Bits and Pieces, and What’s to Come

Here, have a bunch of random pictures of the center that are pretty that I haven’t managed to post yet. Also, have some ramblings about life these days.IMG_0532I got a bit caught by surprise at how time is passing. I’ve been in India for nearly two months. Classes end in two days.

IMG_0531Even though I still don’t super love Delhi, I’ve gotten used to this place. I guess this post might benefit from a few pictures of the city, but instead it’s pictures of KIBI, a testament to how little I venture out. And the thought never strikes me to take pictures when I am outside. I go out to buy snacks and be elsewhere for a minute, rather than to adventure and catalogue. I’ve done very little sightseeing, but I’m okay with that. Two months is not a long time, especially when weekdays are jam-packed and by the weekend all I want to do is read a book and eat a treat somewhere sunny and green.

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I don’t know what the long-term future holds, but coming back here is definitely a possibility. It’s difficult to find opportunities in the West to study Buddhist philosophy this intensively with teachers this advanced. There are PhD programs, but they are often geared away from practice to maintain their critical academic position. There are opportunities for shorter study, though, and many for retreat, which is its own unique blend of study and practice. Exploring these possibilites is the purpose of this voyage, to discover where to be. I study Dharma for my own development, and I also have a thought in my mind to be able to share it with others. For both those purposes, the main goal is to find a course that will allow me to nurture the deepest understanding of the teachings and myself. So, the journey continues. Literally and figuratively.

IMG_0571Once classes wind up, every week is a new adventure. This coming week, we have ceremonies on Monday in honor of the founder of our lineage, Marpa. Tuesday evening, we leave for a place called Tso Pema, somewhere up toward mountains where great masters meditated in caves. This will be my first pilgrimage, and I have very little idea what it will hold. Travelling to sites where important events happened is a strong part of Tibetan Buddhism. It helps us develop connection to the tradition and our own practice, but I don’t know much besides that. Hopefully, I’ll be able to write more once I’ve actually done it.

IMG_0572Then there’s finals week, which is a week to study with a day of exams at the end. This may involve some overdue exploration of the city. It’s technically not time off, but, you know, a person needs inspiring study spots. After that, Karmapa comes for a huge week of public teachings. By huge, I mean that the population of the center will jump from about sixty to three hundred. I’m mentally steeling my nerves for the influx of human energy. But we’ll all be receiving blessings from our teachers during that time, so people will probably be in a good mood. After that, I have another two weeks of travel to important places in the Buddha’s life, and then it’s off to France.

IMG_0540This segment of the journey feels as though its end is nearing, yet I’ve only just settled in. Which is fine with me, actually. I appreciate the quickness of pace, though I hadn’t expected it. When I arrived, I thought I would have three straight months of class, period. These added journeys and new experiences are a welcome surprise. You’ll be the first to know what the winding road yields.

Falling into Words

Parks are for reading. I'm pretty sure that's what the sign says.

Parks are for reading. I’m pretty sure that’s what the sign says.

I fell off the radar for a minute here. I couldn’t help myself. I could say I fell headfirst into life, and was so busy being busy that I couldn’t spare a thought for this fine corner of the world. But that would be quite untrue. I didn’t fall into the activities of the wide world. No. I fell into books.

First, it was The Razor’s Edge, by Somerset Maugham. Then I found Wuthering Heights, the sole narrative opus of Emily Brontë. Lately, I’ve just begun A Tale of Two Cities, of the Dickensian canon. What am I doing reading books by dead British people while I am in India, you may ask. Being subconsciously colonial? Perish the thought. I certainly hope not.

It’s just. It’s just…there’s a kind of inspiration that only the well-wrought word can offer. The world of literature is a better lens for life than life itself often is. In the nature of a character and the drama of a story, we can see the riches and foibles we fail to notice in ourselves. A meditation treatise is not the same thing as a novel. These just happen to be the novels I can download for free on iTunes and read on my phone.

Class is still a source of great richness, but sometimes a person needs new inspiration, from unexpected corners. Today we were going over the remedies to distraction during meditation. One of the primary antidotes to a wandering mind is to focus on the cost of being distracted. The unaware mind engages in unaware action. When we are distracted, we can be thoughtless, short-tempered, and unkind. When we lose our grasp on what’s happening here and now, we can become neurotic or morose or hyperactive. Ouch all around. But even as I list this, it’s a tally in my head. Remember to stay focused, otherwise you will do unfortunate things that will lead to suffering and it will be a bummer. Makes sense. It’s not terribly potent though.

But then. Then you read Wuthering Heights. And you meet Heathcliff. Ah, Heathcliff! A demon of a man. Driven almost mad and definitely robbed of his humanity by what he would have us believe is love. But you could only call the source of such cruelty love if you had forgotten entirely what love is meant to be. Clearly, Heathcliff had never met the dharma.

Our hearts as red as poppies, as rife with life.

Our hearts as red as poppies, as rife with life.

Ah, so what is needed does come around. In the roiling, raging hearts of three generations of imaginary English people, I rediscover the reason why I meditate. And in the meantime, the mind is lush with prose and sadness. And though I am reading by myself in the park, I am reminded that I am not alone, that every human has a heart that rages. For all our aspirations of equanimity, we are karmic beings yet, imprinted with the untamed ramblings of our countless, forgotten lifetimes. What can we but do than hold court together in our given world and seek to see instead of judge what is?

Welcome to the Year of the Water Snake

IMG_0559Happy Losar, kids. By that I mean, happy Tibetan New Year. As it’s the general lunar new year, it’s also Chinese New Year, but that’s not such a popular topic among Tibetans. I’ve always found New Year’s to be an underwhelming holiday. As a child it involved staying up late to watch a way-overhyped ten second video from Times Square, which was already three hours old by the time it reached the folks in California. As an adult, it seems to revolve around champagne-induced excitement tempered by anxiety over the presence or absence of a midnight kiss. I kind of gave up on New Year’s and generally spend it painting or reading or something similarly grandmotherly.

I do, however, like the New Year as a time for reflection and setting aspirations. Tibetan New Year focuses more on this aspect of the changing calendar. As a community, we came together to develop loving-kindness through meditation on Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion, and to make offerings to our teachers and for the benefit of beings in general.

Katak, silk prayer scarves, placed on a table in offering.

Katak, silk prayer scarves, placed on a table in offering.

The Karmapa, otherwise known as His Holiness Trinley Thaye Dorje, is the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu tradition, in which I study and practice. Today, he came to KIBI to share Losar with us. The Karmapa is a sacred teacher – sixteen times reincarnated and holder of a lineage extending straight back to the Buddha himself. He also has this trait of really making you want to hug him, all the time. Mostly we reign ourselves in and bow…it’d be hard to get through a ceremony with everyone hugging him all the time. But I have seen people cry on sight of him, and it’s not an unusual impulse to bow your head to the floor when he enters the room.

This is a very serious picture. The times I have seen him in life, Karmapa greets the world with a quiet smile and lots of patience.

This is a very serious picture. The times I have seen him in life, Karmapa greets the world with a quiet smile and great patience.

My experience of Karmapa is that he brings me closer to my own wisdom. When I placed my ceremonial scarf on the offering table, he put his hands on either side of my head in blessing. My thoughts quieted for an instant, replaced by a sense of calm, abiding. The teachings direct us to place our trust in the truth, rather than in any individual. To me, Karmapa is an example of the kindness and understanding possible with practice. He guides me on a path that I must walk for myself.

Vessels for Karmapa's ceremonial snacks: sweet rice and butter tea. The rest of us ate off paper plates; it was no less special.

Vessels for Karmapa’s ceremonial snacks: sweet rice and butter tea. The rest of us ate off paper plates; it was no less special.

Today the path looks like this:

1,000 candles to bring the light of wisdom to all beings. Six sacred syllables to invoke limitless compassion. Five silk scarves for five precious teachers. Two bites of traditional rice pudding. One day to welcome the year of the water snake.

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Om Mani Peme Hung. Happy New Year.

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Mahakala: Anything But A Spectator Sport

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I am worked and wiped. Thoughts in my brain feel like sliding a wet rag over glass. My head is a jumble of dragon faces and lotus banners and the low rumble of mantras issuing from the throats of red-robed monks. My hips ring from hours of sitting cross-legged and the cells in my body still resonate with the beating drum.

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This has been three days of Mahakala puja – ceremony and offering. This is no droning, foreign prayer, no benevolent bless-fest, no ritual hoopla. This is practice. There’s no other way to put it. Yes, there are voices rising together in Tibetan verse. Yes, there is much benefit to be gained from one’s presence here. Yes, there are festive hangings, smoke lamps, and a table full of traditional, edible sculptures accompanied by much timely pouring of tea. And yet, though the monks are reading the prayers and singing the mantras and we, who lack the necessary training, are not, this is no spectator sport.

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Mahakala puja is six to eight hours a day of working with your mind. Invoking the protection – for yourself, your study, your practice, your lineage, and all beings – of a dude that is no rainbow-light-placid-smile type deal. Mahakala is a guardian of the teachings. He has three eyes and six arms, and he wears a crown of skulls and carries a big-ass knife. When you study wisdom passed down from two-thousand years ago in a culture rife with gods and demons, you get the requisite imagery. Mahakala takes no shit from negative emotion, from ignorance, or from beings that don’t do the work to get ourselves less confused.

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The three eyes show his omniscient vision of past, present, and future. The six arms represent his perfect mastery of the qualities of generosity, patience, discipline, joyful perseverance, meditative focus, and wisdom. Each skull in his crown signifies a negative emotion he has transformed into great understanding, and the knife is for the wrathful compassion with which he cuts through our ignorance and self-clinging. Also, he’s shadow black. Because he’s a badass. And for some deeply symbolic reason that my research has yet to uncover.

I just spent three days with this guy. In my head, yes, but also in a room filled with fifty people engaging collectively in supplication and challenge. When we do this practice, we come together to ask for the guidance of those wiser than us who have gone before and for the merit to uncover our own wisdom. Like I said, not a spectator sport. And though I’m fairly beat, I am also incredibly grateful. Having the opportunity to take part in this genuine practice, with lamas who studied its intricate execution and deep significance in three years of retreat, in a traditional temple setting…whoa.

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Though Buddhist practice unfolds most profoundly over years, I can feel the effects of these three days already working on me. I see where I am wavering. I see where I seek comfort that it’s not to be found. I give my doubts less space now, than I habitually have, to run me over and stress me out. They’re here; I’m here; we coexist; it’s cool. Thanks Mahakala. Let’s talk soon.

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A few logistical notes for those who are interested: The Mahakala deity is known as a Wisdom Dharma Protector, a fierce form of Buddha that looks after the teachings and its practitioners, and, generally, all beings. Meditation on Mahakala develops our commitment to our practice and to realizing wisdom for ourselves and all beings; it helps us become unwavering in the face of obstacles. Those who receive in-depth instruction in the practice do a short version every day, while the longer, multi-day ceremony is done on special occasions, such as the year’s end. Tibetan New Year, or Losar, is on Monday; thus we practice the preceding days.

Mahakala is a series of invocation prayers and mantras carried out with a standing drum, a hand drum, and a pair of symbols. Parts of the practice are melodious; others are atonally chanted. Two altars are added to those always present in the temple room. One is an offering table directly to Mahakala; it contains incense, flame, water, grains, money, and many sculptures made from torma, a mix of butter and barley flour that winds up looking like fondant cake. There is also a Tsok table, which is an additional offering of more familiar foodstuffs, like fruit, cookies, and even snack food. At various points in the practice, the torma and tsok items are eaten by the participants, along with traditional Tibetan salt butter tea.

There are many different forms of Mahakala within Tibetan and other schools of Buddhism. His attributes vary depending on the focus of the school and practice applying the symbolism. You can read more about Mahakala here and here (these are the sources I referenced, in addition to the many knowledgeable people at the center). There are also pictures of this week practice in progress on KIBI’s Facebook page, here.

Also, apologies that the photos are ridiculously grainy and awkwardly lit…this remains true about photos and my current camera situation.

Pictures from the Past

Carla con cactus: an anomalous heart-shaped prickly pear!

Carla con cactus: an anomalous heart-shaped prickly pear!

I just spent half an hour going through my iPhoto library. I’m not much of a picture taker, so it’s rather an arbitrary journey. Seminal times of life go completely undocumented, while random instances my camera was left on the table get recorded. And yet, there’s something really wonderful in having moments of life that you might not otherwise remember thrown back at you. Like night I processed a bunch of prickly pear cactus fruit with my college friends, one of them in his underwear, because…that’s his style. Mostly naked near danger (sorry, those aren’t going on the internet). Gotta love it. Also the episode that involves numerous people wearing a watermelon rind carved into a shark. It had been filled with fruit salad for Sunday brunch. We’re real grown-ups; we make brunch…about sharks.

Me...laughing hysterically, wearing a shark watermelon and a really terrible shirt, which later got cut into headbands for my cook uniform, phew.

Me…laughing hysterically, wearing a shark watermelon and a really terrible shirt, which later got cut into headbands for my cook uniform, phew.

There are also early food photography experiments and snapshots of nature and still lifes from sudden bursts of pictographic fervor. Some of them are pretty decent. Some are even beautiful. Some are not that great but kind of funny. It’s nice to realize that when I take the trouble to use a camera, I’m actually not terrible with it. I have so many photographer friends who know about manual focus and light setting and things involving numbers by other numbers that I don’t understand – I’ve taken to identifying as not-a-photographer.

My very first batch of macarons, in terrible light, but somehow so hipster that it works. Thank you, Superman.

My very first batch of macarons, in terrible light, but somehow so ironic and hipster that it works. Thank you, Superman.

When I started blogging, I made an effort to post pictures that I wasn’t embarrassed by. At the same time, taking photos has felt like more of a chore than any other part of the blogging process. But perhaps that’s because I doubt myself, not because I don’t enjoy it and not because I’m not capable of it. Anyone can take a good photograph with reasonable lighting and a basic sense of composition.

As I’ve gotten into this thing, I’ve even come to enjoy taking pictures. I still fret over the quality, but these days I just post ‘em anyway. Right now I’m working solely with an old iPhone 3, and while it’s much better than the original picture phones, it’s not quite up to the level of “real” camera that the iPhone 4 and beyond reached. Light capture is pretty mediocre and graininess poses serious problems. But I’m still clicking away, and it even takes some of the pressure off me to be able to say, “the camera’s not great; I did what I could.”

An actual nice photo! Anyone can take good flower photos; there's so many great flowers! These are tatsoi.

An actual nice photo! Anyone can take good flower photos; there’s so many great flowers! These are tatsoi.

Aside from my own little personal journey through photography, one reason I’m sharing this is that I took a bunch of photos today to share with you. These are special photos. Monday is the Tibetan New Year and this week at the center, we are celebrating the end of the year by doing a practice called Mahakala. It is old and powerful, ceremonial and beautiful, and I want to do it justice. Unfortunately, the light in the temple is more-or-less atrocious and well…my camera quality could be better. But I did my best, and I’ll do my best to describe to you what’s happening here, so that you can feel the strength of it too. Keep any eye out, should appear tomorrow or the weekend. Thanks for listening. Thanks for looking.

The Moon in Rippling Water

Evening in Delhi. Indian winter, still, which is no season I have ever known or thought of, nor particularly memorable. Foggy in the morning, chilly in the evening, sunny in the middle. The rain, though, the rain will hold you in place. And then let you go.

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Today was a perfect day. The sky hung low and dark with clouds and latent thunder. It felt as though the whole world slept and tossed in its sleep. Windows shed little light into rooms, leaving them silent and dormant even in the middle of morning. At midday, I sat alone on the marble stairs and watched water making pools and ripples in the courtyard.

In class, we are reading Chandrakirti’s Introduction to the Middle Way. He says,

“Beings are like the moon in rippling water, fitful, fleeting, empty in their nature.”

This morning's tree, reflected, seen through the pattern of the gate.

This morning’s tree, reflected, seen through the pattern of the gate. (Is this picture sort of tiny? Why WordPress, why?)

We appear, quite luminously even, and still we are empty of essence. If I were to stand and walk into the rain, I could see my reflection – fitful, fleeting, rippling in the stone tiles.

Cabin+Woods

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It has been all kinds of foggy here and there is a lovely, branchy tree in front of the center. It got me picture making. Funny thing though, I think the picture I wound up with qualifies as a good example of karma, inasmuch as karma is the habitual tendency of our minds. Because for some reason, even though I am in India, my mind put together winter and trees in an image that is New England-ish or Boreal, a thing it always seems to do. Strange in itself, considering that I grew up in California, but I have always lusted after northern winter. I guess I have Robert Frost, Henry Thoreau, and Jan Brett to thank for that. Maybe this time round, a good dose of credit goes to the lovely Nadia, who has been romancing winter and broken down cabins with her camera lately.

Cabin+Woods, Ink, Acrylic, and Colored Pencil on Paper, 12" x 9"

Cabin+Woods, Ink, Acrylic, and Colored Pencil on Paper, 12″ x 9″

Though this is more-or-less an involved doodle, I’m devoting some musing to it. My work right now exists entirely in the format of involved doodle, so I need to develop a legitimate relationship with small-scale works on paper, which I’m used to thinking of as catharsis or an afterthought. Mainly, I wish the trees were crisper and the ground matte. I’ve been told by a few different people that some of my work would really benefit from a transfer to printmaking. Here, I see their point and totally agree.

The pre-color version, potentially adaptable to printmaking.

The pre-color version, potentially adaptable to printmaking.

Wherever I am, I often feel like this: solitary, watching the world with breath held in, waiting for the next move, sea change, change of season.

I hope you have a lovely day in whatever season you are living in, in life and in your mind.

The Right Place

What a day to be me. It is Saturday in India; breakfast was brown bread with salted butter and homemade jam, not to mention fresh papaya and sweet milk tea. The air is cold and misty, and I have been in my room interneting away over my tea and toast until the sun comes out.

I failed to take a picture of actual breakfast, but isn't the dishware picturesque?

I failed to take a picture of actual breakfast, but isn’t the dishware picturesque?

I have discovered an infinitude of beautiful people writing, making, and sharing beautiful things (see *note below) on the internet to keep me company between practice, study, and a tad bit of homesickness. Yeah, that’s right, you got me. I’m homesick. I’ve been here one month and it’s not vacation, but it wasn’t meant to be and it is good shit. I am learning deep parts of the Buddhist tradition that I come from, reevaluating my own views and habits, and ironing them out on the cushion and in life.

But this is no easy thing. I get hit over the head with my own shortcomings and ignorance every day. My lack of patience, my expectations, my deep resentment of uncertainty and impermanence, which are both, erm, totally unavoidable truths of life. Like I said, I’ve been seeking solace a bit, in the in-between times. Which I don’t think is a bad thing. I haven’t neglected practice or study, and we all have to figure out the balance between work and play that keeps us inspired and moving forward, right?

So I’ve been reading lots of food blogs and writing recipes in my head, and missing having an oven. I draw once a week and have been making loads of origami paper and cranes, but I do periodically wonder if I am going to wake up one day and be totally slaughtered by the absence of canvas in my life.

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Slaughtered is maybe an exaggeration, but anyway, here’s what happened: Today I got a lovely comment on this here blog, encouraging the work I do as an artist and reminding me to keep faith in the process and have fun. Then I got an e-mail from some one I had a nice conversation with at a holiday party in December saying he wants to buy one of my paintings, or maybe three. Then I got an e-mail from one of the members of my art critique group back home telling me about new developments in their work that I am not around to see. It’s like my life is missing me too!

And so, now it comes. The missing of canvas. Not that the missing of California mountains and the emulsification of butter and flour has given up the ghost. They just have company now.

Life and space and time are a strange business though. I wouldn’t leave KIBI for anything right now, with the small exception of dengue fever, which would be out of my control and which I make daily prayers will not enter my life in any way, shape, or form other than the absence of our Tibetan language teacher, who is himself recovering in Germany. Anyway, my point is that, despite this pulsating missing of things in distant places, and despite the fact that the city of Delhi holds very little romance for me, I am good here.

Studying Buddhism means sitting cross-legged even when you're not meditating. Chairs are not a thing.

Studying Buddhism means sitting cross-legged even when you’re not meditating. Chairs are not a thing.

I don’t always like that fact. There are times I wish I hadn’t happened upon this journey. I was happy at home with my baking, my painting, my big outdoors, my yoga and friend-and-family life. But I wanted to study dharma. Needed to, really, because as much as I love all the other parts of my life, none of them make sense without the teachings to put them in context.

This is your mind; this is how you find joy; this is how you create suffering. And this–this is how you learn to be happy.

That’s what Buddhism means to me. So even though I never had a yen to visit India, and now that I’m here I would rather spend my Saturday reading food blogs and saying mantras on the temple steps than sightseeing, I know that this is the right place to be. I am doing my best to let it be, until the time is once more ripe for canvas and cooking and all the rest, and maybe, just maybe, for all of these things to come together (my teachers say, “abandon hope; embrace this moment,” but I am still learning).

*Note: I have (finally) started a blogroll to share the beautiful places where I spend time and find inspiration. You’ll find it as a tab on the menu bar.