Swimming through the Lion’s Mane

Once a year in Tibet, some mountain monasteries conduct very long non-stop ceremonies called Drupchen. The roots go back into the pre-Buddhist Bön religions of Tibet, but these week- sometimes month-long festivals of chanting and prayer still today create a formidable battery of energy, aimed at dispelling evil and facilitating good.
Each Drupchen honours a different ‘awareness aspect’ of the human condition, symbolized by a Tibetan yiddam or deity which represents that quality – so it might be Compassion represented by the bright-faced boy, Chenrezig, the compassionate action of Green fleet-footed Tara or the fierce protection of skull-crunching Mahakala.

In July I went up to Holy Island for a Drupchen being held there. They’re extremely rare in the West and this one was dedicated to Dorje Phurba – a particularly potent and wrathful yiddam which represents the energy that clears the Path, bashes away all the negative obstacles to enlightened activity and urges us to bold and exhilarated action.
The abbot of the Scottish monastery, Samye Ling, Lama Yeshe, was advised to to hold one of these ceremonies on Holy Island and although the tried it couple of years ago, he wasn’t satisfied by the quality of the ritual – so he organized another with monks flown in from Sherab Ling monastery in Tibet, led by Dulma Choje Rinpoche, one of the highest Lamas in Tibet.

Basically – the 11-day ritual was the most complicated, intense thing I’ve ever encountered. Just the intricacy of the preparations – the coloured tormas, the flowers, the altar decorations, the organisation of the thousand pages of tibetan text – this was enough to melt the brain.

Many of the western monks and teachers – including Lama Yeshe himself – admitted that they didn’t know exactly what was going on. It was like some Gormenghast ritual that was so elaborate that no one person understood it. We all just did our part as well as possible.
It took a couple of days to complete the preparations. We processed around the buildings of the Island, sealing ourselves into a ‘vajra tent’ of energy early one morning, with Rinpoche wearing the most crazily elaborate robes and sheltered by a golden umbrella.

What completely washed me away was not only the tsunami-like power of the chanting rolling over you in waves, punctuated by crashes of cymbals or long earth-wobbling wails from the ceremonial horns. Nor was it the fact that by Day Three people were able to survive on 2 or 3 hours of sleep a night, the energy building up was so intense. What really impressed me was how willful it was.

The Western mind and media would look at all this as the most elaborate waste. Thousands of pounds flying monks and lamas from Tibet? Thousands of pounds on brocade and silk, on intricately carved wooden figures and minutely detailed altar decorations? Worse still, eleven days of work – more than 250 hours of labour throw away on what? Prayers? Feel good?

What does it achieve? Who was helped? What was the point?

From a Western perspective it seemed pointless. But in the vajra tent, participating in this chaotically complex ritual – with every hand gesture choreographed and significant – there it seemed like one of the most noble things i’ve ever taken part it. The sheer bloodymindedness or the sheer devotion to this practice which clears obstabcles not only for the participants, but for the whole of Scotland, for the whole of Western Europe. That sort of faith in the practice was overwhelming.

It’s not something I necessarily have. I’ve always been on the more puritan, Zen wing of Buddhism – but I’m starting to see that there is more in the world than my little logical brain can see and appreciate. Just taking off my know-it-all hat and admitting that maybe – just maybe – these old, wise men from Tibet who have studied continuously for decades and practiced in solitary confinement for years and years – might just know something when it comes to spirituality. Imagine that! A Tibetan lama knowing more than me.

The western mind bridles completely at the idea of reverence and submission to a wiser teacher. I bristle at the idea. I am wedded to the Buddhist concept of trying everything in one’s own heart. But the problem is that so often we never give things a change to enter into our hearts to be tested because we’re so sure that they’re worthless.

This bonanza of bizarre ritual really shook me in way that my logical mind barely comprehends. It ties in very strongly with the work I’ve been doing with Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way (what a seminal book that was) which priveledges the intuitive and the natural over the thought through and technical.

And it was amplified when I swam out one evening into the inky black waters around the island and tangled myself in the poisonous tentacles of a Lion’s Mane jellyfish. This left me with the sensation of being gently brushed with nettles – and a night of extraordinary physical hallucination. The toxin goes straight to the nervous system and blinks colours aroung your nerves until 3 hours have gone by in a heightened sense of awareness. When I woke up and went to sit with the chanting monks the next morning I was feeling turned inside out by the whole experience.

At the end of the 10 days the elaborate 3-D mandala that has been built up in the main shrine room (one of 3 where the chanting goes on 24-hours a day) is cracked open, bursting full of blessing, and the benefit is shared around the vajra tent and then up over our heads into the blue sky of Ayrshire, up over Scotland and West Europe, swirling up and blasting any obstacles to goodness. The blockages that stop people being happy and keep them endarkened. It’s a magic wish but after the intensity of 10 days it explodes like a bomb of incredible power coloured with jellyfish toxin, 250 hours of chanting, mantras and magic.

I’ve been increasingly sensitive to the magic in life since the Drupchen. Lots of things have gone pear-shaped but they’ve gone beautifully pear-shaped. The idea of obstacles includes the bad karma that needs to be burned through — which might mean a slew of bad luck, ill health, catastrophe. But in the context of the wrathful Dorje Phurba (and ‘wrathful’ is such an arcane word that it can only point to the positive aspects of rage and anger) the bad becomes relative. To clear the Path, there’s a lot of weeds, soil, rocks and rubbish that is cleared to one side. Like the jellyfish sting it might seem bad but actually be beautiful.


  1. dougie

    August 18, 2006 at 1:56 pm

    Wonderfully descriptive and thought provoking writing again Alistair. It’s so easy to get bogged down in rational, western approaches to ‘dealing’ with things. I reckon in the current international climate we need every approach possible to dispel evil. I especially like the idea of meditation as a way of furthering a universal ethical cause. There are a lot of approaches to furthering love/generosity of spirit that many in the west fail to consider or begin to understand. I applaud you for sharing your spiritual journey with us, and in such an eloquent way.

  2. Reyn Yorio Tsuru

    August 19, 2006 at 5:19 am

    The power of positive prayer…a nice salve for our wounded
    world. Thanks for the positive and inspiring postings!

  3. Mickey

    August 21, 2006 at 6:02 pm

    I envy your dedication to the path.

    I only wish my experience with a jellyfish had been so enlightening!

  4. Chris Paisano

    August 22, 2006 at 7:33 pm

    Hozho nahaasli! Hozho nahaasli! Hozho nahaasli! Hozho Nahaasli!
    Let “order/balance/blessings” be restored!

    It is very intersting how Tibetan beliefs are very similar
    to our Dinebiji or Navajo ways in thought, belief, and
    prayers. I’ve seen one mandala and it’s was nice to know
    how it was similar to our “ikaa” or sandpaintings.

    I would hope that your readers may understand that all the
    work to create a vehicle for blessings and it’s “destruction”
    is a part of life – no permanence. Only we believe in
    permanence and this belief clouds our vision and understanding.

    When we have a ceremony, all the participants are there to
    give of themselves for the greater good, and in our case, for
    the benefit of the ceremony’s patient.

    I hope this ceremony will help cure so many of the ills
    of the world – our experiences are so sad with wars, disputes,
    no respect for one another.

    Let’s take what goodness we have in our hearts and walk
    out the door to share it with the world and all in it.

    Hozho nahaasli Oakland-dee!


  5. Daniel Murray

    August 23, 2006 at 9:14 pm

    Dear Alistair:

    This is such a time of awakening, isn’t it? I feel that so many are waking up at this
    time, and that there are many paths to take on the journey.

    I’ve done some wonderful healing meditations this week. And, I participated with a group
    of friends last month — using magic and the force of will and choice (always choice) —
    to send needed healing energy out to the world.

    Many are working their magic at this time to heal. For me, healing is such a vital

    I look forward to following your thoughts on your website. (Coming in here to
    read along and ponder is one of the most delightful moments of my day.)

    Thank you for that.

    Daniel Murray

  6. Young

    August 24, 2006 at 12:40 am


    I found your homepage by chance.
    I felt like finding treasure.
    Your writing on your experience is great.
    Moreover, photos here are so wonderful.
    I love most of them.
    You can observe such unnoticeable things
    and make them noticeable and meaningful.
    You must be a talented photographer or a profound philosopher!!

    By the way, I know many Buddhists who actually love Telly.


  7. John McD

    August 24, 2006 at 4:12 am

    Again I am invigorated and inspired by your writings. Although
    I felt oddly amused by your questioning–or presumed
    questioning by the Western world–of the time, effort and expense
    in creating this ceremony.

    I don’t think it’s worth the effort to focus
    on this aspect of the process given its relatively small and
    insignificant amount of time and money compared to the planning,
    selling and astronomical expense (monetarily and in human cost)
    involved in ‘putting on a war’ or other such futile efforts.

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful experience with us, and
    taking us on just a bit of the journey with you!

  8. Valerie

    August 24, 2006 at 2:56 pm

    What’s wrong with some positive energy. Too much negative
    around for me. I, being a lifelong optimist am always
    trying to swing the negative energy out of the way.

  9. solevoice

    August 24, 2006 at 10:35 pm


    What an amazing piece! I’m a real fan of yours and thank you, personally, for your words on homosexuality which are enlightening and insightful as well as being encouraging and kind. I have recently come out to my parents and am finding it all rather difficult.

    My sincere best wishes,

    SV (Tom)

  10. Ken Frantz

    August 25, 2006 at 1:34 am

    Beautiful pictures and amazing ceremony. I have chronic
    pain and have been told to try meditation. Can you
    offer the title of a good book, CD, or DVD that
    will teach it?
    Ken Frantz

  11. Elaine

    August 29, 2006 at 4:47 pm

    I felt very emotional reading this essay on the Drupchen. The fact that such events happen at all was a wonderful revelation to me but I felt sad that so few of us get the opportunity to touch the spiritual side of our lives. So far the ability to meditate has alluded me – I just find it impossible to sufficiently calm my mind and body. I would love to be able to stay more focussed on all the good in the world and to approach relationships and situations with spontaneity. I envy those of you who can and I shall keep trying. The one thing I find I can offer is a friendly smile and some caring words which is my little bit of positive energy!

  12. Nick

    August 29, 2006 at 5:12 pm

    I love reading this website but how can you be so positive all the time???? Even being bitten by a jelly fish sounds nice when you write it!

    I would love to flirt with Buddhism but it sounds like I would be ex-communicated as soon as I was a bit grumpy and negative. I’m working on being able to offer a friendly smile but I haven’t even managed that yet!

    You are both an inspiration and a little annoying because I am quite jealous.

    North London

  13. Tiago

    September 2, 2006 at 2:12 am


    I saw you on tv and then looked you up on the net and found your sites. Very interesting 🙂
    i read some of your experiences and was intrigued. That trip in brazil and the doubt on buddhism was strange.I agree that buddhism is a great way, but finally nothing beats our bodily, mentaly, own human devellopment, it’s the natural way we exist.
    I think you’re a beautiful man and very loving person.
    All the Best 🙂


  14. Burning Turban » Blog Archive » Suspended in time, between pole and tropic / When the short day is brightest

    January 15, 2007 at 1:40 am

    […] It began and ended in monasteries (Samye Ling last year, Chithurst this) and everything pivoted on the axial Dorje Phurbe Drupchen up on Holy Island. That sun-bleached madness was about clearing obstacles – even if the clearance caused pain – and that’s certainly what happened in this painfully raw year. Symmetrical around the Drupchen, there were 2 courses on Holy Island (one in June, one in August); on either side of that there were 2 trips to Brazil and on either side of them were 2 trips to New York. One brief love affair was enclosed in the brief flaring of another in January and December. […]

  15. Do Buddhists Watch Telly? » Suspended in time, between pole and tropic / When the short day is brightest

    January 15, 2007 at 1:42 am

    […] It began and ended in monasteries (Samye Ling last year, Chithurst this) and everything pivoted on the axial Dorje Phurbe Drupchen up on Holy Island. That sun-bleached madness was about clearing obstacles – even if the clearance caused pain – and that’s certainly what happened in this painfully raw year. Symmetrical around the Drupchen, there were 2 courses on Holy Island (one in June, one in August); on either side of that there were 2 trips to Brazil and on either side of them were 2 trips to New York. One brief love affair was enclosed in the brief flaring of another in January and December. […]

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