sábado, 5 de diciembre de 2009

Sengue Dzong or "Fortress of the Lion"

Published in December issue of Panorama magazine:

Ana Carla tells us that in 2000, a Buddhist devotee invited master Rinpoche to spend a few days in the countryside in the Department of Minas, Uruguay. One night, Rinpoche had a vision in which he sensed that all the beings in the area had waited for him for a long time. Since Rinpoche possessed the gift of farsightedness, he decided to purchase 1483 acres of land and build the only Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist retreat in Latin America: Sengue Dzong, which means “Fortress of the Lion.”
Our hostess, Ana Carla, is a computer engineer; she embraced Vajrayana Buddhism four years ago and she is the center’s activities coordinator. Dressed in typical Buddhist garb complemented by a good pair of boots, a coat and a scarf, she chats as she drives us in the 4 x 4 truck along the impassable roads that stretch toward to the summit where the temple is located.
It is mid-autumn and a particularly cold Saturday for the time of year. This weekend there is an introductory Buddhist retreat attended by some fifteen people. Gustavo —the photographer— and I have traveled the sixty-two miles from Montevideo after making an appointment, and we called Ana Carla’s cell phone when we reached the wooden gate that blocks our entry. The wire fence seems to ring a 1312-foot hill and its slopes; since Buddhists consider all life sacred, it has become a nature reserve where indigenous species like foxes and wild boars reproduce.
When construction began and this was an inhospitable hill densely covered with low, thorny vegetation, the Buddhists ran into the difficult problem of laying down roads. Our guide remembers that they brought in a herd of some one hundred horses that showed where to trace the roads as they galloped toward the summit.
After a stop at one of the retreat houses –which also serve as accommodations for lamas or teachers from abroad– we arrive at the building housing the temple. I wonder how such a construction came to be located in the mountains of Minas. The building is impressive; for a moment, one feels transported to a snowy mountainside in Tibet.
It is nearly midday and beginners’ instruction is taking place in the temple. While we wait for the center’s teacher, Pema Gonpa, to greet us, Ana Carla shows us the austere and comfortable dining hall and the kitchen where volunteers prepare lunch. There will be selections for vegetarians and meat for those who are not vegetarian. Then Ana Carla takes us to the sleeping quarters and bathrooms. The inside of this part of the building does not look much different from a good hostel, except that there are cupboards for storing one’s shoes at the entrance to the bedrooms. There is central heating and the temperature is pleasant.
Not counting the retreat houses, the building can house thirty people. In addition to introductory retreats, there are also visiting days; Sengue Dzong is open to anyone who wishes to enter for basic instruction and to practice rituals.
We go out on a broad stone terrace with a spectacular view. The outer wall of the building contains niches intended for prayer wheels. Ana Carla explains that these are metal cylinders covered with coils of paper with printed mantras. The wheels spin and spread the blessings of the mantras to the surroundings for all time.
It is lunchtime and the retreat participants leave the temple. The teacher, Pema Gonpa, also comes out and we decide to speak inside the temple. We must remove our shoes to enter. The master sits in the lotus position; I set a recording device near him and I sit where the disciples would sit. Ana Carla warns that Pema does not answer personal questions.
Pema begins by saying that Buddhism is not a religion, mainly because there is no figure of a divine creator. Siddhartha Gautama, known as Buddha, defined it as a path. He explains that it is a path to enlightenment, understood as the intrinsic knowledge we all possess and can associate with the happiness to which we all aspire. He clarifies that he is referring not just to human beings but to all those beings –visible or invisible– with a mind, including animals. I ask whether the invisible beings could be spirits of the dead, and he says that death as such does not exist, but is only another stage of life, which is a continuous future, with or without a body.
Pema tells us that owing to China’s invasion of Tibet during the 1950s, the Tibetan lamas took refuge in countries like Nepal, India or Japan and from there went to the West. According to him, Buddhism caught fire in the West owing to its flexibility as an individual path, compatible with membership in other religions. He notes that Buddha is a state which one reaches through rituals, and which means “conscious.” The purpose of the rituals is to remove external and internal obstacles like pride, desire, possessiveness, hate and ignorance. These obstacles or “poisons of the mind” are the causes of illness and suffering, and removing them allows the intrinsic knowledge that has existed within us from the dawn of time to flower. The basic rituals are reciting mantras, contemplation and meditation. Meditation consists of being completely conscious of the here and now in one’s own mind, without becoming involved in outside events or in passing thoughts.
It is now lunchtime for Pema —he will teach more classes later— and we again use the 4 x 4 to descend with Ana Carla to the entrance of the lot where we left our car. As we head toward Montevideo, Gustavo and I talk about the benefits of Uruguay’s having such an original temple where Buddhists, seekers and devotees from around the world can go.