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.

Bodhi Santa – A Christmas Story

I wrote the story at the bottom of this post for the “Christmas” celebration here at Tsoknyi Gechak School. The staff and students love celebrations; a chance to do performance, decorate, tell stories and have fun.

Home made dolls inspired by our story tellers from Ireland.
Little mice.
Dancing puppets under the direction of our storyteller.
Class 6 shares their creations and a little present with me. Boundless enthusiasm!

I was asked to tell a Christmas story but couldn’t find one that I thought the children could relate to, so I wrote my own and shared it with all the children.

It was fortunate that, last week, the school hosted 2 storytellers from Ireland who helped the girls create their own stories. They were very good at empowering us all to express our stories.

Bodhi Santa

Christmas is a time of giving. A time when giving and helping others can bring us happiness and other surprises.

Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived in a village in the Himalayas. This little girl was very happy and tried to make friends with everyone she met. In the summer she lived with her grandmother who was very poor. In the winter she returned to her parents home.

As winter came, she decided she must begin walking to her parents house. It was getting cold and soon there would be a great snow. The problem was that while she had warm clothes, she had no shoes. The walk would be very cold for her feet when the snow fell to the ground. As she walked, she prayed that she would find some shoes or that some kind person would give her some.

On the first day she met a man. The man sat by the side of the road crying, “Where is my sister? How will I get to my home?”
“What is the matter kind sir? Why don’t you get up and walk?”, asked the little girl.
“I cannot walk. My sister helped me to walk here, but she left to help her children. Can you help me?”
The little girl looked around. At the top of the hill was a great tree with strong branches. She quickly ran up the hill and returned with a stick, so strong and straight that it gave the man the strength to walk. Together they continued on the road to her parents house.

On the second day the girl and the man came upon a woman laying by the side of the road crying, “Someone help me. I have not eaten in weeks and have no strength to continue on my journey”.
“That is so sad.” said the little girl. “Everyone needs food to make such a journey. Here is my last bit of bread and cheese to help you regain your strength”.
And so she gave the woman her last piece of bread and cheese and rested until the woman was able to walk. Together they continued on the road to her parents house.

As they did, the snowstorm came closer and the little girl wondered, “How will I continue to walk if I have no shoes.” Though she was afraid of the coming storm she walked slowly with the man and woman down the road.

Soon the snow began to fall, slowly at first, but soon it was so strong the man, the woman and the little girl had to take shelter in a cave. The night was cold but the 3 travelers huddled together and found that the cave kept them warm. It was warm enough to lay down for a good night’s sleep. As they fell asleep the little girl began to worry, “The snow is getting deep and I will not be able to walk in the morning. I may have to stay in this cave but I have no food, no water. I may never see my parents again.”

As the girl slept, she dreamed beautiful dreams. She saw colorful lights and ornaments and green trees. She also saw a great being with a beautiful face and light shining all around. The being spoke with a sweet voice, “I am Bodhi Santa, the Protector of Children, the Spirit of Giving. Though you are young, you have done many good deeds. You have lived like a Bodhisattva, caring for others as if they are your mother. On your journey home, you have been brave and taken care of the people on the road. Your actions have brought you great merit. You will succeed on your journey to your home as you have succeeded in your desire to help others.”

As Bodhi Santa’s words faded, the girl awoke and found herself alone in the cave. The man and woman were gone. In their place were 2 shoes. These were not ordinary shoes but warm boots made from the hide of a yak. One of the boots had the drawing of a tree; just like the tree from which she made a staff for the man. The other the was adorned with drawings of yaks and wheat, from which came the nourishment of bread and cheese that she gave to the woman.

“What wonderful gifts!”, the girl exclaimed. “Now I can finish my journey to my parents home, where I can spend the winter.”

And so it was. The girl left the cave, trekking through the deep snow in her new boots. When she arrived at her home she told her parents about her journey and the dream of the great being. She vowed to remember her meeting with Bodhi Santa and to live her life with compassion for all beings.