Tai Chi with the Chinese Housewives Club

It was my birthday today. My Tai Chi teacher has invited me to one of her students’ house in White Rock where they were throwing a potluck party to celebrate the end of their training course.

It turned out to be in a posh neighbourhood in South Surrey to be exact, but it’s close enough to White Rock to be considered there. I found myself parking my old Subaru wagon behind a BMW sportscar and no matter which way I looked, I was conscious that my car did not fit in on that street.

Nonetheless, I sheepishly made my way to the right mansion and rang the doorbell. When the host opened the door, I introduced myself as a student of Master Li and I had come upon her invitation. I was ushered into the house and into the kitchen where I found a happy, chatty bunch of women gathering around the dining table. There were a lot of food on the table, someone was still cooking. The feast has yet to begun.

After a while, we adjourned to the courtyard where I was requested to lead the group in practising the No.1 Tristar Taiji form and No.2 Tristar Taiji Fan form. I didn’t know anyone except for Master Li, but clearly it did not make a difference. I was not to act shy or weird according to the protocol; being a reserved person around strangers, I was noticeably quiet compared to the rest. It wasn’t difficult for me to blend in as I could speak in fluent Mandarin but I was quite aware of the fact that I was the only person not from Mainland China in the group.

Demonstration in the hedge-lined courtyard

After completing the demonstration practice, we went back to the kitchen and started eating. The food was simply delicious, all homemade and brought together by the Chinese housewives. I felt very fortunate to be invited to eat together with them, even though I had not bring any food but myself. I made friends with some of them as they were very curious about who I am. It was very interesting to talk to them and get to know how they organize learning and events in their communal setting.

After dinner, we went to the beach to watch the sunset and took more photos of us doing Tai Chi. It was a very lovely way to celebrate my birthday.

A Quiet Weekend at Mangala Resort Spa, Malaysia

I was visiting family in Malaysia earlier this year and decided to sneak away alone for a quiet weekend at the newly opened 5-star Mangala Resort & Spa in Pahang. I took a domestic flight from Penang to Kuantan on Fireflyz’s turboprop aircraft which offered me an amazing view of the lush greenery of Peninsula Malaysia throughout the hour-and-a-half journey. Upon arrival at Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah airport, I was greeted by the hotel staff and whizzed off in the hotel vehicle in no time.

Mangala Resort & Spa is idyllically situated within Gambang plantation and is a short 20-minute-drive away from the airport. As I entered the grounds of the resort which seemed like an adventurous drive into the sprawling wild, I was struck with an overwhelming urge to hop out the car and roam everywhere barefoot. Even though I knew I was going to a secluded resort, I was somehow joyously delighted to find myself in the midst of a peaceful sanctuary. I later found out that Mangala is an ancient Pali word, defined as that which is conducive to happiness and prosperity. In fact, in the Maha-Mangala Sutta or Discourses on Blessings, Buddha set forth a guide on ethics leading towards a happy, blissful life. The thirty-eight blessings start with avoidance of bad company and end with an unshakable, serene mind. Little was I aware at the time that these blessings would shape the next few days of my stay at Mangala.

While waiting to check-in at the 24-hour-lobby, I was served with a chilled pandan coconut (coconut with a twist of pandan flavor, simply the best!) plucked right from the plantation. After an effortless check-in, I was driven to my room in a buggy. I particularly like the fact that the female staff drivers were just as good and confident behind the wheels. I stayed in Jala Villa, one of the ten overwater villas perched on stilts over a calm lake. The exterior of the villa looked misleadingly simplistic to reveal a spacious and contemporary interior with natural wood-decks. To my surprise, I received mini macaroons as a welcome gift and every day after housekeeping, I would continue to be pampered with colourful macaroons.

There are few other villa options to choose from according to individual preferences, such as the eleven Vana Villas, which are built on elevated lands, offering a bird’s eye view of the surroundings. One distinctive feature of the Vana Villas is the open air bathtub. There are also four luxurious Sara Cottages, four Vana Villas with private pool as well as one Jala Suite and one Vana Suite. The villas are all named in Pali with Jala meaning connection to water, Vana to wood and Sara to lake. With all the Pali names floating around, it was especially interesting to me because I have just completed a two-week intensive Pali online course with Professor Gombrich of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.

It took the owner of Mangala Resort fifteen years to turn the once barren land into a plantation of oil palms and coconuts. Then in 2012 up until 2016, construction of the villas was carried out one by one with careful planning not to disrupt the ecosystem of the area. One feels the perfect harmony of the place naturally as it resonates in the air. It came as no surprise when I found out that the owner had also donated a portion of the land to the Malaysia Vipassana Meditation Society on which they built their meditation centre, known as Dhamma Malaya.

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There are many recreational on-site activities to choose from at Mangala Resort such as archery, cycling, kayaking, birdwatching, horse riding, just to name a few. The resort also offers half-day or full-day excursions to tourist attractions around the area. The first day I arrived, I went cycling to explore the grounds and check out the other villas. I cycled to the carefree and melodious chirping of the birds. There had been a drizzle; the grounds were wet and the air was fresh. The relentless tropical sun was ever-shining against the clear blue sky which would sometimes be replaced by a dense canopy of oil palm trees. If one is yearning for something else other than trees, the resort is a 30-minute drive away from the city centre of Kuantan and an additional 10-minute-drive to the coastal beaches.

A friend from Kuantan came to join me for dinner at the resort’s Lakeside Restaurant. It is also where the complimentary buffet breakfast is served every morning. We let the Chef decide our menus and he came up with baked cod fish (oven-baked with miso and mirin reduction with soy-simmered vegetables) and lamb shank rendang (braised lamb shank with local spices and herb and grilled vegetables). We had Miso “KAISEKI” (Japanese soy bean based soup with seafood, cubed tofu, wakame and chopped green onion) and cream of chunky wild mushroom (with brie cheese and infused with white Truffle oil) as our soups. Just as the saying goes, “A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine”, so we complemented our sumptuous cuisine with sauvignon blanc.

After dinner, we sat out on the private veranda of my villa overlooking the manmade lake which was once used for mining. The reflection of the moon and trees on the lake was simply magical. Never have I seen such a wide and calm surface of contained water. It happened to be a very clear night too. To my surprise, there were no mosquitoes so we could sit out all night under the moonlight without being eaten alive in a tropical climate. We talked and laughed over wine till the wee hours of the morning. It was the perfect night and the perfect setting for a heartfelt moment between friends.

The next day, I went for an early morning swim in the pool and then to visit the beautiful horses at the stable. I even got the chance to ride one of them with the full-time trainer on-site. It was a pity that the Mangala Spa was not up and running yet when I was there. I managed only to peak into the spa menu which boasts an impressive range of treatments and therapies drawing from the bountiful Southeast Asian herbs and spices. Now that the spa is fully operational, it is luring me back for a second visit to Mangala Resort and Spa.

Shanny Rann

28 April 2016

Transcription of Interview with Khenpo Garwang

Date: 15 January 2014

Time: 1100-1200

Venue: Mahabodhi Stupa, Bodhgaya, India

Q: Khenpo, can you tell me a bit about yourself?

A: Khenpo is from Tsopa Gompa in Tibet of the Barong Kagyu lineage in Nangchen, Kham.  He came in 1997 to receive empowerment from Gyaltsap Rinpoche. He taught in Nalanda Institute in Sikkim from 1998. Now he works for Tsurphu Labrang. He started working for Kagyu Monlam since 2004/ 2005. He is the main supervisor of the dharma group. Mahakalacham was organized by him too. Dharma group has 3 levels: shrine offering, umze (chant masters), discipline masters.

 

Q: Khenpola, Tashi Delek. Can you tell me the meaning of ‘cham?

A: ‘cham is related to dharma activities. We believe that usually Buddha himself has said that ‘cham has to be performed. Unlike other religious traditions, their spiritual heads have mainly taught on one canon/ textbook. In Buddhism, Buddha has taught innumerable teachings according to different faculties and dispositions of the disciples. 84,000 teachings. These can be divided into 2 categories: sutra and tantra/ mantra teachings. The main objective of the Buddhist teachings is for peace and wellbeing of mind and body. From the 2 categories, sutra mainly focuses on wellbeing and peace of mind while tantra focuses on wellbeing of body. It has been mentioned in the tantra teachings…actually the tantra teachings, the other name is secret mantra. It is practised mainly by the lama and the guru himself, not in public…and transmit the teachings and special lineages through disciples, one by one and not in public display. In reality it has to be carried on like that…because this lineage is called secret mantra, even though Buddha has talked about ‘cham or sacred performance, the public hasn’t witnessed it until recently. Even in India,  ‘cham wasn’t performed in public after long time, only lately. In terms of Tibet, when Buddhism first came to Tibet, it wasn’t performed in public. Only the time of Marpa Lotsawa and the first lineage of Sakyapa, it started to be performed in public. The family was from Nyingma background. Karma Kagyu lineage of cham, it was first brought to Tibet from India by Palchen Galo who was the teacher of first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa. We have older and newer tantra. This is according to the newer tantra. According to the records, Palchen Galo has brought to Tibet from India 3 types of cham: 4-armed Mahakala ‘cham, ‘cham with crow-faced with human body and sinjungcham (lion-faced).

 

Q: Do you mean ‘cham is brought to Tibet from India?

A: Just like all the Buddhist teachings which are brought from India, they are from Indian Buddhism tradition. The root is in India. The time of 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, several ‘cham were created. they were not made up but according to tantra sadhana and according to his visions. he first created the gomacham (performed in 2012). During the time of 5th Karmapa, he had a vision of the chakrasambhava feast vajra dance. this cham that he saw in his vision after chakrasambhava came to his vision, it’s a long cham lasting for couple of days. it was transmitted by 5th Karmapa to his disciple, named Surmang something…founder of the Surmang Kagyu lineage. This lineage of cham, is still continuously practised in the Surmang Kagyu lineage Sikkim monastery of Garwang Rinpoche…the main seat is in Kham and is still performed every year there.

During the time of 6th Karmapa, he had a vision of Mahakala. according to that vision, Black Hat dance started from that time, which is not the same as it is performed nowadays. This particular Black Hat dance was performed by people who were travelling with Karmapa as his encampment. There’s one monastery in Tibet, Teyak Drupon Monastery in Nangchen, Kham. The costume is similar but the dance is totally different- the text, visualisation etc. This is the ‘cham lineage of Karma Kamstang. For other Kagyu lineages, it is mainly based on ‘cham brought to Tibet by Palchen Galo. On top of this, specific lineage of Karma Kamstang, Kagyupas also perform Nyingmapa ‘cham lineages because Kagyu and Nyingma are very close and share similar practices. Nyingmapa ‘cham has 2 categories: one based on tantra Indian, the other based on terton, their vision. Sakyapa also has ‘cham.  Root dance of vajrakilayacham is based on root tantra brought from India. The tsechucham was based on terton tradition.

 

Q: How did ‘cham become public?

A: Even though ‘cham was transmitted one to one, many people also have this one-to-one lineage and slowly it became public. There is no special reason why ‘cham became to be performed in public. Initially it was practised in a proper way, the effectiveness of the sacred mantra practice was very high, but later it degenerated, as it is made more public, many people have the knowledge, but someday this will flourish again. For the reason of benefit of all.

Q: Could you please tell me about the ‘cham performances of Karmapa?

A: Every individual has different power and capabilities. They are effective in whatever they perform…skilful methods in being beneficial for all sentient beings. Similarly, when somebody is giving a talk to somebody in same language, but whatever Khenpo is saying something as compared to the Karmapa, the level of benefit is very different. So therefore, the same ‘cham is performed in the same place, the person who is performing, the power and effectiveness of the person is very different between Karmapa and an ordinary person…more powerful. Similarly, if somebody say there will be cham by somebody, there won’t be much people attending. But if they say it is Karmapa performing, some people even if they cannot get holiday from their job, they will resign just to attend the event. That is the power and benefits of seeing Karmapa perform.

 

Q: Is it true that each Karmapa will only perform ‘cham for a few times in each lifetime?

A: There is not any specific number of times Karmapa will perform, it is just based on circumstances and resources. Lots of things to gather for one performance. Depends on Karmapa’s age. Karmapa himself said that this cham is very important so he would like to perform it. He chose himself. His holiness… in any dharma activity that is beneficial for sentient beings, he always want to take part in that. Only twice, he has got the opportunity to perform in India.

 

Q: Is there anything “special” that Khenpo notices in Karmapa’s performance?

A: Even though Khenpo knows the history, but not everything is put into practice. Karmapa first gave the task of working member of Kagyu Monlam. Khenpo’s task is organizing the ‘cham. He and Gyaltsen Sonam and Labrang staff collaborate in the task. It was a great opportunity. As a Buddhist, Bodhgaya is the most sacred site, for Karmapa to perform here is just amazing!!! Great amazement and great devotion!!!

 

Q: Khenpo, can you share with me your experience of organizing the ‘cham event this year?

A: This year, we want to perform particularly the garchen tsechucham. Rumtek, Ralang and Benchen, these 3 monasteries have performed garchen tsechu continuously. Bokar Rinpoche’s Gompa in Mirik- they performed gutor- mahakala cham, sinjung is performed in guto and tsechu. Usually, female roles in ‘cham (dakini cham) are also performed by monks in the monasteries. Since we are performing in a gathering where both monks and nuns are available, Karmapa said the female roles are to be performed by nuns from Gyaltsap Rinpoche,  Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamso and Thrangu Rinpoche nunneries.

Mind and Life European Summer Research Institute

In August 2014, I was selected to attend the Mind and Life European Summer Research Institute (ESRI) in Chiemsee. The annual conference is a “week-long event to advance collaborative research in behavioural science, neuroscience and mind-body medicine based on a process of inquiry, dialogue and collaboration with contemplative practitioners and scholars of Buddhism and other contemplative traditions” (Esri.mindandlife-europe.org, 2014). All participants stay together in a 8th century Benedictine Abbey (nunnery) of Frauenwörth on the island of Chiemsee. At the end of the week conference, I interviewed Mathieu Ricard, a famous French Buddhist monk who was a speaker at the conference and wrote many books including ‘Monk Dancers of Tibet’. He commented that a lot of monks nowadays do not know much about ‘cham and gave me a few of his amazing photographs on ‘cham. He gave me the permission to use his photographs provided I write to him beforehand.

Fieldnotes in India (December 2013- January 2014)

On 30 December 2013, I received a phone call from a friend telling me to hurry to Tergar Monastery at once to attend the rehearsal of the dance ritual. I sped to the location and managed to squeeze into the shrine hall of Tergar Monastery where the rehearsal was taking place before the security guards barred the rest of the public from entry. The rehearsal was a solemn event and supposedly not open to the public. I had my camera equipment with me but without the permission to film, I left the camera alone. I took some footages from my phone as it appeared less intruding. In my rush to get to the monastery, I had left my glasses at home. Being short-sighted, I could only discern lama figures dancing in space, but I could hardly make out which lama was dancing even though the Karmapa participated in the dance rehearsal. For rehearsals, the monks were dressed in their special red robes with golden sleeves and white shoes, but not the full dance costumes. At times, they have a huge red sash tied diagonally across one of their shoulders. They have a golden badge that hangs low in front of their bodies.

During the day of the performance (10 January 2014), I woke up at 3.30a.m. to wait in queue to enter the dance pavilion. By the time I arrived at the site, the queue had had snaked half a kilometre across the field beside the pavilion. People started lining up as early as 2a.m. It was estimated at 10,000 the number of people who came. Karmapa gave a brief lecture of the meaning of ‘cham before the performance. This is rather unusual practice according to the tradition but it shows the importance Karmapa placed on communicating the meaning of the dance ritual to all. He stressed that:

“This sacred lama dance with such a long history and profound meaning is totally unlike any kind of ordinary or mundane dance. The essence of the vajra dance is the recognition of the nature of all phenomena as the union of appearance and emptiness. The practitioners of the vajra dance use their own body, speech and mind not as ordinary body, speech and mind but those of the deity, and the dance becomes a way to express this. Therefore when a realised practitioner performs the lama dance they can cause the blessings of the body, speech and mind of the deities to actually enter the body, speech and mind of the viewers” (Gyalwang Karmapa’s Introduction to the Tsechu Lama Dance, 2014).

There were few interesting episodes that unfolded throughout the dance ritual, some of which I experienced physically. Before the event, I suffered from a bad headache while waiting in queue in the wee hours of the morning. I could not bring myself to stand and was almost crawling in line on the ground. Initially I thought it was due to the lack of sleep but the pain kept worsening. While witnessing the dance, I started to develop a very high fever to the point I could feel my head throbbing as I slipped in and out of consciousness. I was seated in the centre with a good view of the stage, but my drowsiness prevented me from paying attention to what was happening onstage. I had my pen and journal ready to take notes, but I could hardly pick up the pen. Right after the third dance, “there is an explosion on the roof of the Pavilion like horses’ hooves clattering on metal. Not an ordinary rainstorm with a drop by drop preparation, but a deluge pouring from the sky”(A Rain of Blessing from the Copper Coloured Mountain, 2014). It was followed by thunderous applause from all that were present in the pavilion. Despite my condition, I realize this was no ordinary rain but a blessing from Guru Rinpoche[1] whom they were honouring in the dance.

My fever subsided towards the end of the performance. Later on, I was told what I experienced during the event was not coincidental. Sickness is viewed as a form of purification in the Tibetan tradition. The purpose of ‘cham is to purify obscurations for both the dancers and viewers. I would not claim that I witnessed the dance with full devotion as one is supposed to, but I definitely experienced the full brunt of the spectacle. Even though I did not manage to film the performance myself, I did obtain all footages of the dance from the official media companies. I also managed to arrange an hour-long interview with Khenpo (academic title equivalent to a Doctorate, PhD) Garwang (Refer to Appendix 1) who was in charge of organizing the dance ritual.

 

[1] Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century.