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Mamos Clarified

Mamo image from Tucson ShambhalaCOLUMN: Good Practice
The following article is a compilation from various sources of the practices of the days preceding Shambhala Day.

by Oscar Garcia, St. Johnsbury, Vermont

March 2, 2014 is the beginning of a new Tibetan (lunar) year, the year of the Wood Horse. The first day of the Tibetan year is known in our sangha as Shambhala Day, also known as “Losar.” Many times, but not always, the Tibetan New Year and the Chinese New Year coincide.

It is said that the last days at the end of the Tibetan year are marked by a propensity to lose one’s mindfulness, and as a result we can have accidents and mishaps. Such loses of mindfulness are referred to as attacks by “dons.” Because of such losses of mindfulness, we act in ways that are not kind to oneself, to others, or to the environment.

The Don Season
Anyone who has had contact with a Shambhala Center or a Shambhalian has probably heard about the “don season” and “mamo chants.” What do these mean?

The period of ten days preceding Shambhala Day is referred to in our sangha as the “don season,” because such sudden loses of mindfulness can be more common – and is a time during which it’s recommended that we don’t begin any major undertakings such as extensive travel or big changes of life, but keep life simple and be very mindful, do a lot of practice.

Pacifying the Turmoil of the Mamos
It has been customary in our sangha to recite a chant called “Pacifying the Turmoil of the Mamos” during this time in order to pacify the karmic causes of personal, social, and environmental chaos accumulated through the year due to such unmindful acts. The chant says:

“When children do not listen to their parent’s words,
An evil time, when relatives quarrel,
When people dress sloppily in clothes of rags,
Eating bad, cheap food,
When there are family feuds and civil wars,
These provoke the black mamos’ wrath,
And various women fill a thousand realms,
Sending sickness upon humans and beasts.
The sky is thick with purple clouds of sickness.
They incite cosmic warfare.
They destroy by causing the age of weaponry.
Suddenly, they strike people with fatal ulcerous sores.”

The Vajradhatu Practice Manual says mamos are “… wrathful goddesses usually pictured as furious, ugly women. They can be dakinis acting as protectors. If reacted to negatively, they appear as fickle, causing all sorts of chaos. If understood positively, they serve as reminders of awareness, almost at the level of discursive thought.”

We pacify the mamos so they will not cause chaos but help us instead. “Pacifying the Turmoil of the Mamos” is an elaborate protector offering. By reciting the chant, we tune into the protector principle of awareness and reconnect with sacred outlook.

It is not the mamos that cause us to “eat bad cheap food, wear clothes of rags,” etc, that’s our own confusion, our dons, at work. We want to banish, or send away the dons that cause us to lose mindfulness (they’re the “bad guys”). The mamos will help us reduce our confusion if they are convinced that is our desire. If not convinced, they visit us with with their wrath, with chaos. In this way, they are protectors.

From the Shambhala Office of Practice and Education, “Remembering that the protectors, or dharmapalas, as well as deities altogether, are nothing else than projections of the richness of our own minds, by supplicating them, we are in fact rousing confidence in our own buddha nature. The function of the dharmapalas, ‘protectors of the truth,’ is to protect us from deceptions and sidetracks on the path, to detect and clear away any obstacles to fully awakening in the phenomenal world.

“Wrathful dharmapalas are known as mahakalas (masculine) and mahakalis (feminine). They are fierce and swift in destroying whatever obstructs the dharma. For more about protectors go to – http://nalandatranslation.org/offerings/notes-on-the-daily-chants/commentaries/protector-chants/ =”http://nalandatranslation.org/offerings/notes-on-the-daily-chants/commentaries/protector-chants/” target=”_blank”>visit this link.”

How does this protection from these “dons” manifest? Dons operate undercover, by making themselves seem like reasonable parts of our minds. For example, if we’re in a hurry trying to get to a meeting and driving fast but carefully, and a car cuts in front of us abruptly, what could seem more reasonable than leaning on the horn and “flipping the finger” to the offending driver? Wasn’t he or she aware of what they were doing? What were they thinking? They’d better wake up!

By cultivating awareness of our minds, our thinking and our emotions, if a negative emotion arises suddenly we don’t automatically react in a “knee jerk” kind of way but allow a little space between the impulse and the action, hopefully allowing us recollect our basic goodness (and the other driver’s). We could remember that it is helpful (as always) to be gentle and kind toward ourselves and others.

Shambhala Day
The day immediately before Shambhala day is called the “neutral” day; it’s a transition day during which we discontinue chanting “Pacifying the Turmoil of the Mamos” and may devote ourselves to cleaning our personal spaces and practice centers so as to begin the new year in a fresh, uplifted way.

Shambhala Day is a day of celebration, the beginning of a new year, turning a new page, fresh possibilities. In Shambhala Centers around the world, people wear their best and gather to enjoy each other and to listen to the the Sakyong’s Shambhala Day addresss – broadcast to all centers via conference call.

In many Shambhala Centers the new year is begun by performing a “lhasang” or “smoke offering to the lha” in order to cleanse and uplift the space and participants, and by consulting the I Ching to get an idea of what the new year might have in store for the specific center or for Shambhala at large . The I Ching or “Book of Changes” is an ancient Chinese text of divination; it does not give firm predictions about the future but rather presents images and hints of possibilities.

May we all have an auspicious year of the Wood Horse!

Oscar Garcia met the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the early 1970’s while he was living in Boston. When Rinpoche died in 1987, he went to the cremation at Karme Choling and after that remained there for some time. During that time Oscar had several different jobs, the last one as a member of the Practice and Study department, which he loved. After leaving KCL Oscar stayed in Vermont, in St. Johnsbury. He is presently the Practice Coordinator for the St. Johnsbury Shambhala Center.

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15 responses to “ Mamos Clarified ”
  1. Gordon,
    Thanks for the advice but I feel it was “unfriendly” of others to give me advice on what is for my path as well as be told my view is inaccurate or wrong no matter how gently those comments were phrased. Christians have varying interpretations of the Bible. I feel it is okay to have a differing view even from the lineage holders and that I should be allowed to express that without being quietly put down and told I am “wrong”. I can’t really engage in a weighty discussion about the Mamo chants. (My attempt to photograph the portions of the chant I had issues with with my iPhone was not allowed though I tried.) I sometimes wonder if keeping these practices secret is a way to avoid serious analysis unless lamas believe you are indoctrinated enough to worship rather than challenge the teachers. I know I did not have to do the Mamo chants nor any of the other Tibetan liturgies. My concern issue is bigger. If this is a practice that denigrates women, or alternatively if Shambhala is dismissive of the fact that it offends women regardless of the intended meaning, what does that say about whether women are deeply cared for in this community? I appreciate the feedback but I am not super interested in advice to me personally. Although I would never want to make anyone feel bad, I think being real is better than being friendly and I would like to see a lot more of that in this community.

  2. Hi Gordon. I did start the book but I never finished it. Maybe I will give it another try. I am aware of the explanation of what the Mamo chants are officially supposed to mean. My problem is I did not see that meaning reflected in the text of the chants. If someone could give me a copy I could be more specific but I doubt that will happen. Regardless of what the chants are supposed to mean, how they are used in everyday Shambhala life amongst the everyday people is quite different. I apologize if I have gotten too emotional. I feel very unhappy with Shambhala overall and perhaps that is seeping into this conversation.

  3. Hi Andi,

    Just a quick question, which might help you find some answers. There are quite a lot of feminists in Shambhala (myself included), and several quite well regarded feminist scholars who have done quite a bit of work on depictions of women in tantric liturgies. I’m thinking in particular of the excellent Dakini’s Warm Breath http://www.shambhala.com/dakini-s-warm-breath.html, I’m just wondering if you’ve engaged with any of these people, or asked anyone the logic behind doing the Mamo chants (or the equivalent male protector chants which do actually involve detailed descriptions of some pretty gnarly dudes). I don’t think anyone is ever required to do the Mamo chants.

    I guess what I want to say is that people really have thought about these things, quite earnestly and with good heart. I don’t think you should just agree with those people, but you should give them credit for having thought about it and try to hear them.

  4. Alex(andra),

    I have done the Mamo chants for several years. Since I do not have access to the chant books due to the male dominated (or money dominated) hierarchical structure of Shambhala, I cannot give you a page cite to the portions that I found troubling, but they hit me someone where deep as very wrong. I do trust my experience and my feeling that this practice is devaluing to women and I believe I am entitled to that opinion. If me asserting myself worth is denigrating a chant then so be it. It is better than subjecting myself to a practice that I feel denigrates me. Others are, of course, entitled to love it. You can interpret the chant any way you want to, but the last time I did these chants myself and many other women in the room left feeling deflated and demeaned, including some senior practitioners.

    I do not care whether goddesses are ugly or beautiful. In fact, I do not believe in goddess at all, really, My point is that very few think the appearance of male figures to be worth comment, yet a female appearance is relevant. Who cares if she is ugly or beautiful. Even the comment propagates the view that the value of a women is in her appearance.

    Just because I do not agree with you does not mean I have not studied the chants or Shambhala or Buddhism. Shambhlala does not allow for differences of opinion and condescends to those who do not adopt the curriculum view.

    Enjoy your mamos and your Kool-Aid.

  5. Andi-

    For what it’s worth, I am a woman. My full name is Alexandra. I don’t think being a woman (or a man) entitles anyone any more or less to sharing an opinion on this matter. Frankly, believing THAT would be sexist.

    You are obviously entitled to your feelings about the mamos being called ugly. I just think your very legitimate feelings though are coming up based on a misreading and misunderstanding of the text of the chants. Again, I work very hard myself personally and professionally to counter all forms of cultural oppression, be they ancient sacred ones or more contemporary ones. That said, mamos don’t feel bad about being called ugly, nor does the chant specify that all women are ugly, nor does it say that ugly women are mamos (and so forth). Also, mamos aren’t really living, literal women in the first place. You couldn’t change the chant to say that mamos are ugly “people” because they are wrathful goddesses. I mean, that’s what they are. Take it or leave it (and it sounds like you’d rather leave it – because you don’t like “ugly”?).

    Additionally, when Padmasambhava came to Tibet, he didn’t just subjugate evil FEMALE spirits, he tamed ALL spirits that were preventing Trisong Detsun from establishing dharma situations in Tibet. Padmasambhava, the story goes, made clever use of the wrath of the spirits by training it towards the protection of the dharma. So what’s the problem there? I am confused. (Should I bother even mentioning that his consort Yeshe Tsogyal was the first Tibetan to become enlightened? And she was the main source of all the teachings that flourished as a result of Padmasambhava’s activities in Tibet?)

    I am not in agreement with a sort of essentialist-feminism argument about real “female” and “male” energy that has come up here. But I think it’s worthwhile to take a look at aspects of our tradition that *do* exclude women (take a look at Tibetan Buddhist monastic vows, for instance). I am just not convinced that the mamos chant is one of them. The text supplicates the ugly wrathful goddesses who control the elements to wake us up and remember to be vigilant in our practice. It seems like the fact that they are ugly goddesses (and by the way, a lot of the protectors – male and female – are depicted as hideous and ugly) is what bothers you and makes you think it’s sexist. I am afraid I don’t get that.

    If you read it carefully, that which causes the chaos is our own sloppiness – family feuds, civil wars etc. The mamos get angry because we haven’t remembered our mindfulness. The text supplicates them to remember their vow (Samaya Jah) to protect us and “avert” evil from our paths.

    Again, I’m afraid I’m lost as to what is oppressive about this other than the reminder here that we have “strayed from the path of omniscience.” It’s not awesome to realize that of ourselves. But it certainly does not meet any definitional standard of sexism. Maybe you just don’t like that there are ugly goddesses in Tibetan, Indian, or Bön iconography? I mean, Reginald Ray is entitled to the opinion that these images do Westerners no service – but they merit our thorough study before we start denigrating them.

    The more I do the mamos practice, the more I appreciate their wrathful level of dedication to supporting my wakefulness. For indeed, the dharma is so precious that it deserves that.


  6. Adana,
    I do not think practices that make women feel insulted are humorous. But thanks for trying to minimize the concerns of the women in my sangha who feel uncomfortable with this practice.

  7. Alex,
    I did not really ask for a commentary on the accuracy of my interpretation of Mamo chants. While I appreciate the male know-it-alls in the house, I have been taught to see for myself whether they things I am told in the Shambhala teaching feel true and right. I have done these chants and they feel sexist to me and other women. I sat with my opinions and I trust my gut. Who are you to say what is and is not “accurate”? These are ancient practices and unless Shambhala is a cult, I have the right to take all the data and interpret this practice in a way that makes sense to me. I always mistrust individuals who think it there business to weigh in on spiritual issues and declare them to be definitively “accurate” or “inaccurate.” For the record, there are very senior teachers who agree with me. And, I generally do not give much weight to a man’s interpretation of whether something strikes women as sexist. You are not a woman presumably by your condescending tone and you don’t have a right to invalidate my interpretation. You don’t have to agree with it, however.

    I think it is sexist in the original handbook to refer to the the mamos as “ugly.” That same term is rare, if ever, applied to male figures in ancient teachings no matter how wrathful. Also, in the elephant journal I 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?

    Reggie Ray gave a talk recently how Shambhala hangs onto Tibetan practices that are not helpful to Western students because they are so culturally irrelevant and even damaging. This is one. Alex, rather than try to convince me what is and is not “accurate” why don’t you take note of the fact that this practice does not land well with women. Regardless of its intended meaning (according to you anyway) that is likely only understood by few why not ask yourself what Shambhala can do to modify practices that alienate the bottom tier of us who (all women most likely) who don’t like they way we feel when we do this practice because it lands as demeaning.

  8. My understanding is that the mamo chants are pointing to energetic activity and there can (probably, but who knows) be no argument with the fact that female energy is different from male. Women and men have both female and male energetic aspects. This being the case “various women fill a thousand realms” isn’t a comment on women. It is saying that female energy can be wrathful – which can be both destructive and creative, as Oscar points out. When it’s destructive, it’s ugly – thus the ugly hag. When it’s creative it’s a thing of beauty – thus the idealized and unrealistic beautiful women. To say “various beings” is a bit too politically correct for me, but it will most likely change to that at some point. And “various female energies” is decidedly unpoetic. In any case, add a dose of humor and mamo away.

  9. Andi,

    Actually Mamos are not hysterical women. They are wrathful goddesses who control the elements. I am all for dispensing with the argumentum ad antiquitatem as justifying forms of oppression of all kinds, but your interpretation of the Mamos chants is not accurate. Mamos “incite cosmic warfare” etc. as a result of us losing our mindfulness and not paying attention to our environments; hence we remain mindful and we don’t get (as many) fatal ulcerous sores etc. Ekajati is queen of the Mamos; I would not characterize her as hysterical. In fact, she represents the full wisdom of enlightened mind. These are all dharmapalas, expressions of our own enlightened mind, that seek to protect any threat to practitioners and the dharma. When something is precious – be that our practice, the teachings, or our sacred world – it requires protection. This is why we turn to the mamos, to remind them of their vows (SAMAYA JAH) to keep protecting us by waking us up.


  10. Ira,

    The changes made do not impact the fundamental meaning of the chant – that a hysterical female energy is the source problem at the conclusion of the lunar year, attacking the practitioner, requiring chants to pacify them. It really is insulting that there is no equivalent for doing chants that stave off troublesome male energy in the universe. Just because a practice has been done for 1000 years does not mean it still should be done, or remain unchanged given that modern society has, at least ostensibly, has placed more importance on gender neutrality and equality.

  11. Not that this will “appease” expressions of concern here, but I will say that the text of the Mamo’s chant has been updated at least once, to swap in parents where it used to say, “fathers,” and also human for “man.” I know this because from habit, I continue to say the old words. So, mindful of these changes, I am thinking that our translators have taken at least a first effort to being both gender neutral, and yet, faithful to the originally / (still) intended meaning.

  12. I really wish we would use the word “beings” in the mamos chant instead of ‘these various women’ as it is not gender specific and would be helpful in allowing more people access to this great way of cleaning house inwardly. I wince every time I have to say the word ‘women’ when I do these chants as well. Could this be changed?

  13. Your interpretation of the Mamo chants to name the dons as the bad guys and not the “mamos” is a newer one and not convincing if you read the chants themselves. The mamos are presented as ugly, hysterical female entities wreaking havoc on everything and everyone. Where are the chants to calm down the overbearing male energy that wreaks havoc?

  14. Pacify the mamos so they don’t cause chaos . . . Mamos are “… wrathful goddesses usually pictured as furious, ugly women.”

    I found this whole practice to be sexist.

  15. Charles Marrow
    Feb 19, 2014

    Greetings –

    As a long term practitioner, I found Mr. Garcia’s recap of the Vajradhatu practice and Shambhala cultural traditions that lead up to Shambhala day to be authentic and crystal clear. The article makes excellent connections between the principles of hinayana mindfulness, vajrayana energy and the Shambhala ideas of encouraging ourselves to lead an uplifted lifestyle. In this way we can connect to fresh possibilities as we begin a new year. The article is excellent on first reading and I expect to reread it a couple of times in the coming weeks. Thanks again to Oscar for his efforts.

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