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 🙂
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.
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.
Joni and I enjoyed our first weekend “off” here at TGL Admittedly we have been pretty reserved in our movements around the neighborhood. We haven’t established tried and true methods of transportation or an understanding our surroundings. This weekend we began to learn about these things. We managed to “get our wheels” and see quite a bit while also having time to relax as well.
Our first outing on Saturday was a walk to Fionnuala’s house where Joni was treated to a hot shower. The water system here at the school has been compromised due to a well problem so we have been limited to 10 minutes of flowing water per day. This allows us time to fill 8 buckets and a large trashcan with water (we just got upgraded to 3 trashcans this evening). While this has been plenty of water for dousing ourselves for a cold shower, cleaning hands, teeth, dishes and clothes, a hot shower is a welcomed event. Fionnuala lives within a 15 minute walk through the village of Chobhar so this outing was very do-able. I had already doused myself on Saturday morning so while Joni enjoyed her shower I was treated to real brewed coffee and conversation with Fionnuala and her friend Bella. Ahhh… simple pleasures.
Walking back after our outing, we were a bit late for lunch but our friends from Malaysia who we share facilities with had set aside our portion. Immediately after we finished eating, they spread the table with treats of candy and cakes and invited the Anis of the Shedra to a short reception. The 3 Chinese Malaysians (2 women and a man) have been coming to TGL for retreat ever since it has been habitable for visitors. They are great supporters of TGL and have befriended the Anis over the years of visits. The gathering was filled with appreciative smiles and laughter. Joni and I were so thankful that we got to witness the event. These Anis are grown women, not part of the TGL school. They live very simple and disciplined lives here in the dorm where our rooms are. They rise at 4:30am for prayers and study the the traditional Tibetan Buddhist Dharma throughout the day. Despite the fact that the table was filled with treats, they limited themselves to a single sample of each item. While their eating was restrained their enthusiasm for seeing their friends, talking and looking at photos from past visits overflowed.
On Sunday Joni and I set out on our first solo journey into the city by bus. Fionnuala had invited us into Sanepa, a neighborhood in the city, for brunch at the “Yellow House”. In preparation for the trip we spent quite a bit of time talking with Fionnuala and mapping out the route to understand the roads and the bus connection to get there. Joni and I had even walked along the path to our bus stop to make sure it was where we expected. In addition we checked Google Maps to get a rough sketch of the roads. All of this may sound silly to someone who hasn’t been to Kathmandu. We ARE more conservative than we might have been when we were younger. But given the heat, the distance, the traffic and the elevations we have to climb, our preparations minimized our suffering in the end.
Our planning paid off and we made it to Chobhar Gate where we met the bus. A young man was kind enough to confirm our location for the bus stop. He told us that he was catching the same bus and welcomed us to follow him. The bus came and off we went, packed like sardines, standing room only, with a bus full of locals. The only hazard was the fact that my head touched the ceiling of the bus, so I had to crouch in anticipation of a likely bump in the road. 10 minutes later we climbed off and into the crowds at the end of the stop. Crossing the busy “Ring Road” we made our way toward the bridge into Sanepa. To our surprise, as we approached the bridge we bumped into one of the teachers from our school and enjoyed a quick hello. Amazing that among the millions we found a familiar face.
Past the cows, the people and the motorcycles on the unfinished side of the bridge, we walked the bridge into Sanepa. Guided by a screen shot of the streets on our phone, we wound our way to the Yellow House. Entering a gate we found a green courtyard full of white faces, English, German, French and Swiss language (among others) reflected the western diversity of the crowd. Below the restaurant sat vendors for a market of vegetables, fruits, cheese, honey, and to my surprise beer. A bigger surprise was to find that one of the beers (Yeti) was from Denver, Colorado.
After a time Fionnuala and her friends Bella and Helena arrived and we sat for a wonderful breakfast of brewed coffee and tea, eggs, potatoes and vegetables. It was a special treat to take the time to eat and chat. We share experiences for over an hour and a half in that little oasis. It was interesting to learn about their many years living in Nepal and their endeavors in writing and painting and travel.
After our meal the ladies took us to a local hotel and showed us a swimming pool. Once again, I was struck by a hidden corner of comfort and luxury tucked away from the intensity of the street. I expect that we will return to lounge in this oasis.
After the pool viewing, Bella pointed out a small shopping mart packed with a diversity of food and other necessities and then she showed us the studio where she is learning the art of Thanka painting. She introduced us to her teacher, showed us a painting he is currently working on and how the paint is mixed for the work. Her teacher showed us a painting of 1,000 Buddhas that took him 2 years to complete. It is hard to imagine the patience and skill that is required to complete a work that is so ornate and magnificent.
After the tour the ladies left us to go shopping at the Mustang Mart where we found a few comfort items to have at the school. After searching and wandering for a time, we stopped at a hardware store for a tub to do our wash and a pharmacy to get some vitamin C and hydrogen peroxide for cleaning.
Tired and ready to be home we decided to try a taxi for our return. After a miscommunication about where we were going, the driver made his way through the rush hour traffic and finally delivered back at the Chobar Gate. We’re guessing that we were overcharged for the fare since we didn’t ask for it to be metered but we had successfully made it home full circle.