What do all those white scarves and red strings mean? The Lama gives a primer on Tibetan Buddhist blessings.
Q. At a recent talk by the Dalai Lama, I received a red cord tied around my neck. I also learned that in Tibetan Buddhism, one offers a white scarf to a lama, who then places it around your neck. What is the significance of these objects, and how should they be used?
A. The red string is called a “protection and blessing cord.” Traditionally, a lama ties a knot in the cord, then prays over it and blows the power of his mantra into it. Then he places it around one’s neck as a blessing. When I first asked my own lama, the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, about this, in 1973, he told me the cord is symbolic of remaining within the protection of his compassionate embrace even after departing from his physical presence. Other lamas have told me they take the protection cords off only to have dental work or surgery, and then put them on again afterward, as the strong protection field might impede the medical procedure.
Objects touched or prayed over by holy beings are believed to be imbued with their spiritual energy and blessings.
Offering a white scarf–called a kata–is an ancient Tibetan tradition. The color symbolizes purity of intention and aspiration. It is an ancient custom to bring an offering when visiting a temple, shrine, guru, or teacher. An ancient Tibetan adage says that giving and receiving go hand in hand, like breathing in and breathing out–it is an a universal karmic principle that the more you give, the more you receive, which should not necessarily be understood in material terms only.
A few weeks ago, a student wrote me about a rather unorthodox experience she had with offering a kata to a lama
“When Lama Khamtrul Rinpoche was visiting here in Massachusetts, you suggested I accept the invitation to go for a blessing. I’ve never actually been in that situation before, and I didn’t really know anything about the offering-scarf thing. I thought they would be available either for purchase on site or they give you one. Needless to say, I was wrong.
“The hosts asked for people to line up to receive the blessing. And when everyone whipped out their traditional Tibetan-style white offering scarves, I said to myself, “Oh noooo!”
“I decided I needed something long and white, so I ran to the bathroom. When I handed him the neatly folded white toilet paper, well, he just started laughing. He gave me the classic affectionate clasping of the cheeks, patting and pinching until my face was quite red. So I now have this great piece of toilet paper (one-ply) that I’m a bit attached to. I now realize that a scarf wasn’t really necessary in order to receive a blessing, but I kind of like this one. So, my dear lama: May you never look at toilet paper in the same light again.”
Other forms of blessing in Tibet include hand-blessing or a scripture-blessing. To receive these blessings, a follower bows before a master, who places a holy book or his or her hand atop the head of the devotee, transmitting spiritual energy through the combination of gesture and physical contact, the faith, trust, and openness of the supplicant, and especially the intention of the one bestowing the benediction.
Another common way of receiving blessings from Tibetan Lamas is through the dispensation of sacred pills called men-drub (“enlightenment medicine”) or tse-drub (“longevity medicine”), which are imbibed as a sacrament. The Dalai Lama is famous for the little red pills he offers; the Karmapa Lama is renowned for his black pills, which are said to reproduce themselves if left together in an envelope over some period of time and eaten only under dire circumstances or when entering a meditation retreat. The ritual recipes for these spiritual medicaments have been carefully preserved and passed down through generations of these grand lamas’ incarnations. And there are numerous stories about their miraculous beneficial effects.
Other kinds of pills prevalent in Tibetan medicine are known as rinchen rilbu or “precious medicinal pills.” Highly skilled Tibetan lama-doctors make these pills, using a wide variety of hand-collected Himalayan herbs and minerals, combined with the power of prayers, rituals, and mantras. They can be obtained in Dharamsala, India, through the Tibetan Medical Institute, or from some Tibetan doctors. These pills have exotic names like Wishfulfilling Gem Pill, the Great Accumulation Pill, Great Black Cold Pill, Great Iron Pill, Great Purified Moon Crystal Pill–which includes purified gold and over 30 other ingredients–and many others. These pills are derived from ancient formulas reaching back into antiquity and stem from Ayurvedic medicine, Tibetan medicine, and the five Tibetan medical tantras, which are the basis of Tibetan medical philosophy and education and were purportedly taught by the Medicine Buddha, Sangyay Menla, himself.
The Tibetan blessing practices remind me of the tradition of blessed protection medals, amulets, as well as relics of the saints commonly used in many religions, such as Catholicism and Hinduism. Objects touched or prayed over by holy beings are believed to be imbued with their spiritual energy and blessings. The practice of relic worship found in Christianity, such as around pieces of the cross or bones of the saints, finds common ground in Buddhism’s tradition of venerating the teeth of the Buddha or pieces of bone or ash from his cremation pyre, which were divided up among his main disciples and enshrined in stupas–reliquary monuments around India. All these spiritual traditions of healing and enlightenment help deepen our spiritual development. But of course, that development depends more on the faith of the individual than on the material substances themselves.