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Feb 22
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Dharma Teachings
Obstacles and Antidotes

Ekajati: Queen of the Mamos, thangka painting by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Ekajati: Queen of the Mamos, thangka painting by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Teachings on Don Season
by Shastri Andrew Sacamano

As we move from winter to spring to summer to fall there is a natural process that takes place in the earth. There is a period where the earth needs to be quiet, there is a period where it needs to blossom, there is a period where it needs to grow. Our own body-mind calendar goes in a similar cycle.
~ Sakyong Mipham, Online Don Season Teachings, Halifax, January 27, 2008

Obstacles
Traditionally the days leading up to Shambhala Day are known as “Don Days,” and are regarded as a difficult time of year. There are ten don days, followed by one neutral day, followed by Shambhala Day.

Even though we may not be as obviously influenced by the seasons as our ancestors, we still have cycles of more or less energy – individual, social and environmental. At this time of year the cycle is low: our energy is spent, and things that have been quiescent come to fruition. This is a ripe time for obstacles to arise. We call these obstacles “dons”. Although we understand that these are manifestations of our own mind, our experience of them is like malicious agents or spirits out to get us, so we talk about them as though they are as real as we are.

In general, anything that cuts our progress on the path is regarded as an obstacle. But this is not just spiritual difficulties: communication with friends and family becomes difficult, our possessions break easily, and people and animals close to us can easily get worn out and become ill. On an inner level, our discursive thoughts and emotions can feel stronger. And at the innermost level, we can begin to doubt our own basic goodness.

When this is very strong, we begin to feel like the entire world is arrayed against us, and that we are completely out of step with our own bodies and emotions, the people around us, and the world we live in. At moments like this it is easy to take things very personally, and deduce that we are somehow especially unworthy. But in fact obstacles are part of the path for everyone, always. Even the Buddha had to work with obstacles all the time.

Antidotes
We would all like someone to come and save us from this situation. Even just having the idea of someone to ask for help can be very appealing. Friends and family (and doctors, mechanics, contractors, and so on) are important parts of caring for ourselves and our world. But ultimately, as warriors of Shambhala, we must rely on our own innate wisdom to see the nature of these obstacles and our own innate strength to overcome them at their roots.

We begin with mindfulness. Not just paying attention to our meditation, but to our entire lives. Although obstacles are the ripening of our karma, mindfulness is only way to begin to counter them. A student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was once hit by a car, and then asked Rinpoche about the reason for the accident, perhaps expecting esoteric insight in to karma. Rinpoche replied that it was a sign of lack of mindfulness. Only with a foundation of care, appreciation, and attentiveness to the details of our life will be we able to counter obstacles.

The second important aspect of working with obstacles is humbleness – absence of arrogance. We may be very accomplished practitioners, very important people, but reality cares nothing about that. We must not be cavalier about our difficulties. Instead we must rely on our skill as warriors to find a balance – recognizing the power of dons, while at the same time recognizing their essential workability.

And the third way to engage our obstacles is with practice. Traditionally, protector and purification practices are done this time of year. We use the skillful means of practice to unsettle our fixed mind, to remind us to look up and see the space around obstacles that only seem to fill the entire world.

In particular, in the Shambhala community, we do a practice known as “Pacifying the Turmoil of the Mamos”. One definition of “mamo” is, “the basic feminine principle that governs the universe”. Ma representing ultimate space, and mo representing the insight that comes from that space. All human beings have aspects of this feminine energy, just as we all have aspects of masculine energy – skillful means and activity. But generally, the feminine aspect is more pervasive, more universal. So when it feels like the whole universe is out to get us, it is because of difficulties in our relationship with feminine energy. Because this can feel so real and external, we adjust our attitude by making offerings to the perceived external attackers: making physical offerings at the shrine in our centers, and making psychological offerings by chanting and requesting that the mamos stop attacking us and become friendly again.

We should understand that the vivid imagery of the mamo chants and other protector chants reflects how we can relate to the obstacles that arise in our own mind – and not how we should act in the world, or ask others to act on our behalf. This imagery is meant to poke at our kleshas so that we can see them and overcome them.

Practical Advice
In addition to giving us advice about how to work with our attitude and emotions, the lineage also gives us some very practical advice about don season.

First, slow down and be less ambitious. Allow yourself ten days of less agenda, less planning, less emailing. But don’t just flop into comfort and entertainment – the dons are on very easy ground there. Instead, practice, go for walks, cultivate space in your life for reflection and looking ahead as a practitioner and as a person.

Secondly, tidy your mental space. Rather than working the parts of your to-do list that are about accomplishing new things, focus on finishing unfinished interpersonal business. Return borrowed items, and clear debts. We should be especially mindful of our interactions with other people, and practice being gentle and simple.

Finally, clean your space – your kitchen, your bedroom, your workplace. We manifest in the world from the base camp of these places – so they should encourage and support lungta and our connection to basic goodness. Find items that you can give away, recycle, or discard. This can be part of an elegant ceremony of recognizing the new year, and is a great way to use the neutral day to clear out the last vestiges of dons from your physical and psychological space.

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20 responses to “ Obstacles and Antidotes ”
  1. If I share this on Facebook, will non-Shambhala members be able to read it?

  2. This is a sexist practice – needing to pacify mamos – a hysterical female energy. It does not work to make it gender neutral by saying we all possess feminine and masculine characteristics. At the end of the day, feminine refers to females. Me,Us. And the mamo chants are to pacify ugly, hysterical, overreacting women. Terrible that no one owns this is an antiquated practice that is disrespectful to women no matter how you white wash it.

  3. “In particular, in the Shambhala community, we do a practice known as “Pacifying the Turmoil of the Mamos”. One definition of “mamo” is, “the basic feminine principle that governs the universe”. Ma representing ultimate space, and mo representing the insight that comes from that space. All human beings have aspects of this feminine energy, just as we all have aspects of masculine energy – skillful means and activity. But generally, the feminine aspect is more pervasive, more universal. So when it feels like the whole universe is out to get us, it is because of difficulties in our relationship with feminine energy. Because this can feel so real and external, we adjust our attitude by making offerings to the perceived external attackers: making physical offerings at the shrine in our centers, and making psychological offerings by chanting and requesting that the mamos stop attacking us and become friendly again.”

    This paragraph means that problems in life are caused by female energy creating chaos. Where are the chants to clear out the male energy that is attacking and us so we can start fresh for the new year?

  4. Gordon Burgess
    Feb 23, 2014
    Reply

    Hey Andi – it’s only sexist if you choose take it that way. “Sexist” isn’t really a good label IMO for a practice that is a thousand years old or so.

    Along with the notion that a fortunate birth meant a male birth, I look at the hetero-normal male perspective in a lot of liturgies as a reflection for what a tough time women had in a pre-industrial society anywhere.

    If that doesn’t work for you you are free to imagine these malevolent forces as whatever source of dark oppression concerns you – heteronormal male arrogance works fine, if that’s how you understand things.

    Cheers,

    Gordon

  5. Gordon,

    Just because a practice is 1,000 years old does not mean it is healthy, productive, or devoid of sexism. But perhaps you are right. “Misogynistic” might be a better word. And why should I imagine a meaning that is not intended in the text? Would you advise a black man to just imagine the “N” word is not being used by a white Christian leader in the south? Wouldn’t it be better to go to the white Christians leader and ask them change they way they spoke to be more inclusive? Perhaps the mamos example is more subtle, but the sentiment is the same.

    I don’t want to imagine malevolent forces that are not described in the text of the chants thank you very much. I want my teachers to wake up and pay attention to the remnants of male oppression and sexism that exist in modern Buddhism. Practices that are demeaning to women, however insidiously, should be re-written to be more inclusive and less demeaning for the good of everyone.

  6. It would be helpful to make this chant less gender specific. We changed a few of other words in it, and I understand the reason for using ‘women’ but the inner meaning is lost when people feel alienated by that usage. I am in favor of using the word “beings” instead, so that it is not offensive to half the population.

  7. It’s not difficult to find expressions of sexism in traditional Tibetan Buddhism, but I’m not sure this is one. As Shastri Sacamano explains, the mamos are an expression of wisdom, or emptiness-insight. That wisdom isn’t ours particularly–it’s the nature of reality. Obstacles arise when we fail to relate with that wisdom properly. When we don’t recognize space as space, our resistance creates problems for us. In other words, it is a lack of respect and understanding of the feminine that wreaks havoc on our world. From this point of view, this chant seems quite up do date.

    We could probably tone this chant down–it’s about the energies of the universe, not really men and women. But the vajrayana tradition uses imagery that is personal and provocative in order to be personal and provocative.

  8. Patricia Blaine
    Feb 24, 2014
    Reply

    Hi Andi, I appreciate your articulate description of the concerns some people have about the Mamo Chant being sexist. There haven’t been too many teachings on don season in our community, and I hope that Shambhala’s end of year tradition can be clarified and enriched in coming years. Maybe it’s time to add some other chants or practices to this time of year. Having said that, I think there are a few things you and some other people may have misunderstood about the Mamo Chant.

    Firstly, I think there may be some confusion about who the mamos are. You have the impression that the chant is saying the mamos are negative beings, hysterical and over-reacting, but I don’t think this is in the case. Actually they are a wisdom being and her retinue, who are justifiably angered by the nonvirtuous deeds of individuals and society. To use an analogy, if I said “mother earth has been angered by companies polluting rivers and streams” in no way suggests that I think mother earth is negative and hysterical. Actually it is more the opposite, that I would be honoring mother earth by saying that and then making offerings to her as a sincere apology.

    I also want to point out that this one chant, though it has shaped our community’s impression of don season quite a bit, should not be seen as giving a full portrait of what don season is. Trungpa Rinpoche happened to chose this particular chant to be done during don season, but many different chants, practices, and rituals are done in various Tibetan communities during this time of year. Many of these practices feature male deities and various other protector deities. The main point of don season is clearing away all obstacles at the end of the year, not just “problems caused by females.”

    This is not to say that this particular chant carries no cultural baggage at all. It might be nice if some people wanted to supplicate the Sakyong to compose a chant that might feel more in tune with our present circumstances. But I don’t think it is as bleak as seems to have been your impression. Over the years, while I’ve definitely spent some time puzzling over it, I’ve also enjoyed very much the sense of power and blessing of this chant.

    Thanks for opening a discussion on this interesting issue, I look forward to seeing more discussion here!

    P.S. Just wanted to add that I’m no expert on this subject, but I do work as a Tibetan translator and was present during the revision of the translation of this chant, which included conversation with the Sakyong and other Tibetan lamas.

  9. Andrew Sacamano
    Feb 25, 2014
    Reply

    Hello everyone,

    I’m sorry that my poor expression of these teachings is causing such difficulty.

    If I may clarify, the problem isn’t that the female energy is out too get us, but rather that our relationship to the inherent wisdom of femenine energy is so messed up that we imagine that it is out to get us. It’s ultimately about the confusion of imagining that feminine wisdom energy is somehow separate from ourselves, and then compounding that confusion by imagining that it is also demonic. As Patricia so eloquently pointed out, we’re the problem, not the mamos. We become like petulant children angry at our mother because she scolded us after we had our hands in the cookie jar.

    Where it becomes tricky is that instead of denying our confusion, this practice – indeed all protector practices – uses that confusion. These practices take the power of our attachment to the concept of self and other, and use that power to undermine that attachment. We invite and supplicate the protectors – who are nothing but manifestations of our own mind – to destroy the obstacles to realization – which are also just manifestations of our own mind.

    So when we get stuck in confusion and imagine that our mothers, the mamos, are out to get us, instead of sulking or hiding, we start by expressing our feelings – our confusion. But we go on to make offerings to the mamos, and ask them to be kind to us. Fundamentally, it’s about begging our angry mothers to forgive us, to remember that we can be good children again – but with the ultimate view that we are not separate from them or their wisdom.

    Finally, as to why there isn’t a “Pacifying the turmoil of the herukas”, I can’t speak with authority, but I can share my sense of it. Feminine wisdom is, traditionally, more profound and all-pervasive than masculine wisdom. So when we lose contact with feminine wisdom, it’s a much bigger problem for us – a profound and all pervasive problem. When we lose contact with masculine wisdom, it’s a problem, but it’s less devastating. So while we ask that the both the he-maras and she-maras be banished in “Pacifying the Turmoil of the Mamos,” only the mother principal is strong enough to do it.

    With aspirations of understanding,

    Andrew

  10. Thanks for the explanation. The problem I have is that the actual text of the chants do not seem to fit with your explanation of them. Shambhala teaches us to trust our own experience and my experience tells me that the original meaning of the chant is that you do the chant to pacify the unreasonable, wild female energy that has made one’s life difficult at the end of the lunar year. I have no doubt, Andrew and Patricia, that you are more experienced Buddhists. Nonetheless, I feel that the modern interpretation that you give differs greatly from the words of the chant. It seems that there has been an attempt in modern times to morph the meaning of the chant to make it more palatable to women. Of course, I can’t point out the specific portions of the chant to which I refer because they are unavailable to us mere humans so, we are all left for the more enlightened to interpret for us the intended meaning. It is not your article that made me feel confused. You article presented the chants in a much more positive light for women than I believe actually exists in the texts. Rather, it is my actual experience of doing the chants myself that made me very uncomfortable.

  11. I just read a description of Mamos in the elephant journal that, if true, proves my point:

    “Mamos are fierce feminine deities, also called dakinis, who were tamed by Padmasambhava, who brought the Buddhadharma to Tibet in the 8th century. When he encountered mamos in the form of obstacles on his way to transplanting the dharma in Tibet, he overcame them by binding them by oath into protecting the dharma.”

    Padmadanbhava (man) “tamed” (really?) or “overcame” the mamos (feminine) because they were “obstacles” to bringing the dharma to Tibet. How can this myth possibly be interpreted as not being demeaning to women?

  12. Sherab Gyatso
    Feb 25, 2014
    Reply

    Buddhism is very pragmatic. The goal is to help sentient beings. It gets adopted into new cultures by adopting their imagery and myths. Thus many protectors, deities, and so on predate Buddhism’s introduction to an area. Nevertheless the presence of Buddhism makes it possible for more people to receive deeper instruction in Buddhism which is subtle (or self-secret) — this is not a “modern interpretation”, since the Buddha first discussed emptiness 2500 years ago and the teachings we study on it are literally thousand(s) of years old.

    Christianity pretty much did the same thing in Europe: for instance, most St Martin’s churches around the Mediterranean were previously temples to the greek god Apollo. The only difference is that Christianity was quite efficient at eliminating “heretics” which is why prior local beliefs disappeared. Buddhism’s emphasis on compassion rather than dogma might explain this difference.

    The texts are simply hints to help you refine your way of relating to your experience. If you take them as concrete statements about categories of people you’re missing the point, just as you would miss the point if you focussed on the finger pointing at the moon rather than the moon itself. Yes sometimes the texts seem weird to our cultural perspective but the point is not to be dissuaded by that, but to try to see what was actually meant. One does the same whenever traveling to a foreign country or learning something unintuitive like complex numbers or quantum mechanics.

    All that said, I can totally understand why doing the chants could make one uncomfortable. That is actually good — it means you’re applying some intelligence and curiosity. You’ll find those qualities very valuable on the path: many things are not spelled out explicitly, not because you are a “mere human”, but because they will be more transformative if you discover them yourself. Therefore be inquisitive in all ways about what is being done.

  13. Sorry. I don’t agree. You are saying that just because I believe the chants are sexists, one day the “self-secret” will reveal itself to me and I will be elevated to your level and able to understand that the Mamo chants are in reality gender neutral? How condescending. You must be a man. I did not ask your opinion on my path, btw. I don’t even know you.

  14. Sherab Gyatso
    Feb 25, 2014
    Reply

    Wow… that’s an impressive misunderstanding of what I said Andi. For the record I was trying to help.

  15. If you want to weigh in on your interpretation of the Mamo chants that is one thing. It is another matter entirely to advise me what is to your opinion as to what is helpful to my path, as if you are above me. You don’t know me and you have no clue where I am at. Thanks for trying to help, but I notice other comments of yours on here. You condescend to women on other occasions.

  16. Andrew Sacamano
    Feb 27, 2014
    Reply

    Hello again everyone,

    There are many interesting points raised on this thread – and much wisdom. Attributing the violence in Ukraine and to feminine energy run amok seems to me to miss the point of these teachings. And there is no shortage of sexism in the Buddhist tradition. But viewing the mamo chant through that lens can lead us to miss quite a profound teaching about ourselves and our tendency to project an external world that is for or against us.

    To Andi – you are absolutely right that we need to trust our own experience. It is the working ground for the path. Our emotions and intellect are powerful messages about our state of mind and our relationship with the world. Anger and frustration mean that there is something wrong. But often, because of our discomfort with strong emotions, we don’t explore situations as deeply as we could. (This is one reason why we meditate and train in learning to sit with our emotions rather than trying to solve them.)

    And to everyone, these teachings are very tricky. If the teachings only reaffirm what we already know and feel, or only give us an easy way to disengage from a painful situation, that is quite suspicious.

    In particular, the Sakyong tells us not to take our texts for granted, but to read over them and think about what each word, line and section means and how it relates to the words, lines and sections around it – and the rest of the teachings.

    To pick an example from a less generally controversial chant, what do we mean when we say “May the Great Eastern Sun be victorious?” In the context of all of our understanding, and the teachings we have heard, and using our full intellect and creativity, we should really look at that. We might ask questions like: Is the Great Eastern Sun having a fight or is it at war? Victorious over who or what? Can the it ever be defeated? How? By what? If that something else is more powerful, should we align ourselves with that instead?

    When we do this, it’s critically important that we don’t pull one teaching or chant out of the context of the whole of the teachings. For example, when we say of Vetali “Your sword cleaves the heads from the destroyers of the teachings,” if we think that there are real people who are destroyers of the teachings, and Vetali will come to kill them, then we are dangerously missing the point. We should all be clear that “the destroyers of the teachings” means our own materialistic tendencies, our own strong sense that we are separate from the world.

    Protector teachings, including the mamo chant, become poisonous and toxic if we remove them from the hinayana discipline of not causing harm to ourselves or others, the mahayana view of compassion and emptiness, and the explicit instructions from the lineages that these teaching are about our own minds and our projections into the external world.

    Similarly, while I’m loath to criticize Linda Lewis’ article in the Elephant Journal, there are other, more complete descriptions of “Mamo”. For instance, in the Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, Trungpa Rinpoche says: “Mamo, ironically, is the familiar word for dakinis… It is an insightful, powerfully penetrating principle. Mamo is the basic feminine principle that governs the whole universe.” In Glimpses of Space, he also describes some of the fundamental characteristics of the feminine principle as “wisdom and emptiness”, and “love, compassion, and warmth“. Mamos and dakinis are very much fundamental the nature of our own mind – and thus the universe. This is chaotic at times, but this is not chaos in terms of people doing bad things to one another, it is the chaos that totally unsettles ego, keeps us from being complacent, and keeps us from becoming lost in our own concepts. As Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Chaos is good news”.

    So while this particular text is not available as a PDF online, or in books, it is certainly available at your center during the mamos practice. So maybe before, during, or after the practice, go through it word by word, and ask yourself not “what does this mean”, but “what might this mean?” What might banishing the “he-maras” and the “she-maras” mean? What might it mean to say “May the hosts of emanation dakinis forgive us”? And what happens if we think of mamos as the manifestation of the most profound wisdom and compassion?

    It would also be good to have this conversation with other people, face to face. Perhaps with an MI or shastri, or maybe Shambhala Online could host something.

    In any case, I think I’ve preached enough about this here. If anyone wants to continue this discussion with me, please email me at [email protected].

    Best wishes to all,

    Andrew

  17. This is a pretty asinine debate. Sometimes it’s ok to say “well maybe it’s not for you” and move on, particularly when you’ve tried to explain something repeatedly.

    What is it with white people wanting to change everything from outside to suit them, all the time?

  18. That said:

    “When CHILDREN do not listen to their PARENTS”

    “Suddenly they strike men AND WOMEN with fatal ulcerous sores”

    Can’t see what harm that would do…

    – The He-Maras

  19. I am not white, Ashoka. I am Chinese and Filipina. I will not let my voice be silenced by a patriarchal society. I have a right to expect that my teachers make the teachings more accessible to half the population. It is your misogyny that is asinine.

  20. Hi Gordon,
    Thanks for your noble efforts to reply to this discussion.
    Do you mean to write ” heteronormative?”
    Basia


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