Thursday, August 24, 2006

in Bir

it seems daniel and i have gone from what i thought was the most chill place on earth (McLeod Ganj) to a beautiful and totally relaxing height (Triun) to an even more chill place (Tso Pema), and now to perhaps an even more chill spot (Bir). We were travelling with the Tulane group, and the director Neil was paying for our accomodations and transportation, so we haven't spent much money. Now in Bir we have managed to be the guests of the Neten Chokling Rinpoche('s wife) so are staying and eating free here as well.

In about an hour we are heading over to their house to meet and greet their family, I'm very excited and am wearing my new Punjabi style full length korta, which looks pretty sharp I must admit. Their son is a 4year old reincarnated lama, so hopefully we can play with him a bit.

The rest of His Holiness' teachings were great, he continued to get into more and more detail about the different Buddhist philisophical schools' veiw on emptiness and the two truths, there were also review sessions in english every day so it was a great opportunity to get a slight intellectual understanding of what wisdom is. i don't have time to condense what he said, hopefully i'll come back to it in the future.

Tso Pema was amazing, a little lake that is sacred to Sikhs Hindus and Buddhists. Everyone there was very kind, it had the most open vibe of anywhere I've been in India. There are many monks and nuns in longterm meditation up above the lake. We were able to meet their teacher, Lama Wangdor, who gave us a beautiful teaching cutting to the essence of the point of meditation, which is seeing the basic empty but luminous and knowing nature of the mind, free from elaborations of thought, concepts, feelings and even conditions. What the existentialists like to call pure being, and I could tell when looking into his eyes that this jolly man was experiencing it all the time as he talked and laughed to us, because his glimpse had an infectious quality to it.

However, referring to what the Dalai Lama said, even this 'mere cognigtion' or the luminous nature of the mind (also called 'clear light,' which the mystics love to talk about) does not exist intrinsically/independently as the ultimate nature of the mind, because according to their highest school of philosophy, nothing exist intrinsically/inherently/independently. Everything exists in dependence on something else (causes and conditions), both nominally (through naming) or in opposition to something else (dark/light), or through the basic independent nature of all life.

not only is no man an island, but no phenomena mentally or physically exists upon itself. when this is understood in an experiential way, loving kindness and compassion spontaneously arise as a natural effect of relaxing the noose of self grasping.

Neil Guidry, the leader of the Tulane Social Work masters students Daniel and I have been travelling with ( gave a beautiful explanation of the three major movements in Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) in terms of social work. Our ultimate aim is to become the Diamond Vehicle social worker, where we automatically know the effortless way to help others, because we are resting at ease in the infinite nature of the mind, which like the earth element gives support to whoever dwells upon it just because that is the nature of earth.

Monday, August 14, 2006

In the McClouds

Had no difficulty meeting up with Daniel in the Indira Ghandi Airport in New Delhi early Thursday morning, we spent the day sleeping and took a couple hour excursion on the badass new Delhi metro (which is styled after the London Underground and amazingly clean and orderly, especially when coming off the hectic streets) to Pahargang, a touristy area, to change money and look around. Thursday evening we boarded our direct sleeper bus to McCloud Ganj, where His Holiness the Dalai Lama lives with a few thousand other Tibetans in what is appearing to be some kind of Tibetan Buddhist Disney Land. We had a little sleeper compartment, got a decent rest, although I think Danno is still kind of jetlagged and adjusting; after all we did hit the ground running and have been walking around a lot and eating lots of spicy Indian food.

We attended the first of five days of teachings by His Holiness this morning at his temple. There are many South Korean nuns monks and layfolk, who have requested and sponsored the teaching we are attending, so thanks Korean Buddhist for the free teachings! HH teaches in Tibetan which is translated into Korean, and all the westerners have little fm radios which pick up the teachings translated into English and broadcast in the temple. It's a pretty cool way to do it. There is also a chinese station; the only other two stations I can pick up is some Indian news and what appears to be some foreign (American) music station.

His Holiness is teaching on both Shantideva's Bodhisattvacaryavatara (Guide to a Bodhisattva's Way of Life) and Thogme Gyaltsen's 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is literally an "enlightening being," characterized by her profound compassion for all beings that suffer (all beings), loving kindness and the fervent wish that everyone may become enlightened. So the Dalai Lama is discussing the ways for us to all become ultimate Buddhist heros as well.

He opened the teachings with a history of Tibetan Buddhism and its connection to Korean Buddhism, emphasizing how Tibetan Buddhism holds the pure Nalanda lineage, through masters like Shantideva, who wrote the text we're working on. He only began to discuss the very difficult 9th Chapter, which deals with the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita), which essentially is the way to "understand emptiness." He began this discussion by explaining what Buddhanature is: intrinsically empty (of selfnature), basic innate nondual, non conceptual luminous, etc. This is obscured with various mental afflictions, which prevent understanding our true self nature as Buddhas, so we suffer.

Why do we suffer? Because of the ignorance which is the false conception that there is an eternal unchanging self that exists independant, that can be defined merely on its own side (in constrast to relative with others). He discussed the wisdom that dispells this ignorance and its importance at great lengths. From Ignorance (of the true nature of ourselves and our mind) leads to all kinds of actions and thoughts that create many imprints in the mindstreams of self and others, which results in the way we percieve the universe as little individuals devoid of indentification with others, leading to attraction and aversion, which leads to all kinds of fun stuff like anger, hatred, greed, jealousy, pride, etc.

He also discussed the two truths in the context of Bodhicitta (the altruistic mind of enlightenment) which characterizes a Bodhisattva (the uber-compassionate/lovingly kind awakening being). Conventional/Relative/Deceptive truth is the dualistic conceptualization of the world as it appears to our obscured (non-buddha) minds, which are mired in all kinds of afflictions. Everything we can conceptualize as true falls into this catagory, including "self" and "buddha" and even Bodhicitta, which in this context is both the aspiration to free all beings from the sufferings of cyclic existence and the applied action that actually does this. This is the METHOD of the bodhisattva.

Ultimately speaking, however, nothing we name or conceive of in dualistic terms (good/bad, happy/sad, up/down, etc.) is actually TRUE. Relativity theory has taught us this, so has Wittgenstein and Postmodernism, etc. Ultimate Bodhicitta is the wisdom which understands emptiness (or conversely the wisdom which understands the co-dependent origination of all phenomena) in tandem with the aspired and applied drive to help everyone else.

This is a little redundant because if the meditator truly percieves ultimate truth (which is difficult to discuss in words, being the noetic), then she realizes the interconnectivity and impermanence of all existent phenomena and is spontaneously and effortlessly driven to work for the benefit of everyone she comes into contact with.

The lecture was actually quite a lot more technical than all this, and most of the Tulane social work masters students that I've been travelling lost interest pretty fast, although Daniel seemed to get a lot out of it, considering he has some background in Buddhist philosophy and a great interest in the workings of the mind.

The Dalai Lama taught from 9:30 to 11:30 and then again from 1pm to 3:30, today was the first time I was able to see him with my own eyes and I must say I didn't cry like a lot of my Tibetan friends said I would but I did gain the conviction that this guy actually has manifested what he talks about in an authentic and complete way. There was a summary session for English speakers held from 4:30 to 5:30, so besides hanging out at His Holiness' temple, eating and shitting, I didn't really do all that much today, and I feel pretty great.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Auspicious Transit to Delhi

Surely this trip is in the hands of the Guru; obstacles cleared to make it to Dharamsala to hear the booming wisdom voice of Dalai Lama, to humbly assist the Tulane students in India, to visit some bomb ass holy sites.

As I was waiting in line to check in at the Jet Airways counter in the KDU airport, I heard a female voice yell, "Rechungpa!" (which is the spiritual name that my teacher Phakchok Rinpoche uses for me). I turned around to see Norbu, a Tibetan student of Rinpoche's with a very beautiful Tibetan woman of indeterminable age. Norbu seemed very excited to see me, and asked where I was going. "Delhi," I replied, and she ran over to request that I check one of their many bags for them. This I happily did, and she slipped me 1000 nepali rupees to cover the excess charge.

I met back up with the Tibetan women at the baggage claim in Delhi after an uneventful hour flight west, and helped them with their collection of heavy duffle bags. Norbu whispered to me that the woman with her was her older sister, Tenzin Choyang, who is the wife of the Neten Chokling Rinpoche and therefore the mother of the great Dzogchen yogi Tulku Orgyen Rinpoche's reincarnation (who is my root teacher Phakchok Rinpoche's root teacher/ grandfather). They explained that the Neten Chokling has made a movie about the life of the famous yogi/poet Jetsun Milarepa (just writing his name fills my chest with veneration), and their extra baggage was filled with about 40 amazing hand gold painted images of the great master Milarepa, gifts for sponsors to the movie project. They were worried that they would not be able to carry all their bags on board, and needed to find someone to help them. I am named Rechungpa after Milarepa's famous disciple, Rechungpa, and in their pure wisdom perception they saw a humble disciple delivered by Milarepa for the sake of transporting the thankas (paintings) cheaply and safely to Delhi. Oh how fortunate I am to be in the right place at the right time to help these amazing people!

After some casual inquiry and conversation she invited me to come visit her in Bir, which is close to Dharamsala, where I am going with Daniel on Saturday night. Hopefully a future post will discuss a trip to Bir to visit the holy child.

I walked them out to meet their driver and after some haggling with taxi drivers Yumchen (Great Mother) Choyang offered to drive me part of the way to Majnu Ka Tilla where I was to meet up with Neil and the LHA (Louisiana Himalayan Association)/Tulane Social Work group, with whom I am now. We managed to cram everything in the little car and their nice Tibetan driver took us to an area of South Delhi where they lived, an old Buddhist area. They invited me in for some tea, I consented and spent some time relaxing with Choyang and Norbu and their two sisters, Lobsang and Tashi, all four very excited beautiful Tibetan young women; while their driver arranged a car to bring me the rest of the way to my hotel.

I felt unbelievably blessed at that time to have such a nice transit to Delhi, all obstacles cleared immediately, unveiling natural realization of the truth of interdependent origination and the effect of actions. Perhaps some slight connection to this lineage from the past, or one developed in the last few years, has led me to such undeniably good circumstance!

I rejoice in the merit thus created, may all beings be happy, may their suffering be gone and may I experience it for their sake, and finally may all experience the final happiness of realizing their inherent goodness as their own mind nature!

Monday, August 07, 2006


I recently revisited Chapagaon village and the monastery I will move into in about a month. It is going to be a very good situation, there is a monk who knows Tibetan very well and will help me with my translation. The 33 young monks are very energetic. The photo to the right looks over a rice patty to the sacred Vajravarahi grove, which is across the road from the monastery. The grove surrounds an important Vajravarahi temple that is about 1100 years old. The photo was taken about a 5 minute walk down the road east from the monastery, looking southeast.

Leaving for Delhi in a few hours, cant wait for the smog and mess of humanity. In India, real life seems a little too real sometimes, but usually just real; a good contrast with the monotony of routine. Perception of reality also gaining a sharper quality lately, as I have given up all intoxicant for the next 10 months. I promised the Lama of the Chapagaon gompa (monastery) that I'd forego even the taste of liquor from now until I move out of the gompa.

Intellectually the last few weeks have been more stimulating that expected, thanks to Chris, Re and Sarah, three graduate students that have been living in Ram's House with me, our discussions about Tibetan, Nepali, Chinese or Indian culture planting many new ideas for inquiry into my clearing brains.

One possible masters thesis project I've thought of is a compare/contrast the preliminary practices for the Longchen Nyingthig (Heart Essence of the Great Expanse) cycle and the Lama Tukdrub Barche Kunsel (Guru's Heart Practice, Dispelling all Obstacles). These are two popular tersars (New Treasures) of the Old School of Tibetan Buddhism, and the White Monastery in Boudha is a perfect place to write it up, as the lamas there are lineage holders for both cycles of teachings.

Yesterday Chris, Gaeline (a dready Swiss student of Tibetan), and I taxied across the city to the huge Nagarjun forest, and hiked up to an amazing veiw of Kathmandu looking towards the southeast. Had a few leech run-ins, and it was very muggy, so I was happy. After a couple minute car ride and couple minute hike, it was as if we were in the woods days away from civilization. Very worth the 10 rupee (15 cent) entrance fee.

Friday, August 04, 2006

onward forward

today i got my plane ticket to delhi, india. the current "plan" is to fly to delhi on the 8th, visit my friend/employer Vidhea, and settle in Majnu Tilla, a Tibetan cultural neighborhood. The next day I hope to meet up with Neil Guidry and the rest of the Louisiana Himalayan Association army. A social work masters group is coming for August, and I hope to help orientate them to Tibetan and South Asian culture. After a few days in Delhi, my twin bro Daniel will show up, and we'll be off to Dharamsala to catch His Holiness the Dalai Lama's teachings on Gyaltsen's the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva, from August 14-18. I have never had the opportunity to see him before, I am quite excited about it.

from Dharamsala danno and i may take to the roads, winding around North India and up through Nepal from West to East. I've never been West of Pokhara, and I'm looking forward to getting a view of the more rural West.

The photo below is the Tibetan Summer Passage 2006 group on top of the Jokhang looking west northwest to the Potala Palace. It was a lively bunch, and I had a wonderful time watching the excited travelers experience Tibet with their beginners' minds, direct perception of the spectacularly large and exquisitly small.

This photo here to the left, which i took on July 10 or so in Lelegaon, is a nice example of the landscape I'll be calling home for the 9 months I'll stay in the monastery in Chapagaon. I've got the go-ahead to move into the small gompa (monastery) in early september to be an english language conversation teacher and live-in futboller for the 31 young monks there. I'm also going to be translating a Tibetan commentary on the preliminary meditation practices to Tantric practice, finishing my biography of the Khari Lama, and studying Nepali and (hopefully) Newari.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Tibet Passage Trip, Summer 2006

What follows is my final report for the Passage Project for International Education's blog, describing our 12 day trip through Tibet during July. I'm now happy back in Kathmandu, working on the book, reading, and making preparations for my India trip next week and my Fulbright study and research program for this year.

As it turns out, the apple pie from Fire and Ice Pizza in Kathmandu should be avoided. “Gentle” Jenny, our west coast dreamer, spent the early morning hours of Saturday August 16, the day of departure on China Air Flight 408 to Lhasa, hugging the toilet of the Passage Project’s Program house for dear life. To my attempt at comfort, “It’s OK, we’ve all been there before,” she gave a pale feeble retort, “I haven’t!” What a trooper, although experiencing the most intense food poisoning of her life, she still made a dignified presence through the Kathmandu Airport, and we were soon in the air. The excitement of the group was obvious, the flight is beautiful, providing a high altitude view of the Chomolangma (Everest) massif.
Unfortunately our scientist, Lisa the geologist/biologist, soon felt ill in a similar way upon landing at the Gongkar airport an hour outside of Lhasa. She had eaten less of the pie, and was able to at least maintain an impressive control over her biological functions, at least until the group was happily checked in at the Kyichu Hotel Lhasa, our base of operations for the week in the ancient capital of Tibet. Afternoon altitude induced naps were on the agenda for the first day in the land of the snows.
Despite this inauspicious beginning to the Tibet segment of the program, this summer’s passage students proved to be comparatively very healthy and remained enthusiastic about the trip despite illness, the harrowing nature of the roads and the packed schedule, which helped me keep up my own excitement, which in turn kept them interested. While traveling, transpersonal interdependent origination of emotion and thought become more obvious.

Sunday was our Lhasa exploration day, and we spent an enjoyable morning in the oldest and most important pilgrimage site in Tibet, the Jokhang Temple, which houses the statue of the young Buddha brought to Lhasa by the Nepali princess Brikuti in the seventh century, announcing the official transmission of Indian Buddhism as the Tibetan state religion. The students also gawked at the ubiquitous Chinese tourist, gawking through cameras at pretty much everything. The railroad arrived in Tibet from mainland China on July 2, and there are many more Chinese pleasure seekers exploring the ancient plateau, as well as many leaving a place where they don’t quite feel welcome.
The students also spent many enjoyable hours walking the Barkhor, an old market that is actually the circumabulation path around the Jokhang, making it a most interesting space for religious practice, trade and socialization. One can experience all aspects of public Tibetan life there, from prostrating pilgrims to intense jovial bargaining, tea and barley beer drinking; almost anything imaginable can be bought if the right price is found.
As this can be intense for the new arrival, we took taxi cabs on that pleasant Sunday afternoon to a new riverside park for a picnic, and the group naturally made quick friends with a Tibetan family happy to share their shade, snacks and butter tea for some fun with sincere foreigners. Often the short time in between the scheduled trips to ancient monasteries and fantastic mountain views can be the most informative and memorable. As Robert Pirsig points out in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the sides of the mountain often hold more to discover about truth and beauty than the top, to those who are willing to look…
After our merry picnic, we took an evening stroll through the shade lanes around the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace in Western Lhasa. The empty and eerily preserved guest and bedrooms of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama was a precursor to the museum like quality of the Potala Palace tour. Ancient Tibetan and Nepali temples and shrines are often most compelling because they are not a part of dead culture, but rather living monuments of a continuous heritage, not just materially preserved, but preserved in use and meaning.
Monday was our first monastery tour day, rising early to drive out to Ganden, the spectacularly huge ridge-top center of Buddhist learning. The circumambulation path around the monastery provided the students with the stunning scenery they expected on the trip, and was an excellent walking meditation to take in the ruins of a much larger monastery that spread over the mountain before the Cultural Revolution leveled much of the structures.
The car dropped us off at Drepung, the second of the three main Gelukpa (reformed school of Tibetan Buddhism, the former Tibetan Government represented by the Dalai Lama) monasteries we were to visit. After a nice chat with a hermit nun, we followed the main pilgrim path to the debate courtyard, where the students were able to observe the monks participating the in traditional style of dialectical debate; taking the form of excited non-stereotypical battles of wits amongst the monks. Everywhere one looks something can be pointed out as a teaching example of some sort, and the philosophical discussion or contemplation that is spurred by the courtyards are invaluable to me as an educator.
Tuesday was Gelukpa monastery day number two, and we started off in high spirits by taking a tour of the magnificent Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lamas. Although somewhat disappointed by the regulated nature of the scene (not much time or room to linger, many Chinese tourist on their way through!), it remains as an immense example of practical Tibetan architecture and a poignant example of recent history.
That afternoon we grabbed taxis to Sera monastery, in order to catch a great view of Lhasa and see more monks debating. The cool willow shade and old stone paths stand as a stark contrast to the neo Chinese urban sprawl of Lhasa. It is quite easy to spend hours wandering through different chapels, asking the friendly monks about various aspects of painting or sculpture, ritual and schedule. These are my favorite aspects of the trip.
An early start the next day saw us off into area where imperial Tibetan culture began, the Yarlung Valley, south of the Lhasa Kyichu River. We drove by sand flats and around mountain bends to Samye, the first monastery to be erected in Tibet. The stories of meditation and miracles that surround this area are endless and amazing. A rural gem in the rough landscape, I’m afraid the students were wishing to stay longer as we had only scheduled a day trip.
The next long trip outside of Lhasa brought us to the amazing Sky Lake (Namtso), which happens to be the highest lake in the world, a breathtaking (in more than on way) sapphire set amongst snowy ranges. After a stroll around the holy hills exploring meditation caves and having fun with playful Tibetan pilgrims, the dusk clouds broke for a glimpse of stars beyond imagination.
The final evening and morning back in Lhasa was a time for last minute shopping and enjoying the comfort of the city before departing on the five-day overland trip back to Kathmandu. The students were impressed with the kitchy atmosphere of the Folk Music Bar, showcasing a unique Tibetan Chinese man’s ability at Mongolian throat singing. A fitting farewell to a cosmopolitan and quickly changing city.
As the high pass between Lhasa and Gyantse is impassable due to road construction, we drove directly to Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet, boasting a huge population of little over 50,000. The afternoon tour of Tashi Lhunpo, the seat of the Panchen Lamas in Shigatse, surprised the students with splendor. Tashi Lhunpo suffered less destruction than typical during the Cultural Revolution, and the three storey statue of the future Buddha defies concepts when it is directly perceived.
The next day we day-tripped to Gyantse, location of the largest stupa (reliquary monument) in Tibet, filled with 100,000 images of buddhas, bodhisattvas and other important deities. There are 147 chapels inside of the monument, mind expanding (or numbing) to examine, although they can be skipped for a spiraling walk to the amazing view of southern Tibet from the top. The levels represent the gradual stages to enlightenment, which is easy to believe when viewing the crisp ridge of the old fort across town, illuminated by the deep azure sky.
Back in Shigatse some of us walked the long pilgrims’ circumambulation path around Tashi Lhunpo into the old Tibetan quarter of town. Excellent examples of life unchanged for many years, smiling faces and growling dogs, battered doors and ancient prayerwheels lead to a market for some fun evening barter. As is often in Asia, we soon emerged into the modern Chinese strip, accentuating the contrast between the ancient and modern, colorful and drab, that which is being created and those things that wither, neglected.
In an attempt to create downtime for hanging around Tingri village, which would be our last night spent in Tibet, we sped through the Tibetan high arid landscape, stopping at Sakya Monastery, the seat of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism and also the center of government in the 13th and 14th Centuries. The immense gray and red structures jut out of the earth impressively. One student remarked to me about the authentic peaceful feeling of the monastery, and I was happy to see that they were not tired of seeing monastery after monastery, but were making the effort to see what is unique, what is not obvious, and to capture something of the energy of these sacred spaces, which we would not stay at long.
We spent that night in New Tingri, and actually had a very pleasant evening sipping tea and beer with our guide’s family in town. It was a perfect experience of a Tibetan social visit, replete with full bladders and loud talk. New Tingri is a few kilometers drive to the smallest monastery we visited the next morning, the Shelkar Chode Gompa (White Crystal Dharma Center), which is an excellent example of a branch political and monastic establishment, totally blasted by the Chinese Red Guards. The huge walls of the destroyed fortress remain, which had previously repelled invasions from Nepali soldiers. It is important to see something of the rural and unspectacular as well.
That evening in Tingri village was meditative, as the students perched on the abandoned fort south of town ready to catch a glimpse of Chomolangma (Everest) peeking through the monsoon clouds. Regardless of whether the climax ever came, peace pervades that sacred valley, and I the students took time to soak up the final evening light they would see in Tibet. We ate at the Namtso Restaurant that night, and had fantastic pizza and banana chocolate crepes for dessert. This was a pleasant surprise, and everyone slept well that night, their consciousness’ mingling with the thin atmosphere for the last time.
The trip back to Nepal was full of anticipation, and feelings were as volatile as the scenery, which changed from high mountain pass to desert slopes, finally into drastic gorges filled with vegetation, and deep misty canyons into Nepal. Everyone was elated (oxygen intoxication) when we made it to the Last Resort, a gem of luxury in the foothills of the high Himalaya, where we rested and recuperated before returning to the chaos and excitement of Kathmandu.
The trip schedule was very busy, as there is always something more to see, hear or examine, and only over the next few months will the students be able to make more sense of what they experienced. One thing is for certain. They will now feel compelled to take off to new and unknown locations on a whim, more confident in their ability to travel, and to learn from the unexpected, without fear.