A Click, With Nutella Pancake Cake

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This keeps happening. Pictures. In small moments—stolen corners chipped off mornings, half hours snuck out of afternoons. I get the pencil on the paper and…something happens.

I’ll tell you what. Something’s happened. All this babbling I’ve been doing for the last few months (the last few years and all my life I suppose, but with more concerted effort recently) has worked itself into some kind of useful understanding. As the French say, it’s made a click in my brain.

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I won’t lie. I still harbor that childhood yearning for conventional success and artistic recognition. In my private dream world, success is a solo show at the MoMA—New York of course, with its two story entry overlooked by a balcony and cool light seeping in from tall windows. There’s a kind of confidence and joy that suffuses this image; it’s not the notoriety that counts but the diffusion.

Big museums mean reaching people, and underneath all the identity crises and visions of grandeur, I think I perpetually feel like I felt on the first day of kindergarten: I just want to connect. A show at the MoMA is like holding my arms wide open for the whole world (This isn’t a fair accounting in terms of economic opportunities and class issues but it’s a good way to end the sentence and probably about as close as I could get. Anyway.).

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To connect with others, you first have to connect with yourself. That’s the click. For me, connecting with an image means letting myself be exactly where I am and feel exactly what I feel in the moment of creation without judgment or elaboration. This is the basis of my art practice and why it matters to me. Yeees, I hope that my work can go places and connect other people with wherever they are and however they feel, but you can’t share a cake you haven’t made, if you know what I mean. So I’m working on just making cake. And it seems to be working.

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Which is a confusing metaphor, probably, since I make a lot of literal cake in addition to metaphorical cake. This week’s is an unusual twist on an Internet trope. Instead of dessert disguised as breakfast, it’s breakfast disguised as dessert: buttermilk pancakes with nutella turned into a nifty layer cake. I subbed goat’s milk yogurt for buttermilk since it’s easier to find around here. It adds a slight earthiness to the tang, but isn’t a notable enough difference to shell out for goat yogurt if you don’t live in a place where it’s simply the easy way out.

I really liked this pancake recipe, as it makes for slightly chewy, fluffy pancakes rather than cakey, tender ones. Stacked up and spread with chocolate-y, hazelnut goodness and dusted with a snow of icing sugar, it’s classy enough to pass for cake even though it’s really just lazy Sunday brunch.IMG_2396

 

Recipe (assembly instructions really) follow…

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Afternoon Adventures and Cinnamon Squash Cake

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Yesterday I took myself on a mini field trip. It was partly a failed attempt to buy a government stamp to pay for my visa (which has been issued—hallelujah! Can you hear the bells ringing? Because I can.) that I get to pick up in Perigueux tomorrow, but I turned it into a sweet little afternoon outing. I wandered through town reading the opening and closing times of various establishments and concluding that all errands should be done between the hours of ten and noon on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. I sometimes wonder how things get done in France. I stumbled onto a craft show that did happen to be open (and run by some British ladies), bought a felt owl to cover my phone, and strolled around snapping pictures with said phone. Later, I went down to the river to draw. And if you have Alison Krauss stuck in your head, I think it works because making things is a kind of prayer too, isn’t it? It’s a kind of looking for harmony and the internal calm and courage to let a thing or help a thing come into this world.

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I tried to take pictures by the river too, but I struggled a bit with my iPhone, which takes excellent photos when the light is perfect, and when the light is not perfect takes mostly overexposed nightmares or blurry frustrations. No luck with the river photos; I think the reflections puzzle my little Mac camera’s brain. But I did manage to get a shot of my favorite street in Montignac, which makes me chuckle every time I pass it, if only because the name feels a lot like my life a lot of the time: The Impasse of Sentiment. Feelings: you just have to live with them.

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My feelings lately are that I’m grateful that I have a little time to sit around and think about my feelings. To ask myself what images are for, what words are for, what food is for. To find out that my camera takes square pictures and knock myself out taking abstract-y photos of my feet and the tire marks in the town parking lot. I only posted one here—I don’t want to tire you guys out—but trust me, there are many. I’m grateful to get to stop and consider what this little internet space is for: what is does for me, what could be awesome if it does for others, what makes it work and what makes it not work so well.

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I realized that as much as time and organization keep me from showing up more or putting together posts that are more consistent or finished, there are also simple technical limitations. Like, as much I love my iPhone and its newfound capacity for square pictures, if I’m going to be subjecting people to my images all the time, I should maybe consider getting a decent camera. Not just for the viewer, but also for myself, to be able to construct a visual narrative more based on the story I’d like to share and less based on the few photos I managed to snap that are not atrocious.

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Ditto for food. While I admit that there is a diversity of reasons that keep me from posting recipes, two of the most frequent culprits are that my pictures are often deplorable and my recipes are hard to scale because I have very few pans that relate to anything standard. I’m learning a lot this week about how quandaries that feel complex in a busy mind can become rather simple when the mind is posed. As far as the blog goes, the basic prospect that arises is that if I really intend to develop this space as a platform for sharing and communication, I need to invest in it. Which is at once daunting and exciting (really good reasons to actually go to Ikea—buy a decent lamp for drawing. And a bundt pan!). Gonna let that simmer a bit more and see what comes to the top.

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Also, as you can see, I, um, cracked with my baking resolution. Butbut, I had to be in the kitchen for Lama anyway, and then Loïc brought home a potimarron from some one’s garden he’s helping with, and it’s almost starting to smell like autumn in the morning, and well, as much as I say I want to draw more and read more and study more and go outside more, and while away fewer of my hours in the kitchen, this cooking thing might be as ingrained in me as this art thing, and though I don’t really know what to do with that, I know that if you give me something that resembles pumpkin, you inevitably wind up with cake. Pre-autumny, afternoon snack-y, earthy, spicy cake.

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Recipe follows…

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The Algebra of Success

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Hello from calm. I almost forgot what this feels like. I’m sitting in the grass across from the prayer wheels. It’s twilight and the rock against my back is still warm with the day’s sun. I don’t hear a single human voice or see a single human form. Aside from the grinding of some one’s tires along the road, I would hardly know there are still people nearby.

The center’s closed for ten blissful days. Most of the volunteers have cleared out to visit former homes or have foreign adventures. The public is reduced to a few diehards who live nearby and come just to walk around the stupa or sit by themselves in the temple. There’s few enough people around that it’s possible to be alone out of doors, and somewhere other than the few square meters of my home. I thought about going to the ocean for a few days, but as much as I miss the smell of salt water and the way that only beach sand can burn your feet, I’m glad I stayed.

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It’s good to have time where, instead of adding new experiences and stimulus to work through, I can just reflect on everything I’m already busy living.

I’m trying to look at what, in the course of a day, decides how I spend my time and what, if I look at what I actually want to accomplish in my life, might change in how I spend my time. I discovered this truly awesome website called The Great Discontent that’s been really supporting my process. It’s an ongoing series of interviews with all different kinds of creative people about what they do and how they got where they are now. There’s a few people you’ve probably heard of (Cheryl Strayed, Emiliana Torrini), but it’s totally not a roster of superstars who have otherworldly success that us normal folks could hardly dream of. It’s real people explaining how they make creative passions into viable lives.

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And mostly they seem to say that you have to actually do the thing that you want to be successful at doing. Write if you want to write; paint if you want to paint; make music if you want to make music. The stories also emphasize a lot the importance of sharing and connecting with other people to allow your work to find its way into the world and reach the right audience. There’s also a pretty consistent narrative that even though you can, and pretty much will, succeed if you persevere, you will also be determinedly poor at some or multiple points and success will probably not be as stable as you hoped. But people who succeed are usually not doing it for the stability. Because another common thread is that all these people create for love. For love of doing it and for love of the offering that can be made of what we create.

So now I’m asking myself, “What do I want to create, and how much time can I set aside to pursue said creation?” I’m not doing it for the money at all, though I can’t deny a spark of a dream that someday I might be able to help finance the Institute or other dharma projects through creative work. I’m also not limiting my question to art-related creation. Just to clarify, for me, art refers to making anything that doesn’t have a technical application. If you want to nitpick the details of what that means, well…we can get into it another time. Take that as you will for the moment.

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My question works out to something like this: My goal is to prioritize certain activities because they englobe what I want to offer in the world. If I were leading a more traditional lifestyle, that would mean figuring out how to make a living doing whatever it is I want to do. But since the bulk of my energy is geared toward developing the activity of Dhagpo and Karmapa, Shamar Rinpoche, and Jigme Rinpoche, my question becomes, “How can I develop the activities that help me develop individually so that they are also activities that directly benefit the causes and pursuits to which my life, and the precious hours of my days, are tied?”

Answers are…rich with possibility. And incertitude. The trending idea is basically that I have to develop these activities in whatever ways already exist within the context of my responsibilities at Dhagpo and whatever temporary opportunities pop up, but also that I have to seriously pursue my projects on my own time so that their value can become apparent and applicable. This means creating finished work. Finished pieces of writing. Finished drawings, paintings, hell, series if I’m really serious. And then getting the work out into the world. And on the non-art side of things, it means studying, meditating, and presenting what I’ve understood enough that that too can become a part of my legit activity, otherwise known as teaching.

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I guess it’s pretty obvious. It’s the knuts and bolts that are tricky. But even if the basic outline is fairly self-evident, there’s something galvanizing about writing out the blueprint. Doing so peels back the layers of drama and identity-crisis that so often go with reaching for a goal. In the end, it’s not really about me and my passion or my potential. It’s just a simple equation: a Jourdie in this life has x and y nature. You naturally have to divide them by x and y activity to cancel the whole thing out and finish with emptiness, aka Buddha nature. I’m making algebra out of the path to enlightenment. Usually math makes me shudder. I guess I must be onto something.

Nutella Swirl Brioche And A Kitchen Hiatus

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Um, so. Let’s talk about bodies. Get your mind out of the gutter! This discussion is purely practical.

Bodies are pretty great. They anchor us in time and space, and give us the stability to keep track of our experiences and thus make some kind of sense of how things work. Our minds, our bodies themselves, and both of these in relation to the world around us. Plus, bodies have other added benefits too. They let us experience beauty. The beauty of human contact, of course, and many other kinds of beauty too. Food, music, sport, art, nature, you name it.

The case for bodies being awesome is pretty good. But bodies have downsides too. They’re pretty vulnerable and not very durable. They get tired; they get sick; they get old. Eventually they crap out and die. In that sense, bodies are kind of a raw deal, aren’t they. But, being as we don’t have much choice in the matter as to whether we want a body or not, the question is, as ever, what to do?

IMG_2247Through history, humans have tested a whole range of approaches, from the Hedonists to the Ascetics. Over here in my little corner, I’m just trying to make the best of things. Trying to use this body to learn as much as I can and give as much as I can. I try (trryyy…eet’s not so eeeasy) not to go running after beauty, but just to truly appreciate what comes my way and use it as a reminder that beings are, indeed, capable of understanding and communicating with one another. I sometimes have doubts about this point, so it’s good to have confirmation. Feeling moved by what some one else has created serves for this.

And when my body has a hard time and gets tired and sick, I try to be patient and not get too grumpy about it. I would like to be able to say, “I try to take care of my body and give it what it needs to get better.” But I don’t think that’s particularly true. I generally relate to my body as being vulnerable and temporary, and rather than having sympathy for its weaknesses, I treat them like unfortunate side effects of the whole mortality thing and, um, mostly just ignore them.

But, after the last few months, I have to consider that the combination of pressure, lack of sleep, and a lot of time spent in the kitchen around interesting food leads to complications for a body that has difficulty digesting and assimilating…who really knows but it feels like anything at this point. I hate to get into health issues because I start to feel like the cranky old Jewish-Chinese lady that, with any luck, I will someday live to be, and also because it’s not my goal to complain. Well, maybe it is a little bit.

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It’s hard to know what a body needs. It’s hard to know what to change that will actually help. It’s hard to know how much of this is sickness and how much of this is just having a body and not being nice enough to it. I’ve cut out a lot of things at one point or another, and one thing I know makes a difference is sugar. Hard to know whether it’s the magical, mythical substance itself or the excess that becomes suddenly unavailable when you take it off the table (pun intended). In any case, whether it’s sugar or just the wealth of instant gratification available in a busy kitchen, it’s time for a sabbatical.

I made this brioche for a friend from out of town. She came to help out at Dhagpo in July, and I promised I’d make her a cake if she’d come back for her birthday. The cake was a ploy; we’re hoping she’ll stay, but that’s another story. The story for today is this: This brioche is great. It’s visually elegant but otherwise homey. It’s dense and rich and filled with chemical, store-bought deliciousness. I call it cheater brioche because the removal of salt, the addition of extra yeast, and the adaptation to melted butter render it make-able in a quick morning, rather than the standard overnight agony of proper brioche. Basically, it’s a win. It’s also the last recipe I’ll be posting for the uncertain future because, well…bodies. Time to look after this one. I’m taking a break from the kitchen.

Recipe follows…

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Pictures Of Time Passing

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I had this big plan. I was going to write you all an awesome story about busy-ness and balance and not really finding it but finding it a little. Now, instead, because the internet is lame, because duty calls, because people arrive, because life happens, it’s eleven o’clock at night and you get a summary.

What I want is to find a way to do each thing well if not often. And maybe even that I can’t manage. I miss writing when I don’t write. I haven’t written recently. I miss the space that opens when I take time to put words to the chains of thoughts reeling out in my mind. I miss the crystalline edges of ideas that appear that I can shine a light to and look at from all angles. But I guess sometimes all you can manage is a few pretty sentences and some ideas with raggedy edges snatched hastily out of the air.

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This last week was…BIG. We welcomed a very illustrious Dane by the name of Lama Ole Nydahl at Dhagpo. He’s a student of the 16th Karmapa and the founder of over 600 centers worldwide that share the same lineage as ours. He also sometimes refers to himself as a Viking and is infamous for inserting polemics into his teachings–polyamory and the Israel/Palestine conflict among them. He kissed me on both cheeks when he arrived, kissed the hand of Julie, the event coordinator, and then said, in French no less, “One beauty after another.” I think I chuckled. I hope it wasn’t too audible.

It was eleven at night and he is not a young man, but he set off direct at good clip straight toward the stupa, and when he reached it, he stopped and touched his head to the white massif. The energy zooming around him stilled for a moment and I thought, “Okay, fine. I get it. We are from the same family.” I might sometimes find Lama Ole more cheesy and peppy than the approach to Buddhism that speaks most clearly to me, but the man’s on a mission and he’s carrying it out well. That I can respect.

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Not that I had much time to think about it. I spent the week navigating between guest-welcoming, meal-cooking (including this cake), and team-managing. Somewhere in the busy-ness, I learned something about discomfort. I was tired and little bit sick for most of the week. But things needed to be accomplished and most of things involved other people, so being a droopy, grumpy mess was not really an option. So I just did the things. I think I did them more slowly and at times with less vigor or enthusiasm than I would like or than maybe would be inspiring to others nearby, but I didn’t give into the usual habit of resisting or wishing to be elsewhere or wanting confirmation that the situation was hard and sympathy for such. I just did the things.

And being tired and sick was maybe less tiring and painful than it is when I don’t have lots of things to do and I let myself gripe and be woeful. The discomforts of this life don’t stop, neither for the summer rush, nor for summer vacation. It’s disappointing that there’s no such thing as a break from conditioned existence. It’s also a good reminder of why it’s so important to learn how to live with and eventually move beyond the distractions and occupations of this world, and thus the suffering that accompanies them.

IMG_2231When the rush slowed down, though it’s not done yet, (T-2 days to freedom, i.e. the end of Dhagpo summer, i.e. the end of uber busy season), I started drawing again. Just trying to check in and see what’s happening under all the layers of busy-ness. Drawing is like breathing in after not realizing you’ve been holding your breath. Connecting through images brings an energy that I didn’t realize I was missing, but when it comes back, I suddenly understand why everything seemed so dim before.

It’s 11:36 p.m. Grumble. I set out to write this post at 9 o’clock. It was early. And peaceful. And I had time. And then all of the aforementioned interventions. At times I feel like I am fighting to hold on to all of the things I care about. But if I stop fighting, I am afraid of what I will lose. But where do lost things go? And where is the person who loses them?

Am I in my bones? My blood, my skin, my sort of exaggerated late-night sighs? Am I in my words, my pictures, all the cakes that have been made and eaten? Am I in my thoughts, my memories, my future, or my mind? If I took a wrench and unscrewed all the pieces, would I also be unscrewed or would I be a little bit in every little piece?

I know the answer. But no matter how much I go looking and find that I am nowhere to be found, I can’t help feeling like I’m here.

Little Joy

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How many dramatic-sky-over-the-Institute photos can I post before you guys give up on me?

I’ve fallen back into the darknes of Dhagpo, which isn’t so much a darkness as an absence of internet presence caused by long days and sleepy evenings with late sunsets. Since I got back from Nepal, I’ve been trying to balance my life a bit better. Getting more sleep has meant sacrificing other plans and, depending on the week, I meditate less or draw less or organize less things for the Lama House. And I certainly show up here less. Sometimes I get bummed that my projects are advancing or that I’m missing the chance to capture and share so many great ideas and moments. At the same time, on a daily basis, I’m less drained and emotionally raw, if not necessarily less emotional. I still have to work on getting back to a healthy sleep quota, and I frequently wonder how people manage to live productive lives and maintain reasonable sleeping hours, but I consider it a quandary worth continued research. 

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These are Parker House rolls that haven’t been parker-housed (folded in half and baked overlapped), but they’re still soft and buttery and delicious. I’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen this last month as we’re hosting a lot of great guest teachers. I haven’t made it to all of the teachings, but I did manage to sit in on most of course that Lama Jampa Thaye (who happened to be the recipient of these rolls) gave on spiritual commitments, otherwise known as vows. Buddhist vows cover everything from not killing to not putting your rice on top of your vegetables (a leftover from famine times in the older monastic tradition, if I’m not mistaken). They can be taken for life as a lay practitioner or for different approaches to monastic life. 

One point that Lama Jampa Thaye made that really stuck with me is that we so often focus on concrete aspects of the path without applying the same vigilance to our state of mind. You can take a vow to benefit beings and give a lot of your time and money for positive activity, but if in your head, you spend all day grouching at those around you, you’re pretty far from keeping your commitment. So often we want to regulate all the logistical aspects of our lives toward a certain goal, but this hope for control, even with the best of intentions, can also be an escape from being attentive to our experience as it unfolds.

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Gulp. Fortunately busy days make for good opportunities to practice being attentive. I’ve noticed that I’m really quite attached to all of my goals. And though they are mostly commendable, useful goals, clinging to them yields more rigidity and stress than even a lot of good food, thoughtful artwork, and sparkling clean toilets can counterbalance. So sometimes the food is a bit simpler, the artwork unfinished, and the toilets antibacterialized but still a tad dusty around the edges. I’m trying to let go of the desire for big accomplishments and work on appreciating the slow progress of more stable development.

Joy becomes more like a lightning bug than a bolt of lightning. And though it’s less dramatic, it’s easier to follow from point A to point B. It’s easier to find the encouragement and understanding that keep me headed in the right direction. Instead of being energized by all I might be able to accomplish, I can focus on what works just now. Making dinner is not a particular feat of wisdom or compassion, but it’s a handy training ground for wanting the things you do to do people good. And even whilst making dinner, the opportunity to be of benefit at times arises in unexpected ways, like making teeny snail friends and being able to exercise those non-killing, life-saving vows by returning them safely to the garden rather than washing them down the drain. Plus extra merit for rejoicing in their cuteness and its continued presence in the world.

IMG_2219(By the waaaay, I have NOT forgotten the juicy conversation that got started last week around the idea of art and identity, which stimulated some fairly awesome responses and dialogue. Is the question really about being an artist, or is it about other things? Both, I wager, and I fully intend to get into it with grit and fervor in the near future when we’re not feeding fifteen people at the Lama House.)

 

Clearing The Path

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On Saturday night, I went to hear a classical music performance in a church nearby. As the tones of clavichord and violin filled the old stone building, my heart rose with the brimming notes, and I thought, “This feels like refuge.” It’s not at all the traditional triple gem of the Buddhist refuge, but somewhere in the music I felt the fullness and emptiness of all phenomena and the confirmation that it is possible to reach an understanding of this paradox.

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A few days earlier I sat on a park bench in Montignac and let the sun burnish my pigment cells while I watched the river carry algae, reflections, and city sewage down the canal. These are not any formal aspects of Tibetan Buddhism—not golden statues or practice texts or saffron-filled bowls of offerings, but they are a kind of beauty that resonates and lets me consider that what I experience and how I experience is acceptable.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about creation lately. Snippets from my field notes: “I have this image of a canvas propped on an easel in the old, abandoned caravan at the bottom of the village. I think if I started to paint again, I would cry. I could cry for months.” And later, “Art is just a physical representation of what feels like a kind of courage. The courage to let life happen to me. The willingness to feel, to pay attention to both fear and anticipation, and to make choices that take the moment-by-moment expression of these emotions into account.”

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I had a meeting this week with two of the center’s teachers. They check in with us once in a while to see how our “spiritual life” is going and make sure we’re not losing our marbles, tucked away as we are, at a Buddhist center in the countryside. This was the post-Nepal follow-up. After you travel a few thousand kilometers to watch your teacher’s body go up in billowing smoke and then come back to everyday life, how do you feel?

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I didn’t expect it, but the thing I feel most, besides lost and tired and time-warped, is that I should listen to the rising currents inside that tell me to make things. I tried to explain to my interlocutors how art is valid and valuable and helps makes sense of things and how I might be good at it and how it might be helpful to others and so it’s permissible to spend time doing it. And the first one said, “You don’t have to justify to us the value of art. It’s just one of many means of applying the teachings.” And the other said, “Beware of doing something simply because you’re capable or talented. At a certain point, I realized I had useful skills in a few different fields, and it was important to choose what to pursue based on what led me in the right direction.”

IMG_2186I didn’t shout, but I could have. “Yes! This is the right direction!” A right direction, anyway.

 If everyone else is already convinced, then who the heck am I fighting with? Myself, mostly, and I guess to some extent logistics. I’m fighting with a lifetime of imprinted contradictions about the fact of making things. The idea that being an artist is both wildly egotistical and utterly frivolous. That creation is either a deep responsibility or a total flight of fancy. That art can change the world or has no effect whatever. Wherever I turn, everything matters and it’s all a BIG DEAL. Which often makes it all too much to take on.

IMG_2197But all of the anxiety around the idea of being an artist is mainly static. It is an aside to the fact that the act of making things is a way to witness. That moments of creation are like giving birth; we become a channel to bring something into this world, and in that action there is no space for judgment or manipulation. Wisdom develops through stable observation, and art is a way to observe.

I think—I hope, I’m making wishes—that as I learn to understand this, I can develop creative habits free from the background stories, and the space to create will arise naturally. I am trying to let the path become clear.

Day 8, Rather Late: Homecoming

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We got into Paris at 8 p.m. This is the sky from the parking lot at Charles de Gaulle. We (meaning several people who are not me) drove home in the darkness and we stumbled into our beds around 4 a.m.

And then. And then life as we know it restarted. Just like that. I woke up at seven to practice and eat breakfast to be at the Lama House by ten to change the laundry and clean the bathrooms. I promised myself to clean my own home and I did, for the first time since I moved in practically, at least in any way involving a mop and the mattress cover. Suddenly I look up and it’s three days later.

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In French we say, “Bienvenue à la maison.” Welcome to the house. It’s a way to invite some one into a space, but also the culture of a place. I feel like this right now. Welcome back to Dhagpo. Welcome home. Only my home isn’t the way I left it because I’m not the way I left it.

The humidity of the Dordogne feels light compared to Kathmandu. I can still feel the colors of the drapery in the temples and smell the grease of the butter lamps. The sleepy quiet of the hotel lobby and the hum of mosquitoes stay in my memory. And more than that.

I see Wendelin’s face and all the questions I didn’t get to ask come rushing in. I see the charred mouth of the stupa and all the questions I didn’t get to ask come rushing in.

In the airport in Doha, there is a food court, probably designed by some hired Americans to simulate the best and most convincing of the West. Standing in line at the coffee shop, I said, “We could be anywhere. We could be where I come from in the States. This looks just like Century City.” And later, sitting around cardboard cups of frozen yogurt, I closed my eyes and remembered all the frozen yogurts that have ever come before. All the lonely, peaceful afternoons sitting on wrought iron benches in the sun or walking down the main street of Santa Barbara, wondering what life is for and allowing myself a moment to experience something sweet, by myself, just because. Because the world is too vast, the questions too profound, and the road too long not to pause and just let yourself be every once in a while.

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Except, since I’ve been at Dhagpo, or recently anyway, I’ve forgotten how. There’s no froyo in the Dordogne, or anyway not close to me. And there’s always an impromptu meeting, an e-mail to write, an Excel spreadsheet to fill. I spent ten hours in the kitchen today.

And it’s not that it’s not right, and it’s not that it’s not the activity of the bodhisattvas, and it’s not that it’s not the choice that I made. It’s just…something’s missing. Or, rather, perhaps, I am missing something. Coming here, meeting you all, meeting myself–there’s something there. Something important. It’s another kind of activity, at once more gentle and more violent because it is not a task or a responsibility, but rather an act of faith.

Writing, drawing–any form of interpretive creation–is an act of trust. Making a thing that reflects one’s life is daring to reflect on what we have lived and striving to reformulate it to express both what we have seen and what we have learned. And putting that into the world is trusting others with our own attempts to make sense of our experience.

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Shamar Rinpoche gave a lot of specific instructions before he left. The instruction he gave me was to train to teach. I didn’t get the chance to check with him what means and methods he intended, but I’m trying to understand through the writing he left behind and the instructions he gave others. And from what I can gather, the traditional tools of language, texts, philosophy, transmission, and meditation are as important as we all tend to think they are. But I’ve also seen an enormous emphasis on respecting our individual gifts and tendencies as a means to progress, and on not limiting ourselves to the expected in order to move forward. Shamarpa always advocated an authentic Dharma over a culturally accepted or a precedented one. He was a proponent of what works and consistently reminded us that we had to verify the teachings through our own examination.

At the same time, there’s an equally strong warning not to confuse a personal concept with the true nature of the Dharma. When we move in a direction based on our own perception, ignoring  the moderation of our teachers and community, we risk making a mistake and wasting a whole lot of time.

So I find myself here. Looking at the pre-fab aspect of my activity and the handmade one (the nuts and bolts of life at Dhagpo that I know are beneficial and the creative, connective work that I have experienced allows me to test my understanding of the teachings and move forward), plus the traditional aspects of the path, i.e. formal study and practice. And what I can see is that I don’t know how to nourish each of these meaningfully and consistently and still find time to sleep and love and be healthy.

Bienvenue à la maison. I guess this is the work we have to do. When Shamar Rinpoche died, the first thought I had was, “It’s time to grow up now.” Maybe this is what that means. I don’t know how this can all work out, but it has to and I trust him. All I can do is give it time and give it space and keep watching until the right answers bob their heads or tip their hats.

In the meantime, I can’t thank you all enough for being with me on this journey, the specific trip to Nepal, and the vaster path of this life and the work that it concerns. I would never dare or bother to do this if I were only doing it for me and on my own. Having you guys around shows me that I have something to give and teaches me the embracing sweetness of accepting what others have to give. I think this might be love.

Day 7: This Is Blessing

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So, this is pretty much it, Nepal. Today was the day where we did all the things.

We trundled through town at eight in the morning to Boudhanath Stupa, A white massive with a golden peak and glimmering eyes of wisdom on each of the four sides of its crest. We spun prayer wheel after prayer wheel, pausing only to make a donation to add to the blowing strands of prayer flags strung from the top of the stupa to its outer edges and to prostrate in the summer sun on the aged wooden planks laid out before the vast, luminous dome.

But of course practice must be balanced with forays into worldly life to check its effects, so we paused before lunch to do the shops. Dharma shopping isn’t much less exhausting than regular shopping in terms of choice and visual stimulus and decision-making, but it’s extra joyful because all of the objects are beautiful, sacred, and inspiring, and people tend to dharma shop for others more than for ourselves, which turns out much more gratifying.

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Favorite finds of the day include mottled green and pink stone beads for mala making, textured rice paper for cards, and a carved stamp with the symbol for the victory banner of the dharma, which I connect to because it’s my refuge name. I also might really like dharma shopping because it involves lots of stones and gems. I briefly wanted to be a lapidary as a kid, and though the career aspirations didn’t last, my fascination with mineral objects remains. I treated myself to the great pleasure of picking out a smoky topaz and a white opal to offer for the Buddha statue in Dhagpo’s Institute when it gets formally filled later this year.

I managed to finish all my errands before lunch, and took a few final turns around the stupa. For the first time all week, my mind became patient, open space and my thoughts settled naturally on making wishes. The tin rattling of the prayer wheels echoed the unreeling of my aspirations—come back to us soon; stay with us even in your absence; let us all become bright in the aura of your radiance. Away from the monastery, away from responsibility and activity, the utter brilliance of the moments I have lived these last few days finally seeped into me. I felt some lurching and tears rising inside and I let it. This feeling that throws me sobbing on the ground at times turns out not be loss but gratitude. So I multiplied it a million times, a million times and million times, and offered it to the Buddhas. I like this system; it’s pretty nice actually.

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We ate lunch on a rooftop terrace staring straight into the eyes of the stupa. Boudha, Katmandu, the valley, Nepal…this place is as special as everyone said. Since I’ve been here, my days and thus my mind have been permeated with pictures of enlightened beings, mantra repetitions, the sound of ceremonial instruments, and the smell of incense. I have been as grumpy, as tired, as uncertain and as heartbroken here as I ever have been in other places in my life, but here, whenever I pause to look up or catch my breath, what appears grounds me and inspires me.

The momos were as good as they’re cracked up to be. Mine were cheesy and onion-y on the inside, and chewy and tender on the outside. Win. We ate fast. Rumors said Karmapa would give blessing at two at Shar Minub. The rumors were true, and we found ourselves in the steaming upper temple room at Shar Minub, packed liked devoted sardines into the space before our teacher.

Karmapa said a lot of things today, but these two stuck out: “I don’t think there really is a change. This is about continuity. What can we continue?” That Shamarpa’s wisdom, his blessing, his guidance, and simply his mind, are with us always and wherever. Only his physical manifestation has departed. So really, this transition is about the connection we are able to uphold and not at all about the state-of-being or location of a man. Which I suppose we knew, but everything’s more convincing when Karmapa says it. His knowing is a stable, integrated knowing and not the kind of hopeful, intellectual knowing that I’ve got going.

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And then he said, “Go back to your daily lives with courage.” Which I think I might need. We arrive in Paris at eight p.m., which is four hours later in Nepal and in our bodies. We drive six-to-eight hours home to arrive at some unholy hour of the morning, and the next day Shabdrung Rinpoche’s course beings and we get going as if we’d never left.

Except not. Because we have left. Because we lived this week. And gave and saw and shared and practiced and received. Because the words of our teachers and the power of their minds have left their imprints on us, and we are different to whatever extent we can let them sink into us.

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We walked the 350 steep, stone stairs up to Swayambhu after Karmapa’s teaching. We arrived streaming sweat and aching. This place is one of Shamarpa’s places. His past reincarnations helped establish it and nurture it. His picture is on the altar of the tiny temple for what it’s worth, and I found it worth a lot. I bent my forehead to the picture frame and quiet came. I didn’t want to step away, but I am learning how. How to carry closeness with me; how to connect to being cared for.

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When we left Shar Minub this afternoon, people started gathering and pointing to the sky. I looked up. I’m getting used to this whole rainbow thing. There may still be a part of me that wants to record all the dates and locations of all the rainbows in relation to all the dates and locations of all the auspicious dharma happenings and see if there’s really any statistical significance in their appearances. And then the rest of me understands that it matters truly not at all whether there are more or less or where and when they are. It think it only matters that when we see them, we feel loved and capable of loving, inspired by wisdom and capable of becoming wise. Still though, I can’t help starting to believe. Rainbows equal masters; equal enlightened mind. Today was statistically significant.

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We were trudging down the pitted road and I was staring at my shoes and I sloped forward. When I gazed up from the gray mud and gravel, at first I only saw clouds. A high contrast puff lingering in front of the afternoon sun. As my vision adjusted to the brightness, I looked for crepuscular rays, those dramatic beams of light that typically jut from behind illuminated clouds. But there weren’t any. There was a diffuse aureole of gentle luminosity, steadily deepening from white to pastel to Technicolor rainbow. I’ve never seen a rainbow cloud before. It looked like how I imagine the aurora borealis, but steady rather than wavering and more varied in its hues. It was beautiful. Gazing up at the gentle, colored glow felt like the warmest hug. I thought, “Hi.”

And then I tucked the rainbow into my heart, and held it there, and kept on walking.

Day 6: Everything Goes Up In Flames

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**Oh no, again with the Nepali internet formatting of my photos. I just don’t know. Apologies for now. Reparations for later.

Today happened. Plastic chairs and rooftops, super suspect staircases, so many see-through cups filled with water, so many rounds of mantras, so many kinds of weather. I wish I could give you everything. What can I give you in this short and sudden space that could express the expanse of this day? I don’t know, but here goes.

We ate breakfast at six, and no one managed to speak. The silence didn’t seem heavy, but when I tried to bring out words, they fell hollow to the ground. I mostly remember the density warm white bread in my mouth and the flat sweetness of papaya. I remember weighing the details and looking for some kind of indicators as to what the day would hold. There were none.

We arrived on time. We dispersed. We managed to return before Jigme Rinpoche appeared to inform us of our roles for the day. Which turned out to be guest-herding; these people on this roof, those people on that roof, and this bunch off the roof the completely and left on their own to find a nice piece of hillside. We spent two hours herding, ushering, cajoling, castigating, welcoming, and moving around chairs.

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And then, it began. Six simultaneous pujas by six great masters and the body of our teacher reduced to ashes. I spoke with the person who introduced me to Buddhism. We’re lucky if we see each other once a year. There’s never enough time to show love until your love becomes limitless. All the questions I would ask, all the stories I would trade, the hugs and laughs and sorrows to accumulate with time to let us know one another, to remind us that we are in this trip together. We have to make do with so little time together, side-by-side.

Wendelin brought me to Rinpoche. Today, she said, “We have to follow the devotion line. It’s what pulls us up the levels.” Sitting side-by-side, watching the smoke rise from the body of our master and talking half teachings and half Dharma-center administration, I felt as though I’d never be able to connect dots between all of the memories, histories, layers of emotion and shreds of understanding. I felt lost, but safe enough in the presence of friends not to really try to being found. I spent some time in another spot on the roof with the Dhagpo troupe, silently staring and sharing.

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For a while nothing happened. The monastics sat and sometimes they stood. The music played and chanting rose across the rooftops from time to time. Then, a line of Rinpoches in gold surrounded the base of the platform. Some went it; some stayed out. A thread of smoke rose, and then a rope. And then a relay of runners balancing silver bowls rushed across the rooftop carrying fuel for the fire. Opaque cream-colored smoke pillowed across the sky, sinking into the mountainside. The odors of charcoal and juniper seeped over Kathmandu Valley. The smoke poured and poured some more. We could have gone on like this for hours. We shifted in our plastic chairs and rearranged our malas.

Then suddenly, something changed. The density of the air, the heaviness of the smoke. A bolus of vapor blew up the fringe over the cremation stupa, then in a breath incinerated it. The gasps rang out across the rooftops. And then, things stilled. We re-shifted in our plastic chairs, re-rearranged our malas. Wendelin said, “It’s not over, but it feels like it’s over.” People lifted from their plastic chairs and put away their malas.

I stayed. I stayed on the roof long after the plastic chairs were empty. I wished for confetti or a gunshot or a banquet to mark the end. Then I realized I actually just wished it weren’t over. When I drop my gaze and feel my breath and visualize Amitabha Buddha before me, I can feel Shamarpa’s presence. If I know that he’s here, what is all this static on my edges?

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I crossed paths with another volunteer, after the ceremonies were all finished and a file of people had begun snaking up the stairway to offer katas before the still-hot stupa. I asked her if she was going up. She said curtly, “No. No need.” And I had two thoughts: she’s right, and also, I’m not the only one’s who’s got static on my edges. So I folded two prayer scarves—a red for Amitabha and a gold for preciousness—and walked up the turning stairs. My vision blurred when I reached the top and I focused with all my might on the spongy wetness of the Astroturf under my feet, leading me toward the ashes. We walked up a short staircase, and I realized that the closest visual reference I had for the scenery was the miniature gold courses of my childhood.

I jerked up when I reached a white kata stretched before me delineating the limit of my approach. The black gaze of soot around the opening of the stupa transfixed me. I fumbled open the folded katas, handed them to the monk on the other side of the boundary and drop to the ground in prostration. When I rose, the monk gestured toward the descending staircase and I followed his direction, the refuge half-hanging on the platform behind me.

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I circled around to sit beside the stupa. When I arranged myself into cross-legged position and let my thoughts fall in with my breath, the harshness of the atmosphere softened while the harshness inside me filled in the space left behind. I tried looking for words, but they didn’t fit. There was only something voiceless keening, a kind of brick-red crescendo. I tried to let it come and let it go, but the wave neither crested nor yielded. It just kept wailing from behind the static.

The wailing continued after meditation was adjourned by carpet-rolling and altar disassembling. Continued throughout numerous turns of quora around the cremation platform. Through gathering consecrated barley scattered on the tiles; through selecting morsels of charred fabric brought down by the monks cleaning the cooling stupa; through offering another haphazard kata; through rejoining the troupe and exchanging notes on the day; through saying a final prayer with Jigme Rinpoche as he passed on his way out. And then. And then we said, “ So we go?”

And I found myself rooted to the spot. All day I felt nothing or felt fine or felt wistful or felt empty. Plus a little static and some tinny background wailing. But when it came time to leave, the wailing became a battle cry; the static became an electric crackle down the wires, and I could not move.

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I stood with one foot on the stairs and thought, “You could switch off the volume, throw down a bucket of ice, and force yourself to go–or not.” I chose “–or not.” The crackle became a hum, the wailing stayed a wailing, and I felt myself enveloped. This is accepting Rinpoche’s love; this is the feeling of being carried, “up the levels,” as Wendelin said. And with it, enormous gratitude and enormous regret. Gratitude for all we can receive and do receive. Regret for everything we cover in static and lose to our own confusion.

I made it down the stairs. I made it through the rain into the taxi and back to the hotel. I made it to my bed, where I sobbed a while and practiced a while and then tried to just light a candle in my heart and let it be. I made it to the dinner table where we played paper football, practiced reading Tibetan, and talked about everything except the meaning of this day. I made it here, to you, with some kind of story. What I wonder is this, “How will I make it from here on out? What will I keep from all of this?” I know that Rinpoche is with me. That the qualities of mind are limitless. How often will I be able to drop to my knees, let devotion wash over my static, and carry me up a level? I don’t know. Here goes.