Gargon Ling Nunnery – Puja

Right now I am on the plane, leaving Pokhara, Nepal to return to Kathmandu. It has been great to be out of Kathmandu for 10 days of travel; with 5 days in Pokhara (previous post) and then 5 days attending Puja at the Gargon Ling Nunnery with Tsoknyi Rimpoche and the nuns living there. The nunnery is about a 20 minute walk from the town of Ranipauwa where Joni and I stayed at the Hotel Grand Potala, a grand name for a 2 star hotel 🙂

I was very fortunate to be granted permission by Rimpoche to take photos and video of the ceremonies. My process and pace were in stark contrast to the pace on “Demonstration Day” at the school that I shared earlier. Rather than jumping from small classroom to classroom, positioning myself, adjusting my light settings and dancing around Rimpoche and the young Ani’s movements, I had hours and days to contemplate my shots during the 5 days of Puja; sitting, watching and observing the ceremony.
The Puja (a devotional practice for requesting blessings) consisted of around 60 hours of chanting, punctuated by drums, symbols, bells, horns and damarus (small hand drums). While I didn’t fully understand the Tibetan chants and was totally confused by the activities at the beginning, the feeling and meaning was evident on a visceral level when I managed to relax into the moment. My bit of familiarity with Tibetan practices and a few Tibetan words also helped as did my study of Buddhism in general and my faith in Rimpoche’s authority to convey it. The result was feeling bathed in blessings and aspirations for all beings to be free of suffering, attachment and aversion.
Anyone witnessing such a ceremony would have respect and appreciation for the care it requires. Rimpoche and the Anis moved through the text before them; sitting mostly still, bringing forth the intentions handed down from the Buddha (over 2,500 years ago). The physical act of sitting there and “singing” for 60 hours is itself a feat. Only practice and devotion could allow a person to accomplish it. I hope the photos convey the concentration as well as the variety of activities they performed.
I, on the other hand, fidgeted and adjusted my position to deal with the pain that is inevitable with sitting so long. I began each morning on a cushion on the floor sitting cross legged but retreated to one of 3 chairs in the room when I could no longer stand to sit 🙂 Rinpoche kindly encourage us to take time out from the ceremonies to explore the beauty of Muktinath and the surrounding hills. These hikes definitely helped shake out some kinks in our bodies and refresh our minds.

With permission to move about at will to take photographs I had another outlet for my untrained body and mind. On many levels I appreciate the privilege and the responsibility for being allowed to take photographs. At the same time I was careful not to disrupt or disrespect the Puja, so I was very hesitant to move much in the beginning. I also wanted to maintain my presence of mind and practice. Photography can be likened to a banquet dinner, especially in a colorful and rich environment like the Lakhong where we sat. It is easy to get pulled and distracted into all the activities and colorful artifacts – grasping at one after another. Such a state of mind isn’t conducive to receiving blessings. The blessings can only be received with an open, attentive, relaxed and settled mind. And so, I moved in and out of picture mode and into open awareness at various intervals.
Oct 14
Now I have returned to my, albeit temporary, home in Chobhar, Kathmandu with a camera full of photos to process and share. I wish I could make them all available to you immediately but I’m going to take time before I post them. Meanwhile here are a select few for you to enjoy.
As I post this appreciation of the tradition of Rinpoche and the Nuns, I can’t help but remember the people in Las Vegas who lost their lives in a senseless and violent manner. While these events are very distant from the people of Nepal in space, it is hasn’t escaped their awareness. Many times I heard Americans and others mention the tragedy, wondering how it could happen and how it could have been prevented. News in of America (and the world in general) is of great interest in Asia, but such high profile events bring special concerns.
The violence in Las Vegas sits in stark contrast to my experience at the school in Chobhar and the Gargon Ling Nunnery. These nuns have committed themselves to improving themselves; training their minds to a level of awareness that is not only non-violent, but aware of their minute by minute contribution (or lack) to the generation of benefit and happiness for all beings. While I believe that we as a Nation need to regulate gun ownership (we regulate motor vehicles for God sake), we certainly need to develop and improve our individual consciousness as well. What does this mean? It means spending money on the prevention and support of people with mental illness, promoting non-violent communication in our schools and organizations, and promoting the idea of personal responsibility for our thoughts and feelings. This is a shift from a ME orientation to a WE orientation. WE will only survive or perish together. WE are all unique and important. WE need to take care of ALL children first. The paradox of taking care of US is that the result is greater happiness for ME. That’s US in a world sense not just an American-US context.     …end of soapbox

Dream Travel

Joni and I are enjoying some time away from Kathmandu, traveling to Pokhara during the Dashain Holiday. While Dashain is a Hindu, not Buddhist holiday, our school is closed for a couple weeks. It seems that everything in Nepal is on the Dashain schedule during these 2 weeks. It feels a little like Christmas Holidays with people going home to be with family and friends, buying special gifts and giving thanks for what they have.
When we return, we will begin a new term. While we have only just begun our work, it is great to have time to experience another aspect of Nepal. There are many similarities between Pokhara and Kathmandu, but we are enjoying some stark differences. Most striking is that the traffic is 100 times more tolerable. Pokhara doesn’t have the jams and break neck passing and weaving that is constant in Kathmandu. The result is that I feel safe to walk down a side walk (they actually have sidewalks) and cross the street without taking my life in my own hands. The side street that we are staying on is even more relaxed – so much so that Joni and stroll down the middle of the street on occasion. One of the things that helps the pace and consistency of traffic is that the streets aren’t filled with potholes (and outright pits) so cars don’t have to navigate around things. I must admit that we are staying in a particularly touristy area of Pokhara (in the Lakeside area) so I can’t attest to the pace in other areas of Pokhara. Pokhara is definitely a large and busy city (Nepal’s second largest). It’s size was made real to us this morning when we climbed above the city to enjoy the Peace Pagoda.
It is hard to believe that we have been in Nepal almost 6 weeks now and “on the road” from Colorado for 2 months. In this time we’ve experienced an incredible amount of diversity and variation; people, language, landscape, accommodations, climate to name a few. There’s been variation from our routines in Colorado and an added level of variation between the places we visited since. There has been so much diversity that last night we both commented about how dreamlike this experience feels. You may have heard the expression “dream travel” or the “dream vacation”. I don’t think this is what those expressions are meant to convey but they certainly are apt for our current experience. Travel has put us in a state of mind that is akin to dreaming.
Traveling in our own culture, moving from place to place, meeting new people, negotiating unusual situations and environments can bring on this state of mind. Traveling in Europe increases another level. But when we were in England we had our language (most of it) in common with the people around us. The organization of services were also fairly familiar. While life there was a little surreal, traveling in Asia takes us to an even more ephemeral level.
Dreaming in sleep takes us into a realm where scenes changes rapidly and unexpectedly. Unless you are a skilled “lucid dreamer” you have no control over the experience. At the mercy of the stream of consciousness and the manifestations that appear, our emotions are on a roller coaster. While there are obvious differences between sleep and my “travel dream”, the extent and pace of novelty during travel significantly stretches my sense of reality. For example… In a matter of 72 hours I have been transported across Kathmandu by a former Tibetan Buddhist monk, passed through an area of town that I’ve never seen, stood in front of the Tribhuvan Airport drinking coffee while watching and listening to travelers from around the world, squeezed through airport security (that wasn’t all that secure), figured out how to negotiate my baggage and secure a seat on my plane, squeezed through another airport security portal (a little more secure), sat in a waiting room that felt more like a bus station than an airport boarding area, rode a bus across the tarmac to my flight, flew past the Himalayas and into Pokhara, found my hotel taxi driver (who thankfully had Joni’s name on a piece of cardboard), settled into new sleeping quarters, and negotiated my way around a new town to eat, shop, and visit local attractions (I’ll spare you some details).
In the lobby of our hotel where I am writing, there are 5 clocks showing the time in Germany, England, US, China and Nepal. It is 1:47 here in Pokhara. 11:20 in the US (must be Eastern Standard Time). In Colorado it is 2:00 am. Given that it’s the middle of the night in Glenwood Springs, perhaps I am just dreaming 🙂
Click on the link to view the Pokhara Album in Google Photos:

Demonstration Day at Tsoknyi Gechak School – September 22nd

Last Friday was a big day for the students and staff at Tsoknyi Gechak School (TGS). With their work organized into visual, oral and musical demonstrations, students enthusiastically shared them with Tsoknyi Rinpoche. It is impossible to measure the continuous support that Rinpoche provides for the girls who come to live and study at TGS. In the tradition of the former incarnations of Tsoknyi Rinpoche, he has protects and advocates for them; providing a place to live, learn and be nurtured in a loving environment. He as established facilities and staff for the school while connecting students to the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism; the teachers, monks, nuns, rituals, teachings and traditions of the Dharma.
The special relationship Rinpoche has with the girls was evident in their interactions on Friday as they proudly demonstrated their knowledge in 3 languages (Nepalese, Tibetan and English). Sometimes demonstrations were in the form of songs or plays, sometimes with pictures, but they were always delivered with a smile and enthusiasm. The presentations exhibited their knowledge in the areas of science, math, literature, health, social studies, writing and Buddhism.

It was my special privilege to be the official photographer for this event, getting a front row seat for the demonstrations and witnessing all the interactions Rinpoche had with the girls. I have never performed such a marathon of photography. It was like a four hour wedding shoot. There was a point when I thought I might get a lunch break to regroup and prepare for more but Rinpoche was tireless as usual and visited every class before taking a break. From beginning to end, he gave the students his full attention, care and humor. Once I understood his determination to see them all before lunch, I turned the corner on my fatigue and continued to give my full attention to the presentations.

Photography is an odd experience. While I think that I see the entire image through my viewfinder, there is always so much more in the frame than my conscious mind can grasp. Perhaps some unconscious part of sees more – I’m not sure.  At any rate  result is a happy surprise (most of the time). This event was no exception. While I was challenged by the tight quarters (the classrooms are quite small) and the light beaming through windows, I managed to capture some sense of the pride and joy in the faces of Rinpoche, the teachers and the girls.

I am happy that I got to witness this event early in my stay here at TGL as it adds momentum to my commitment to work in the school and contribute as much as I can to the girls. It has helped me appreciate the vision that Rinpoche has for the school and for each of the girls; to train nuns to become among the most accomplished Buddhist practitioners and Dharma teachers in the world.

I hope you enjoy these photos. For the entire collection of photos from this event, go to:

Expectations – Happiness

Since arriving in Kathmandu and offering my observations of life here, I have commented about surprises, expectations and the unreliability of services. This “feature” of the Nepalese culture is often discussed in casual conversation with foreigners I meet (seasoned and novice) from all countries outside Nepal. We marvel at the lack of chain of command, goals and objectives and accountability to time.

As I search for ways to manage my own expectations and find a sane approach to my work here, I listen closely in these conversations. Imagine my delight when, while reading a Dharma book by Tsoknyi Rimpoche, I gained new insight into this question. I enjoyed the passages so much that I want to share it with you. I think it informs not only the Nepalese way of thinking and acting but (by contrast) the Western, task oriented and sometimes obsessive approach. I hope you enjoy this and it brings you some benefit.

From “Fearless Simplicity, The Dzogchen Way of Living Freely in a Complex World”, by Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Rangjung Yeshe Publications 2003

Well here we are in the Kathmandu Valley There is pollution, life is difficult, and all our plans are continually being interrupted. When people first fly in, they think, “What a pure land! I am arriving in a Buddha field! Whatever I planned I can carry out smoothly and neatly.” But then what happens? As soon as you try to do something, you’re told, “Not today, tomorrow. No problem… it’ll happen … but not today.” Even if you present someone with a difficult job, they will say, “No problem. I’ll take care of it tomorrow.” At some point you realize that this is not like the United States, where people just say no. Here they say, “Sure! Yes! No problem.” And you think how wonderful it all is; “In two or three days I can do a lot!” Then you find out that “all right” actually means “not all right.” I believe a lot of residents are familiar with this.
Some people come to Nepal with particulars plans and goals in mind. A Dharma practitioner may think, “Okay, I have six months here. I will meet this teacher first, next that teacher, then this third teachers. I will request such and such teachings and receive them; then I will go practice in this or that holy place. I will have such and such realizations and go home.”

If you are a foreign aid volunteer, you might think, “I’m going to carry out this particular project, which will be completed on such and such a date.” If you are a mountaineer, you might think, “I am going to climb this mountain and go trekking in that area. If there is extra time, then I’ll go to such and such a place.” You may have all sorts of different plans, but at the end of the visit you’d be doing well to have accomplished 20% of what you set out to do. There is nothing to be done about this particular situation; it’s just an illustration of the habits of the planning mind. Meanwhile, the Nepalese people are quite content. They are easygoing and happy to smile and say, “All right, no problem. Tomorrow, no problem. Five o’clock okay?” Then you wait until five o’clock, but nothing happens. They say, “Sorry, something came up. Tomorrow, two o’clock, no problem.” Also the next day, nothing.

Foreigners in Nepal are faced with a confrontation between their habit of having everything on a fixed schedule and their consequent assumption that things will happen on time, and how it actually is here in reality. Things are much looser in Nepal, not so fixed. If we somehow manage during those six months to let go of our rigid expectations just a little bit, we may actually be happier people when we go home, even though we didn’t accomplish much. But if we start to find fault and obsess about what didn’t happen, we’ll find only one thing after another that did not work out. That could make us unhappy. On the other hand, we have the opportunity to become happier by learning not to care so much.

What I would like to convey here is that if we aim to learn how to be at ease with ourselves and our surroundings in a way that is content, open, and free, then Nepal is a pretty good place to learn that. To be rigidly goal-oriented and want to nail everything down according to a certain schedule – “I want to achieve this now; I want to finish that on time.” – only makes us more stressed here. To import our rigid Westerern scheduling mind-set and superimpose it on the chaotic reality of the East is an exercise in frustration. We must know this distinction. Here in the apparent chaos of Nepal, the illusion of this world seems more obvious. It is frustrating to try and make the illusion more concrete, because it is ultimately impossible. we cannot solidify an illusion; it is not it’s nature.

While we might want to brand the Nepalese approach as flawed, I would like to offer an alternative explanation. All humans face the common challenge of making a living and maintaining our social relationships. We have various ways that satisfy us based on our upbringing and the culture that surrounds us. Wherever and however we’ve been raised sets our standard. My understanding of what Rinpoche is saying is that any and all views are constructions of our minds – in essence they are illusions. Understanding this we can choose how we want to engage with it. While it is easy for me, as a Westerner, to find fault with the Nepalese way, I can just as easily find flaws in our on the clock, overworked, on the list method. The key point is to remember that all cultural practices are a construction of our mind and should be adapted to serve us – not the other way around.

So… this morning we found that there is no water for us to use for cleaning and boiling drinking water. Every morning at 7:30, until today, we have had a 15 minute window in which to fill our allotted buckets. Of course it doesn’t always happen at 7:30. Sometimes 7:15, sometimes 7:45 and sometimes the window is shorter or longer. This is our first completely dry day. Another opportunity to practice patience and compassion.

Boudha – Sept 15 – 17

Last weekend Joni and I made our way into the city again. This time we traveled into Thamel to do a bit of shopping and on to Boudha where we enjoyed 2 nights in the Shabaling Hotel, within easy walking distance to the Boudha Stupa. Our primary shopping goal was the Tibet Book Store in Thamel. I have seen many Tibetan Buddhist book collections but I have never seen one as extensive as we found here. Due to baggage limitations we didn’t bring many books with us so this was a great opportunity to get a Dharma book to study. The proprietor was very, very open to conversation and not only gave us a good tour of his collections but gave us tips for exchanging money.
Because it was getting a little late, we didn’t wander around Thamel as much as I would have liked. Instead we found a Taxi to take us to our hotel in Boudha. Surprisingly it took about an hour to get through Friday rush hour but, once delivered, we were greeting with smiles, Katas (white scarves place around our necks) and a refreshing glass of juice at the hotel reception desk. The staff of the Hotel were very helpful with directions and the atmosphere provided a nice respite from our busy schedule and the construction at the school and Gomba (monastery). I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in a hotel where there was so much consideration.
In our room, we enjoyed a hot shower and cool water. Unbeknownst to us, we are at the end of the off season so we were one of only 3 parties staying in the hotel. Due to this shortage of demand, we were given ample attention at dinner where we had more protein than we’ve eaten in 3 weeks. While the meal wasn’t out of line with portions we typically have in the States, one shared meal would have been plenty (that’s what we did the following evening). With our dinner we also enjoyed a beverage from the bar (mixed drink for Joni, Everest Beer for me). Eating outside in the courtyard added to the enjoyment, leading us to relax until dark when the lights came up.
After enjoying another fine meal of breakfast, we wound our way through an alley and narrow street, into the large courtyard of the Boudha Stupa. Surrounding the Stupa are restaurants and shops filled with religious objects (prayer beads (Malas), singing bowls, mandala plates, Thankas, and more), assorted food vendors, electronics stores and more. Surprising to an outsider, this shopping circle mixes naturally with Buddhist and Hindu worshippers circumambulating the Stupa, prostrating, spinning mani wheels, stopping to ring bells and lighting candles of devotion. Joni and I took time to join the turning of the wheel; first for photographs, the in silence and finally as shopping tourist-as.
The most outstanding shop we visited was that of a 3rd generation Thanka painter who gave us a 45 minute explanation of the process and meaning of the Thankas he, his father and grandfather had painted. I intend to return to his shop with our Thanks painting friend, Bella, to make a purchase before we leave.
We purchased very little but wore ourselves out with window shopping. Finally we found a coffee shop/restaurant on the 3rd floor of a shop overlooking the Stupa. The restaurant and the Stupa were dotted with Western faces.
Though we had a planning day at school on Sunday, we stayed another night in the City in order to secure travel permits for an upcoming trip. Having risen early we decided to return to the Stupa around 6:30am for some quiet contemplation of this holy site. Little did we know that rush hour at the Stupa must begin at sunrise, as it is a favorite stop for old and young, traditional and modern practitioners. There were old men and women prostrating around the Stupa, hand boards sliding over the stone walkway. There were men and women in traditional Tibetan clothes, chanting Om Mani Padme Hum with their Malas (prayer beads) sliding through their fingers. There were Hindu devotees, ringing bells and placing offerings at stops around the Stupa. Moving faster than anyone were men and women power walking around in new running shoes. Surrounding the entire procession were the poor, blind and disabled people with hands out for an offering. I was happy to see aid workers delivering food to them where they sat. Once again we found ourselves surprised by Nepal. Rather than disappointed by the crowd we were awed by their devotion and their acceptance of the intensity of it all.
Back at the Hotel our friendly desk manager, Depak, had arranged a taxi with a reasonable fare to deliver us to the Nepal Tourism Board Office where we stood in line to get 2 permits; one for the Annapurna Conservation Area and one from the Nepal Tourism Board. In fairly typical Nepali style we had originally been told that we could get get the permits without appearing in person but later found out that we needed to make the trip to their office. With the trekking season approaching, the lobby was filled with tourists, Asian and European, on their quest for permits. 40 minutes and 40.00/person later we had the documents in hand.
Having met our Gompa friends at the NTB Office, we had a skilled driver to take us back across town to our home on Chobhar Hill. On our way we had to make a stop at the money changers for our friends which required a cruise down the narrow streets of Thamel (the area we had gone on Friday). 4 of us crammed into the back seat of a truck where we got a quick view of the multitude of shops in the Thamel district. I have yet to figure out how people navigate these streets. First, there appear to be no street signs. Second, there isn’t a straight street in the city. Third, there is construction everywhere. Fourth, the the traffic includes cars, pedestrians (a hand signal and a prayer is your passport to cross the street), rickshaws, motor bikes (favored by most), taxis, and buses. It is rather like a flock of birds that intuitively knows which way to turn based on the other birds subtle gestures. It can also feel like a game of chicken, with each driver pushing to see if the other will yield. I am amazed that I haven’t seen a collision yet (knock on wood).
By 12:00 we had landed back home, though too late to get a serving for lunch. Another plan B…