This blog, Yours in the Dharma by Sandy Garson, is an effort to navigate life between the fast track and the breakdown lane, on the Buddhist path. It tries to use a heritage of precious, ancient teachings to steer clear of today's pain and confusion so we get at what's truly happening.
Wednesday, April 09, 2014
More Snap Chat from Kathmandu
Falling off a Cliff
The maroon colored monk Wangchuck Rabten is not yet 25, but
for years now he has been the medical director of the overcrowded boarding
school where I cook. He went through the school himself as a day student, like
all Rinpoche’s child monks (who I call monkees),
so he’s fluent in English as well as Nepali, Tibetan, Hindi and the dialect of
his high and remote Himalayan village in a valley, Tsum, considered one of
Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred places and final strongholds.
Like many of the people I’ve met from Tsum, Wangchuck Rabten
is spectacularly bright, energetic and decisive: a natural leader. That’s why
upon leaving 10th grade—where the school stops, he was assigned to
the infirmary, then over the years sent here and there for medical training.
Now as medical director, he is one of the school’s main voices of authority,
able to snap his fingers and make things happen. (What he would really like to
make happen is $3,000 so he can accept the invitation to Ireland in October to
be part of a world conference of young leaders from 168 countries.)
It took less than five minutes for Wangchuck Rabten to know
I was cooking at the school and to stride into the kitchen. He tried to greet
me but his mobile phone kept ringing and he kept taking the calls. In between,
he convinced me to download the mobile app WeChat
so I could keep up by text, voice and photo with him and all the powers that be
in Rinpoche’s mandala. When he saw me struggling because there was no wi-fi in
the kitchen, he took my phone three flights up to his office to set the whole
thing up for me, contacts and all. He was still on his mobile phone when he
returned an hour later.
He was on that phone again while we were in the school SUV
at his command, heading toward pizza. “What a job he must have now,” I thought,
“to be this busy. He seems to be running everything.”But then before the pizza came, he stuffed the phone into
his maroon robe and said: “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to be so much on the phone,
but I have a family matter. My brother and sister keep calling. They were with
my uncle early this morning, walking him home when, I guess maybe he had been
drinking or had a sudden medical problem, whatever it was, he was wobbly and
stumbled and he went over the side of the cliff. So my family keeps calling
about what to do, prayers and offerings.”
“Will you trek up there now yourself?” I said.
“No, there’s nothing I can do. He fell over a cliff. He’s
dead. It happens like that where I come from.”
Don’t Buy My Stuff
I took a few hours off from charity ventures to go to Patan
to find myself a statue relevant to my Buddhist practice. Although Kathmandu
now sprawls all over it, Patan was once a very separate and distinct little
city, center of Newari culture. The Newars are thought to be the original
inhabitants of what was once called Happy Valley, master artisans whose
remarkable woodcarving and joining eventually led invaders to call the valley
Kathmandu: wood carved dwellings.Patan Newars are still the city’s, and the whole country’s, premier
artists much in demand for construction, cooking and couture. They’re
especially famed for creating the thangkhas and statues of Tibetan Buddhism.
The rutted side streets off Durbar Square, Patan’s still beating and elegant
heart center, are lined with small statue shops, one after another displaying
in their windows exquisitely intricate brass and bronze Buddhist deities.
For well over an hour, I diligently wound in and out of shop
after shop, not skipping any one that was open, yet not able to find the deity
I needed, save for one Cathedral sized gargantua. I was tired and dispirited
when I stepped into a small, dim and dusty place whose window display was
unpromisingly burnished with trinkets. The owner, sitting on a floor cushion
behind a low counter covered with open pages of newspaper, showed me a souvenir
version of what I wanted, nothing I could ever pray to in earnest. I politely
thanked him, sighed, and wondered aloud why in all of Patan, a city so famous
for its statue-making prowess, nobody had a decent representation of such an
“Why is he so important to you?” the owner asked.
I explained I was a Tibetan Buddhist and about my practice,
and that I’d come to Kathmandu enough times to know the place to buy a statue
was Patan. Except that I usually bought my statues from a guy whose shop was in
Boudha but whose workshop was in Patan. Only this time he said the statue he
had wasn’t finished. I was leaving in two days now that my work was almost
done, so he told me to look in Patan.
“What is your work?” he said.
“Food. Part of the reason I came here was to learn more
about Newari food.”
He brightened noticeably and fussily cleared some of the
newspaper off the glass counter. “Sit down,” he said, pointing to a stool. “Sit
down. I’ll order some tea. I’m Newar. We can talk about food. My father
prepares ritual feasts for people in Bhaktapur (another Newari stronghold).”
Because he wouldn’t accept No Thank You, I sank wearily onto the low stool. “I’ve been cooking
aloo tama,” I said, “and this morning
I learned about roasted soybeans with green garlic.”
“How did you learn about us Newars?” he asked.
By the time I explained, ending with the news that I needed
to find out more about a medicinal herb I’d just learned of, a tea boy arrived
with two steaming small cups. My host carefully set them on the now clear glass
counter top and turned on his one small overhead light. It was close to 6
o’clock. “I can tell you about harro,”
he said. “Yes, we use it all the time. But first, I want to say that if you
normally buy your statues from who you say you do, you should never come back
here to buy my stuff. It’s not as good.”
A Burning Question
I have known the younger of the two boys I mentioned in my
first snapshot since he was maybe six years old and horribly shy. He hadn’t
been long down from the mountains, stuck in the school and left there with no
place to go. He cowered in its corners watching the other children play but
when an adult called him over, he moved with startling macho swagger. His
smile, when it came, was punctuated with dimples.
It turned out that his father had been killed in a knife
fight over the harvesting of yasu gumbu,
a high Himalayan herb much valued for its Viagra properties, particularly
nowadays by the Chinese who cross their Tibetan border to get it. Nobody wanted
the child to know. So without family, he stuck close to another kid from his
village, glued to him as best friend.
For an afternoon or two whenever I visited, I took the two
of them out, once as Power Rangers on the back of a friend’s motorcycle, but
mostly in a taxi for pizza or on foot for Tibetan dumplings. While we
inevitably waited for our food, I taught them to play hangman and connect the
dots and tic-tac-toe. I bought them shoes, once Power Ranger toys. Once the boy
told me what he really wanted was a suitcase to keep his things in in the dorm
so I took him with me to buy one. Afterward we stopped at my guesthouse room,
which he was curious to see and spent his time in stretched out on the bed
watching television. But before we went back to school, he created an
exquisitely drawn birthday card to give Rinpoche, his first try to crayons. I
thought he had preternatural artistic talent.
The last time I saw him in person he was newly 11 and more
open, less clingy with his friend. I only had time that trip for a quick pizza
at a popular restaurant and then I was gone. About a year ago, he popped up on
Facebook and located me. His profile pic revealed a rock star head of Elvis
like black hair and a jaunty face with hints of mustache yearning. His messages
just said: “Hello, how are you. I am doing well in school.”
And so he was when I found him this time, taller than me,
lanky, hirsute and finishing up grade 7, not worried about final exams. “I
signed up for the cooking class because of you,” he said proudly. “And I’ll
help while you’re here. I’ve never done that before.”Wherever I was in the kitchen or dining room, he was there,
trying to help. I showed him how to use a knife and left him chopping cilantro.
I had the cook show him how to flip an omelet and watched him get the right
wrist action right away.
When the whole cooking/serving epic ended, we went downtown
for pizza in light rain that abruptly turned into a loud crackling
thunderstorm. “Do you know why we’re safe in a car with lightening like this?”
I asked.He thought about it for a
minute before shaking his head. “The rubber tires. Rubber absorbs the
electricity so it protects you from the strike. That’s why it’s good to have
rubber-soled shoes if you’re caught in a storm like this. Remember that, okay?”
“I always learn so much from you,” he said. We rode in
silence. “Sandy,” he said solemnly, about a block before the pizzeria, “I have
to ask you something very important, something that means a lot to me.”
“Okay, go ahead.”
He twisted up his face and his courage. He ran a hand
through that thick black hair. “Sandy,” he whispered, “do you have a hobby?”
Those tall, gangly boys don't take the money. In unison, they push the two unusually clean and crisp 500 rupee notes back at me. "Keep it for yourself," one says. "You've already given us presents. (long sleeve cotton tees for both, a bivouac backpack for one and a Swatch for the other.) And you came all the way here from America, which must have been expensive. We know you don't have much, so you need to keep the money." Two 14-year-olds from high Himalayan mud villages, saved by a charity boarding school, teenagers dependent on the kindness of strangers for everything, push back the $5.00 I am trying to give each of them for a little fun during the upcoming three-week school vacation. And they are very certain, very pleased. Only later do I realize it is because they at last found something they could give to me.
Father Greg is a sharp-eyed American Jesuit who's lived in Kathmandu long enough to be reasonably fluent in Nepali. He also speaks Sanskrit and Latin. Sanskrit study brought him years ago and like almost everybody else exposed to ordinary Nepali people, he got infected with their gentleness, generosity and good humor, so he stayed. Now at the city's main university he teaches Buddhism of all things: a Jesuit priest teaching Buddhism to people who've had it in their blood for over 2,000 years. (Lumbini, where Shakyamuni Buddha was born, is in Nepal.) He also supervises and teaches basic Buddhist thought to Americans in a six-month study abroad program sponsored by his alma mater, Boston College. When I meet him in his spacious apartment in the Tibetan part of town, he is hosting a white haired Harvard professor invited to be keynote speaker at his conference on comparative religion: comparing if they all meet at a common point. (I tell him I do this with food cultures.) Father Greg's approach to Dharma remains academic; after all, he's a Jesuit, a sect legendary for its intellectual fervor and debating prowess. That telltale crisp white collar edged in shiny black poked shyly out of his crewneck sweater. I ask if he feels conflict as an American Catholic living in Nepal to teach Asian religion to Asians and Americans. 'Not at all," he replies without hesitation. "You forget Jesuits have always been at the forefront of ethnography and anthropology. Jesuits were traveling around the planet, mingling in and reporting on other cultures 1,000 years ago. I am nothing new at all."
Maya sits cross-legged on the floor because her honored guest is on the bed/sofa. She is wearing a robin's egg blue cardigan, gold necklace and beatific radiance. She is from one of the high, remote sacred valleys--her family house, others from there tell me, is the first inn of sorts anybody trying to reach it will come upon, but she lives now in this narrow, second floor room, stuffed with two beds, an armoire, shelving and desk. A Tibetan rug covers the remainder of the dark wooden floor, and a propane burner, electric kettle and plastic blue water cistern on the small table just inside the door is her kitchen. As we wait for tea from the cafe below, her startlingly large two-year-old waddles over, hops up and reaches for my blonde hair. Maya springs up, but I signal it's okay. "Yellow hair isn't something she's seen before. She's not hurting me." When my milk tea comes, I sip it very very slowly to not encourage continual refills. I've already refused cake, candy and dinner, so she keeps trying to find something to give as a thank you. I gave a pile of baby clothes and shoes because an important monk I've known for years gave me a special gift and that toddler is his child, the reason he's no longer running the whole international monastery operation but working seven days a week in the kitchen of a sushi restaurant run by a Bhutanese ex monk in Germany. "It's hard," he says on the phone when we talk. He went from being a revered and battened monk to an uneducated, unskilled immigrant. What little he earns, he spends mostly on what I see. His preternatural two-year-old explores me all over with a gentle but stubborn fascination before placing herself contentedly in my lap.
I finished immigration, grabbed my suitcases, wheeled past customs, stepped into the sunlight of noonday Kathmandu and there behind the police barrier was Rembo holding out a khata. His clean round face flashed that wide pearly smile that magnetized me to his cab ten years ago. The Maoist insurgency was so deadly then, nobody dared come to Kathmandu-- the US government was among those issuing extreme peril advisories. When I stepped through the gate onto the normally screeching, choking main street, its sidewalks were eerily deserted, so the dozens of taxi drivers desperate for a fare pulled and shouted at me, their great white hope. Trying to escape what felt like extreme peril, I saw ahead of me a cleanly dressed and pressed squarish man leaning against a white cab that was gleaming to match his smile. "You," I said, pointing to the cab.. "Okay, ma'am," he replied and graciously opened the back door.
"You want me to wait?" he asked when i got out. "Hold your packages?"
I told him I couldn't afford that level of service.
"No matter, ma'am. I just want the work and right now there isn't any so I'll just wait for you, no charge." That's how Rembahadur Lama--"call me Rambo"-- became my driver, then other people's private taxi: expats and tourists who kept passing his mobile phone number along after I released it as highly recommended. I have since sometimes arrived to find out he's so pre-booked by tourists, he has no time for me. "My wife wants to thank you," he always says when he can come to the airport. "It's because of you, my business is not bad so I can send my son to school." On one of those early rides, he'd explained he was a Tamang who'd left his village--near our great monastery-- and his family farm in order to earn enough money to send his son to school so he would have a modern, easier life. "I can't afford a really good one, but at least he's in an English learning school."
Of course this time, after the khata presentation, I asked if his son was still in school. "Yes ma'am. He's doing well. He's learning about computers." But like everything else in this failed state, the cost had climbed considerably. It was a struggle, especially because he was still sending money back to his father and brother in the village where there was no way to earn an income. "But it's all right," he insisted. "I can work hard." And I saw that. In clothes always pressed and a cab always sparkling clean, he was out hunting fares every minute he wasn't driving me, seven days a week, 6:30 AM until 8 or 9 PM. (I sometimes saw him sleeping in the cab while waiting for me.) And now came the fuel price hike with the inevitable protest that cost him a day's work.
I was of course expecting Rembo to drive me to the airport when I left. He'd cleared the space for me. But in the end, one of the monks insisted on chauffeuring me in a monastery SUV, so I had to call him off. "That's okay, ma'am," he said. "But I'll still come to say goodbye." When he did, I handed him an envelope "for your boy to go to school." I might say it was an extra tip for excellent service. You could say it was just another form of NGO charity funding. Or I could say it was what I'd already set aside: the going amount for a taxi ride to the airport with a generous tip attached because I knew Rembo needed that $20 more than me.
My mobile phone rang in the middle of the night in my transit hotel room inside Singapore airport. "Ma'am, you all right? Everything ok?"
"Yes Rembo, I got safely as far as Singapore. One more day to home."
And two days later my mobile phone rang in my apartment. "Ma'am, you got home okay? Just to know you okay and when you come back."
In the middle of March, I was in the Kathmandu valley of
Nepal, back to oversee food work I jumped into fifteen years ago without
considering what that might kickstart. A little charity with the motto: Strong minds need strong bodies somehow grew
from the visible results of that initial and subsequent forays into feeding
malnourished monks, nuns and the schoolchildren in their care. At the start of
the year, it received a surprise five-figure donation. So despite my doctor not
wanting me to jeopardize my precarious respiratory health in one of the world’s
filthiest places, I had to go in person to insure money dedicated to food,
fruit trees and vegetable gardens did what it was supposed to do: feed people.
Wired funds had at times, I am sorry to say, been secretly waylaid and hijacked
by construction or classroom or ceremonial needs, and that rankled my reputed
integrity. I’ve had a tough time trying not to sully my faith in Dharma with this
discovery that a tight-knit organization of Tibetan monks sustaining an international
empire of monasteries can be as treacherous as any global corporation protecting
a brand. I keep telling myself Samsara is Samsara, and Dharma warns: it is inescapably
I have been to Kathmandu enough times to arrive with trepidation,
not so much about getting the job done as what doing that will do to me.
(Several years back, I left in a wheelchair.) To starry-eyed trekkers touring
for a week, Nepal seems to be the high (Everest, Annapurna, Dhaulagiri) and the
mighty (Sherpas and Gurkhas). But we schleppers who go there longer and stay
more down to earth know it as the world’s most flagrantly failed state, a patchwork
country where things never get better so everybody does their damnedest to make
them get worse-- a way, I suppose, of feeling at least they managed to do
Thanks to vicious squabbling between two Brahman factions that
keep vying for vise-like control (Maoists who destroy and Congress who dithers),
the country endured a prolonged and devastating guerilla siege that displaced a large portion
of the primitive population, driving them and the infectious diseases they
carry to the urbanized valley where the water table, trash collecting, air quality
and farmland have been decimated. The decade-long internecine war also prevented
any progress on upgrading electricity with all the hydro power the Himalayas
offer, so blackouts of 10-14 hours roll daily across the valley, forcing mass
reliance on diesel-fueled generators whose noise and fumes add to the misery. Roads
remain unpaved, seriously rutted and sometimes blocked by people extorting
money or protesting. Germs run rampant, especially in the food supply.
Whatever government there is at any moment is so corrupt,
Nepal is the only country I know where you can’t send anything more than a
postcard or thank you note through the post office because it’s bound to be
stolen. The national oil company is such a mess, it has to keep raising the
price of the fuel India delivers because it can’t find the money to pay. While I
was there, gas was to rise again a considerable 10 rupees a liter, inciting
university students to protest by doing what every protest does in Kathmandu:
shut the entire city down by calling a strike and physically threatening anyone
who ventures outside. (The Maoists used to assault even ambulances on
humanitarian emergencies.) As usual, it did not stop the price hike; it just damaged everybody’s already meager daily
income and upended scheduling.
On some charts, Kathmandu has become the most polluted city
in the universe: none of the black diesel fumes, carpet factory particles,
unpaved road dust, cement “smoke” from the nonstop construction, generator
fumes and rotting garbage odors can rise higher than the Himalayas surrounding
the city. A once breath-taking, sense-of-place, blue sky view of the city as a basin surrounded by snowy mountains is now
permanently obscured by so much smog, it’s all a gray blur. Everybody wears a
To add to the joy, when the Maoists were winning the
political tug of war, they deliberately spited India, mentor of the Congress
Party, for its cavalier dealings with Nepal by turning to the Chinese. This
race of people that has no respect for anything but itself is now callously
upending or perhaps bulldozing everything physical and cultural everywhere to
create something for its own benefit. They've been especially harsh to the Tibetan community that has lived here for decades and has a millennia long relationship with as well as blood ties to the people of this valley. “The Nepalese don’t seem to understand
they’ve sold their soul and culture to the Chinese, and it’s going to cost them
their country,” more than one expat told me with palpable sadness.
Naturally, a mass mess like this gets thickened with NGOs in
infinite number and UN agencies of every kind. I am always hearing about yet
another orphanage, another school, another medical mission somebody thinks I
know about or should. It’s not possible to keep track. Too many people, like
me, fall in love with the gentle, generous, long-suffering Nepali people— at
least those in particular ethnic tribes, and want to help. This
time I was introduced to Eva, a good-natured, bulging middle-aged Swedish woman
who funds yet another small orphanage/school a few miles from the overcrowded
charity boarding school where I started cooking. Nepal is an ocean of unclaimed children, indentured children and children exported in the sex trade because a huge portion of Nepalese are too poor to keep the children they keep breeding, thanks to
the total absence of education and medical help.
I arrived in a city experiencing a torrential reign of trekkers
from just about everywhere people earn enough money to travel. March is a high
season, the dusty one before summer monsoon makes October the higher, clearer one, and the political stand-off seems to have sunk from its own weight far enough underground to make the country appear safe again.
I arrived to a city magically able to keep the lights and water on in areas
crowded with tourists paying Brahman-backed businesses. The hotels were full,
restaurants busy, little white Suzuki cabs scooting everywhere. Six Swedes had
come to see Eva and her orphanage before going with her on a little vacation
I was there, as I said, not to trek but tote, on a sort of
NGO effort to channel money to the care and feeding of about 500-600 monks, 210 nuns
and the 425 children in a Buddhist boarding school. I was also there to learn
more about the local cooking and its medical uses from the Newars-- original
inhabitants of what was once known as Happy Valley, the artisans whose
remarkable woodworking skills made 13th Century Rajastan refugees fleeing the Muslim Mughals call it Kathmandu (wood-carved shelters). The
Newari have a unique and uniquely scientific/artistic cuisine I’ve been
studying for years. As I always have to say when I’m in Nepal: “Most people
come here to see Annapurna, Chitwan or maybe Manaslu; I see Kalimati (Kathmandu’s
teeming wholesale food market) and kitchens.” (I've posted reports about this on Facebook @Prima Dharma Cook.)
Somehow despite the drastic loss of farmland,
there still seems to be plenty of food: mostly fresh fruits and vegetables,
dairy, grains and sweets. I take this as testament to
the Nepalese great agricultural genius. They are
credited with teaching the ancient Chinese how to grow greens, and the British
found the Tamang tribes in the region around Kathmandu so spectacularly gifted
at terracing steep slopes to make them produce prolifically, they shipped
thousands to Darjeeling to create and sustain the tea estates (which is why the
local language there is Nepali), as well as to the highlands of Burma where
about 20,000 of them remain, abandoned to fear and obscurity. It’s always astonishing to drive alongside what looks like a
dangerous ravine, turn the corner and discover the entire escarpment is a
bright green, terraced farm.
I met with Tamang farmers on this trip: one at the small
nunnery on the crowded outskirts of Kathmandu, and one at the large, sprawling
monastery at a higher elevation in the countryside more than an hour away. I
have at times raised funds for their salaries, which are now around $600 a
year. To greet me, the bright-eyed, dazzlingly white toothed, moon faced farmer
at the nunnery shimmied down one of the bamboo poles of the garden's monsoon protection
tenting we’d paid for and immediately apologized for the torn plastic he was
attaching to it. “Cheap,” he said with shame. “Try save money.” Just beside him was a
gorgeously thick and green peach tree full of small, hard, green first-stage
fruits—one of the 24 saplings we’d donated 4 years ago in a quiet campaign not
only to secure nourishment for the then sickly nuns, but to provide a green
oasis for the birds, bees and human souls in a neighborhood that had just lost
every last shred of green to concrete buildings. His Holiness the late 16th
Karmapa had maintained an aviary, claiming birds are the energy manifestations
of dakinis (Buddhist and Hindu female
goddesses of wisdom), so we wanted the nunnery to serve as a bird sanctuary.
And now, as the Tamang farmer led me around to the other thickly green and
fruiting trees, my ears told me it was. (I've posted a picture of the peach tree on the blog at www.veggiyana.org)
Most Nepalis will not take without graciously trying to
offer something in return, even if it’s just a cup of tea. So I was offered a
lunch at the nunnery, a typical meal of rice, dhal and vegetable, in this case
spinach from the garden. And in this case, every time I took a spoonful, the
nun attempted to refill my plate. It was hard to stop her until I said: “I
don’t need anything more. Just seeing the cleanliness of this place and the healthy smile on your face now that you have food is enough.” With that I
gave her a check for more monsoon protection over the garden--with higher quality plastic, 3 more fruit trees (guava
and pomegranate to stretch the season), more store-bought fruits until the trees can be harvested, and seven months of peanut butter to up
the nourishment of their steamed bread breakfast. She gave me a detailed receipt and a huge richly gold colored khata. I left feeling insanely
happy about putting a miniature dike in an enormous flood of misery.
Part 2 will follow so this account doesn’t seem too long.
So by now perhaps if you've tried to sit still and tune into yourself, you've probably discovered you're flooded by a thick, unending torrent of thoughts. They just keep coming. Some people find this discovery scary: they think it just happened and now they're going to drown, not realizing this gusher is nothing new at all. It's has been their norm forever.
Finally seeing it is cause for celebration. Knowledge is power. This is to say: now that we know we're haplessly whooshing around in these rushing rivers of thought, we can do something to bring ourselves under control. We can tone them down. We can slow them down. We can ignore them all together, turning off the refrigerator hum white noise they generate to continually distract us from what's really happening. We have to start by really tuning in to this torrent of thoughts in full HD mode. That's the meditation practice. Watch those thoughts streaming by. The textbooks urge us to scan, to scrutinize, to search for a gap, any gap between them. That's what we want: that emptiness. Personally, at first this instruction did not resonant with me. I found it easier to get closer to the truth this way: when you are sitting still tuned into your current of thoughts, think of yourself as river or ocean side watching thick schools of fish swim by. You want one: you just gotta have one in passing, maybe just to show somebody else what you saw. So you cast a reel to catch one. As hundreds of fish go on by, you hook one. Now it's yours. What happens? Several obvious things. While you're now busy unhooking, bagging and admiring your prize fish, you can't notice lots of new ones swimming by. You're stuck on that old fish. And now that it's out of place, it's out of energy. It's dead and soon it's going to stink. All it can maybe do now is feed you alone, getting you even more bound up to it. The current is carrying more and more fish by you, but you're too hooked on what happened five minutes ago to be part of what's happening now. That's how it is when we pick a thought and hold onto it.
This is the secret of all that stuck thinking in the news headlines, pundit bloviations, Facebook pages and internet rants coming at us every minute. People are hanging onto one idea or another that comforts them. They can't let go, can't move on. Think of it this way: 200 years ago there was no Hollywood. That was an idea that arose and lots of people grabbed on. Then a new thought arose: television. Later VCRs, computers, then live streaming... each thought giving way to another like vinyl records to CDs to iTunes. Yet those financially attached to one thought or other---movies, CDs, cable boxes--desperately try to keep promoting their "thing", holding on tighter and tighter as the current of new events rushes past. We fool ourselves into thinking now is forever. It's only now. and by the time you've read that, it's not that now anymore. It's all new and different. It's useful to turn this idea of go with the flow to ourselves, or what we think of as ourselves. Remember that exercise about the "bigger" finger? Well, who--as the Cheshire Cat said to Alice--are you? A baby? A child? Someone's child? A student? A parent? An employee? A boss? A citizen? A neighbor? An athlete? A tourist? A senior citizen? A basket case? Who are you? Can you pick one idea and stick with it? Or is your identity as fluid as a river's current? Does it depend like the finger trick on who's standing next to you? Who are you for sure ? Can you pinpoint someone fixed? Perhaps you've heard of that age-old phenomenon: the idée fixe, fixed idea? It's a thought people won't let go of because their entire identity is bound up to it like a tent which will collapse without its stake post. A perfect example would be the Catholic Church insisting the sun orbits around the Earth and killing everyone who disagreed or proved them wrong. You could say religious fundamentalists are chained like a dog to an idée fixe, barking, growling and snapping at anyone who comes near it. Sometimes, less obviously, we are like that, clinging to and cherishing one idea or other about ourselves or our world. That's an enormous cause of suffering that this practice can liberate us from.
So now is the time to sit still and watch yourself in action, either catching yourself hooking onto a passing thought which leads to another and another until you're far from where you are, or finding that elusive gap the texts talk about, that emptiness between spasms of thought, the space where you can shift your own gears and use the practice as a paddle that steers you over the current. If you do it with diligence and patience, the thought torrent becomes a trickle, or as the late Trungpa Rinpoche put it: the huge breakers that were knocking you over become a gentle ooze around your ankles as you stand tall.
May all beings be freed from the causes of their suffering.
I have been in Malaysia when plane went missing and have been in Kathmandu working on my food charity for the past four days. I keep meaning to post but I fall asleep. So very soon news about Malaysia and my work here in Kathmandu. Fed 450 kids Saturday their first ever strawberries and papaya and trail mix which we made up. Spent one day getting cooking lessons from locals. Today was the dreaded Holi when Hindus throw red coloring on you if you dare go outside. I spent it in my hotel with three of the fabulous children from our boarding school, teenagers who were achingly polite and profoundly grateful for a chance to get out of school. We couldn't do much: sat in the hotel garden which had been turned into a lame party site and ate momos plus one chicken enchilada to try Mexican food. We had ice cream and Cokes and watched TV and they were so so happy. They took such pains to restore my room to pristine condition before they left. And yesterday every single one of the more than 400 children I fed passed in a line to say "Thank you." Tonight the moon over Kathmandu is round and golden, obviously glowing with pride.
Clarifying What I said about Interdependent Origination
When I spoke about interdependent origination in our everyday lives, I was trying to use very familiar situations to introduce the concept of one action leading to an inevitable reaction and so on. As it happens, the Buddha's 12 interconnected links of how things happen are somewhat more profound and unseen. Here are the 12 nidanas, or chain of happening, as explained by someone else and me adding to it.
Ignorance Fundamental ignorance of the absolute truth that everything is constantly changing except for our awareness of that, and the delusion of mistakenly perceiving that what's happening to you constitutes a verifiable solid self.
Formation: As long as there is ignorance, see above, there will be formation of karma: positive, negative and neutral. This leads to rebirth in the various realms.In other words, act out of ignorance, create karma and go from there.
Formation cause the consciousness of the next existence to arise. The
consciousness which propels one towards the next existence is called the
impelling consciousness. And the consciousness that is led to
that particular state, once the conditions have come together, is known
as the consciousness of the impelled result. These two aspects of consciousness are counted as a single link since together they establish the link between two lives. (we are talking here about morphing energy.)
Name-and-form: The power of consciousness causes the energy to seek a womb, and there a body develops. Thus energy takes form and that form inevitably develops sensation,
perception, formation and consciousness (awareness of what's happening).
Sense Faculties: The six sense faculties then come into play to feed consciousness. These are the way we know: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and in Buddhism the sixth sense is the mind which processes all this input into thoughts.
Contact: The coming together of objects, sense faculty and consciousness is contact.
Sensation: From contact arises sensation: pleasurable, painful and neutral.
Craving: Contact leads straight to the desire to not be separated from pleasurable sensations or to get rid of painful sensations.
As that craving to have or avoid increases, it becomes grasping, i.e. intense striving
never to be separated from what is pleasurable and to avoid what is
Becoming: This grasping takes the form of action by the body, speech and/or mind, and that action creates karma, an action imprint on the underlying energy. That karma then determines the energy's next morph, a new existence.
Rebirth: Through the impelling power of karma, something becomes. When the conditions necessary for this energy pattern are assembled, one is reborn in a particular birthplace.
Old age and death: Once born or reborn, one's form is subjected inevitably to the continual process of aging as all the parts change and develop. Eventually there is death. And if it is in ignorance of how this actually works, the same cycle starts again.
So the goal of Dharma, the goal of meditation, the pinnacle of awareness/consciousness/mind/spirit is to break this chain and be freed of all the suffering ignorance creates. And that brings us back to the discussion about adjectives like good and bad.
Happy News for a Happy New (Tibetan) Year (and Meditation Lesson 5)
Today, March 2, 2014 is Losar, Tibetan New Year and this message came from one of the most revered and savvy expounders of Tibetan Buddhism, His Eminence Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, in his own English: Buddha’s teaching on dependent arising distinguishes him from all others as the supreme expounder of the truth. Once dependent arising has been pointed out to us, it’s a truth so blatantly obvious that we wonder how we missed it. Yet in our daily lives, our craving for independence is so strong that we forget how entirely dependent we really are.
We may notice that we depend on food, for example, on shelter and even friendship, but we forget, or perhaps fail to notice, the fine and intricate web of subtle phenomena upon which we are equally reliant. And because we ignore this reality, we find ourselves falling over and over again into a realm of disappointment, where we become numb because we are too hopeful and then sink into the agony of hopelessness.
But the truth is that our conditioning rules us. We both create conditions and depend on conditions, some of which are good, and others we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies. Those of us alive today are extremely fortunate because the name of Shakyamuni Buddha still exists and still has meaning. Shakyamuni Buddha is therefore an important condition, a "dependent arising," that can help us shape our lives.
For those who don't know what dependent arising means, the facile explanation is: you never walk alone, or no man is an island and even if he is, he's part of the sea. There is no such thing as independence, absolutely nothing that exists all by itself with no connection to absolutely anything else. No. Life, the universe, the whole shebang is just one thing after another, a shaggy dog story in which the hip bone's connected to the shin bone and the shin bone's connected to the ankle bone and you're no home alone.
What the Buddha realized is that everything that happens happens only as the result of something that just happened, endlessly. There's no start or finish. More importantly perhaps, there's no straight line: it's all an endless spinning circle of one event leading to the next in repeating cycles. He drew a wheel of interdependent origination with 12 sectors, one feeding into the next and so on back around. Dharma students study and often have to memorize the 12 nidanas, links of interdependence. And you can do this easily through books or even on the web by searching Nidanas.
So instead let's talk about what interdependent origination means to us everyday. The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist elder Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a beautiful short tract tracing all the links in, for instance, your breakfast glass of orange juice, starting with the sun that shines on the tree, the person whose land the tree rises from, the rain that waters it, the person who tends the tree, the people who tend the person who tends the tree and so on until the entire universe is in your stomach with that orange juice.
The Japanese Zen roshis will ask you: Who was your mother before your mother was born? This brings us to ancestors without whom we would not be here. You know that old joke: children are hereditary. Chances are if your parents didn't have any, you won't have any either. So we owe our existence to thousands upon thousands of beings who came before us and did whatever they did to survive, reproduce and allow their children to survive.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama always speaks of compassion, how caring for others and being connected to others comes back to us as happiness because there's no way we can avoid contact with others. We're told to treat every single being as our precious mother because, see ancestors above, energy never dies it just morphs, so at some point earlier in time any living being we encounter today could have been our mother. We have a debt to pay.
And that brings us to the law of karma, lately known as what goes 'round comes 'round, once known as "give and ye shall receive." The law of karma unlike the laws of Congress is simple: karma literally means action, as in an action-reaction--reaction chain of events. Its law says virtuous action begets blessings and more virtue while harmful action unleashes negative energy and thus distressing events. According to the law of karma, you can change the course of your life by changing your current karma: every virtuous action you commit will produce a positive outcome for you, the more the merrier. Nothing happens haphazardly or mysteriously if you look closely enough. That's why sometimes, as I've said before based on my sometimes painful personal experience, not getting what you want turns out to be the happily ever after your good karma earned you.
And finally, interdependent origination on the most mundane basis brings us to adjectives and the way we sling them around. Good bad, small, tall, here, there, east, west.....What makes you so sure? Adjectives are a rush to judgement, a search for the absolute, when in fact everything is relative. This is to say, what you see is merely the effect of a momentary collision of causes, action and reaction. So in a second it will all be different: new action and reaction. Everything is always in play like this and thus continually shifting. Nothing is as fixed as you may think it is.
Take this idea of good and bad. As i think I've written before, Tibetans might describe the Chinese invasion of their country and the genocide still going on as bad, really really bad. But can we say that it was all bad when in fact it was the Chinese pushing the Tibetans out of their country that cracked the shell on their secret wisdom and let it leak to us. So what happened to Tibet has been good for us. The Dalai Lama says: Nothing is all bad.
Here's how my beloved Rinpoche likes to explain how adjectives confuse and muddy up our perception of reality: hold up your hand, either one will work. Now extend upward your pinky and your ring finger. Look at those two: one is small, one is big, right? Your ring finger is a big finger, right? Okay, now put down your pinky and thrust up your middle finger. Uh oh. Is your ring finger still big? What just happened?
There's the theory of relativity for you, the theory of dependence on causes, the teaching that nothing exists in a vacuum by itself unchanged by any connection to anything else. So that's us: a huge mash-up of causes and conditions changing so constantly we can't pinpoint anything as fixed.
So happy new year. None of us are stuck; none of us are good or bad or tall or short or anything at all except changing. When you sit quietly and meditate, watching your thoughts streaming endlessly across your attention span, you can see the constant changing. If you look more carefully, you can even see how one thought leads right into another, interdependent origination in HD. And when you really see that, you begin to see how you alone are the master of your own fate. Happy New Year of the Wooden Horse. May it carry you to the joy of no suffering.
Author of How To Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers' Market, new edition published May 2011; and Veggiyana: the Dharma of Cooking, published September 2011 by Wisdom Publications. Founder and president of Veggiyana, a charitable effort to feed Buddhist monastics and schoolchildren in India, Nepal and Tibet.
This is a blog of essays from the Buddhist perspective of Sandy Garson.
Visit my web site Yours In The Dharma, where I try to make sense of the bewilderment in daily life. I meditate aloud on how the teachings of my guru Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, the golden rosary of his Tibetan Kagyu lineage and the Buddha himself come alive in the headlines and heartaches to rescue us all from suffering.