It was all going so well. Until this afternoon. I’ve been participating in the annual Chenrezi retreat in Swayambhu, next to Kathmandu, Nepal. My heart teacher, Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche, is leading 1,800 participants, virtually all of whom are Nepalese or Tibetan, in three and a half weeks of practice. Our day, which begins at 6:30 a.m. and ends shortly before 6:00 p.m., is divided into four sessions framed by splendid chants, traditional music, and recitations in Tibetan. Prayer wheels spin and whirr, lights blink on and off due to hours of daily loadshedding and a cantankerous generator. Salty Tibetan butter tea and sweet milk tea are frequently served, along with buns and potent chili sauce. Vegetarian lunch, prepared by a merry army of choppers and cooked in cauldrons by kitchen wizards in a dim, smoky room on a wood-burning stove, is served outside. In the evening, men walk through the temple recording the number of mantras each participant has recited during the day.

Image: © David Samuel Robbins
Image: © David Samuel Robbins

Swayambhu Temple at Dawn, David Samuel Robbins

I’m just discovering this particular form of practice, the Hundred Million Mani Mantras (Mani Doung Gyour), in which the emphasis is placed on mantra accumulation. Although the visualizations are more elaborate than those given in the basic ritual, Chenrezi (the Bodhisattva of Compassion, known as Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit) and his mantra are the same, as is the heart of the practice: imagining that the environment is a pure realm, all beings have been relieved of their pain and confusion and appear as the deity, all sounds are the mantra, and all thoughts are inseparable from the mind of awakening.

Rinpoche has been leading this ritual for the past 25 years. During the course of a quarter century of annual retreats, nearly 20 billion Chenrezi mantras have been recited, counted, and dedicated to world peace right here in this temple. At the end of the retreat, we’ll be celebrating the silver jubilee with a circumambulation around the base of the sacred stupa-crowned hill of Swayambhu, which is said to have spontaneously appeared one day. Various other festivities are planned, including bestowal of certificates and gifts, musical performances, and a banquet.

I’ve put time aside to join in the whole period of practice, and so far I’m loving it. I’ve been given a spot at the head of a row of senior nuns, and I can surreptitiously stretch my left leg, which is a great blessing, since my knee is killing me. Even though the earnest nun to my right is doing an awful lot of spitting into a vile handkerchief and I suspect she has TB, I’m enjoying focusing on the visualizations, I’m singing along like a siren, and now and again the practice is so powerful and right that it’s a perfect fit. Truth be told, I’m feeling kind of holy.

I was feeling kind of holy, that is. Now someone has led a gangly old yogi in smelly clothes toward the mat to the left of mine. He has plopped himself down, pulled out a stained text, and is cramping my holiness style big time. What is he doing here? Doesn’t he see that this is the nuns’ section? Why doesn’t he just go sit with the other monks and yogis across the aisle? And look at those fingernails! Why does he keep looking down the aisle around me? I’m trying to be friendly, smiling a Chenrezi-like, I’m-aforeigner- in-a-sea-of-natives smile, but he just ignores me. Rude. And now I can’t stretch my leg. Thanks a lot. An hour ago I was feeling holy, and now I’m just irritated. I guess I’d better forget about him and go back to the practice. But really: how can people be so bothersome?

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