Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Tibet House Fundraising Auction

Tibet House is holding its annual auction at Christie's on Wednesday,
December 5th from 6:30 to 8pm. The event is a key fund raising effort benefiting Tibet House U.S., which is an educational institution dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture in the Untied States. Tibet House U.S. was
established in 1987 under the auspices of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Christie's is located at 20 Rockefeller Plaza New York, NY. I hear it is a nice place, I've never even been to New York, but hey!

Apparently some rich and famous people will also be there.

How to attend:
Tickets are $175, (junior) $225, (individual) and $500.00 for
VIP tickets. Tickets are available for purchase by calling:
212-581-1400. If you can't afford it (like me), then at least say some prayers for the success of the program.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

VOTE AGAINST BOBBY JINDAL! aka The Governor's Race in Louisiana

I've recently gotten interested again in the politics of Louisiana, mainly because we are having an extremely important election on Saturday, October 20. I am returning to New Orleans on Thursday so that I will be able to vote in the district that I'm registered for.

The elections are important for many reasons, and on Saturday Louisianians will choose a new Governor to lead their state through a crucial period of reconstruction and redirection after the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Completely revitalizing Education and Health Care are hot topics of debate that are important to most Louisiana residents. The future of our state is in our hands, let's be responsible for a moment. This is extremely important.

As a responsible citizen of Louisiana, I have taken the time to watch the Governor's race public forums and inform myself about the leading four candidates. They each have strong credentials, and provide a variety of options. It has been difficult for me to make a decision on who I support, but at the beginning it became clear to me who I did not support. At this point in the race, I believe that the only responsible vote is a VOTE AGAINST BOBBY JINDAL.

Bobby Jindal is a Washington D.C. insider, which makes him a Louisiana outsider, and is also a neo-conservative hack who's personal ambition is what is driving his pursuit of the Governor's Mansion, rather than a sincere desire to help Louisiana's health and education system. He's had his opportunity in the past to push positive policy in Louisiana and FAILED. He is ranked as one of the least effective (432 of 439) Representatives in the House.

His campaign is based on ethics, but he has accepted tens of thousands of dollars from Big Oil, Big Insurance, Big Tobacco, and developers in Baton Rouge looking for sweet deals. Please see CenLamar for a thorough synopsis on why JINDAL IS BAD FOR LOUISIANA.

At this point, it is important to force a runoff for Jindal with any of the opposition candidates, in order to do due diligence and find out why he doesn't answer questions directly.

I am voting for FOSTER CAMPBELL for Governor of Louisiana, because he has a good plan, and seems to care about Louisiana. More importantly, I AM VOTING AGAINST BOBBY JINDAL, and I suggest you do the same.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Camping in Middle America

I have returned to Louisiana after a two week camping trip through the American Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. We were also able to visit Devils Tower, known as Bear Lodge and so forth by various Native American tribes. It was an a amazing power-place, giving out the magnetizing rays that go by as many complicated or simple names. It was beautiful.

The three of us took turns driving from Louisiana through Texas, north into the Great Plains of Oklahama (night 1), Kansas, Nebraska (night 2), South Dakota (nights 3,4,5), and North Dakota (night 6). Then we headed west through Montana, and down south through the Rocky Mountains, into Wyoming (night 7,8), Colorado (night 9,10,11), and New Mexico (night 12). On day 13, we drove east, arriving back home to Louisiana at 2am, Friday morning (day 14). I am grateful to my father for inviting me on the trip.

Friday, September 28, 2007

My Experience at the Rally in Jena

The Rally in Jena, Louisiana, September 20, 2007.

(This piece is cross-posted in the blog

Over the past few weeks, the story of the “Jena Six” has exploded into the mainstream media and has rekindled conversations about the quality of our justice system. Justice no longer seems so blind in America. Although unequal treatment under the law has been removed from the books, inequality remains institutionalized in practice. Since Hurricane Katrina, national attention on the State of Louisiana has provoked a lot of difficult questioning about race and class, reminding many Americans about realities they would much rather leave forgotten.

My name is Michael D. Smith. I am a native of the city of Alexandria, Louisiana, and I am white. Alexandria is the only city in Central Louisiana, with its own Metropolitan Statistical Area, and is rather progressive, especially when compared with surrounding parishes. My parents abhor racist sentiments and brought me up accordingly. Unfortunately, not all families in our community have such an open heart to all people.

I am writing this because I have been asked by a few people to put down my own experience of attending the massive September 20th Civil Rights Rally in Jena, Louisiana. Two Hispanic friends of mine from New Orleans and I drove up to Alexandria the previous night to go to the rally the following day, in order to show solidarity with everyone who is dealt injustice. Although some reports have given numbers of up to 60,000 persons participating in the movement in Central Louisiana that day, I would say that, by the time we showed up, there were up to 20,000 people marching in the streets of Jena last Thursday, a great number indeed.

It was a mostly out of town scene. I met people from all over the country and talked to people from Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, the East Coast and Southern Louisiana, New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The racial makeup of those attending was about 95% Black, and 5% White, though over half of the white folks that came down to Jena were media persons. Although there were some people from Alexandria, it seemed that the majority of the locals had left town. There were hardly any cars in the garages, or white people on the roads. No businesses were open.

Although DA Reed Walters has stated that it was only by the direct intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ in Jena last Thursday that there was no disaster, I think it had more to do with the attitude of those who came down to protest injustice. It was, by nature, a non-violent rally. Almost everyone there was from places outside of Central Louisiana, and most people wore smiles as they walked around introducing themselves to each other, finding out where they were from and if they represented an organization or came as individuals. Most people drove or came in buses, although some flew down and rented cars to get into the small town, and were happy to socialize and shout for a good cause. No one seemed like they came down for a fight, even the Black Panthers, new or old.

Besides the park in Jena and the LaSalle Parish Courthouse, Jena High School became filled with people, assembled out front or in the lawn where the infamous tree (where the nooses were hung) used to stand. Many gave speeches, others just networked in the crowd. I was impressed to see many people collecting dirt or roots from where the tree was, just as pious pilgrims in Tibet or India take bits of sand from holy places in order to enshrine back at home. There must be some universal human impulse to possess a physical piece of the mythology that informs our deepest experiences, and carry it home next to our hearts. After all, the rally in Jena is the most significant event for some civil rights activists in decades.

Some people commented to me about the quality of Jena High School. They seemed amazed by how poorly maintained it seemed, remarking to me about the tin roofs, poor paint job, lack of adjoining facilities and small area that makes up the school. Although a wing of the school had been burned down last year, the existing facilities still seemed in disrepair. When asked about it, I replied that it resembled most other rural Louisiana schools I’ve seen. These people, even ones from other states in the South, don’t realize the pitiful state of public education in Louisiana.

In my opinion, the people involved in the injustice dealt towards the Jena Six are all victims as well: victims of poor education and the poverty of an isolated community.

There were members of dozens of different social justice and civil rights organizations present at the rally, including the New Black Panther Party. Some of these younger Black Panthers made racially divisive statements in heated speeches at Jena High or in front of the courthouse, but many people in the crowd expressed their disgust at those sentiments. It was a day about unity, with each other and with the imprisoned teenagers. However, it didn’t seem like it was a day about unity with the locals, as I heard a lot of negativity about the residents of Jena. I was encouraged by a number of individuals to not buy anything in Jena, in order to not support local business. There seemed to be little interest in bringing small out of touch rural communities, where racism and intolerance thrive, into the dialogue.

Unfortunately, it is this very distance between the mainstream developments of the country and rural towns like Jena, Louisiana, that perpetuate the antiquated and ignorant worldviews that are the very root causes of prejudice. They have been left behind socially and economically, and only by investing more resources in these communities, namely through education and digital infrastructure, can we begin to address the deeper issues of socio-economic inequality in America.

(Photo credit: Eric Martinez, New Orleans, Louisiana.)

Back in America

I must apologize for letting a few weeks go by without a post on this blog. I returned to the United States about two weeks ago, and have been spending most of my time with family and friends, catching up. It has been a nice transition. Everyone is very supportive. I have been impressed by the amount of work that has been done in New Orleans since I left, although the Hurricane recovery has taken a lot longer than most people would like. There are millions of relief dollars that remain hung up in bureaucratic red tape.

This is an exciting time to be back in Louisiana. In three weeks the people of Louisiana vote for a new governor. Central Louisiana has been thrown into the international media's scrutiny because of the injustice dealt to the "Jena Six."

Also, the weather in October here is amazing.

My heart, as always, is still half in the marshland of Louisiana and half in the ridges and valleys of the Himalaya...

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Five Weeks in India

I had the invaluable opportunity to accompany an undergraduate study/travel group from Loyola University and another from the Graduate School of Social Work Tulane University (both located in New Orleans, Louisiana) on their adventures of discovery in northern India the past five weeks. I was able to assist in a number of ways, and look forward to continuing to work with them, and the community social work organization that arranged their tours (the Louisiana Himalayan Association).

This is a shot of Rewalsar Lake (known to the Tibetans as Tso Pema, the Lotus Lake), a holy site for Hindus, Himalayan Buddhists and Sikhs. It is one of the most important holy places associated with Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava. He was burned at the stake here for seven days after being caught doing secret esoteric Buddhist rituals with the King of Mandi's daughter in a cave at this location. He was unharmed, however, and after seven days remained above a lake on a lotus. Everyone was pretty shocked, and immediately converted to Buddhism. This was in the eighth century; nowadays the locals are Hindu, mostly practicing devotion to the Mother Goddess in her various forms.

I took this picture of Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche (author of Tantric Practice in Nyingma and a seven volume work on Tibetan Buddhist History in Tibetan) at his monastery in Sudarijal in the hills northeast of Kathmandu. I first met him when he came to Houston to lecture at Rice University and to teach and give empowerments at Dawn Mountain Dharma Center in Houston. He is one of the sweetest people I've ever met, and basically spends his days praying and relaxing in the natural state, as he's getting kinda old now.

This is a view from a car on the road out to his monastery. As I flew into Kathmandu from Delhi on some clouds, I was struck by how green and clear the landscape is at the end of the monsoon. A truly beautiful sight. There have been a good amount of forest in my life this past month.

Here Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god that protects Lord Rama, is hanging out in the forest in Himachal Pradesh, in the hills above Tso Pema.

While in McLeod Ganj (upper Dharamsala), where His Holiness the Dalai Lama resides with about 10,000 exile Tibetans live, I had a good bit of free time. A friend graciously let me stay in his house in the forest behind the Dalai Lama's temple, and I used that time to do a little retreat. On the last day of the retreat, the sunset was amazing, so I took a break to enjoy that. The sunset was also beautiful last night as was leaving Dharamsala on the bus for Delhi. I take it as an auspicious sign if there is a really fantastic colored light show in the sky as I complete something.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Tragic Day in Kathmandu

I am both angry and sad right now, as I have just read some terrible news. Today four bombs went off simultaneously inside the city of Kathmandu, killing two (a woman and a highschool girl), and injuring over two dozen. This is the first attack in the capital since the signing of the peace agreement between the Maoists insurgents and the government last summer. The Maoists definately did not do this, it was most likely one of the extremist groups agitating within the southern part of Nepal, known as the Terai. You can read about this at the best site for Nepali news, This is truly a great tragedy for a peaceful people far too accustomed to turmoil.

On a brighter note, I will be attending teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in McLeod Ganj India, over the next three days. He is giving an explanation to a text by the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, the Commentary on the Awakening Mind (byang chub sems 'bral). I am attending with a student group I have been assisting in Northern India, from the Tulane School of Social Work (New Orleans).

I have also been volunteering with LHA, a community social work organization that works with Tibetan refugees. I like the organization a lot, and will continue to work with them in the future.

May you be having peace and experiencing harmony today.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

to the golden temple and back

Yesterday I departed the fun group of young people from Loyola University New Orleans that I had been traveling with in India. I had been helping them with some translating and contextualizing their experiences, and had the opportunity to give them some lectures, which I hope weren't too boring. I also was trying to help out with some of the little things like carrying bags and running menial errands. I think the menial tasks are important, too. As Paul Farmer says in Mountains Beyond Mountains, many social projects fail and most of his peers in medicine quit social medicine because of an unwillingness to "do scrut work." As for me, give me a shovel and I'll dig the ditch.

I left the group in Amritsar, taking the local train three hours to Pathankot, where I caught a bus back to Dharamsala. Amritsar was well worth the visit. The sheer immensity and the beauty of the workmanship at the Golden Temple blew me away. There were thousands of devout Sikhs in a mood of intense devotion all over the place, which was infectious. I'd like to have the opportunity to go back there a few days and do meditation and prayer in some of the open prayer halls there. One can get a great boost from the collective energy of divine communion, if you are into that sort of thing...

The Harmandir Sahib, known as the "Golden Temple" in Amritsar, the pilgrimage center for the Sikh faithful, located a few miles from the Pakastani border in Punjab state, India. this photo from voobie on

I'll be here a week until meeting back up with the LHA people in Delhi to help get the Tulane University School of Social Work Master's students going. I have decided not to remain with the group on thier entire course of study and travel in Himachal Pradesh next month. Like the Loyola group and I did, they will be going to some of my favorite amazing places, like Bir, Tso Pema (Rewalsar) and Mandi. There are true blessings of Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava all over this land. I will sit for three days of public teachings that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be giving in the beginning of September, and then return to Nepal for a week to wrap up some business and say goodbye to loved ones.

My grandfather has fallen ill, and I will be returning to the Land of the Supersize to spend time with my family. My plane touches down at Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans on September 14.

I am excited to go home, back to Louisiana with its warmth, food and music, where funkiness makes no excuse for itself, and the balmy heat wraps its fat sweaty arms around you in such a way as you think it'll never let go.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

A Case of Spirit Possession in Tibet

View of Old Delhi from Jama Masjid, courtesy of

The day before yesterday I took the train/bus combo away from the megalopolis Delhi, northwest into the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh. Upon arrival in Dharamsala, I discovered a non-discovery: my passport was missing. I had left it in the tiny sweaty Internet Cafe in Pahar Ganj, the budget tourist area of Delhi. In an attempt to retrieve it, I took a night bus from Dharamsala (11 hours) to Delhi last night, and was returned my little blue book of such great importance this morning. Back with the internet at a decent speed, and plenty of free time, I'll update a post I'd been mulling over for the last two weeks:

While leading the Passage Summer Tibet program through South/Central Tibet this summer, I brought my students to the ancient Samye Monastery. Samye was the first proper monastery erected in Tibet, in the 8th Century, by the Tibetan Dharma King Trisrong Deutsen, the Bengali Scholar-monk Shantirakshita, and the Pakistani/Afghani Tantric master, Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava. Although the mandala structured temple complex suffered heavy damage during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it is still a sight of great historical and religious significance.

Nestled in a steep valley a few miles above the temple complex rests a large group of meditation caves, the Samye Chimphug Cave Complex. Great masters in the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism (most notably associated with the Nyingthig cycles of practice literature), meditated in such caves, including the Tantric founder Guru Rinpoche, his realized consort Khandro Yeshe Tshogyal, the visionary Kunkyen Longchen Rabjam, and the Treasure Revealer Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa. While exploring the mountainside with the students, which is currently home to about two hundred monks, nuns and layfolk in meditation retreat, I got in a conversation with a nun about Pay.lo Rinpoche, one of the current heads of the Nyingthig lineage. I had previously met him at Rice University, where he came to 'teach a class' on the invitation of Professor Anne Klein. The nun informed me that he was concurrently in Lhasa, and that I should try to meet him. I agreed, but wondered how I'd manage to get the time, much less find out where he was staying.

The ancient monastery shaped as a mandala: Samye Gompa, courtesy

The next day we took a day trip to the politically notable nunnery, Shugsep Ani Gompa. The nuns there are quite charming (and daring in the face of Chinese occupation), and after a few of the students and I made a spectacular trek up to the ancient meditation caves above the nunnery (where Kunkyen Longchen Rabjam wrote his masterwork of poetry, the Seven Treasures), one of the nuns requested a ride back to Lhasa City with us. We agreed, and on the return journey she explained to me that she was going to Lhasa to meet her Guru, Rinpoche. She invited me to come along, and I heartily agreed.

The confusion of the modern Chinese city of Lhasa, courtesy

Back in Lhasa, I gave the students the evening off, and at about 7pm set out into Lhasa with my new nun friend, to try to find Lama Rinpoche's residence. After some confusion with the locals and the taxi driver, we found his compound in northeast Lhasa. He wasn't there; he'd taken a day trip to the holy sites of Trigung Til, a few hours west of Lhasa. The nuns there explained that he'd be back in a few hours, wouldn't we stay awhile and wait for him? I agreed, and proceed to pass the evening drinking buttery salty Tibetan tea. At some point a group of nuns and monks began chanting in a sort of main sitting room. I asked if it was alright if I joined to observe, and they invited me in.

Tibetan Buddhists are practitioners of the Vajrayana, the Diamond Vehicle, an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism that gradually developed in the middle of the first millinium, in northern India and neighboring areas. Among many other things, Vajrayana Buddhists negotiate with the spirit-world on behalf their parishioners and rely on protection and guidance from benevolent deities, through the means of (often elaborate) offering rituals. If the particular deity is of wrathful character, they will not be satisfied with mere offerings of food, light, incense, water and music: they require at least some meat (not in the form of blood sacrifice like what is practiced by Tantric Hindus in ritual offerings to the wrathful forms of Shiva and the Mother Goddess, but rather ideally a bit of meat that comes from an animal that died a natural death) and alcohol.

The wrathful Buddhist Dharma protector Palden Lhamo (Shri Devi), courtesy

If they don't have a special temple and practitioner designated specifically for the task, certain members of most Tibetan Buddhist communities generally gather in the evenings for offering rituals to the protector deities of their lineage, monastery and location. It is believed that these deities have power over the mundane world, and can prevent calamity or clear obstacles for the community. The gathering of about forty nuns and ten monks at Pay.lo Rinpoche's residence was at first no different at first from any of the dozens of protector rituals that I've observed in India, Nepal or Tibet.

The room in the modern building was quite spacious, with nice wooden floors, and sparsely furnished. The nuns sat on the floor in a tight group in the middle of the room on the side of the door, with most of the monks separated on the far wall, while five senior monks sat on cushions in the front of the room. One played the cymbals while another beat a portable ritual drum. No one, not even the head lama (a sagely looking man of about sixty, with a classic kung-fu style wispy mustache, that grew and came down only in the sides of his mouth), made any indication about my presence. I was the only layperson, and sat down next to the door a few feet behind the nuns.

After about forty-five minutes of continuous chanting, one of the nuns in the front of their group began rocking back and forth and wheezing with increased intensity. I thought she was possibly hyperventilating or having some kind of seizure, perhaps set off by the how tightly close the nuns were sitting or from chanting constantly for the better part of an hour, and wondered why no one made an attempt to bring her outside. After a few minutes of heavier gasping and more intense jerks, she suddenly stood up, both the middle and ring fingers of her hands seemed to be locked to her palms with the other fingers outstretched. One of her knees was bent, and her other leg and foot were rigidly extended. One nun and one monk took off their upper robe and tied it around her torso, in order to support her and to control her. Her face displayed an extremely angry countenance, and her eyes were glaring around wildly. She began to spin and jump around the center of the room.

At this point, another nun stood up in the back, who I hadn't noticed. She was shaking irregularly, and seemed to be on the verge of tears. Her hands were also locked in the same gesture, and a nun next to her also bound her by the waist with her robe for support. She gradually moved into the center of the room. Someone got up and closed and locked the door.

I must admit I was quite frightened at this time. I felt an extremely cold sensation briefly a few times, and although I didn't actually think anything was going to happen to me, I noticed a great amount of apprehension rising in my stomach. Rinpoche's sister, who is a teacher in her own right and lovingly referred to as Jetsun-ma, came to me and said in Tibetan, "Our protectors (srungma) have decended!" I said that I understood, and she nodded reassuringly. The head monk then addressed the room, towards a group of younger nuns who seemed as shocked as I felt. He said matter-of-factly in Tibetan, "Don't be afraid, our protectors have come to tell us our obstacles."

The first nun that stood up began yelling exasperatedly to the crowd of nuns. I couldn't understand her very well, but she seemed to be warning the group about the importance of practicing the Dharma well, and of upholding their particular lineages well. After a few minutes of this, the head monk said loudly and clearly to the inhabited nuns, "If you are truly our protector deities, then you will identify yourselves and tell us our future obstacles." The first nun said that she was Palden Lhamo, and the second, although talking very softly, identified herself as Dorje Yudronma. The monks and nuns continued chanting the protector offering ritual prayers. The translator Richard Barron, in a footnote to the book Delog: Journey to Realms Beyond Death (the amazing autobiographical account of the notable visionary Delog Dawa Drolma), writes: "Dorje Yundronma is one of the twelve tanma goddesses who have sworn to protect the Buddhist religion and the Tibetan nation."

After dancing and twirling around the center of the room a bit, they began making prophesies to the head monk. It was difficult for me to understand what they were saying, but I could make out some phrases like, "I and obstacle, I see something red, something large and red, in the road..." and so forth. At one point Dorje Yudronma began talking quickly in a low voice, and the head monk got up, putting his head beside hers, listening intently to what she had to say. This continued for about ten minutes, as everyone else sat in silent observation. After they had been inhabited for about twenty-minutes, the head monk began telling the deities that it was time to go, by saying things like, "be careful on your journey ahead," and "thank you, go slowly." He hung a long white ceremonial scarf around each of the nuns's necks, which symbolizes a positive connection, and sat back down. The protector deities, in the bodies of the nuns, made three long slow prostrations to the head monk, re-offering their allegience and taking refuge in the Three Jewels (the Buddha, his teachings, and his community of practitioners). They then gave the scarves back to the head lama, and continued to shout and dance sporatically.

After a few more minutes, the head monk abruptly told everyone to leave. People seemed confused. He had decided the obstacle-prediction and clearing ritual was over. The monks and nuns filed out the front door, and they took Dorje Yundroma away out the front. Some Tibetans that had been waiting outside bowed reverently to the embodied protector deity. Some other nuns brought Palden Lhamo upstairs to retire.

I was struck how most of the older nuns and monks were totally unsurprised by this whole affair, as if it were a rather common thing.

I ate a hurried dinner, and left the compound to meet some of the students at a local Tibetan stage show bar. I didn't want to leave, but they begged me to accompany them (these places can be quite seedy). I found them after some time, but couldn't get that interested in the show. After an hour and a half, I left them at the show, as they seemed quite comfortable and were only about a five minute walk from our hotel. I returned to Rinpoche's compound to wait for his arrival.

His car finally arrived in Lhasa after 2am that night. I was allowed in his room to meet him personally at about 2.30am, since I was a foreigner. The nun I came with probably waited much longer to see him. I experienced the typical fear and apprehension I have when going to meet realized masters, but after a few moments of introducing myself I calmed down, and allowed myself to relax into his amazingly powerful presence. When he realized my Tibetan was good, and that I'd been a student of meditation for a few years, he sent everyone else out of the room and we had a very intimate and affectionate conversation for about ten minutes. He kept telling me how happy he was to meet me, and I almost started crying a few times. He gave me some advice about prayer and meditation, and a new name, and we exchanged some small gifts a few times. He had an incredible amount of youthful energy, for such a large middle-aged man in the middle of the night. Pay.lo Tulku Rinpoche, from Kham, Tibet. Photo courtesy of Dawn Mountain, the Buddhist Center in Houston Texas.

I was tired, but very sad to have to finally leave him. I wanted to sit in his room all night, just catching his vibe, but he had to leave at 6am the next day, and still had a long line of Tibetan nuns, monks and layfolk to meet before maybe catching an hour or two of sleep. I felt guilty about taking so much of his time, so excused myself, finally.

It was a day filled with great adventure, on a trip that was not altogether easy or hassle-free. I look forward to having the great blessing of meeting Pay.lo Rinpoche again in the future, and perhaps even to meet the very real and powerful benevolent protector spirits. I'm also grateful to my first teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, Anne C. Klein, for initially allowing this blossoming connection to arise.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Wisdom of the Guru Continually Presents Itself to the Willing

i am humbled to count this amazing young man, Phagchog Tulku Rinpoche, as my Teacher (with a capital 'T'). He lives in Kathmandu as well, and I have been a student of meditation and prayer under him for 3 and a half years now. He has meant the world to me, and i pray that all of you with interest will have an opportunity to meet him some day.

so it has been some time since i updated this self-absorbed neo-colonialist narrative (without an ending: the worst kind) that entertains the fantasy of authentic participation, my apologies. i have two things to blame, the first is a certain attitude of procrastination which infects all but the best of us at times (see 'mountains beyond mountains' about Paul Farmer for an exception), and the second is the friendly Party i went to visit: the communist one of china. the blog was firewalled or something in the people's republic.

my uncle thinks my syntactical and grammatical styles hint that i am the reincarnation of e.e. cummings. today i will try to cultivate this latent karmic tendency.

as the
of other blogs
across the p a g e,

i took the Passage summer tibetan studies students on a two week busy tour of Lhasa roundabouts, and a roadtrip back over the central plateau to Kathmandu. we visited many big monasteries, and some smaller nunneries, and some Relatively insignificant historical Chapels which caused some of my students to ask me questions about the strange buzzing non-sound which came into their bodies through their foreheads or erupted in their chest (some of you know what i'm talking about), to which i could only reply things like, "isn't the yellow of the mustard seed fields in the distance a lovely contrast to the deep blue of the low hanging sky and the reds splattered on the cliffsides?" to be honest i am no such poet in personal conversation, but secretly that is how i felt: after all, such experience with proprioception of the movement of subtle wind energy through the yogic channels, catalyzed by the residual power of great meditation masters in holy places of pilgrimage and devotion, can't really be expressed so easily.

the students have now for the most part left asia, but i have taken my leave of them and my beloved second hometown of Kathmandu. although today quite Smith/Rosene styley missed my morning flight to delhi and had to catch a different afternoon one to keep my plan on track.
FUCK THE PLAN AND THE TRACK ITS ON! excuse me, last week i read the charles BuKOwskI novel 'women' and it has gotten into my writing too. well, minus the alcoholism part, considering the

one year anniversary of me being totally sober is coming up in a few days!

i feel like there should be some kind of wild drunken sex party to celebrate this, but rather, i'm meeting the New Orleanian group of Loyola University students with the LHA in mcleod ganj (dharamsala, himachal pradesh, india india india) tomorrow and i guess that will be as close as i get to my old friend Bacchus for now, since i'm going continue with the sobriety for a few more months.

today as was sitting in a traffic jam on the ring road around kathmandu, which had been caused by the very minor collision of a 'microbus' (gutted van filled with benches and self-pitying pukey Nepalis) and a bus, next to the Great Temple of Lord Shiva Pashupatinath, something caught my eye. it was a rather unattractive grizzled dark face. i had been admiring the organizational skill of Indians, who often travel in Tibet and Nepal in huge fleets of rented buses or SUV's, in groups of well over one hundred, as there was about 8 big tourist buses of chatty dark skinned plains-folk aiding in the general mayhem and confusion of motor vehicles (which in the end was the secondary cause which caused me to miss my flight, the primary being overconfidence given to a young man who has been reading too much BuKowSKi). i glanced up at the window, our car was slowly passing the bus, when an Indian Man of middle age looked at me. he was wearing an orange cloth wrapped around his upper body (all that i could see), and was certainly on a Holy Shaivite Pilgrimage to the Holy Temple of Lord Shiva Pashupatinath on the Holy Bagmati River that runs through the unique and, naturally Holy Mandala of the Kathmandu Valley.

for a long moment

we both made no expression, and i smiled a little, and he did too, but we didn't smile in a big idiotic way. but the "i'm filled with devotion to the Guru while stuck in this traffic jam and i can see that you are also filled with devotion to the Guru while you are stuck in this traffic jam too, smile," Bhakti devotion love smile style. the cool little known secret about devotion is that is is a doorway to Non-conceptual wisdom, which can be shared for a few minutes (it was a real jam) with a total stranger, because non-duality lacks all boundaries, being formless.

it was like TRUE LOVE on a dusty road.

anyway, on a different note i visited our monks in chapagaon yesterday to give them some gifts of 50 pounds of roasted barley flour from tibet, and dried cheese, and candy, and yak meat sweets. we played a little bit, and i said goodbye to Vajravarahi, because it will be at least two months before i see her, and i'm grateful to my protectors.
that may sound like a strange statement to make, but my respect and belief in protector spirits has changed a lot since i saw my first 'spirit possession' while in Tibet last week, and it was POWERFUL and SCARY AS SHIT and TOTALLY REAL.

so i don't mean to brag but Paul Farmer (via the book mountains beyond mountains) inspired me to let you know that
i've been working this last month and am in India to do some more work, and have saved some money with the fulbright, and so i gave ALL THE MONEY i made from my job to monks and nuns in Nepal to support them in their efforts to do meditation retreats, and to the passage program, which is deserving.

i've got my laptop with me on this trip so will be updating some pretty pictures and details in a few days.

om ah hung vajra guru padma siddhi hung!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Around the Wet Kathmandu Valley with the Passage Students

In Boudhanath, Kathmandu:

Rice transplanting underway in my neighborhood Boudha on the east side of Kathmandu. Before the monsoon, rice is planting in tight bunches in a small section of the field, and when they reach about 10 inches are transplanted into rows in the flooded field. As you can see, new residential construction is rapidly replacing the rice paddy in the Kathmandu Valley.

Local women carrying hay from the community-owned forest in the hills north of Kathmandu. This is the method that 95% of Nepalis transport goods, and usually women collect fodder to bring back for the animals.

Nyungnay (Simple Living) Retreat at Nagi Gompa:

A nun walking around the inside of the lhakhang (chapel) at Nagi Gompa during the Nyungnay fasting retreat in May. I attended two sets of two-day fasting retreats, which include one meal only on the first day. During the retreat, the practitioners begin chanting prayers and making prostrations at 4am, until 6pm. In this fasting practice, no one is allowed to speak, drink water or even swallow their spit, as well as observing the 8 vows (no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sex, no intoxicants, no purfume/jewelry, no eating while fasting, and no sitting on high seats).

Here Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche is ordaining two Nepali young women (one Tamang, one Newar) to be novice nuns, at Nagi Gompa, on May 31, 2007.

My friend the Newari (Maharjan) monk, Lama Monlam. Lama Monlam has been a monk since he was 14 (56 years ago) at Nagi Gompa, on the northern slope of the Kathmandu Valley rim. He has spent many years in solitary meditation retreat, and now has his own small gompa (monastery) near Swayambhu on the west side of Kathmandu.

Passage Project for International Education, Summer tour:

I brought our Passage students to see Lama Tsering Wangdu, a realized master of meditation and ritual. He threw dice to divine the most karmically appropriate Tibetan name for each student. Lama Wangdu will be traveling to the United States in about a month for a few months, see if you can catch him in New York, Boston, Portland, Seattle or one of the other cities he'll visit!

A semi-traditional Newari wedding scene, with each the bride's and bridegroom's families' brahmin priests standing by to conduct their parts of the ritual union. Our Passage students attended this wedding (and I think a few may have gone to the after party...) as a culturally enriching experience.

The very beautiful Newari bride (Yanik Srestha's cousin for those who know him) in all her finery, trying not to cry. I've noticed that many South Asian brides shed tears at their weddings. I don't think it's an indictment of the men, but rather the sadness of moving away from the joint-family home of their parents into that of their husbands.

A traditional folk band at the wedding.

An amazing collection of traditional wooden Newari hookha. Newar men have been fond of the sheesha for many generations.

Chapgaon Monastery:

One of the many beautiful trees that grow in Nepal, next to the unpainted gateway of the monastery in Chapagaon.

Some village women chanting prayers together in the monastery in Chapagaon. They meet every morning, and nowadays since the weather is pleasant there are about fifteen that assemble. It is interesting to me that they they chant devotional prayers in Tibetan (Guru Rinpoche, Amitabha), some dharani and mantra in Sanskrit, and then sing devotional hymns in Newari language.

July's Cute Monk Photo:

Our Newar monk Ngedun Gyatsho (Ocean of True Meaning) playing a game on one of our youngest, Rangjung Dorje (Naturally Arisen Diamond).

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Exporting with a Cause

Next week I will be sending a few cubic meters of manufactured items from Kathmandu to New Orleans via Sea Cargo. It should take about two months for the boxes to be driven to the coast in India, and slowly make a journey halfway circumnavigating the earth to our favorite dirty port city.

It will mostly be prayerflags of various sizes, and I'm including some scarves, clothes, wallhangs, doorhangs, prayerbeads, Nepali paper, soap and incense as sample items (to feel out the future market potential) and as gifts.

In the future I hope to set up regular shipments of certain items to raise awareness and money for the education of monks and nuns in Nepal. I have worked closely with both the Khari nuns in Tramo village, Khumbu Nepal, and the monks at the Vajravarahi monastery in Chapagaon, Nepal. We have already begun to teach higher Buddhist philosophy to the nuns in the mountains. It is rare for nuns to study philosophy here. I am also already sponsoring one lama to complete a traditional three year mediation retreat, and hope to continue doing so. We are also hoping to turn the monastery in Chapagaon into a training center for monk translators of Tibetan to French, German, Chinese, English, Spanish, Nepali and Newari.

Otherwise, I've been spending my time helping out our six summer Passage students and working on a Tibetan translation for some Nepali Dharma friends.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Translations and Red Beans

I have been busy lately with an ongoing translation project from the Tibetan (an explanation of the four main festivals of the Buddhist calendar that are associated with the Buddha's life), assisting six students from North America as a co-coordinator for the Passage Project , and some personal study, contemplation and meditation.

Last night the students and some other friends came over to my apartment for dinner, I cooked red beans (with some black beans and blackeyed peas) with okra and rice for them, a spicy taste of southern Louisiana in Kathmandu. More people ended up eating than I expected, I think 16 people enjoyed rice with us together. A big family!

Thanks to the Passage Blog for this photo!

Last weekend we organized a two day meditation course for our Passage students at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Boudhanath. Khenpo Sherab Dorje was kind enough to teach Shamatha (cultivating concentration calmly) in the mornings, and I sat next to him as the translator. It was my first experience translating from Tibetan in a formal teaching. I felt like I did an OK job, not so many glaring errors and it seemed quite natural and comfortable. Besides being a great learning experience, my drive to study Tibetan has increased.

For the sake of all beings!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Summer Tibetan Passage Program

So our six summer Tibetan Passage Program students have arrived in Kathmandu, and I've been busy helping them with an orientation program in the town of Bhaktapur and moving them into their homestay families today in Boudha. They are enthusaistic and open; I think the six weeks we will be together will be a fun learning experience for them, as well as myself. Although my job title is coordinator, I honestly consider myself a student on the program as well.

In a month I will have the distinct pleasure of escorting the group on a two week trip through central Tibet (U Tsang).

In the meantime I am busy living in Boudha, working for the program as a co-coordinator and assistant Tibetan teacher. I am also deep into another side project, translating a short text about the four main ritual festivals in the Tibetan calendar year. I hope to have it finished before we leave for Lhasa Tibet on July 13. A group of Nepali (Newar Buddhists) have requested me to translate it from the Tibetan for them so that they can translate it into Nepali to make a book for general distribution this summer.

I'm also still working on improving the education at our monastery in Chapagaon. I've been charged with introducing basic instruction in international languages to select groups of monks. We are looking desperately for teachers and volunteers in Nepal for English, French, Spanish, German and Chinese languages. We also need a variety of language study materials like easy to read books, magazines, comic books, CD's, DVD's, kids books, etc. New or Used is fine. Actually, if you have any of this kind of old lanugage study stuff lying around or want to help out and purchase something, you can send it to the following adress, and we would all be extremely grateful:

VajraVarahi Gompa
PO Box 12212
Chapagaon, Lalitpur, Nepal
00977 1 5570037
00977 1 2334837
00977 9851003819

please include the phone numbers on the address. Thanks!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Urgyen Tulku Rinpoche

Haven't had much time for posting as I am working on a public presentation that I will give tomorrow (June 6) from 5pm to 6.30. It will be at the Fulbright Commission Auditorium in Ganeshwor, in Kathmandu. The topic of the forum will be "The Influence of Himalayan Buddhism on the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley: Is There a Newar Buddhist Revival?" and I will be basically giving a slideshow of many of the pictures I took over the past 9 months doing research in Kathmandu. It will mainly cover the various case study sites I have been visiting, some history and a few observations (the Cultural Buddhist Anthropology part). The photo below is one (that I didn't take) that I will be putting in the slideshow. I think it is touching.

A picture of Urgyen Tulku Rinpoche at Nagi Gompa, probably taken in the early nineties. Besides his humility and unassuming personality, his special quality was that he spent up to half of his life in retreat doing intense personal meditation practice.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Holy Places, Farms, and Tiny Balls of Shit

Bandipur Travel Program Development Trip:

The town of Bandipur. Tina and Yanik, the other two summer Passage Program coordinators, and I went on a two day program development trip here this week. We are going to bring our students there for four days this summer. The town is charming, and the locals have even made their main bazaar pedestrian only, which has transformed the place from another dusty loud market area to a quiet evening playground for children. I will have more on this place in July, when we go with the students.

I climbed up the big hill north of Bandipur on our last day there for sunrise. I actually made it up there before the sun. It was very peaceful. This is a bell hanging next to the Tanimai temple on top of the hill, taken in the pre-dawn light.

The Spring of Enlightenment:

The trail from the road up to the Chumig Changchup (Spring of Enlightenment). I spontaneously decided to go for a short little pilgrimage up to this very holy meditation place of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), on our way back from Bandipur. I had to wait awhile for a bus, and ended up hitching a 3 hour ride on the top of a Nepal Oil Corporation Tanker truck up to Daman. I got up before sunrise to make the 30 minute hike to the spring from the lodge. The place is known as Rikeshwar to the Hindus, who associate any figure holding a trisul (trident), like Padmasambhava does, with Siva.

The lower side of the small Chumig Changchup gompa (monastery). I had some better photos but I deleted them, which really irritated me for about 3 seconds, but I let it go, realizing that I'd have to just go back and take more photos later. After all, it's only about 4 hours from Kathmandu.

The face of Padmasambhava in the rock face above the holy spring, which is said to have spontaneously emanated by itself. It is in this little indention that he is said to have spent some time in meditation retreat as he was on his way up to Parphing in the Kathmandu Valley. The story I was told is that after attaining a meditative realization, he took his purba (ritual dagger) and jabbed it down into the cliff. From that spot a spring spontaneously began to flow. He then climbed up on top of the hill and ritually subjugated the local female spirits, binding them by oath to protect the Buddhadharma (teachings of the Buddha) and all that uphold it in that place. It then became a sacred spot ideal for meditation retreat.

A self portrait, taken on top of the oil tanker on the way up to Chumig Changchup.

Farm Life:

Typical terraced farming in the hills of rural Nepal. The Nepalis have been experts at hand-carved terraced farms for centuries.

Here some resourceful Nepali hill farmers have taken bamboo staves and made a vast latticework over their terraced fields. Cucumbers, which grow very quickly and take over a large amount of land (and rot on the ground if you don't pick them in time), will climb up to the top of the lattice and spread over it in a few weeks. At that time, the farmer can just walk under the lattice and pick the vegetables as they hang down.

While staying in Bandipur we took a day hike to a local Magar village, Ramkot. It is famous for its traditional round houses with thatched roofs. In the village, which was quite dry, there was a good bit of intentionally cultivated ganja (cannabis, marijuana, hemp) growing nearby animal pens. I have been to a number of small farms in this country, and many of them harvest the mature buds off of the ganja plants. They take these buds and grind them up, and then...
they mix it up with hay and leaves as a medicinal food for their water buffalo, cows, goats and sheep when they are having stomach problems (apparently it cures indigestion, appetite problems, constipation and loose motion). It is technically illegal to grow it in Nepal, but it is overlooked for the small farmers.

On the way back from Ramkot, I noticed these little guys having a rolling good time in a pile of cowshit on the trail. These are dung beetles (scarab beetles) preparing some sweet evening snacks to bring home.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Some Things May Last a Long Time

Congratulations Lee and Chokey!

Lee and Chokey Rostosky, friends who were married last week. Lee is from Philadelphia, Chokey is from a Tibetan family in Nepal. Congratulations, Tashi Delek Bumsumtsok!

Me with local activist Sakya Suren and the historian/retired politician Bhuwan Lal Pradhan. I have sponsored a translation of Bhuwan Lal Pradhan's history of the Vajravarahi temple in Chapagaon, which we will edit and publish in English this summer, for the sake of the local tourists, volunteer workers and researchers who cannot read Nepali easily (like me!)

Some Tibetan Art:

One of two similar thangkas (Tibetan scroll paintings) that I had commissioned recently from a family of Tibetan artists I know. The central figure is Samantabhadra/Kuntu Sangpo (All Excellent One), who represents the Dharmakaya Buddha, the truth body of the Buddha. The bottom left image is of Vajrasatva/Dorje Sempa (Adamantine One), who represents the Sambhogakaya Buddha, the psycho-cosmic body of the Buddha. The bottom right image is of Padmasambhava/Guru Rinpoche, who represents the Nirmanakaya Buddha, the emanation body of the Buddha that is physically born on earth to help people. All three images are in "playful union," representing the inseparability of wisdom and compassion, or wisdom and method, or emptiness and appearance.

The monk Rabjam Sangpo holding up the veil curtain to the thangka painting. The thangka is typically matted in stylized silk, with a veil to cover it if desired. I usually keep the thangka veiled, since it is esoteric in subject.

There is a beautiful simplicity to the beginning stage of the thangka painting, basic line drawing.

View from the roof of the monastery in Chapagaon of the himalayan mountains to the north, shrouded in clouds.

Burnt Offerings of Various Sorts:

Here Lama Wangdu and the monks and ngagpas (lay Buddhist tantric adepts) are circumambulating the fire where a great variety of various substances were ritually offered to the peaceful and wrathful deities on behalf of the deceased.

Lama Wangdu wearing a black bird hat. I think this has something to do with a death ritual where there were symbolic offerings made of the ego of all present to the birds, but I'm not sure at all on that point, I'd have to do a little research.

A particularly nice burnt offering chimney at the Norling Resort, where Lee and Chokey were married. On many occasions (before rituals, on holy days, at high places like passes, on the roof, etc.) various fragrant herbs and auspicious substances like white flour will be offered to the buddhas, bodhisatvas, protectors and local spirits who either enjoy the flavour or can gain sustanance from the fumes, oftentimes to placate beings who could possibly have malicious intentions.

Lee Rotosky, the groom, offering fragrant herbs (like juniper) to the burnt offering fire.

Some Work, Some Play:

Me on my Royal Enfield Indian Bullet 350cc motorcycle in my suit after Lee and Chokey's wedding.

A few days ago one of the older monks arranged a football (soccer) match against a local team in Chapagaon. We drove about 4 kilometers down to Sunakothi town, where there was this fantastic field (large flat open spaces with grass are quite rare in Kathmandu), with a beautiful panorama of the Kathmandu Valley rim mountains. I played sweeper, because in Nepal I am the huge guy with the strong kick, compared to the skinny short Nepalis. It was fun, we tied 2-2.

Cute Monk Photo of the Week: