Yours in the Dharma:  Essays from a Buddhist perspective by Sandy Garson

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 to clear the path to what's truly happening.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Th extraordinary ordinary

Watching the semis and vans whiz by on the highway i see from my back of the building window reminds me that we in the monastery are on quite a different planet. Yes we need some of the stuff on those semis brought to us by some of the professionals in the fancy cars among them, but we don't interact with them or think about their day. "How's it going?" as they say mechanically at the supermarket checkout here. We don't even read the news although I notice the tv in the monks' kitchen is often turned to the BBC where headline stories are repeated every ten minutes as nauseum.

We show up for breakfast at 8, eat the bread and beans and sometimes an egg, sip our tea and are gone to chores before 8:30. I notice that our Khenpo is fond of slipping into the upstairs kitchen where like a professional barista, he grinds coffee beans and brews himself some java. All tHe tea and coffee consumed around here makes for a running joke about how Buddhism means waking up, Buddha one who is awake, so caffeine is our occupational hazard.

A very tiny Chinese woman with rough skin, close cropped hair, and pants that barely reach her ankles is always here in the early morning setting out the tea cups, making the tea, washing pots and dishes, and wiping counters and tables down with terry cloth towels. Her eyes are small slits, her lips thin and she usually appears to be grumpy because she doesn't smile and seems so obsessed by her work, you don't dare get in her way. It took a few days to find out she speaks fluent Tibetan to the monks who gave her a Tibetan name she answers to around here and it took a few more of working my fingers off beside here to find out she can do more than grunt in English. she can speak is broken sentences I clearly understand. "not enough cups today no find. Maybe lamas upstairs leave..." and a few days ago by offering her some special food I'd cooked for Lama, I got her to smile. now she chats away with me when I show up in the dining room and I know she's suffering from a deep cough for a year now. She says at home she cooks her own special food and then she is fine but she works so many hours, she ends up eating whatever the monks have prepared and most of it isn't good for her

Just before 9 the dull waves of the drum reverberate across the courtyard that our rooms surround. Lowing thuds that grow more and more insistent until the stroke of 9 when Lama and Khenpo stride shoeless into the shrine hall with a small platoon of monks behind. They head for the back Spreading their shawls like batman wings as they approach it. They turn to face the 20 foot high brass Buddha and with their maroon shawls extended out from their sides, they prostrate three times. Whoever is here from the out side world does their prostrations in sync behind them. Sometimes it's just the monks and I and maybe one other person, a volunteer who cleans here or cooks. Saturdays it's a crowd. Tibetans come from the far side of Vancouver where they can afford to live and a surprising phalanx of young Chinese : either clumps of teenage girls, 20 something male buddies and even young couples who look like this is a date.

Our volunteers pass out the prayer books, which are line by line in Tibetan, English and Cantonese--the three languages lama is now fluent in. Before we start, one of our volunteers puts a cup of Tibetan tea in front of every monk. We pray to our mother goddess Tara with chanting and tingling bells and the joyful noise of the longhorns, cymbals and boom of the hanging green drum. Tara's prayer takes over an hour, even when the umze surpasses bullet train speed. Once it's over, the shrine room must be cleaned, lunch prepared, more ritual tormas formed, programs planned, the office opened and visitors greeted. On Saturday there is another prayer service at 10:30 which either Lama or Khenpo have to lead.

On wednesday the Chinese volunteers, a squad of energetic middle aged women, come to clean the monks rooms and do laundry, so we have to prepare a larger lunch. Ditto Saturday and Sunday when so many show up as others might go to church.

More about the classes and projects and the arrival of our benefactor when I don't have to use this damned iPad keyboard which makes writing take three times as long

Monday, April 23, 2012

An Honorary Tibetan

Last night, Lama convened a meeting in the dining room. He wanted to remind everyone to be very pleasant to all strangers who come here. We must all smile and be warmly welcoming even if we can't speak the necessary language. Most people who come to see this place are actually looking for respite from some sort of suffering, for asylum. So it's our job to show compassion by being kind to them. "Nobody comes here," he said pointedly, "to get more of the rudeness or aggravation they are trying to escape, so please do not be harsh. Just be very nice, very peaceful, very helpful. Please. That is our work here."

Today our work here involved a backhoe and some excavation in the orchard. Lama and several monks went out to see how it was all happening and watched the bucket claw into the ground to rip up witch grass, horsetail and all the other weeds running amok back there. "All the insects dying," one monk said, shaking his head sadly.

"Yes," Lama echoed. "All those beings now suffering because of us."

I'm not sure my little speech about how the backhoe was only loosening the soil and taking it to the other side of the property so we could bring in new soil probably embedded with new insects re-assured them. It's been tough enough taking heat from the few people who wanted those weeds to keep growing out there as part of some perfect biosphere of bugs, bees and plants. As though having wildflowers, orchard grass, herbs and blueberry bushes replacing it won't be a biosphere too. Impermanence is frustrating.

Today the monastery was officially closed and most of the monks piled into their maroon van and went I don't know where except to the local mall for a little shopping. Underwear, shoes, candy. Half of them were piled into the kitchen when I came back from food shopping about 7 PM thinking I would open a can of soup for dinner alone. Our artist was stirring a huge tan slurry in a restaurant sized skillet while three others scampered about putting sauces on plates and making Tibetan tea.

"I'm making a cake," the artist said, when I peered over his shoulder, fascinated at how he was continually stirring a thicker and thicker batter, wondering if this was really how Tibetans "bake" a cake. There was a lot of excitement over whatever it was.

And suddenly there was even more enthusiasm. Somebody saw the fiddlehead ferns I pulled from my shopping tote and started chattering in Tibetan. The artist stopped stirring. "They grow in my village!" he said. "And in mine," another said. Both told me their local name for these coiled fern tops that push up through thawing soil, but of course I cannot now remember. Sorry. Although one sounded like yungsing. These intensely green spirals start the growing season in my beloved state of Maine, where they are foraged and prized as a spring tonic. Because once in late March I saw them on a hillside in Bhutan, I thought eating them in a monastery in Canada would be true fusion. I had no idea it represented home to the Nepali mountain men.

I was going to steam the fiddleheads with lemon as we do in New England but I remembered the Himalayan people have their own way of preparing them. So I opted for boiling them and then stir frying them with onions, garlic, chili and soft cheese. "Sandy, Sandy," they blurted almost in unison, "will you eat some tsampa with us? Can you eat chili?"

That's when I realized they were cooking up their most comforting and common of all Tibetan foods: the iconic barley porridge. And they were anxious to share that with me, chili and all. When I took my plate into the dining room, I saw Lama eating away. And Khenpo next to him. And some horror movie with subtitles was playing on the big screen. I'd crashed a party.

"Sit here with me," Lama said."

"I have to go get a spoon," I said.

"No, you eat like us...with your hand. You don't need spoon." He held up the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand. "Like this, you scoop up some tsampa, rub it in the chili and dip it in the butter." I hadn't until then noticed the little well of melted butter in the center of my porridge.

And so with our fingers we ate tsampa and fiddlehead ferns. And drank Tibetan tea. And felt right at home enjoying ourselves.

~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

My monastery compasions: or the monks and the monkey

All of the nine monks here at the monastery have job titles. Highest in the hierarchy is our Lama, for having spent more than 3 years in a continual practice retreat, he most represents Dharma itself. As it happens, he comes from an esteemed family of gurus whose lineage goes back hundreds of years, and is worshipped in his remote mountain village. Just tonight he told us that when he was sent to Rinpoche's school, he didn't like being among lay children. He wanted to be a monk. So he escaped and went to see Rinpoche and asked if he could become one. Rinpoche said a monk required devotion, focus and determination, so to see if Lama had these qualities, Rinpoche told him to sweep the monastery clean for one year. "I did that everyday," he said. "I did my best without complaint. And in the end, Rinpoche said I could be a monk. I am so grateful for that time because I knew that all that sweeping was earning me merit that would grant blessings. I have been able to do so much to help so many people now and you are all here helping me. I know everything has come from that hard work. So doing chores is not a waste of time."

Closest to Lama's stature is our Khenpo, which means scholar, for he spent 7 years in academic study of Buddhist texts. Before he came here, he was a professor in Rinpoche's Dharma college. He is somewhat shy and awkward about not speaking very good English but there was nothing shy or awkward about him the night before last when I saw him in the kitchen with four other monks joyously preparing their favorite comfort food: noodle soup. Khenpo was smiling broadly and chatting nonstop in Tibetan as he stretched the dough and pinched pieces of it into the steaming broth.

In theory together the Lama as skillful means, and the Khenpo as wisdom equal enlightenment. In practice, nobody will eat before they do, nobody will prostrate in the shrine hall before they do, nobody will act without their permission.

At the next level is the umze, the chant master whose startlingly deep voice is amplified by a microphone to keep us in rhythm when we are praying. I think sometimes he looks at his watch and needs to be somewhere else soon because he can speed the chanting to bullet train speed, leaving someone like me desperately pursuing it from behind, panicked I will never catch up. His equal is the choppon, the ritual master responsible for making all the tormas, patrolling the prayer times with incense, offering the tormas and tending to the shiny array of objects on all the shrines. There is also the artist in residence who has a small studio where, now that he is finished with all the frescoes on the shrine room ceiling, he paints thangkhas, designs brochures, molds clay statues and tends to all interior and exterior designing, including the look of our bird sanctuary.

In a class by himself is our nyerpa, the kitchen steward who does all the food shopping, coordinating and cooking. Another monk is his assistant, waking early every other day to prepare the breakfast and sometimes helping with the dinner. I don't know if it's coincidence or not, but these two kitchen monks are also the two who blow into the longhorns during out prayer practices.

The kitchen assistant is the gardener who has to tend the marigold beds out front. Sometimes he gets help from the handyman monk who changes light bulbs, cleans the shrine room, stows the texts and bangs the drum during our prayer sessions.

These eight have all been monks trained in Dharma since they were maybe 4 or 5 for it is a Tibetan tradition for each family to give their second son to the local monastery. At 18, they decide for themselves if they wish to stay on for life or get out. I'm sure when these guys enlisted, they had no idea they'd be the ones ferrying the Dharma to the West and representing it to so many Chinese people.

The ninth monk is relatively new at his profession. He volunteered for it maybe four years ago when, at about age 18, he graduated from Rinpoche's boarding school. He'd been a runt Nepali street waif the school took in and looked after with special attention. In his 12 years there, he became fluent in Tibetan and English as well as charming foreigners like me for he felt comfortable around us. In fact, every time a volunteer came to the school, he would step up to help and once they'd gone, he'd say he wanted to be whatever they were; a doctor, a dentist, video artist, a chef. But at graduation, he asked for permission to be a monk, for Rinpoche's great kindness had impressed him more. So here he is in maroon robes running the office, doing the scheduling, greeting visitors, giving tours, answering all the emails in Tibetan, Nepali or English, and simultaneously translating for the other monks when they teach.

More tomorrow, from me, the monkey ....

~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.
Yours In The Dharma 2001-2010, Sandy Garson Copyright 2001-2010 Sandy GarsonAll rights Reserved