Auspicious signs in Britain come in the form of unexpectedly low priced train tickets, and catching the last available place on the course. My journey to Wales was under a veil of mist and cloud, after three trains and a bus. Finally I arrived in Erwood and headed to the pub where I was offered a cheap ride up the hill to Kunselling which was completely shrouded in cloud, so we could retreat unseen from the outside world to journey deeply into the Master’s teaching.
The places that scare us are not just grave yards or battlefields; they are within us. Steve Landsberg told us that this fear was like a fuel for our practice and described the Chödpa’s view: where we are conditioned to see sickness, misfortune and danger as terrible things a Chödpa sees these as opportunities, so right now with the far right rising, Brexit looming and other perils, it is a fantastic time to practice Chöd.
Rain storms railed against the windows and the wind howled around the Gompa, perfect Chöd weather, so we picked up our drums and bells and initially sounded like the worst school band at their first rehearsal. Over four and a half days Steve gently led us step by step through the practice of Chöd and its intricate lilting melodies until we could sing and play our way through this beautiful rite, transforming our cacophony into the powerful music of Bodhicitta.
Even for those of us who are trained musicians Chöd presents a real challenge, the Damaru is a wild and difficult instrument to play, controlling it requires a unique kind of strength. Even the biggest and strongest of us found the turning of the drum exhausted muscles we never knew existed.
The Damaru is a teacher in itself. Watching Steve calmly turning his drum and singing whilst I felt my shoulder and wrist ache and the beaters of my drum flailed around often missing beats, I learned quickly that playing it cannot be forced – there’s a need to relax; you know the bit in the teachings when Rinpoche told us to “relax”, that’s what is needed, but staying relaxed was more than a little trick. Let’s just say the process of practice is not a little humbling. You know as a practitioner the sense of a little bit of pride welling up, you know when you’ve got a melody down pat? Well don’t worry about that demon because the Damaru is going to knock that right out of you. But if you prefer the demons anger and frustration, yes those will come to visit too. Playing the drum, singing and ringing the bell, challenge the conceptual mind and eliminate thought. When played correctly the slow beats sound close to a human heartbeat. The fast double beats stir up strong emotions, more fuel for the rite. The melodies are complex, lilting, at times passionate.
Alongside the teaching of Chöd Steve took us through steps to improve our meditation practice to better enter the state of contemplation and better understand the nature of mind. These simple and elegant reminders were incredibly useful and helped build a sturdier foundation for the complex practice of Chöd. Steve’s teaching style is open and spontaneous, he seemed to welcome our questions and debate. He was very conscientious in keep us together: “are we getting this?”, checking that we all understood, leaving no aspiring Chödpa behind.
To keep out the cold Red prepared twice daily banquets of chilli fuelled Cantonese and Szechuan food and some nights Steve would tell us tales from his life; from his travels in India and Nepal to building Stupas – they really belong in print. During the retreat we were inspired to a spontaneous party and celebration. With no internet I had to summon the recipe for gluten free carrot cake from deep in memory. I put my success down to the sharpening of mind from our concentrated practice. Practising together is always precious and joyful, but the positive energy and open sharing attitude meant many of us dragged our sleepy bodies out of bed to practice Mandarava, and Yantra Yoga led by Bernard. The washing up karma yoga was breath taking; Graham, Gerallt and Carel performed miraculous feats of cleaning. Our domestic efforts were coordinated and energised by Rowan, who gently but firming steered the ship along.
I chose to stay on a few more days after the official teaching retreat to practice. I felt a little nervous picking up the Damaru and trying to recall the melodies. With no wifi to download the mp3 of the practice I was on my own; just me, a printed piece of paper and the drum. The storm that night was wilder than ever and as a I sang my heart out and offered up the only thing I really own – my body – to the spirits, it seemed as if spirits and beasts were peering in at my window as I filled up the pot with brains, gore and gristle.
The next day the storm had passed, the sun rose above the hills and the sky was a solid blue. That afternoon I went for a walk with Shuny; as we passed through the gate she said “look at the Rainbow”. A full arc rose over the common land above the happy grazing sheep. A second bow arose at the base of the first, so we walked in the direction of the rainbow. The rain returned, so as Shuny wasn’t so well dressed for the weather she made the wise decision to walk home. As the rain came down and the wind rose again a second rainbow glowed in the sky with it’s double rising up. Clad in my military grade gore tex I stood and stared at rainbow and felt the force of the elements until it faded. I returned to the warm dry comfort of Kunselling thinking about how I could get to Nepal to buy my own Chöd drum: Steve had advised that to be the best way to get a good drum.
I returned to London on Sunday night and dragged my tired self to the Gana Puja at Lekdanling; sitting on the side were four Chöd drums. Tina was selling them to raise money to help an old Lama who Rinpoche had met many years ago in Tibet. Tina had suggested that he re-skin and restore the damarus he had in his house to sell in the UK. My eye lit on one in particular. All the drums had been blessed but the one I chose was the one the lama had used himself for Chöd, so without thinking twice I bought the drum. I will have to wait patiently till I return to Tunisia to play it. I may not live remotely but it’s a country where drumming is part of everyday life and with the disintegration of the state, it is indeed fruitful ground for the practice of Chöd.
Elizia Volkmann, 30th November 2018
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