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.

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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To Do Something

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After all the sadness and whirlwind (though neither of those things is really, technically over), I decided it was high time to take all that emotive madness and use it to do something instead of just being bowled over all the time.

So, I’m going to Nepal. For Shamarpa’s cremation at the end of this month. And I’m going to write, draw, and share all about it, right here. For those who can’t be there. For those who didn’t even realize they might want to be there. But trust me, you want to be there. It’s going to be awesome. Sixty thousand people, a cartload of meditation masters, an epic monastery, and a modern city, all together in Kathmandu Valley of the Himalayas. Also momos and possibly yaks. A grand farewell to a king amongst men and one of the kindest humans I have ever met.

And, um, between now and then, mad fundraising to make it happen.

Please, please, please consider helping to make this project real and bring this dream– this exchange, this story–to life. Find out more; make a contribution: go here. The project is called To Dare To Offer and I’m crowdfunding through KissKissBankBank. I have 22 days to raise 1800 euros. It’s an all-or-nothing game: either I raise it all or I don’t get a centime. Take it away, friends!

title*Photo credit in the first image to Thule G. Jug, photographer and producer for The Karmapa Documentary Project.