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!

Day 1: Dordogne>Paris>Doha

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I think it’s technically Day 2 already, but, having been on the road for nearly twenty-four hours, we’re gonna stick with Day 1. Thanks for your patience as things get rolling over here.

This is yesterday’s lunch, a final taste of Europe before embarking on a week in Asia. With any luck, the next food photo you see will be momos. (I can’t deny that right after hommage, practice, and community-building, the gastronomic aspect of this trip tempts the foodie pilgrim in me–culinary experiences can be spiritual too!).

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I’m writing you from Doha International Airport, in Qatar. It’s the first time I’ve ever been through the Middle East, and though the airport hardly counts as visiting, it’s nice to dip a toe in a culture that has long been distant and remains mysterious. Makes me curious to come back. Maybe it’s un-PC or un-feminist or uneducated to say it, but I find the abaya beautiful. The women floating by as columns of black seem confident and at ease. Of course, I’m just seeing a slice of upper class, Western-inflected culture from a sleep deprived, travel-delirious perspective, but this is the reflection that comes to mind.

It’s a good reminder that this journey is taking me elsewhere from what I know. Though the customs may be familiar through my study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism, the experience will be quite different in its actual cultural context, not mention the unprecented nature of this event.

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We’ve had a hell of a day+. We spent eight hours on the road yesterday, driving from Dhagpo to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, broken up by a lunch break on the grassy knolls of the rest stop. I felt grateful to be able to begin this trip by offering up a meal made with love for me and my travelling companions. Doing so allowed me to reflect on and set the tone of this trip.

We’re here to give, in both concrete and intangible ways. In concrete ways like homemade hummus, dolmas, sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, and a giant chocolate chip cookie cake. In intangible ways like wishes for health and safety and opening through this incredible journey.

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As loopy as a six hour flight and a seven hour layover and a four hour flight may leave us–with culture shock as an added bonus–it’s our intent to show up ready to help with whatever needs doing. Setting up, serving tea, just being present.

Part of pilgrimage is going to powerful places and benefitting from the charge of their energy and history. Another part, and maybe these aren’t separate things, is using the change of scenery and the effort expended to accomplish it as a way to reset our habitual thought processes. The place becomes a process for asking new questions and discovering new capacities.

What is devotion? Community? Service? Who do I become when I put these things at the forefront of my thoughts and actions? And how do I do that, anyhow?

Ask it. Answer it. However the answers come. Live it. Let it be.

This is the quest, and these are the notes from the road. Thanks for coming along.

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The Good Misery

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Here’s a Buddhist joke:

There are three kinds of pilgrimage:  a decent pilgrimage, a good pilgrimage, and a great pilgrimage. If you get there, pick up your bags, catch a bus, visit some sacred places, practice a bunch, and come home, it’s a decent pilgrimage. If you get there, lose your bags at the airport, breakdown in the middle of nowhere, get laid flat on your back by food poisoning, and barely make it home, it’s a good pilgrimage. If you get there–and die, it’s a great pilgrimage.

Contrary to evident appearance, the point of this joke is not that the path should be difficult. The path is as difficult as it is, and the point of this joke is actually that practice is about transforming obstacles into positive growth. As death is the biggest obstacle most of us will face in this life, turning that into practice would be revelatory. I’m, however, still hoping to come home in one, if slightly ravaged, piece.

The last time I went on pilgrimage in Asia involved getting attacked by bees–twice, a horrible bacterial infection of the stomach, and a fourteen-hour detour for an eight-hour car trip. So far, predictions for Nepal include ninety-degree weather, steaming monsoon rain, and one hundred thousand people in the same place. Pretty tame, but things tend to get exciting on the ground. I’m gearing up to be extremely flexible and as joyful as possible through whatever madness comes my way. As far as I see it, anything that happens on pilgrimage isn’t suffering; it’s just the good misery.

**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.

Pilgrimage Happens

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I got back a few days ago from almost two weeks of travelling, not just travelling, but pilgrimage, and I’m just now recovering.

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The landscape of the journey is chaos. Picture clouds of mosquitoes and an endless stream of nappy-haired child beggars, tragic and frustrating at the same time, as all are suffering, yet almost none can benefit from offerings you would make because they live in basic serfdom, passing their earnings on to a bigger fish, Oliver Twist-style. Feel the washboard roads bumping your tailbone kilometer after kilometer. Hold your pee for hours and be shocked at your relief upon the sight of a urine sprayed, fly-ensconced squat toilet. Check your disbelief at the utter lack of regard for queues everywhere from ticket counters to temple entrances. Get used to meditating through three to five other schools of Dharma’s prayers projected over loudspeaker, not to mention the flash of cameras in your face as even the monks stop to capture on film the anomaly of Western Buddhists.

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Even in that chaos, there is beauty. Monks with skin every shade of tan and brown wander in groups wearing robes every shade of orange and crimson, with the occasional stroke of blue-gray painted in by a Zen roshi here or there. Amidst the nonchalant voyeurs who snap your photo in a quick walk-by or flash their phone cameras right in your face, there are gaggles of preteen girls who run up, having mustered courage in numbers, to ask, “Picture, madame? Picture?” To which you cannot help but oblige. And despite causing traffic jams in all holy places, the Thai pilgrims compensate by leaving flecks of gold behind when their clusters dissipate. They speckle every stupa, temple, and ruin they pass, with great devotion and without regard for the Indian Archaeological Survey’s wishes. You can hardly blame them, it is so beautiful and wrought with so much love.

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Amist all this, of course, there is practice. Sitting in a quiet group, listening to Khenpo’s – loudspeaker free – histories and life stories, his own and those of the masters who passed here. Singing aspiration prayers in a single voice through the twilight. Walking clockwise circles, repeating six syllables to purify disturbing emotions…Om Mani Peme Hung…Om Mani Peme Hung. Just sitting. Where the Buddha attained enlightenment; where he spoke the Four Noble Truths; where he taught about emptiness; where he offered his last truths and passed from this life. And just once, rising before the daytime to throw your body flat-out on the ground once, twice, four hundred and thirty times, all the way around the spot where a prince named Siddhartha became a being called Buddha, the Awake One. Every time your forehead taps the stone, you pray to think less of yourself and more of all beings, and by the end, you just might, a little bit.

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Along with this, there is the meeting of chaos and practice. Most people probably call it calamity; Buddhists call it purifying karma. In other words, experiencing challenges, but using them to work with the way we respond instead of just plain freaking out, so that we can carry on with better habits, or even less habits and more flexibility to a moment or an obstacle as it arises. It sounds very positive, and it is, but at the time it mostly feels like a shitshow. For instance: getting attacked by monkeys, getting swarmed by bees…twice, hiring a cab to take you 300 kilometers and realizing you have been taken 300 kilometers in the opposite direction of your destination, and, of course, the old standby: food poisoning. At every new absurdity, you work with anger, you test out laughter, you strive for patience. And when you have endured all this and done your best to be grateful for it, you collapse onto a fourteen hour sleeper train and arrive home at seven in the morning.

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And, if you’re me, you spend a week recovering, then wake up to realize you are flying to France tomorrow. Pilgrimage…it happens.

Where Our Teacher Walked

A statue of Padmasambhava atop a monastery.

A statue of Padmasambhava atop a monastery.

Padmasambhava brought Buddhism from India to Tibet in the 8th century. He is called Guru Rinpoche, or Precious Master. Before he came to Tibet, he meditated and shared teachings in the Indian Himalayas. He is said to have set out for Tibet from Lotus Lake, which lies at the center of the small town known as Tso Pema. Twenty-five of us set out from KIBI on Tuesday night to spend three days there.

IMG_0627The first day was cold and rain-dark, but even in the sun, a mist lies over the city, obscuring photographs and lending a mysterious air to the place. According to history, or legend, whichever you prefer, Padmasambhava appeared in a lotus in the center of this lake after seven days of being burned alive by the local king for teaching his daughter about dharma. People travel from all over each year to visit the lake and nearby caves where Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava, his consort and the daughter of that ill-tempered king, meditated.

IMG_0664A short taxi ride further up the mountains takes you to the caves, which are filled with statues and offerings and are tended by local nuns. On the slopes around the caves, visitors hang infinite strings of prayer flags in offering and invocation. Looking down into the mountains, you can see hillsides terraced by generations of farmers and small brick lean-tos built into the rocks, which house monks and nuns who have undertaken a lifetime in retreat.

IMG_0636In the city below, visitors from abroad mingle with locals and Tibetan pilgrims. Though we are still in India, it’s easy to think we had hopped a border or two. The majority of signs, restaurants, and faces are Tibetan. Mantras are inscribed into every surface and monasteries ring the edge of the lake.

Even greater than the Tibetan influence is the ubiquity of monkeys. Or perhaps they are baboons, or a different tree-dwelling cousin. The chatter and screech of primates permeates the city. Their voices echo through every corner and their shadows traipse over every rooftop, gate, and boundary wall. They watch the pilgrims come and go, engaged in their own animal meditations on life and mountains.

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Bits and Pieces, and What’s to Come

Here, have a bunch of random pictures of the center that are pretty that I haven’t managed to post yet. Also, have some ramblings about life these days.IMG_0532I got a bit caught by surprise at how time is passing. I’ve been in India for nearly two months. Classes end in two days.

IMG_0531Even though I still don’t super love Delhi, I’ve gotten used to this place. I guess this post might benefit from a few pictures of the city, but instead it’s pictures of KIBI, a testament to how little I venture out. And the thought never strikes me to take pictures when I am outside. I go out to buy snacks and be elsewhere for a minute, rather than to adventure and catalogue. I’ve done very little sightseeing, but I’m okay with that. Two months is not a long time, especially when weekdays are jam-packed and by the weekend all I want to do is read a book and eat a treat somewhere sunny and green.

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I don’t know what the long-term future holds, but coming back here is definitely a possibility. It’s difficult to find opportunities in the West to study Buddhist philosophy this intensively with teachers this advanced. There are PhD programs, but they are often geared away from practice to maintain their critical academic position. There are opportunities for shorter study, though, and many for retreat, which is its own unique blend of study and practice. Exploring these possibilites is the purpose of this voyage, to discover where to be. I study Dharma for my own development, and I also have a thought in my mind to be able to share it with others. For both those purposes, the main goal is to find a course that will allow me to nurture the deepest understanding of the teachings and myself. So, the journey continues. Literally and figuratively.

IMG_0571Once classes wind up, every week is a new adventure. This coming week, we have ceremonies on Monday in honor of the founder of our lineage, Marpa. Tuesday evening, we leave for a place called Tso Pema, somewhere up toward mountains where great masters meditated in caves. This will be my first pilgrimage, and I have very little idea what it will hold. Travelling to sites where important events happened is a strong part of Tibetan Buddhism. It helps us develop connection to the tradition and our own practice, but I don’t know much besides that. Hopefully, I’ll be able to write more once I’ve actually done it.

IMG_0572Then there’s finals week, which is a week to study with a day of exams at the end. This may involve some overdue exploration of the city. It’s technically not time off, but, you know, a person needs inspiring study spots. After that, Karmapa comes for a huge week of public teachings. By huge, I mean that the population of the center will jump from about sixty to three hundred. I’m mentally steeling my nerves for the influx of human energy. But we’ll all be receiving blessings from our teachers during that time, so people will probably be in a good mood. After that, I have another two weeks of travel to important places in the Buddha’s life, and then it’s off to France.

IMG_0540This segment of the journey feels as though its end is nearing, yet I’ve only just settled in. Which is fine with me, actually. I appreciate the quickness of pace, though I hadn’t expected it. When I arrived, I thought I would have three straight months of class, period. These added journeys and new experiences are a welcome surprise. You’ll be the first to know what the winding road yields.