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.

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?

Although I know from experience that I am much happier when I let go than when I give my mind free rein to whine, “He/She/It annoys me” has been my life mantra. Not that I can begin to justify most of the things that aggravate me—but there it is.

Once I was taking a walk with a friend down a lovely French country road, and instead of blissing out on the warm breeze, cloudless sky, crisp smell of leaves, and heady odor of humus, I was kvetching about somebody who got on my nerves. My friend looked at me teasingly and asked, “Tell me, Pamela, is there anyone who doesn’t bug you?” I burst out laughing and had to admit no, not really, not unreservedly.

My conscious mind is fully and honestly aware that grasping life’s little irritations—bad drivers, nasal voices, people who wear mismatched polyester clothing, small crusty-eyed dogs who follow you like your shadow and want love, children who whine “no-o-o,” bad grammar, people who ask questions and then jump in and give their own wrong answers, French pop music, anyone who keeps me from doing what I want when I want how I want, and on and on and on—is my problem. The grasping is the problem. I know this. I’ve been practicing a while. I even teach the stuff. But a subliminal little voice is always suggesting, “Why, if I’m such a bodhisattva, does the whole world insist on exasperating me?”

When I was young and bloodthirsty, the constant judging and criticizing that form these patterns made me feel sharp, clever, discriminating. They gave me distance from the adjectives I was so afraid of: dull, commonplace, dependent, soft. It took time to realize that I needed to be leery of the distance itself. And of mistaking disapproval for discernment. And of building barriers instead of bridges. It also took time to see that my judgmental tendencies and my capacity for discernment have their roots in the same sharp clarity—but one is neurosis, and nothing else. We’ve all got some balancing act going. Maybe we juggle clarity and criticism; or it could be devotion and credulity, warmth and vagueness, energy and rivalry, precision and a need to control. We may struggle to cultivate one and suppress the other, but sometimes all it takes is a willingness to let go of our patterns as soon as we recognize them, and to stay open to whatever comes next. Motivation is of the essence here.

As a dharma teacher and the student of an ideal master, I can hardly justify my habitual vexation. Here in this temple, the ideal master is right in front of me on his throne, receiving everyone who comes for a blessing with impartial kindness, from the moneyed members of Nepal’s high society to the Tibetan beggar woman with cheerful folly in her eyes who bows to everyone before approaching him with a worn scarf and a ten-rupee offering. Although he is solicited from dawn to dark, Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche is invariably good-humored, empathetic, and available to all who need him, even when he’s so tired that he can hardly stay awake. Spending time with a human being who seems to be entirely devoted to the welfare of others is a rare privilege indeed; at the same time, it is a constant reminder of my own shortcomings and imperfections. During this particular retreat I will vacillate between remaining comfortably—sometimes blissfully—focused and present, and battling irritation, berating myself for being unable to recognize the sound of dogs yapping or nuns spitting as the sound of the mantra.

My new neighbor, who has uncommonly large nostrils, is picking his nose. He finally finds what he’s been drilling for and wipes it on the side of the table. I am so incensed I could burst. And then I look around, and everyone else seems to be practicing. The world has not stopped spinning because of yogi snot. In fact, I cannot imagine Rinpoche—or virtually any of the other practitioners present— making the kind of righteous big deal about boogers, smelly toilets, gassy practitioners, or spit that my mind keeps producing. And even if I am currently incapable of transforming these phenomena into manifestations of the divine, I know I can train in recognizing the negative thoughts as they arise, let go of them, and slide back into practice. Maybe my neighbor has been doing the same thing with my frequent leg shifting. Anyway, who’s to say that Marpa didn’t pick his nose? Or that Saraha wasn’t given to belching? Or that Patrul Rinpoche’s feet were fungus-free, or that Machik Labdrön didn’t noisily slurp her tea or smack while chewing? Maybe she dribbled! How can we know? How can we know who is sitting beside us, what their level of realization is, the trials they’ve endured, the kindness in their hearts?

Tea is being served, and my neighbor, who hasn’t acknowledged me all session, passes me a bun. When he looks at me full in the face and smiles, I finally understand that he’s blind in one eye. He wasn’t looking through me. He simply couldn’t see me.

A few weeks of intensive practice, several different neighbors, and a fair deal of seesawing between crankiness and inspiration later, it’s jubilee time. Maniwa Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche is leading several thousand people in a three-hour procession around the holy hill. There are nuns and monks carrying offerings and playing cymbals, drums, and trumpets, and lay practitioners waving flags and carrying the 300-plus volumes of the traditional Buddhist teachings existing in Tibetan on their shoulders. Many of the men and most of the women have come in traditional apparel, the women wearing long dresses of every imaginable color, the woven aprons of their tribes, and weighty chunks of coral and turquoise. The capricious weather is behaving itself, and within the procession there is much cheering and joy. As undeserving as I may feel, I’m deeply happy to be a part of it, to carry a volume of the sacred scriptures on my shoulder, to make as many wishes as I can remember to make.

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

We are several thousand souls brought together by our confidence in the spiritual path that this one guide lives and teaches. What matters today is the fact that as we walk together on this path around the sacred hill, we are all bodhisattvas in training, with different foibles and a common aspiration. Together, we are walking in the footsteps of all of the luminous beings who have taken the same path to its final point. At our own pace, with our own challenges, in our own style, we’re all walking the walk.