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Doubt (WMRI retreat, day 2)

Our first day of retreat coincided with the 49th day of the death of Khandro Tsering Chödron, Sogyal Rinpoche’s aunt.  This being an important day in the Tibetan tradition, the morning became a celebration of Khandro’s life through photos, video and by Rinpoche’s anecdotes about her. For me, as a woman stepping into a male dominated tradition, witnessing the importance and respect accorded Khandro as a supreme Vajrayanapractitioner was heartwarming. She appeared to be a woman just like any one of us attending the retreat, who, through following the dharma, became a great master. I wished I had the opportunity to meet her and sit in her presence.

Then however, we started chanting and reciting prayers, and I could feel my skepticism rise up at the rituals that followed. Granted, the full Vajrayana spectacle doesn’t usually occur on the first day of a meditation retreat for beginners - this was a special occasion. But it did give me a glimpse of what my future would be like if I stayed on this path : visualizing gods I don’t believe in, chanting mantras in a language I don’t speak, and praying for the long life of lamas who teach impermanence. Hmm.


It has been said to me that these practices are just methods of training and taming the mind, an explanation I accept to a certain extent. But what about long life prayers, removing obstacle prayers and the like? Do lamas really recite those just to train their minds? Or are they really praying, and if so, to whom? Is there an external Buddhist god after all, who responds to appeals of this nature?

I realize these questions reflect a flaw in my own understanding of Vajrayana, rather than a bug in the system itself. My personal practices of meditation and loving kindness are definitely transforming my life. But the ritual and prayers that form part of the next stages of this path do lend themselves to the question : Is Vajrayana just not right for me? Or do I take a leap of faith and trust in the lineage of the Tibetan Buddhist masters? And if I do go on faith alone, am I not going against the basic Buddhist tenet about testing the teachings out for myself?

These thoughts about my spiritual future weighed on me as I walked back to my tent that night. I was attending retreats all over the world, buying the books and doing the practice. What if it was all leading me down a path I couldn’t follow? Would I wake up 5 years from now and realize I had nowhere to go?

The stars were out and I took a moment to look up at them. It’s been a long time since I have seen stars. Then as I reached my tent, a full moon burst out through the dark blue clouds. I stared at it, transfixed by its beauty. I wish I could say that in that moment, all my doubts and worries dissolved. They didn’t. But they did start to recede into the back of my mind. It occurred to me that all I was worried about was a bunch of thoughts. To paraphrase Rinpoche, the moon was bigger than my confusion. I went to bed with my doubts about the future still intact, but for that night at least, they had a little less power over my present.