If you want to deepen in your understanding of impermanence, come spend a spring in Mongolia. I’m just back from Darkhan, Mongolia’s second largest city, where it was just about t-shirt weather. Now, waking in UB, I find that another Siberian front has muscled in, complete with snow. It's khuiten and I'm daarch!
But you didn’t come here to talk about the weather. I had a truly action-packed three days in Darkhan made possible with the kind hospitality of FPMT’s Golden Light Sutra Center. My time there provided the final inspiration for a post that’s been brewing in my mind since I got here, on the powerful presence of the spiritual feminine in Mongolia.
FPMT’s center there is theoretically run by someone named “Gordon” but I think that’s either their code word for something or their imaginary friend, because I didn’t see him once. In a nuts-and-bolts way, the center is run by the three resident nuns. At the helm is Ani Sarah Thresher, a wonderfully sweet, strong British woman who has been a nun for 19 years, teaching around the world at the behest of Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
The first afternoon I was there, I was privileged to participate in a Tara Puja conducted with the local community. Here is Ani Sarah, teaching about the sublime qualities of Arya Tara before the ceremony. Her translator is Ani Pelyang, a Mongolian woman who took robes during FPMT’s 2004 Enlightenment Experience Celebration held in Mongolia.
More than a dozen women took ordination at that event, including the two pictured here, listening to Ani Sarah. In the background is Emily Porter, AKA Ani Gyalten Tsomo, from America. It was Emily’s work on a post-college fellowship that provided me with the only information I discovered about the situation with Mongolian nuns prior to my coming. It was a treat to thank her in person.
In the foreground is Ani Gyalten Choden, a Mongolian woman I found so intriguing (among other things, I had heard she was a Danzan Ravjaa devotee) that I asked her to come around the next day to share some of her story with me.
Before I get into that, though, I should say something generally about the Buddhist practices that have survived Mongolia’s period of Soviet communist rule. The Gelugpa presentation of sutra and tantra was, and is, the dominant Tibetan Buddhist system in Mongolia. Sectarian divisions, however, are not nearly so pronounced here as among the Tibetans. Padmasambhava, and the teachings and practices that emanated from him which became known as the Nyingma (Ancient) lineage, are accorded great respect here. It is not uncommon for serious practitioners in Mongolia to begin by studying the five major sutra subjects – prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom), madhyamika (middle way philosophy), pramana (logical ascertainment), abhidharma (phenomenology), and vinaya (codes of conduct) – according to the classic Indian Buddhist texts and their Gelugpa commentaries, and then use that knowledge as a basis for entering into Nyingma tantric systems. Among the few Nyingma rituals widely practiced, none is more pervasive than chöd. “Chöd” literally means “to cut” and it is a practice in which one visualizes the offering of one’s own body and life as a means to cut our deepest attachments from the root. In fact, in Mongolia, the practice is commonly known as "lujing", or “offering the body”. As near as I’ve been able to work out, there are three, and maybe four, lujing lineages practiced in Mongolia. Primary among them is the one popularized by Danzan Ravjaa.
For some reason – perhaps in part because the practice’s founder in Tibet was a woman named Machig Labdron – lujing seems to be the main practice done by serious female yoginis in Mongolia. Ani Gyalten is no exception.
Her father had been a learned Gelugpa monk before that was declared illegal by the Communists and he subsequently married. We had a hearty laugh about stored-up energy when she revealed she was the 12th of 18 children! I made them laugh further about the Communist habit of awarding patriotic (matriotic?) medals to women who bore many children, suggesting that her mother must have had so many medals that she had to walk hunched over. As it turns out, eight of the 18 were adopted, but still. Ani Gyalten was the last girl, with six boys coming after. Can you imagine?
The children were quietly taught Buddhist principles and she grew up with faith in the Buddha. Following 1990’s independence, she took the five lay precepts (called genyen in Tibetan) with Bakula Rinpoche and then sought out Dush Lama, the abbot of Danzan Ravjaa’s Khamar Monastery, for initiation and instruction in lujing practice. She says she has three gurus, all associated with lujing, but considers Dush Lama to be her root guru. She lived for a time at Khamar, but got sick and decided to relocate to Darkhan where her children live (following more modestly in her parents’ footsteps, she bore four and adopted one).
After telling me about this, she gave me some crucial revelations. The first is that when she goes to the Gobi now, she does not go to Khamar. Rather, she goes to a place about 80km south called Burdon Bolok. This is a remote site blessed by Danzan Ravjaa that used to be the location of 108 springs, of which about 20 remain, and a retreat facility built by DR. Apparently, practitioners from all over Mongolia go there to meditate, and it is supposed to be especially potent for lujing practice. It is also known as a healing place, and sick people go to lie down and cover themselves with the sand. She promised she would take me there after June 15 and I’m going to hold her to it!
The next mind-blower came when she showed me a Mongolian newspaper about Khamar and Danzan Ravjaa. It contained an article detailing the Noyon Khutagt describing two quietly recognized incarnations of the Lord of the Gobi after Danzan Ravjaa, the seventh passing away in 1930! I asked her if there was a current incarnation that she knew about. I thought she would say no way, but she startled me by saying she had heard about a promising boy who is about 10, but then she got cagey. Wow.
After we talked, she gave me a small drawing of the sacred mountain in which the 3rd Noyon Khutagt is said to be interred. Later, just before I left, she stunned me with much more elaborate gifts. One was a horsehead fiddle for Jetsunma (she had been really interested when I gave her Jetsunma’s photo and told her a bit of her story). The other was a traditional Mongolian jacket for me. It’s way too ornate for my style but I’ll find the right person to pass it along to. Anyway, I had a special feeling about this ani and will be curious how this auspicious meeting unfolds.
Ani Sarah surprised me by asking me to talk in her place on Saturday. She suggested I just say something about my life and how I became connected to Danzan Ravjaa. But when I faced them, I told them that there was nothing interesting to tell about my life but there was plenty interesting to tell about the Buddha’s teachings and I gave a short talk about the 10 virtues and 10 non-virtues. As you can see by this photo they insisted be taken, 95% of the group was older women. It always embarrasses me to teach people older than myself, and it was the first time I ever gave a talk with a translator, but I muddled through (I forgot one of the ten and Emily had to remind me!).
To complete my Wise Woman Weekend, I found out at the last moment that Geshe Sonam Dorje, the one who runs the Tara Center in UB, was in town to confer a White Tara initiation! I have an especially nice feeling about this Geshe, so I attended for the blessing and connection, since White Tara is so close to my heart. Here is the Geshe in the shadow of the divine.
Just prior to my trip to Darkhan, I also had the privilege of visiting Dolma Ling, another project of FPMT which is the only residential nunnery in all of Mongolia. It is also the location for their soup kitchen, which feeds lunch to 80-100 people every day. This photo shows Ani Palmo on the left. She’s from Kopan in Nepal and is the head nun among the fifteen there. I did not discover the name of the other ani pictured. One of their buildings is dedicated for retreat and right now there is one nun in retreat who is 95 years old!
Dolma Ling is a reconstruction of a dilapidated, pre-Communist monastery. On the grounds are these two pillars, said to be at least 300 years old. They were erected as an homage to Green and White Tara and the local people still come to circumambulate them.
This blog is becoming a bit of a frustration. I’ve already written nearly three pages, and I’ve left out so much! Anyway, I wanted to leave you with this image of a woman who has touched me most deeply here. She is known simply as Khajiidma, which is one Mongolian word for dakini. She is the head of about 30-50 yoginis dedicated to lujing practice. Glenn Mullin adores them and is helping them raise funds for both a city temple and a country retreat.
As a final note, I want to express my awe and appreciation to my community at KPC Maryland. Today marks the 20th anniversary of their unbroken, 24 hour-a-day prayer vigil for world peace and the end of suffering begun on April 18, 1985. I have had the honor of adding many hours of my own meager prayers to this vigil. The community in Arizona has also maintained an unbroken vigil for more than five years. These heroic efforts are a source of strength to me here and perhaps you may also find comfort that at any time, day or night, there are always two people engaged in prayer for the world.