Today’s Chaos in Nepal (TCN), Episode 1

I was going to call these posts “Chaos in Nepal” but that implies chaos is unusual here.

Oct 2 – Doma’s mom meets me at the airport in a taxi and we speed off to where I’ll stay until classes start.  There’s so little traffic!  That’s because almost no gasoline is coming from India.

What damage was done by the earthquakes?  I see no damaged buildings on the way from the airport.  Most buildings in Kathmandu are relatively new reinforced concrete post and beam construction with three floors or less and most of them survived with at worst a few cracks in the single layer brick walls or the ground floor.  This undamaged one is getting an additional story.

Post and Beam

But it’s very different in the villages higher up.  Most houses there have traditional wood frames and mud walls.  Almost every building in Doma’s grandmother’s village was destroyed.

I check in to the Tibetan-operated Ti-Se Guest House then walk over to the great stupa.  The top must be rebuilt but the buildings around all seem OK.  People are walking reverently round the stupa as usual, and the pigeons are being fed.

Boudha 1

Boudha 3

A blind Sherpa with his Tibetan style guitar in one of the side roads is singing that all of us are in the light while he is in darkness.  He seems accepting.

Sherpa Singer

Oct 7 –  The kitchen is dark when I come downstairs for my dinner of steamed veg. momos (similar to Chinese dumplings) and Tibetan butter tea — it’s not a conscious decision: I just don’t eat meat while I’m here for Buddhist teachings.

I assume it’s dark because hydro plants that accounted for 12% of Nepal’s theoretical capacity were knocked out by the earthquakes and will not be repaired soon.  The rainy season only just ended and there’s already no electricity 8 hours a day. There’ll be none for 16 hours a day when the rivers run low a few months from now.

The young woman at the front desk says the generator will be started soon and takes my order, then we chat.  She recently got a psychology degree in India and very much wants to help women and children here.  Mental illness is very stigmatized in Nepal, though, so how to start?  She will try offering counseling to schoolchildren without pay for a few months to demonstrate the value.

She says Nepal is a mess that’s growing rapidly worse, which makes it all the more urgent to help.   She is especially troubled that people now identify themselves by their religion and regard followers of other religions as enemies.

There has been no progress on the blockade. Private citizens can’t buy gas at all now, taxis get 10 liters per week, microbuses 15 liters every other day.  The politicians are doing nothing but jostle for position in the next government.  They say they can’t do anything because there isn’t yet a government, they were only elected to develop the Constitution.  Meanwhile, the shortage of daily essentials is fast growing worse.  I’d be worried about rioting but Nepalis are all too used to suffering.


Tibetan Buddhist Class, Week Four

Our focus this week is on Tara whose 21 manifestations offer every aspect of compassion.   As Green Tārā she protects against suffering, as White Tārā she heals wounds, as Red Tārā she teaches compassion, and as Blue Tārā she destroys all obstacles to awakening.  She laughs at practitioners who become too serious and works to open our heart.  Like Padmasambhava, the central figure of the previous sadhana, she appears as a beautiful 16 year-old but where his semi-wrathful appearance motivates our determination to dispel delusions, she offers playfully loving encouragement.

We offer praises to invoke Tara’s presence and take refuge in her nature.  We chant aspirations for her help and recite her mantra while trying to visualize her as fully real as any other phenomena.   By reciting her mantra and visualizing her, we aim to become imbued with her being and all it represents.  Then we dissolve the visualization and dedicate our practice for the benefit of all beings.

Just as Padmasambhava did, Tara manifests from emptiness and is translucent like a rainbow.  We aim to become inseparable from them and realize the emptiness both of our ordinary self and the visualization of our self as them, to realize that both our ordinary self and our self as deity are our creation.  Neither one has inherent existence.  We are working to recognize ultimate reality as it is, a display of emptiness and luminosity.

This practice is much simpler than the first one.  There is only one text, fewer chants, and much less to visualize.  It takes quite a long time to practice because there’s a lot of recitation of Tara’s mantra but it takes only two days for lama to explain the whole practice.  He starts over again from the beginning on the third day so we will get the structure firmly fixed.

Lama also offers new details.  One of Tara’s manifestations, he says, subdues zombies and all manner of other beings, too, including ones with horse heads and human bodies.  All such beings are ways to visualize negative emotions that lead to negative actions.  Lama has many tales about zombies.

Zombies are bodies inhabited by a demon who replaced the original occupant.  There are none now, Lama says, because high lamas killed them all, which is unfortunate in a way because wherever there were zombies, you could be sure a high lama would soon appear, too.  Those high lamas could make zombies work.  One took a long pilgrimage all across Tibet and needed to bring a lot of stuff with him.  He made a zombie carry it all.  At the end of each day he told the zombie to stop.  The zombie would crash to the ground and remain immobile ’til morning.  Toward the end of the pilgrimage it started making a funny noise as it walked because its feet were almost worn through.

Another time, when the abbot of a monastery was nearing death, he told his lamas they must at all costs cut up and burn his body within three days of his death.  But when the time came, they decided not to do that because even the lowest person is allowed to rest for a week.  They laid him to rest and respectfully slept where his body lay.  On the third night one young lama was too scared to sleep.  At last he turned and placed his head where his feet should be so he could keep a close watch on the abbot’s body.  Suddenly, its eyes opened, it sat up, rose to its feet and began touching each sleeping monk’s head.  They instantly became zombies.  The young monk escaped because only his feet were touched.  He ran out, locked all the zombies in, and probably burned the monastery to the ground.  Lama says he can’t attest to that last point.  It’s his assumption based on other such incidents.

Lama says the reason for sky burial, the Tibetan tradition of cutting bodies into small pieces and leaving them for vultures, was to avert zombies.  Since there are none now, sky burial is no longer necessary.  The workers who cut up the bodies had to hide the heads because vultures, who are in fact special-purpose deities, like brains best.  If they got brains first, they wouldn’t finish the flesh and other organs.

Some questions (italicized) about all this:

“Why is it OK to use the body even to the point of destruction just because it’s occupied by a demon?”   Buddhists regard the body as a vehicle, just like a car, boat or bicycle.  You want to be able to use it for a long time but at some point it will stop working and it then has no more value.

“Why are many of the stories jokes about hardship?”  Cultures where life is hard tend to use humor as an anesthetic.  Buddha wanted to find a better way, how to end suffering altogether.  He said its causes are attachment, ignorance and hatred.  Imagining how things are is ignorance.  Imagining we have a self and our body is that self makes us fear damage to it, most of all death, because then our self would die.  That we have no self to protect is hard to see.  There is no aspect of what we imagine to be our self that is unchanging, many of its elements existed before our body was even conceived and many will continue to have effects after our body’s life ends.  I get that intellectually but not yet experientially.

“The demons don’t exist now because high lamas killed them.   What supposedly exists now that will be killed off in future?”  Buddhist deities and demons represent qualities that do exist, so in that sense they are real.  Their images and stories can engage us in a new conceptual understanding of reality.  When our habitual concept and the new one seem equally plausible, we may see through both concepts and recognize what is truly present.

“Do any stories incorporate current events?”  Mao Zedong, who drove the Dalai Lama and so many others out of Tibet is said to have been the manifestation of a deity who saw that Tibetans had stopped progressing spiritually and drove them out of their comfort zone.  There was a report in yesterday’s newspaper about a mysterious sickness that caused the death of several hundred villagers.  Zombies are suspected to be the culprits.  They were killed in lama’s story but remained a force elsewhere.

Two more days of teaching and practice and the class is over.  Now I have to figure out what to do next.  I don’t feel ready, somehow, to benefit from making either of these sadhanas my daily practice.  I sense that I should do something else first.    [Note:  That instinct was correct.  The traditional path is to start with the Preliminary Practices.  Some practitioners repeat them over and over again throughout their life.  Others move on to more complex sadhanas like the ones we studied in these classes.  Let me know if you’re interested and maybe I’ll write about Preliminary Practices sometime.]

Tibetan Buddhist Class, Question Time

Before week four of the class, I want to respond to some great questions about Buddhism and kindness, Buddhist practice, and Buddhist thought.

About Buddhism and kindness:  Harold commented on If I Say I’m a Physicist“for me Buddhism is epitomized by how I treat a grandchild, with a great deal of caring and kindness.  Now for some reason as people grow older we stop treating them like we would treat our young grandchildren.  Understanding why that happens might bring greater understanding why we have so much conflict in the world.”

Fear distracts us from kindness.  Old people are close to what we fear most, death.  They remind us that we, too, will die.  In societies with a low rate of infant mortality, we think small children are far from death.

Also, small children are vulnerable in an attractive way, not the sad-making way of old people.  They develop rapidly in so many ways.  It’s easy to help them and forgive their mistakes.  But old people change in the opposite way.  They grow weaker and make more mistakes.  Sara commented beautifully about this, describing an experience with her frail, elderly mother.

And, we tend to be cautious with everyone else, people who are not very young or old, because they might be a threat and they are not so obviously vulnerable.

We can be more kind if we learn to be less fearful and more open to being kind to all, not just ones whose situation makes it easy.  Training methods Buddhism offers can help and there are many other programs.  It doesn’t matter what method(s) we use to approach the understanding Harold speaks of, only that we do train ourselves to be more kind.

About Buddhist practice:  Bill wrote in response to Tibetan Buddhist Class, Week Two:  “I didn’t realize there was so much complex ritual.  Is this only done during meditation?  Is it in this process that one may experience truth or insight?  Is this how one learns the teachings of Buddha or how they’re put into practice?”

I wrote a little about ritual practice (sadhana) in Tibetan Buddhist Class, Week Three.  There are much more complex and also much simpler ones than we’re learning in this class.   This article points out how simple a sadhana can be:  “There are three important aspects of sadhana: choice, commitment and aspiration.  Even the most simple one will be challenging to the newcomer.  Consider lighting a candle every night, then immediately blowing it out.  Nothing more or nothing less.  Do this for ninety days.  You will observe the mind coming up with every reason why you shouldn’t do it and every excuse why you missed a few (or many) nights.  Yet by accepting it as a sadhana, you make a choice to do it and it becomes a spiritual practice … Initially, it will challenge the mind and the ego.  The spiritual “you” may even win the battle, but to keep it from becoming mechanical, an aspiration is required.  Try this.  Light the candle and say: ‘This is all I have to do for the benefit of self, other, and the world.’  Then blow out the candle.  Doing only that will begin a transformation process that will alter your life.”

One Tibetan teacher I find helpful, Anam Thubten Rinpoche (ATR), teaches only silent meditation, like Zen practice.  Sometimes, we just try to watch our thoughts arise – like watching waves roll in and disappear.  Other times we try to understand what caused a thought to arise.  When I asked ATR:  “Could you have attained your realization if you only sat as we do, if you had not practiced the traditional rituals for many years?”  He told me:  “I had to do that.  It was my karma.  Different people need to train in different ways.”  He believes complex rituals are an obstacle for most Westerners.

Most Tibetan teachers offer more complex practices.  All the guides say the same thing, we must each find a practice and a teacher whose methods suit our unique set of thinking and emotional habits (karma).  You may recognize your teacher instantly, it could take three years with one before you are sure, it will probably take ten years to absorb what a teacher can point out to you, then you probably need another one.

In a future post I’ll describe a simple tantric Buddhist practice.  I understand this one only enough to see why so many tantric practices are held secret.  They are paradoxical, intended to disrupt our habitual patterns of thought and emotion.  Without guidance from a teacher, we would only form new obscuration.  All these methods aim to break down habitual responses to enable more authentic perception and action.

The overall structure of Buddhist practice is:  (1) study, (2) reflect and (3) meditate.   We learn the teachings via study, understand how they apply to us via reflection, and effect change via meditation.  If study is all we do, our behavior will not change.  If we try to meditate without study or reflection, maybe our understanding will grow and our behavior will change, but it’s not likely.

About Buddhist thought:  John wrote in response to Tibetan Buddhist Class, Week Two“what would remain if I gradually eliminated all elements of that which forms my awareness of the “world” and of “me” … the “me” that used all my bodily functions to perceive “the world” still seems to “be”.

No “me” exists when I try that thought experiment, perhaps because I interpret “me” to mean a living, sentient being, but more fundamentally because I’m losing the sense that there are any beings or things with a persistent identity.

I am in much the same place as John, however, when he continues:  “If this is true of “me” it must be true for all of “us”.  What then differentiates “us”?  perhaps each physical being has its own perceptions and memories that gives each the perception of individuality, but in reality we may only be ONE.”  

Perhaps an analogy is useful.  Nepal’s borders have no reality yet they do have real effects.  The people and culture on either side of the Indian border are the same, the people and culture on either side of the Tibetan border are also the same, but the cultures of Nepalis close to India or Tibet are different.  Plus, it’s all changing.  In that way, borders have no reality.  But the laws on either side of borders are different and their impact is real.

John’s conclusion is:  “The difference from Buddhist thought being that I only tried to imagine what that final state of being would be like, I didn’t actually experience it as some Buddhist gurus claim to do.”

“Buddhist thought” means something different to me now.  Phakchok Rinpoche says:  “Buddhism is a method, not a belief system.”  It is actually a method for discovering and destroying one’s beliefs, a tool not an end product.  In other words, if “thought” means “belief”, there is no Buddhist thought.  That makes it attractive to someone like me whose habit is to question all beliefs.

I do not hope to attain perfect understanding of Buddhist thought.   What I am increasingly confident about is that analytical and intuitive thinking together with chanting, visualizing and other “skillful means” is helpful training for “me” to become more kind to more people.  Unlike objectives I set in business, metrics in this sphere have no value.  Whatever I achieve will be worthwhile.

Tibetan Buddhist Class, Week Three

Every day in class is much the same in week three.  We’re going back over the practice (sadhana) getting more detail about all the visualizations.

Sadhana means “a way of accomplishing something”.  A sadhana is a discipline one follows to attain a goal. Related words include abhyāsa, which means repeated practice performed with observation and reflection and kriyā, which means action and also implies perfect execution with study and investigation.  There are sadhanas for worldly aims, e.g., money, not just spiritual ones, and for Hindu, Muslim and Sikh practitioners not just Buddhists.  There are fifteen major tantric Buddhist sadhanas and innumerable variants practiced by individual orders.

I’m starting to suspect that although this sadhana is an effective discipline for me, it will be more so if I first complete this order’s much simpler “Preliminary Practice”.   We’re now practicing more variations of this sadhana but even the shortest one has a lot of detail.

Our cheat sheet shows what to include in short, middling and long versions.   The long version includes a feast offering to the deities who are ultimately no different from ourselves.  They are what we would be if we did not have all these habits of thinking and feeling, ways of responding to what we imagine we see, which is a distorted version of reality.

I don’t understand the differences between the short and middling versions.  It’s more complicated than I thought.  There’s a central part that can be done alone as the simplest possible form of the practice but there’s not just one set of additional chants for the middling version.  There are many optional extras.  I wonder if I’ll be able to understand the difference between what’s essential and what’s an elaboration.  That’s why I’m thinking I should maybe start with something simpler.

Today there are no newspapers, bread or anything else I might want to buy because yesterday was the last day of Tihar, the festival of lights that’s preceded by the day of the dog, the day of the crow, the day of the cow and etc.

Yesterday was “brother tikka” day when sisters must honor their brothers and wish them a long life.  Brothers get the colored powder Tikka applied to their forehead and are given gifts and a feast.  If I wasn’t studying here I’d have been honored in this way by my Nepali “sisters”.

This evening I checked email.  My last Sidwell aunt got confused and swallowed all her medications a few days ago.  She isn’t expected to be able to continue living in her own room.  My second-to-last Sidwell uncle is declining fast with Parkinson’s.  I’m not ready to become the oldest living descendant of my cotton mill-hand great-grandfather, John Henry Sidwell.

Now it’s the end of week three, another free day.  I’m overwhelmed by so much effort to absorb so much that’s new.  Tibetan lamas start by learning the chants, how to make the sequence of sounds correctly, when they’re very young.  They only begin to learn the meaning later.

I thought this class was so hard because I’m used to learning in the opposite sequence, first the theory then the practice.  Then I realized that was just an idea.  I’ve always gone about things this way.  I almost drowned two times, leaping into the deep end and then trying to figure out how people swim.

Young lamas first learn to make the sounds, do the hand gestures and so forth to establish an armature, like a framework around which a sculpture is built.  It provides stability.  The chants’ sound provides a structure for one’s recognition of ever deeper levels of meaning.  If you start with words, you get confused when you learn a second set.  They get jumbled when you try to retrieve them.  Enacting the sounds works very differently.  It’s experiential and holistic.

In any case, I’m happy today is a rest day.  I walk up to Kopan Monastery to meet Choedar, the lama who came on the trek to Tsum Valley last year.  It’s so good to see him.  We talk about many things, especially Buddhist education.  Choedar manages education of the young monks here, about 60 new ones each year.  Other monasteries go to the villages to find children.  Kopan gets more applicants than it can take.  That’s because students at Kopan get both Buddhist and Western education.

Boudha 2011 019

Cheodar says it’s good for the monks to understand science because it will help them relate to lay practitioners.  Monks in Tibet used to know the same things and ways as lay people.  That was better.  Also, if they change their mind about being a monk, they can reenter lay life because they will not be alienated from the larger society.

Back in my room, I do my laundry then go out and circumambulate Boudha stupa .  It starts to rain heavily.  My laundry will have to finish drying tomorrow while we start learning a new sadhana.

Tibetan Buddhist Class, Week Two

The class is growing more intense, or maybe my brain is filling up.  I am getting a glimmer of understanding, though.  It’s less necessary to suspend disbelief about the practice.  I just bring my teachers to mind.  It’s not even necessary to be in their presence.  Their experience of the world is different.  They’re kinder and happier.  I’m a little closer to understanding how they achieved that.  It’s hard work!

This afternoon, we go to Phakchok Rinpoche’s room.  He wants to see how we’re getting on and give us encouragement.  He asks each of us about something we should have learned.  First, the monk from New Zealand.  “What are the four nails?”  That’s one I could answer.  He says the first three but can’t remember the fourth.  Maybe I’m doing better than I imagined.  Next the monk from Colorado.  I can’t even understand his question.  I can at least partially answer the next few questions.

Now it’s my turn.  “What are the three samadhis?”  I’m utterly baffled.  I’ve asked about them and failed altogether to understand.  I don’t even understand what samadhi means.  First I do bad prostrations, now I can barely begin to answer Phakchok Rinpoche’s question.  “I have not yet been able to understand about samadhis, Rinpoche.  Maybe they are related to the three kayas?”  

Rinpoche is not fierce this time.  I think he realizes that while my sincerity is not as great as my ignorance, it is genuine.  He talks about something else while I pacify my agitation then patiently explains.  I still don’t understand.

Later, I remember binary arithmetic being explained in High School.  I couldn’t understand it at all.  Then I got a job as a computer programmer and it was immediately obvious.  Presumably, my mental block that makes samadhis invisible will also disappear.

We’re now starting a little before 9.  I have just enough time after the monastery gong wakes me at 4:30 to write up the previous day’s notes, meditate and have noodles and coffee.  We get a long lunch break then continue until around 7, ending the day by practicing the long version of the ritual.  By that time I have just enough energy to cook a few more noodles before conking out.

More detail is revealed each day.  Knowing when to do the hand gestures (mudras), remembering which one goes with what chant, even just remembering the sequence of movements for each one is hard.  I’ll do a simpler practice at home, a subset of what we’re learning, but I don’t yet understand enough to know which parts I will do.  I’m trying to learn them all, at least to some extent.

A most auspicious thing happens today.  We have a second session with Phakchok Rinpoche.  He blesses our prayer beads (malla) and mine break while he rolls them between his palms.  That in itself is auspicious.  Then he directs one of his lamas to restring my malla and add a “root bead” of the special kind.  Now I must use it only in private, so I will buy another one to use in class.

Rinpoche (it means Precious One) does not ask questions today.  He explains many things.  I listen with windows open, mind transparent, as clear as I can, anyway.   The Zen master said about his paradoxical teachings: “Just let it all in.  Don’t evaluate, don’t worry if you will forget, don’t think.  If you do, you will not hear. “

Pointing to his cup, Rinpoche says something about equality.  For just a nanosecond I glimpse what he is pointing out.  I’m so happy!

Tomorrow is the end of week two, our free day.  I’ll review my notes and try to clarify my questions.  Our translator will tell me the names of the mudras so I can annotate my texts with which one goes where.  She will also get us video of them all.  I may now have the visualizations that go with each chant clear enough so I can practice on my own but it’s very hard to remember what they mean while also remembering what to do.

Tibetan Buddhist Class, First Week

There is no class today, the third day, because it’s the 49th since the death of the head of the Nyingma, the oldest of the four major Tibetan Buddhist orders.  They wear the red hats.  The Dalai Lama’s Gelug wear yellow ones.  The 49th day after the heart stops beating is very important but I don’t know why because I don’t yet understand about reincarnation.

I prepare for tomorrow’s class then go to buy my bell, vajra and hand drum.  The vajra is held in the right hand, the bell in the left.  I don’t yet know about the drum.

Vajras have a central sphere representing the underlying unity or connectedness of everything.  From it come two eight petaled lotus flowers that represent the world as it appears and as it really is (I don’t yet understand how it really is).  At the center of each lotus are half-fish, half-crocodile creatures from whose mouths come tongues that meet in a point.  Those on one side represent mental states that obscure our mind, those on the other side aspects of enlightened mind.

As instructed, I tell the man in the recommended shop that my friend Lama Tenzin sent me.  That means I get a reasonably good price for my carefully chosen low-end but not bottom-end instruments.  When I arrive the man is carefully examining brocade altar mats that he’s buying from a Muslim man who brought them from Varanasi in India, a famous center of Buddhist studies.  I ask if my bell was made by Muslims.  Some are, he says, others are made by Tibetans.

All around this part of Kathmandu very young boys work in tiny shopfronts making Tibetan Buddhist ritual instruments, hammering designs into copper alloy with a nail punch.  They look like the extremely poor Indians who come here as transient laborers to do the lowest paid work.

Our full-time translator comes on the fourth day, but we continue on the abbreviated schedule with one theory session and one practical each day.  I don’t know if that will change or that I want it to.  It’s hard enough to absorb the material even at this pace.

In the theory sessions we learn what the practice elements mean, what to have in mind at each moment, how to do everything and in what order.  In the practical sessions we’re learning how to make barley dough tormas that represent what we should have in mind at particular stages of the practice.  We will learn hand gestures, bell-ringing and drum-beating to accompany the chants later.

The lama explains everything in detail (but there is an enormous amount more) and he is clear about what is most important.  This learning experience is new for me.  Always before I just wanted to be shown the material and left to dive in but that can’t work for Tibetan Buddhism because this is mind-training.   I could read every text ever written and still not know how to train my mind using them.  It would be like trying to master tennis just by reading books.

On the fifth day we practice the entire ritual.  It takes over an hour and a half.  We’re going to do it every night from now on and lama says we’ll be able to do it on our own by the end.  I’m glad I bought my own bell and drum instead of borrowing them.  I’m starting to feel why it’s considered so important to respect the texts and instruments.  It’s like a craftsman respecting his tools.  It keeps you aware of your sincerity about what you’re doing.

We chant in Tibetan.  Written and spoken Tibetan are very different.  Pronunciation continued to evolve after the written form was fixed with 30 consonants in the 11th century.  There are different transliteration standards using only the letters on an English language keyboard for how Tibetan words are written and how they sound.  The one for the written word has many silent consonants.  Our texts use the one for sound so I have some hope of getting the pronunciation reasonably right by the end of the class.

The overall ritual has many sections and the chants are assembled in three separate texts.  We have a page and a half cheat sheet that shows the sequence of sections and what page of which text to go to when we switch from one text to another.  It’s very confusing.

Last night I lost track altogether of what the sections mean but I did stay on track with the transitions.  The other students seem to be somewhat familiar with the overall flow of the practice.  I guess there must be a standard structure.  I ask why the chant isn’t published in one text.  Lama says in that case we might not realize we need a teacher to explain the practice.

We do the entire practice again on days five and six.  Lama has taught us some hand gestures and what to do when with bell and drum but I haven’t yet attempted to do any of that.  Maybe I’ll try tomorrow.  It’s hard enough just following the text.

Every so often I try to remember what I should have in mind but then I lose focus on the transitions between texts.  That’s a disaster because I can’t yet associate the sound of the chants with what I see on the pages, which means I can’t find where we are in which text.

Everyone is feeling a bit overwhelmed, even the monks who already know the hand gestures and so forth.  I’ve entirely lost interest in world and financial news and am even losing interest in Nepali news.   I’m beginning to feel that I can change myself for the better with this practice.  I’m pretty sure I’m not heading toward becoming a monk, however.

Tantric Buddhism developed for lay practitioners, not just monastics.  Like Protestant Christianity in Europe, Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism were born in India in opposition to long established forms of practice that were controlled by a too often corrupt priestly elite.

Tibetan Buddhist Class, First Two Days

Throat chanting in great dark rooms surrounded by Hieronymus Bosch-like murals of wondrous deities and terrifying devils, eight foot long trumpets, giant conch shell trumpets, human thigh bone trumpets, Arab-style clarinets, brass cymbals, yoyo-like hand drums and hand bells, Catholic-like rosaries and censors, it is beyond exotic.

It’s more than half a century since I was first fascinated by “Seven Years in Tibet”.  Now I’ve been among Tibetan lamas doing these practices in monasteries in Sikkim, Nepal and Tibet and met teachers whose extraordinary kindness results, inevitably they say, from doing these practices all their life.

It’s the meditation, they say, not so much the colorful rituals, that really makes the difference.  So I tried to meditate.  I read books about how to meditate.  But nothing happened, nothing changed.  Perhaps if I go somewhere where people meditate, I thought?  I went for two very long days of silent meditation at a Zen Buddhist monastery and did notice flickers of something positive.  I went back for a week of silent sitting.  Moss beside a path, pollen exploding from sun-drenched pines, a sudden breeze…  Toward the end of the week, just for a moment, I did see their beauty fresh.

Surprised by that sense of sacredness, I think maybe I really can learn how to live more alertly.  But  the Zen way feels too hard for me.  I’ve been so habituated to thinking for so many years.  Maybe I could unlearn I’m not sure what with a different training program, one with more structure and detail that would give my over-active brain something to chomp on?  Perhaps that’s the point of the Tibetan rituals?  They might be preparation for meditation that really works?

So now (October/November 2011) I’ve come for a month-long class at a Kathmandu monastery.  I’ll be taught the details of a ritual practice but beyond that, I have no idea what to expect.

The first two days remind me of mountain treks when the crew is getting organized.  Each day starts with a destination and a plan.  Nothing goes as planned but the destination is reached.

We are scheduled to get “empowerment” at 8:30 on the first morning.  Empowerment means being authorized to learn a practice.  We hear periodically about changes to the schedule as 8:30, 9:30, 10 and 11 come and go, then we’re told we will be empowered at noon by Phakchok Rinpoche.   I know nothing about him but the other 11 students are very happy.

At noon we file into a large inner chamber where Phakchok Rinpoche has for more than an hour been preparing.  I’m nervous.  I don’t know what I may have to do later but I do know to prostrate to Phakchok Rinpoche before I sit.  I would never have prostrated to a boss in the world of business and it felt odd the first time I prostrated to a teacher but it’s a very different situation.  I could not prostrate to someone just because they had been granted power over me.  Showing respect for the qualities teachers have worked so hard for, however, feels entirely natural and right.

Phakchok Rinpoche watches us closely.  As I sit he says: “Your prostrations are no good.  Have you learned nothing?”   I wonder what I did wrong?  He’s very fierce.  In a business context I would feel attacked but here I don’t.  He’s just telling me there’s something I must learn.  He is equally direct and very clear for two hours of explanation of what we are promising to do while we study and after.  I’m happy that I can understand most of what he says, to some extent.  What I understand completely is the approach he’s pointing out, total sincerity.

“People told me Western people are practicing Buddhism very well these days,” he says.  “I thought, that’s good news, I will go to see them.  But I found them saying: ‘Ritual is not important.  We do not need to do that.’  They are practicing one-legged Buddhism!  They think it is OK not to do ritual but who am I to say it is OK not to practice the way people practiced successfully for two thousand years?”

Our first teachings from 3:30 to 5 are not by the scheduled lama because he was suddenly given a different assignment.  We are told we are “so lucky” to get the one who teaches folks doing three year retreats.  He’s very methodical, proceeds in a structured way and is clear.  Indeed, we are lucky!

We can’t start at 8 on the second day because the nun who is scheduled to be our translator for the whole four weeks is sick.  We can only get teachings when one of the senior translation students is free.  We start at 10:30 and go to noon.  Again I understand, at some level, almost everything.  Our translator yesterday was outstanding.  Today’s is not quite so clear but is very good.

In today’s second session, from 3:30 to 5, we begin learning how to make tormas, statues of barley flour paste that are placed on the altar to represent offerings to deities or malign spirits.  They’re not deities or spirits as we normally think of them but representatives of particular virtues or vices like greed and hatred, habits so to say that we are aiming to strengthen or quell.

Our scheduled translator hopes to be back the day after tomorrow.  We can then follow the regular 8 – 5:30 schedule, learning the meaning of the ritual each morning and how to perform it in the afternoon.  It is all very odd but I can study with sincerity because this has been so effective for so many people for so long.  I don’t need to worry about which parts are “true” and which are not.

Ancient Mariner poet Coleridge called the approach we must adopt a “willing suspension of disbelief”.  We must give our intuitive faculty the opportunity to sense what’s being revealed.  We’d miss important aspects of what we’re shown if we let our rational faculty focus on details.

My fellow students include monks from Brazil, New Zealand and Colorado, a very serious German man and a French woman who live together in France, a beautiful young Mexican woman and an older Danish man with dreadlocks and white robes who live together in India, a fellow from Glasgow, a fellow from New Orleans and one from LA, all of whom spend a lot of time on the road.

What else?  The monastery guesthouse where I’m staying is fine.  My room faces the monastery so I’m woken at 4:30 by the clangor of bells, bray of trumpets, clash of cymbals and whatnot.  It’s surprisingly pleasant.  There’s also an evening practice but after that it’s very quiet, so much better than being blasted by rock bands in Thamel, the tourist part of Kathmandu.

Oh, the monk from Brazil explained about prostrations.  “Did you go to a Zen monastery?”  he asked with a kindly smile.  “Yes?”  “I thought so.  We do prostrations differently.”  It’s a subtle difference that makes all the difference.

Kathmandu Valley Rice Fields and Brick Factories

For my last walk this year (October 2011) we take the bus to the end of the line in Bhaktapur, one of the Kathmandu Valley’s original three kingdoms.  At the center are elaborate palaces, multi-tier temples, and private houses all with spectacular carved windows, doors and roof ornamentation.  We are out among the farms that used to support the old city.

Unlike everywhere we’ve gone before, these fields are still covered not with houses but rice.  Rice here takes 150 days from sowing to harvest but only 100 near the Indian border.  That rice doesn’t taste so good.  This rice would be very popular but the villagers can barely produce enough to feed their own fast-growing local population.

We chat with a couple from far western Nepal where survival is barely possible.  They’ve rented a house and are weaving chair carpets for sale to a finisher who sells them to retailers.  They also have a garden where they grow veg to sell to the migrant brick factory workers who will arrive soon from India.  They get very little for either carpets or veg but it’s enough to support them and their two small kids.

Next we stop at a tea house where half a dozen men are chatting.  An animated older guy tells us they are all adamant about not selling their land.  They want to live the rest of their lives the way they always have, working in the fields.  Their children go to school, which none of them did, and want office jobs, of which there are not nearly enough.  The men know their land will be built over but they’re determined it won’t happen until they’re dead.  These are the first anti-development folks we’ve met.  The old guy tells us a Nepali proverb:  “More development means more beggars”.  It means more productive new methods result in fewer jobs.

Scattered among the fields are small brick factories with great tall chimneys.  Bricks were traditionally made on-site here from sun-dried clay.  When reinforced concrete post and beam construction was introduced 25 years or so ago, fired brick technology was introduced from India.  The clay bricks are still molded by hand and dried in the sun but they are then placed in the huge chimneys and coal-fired.  That’s why it’s a seasonal activity.  The work can’t be done during the rainy season.  It’s very hard work out in the sun for the men from Bihar, India’s poorest province on Nepal’s border.

In our next tea house the men tell us about coal smoke and dust pollution from the brick factories.  It’s unhealthy for them and devastating for their cauliflower crops.  The Kathmandu Valley was famous for its tasty cauliflower.  Less tasty cauliflower now has to be imported from at least 35 miles away.  There’s a law that no brick factory can be within three kilometers of a village or school but the law is not enforced.  The people from this village mounted a big protest five years ago.  Two were killed.  There was no justice for the killings and nothing was done about the brick factory.  The police and justices were bought off by the factory owner.

We walk back a little way on the same road.  It’s being upgraded to be a through road between Bhaktapur and Nuwakot.  The villagers complaining about the brick factories are eager for it to be completed and traffic to begin flowing.  Then they expect to sell out for huge money.

We turn onto a six-inch wide path among the rice paddies to a bus stop.  The bus is an Indian relic packed tight inside so our only option is the roof.  The bus rolls wildly from side to side over the corrugated dirt tracks.  It looks terrifying from the ground but feels fine and is safer than being inside because you can if necessary jump off.   You cannot ride on the roof in the city where electricity wires dangle low over the streets so I don’t get to ride up there for long.

Tomorrow morning my Tibetan Buddhist classes start.   Now I’m off for a happy-making dal bhat (rice, lentil and “spinach”) dinner.

Nepali Festivals

The Dashain festival starts today (October 2011) so Hindus are planting barley.  Others will begin the ritual practices later.  What everyone looks forward to is the feasting.  Huge numbers of animals will be sacrificed.  It’s projected that only 15-20% of the goats will be of Nepali origin this year.  The remaining 80%+ will come from India.  Ideally, one should sacrifice a buffalo but most people cannot afford that.  A goat is next best but a chicken is OK.  Chicken trucks have been coming to Kathmandu for many days and chicken men walk the streets with birds casually suspended from where their wings are attached to their backs.  Most chickens look alert and oddly calm.

The latest version I’ve read of why buffaloes should be sacrificed is:  Once upon a time all the Gods and Goddesses were bothered by demons.  None had enough power to defeat them.  At last the deities began to dance.  They danced with such vigor that great clouds of dust arose.  Goddess Kali manifested from a lock of Lord Shiva’s hair (Shiva is the member of the Hindu trinity responsible for destruction and creation, Kali handles just destruction).  Kali was immediately covered with dust energized by the deities’ dancing that gave her enough power to kill the demons’ vehicles, which were buffaloes.  The unseated demons fell to the ground where they were easier to kill.  We kill buffaloes on this day to commemorate Kali’s triumph.

I learned more during the next big festival, Tihar (later in October 2011).  This is when girls offer tikka to their brothers.  Tikka means prayers, gifts and a colored powder emblem applied to their forehead.  I was puzzled because the girls of the family I was with offered it to more males than those I think of as their brothers.  I’m still not entirely clear about it but I am clearer about who can marry who.

The first-born adult sister in this family is A. Next are B, C and D.  A, C and D are married, B is not.  C could (after divorce or death) marry A’s husband but not D’s.  She must treat him as her brother and would offer him tikka.  A’s husband could marry B, C or D.  C’s husband could marry D but not A or B.

As well as rules about brother marriage there are rules about cousin marriage that are not the same for all Nepali tribes.   Many members of this family’s tribe have the family name Y or Z.  The adult sisters’ father’s family name was Y so they could not marry a man with that family name.  They also could not marry a man whose family name is Z because Y and Z are “the same”.  They could marry anyone with the same last name as their mother unless it was barred by the first set of rules.  The existence or not of a blood relationship makes no difference for marriage but they would not offer tikka to an unrelated Y or Z “brother”.

There are only five family names in the village of about 800 people where these sisters were born, two of which are “the same”.  So, if the population was equally distributed across family names, 40% of the males would be their “brothers” and off-limit for marriage.  Is this because most marriages were between people in the same village so all Ys and Zs would have been blood relatives of these Y sisters?  But why not also prohibit those with the mother’s family name?  The Y sisters’ mother was an X so 60% of the males (X, Y and Z) would have been off-limits for them.   Maybe too restrictive?  But if you only prohibit “too-close” marriage to one parent’s family, it should be the mother’s because you cannot be certain about the father in a pre-DNA-typing society.  I need to ask more questions…

The old rules are breaking down but you still must not sit close to and certainly not touch anyone of the opposite sex who the rules would allow you to marry.  You can’t be very free either with those you could not marry but it would be OK, for example, for B to sleep in one room of a house and husband-of-C to sleep in another room even if they were the only ones in the house.  It would not be OK, however, for husband-of-A to sleep in another room of the same house as B unless his wife, several children or B’s mom was also there.  “Everyone” would assume that if B and husband-of-A were alone at night in the same house they would have sex but if B and husband-of-C were in that situation “nobody” would suspect them of incestuous relations.

This is a very repressed society by our standards.  A small girl can put her arms round her father’s waist on a motorbike but not when she is older.  Only a wife can put her arms round her husband’s waist in that situation, or another man.  Society pretended homosexual love could not exist but assumed that sex between any man and woman except if it would be incestuous is inevitable any time there is an opportunity.  The norms are changing, though.  When I first started coming here in 2003 you never saw a boy and girl holding hands. but now it’s commonplace.

One more thing about marriage in Nepal:  Fathers pay for sons’ weddings.  That’s because son’s marriage brings a woman who will care for you when you are old.  It’s best to marry off daughters so you don’t have to support them (unless you have no son).  That’s why very young girls get arranged marriages.  If a son finds a prospective bride, he brings her for his parents’  approval.   Depending on her age, they will evaluate if she has a “good heart”, but mainly they want to know if her family is raising her to be a “good girl”, a good housekeeper and a dependable source of home care in the future.  It’s worth paying whatever you can for that security.  The expensive wedding honors the girl’s family for raising a girl who is worthy of such extravagance.

Partings, Driving and Directions in Nepal

We met very few people walking in the hills yesterday (September 2011) because it rained hard all day.  It was an opportunity for G to tell me more about his friend who had a bad traffic accident and believes the Germans and Irish are out to get him.  He recently became aware of a plan to exterminate most of the world’s population.  He’s not yet certain who is the mastermind but he thought he should alert the Embassy even though his information is incomplete.  They told him not to come back.  When I met him, he explained that he’d given up sex because his sperm have no heads since his accident.  There’s no point in sex now because they no longer know which way to go.

The day before, T set off to work in India.  He was given khatas (silk scarfs) by his sister and female cousins and money by his mom.  He presented the money to the girls.  His mom gave him a banana and a beaker of milk, then he went out the front door between brass flagons filled with flowers, placing a coin in each one.  There was much smiling and laughter but no touching, no saying deep things, no sadness.  The ritual enables the emotions to be managed.  It’s very different from a Western parting.

When you walk along the street here (sidewalks are very rare) it’s not just pedestrians who step in front of you, motorbikes and cars crowd you just as closely.  There’s no concept of personal space.  It’s not just that you don’t give a fellow pedestrian personal space, you don’t do it if they’re a pedestrian and you’re on a motorbike.  You don’t do it if you’re both on/in vehicles.  I realize this conflicts with the alternate reality theory in Village and Urban Culture in Nepal.  I’ll have to think more about that.

When I tried these theories on a Western friend who spends a lot of time here, she said she recently realized she kept expecting people to meet her expectations and getting angry when they didn’t.  She expects people not to drive their motorbike into her path but: “Why should I expect that?  Even if it’s really a bad idea for both of us, it was the only decision he could make now.  Maybe he would make a different decision sometime in the future.  Maybe not.  Anyway, the problem is my expectation.”  She’s finding it very helpful to look at life this way.

Today, D helped me find a place to stay during the Buddhist teachings.  I could never have done it on my own although I had a list of recommended guest houses and the name of the satellite monastery where the teachings will be held.  We found the best-sounding guesthouse with difficulty because all Kathmandu is a maze of narrow streets with no names.  They had no free rooms.  That’s when I decided to accept  the offer from the main monastery to get me a booking.

Most people are happy to provide directions.  What you cannot know is whether they have any relevant information.  We were directed with considerable precision to many wrong monasteries.  When we at last found the right one, there was nobody in the office.  A man said my email contact is out of the country.  He thinks.  He’s not sure.  I figured we deserved lunch at that point.

After lunch we went looking for the second best sounding guest house.  Again, very difficult to locate although very close to where we started looking.  I got an excellent room there for $7/night.  The man at reception took us up to the roof to point out the satellite monastery where the classes will be held.  He can’t be right, but he is very certain.  It’s at least 40 minutes away and it should be only 5 minutes.