Ayu Khandro

This month in Tea & Chanting Sangha, we brought Yeshe Tsogyal into our practice. Yeshe Tsogyal was a human woman who is deified as consort to Padmasambhava, and for being a great teacher in her own right who developed, practiced, and memorized many different teachings and rituals. She left behind, hidden for others to find (or for herself in other lifetimes), several of Padmasambhava's treasures of teaching and practice.

One of these is called Yangti Nakpo, or Dark Retreat. This practice is also called The Black Quintessence, or The Single Golden Letter of the Black Quintessence, and it is a method for dropping attention on external sight and the phenomenal display, connecting with the Inner Teacher, and developing the Perfection of Wisdom. It is a practice that requires using very few, if any, lights or lamps. It's interesting to note that just yesterday I was speaking with someone of significant meditative accomplishment about visual clutter being one of my greatest obstacles in my own practice. I often wish to "silence my eyes" by closing them when I meditate, more than any other sense, though I am also aware that an active, moving, living meditation of right action may require more engagement of my visual sense than that. But in sitting meditation, I nearly always shut my eyes, turn off the lights, or seek other ways my eyes can be quiet. My Tai Chi teacher mention that, "where the eyes go, the mind goes," and I do know that to be true.

If you come to my home you will notice an minimum of electric lights, a heavy reliance on natural light during the day, and a very dark atmosphere at night. I have almost always lived in dark places, and I like to keep them dark. I have a few candles, two low-watt lamps, and nothing else in our main room, for instance. This means that when the sun goes down, it really goes down in our house.

I also have a significant lack of barking, talking screens in my home. I don't personally like TV. I watch a few movies on the computer, and I enjoy the internet, but mostly, I prefer not to have too much electronic glow around me. Fluorescent lights bother me. Movies on the big screen are a bit overwhelming sometimes. Darkness is truly my place of deepest retreat, just the way I also have friends who feel this way about bright, warm sun, or being near water, or being under the full moon.

It caught my eye that this Dark Retreat practice was a gift from Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal, and that I learned of it the month we started Yeshe Tsogyal, the Treasure Revealer. It is interesting that it showed up in my consciousness this week, as today is the anniversary of Ayu Khandro, one of the teachers of one of my teachers, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. Ayu Khandro was one of the practitioners of this Dark Retreat, and in her lifetime she spent over 50 years in Dark Retreat. A dakini after my own eyes, er, heart!

Ayu Khandro attracted my attention even before I studied with Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. I read about her in Lama Tsultrim's Women of Wisdom, and she immediately sparked my interest. This was one eccentric, willful, and adventuresome woman!  She managed to transform an arranged marriage into a support structure that allowed her to travel, journey, and take retreats and teachings for most of her life.  She was encouraged by her aunt who lived in a meditation cave to pursue her ardent devotion to dharma teachings, and she ended up braving harsh conditions and travail to practice Chod all over Tibet: by herself, with Buddhist nuns, and various other traveling companions. She also made time for students, and Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche spent two months learning several cycles of practice from her before she passed in 1953 at the age of 115. Her body remained in meditation for two weeks after her death, and displayed many signs of miraculous phenomena according to her tradition of Dzogchen.

Today, March 26, is Ayu Khandro's day in the Tsyelgar community. I am taking this day to reflect on her commitment to practice (one of the themes of our Yeshe Tsogyal meditation work this month), her spirit of adventure (as I hope/plan/move toward my own trip to Tibet/India/Nepal that I wish to do later this year or next year), and to hold for her swift rebirth and the continuance of her wisdom.

Today, I will make a little special time for my own meditative darkness, where all illusory phenomena collapse into a single point.

Interested in the concept of darkness as ground of being, return to the original state, and magical compost? You might enjoy the book The Fruitful Darkness by Joan Halifax Roshi.