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.

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3 thoughts on “Day 6: Everything Goes Up In Flames

  1. Pingback: 14th Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche’s remains cremated at Shar Minub Monastary | The Dishwasher's Tears

  2. Your writing is so beautiful, so rich and fully realized, you take us with you through every twist and turn of the outer and inner worlds. I truly cannot thank you enough for giving us this glimpse into the ceremony, yes, but even more importantly, into the nature of your limitless devotion to Rinpoche and his limitless love for you, for all of us.

    Carried up a level.

    I will be praying for your safe return and easy travel back to France, and wishing you rest and peace and ease and clarity. You possess all you need. You are a wonderful, strong, trustworthy guide. May all of your wishes come true.

    Namaste.

    • Thanks Scott.

      For the words and wishes. Rest and peace and ease and clarity; I would accept all these with gratitude! It will be strange to leave tomorrow, but I’m taking incredible memories, blessings, lessons and new inspirations with me. Could hardly ask for more, other than maybe a good night’s sleep. 😉

      All the best to you. May the blessing of this time and place, which is of course limitless, reach you intact.

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