To Hold On And Let Go

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This is me letting go of frustration and disbelief, anger even. I have a hard time believing that human beings can be so at odds, and yet it appears we can. It’s strange to be Chinese by blood and culture and feel so completely alienated by the political choices of the Chinese government. It’s strange to be upset with an entity as abstract as a government. It’s strange to find myself drawn into a story of global politics when I’ve always tried to keep my nose pointed in the direction of things my hands can actually touch and change.

Here’s one for the history books. I’m offering you a petition. I generally make a habit of staying away from protests and petitions. I find it difficult to obtain the level of information I feel is necessary to take a stand for any issue and to declare that such-and-such a thing is right or wrong. I also have doubts about the efficacy of such means. Does it really make a difference if a few thousand people sign this electronic document that the person it’s addressed to may never see?

I’ll tell you what. I don’t know. I do know that Western political pressure can have an effect on politics in other places, as this power is not always used to good effect. I also know that at the end of the day this issue isn’t about one person or country being wrong or right. For me, it’s about thousands of people who are grieving, and the anguish they will bear for a loss with no real conclusion, no final goodbye. Maybe it’s better not to mix sentiment with politics. Maybe I don’t so much give a damn today. I’m willing to hold on to a little disgruntlement if it can help others in this time of loss.

To sign the petition for Nepal to allow Shamarpa’s body to enter the country, go here.

To read a slightly informal, but fairly informative article about the background of this issue, go here.

**This post is part of a larger project culminating in a week of creative journalism in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal chronicling the cremation (or maybe not–I guess we’ll see) of the Tibetan spiritual master Shamar Rinpoche. To find out more or make a donation to this project, go here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safe travels teacher. Shamarpa chenno (heed me).

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

In A Mad World

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

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

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

So there’s that.

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

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

I think I’m pretty much stuck there.

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

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

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

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

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

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.