Community and Commitment: A Yamantaka Study Group at Tara Institute in Australia
Recently, a group of students from Tara Institute in Melbourne, Australia, who had previously received a Yamantaka initiation from Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and again from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, gathered to form a Yamantaka study group. Yamantaka is a highest yoga tantra deity considered a wrathful manifestation of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom
The group’s focus was on readying themselves for a Yamantaka retreat, which happened this June, by studying the Yamantaka sadhana, a set of esoteric meditation instructions. As they learned, the preparation ahead of a Yamantaka retreat can be testing and confusing.
The results of the entire project were as much about community as they were about the practice itself. Three centers joined in their efforts to support the students, and the teachers and participants formed a special bond that facilitated focus and determination.
Study group member Cynthia Karena shares the heartfelt reflections of her fellow Yamantaka practitioners:
Following a highest yoga tantra initiation can be perplexing. It’s hard trying to understand the profound meaning of the practice, let alone getting those complex visualizations right.
When some students from Tara Institute (TI) took the Yamantaka initiation from Lama Zopa Rinpoche at the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion in rural Australia, and then again with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2015 in Australia’s Blue Mountains, a few of us were daunted at the prospect of mastering the sadhana and doing the retreat. Personally, I was confused and overwhelmed.
A couple of students asked our teacher Geshe Doga, Tara Institute’s resident geshe, to teach us about the practice. He suggested we meet together as a group to study the sadhana. Long-time TI student Dr. Ross Moore enthusiastically took on the task and formed a fortnightly Yamantaka study group.
Around fifty dedicated students regularly started to work their way through the sadhana, asking questions and seeking clarification on everything from hand mudras to visualizations. Senior students generously shared their expertise, experiences, and kept discussions on track. The study group used commentaries recommended by Geshe Doga, who was regularly consulted for feedback and direction.
TI student Jill Lancashire has been around the Dharma since the ‘70s. She attended the Yamantaka study group and appreciated the set time to resolve unanswered questions.
“The study group is good to become familiar with the meditations. Having them read out so you can actually meditate on them allows you to start memorizing them. Then when you do them yourself, you meditate more than just read the words.”
The meditations are outlined in the short sadhana practice, so people know where and how they fit in, said Jill.
“It’s good to introduce the short sadhana to people who were newly initiated and either had no previous experience with the format of a sadhana or for whom Yamantaka was a new practice.
“The definite thing is that having a schedule and a dedicated group of co-practitioners makes it much easier to do the practices properly and keep them going.”
To have some structure in the sessions, senior student Mark Fernandes, who now runs the group, created a set of questions each fortnight around a particular theme.
Mark has been practicing the Yamantaka sadhana for almost thirty years. In preparation for leading the group, and to get a richer understanding of the practice, Mark researched teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Dagri Rinpoche, Geshe Ngawang Dhargye, Gelek Rinpoche, and Geshe Doga.
“Lama Zopa and then His Holiness have held Yamantaka initiations, so there’s something strong about the practice,” said Mark. “And with Geshe Doga’s guidance, we have three lamas working together to give us something special.”
At the end of last year, Geshe Doga suggested it would be good to do a group Yamantaka retreat and then self-initiation, said Mark, who then moved discussions towards the long sadhana in preparation for the retreat, so people had an idea of what to expect.
So, in mid-June, twenty-five retreatants found themselves sitting nine hours a day for three weeks inside the beautiful golden rammed earth walls of the Thubten Shedrup Ling Monastery gompa, surrounded by Australian bush.
Jill felt that the TI Yamantaka study group formed a necessary base or prerequisite to being able to fulfill the retreat commitment.
“For an ordinary person like me, the Yamantaka sadhana is long, complex, and esoteric. To go in cold to a retreat without having read and discussed the commentaries would have made it very hard to appreciate what the sadhana was actually trying to do, as a couple of people who joined us from outside the study group found out.”
Monastery director Ven. Thubten Gyatso generously invited the retreat to be held at the monastery, and Atisha Centre helped with accommodation and feeding retreatants.
Senior TI student Margeruite Hanrahan organized the retreat with the monastery’s Ven. Jampa Choepel who led the retreat and Andy Melnic, the spiritual program coordinator of Atisha Centre.
The retreat demonstrates what cooperation between separate centers can achieve, said Jill. “TI, a city center with loads of students, Atisha Centre, a rural center with accommodation, and Thubten Shedrup Ling adjoins Atisha Centre and is able to provide expert Dharma guidance and exquisite gompa facilities.
“For someone who began at Atisha Centre when it was a few train carriages, a church, and a fibro hut, it was overwhelmingly satisfying to retreat in such wonderful facilities, complete with many holy objects such as the nearby Great Stupa, with such expert guidance from Ven. Jampa supported by the rest of the monks.”
“Lama Zopa Rinpoche said that the emphasis on activity of the monks at Thubten Shedrup Ling should be as in Pabongkha Rinpoche’s description of a retreat-style monastery,” said Ven. Gyatso. “In their daily practice, the monks would fulfill their tantric sadhana commitments properly and be able to perform all the associated rituals such as pujas, retreats, fire pujas, self-initiations, and so on.
“As there are so few monks at the moment, this was a good opportunity to allow the group retreat to happen. And we may well have a similar retreat next year on Heruka Chakrasamvara or Vajrayogini if the conditions remain conducive. But it’s not definite.”
Jill could not emphasize enough what doing the retreat in a monastic setting, led by a monk for whom Yamantaka was his heart practice, meant to her and the group.
“We were surrounded by holy objects in the garden outside, life-size marble statues of the Sixteen Arhats, and had the Great Stupa just down the path through the bush. Altogether it opened up another dimension that transcended knowledge. Ven. Jampa grounded us with bodhichitta and we felt the practice.
“Hit by fatigue, a few people felt like leaving, but all felt the benefit and knew the rarity of the opportunity, so all stayed and all completed. The Thubten Shedrup Ling monks conducted the fire puja and the self-initiation for us at the end, which was more than helpful, as you need real experience and expertise for these. This was the icing on the cake.”
Ven. Jampa saw the retreat as a wonderful opportunity for people to deepen their understanding and familiarize themselves with some of the more important aspects of the practice.
“Having a sincere group of practitioners that each had a strong wish to make the most out of the opportunity really made for a special occasion,” says Ven. Jampa.
Over the course of three weeks, Ven. Jampa felt the group had put real effort into each and every session. “This showed with the group settling into their practice, becoming more comfortable sitting for longer periods, increasing their ability to concentrate for longer periods, gaining a better understanding of the sadhana, and beginning to gain meditation experience of the words that were said. They were starting to transform the words of the sadhana into actual experiences that can be built on in the future.
“The joy of a more extended retreat is having the chance to reflect over and over again on ideas like bodhichitta, emptiness, and the more specific meditations associated with the practice. Through this, we started to habituate the mind more deeply on these important ideas.”
TI’s fortnightly Yamantaka study group gave people confidence to do the retreat, said Mark. “We cleared up questions and clarified what the practice was about. After the retreat, hopefully we’ll all have a clearer mind and a better practice.
“I believe the practice was removing obstacles and generating wisdom. You could see the results during those three weeks. Some people had sublime experiences, either through dreams or though something that shifted—clarity of mind, energy, or feelings of bliss.”
The TI Yamantaka study group, with now a dedicated core of around twenty, still continues to support each other in teasing out the nuances of the sadhana to deepen their understanding. “People are still keen; they’re not tired of it,” said Mark.
“The Yamantaka practice itself through the blessings of the gurus has made a big difference to the students. And Geshe Doga has manifested great delight at the students’ efforts in the practice, which has provided further inspiration.”
Cover photo: The Australian bush of Thubten Shedrup Ling Monastery, June 2017. Photo courtesy of Thubten Shedrup Ling Monastery.
Cynthia Karena has a science degree and a Masters in education. She is a freelance journalist and documentary researcher in Australia.
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Practice with the bodhisattva attitude every day. People can’t see your mind; what people see is a manifestation of your attitude in your actions of body and speech. So pay attention to your attitude all the time. Guard it as if you are the police, or like a parent cares for a child, like a bodyguard, or as if you are the guru and your mind is your disciple.