During the summer of 2008, Ven. Paula Chichester and Ven. Roger Munro trekked the Scottish Highlands completing an extensive Chod retreat. In this exclusive interview with Julia Hengst they discuss the inspiration they received from Tsongkhapa’s ear whispered lineage of which Chöd is a part, and also their direct experience with the powerful effects of the practice on the environment and its inhabitants.
Just after we finished the Great Retreat, we serendipitously encountered David Molk who was willing to translate the common text for us into a chantable version.David encouraged us to come to Toronto for teachings from Khalkha Jetsun Dampa Rinpoche, who is said to be like the Dalai Lama of Mongolia. He was in Toronto at Zasep Tulku Rinpoche’s center giving the initiations and transmissions for the uncommon Ganden Chöd, which is the 108 Springs retreat. As the title implies, that involves going to one hundred and eight different springs consecutively and performing the Chöd practice at those sites. You have to be in a different place every night without interruption. Preferably it’s a spring, but it can also be a river, a lake or an ocean somewhere there is water around.
The empowerment that enables one to do this retreat takes seven days of teachings and seven nights of going to scary places. Khalkha Jetsun Dampa Rinpoche would give initiations and teachings all day long, and then at night he would send us off to a different graveyard where we were supposed to do the Chöd practice every night. Because it was twenty degrees below zero in Toronto winter, we went instead to a different student’s house every night and did Chöd as a group all night. That’s the prerequisite and commitment to 108 Springs Retreat.
It was a very intense seven-day long retreat. There were exactly thirty-eight people, like in Vajrayogini’s body mandala (thirty seven, plus the teacher in this case). We were given teachings and initiations all morning. At sunset we would do the practice together, and from the time we left him until we saw him the next morning, we couldn’t speak. We traveled with David and Minoshi Gould. We did the practice four times in the night, the last time just before dawn. We would drive back to the center in the morning after sleeping an hour or so, and then go back to receive teachings. We slept a little in the middle of the night, but not much.
Towards the end of it, I had a burning desire to do this practice. Khalkha Jestun Dampa said at the end, “I don’t know if any of you will carry this lineage on, but I hope one of you in this room will carry it on.” I felt inspired to do it! I know one other group has done it in India with him. They did half of it and were supposed to finish the second half this year.
That was 1995 and Chöd was to be our next project. We moved to Land of Medicine Buddha where we met Ribur Rinpoche, who asked us to do a Yamantaka Great Retreat to benefit the FPMT. That took eight years from the time he asked us to do it until the time we finished.
I had the opportunity to speak with Lama Zopa Rinpoche who did a mo that came out “excellent” to live, teach and retreat in Scotland.
It’s a pacification process. If there are disturbed spirits in a place, that is going to affect the minds of people there. If we can’t work directly with the disturbed minds of the people, we can work with the disturbed minds of the spirits – that will help the people to have healthy minds, which makes everything better. That’s the premise on which I went to do Chöd in Scotland.
In 2005, I went to Scotland to visit my friend Ven. Angie Muir who introduced me to Thubten Dechen there, who was six at the time. We took a walk across Leckmelm Farm on Loch Broom and came across a ruin of a house which I had no idea was a clearance house. I didn’t know what the clearances were.
Basically, when I was at a clearance the first time, I could feel sadness there. You can also see deserted houses and hear personal stories from people about the clearances. The stories are basically about ghosts!
Basically, the Scottish and English had been fighting over Scotland for a thousand years, with the Brits wanting to take it over. They finally had a big battle the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Afterwards, in order to prevent future Scottish uprisings, they brutalized the Scots. It’s called the Highland Pacification and was carried out by the Duke of Cumberland, also known as the Butcher of Cumberland
Afterwards they went around and killed anyone who had anything to do with the last uprising it didn’t matter if they were children or women. They burned the houses down, forbade them to wear their clothes, play their music and speak their language. The nobles couldn’t take care of their people – it was the end of feudalism. With the breakdown of the lords and the peasants, the whole society broke down.
The coolest place and we waited till the very end that we went to was the place where the Battle of Culloden was and we both had visions of ghosts and spirits there. We could feel it our hair stood up on end.
The practice has several parts to it. The main things you’re dealing with are gods and ghosts – the local gods and ghosts of the place, land and country. There’s a whole hierarchy in those realms – the realms of the hungry ghosts, the gods, the types of ghosts. There are different levels of health and wealth and well-being. Some of them are suffering quite a bit, and they are the ones that usually hang around scary places. They are in terrible states of suffering and don’t know they don’t have to be there.
The particular 108 Spring practices involves three different practices a day: you take possession of the ground in the name of Prajñaparamita, then you do the practices, then you satiate them by making extensive offerings to them based on your own body and the Dharma, which pacifies their delusions. With this particular retreat, every place you go, you have a certain amount of boundary stones you use for protection during the practice that you bless. When the practice is over you gather them up and request Mother Prajñaparamita to come and stay in that place in order to continue to teach and care for the gods and spirits in that place.
It’s hard to say they really had a summer in Scotland. We hardly went a few days without a storm coming. We had a few days of fine weather, but mostly it was overcast, rainy and windy. We were in wild places like lochs, glens and coastlines, but we sat through some monumental storms where we were in the tent for 24 hours and the tent was doing a dance around us. Physically it was very difficult.
It’s called 108 Springs, but the whole retreat was 126 days. We spent seven days at the first spring, seven at the 54th spring, and seven at the last spring. We started April 1 at Shambhala Retreat Center. It was still snowing and sleeting there. The first seven days were in the yard of the center.
From there we moved around during the day to springs all around and we had to stay inside at night. It was just too cold at night. Tibet is even lower latitude than Scotland. Scotland is way up there, and the sun went down at 11 pm during the summer and came up at 3 in the morning. It was like dusk all night because it never really got dark. The opposite is true in the winter, where they have long, dark nights.
There are wild, ugly spirits flying all over the place, and they’re making people crazy. People think it’s because of coffee that they’re thinking like this, but there are also spirits afflicting their minds. If Dharma is going to take root in the Western world, it will take a lot more people doing these kinds of practices.
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There are wild, ugly spirits flying all over the place, and they’re making people crazy. People think it’s because of coffee that they’re thinking like this, but there are also spirits afflicting their minds.
It seems like an ironic situation; as the world gets more and more disturbed and imbalanced by beings we owe karmic debts to, there is less and less acceptance or willingness to believe that these beings exist at all.
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