Rainy Season Dathün at Deer Park

“…it is up to you to take responsibility for the presentation of the dharma. You need to help future students, not only in this country but in the rest of the world, including Tibet and India. By then, people there will have forgotten dharma, so a fresh first generation of American dharma practitioners could come to India or Tibet. That would help a lot.” - Chogyam Trungpa, Vajradhatu Seminary 1975, Talk Three

Walking Meditation at Deer Park 2017

In India, the birthplace of Buddhism, sites sacred to the Buddha are scattered all over the land, but in the Buddha’s homeland there are very few Indian practitioners who follow the Buddha’s teachings.  As a vehicle to reintroduce the Buddhadharma to India and to Indians, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche has created Deer Park Institute in Bir, in the state of Himachal Pradesh. It is a place where the dharma in its various forms are being practiced, and where Indians and students from around the world can explore the rich spiritual traditions of India. Deer Park’s stated vision is “to re-create the spirit of Nalanda, the great university of ancient India in which all traditions of Buddhism were studied and practiced, alongside other schools of classical Indian philosophy, arts and sciences.”

I recently returned from Deer Park where I was a meditation instructor, along with six other longtime students of the Vidyadhara, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, at a month-long rainy season retreat in the tradition of dathün. Dathün was introduced to us in the West by Trungpa Rinpoche in 1973 as a way for students to familiarize themselves and become grounded in the core practice of Buddhism, shamatha-vipashyana. Led by June Crow both years, Deer Park has now hosted two rainy season dathüns. Over the month, 50 participants of 18 different nationalities, came to the dathün, of which around 30 were there for the full time and about a fourth were Indian nationals.

Deer Park

While time and place have determined how the Deer Park dathüns are structured, the form and content have stuck to the original formula as closely as possible, as detailed by Trungpa Rinpoche. Deer Park is in many ways an ideal setting for such a program. Built in the Tibetan monastic style, there are beautiful shrine rooms, accommodation on site for up to 50 students, a well-stocked library, a large kitchen and lush green gardens. It is set a little apart from the Bir downtown and is therefore relatively quiet. It is surrounded by a wall that maintains an atmosphere of privacy and contemplation, as well as being a physical boundary—boundary being an important aspect of dathün practice. As instructed by Trungpa Rinpoche, participants in the dathün are asked to maintain a discipline which, while rigorous, is also liberating.

Through such practices as twenty-four-seven functional talking (or functional silence), silent eating, many hours a day of sitting and walking meditation, staying within the perimeter of the Institute, and work rota, known as karma yoga, participants and staff can let go of all the busy-ness of maintaining their daily lives and relax into the experience of just being. While this was initially challenging, we found that participants came to appreciate the simplicity that came with such boundaries, and that it allowed them to focus on their experience and the meditation.

Those of us who had experienced the power of Orioki practice, where meals are taken in Japanese monastic style in the shrine room, missed having this as part of our practice, due to practicalities. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche wanted the dathün to have an Indian flavour, and for the chants to be drawn from the Sutras. To that end he composed a Dharmapala offering that we recited each evening, with the Heart Sutra and the Prajnaparamita exorcism chant. But in most other respects, the practices were followed exactly as they had been when dathün was first introduced.

To provide context and to introduce new students to the teachings of the Vidyadhara, the meditation instructors gave talks on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and there were daily readings from his books. Meditation instruction meetings were every three days which allowed participants to process their experience, and once a week we showed a video of the Vidyadhara from the 1974 Naropa meditation course. These were followed by discussion groups.

After two weeks of intensive practice the mid-dathün day off was eagerly anticipated. It was an opportunity to leave Deer Park and explore the locality, sleep in, eat food from the Bir restaurants, shop or just relax. Five of us on the dathün staff hired a taxi to take us to Tashi Jong monastery close by. A Drukpa Kagyu monastery under Khamtrul Rinpoche, it is famous for the togdens who settled there after the Tibetan diaspora. Togdens are yogis who have vowed to devote their life to retreat. They never cut their hair which they wear in dreadlocks in a pile on top of their heads. Of the six togdens who originally lived at Tashi Jong, only one, Togden Achoe, survives. When he found out that we were students of Trungpa Rinpoche he announced that he had known Trungpa Rinpoche in Tibet and had even been in the party that escaped Tibet with the Vidyadhara, something that was previously unknown according to our translator. For us all, this was an incredibly moving moment. [Note: The Chronicles will be posting an interview with Togden Achoe.]

Togden Achoe, seated, with (from left to right) Tashi Colman, Valerie Lorig, Jackie Mitchell, Ella Milligan, and Bakes Mitchell. Our translator, Jigme, is seated behind us.

Getting back into the routine was a little hard after a day of “freedom.” The contrast between meditation and the post-meditation experience is central to dathün, however, and to the Vidyadhara’s teachings. After all, we are not practicing for the sake of practice alone. We practice so that we can bring the insights we get from meditation into our lives and divest ourselves of the neuroses that hinder us from realizing our full potential. The atmosphere of dathün is one of such sanity that the contrast and challenges of existing outside of the dathün container are thrown into sharp relief on day-off, despite the welcome change of routine.

The third week of dathün is known to be particularly onerous, re-entering the discipline after day-off, and this dathün was no exception! Spirits had lifted by the end of the week, however, in anticipation of a previously unplanned refuge and bodhisattva vow ceremony for the participants. Several of them had requested that we offer refuge and bodhisattva vows, and we invited Thangthong Gyalpo, Rinpoche, to offer them to the dathün. Thangthong Gyalpo is a young tulku who is the reincarnation of a fourteenth century Bhutanese lama who was known as the “Iron Chain Maker” because he constructed many iron bridges around Bhutan, several of which are still in use to this day. The present day Thangthong Gyalpo is an unassuming but luminous young man who, at the age of 28 has completed a three-year retreat. Following the ceremony, which was simple and delightful, he told us that this was his first time giving refuge and bodhisattva vows and he was certain he had done a terrible job. Of course, he had not but he did not seem to believe us when we protested to the contrary!

All too soon, the end came. For some, they were eager to get back to their lives, but for others, the preciousness and the power of what they had experienced in the dathün environment was something that they were sad to leave behind. They took with them the knowledge that what they had learned was something that would be of benefit throughout their lives. Discipline was relaxed completely on the last day, and we had a wonderful feast of traditional foods from the Kangra area where Bir is located. By auspicious coincidence, it was a full moon day and we did the Sadhana of Mahamudra which we had introduced to the dathün at the previous new moon. And then there was a party! The Indian participants taught us traditional dances to up-beat Indian traditional music, a great way to shake out our muscles after the long sitting.

For myself, I was sad to say goodbye to people and also excited to go to Tso Pema for a day before flying back home. Tso Pema is where Padmasambhava and his consort, Mandarava, overcame the local king’s attempt to burn them alive when a lake welled up and put out the fire. The lake still exists, and it is a pilgrimage spot for Buddhists of different lineages. Bakes and I took a taxi there, leaving early from Deer Park as it is a four-hour ride. We were diverted because of landslides onto a small road that took us up through the national forest of the Himalayas where tamarack and rhododendron grew to immense sizes. Above the tree line the road wound along mountain ridges where the land fell away to valleys thousands of feet below on either side. Small farms with stone houses and neat little fields appeared where the ridges flattened out.

We had a day to explore the attractions at Tso Pema which, besides the lake, are the caves where Mandarava and Padmasambhava meditated. Having arrived and stowed our luggage we circumambulated the lake a couple of times and then climbed up to the massive Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) statue which overlooks the town to get the lay of the land. A young monk directed us to a cave where Mandarava meditated which, to our surprise, was down in the town besides the lake, as we had thought that the caves were in the surrounding mountains. However, we made our way back down and after a bit of searching we found the cave, hidden in a warren of dark passageways off the street. To our disappointment the door was locked and we could not see anything by peering in the small mesh-covered window. At that moment an elderly Tibetan nun appeared carrying a large tea kettle of the kind that they use to melt the butter for the butter lamps. She was the fierce protector of the cave, berating us sharply in Tibetan, leaving us in no doubt that she was scolding us for being nosey, and waving us away from there with her hands.

Having come all that way I was not going to give up so easily however, and I made supplicating gestures, with hand on heart and pleading voice, that she would allow us to enter the cave. Standing at the door, she squinted her eyes at us as I asked her again, and she gradually gave in and finally unlocked the door and invited us in. The cave was dark and tiny, with a small statue of Mandarava and a shrine for butter lamps. We did prostrations and lit a butter lamp, at which point the old nun, using her limited English, ascertained that we were Buddhist, and asked who our lama was. She did not know Chögyam Trungpa but when she heard that we were students of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, she broke into a large grin and said, “Good, good!” Then she pointed out to us the impressions in the rock outside the cave that depict the head, eyes and ears of Mandarava, as well as her body in meditation posture. Without her pointing these out we would have missed them. There is also an ancient carving of her face in the rock. When we left she was all smiles.

The image of Mandarava carved into the rock in the town of Tso Pema.

We went up to the caves in the mountain later in the day, rather precariously in an auto-rickshaw that threatened to give out on us at the steeper parts. We made it however, and saw the two caves, one where Padmasambhava meditated, the other being Mandarava’s. They are both quite palatial compared to the cave we had seen already, and despite having the roughness of their interiors smoothed over with marble floors and electric lighting, they are still powerful. The Vidyadhara constructed a stupa at Tso Pema in the town, but we were not able to locate it and ran out of time to look, but it draws me back. We had to catch the night bus to Delhi, which was an adventure in itself. Travelling in India always feels somewhat precarious, but this time the protectors were with us.

At the end of the dathün, there were many requests that the dathün be repeated the next year, and given the response, I hope that it happens. As a vehicle to experience the teachings and the practice of Buddhadharma, as introduced to us by the great Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, it is unsurpassed. It was a privilege to be a part of it, and my grateful thanks go out to the wonderful dathün staff, June and Tom Crow, Valerie Lorig, Lauchlan Learned, Ella Milligan and Bakes Mitchell; our coordinators, Genevieve Sky Waltcher and Rigdzin Wangmo; to all the participants, to the Deer Park staff and to Tashi Colman; and of course, to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, whose vision and compassion made this happen.

Dathun at Deer Park, Summer 2018, Photo by Valerie Lorig
Jackie Mitchell has lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia since 1987 and is a founding member of the Shambhala Elementary School. She became a teacher at the school where she taught for 20 years, teaching and developing curricula based on the Enki Education approach. More recently she has been engaged in curriculum development projects under the auspices of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, both in Australia and in Bhutan where she designed curricula for the young monks at his monastery. Jackie has been a practicing Buddhist since 1980, is a meditation instructor and a graduate of Naropa University. She recently completed a master’s degree in education at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax and wrote a thesis on the integration of contemplative practice and sacred world outlook into curriculum.