Funfetti Cake And A Different Kind Of Mourning

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On Friday the Buddha’s relics went back to Paris after a year-and-a-half extended stay at Dhagpo. The fact that we got to hang on to them for so long (safekeeping while the Grand Pagoda where they stay normally underwent construction) was a blessing in itself. It doesn’t do to always want more. But I got so used to their presence. To knowing this manifestation of wisdom and physical piece of the Buddha himself was right nearby. To seeing their glittery little enclosure every Saturday, doing prostrations in the Institute and singing aspiration prayers with all the other aspiring folks. To walking quora all together and tucking some special chocolate I scoped out into the silver offering bowl.

I know the relics are technically just a manifestation, and that even if they are real, historical artifacts and extremely blessed, I can also access that blessing by connecting to the meaning whether they are here or not. But I’m not so good at that yet. And sparkly things inspire me. So, yeah, I’m gonna miss them. Loss number one for the week.

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Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of Shamar Rinpoche’s death (Tibetan calendar, if you’re worried I’ve lost my basic math skills). Similar to the relics, all the good he has put in place for all of us remains whether his physical presence is here or not. But it’s still hard to accept that I won’t ever get to have tea with him in his rocking chair-filled living room in Virginia or serve him his favorite French salami when he visits Dhagpo or sit in the Institute and listen to him crack jokes while he educates us all or feel the silence sweep through the hall as we sink into meditation with him. Or so many other things. Loss number two for the week.

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And also, my sister called me this week in tears to tell me that she needs time. That it’s hard that we live so far apart and we believe such different things at the very basis of our choices and that our paths have diverged so greatly in our short lives despite our deep love for each other. And so we’re taking space. Reflecting each on our own without the worry of having to figure out what to share or how or what moment with a nine-hour time difference and very busy, different schedules. We’re just…waiting to see what happens. And when things are a little bit more clear, we’ll pick up—not quite where we left off, but where we need to be. And this is good, and I’m proud of us for being mature enough to know that there are things we need to figure out on our own to make our relationship work, but also…loss number three for this week.

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And so I find myself grieving, but strangely, for things I have not truly lost. The strength and love we develop through our relationships stay with us, whether the people who taught us such care and resilience are physically present or not. I know this, and I have faith in this fact to carry me through the transitions. But I’m also wobbly on my feet. I’m used to having support I can connect with tangibly. All these various losses leave me only with inner strength and some fuzzy question marks about what those words even mean.

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And so I’m taking cliché flower pictures because it’s springtime and I have a camera and that seems to be what there is to do. And I’m making funfetti cake because it would make both Shamarpa and my sister smile if they were here and though I’m not sure what the Buddha would think of funfetti, I think he’d approve of the togetherness and gratitude that went into this cake.

Love you guys.

Recipe…

Continue reading

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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.

Giving Up MoMA

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Having a record of my thoughts is a strange phenomenon, and knowing I’ve let those thoughts out into the world to be seen by others makes it even more so. I clicked through some posts of the recent past to check out what I’ve been living, according to myself, and also to see what shape the blog and this narrative take over time. And I had the funny feeling of talking to two different people. One who’s tentative and questioning and willing to breathe deep and sigh out, blink at the flowers in the field and not understand things. And another who’s energetic and brimming with anticipation and trying to tie answers onto questions in the hopes of being able to put them in a drawer and slide it shut with a reassuring thunk.

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This art thing. It’s not an answered question.

I still want everything I’ve ever wanted from my art practice. Wealth, recognition, community, affirmation. I still cradle daydreams of Chelsea gallery openings and the Metropolitan Costume Gala. But looking up show submissions and reading contemporary art news isn’t really what I spend my time doing. Occasionally, once in a while, I browse the call-for-entries website and think about the opportunities I’m missing, and muse about the totally viable professional art career I could have if I just spent, I dunno… maybe ten hours a week would be enough. It’d be slow, but I could update my website, and start a real series, keep up with the industry, get in contact with other artists, improve my exhibition history. Okay, it would take more than ten hours a week. More like fifteen or twenty or nearly full time.

There’s this irony that kills me. I feel like I finally have the skills to succeed in the art world—the diligence, perseverance, the understanding that success is not about talent and it’s not about me on any level but actually about hard work and being in the right place at the right time. I’ve developed the resilience to not be crushed by critique or rejection (some of the time) and the perspective to bounce back in the moments when I am. I finally have the toolkit for this goal I’ve been cradling all of my life, and what do I with it? I just…let it go, I guess.

Maybe this is me grieving, again, publicly.

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The other day in a philosophy class, we were talking about how to carry out projects while dealing with impermanence. And just like that, I said this: “For me, creating a plan or carrying out a project in the face of impermanence is about having a long-term objective and being able to check in and see if my actions line up with my objective. For a long time I wanted to be a professional artist, and I had to ask myself what I needed to do for that. Show work, connect with people related to that, etc. Recently, that’s changed. Now what I want is to put art to work as a tool for reaching enlightenment. And I realize that the reason I’ve been so stressed for a while is because the pressure I’ve been putting on myself no longer lines up with the goal I have.”

And it was so simple. It slid out just like that in the past tense. And when I said it, I thought, “Yeah, that’s so it.”

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But there’s still some part of me that’s not ready to give up. That’s like, “Yeah, but I can have enlightenment and a show at the MoMA too, right?” And maybe I can, if we ignore the fact that enlightenment is really far away and what I’ll actually have, if I ever find myself in this position, is a step along the path and a show at the MoMA too. Thing is, even if I can have it, even if one day I might have it, clinging to the dream isn’t helping me.

Tomorrow we’re starting a two-week study retreat, picking up Mipham Rinpoche’s Gateway to Knowledge where we left off. I’m pretty sure we’re still somewhere in the middle of suffering, ahem, the first Noble Truth. And on the weekend we’ll be having this year’s round of Autumn Meetings. And the week after that my plan is to hunker down and pass driver’s ed, so I can get my French license in one more step of committing for real to this place and this path. Then there’ll be meditation retreat and budgets for next year and translation projects and so, so many good things that I’ve decided to do instead of spending thirty hours a week becoming an artist.

And all of this aching is just that: aching. Maybe I can’t change it yet, but I don’t want to hold on to it either. I want to give up the things I don’t need, so I can do the work that will change something. Me, others, my ignorance, our suffering at the hands of impermanence and our confusion about what that means.

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Maybe this is renunciation: cradling a tender spot until I finally give up wishing for things I am not willing to create. I’m going to die, you know, one of these days. And I can’t take the MoMA with me. There’s so much love in that dream—all I wish I could give through creation. Maybe I can give it, and the dream just needs a new direction.

The dharma is more durable and the lighting’s just as good.

(I’m not sure this pun is comprehensible. It’s partly a Buddhist joke and partly an in-my-head joke. In Buddhism, the wisdom of the Buddhas and the teachings are often compared to sunlight, which clears the obscurity of ignorance. And in my daydream, the lighting is that of the MoMA, which is perfect because, well…it’s the MoMA.)

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

Goodbye For Now

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We ship out on Saturday.

My flight is paid for. My visa’s been filed. The generous people filling in for me have the lowdown on what to do. The wedding cake I promised to make is ready to go.

What’s left to do? Laundry, for one thing. Sandwiches and granola bars for the road trip to Paris. Also packing and groceries and finishing organizing the house for the Rinpoche who will arrive, um, ostensibly before I do.

Also things that are a little less logistical and somehow a little more essential. I haven’t really been sleeping lately. I’m trying so hard to accomplish so many things that it’s easier not to sleep. I think I’ve also been trying to pretend that I’ve finished mourning and this trip is just about hommage and offering and connecting. It is about that–that’s at the heart of this journey. But it’s not whole story. Heartbreak and loss are still with me. Lately I’ve developed a resistance to them. I want to be done with emotions, with running into the same sadnesses that have yet to lose their futility, the same questions whose answers remain uncertain.

I’m not alone, but I feel alone. I am loved and surrounded by good and giving people. Yet inside, there is an aloneness that comes from knowing that only I can sort out the aching and confusion that are inherent in this life. Even a Buddha can’t make you enlightened. He shows the way, but it’s up to us to walk the path. As some great master in a text I can’t remember the name of wisely pointed out: The light of the Buddha’s wisdom is like the sun; it reflects off every body of water without exception. But um, there’s only so much the sun can do for a pond covered in leaves.

Which is a hard truth, and I’m living it lately. I think the best thing to do is be alone–physically, if I can find a moment or two–and use the quiet to flick off a couple leaves so I can feel the Buddha’s light.

I want to come back to you, from the road, on the road, with an open heart and a brimming ink well. I want to be the best witness I can be, a clear pond to reflect this moment back in all its grandeur and integrity. The purpose of this project, the intensity and consistency with which I’ve been writing leading up to this trip and the work I mean to do while I’m on the road, is about assembly and transmission. About allowing people to come together to take part in and benefit from this momentous occasion. For me it’s a form of offering, a way to receive all of your generous offerings of financial and moral support, and a way to connect us all to the vision and activity of a truly great being to benefit…well, everyone.

It seems worth it to take a couple days to reflect on the matter before diving in. Thanks for coming along; see you on the other side.

**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.

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.

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.

Ten Days Out

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It’s been a week and a half. I have been to Germany and back. I have said goodbye and I will keep saying it. I have felt so many things that I’m a little tired out on feeling. Mostly now what’s left are pictures and glimpses of memory.

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The sight of the funeral home and the thought of Shamar Rinpoche laughing at us, a motley mix in a mixed-up place. The temporary altar with two times a thangka of his image in traditional dress, and to its left a mural of Jesus and his disciples. We were in a Christian cemetery, the only place big enough and legal enough to keep his remains and all of us. A blend of Tibetan masters and Western disciples with few Western masters and Tibetan disciples. A bunch of French monastics in Germany, a crowd of Diamond Way practitioners at a Bodhi Path center and a handful of Americans from nowhere and everywhere.

After the evening ritual each day, we sat around laughing and crying, talking with people we’d heard of but never met or never heard of but were glad to meet. And one day some one said, “It’s just like him. To think, Dhagpo and the centers in France are going pretty well. The Bodhi Path is really developing nicely. Things are good with the Diamond Way centers. Now how do I get them to work together? Ah, I’ll die.”

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The resinous smell of formaldehyde and the feel of synthetic carpet against my skin as I prostrated before the casket. The wish to cry and the absence of tears. An internal ruefulness that says, “Fine. I’m here.” You dragged me out of my comfortable ambivalence. I was happily following the carrot of contentment in front of my nose before I met you. You got me involved in this whole mess of bodhisattva activity and being diligent for the benefit of beings, and just like that you’ve gone beyond. Not beyond where I can reach you. Not beyond where your teachings and protection can aid me and bolster me. But beyond where I can pester you with questions to make sense of things, beyond where I can take comfort in your physical presence.

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Karmapa coming from India. Arriving unexpected from the back gate. Me standing outside the funeral home on the hot stones, looking for my ballet flats amongst the sea of footwear on the shoe shelves and grumbling about dirty feet and disorganization. A ripple in the air that might have been his presence or might have been the crowd suddenly standing upright or both. He came striding down the cemetery path, robes flying out like wings or wind or downright disregard for the physics of reality that kept him from yet reaching his objective, the mortal remains of his teacher. He was as pale as ever, but with a darker expression. He looked like a king and a specter, powerful and present in this world but belonging to another. His grace undiminished, but on this day rife with sadness and resolve. Come to take up the legacy you leave behind.

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The sound of many voices in many moments, and the voice in my own head, repeating this sentence, “We have to grow up now.” Time to take care of each other. Time to care of the lineage. Time to take care of our teachers, our community, and the understanding that allows us to move forward instead of sliding back or simply staying in one place. Time to get over cultural differences and disparate histories. Time to move past needing recognition or affirmation. Time to grow up.

Not that it ever wasn’t. It’s just more obvious now.

***

The images are part of a drawing series I started in November; each drawing represents a wish for the day. In English, the captions are as follows:

De vous garder avec moi. To keep you with me.

Que tout soit une offrande. That everything would be an offering.

De rendre hommage. To pay homage.

De reprendre le fil. To pick up the thread.

De mûrir vite. To ripen quickly.

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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).

ksr-smile copyright

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