On March 2nd, AKA losar, AKA the Tibetan new year, I drove out to Serenity Ridge, a Bon Buddhist retreat center on a mountaintop near Charlottesville, to participate in the celebration.
I didn’t know what to expect, since I’m not Buddhist and don’t really know the first thing about Tibet, which is shameful to admit in public but also true. (Incidentally, here’s a great read by my friend Laura on C’ville as center of Tibetan Buddhist community.)
I have a friend who works as an groundskeeping intern at Serenity Ridge, and he invites everyone to weekly open meditations on grounds as well as free webinars hosted by its founder, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, on subjects like “Calming you mind with meditation,” “Purifying your karma through mantra,” and, in the case of my visit, “Raising Your Windhorse—Good Fortune for the New Year.”
So I was driving through the country on an unseasonably warm March day, and I crossed a road and turned a corner and found myself flying alongside a cloudy blue-green river. The road followed the river as it arched and curved through miles of sunny valley. When I rolled my windows down and inhaled the freshness of that air, I swear I relaxed about 50 points on the tension scale.
Eventually I turned onto a road that led up the side of a mountain. As my Civic hugged each sharp turn, the sun peeked through the clouds, and I honestly didn’t expect what I saw next:
Tibetan prayer flags, giant ones, lining the road toward the few small dwellings that constitute the retreat center. In fact, there were prayer flags hanging from all the trees.
Eventually I learned in person what Wikipedia could have taught me:
Traditionally, prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into all pervading space. Therefore, prayer flags are thought to bring benefit to all.
As wind passes over the surface of the flags, which are sensitive to the slightest movement of the wind, the air is purified and sanctified by the mantras. Blue symbolizes the sky and space, white symbolizes the air and wind, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth.
I walked up the path to the main grounds and found a circle of about 25 people gathering to sing. We were handed sheets of paper with lyrics and translations, and I did my best to sing along to tunes I didn’t know and names I could hardly pronounce.
We called on deities in heaven and earth to forgive us for hurting the planet and each other and also to ask for good fortune in the coming year. One of the goddesses we sang to was Sipe Gyalmo, the goddess of protection, shown here with a plate of offerings and other ceremonial objects that I didn’t learn about.
As we sang, our prayers concentrated in the center of our circle and lifted to the gods in smoke from cedar branches placed over smoldering coals.
Throughout the ceremony, the son of one of the (American) Bon Buddhists fanned the coals. Afterward, those who wanted to purchase prayer flags purified them in the smoke, which is what’s going on here.
The ceremony included water sprinkling, conch shell trumpeting, and flour tossing, but if I try to explain more I will most definitely butcher a beautiful practice (assuming I haven’t already).
Suffice to say, the entire ceremony felt very foreign yet meaningful to me. I don’t feel more or less Buddhist after the experience, but I do feel like I contributed good energy to the world at large.
We had a potluck lunch while chatting and overlooking the mountains, and the final part of the day included a broadcast talk by Tenzin Rinpoche. From his basement in California, he described how 2014 was the year of the Wood Horse and how, in order to increase the good fortune of ourselves and the world to which we belong, we need to raise our internal windhorse. What the windhorse requires, he said, is fire, wind, and space, enough to create the smoke that lifts prayers to the universe.
He asked us to close our eyes and find room inside us, enough room for a warm wind to rise. Many people, he said, will have difficulty doing this consistently as we tend to fill our lives with so much stuff. Mentally, physically, emotionally. How can peace and light flourish if we don’t give them room?
When I left Serenity Ridge, I was suffused with a sense of peace. It started to rain just when I got in my car, fat drops from a warm sky that left marks in the dust on my windshield. As I drove back down the mountain and alongside the river, one idea surfaced again and again, and the more I’ve tried to honor it in the days since March 2nd, the more powerful it feels.