Somewhere In The Low Light: The Opposite of Ambiguity

DSC_0007 I have decided that I need a tripod. The world captured in low light feels like my heart; it trembles but yearns to be seen clearly. Capturing those moments still that should be blurry but for the grace of a stable support: this is the use of a tripod in photography and of meditation in life. Such moments are the precipice where one yearns to feel, but the risk of being seen naked if we truly lay ourselves open still seems far too great. And so we stay in the shadows, where it’s safe, where the beauty of ambiguity cradles us with its ungraspable-ness. We hide amidst the blur. There is comfort in confusion. DSC_0001 Sometimes I realize how much of me really doesn’t want to become enlightened. To see the illusion of all things. I like my things real. I like my cake decadent; I like my sorrow sharp; I like my joy effervescent. DSC_0018 Well, I used to. Now, I still like my cake, but I resent that it makes my intestines sad. I still like my sorrow because it reminds me there are things I don’t understand, but I am mystified by how I can’t seem to turn its sharpness into an understanding that will change the way I act. I still like my joy, but it frightens me because I cling to it. After all, the only transition possible from temporary bliss is to something less than bliss, and it hurts every time. And yet this hurt hasn’t yet changed my vision so that I truly see the beautiful things in life as being as unreliable as they are. As just an essenceless apparition that will dissipate either now or later, unexpectedly or unwontedly. DSC_0020 I asked Jigme Rinpoche about art again today. We were talking about the renovation of the Lama House kitchen, working out details of countertops and credenzas, and which direction the stove should face. It was all very concrete and pleasantly comprehensible. Since January I’ve had this bug in the back of my mind, from our last conversation about life, my life, when he told me, enthusiastically, that it was quite a good idea to be an artist. So I asked why, just there, amidst the sawdust and reflection over water filters.

“Rinpoche, when we talked in January, I had mentioned about wanting to be a professional artist.”

“You want be a professional artist?” He perked up, with what seemed like the same enthusiasm in January.

“Well, I used to. Since I’ve been here, I’ve more been focusing on other things. It’s more on the side now. But when we talked about it, you had said that this was not a bad idea, quite a good thing actually.”

“Yes, good.”

“But why.”

“Because then you can bring to everything.” And he made a gathering motion. DSC_0026 And I sort of framed my ideas around this sentence, trying to see how they fit, and what it all meant. And some notions came up, like how art is a way to turn all of life into a reflection, and one that can be shared. And how viewing the world through an artist’s eye means that one is always looking with some kind of perspective, rather than just being caught up in the experience. I wandered over the idea that maybe in Rinpoche’s view being an artist doesn’t actually mean one has to make things, but is much more about the way one looks at things and approaches things. DSC_0015 I think I kind of short-circuited on this idea, and we pretty much had the above conversation verbatim a second time. I walked away nearly as unclear as before, but with the recognition that until I’m ready to make a commitment to artistry, the view or the act, I’m never going to be able to make very much sense of what Rinpoche says to me on the subject. DSC_0032 I keep trying to give up on art. I keep trying to “let it go” and see if the urge abandons me. So far it hasn’t, but so far I’m also not willing to shoulder the responsibility of whatever Rinpoche was making reference to (what is that motion a gathering of?) and what I apparently refuse to see or clarify for myself. An artist who wants so badly to be an artist but is so unwilling to claim the role. A bit like a bodhisattva who wants to badly to be free and free others but is unwilling to renounce her shackles. When the day comes. You’ll be the first to know.

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.

Choco-Crusted Lemon Tart And Peace In The Kitchen

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I’m sitting here by the old closed-up pool at a picnic table listening to the wind stir the oak leaves and breathing in the perfume of onions drifting over from the dining hall. Each time I take a deep inhale of the sour spiciness, there’s something inside me that says, yeeees, gooood, and thinks both that for a split second, everything is perfect, and also that if only I could possess that smell or immerse myself in that smell, if I could just exist within that smell, then everything could always be perfect. I’m like that with all food, all the time. The hours passed poring over food blogs, daydreaming, planning step-by-step in repetition the recipes I’m going to make, imagining the taste and texture of this, that, or the other thing I envision eating—it’s a deep need to believe that happiness exists within these objects and experiences.

But what is the nature of this imagined happiness?

I want to bask in the glory of sifting and mixing and pouring and measuring, what I want, how I want, with no interruptions, light pouring through the windows and antique every-kitchen-tool-ever to complete my quaint existence. I want to pull perfect tarts from the oven and slide them onto trivets in front of smiling faces and give all of my love without error or hesitation and have it received without doubt or miscommunication. I want to turn all of my anguish into something beautiful to be shared without ever having to meet the world between the experience of pain and the act of creation. I want a life where it doesn’t hurt to hurt and where all of my joy is heralded by a joyful reception from others.

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But since I can’t have this, what do I make of the wishes I can’t help making?

Peace. I am wishing for peace. Peace in the kitchen, at least. Someday, I would like a kitchen that is mine. From which I can share, and with the intention to share, but one which itself facilitates that sharing.

Should I be wishing for the patience and vastness of mind to manifest sharing, or benefit, or whatever vague feel-good altruistic term avoids talking about self and volition? Patience and vastness of mind, yes, definitely, maybe. But also, I am wishing for good conditions. I am wishing to grow and do the hard work such that someday I no longer need to be roughed up by the universe in order to develop peace in the kitchen. I am wishing to develop such a deep inner peace that my life manifests the outer conditions for peace because when you no longer need to be bothered to learn how to deal with being bothered it becomes more efficient to just do the work. When I am ready for peace in the kitchen and the life in the world that goes with it, it will come.

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Underneath everything else, I just want my motivation to be good. Sometimes I feel completely nonsensical, talking from one side of my mouth about enlightenment and then, on the everyday level, being so, so invested in um…cake, and nostalgia-inducing photos with vintage linens and weathered wooden cutting boards. It’s hard to know what I should want, or maybe just what it’s okay to want. I want whatever’s right, you know?

But then, inside of that, there are all of these very specific, personal wantings that feel right to me, but also they’re just there, and it’s hard to know if they’re for the good or not. They feel absurd in their specificity. I stumble, wondering what due I have to want such and such a thing, because if my goal is truly to benefit all beings, shouldn’t I not want anything specific and just let it all come to me?

But what is “it all,” and how will it come? We must act, after all. Perhaps it’s not better to make specific wishes or open ones, so long as you’re clear about the purpose of your wishes. Specific wishes come naturally to me; I better just make worthwhile ones.

I want a peaceful kitchen, Universe, with a big south facing window, a sturdy oven, and a lot of cast iron pans and wooden bowls and cake stands. But I want a peaceful kitchen if and only if it will let me help more, only if I can be the best me in a peaceful kitchen. If I only want a peaceful kitchen to be unbothered, and to never have to face others and myself, please Universe, never let me have it.

About the tart. It’s basically the best lemon bar filling on top of chocolate shortbread. Because even though lemon and chocolate come together less often than chocolate and orange, they really are a good pair. And lemon bars are great, and shortbread is great, so what could be wrong with this? Nothing, unless the slices are too slight and the crowd too numerous. There are worse ills to be faced in the world, fortunately, and more tarts to be made. Happy baking, whether yours is a peaceful kitchen or a rather more chaotic one.

Recipe…

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