Pilgrimage Happens


I got back a few days ago from almost two weeks of travelling, not just travelling, but pilgrimage, and I’m just now recovering.



The landscape of the journey is chaos. Picture clouds of mosquitoes and an endless stream of nappy-haired child beggars, tragic and frustrating at the same time, as all are suffering, yet almost none can benefit from offerings you would make because they live in basic serfdom, passing their earnings on to a bigger fish, Oliver Twist-style. Feel the washboard roads bumping your tailbone kilometer after kilometer. Hold your pee for hours and be shocked at your relief upon the sight of a urine sprayed, fly-ensconced squat toilet. Check your disbelief at the utter lack of regard for queues everywhere from ticket counters to temple entrances. Get used to meditating through three to five other schools of Dharma’s prayers projected over loudspeaker, not to mention the flash of cameras in your face as even the monks stop to capture on film the anomaly of Western Buddhists.



Even in that chaos, there is beauty. Monks with skin every shade of tan and brown wander in groups wearing robes every shade of orange and crimson, with the occasional stroke of blue-gray painted in by a Zen roshi here or there. Amidst the nonchalant voyeurs who snap your photo in a quick walk-by or flash their phone cameras right in your face, there are gaggles of preteen girls who run up, having mustered courage in numbers, to ask, “Picture, madame? Picture?” To which you cannot help but oblige. And despite causing traffic jams in all holy places, the Thai pilgrims compensate by leaving flecks of gold behind when their clusters dissipate. They speckle every stupa, temple, and ruin they pass, with great devotion and without regard for the Indian Archaeological Survey’s wishes. You can hardly blame them, it is so beautiful and wrought with so much love.



Amist all this, of course, there is practice. Sitting in a quiet group, listening to Khenpo’s – loudspeaker free – histories and life stories, his own and those of the masters who passed here. Singing aspiration prayers in a single voice through the twilight. Walking clockwise circles, repeating six syllables to purify disturbing emotions…Om Mani Peme Hung…Om Mani Peme Hung. Just sitting. Where the Buddha attained enlightenment; where he spoke the Four Noble Truths; where he taught about emptiness; where he offered his last truths and passed from this life. And just once, rising before the daytime to throw your body flat-out on the ground once, twice, four hundred and thirty times, all the way around the spot where a prince named Siddhartha became a being called Buddha, the Awake One. Every time your forehead taps the stone, you pray to think less of yourself and more of all beings, and by the end, you just might, a little bit.


Along with this, there is the meeting of chaos and practice. Most people probably call it calamity; Buddhists call it purifying karma. In other words, experiencing challenges, but using them to work with the way we respond instead of just plain freaking out, so that we can carry on with better habits, or even less habits and more flexibility to a moment or an obstacle as it arises. It sounds very positive, and it is, but at the time it mostly feels like a shitshow. For instance: getting attacked by monkeys, getting swarmed by bees…twice, hiring a cab to take you 300 kilometers and realizing you have been taken 300 kilometers in the opposite direction of your destination, and, of course, the old standby: food poisoning. At every new absurdity, you work with anger, you test out laughter, you strive for patience. And when you have endured all this and done your best to be grateful for it, you collapse onto a fourteen hour sleeper train and arrive home at seven in the morning.


And, if you’re me, you spend a week recovering, then wake up to realize you are flying to France tomorrow. Pilgrimage…it happens.

Peace and Graduation

Today I went to Sarojini market, bought flowing Indian pants, and drank a pineapple milkshake. I came home, had lunch at the yellow food stand across the street, put on my new pants, and walked to the temple. I stood on the steps just behind Karmapa while everyone posed for a photo, sweating in the sudden March heat, and then I sat in the crowd of three hundred people, listening to the history of KIBI and watching my friends who have been here for four years receive diplomas.

I cried. I didn’t expect to. I expected to sit through a bunch of formalities and squirm and yawn and zone in for Karmapa’s speech and zone out again after. Instead, I became aware of just how special this place is, just how precious our opportunity is to be here, and how much it changes us. Every individual who comes to KIBI comes with the intention to learn and grow, to embrace our faults, to face our doubts, to challenge our beliefs. We come because we see suffering in the world, and in ourselves, and we want to help. We come because we see joy and wisdom in the world, and in ourselves, and we want to develop it.

Buddhists are not perfect people. We’re like anybody. Some of us are short-tempered, some wildly opinionated, some painfully shy, others other things. We step on each other’s toes and ruffle each other’s feathers and some times we fight about it and some times we complain about it. But, along with all that, each and every person sitting around me today shares an aspiration to cultivate our very best nature, the part of us that helps instead of harms, for our own happiness and so that others can be happy also.

Most Buddhists know how to admit they made a mistake. Most know how to apologize. Many know how to ask questions and how to take a joke about their imperfections. I’m not saying that Buddhists are so special in this regard. There are other spiritual and ideological communities that espouse these qualities, and I rejoice in all of them. I talk and hear others talk a lot about the state of the world, the degeneration of society, the selfishness of people. But we also live in a world where great kindness and vast wisdom exist, and where we can seek and follow them if we choose.

In a Q and A last week, some one asked Karmapa whether he believes that peace is possible. He replied that opportunities for peace are all around us; it is a question of whether or not we choose to take them. I realized then that peace is not a choice you make once and have done with. I always say that I’m a pacifist, yet how many times have I rolled my eyes when frustrated with some one or spoken condescendingly when my patience runs thin? These are not acts of peace. And peace is not created on the scale of governments or economic systems, though we see the effects of its absence in those places. Peace is every moment within us, and every act we make can be one of antagonism or one of tranquility. Today reminded me how lucky I am to live and study in a community that says point blank: peace begins with you. Make peace with yourself; make peace with others; be among friends as you learn; share as you grow.

During the graduation ceremony, my friend Daiden gave a speech. At one point, he spoke to the visitors about “the deadly combo.” He asked those who came as guests who among them, having experienced one week of KIBI life, would like to be students here. The deadly combo, he then said, is this: if you make a wish for something, and Karmapa makes the same wish, it’s as good as done.

I never knew about KIBI until I chose to come. But I made many wishes for a place to live and breathe and study Dharma, and for a community to share and create home with. I guess I didn’t wish specifically enough, considering I never meant to wind up in India. And yet, despite the pollution, the damning ubiquity of stray dogs, the bobble-head expression that means yes and no together, the unabashed staring, the lack of proper cheese, and so many other things, I got what I wanted. I got to delve deep into the history and teachings of this tradition and into myself, through them, with proper guidance and abundant support.

I learned the stories and logic behind the mysteries of Madhyamaka and Abhidharma, and I planted the seeds to develop true understanding of their meaning as my studies continue. I learned how I fight impermanence in my own heart, and hurt for it. I learned how I buy into my unhappiness and create more of it. I have seen how blame is the easiest response, both of myself and others, and that it is a trick, a way to avoid scarier truths and to continue holding on to beliefs that are only causing me pain. I learned that wisdom is not only bigger than me, it is also bigger than I ever imagined, and yet I can attain it. I learned that devotion is not slavish but a potent form of inspiration. I learned that I will continue to make the same mistakes, probably all this life long, but doing so doesn’t mean that I’m not learning.

I learned more than I can say in any sudden paragraphs or bursts of inspiration. I learned things that are nestled within me, waiting to grow and reveal themselves when the time is right. One thing I learned that bears saying is that Dharma is not separate from life. Whether or not we choose to look for the nature of reality, what’s so in this world will always be so, until we eventually realize it. We can, however, choose seeking understanding as path. In this way, Dharma can be a way to live and a way to see that guides us no matter what the landscape of our road may be. As one who has a terrible sense of direction, I prefer to travel with a map.

I don’t know if taking the Buddha’s teachings as my compass will bring me back to India, but I do know that what I have found here will stay with me and continue to grow wherever I go.

Empowerment Days and Endings

IMG_0718Karmapa is teaching and giving empowerments (blessings related to specific deities) this week. Thus come the crowds. KIBI is hosting somewhere near three hundred people right now. The energy is giddy and exhausting. Each day has three sessions: morning teachings with Khenpo Tsering, the main teacher at KIBI, afternoon blessings, teachings, or ceremonies with Karmapa, and evening teachings with Professor Sempa Dorje, the president of the Institute. It’s a heady thing to have so much access to Dharma all at once.

IMG_0715In response to the addition of several hundred people to our midst, the community developing in the last couple months has pulled together. A loose group of friends has become a tight-knit band of gypsies. Irish James and Russian Katya pose beneath the archway erected for the celebration of the one-year anniversary of The Karmapa International Buddhist Society, the consolidated operating body of both the Institute and all of Karmapa’s cultural, educational, and philanthropic projects. Ten or so of us have naturally glommed together to have tea parties on the upstairs balcony, trundle into town for cake, and plan daydreamy reunions in sundry Europeans locations.

IMG_0714I got an e-mail from the center in France. Apparently I’ll be helping to cook and clean for the Lama House, the place where visiting teachers stay. I’m thrilled to get to spend time in a kitchen again, and I feel incredibly lucky to be working near to the teachers. It’s hard to believe that in two weeks I’ll be in France. I haven’t been back to France since I lived there when I was a teenager. I am both excited for new memories to be made and curious what specters of the past may raise their heads. Some of my gypsy friends will also be spending time nearby and there are new connections to be made. The loneliness of the Paris of my youth lingers in my mind, but I intend to discover a new France in the Dordogne. Until then, adventures remain to be lived in the East.

Poem for a German Lover

God help us. It’s a poem. I don’t write them often, but sometimes they come on their own. When they do, I let them be. Often poetry is awful; I hope that this is not, but if it is, I can only say, oh well. I had the best of intentions.

Also, blog formatting seriously messes with the spacing of stanzas, but I’m not versed (oy, no pun intended) enough to fix it. Do your best.

Poem for a German Lover

You could sing me eighties songs while straddled on my bed.

You could boast the curling lashes that I have always wanted,

Gaze up from under them and say, yes please,

In askance of my thoughts.


You could speak of this, the place that I might hold for you –

Ask if I had made my decision.

When I wondered what you meant, you could rejoinder,

Whether or not to come to Germany, learn German, and to marry me.


You could tell me you would leave me for three months of the year

To seek wisdom on your own terms, in retreat,

While I am free to paint my pictures, sow my stories,

And fill the floorboards with my silence.


But when night falls and morning comes

I will be found alone,

For solitude is not a timeshare.

Love means letting someone lease time in your thoughts.


My thoughts are happy homeless;

My hours unaccounted.


My mother’s people name our nature from the Zodiac

And scientists call it psychology.

Take counsel where you will –

I am a snake and still an introvert.


The sun will rise on me

Coiled nose to tail inside my burrow,

Roots of dreams dangling overhead,

The soil of self-sufficiency below.

When It’s All Too Much

Sometimes, you travel for fourteen hours on a bus in the Himalayas. Sometimes, you are sick for three days afterward. Sometimes, you get told one too many times the anguish that awaits you if you don’t get enlightened right quick. Sometimes, it is all a bit too much.

Though I don't have a cute teapot, a friend did give me some British mint tea – lifesaver!

Though I don’t have a cute teapot, a friend did give me some British mint tea – hallelujah!

In these times, the only thing to do is remember that no matter how bad it feels, and no matter how bad it might get, you can still make a small patch of sweetness and share it.

I hope you’re having a lovely day, but if you’re not, have a cup of tea and know you’re in good company. 🙂

Where Our Teacher Walked

A statue of Padmasambhava atop a monastery.

A statue of Padmasambhava atop a monastery.

Padmasambhava brought Buddhism from India to Tibet in the 8th century. He is called Guru Rinpoche, or Precious Master. Before he came to Tibet, he meditated and shared teachings in the Indian Himalayas. He is said to have set out for Tibet from Lotus Lake, which lies at the center of the small town known as Tso Pema. Twenty-five of us set out from KIBI on Tuesday night to spend three days there.

IMG_0627The first day was cold and rain-dark, but even in the sun, a mist lies over the city, obscuring photographs and lending a mysterious air to the place. According to history, or legend, whichever you prefer, Padmasambhava appeared in a lotus in the center of this lake after seven days of being burned alive by the local king for teaching his daughter about dharma. People travel from all over each year to visit the lake and nearby caves where Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava, his consort and the daughter of that ill-tempered king, meditated.

IMG_0664A short taxi ride further up the mountains takes you to the caves, which are filled with statues and offerings and are tended by local nuns. On the slopes around the caves, visitors hang infinite strings of prayer flags in offering and invocation. Looking down into the mountains, you can see hillsides terraced by generations of farmers and small brick lean-tos built into the rocks, which house monks and nuns who have undertaken a lifetime in retreat.

IMG_0636In the city below, visitors from abroad mingle with locals and Tibetan pilgrims. Though we are still in India, it’s easy to think we had hopped a border or two. The majority of signs, restaurants, and faces are Tibetan. Mantras are inscribed into every surface and monasteries ring the edge of the lake.

Even greater than the Tibetan influence is the ubiquity of monkeys. Or perhaps they are baboons, or a different tree-dwelling cousin. The chatter and screech of primates permeates the city. Their voices echo through every corner and their shadows traipse over every rooftop, gate, and boundary wall. They watch the pilgrims come and go, engaged in their own animal meditations on life and mountains.