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.

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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.

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.

 

Turning Back The Clock

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Last night most of the Western world gained an hour’s sleep. I woke to chatter of birds rather than the subtle sound of early morning darkness. I woke rested, which I needed, and spent most of the morning working on a new drawing. I haven’t made time for art in the last couple weeks and the simple fact of curling into my corner chair and spreading colored pencils across the teeny expanse of my desk (a scrap of chip board nailed to the wall of my caravan) felt nourishing in ways I can’t explain.

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This is a strange phenomenon I often undergo. An inability to devote time to things that support clarity of mind when I don’t understand what their purpose is other than that and when I don’t understand what it is about them that centers me. Like meandering walks in the woods and through the micro-villages speckled across our nearby hillsides. Until last Wednesday, I hadn’t taken a walk just to walk in months. Rambling amongst the old stone houses and mossy rocks, I let go of tensions and expectations I hadn’t even realized I was holding onto.

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Often in the Buddhist world, we talk about how the goal of meditation practice is not “peace.” It is the ability to rest with the nature of mind–be it calm, be it tempestuous, or be it otherwise. Because I’m not totally sure whether certain things fall into the “peace” category or the “nature of mind” category, I often hesitate to devote time to them, fearing I could be using my hours more wisely.

In one of my classes this week, we talked about the simple (but generally ignored in the daily unfolding of life) fact that death can arrive at any moment. It was a bit like the Buddhist version of the first time I heard the statistic about how many people die in car crashes every day, and all of a sudden I realized, “That could be me. Now.” It is easy to forget, it almost seems necessary to forget, in the moment-to-moment activity of being a person.

IMG_2385 And yet, when I forget this fact, I wind up trying to hold on to everything. All the information I might need in a day. All the tasks I could accomplish. All the wisdom I could develop. To forget that I can die, that I will die, that I might die today, is to believe that, instead of dying, I might be able to hang on to all of my interests, all of my dreams, and all of my desires with no end in sight. Which is heavy, that.

Which leads me to a place where–even when I am engaged in an activity that clearly counts as “productive,” like studying or working on planning for the kitchen–in my head I’m all over the place, trying to keep track of a million things at once, and often devoting half of my energy to agonizing over the fact that I might be failing to do so accurately.

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Sometimes, rationalizing what is good and why is not helpful. Sometimes, it’s just a trap, a way to keep running in circles, feeling like we are getting somewhere because we can’t see that the course only loops back on itself. Sometimes, our belief in the future becomes a reliance on the future, which then becomes a habit of putting aside activities that ground us in the present because we don’t know what value they purport for said imagined future.

It bothers me that I don’t know what art is for. It bother me that I can die, that I will die, that I might die today. And it also bothers me that I don’t really know how to integrate that information into the business of living. But since I can’t turn back the clock more than one hour a year, it seems the best approach is just to keep working on it for the time that I’ve got.

What You Cannot Do

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I don’t know if I’ve ever been so scared in my life as when I first took the Metro in Paris, by myself. The day before, my host mom, Rosine, had taken me to the station to make sure I got the right card for all the places I needed to go, had found me a map, pocket-sized to keep me from looking like a tourist, and had double checked that I understood how the lines were marked and which way they went. She even took the trip with me to the language school and walked me right up to the door, despite the fact that it was Sunday and the place wasn’t even open. When Monday came, I arrived without incident. All my fears that I would take the wrong metro – get horribly lost, be stranded interminably in an unknown quarter of the city, find myself with insufficient language skills to clarify my plight – were for naught. However, I suspect that, if not for Rosine’s caretaking and instruction, I might well have done just that.

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Through all of the three months that I was in France that first time, Rosine was my rock. For the duration, I was shaky on my feet. I was just a kid, learning to play the part of an adult, figuring out what it means to take care of myself, and starting to ask what it means to be responsible to and for others. I felt like an anomaly, an untamed California child, bursting with passion, ambition, and uncertainty. I wanted to be a real artist; I wanted to be worldly; I wanted to be feminine and adult and intelligent. I read Kerouac and Calvino, passed my days in museums and parks, gazing at masterpieces, eating macarons, and wondering when it would all start to make sense.

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When I faltered, when I needed comfort, or just whenever, Rosine was there. She made giant pots of Lapsang Souchong and sat with me over cup after cup, talking through my teenage angst and the confusion of being an American in Paris with no real purpose to my stay. Despite language school, despite a little doodling at a local atelier, everywhere I went felt like a check mark on a travel brochure, and everyone I met seemed to be another transient foreigner.

It was Rosine who told me about les Café Philos, where people meet to talk philosophy. She told me about the neighborhood where I would find all the commercial art galleries. She convinced me to make the trek to FIAC, the contemporary arts fair held in some distant corner of the city. She kept the freezer stocked with ice cream and the fridge stocked with cornichons and rillettes, on the premise that everyone could profit from their presence, but really because she knew I loved them and that they helped cheer me up on days when I couldn’t make sense of who I was or who I might become.

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In the years since I left Paris, I’ve kept in touch with Rosine through holiday letters and occasional e-mails. I still feel the twangs of teenage insecurity when I look back on those days, and I give thanks to goodness for the support I had to get through it. But, also, life rolls on, and I don’t think much about that time anymore. I pause often to remind myself to get in touch again soon, yet I only manage to do so once in a blue moon. I’ve been in France three weeks already, and I haven’t managed to actually send the e-mail that says, “Hey, I’m close by, how’s things? I miss you.”

And then yesterday I got an e-mail from my Dad. He had lunch with old family friends, the ones who had first introduced me to Rosine and her family when I was finishing high school early and planning what adventures to embark upon. They kept in touch more regularly and had new news of things.

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The cancer Rosine had been in remission from has come back in full force. At this moment, she hasn’t even the strength to walk. In all probability, the disease will kill her, and maybe soon.

It’s a funny thing that’s not funny at all. I wish I could send all the letters I never sent, write all of the emails I didn’t make time to write, explain ten or twelve or fifty-thousand more times how grateful I am for the love I received. I wish I could go back to that time and be less angsty, less chaotic, less troubled and turbulent. I wish all of these things for myself because I don’t know how or what to wish for her. What can you do when some one you love is in pain? What can you do when anyone at all is passing out of this world and into unknown quarters?

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I’ll tell you what. You can do your damnedest to let go of your guilt and regret, to move past your fear and sorrow, and to ask, what, what can I possibly offer? I am trying to do this right now. It’s not so easy. What I can do is call and express my love and support, and ask if it is helpful if I come for a short while to say hello and also possibly goodbye. I can make wishes for her pain to be less than it might otherwise be and for her journey to be beneficial, whatever it may be. What I cannot do is change what faults I may have committed. What I can do is let go of my preoccupation with my own actions and focus on some one else’s needs.

Another thing I cannot do is change the reality that, once born, we all must die. Here I think of Dharma, where it is taught that death is a doorway. Maybe what I can do, then, is my very best to see some one I love safely through, with as much grace and care as I can muster in the face of mortality and the unknown.

Arch **Note: All the photos in this post were taken in Paris in 2005, during the time I stayed with Rosine and her family.