Saturday, April 14, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman III

May 15, 2003

Up at 6:30 for meditation in Clarke's room, followed by a shower and breakfast.

We continued up the long valley that we'd followed last night. A dangerous looking river roared by on the right.  At the end of the valley we climbed again, up through a pass with a chorten and prayer flags. I've never seen prayer flags that weren't moving, even with no wind.  When the wind is high, they snap and rustle, as if giving actual voice to the prayer.

The valley of Ura was stunning, its couple dozen sitting behind the temple.  Surrounding the village was a quilt of fields, and a lazy brook winding around chortens beneath prayer flags.  This valley was a "hidden" valley, a place that people would come across and settle down to study the dharma.

We drove down to the town and entered the temple.  A prayer wheel was to the right of the door, and when spun, a stick fastened to the to the top rang a bell on each revolution.  Inside the temple, we prostrated ourselves to a huge statue of Guru Rimpoche flanked on one side by an ornate protective deity (Vajrakilaya), and on the right by a Kannon with rather large boobs.  This temple supposedly has the nicest Guru Rimpoche figure in Bhutan.  For a small country temple in a remote valley it had some incredible woodwork.  Guru Rimpoche itself was hollowed out, and the temple's treasures were nested within.

We went upstairs and into a small room which was the Lama's.  He was there with his son and a former monk who was currently studying at Oxford.  We ate cookies and drank ara and butter tea, the former like weak sake, and the latter salty and thick, not unlike pungent cheese.  Clarke joked about me debating with the Oxford guy named, again, Karma, and I turned the joke around to debating with him about English football, him taking Beckham and Manchester to my Owen and Liverpool. 

From outside came the sound of drums, indicating that the dancing had started.  (Looking down, I accidentally elbowed a small boy in the head.  he looked up at me hurt and said sorry.  I couldn't communicate that it was an accident and my fault.)  The dancers were acting out a long piece which would last all day, depicting the Bardo realms.  A group of dancers in yellow acted the role of animal deities.  A few clowns milled about, one in the form of the old man of the village, another representing an Indian fool, complete with a large phallus on his head.  Earlier, this clown joked with Clarke in Tibetan.  When he said he was Drukpa Kunley, Clarke claimed that he was Guru Rimpoche, causing the clown to run away in mock fear.  All day long the clowns seemed to have the run of the place, interrupting the proceedings and being a general nuisance.  Another clown came around rubbing his hands on people's arms.  He was a representative of death, and we had to tip him in order to send him off.  When he came to me, I was fumbling for money in my wallet.  Some kids were sitting around me at that point, and a few, seeing the wad of cash I had, stuck out their hands.   I had tried to hide the cash, but hadn't, and obviously came across as a rich tourist.  Very uncomfortable situation.  I gently said sorry to the begging boys, and immediately all was cool, them posing with sunglasses and cap guns.  Finally they became absorbed in my guidebook, which identified all the famous places.  here was a youth finely tuned into their culture and country.  A far cry from Japan's youth who know little at all.

During a brief break in the action we walked down the village streets, along walls built up of shale and beneath beautiful hanging trees.  We went to Oxford Karma's house and climbed up two steep ladders to the shrine room where we had lunch. All houses have such a room, with a small altar cut into the wall, and multiple posters of mandalas and deities.  Sparrow song could be heard from inside one of the wall to the right of the altar.  The lama was there, smiling at the conversation he couldn't understand, and occasionally breaking into a mantra.  His son told us the story of his building the new temple we saw yesterday.  An oracle had found the site over an old lake (spring?).  The dharma had been lost in Nepal and Tibet, and it was important that the shrine be built to protect Bhutan.  The monk was skeptical at first, working slowly, but then he began to go mad.  His enthusiasm for the project is now so great that he made a deal with the deities that they could suck out all his blood if he didn't complete his task.  A further complication arose with the difficulty in getting permits for the wood. So at night he and some men would poach timber from a site miles away.    As he told the story, we had lunch, various veggies, rice, and some really spicy, stringy meat which had long black hairs on it.  The guy serving us had spiky socks like cacti. We also drank two types of alcoholic cider, one which tasted like lettuce.  All of today's food had been so rich and though tasty, borderline gross.  (I pray for the condition of my stomach.)  After lunch, I had betel nut, rolled in a leaf and smeared in lime. The taste was surprisingly good, like sweet spearmint.  I took care not to swallow my spit, sending out huge globs of brown from time to time.  I never got the buzz I had heard about.

Back in the temple courtyard, the dance continued. Yama, the god of death, was now atop his throne, and his minions had captured one of the clowns.  An old drunk guy began whipping him, and when the clown cringed and moved away, the whip came a bit too close to me, sitting nearby.  He sat prostrating himself in front of Yama, then tried to escape once, chased down by Yama's men. Literally trying to flee his fate, his karma.  I watched all this with a Japanese film crew and with a group of pre-teen girls who were very polite and had excellent English.  Small boys sat around, absolutely riveted.  We postulated that watching this event repeatedly would make you familiar with anything that you might face in the Bardo.

During another break, we all went into the temple for tea.  We sat in four rows, with the lama in a chair and his two year old grandson, a tulku, on the highest throne.  The lama molded small animals from clay while the boy laughingly played with a bell and a vajra. We all sat and ate rice and butter tea, while a group of girls stood before Tara, singing and swaying in unison.       

We returned to our hotel briefly, then went further up the valley to meet Penor Rimpoche.  The road paralleled a river as it moved through the flat valley, busy with car and foot traffic heading down from the temple.  There was a large grassy area below the main structure, filled with multi-colored tents from monks.  A few people were washing and bathing in the river.  The color of maroon was everywhere, including on the back of a single Westerner walking down a hill.  

We passed through an arch and down into an area marked off by multi-colored flags.  A low, long structure was built to the left of the courtyard, the floor of which was matted.  A low platform with microphones marked where Penor Rimpoche gave his teachings.  Adjacent to this was a small building where the Rimpoche stayed.  As we waited, a few monks stood guard, letting people through the curtains one by one.  Waiting there felt like being let in backstage at a rock concert.  Finally it was our turn, and we entered, presenting our kata after our prostrations.  Penor Rimpoche grasped my hand warmly and smiled, asking me where I was from.  We knelt and had a chance to ask my question about compassion.  (Earlier, we had been told that we'd be allowed a single question from the group, and mine had been determined best, a question I ask all spiritual teachers whom I meet:  "How is it possible for a person to simultaneously practice detachment and compassion.")

When Penor Rimpoche answered, he smiled and through his translator said that training a wild animal takes a long time and must be repeated again and again.  We humans are lucky because we can recognize our connection with others.  For an American, that gap between pride and compassion is quite wide, and it takes much time to find compassion.  

Clarke told me later that the question had been mistranslated a bit, and that Penor Rimpoche seemed not to catch the "detachment" part.  I seem destined to have this question misunderstood, but perhaps this is OK.  Later, Clarke shed a bit more light on it during his talk on mandalas.  He said that In Buddhism, no cosmology is separate from experience.  Therefore this question theoretically could be answered within our own psyche.  For a teacher to give me that answer would be too easy.  Better that it unfolds within myself.  Clarke also mentioned that Chögyam Trungpa talked about "cool boredom," where one feels bored in meditation (something very relevant to me.) This indicates an opening up within, a comfort space which naturally becomes filled with parts of the mandala, ie., compassion.

On the turntable:  Genesis, "Duke"
On the nighttable:  G. Cabrera Infante, "Three Trapped Tigers"

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