Monday, April 30, 2018


In the valley left by glaciers,
Wintering cranes
Learn to dance.

On the turntable:  Hank Snow, "The One and Only Hank Snow"

Friday, April 27, 2018

Imbibing Bibliophile #54

History of Bhutan , by Karma Phuntsho
Red Rice Lager, Namgay Artisanal Brewery
On the turntable:  Harry Nilsson, "Nilsson Schmilsson"

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman XII

May 24, 2003

Awoke to the sound of crickets winding down and a few birds starting up.  It was peaceful, like the warming up of an orchestra.  At the airport just past 5 a.m.  The amount of security and paperwork was insane.  This was to leave the country.  We even had to go out and identify our luggage before it was let on.

We flew our incredible takeoff through a system of valleys, our turn beginning just as we left the ground.  Once above the clouds, a few Himalayan peaks popped up, the beauty of Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest, and later Chomolungma, aka Everest, as unspectacular as said, sitting rather uninspiring among a crowd.  Our plane's shadow was haloed against the clouds, bracken style.  

Dhaka too looked as expected, tree-filled villages dwarfed by rice fields.  Canals were everywhere, barges chugging along some of the bigger rivers.  The few roads teemed with bus and truck traffic.  The land looked wet, fertile, almost sexual.  A recent rain had left the broken down structures soaked as well.  This was very third world.  On the ground, the plane began to fill with passengers of a more South Asian type, and a guy scratched himself for as long as he took to refill the petrol.  Flying out, Dhaka city sprawled, small identical buildings looked like thousands of die rolled on a green felt.  

Sleepily, drifting dreamlike into Yangon, the chords of the Beatles "Flying" going through my head.  Lush jungle, winding rivers, and rice paddies that look like a cubist painting.  We were definitely in SE Asian again.  Gold stupas lean against lush forests.  Shacks line river banks, figures in the canals.  The roads hold bike traffic and slow moving figures.  (And why does this former British colony drive on the right anyway?)  The airport is golden.  As I watch its workers I try to remember the limerick, "There once was a man from Rangoon."  The Japanese start to get off and have to be told that we aren't yet in Bangkok...

On the turntable: Hayseed Dixie, "Kiss My Grass: A Hillbilly Tribute to Kiss

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman XI

May 23, 2003

Early start to Tahksang.  Drove into a beautiful pine forest then walked over a fence ladder into a clearing and up to a house that looked of Josie Wales.  A bow maker lived here, in this dark wood and stone shack surrounded by wooden fence posts.  

We rode for the first half of the trek, on little pack horses that weren't much bigger than ponies.  Mine was well behaved, but the others stopped repeatedly for no apparent reason.  The trail went through a forest awhile then broke into an exposed forest road.  While no horseman, I felt really good up there, at one with my animal.  At the prayer wheel, I was happy to get off the small wooden saddle covered by a single thin blanket.  The horses too seemed relieved. Exhausted, panting, they lay in the ground and rolled in the dust.  

The Japanese couple from Thimphu showed up around then, guided by a small black dog they called "Kuro."  I walked with them and Clarke, stopping occasionally to look up at the temple, majestic against the cliff.  I got a good look at the moss hanging from the trees,  Up close it looked like Tibetan writing.  

At the top was a temporary village built for the men working on the temple's restoration.  Clarke gave a balloon to a little girl and I played shakuhachi, drawing a crowd of workers of their lunch break.   We continued on a little but had to stop at the police post and wait for Dorjee and the permit.  I played shakuhachi a bit more, read Milarepa poems and basically stared in awe at the structure across the ravine.  In front of me was sheer drop of hundreds of feet.  Looking down made my balls shrivel, a vertigo certainly a side effect of Ken's death.  What was worse was watching the young workmen on break, playing around on the roofs above a certain fatal fall.  A waterfall cut the crevasse that enabled this temple to be built.  (Later I saw the falls dropping far below the temple.  Even now, I write this beside a small stream in the valley, no doubt of the same source.)  

When the permit arrived, we dropped down a shale staircase, broken in some places, into the crevasse, prayer flags between us and the drop. Passed the waterfall, the force of which turned a prayer wheel, then up the steep opposite side.  The front of the temple was an unfinished structure, and workmen pounded noisily on the roof above the main entrance.  Clarke burned a fire in a brazier which filled the narrow passage with smoke.  There were only four shrine rooms, all of which seems new with no thankhas and only a single figure in front of a simple altar with butter lamps.  These rooms were around narrow sets of stairs rather than open courtyards like in dzongs.  We sat in the cave where Guru Rimpoche meditated, definitely the best preserved room.  We read a blessing written spontaneously by Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche when he stayed here.  He describes a few geographical features of this area.  I had expected to find power here, but it was the least focused meditation of the entire trip.  I guess it was too built up and I'd expected too much.  We stopped in one final unfinished room where four deities were being sculpted.  There were wires where limbs and nails will later be attached.  There were squares cut into the chest, through which treasures will be passed to fill the empty cavity.     

Descended in a light rain.  Past workmen lugging and shaping stones.  I peed about a foot from a sheer drop, the urine hard coming since my balls were near my throat.  As I did, I heard a series of shouts and was nearly thrown over the edge by a bucket rushing quickly along a cable that brought up supplies.  Heart racing I moved on,  again followed by the black dog with a single white paw who'd followed me most of the way up.  Dropped quickly down to the cafeteria that marked the midpoint.  I sat and watched a mist come in and coat the mountain, leaving the temple the only thing visible.  Across the valley, sunlight filled a small patch, in the exact same point as yesterday and throughout the afternoon.  Yuun Kenshō?  (悠雲見性、my late son's Buddhist name, meaning small glimpse of enlightenment through the clouds.)  

Had a quick lunch and met an Indian couple from Delhi, currently on a trek.  This place had a trek lodge feel, with mountains and rain and bells rung by a water-spun wheel.  The rest of the descent went quickly, punctuated by occasional views of Tahksang.  A few women had set up blankets of souvenirs to catch tourists on the way down.  A symptom of Japanese tourism no doubt.  

I sat at the bottom, listening to a little stream and watching cows and dogs pass by.  One calf was unusually interested in me, grazing close enough to touch.

At dusk we drove up to Drukyel Dzong.  From the end of the road I looked up the valley, Tibet a mere day's walk away.  We walked around the ruins, above the ever darkening valley.  Through a gate then into the dzong itself, turning brown and quite overgrown.  At this time of day and in this light, there was an air of mystery, especially with the proximity to Tibet.  I could feel the age of the earth and just how old humanity is.  I passed through a standing gate, graffiti scratched into the walls.  the courtyard was covered in grass, trees pushing through the remaining buildings.  A group of small structures, probably monk's quarters, lay in a row of ruin.  I climbed up on a crumbling wall of the highest tower and looked for a long time into Tibet.  At the other end of the wall, some prayer flags hung limp, tattered and torn.  A meditation on impermanence.  After nearly two weeks of viewing Bhutan's splendor, a culture vibrant and alive and mystical, to finish this trip at dusk against ruins was the perfect metaphor.  

On the turntable: Andy Partridge and Harold Budd, "Through the Hill"
On the nighttable: Noel Barber,  "From the Land of Lost Continent"

Monday, April 23, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman X

May 22, 2003

Sat up front for the ride to Paro, through scenery reminiscent of northern New Mexico, with long red valleys over rushing water and high pine hills.  Passed three chortens built at a confluence, a temple with a large cave below, and a house, high up on a hill.  A new house was being built at a remote twist on the river.  A couple of funny signs, one saying, "Leave early, arrive early,"  one speed bump looking like a swollen anaconda, and "Wang's Wood."

We drove down Paro's wild west main drag, over the bridge and up the hill to the museum built above the Dzong, which previously had served as its watchtower.  A curved building, we started near the top and wound our way downhill through the seven floors.  Some of the walkways were crooked and rickety.  At the top was a temple with a 3D mandala of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism.  There was a large collection of Bhutanese stamps.  In the basement were a variety of weapons, some incredibly long.  The clothes too were beautiful, their patterns getting more elaborate over the centuries.  Perhaps the Buddhas were most impressive, in varied sizes, types, and materials.  One Shaka was winking.

I finished my visit early, so I sat on a grassy area and looked at Paro below, its density lessening up the valley, until it was just a few houses whose white walls winked in the sun.  Down the hill to Paro Dzong.  No much going on, probably lunchtime.  In the temple, a couple dozen young monks sat in front of their prayer books, swaying and chanting.  I sat in the back and closed my eyes to meditate.  More monks must have come in during that time because the sound began to build and strange harmonies developed.  A very profound experience.  Out in the courtyard, a cat was playing around a small stupa, teaching its kitten a few things about life.  On a veranda nearby, a few monks were painting mandalas. One tried to hide a magazine when he saw me walk up.

After a delicious lunch in town, we drove up to Kyichu Lhakhang, identical to Jambay Lhakhang in Jakar, except much smaller.  Repeated was the lazt western feel, of dusty courtyards, shade trees, and people slowly working through manual labor.  A monk chased a cat out of the main room, and showed us the four beautiful statues of Chenrezig, with incredibly detailed arms.  All the figures were beautiful and all seemed to grow quieter.  One person had apparently been so moved that there were foot indentations from all the prostrations.  The figures in a small antechamber had amazing power.  One Shaka seemed to be crying.  The front of Manjushri was blackened with the years.  Another figure seemed to be tilting.  A cloth wheel hung above the altar, spinning continuously from the heat of the flame below.  Walking back into the the bigger room on shifting floorboards, I found a quiet spot to sit awhile, in front of colored pine cones.

We entered another room across the courtyard.  Here was a room for Thangtong Gyalpo (?), his statue placed to the left of the enormous two-story Guru Rimpoche.  To the right was a picture of his reincarnation, the young boy we met last week.  We performed a small service, me in front of an elephant tusk, near the foot of Guru Rimpoche, nearly as big as me.  As I chanted I looked up at him, sunlight streaming through a spiderweb onto his forehead.  As we meditated I began to cry.  Why?  From the remaining energy of the boy lama?  I can't figure it out.  But as we came out, sun streamed into a small valley further up the mountain.  As I spun prayer wheels along the temple's walls, my eyes kept going to that place.

On to Chhoeten Lhakhang, a hallowed out pagoda of a type I'd seen the last two days.  This one had no light inside so the detail and color of the paintings was astounding.  The blues in particular really jumped out.  We walked the rounded center, up two more floors on rickety stairs, incredibly steep and shifting with each step.  A brilliant Chenrezig was in the doorway.  

I walked the kilometer or so back to town.  In the river, a few kids were swimming and an old woman washed clothes in the faster parts.  The area stank of manure, but as two girls walked by, I got a quick whiff of chewing gum.  I walked up the main street, looking in shops not unlike those in Thimphu.  Row after row of general stores.  Two young dogs frolicked in a dusty parking lot, and I ducked into a cafe for a coffee.  There was a cute Nepali girl behind the counter, who had an endearing head wobble.  Western music played from somewhere.  Three Indian guys flirted with the girl. They seemed to be laborers, their sweet spicy scents filling the shop.  I drank my coffee to the sound of three languages mingling.  

I walked back up the street. Two monks left a temple at the edge of town.  A dog slept in the median.  Another dog, ravaged with mange and with crusty ears, shivered toward death. People spun prayer wheels mounted before a shop without breaking stride.  Young mothers carried babies in a sling on their back, their older children playing nearby.  Old women sat on the sidewalk working their malas.  Indian women wearing sari as they gossip in the shops.  Young men take their gho from their shoulders.  A puppy tries to follow its mother across the street but gets scared back by a truck.  A girl gets smacked by her mother and howls.  Two teens kick a soccer ball up and down the street.  Men play some board game in a back alley.  A drunk sleeps it off.  An old guy holds court in a park.  Dogs roam in gangs.  Himalayan peaks peek through the clouds, down upon all.

We drive up to the hotel which sits atop a high hill.  From my balcony I can look up the valley to Tibet.  I think I see Tahksang atop a mountaintop my right, its whiteness fading with the light.  In the valley below, some kids play soccer in front of a small apartment building.  A boy on the next ridge does his homework at a picnic table.  His friend calls down from a trail across the valley.  The hill in front of me is cut with trails, nearly treeless.  Prayer flags wave from the crest.  A woman, her son and white dog come out of a house on the ridge and walk toward more lights further up.  Three women move slowly up another trail, carry loads nearly as big as they are.  I sip tea and listen to the river far below.  Magic...

On the turntable:  The Del Fuegos, "The Longest Day"

Saturday, April 21, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman IX

May 21, 2003

Had a bath to take the edge off last night's headache.  Terrible breakfast, nothing out, or prepared, everything cold.  This hotel has no character, like a chain.  Last night, the front clerk got snooty with some Nepalese.  Despite that, this morning I am surrounded by posh English accents.  The best hotel in town they say. 

We go to the Memorial Chorten, very similar to yesterday's temple, with a 3D mandala for body, speech, and mind.  In fact, it will probably look like this in 50 years.  The carvings, as ever, are exquisite.  One figure, under foot, had such a pathetic look on its face.  Clarke told of a gay Naropa student who made a yab-yum mandala.  A vase contained fake flowers with plastic drops.  One small figure was wrapped in newspaper.  Outside, townspeople would circumambulate three times on their way to business.  

We had a coffee and Berliner at the Swiss Bakery before going to the Dzong.  We couldn't enter since the king was there, so we went to his house instead.  It was alongside a river with a long, low Japanese wall and Chinese gate.  Beyond this, cows grazed among the trees.  I half expected the wall to hide archers.  A single rock stood before the wall with a clear outline of Fudo Myo-O, or so I thought.  I guess I've been looking at too many thangkas.  

We spent the rest of the morning going to thangka galleries.  Beside one, students were rebuilding the art school, working hard at working little.  After lunch (with uninspired waiters.  Even a city this small has attitude problems), we rousted a tailor on his day off to mount our thangkas.  Then I was free!

I walked along the broken main street of Thimphu, the concrete being smashed by Nepalese workers with sledgehammers and poles.  One young boy was trying it out.  I popped into a few shops, and down along side alleys.  There seemed to be a fair amount of Indians working some shops.  Here and there were small booths big enough for one, and usually there was a beautiful woman inside.  And of course some young Romeo was out front in his best gho.  Up the entire length of the city, the shops seemed to repeat themselves, the same seven types again and again.  I popped in when something caught my eye, often surprising the shopkeeper.  Women walked down the street carrying babies, and kids in identical uniforms walked home from school.  

I walked to the end of town, then followed some side streets back, passing small modest homes and a few multi-story structures with laundry drying over the balconies, and people hanging from the windows, gossiping.  I ran into Dorjee briefly, then went back to the Swiss Bakery for coffee.  I lingered awhile, and in that short time, three groups of people came, ate and drank quickly, then left.  

I went back to my hotel, passing Dorjee in his car.  From the window of my room I could see both archery and soccer in the fields below.  Near the target, eight girls were cheering their heroes by doing a dance with identical steps.  Later, I went out to the plaza in front of our hotel and chatted with some kids doing Jackie Chan moves on each other.  Dorjee and driver Karma were sitting on another bench, getting their fortunes told by a sadhu-looking character. 

Dinner was at Karma Wangmo's place, a typical Asian middle class home, packed with photos, souvenirs, etc.  She laid out an incredible amount of food and drinks.  Karma's son, a tulku, was playing a wrestling video game with his cousin.  As we ate, the TV was on in the background, and I saw footage of our actual plane landing over a week ago.  The program was highlighting the official visit of the president of the World Bank.   After dinner, I tried on one of Karma's husband's gho, and incredibly tight traditional shoes.

On the turntable:  Illinois Jacquet, "The Complete Illinois Jacquet Sessions 1945-1950"

Friday, April 20, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman VIII

May 20, 2003

This morning my shower took a little while to get cold water.  Afterward was a symphony of pipes, some ghostly, others like Scottish bagpipes.

At breakfast we met the hotel's owner, Dodo, who told us the story of Kuba, a Thai shamanistic monk who has an affinity with Bhutan. At an adjoining table was Albert, a Thai Chinese who told us more.  Kuba had fainted at a certain spot in Bhutan and said that he had died there. 

We drove over to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chöten.  Crossing a rickety wooden bridge over a fast swollen river, we went along a stream through rice fields, past cows being driven downhill.  A young woman hoe'd barefoot.  The trail began its exposed switchback ascent high above terraced rice fields, with cows grazing at multiple levels.  A few farmhouses stood high above the valley, with a high, narrow thumb-like peak beyond.  I wondered whether there were any hermitages up there.  Near the top of the trail, a dung beetle began its sisyphean battle uphill.  A fresh pile nearby pulsated with the labors of the bugs beneath. 

The trail stopped at a small gate whose bright paint contrasted sharply with the low white wall.  The temple was built like a chortan, tall and golden in a Thai style. On a hill sitting before a tree was a meditating Buddha.  Behind him, two old men sat under a small pavilion containing a pair of large prayer wheels.  In back was a Chinese goddess standing over a pool of water.  Very eclectic place.

I walked up the steps past a few sleeping dogs.  Inside were two massive protective statues which wrapped around 360 degrees, 108 manifestations of the same deity.  The figures were smaller at the bottom and got bigger near the top.  At the front was a small throne for the king, and directly across were a few protectors in yab-yum position, with drawn swords or bows.  The whole thing was of amazing detail and woodwork.  the walls too were painted with bright pastels, the lower part skulls on a red background.  Lower down were the nagas, female deities on a Freudian water background.  Higher were various Hindu and Buddhist figures, and at the top were strange death-like images, of skulls and flaming eyeballs and what looked like a strawberry.   There were two more floors above, each with deities in the same incredible pastel detail.  On each level they got smaller.  On the third floor were various Thai figures of gold.  One had hands clasped in a wai.  I felt great affinity with them.  There was a balcony area at the very top, with Thai Buddhas overlooking the valley.  Below were rice fields, almost dripping into one another.  In one section were huge boulders, the fields wrapped around them.  The Himalayas, as usual, were clouded in above.

I felt so at peace here, the perfect blend of elements to quiet me.  It was a place where I could easily finish out my days. 

On the way down, I passed a beautiful young farm girl.  Susan and Cheryl, with their parasols, looked like out of a book by Foster.  As the day was hot, I splashed my face a couple of times in the stream running beside the trail. 

After lunch we went to Punahka Dzong, a huge battleship at the confluence of two rivers.  Crossed the bridge behind some school kids who sang happy birthday until they were out of earshot.  We went into a small temple outside the dzong,  and the main Buddha had been found floating in the flooding of 1995.

Next we entered the Dzong itself, past a guard armed with a machine gun.  Beyond was a narrow hall ( with a crossword puzzle mandala on one side, and a color blind test on the other) that led to a large courtyard with a Bodhi Tree and a stupa.  This area housed the administrative offices. In a middle courtyard, from above, we could hear horns and cymbals.  Then, through a narrow wrap around hallway (with no thangkas surprisingly) into the courtyard housing the big temple.  On the entrance were four mandalas, one of them looking like a spyrograph.

Entering the main hall, we saw many small monks sweeping with brooms made of feathers, cleaning rice which stuck to your feet with every step.  The hall was filled with gold pillars, covered with fake gold and rising up to a ceiling high above, covered with hundreds of small Buddhas.  The doors were very tall, with a single knocker in the center.  The walls were filled with pictures depicting the life of the Buddha, one of which included a small ninja star.  At the back of the hall was a huge Buddha and few smaller deities.  Reconsecrated a few days before, they dazzled with their size and shine.  You could get enlightened just looking their way.  We and a few other westerners seemed awestruck.  There were a couple of guys who were incredibly tall, perhaps in town for a game of basketball with the king.

By now, the temple was bustling with the activity of young monks.  A couple of little ones were pulling dust balls out of holes in the base of the pillars.  Three were standing at attention, hands folded in front.  One monk seemed to be having trouble, so a "drill sergeant" monk would rap him on the head.  Three really small kids were standing at attention in the front of the hall, completely dwarfed by the big Buddhas.  A gong went off, and some of the older monks lined up, holding out their hands.  if something was amiss, they were slapped lightly in your face.  A few more were sitting in the doorway in a high seiza position, obviously uncomfortable.  Saddest of all was the one little kid skidding across the floor on his bottom, one arm raised to protect himself from the whip of his elder "brother." I wondered at where the compassion was, but I'm sure that the hard treatment makes them better monks, which could help them become enlightened.  Compassion.

An older monk came in and all the boys formed two lines, going from one end of the courtyard to the
hall and back. From outside it looked like a stream of red water rushing down,  Through a window at the opposite end of the courtyard, older monks had finished up a puja, their bells and vajra lined up along rolls of red carpet.  We followed the boy monks out of the courtyard, along the maze-like halls.  One of them was playing with a gameboy.  Instant samsara. 

The three hour drive back to Thimphu went rather quickly.  A burnt out temple stood silent in the valley.  Below Dochu La  Pass, a group of prayer flags on a ridge above looked like a samurai army.  Near this, we blew a tire.  A stray archer perhaps?   

We arrived in Thimphu at 7 pm, to have dinner with a guy in the conservation ministry.  We had a good talk, but about things other than conservation.  At the next table were a group of young Japanese: a couple from Ibaraki who had an interest in Asia, and a woman from Hiroshima working for the planning division.  Her American English teacher was married to a thangka painter who she met while traveling in Turkey.  She invited me for dinner the next night but I already had plans, which is a shame since I want to learn more about expat life here. 

Went home with a nasty headache.  Couldn't sleep because of the drunks early, and the dogs later.

On the turntable: Frank Sinatra, "Where are You?"  
On the nighttable: Tim Macartney-Snape, Everest: From Sea to Summit"

Thursday, April 19, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman VII

May 19, 2003

We pulled out of Jakar, taxis in line with their yellow roofs. A house on the outskirts of town had intricate designs on the walls, one flame looking a lot like the symbol for Amnesty International.  After about half an hour we came to Pra Ngatshang.  Approaching the temple, we crossed an old rickety wooden bridge over an extremely fast river.  Atop a ridge stood a chortan, and just behind it was a prayer wheel, driven by water fed down a trough at the back, into paddle-like gears at the wheel's base.  The whole temple and village had a medieval feel, with the light rain and wispy clouds up the hillside.  In the main hall of the temple was an Amitayus statue with his consort in the yab-yum position.  Most pictures have the female looking up from below, but this one was leaning in sideways as if really planting a kiss.  There was a definite eroticism to it all, more than I've ever seen in an image.  The paintings in this room were incredible, strings and glue adding a 3D quality to the geometric patterns on the altar itself.  The walls below the mandalas were painted with a multi-colored mosaic.  Two skull masks hung above a curtain covered with skulls, protector deities for the lama beyond.  Fabric hung like dozens of neckties sewn together.  

We wandered into another room containing the mummified body of Dawa Gyeltshen, placed in a gold chorten.  A can of Pringles held incense, sitting on the floor next to a large spittoon. From the window I could look down on the two adjoining houses where two women were weaving, and another was spinning yarn from a frame.  On the adjoining balcony, a little boy was trying to climb through a frame, which kept folding up like a beach chair.  He propped it up in a doorway, but after much trouble he gave up.  We went up yet another floor to an incredibly dusty, smokey room that seemed almost like a Taoist hermitage, with Chinese paintings glazed onto the walls.  In a small building across the garden was a shrine built to honor Dawa Gyeltshen's dead mother.  There was a group of various deities with Shakyamuni at the center.  On the wall behind were dozens of painted figures, who though male, all had rather nice boobs.  On the lama's altar were tow horns, built from human femurs, with copper fixings, which I'd never seen.  This shrine was dedicated to protector deities and reeked of death.  I felt uncomfortable and left quickly.  

We drove a little further to Zabney, where we stopped at a textile place.  At one point, a dog ran out of a general store with a ram's skull in its mouth.  The same dog climbed into a planter and pissed on a single flower.  

Now began the long haul back to Punakha.  In one village, a dozen dogs slept by the river.  Higher up, there were strange long-tailed birds and fungus hanging from pines like tinsel.  The pass was foggy, like a Chinese painting.  At one point Clarke, bored, threw a balloon out the window to some kids.  Coming across a couple of cute little girls a few miles later, he tried to blow up a balloon for them but it burst in his face, scaring them.  Their eyes lit up when he gave them candy.  We also had fun with the kids in a village where we had a pee break.  They surrounded our car, smiled, and carried on.

We passed through blacked out Wangdi, its Dzong ghostly on the hill.  Arrived at Punakha late, around 9:00...

On the turntable: Chick Corea Akoustic Band, "Live from the Blue Note, Tokyo"
On the nighttable:  Tim Mackintosh-Smith, "Travels with a Tangerine"

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman VI

May 18, 2003

Meditated this morning to the song of a child singing outside. We drove to Kurjey Lhakhang and wandered the parking lots.  Young monks ate long sticks of something, ran around and played.  One boy swung a cap gun, shooting down all those messengers of peace.  They all wore yellow sleeveless polo shirts under their robes.  One little boy, under one year old, wore only the shirt, with no pants as he clung to the bottom of his mother's kira.   Clarke met a monk he knew from Kathmandu.  

Today the courtyard was filled with sitting monks and people chanting as they came from the main tents.  We did a small ceremony in the main hall, then I sat out on the balcony and meditated, harmonizing my breath with the chant.  A small boy polishing the floor crept closer and read my sutra which I'd laid nearby.  Next I sat below the main hall, writing this and talking with a young boy who happily took my picture for me.  My writing finished with the chanting, the entire group joining in on the final part.  

I wandered down the hill to the wide plain and strolled the tents.  Some were places to sleep, others were shops selling Buddhist trinkets, pictures, clothes, cloth, snack food.  Others seemed to be tea shops, with tables and chairs under a high tarp.  In one shop, I tried to figure out what a cone of dung-looking material was.  The woman gestured repeatedly but I couldn't figure it out.  Later I found out it was tea. Closer to the river were thatch houses, with chimneys emitting smoke.  At the end of the plain were a few restaurants and bars, permanently built with stone.  I needed a toilet, so looking around, I finally found a woman to help me find one.  She had a little monk show me the way, and he led me into the forest along a dangerous path of loose stones to a nice commode.  Unfortunately she couldn't find the key, so I just peed off the side of a hill and was done with it.  I walked up through the blowing dust to the parking lot, passing people covering mouths and noses with their kira or monk's robes.  One woman had a sharp triangular nose and long thin eyes, like a Buddha.  At the car we met a tongdipa (sanyasi? hermit?) from Tashi Yangtse, with long beard, white robe, and long dread-locked hair coiled on his head, an antenna with direct reception to god.

We had a quick lunch in a hotel near a hospital, a long building which sprawled along the river, its upper floors connected by walkways.  behind the hotel was a large expanse of grass, and I marvelled that you'd never see such a 'waste of space" in Japan.  The hotel workers lived in thatch shacks behind the big building.  I wonder if the moratorium on tourists isn't as much to their protect their culture from us.  

After lunch I was dropped off at the edge of Jakar town.  With its wide dusty streets, wooden buildings, and long sidewalks it looked like a wild west town.  I went up to a small music store which turned out to be closed.  So I ordered a coffee at a cafe next door.  A two year old sat in a cardboard box, pulled by a string tied to the waist of his younger sister.  They came over and checked my camera, taking pictures of each other.  The two younger kids argued over the camera and an older sister said, "No fighting, no fighting," in English.  I let each of them write in my notebook.  The oldest girl asked "Who is your Darling?" so I showed them a picture of Ken and his mother.  They started to argue about who'd draw next, so I quickly finished my coffee and left.

I walked down the main street.  Many of the shops were closed, including the Basic Pool Hall, although most bars and restaurants were open.  A group of young monks sat in a cafe watching some kind of soap opera.  there were a few general stores containing just about everything.  Like in Japan, the family seemed to live in the back of the shop.  

At the far end of town, a group of young boys were yelling to me from the back of the truck.  They told me I looked like an action star, so I struck a pose.  I told one kid, wearing a touque, that I liked his hat.  Clarke showed up, and accepted a ride back to Kurjey.  I wasn't sure, and headed back up the other side of the street.  Not much was open, so by the time I reached the top, the truck was pulling up, so I flagged it down and hopped in back.

About fifteen of us rode in back standing up.  there was a rope tied to the back of the cab, but most of the kids loosely grabbed the sides, jumping in the air with every bump.  Clarke and I both clowned a lot, keeping the kids giggling through the ride.  I was leaning against the cab and every jolt shoved heavy bolts into my back.  The sky above was so vast and riding this way seemed the only way to judge its scale.  Standing this high enabled me to get a good view of the buildings, the farms, the rivers and mountains beyond.  This is definitely the best way to travel in Asia.

We got out at Kurjey and spent a couple of hours wandering the tent city.  I stuck with Clarke since interesting things tended to happen with him around.  He joked in Tibetan with most of the shopkeepers, who seemed in a relaxed mood as most of the crowd were up at the Wang, unlike earlier.  many of the women were sleeping, laying right across their textiles.  I bought a kira for my wife, finding it impossible to bargain on the belt, especially after a local woman showed me how to wear it.  Most shops were run by groups of women, usually of three generations.

Clarke and I stopped in a tea house, chosen on the criteria of drinking in one with the cutest waitress.  We found one with five or six young girls.  We sat and watched the rain, heavy by now, drinking beer and tea and eating chili chips and some spicy pakora/tempura hybrid.  I choked for a second at the sight of some guy with a Pancho Villa moustache.  Behind him, wispy clouds rose above the golden spires of Kurjey.

When the rain stopped, we decided to hitch back to town.  Just then, Karma and Dorjee drove up.  They had something to do, but agreed to meet us on the way back.  Clarke and I were talking about needing two hooks for my wife's kira, when a boy came up and asked if I wanted one.  The timing was truly strange and I would have bought it had there been two.  Assuming this one was found on the ground I refused.  His price then went from a hundred to fifty to zero.

A little bit up the road we came across four boys, three of them monks.  They had a balloon from which they sneakily let out air, and each time I'd pretend someone let out a fart.  We walked up the road, Clarke joking with them in Tibetan.  One of them, the non-monk, had amazing English.  We walked along a river along fields fenced in with barbed wire, ladders like pyramids stepped up and down the other side.  Then through a stone gate with a mandala on the ceiling, and past three small chortans.  The boys left road on a short cut, but we carried on, chewing paan for energy.  Soon, we bisected another trail heavily laden with Bhutanese coming home.  We followed, both sides of the road heavily covered with pot leaves, enough to fund my trip and possibly my entire future education. As we walked, we joked with the other walkers, and waved and slapped hands with those passing in carts.  Surprised that Dorjee hadn't shown up, we hitched a ride with a guy who turned out to work at the Ministry of Justice.  He was initially going only about 100 meters, but he took us not only to Jakar, which was hopping with people back from the Wang, but all the way up to our hotel.

We had tea and listened to Clarke talk about tantra.  We got a call that Thuksey Rimpoche agreed to meet us, so we headed out, without Clarke.  It was agreed that I would lead, and upon entering, I forgot to do prostrations, a major faux pas.  As I bowed, the Rimpoche gave me a gentle head butt, then blessed my mala with a short prayer.  He, the head lama of the Drukpa sect, was incredibly humble, somewhat shy.  We had tea and cookies, and at one point he actually got up and served us.  Such humility and warmth.  A great man.  Our questions went through two translations, from English to Drukpa to Bumthang dialect and back. Cheryl asked a question about doubt, and Rimpoche said we must trust in Buddhism as we'd trust in our own families.  

She then followed up by asking how to differentiate between good and bad doubt.  He said, you must serve tea to people you both like and dislike. Show politeness to all despite our feelings.  Welcome doubt in without distinction.  I asked him how to find a good teacher and he said that it was important to ask three or four people about a teacher's reputation, and to check that he wouldn't go on a long retreat during your training. 

On the way back to the hotel, we passed houses dimly lit from within, a few looking almost colonial.  We dined with Lama Wangdi, a friend of Susan's who had directed a play back in the US, and with an incense maker friend of Clarke's.  After dinner, a blackout caused me to write this by torch and candlelight.  As soon as the lights came back , a hard rain began to fall.  A small family of weird bugs slid around my sink.  And the bukhari burned a final night.

On the turntable: Groove Armada, "Soundboy Rock"
On the nighttable:  Anthony Weller, "Days and Night on the Grand Trunk Road"         

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman V

May 17, 2003

The weird bug in the bathroom and I have an understanding.  He can have one bath towel and I get the other.  In front of the hotel, a single cow was walking up the road, mooing occasionally and setting off a chain reaction at various farms throughout the valley. 

 Our first stop was Burning Lake.  A ancient woman on the trail had skin like leather, nails like claws.  Over the ravine were many prayer flags and a small group of deities.  We crossed the ravine and looking down from a large rock, we were supposed to have a vision.  To me, the river looked blood red (an omen?) with blues crests.  I could make out a patch of white, but its ever-changing shape made it impossible to make out.  Just beyond this small gorge, the river opened to a wide area with eddies, the swirling water like gelatin.  Our group did a wonderful chant, absolutely beautiful and song-like. We then, like most people here, gave offerings.  Everything, paper, leaves, money, when tossed in the lake, was sucked under, to rise again later. It was eerie the way things would pop out of the gloom.  A few people floated butter lamps, two of which swirled in an eddy, danced together, got pulled under and extinguished, yet one came lit again.  Clarke threw in two balloons tied to a kata.  The blue burst immediately, and the yellow got hung up on a branch.  It somehow freed itself, then floated downstream into a series of rapids and disappeared.  I sat on the edge of a big rock and played my shakuhachi, trying to harmonize with the rapids beyond.  Flies buzzed my head.  A young guy now living in India greeted me and told me the story of how when the king visited here, he dropped a medallion into the water, and then went in after it.  As I was playing, a piece of sod flew over me, thrown by a lama who asked me if I knew Susan. 

We gathered under a low overhang for meditation and another singing of that beautiful chant  Om Ah Hung Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hung.  As we sat, a monk meditated below us, with a halo of flies which looked like the model of an atom.  Also, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a yellow streak of a prayer flag being thrown across the ravine. 

We carried on up the road to the trail head for Kungzandra Monastery.  There was a road crew here, including a boy of two or three.  Just a little way up the trail stood the foundation of a house.  A lone gate stood on the hill above.  we walked past a small temple and farm, then into the forest.  There was a crow making strange noises up in a tree, the other trees surrounding it swaying and dancing against the blue sky.

We came upon a ridge with four new prayer flags, a post-hole, and a few de-branched trees laying  nearby showed the intention to raise more. In the lower part of the valley were a dozen fields which looked like a golf course, the wind whipping the wheat into waves.  High above were a few snow-capped Himalayan peaks.  I thought I saw a farmer in a field below but it turned out to be a scarecrow, and a damn fine one at that. 

 We stopped for lunch at the top of a difficult washed out section, beneath prayer flags.  Our intention had been to eat up at the top, but Susan and one of our guides were having trouble breathing and had turned back.  So we ate chicken, spinach, mushrooms and rice.  I passed on the ema datshi this time.   Eating lunch turned out to be a bad idea, as the next part of the trail was a hard slog after a long rest and on a full stomach.

We arrived at a clearing level with the temple.  Huge stones lay strewn about, sacred portals to a mystical area.  One stone looked like a giant seated Buddha, and high up the mountain was a stone pillar looking like a standing Buddha in the style of ancient India.  I looked back down on a scene Pema Lingpa must have seen, of farmhouses unchanged for centuries.  A long thin cloud came over the pass, like a whispy kata passed over from Tibet. 

At the temple, we met two women who carried up tea and cookies for us.  They had no shoes on and one had on a robe with Chinese patterns.  The tea was most welcome after climbing the final steep stone step ascent to the temple.  In the entrance hung a fire extinguisher which looked as old as the temple itself. Tall pine trees with fuzzy fungus stood in front, the branches on the temple side cut away for firewood.  Someone had thrown a cassette through the trees, and it rippled in the breeze like a prayer flag.  Clarke lit a fire as an offering, making the nose of a black dog lying in the dust begin to twitch.  When Clarke chanted in Tibetan, the old women giggled. 

Inside the main temple building we had tea, cookies, and rice.  The women had expected nine of us instead of five (the other four had suddenly pulled out of the tour, as that spring of 2003 was the time of both SARS and the opening of the US attack on Iraq) , so we were force fed.  I sat on the throne of a lower monk, afraid to lean against the wall since only a thin piece of plywood separated me from a horrible fall.  The main image was Kannon, with an amazing amount of arms.  To the left sat Pema Lingpa, his eyes looking on, lifelike as you stood in front of him.  

We walked back down the front of this temple, then up another series of steep shale steps to a tall tower built right into the mountain.  Outside the Buddha room was a small group of stones for a firepit, a hole cut in the roof above. The building was built even higher up, a deadly fall onto trees below.  This small room contained a stone with the footprint of Pema Lingpa.  As we left, Teri and I pondered why we would consider this site to be medieval, a word that seems to define aesthetics rather than age.   

From here , we went to a building built further along the cliff face.  This was Pema Lingpa's cave, with entrance for males only.  When the three of us men were in there, our woman guide stood outside and chanted.  The room was small, about 4 1/2 tatami mat size, with a small pillow for a throne and no deities or thankas.  A perfect hermitage.

We made our descent, me pulling way ahead of the group.  Going down was incredibly easy after the hard climb.  I went along happily, watching the cows climb and graze, their large piles of fly-swarmed shit mining the trail.  Suddenly at one point, I felt uneasy, as if I half expected to see a yeti come out of the trees above.  (I could see how they could hide themselves in the lush forest and in the near unbroken darkness of night.)  What did appear was an angry black dog, his barking in harmony with a few others I could hear just below me on the ridge.  They all entered the trail just to my right, snarling and bearing teeth.  I walked on, not breaking my pace, not looking at them, trying not to show the fear that was most certainly in me.  Luckily, a farmer came out of the woods yelling at them, just as I was picking up a stick.  For ten minutes I went on, relieved, but suddenly three dogs were charging down a slope at me.  I picked up a long branch and thrust it toward them, yelling in my best kiai, like I was wielding a naginata. This stopped them for a second, then they charged again.  We repeated this scene a few times, until a woman came out of a farmhouse across the hill.  The dogs held their ground, snarling and barking, but at least they'd stopped charging. I kept on a little more quickly and steadily, carrying my branch all the way down to the road.

The van wasn't there so I sat on the bridge waiting and writing.  A strange crow hopped closer and closer, talking in what sounded like English.  Back up the mountain, it began to cloud over. A young woman came up the road carrying a phallus, to dispel bad luck.  As the rest of the group showed up, a herd of horses came up the road, one trying to hump another, which wouldn't stop to allow the satisfaction.  Their driver, an old woman with loose swaying breasts, threw a stone to break them up.  

We drove a short way to a farmhouse where we'd have dinner.  There were kids and young mothers everywhere.  Two very small twins were wrapped up in shawls and hats and socks made of yarn.  One kid had a terribly runny nose, and later I saw the mother suck it clear with her mouth.  An ancient woman chewed betel, her toothless gums moving frantically.  Clarke gave the kids a balloon, which they happily batted around awhile until it was hit high enough that a gust of wind carried it down the valley.  

We went inside the kitchen where the older women were making buckwheat noodles, putting a clump in a wooden press, lowering the lever by sitting on it, to squeeze the noodles into strands like Play-Doh.  These were thrown into hot water, ladled out with something like a lacrosse stick, one of which I'd seen hanging from a fence up the mountain.  The kitchen area, as usual for Asia, contained only the women, but one guy came in briefly, wearing Adidas sweat pants over his gho.  I stepped back on the balcony to watch the sun go down.  Huge phalli hung from each corner of the house, and one over the doorway.  Dorjee told me they were for strength and protection, but I told him that for most men, they bring nothing but trouble.  

Back inside, we were served the alcohol doma by a persistent woman in the Chinese shawl, who filled our cups despite our protestations.  Four young girls began to dance and sing in the adjoining shrine room lit up with candles.  All of the girls had beautiful voices and they harmonized perfectly.  This was professional level singing, coming from farm girls in a remote valley.  (It seems that traditional music can be sung well by all, while modern music only by a few, for better marketability.)   I was mesmerized and kicked myself for the hundredth time that I didn't bring my handheld recorder.  As the dancing went on, more and more girls joined in, and more kids came in to watch.  They and the ancient woman sat riveted, and I was so pleased to see young people so at ease and comfortable with their culture.  I took out my samba and began to keep a beat.  Everyone seemed to like it, especially one young boy who Clarke was thinking of sponsoring.  He tried to play, plus swayed and snapped his fingers, leading the other boys and laughing.  

At one point, I leaned over to whisper something to Cheryl and we were shushed and snapped at by Susan.  I was surprised, not used to such directness anymore.  I suppose Susan was disappointed at not finishing the climb.  Letting it go, I went outside, into full darkness, the only light the candlelight coming from the window of the shrine room.  The silhouettes of the dancers caused strange supernatural shadows, and the voices of the girls cut through the stillness outside, joined now by Dorjee's It was even more beautiful in this environment, under a handful of stars showing through gaps in the clouds I could have stayed forever had not the sound of barking dogs moving closer drove me back outside. 

Dorjee and I did a duet on "Hana" while the girls took a break.  He sang with his arm around me and I think we both did well, capturing the emotion of the song.  Before dinner, I was again given doma by the persistent woman.  I opened a window next to me and spat it two stories down.  The dinner that followed was elaborate considering the poverty here, and we were told to eat much and eat slowly so as to finish at the same time as the dancers.  Karma the driver offered us "Sikkim Milk," which turned out to be alcoholic.  This geared us up for a final dance, which we did with the girls. It lasted a long while.  

We said goodbyes, riding home in various states of merry drunkenness.  Dorjee, buzzed, expressed his happiness with this trip, saying that the things he'd seen and experienced wouldn't have been possible without us.  Back at the hotel, we all slept well. 

On the turntable: Gontiti, "Gontiti Recommends Bossa Nova'"
On the nighttable:  Gavin Bell, "In Search of Tusitala"

Monday, April 16, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman IV

May 16, 2003

After breakfast we drove back into Jakar Valley, where four circular buildings overhung the river.  We passed a few hotels that looked new, and Teri theorized that most things in the tourist infrastructure rarely last long due to shoddy construction.  Most Bhutanese, if they do manual labor, would rather farm than do construction.

We first came to Tamshing Goemba.  An old man was sitting on the balcony of an old building like a relic himself, gazing down on the world passing by.  Monk's quarters enclosed a grassy area.  As we were entering, a man wearing chains walked past.  A girl on the second floor was blowing bubbles through a screen.  The corridors were all covered with extremely old, very elaborate thankas.  Here and there, bird shit streaked the paintings, so small, sage-like branches had been shoved into the space above the thankas to keep the birds out.  It was only marginally effective since the birds all seemed to stay in a large open area directly across from an adjacent Buddha room.  This is the first time I've seen this type of temple architecture.  A triple throne was at the far side, with raised places for monks running perpendicular to this.  There was a raised corridor running around the top.  This second floor was no longer straight, and with the warped walls downstairs, showed that this was the oldest temple in Bhutan.

After making offerings, we were given camphor water as a blessing, nice scent but lousy taste.  When Cheryl gave khata, it looked like she was shooting free throws.   We had to help build a butter lamp, putting our hands on a large stick, then smearing it inside the bowl.  Clarke rubbed his hand on his hair, which immediately attracted flies.  Each of us tried on the 60 pound chain mail shawl. Thus weighted,  I run my lap around the altar.   Moving upstairs, we crouched below low ceilings, walking past various weapons to the Buddha room.  After offerings, we were back out in the courtyard where a little boy greeted us and seemed delighted, giggling to his mother.  Across the river, we could hear chanting from Kurjey Lhakhang, where hundreds of monks milling about like moving trees.

We made a quick stop at Kenchosum Lhakhang, a temple with an interesting cracked Tibetan bell.  Out front, we made a smoke offering in a hollow chorten, the dark grey smoke of burning ceder floating down the valley.

Next was Jakar Dzong, perched high on a hill above the valley.  Its courtyards were completely empty, white walls a sharp contrast to blue sky.  The only life in the whole place was a lone dog sleeping in the sun.  The corridors on either side were littered with small bits of wood, the ornamentations on the railings looking like turnips. The windows above were shaped a lot like doors.  The wind was literally howling through the roofs high above.  At the end of the courtyard, an old man sat picking something out of a huge bowl of rice.  Crossing from courtyard to courtyard we'd pass through high towers with curved ceilings.  The smell of butter lamps permeated all.  Across the valley, schoolchildren were beginning to leave for lunch, dropping down the dirt trails.  One guy astride a motorcycle put on a helmet that was pocked like a golf ball. 

We stopped back at the hotel, where the laundry whipping in the wind sounded like prayer flags.  Later, we went to Jampa Lhakhand, where women were building a parking lot, one carrying a baby on here back. A guy was driving four cows through, throwing stones at them if they didn't behave.  We entered between four large prayer wheels, onto a dusty courtyard with the usual white walls, colorful trim punctuated with Tibetan characters, and thatched roof above.  At one end of the courtyard was a small building containing a thousand butter lamps.  There were no monks around, so we decided to meditate in front of a small building which was probably the monks quarters.  We alternated chanting and silence, me having trouble with the Tibetan names.  Our staccato vocalization sounded like Cylons.  During the silence, I was drawn into the whipping of prayer flags, though at one point, an Indian truck drove up, making strange mechanical sounds.  We finished with a mantra of "Hum!" The others did it with such force that it sounded like a car revving.  Mine was done more inside my pursed lips, the sound like a didgeridoo.   I felt a sense of power here, on the wide dusty plain, with huge mountains rising on the right.  Clouds slowly passed over.  At any moment, Clint Eastwood should have rode up.  Clarke said that this meditation was to draw the energy from the sky and channel it through us.  This day was both a full moon and a lunar eclipse, so any merit accrued would multiply exponentially. 

As we finished, the lama showed up, so we went inside to see the Buddhas.  Here was Maitreya, a deity that I feel a strong affinity for.  The steps leading to the Buddha room were worn, and its said that when the bottom step wears down completely, the future Buddha will come. The bodhisattvas flanking Maitreya were incredibly lifelike, and seemed to move almost restlessly.  Maitreya was still, peaceful, with eyes nearly fully closed.  In its lap was a small figure (which I imagined was my son Ken, who had passed away 6 months before), almost hidden by khatas.  I walked around the outside of the Buddha room spinning prayer wheels and accidentally knocked one off its hinges, which made Dorje's wife laugh.  Nearby, I saw a small boy standing in a truck, whacking the heads of monks who walked by.  
On the drive to the summer home of Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi, the reincarnation of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.   Yangsi was sitting out on the veranda, all of ten years old.  A bit surreal to be blessed by such a small boy, who was obviously disinterested.  We were given a bit of traditional medicine instead of water.  It tasted like a mix of coffee and dirt.  The house was set back in the forest, fenced in, completely secluded.  There's a good story about Yangsi.  Steven Seagal had visited him in full swagger.  When Yangsi was told that Seagal was a movie star, he asked, "Where you in The Lion King?"  When Seagal said no, Yangsi completely ignored him. 

Next we went back up to the empowerment teachings at Kurjey Lhakhang.  I was once again awed by the action going on in the camp area.  Inside the main courtyard there were thousands of people sitting in multi-colored rows, listening to the prayers coming through the loudspeakers. (I'd hear later that there were more people here than in the capital.)  A few people were off to the side, prostrating themselves toward the main building.  Men were walking between the rows, ladling out rice from huge wicker baskets.  It was like a scene from an epic film.  

We walked up the white stone stairs past dozens of smiling monklets at play.  In the main hall, we were among many who came with offerings.  One young woman was saying a mantra as she did full length prostrations. An old woman walked around the perimeter, bowing low to hundreds of small statuettes in the walls.  When she looked up, she was weeping.  I stood out on the veranda awhile, looking down upon all the people.  A young guy did his prostrations very slowly.  The sense of devotion here was inspiring.  We Westerners "playing at Buddhism" have been able to make a conscious intellectuallized choice to add the dharma to our life.  These people were acting from pure faith from the heart.  And the chanting and the bells went on into the dusk.  

Looking for a toilet, I was led behind the monastery where the rocks were built into the back wall.  We moved cross-country along a hillside where hundreds of young monks sat or ran around. A small group of young boys played keep away with a soggy softball.  Nearby, black cauldrons boiled rice under a thatch tent.  Below us, a steady stream of monks moved off down the valley into the setting sun.  Finally I found the "toilet," a large puddle of muddy piss.

Back in the main hall, the puja for my late son Ken began.  Seven monks were sitting in a row, chanting from long loose pages.  The main monk used a vajra to prop his up.  I lit five butter lamps on the altar, then did my prostrations.  returning to my position, I was told to pray in order to guide Ken.  I began to cry after awhile, and Dorjee gently told me that I had to be strong or Ken would be confused in the Bardo.  I stopped immediately.  The chanting went on for half an hour, a beautiful pattern that became song after awhile. I've never heard anything like it.  An older monk didn't cease his prostrations throughout it all.  Behind the monks, through the window, dusk deepened. Incredibly moving and quietly beautiful. At the end I was spent.

We came outside and entered a building next door which contained a massive two-story Guru Rimpoche.  As I made my way around, bowing to the statues, I cracked my head on the altar, making Dorjee laugh.  As we left, dozens of monks were sitting in lines and chanting, a thunderous sound that filled the room. Outside, the setting sun turned the river a steel grey.  Aside from the thousands of butter lamps in a building across the courtyard, there were nearly no lights in the valley beyond. A few monks swept the courtyard, and three dogs fought for a rag.  In the campsite below the hill, hundreds of monks milling around looked like Jawas, lit from above by butter lamp fireflies.

Back at the hotel, we had dinner with a group of Tibetans from India.  They cracked lots of jokes in Tibetan, while the rest of us were really tired and turned in early.

On the turntable: Gillian Welch, "The Harrow and the Harvest"
On the nighttable:  Gavin Young, "In Search of Conrad"

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"