Day 6: Everything Goes Up In Flames

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**Oh no, again with the Nepali internet formatting of my photos. I just don’t know. Apologies for now. Reparations for later.

Today happened. Plastic chairs and rooftops, super suspect staircases, so many see-through cups filled with water, so many rounds of mantras, so many kinds of weather. I wish I could give you everything. What can I give you in this short and sudden space that could express the expanse of this day? I don’t know, but here goes.

We ate breakfast at six, and no one managed to speak. The silence didn’t seem heavy, but when I tried to bring out words, they fell hollow to the ground. I mostly remember the density warm white bread in my mouth and the flat sweetness of papaya. I remember weighing the details and looking for some kind of indicators as to what the day would hold. There were none.

We arrived on time. We dispersed. We managed to return before Jigme Rinpoche appeared to inform us of our roles for the day. Which turned out to be guest-herding; these people on this roof, those people on that roof, and this bunch off the roof the completely and left on their own to find a nice piece of hillside. We spent two hours herding, ushering, cajoling, castigating, welcoming, and moving around chairs.

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And then, it began. Six simultaneous pujas by six great masters and the body of our teacher reduced to ashes. I spoke with the person who introduced me to Buddhism. We’re lucky if we see each other once a year. There’s never enough time to show love until your love becomes limitless. All the questions I would ask, all the stories I would trade, the hugs and laughs and sorrows to accumulate with time to let us know one another, to remind us that we are in this trip together. We have to make do with so little time together, side-by-side.

Wendelin brought me to Rinpoche. Today, she said, “We have to follow the devotion line. It’s what pulls us up the levels.” Sitting side-by-side, watching the smoke rise from the body of our master and talking half teachings and half Dharma-center administration, I felt as though I’d never be able to connect dots between all of the memories, histories, layers of emotion and shreds of understanding. I felt lost, but safe enough in the presence of friends not to really try to being found. I spent some time in another spot on the roof with the Dhagpo troupe, silently staring and sharing.

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For a while nothing happened. The monastics sat and sometimes they stood. The music played and chanting rose across the rooftops from time to time. Then, a line of Rinpoches in gold surrounded the base of the platform. Some went it; some stayed out. A thread of smoke rose, and then a rope. And then a relay of runners balancing silver bowls rushed across the rooftop carrying fuel for the fire. Opaque cream-colored smoke pillowed across the sky, sinking into the mountainside. The odors of charcoal and juniper seeped over Kathmandu Valley. The smoke poured and poured some more. We could have gone on like this for hours. We shifted in our plastic chairs and rearranged our malas.

Then suddenly, something changed. The density of the air, the heaviness of the smoke. A bolus of vapor blew up the fringe over the cremation stupa, then in a breath incinerated it. The gasps rang out across the rooftops. And then, things stilled. We re-shifted in our plastic chairs, re-rearranged our malas. Wendelin said, “It’s not over, but it feels like it’s over.” People lifted from their plastic chairs and put away their malas.

I stayed. I stayed on the roof long after the plastic chairs were empty. I wished for confetti or a gunshot or a banquet to mark the end. Then I realized I actually just wished it weren’t over. When I drop my gaze and feel my breath and visualize Amitabha Buddha before me, I can feel Shamarpa’s presence. If I know that he’s here, what is all this static on my edges?

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I crossed paths with another volunteer, after the ceremonies were all finished and a file of people had begun snaking up the stairway to offer katas before the still-hot stupa. I asked her if she was going up. She said curtly, “No. No need.” And I had two thoughts: she’s right, and also, I’m not the only one’s who’s got static on my edges. So I folded two prayer scarves—a red for Amitabha and a gold for preciousness—and walked up the turning stairs. My vision blurred when I reached the top and I focused with all my might on the spongy wetness of the Astroturf under my feet, leading me toward the ashes. We walked up a short staircase, and I realized that the closest visual reference I had for the scenery was the miniature gold courses of my childhood.

I jerked up when I reached a white kata stretched before me delineating the limit of my approach. The black gaze of soot around the opening of the stupa transfixed me. I fumbled open the folded katas, handed them to the monk on the other side of the boundary and drop to the ground in prostration. When I rose, the monk gestured toward the descending staircase and I followed his direction, the refuge half-hanging on the platform behind me.

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I circled around to sit beside the stupa. When I arranged myself into cross-legged position and let my thoughts fall in with my breath, the harshness of the atmosphere softened while the harshness inside me filled in the space left behind. I tried looking for words, but they didn’t fit. There was only something voiceless keening, a kind of brick-red crescendo. I tried to let it come and let it go, but the wave neither crested nor yielded. It just kept wailing from behind the static.

The wailing continued after meditation was adjourned by carpet-rolling and altar disassembling. Continued throughout numerous turns of quora around the cremation platform. Through gathering consecrated barley scattered on the tiles; through selecting morsels of charred fabric brought down by the monks cleaning the cooling stupa; through offering another haphazard kata; through rejoining the troupe and exchanging notes on the day; through saying a final prayer with Jigme Rinpoche as he passed on his way out. And then. And then we said, “ So we go?”

And I found myself rooted to the spot. All day I felt nothing or felt fine or felt wistful or felt empty. Plus a little static and some tinny background wailing. But when it came time to leave, the wailing became a battle cry; the static became an electric crackle down the wires, and I could not move.

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I stood with one foot on the stairs and thought, “You could switch off the volume, throw down a bucket of ice, and force yourself to go–or not.” I chose “–or not.” The crackle became a hum, the wailing stayed a wailing, and I felt myself enveloped. This is accepting Rinpoche’s love; this is the feeling of being carried, “up the levels,” as Wendelin said. And with it, enormous gratitude and enormous regret. Gratitude for all we can receive and do receive. Regret for everything we cover in static and lose to our own confusion.

I made it down the stairs. I made it through the rain into the taxi and back to the hotel. I made it to my bed, where I sobbed a while and practiced a while and then tried to just light a candle in my heart and let it be. I made it to the dinner table where we played paper football, practiced reading Tibetan, and talked about everything except the meaning of this day. I made it here, to you, with some kind of story. What I wonder is this, “How will I make it from here on out? What will I keep from all of this?” I know that Rinpoche is with me. That the qualities of mind are limitless. How often will I be able to drop to my knees, let devotion wash over my static, and carry me up a level? I don’t know. Here goes.

Day 5: Karmapa Comes And Meaning Comes

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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.

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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.’”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 3: First Meeting–Shar Minub

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pilgrimage Happens

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

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

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

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

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

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