Heritage

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Our study retreat finished this week. On the last day, Khalsang Puntsok told a story about the end of the Buddha’s life. The Buddha, with his attendant Ananda, went into to the forest to find the right place to pass into his final meditation and leave this life. As he lay between two trees, the gods sent a rain of flowers and the trees bowed down. The Buddha asked Ananda if Ananda thought that this pleased him.

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Ananda said yes and the Buddha, replied that, no, this was not what was important to him. Then he asked Ananda to summon all of his disciples. The Buddha’s disciples gathered from near and far, but there was one monk who did not come. Others set out to fetch him, but the Buddha said to let him be. He was practicing and it was good that he continue, and this, in fact, is what the Buddha wished for, that his disciples would be diligent and practice what he taught them.

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This is about the right conclusion for us now. We have eleven months to work through all we received in order to be ready for the follow-up next year. Pretty straightforward.

But I admit, all through the story, I was expecting, in part, a different emphasis. A famous aspect of the story of Ananda and the Buddha’s parinirvana is that the Buddha gave Ananda several opportunities to request for him to stay and not to die at this time, but Ananda did not realize until it was too late.

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I thought of Shamar Rinpoche and how many of us must have asked ourselves what chance we missed to make the right request. Listening to Khalsang Puntsok these last five weeks, I realize how close we are in many ways, all of Shamarpa’s students. In Nepal this summer, the monks and nuns from Asia were mostly a sea of burgundy to me. Hearing KP tell stories of playing soccer with Shamarpa, of a torrential downpour that stopped on a moment when Rinpoche addressed a gaze to the sky, of the stories that Shamarpa told them at Kalimpong Shedra that they are telling us now here in France…it’s strikes me how little separates us, how much we are indeed family.

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We didn’t grow up speaking the same language or eating the same food. I am sure many of us never imagined we would see or set foot in the other’s home country, but when we meet to talk about the Dharma, we share the same roots. And whatever chances we may have had or missed or that were never really there, the Shamar Rinpoche we knew is gone, and in his place he left us his teachings and also each other.

And so the Buddha had it right, as usual. What there is to do is to share them and to live them, together. Also to remember that our heritage is not just that of Shamar Rinpoche or the Kagyu lineage, but that of the Buddha himself. And the family is not only those of us who love and learn from the same masters, but all beings, whatever their creed or calling.

I guess that’s about where five weeks of philosophy gets me; now it’s back to the salt mines to put it all to work. The steam-infusing vacuum machine and pre-Lhosar deep clean await!

Rainstorms, Rhubarb Crumble Tart, And The Busted Past Conditional

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Yesterday at lunchtime someone told me it was good to see me smiling again, and it made me want to shout or cry or run away. Instead I just shook my head and said, still smiling, “Oh come on, there are already so few places where it’s okay to feel things…” and left it at that. And he just affirmed that he was glad that I was doing better, and I spent the rest of the day working out why that’s not okay with me. Let me try and explain.

If you saw me crying in the temple in the evening, soggily saying my prayers. If you saw me climbing the hill to the Institute with a closed face and a cloud knit into my brow. If you passed me midmorning at a picnic table with pens and paper when I could have been, maybe should have been, in some one else’s natural order of things, already tapping away at a computer in the cold darkness of the office. If you heard me singing hymns at the top of my voice while hanging out laundry to dry. If you worried that I was not okay. If you wondered what was wrong.

Let me assure you. I’m okay. But lots of things are wrong.

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My socks have holes in them. The milk I drank with breakfast makes my stomach hurt. I can never seem to conjugate the conditional past tense correctly in French, and it worries me that I seem to use it so often—all the things I would have done, or should have done. I hung my laundry on the line but it keeps raining just enough that the afternoon sun isn’t enough to dry my clothes and they’ve been out there four days now.

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It’s been a year since my parents decided to get divorced and even though we’re all mostly adapted now, I still have to work hard not to choke when some one kindly says, “It must be hard for you being so far from home. You must miss your family,” and I say, “There’s not much sense in missing my family. The family I grew up with doesn’t exist anymore.”

It’s been three-and-a-half months since my teacher died and I try not to talk about it too much because I wonder how much you can grieve publicly before people tire of you or tune you out. Or maybe I just don’t know how to talk about my grief because I’m no longer willing to treat it as something to get over.

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Things are always wrong. Sometimes it’s big things and it’s definitely always little things. I have spent my life trying to forget this, to look on the bright side and wait for things to get better. And they always do. And then they un-get better later. And every time I experience loss anew, it feels like the first time. I’m as shocked and disoriented as I ever was. Doubt rises, confidence ebbs, and the ability to move forward temporarily suspends. With time, and softness, and grieving, I find my way back. I relearn how to live with a family that’s pieces instead of a unit, without the physical presence of the teacher who’s guidance I seek daily, with holes in my socks, with a stomach ache, wet laundry, and a busted conditional past tense.

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I get so used to it that I start to forget. From one day to the next, comfort sneaks back. I feel better not because I’ve learned how to live with loss but because I haven’t lost anything new lately and I’ve returned to ignoring the old losses. But loss is not a jar that you can shake, that you can take things out of and put things into. Loss is an ephemeral thing. A stinging pain brought to life by the meeting of a wish for something and the reality of the absence of that thing. Loss is wishing for things to be some other way than they are. Loss is a refusal of the fact that this world is dynamic down to its very atoms, that we don’t even understand what makes matter be there, and yet we relate to all things as though they should be there when we want them, miss them, need them.

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And I’ll tell you what. Loss hurts less when I remember that it’s normal. That for all my scientific and philosophical training, the table looks like a table to me, a thing I can rely on. I’m expecting it to be there tomorrow and the day after and five seconds from now. And if one day my table burns or breaks or yields to thieving hands, in its absence I will still refer to it as a wholesome thing.

My table will still exist for me in the memory of my table, even though it never was more than a collection of whirring atoms in a certain arrangement in a certain time and place, and maybe not even that. And my family as an integral thing exists in my memory, which is what allows me to think of it as a broken thing today. And because my teacher was once with me, now I feel he’s gone. My life is a series of labels that I do not want to change. But the world we experience is nothing other than the expression of change.

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And I haven’t learned how to smile about that yet. I’ve learned how to sing about it, write about it, dance, paint, think, and cry about it. But I have not yet learned how to feel joy without forgetting sadness. I can do contentment, gratitude, even love mixed with sadness. But joy’s too shiny and seductive for me to live it and leave space for loss. I’m working on it, but at least for now, I have a favor to ask.

Please, don’t wish me to feel better. I will, one day or another. But also, what goes up must come down. And for the time being, the fall hits hard. So please, let me be shadowy—rainstormed—if need be. Let me be quiet and dark, tear-stained and tired-faced, when the time calls for it. It’s for a good cause. I’m trying to understand impermanence.

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À propos of nothing…rhubarb tart. I could stretch it and make a connection. Rhubarb is a seasonal vegetable, an obvious sign of the changing times; summer into fall is the kind of impermanence I can wrap my head around, even if this Indian summer we’re living in the Dordogne is, in its own way, another kind of denial. But whatever the temperature, the leaves are falling off the trees and the acorns are hitting my roof with an insistent “thwack!” and change is, you know, happening to everything.

This tart is just right for an Indian summer that hangs on into October. Bright and fruity with late-season rhubarb and plums, but sidling into autumn with a warming crumble topping. Perfect for afternoon tea as reward for staying awake through long hours in meetings (that’s how we did it), or also just because, or also with ice cream for dessert or with coffee for breakfast. You decide.

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Recipe… Continue reading

Change Comes

IMG_1618This is me learning Tibetan. Slowly, but learning. They say that Tibetan grammar developed to carry the teachings. This phrase, it’s poetry and philosophy together. That second character, the horizontal one with the squiggle underneath…it does this: “shows that an object and action are of the same nature.” Water, of the same nature, being whirled.

Movement and matter are no different. There is no subject in this phrase, but if there were, it would be transformed by this unimposing little preposition. They call it a ladeun, and it’s grammar for impermanence.

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Butter, fire, of the same nature, being burned. There is no difference between the action of burning and the nature of fire. The nature of this fire is that it is burning. Combusting, incinerating, transforming, changing. Butter is not burning into some other object that is static and fixed. Butter is burning into fire and fire itself is burning–again: combusting, incinerating, transforming, changing. There’s no god damn thing to hold on to.

I think of the Buddha of Infinite Light. The qualities of discriminating awareness and understanding of phenomena. The Shamarpas are the physical manifestation of all this. And though all physical things are ladeuned into other things, the qualities of mind remain. Change comes and forms go and wisdom abides. It’s a kind of wisdom that you can’t hold on to, but it’s there all the same.

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

 

Honey Lemon Financiers and Lighting the Dark

A couple of nights this week, I had the pleasure of making dinner for a lovely gentleman named Wally. My mom personal chefs for Wally and his old friend Frances. When my mom and my dad went away for their anniversary this week, I offered to stand in as a cook.

Wally is eighty-six years old. He lost his wife, Claire, just three weeks ago. Though dinner is usually served in the dining room, Frances decided to rest that night, and Wally asked if he could eat dinner in the kitchen with me for company. It’s a funny and typical part of being human that each of us tends to feel our own suffering most acutely. I am intensely sad for Wally’s loss; I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a person that you’ve loved nearly all your life and shared and grown with. But I also couldn’t help feeling just a little envious. Sixty-one years. How can you know, when you look at some one, with all the thrill and ignorance of youth, that you want to be beside them for the next sixty-one years, and more if you could have it?

Paper cranes symbolize luck and longevity. I find them soothing, and I tend to make multitudes of them in times of loss and uncertainty.

But it’s easy to ask that after the fact. He told me, “I asked her to marry me for four years before she finally said yes; she had a wartime divorce and she wanted nothing to do with it.” And even when you do find people and places and things to occupy time that make you happy, it’s a rare happiness that doesn’t engender some sadness. He said, “If she had married me the first time I asked, we would’ve celebrated our sixty-fifth.”

I find it both comforting and disappointing to be reminded that there is no getting out of some suffering in this life. I neither want to deny sadness nor grow more out of self-pity. I want to be with life the way it is, and uplift it where I can. If I’m being honest, I am shaky on my feet right now. From relationship and career changes, from loss of community and the uncertainty of youth. These things happen. But as Stanley Kubrick said, “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

For Wally, there is finding consolation in the company of others and a small cake made with love. For me, there is the beauty of objects and the hope that I may be of comfort to others when I can.

Recipe after the jump… Continue reading