Festival of Padmasambhava on 16 September: joyful, creative, inspiring – a little risky?
Our next festival, Padmasambhava Day, is coming up on 16 September. “What’s that?” you may ask – and, indeed, why do Buddhist Centres have festivals at all?
After all, the festivals we’re familiar with might not seem to fit with Buddhist values. They may have come from a religious tradition none of the participants really believe in, so that it feels a bit meaningless, with symbols and rituals that seem rather empty. Or think of music festivals and carnivals, where there’s a fair bit of drunkenness and other kinds of excess. In fact excess is often seen as an important part of what festivals are about, including a level of stimulation that may be exciting, but puts stress on the body and mind: that beautiful experience of watching the sun rise after a night of revelling does have its price!
Of course, good festivals have their value. For a start, they’re enjoyable, even joyful – a festival that isn’t fun isn’t a good festival! They’re a vehicle for creativity and aesthetic appreciation, most obviously in the case of arts festivals. They’re a break from the norm, a holiday (‘holy day’) time when we can temporarily relax our attention to goals and rules, the relentless accountancy of getting and spending that demands so much of us. Instead, we can let go, to an extent, of the functional, socially acceptable persona we usually work to maintain, and experience a larger, freer version of ourselves – which is refreshing, energising, even inspiring. And they allow us to do this together, forging, at least for a while, a sense of a truer kind of community than is usually available in the roles and routines of daily life. At the very least, they bring people together and offer the possibility of new, or strengthened, connections.
At its best, a Buddhist festival like Padmasambhava Day takes the essential ingredients of a good festival, and provides them in a way that’s in tune with Buddhist values. Enjoyable and colourful, without being merely hedonistic – so there’ll be good food, ritual with sound and colour, the pleasure of good company. Creative and imaginative, using images and words, often poetry and myth, that genuinely help us go beyond the rationalistic and goal oriented mind into a fuller, more vivid way of experiencing the world. Inspiring and energising, because they put us in touch with what’s really important in life. Supportive of community, real community based on shared values and real openness with one another, rather than the drive-by intimacy of ecstatic disinhibition.
And that’s the risk. Not the risk of a bad hangover, an overspent bank account or a nasty row caused by careless words; it’s the risk of tasting new, more creative, more fulfilling ways of being which then invite us, little by little, to change our lives – to let go of the safe, the habitually self-centred, and open to ways that may be a little unfamiliar. That kind of change can be uncomfortable, even if we know it’s definitely a risk worth taking.
In taking this kind of risk, and in experiencing the rewards, we enter the territory of Padmasambhava – the great teacher who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century, and who has become a mythic figure symbolising, or embodying, a particular approach to Buddhist practice and the qualities it involves. Those qualities include creativity and imagination, inspiration and energy, even an ecstatic joy, and a fearless openness to the unknown, so he’s a particularly appropriate figure for a festival, and the title of this year’s Padmasambhava Day at WLBC gives another hint of his qualities: ‘Daemonic Reality, Absolute Openness’. During the day, we’ll explore and celebrate Padmasambhava through poetry and other readings, imagery, reflection, chanting and ritual, with the help of a talk by Paramamanda – and of course, there’ll be time for good food, socialising and enjoying hanging out with like-minded people. So if you’re interested in what a Buddhist festival might have to offer, this is a great one to get involved in. Everyone’s welcome. Come for all or part of the day – the full programme is here.