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.

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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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Day 2: We Arrive, And That’s About All

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Sitting on the other side of the airplane from Doha to Kathmandu. Katya’s semi-profile against the twilight through the window. I can safely say we made it. Through maybe the easiest international customs experience I’ve ever had and the most amicable customs officers. A brick interior, low light, and all the desks made from varnished wood patterned with cutout stars. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto, and not the Dordogne either.

We arrived in the darkness of early nighttime, after nine p.m. I always notice the air of a new place before all the rest. The air here is dense but not heavy, like lace you can walk through. Tribhuvan International Airport smells like egg noodles cooked in broth and men’s cologne. Which is only reasonable, considering I saw about three other women besides us on the plane. I think it’s reasonable to say Loïc impressed the crowd, travelling alone with us four ladies.

I’d forgotten from India the cultural fact of being stared at. It’s not comfortable, but I find it less aggressive than I used to. I’m surprised, though we only saw the sights and smells and sounds from the taxi in the darkness, everything felt softer than I had imagined. Nepal is calmer than any other developing country I have visited, and certainly calmer at night. Poverty is still poverty–the trash piles, the half-built skeletons of construction projects, the hungry roving canines, the fluorescent-lit bodegas; these things remain.

I don’t know if it’s me or this country that’s different, maybe both, but I find it all less harsh and less surprising than I remember from India or Ghana or even Mexico at times. Somehow the open buildings, the rutted streets, the concrete corridors…they just look like some people’s homes. It’s not my home or the home that I know, but it’s some one’s place, loved and lived in like any other.

I don’t want to romanticize poverty, but I don’t want to denigrate the proprietors of this place, its society, or its culture. And what’s more, in many ways, one could say I’m a beneficiary of this culture. Gautauma Buddha was born in Nepal, which makes this place part of my heritage, the culture that I have chosen and embraced and to which I have consecrated my life.

What do I think of that? I don’t know. I know the lights of Swayambhu stupa on the hilltop, seen from the hotel terrace, fill me trust. I know the bats overhead and the cawing of the monkeys is as exotic as it ever was, and yet also just the landscape of a place, a history, and a transmission. I know I’ll wake up at five-thirty in the morning to meditate, then meet my companions, and go see our teacher’s monastery and practice with thousands of other disciples with whom I both share and don’t share many kinds of culture–European, Asian, American, Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana. But we share a goal—freedom—and a love—for our teacher. And through this, we learn. And that is enough.

 

**Logistical note. I’d heard there is wifi throughout Kathmandu, and I was hopeful that I would be able to post updates throughout the day. Unfortunately, internet access does not extend to the monastery, so unless I stumble upon another technical miracle, I may be limited to a single post in the evening. I’ll try to include as much as I can. Thanks for your patience and for coming along!

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.

 

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.

The Other Side Of The Road

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Today our little travel group had an organizational meeting. We debated on departure times for the drive to Paris, discussed the importance of granola bars, weighed the pros and cons of raincoats versus umbrellas, and set a time for visa application en masse. We joked about monsoons and the importance of foldable stools, considered the appropriate ratio of Euros, dollars, and Nepali rupees to best get us through customs and from the airport to the hotel, and mutually wondered when our travel agency was actually going to make us pay for their awesome services. We planned, we laughed, we parted ways.

We never once even posed the question, “What will we do if it’s not there?” If the cremation that we’ve put all this effort planning to be present for winds up being some where else.

In the end, there’s not really any question. We go. Whether or not the body is there, whether or not the fire and ashes and ceremony are there, the blessing is there. Blessing is in the flexibility of mind that we develop in adapting to impermanence, in the confidence and stability we gain by following through on a commitment even when the context changes, and in the trust and peace we nurture by turning upset and uncertainty into practice.

This is pilgrimage, whatever lies on the other side of the road.

**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.

And Then This

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So, apparently this is going on right now. Is it terribly unequanimous to go straight to, “Wtf Nepal?”

But of course the possibility that Shamarpa’s cremation won’t take place in Nepal, won’t take place at his monastery, won’t take place in a location that most students can fit and get a visa to…that goes way further than wtf Nepal. That gets into wtf politics, and wtf expectations, and wtf change, impermanence, and uncertainty.

So far I’m finding just one answer to all of this What THE F*CK. Devotion.

I’m not talking about blind faith or ostrich-style head-covering techniques. I’m talking about trust and confidence. That this could happen is…seriously inconvenient. Worse than upsetting. I’m being clevery snarky and cynical to lessen the latent panic that’s rising inside. Because panic has no place here. This is the true test of confidence.

Do I need the physical form of a teacher–even just a corpse to say goodbye to–to be present to his instructions, to consolidate my commitment? I wanna be all like, “Hell NO,” but really it’s more like, “Oh fine, no, I guess not,” in my most petulant, trembly-lip voice. But either way, no. I don’t.

Will I go to Nepal if the cremation isn’t there, if Rinpoche isn’t there? Could I even get a visa to India in ten days? Is it even worth trying? What do I do with the donations for the trip if I don’t go? What will my readers think? What story will I write?

I don’t know. But nothing’s final until it’s final, and this isn’t yet. So for now I’m sticking with confidence in whatever happens while waiting to see which way the cookie crumbles.

**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.

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.