Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Radical Buddhist Reflections: Nyingma Buddhism

This is the first of five posts which all stem from an interview I did with Dolma Sherpa.  Dolma is originally from Nepal and is a Sherpa Nyingma Buddhist.  With a Jewish father and a Buddhist mother, she has always lived a multi-cultural life with complicated religious influences.  A few years back, she came to Los Angeles to go to college.  In our interview, she shared a lot about her own spiritual journey and her experiences understanding Nyingma Buddhism.  Here are some of my favorite pieces of what she shared.

I think that these activities were not part of our lives is because practice is really associated to place.  When I moved back home and began going to temple with my mom and my aunts, that slowly becoming a practice for me.  We perform different pooja, different religious ceremonies.  For instance, the zodiac calendar is a big part of Nyingma Buddhism.  I'm a dragon and when it's not going to be a good year for dragons, you do a certain pooja.  I didn't know what any of that stuff was until I went home because there were no monks or lamas to perform these rites for us.  Going home, I learned about all of these different rituals; we're very ritual based.  We have a lot of specifics to rituals too, like you put this foot forward or you bow your head at this time.  When it's going to be a bad year, I could not tell you the reason why, but you get a piece of turquoise blessed and you have to wear it for the whole year.  So this year I'm feeling a little weird about not having mine, but I wasn't home.  We have all of these rituals but they are strongly associated with place and very cultural.

We have this thing called Ting or water offerings, which you do in the morning.  I have memories from when I was very young and we were living in Hong Kong, memories of my mother doing this ritual in the mornings.  Buddhist practice is really personal, especially for Nyingma Buddhists.  When my mother is doing her practice in the morning, that's her space and her way of prayer.  Now that I have my own house, my Ting practice is also a very personal thing.  If I go visit my family, I won't do the ritual for my mother because it's her tradition.  Unless she asks me to do it.  Then I will do it.  But practice, prayer, everything about this kind of spirituality is just very personal.

However, we pray in community a lot.  When we go to temple we have a thing called Kora, which is when we circumambulate the Gompa.  So we do one Kora and that's one round.  It has to be an odd number.  I don't know why, but it's always an odd number.  This is a form of prayer; it just goes around and around.  You can go to temple by yourself or with other people.  In Nepal, my aunties always go in the morning together.  It's super cute.  I like to join them every now and again if I can get up that early.  But it's still a really private thing.  A lot of times when I'm home I just to temple by myself.  I walk around and I pray.  

Community is a big part of Buddhism - you know the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha - the community is big deal.  It's just not something we really vocalize, at least not in my experience.  It's not the same as a church community.  A really good friend of mine is a Yale Div who is going to be a Presbyterian minister.  She's one of my best friends.  When we were in college her church sent her a care package.  I was so confused.  I asked her, "What do you mean, your church?  Like you pastor?" and she said, "No, you know, everyone in the community." We just don't have that kind of organized sense of community.  For me, the spiritual community in Nepal consists of all of the aunties I see at temple all the time, but it's not like we get together every week for tea.

We are a denomination that is really interested in the tangible, engaged in the physical expression of our traditions.  This is kinda why I told you earlier that I see that relationship with Catholicism - the incense and prayers and rosaries and the images of the saints, which we do as well.  Needing that kind of physical reminder, our alters are very elaborate.

Besides the fact that it keeps me sane, and grounds me as an individual and helps me with my vocation and my sense of self and spirit...  besides all of that really important stuff, Buddhism is a how-to manual.  The idea of a good Buddhist or a bad Buddhist isn't really a thing for us.  But I know when I'm not practicing, I know when I slip and I'm think, "Yeah, that wasn't right speech."  I know when I'm not practicing because it's very much about how to carry myself.  As much as I have so much admiration for Judaism  and I love so many Jewish teachings, Buddhism is something that resonates well because of my culturally upbringing.  I'm so ethnically a part of it and so I can identify with a lot of it.  But I'm not Jewish.  I'm very much Buddhist.  It's very much the way I was raised and very much a part of how I see the world.