sanctuary. It was sensory overload. And it smelled heavily, though not unpleasantly, of incense.
The Lama of the church, a member of the Sakya family, sat on a chair on the raised stage area, but he was behind some statuary, so I couldn’t see him well from where I sat. He said nothing during the service, but just observed.
Two monks in orange robes were on the left of me, with microphones, leading the chanting in Tibetan, and letting folks know what books, pages, and handouts to read from. A few of the folks there were Asian, I assume they were Tibetan, but the majority of us were Caucasians. There were close to 70 people there, by my guess.
So we chanted. And we chanted. And then we chanted. We held our hands in the proper prayer position, and the proper relaxed position, and other positions, and we chanted. Some things we chanted once, and some things we repeated over and over again.
I didn’t chant. I couldn’t keep up and read the English at the same time, so I read the English. Some of it was a history, giving glory to this person who accomplished this deed at this place or other. It was hard to follow all of it, in the same way that it’s hard to follow someone’s inside joke. There were a lot of partial references to things, like “he who fought the three beasts,” and “he who sat at the river,” and so on. They were cues for people who had already heard the history remember them and keep them in mind.
Flight of the Bumblebees
When it was time to chant the Om Ma Ni Pad Me Hum bit, everybody chanted it over and over again as fast as they could. The sound of their chanting filled up the space like a million pissed off bees.
At one point, there was a pause in the chanting to pray for the health and welfare of various people, or family members, very much like the sort of thing that happens in a synagogue or church.
And finally, the offering up of wealth. But not you think. The “wealth” was made up of symbolic treasures carried down the center aisle, and offered to a shrine. There was some chanting involved, and the English text referred to “giving treasures in exchange for the blessings of Buddha.”
It was the Lama’s grandson’s birthday, but he wasn’t there. Grandson was in Bhutan studying, but we sang “Happy Birthday” to him anyway, to a portrait of him on the shrine. This particular Grandson is part of the unbroken lineage, going back a thousand years or more, of the founders of this particular church. The current leader was kicked out of Tibet in the 1950’s, and now resides in Seattle.
Lineage is very important to these guys. There’s a whole section of the prayer book dedicated to chanting the praise and glory of each and every single member of that lineage from the beginning all the way down to the present guy.
I won’t go so far as to say they worship the guy, but they do heap an awful lot of praise and respect onto him.
So, this brings me to the score. And it’s hard.
On the one hand, the service was really nothing but chanting in Tibetan. There was no direct message from a preacher or priest giving out good instruction. The Buddhists just don’t do things that way.
On the other, some of the chanting did mention that you shouldn’t be a jerk. (I’m paraphrasing a little.) It also mentions that if everyone stops being a jerk, then the world will become a better place. And there is a bit of focus on that.
So, I want give points for that. The Methodists didn’t tell me not to be a jerk, either in the sermon, the prayers, or the songs. Neither did the Martians, the Catholics, or the Jews. And I really think they should. I think that should be part of the message.
But they don’t get a lot of points. I really got the sense that most of the people there were just chanting syllables they didn’t understand all that well. And chanting and meditating can be pretty relaxing, so I can understand why.
Also, they really spent most of their time offering up glory and thanks to people long dead, and that might be a nice thing, but it really doesn’t help you become a better person and it doesn’t fix the world.
So, after all of that, here’s my score:
Being good to your fellow human: 1 (in a chant)
Help your community: 0 (no mention)
Be good to yourself: 1 (in a chant)
Good and timely advice: 0 (focus was on self-discovery, not advice)
I wish I could have given them a better score.