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~ Karmacharya Study | ~ Tantric Healing Practices | ~ Rudi Statue | ~ The Chöd Tradition | ~ Project News and Articles

Karmacharya Study

performin a karmacharya pujaNityananda Institute Nepal joined forces with the Center for Nepal and Asian Studies of Tribhuvan University on a research project to study the Karmacharyas of Bhaktapur, a caste of tantric priests. Dr. Tirtha Prasad Mishra, the Executive Director of CNAS, assembled a committee of researchers to conduct a seventeen month survey of the Karmacharyas, their practices and history. The research focused on the influence of Karmacharya tantric ritual on the society and culture of Bhaktapur. The study included a survey of extant source materials, including rare ritual texts, as well as field observation and interviews with practicing Karmacharyas.

The ancient city of Bhaktapur, located eight miles east of Kathmandu, holds great importance in Nepali history. Home to the Newars, the most culturally significant of Nepal’s ethnic groups , Bhaktapur is the source of many of Nepal’s most important religious traditions. For centuries, Bhaktapur served as the Nepalese capital and the seat of the royal palace. Under the rule of the Malla kings from the 12th to the 17th century, Bhaktapur and the Newars developed a flourishing social, political and cultural system.

To ensure the protection and prosperity of the kingdom, the kings of Bhaktapur employed the Karmacharyas to perform elaborate devotional rituals to the local deities. The kings held the Karmacharyas in high esteem for their power and knowledge of goddess-based rituals. Their practices and ritual tradition had a great impact on the social, cultural and political development of Nepal. However, with the fall of the Malla dynasty in the 18th century, the Karmacharyas lost their position in the royal court and their status in society.Today, their role in history is largely forgotten.

The Karmacharyas who remain in Bhaktapur today provide the only living link to the ancient rituals of the Newar. This project provided a means to help preserve this significant tradition and contribute to a deeper understanding of Newari culture.

The research committee consisted of specialists in the field of Asian studies, including Professor Mishra, Swami Chetanananda, Director of Nityananda Institute Nepal and the CNAS Director of Socio-Religious Traditions of Nepal; Professor Alexis Sanderson of Oxford University, Professor T.B. Shrestha of CNAS, and Doctor Purushottam Lochan Shrestha, a historian specializing in Bhaktapur and Newari culture. The committee worked with a prominent Karmacharya, who acted as the liaison between the committee and the Karmacharyas.

The project began in September 2001 with a survey of source materials, including books, articles, inscriptions, chronicles and manuscripts in related topics, as well as relevant unpublished works from the National Archives and numerous other libraries. The final report was issued in September 2003.

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Tantric Healing Practices

In the tantric tradition, practitioners have generally had two goals: to achieve the state of liberation or moksha, and to acquire power that could be used for the benefit of others. That power often comes in the form of siddhis, manifesting in unusual and extraordinary ways. One type of siddhi that can emerge is the power of healing.

Several strains of tantric healing are practiced in Nepal. Healing practices have developed among Buddhists, Hindus, and Bönpo groups. There is also an indigenous shamanistic tradition practiced mostly by villagers in the eastern and western hills, but its techniques are different from tantrism.

Tantrism provides a technology for using creative energy or vital force to effect healing. Healing power, however, does not manifest without careful cultivation. Tantric healers have generally engaged in extensive sadhana, which may include a period of ascetic practice. They may perform their main healing practices in public, but there are also practices done privately, the details of which are shared only between guru and student. The principal tools employed in tantric healing in Nepal include mantra, the breath, pujas (rituals), amulets, and various healing substances, such as blessed water, rice, incense, ash, and herbal medicine.

Nepal is unusual in its widespread acceptance of tantric healing. For most Nepalis, access to Western style medical treatment is simply not possible, and for thousands of years the predominant form of healing has been spiritual. For westerners, tantric healing methods can be effective where other forms of treatment are not. Authentic practitioners, however, are becoming increasingly rare. Swami Chetanananda is seeking to find such practitioners and do what he can to help preserve these traditions.

One prominent tantric practitioner in Kathamandu is Lama Tsering Wangdu Rinpoche, whose is known for his ability as a healer. He is a Tibetan Buddhist of the Nyingma school, and his practices come from the Zhi-je, or pacification of suffering, tradition of Padampa Sangye. He is a master of Chöd as well as other healing rituals. Swami Chetanananda has studied with him for several years, absorbing the essence of his practices and becoming a lineage holder in his tradition.

Among the other methods of tantric healing that exist in Nepal, there is one believed to represent the last vestiges of the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism. Swami Chetanananda is currently studying with accomplished practitioners of this method and has dedicated himself to learning as much as he can about their practices.

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Rudi Statue

karla with rudi's headNityananda Institute Nepal has commissioned a life-sized statue of Swami Rudrananda (Rudi) by Nityananda Institute student Karla Refojo and Ravindra Jyapoo, a well-known Newari sculptor/bronze caster in Kathmandu. When completed, the statue will be installed in Nityananda Institute's Portland ashram.

The statue will be cast using the traditional "lost wax" or cire perdu method used in Nepal for centuries. The traditional process is complicated and time-consuming, but allows the artisan to achieve very fine detail.

The Newari artisans of Kathmandu are among the best in the world at the lost wax process. The tradition of metal casting in Nepal dates from the Licchavi period (300-800 C.E.). The craft had become almost extinct by the mid-twentieth century, but was revived with the arrival of Tibetan refugees and the opening of Nepal to tourism, as a new market for the work developed.

the wax model of RudiThe conditions in which Newaris work today and the techniques they use are largely unchanged since the beginning of their tradition.They work in poorly lit,small spaces with no ventilation, and yet turn out true masterpieces displaying some of the most refined workmanship in the world.

Work on the Rudi statue began in Ravindra Jyapoo’s small house at the base of Swayambunath stupa in 2001. The statue began as a pile of bricks which constituted the support at the base and the spine of the statue. Clay, collected from the countryside outside Kathmandu, was brought to the house and pounded to a smooth consistency, before being handed over for the sculpture. Ravindra and Karla worked together on the statue with few, simple tools, spraying the clay continuously with water to protect it. The summer heat coming from the low tin roof and the wood fire smoke from the casting ovens behind the house, would have quickly hardened and baked the clay without it.

ravindra with rudiAfter the sculpture was finished in clay, they needed to create a "die", a relief copy of the statue made out of plaster. This die is also known as a "mother mold" that enables the caster to make more than one copy of the statue. Because this is a very large statue, in order to do this they first divided the statue up into sections by inserting thin metal dividers into the clay. These in turn acted as small walls to hold the plaster that was then brushed onto the surface of the clay. After curing, the plaster sections were carefully lifted off of the statue, cleaned, and checked for accuracy. The clay statue was then destroyed, and the clay reconstituted to be used again in future projects.

The next stage of the lost wax process is the preparation of a wax model, exactly like the clay one. In order to do this, vegetable oil is brushed onto the sections of the plaster dye as a resist, and then layers of melted beeswax approximately one inch thick are brushed over that. The thickness of the wax is important, since it determines the thickness the metal will be afterwards. If it is too thin, it will lose strength. If it is too thick, the cost of the metal is more and will result in a very heavy statue.

After the wax hardens, the wax is carefully pulled out of the plaster molds, cleaned and checked for inconsistencies, and then joined all together again into a single unit. When the statue is again in its complete manifestation, this time in wax, it is thoroughly checked for accuracy in surface texture and form. In order to cast such a big statue in bronze, the statue must now be cut again into sections. For a statue of this size, six sections are used: the head, the torso, the two arms, the legs and then the base.

The wax image is now coated in a slurry of fine yellow clay mixed with cow dung and dried in the shade. Several layers of clay are applied, and this process requires great care as it determines the quality of the surface of the finished statue. The image is then coated with several thick layers of coarse clay mixed with rice husks. Small openings are left in the clay. When the mold is completely dry, it is heated in a special brick oven and the wax flows out of the openings and is collected. The original wax model, however, is lost.

The statue is then ready for casting. The Rudi statue will be cast using the five-metal technique. Swami Chetanananda chose the five-metal technique because it is the method traditionally used in Nepal and India to create sacred images. This technique combines gold, silver, copper, zinc and tin, each of which correlate vibrationally to planetary energies, similar to the way gemstones are used in the Vedic system.

During casting, molten bronze is slowly poured into the mold. The mold is allowed to cool before it is broken and the bronze statue removed. Because the mold must be broken to release the statue, each statue made using this process is one of a kind.

At this time the sections of the statue, now in metal form, are carefully joined together to form a whole and the surface of the statue is cleaned with sandpaper and files. The statue is then cold-forged—carefully pounded with specially shaped dies to take out surface imperfections. The surface is then polished. In the final stage of casting, the statue is carved by an engraver with a hammer and special chisels to etch out the final details. The statue is now ready for a patina, to add the depth and tone of color desired. The Rudi statue will have a bronze, copper toned body with an antique gold finish worn away over it, reproducing a 14th century patina.

The Rudi statue was completed in the spring of 2006. Karla Refojo has published an article about her experiences at There's a short article about the statue's arrival in Portland at the main Nityananda Institute website.

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The Chöd Tradition

Chöd is an ancient cremation ground practice of Indian Buddhist origin. It is probably as old as Buddhism itself. According to scholars, Chöd has never been a unified school of practice. Instead, it has various lineages and traditions. One of the foremost practitioners of Chöd, Machig Labdroön (1062—1153 C.E.), tailored the practice of Chöd to the particular needs of her students, giving them different meditations that led to separate lineages.

During a visit to Nepal in 1997, Swami Chetanananda encountered one of the greatest living practitioners of Chöd, Lama Tsering Wangdu Rinpoche. They both describe their first encounter as a meeting of two currents. In the next year, Lama Wangdu shared his practice with Swamiji and made him a lineage holder in the Jigme Lingpa Chöd tradition.

The Chöd ritual is traditionally performed after dark in cremation grounds or disturbed places. In the course of the practice, practitioners visualize making an offering of their own bodies, which are cut up, transformed into nectar, and distributed to various classes of guests who are called to participate. The guests include spirits and negative energies that cause harm and disease. After consuming the feast prepared for them, these spirits are satisfied and subdued.

Chöd brings benefit to the total environment, including the practitioner. The ritual involves a total sacrifice of everything identified as ourselves, but it in no way diminishes us—it only makes us bigger. This understanding is essential to authentic spiritual practice. As Swami Chetanananda says, "Chöd is the ancient underpinning of all ritual practices."

Chöd has become a part of the programs offered at Nityananda Institute. Hundreds of Institute students have received initiation in Chöd practice from Lama Wangdu. Many of them have been practicing for several years. Most of the students visiting Nepal have had the opportunity to see Lama Wangdu practice Chöd at one of the main cremation sites or Vajrayogini temples in the Kathmandu Valley.

This spring Nityananda Institute received a $5,000 grant to produce a documentary about the art and iconography of Chöd. The project is called "Art of the Chöd" and will focus on the imagery and ritual implements used in the practice, using both old and modern examples. The film will explain and de-mystify the powerful symbolism of Chöd for those unacquainted with the practice. It will be the first documentary ever produced by the Institute.

The idea for the film arose because the imagery associated with Chöd is graphic and the deities invoked can appear menacing to the uninitiated, who are not aware of the purpose of the practice. By explaining the purpose of the ritual, the documentary will promote understanding of these images and the nature of the practice among a wider audience.

The documentary will be produced in DVD format and will feature footage of Lama Wangdu performing the practice, passages from the text practiced at the Institute and Lama Wangdu’s and Swamiji’s commentary, and paintings, sculpture and ritual implements from public and private collections, including collections of students at Nityananda Institute. .

This project is the first step toward another, longer film the Institute would like to produce—a documentary about Lama Wangdu’s life and practice.

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