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.

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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Yours In The Dharma 2001-2010, Sandy Garson Copyright 2001-2010 Sandy Garson All rights Reserved


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