Caring Community

Many of the stories I have posted describe the difficulties and challenges of living here in Nepal. These aren’t fabrications by any means but they don’t tell the whole story of this place or the people. I share them because they are so out of the ordinary of my experience at home. Nepal (and our home here at TGL) is by no means run “by the book” through planning, schedules or rationale. You could call it “bottom up” rather than “top down” organization.

Challenges aside, I want to convey the caring and the respect that has been extended to Joni and I during our visit. Many people have taken care of us and provided assistance and material support along the way. You might say this is a credit to “bottom up”, spontaneous compassion. Here are a few examples:

Fionnuala Shenpen is the Director of Tsoknyi Gechak School. She “hired” us for the job, manages the operations of the school and oversees instruction for the young Anis. Since we’ve been here she has done everything that she can to provide us with a comfortable room, food, special treats, directions, water, warm blankets and showers (at her house), plus special events that make us feel at home. The list is goes on and on. While she also expects us to be self-reliant (a requirement of the job) she cares for us like a parent would her children. Before we came to Nepal she kept us up-to-date with what was ahead in the schedule, how to reach her and what to bring. She has done everything she can to help us settle into our teaching routine. On top of all this she has help set our teaching schedule and discusses methods that can be beneficial to the children and respectful of the teachers.

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Fionnuala while sipping tea at her house or hanging out with her and her mates in Kathmandu. She is an Irish gem and dynamo of energy. Her passion never wanes for the Anis, their education and their welfare.

Anis of Tsoknyi Gechak Ling – The Anis span the age range from 4 years to the 60 something (I’m guessing here). As such they have many different roles and responsibilities. The adult Shedra and Trasang nuns share the “Shedra” building with us. Each of us inhabit a different floor of the building and follow different routines, so we cross paths during different activities.

Both the Trasang and Shedra nuns take turns sweeping and mopping the all the floors of the Shedra building at 6:30am. The Trasang nuns bring us food and other accoutrements for living. The Shedra nuns spend most of their time in study and can be found all over the building studying, memorizing Sutras and chanting into the night. They are in serious preparations to be practitioners and teachers of the Dharma, wherever they may go. We have just begun having Sunday night tea and English Language meetings with them and have shared a few celebration events with them. Our lessons will have to take a back seat as they are prepare for exams that will commence this month. Despite or perhaps because of their serious study, they always greet us with a warm smile. They are eager to know us and learn our language despite their busy schedule.

Most of the nuns are very shy (as are we) so it has taken some time to break the ice and have eye-eye interactions. Add to this the challenge of recognizing their unique faces. Only slowly have I been able to recognize differences and build relationships so that I can address them with true recognition of past encounters. Living in the halo of all the senior Anis is a blessing and helps me through every day.

Regardless of barriers of language and social convention, I always feel respected and watched over by the Anis. From the little Anis at school to the most senior, we are valued. I seldom sit on the floor without being offered a cushion (their cushion) to sit on. The children greet us with smiles and cheerie voice, “How are you sir?”. Recently when I returned to school from a brief illness, they crowded around me to ask how I was feeling. No matter what age, the Anis oooh and aaah over photos of our grandchildren. While the children are not in a position of caring for our physical needs, it is evident that they do care about us.

As I reflect the care and concern shown us, I realize that this behavior is endemic to this place; grounded in the teachings of the Buddha, cooked by the demands of living in a small space of very familiar faces. They eat, work, study, sleep, pray, play and socialize almost exclusively within these walls. There are certainly opportunities for the older nuns to interact with the larger community but by and large they are self contained and dependent on one another. This clearly puts them into a natural awareness of working together.

The last time I experienced this level of cooperation was almost 40 years ago when I worked at Passport for Adventure; taking children into the backcountry. Weathering snowstorms, rain, heat, illness, hunger and physical stress together, in a small group, is a sure fire incentive to cooperation. Greater suffering or death are the alternative. Our program was intentionally designed to foster interdependence and the lessons that naturally flow from it. It was the most impactful therapeutic experience I’ve ever encountered.

While there are countless examples of cooperation and support within our American culture, we are all too aware of the rifts and polarization that exists on the macro level of our society. Without belaboring the point, we are more likely to cooperate within small groups or communities AGAINST other groups within our society, except when some common enemy from outside our borders threatens us. Perhaps this is Democracy at work. While this diversity is the backbone of our society, I hope that we can keep our common goals foremost in our hearts and minds in the knowledge that we are in the same, shrinking, boat. We need to care for the vulnerable and lift up the potential of all. We don’t need outside enemies to make this evident to us.

On a lighter note, please enjoy these photos of our field trip to the zoo. Going outside the gates is a rare opportunity for the school Anis as I said. We had a great time!

Road to Muktinath and Gargon Ling – Photo Albums

As promised I have prepared a collection of the photos from our trip to the Mustang Region; through Tatopani, Jomsom, to Rani Pauwa (where we stayed), hiking up to Muktinath and the trails above it. For the more visual “reader”, feel free to skip to the links of this post to check out photos.

The drive (Road to Muktinath) included sections of roads that would rival the unpaved, high mountain roads through Colorado. The difference is that these welcomed motorcycles, “hikers”, mountain bikes, small vehicles the size of a mini cooper, transport trucks, Landcruisers (and other 4 wheel drive varieties) and many, many buses. The pictures tell most of the story. What may not be evident in the photos is the variety of transport we had to take to get to our destination.

Two thirds of the way, our Landcruiser’s steering came apart. I’m not a mechanic but it appeared to be the front steering arm. One of you gear heads will be able to tell by looking at the picture. This breakdown fortunately happened in a stream bed (mostly dry) that spanned at least 100 yards across the valley. Our driver lost all control of the steering wheel but glided to a stop, almost off the road. With some help of fellow travelers, our vehicle was pushed to the side to clear the jam that was forming in both directions. As you will see in the photos, there are many less hospitable locations where the loss of steering might have been a tragic breakdown. In this case, it only cost us a few hours during which time our driver and wrangler found a alternative vehicle that, though cramped, moved us up the road. We were then transferred to a third vehicle (after dark) and taken up the last incline to our Hotel in Rani Pauwa. Another Nepali adventure!

Muktinath is home to 108 fountains of water, streaming through bull headed spouts streaming down from the Himalayas. It sits higher than Gargon Ling Nunnery where we attended the Puja. I was told that, of the major pilgrimage sites for Hindus, it is the most important for them to visit before they pass away. This became evident to us as we watched a steady stream of elderly people transported by sometimes unruly Mustang horses up the slope from Rani Pauwa to Muktinath. Faithful people (both Hindu and Buddhist) bathe in a pool and make their way around the 3 walls of streaming fountains. It is a festive and joyful place.

Some of the pictures (Gargon Ling Puja) show the Puja and some show our hike with a Tibetan woman, Tsering, from Seattle who joined us at the Puja. She was a very free spirit with an infectious laugh and a good grasp of English, Tibetan and Nepali. I can’t thank her enough for the insight she gave us, not to mention the many laughs. The photos show us hiking above Muktinath to visit Padmasambhava’s kitchen. I don’t know the whole story of this place but know that Padmasambhava (also know as Guru Rimpoche) was a great Indian Mahasiddha who visited this valley on his way to Tibet in the 8th century. There are many places here and in other parts of Nepal where he lived and practiced. He is acknowledged as the man who tamed the wild Tibetan temperament and environment and forged a relationship with King Trisong Deutsen. They, along with other Mahasiddha’s brought Buddhism to from India to Tibet. You can read more in a book, “The Lotus-Born, The Life Story of Padmasambhava, by Yeshe Tsogyal, translated by Eric Pema Kunsang.”

It is over 2 weeks now since we journeyed to Muktinath. While life here is pretty slow and measured with few activities, we seem to keep pretty busy. The crash of my computer certainly required some time. We have been teaching, taking short trips, and helped organize and attended a teaching given by Rinpoche here at the nunnery. On top of this are the daily chores that take more attention than they might at home; gathering water, washing clothes, taking a “shower”, among them. And then there are the interesting mysteries like, “Who took my sheets off the line today?” and “How can I get them back?” Mysteries that are complicated by a lack of common language. More on that in the days to come.

I hope you are all well.



My room sits on the 3rd floor of the Shedra. From my window I see the old Lakhong (temple) on the left, with the shell of construction of the new Lakhong to the right. Below me pass the Anis from the school, Shedra and Trasang going about their daily routines.

In the distance between the buildings is the city of Kathmandu. Around 8 kilometers into the city, as the crow flies, is Tribhuvan International Airport where people begin and end their Nepali adventures. Most days, the Monastery is in the flight pattern. From my window I can see planes leave the ground, turn, and circle directly over us here in Chobhar one after the other. Sometimes I picture the people feeling a little nervous, the angle and lift of takeoff pushing them into their seats. I sometimes take a moment to wish them safe travels.

Once every morning and afternoon I sit on my bed with this scene spread out before me for meditation practice. In the early morning and late evening the lights of Kathmandu fill the scene. One morning I saw most of the lights disappear in a blackout along with the lights of my lamp in my room. Each morning I follow the instructions given to me to settle my mind and body and generate a compassionate and an unbiased attitude, to let go of fear and hope to just “let it be”. This doesn’t mean that I have no thoughts or that strong emotions never arise in me. Meditation is a practice fraught with paradox. While it includes effort, it is aimed at effortlessness. Rather than chasing thoughts away, the instructions are to let them settle until they are like passing ships or clouds that don’t require tending.

Meditation isn’t perfect (or should I say, I’m not a perfect practitioner). Somedays my mind is very busy or disturbed, in anticipation or in fear. But the practice reminds me to “let it be”. There were times when I wondered, “What’s the point of all this sitting and doing nothing? I could be out getting things done.” But despite my doubts I have persisted, coming back every day. In the long run I have found that this “nothing” has brought more peace and made me more equipped to deal with impermanence and the unexpected. At the same time, it has helped me appreciate the “good things” in my life; family, friends, good conversation, food and drink and such.

I believe that Mind is everything. By that I mean that we (no one else) are the masters our experience – our perspective. Obviously, we aren’t always in control of our circumstances. I’ve written quite a lot about how my circumstances here in Nepal are dynamic and sometimes difficult. My mind, my perspective on this roller coaster of life determines in turn how I respond/react; my emotions and my thoughts about it. When Buddhist talk about purifying Karma (a topic that often is misconstrued), they are talking about confronting and releasing old habits of mind, taking a new perspective; one that is based on compassion for oneself AND others. Ultimately we work to respond with more insight and skill. So, the “goal” of meditation is to develop a new perspective. I encourage you to try it. I’ll spare you the full quote, but the Buddha was clear in saying that one should not just accept that a practice (like meditation) is worthwhile but one should try it and determine if it has merit. It can be done in the spirit of whatever religion or non-religious perspective you might have.

Speaking of challenges and perspective… I now have my computer up and running again; in a fashion. That grey box that you see connected to the computer is now the brains of the computer. Using the hard drive delivered from the US and some random flash drives that I brought with me, I spent the week diagnosing and fashioning a system that works. It is pretty or convenient but it works.

As promised in my last post, I will now set to work on the photos that I took during my trip to Pokhara and Muktinath.

Sitting on top of the world. Peace – out.

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

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: