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.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Meditation Class 7: Three in One, Some background information

Buddhism, the source of meditation wisdom and practice techniques, loves numbers, or rather enumerating everything. About the only number it doesn't much like is the most favored numeral in all the West and all its religions: one. One or number one, aka only, implies monopoly, exclusivity, inflexibility--none of which can easily be associated with Dharma (Buddhism). But here's the rest of the scale:

2)  The universe and we who are in it operate on two truths about reality. There is the relative truth, something we are dealing with everyday through the laws of cause and effect (see the past lessons) and the messages from our senses. But as we are beginning to learn (see past lessons), what's relative is unreliable because it's so flexible, so utterly dependent on circumstances. What we can count on anytime anywhere 24/7 is what's called the absolute truth. Understanding and experiencing this is the entire point of meditation. There is, as TS Eliot so poetically said, "the stillpoint of this churning world." There is something totally untouched by all our everything, something pure and pervasive, and it's the absolute truth of all existence. 

3) Yes, a trinity. Three is a popular number everywhere and Dharma is no exception. There are three guides to ferry us from the relative to the absolute truth. In Dharma they are called the three jewels or three treasures and you hear about them a lot. They are the Buddha, or the teacher from experience, the Dharma, or the truth that he experienced and teaches, and finally the sangha, or protector of this precious knowledge. The sangha includes the Buddha's original disciples and subsequent monks, lamas, nuns, gurus, yogis and  yoginis, arhats and acharayas.  It will also include you once you decide to pursue the study of Dharma along with meditation. (The Jewish version of this is God, the Torah and Israel.)

There is another trinity related to the three jewels and the absolute truth that shines in them. It is what we need to reach that absolute truth. It is what we are trying to develop in ourselves and it has sometimes been called the three-legged stool we rest upon in the end. The three, which are also mentioned copiously, are compassion (the Buddha), wisdom (the Dharma) and the skillful means to use them to liberate others from their suffering (the sangha).  It is said that having compassion and wisdom without the skillful means to deploy them to help other experience absolute truth is like being an airplane with two wings and no motor or a bird with two wings and no eyes to direct its flight. This is a huge topic we can explore or you can by reading the teachings. Skillful means seeing the situation so clearly for what it is--not what you think or want it to be, that you know exactly how to alleviate its obstacle or tangle without the slightest harm but to great effect. This requires the honed focus that comes from the meditation practice of not getting carried away by your thoughts.

4) Probably the most famous snippet of Dharma are the Buddha's four noble truths, his explanation for why we all suffer and how we can get a grip and stop it. The Buddha and all his followers hold these truths to be inviolate, and to be the stepping stones between our relative existence and our absoluteness or immortality.  One: The truth of suffering (all beings suffer from the inevitable changes of aging, sickness and death; from not getting what they want and getting what they don't want; from anxiety because nothing stays the same. Two: The truth of the origin of this suffering: not understanding the absolute truth of how things really are and instead wanting things to be the way we want them to be. Three: the truth of a cessation to this suffering. Four: the truth of how to make it go away. This is the path or stepping stones  the Buddha laid out to get us from the relative to the absolute truth about life. (see 8)

5) There are five types of beings, here codified as Five Buddha Families, each representing a major character trait that can be purified into wisdom, compassion and skillful means.  They are represented by the five basic colors: yellow, red, blue, green and white.

6) there are six paramitas or virtues we need to cultivate to the transcendent level in order to reach enlightenment. These are sometimes called the rafts that ferry us over the ocean of Samsara to the dry shore of enlightenment.  They are: generosity, patience, discipline, exertion, meditation skill or concentration and finally wisdom. 

7) This is the number of offering bowls put on an altar or shrine; It is also the minimum number of mantras one does in slo mo before going into the speed dial phase.

8) There are 8 Bodhisattvas including Manjushri (Wisdom), Vajrapani (power or skillful means), Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara (compassion). There are also eight steps on the Buddha's path to the total cessation of suffering, the eight rights that cause no harm or wrong: right speech, right action, right livelihood, right intention or motivation (for the benefit of others), right view or understanding, right focus or concentration, right mindfulness or attention and right effort (discipline to achieve all this).

Let's stop here because you are the one (1) who has to absorb it all.  May all beings be freed of suffering and the causes of suffering.

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 important deity.

“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?”

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

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Friday, April 04, 2014

Snapshots of Kathmandu

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."


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

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Thursday, April 03, 2014

Notes From Nepal: Part 1

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 pervasive.

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 something.

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 face mask.

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 trek too.

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

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.

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

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