Monk note: Phowa retreat with HHPCR

(in the blogging spirit, I will post up some personal notes once a month or so … I originally thought to keep this blogsite completely impersonal, but my intentions are impermanent like everything else)

Phowa Retreat with His Holiness Phakchok Rinpoche

This last week I was in Malaysia, having kindly been invited by Jarunee and Ram to join the special retreat there led by H.E. Chokling Rinpoche, and his son and dharma heir H.H. Phakchok Rinpoche. Many in Bangkok met the latter Rinpoche during his previous visits here over the last two years, where he warmed the Thai people with an easy charm.

I never really looking into Tibetan Buddhism much. I heard that it is rather way out in some ways, and only really makes sense if you have some devotion and perhaps more importantly, complete immersion. For an incurable skeptic and non-believer in anything, this did not attract me. Besides, it is a whole new set of layers to get to grips with – all these Rinpoches, Tulkus, ornate hats and lineages, mantras, tantras, reincarnations, buttery tea, secret spells, empowerments and throaty mumbles. They even have Tantric sex rituals  and marriages. To me the whole advantage of being a monk is you don’t have to get married!

Yes, Tibetan Buddhism was a step too far, for no other reason than the effort that would have to be put into learning it. There are a number of topics I would like to put effort into first, not least of which is the impressive stack(s) of books in my room I really would like to read one day.

The other thing is, I really hate travelling.

‘Hate’ in the sense of disapproval. If I have to go somewhere, then of course, it is rather unskillful to be whingeing and wining to yourself the whole way. So like a kid in a bath, its hard to get me out of my cocoon here in my temple, but I can enjoy it if I really must. And like many Westerners one thing I am overly attached to is my own bathroom. There’s really nothing like having your own throne to sit on is there?

The Retreat

This retreat was apparently something special. (Isn’t Tibetan Buddhism always some kind of ‘special’ secret happening?). But that’s about all I knew about it before going. I was just glad not to be the organiser. If the mic batteries run out, or the speakers have the wrong jack plug it is not going to be my problem. A selfish form of non-attachment maybe, but nice.

About 150 people from Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand joined the retreat in a posh hotel in the surprisingly clean and modern Penang. His Eminence Chokling Rinpoche was to give a rare teaching on ‘Phowa’ – a semi-secret line of practise that prepares one for the next life. It is not meant to form the regular line of ones meditation, but rather an occasional practise that opens a physical passage at the top of the head, through which your consciousness can escape at the point of death. Interesting.

The teacher has little English. Perhaps enough for chit chat and the occasional joke which was surprisingly effective. His son, the more familiar Phakchok Rinpoche translated from Tibetan into English, and this was further translated into Chinese and Thai. There were no long talks, so this was not a distraction. Just  brief instructions, and then Q and A about the method.

Throughout there was little of the familiar Theravadan retreat atmosphere. There was joking about, talking, socializing and of course eating, in a very relaxed style. We did very little meditation at all. I thought about offering to lead a vipassana weekend retreat for them, but aching knees and silent endurance of dharma-pains would have been a hard sell. There was lots of free time to wander down to the tiny beach full of shy crabs, or gaze out from the 14th storey balcony over the ocean. And to catch up on my adopted Thai pass-time of napping. It would have been good to take some books from my stack(s) but like a good Theravada retreatant, I thought I shouldn’t take any. The little netbook computer would have been good too – but I was afraid they’d laugh at me if I took it.

The Phowa Method

The other thing that had always turned me off Tibetan Buddhism is all the visualisation. I simply can’t do it. I can’t visualise.

I can ‘see’ how an engine works, or how a building will be designed. But I can’t visualise anything. My mind just doesn’t work that way. Sorry.

And I do know what real visualisation is. You see,  I did once see something in my mind. In my first year as a monk, I had a room next to the public phone where the Thais would gather and gossip loudly all day (and yes, I did eavesdrop!) The only really quiet time to meditate should have been 4am. But that was the exact time the local chicken got up and started screeching under my balcony! It drove me nuts.

I confess I kept a pile of rocks on my balcony to hurl at the foul (yes, I mean foul!).

It got to the point where I only had to open my back door for the chicken to dart skwarking off into the trees. And yes again, that was quite satisfying.

One middle of the night, I was meditating quite serenely, when the chicken started up. I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to break my samadhi. But I so wanted to get that damn chicken out of my mind and ears. Just then, it appeared. And that was it. My first, and only ever real visualisation. A giant chicken with its beautiful green and gold feathers in all their detail, right there in my mind. And best of all about this vision, it wasn’t skwarking!

It did not last long, and now I felt a begrudging admiration for this beautiful chicken outside, even as I hurled a battery of rocks through its dust trail.

Oh Yes, The Phowa Method

Tibetan practises are muchly mantra chanting – 100 000+ each that you have to count – visualisation, and lots of bowing. Personally, my meditation is more about letting go, and emptying out than trying to ‘do’ stuff. But I was willing to give this new experience a chance.

Until I tried it.

While the details are supposed to be semi-secret, they can be googled. In the spirit of the thing I won’t give the whole method as it is supposed to be done with a  teacher. And I must admit, H.H. Phakchok Rinpoche went a long way giving sensible explanations and making it accessible, which is something you don’t get with an online account.

First you mentally close your 8 orifices with a special chant. Then recite the lineage supplication and instructions. Visualise your ‘central channel’ with a white Avalokiteshvara atop your head, and then a red Amidhabha Buddha in a special posture (this posture is quite important) above that. Then fire your consciousness up with a very loud ‘HIK’ sound, and release it back down with another sound. It’s much more involved actually, but this is the basic outline.

Now 150 people loudly shouting out ‘Hik’s and ‘kha’s in a hotel ballroom is not my idea of meditation. Call me attached but ….

And it is not conducive to doing visualisation meditation, which I already find impossible. I was definitely beginning to wonder what I had gotten into. The complaining mind fired up, and the vipassana mind noted it and tried not to attach. The complaining mind fought back, and the doubting mind wondered if I should be noting/letting go, or if that was vipassana when I should be doing this ‘phowa’…..

So the confused mind fired up. And then vipassana me noted…. well, you get the idea. All the while the ears fought for attention, telling the complaining/vipassana/complaining/doubting/vipassana…etc…. mind to forget all that because 150 people keep shouting ‘hik’.

Now, if done correctly, a physically detectable channel should open on your head. This is no secret, and perhaps the only thing I had known about the method was that if the channel opens a piece of straw can be inserted. Before going I had hoped that the straw can be removed just as easily!

It was the second day, and while trying not to judge, I was seriously considering extracting myself and heading off to Sayadaw U Sujana’s temple for the remaining few days. He emirates peace and silence which is more what I consider meditation. One or two people in the room had opened their channels, prompting the excited participants to all cheer and clap while the yogi beamed with joy, and sported the piece of straw sprouting from their crown like a Red Indian and his feather.

I alternated between trying this supremely complex visualisation, and planning my escape. Sometime I spent sitting and watching my mind, but the sight of the happy figure of Chokling Rinpoche patiently casting his compassionate eye over the crowd would always shut up my complaining and make me try again, even if only for a few minutes. Some of the time, the mind would stop and shine, but not in a very stable kind of way.

Suddenly someone grasped my head and moved it around a bit. I felt a sharp stabbing around the top of my head for a minute or so. Then the two mysterious hands gently grabbed my shoulders and gave me a congratulatory shake. Next thing – the retreat organiser was in front of me congratulating me on having ‘graduated’ and opened my channel.

Two thoughts occurred. One was, I’d rather like a little less head stabbing and a little more of the surprisingly pleasant shoulder rub. The other was, like a cricketer who just walked on the pitch and hit a perfect shot walks off again before anyone can see it was a fluke, perhaps I should leave before anyone realised I had not attained anything.

A few minutes after the end of the meditation I removed the piece of straw from my head, though I saw most of the ‘successful’ people left their straw in for some hours.

The next session I was a little more enthusiastic, and managed to gain more concentration. This is part of my earlier comments on Tibetan Buddhism. You have to buy into it, to get anything out of it. You have to believe and accept more than my free will allows me to. With a bit more enthusiasm now, I was more able to explore what visualisation actually is. I learnt quite a bit at this point, and straw or no straw this made it worthwhile.

By the end of the retreat everyone had opened their channels. Apparently some took longer than others. Or did this mean they just had hard heads?

The scientist in me would have liked a double blind trial. 100 people, half of whom did the practise and half not. All would individually be ‘straw tested’ both before, during and after the meditation by Lamas who are not told who had done the meditation and who had not.

Why? Because the straw test might not be an accurate measure of meditation. Maybe lots of people have the soft ‘hole’ at the top of the head without meditating. I was only ‘straw tested’ once. Perhaps I would have ‘passed’ anyway, without meditating in this method. 

I did mention this to the ever approachable Rinpoche junior. He assured me that the opening was definitely a result of the meditation, paused for a few long moments, and then laughed at me really hard. I reckon I deserved the laughing-at and it is impossible to be offended by him.

The remaining hard headed people were removed to another room to sit with Rinpoche senior, and finally all of them were ‘successful’. I confess the rampant clapping and cheering whenever someone ‘passed’ bothered me. When the Buddha passed away in the scriptures, it is said that the lay devotees who had not practised all wept, wailed and beat their chests, while those who had done the practise just mindfully noted that ‘all that arises will pass’. The meditation has this effect – everything becomes something to be mindful of.  Was I being a kill-joy? Are happiness and excitement different?

When Phakchok Rinpoche discovered the cheering and clapping he several times had to calm the group down and teach that this is not the way of dhamma, and that the straw-test is only an outward sign, and nothing to attach to. It did little good though, as the cheers would resume when he was not there.

WELL, it is always good to step out of your comfort zone once in a while. The experience was good. I learnt some new things. And I have a practise for what to do when I (or someone else) dies. One retreatant later pointed out that even if everything else was not real, the effect of giving so many people confidence about the dying process is a hugely beneficial thing. He himself is possibly facing this process in the forseeable future due to an illness, so I take his comment as a real insight. The next Phowa practise retreat by H.E. Chokling Rinpoche will be in three years time at a place yet to be determined. And in case you are still curious, years ago, I finally did manage to catch that chicken by chasing it into a lake. Chickens can actually swim, but without webbed feet I guess paddling is rather energy consuming for the chicken, and a source of amusement for onlooking ducks. Bedraggled and miserable it crawled out from the lake and surrendered to the human, who took it off to the local village where it remained for several more years.


5 replies on “Monk note: Phowa retreat with HHPCR”

  1. Bhante,

    Very interesting.

    How is this form of meditation supposed to prepare you for death? As opposed to any other form?

    Hope you are keeping well,
    All the Best,
    Bill Z

  2. Well, it is all part of the ‘secretism’, and though in Theravada everything is open to all, I do respect tradition. One is supposed to take the practise and teaching with the master.
    That said, the general idea is nothing really complex. The normal visualisation involves moving the consciousness up and down the central channel. At the point of death, one moves it up and out, to merge with Amidaba Buddha.

    1. Yes. It is in the ‘hole’ which is actually a soft area at the crown of the head. The more I think about these Tibetan practises, the more I see their value. Amida Buddha is a quality of Fatih – it is that which is being developed through skillful means. Many people asked questions like why is he red, or how the blessing overflow from him to us through the spot in the crown, or how exactly he helps when we die. HH Phakchok Rinpoche’s answer was usually laughter and ‘you think too much’. At one point he said ‘in the temple the monks and nuns don’t ask like this – we just do it and see what happens’ which struck a chord with me.

      1. I enjoyed your acount very much – you are a good writer Achaan – you must do more with this skill! How about a book?
        I have a similar problem with visualising but I think it works just as well with “empty essence” (Sunyatha) above you too. This I can easily rely on and have “faith” in so to say. Different strokes in Tibetan Buddhism and this depends on the understanding of the student. An interesting time, although I struggled with the situation a bit too at times, glad I went…

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