Hello Thailand

It has been a 2 weeks since we said our farewells in Kathmandu. It seems like a lifetime ago. On Monday, the 29th of January, we arrived in Bangkok and found warm air and humidity. Fortunately the temperature has remained below 90 degrees so far. A 30 degree change is change enough.

Joni with the Rama Bridge in Bangkok.
Night shot of Buddhist Monk waiting for a water taxi.

In the first week I felt like I was emerging from a fog.  Perhaps it was due to our recovery from the cold (flu?) we had in the final days in Nepal. Add to that, we have been grieving the end of our time with the girls at Tsoknyi Gechak School. While the experience brought many challenges, our connection with the girls was strong, sweet and freeing. At home in the monastery we were wrapped in a community of caring people and the routine and rhythm; from the morning gong, meditation, breakfast, water bucket routine, school preparations, classes, lunch, more classes, afternoon walk and finally battening down the hatches for the cold night. As I often described in past stories, the rhythm had a periodic back beat of surprises and disappointment when water wouldn’t come or a special puja interrupted the normal day. But even these surprises became part of the pattern of living over time. Funny how we long for adventure and the unusual while, at the same time, we thrive on routine and regularity.

On the canal close to Sam Sen Sam Place – our hotel in Bangkok

As we have emerge from the routine and regularity of life at the monastery we have maintained a pretty mellow pace. Our first 3 days in Bangkok were spent touring a few of the temples (Wat) and enjoying scenes along the river, close to our modest hotel.

The buildings and flowers bring a lot of color to Thailand.

Traveling from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Thailand we continued our slow pace, strolling around the town and enjoying the scenes of the street, the annual “Flower Festival” and the night markets. Our most ambitious activities in Chiang Mai were a trip to Wat Phra That Doi Kham (that’s a mouthful); a temple on a mountain overlooking the city.

Joni among the crowd making offerings to benefit friends, strangers and loved ones.

A Wat is a temple. There are over 300 temples in Chiang Mai alone. On another morning we went into the countryside where we visited an elephant sanctuary. After asking around for a few days, we found a short tour that promised to support a humane home for elephants. While it took an hour to drive each way, we were treated to a very interactive and hands on visit with 3 elephants (Pancake, Maya and Jumbo).

Elephant friends – up close and personal.
An evening at the park in celebration of the Flower Festival

After spending 5 nights in Chiang Mai, we took a day to travel to the island of Koh Chang. This required an hour flight back to Bangkok and 6 or 7 hour drive southwest in a mini bus. Fortunately the roads are smoother than those we left in Kathmandu. By evening we arrived at our new, temporary, home; the Oasis. An Oasis it is. Sitting in the Jungle on a hill about 100 yards above the beach, it is quiet and very relaxed. Our Dutch hosts have been running this place for 6 years and do a very good job of catering to (mostly) young and old, European, Asian and American guests. The open air dining room is home to 2 dogs and 3 or 4 cats (they come and go). The animals and humans are all very mellow and friendly, moving at a slow, steady pace. Things start late in the morning with breakfast at 8:00am. This is in sync with the beach parties we can hear (faintly fortunately) that last until 3:00am or so. My only complaint is that 50% of the people here smoke. They smoke on the streets, in the bars, on the beach and in restaurants. It’s a thing I guess.

I honestly can’t think of anything else to complain about in this slow moving paradise. It is a privilege to be here; hanging out on the beach, reading, meditating, eating incredible (and inexpensive) food, drinking beer, and enjoying relaxed conversations with Joni. Add to this we have both enjoyed 2 – one hour long massages on the beach, getting our skin bathed in Aloe after too much sun. What a life!

One more night left here on Koh Chang. Now we are north of Lonely Beach at Kai Bai where we are staying at “The Stage”, a little place just off Kai Bai Beach. This strip of paradise caters more to adult tourists and families so things are a little more polished.

Tomorrow we will take the 6 hour bus ride back to Bangkok where we’ll spend one more night. For better or worse, we won’t be staying in a hotel on the second day in Bangkok because our flight to Japan leaves at 12:05am on the 15th. It is a challenge to be present when another voyage looms on the horizon.

It has taken me forever to post this entry, so I’m going to post this now – without further elaboration. I hope that this message finds you well, wherever you are. Funny thing about traveling so much… I realize that wherever I go – there I am. In other words, it doesn’t really matter where I am. Most important is being present and making the most of it; with the people, my awareness and the most peaceful behavior I can muster. Cheers!

Gifts and Transitions

With only 10 days left here in Nepal I find myself looking back on my experience, forward to travel plans and home, and finally returning to the present; to the people and the activities that have taught me so much.

Preparing zung (long, printed prayers) to be placed inside statues in the new Lhakong
Everyone in the Trasang participates in Zung preparation.
more zung preparation.

As I recounted before, the cold air that descended upon the Gompa challenged us in many ways. While we’ve had a wave of warmer air lately, the cold and other conditions have left quite a lot of sickness among us. In some of my classes, half of the children are in bed. The remaining lack their usual enthusiasm, so our lessons are more relaxed. While I had a cold during the cold spell, I am (knock on wood), symptom free at the moment.

As our time here winds down, I am completing projects, attending class and taking time to say goodbye to the people who have nurtured and befriended us during our stay. The projects include a newsletter created with the Trasang nuns. The newsletter grew out of our photography class and the stories and poems that they chose to write.  The newsletter will be shared on the Tsoknyi Gechak School Facebook page next week. It has been exciting to watch these young women explore photography using the Apple mobile devices (iPod, iPhone, iPad, and my computer). They have an artistic eye that is evident in their photography and in the artwork included in their newsletter stories. Related to this project, I am preparing all the “iDevices” to remain here so they can continue to learn how to use them and tell their stories. While I had some ideas for introducing technology before I came to Nepal, my final preparations are quite different (duh). The good news is that these women are very bright, motivated and resourceful and so will make it work no matter what.

Trasang Photo of Nuns with iPhone… taking photos
Watching their sisters perform Puja in the Lhakong.

I’ll spare you the details of our travel plans except to share my wonder at how much forethought it takes to design an itinerary. Certainly we have chosen a more complicated path home than jumping on a plane for Denver. With planned stops in Thailand, Japan, Hawaii, Seattle and other parts USA, there are planes to catch, ground transport to consider, places to see, lodging to book, people to alert and on and on. Quite different than my trip to Europe in 1975 with my brother Rob when I purchased a plane ticket, and a six-week Eurail pass and made travel decisions as we went. “What, say, let’s go to Venice!” While the Internet is showing some of it’s flaws in the mis-information/mis-direction arena of late, it has been a godsend for planning our travels into parts unknown. Of course, we’ll see how well the plan fits with reality. It’s not whether but how much the experience will fit with my well-laid-plans. As long as we are safe, can find food to eat, and a place to rest at the end of the day, we’ll be happy. The unique sights, sounds and people will sustain us I’m sure.

While I am ready to go home, it is difficult to say goodbye to this place and the people. I have benefitted from their kindness and their intentional way of working and interacting. This environment has been of great benefit to my spiritual / mental development; not because it is comfortable and easy but because it is a layered cake of slow and fast, old and new; spirituality, love, chaos, construction, destruction, dissolution…  As I’ve recounted many times, it has challenged me physically and mentally. Let’s face it, I’m not as young as I used to be. The only flat surface here is the slab entry to the school where the children gather, play, study, and celebrate. The remainder is like a Colorado hiking trail, sometimes mixed in with a New York City street. I’m constantly mindful of where I step and aware that my body doesn’t respond well to impulsive twists and turns.

Our youngest students help and comfort the new students who just arrived.

While my writing leans toward romanticizing this experience (even the hard parts), I recognize that it is far from perfect. Regardless of one’s conclusion about what it is (idyllic or a pain in the butt) Nepal has been the perfect remedy for me at this time. A western friend of mine pointed out that some of the benefit that one gets here in Nepal is the disconnection from our accustomed living; the people, occupations, habits, pre-occupations, and so on that we leave behind. Our disconnection allows us to practice living (and meditation) differently. This reminds me of the often quoted Buddhist advice, “Those who are able to seclude themselves in an isolated retreat, put aside the worldly cares and activities of this life and practice single-mindedly, will gain liberation in this very lifetime.” While this place is not a cave in the Himalayas, it is secluded and isolated from my normal living.

We were fortunate to be invited to Khechok Sangpo’s (Tibetan) wedding. Bride and groom to the left.

I came here to help the students of Tsoknyi Gechak School but, as it turns out, the teachers, staff, students, Rinpoche, lamas and nuns have given me much more. I appreciate this opportunity; landing into the middle of their world and work, accepted as a team member in the service of the Anis. They have given me the freedom to test my (unproven) skill in English instruction and shown patience with my (sometimes comical) attempts to communicate. They have included me in their celebrations, making me a valued member of their community. While the news from home is dominated by stories of division and abuse, it is emerging from and within an increased recognition for inclusion and respect. I hope my experience here will give me the strength, insight and confidence to join that movement.

Cold – Cold – Cold

Sitting in my room; down coat, long underwear and pants, hat, slippers and 3 layers of long-sleeved thermal underwear (silk, wool and nylon blends). It’s COLD! Damn cold.

We’ve met many challenges in our time here but the cold has nailed me like no other. Sometimes it feels as if there is no escaping it though this isn’t completely true. At the school, during the day, the sun shines brightly on the south side of the building where the Anis and staff take full advantage to sit and plan and hold class in it’s glow. I don’t have a very accurate record of the temperature fluctuations but it is ranging from the low 30s to the low 60s. When the sun shines, it’s warmth brings my bones and my mind back to life. But when the day slips into darkness, the cold again creeps slowly but surely into my room and if I’m not vigilant to take cover, it overcomes me.

As the cold grips my body, my mind seems to restict. I find it more difficult to concentrate on work when I’m feeling chilled. My restricted state is the best excuse for my delay in posting to this blog. Right now it is morning and I’m sitting with my second cup of coffee. But the longer I write, the colder my fingers get, till I have to rest them in my pockets.

The sun is shining on the building across from me right now but my room sits in the shade. I just finished breakfast while wearing all of the clothes I’ve listed above. Fortunately we get a hot meal and I can wrap my fingers around a hot cup of coffee. When I’m not holding a cup of coffee, I fill my cup with hot water. It’s not only good for your health (according to the Chinese) it is a great hand warmer.

As you might expect, bedtime is earlier than usual. I can sit in my warm bed to read, meditate and use the computer. My sister in law (Kay) sent me a Christmas present through Joni; a hotpad. While it doesn’t heat the bed completely, it does a great job of knocking the chill off.  My feet love it. Joni and I pass it between us in the evening before bed. She purchased a second one at Wal-Mart for herself but, sadly it does not work. Note to self: test all products BEFORE hauling them to Nepal.

Teachers “lounge” on the south deck of the school

I hate to complain but the cold conditions make living much more difficult and require periodic attitude adjustments. I truly love this place; the atmosphere and especially the people. But this chill is leading me to dream of beaches in Thailand (only 17 days away). When I’m at school with the children and the sun is shining (which it consistently does) I can relax and let go. So, fortunately, the cold is not a 24 hour a day challenge. Going to school is like coming up for air. Not only do I get to see the girls but I can warm my attitude.

Lower Kinder children, working and warming their feet outside their classroom
Class 1 – morning sun and reading. Ahhh…

Despite the challenge of cold, there are a lot of things I want to accomplish before I leave here. Some of these will require pushing through the cold in my room. Some require the computer and a clear mind. Some are just the mundane activities for staying clean and fed. For example, this morning I had to get some wash done. I can’t bear to do it in stone cold water. Rather, I use our tea kettle to warm a couple pots to take the chill off. Funny how just a little bit of warmth makes such a big difference.

Construction worker catching afternoon rays. This is right outside my bedroom window.

Watching the US News I see that our country is struggling with many natural disasters and extreme conditions. In the Buddhist tradition we are encouraged to offer our suffering for the liberation of our fellow beings. And so I do. While my suffering here in the cold doesn’t compare to the loss of life or persistent and inescapable cold that some are experiencing, I pray that my fellow earth travelers are liberated from their suffering.

Happy New Year – How Resolved Am I?

It’s new years day here in Kathmandu. I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Sanepa (a small neighborhood close to my home in Chobhar). The TV in the shop is showing CNNs coverage of the countdown for New Years in New York City. The music playing is still Christmas music the Messiah. Interesting how cultures mix and adopt one another’s ways.

I had a hot shower this morning; one of the best and longest I’ve had since coming to Nepal. Nothing like a large shower head and an “endless” flow of hot water. I resisted turning it off and stepping back into my cold room, but I managed to bring up my courage and move on into the new year. The room cost me 37 USDollars, not a bad deal for a hot shower, wireless and a good restaurant. While the breakfast wasn’t included in the price it was worth the extra 6.00. It was a breakfast that would please any American; hash browns, poached egg, bacon, and a excellent croissant. I had the added treat of talking to my mom via Facetime as I ate.

Standing on the edge of a new year I can’t resist thinking about resolutions and what they mean to me. I’ve gone in and out of making resolutions. I’ve never been inclined to make immediate changes in my habits. I’m more inclined to move slowly and incrementally toward my goals. My meditation practice started in 15 minute installments. I made a point to sit in the morning, right after waking so I wouldn’t get swept up in the momentum of the day. Since that time I’ve often heard meditation teachers to recommend 5 minute meditation sessions, frequently throughout the day. The idea is to get a practice (any practice) started rather than having grand plans for 10 hour meditation practices. Moving forward, getting started, becoming familiar is the point. Interesting bit of trivia, the Tibetan word for meditation is “Gom” meaning “becoming familiar with”. We can become familiar with a new way of being in a gentle manner.

Of course incremental change may not be realistic when your resolution is to stop smoking, drinking alcohol or the like. Some habits require complete abstinence in order to be resolved.

Whether we approach our habits with a vengeance or with gentle interruption, self awareness is key. My conclusion is based on my professional and personal experience. While it seems like a lifetime ago, I used to be in the business of helping children change their behavior. One of the most critical components of success (right behind having a decent relationship with the child) was helping them gain awareness of what they were doing. This included helping them recognize the triggers that led to trouble. While you may be skeptical about a child’s ability to achieve such awareness, it worked in most cases (with the kind support of their teachers). The exception of course were children with severe disabilities, lack of attachment, or an ingrained opposition to adults but these represent a small percentage. The point I am making is that awareness, either self guided or mentored is the first step to changing our behavior.

So… my advice (it’s free) is that our resolutions begin with observation. You don’t have to be a psychologist or teacher. Simple and honest observations of our habits will bring insight and naturally give us strategies for change. I would wager that until you take time to stand back and watch, you may frustrate your plans for change.

For what it’s worth, there is a well known author, Kelly McGonigal, who agrees with me. She has written, “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works…” . Her book is a great resource for anyone who really wants to understand a habit and make friends with change.

Excerpt from “The Willpower Instinct”

Happy New Year Everyone. I hope 2018 brings you health, happiness and time with good friends and family. Be good to yourself.

Chora ’round the Boudha Stupa

I spent my Christmas in Boudhanath, Kathmandu. Joni is back in the USA spending time with her mom and sister Kay over the Holidays. I wanted to get out of the Monastery and experience some different sights and sounds of Nepal. Boudhanath is full of interesting people, activities, sounds and smells. I appreciate it’s significance as place of pilgrimage and spiritual renewal. I feel at home there and a sense of peace, despite the intensity of the activity.
Looking down on the people doing chora around the Stupa. The traffic is light in this moment.

Tibetan merchants have rested and offered prayers in Boudha (short for Boudhanath) for many centuries. When refugees entered Nepal from Tibet in the 1950s, many decided to live around Boudhanath so there are many Tibetans in the neighborhood. The Stupa is said to entomb the remains of the Kassapa Buddha.

The April 2015 Nepal earthquake badly damaged Boudhanath Stupa, cracking the spire. As a result, the whole structure above the dome, and the religious relics it contained had to be removed. The reconstruction began on the 3rd of November 2015 with the ritual placement of a new central pole or “life tree” for the stupa at the top of the dome

I stayed in a hotel about 10 minutes from the Stupa. The hotel was bare bones with no heat just like 90% of all the homes and hotels here but it had a hot shower that works on demand (rather than by chance) and a rooftop deck with lots of daytime sun. If you come to Kathmandu in the winter, be sure and bring plenty of layers of warm clothes. The sun provides plenty of warmth in the daytime but you have to be on your toes and layer up so you don’t get chilled as the temperature drops. My bed in my hotel had extra blankets so in the short periods when I was in the room, I settled in under the covers.
During my 4 days in Boudha, I took a few hours each day to do Chora; circumambulating the Stupa and reciting prayers. Accompanying me round the Stupa were hundreds of fellow Buddhists; walking at various speeds. Some make it round with the aide of a relative, crutches or wheelchairs. Some wear running suits. For some, it appears to be their daily spiritual and physical workout. I saw many familiar faces as I returned at the same time each day. The flow of humanity around the Stupa reflects the diversity of the ethnic groups of Kathmandu and their temperaments.
Circling is not for the fainthearted, requiring careful negotiation to accommodate the variable pace of young and old, disabled, toddlers, and the like. Not only is it a place of worship, confession and offering but it is a place for socializing. Teenagers come with their smart phones and selfie sticks to join the throng, stopping in the middle of the flow, with little deference to the significance of the place.  The elderly also take time socialize from time to time but do so as they walk or when they retreat to the sideline benches, looking into the stream.
Early in the morning, another ring of people stand sentry just outside the flow.

They are the blind, disabled, poor and elderly. Standing outside the moving ring, they plead for money and food. Aid groups appear at times to distribute food in an organized fashion while people going round also randomly stop and offer money. While I don’t understand the organization and timing of it all, there are friendly security people who patrol the grounds with sticks and whistles and periodically nudge the beggars from their locations. In this way, the begging is embraced, but regulated in a fashion.

Further outside the ring of devotion are shops selling religious object; thankas, and other paintings, prayer beads, statues, bells and the like. There are also many restaurants, hotels, and coffee shops. These layers of commerce, social welfare, gawking tourists and religious practice seem to fold naturally with one another. All move in the same clockwise fashion.
 After a time, moving with the throng, I settled into the flow and got a feeling of camaraderie with my fellow travelers.  It was a little like being in street traffic here in Kathmandu, speeding up, slowing down, dodging and dancing with the variable speed of my fellow dancers. The practicalities of moving with so many people is a metaphor for our interactions in daily life, coping with interruptions,  unexpected turns, diverse personalities and temperaments. The “flow” isn’t always tranquil though over time enjoyed the rhythm of it. Transcending all the activity, chaos and the push of it all, is the recognition that we are all here for the same purpose; to wish for the happiness and enlightenment of all sentient beings. There’s no other highway like it anywhere in the world.