No Desire but Plenty of Bliss and Void
During the summer of 2008, Ven. Paula Chichester and Ven. Roger Munro trekked the Scottish Highlands completing an extensive Chöd retreat. In this exclusive interview with Julia Hengst they discuss the inspiration they received from Tsongkhapa’s ear-whispered lineage (of which Chöd is a part), and also their direct experience with the powerful effects of the practice on the environment and its inhabitants.
Julia: How did you become interested to do Chöd retreat?
Ven. Paula: Chöd is a chanting sadhana that was created by a great female yogini of Tibet, Machig Labdron, who lived in the eleventh century around Milarepa’s time. And so it’s an indigenous Tibetan practice although she was a student of Padampa Sangye who was a famous mahasiddha from India. It comes through Machig Labdron from Padampa Sangye. She wandered around Tibet doing this practice. I was fortunate last year to go to her cave where she meditated for 30 years doing Chöd.
Ven. Roger: The cutting [Chöd] lineage came from Padampa Sangye, but she developed it into its present form, which is quite different from what Padampa Sangye taught. It’s a prajñaparamita practice of cutting the ego, and she developed it into where you go to the scary places.
Ven. Paula: What we like about it is that it’s very powerful for developing wisdom and compassion and renunciation. And, after doing it this summer, I just want to do more of it. When Geshe Khenrab told us it was so powerful for developing compassion to do it, he was right – it really does. Gelugpas had to do it in secret. It wasn’t something they were allowed to do in the monasteries.
Ven. Roger: It was a Gelugpa practice. It came through Machig Labdron and through the Chöd lineages to Lama Tsongkhapa. You probably could say it came through the Kagyu lineage to Lama Tsongkhapa. He, with the help of Manjushri, revitalized it by inserting his correct view of emptiness into it. The practice was more Cittamatra and Lama Tsongkhapa transformed it into Madhyamaka.
Lama Tsongkhapa reclarified how sutra and tantra are inseparable. His main job was to reunify sutra and tantra. Lama Atisha did the same thing. Sutra practitioners then didn’t think tantra was necessary, and vice versa.
Ven. Paula: All the schools practice Chöd. It’s really popular in the Nyingma and Kagyu [traditions]. In Gelugpa it’s not done so much – it was more secret. Jan Willis’ book Enlightened Beings tells how all the great lamas of our mahamudra lineage practiced Chöd. Gyalwa Ensapa was one of them, and we do the Ensa lineage of Chöd. It’s [called] the Ganden Chöd or the Ensa Chöd because it comes through Gyalwa Ensapa, who was a great Madyamika. The other thing I found very interesting when I went to Tibet is that Olka, which is the place where Lama Tsongkhapa did all his ngöndro and was in retreat for years, is just up the valley from Machig Labdron’s monastery.
Ven. Roger: Although it’s not common in the Gelugpa monasteries, it’s very cherished in the ear-whispered lineage. That’s Lama Tsongkhapa’s lineage that Gyalwa Ensapa propagated.
Julia: What is the ear-whispered lineage in contrast to the regular Gelugpa teachings?
Ven. Roger: It’s the actual practice lineage that includes all the practices that Lama Tsongkhapa received from Manjushri directly on how to become enlightened in one lifetime in these degenerate times. When Lama Tsongkhapa was first practicing Dharma in Tibet, when he had learned everything, he looked around and he didn’t think it was possible to still become enlightened particularly because the emptiness teachings had become slightly unclear. And also the morality was changing at the time. He was skeptical and when he finally got to talk to Manjushri directly, he asked if it’s still possible to attain enlightenment in one lifetime like we hear in the great texts. Lama Manjushri said, “Yes.” And Lama Tsongkhapa asked, “How is that?”
Lama Manjushri outlined a whole series of teachings of which the Lama Chöpa practice is the embodiment of all. It contains them all. But it also includes the three deities, extensive sadhana practice, Chöd practice, ngöndro practices – this is really what you call Lama Tsongkhapa’s practice lineage. It was originally called the Ganden Kagyu lineage, meaning this is the Ganden practice lineage. Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche explained that some of the lineages that Lama Tsongkhapa incorporated into his practice lineage came through the Kagyu lineages, but not all of them. They also came from the Sakya and even from the Nyingma. It’s called the Ganden Kagyu lineage because it’s the Ganden practice lineage – this is how you get enlightened in one lifetime or in several lifetimes, in the quickest way possible.
Ven. Paula: Where you hear about it is in the Ganden Kagyu mahamudra teachings, which Lama Yeshe requested His Holiness the Dalai Lama to teach at the first Dharma Celebration teaching [Enlightened Experience Celebration, 1982] and he wanted all of his students to come. He wrote personal letters to people all over the world and for that particular teaching there were 500 of Lama Yeshe’s students in the Dalai Lama’s palace, up front. It was a really big deal because it was a teaching Lama Yeshe wanted us to have. Lama Zopa taught it the summer before at Vajrapani, and the summer before that at Chenrezig Institute in preparation for these teachings, and that was when I heard about the ear-whispered lineage. Lama Zopa would talk about it all the time. Of course, when he taught it, he taught about guru devotion the whole time. The emptiness teaching came at the airport for the few people who were there!
Venerable Rene Feusi requested Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche to come teach it at Vajrapani in 2005 and it was the last teaching he gave there. So we got it again from Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche. There is also a book they made from His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings, The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, edited by Alex Berzin.
Ven. Roger: That book was based on the text by Losang Chokyi Gyeltsen, who was the first in the lineage of mahamudra teachings to write down the teachings Lama Tsongkhapa received from Manjushri and to codify it into a body of written knowledge. Up till then, from Lama Tsongkhapa to Losang Chokyi Gyeltsen – and this is the most quintessential meaning of ear-whispered lineage – it had been passed from one lama to another. By the time it reached Losang Chokyi Gyeltsen, I think he was in fear it would disappear if he didn’t spread it widely, and it was also karmically time. There were beings at that time, and from then till now, who have the karma to hear that teaching. He wrote the mahamudra root text. He wrote the Lama Chöpa, and many other texts, sadhanas and many things to reveal Lama Tsongkhapa’s ear-whispered lineage to a wider audience.
There are stories that at first the monastic lineage was skeptical about this lineage – the Lama Chöpa, the associated practices of Chöd, because in the monasteries, the emphasis is on studying the five great treatises. That’s what the monasteries brought from the lamas in India to Tibet, and it’s important to study those to understand emptiness properly. Then you have a foundation for moving into tantra and higher esoteric practices after that. I think the reason it’s so secret is that the great lamas, in their wisdom, don’t want to interrupt the studies of the monks. They don’t want to distract them with Chöd or tantric practice.
Ven. Paula: Or if the monks are very inspired, they have to do them at night. Lama Yeshe had this all set up for his students. After that first Dharma Celebration, after we received the mahamudra teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lama Yeshe requested Kyabje Song Rinpoche to give a series of teachings. First we received Guhyasamaja, then Chöd, and then we received Heruka Body Mandala. Then we had Yamantaka initiation, although we didn’t get teachings on them. We received teachings on that from Ling Rinpoche, and Vajrapani initiation from Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche. You can infer from this list that those were the teachings Lama Yeshe really wanted us to have.
I loved Chöd. I think it has to do with the compassion aspect of it, and the sadhana itself is so beautiful.
What we were interested in was studying, learning and propagating Lama Tsongkhapa’s ear-whispered lineage. So then we found out years later, when we were in the Great Retreat and Jan Willis sent us a manuscript of Enlightened Beings, and that’s when we saw that all of the first ear-whispered lineage lamas all did Chöd. You don’t hear about that much. It’s like Chöd is a supplement to whatever your main deity is. All these lamas also did Chöd.
Ven. Roger: It’s like an extensive package deal that Lama Tsongkhapa put together for his students to practice, and the transmission of that has come to us. That’s what we’ve been following and slowly, since I first met Rinpoche in 1979, Rinpoche’s been revealing the possibility of the ear-whispered lineage and the possibility of gaining actual realizations from this practice. For this, we are profoundly grateful.
Ven. Paula: I felt lots and lots of bliss on this retreat – I don’t know if it’s just because I have some connection with this practice. One thing I experienced doing this retreat is that Machig Labdron is still here. I invoke her and she’s right there – she comes! I don’t know if it’s just me, or because it’s a close lineage, but I think she was a really powerful yogini. I think of her and – BAM! – she’s there. Her compassion for sentient beings is just huge! She’s an emanation of Tara and Prajñaparamita.
Julia: Will you tell me some of the history of how you learned about Chöd, and how you came to do this retreat?
Ven. Roger: …[A]fter doing Heruka retreat, I decided to take the “Dedicating the Illusory Body” (Chöd) text, and make it into a chantable English version. I’d already received permission from Lama Zopa Rinpoche to do that. It’s the common Ganden Chöd lineage. (The one we practiced in the retreat we just finished is the uncommon Ganden Chöd lineage. The sadhanas are different and the initiations you receive and the deities you practice while you do them are a little different in the uncommon lineage.)
I didn’t know about the uncommon lineage at the first Dharma Celebration because Song Rinpoche taught us about the common lineage. Just after we finished the Great Retreat, we serendipitously encountered David Molk who was willing to translate the common text for us into a chantable version.
David encouraged us to come to Toronto for teachings from Khalkha Jetsun Dampa Rinpoche, who is said to be like the Dalai Lama of Mongolia. He was in Toronto at Zasep Tulku Rinpoche’s center giving the initiations and transmissions for the uncommon Ganden Chöd, which is the 108 Springs retreat. As the title implies, that involves going to one hundred and eight different springs consecutively and performing the Chöd practice at those sites. You have to be in a different place every night without interruption. Preferably it’s a spring, but it can also be a river, a lake or an ocean – somewhere there is water around.
The empowerment that enables one to do this retreat takes seven days of teachings and seven nights of going to scary places. Khalkha Jetsun Dampa Rinpoche would give initiations and teachings all day long, and then at night he would send us off to a different graveyard where we were supposed to do the Chöd practice every night. Because it was twenty degrees below zero in Toronto winter, we went instead to a different student’s house every night and did Chöd as a group all night. That’s the prerequisite and commitment to 108 Springs Retreat.
Ven. Paula: It was a very intense seven-day long retreat. There were exactly thirty-eight people, like in Vajrayogini’s body mandala (thirty seven, plus the teacher in this case). We were given teachings and initiations all morning. At sunset we would do the practice together, and from the time we left him until we saw him the next morning, we couldn’t speak. We traveled with David and Minoshi Gould. We did the practice four times in the night, the last time just before dawn. We would drive back to the center in the morning after sleeping an hour or so, and then go back to receive teachings. We slept a little in the middle of the night, but not much.
Towards the end of it, I had a burning desire to do this practice. Khalkha Jestun Dampa said at the end, “I don’t know if any of you will carry this lineage on, but I hope one of you in this room will carry it on.” I felt inspired to do it! I know one other group has done it in India with him. They did half of it and were supposed to finish the second half this year.
That was 1995 and Chöd was to be our next project. We moved to Land of Medicine Buddha where we met Ribur Rinpoche, who asked us to do a Yamantaka Great Retreat to benefit the FPMT. That took eight years from the time he asked us to do it until the time we finished.
Julia: Do you still feel like Yamantaka retreat was a diversion?
Ven. Paula: No, it was necessary. In fact it was another prerequisite and we probably couldn’t have done this Chöd retreat without having done the Yamantaka retreat.
In 2005, I went to Scotland to visit my friend Ven. Angie Muir who introduced me to Thubten Dechen there, who was six at the time. We took a walk across Leckmelm Farm on Loch Broom and came across a ruin of a house which I had no idea was a clearance1 house. I didn’t know what the clearances were.
Out of the blue I said to Thubten Dechen, “What’s the wind telling you?” What the wind told me was, “Come back and do the 108 Springs retreat.” Right! Enthusiasm for pra ctice burned inside me again.
I was going to do it by myself but people warned me not to do it alone, and Roger had the commitment as well. After leading a Vajrayogini retreat at Vajrapani Institute, I used those offerings to take Roger and me on a reconnaissance mission to the Scottish Highlands. Angie had introduced me to wonderful people who were willing to help us.
Julia: What kinds of things did you check?
I had the opportunity to speak with Lama Zopa Rinpoche who did a mo that came out “excellent” to live, teach and retreat in Scotland.
Julia: What about where you would stay in Scotland?
Ven. Paula: We found out that you can camp anywhere in Scotland. There is a “right of access” law on the books that allows you to put up a tent pretty much anywhere in Scotland. You can’t drive a car anywhere, but you can walk and camp in most places. That’s one of the reasons we picked Scotland: we had access almost everywhere. There are tons of creeks and springs – lots of water.
Scotland has a very powerful spiritual tradition from the Celts. As much as some people tried to beat it out of the place, it’s still there. I feel called to do spiritual practice when I am in Scotland. Last year I went to Tibet for two weeks, thanks to Ven. Robina. Afterwards I came back and went to Scotland, and I felt more inclined to do retreat there than in Tibet.
Part of that might be my DNA connection with Scotland, but it’s also an extraordinary place. Physically and energetically, it’s beautiful. Despite the bad weather, I loved it. Roger has a strong connection too – his family is from there.
Basically, when I was [at a clearance] the first time, I could feel sadness there. You can also see deserted houses and hear personal stories from people about the clearances. The stories are basically about ghosts!
Basically, the Scottish and English had been fighting over Scotland for a thousand years, with the Brits wanting to take it over. They finally had a big battle – the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Afterwards, in order to prevent future Scottish uprisings, they brutalized the Scots. It’s called the Highland Pacification and was carried out by the Duke of Cumberland, also known as the Butcher of Cumberland
Afterwards they went around and killed anyone who had anything to do with the last uprising – it didn’t matter if they were children or women. They burned the houses down, forbade them to wear their clothes, play their music and speak their language. The nobles couldn’t take care of their people – it was the end of feudalism. With the breakdown of the lords and the peasants, the whole society broke down.
There are stories of massacres starting in the last half of the eighteenth century. Afterwards the British army went all around the highlands and rooted out any able-bodied man and killed them. Men were hiding in caves. In one house we visited, an eighteen-man British garrison was massacred by a Scotsman who came in the middle of the night.
Just about everywhere you go in Scotland there are stories of brutality. It’s not just the English against the Scots, but the Scots against the Scots – they fought with each other. In the same house I mentioned, on the same farm, in the old days there was a storehouse. If they had a good harvest the storehouse was full of grain, but if they had a bad harvest in the next valley, they would come over and try to steal all their food. There was a horrible slaughter there too. The whole place is full of people getting killed.
To make matters worse, in the early nineteenth century, the people who owned the land encountered the age of capitalism and Adam Smith, and so they wanted to get rid of the peasantry. The Scots were largely subsistence farmers who lived off the land and had a lot of spare time to play music and drink whisky. That’s why they have such an incredible musical tradition in Scotland.
The rulers decided they couldn’t make money off the peasantry – it was around the time of the potato famine – so they decided to move people off the land. This happened estate by estate – it wasn’t a centralized movement. They thought they could turn the land into sheep farms and force the people into indentured laborers. They created big fishing industries on the coasts and forced people to move there.
The Scots had fished for salmon in streams, but few had experience fishing in the ocean. Unless you were a sailor and working a schooner, you didn’t go into the sea. Basically, the ruling class created these huge fisheries, emptied the inner land (the glens) of people and forced them to emigrate or work the fishing ships.
Village by village, they burned the people’s houses down. This is a generalization – some stories were worse, some better – there are many individual stories. In some cases the landowners offered to pay people’s passage to Canada or Australia, and some of them took it. They didn’t really want to leave – they’d lived there for generations and they have a strong spiritual connection to the land.
The houses were part stone with thatched roofs and huge rafter beams. The rafters were burned down – these weren’t easily replaced because most of Scotland’s forests had already been cleared years ago. People would keep the rafters if they moved to or built a new house. So the rafters were burned and the stone walls were pushed inside so the people couldn’t go back inside and seek shelter.
It was cold there – some people died of exposure, some took to living in caves or churchyards. It was horrible. This went on for about seventy years. Now you go to Scotland and it’s like going to a national park. The whole highlands are uninhabited, except on the coast where people live. It’s beautiful – there are sheep everywhere – but the irony is that all the places where people went, like Australia, started their own sheep farms and Australian wool beat out Scottish wool. The price of Scottish wool dropped and now it seems like they just have sheep to get taxes off of having farms, but wool isn’t such a money maker anymore. The people who lived on the coast were forced to change their lives.
This wasn’t that long ago – this is my grandparents’ time. I have a book where a guy took people’s stories down in the eighties – some of them still remember it! Or they remember their parents or grandparents telling them these stories. It’s very fresh in people’s minds – when you go to Scotland you learn about it.
I heard about this after I’d gotten the message to do Chöd there. Then it made total sense. This was the place to do it because it’s far enough in the past that we won’t get bombed – it’s not like going to Bosnia, Palestine, Iraq or Africa – but it’s related to my ancestors and Roger’s ancestors. It’s our lineage. There is a genetic connection there that made our Dharma practice more real. I’m not Tibetan. I don’t relate to Tibetan culture that much. I love the practices, but it’s not my ancestral connection.
To be able to take a Tibetan practice and integrate it into a Scottish culture, and do it in English all over Scotland, for me it was the highlight of my Dharma career. It was the best thing I had ever done.
My whole approach to the Dharma hasn’t been entirely faith-based. I have a scientific interest in it, and I like to test things and see if it works, if we can say it works. I was curious to see if by taking a small place like Scotland rather than America you can have an impact by doing something like Chöd. Chöd changes the spiritual environment of the land where you do it. It pacifies the negative minds of the beings you’re in contact with.
It’s a pacification process. If there are disturbed spirits in a place, that is going to affect the minds of people there. If we can’t work directly with the disturbed minds of the people, we can work with the disturbed minds of the spirits – that will help the people to have healthy minds, which makes everything better. That’s the premise on which I went to do Chöd in Scotland.
Some people still question the reality of spirits. Just because you can’t see something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Think of what was considered real before the invention of telescopes and microscopes. One day we may have a “subtle body scope.”
From the people we’ve been around, the feedback we got is that it was successful. We didn’t visit all of Scotland – we picked specific places, mostly in the northwest highlands.
Our friend Lucy said she had more control over her farm and life about a week after we’d done the Chöd practice at clearance sites on her property. We have a friend there who said she hadn’t been able to do certain practices until Chöd had been performed there. There have been curses and witches there – it goes back a long way! Other people told us about the positive changes in their lives. I was very happy Roger came along, too, because he’s such a powerful practitioner. I don’t think it would have been nearly as effective if we hadn’t done that Yamantaka retreat first.
Ven. Roger: The practice has several parts to it. The main things you’re dealing with are gods and ghosts – the local gods and ghosts of the place, land and country. There’s a whole hierarchy in those realms – the realms of the hungry ghosts, the gods, the types of ghosts. There are different levels of health and wealth and well-being. Some of them are suffering quite a bit, and they are the ones that usually hang around scary places. They are in terrible states of suffering and don’t know they don’t have to be there.
The particular 108 Spring practices involves three different practices a day: you take possession of the ground in the name of Prajñaparamita, then you do the practices, then you satiate them by making extensive offerings to them based on your own body and the Dharma, which pacifies their delusions. With this particular retreat, every place you go, you have a certain amount of boundary stones you use for protection during the practice that you bless. When the practice is over you gather them up and request Mother Prajñaparamita to come and stay in that place in order to continue to teach and care for the gods and spirits in that place.
It’s similar to someone inviting His Holiness the Dalai Lama to come to San Francisco. He comes, he does his work and brings benefit. In the Chöd retreat you’re constantly asking Prajñaparamita to come and be in that place to benefit sentient beings and give teachings.
Ven. Paula: We have Mother Prajñaparamitas in piles of stones – one hundred and eight of them – all over Scotland.
Ven. Roger: Also, just by showing the example of compassion and love by doing the practice, it benefits the beings.
Ven. Paula: I think these spirits have been neglected for so long – the people were forced to stop practicing their pagan religions. A lot of the places we went – springs and so on – were famous, important places for healing and such. There are healing wells from the time where there was a more animistic religion. People propitiated certain wells because it would bring them certain qualities.
I think nobody paid attention to these spirits for so long that it was beneficial just to pay attention to them. Not only that, we were singing beautiful songs to them! They were beautiful songs, with beautiful tunes and beautiful words – hopefully they understand English! Just the practice itself soothes the spirits. Then you leave Prajñaparamita there with them, to be there for them in perpetuity. It’s so cool – it’s like planting a world peace vase.
The coolest place (and we waited till the very end) that we went to was the place where the Battle of Culloden was – and we both had visions of ghosts and spirits there. We could feel it – our hair stood up on end.
Julia: It’s so compassionate even to care about this invisible realm that a lot of people might not even believe in.
Ven. Paula: It is. Prajñaparamita is so present, I would visualize ghosts going up and sitting in her lap and being cared for her by her. The practice is so tangible too. In the beginning we allowed people to come with us, and people could always feel the difference. They would feel calm, sometimes there were rainbows, or if it was cloudy the sun would come out, or it would be windy and the air would calm down.
Julia: Did you get the sense you could feel the spirits’ reactions somehow?
Ven. Roger: We could feel a lot of joy. We felt love coming back.
Julia: And you don’t think it was just you? If there are people out there learning how to be sensitive to energy, how would you describe this?
Ven. Paula: You learn to feel with another sense. You have to be quiet.
Ven. Roger: We felt joy very directly.
Ven. Paula: That’s also our joy – but here’s an example. If you walk into a room with someone who is really angry, you know what that feels like. If you walk into a room with someone who is happy and relaxed, you know what that feels like. For us, it would be like walking into a room with a lot of agitated people – like being on an airplane with a bunch of people that have been flying for twenty hours and everyone wants to get off. When we finished the practice it would feel like being in a room with a bunch of relaxed, happy people.
Ven. Roger: Most of the time we were alone doing the practice. There were times we had good friends come along and they would do other virtuous activities while we did the practice in the vicinity. They couldn’t hear it because they didn’t have the initiation. From a scientific viewpoint the feedback was always that it felt special – something changed in peoples’ minds.
One time we did it in Callanish on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis, which is about as far out as you can get. It’s an amazing, ancient place with energies of its own. We met there a friend of a friend who is an archeologist who lived on Lewis and was battling the government on this Callanish issue because the government wants to make inroads onto this land that is ho ly and ancient. He was on the conservation side. He and his friends weren’t Buddhist.
He sat and turned my prayer wheel while we did the practice, and later on when we finished, he came over and said, “I have no idea what you people were doing in that practice, but my mind feels so clear. The clarity of my thoughts and my ability to focus on what I’m going through with the government – thank you so much.” It seemed to clear obstacles for his mind.
We have the karmic seeds to be disturbed, but there are other beings in the environment disturbing us. There is a yogi called Segyu Rinpoche – he is a very high shamanic practitioner who deals with spirits, and in his opinion, much of what we call mental disease in the Western world is spirit influence.
When your sense of “I” is so solid and concrete that you feel self-existent to the point that nothing can affect you, then you can’t accept that there are other beings around and that you’re a product of dependent arising. There are so many complex factors, and one of those factors is whatever gods and spirits are in that area and how they’re feeling.
It’s just like if you were to live in a place with a really crabby landlord. What a bummer that would be to be in that constant, crabby environment with that person – it would affect you. It’s just like that with spirits, nagas, and different low-level gods. If they’re not happy it’s not likely the humans in that area are going to be happy or have peace of mind.
This is why, when we go to holy sites like those in India and Tibet, or even now in the West where people have done retreat, you go there and get a positive feeling – as well as positive places from other spiritual traditions.
Those places are only that way because great beings have been there and transformed not only their own minds, but the minds of the beings in that place. You go into that environment and experience a different kind of mind. Outwardly it looks like Chöd practitioners were like outcasts and considered a little eccentric. It was okay for Chöd practitioners to be eccentric in their activities because they went to scary places and did unusual practices. I don’t think it’s really possible to understand the benefit of these practices on the wider, spiritual environment of an area. In Tibet, where you had a lot of Chöd practitioners doing these practices all over the place, this is what makes a holy land.
Tibet wasn’t an inherently holy place, but became so through the activities of the holy beings. The life stories of Padmasambhava and other great yogis all included subduing the local beings with compassion or wrath or whatever skillful means they had. It’s only on the basis of that that a Dharma community could flourish. Chöd practice is very important for purifying place. That place can become more settled and people can turn their minds towards the Dharma in a place like that.
Ven. Paula: People know that when Padmasambhava went to Tibet the first thing he did was subdue the local spirits. In an effort to make Scotland a Dharma land … and we do not have the power of Padmasambhava, but there is power in the lineage and the blessings of Prajñaparamita and all of our lineage lamas. By our pure faith in that, I think it did bring blessings to that part of the world.
Ven. Roger: We got positive feedback from people wherever we went. Whenever anyone with any level of clairvoyance came around, they said they could see or feel what we were doing as we were doing it. We did the practice in a very famous castle near Loch Ness, and something definitely happened in the water. Our dear friend Victoria who came with us said she could see the naga spirits coming to us at that offering. I couldn’t see anything, but I could see a big upwelling in the place she was talking about. You can expect things like that to happen, but the most important thing is how our minds felt.
Ven. Paula: In my personal experience, one interesting thing is that last winter one of my friends in Scotland sent maps so I could plan out what we would do. For some reason, I could never make it happen. Even when we got there I couldn’t make a solid plan, so there was an element of spontaneity and uncertainty involved with it.
It’s unsettling to never know where you’re going to be from day to day or what you’re going to do, and it was a level of uncertainty I had to live with the whole retreat. It forced me to meditate on emptiness all the time, because it forced me to be in this state of not planning. Spontaneity could take us where we were supposed to go. I wondered if this is how Rinpoche lives all the time.
Usually when you’re in retreat, there is certainty. You’re only going to be in one place and you know what you’re doing. But this retreat adds a whole other level. That’s what monks and nuns are supposed to be like!
Ven. Roger: Chöd holds a kernel of the lifestyle monks, nuns and yogis are supposed to lead. Not that all Chödpas are wandering around in wild places, but that is the general lifestyle. There are disciplines in the practice, like if you leave a place you’re not supposed to look back or go back. If you forgot something at your camp, that’s too bad, you just leave it. There’s a great deal of impermanence and detachment for worldly concerns.
Ven. Paula: We had to do so much planning on faith that things would happen. The money and texts didn’t come together until the last minute.
Julia: How did you get the money to do this?
Ven. Paula: Our wonderful friends gave it to us. We did a small fundraising letter and friends and supporters enabled us to do this. Our friends in Scotland were so incredibly generous. We were even offered the use of a Land Rover, and that was extremely helpful. We put two months of supplies in the car. We were able to go all over Scotland and hit certain places. We could reach certain clearance sites that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
Julia: What was the weather like?
Ven. Roger: It’s hard to say they really had a summer in Scotland. We hardly went a few days without a storm coming. We had a few days of fine weather, but mostly it was overcast, rainy and windy. We were in wild places like lochs, glens and coastlines, but we sat through some monumental storms where we were in the tent for 24 hours and the tent was doing a dance around us. Physically it was very difficult.
Ven. Paula: There were times I wondered if I could really do this. It was really hard. By the end I didn’t want it to end. I’d figured out that when there was a big storm you get inside your tent and just rest.
Ven. Roger: It’s called 108 Springs, but the whole retreat was 126 days. We spent seven days at the first spring, seven at the 54th spring, and seven at the last spring. We started April 1 at Shambhala Retreat Center. It was still snowing and sleeting there. The first seven days were in the yard of the center.
From there we moved around during the day to springs all around and we had to stay inside at night. It was j ust too cold at night. Tibet is even lower latitude than Scotland. Scotland is way up there, and the sun went down at 11 pm during the summer and came up at 3 in the morning. It was like dusk all night because it never really got dark. The opposite is true in the winter, where they have long, dark nights.
What happened in Scotland was even more brutal than what happened in Tibet. One hundred fifty years later and they’re still reeling. You can just feel it in the people. It has a very high suicide rate and alcoholism, and it has to do with the country’s trauma. There are people all over the world who were evicted. It was a Scottish holocaust, and was one of the greatest ethnic cleansings the British ever did.
The British were doing the same thing with the American Indians, the Australian aborigines, the blacks in South Africa; they were dealing with the Scots the same way, referring to them as barbarians and treating them with total brutality. The lack of concern for human well-being, just like in Tibet and what’s happening in Iraq, it all happened there too.
If Dharma is going to flourish there, this stuff has to be rectified. People are suffering because these things haven’t been paid attention to. There are wild, ugly spirits flying all over the place, and they’re making people crazy. People think it’s because of coffee that they’re thinking like this, but there are also spirits afflicting their minds. If Dharma is going to take root in the Western world, it will take a lot more people doing these kinds of practices.
Post script from Ven. Paula: I’ve noticed now that I’ve been back awhile that the main impact of the Chöd retreat is that I have no desire for anything. It’s pretty interesting. I usually have little desire for stuff, but now it is really no desire for anything. In the Chöd, you spend a lot of time satisfying all beings of all their desires by offering your body and transforming it into total bliss that satisfies all beings’ wishes – and then, you offer them Dharma, which they can hear because they are satisfied. You can see then that the result would be that the practitioner becomes totally satisfied. So easy and so profound.
I spoke to Roger the other day on the phone while he was out winter food shopping and he said he is feeling the same way. No desire, but plenty of bliss and void … a very good retreat!
1 The term clearance refers to the process of forced eviction of small farmers in the highlands of Scotland between the late 1700s and the mid-1800s by landowners who converted the reclaimed land into huge sheep farms.
chod, interview, retreat, ven. paula chichester, ven. roger munro