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!