Tshechu – touching the sacred

Youth in focus: Hi Lam, we are now in tshechu season. I’ve been attending the dances since I was a child, but I’m not sure why. Everyone tells me that seeing them is auspicious, but I’m not sure what that means and why it is auspicious. Can you give me a simple explanation? Thanks.   

ST, Thimphu 

Well, on an outer level, the dances might merely be seen as theatrical performances and the thangka paintings as just a pieces of art, but on an inner level they are mediums to plant the seeds of enlightenment in the mind stream of those who view them.

OK, I know that sounds strange – I mean, how can seeing a dance or a painting have the power to lead to enlightenment? Well, we should remember that nothing appears at random but develops due to a number of factors joining together. And, when the primary factors originate in the minds of enlightened beings, as they do with the cham dances and the thangka paintings, the result is awakening to reality – enlightenment.

As an example of this concept, think how a tree develops. It does not suddenly appear from no-where, but grows due to a number of causes and conditions. The primary cause of a tree is a particular seed: a pine tree grows from a pine seed, a papaya tree grows from a papaya seed, and so forth. As for the seed itself, it remains dormant until it is moistened by rain and receives warmth from sunlight – two conditions that help seeds develop into trees.

It is the same with attaining enlightenment. While every sentient being possesses Buddha nature (the basis of enlightenment), it can only be realised when a number of causes and conditions combine to clear away the ignorance and confusion that obscure it. For the sake of simplicity, we can think of the enlightened mind as a clear blue sky. Even though the sky may be hidden by thick, dark clouds, it has never disappeared and will emerge once the clouds dissipate. Basically, certain causes and conditions serve to clear away the clouds of ignorance and so allow our original nature to shine through. Contact with consecrated images is one such cause. However, in same way that papaya seeds remain dormant in the soil until they are awakened by outer conditions, such as moisture and warmth, so the seeds planted in the mind-stream remain dormant until they are awakened by other factors.

Although there is a great benefit associated with passive contact with sacred objects, devotion and faith enhance the perceiver’s ability to receive the blessings. Expressed in agricultural terms, prayers and pious acts prepare the mind so that the seeds develop strongly and reach fruition. Basically, these acts perform a similar function to cultivating and nurturing soil so that it becomes fertile ground for papaya or other seeds to grow healthy and strong.

Still, even without devotion, merely coming into contact with consecrated objects can create the circumstances that lead to enlightenment. As an example, consider the story of an old man named Pelgye who requested one of the Buddha’s disciples to help him become a monk. Although eager to oblige, the disciple did not believe that the old man had sufficient merit to follow the life of a monk, and so he took him to see the Buddha.

The Buddha examined Pelgye’s past lives and revealed that once when he had been born as a wild pig,  XE “pig” a dog XE “dog”  had chased him around a choeten. Now,  XE “stupa” even though he ran around the choeten to save his life, not out of devotion, the act was still powerful enough to plant positive seeds in his mind stream. Later, when he was reborn as a human and met with other circumstances, these ripened as conditions that enabled him to become a monk. In this way, the early encounter with consecrated items had served to firmly establish him on the path to enlightenment.

So, as we watch the dances and view the thangkha, we can reflect on the deeper aspects of the tshechu ceremony and not merely regard the dance performances and thangka as simply works of art.

In particular, in front of the thangka we can make long term vows to attain enlightenment for the benefit of others and also short term vows – these temporary vows do not have to entail a huge commitment, as basically any thought, word or deed done with an altruistic motive will have a tremendous effect – and so even a simple vow, such as to refrain from using disposable plastic bags until next year’s tshechu can create positive conditions for the seeds of enlightenment to grow. Later, at the end of the tshechu, we can dedicate any benefits of our efforts and positive thoughts to others: “May all beings be free of suffering and its causes.”

If we use the occasion in this way, we will have touched the sacred aspects of tshechu.

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