Wednesday, June 1, 2011

wednesday night reading

"on saturday morning, driving to our campsite near the apache box, we pass faded prayer flags flapping from the scrub oaks by the dirt road. here and there, large mounds of rock are topped by sticks of newer flags striped blue, white, red, green, and yellow. these fillips of humanity are not intrusive or jarring but seem to soften the backdrop of rocky mountains dry as bone and just a bit hostile, the bones of arizona...soon we see a half dozen buildings and small trailers scattering the desert with its own scatter of mesquite and stunted juniper trees. april and merritt have been to the tibetan buddhist retreat center before, and we decide to stop and visit. immediately, we are greeted by a young man happy to show us around.

"we go up a small hill to see the new prayer wheels. now we are stunned and try not to show it. tibetan prayer wheels are devices for spreading a spiritual blessing. traditionally, rolls of thin paper are imprinted with copies of mantra, or prayer, wound around an axle in some kind of container, and spun round and round. tibetan buddhists believe that turning a prayer wheel and spinning these words will disseminate that prayer and make the world a better place. such mantras invoke the attention of compassionate, enlightened beings. they invoke our own nature of compassion. at the retreat center at iron knot ranch, inside a large, warehouselike room, men are now installing seventeen twelve-foot-high white cylinders like monstrous water heaters, which contain the words om mani padme hum in tibetan script. the papers have been printed and shipped from minnesota. the cylinders, weighing many tons, were hauled up by truck. one of these prayer wheels will be turned by hand, using a large wooden device in the center of the room. the other sixteen will turn mechanically, solar-powered, day and night.

"the building that holds these seventeen prayer wheels has the air of an industrial shop as three men struggle to move one of the cylinders onto its base. I have seen this scene many times. men struggling to move something heavy in such a way that nothing breaks and no one gets hurt. the men discuss leverage and physics. they are proud, intent, a little nervous. gail, april, peter, and I look at each other and look away. there is something about the scale and technology that seems inappropriate. but what do we know? this is tibetan buddhism in the twenty-first century.

"merritt and emanuel take a few more pictures with their digital cameras, and then we walk over to the temple, an open-air ramada with a central altar rising to the ceiling. from every side, the altar glows with color. red, green, yellow, blue. a smiling bodhisattva, a mocking demon, spirit faces, curlicues, flowers, lions, monkeys. walk around the altar and say your prayers. focus on the images.

"the retreat's web site later explains, 'one of the traditional methods for removing hindrances to the recognition of our true nature is the creation of representations of enlightened body, speech, and mind.' the temple, with its demons and bodhisattvas, is a representation. the prayer flags fluttering from the scrub oak trees are a representation. the huge cylindrical prayer wheels will be painted with more representations. the prayer wheels themselves are respresentations--the more, the heavier, the faster, the better. these representations radiate healing in every direction. 'no matter who adds oil to the lamp,' the web site assures me, 'everyone benefits from the light.'"

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