After

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Welcome to after-Karmapa.

I hope you followed during on the 40th anniversary blog or on Facebook! I can’t supply you with much, at least not in the way of pictures. Though I can try to paint you some with words. It’s funny how quickly it all turns over; the tents go from humming and buzzing and being filled with two thousand people to just standing empty to being slowly taken apart one metal support at a time.

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Here are the images that rest the brightest in my mind and the reflections that flesh them out:

I see the Lama House team in all its forms and subdivisions. The kitchen crew at seven in the morning and five pm, the service team at 11:45, the girls showing up to clean the bathrooms surreptitiously mid-morning and afternoon, the lady for the laundry, my friend who filled the altar bowls on the terrace, all the willing, friendly people who came to do the dishes, the security guys who were always extra grateful for their lunch or dinner plate, not having to eat the cold salads of the dining hall all five days straight. More people than that with more roles than I can list…planning it all was a major event in and of itself. But the magic of it all is the way that working together carries us.

I was petrified of how tired and strung out I might be at the end, and yeah, I was tired and strung out, but I was also still fairly relaxed. And this is because I had a team I could count on who knew what they were doing, who did it with joy, and who communicated with me so I could do my best to make things work for all of us. It seems I did all right, as the response was positive and overall people said the atmosphere was fluid and pleasant, that the behind-the-scenes didn’t show too much. I learned that being responsible means being present and that it is not physically possible to be in more than one place at one time; I have not yet figured out a solution for this conundrum, but maybe sharing the overall responsibility with a second person could be an option next time.

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I see the garden filled with set tables and smiling faces, the parasols, the koi pond, the buffet with our shiny new chafing dishes (Thank you budget commitee! I promise it was worth it!). I got to see old friends, make new ones, and connect with people face-to-face whom I have thus far only corresponded with via internet.

I don’t know what it’s like to run the welcome center, cook in the dining hall, organize the teaching space, coordinate the translation, or do any of the other various things that make up an event at the center–and there are numerous: fundraising, communication, hospitality, security, first aid, sound and video, parking lots, trash pick-up, the snackbar, the rituals. It blows my mind how much energy, how much dedication, and how many details go into welcoming Karmapa and all those who come to receive the teachings. I get the sense we are all adapted to the activity that we do…we find our way to the tasks and domains that challenge us and move us forward, the places where we can give and be pulled along the path by our wish to help and offer. I still get overwhelmed from time to time by the good conditions in which I have found myself and gratitude for my place here.

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I see Karmapa’s broad back, faintly purplish in his robes under the moonlight, at midnight, in the garden. He came just to see what was new in the kitchen, late one evening after a meeting. He had told us earlier that day not to worry so much about the future, that most of the time it’s enough to come back to daily life and practice, and this resolves the vast majority of problems. Watching him take in the moon, the peach tree, the catalpa, the little A-frame herb garden made of pallets, I remembered meeting him for the first time in India two-and-a-half years ago. I told him hello from the teachers in Santa Barbara and he seemed surprised to meet me there, in that place and time, so far from home. The other night, I wanted to ask him, did you think we would find ourselves here, now? With the vision he has, I bet he could easily see it if ever he looked.

Me, I didn’t, I couldn’t…but somehow I made my way here, and that is what counts.

We Are Simple and Fragile

image_2I went to the beach today. Unknown dewdrop blobs marked the tideline in glistening polka dots. They looked like some kind of jellyfish relative: translucent, but lacking tentacles, lacking lightness. It seems they met their end strewn along the sand. Some accident of the tides led them astray, to parts unknown and untenable.

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Today I had my first physical in five years. I learned that I may have a magnesium deficiency, that depressive tendencies often worsen with age, and that rubbing leaves between your fingers helps. Sartre would beg to differ, but I’ve done okay so far. (I’m reading Nausea, in which the main character steadily loses his sense of reality. Early on, he describes a fascination with picking up frozen leaves in the park. Little fragments of tree, “pilonnés, broyés, maculés.” Bombarded, crushed, stained. The words taste like harmonies in minor chords.)

I met this shrimp in the sand. Iridescent, unbothered, no longer than a section of a finger. I talked with my sister about the wedding she will one day have, and realized that at some point I gave up planning my own. I told my grandmother, each of the six times she asked, that it was better not to lock the garage door because Mom comes home that way. The seventh time she forgot, she said, “I locked the garage door. I hope that’s okay.”

simage_1I found out that my visa application was accepted. My passport came in the mail with a shiny, stamped sticker and a picture of me staring expressionless ahead. I’m tempted to say that that’s me, staring into the open future. But no. I’m staring down all my dreams and suppositions, the lives I have invented, the unknown truth that will unfold before me.

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I don’t know what’s coming. I know what I want, a bit. I know what I am afraid of, a bit. I know to fold my knees beneath me, drink a coconut water for magnesium, rub a leaf between my fingers for sadness, and pray for all beings who pouf in and out of this world, making marks in the sand erased by the waves.

Peace and Graduation

Today I went to Sarojini market, bought flowing Indian pants, and drank a pineapple milkshake. I came home, had lunch at the yellow food stand across the street, put on my new pants, and walked to the temple. I stood on the steps just behind Karmapa while everyone posed for a photo, sweating in the sudden March heat, and then I sat in the crowd of three hundred people, listening to the history of KIBI and watching my friends who have been here for four years receive diplomas.

I cried. I didn’t expect to. I expected to sit through a bunch of formalities and squirm and yawn and zone in for Karmapa’s speech and zone out again after. Instead, I became aware of just how special this place is, just how precious our opportunity is to be here, and how much it changes us. Every individual who comes to KIBI comes with the intention to learn and grow, to embrace our faults, to face our doubts, to challenge our beliefs. We come because we see suffering in the world, and in ourselves, and we want to help. We come because we see joy and wisdom in the world, and in ourselves, and we want to develop it.

Buddhists are not perfect people. We’re like anybody. Some of us are short-tempered, some wildly opinionated, some painfully shy, others other things. We step on each other’s toes and ruffle each other’s feathers and some times we fight about it and some times we complain about it. But, along with all that, each and every person sitting around me today shares an aspiration to cultivate our very best nature, the part of us that helps instead of harms, for our own happiness and so that others can be happy also.

Most Buddhists know how to admit they made a mistake. Most know how to apologize. Many know how to ask questions and how to take a joke about their imperfections. I’m not saying that Buddhists are so special in this regard. There are other spiritual and ideological communities that espouse these qualities, and I rejoice in all of them. I talk and hear others talk a lot about the state of the world, the degeneration of society, the selfishness of people. But we also live in a world where great kindness and vast wisdom exist, and where we can seek and follow them if we choose.

In a Q and A last week, some one asked Karmapa whether he believes that peace is possible. He replied that opportunities for peace are all around us; it is a question of whether or not we choose to take them. I realized then that peace is not a choice you make once and have done with. I always say that I’m a pacifist, yet how many times have I rolled my eyes when frustrated with some one or spoken condescendingly when my patience runs thin? These are not acts of peace. And peace is not created on the scale of governments or economic systems, though we see the effects of its absence in those places. Peace is every moment within us, and every act we make can be one of antagonism or one of tranquility. Today reminded me how lucky I am to live and study in a community that says point blank: peace begins with you. Make peace with yourself; make peace with others; be among friends as you learn; share as you grow.

During the graduation ceremony, my friend Daiden gave a speech. At one point, he spoke to the visitors about “the deadly combo.” He asked those who came as guests who among them, having experienced one week of KIBI life, would like to be students here. The deadly combo, he then said, is this: if you make a wish for something, and Karmapa makes the same wish, it’s as good as done.

I never knew about KIBI until I chose to come. But I made many wishes for a place to live and breathe and study Dharma, and for a community to share and create home with. I guess I didn’t wish specifically enough, considering I never meant to wind up in India. And yet, despite the pollution, the damning ubiquity of stray dogs, the bobble-head expression that means yes and no together, the unabashed staring, the lack of proper cheese, and so many other things, I got what I wanted. I got to delve deep into the history and teachings of this tradition and into myself, through them, with proper guidance and abundant support.

I learned the stories and logic behind the mysteries of Madhyamaka and Abhidharma, and I planted the seeds to develop true understanding of their meaning as my studies continue. I learned how I fight impermanence in my own heart, and hurt for it. I learned how I buy into my unhappiness and create more of it. I have seen how blame is the easiest response, both of myself and others, and that it is a trick, a way to avoid scarier truths and to continue holding on to beliefs that are only causing me pain. I learned that wisdom is not only bigger than me, it is also bigger than I ever imagined, and yet I can attain it. I learned that devotion is not slavish but a potent form of inspiration. I learned that I will continue to make the same mistakes, probably all this life long, but doing so doesn’t mean that I’m not learning.

I learned more than I can say in any sudden paragraphs or bursts of inspiration. I learned things that are nestled within me, waiting to grow and reveal themselves when the time is right. One thing I learned that bears saying is that Dharma is not separate from life. Whether or not we choose to look for the nature of reality, what’s so in this world will always be so, until we eventually realize it. We can, however, choose seeking understanding as path. In this way, Dharma can be a way to live and a way to see that guides us no matter what the landscape of our road may be. As one who has a terrible sense of direction, I prefer to travel with a map.

I don’t know if taking the Buddha’s teachings as my compass will bring me back to India, but I do know that what I have found here will stay with me and continue to grow wherever I go.

Places to Leave and Return To

This is the single, solitary photograph that I took in Montreal. I liked the play of light on the glasses, and the juxtaposition of vertical lines with repeated circles.  Though only the most token glimpse of late lunch at the well-known Olive et Gourmando, it tells you what you need to know: bounty, satisfaction. If you ever find yourself in Montreal, go there. If you can, also track down the bakery Au Kouign Amann in the hipster neighborhood called Plateau Mont-Royal (I felt at home here, hehe). Finally, visit the Jardins Botaniques.

 I borrowed this ridiculous, teeny picture from their website. It doesn’t do the place justice – you should go and find out for yourself.

That was Montreal, plus old stone streets and poutine and maple everything and the minor exercise of my vastly diminished French. I don’t think four days is sufficient time to really bond with a city, but anyway, I admit, I was distracted.

A Cube I Used to Know, Astor Place, Manhattan

My four days in Montreal followed a week in New York City. And frankly, I was ghosted. I moved to Manhattan when I was seventeen, with newly minted independence, an education paid for by my family, and all of adult life before me, yet still far enough way that I felt no responsibility for it. I lived in late night and early morning cafes, cheap restaurants, yoga studios, and indie rock venues. I went to class and I learned book things, but I breathed the streets and people. But somewhere along the way, I choked on that air. I withered for want of plants and soil. Once, I tore from my dorm room and practically ran the thirty-odd blocks to Battery Park to sit under a tree and mourn for how far the sky felt and how sorry the ocean seemed, its waves unmade against a concrete wall.

The View from My Former Life, Third Avenue North Tower, looking maybe East…

So I left. I found my way back west to mountains and desert and the pinyon-juniper belt. I remembered the city as a place I lived once, filled with both opportunity and human crush – entrancing but no home for the me I knew myself to be. I never looked back.

Then, two Thursdays past, I found myself headed to a Korean diner in Midtown at 3 a.m. Somewhere between the stop lights and taxi lights, the smell of laundry and the smell of piss, I remembered: There is a part of me that lives in New York City and nowhere else.

She wants the whole damn world. She also wants to share. She walks quickly and vacillates between cursing the slow and and reveling in the game of navigating a packed sidewalk without bumping or bothering a single soul. This girl; I remember her.

I remember the feeling of books and art and ambition, everyone’s, all around me. I remember the length between avenues and the brevity between streets, how to navigate by color and the height of buildings. I remember the sound of myriad languages played together like a musical chord. I remember the sound of a city so vast, you can sing while you walk and no one will hear you. I sang so much more when I lived in Manhattan. I remember loving this city, and feeling loved back.

For Future Homes. at ABC Carpet

And now I feel the city inside me, calling me back to a home I thought was no longer mine. It makes sense, I guess. A curator friend once told me, “You can’t guarantee that your work will matter to contemporary art, but you can swim out to where contemporary art is happening and at least stand a chance that it might.” And then he said, “Which is Brooklyn, right now.” I scoffed and said that Los Angeles is practically established art ground these days and anyway, I’d left that other metropolis behind. Apparently not. I’m not booking a flight or anything; I have business yet with these mountains and the tides of art in my current home. But New York City remains, like an itch in the back of my mind. I can’t help but wonder what futures may unfold from the planting of this seed.