A few weeks ago I joined the Mahayanagana within the Awakened Heart Sangha. Gana means circle so the Mahayanagana is the name for the circle of members of the AHS who have committed to the sangha, their practice and are committed students of Lama Shenpen.
To join the Mahayanagana (MYG) you have to have been a member of the sangha for more than a year and to have completed the three MYG training modules. These are: Pranidhanas (aspirational prayers), Feast Offering Practice and Awakening Dialogue. I wrote about all of these courses as I was doing them in previous blog posts.
The MYG training is in addition to Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Heart Training, which all sangha members study and practice – the structured distance learning training in Tibetan Buddhist meditation and insight – essentially Mahamudra and Dzogchen but taught in an experiential, jargon-free way especially for Westerners. It gives you the materials, structure and support for a lifetime of practice.
The Living the Awakened Heart Training is spiral learning, so you keep going back through the same core themes at deeper and deeper levels. I’d been through the materials more than twice before I decided to make the commitment to the sangha by joining the MYG.
I found the additional MYG training to be so inspiring and enhancing to my existing training and practice!
I joined the MYG a few weeks ago at the annual Gana Gathering at The Hermitage Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Centre in North Wales, and home of Lama Shenpen. It’s a week’s working retreat where new members take a provisional vow and we spend the week discussing different aspects of the Sangha.
You can also attend the Gana Gathering online if you can’t make it in person but I was lucky to be able to get there and stay the week. On the first weekend there was a small ceremony where myself and other MYG aspirants made a formal request to join, were accepted by Lama Shenpen and together we recited the vow and special MYG prayer.
We are then accepted into the MYG for a preliminary year. As members of the MYG we commit to our practice and continued training within the Sangha, supporting the activities of the Sangha where possible, plus the monthly ‘Full Moon Feast Practice’. This is a Mahayana feast practice (Feast practice is often associated with Vajrayana Buddhist practice of which we share a lineage) observed at each full moon. We make offerings of food (it can be just a cup of tea and a biscuit if necessary) and then arrange to speak to two other MYG members about our practice, to keep and strengthen our connections to the sangha.
After a year we then re-take the vow at the Annual Sangha Celebration, presuming we’re happy to confirm our commitment to the sangha and the practice. It’s a good idea to have a provisional year to see how it feels to keep the vow and keep up the feast practice.
Joining to me has always felt like a natural step. I already do a fair bit of work for the Sangha that I am committed to continuing, (social media, websites, promotion etc) so it made sense to make that commitment ‘official’. Leading up to taking the vow I’d been observing the full moon feast practice, so by the time it became official it was already a part of my practice, which really helped with a smooth transition into official member!
Just a few days into the MYG Gathering after taking the vow, I felt really exhausted and wasn’t sure if I would manage the whole week as my energy levels can be fairly low. So I decided to put my pranidhana training into action, and stood in front of the little shrine in my room at The Hermitage and made a clear pranidhana to all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the three times (past, present and future) and in the ten directions, to help me get through the week, to give me the energy to be able to participate in and absorb all the discussions and teachings, so that I could be of benefit to the Sangha now I have joined the MYG, but also to eventually benefit all beings. I just tried to open up as much as I could to this as a reality, that they could hear and help.
Later that day an energy welled up in me and carried me along with it through the rest of the week like a tide. I could still feel the tiredness in my body, but I had an inner energy and enthusiasm that meant I could carry on despite the physical tiredness. I felt at ease and felt like I could relax into this sense of confidence and energy. I didn’t even notice at first and had almost forgotten about making the pranidhana, until someone asked how I was feeling, which made me pause and ‘check in’ with myself, and I was pretty surprised to find I was feeling pretty good despite my physical drawbacks!
A few weeks later I had the opportunity of asking Lama about faith in pranidhanas and she said: “With faith you sometimes have to act as if it’s real and things are really like that, with the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas there, and try to open to that as much as possible and see what happens. It’s an opening movement.”
In a recent teaching Lama Shenpen also talked about faith (skt: sraddha) and said you have to open out to the power of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the Bodhichitta etc, and act as if it’s real. She said it’s like acting as if a door is open: if you believe it’s open you’ll walk through it, if you think it’s closed you won’t. Until you walk through it you don’t know it’s there or not!
I think the openness and confidence with which I made my pranidhana did cause a movement and a shift and I just tried to be as open as possible to it and just open out to the possibility of that reality, rather than second guessing, doubting or dismissing it, or then grasping it as a big thing. It was very encouraging and inspiring though, whatever it was or however it happened! It’s inspired me to keep making pranidhanas with that same sense of openness and ‘acting as if’.
I found Lama’s teachings on faith so helpful too. It’s never about a blind faith, but an opening movement, entering a mandala we can’t see, but trusting it’s there.
I had a really great week at the Gana Gathering. I enjoyed getting to know sangha members I’d not had the opportunity to spend time with in the past, and I really enjoyed hearing more about the structure of the sangha, the plans for the future and sharing ideas for new projects to benefit the sangha.
I even managed a long walk on Criccieth beach which is just a short drive from the retreat centre. It was great despite getting soaked and then being so tired afterwards I slept through supper! I think we experienced all four seasons that week, good old Wales!
I’ll be back at The Hermitage in just a few weeks again, this time for the Annual Sangha Celebration and to take the Bodhisattva Vow, which I feel really ties into all my MYG training and commitment to practice.