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?”
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.