Every Spring and Summer in England, Manjushri center, the mother center of the NKT, holds its international Dharma festivals. These events are, for those who are fortunate enough to attend, the spiritual highlight of their year, and sometimes their entire lives. The main function of festivals is to put our practice squarely back on the rails. It realigns our spiritual sails so that we all move forward as a tradition, blown forward by the pure winds of our Guru’s blessings. For a period of about 15 years, I was able to attend every major festival, including ITTP for five years. I would like to share my personal lessons learned for how to get the most out of our festival experience. In a later post, I will share my understanding of how to make the most of festival time, even when we are not able to attend physically.
First, we must realize just how lucky we are to be able to attend a Dharma festival. We know from the Lamrim teachings that the odds of attaining a precious human life are the same as the blind turtle putting its head through that golden yoke. But of those who have a precious human life, how many actually seize it? And of those who seize it, how many are able to make it to the festival? Of those who make it to festivals, how many are able to make it year after year? I used to be able to, but then, for a variety of reasons beyond my control, my karma suddenly shifted. In the last five years, I have only been able to physically get to one. We don’t know our karma and we don’t know when the karma to be able to attend festivals might exhaust itself. Therefore, it is best to assume – each and every festival that you attend – that this may be the last festival you are able to attend for the rest of your life. A festival is the closest we get in this world to the pure land. Quite literally, a festival is taking place in the pure land, it is only our ordinary view which prevents us from seeing it. When we approach the gates of Manjushri, we are quite literally approaching the gates of heaven. Never forget this, and make the strong determination to make the most of every moment while you are there. But we should never have attachment to results at a festival. We should be content just to create as many good causes as we can while we there. We should not be in a hurry to harvest the Dharma, we should rather focus on planting as many seeds as we can.
The main purpose of the festivals, of course, is to attend the teachings. At the festival we can receive teachings directly from Venerable Geshe-la’s principal representatives in this world. He enters into their hearts and teaches us directly. We should always imagine the teacher is really just a speaker connected to the stereo system of our Guru. When you hear the teachings, remember you are hearing personal advice for how to solve your specific problems. We sometimes might wonder how that can be when there are thousands of people in the audience. The answer is while the words coming out of the teacher’s mouth might be the same, what we understand them to mean within our own mind is different and personalized. How? Through the power of blessings. All Dharma understanding that dawns in our mind actually arises through the power of blessings; and the specific understanding of Dharma we gain, in particular how we might put it into practice in our lives, is highly personalized. The more faith you have in this process, the more personalized the taught advice will be. It is very important to recall again and again the teachings on “how to listen to Dharma” and we should make a special point to put them into practice during the festival teachings. The quality of our listening determines the quality of the teachings we receive. Like everything else, it depends entirely upon our own mind.
The teachings are not limited to the time in which we are in the temple. In fact, we can view every single encounter we have with every single person as emanated by our Guru to teach us something. The person we happen to sit down next to at meal time, the person singing terribly but with a full heart three rows behind us, and even the people snoring in the tent next to us – all of them are emanated. You will overhear conversations between people and be amazed how they are saying exactly what you need to hear. You will suddenly “bump into” people at just the right time, or fail to find the friend you were looking for but meet somebody new. What I used to do was I would walk around reciting Dorje Shugden’s mantra, requesting he take me to where I needed to go. Then I would just walk and see what happened. Even the rain and muddy grounds are all teachings. If you view them as such, you will learn from them as such. Some of our most precious teachings will come during our conversations with our Sangha friends. While many people make this mistake, festivals are not the time for pretending we are always happy and that we are perfect Dharma practitioners. Instead, festivals are the time to find that dear friend or former teacher who we have faith in and open our heart explaining our struggles in life and in our practice. True friends are the ones who are there for you when you are in the greatest of need. If you bring your problems to the festival, with faith that you will find the solutions, it is guaranteed you will find what you are looking for.
A festival truly is a family reunion, especially for those who have the good fortune to attend many of them. A friend is simply somebody we hang out with for a time. Family is for life. Sangha is forever. The global Kadampa family gets together essentially once a year, and going to Manjushri is, in a very real sense, going home. View it that way. Remember, everyone around you is your vajra brother and sister. We are all part of the same family with a single mission, and we will be reunited together again and again in life after life working towards a common goal. At festivals, many people have had the experience of meeting somebody for the first time, but the karma is such that it feels like we are meeting a long lost best friend. We are. When I am at a festival, of course I catch up with my close Sangha friends, but I always try make a point of sitting with people I don’t know at meals and I try do things I otherwise wouldn’t do. You never know who you are going to meet.
One of the most important aspects of the festival experience is volunteering. The entire festival runs on volunteers scurrying about, often unseen, making everything happen and creating the conditions in which we can enjoy the festival. I think a good rule of thumb is you should volunteer for at least one task every day. When I was in Paris, Gen Lhamo was the teacher. She had a very interesting way of helping people with their problems. Somebody would come to her with some worry, and instead of giving the person advice on how to solve it she would often give them some task to do for the center, such as distribute flyers, change the offering bowls, vacuum the gompa, etc. Why would she do this? Because the reason why we have problems is we either haven’t purified our karma or we lack sufficient merit. Working for a Dharma center accomplishes both in abundance. After the task is done, suddenly the problem is less severe or we have a wisdom which knows how to view the situation differently. Of all the volunteer tasks one can do, I think volunteering to clean the toilets is supreme. Why? Because it is the worst job, and therefore by doing it we confront the most delusions, purify the most negative karma and accumulate the most merit.
Finally, don’t forget to give yourself some “alone with your thoughts” time. During the breaks between sessions, I would often go to the North Wing gompa, where I could do some practice, work on my journal writing down what I was learning, or just sit and look at the statues and rejoice in the practice of those around me. It is a quiet place you can go and be with your own thoughts and reflect deeply on the experiences you are having. In the same way, you can go for walks in the woods or on the beach. The point is, take the time to reflect – just you and your guru. The last thing I do at the end of each festival is I try synthesize everything I have learned down into 3-4 new dedication prayers that I will make every day after the festival. Sometimes people leave festivals with large ambitions on how they are going to change anything, only to get back home and be unable to act on a fraction of what they hoped. Instead, make a few small commitments, small changes, but ones you plan on maintaining forever. The dedication prayers should reflect these small commitments, and then every day when you recite them you are able to remind yourself of what you learned at the festival.
Festivals truly are a magical time – but this magic does not exist from its own side. It depends on you having deep faith, the right view, a good motivation and a positive attitude. Don’t expect anything special, just relate to everything in a special way. Your guru is speaking to you through everything around you. All you need do is learn how to listen and love. I am so happy for all those who have the good fortune to attend festivals. I pray that all beings may be able to have the opportunity.