Funfetti Cake And A Different Kind Of Mourning


On Friday the Buddha’s relics went back to Paris after a year-and-a-half extended stay at Dhagpo. The fact that we got to hang on to them for so long (safekeeping while the Grand Pagoda where they stay normally underwent construction) was a blessing in itself. It doesn’t do to always want more. But I got so used to their presence. To knowing this manifestation of wisdom and physical piece of the Buddha himself was right nearby. To seeing their glittery little enclosure every Saturday, doing prostrations in the Institute and singing aspiration prayers with all the other aspiring folks. To walking quora all together and tucking some special chocolate I scoped out into the silver offering bowl.

I know the relics are technically just a manifestation, and that even if they are real, historical artifacts and extremely blessed, I can also access that blessing by connecting to the meaning whether they are here or not. But I’m not so good at that yet. And sparkly things inspire me. So, yeah, I’m gonna miss them. Loss number one for the week.


Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of Shamar Rinpoche’s death (Tibetan calendar, if you’re worried I’ve lost my basic math skills). Similar to the relics, all the good he has put in place for all of us remains whether his physical presence is here or not. But it’s still hard to accept that I won’t ever get to have tea with him in his rocking chair-filled living room in Virginia or serve him his favorite French salami when he visits Dhagpo or sit in the Institute and listen to him crack jokes while he educates us all or feel the silence sweep through the hall as we sink into meditation with him. Or so many other things. Loss number two for the week.


And also, my sister called me this week in tears to tell me that she needs time. That it’s hard that we live so far apart and we believe such different things at the very basis of our choices and that our paths have diverged so greatly in our short lives despite our deep love for each other. And so we’re taking space. Reflecting each on our own without the worry of having to figure out what to share or how or what moment with a nine-hour time difference and very busy, different schedules. We’re just…waiting to see what happens. And when things are a little bit more clear, we’ll pick up—not quite where we left off, but where we need to be. And this is good, and I’m proud of us for being mature enough to know that there are things we need to figure out on our own to make our relationship work, but also…loss number three for this week.


And so I find myself grieving, but strangely, for things I have not truly lost. The strength and love we develop through our relationships stay with us, whether the people who taught us such care and resilience are physically present or not. I know this, and I have faith in this fact to carry me through the transitions. But I’m also wobbly on my feet. I’m used to having support I can connect with tangibly. All these various losses leave me only with inner strength and some fuzzy question marks about what those words even mean.


And so I’m taking cliché flower pictures because it’s springtime and I have a camera and that seems to be what there is to do. And I’m making funfetti cake because it would make both Shamarpa and my sister smile if they were here and though I’m not sure what the Buddha would think of funfetti, I think he’d approve of the togetherness and gratitude that went into this cake.

Love you guys.


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Day 8, Rather Late: Homecoming


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.

5-la maison

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.


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.


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.

Day 7: This Is Blessing


So, this is pretty much it, Nepal. Today was the day where we did all the things.

We trundled through town at eight in the morning to Boudhanath Stupa, A white massive with a golden peak and glimmering eyes of wisdom on each of the four sides of its crest. We spun prayer wheel after prayer wheel, pausing only to make a donation to add to the blowing strands of prayer flags strung from the top of the stupa to its outer edges and to prostrate in the summer sun on the aged wooden planks laid out before the vast, luminous dome.

But of course practice must be balanced with forays into worldly life to check its effects, so we paused before lunch to do the shops. Dharma shopping isn’t much less exhausting than regular shopping in terms of choice and visual stimulus and decision-making, but it’s extra joyful because all of the objects are beautiful, sacred, and inspiring, and people tend to dharma shop for others more than for ourselves, which turns out much more gratifying.


Favorite finds of the day include mottled green and pink stone beads for mala making, textured rice paper for cards, and a carved stamp with the symbol for the victory banner of the dharma, which I connect to because it’s my refuge name. I also might really like dharma shopping because it involves lots of stones and gems. I briefly wanted to be a lapidary as a kid, and though the career aspirations didn’t last, my fascination with mineral objects remains. I treated myself to the great pleasure of picking out a smoky topaz and a white opal to offer for the Buddha statue in Dhagpo’s Institute when it gets formally filled later this year.

I managed to finish all my errands before lunch, and took a few final turns around the stupa. For the first time all week, my mind became patient, open space and my thoughts settled naturally on making wishes. The tin rattling of the prayer wheels echoed the unreeling of my aspirations—come back to us soon; stay with us even in your absence; let us all become bright in the aura of your radiance. Away from the monastery, away from responsibility and activity, the utter brilliance of the moments I have lived these last few days finally seeped into me. I felt some lurching and tears rising inside and I let it. This feeling that throws me sobbing on the ground at times turns out not be loss but gratitude. So I multiplied it a million times, a million times and million times, and offered it to the Buddhas. I like this system; it’s pretty nice actually.


We ate lunch on a rooftop terrace staring straight into the eyes of the stupa. Boudha, Katmandu, the valley, Nepal…this place is as special as everyone said. Since I’ve been here, my days and thus my mind have been permeated with pictures of enlightened beings, mantra repetitions, the sound of ceremonial instruments, and the smell of incense. I have been as grumpy, as tired, as uncertain and as heartbroken here as I ever have been in other places in my life, but here, whenever I pause to look up or catch my breath, what appears grounds me and inspires me.

The momos were as good as they’re cracked up to be. Mine were cheesy and onion-y on the inside, and chewy and tender on the outside. Win. We ate fast. Rumors said Karmapa would give blessing at two at Shar Minub. The rumors were true, and we found ourselves in the steaming upper temple room at Shar Minub, packed liked devoted sardines into the space before our teacher.

Karmapa said a lot of things today, but these two stuck out: “I don’t think there really is a change. This is about continuity. What can we continue?” That Shamarpa’s wisdom, his blessing, his guidance, and simply his mind, are with us always and wherever. Only his physical manifestation has departed. So really, this transition is about the connection we are able to uphold and not at all about the state-of-being or location of a man. Which I suppose we knew, but everything’s more convincing when Karmapa says it. His knowing is a stable, integrated knowing and not the kind of hopeful, intellectual knowing that I’ve got going.


And then he said, “Go back to your daily lives with courage.” Which I think I might need. We arrive in Paris at eight p.m., which is four hours later in Nepal and in our bodies. We drive six-to-eight hours home to arrive at some unholy hour of the morning, and the next day Shabdrung Rinpoche’s course beings and we get going as if we’d never left.

Except not. Because we have left. Because we lived this week. And gave and saw and shared and practiced and received. Because the words of our teachers and the power of their minds have left their imprints on us, and we are different to whatever extent we can let them sink into us.


We walked the 350 steep, stone stairs up to Swayambhu after Karmapa’s teaching. We arrived streaming sweat and aching. This place is one of Shamarpa’s places. His past reincarnations helped establish it and nurture it. His picture is on the altar of the tiny temple for what it’s worth, and I found it worth a lot. I bent my forehead to the picture frame and quiet came. I didn’t want to step away, but I am learning how. How to carry closeness with me; how to connect to being cared for.


When we left Shar Minub this afternoon, people started gathering and pointing to the sky. I looked up. I’m getting used to this whole rainbow thing. There may still be a part of me that wants to record all the dates and locations of all the rainbows in relation to all the dates and locations of all the auspicious dharma happenings and see if there’s really any statistical significance in their appearances. And then the rest of me understands that it matters truly not at all whether there are more or less or where and when they are. It think it only matters that when we see them, we feel loved and capable of loving, inspired by wisdom and capable of becoming wise. Still though, I can’t help starting to believe. Rainbows equal masters; equal enlightened mind. Today was statistically significant.


We were trudging down the pitted road and I was staring at my shoes and I sloped forward. When I gazed up from the gray mud and gravel, at first I only saw clouds. A high contrast puff lingering in front of the afternoon sun. As my vision adjusted to the brightness, I looked for crepuscular rays, those dramatic beams of light that typically jut from behind illuminated clouds. But there weren’t any. There was a diffuse aureole of gentle luminosity, steadily deepening from white to pastel to Technicolor rainbow. I’ve never seen a rainbow cloud before. It looked like how I imagine the aurora borealis, but steady rather than wavering and more varied in its hues. It was beautiful. Gazing up at the gentle, colored glow felt like the warmest hug. I thought, “Hi.”

And then I tucked the rainbow into my heart, and held it there, and kept on walking.

Day 6: Everything Goes Up In Flames


**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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.

Day 5: Karmapa Comes And Meaning Comes


In the pocket of my purse, I have one crushed marigold. I slid it off a thread this morning outside the monastery. Its cold, soft petals yielded against my fingertips. Strands and strands of flowers hung over the truck that carried Rinpoche to us yesterday. After all the uncertainty and all the waiting, it now feels only natural that he is here. He couldn’t have made this easy; it wouldn’t have been his style.


Today was a card catalogue of varicolored moments. The deep red of the practice room and the oily tan slick of butter tea as our voices intoned the words for “calling the lama from afar.” I held the notes with my whole heart. A blue-grey house of juxtaposed rectangles, where I waited to serve tea, and the burgundy robes of the monks I met there. Rabke, from Kalimpong shedra, the academy from whence will come many or most of our future teachers, said to me, “Rinpoche told us that we will study hard and when we finish we will each work three years for him and then we can choose where we will go to teach. He said to us, ‘You are all my sons, and you will do as I ask.’”


He paused quiet for a moment and then added, “We are very lucky to have known such a great lama.” I thought of the waves of Bordeaux-cloaked bodies, the sea of shaved heads, bare left shoulders, and open gazes. I wonder, “Who are these young men and women that look so alike to me?” Each of them has likes and dislikes and memories and dreams of his and her own, and each of them, like me and the band of Westerners whose stories and ways and wonderings I know much more in detail is mourning. We are so many orphans.


The afternoon was colored brown, the lacquer tint of the biography booklet I handed out by the hundreds, winding my way through the rows of meditators and offering Asian style, the book in my right hand with my left hand to my elbow as a gesture of respect to give with both hands. There was a slash of green as I sat on the hillside, staring over the valley at the old monastery, a cappuccino colored compound tucked behind the new brick buildings. The ten-year retreat monks live here, nearly the last handful of practitioners in the modern world who keep all 253 traditional vows of the ethical discipline. And just in front, on the opposite rooftop, the cremation stupa received its final adornments for tomorrow’s ceremony. I saw a Pantone of silk flags and painted medallions. The rest is shrouded, waiting for the final moment.


Dusk fell blue-grey with a smear of rainbow beside the monastery. I wondered if it was a nod from Shamarpa to his disciple. The bands of color appeared just as we assembled to receive Karmapa on his arrival. The road turned crimson and gold with robes and prayer scarves as thousands of people lined the street in welcome and expectation. “We are like children at times,” I couldn’t help but think. I stood by the door a ways back, to see but hoping not to disturb. After the flags and horns and drums had past, Karmapa alit from the car and the crowd pressed forward to meet him.


All of the love and eagerness fused into a collective surge. The flowers meant to be strewn at his feet jumped out of the offering hands from the impact of those behind. Golden petals struck Karmapa’s temples and his brow. I tried to step back but found myself moved forward. Jigme Rinpoche appeared, sentinel and protector, striding forward, his sturdy arms pressing back the bodies like Moses parting the Red Sea. My eyes stung and my throat closed. I glimpsed for maybe spare seconds a raised arm, a focused gaze, the tops of their precious heads, but just this–and awareness hit me like the salty cold of the ocean.

It’s not a memory or an idea. It’s not a concept and it’s not so clear in words. It’s a sudden snap of understanding. Blessing so often feels like a rising light, something gentle and clarifying. This was like a breaking window. All of the holds barred inside of me exploded like shattered glass. There are no more adjustments or attempts for revisions–this is living and we are here. Tomorrow, something ends and something new begins. E ma ho!


Day 4 Encore: A Peek At Swayambhu And Rinpoche’s Arrival

* Photo formatting for this post utterly escapes me. I did nothing differently than usual. Images are three different sizes. I am confounded and I am tired and pehaps I will attempt to alter this again later. For now,IMG_1852

Let’s be honest. Today was strange. We started the morning at the Swayambhu Stupa, well almost. We walked around the base of the hill, turning the thousands of pocket-sized to room-sized prayer wheels lining the perimeter. Halfway through the journey, we got a message calling us up to the monastery for duty. Guests to be greeted and information to be diffused.


From mural filled walls and endless rounds of prayer beads, we found ourselves pouring tea, or just drinking tea, and waiting. It was a day of waiting. Waiting for guests, waiting for news, waiting for Rinpoche, waiting for the rain to stop. When I finally found a moment to meditate, all the practice spaces were under lockdown to be straightened before the arrival of the body. I sat in a plastic chair for ten minutes to do protector practice and then I sat in a plastic chair and slept and tried not to drool too much.


If I’m being a little rough around the edges, I’ll blame it on the strangeness of these times. I whined a little about the absence of time for sitting practice today, and I got the response, “Helping is practice too.” And it is. And I’m grateful. And sometimes I get so caught up in the movement that I forget that I’m practicing, and I just do.


And behind all the action there are memories that play on repeat, emotions that sing their familiar song, and questions that ratatat regularly but quietly behind all the activity. I haven’t given myself time to look at all that much lately. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t want to or because the times call for another approach, if when the wildness of these days has passed, I’ll stop to see what comes up and I’ll be totally bowled over or if it will just be…what comes up.


I know that I can feel the distance between the action of the day and the action that burgeons ceaselessly inside. When Shamar Rinpoche’s body finally wound its way up the hill, preceded by flags, and drums, and bone trumpets in the early dark under a light rain, all I could feel was that I didn’t know what to feel. I saw the silk-shrouded coffin through my camera lens and I mostly felt the importance of this angle or that stray shaft of light. I lifted my eyes to look, really look, and with all the roiling that started to rise inside, I flipped my eyes back to the digital version of the world to stay safe behind duty and a story to tell.


In the soft crush of the crowd snaking around the stairway angles to lay a prayer scarf at the foot of the coffin, I realized I hadn’t thought toward this moment at all. My guru is here, in mind and in body, not united but at least in the same place, for the last time for at least a little while and only now do I think of all I wish I could offer. I can mentally multiply this unusually short silk scarf that I fortunately found stuffed into my purse a thousand times, a thousand times a thousand times, and more, but it doesn’t make up for all the moments I have lost thinking about things other than devotion, other than what I wish to give, the qualities I aspire to develop, the being I aim to become, the image of wisdom I see in my teacher who is now before me.


I see the chill glow of bare fluorescent bulbs. I feel the wet, pulpy masses of trampled flower petals under my feet. I hear my thoughts pinging hollowly against one another in the absence of time to unroll each unruly notion and lay it out to dry and see what it has to say. This is my life passing, and I’d rather not lose it while I’m still in the act of living, just by forgetting to pay attention.


Of course, sitting in the empty restaurant of the hotel at precisely midnight, I can be a little honest. Looking is hard. Choosing to see is not so easy. I think I might be mostly finished grieving. Mourning the specific death of Shamar Rinpoche in this incarnation at this time. I know I’ll have moments of wistfulness all my life when I am faced with questions I know he could have answered perfectly that I will have to answer imperfectly myself. I also know that when I make the space to pause and listen, he is here: his wisdom, his teachings, the love without limit he taught me to feel and inspired me to develop. Still, understanding that in quiet moments has yet to change all the other moments that I spend fighting loss and letting go. My life is a battle against impermanence, and it is one I am going to lose. I would like to give up fighting.

Day 4: Newsnewsnews


A voice just came crackling across the intercom. “We request that you exit the hall and line up along the road to welcome the body of His Holiness Shamar Rinpoche.”


Since yesterday night, the rumors have been flying thicker and with seemingly greater degrees of credibility. The body will arrive this morning at eleven. The body is being held at the airport awaiting a final permission document from the government. The body is on the road from Swayambhu Stupa. The body is just leaving the airport.


In any case, he’s coming. The road is lined with red carpet and marigolds. My heart is trying to hold itself steady. All the memories and emotions of these last six weeks are circling around me. Some one standing next to me just muttered out, “In any case, he precedes his body.” And whether it is Shamarpa’s mind or our own expectations, a feeling of waiting hangs in the air. When the car pulls up the drive, will we crumple or breathe a slow sigh of relief or just carry on as we have been? To each his own, I think. In any case, he’s coming.

Day 3: First Meeting–Shar Minub


Morning comes with birdcalls and the klaxon of car horns. Breakfast is continental, though the golden-brown rolls, sweet smelling and shiny with eggwash, call to mind the Chinese bakeries of my childhood. Traffic is light at seven in the morning, and the winding, unnamed, unname-able roads carry us through commercial centers, family homes and mostly mixes of the two. It’s a jigsaw puzzle style of city planning, where, as one person remarked, you put the buildings you want first and figure out where the streets fit after. They don’t fit neatly, but they leave space enough for a swirling soup of buses, camions, and motorbikes mixed with roaming pedestrians, chickens and the occasional hog. Cornfields, rice fields, and Alexandra swears she saw a cannabis field, dot the sides of the road.


As we begin to climb into the outlying mountains, red and gold posters appear amidst the signs advertising tech colleges and Montessori school. Two plastic banners flutter on either side of the telephone poles, emblazoned with faces I know. Karmapa and Shamar Rinpoche. They line the road toward Shar Minub, announcing the event like any other happening of note. A Buddhist cremation in Nepal is like a museum exhibit or a jazz concert back home, just a part of the culture. Red gates pop up to mark the entry to the monastery, and in the clear light of morning, we arrive.


I can hear the bone trumpets and the vertical drums beaten double-time. I’ve never been here before, but the music says we’re home. We get nametags and drinkable water and an escort past a trail of signs marked “Overseas guests.” The main temple upstairs is packed to the edges with monastic folks, so we settle into a secondary temple space with a projector screen showing the happenings above us.


A couple hundred local monks are carrying out a different ritual on the other side of the room from us. And just outside the door, a couple more Newari women are conducting the ceremony of their tradition. The drums beat to different times; the chant move at different rhythms, the melodies flow through different octaves. Almost everything is provisional. The temples are basically scaffolding of the future finished buildings that have been hung with yards to miles of brilliant, primary colored fabric to create presentable, enclosed spaces. The cement floors of the bathrooms were poured in the last few weeks and the walls are everyone’s favorite blue hardware-store tarpaulin.


It should be chaos, and it’s certainly a turbo jolt of stimulus, but somehow, it works. We sit on the long, red strips of carpet, using rolled up rain coats for meditation cushions, and we unwind the silk cases of our practice texts to add our own individual rituals to the medley being conducted. At nine o’clock, monks stream through the lines of meditators pouring butter tea into plastic cups and handing out a booklet entitled, “Wishing Prayer for Rebirth in Sukhavati,” the realm of joy associated with Buddha Amitabha and thus, Shamarpa. And for a few minutes, all the voices join, and all the practices become one practice, and it’s no better or worse than before, just a simpler image of the togetherness that underlies the apparent chaos of this moment.


All of today is like this: dispersal and gathering. Pictures and experiences of how phenomena come together and come apart. The monsoon clouds gathering shadows over the hillside; minutes later turned into an explosion of raindrops on the rice paddies, the brick walls, and our skin. Yards of brocade reduced to piles of ribbon and stray thread, then woven back into tapestries around the edges of the cremation stupa. The diaspora of my Dhagpo family throughout the monastery this morning for different responsibilities and activities followed by the reunion of my American Dharma family who live across the world and country most of the time but found ourselves together today around a lunch table in Nepal. We cried surprisingly few tears, but not because we aren’t mourning. I suppose because this is the good part of saying goodbye to our teacher; saying hello to each other. Somehow it’s easier to face an uncertain future together.


Day 2: We Arrive, And That’s About All


Sitting on the other side of the airplane from Doha to Kathmandu. Katya’s semi-profile against the twilight through the window. I can safely say we made it. Through maybe the easiest international customs experience I’ve ever had and the most amicable customs officers. A brick interior, low light, and all the desks made from varnished wood patterned with cutout stars. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto, and not the Dordogne either.

We arrived in the darkness of early nighttime, after nine p.m. I always notice the air of a new place before all the rest. The air here is dense but not heavy, like lace you can walk through. Tribhuvan International Airport smells like egg noodles cooked in broth and men’s cologne. Which is only reasonable, considering I saw about three other women besides us on the plane. I think it’s reasonable to say Loïc impressed the crowd, travelling alone with us four ladies.

I’d forgotten from India the cultural fact of being stared at. It’s not comfortable, but I find it less aggressive than I used to. I’m surprised, though we only saw the sights and smells and sounds from the taxi in the darkness, everything felt softer than I had imagined. Nepal is calmer than any other developing country I have visited, and certainly calmer at night. Poverty is still poverty–the trash piles, the half-built skeletons of construction projects, the hungry roving canines, the fluorescent-lit bodegas; these things remain.

I don’t know if it’s me or this country that’s different, maybe both, but I find it all less harsh and less surprising than I remember from India or Ghana or even Mexico at times. Somehow the open buildings, the rutted streets, the concrete corridors…they just look like some people’s homes. It’s not my home or the home that I know, but it’s some one’s place, loved and lived in like any other.

I don’t want to romanticize poverty, but I don’t want to denigrate the proprietors of this place, its society, or its culture. And what’s more, in many ways, one could say I’m a beneficiary of this culture. Gautauma Buddha was born in Nepal, which makes this place part of my heritage, the culture that I have chosen and embraced and to which I have consecrated my life.

What do I think of that? I don’t know. I know the lights of Swayambhu stupa on the hilltop, seen from the hotel terrace, fill me trust. I know the bats overhead and the cawing of the monkeys is as exotic as it ever was, and yet also just the landscape of a place, a history, and a transmission. I know I’ll wake up at five-thirty in the morning to meditate, then meet my companions, and go see our teacher’s monastery and practice with thousands of other disciples with whom I both share and don’t share many kinds of culture–European, Asian, American, Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana. But we share a goal—freedom—and a love—for our teacher. And through this, we learn. And that is enough.


**Logistical note. I’d heard there is wifi throughout Kathmandu, and I was hopeful that I would be able to post updates throughout the day. Unfortunately, internet access does not extend to the monastery, so unless I stumble upon another technical miracle, I may be limited to a single post in the evening. I’ll try to include as much as I can. Thanks for your patience and for coming along!

Day 1: Dordogne>Paris>Doha

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I think it’s technically Day 2 already, but, having been on the road for nearly twenty-four hours, we’re gonna stick with Day 1. Thanks for your patience as things get rolling over here.

This is yesterday’s lunch, a final taste of Europe before embarking on a week in Asia. With any luck, the next food photo you see will be momos. (I can’t deny that right after hommage, practice, and community-building, the gastronomic aspect of this trip tempts the foodie pilgrim in me–culinary experiences can be spiritual too!).


I’m writing you from Doha International Airport, in Qatar. It’s the first time I’ve ever been through the Middle East, and though the airport hardly counts as visiting, it’s nice to dip a toe in a culture that has long been distant and remains mysterious. Makes me curious to come back. Maybe it’s un-PC or un-feminist or uneducated to say it, but I find the abaya beautiful. The women floating by as columns of black seem confident and at ease. Of course, I’m just seeing a slice of upper class, Western-inflected culture from a sleep deprived, travel-delirious perspective, but this is the reflection that comes to mind.

It’s a good reminder that this journey is taking me elsewhere from what I know. Though the customs may be familiar through my study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism, the experience will be quite different in its actual cultural context, not mention the unprecented nature of this event.


We’ve had a hell of a day+. We spent eight hours on the road yesterday, driving from Dhagpo to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, broken up by a lunch break on the grassy knolls of the rest stop. I felt grateful to be able to begin this trip by offering up a meal made with love for me and my travelling companions. Doing so allowed me to reflect on and set the tone of this trip.

We’re here to give, in both concrete and intangible ways. In concrete ways like homemade hummus, dolmas, sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, and a giant chocolate chip cookie cake. In intangible ways like wishes for health and safety and opening through this incredible journey.


As loopy as a six hour flight and a seven hour layover and a four hour flight may leave us–with culture shock as an added bonus–it’s our intent to show up ready to help with whatever needs doing. Setting up, serving tea, just being present.

Part of pilgrimage is going to powerful places and benefitting from the charge of their energy and history. Another part, and maybe these aren’t separate things, is using the change of scenery and the effort expended to accomplish it as a way to reset our habitual thought processes. The place becomes a process for asking new questions and discovering new capacities.

What is devotion? Community? Service? Who do I become when I put these things at the forefront of my thoughts and actions? And how do I do that, anyhow?

Ask it. Answer it. However the answers come. Live it. Let it be.

This is the quest, and these are the notes from the road. Thanks for coming along.