Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Same Ling 2: Chess, Yaks, Swallows and Siddhis

I am rubbish at chess, and was reminded of this by being thrashed in every single game that I played in Samye Ling. My own technique is roughly similar to Rick Mayall's in Bottom (see above).

My most formidable opponent was a Belgian lad who was also very good at playing the guitar and singing Jacques Brel songs. He also smoked rollups and volunteered to do a lot of mowing. He was just one of a number of interesting people at Samye Ling. Another one, who worked in the cafe, had just been to the wildwood in Poland, looking for wolves. I don't think he found any, but it sounded like a fantastic adventure.

My own animal quest was for Yaks, who lived in the bottom field. In theory, this should have been an easy search, but in practice, they proved elusive. See if you can see them in the photograph:

...And just in case this doesn't slake your yak-thirst, here's a rather nice relief of one:

Yaks were not the only animal visitors to Samye Ling. There were also swallows, nesting in the temple eaves. The broods were just about ready for flight.

The human beings, including myself, were all more concerned about Buddhist things than crapping on brightly coloured plasterwork.

As I mentioned in the last post, one of the founders of Samye Ling, Akong Tulku Rinpoche, was killed in 2013. An exhibition had been set up in his honour, in the temple grounds. 

'Tulku' means a custodian of a specific lineage of teachings who has been reincarnated. The last Akong was the second in his lineage, believed a reincarnation of the Abbot of Dolma Lhakang monastery near Chamdo, who died in 1937.

The first Akong allegedly exhibited paranormal abilities like clairvoyance, and during one retreat, an unusual red light was observed throughout his retreat house by the other monks.

These are examples of siddhis, paranormal powers that are believed to be the products of spiritual advancement and exactly the sort of thing that educated Westerners like me should completely dismiss if we know what's good for us.

My curiosity stirred by the exhibition, I decided to attend one of the Guru Rinpoche Drupcho rituals that was being performed in the temple that week.

Guru Rinpoche Drupcho is a ritual dedicated to world peace and Akong Rinpoche's swift rebirth. It involves a giant chocolate cake, a votive offering to the spirits, possibly Za, he who “guards the religious teachings, and his with his thousand eyes watches the happenings in the three worlds."

I attended one of these rituals, which took one and a half hours. It took place in the temple, and involved prayers, chants,  and the intoning of mantras, accompanied by the beating of a gong, the blowing of horns and drumming. There were also quiet bits where there was a sort of humming throat chant that was very hypnotic.

I felt, for a time, as if I'd been transported to another time and place, and the general effect was eerie and disorientating. However, most of the performers were Europeans, and apparently they're still fairly bad at pronouncing Tibetan properly.

Rebirth and siddhis are two things that simply do not map onto twenty-first century secularism. I have no idea whether there's any truth in either phenomena. As far as reincarnation goes, I've long been intrigued, if not completely convinced by, Ian Stevenson's cases of children who recall previous lives.  But ultimately, I just do not know.

I do think, however, that topics like this are suitable for scientific investigation. I've read quite a few pieces, recently, that suggest that phenomena x is so outrageous that it should not, under any circumstances, even be acknowledged by scientific authorities. This is because if phenomena x is acknowledged, then it will get undeserved credibility, which will taint the reputation of science.

This seems (arguably) a good strategy if we know for certain that phenomena x is false. We do not want to promote false or wrong knowledge.

It is a lousy strategy if phenomena x, however unlikely, just happens to be true. And I'd suggest that our ignorance of the universe is such that it's close to impossible, in most cases, to determine with certainty whether phenomena x is worthy of investigation without actually investigating it.

This does not mean that we should approach unusual belief systems uncritically, or reject science, but it does imply a level of respect. In the case of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama has long favoured a dialogue approach with science and I support this, too. This is because both knowledge systems have something to learn  from one another.

The problem is that paranormal phenomena have become so taboo in elite Western culture, that it's virtually impossible to approach them sensibly at all without being considered a gullible moron.

Which probably explains my chess-playing....

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