catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 23 :: 2005.12.16 — 2005.12.29


Holy commitment

Keep these words in your heart.
Recite them to your children.
The Lord is our God.
The Lord is one.

And that is something worth talking about.

When our local guide picked us up at the airport in Lasa and we began the drive to our barely heated hotel, he began an outpouring of information about the area, its history, its customs and its religion. I was captivated and deeply concerned. How would I ever remember all that I was being told? This wasn?t fair! In the US you can never go to a single tourism destination without having a printed tract to take home with you. And here I was being told things I really wanted to remember?but how? It was then that I came to truly appreciate oral tradition, the kind of tradition that the author of Deuteronomy refers to?and to lament the fact that I have not been trained to remember information this way.

To do so requires not only a certain kind of educational formation, but also a kind of commitment that I can only label as ?holy??the kind of commitment that leads a nomad in the countryside of Tibet to travel maybe a year, maybe as along as 5 or 6 years in order to pray and make offerings of yak butter and money at the temples in Lasa. And as they walk many of them carry a prayer wheel, which they spin in a clockwise motion while chanting: Om Mani Pe Me Hung.

While in Tibet, I bought a prayer wheel. This particular prayer wheel came from the GanDam Monastery, which belongs to the yellow sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It was used by Gesung Repuqie, the oldest living Buddha at that monastery. The prayer wheel is 68 years old.
Inside are rolls of paper on which scriptures are printed. On the outside there are scripture words on the top surface?Om Ma Ni Pe Me Hung?which mean ?good luck, good exercise for life, be able to do hard work, long life, honor to the Buddha and success.? There are three corals representing the three spiritual leaders in Buddhism. Around the cylinder are pictures:

  • The knot of eternity symbolizes unity and the endless love of Buddha
  • The lotus flower symbolizes purity
  • The banner of victory symbolizes Buddhism winning over ignorance
  • The repository of jewelry is Buddhism
  • The wheel represents the wheel of law and the wheel of transformation
  • The two golden fishes are symbols of long suffering
  • The parasol is for protection
  • And the conch shell proclaims the truth of the Buddha?s teaching
    • It is a prayer, a meditation, a way of taking sacred words and imprinting them on one?s own heart.

      This kind of commitment to oral tradition is seen most strongly in the monasteries. We visited the Sera Monastery where we had the opportunity to watch the debates. A gong is struck and men in red robes start pouring into the monastery courtyard. Once there the debates begin. The debate is really like an oral quiz that lasts for 2-1/2 hours. Monks pair off and one asks questions while the other answers, switching roles along the way. It?s a wonderfully animated show. The question is asked with a flourish and the clap of the hand means ?answer right now!? If the answer is wrong backhand clapping is heard with the correct answer to follow. And the training for these monks is not limited to religious matters. They must study and learn astrology, astronomy and medicine as well.

      Perhaps the final demonstration of the commitment of these people is in the way they prostrate themselves before the Buddha in an act of surrender and reverence. The hands are held together in front the head and then the chest and then you lower yourself to the floor, touching the floor with your forehead and placing your hands palms down over your head.

      Now I do have to mention that much of this behavior is done in the midst of a very superstitious approach to religion, particularly amongst the nomadic people. By gaining the favor of the Gods and the Buddhas one hopes to gain good luck, wealth, and a long life. The belief in reincarnation leads to a kind of holy threat of what awaits those who do not live according to approved teachings and beliefs. In contrast, we in the west are have experienced the scientific revolution and discovered that God doesn?t work in such neat and tidy ways. We believe that our prayers are intended to move us into the action we seek?that we are to be God?s heart and hands in this world.

      So why is it that we so often feel so much less commitment to doing the work of the Spirit? Why is it so easy for us to spend days and weeks and months and years without ever feeling the need to approach the mystery of God with reverence? Why is it so hard for us to find time to meditate, to attend a weekly worship service, to participate in a service project? How can it be that our own deliberate spiritual growth can be such a low priority? Why do we so seldom share our faith journey with others?

      I watched a movie the other night, Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion that suggested there is an immediacy to Tibetan Buddhism because of the living reincarnation of the Dali Lama as their spiritual leader. The movie asks how Christianity might be different if instead of waiting for a future return of Christ we believed Christ was present in a reincarnated form today.

      In this advent season I wonder if we are living as though we think Christ might be returning in some far distance future?or if we are preparing right now for his imminent return. If so isn?t that something worth remembering, talking about and living for?

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