Saturday, October 07, 2006

my first month report

This morning I sent the following email to Peter Moran, the fulbright director in Nepal, as my first month report on what I have and have not been doing with the governments money in September:

The first weeks of September felt a bit unproductive; I think it was because I had been itching to get into the monastery in Chapagaon but kept coming up with reasons not to make the move, and my own procrastination was annoying me. My twin brother came to Kathmandu with me overland from India, and an India Fulbrighter that we met in Dharamsala stayed with us in Boudha a few days, so I was involved with entertaining them, showing them various places in Kathmandu and introducing them to friends and lamas. The Fulbrighter from India had some interesting contacts, we visited a student political organization that gave us a unique view of the JanAndolan 2, it was eye opening, but I had the nagging feeling I wasn't getting anything done for my "project."

I did, however, complete two full edits with the help of my twin of a past project I have been gradually working on, which is a compilation of stories about the Phadrugpa lama the Khari Rinpoche. One day I plan on publishing it with Bidur's Vajra books in Thamel, he and I have talked about the text a few times, but there is a lot more fact checking and background research to do on it and I'm committed to other things right now, so I've put it on the backburner for this year.

Anyway, Ian and I have been continuing to make the commute either from Boudha or Chapagaon to Tony Duff's house outside of the ring road from Swayambhu, I took 7 Tibetan pronunciation classes with him, then we moved to grammar, reading through Thonmi Sambhota's root text on grammar (the gsum ju pa) for 4 or 5 sessions, and finally we've settled on Pema Karbo's bit by bit commentary ('gru 'grel) to the Bodhisatvacaryavatara for translation practice classes. This has been quite challenging (especially the poetry at the beginning), but Tony really knows his Tibetan and my classical is showing marked improvement.

I make that judgement based on the other Tibetan text I've been translating, a Khampa lama's bit by bit commentary ('gru 'grel) on the liturgy for the preliminary practices of the Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse (klong chen snying tig sngon 'gro), which, after a year of construction work and not looking at Tibetan at all, is slowly getting easier to read and spot translate. This textual work is peripherally related to my project, because many of the Nyingma Lamas in Kathmandu that are popular amongst Newars teach out of texts like the Words of My Perfect Teacher (Kun bZang bLa ma'i She Lung), which is also essentially a commentary on the Heart Essence, and other similar texts introducing the path to tantra and Dzogchen, in fact even in the thirties a visiting Tibetan lama that gave public teachings to thousands of Newars taught from the Shelung as well.

For the same academic reasons, but also for much more personal ones, I have also been doing sgnon 'gro myself for almost three years (obviously not so diligently). Academically speaking, I've found that many teachers and practitioners become quite reticent when talking about tantra unless you are a practitioner, and many aspects of the path are incomprehensible without some direct experience into the subject material, so I've been using my mornings in Chapgaon for practice. I don't see a huge disconnect between my "research" and my "practice," because they are informing each other; inevitably I talk to people about their teachers and teachings, without some personal understanding I just wouldn't know what they are on about.

I had been fantasizing while building houses in New Orleans about a quiet conducive atmosphere to finish the preliminary practices, and the Chapagaon Gompa has turned out to be that place I wished it would be. For that reason, I am most grateful to the Fulbright institution for helping me slowly break through some of the barriers for discovering my own mind.

I have been in Chapagaon for about two and a half weeks now, and besides trying to practice, I've been playing soccer with the monks, helping them with English, speaking to everyone in the mixture of Tibetan and Nepali that they use, watching some Hindi and Nepali television with the monks, eating dal bhat twice daily, spelling Tibetan aloud, working on my translations, reading and hanging out. The other day I realized how multilingual my life has become. After returning from Newari class and trying to say goodnight to the Gatekeeper in Newari, I climbed upstairs and watched some Hindi TV with the monks, the lay Tibtetan teacher and the Nepali (Tamang) cook. The Tibetans speak Tibetan to each other, they speak Nepali with the cook, and as we watched Hindi TV (my Hindi is OK actually, and the television has been a great way for me to keep up those skills) explained some aspects of the plot and characters to me in Nepali and Tibetan.

I've had three Newari classes, my teacher is a very friendly Newar Theravada Buddhist lay male named Rameshwar that lives about 5 minutes from the Gompa, next to the cooperative school shere he is the principal. His English and understanding of grammar is good. He conducts the class in Nepali, actually, filling in what I don't grasp in English, so it is actually functioning as an intro Newari class and an intermediate Nepali class at the same time. The colloquial grammar format of Newari mirrors that of Tibetan and there are many cognate words between Newari and Tibetan, but the sounds of the language will take some real practice for my western mouth. It has proved challenging, but I love learning languages so the classes are stimulating but tiring. The Newar gatekeeper at the Gompa already is speaking to me in Newari, although after a few tries switches to Nepali because he can tell i don't understand.

As far as books go, this month I've read and taken notes on a good bit of Gellner's Monk Householder Tantric Priest and the collection of essays on the Newars, Contested Hierarchies. I also finished reading Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi as leisure reading, which was a very inspiring account of a truly dedicated bhaktiyogin.

I have, however, been slacking off on taking notes about my location, the people I talk to, the monks' routines and the variety of things we talk about, etc. That is the biggest change I hope to make this month, to start a decent fieldnotebook on my computer so I have something original to draw on in the future, as my memory isn't that great.

I have some fantasies about writing an article this year to have ready by May or so.

The motorbike, after some original difficulty with parts and lack of skill, has become a pleasure to drive around Kathmandu, and is saving me time.

No comments: