In The New Year

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I dedicated the first day of the new year to…building a Lego ferris wheel. Like, nearly all of the first day, if we include meals and hot chocolate pauses for weary minds and weary eyes. I’m tempted to say that being a kid was simpler in my day. Toys did not involve six hours of minuscule toil with three sets of hands just to get them running. Then again, in my day, Legos were just a fancy way of making your own mismatched, multicolored castles and did not involve spinning parts, the possibility of becoming motorized, or ice cream stands (Lego ice cream!)

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And despite the complaints from my neck and back for being hunched over looking at teeny, tiny bits of colored plastic for most of a day, it was a pretty awesome family activity. The little one was quite pleased with her Christmas haul, and I, for my part, was pleased to start the New Year constructing something joyful all together.

Later on in the New Year, we moved from one manual activity to another. After I gave Ema a crocheted scarf (complete with bobbles) for the holidays, she got inspired to try the craft herself, so we spent an evening working out chain stitches and discovering together how a right-handed person can teach a left-handed person to crochet. I have a lot more sympathy now for the travails of the lefty community. Everything is backwards to them.

It’s wild to me to see both how children can be molded by what we bring into their field of vision and also the ways in which they come into this world with their own ways of being questions to work out and all we can do is try to field useful answers at the right moment.

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This morning at Dhagpo, we began the third annual winter study retreat, a month-long intensive teaching on a foundational Buddhist text. This year we are in phase two of the Abhidharmakosha, a text written in the 4th century by the Indian scholar Vasubandhu, which discusses all knowable phenomena, and particularly those which guide us toward liberation and those with keep us anchored in cyclic existence.

Technically speaking, all things connected with the emotions of aversion, attachment, and ignorance keep us firmly planted with our feet in the muck of Samsara. And yet somehow, in the messy world that is the modern day, I often come back to a story of a practitioner who, each evening, made a pile of white stones and black stones to count his positive and negative actions for the day, slowly working his way toward just one pile…white stones of course.

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Despite all my attachment for those I care about and all I wish to accomplish in this life, plus the frustration that arises when things don’t go my way, they’re source of more white stones than black at the day’s end. Jigme Rinpoche often says that emotions are not negative in nature; it depends what direction we take them in. If our desire and attachment lead us to practice, then they are useful.

Who knows what the side-effects of my attachments may be, but since I’m far from calling it quits on ordinary life and high-tailing it out to a cave with a handful of nettles and barley grains, this is where I am. And it’s fitting I think, to put the nature of reality as described by the Buddha and his disciples on one side, and ya know, real life, on the other. Because in this day and age, this is what we have to fit together on the path.

Cameras And Death

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Do I start by saying…I bought a camera? Ahem, with a lot of help from my mother, I bought a camera. A real one—an awesome but not too scary my-first-DSLR kind of camera—a Nikon D3300. If all goes well you will be more consistently overwhelmed with pictorial support for these ramblings. I’m just starting out, thinking about things like aperture and shutter speed in practice for the first time, instead of just wondering how much more precisely I might be able to capture the world around me if I had some power over such things.

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I guess I’ve effectively started with the camera, so now I just have to figure out how to segue into the rest. It’s strange, looking at these pictures. I like them. I’m still working out the whole lighting and composition thing and will be for a while I imagine, but on the whole they’re okay. Pretty snapshots that remind me of my childhood, details from the house I grew up in, flora and scenery that strike me as particularly Californian, plus a couple pensive travel shots from the road home (back to France, I don’t know where the hell home is anymore. I suppose I have more than one and that’s a blessing more than anything).

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The pictures are a little nostalgic, maybe even a tad brooding, but largely comforting. I hope there’s a hint of unease sifting through it all…the sneaky whiff of impermanence permeating all the pretty things. But it’s a far cry from the distinctly unsubtle reminder of impermanence that’s in the foreground today.

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A 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal yesterday morning. The Bodhanath Stupa cracked right through its eyes, from top to toe. The minaret next to Swayambhu Stupa exists only in the form of a pile of rocks. Nearly two thousand deaths have been counted in Kathmandu and surrounding villages have not yet been accounted for. Most of the monasteries are okay, but not all, and the master teachers are calling for prayers and joining in their support for the deceased, wounded, and disenfranchised.

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How strange that this place where I walked less than a year ago should now be so dramatically redesigned by a shudder of the earth. How strange that catastrophes like this happen so frequently and we can do so little beyond join our hands and send a few bucks or even fly halfway around the world to collect the rubble and try to find and feed those that remain. How strange that death is present like a drop of rain hovering over us ready to fall at any moment and we so rarely feel its impending arrival. How strange that devastation washes over this earth regularly and suffering permeates the planet in both visible and invisible ways at every moment and we are so adept at sidestepping its implications.

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How easy it is to be lost in the urgency of what needs to be done without remembering why. How easy it is to adopt a rhetoric of care for others while nurturing frustration and malcontent. How easy it is to speak of focus and deliberation while engaging in distraction and agitation. How busy I manage to keep myself to avoid facing death. Death.

Death.

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It’s coming for me. Every moment is an ending. One that I ignore, clinging to the next moment’s beginning. Every moment could be the ending of the life and self I know. And I’m not ready. I’m trying to be ready, to get ready, to learn to face impermanence and give up the illusion that all I see and know has truth and existence to its nature. To appreciate that what I perceive is as weightless as a dream and as ever changing. And that this is neither good nor bad, but simply freeing.

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But um, I don’t. Not yet. And if I had to bet, I’d bet a lot of the people that lost their lives or their homes in Kathmandu hadn’t quite got that one down yet either. So pray them for them.

And pray for us all, that we learn how to live with our dying, with the ending in every moment. And if you don’t pray, write a poem; sing a song; hug a friend; climb a mountain; do a thing that reminds you how fleeting we are and that the business of learning how to live with impermanence is a shared one.

Love and good luck.

Old Stomping Grounds

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Well, first off…cake because I promised y’all cake.

My birthday cake: hummingbird cake improvised with walnut goat cheese frosting, plus a cake for the other April gals at Dhagpo, dense almond cake layered with pastry cream and fig jam, enrobed in marzipan medallions, and of course a cake for the April gents as well, classic tiramisu composed in layer cake form. Sorry, not on top of my recipe recording at the moment…all of these things exist somewhere between the collection of butter-stained paper scraps on my windowsill and my brain, but they don’t yet exist in any shareable form. Eeps, pardon!

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And then, welcome to California. Land of my youth, land of my creation and my formation. This is the Pacific Coast Highway, from behind the windshield, for ours is a land of automobiles and palm trees, winding coastal roads, and shifting coastal mists.

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The dinosaur fountains at 3rd Street Promenade, which seem so much smaller now that I am bigger. Actually, everything seems smaller. I visited the house where I grew up, where my dad has retaken up residence. The garage that I recall as fathomless and dark and daunting, maybe the biggest room ever, is now…basically a normal two-car garage with some stuff in it.

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The palm trees have retained their height, however. Their goofiness and nonchalance. The importance of everything, the color and life and cool self-obsession of this place shocks at first and then insidiously infiltrates my being so naturally that I almost don’t notice.

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That everything should be beautiful seems like a given. That the temperature should always be pleasing, the light always golden, the ambiance always choreographed. Appearance in this place strikes me as ever so carefully manicured. We glamor ourselves into believing that all is well.

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That we are evolving, advancing, improving. The food is all organic, natural, farm-fresh, gluten-free and yes, also delicious. The people are tan and smiling. The storefronts pierce your eyes and call you to with adoration: prosperity! allure! confidence! We’ll give you everything! We buy our clothes, our gadgets, our food, our films, our cars, to decide who we want to be.

It’s startling and exceedingly simple. I can’t get over how pleasant everything is. I feel I could lose myself in this place without a second glance back the way I came. Pick up where I left off, working on being another toned yogi with a health food mission, a creative purpose, and a really inspiring backstory. These are generally good things, but from where I stand today, they also seem like all-too-simple ways to fall back into the habit of trying to simply render everything in this life awesome, rather than also facing its capricious nature and committing to going beyond even the best of the appearances that we are capable of creating. After all, both the most inherent and the most cultivated beauty fade with time, each one like the other.

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Fortunately, amidst all the glamour and temptation, there’s a few things to pull me back to earth. Little unexpected reminders. Amidst the crowd of laughing Buddhas on my grandmother’s bureau, a single, seated, Tibetan-style Buddha. And next to it, a grinning photo of me, circa 1996. Maybe even in her drifting state where past and present blend and future fades altogether, she still hangs on to the essential. She asked me about my life and said, “You like the people? Are you happy there?  You’re so so lucky Jourdie.” Or maybe it’s a just a coincidence, the right coincidence for me today. Either way, she’s right.

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And after all the rest, the people and excess and what we’ve made of this place, there is the place itself. California’s quirkiness is in its nature, as much as its inhabitants. Something about palm tree, prickly pears, and pale, pokey agave totally confirm that it’s hip to be weird.

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Nature always reminds me of my own strangeness and smallness. And the nature here comforts me in that. I’m in it with the willets, and the goopy knots of kelp, and the sandcrabs scurrying under the effervescent bubbles of tide foam. It feels pretty okay to be odd in such good company.

So I wander through the iridescent sunset and wonder what I’ll take back with me to the humid, blessed woods of the Dordogne. How much essence and acceptance can I find? How much may I be lost in the glamor and temptation?

Joni said it best.

“California I’m coming home. Will you take me as I am?”

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Having The Potato And Bread Pudding With Pastry Cream

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Welcome to springtime in the Dordogne. It’s bright. It’s wet. It’s moss on the column of my terrace, and I actually kind of like it.

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Welcome to jokes on the community room white board. In case you’re wondering, that’s a potato. The jokes…well, they don’t make any sense in English, but I’ll give you the direct translation and then the meaning and if you can fit together the play on words in your own head, I bet you’ll get how it’s funny. It really is funny; I promise.

Direct translation:
It’s better to have the potato than to be a potato.
It’s better to be a potato than to get a potato.

What it means:
It’s better to feel awesome than to be a potato.
It’s better to be a potato than to get hit in the face with one.

And then, next to all the judgmental potato commentary, Miss Potato, who says…

Direct translation:
I’ve got the French fry!
What it means:
I feel awesome!

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Basically, potatoes are really funny and the French like using food metaphors to say they’re in a good mood. I’ve got the potato/French fry/peach/banana are all ways to say one is feelin’ good.

It’s springtime, and I’m feelin’ good.

Good enough to whip out the whisk and resume some cake creation, which I haven’t fit in a lot of for the last couple months.

This isn’t exactly cake, but it could almost pass for one. It’s bread pudding baked in a cake pan and slathered with pastry cream pretending to be frosting. It is, dare I say it, a bit more reasonable than cake. It feels decadent without knocking you flat on your ass for the rest of the afternoon. I can’t necessarily say the same for the birthday cake I’m planning for myself, but you know, we can’t be reasonable all the time.

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Fun fact: my Dhagpo anniversary and my birthday are only about a week part. So this week (well, last Tuesday and next Monday) I get to celebrate two years in the humid, mossy, blessed woods of the Dordogne and all the potato jokes I can handle as well as twenty-six years of life on this earth. Hooray!

Next time we chat, I’ll be writing from the good ol’ US of A, where I’m stopping in to say a hello to the people who made me. I’ll also be at the Santa Barbara Bodhi Path on Wednesday the 15th from 6-9 if you want to stop by for a bit of sitting and a cup of tea.

Recipe…

Continue reading

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.

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We lost a good one today. One of the best ones.

Exactly two weeks ago today I was having tea with Shamar Rinpoche, talking about the future of Buddhism in the West, the future of his centers in Europe and the States, and my own future as a practitioner, disciple, aspiring teacher, and dutiful minion in the operation of Dharma centers in the Karma Kagyu lineage. For nearly the first time in my life, I had had the courage to ask for something I wanted, to nudge and persist and dare because it felt important. And I got it. An interview with my teacher. The guide I had been following, but from afar, for the last eight years of my life.

When I discovered the Dharma as a wayward seventeen-year-old in New Zealand, the woman who introduced me to meditation and the teachings of the Buddha was a student of Shamar Rinpoche. When I chose to pursue the spark of recognition I felt with Buddhist practice and philosophy, I did so at a Bodhi Path, the network of centers set up by Shamar Rinpoche around the world. When I chose to leave California in search of a life rooted in the Dharma, the teachers who directed me on my way were under the guidance of the very same. When I arrived in India, I had the incredible fortune to meet Shamar Rinpoche’s primary disciple the Karmapa, the young successor in the Karma Kagyu lineage. I even crossed paths with Shamarpa himself, but I didn’t dare say hello, so intimidated was I by this figure who had so deeply influenced my life, without ever even knowing who I am.

And then, a month ago, I picked up the phone at the Lama House with my usual, “Maison des Lamas. It’s Jourdie,” only to hear an imperious, “Hello! Where is Jigme Rinpoche?” It only took me a few sentences of Tibetan inflected English to realize that the voice on the other line was none other than the holder of the lineage, my guide from afar, the one-and-only Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche. Made ever more clear when, while I was scrambling to find some one who could answer his question more precisely than me, he said, “You are the American girl. I am Shamar Rinpoche.” Not only did I know who he was, but, rather more surprising, he knew who I was. While I ascertained that Jigme Rinpoche was not in France, was in Spain, was in Malaga, was gone for the next five days, Shamarpa asked me questions about my life. “So, you are well in Dhagpo? You have not yet visited the center in Germany? You are too busy eating French salami and baguette!” When I mentioned I had been baking my own bread he said, “Ah, and when will you come to bake bread in Virginia? We are beginning to set up the dining hall. We will talk when I come.”

He left me in a swirling frenzy, wondering if I would be plucked by fate and necessity from a life I love to some other calling, useful but unexpected. Shamarpa is famous for this, turning your whole life on its head to teach you to be flexible and light with your attachments. He’s famous for not showing up for teachings or showing up in countries other than those pre-decided. He’s famous for bringing storms and wrecking plans—I can testify to this as I lived through the most perilous rain and power outages that I’ve yet seen in the Dordogne, plus a wind that shattered half the Lama House’s fancy dinner service two days before our major event. He’s famous for dispensing with ceremonial procedure in one context and demanding it with vehemence in another. He’s famous for being unpredictable, blunt to the point of harshness, and utterly unwilling to bend to norms designed to make people feel comfortable if they don’t also make them more aware.

He’s not famous for being gentle, cajoling, and avuncular. He’s not famous for being patient, direct, and reassuring. And yet, I never felt so cared for in my life as when speaking with him. As if my every uncertainty was acceptable, worthwhile even. As if I could lay all my hopes and fears on the table before him, and together we might find the sense in them. It was for this that I asked to meet with him while he was here. Knowing he’s busy aiding all beings all the time, knowing he’s looking after dozens of centers and projects and teachers, knowing I’m small and recent and have other people to look after me. He made me sure that I have something to offer and that it’s worth taking the time to figure out how best to do so.

And so we had tea. I brought a basket of offerings from a ceremony at the center and a white silk prayer scarf, traditional ceremonial things that I felt slightly uncomfortable about. And then I brought things from me. An artisanal salami from the nearby town. A letter to tell him the things I feared I would not be able to say out loud. I set the basket of offerings on the table, where it stayed until probably ten minutes after I left, when some one brought it back to Dhagpo to be eaten the voracious, worldly beings that are myself and my cohort of volunteers. The prayer scarf I kept in my pocket.

I gave him the salami right away, and he tapped it on his head, as one would with a sacred text in blessing. I gave him the letter, which he read on the spot. I swallowed hard, smiled at my nervousness, and reminded myself of my commitment. The letter said, “I’m all in.” I’m here for you, for the activity of the lineage, for the benefit of beings, from now until enlightenment. Understood: I’m terrified and limited and even though I doubt my own capacity to reach this thing called enlightenment, I know that you don’t, and I am confident that this is the thing absolutely most worth doing with this life. So here is my life. My heart and my mind and my hands and all of my wishes. Help me find the way.

He read it and laughed, folded it up, and offered it back to me. I told him to keep it, not because I thought he’d do anything with it, but because I needed that, to give my commitment in a concrete way.  Then we talked about France and Virginia and California and long retreats and teaching English and maybe one day teaching dharma. We talked about tradition and culture and the Western mind. He told me some people don’t accept philosophy because they want their teachers to be deities. “They don’t believe we are quite human,” he said. “We are one hundred percent human.” I realized I didn’t quite believe it myself.

He told me to stay at Dhagpo, to study, to train myself enough to teach, if I can. He told me things in an hour that will help me decide my life for as long as I live it. And when I ran out of questions to ask, he closed his eyes and fell half asleep. Part of me wanted to stay, just a little while, to keep feeling cared for. And part of me realized it was time to go, to start to live the wish that his care will carry me and I will learn to take care of myself.

I said, “Thank you Rinpoche,” and he opened his eyes. He pushed back his chair, stood up, and lifted his arms. I walked over and tucked my head toward my chin, hands together at my heart. He touched his hands to both sides of my head, and in the space of the blessing I said grace for all beings. I remembered the prayer scarf in my pocket, unrolled it into my hands and said, “a little tradition, not too much,” as he had said to me earlier. He touched my temples again, and placed the scarf over my neck. I grinned. He smiled at my gleefulness and nodded his head. I walked out the door and back to the car and went to do groceries, to carry out my commitments, to train in benefitting beings.

I woke up this morning like usual. Took my vitamins, filled my offering bowls, sat down to meditate. Partway through the practice, I felt a touch of pain in my eye, and when I stood up, the white was completely bloodshot. I googled “emotional significance conjunctivitis” to no sensible result, then shook my head at my superstitious-ness, put on my glasses, and went to breakfast. Nybou saw me walking up the stairs and stopped still, staring. I wondered if the veins in my eye were that visible, or if it was a new way to say good morning. When I got close, he blinked twice, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I have bad news. Shamar Rinpoche had a heart attack in Germany this morning. He’s dead. It happened about half an hour ago.”

I closed my eyes over the glaring veins and cursed Google, and impermanence, and everything I have left to learn. I ate breakfast, and trained a volunteer, and turned in circles around the stupa with my stupefied family. Then I walked into an empty room and fell to my knees and cried.

Not for him, but for me and for us. I feel small and recent and uncertain. I feel like so many of us are. I feel like I found my family, and now a crucial part of it is gone.

People keep telling me that he’s not gone. His wisdom abides. Body changes, but the nature of mind remains. And it’s true, I know; I suppose; I guess I’ll accept. The lineage is intact. Thank goodness for Karmapa and Jigme Rinpoche and all the teachers who remain to guide us. And reincarnation is a thing the masters know how to handle, and probably he’ll come back. I’m making wishes; we all are. And his activity continues, and the centers carry on. I’m making wishes for that too; we all are.

But you know what? Screw rationality and stoicism, just a little. I need them and I get it and I’m grateful that things are clear—support each other, support the Dharma, develop wisdom and be devoted. But at the same time, I’m in mourning and I’m mortal and we all are and this just really sucks.  So the tears come and I let them.

And I hope you come back soon and that I’m stronger than I think I am. And I love you and I’m grateful and I’ll follow your instructions, even if I don’t find this final lesson very funny.

Safe travels teacher. Shamarpa chenno (heed me).

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Photos by the excellent and talented Tokpa Korlo Mendel, Dharma brother and California homie.

In A Mad World

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I’m caught between two strange things. The overwhelming love I have experienced in those around me in these recent weeks, and an act of great violence committed in my hometown.

On this side of the world, I’ve the fortune to welcome Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche–the lineage holder of the Karma Kagyu tradition, numerous translators, teachers, artists, center coordinators, and even friends from back home in California to today-home in Dhagpo. I had a kitchen so crowded it was easier to walk out the front door, around the house, and in the back door to get something on the other side than just to cross the kitchen. It felt like how I always imagined Christmas would feel when I was small and still believed Santa Claus was a person and not an idea and a love you have to create.

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I had help from all corners to prepare the house, welcome the guests, and make the food. This is the one shot I managed to take and I can’t even take credit for the aethetic awesomeness of this plate. I can, however, thank my lucky stars for having such a rad team. What could have felt like an insane catering event instead felt like an epic family reunion.

So there’s that.

And then there’s the fact that a young man, a kid really, killed six people and himself about a week ago in Isla Vista, the college town near Santa Barbara.

When I heard, my first thought was, “Ow.” And immediately after, “Again?”

I think I’m pretty much stuck there.

Killing is bad. I get this. But I can’t bring myself to feel horror at some one like Elliot Rodger. A lot of that ow is for him. People who feel loss and grief have at least enough joy and love in their experience of the world that they have something to mourn for. I can only fathom that people who take life have an experience of the world so bleak and anguished that the taking of life is conceivable because life is a hateful and valueless wretch. I wouldn’t want that existence for anything, not least because of harm that comes out of its confusion.

After the initial pain wears off, for victims, and perpetrator, and society as a whole, my own confusion sets in. Why does this keep happening? Gun control, media, pharmaceuticals, antiquated gender roles. The list is long and the issues are complex.

One person in the room said this: “Population control; somebody’s gotta do it.” The blackest of humor in a rather dark moment, but it points to deeper questions. Is the violence of modern times really new? Or have the methods for violence simply changed? In what way is violence societal and in what way is it human and individual? At what level do we address violence juridically, scientifically, or sociologically? And at what level do we choose to take responsibility for our own violence?

I held a handgun once for the purpose of sport, but couldn’t bring myself to lift my arm, the thing felt so treacherous in my grasp. I’ve never taken a human life, but I’ve considered taking my own. I have felt terrible pain and wished for others to feel pain. I have tried to do good and wound up causing harm.

My point is that the domino topple from plain human experience to outward violence is not simple and not external to any of us. Some of us have better tools and better luck but even when we’re not committing the violence, we are subject to it. Coordoning off those who seem dangerous in order to feel safe only maximizes the risk. The deeper our sense of self and other, the easier it is to harm. If something feels foreign enough, it no longer feels real or valuable, and that makes it easy to destroy. I don’t deny that the world is mad, but I do think we’re in this together. Working on that understanding, as individuals and as a society, is the only thing I can think of right now to improve our current conditions.

Pictures Of Places.

IMG_1343Periodically people ask me if I’ve been to the restaurant down the street from Dhagpo, or if I’ve visited such-and-such center, or if I know this or that part of France. Generally the answer is no, and generally my response is, “Um. I don’t leave Dhagpo much. Like, almost ever.” I meeean, I go to the movies every couple months. I think I ate out once last fall and a couple times in the summer. I’ve visited one out of the three or four other nearby Tibetan Buddhist centers. But that’s about it.

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Until now.

My dad came to visit for a week, and now I can officially say that I have been places. And I have pictures to prove it. You know you’re in France when everywhere you go seems to include at least one building with a vaulted ceiling and a sensually ambiguous copper-tinged fountain. Bordeaux is a clear win for these.

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And you know you’re in the Dordogne when every corner you turn seems to reveal yet another magic castle or sickeningly charming secret garden.

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There may or may not be briar roses and eighteenth century chandeliers. If you’re in St. Léon-sur-Vézère or Chateau de Hautefort, well, there are. I didn’t run into Sleeping Beauty, but it’s possible she had a run-in with a spindle and was passed out in a tower somewhere.

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She wasn’t in this particular tower. However, the coolest hand-crafted beam-and-strut wooden roof strucure was. My dad’s an architect. We geek out on good engineering.

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And good design. Which is easy to do if you stay at Les Garachons while you’re in Auvergne. The owners of this totally adorable B&B are former caterers and write a food blog (which is normally in Dutch, but which I Google-translated with reasonable success) about their current endeavors. Every detail is well-placed and makes you feel like life could, perhaps, be as tidy and nourishing as an issue of Martha Stewart Living.

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Which I quickly realized was not the case upon arriving in St. Etienne. It’s an industrial city that has been reimagined as a center of design. Despite hosting a major biennial design fair and being home, in its surrounding environs, to the second largest concentration of Le Corbusier buildings in the world, the city is rough around the edges. It’s a working class melting pot that reminds me that bucolic comfort is for one thing a luxury and for another not everyone’s ideal.

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Le Corbusier designed his buildings in response to a need to house large numbers of impoverished people. But his vision of buildings was a humanist one; constructed spaces are meant to be egalitarian and elevating. He developed engineering to allow for walls shaped by imagination rather than structural constraints. He melded geometric and organic forms, blended color and arithmetic. He dreamed of ways to build cities that would facilitate human life rather than simply contain it.

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He was a visionary. My dad tells me he’s known as the most influential architect of the twentieth century. He changed the way that buildings are conceptualized, the way that humans create our own space. It’s a pretty big legacy.

I haven’t seen any of his other work up close, but I was surprised by these. They are concrete blurs of line and form with dabs of color. To me they look more like abstract paintings superimposed on a landscape than like buildings. I found them ambitious, but a little sad. The concrete is heavy, maybe a reflection of the weighty times. After all, these buildings were designed to respond to post-war poverty in the mid 1900s. Le Corbusier designed whole cities. In some ways, the buildings that exist are prototypes of a great dream that was never realized.

I wonder if he didn’t quite believe the dream himself, though. The roof of St. Pierre Chruch is speckled with glass tubes that illuminate a man-made constellation within the somber interior. You can see the stars he’s wishing on, and the central space rises hopefully from the roof toward the sky, but in the end, the resignation of dense concrete remains. The space is dark and grounded and only the artificial stars remind us of what could be.

IMG_1457But this is what life is like, isn’t it? A balance between beauty and disappointment. Extravagance and actuality. For every castle, there was a whole region’s worth of peasants. For every perfectly baked cake, there is a slew of unsightly experiments. Despite the best attempts of engineering and artistry, the only cure for the human condition is living, and doing so consciously.

To see other places is useful. I’ve concluded that whevever we are, the work is the same. I’m grateful to be good where I am, grateful to be reminded of that, and grateful to be free to experience contrast and draw my own conclusions. Autonomy is for sure a liberty. Now it’s back to the home that I choose and the business at hand.

What Is This.

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This is a castle.

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This is a ruin of a castle.

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This is a prehistoric dwelling carved into a rock.

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This is the street on the way to the butcher shop.

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This is some one’s backyard garden on the way from the butcher shop to the car.

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This is my feet, the corner of a bag full of ground beef and chicken thighs, a used q-tip, and a smushed packet of cigarettes with the words “smoking kills” in big, block letters, in French.

This is me wondering how the past meets the present, how death joins with life, and how I came to find myself at the junction of all these, wrapped in the packaging of a medieval fairytale mashed-up with a Michel Gondry film.