Please, chant me serenity!

By Elizabeth Clarke, Palm Beach Post Religion Writer, January 18, 2005

Palm Beach, FL (USA) -- The air is thick with incense by the time we enter. The abbots started preparing the room an hour ago, blessing the space and chanting and praying in preparation for this "most auspicious event" - the empowerment portion of this Buddhist retreat.

I'm here because Buddhism has always interested me and this weeklong retreat in Palm Beach County seems like a perfect immersion course. I've also heard wonderful things about these teachers: Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche, originally from Tibet.

In two days, I attend a two-hour teaching by the abbots on an ancient Buddhist text called the Garland of the Views, a two-hour practice praying for the protection of the teachings, and now this much-hyped empowerment, which lasts more than three hours.

Each event features lots of chanting in Tibetan, interesting and beautiful ritual objects, the burning of incense and teachings in heavily accented English from the Khenpos, as they're affectionately known. About 120 people have come from across the United States and Puerto Rico to soak this up and get inspired in their own practices.

As for me, I'm just trying to find my way around Buddhism.

Here are a dozen things I discovered:

I wish I'd gotten a pedicure! It's shallow, I know. But paying respect requires removing your shoes at the door and that means showing everyone those dirty (if they aren't yet, they will be soon) feet ? unpainted scraggly toenails, unbuffed heels and all. But I soon discover that no one's paying any attention. And once I sneak a peek at a few other tootsies, I relax. Ah, step one to serenity.

Prostrations feel odd. No way around this: Prostrations simply aren't a common part of American culture. But they're the proper way to pay respect, so I joined in. And once I learned the right moves ? press hands together, move them to the top of the head, the throat and the heart, then get on hands and knees to touch your forehead to the floor ? it grew on me. It's a little bit aerobic, a little bit humbling.

Eat before empowering. I arrived early for the 1 p.m. empowerment ? a four-hour blessing session. But it started an hour and a half late. And I didn't eat first. Two cookies spirited from the kitchen helped me stay strong enough to receive my blessings. But next time, I'll have a hearty lunch to sustain me through all that chanting.

Chanting doesn't come naturally. Not chanting in Tibetan, anyway. My feeble attempts ? even with words written down ? sounded so bad that I figured I was probably offending the deities. Longtime Buddhists assured me that wasn't the case.

But chanting can be addictive. Even though I didn't participate much, parts just sunk in while I listened. At least one phrase stuck in my head, kind of like a nursery rhyme. I woke up one morning with a few notes and three syllables repeating in my brain. Since I have a 2-year-old, though, it beats constant refrains of Wee Willie Winkie.

No lotus required. My knees, hips and legs aren't limber enough for sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours at a time, even with pillows and bolsters. Lucky for me, the lotus position was not required and I wasn't at all out of place seated in a chair. Most of the crowd joined me in the chairs, although about 40 people did sit, and occasionally squirm, on the floor.

Emptying the mind requires a powerful mind.

Meditation periods were the hardest part of the retreat for me. I tried to quiet my brain, but I kept having to banish thoughts about food (I wanted some), the checkbook (is it balanced?), the beautiful weather outside (I want to go to the beach), the length of this meditation (too long), the sneeze-factor in the incense (not another sneeze!), the groceries I needed (the usual), and other equally deep thoughts. But as soon as I did empty my mind, I wanted to fall asleep.

Singing bowls soothe. Buddhist leaders, even yoga teachers, typically strike these golden metal bowls with a small baton to begin or end a practice. Even small bowls make a lovely, clear, resonating sound that seems to physically calm and center the mind. Maybe I can get one ? and can I hit it at the office?

Homage is a foreign concept. Paying homage to another living person simply isn't familiar. And it's strange to see 100 or more people bowing to two other people, the revered Tibetan abbots leading this retreat. I worry about their posture ? walking around bent at the waist, shoulders up, hands at their chest in prayer position, head bowed. It looks hard on the neck, bad for the spine. But no one here cares. Their adoration of their teachers seems so complete that they do this without thinking. I join in, but I'm self-conscious. Without utter reverence for these lamas, it feels forced and unpleasant. It hurts my back. I stop.

Still, the lamas are charming. Although I don't feel the reverence, I can see why longtime practitioners love their lamas. The Khenpos grew up in Tibet, fled the Chinese invasion in 1959, lived in India and moved to the United States in the 1980s. They're short, wear traditional robes and are almost always smiling. They radiate love, kindness, wisdom and compassion ? the most valued traits in Buddhism. One day, after an organizer rattled off a list of retreat events, Khenpo Tsewang piped up, grinning, "Then also don't forget to go to the beach!" He read my meditation-challenged mind.

I can now pronounce Padmasambhava. Try it with me: Pahd-mah-sahm-BAH-va. Now, I can even spell it without checking my notes. Padmasambhava is the namesake of the Palm Beach Dharma Center in Lake Worth, revered as one of the founders of Tibetan Buddhism in the eighth century.

Touching foreheads is touching. I already knew the handshake, the hug, the kiss, but I'd never seen this greeting: touching foreheads. It's sweet and personal, a sign of trust and friendship. To try the Tibetan traditional greeting, face your friend, press your hands together at your chest and bend at the waist to touch foreheads briefly. Smile!

No overnight Nirvana. This won't surprise any longtime Buddhists, who consider Buddhism a lifelong pursuit. Two days at a retreat wasn't enough to get this newcomer hooked. I love the yoga classes I've taken at the Buddhist center, with its emphasis on mindfulness. But I won't be studying Tibetan anytime soon.

Still, I did see the beauty in meditation. I can't squeeze in four hours a day, but a few minutes spent silencing my jabbering mind sounds relaxing at the very least.

And my mind was expanded. A day spent immersed in another culture or belief system is a day well spent.

For information on activities at the Palm Beach Dharma Center, call (561) 547-4711. The Center is at 1205 N. Federal Highway, Lake Worth.