Daily Recommended Values

photoA good frame [but which translates better into English as “framework”]

(…metaphorical, eh?)

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Daily Recommended Values

Ok, this time it is about art.

I mentioned a new drawing series back in the day, when it first got cooking. I thought then about posting each picture as I created them, day-by-day. But somehow it was both too rigorous and too personal.

Each image is a wish for the day–a need, or a thing that would do good. Thus the title, which I picked out while trying to figure out the French translation for absolutely everything in my early months here; in French, the most common term for nutritional “daily recommended values” is “apports journaliers recommandés.”

There are so many kinds of nutrition that we need in a day. And also, the metaphor just makes me chuckle. Considering art and life and everything…the same way I consider breakfast cereal. Sometimes you just have to bring a little levity to the table.

So, as a way to process my life and keep a connection with the practice of making things, I decided to do one drawing a day capturing a little bit of the day’s flavor. It’s become a kind of visual journal, subtitled in French as a nod to my slow but steady process of figuring out how to live in a foreign language and a foreign country. It’s been over a year and a half since I started the project, and the beginning is far enough away that I feel like the process of creating the images each day won’t be affected by the idea of the viewer if I start sharing them.

So, the first installment of Daily Recommended Values:

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All My Ducks in a Row

At Ten-Thirty

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This is my human heart. It is essenceless, and me too, but that doesn’t keep it from beating inside me. This is me, at ten-thirty at night–bedtime if I were smarter and less attached to my attachments–listening to Shakey Graves and thinking about desire.

My friend Claire told me Tuesday, “It’s crazy, desire. I don’t even know what for.” And me neither. I get that. I mean, I could name a thousand things and the list would be unfinished to the nth degree.

A good night’s sleep-to be held close and tight-warm ocean water enveloping me-candle light in an empty room-dancing by myself for hours without having to wonder about whatever comes next… I want eternity, actually. I want the opposite of impermanence. I want the game of life and death and ignorance to stop for a minute here. I want to press pause and boogie in my underwear without there being any consequences.

But life ain’t like that. It’s all a big in-between. Or uncountable, indivisible little in-betweens. Every moment leads to another damn moment and whatever comes, I get to live, however I’m predisposed to live it. Most of the time, it ain’t like boogying in my underoos, that’s for sure. It’s not bad, either. Rich you know. Teaches me stuff, too. Which is the point of course. But it smacks of impermanence. That comes too fast for the good things and comes at a pace that only questionably qualifies as movement for the hard things.

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I had a conversation tonight that literally sent me reeling to the ground. It was surprising to see how much the body takes in. Facing some one talking at me loudly, not permitting me to respond, totally caught up in a fixed vision. The anger wasn’t directed at me, fortunately, but it still felt painful to absorb it all. I didn’t want to push back, but I didn’t know how to disengage the anger in front me, and probably I couldn’t have if I tried, and I didn’t know to finish the conversation and just walk away either (hard when some one won’t let you talk). I almost fainted, could feel my heartbeat slowing, and my vision getting dark.

What do you do, when you just don’t know how to be with reality? I can’t help but wonder if most of my activity is devoted to avoiding this knowledge. And yet, the whole purpose of a life in the dharma is to face that and learn to master it. I really hope it’s working. Otherwise, this life is major bogus. So that’s me, offering–and supplicating–the best I can, despite all my distraction and desire.

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And this is hibiscus fennel buns and a bowl of hummus, for girl’s brunch tomorrow. Which signifies, if you’re wondering, trying to keep connected with what is, in all its impermanent glory. Good things, hard things, mundane things, things I dunno how to handle. We gotst to keep on keepin’ on. Ain’t got no choice; might as well make this run count for something.

Oh, and hey, apologies for last week’s absence. Still adjusting to the new schedule of life with communications biz plus Bodhi Path study group, and occasional peeps who come to visit, and whatever else life can throw at me (let’s not talk about trying to pass my French driver’s license exam…these people are nuts for regulating minutiae. Effin’ socialists…). Anyhow, I’m trying to figure out this thing called discipline, but it’s um, a work in progress, if you know what I mean.

Day 8, Rather Late: Homecoming

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We got into Paris at 8 p.m. This is the sky from the parking lot at Charles de Gaulle. We (meaning several people who are not me) drove home in the darkness and we stumbled into our beds around 4 a.m.

And then. And then life as we know it restarted. Just like that. I woke up at seven to practice and eat breakfast to be at the Lama House by ten to change the laundry and clean the bathrooms. I promised myself to clean my own home and I did, for the first time since I moved in practically, at least in any way involving a mop and the mattress cover. Suddenly I look up and it’s three days later.

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In French we say, “Bienvenue à la maison.” Welcome to the house. It’s a way to invite some one into a space, but also the culture of a place. I feel like this right now. Welcome back to Dhagpo. Welcome home. Only my home isn’t the way I left it because I’m not the way I left it.

The humidity of the Dordogne feels light compared to Kathmandu. I can still feel the colors of the drapery in the temples and smell the grease of the butter lamps. The sleepy quiet of the hotel lobby and the hum of mosquitoes stay in my memory. And more than that.

I see Wendelin’s face and all the questions I didn’t get to ask come rushing in. I see the charred mouth of the stupa and all the questions I didn’t get to ask come rushing in.

In the airport in Doha, there is a food court, probably designed by some hired Americans to simulate the best and most convincing of the West. Standing in line at the coffee shop, I said, “We could be anywhere. We could be where I come from in the States. This looks just like Century City.” And later, sitting around cardboard cups of frozen yogurt, I closed my eyes and remembered all the frozen yogurts that have ever come before. All the lonely, peaceful afternoons sitting on wrought iron benches in the sun or walking down the main street of Santa Barbara, wondering what life is for and allowing myself a moment to experience something sweet, by myself, just because. Because the world is too vast, the questions too profound, and the road too long not to pause and just let yourself be every once in a while.

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Except, since I’ve been at Dhagpo, or recently anyway, I’ve forgotten how. There’s no froyo in the Dordogne, or anyway not close to me. And there’s always an impromptu meeting, an e-mail to write, an Excel spreadsheet to fill. I spent ten hours in the kitchen today.

And it’s not that it’s not right, and it’s not that it’s not the activity of the bodhisattvas, and it’s not that it’s not the choice that I made. It’s just…something’s missing. Or, rather, perhaps, I am missing something. Coming here, meeting you all, meeting myself–there’s something there. Something important. It’s another kind of activity, at once more gentle and more violent because it is not a task or a responsibility, but rather an act of faith.

Writing, drawing–any form of interpretive creation–is an act of trust. Making a thing that reflects one’s life is daring to reflect on what we have lived and striving to reformulate it to express both what we have seen and what we have learned. And putting that into the world is trusting others with our own attempts to make sense of our experience.

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Shamar Rinpoche gave a lot of specific instructions before he left. The instruction he gave me was to train to teach. I didn’t get the chance to check with him what means and methods he intended, but I’m trying to understand through the writing he left behind and the instructions he gave others. And from what I can gather, the traditional tools of language, texts, philosophy, transmission, and meditation are as important as we all tend to think they are. But I’ve also seen an enormous emphasis on respecting our individual gifts and tendencies as a means to progress, and on not limiting ourselves to the expected in order to move forward. Shamarpa always advocated an authentic Dharma over a culturally accepted or a precedented one. He was a proponent of what works and consistently reminded us that we had to verify the teachings through our own examination.

At the same time, there’s an equally strong warning not to confuse a personal concept with the true nature of the Dharma. When we move in a direction based on our own perception, ignoring  the moderation of our teachers and community, we risk making a mistake and wasting a whole lot of time.

So I find myself here. Looking at the pre-fab aspect of my activity and the handmade one (the nuts and bolts of life at Dhagpo that I know are beneficial and the creative, connective work that I have experienced allows me to test my understanding of the teachings and move forward), plus the traditional aspects of the path, i.e. formal study and practice. And what I can see is that I don’t know how to nourish each of these meaningfully and consistently and still find time to sleep and love and be healthy.

Bienvenue à la maison. I guess this is the work we have to do. When Shamar Rinpoche died, the first thought I had was, “It’s time to grow up now.” Maybe this is what that means. I don’t know how this can all work out, but it has to and I trust him. All I can do is give it time and give it space and keep watching until the right answers bob their heads or tip their hats.

In the meantime, I can’t thank you all enough for being with me on this journey, the specific trip to Nepal, and the vaster path of this life and the work that it concerns. I would never dare or bother to do this if I were only doing it for me and on my own. Having you guys around shows me that I have something to give and teaches me the embracing sweetness of accepting what others have to give. I think this might be love.

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 4: Newsnewsnews

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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.”

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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.

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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

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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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The Stars Are There Too

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Apparently things are still up in the air.

The Nepalese government is having hearings or sessions or discussions or some such things, and I’m cooling my jets on political opinionism. Everybody’s got their life to live, their priorities to look after. Being upset about situations that I cannot change or that I have done what I can to change is not a priority.

I’ve been wondering a lot lately what politics really means. Aren’t we all inevitably striving to accomplish our own goals in line with our own values? Perhaps, but distinctions can still be made. Google defines politics like this:

“The activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.”

If we take this for definition, politics is the activity of people whose goals and values are dualistic and self-centered: me and my people. The goal of Buddhism is to break free from dualism and clinging to the idea of one’s self. For me there’s a contradiction between valuing my teachers and their teachings and identifying with and feeling a need to defend my lineage and our heritage. The purpose of the lineage, the whole reason it’s been kept alive and why it matters that it remain intact is to benefit all beings without exception. So, uh, maybe it’s time to give up on the sectarianism. I can belong to a tradition without naysaying or begrudging any others.

That said, I do hope that the cremation can take place in Nepal. But hopefully for the right reasons. Because Shamarpa’s monastery is there–because it would be good if his cremation and the monument that will remain after can help develop positive activity there.

But beings will do as beings do, and we each have to live out the consequences of whatever states of mind we cultivate. I, for one, am trying to give up on righteousness and illwill. So whatever happens happens. At least if everything is up in the air, the stars are there too to light the darkness.

**This post is part of a larger project culminating in a week of creative journalism in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal chronicling the cremation (possibly from afar) of the Tibetan spiritual master Shamar Rinpoche. To find out more or make a donation to this project, go here.

 

Waiting For News

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It’s stopped raining for the moment, but I thought I might be fighting a power outage to get this post up. It’s been thundering since yesterday and my last foray from the office to the Lama House left my shoes soaked through to pointlessness. I can’t help it; the storm makes me think of Shamarpa. Bringer of storms. Of sitting in the same place two months ago waiting for the electricity to come back so I could type up the last few menu plans in preparation for his arrival at Dhagpo. The anticipation, the anxiety, the joy. Gratitude.

I’m wearing the same dress today that I was wearing the day he died. I remember thinking through a tear-filled haze, “Why did I put on a black dress today? I didn’t mean to be in mourning.”

This time I chose it on purpose. There had been some pseudo-news trickling through the grapevine that today we’d find out with finality whether or not the cremation would be in Nepal or not. It felt like a tribute to wear this dress, though I was hoping for better news than last time. Of course, in reality, there was no news. Just the realization that even if I someday finish mourning Shamarpa’s physical death, I’m still going to spend my whole life mourning the daily death of all my expectations and desires. And it’s not a bad thing, just another habit to integrate.

Part of me thinks, “Maybe I should invest in some more black.” And part of me thinks, “If I’m going to spend my whole life in mourning, maybe I’ll give up black entirely. There’s no point in overdoing it.” And then the absurdity of this line of thought kicks in and I realize that philosophizing my fashion choices is just another way to express sadness. And whatever color I wear, life is still coming for me.  Which makes it time to take all my melancholy and go work on the wedding cake I’ve got to make for 130 people before I leave town. Because learning to take care of here and now is what will carry me through all the rest.

**This post is part of a larger project culminating in a week of creative journalism in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal chronicling the cremation (possibly from afar) of the Tibetan spiritual master Shamar Rinpoche. To find out more or make a donation to this project, go here.