The first verses of the Dhammapada remind us to guide our thinking, because our thoughts inform our experience. Everything that we go through, every event, we interpret with our minds. But experience also has a way of shaping the way we interpret our experiences. The families into which we were born, the people and cultures that shaped us, inform our minds, the ways we see the world. So, for example, a child who is mistreated from the moment she is born,who is told that she is worthless and stupid and incompetent, nothing more than a thing to be used by others, is likely to grow up with a false understanding of herself. She will not know her true nature as a being of light and beauty, deserving of all love. She will have a corrupted mind, and suffering will follow her.
The wonderful knowledge that the Buddha offers to us here is this: no matter what has happened to us, no matter how corrupted our ways of understanding the world have been, each one of us has the freedom and the power to learn, through practice, to step aside, as it were, from the false, corrupt thoughts that have been imbued in us, and to have a “peaceful mind.” This is the only path to lasting happiness.
The aphorisms composed by the Hindu siddha guru Pantanjali, who flourished in India during the second century B.C.E., are among the oldest and most revered scriptures of yoga teachings. Yoga was originally a practice of meditation designed to awaken higher consciousness about the universe. In the Sutras, Pantajali explains that the purpose of yoga is to “disarm the causes of suffering and to achieve integration” of the self with the universe (Yoga-Sutras of Pantanjali, translated by Chip Hartranft, Sutra 1-9). Ignorance of one’s true nature is the source of suffering (dukha), he says. This ignorance (avidya—lit. “not seeing”) is an inability to understand that there is no such thing as a separate, individual self.
The concept of an isolated self, or ego, is a construction, produced by experiences and reinforced by cultural conditioning. In other words, the “I” is the sum of conditioned responses to experiences—good and bad—that reiterate the false impression that there is any other way to be. One imagines that one’s self is always either an active agent or passive victim, the hurter or the stricken. Resistant to change, the “I” dwells in the inertia or tamas, stuck in a polarized sense of a self that exists only through the experience of opposition, of “me” vs. “them”, “self” and “other,” as well as in false notions of the self as divided into similarly opposed arenas of “goodness” and “evil,” “acceptable” and “unacceptable.”
To move past this dukha, suffering, born of avidya, ignorance, we need to engage in action, Kriya. But energetic effort is only useful if it is expended in the right direction, towards sadhana, realization. Thus, for example, action taken in response to anger or guilt or self-righteousness will not take us where we want to go. It leads into more suffering, not away from it.
In 2.12-16 Pantanjali considers the causes of suffering (samskara), which can either affect us immediately or lie dormant for a while. A dormant or latent cause of suffering can be activated by a weaker, more trivial experience of unpleasantness, which allows the older “root” to erupt and overwhelm the mind and body. Yoga helps us to break down this conditioned experience.
Moving through the postures (asanas) day after day, week after week, we experience the impermanence of all emotions, abilities, and states of being. Some days I am strong. Some days I am weak. Most days the practice of yoga itself allows me to tune in to what I am experiencing. When my mind and body, reason and emotions, are integrated, I recognize that my “self” or sense of an “I” is not fixed or even definable. Rather the “I” is a pattern of consciousness that shifts and moves continuously, always in response to one thing or another.
The regular tuning into the body and the mind through practice allows me to distance myself from my habitual understanding of myself as a “self” existing in opposition to an ‘it” or an “other.” Thus I recognize that we are all connected beings. My experience of aversion, or opposition, to others itself is a fleeting body/mind energy, a pattern, an acquired habit of interpreting reality, and not necessarily a necessary way to be.
You can look carefully at suffering itself to see if it can be corrected or not. If it can be corrected, put all your effort into correcting it. If there’s nothing to be done about it, why be unhappy? The unhappiness only adds more suffering to the suffering.
Like the Buddha, who lived approximately 400 years before him, Pantanjali recognized that suffering is unavoidable. Like the Buddha, he also believed that “suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented.” What does this mean? Hardship, pain, dukkha, is unavoidable, but we often add to our own suffering by shooting what the Buddha called the “second arrow.”
The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.
The first arrow is the suffering itself, however it came about. We experience a loss, someone is cruel or rude to us, we experience an injustice or a trauma. We cannot control that, but we can control how we react to the first arrow. If beat ourselves up about how we feel, if we blame ourselves for being weak, or indulgently feel very sorry for ourselves, we shoot the second arrow at ourselves.
We don’t have to do this. Why do we do it? Because we are conditioned to think of the self, the “I” as a fixed and determined entity. If we simply accept the suffering, acknowledge that it is there without imagining that this particular experience of suffering somehow defines who the “I” is, we can prevent extra suffering.
The conscious, patient, focused practice of breathing and moving through asanas allows us temporarily to step aside from our punishing habits, the products of ignorance, avidya, and to glimpse what it feels like to refuse to send the second arrow.
I don’t agree with Pantanjali that the goal of yoga is to allow purusha to see itself (2.20), or to realize some absolute truth about existence. My practice of yoga does not carry me further towards salvation or to the understanding that the “phenomenal world exists to reveal” (2.21) “fundamental qualities of nature” (2.19), which exist somehow somewhere else, in some abstract realm of purusha, perfect, “pure awareness” (Hartranft, 27).
No. For me, yoga is both a means and an end, a dynamic method of awakening whereby we understand anguish (dukha), let go of its origins or causes, realize that dukha ends, and cultivate the path, the method of awakening itself.
As Stephen Batchelor, a former Zen and Buddhist monk who now leads a secular Buddhist group in England, writes,
The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him the privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.” Buddha did not found a religion. He taught a practice for actively awakening, an ongoing, conscious effort to free ourselves from habitual impulses and irrational, false illusions.
This is how I understand yoga. Yoga is an ongoing, conscious effort to awaken, not to any particular truth, but rather to free ourselves from the need for fixed truth.
My intention is not to proselytize or preach, but rather to guide people to find sthira and sukha, strength and ease, to “come home” (as Tara Brach likes to say) to whatever is actually going on in the body and mind by moving, breathing, stretching, and resting in various positions, asanas that stimulate awakening.
We’ve been up most of the night, since our flight departed at 11:30 pm and arrived four hours later in a different time zone. We had to wait for another seven hours for the next flight. It’s a nice airport, extremely clean. We’ve gotten used to grime. There are trash cans! I don’t know why Nepal lacks trash cans, or dumpsters, or people who clean bathrooms. Nice to have toilets you can sit on, t.p., and soap again, too.
What else is different. People are diverse. There are a lot more Africans, Europeans, Americans, Middle Easterners. Lots of Arabs, but not as many as you’d expect. Not too many women walking around in abayahs. I’m wearing my favorite kurta suruwal, the one I had made to match the outfits I bought for the girls. We only had one day together in our identical clothes.
Anura painted a sun, surya, on my palm in henna. It is my most precious ornament. Like all things, it will not last. It fades a bit more each time I wash my hands. Who will make sure Anura washes her hands with soap now that I am gone? No one comes to braid their hair before school, to sit with them during their breakfast. A new volunteer will come, I am sure. This does not console me.
Brendan is very happy to be going home, happy to have me with him in the airport. He said that my being with him makes it 100 times easier for him. He would have been fine without me, I think. I have no way of knowing that. No use pushing a child into a situation that they don’t feel ready to face. You can’t build character through intentional suffering or indifferent neglect.
Same day, about 24 hours later:
New York, New York
Sitting in a well-lit Vino/Volo wine bar at JFK with Brendan. When the waitress brought the salad I ordered, I had to stop myself from saying “thank you” in Nepali (danyabad). Then, wonder of wonders, she brought salt and pepper, which never would have happened in Nepal.
I’m drinking pinot grigio, which is somewhat insane since I’m exhausted. I got up yesterday morning at 5:30, Nepali time, and have had only short naps in the past 48 hours. Brendan is dozing in the chair next to me. He has been in a wonderful mood, thrilled to be able to get a milkshake that he could drink safely and very, very happy to be back in the States.
He just opened his eyes and laughed. A woman has come onto the airport intercom twice now to cuss out another woman in standard Black American English. I didn’t catch all her words, but did manage to hear “nigger, bitch, mother-fucking…” Welcome to America!
I have spoken to T now twice. I called him after we got through customs to announce our arrival. We spoke for a few minutes in the usual friendly tones. It was awkward. It has always been hard to talk to him on the phone, and this time the odd silences were no longer or more uncomfortable than usual. Still, it felt strange.
He called again just now to say that he was going to the market for us, and to ask if we had any requests. It’s nice of him to do this, and nice of him to pick us up from the airport, and nice of him to have gotten all his furniture out of the house in time for our arrival. I asked him how he accomplished this. He said that friends from his church gave him a hand, and that one of them had a 22 year-old son who was particularly helpful. I wondered if this was the woman he’s interested in, but didn’t ask.
Tim has bought a house just steps away from mine but won’t close on it until the end of the month. So he’ll go to his sister’s tonight. This will probably be a strange move for him, since my house has been his house for so long now. I’m worried that it will feel very cold and empty without him there.
Brendan said, “Don’t worry! Soon you’ll have me and Danielle and a Great Dane to keep you company.”
It is true. With Baldr and Freya, there will be three dogs, two children, and one cat under the roof. Plenty of company. Thank goodness for Brendan.
I’m sure I can’t possibly assess to what degree or how I have changed in the past few months right now. My brain is not working so well right now, and it’s too soon to say. But it is certain that I have changed. I’m neither devout nor dogmatic, but I’ve become much more seriously interested in Buddhism.
One of the strangest things about being here—in addition to the odd announcements from the airport loudspeaker—is getting used to the fact that from now on most of the people I’ll encounter will be Americans who speak only one language and who have never traveled anywhere outside the country. Given the neighborhood I live in and the places I go, most of the people I see will be white. Some of them will be black. Very few of them will look like the brown faces I’ve come to know as ordinary. There will be no more diversity of Asian faces bearing witness to Indian, Mongolian, Tibetan, or Chinese ancestry!
I have been living at a Buddhist monastery for the past week, getting up to the sound of chanting monks. I have gotten used to women in kurtas, dogs, cows, ducks and chickens in the street, to women swishing their beautiful Tibetan silk skirts and aprons, to men in Newari caps sitting for hours on storefront stoops, to gaudy saris and tikas and tinkling plastic bracelets, to attracting unwanted attention because I am white.
I love the slow pace of life in Nepal and love to gaze upon the stupa.
I miss Anura, Bipin, Gaurima, Krishala, and Nirmala. It seems cruel and unfair that I won’t be able to see them every morning. It is terrible to contemplate the thought of never seeing them again.
I’m watching Of Gods and Men. It’s about a group of French Trappist monks who chose to stay in their community rather than flee to safety during the Algerian civil war. They were kidnapped in 1995 by terrorists, but their death was never explained. Some have argued that Algerian soldiers killed them during a botched rescue attempt. The first part of the movie shows the monks selling their own honey and vegetables in the market, offering medical care and advice to the locals, who are mostly Islamic. When fundamentalists come to their town, the town leaders come to consult with the monks. When the terrorists come closer and begin to kill all foreigners, the monks refuse military protection. The Algerian army, in fact, is just as brutal and violent as the terrorists. This beautiful movie highlights the monks’ incredible forbearance and dedication to peace. It is a portrait of truly peaceful Christian practice, so unlike the practice of our allegedly Christian, elected representatives, who wage war around the world and who never cease to find reasons to kill and main and destroy in the name of freedom. But the film also highlights the peace and love that are central to Islam, as well, showing the daily lives of the people, their friendliness, their vulnerability, and their civility. The terrorists are presented as men at odds with Islam, men who hardly know the Koran and who have a simplistic and militaristic interpretation of scripture. They are not unlike those among us who vote for bombs and landmines and hatred for people who don’t worship the same god.
Since I have returned from Nepal I have reclaimed my sense that we are all united in a great web of being, of aliveness and no longer identify myself as an atheist. Love is our greatest resource, the power most essential to our nature as well as the link between us all. We are not singular and cut off from one another. We only exist with one another, in relation to one another, and the relationship that we have with one another when we are being true to ourselves is loving. We are true to ourselves when we treat each other with love and compassion. Everything else about us—guns, violence, hatred, oppression, war—is against our truest nature.
Since I have embraced this essentially spiritual way of understanding the world, which was always very basic, if buried, in me, my attitude towards other believers, especially Christians, has changed. I’m no longer angry. I still dislike the masculinism underlying the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), the ancient and arbitrary division between Self and Other that recognizes men as subjects and women as objects, but I have given up the burden of burning indignation. My fury and resentment hurt me more than objects of my fury. As Donna Farhi relates, “harboring resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
The Dalai Lama was asked how he could feel loving kindness for the Chinese, who invaded his country, destroyed most of the monasteries, murdered thousands of Tibetans, and were continuing to repress and eradicate his people and culture. He was silent for a long time, and finally answered that he distinguished between the act and the agent. He could repudiate the actions of the Chinese but still feel compassion for the Chinese agents who brutalized his people. They are suffering greatly, after all, because they have strayed so far from their true nature.
My true self is not the crazy tangle of thoughts and emotions that continuously run through my mind, nor my ever-changing body, but rather the silent, neutral witness of my experiences in the world. It is this quiet aliveness, this prana, the shimmering vitality that I share with all other sentient beings, the life-force that courses through the forests, the oceans, the mountains, the rocks, the sun, the fiery core of our planet, the rivers, the plains, all plants, all organisms, even the stars themselves, that is my truest ground of being. This is what Rainer Maria Rilke calls “the infinite ground of our deepest vibration.” As he wrote,
Be in front of all parting as though it were already behind you,
I wrote these words in my journal when I was at Boudhanath, in Kathmandu:
Here is the Buddha himself magnificently before me, strong, rounded, ample, powerful. They say that this place, more than any other place in all the world, is where wishes are heard and answered.
What are my wishes:
1. I wish to heal. Heal the mother in me who feels wounded.
2. I wish for true companionship.
3. I wish that my son will find his way, his strength, his chai, his chi, his life-force, and know his inner beauty.
The first wish is nearly granted. I am a good mother if hardly conventional. I have done my best. This wish is the one I came to Nepal to plead. It requires a sacrifice. I would like to stay here to explore further sides of myself in the world, accomplish something that feels like an accomplishment. But it is time to return. The journey must be completed for the wish to come true. This is what the spirit of the place, Boudha, tells me. It called to me and I came. There was much to learn. Have I learned what I came here to learn? Here is what I found out:
That I love my son.
That I have a great desire to take care of him and to be with him.
That, although he can care for himself, I want very much, very much, to spend more time with him.
He has confessed that I drive him crazy, that he doesn’t always like me! This makes me laugh. Bravo! I am shouting. Hooray for you to be able to tell your mother this!
I like Boudha. I could spend a long time here. It is a good place. I like the people circumambulating the stupa, an anarchic procession they call chora or kora. I liked riding my bicycle here.
I have been watching a man doing his puja, his prostrations, for over an hour. He is wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and he is bald. He has wrapped his prayer beads around his wrists. He stands, raises his beads with both hands to the top of his head, then to his third eye, and then to his chest. He kneels, hands sliding up the wooden prayer board, lays himself out and pushes himself back up, swings his hands above his head, touches his third eye, his chest, and down to the board. His hands slide up to support his body in plank, and then brace to push him back up again. He has repeated this movement twenty or thirty times while I have been describing it. He looks older, maybe 60. A woman in a pink kurta sits indolently on the board next to him, where a dog is sleeping in the shade.
I am looking up at the Buddha’s stern, blue eyes and this is what they say to me:
“The connection was never lost, never broken, only tested.”
“But,” I complain, “there were gaps, missing slats on the bridge between us!”
The Buddha says,
“It is whole. All is well. The bond, the bridge, is sturdy. Trust it across wide distances and deep canyons. You will never break it.”
The sky is so beautiful tonight. Bright clouds are puffing out behind the dark mountain and the golden roofs of the gompas. Bells are ringing, dogs are barking, and the tourist stores are broadcasting “om mane peme hum.” Prayer flags are swaying gently in the wind. My heart is full of love.
It is the oddest experience—to be really angry at someone and yet to forgive instantly, to love someone and yet to know that you need to let them go, to be relieved to have your solitude back and yet to mourn the loss of your former lover, to accept that you’re moving on and yet to keep freaking out about his having left you for someone else.
You say to yourself:
No way is she better than me. I mean, his taste has really declined.
And then you admit:
…but maybe she’s better for him than I was.
Which leads to the happy thought:
And maybe there’s someone out there who is way better for me, too.
I have been looking for him for such a long time. This time I’m not settling about anything. I will feel the earth move. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is more delightful than wine. Pleasing is the fragrance of his perfums, his name is like perfume poured out.
I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m so glad and relieved this time to be able to go through this without getting stuck in rigid “he did me wrong” discourse. Also, I’m glad holding myself with compassion and gentleness and love as I face my suffering. This does not mean I place the burden of my suffering at his feet and demand retribution. These are my problems. Look: I choose to respond to this difficulty, this blow to my emotional and financial security with love and grace. I chose grace. Why chose anything else?
Suffering, dukha, is unavoidable. I can’t opt out of the pain but I can choose how I respond to it. I think writing about it, meditating about it, and crying about it is all an excellent form of ritualized mourning, a kind of kaddish that I am working through. I’m trying to keep my eyes open.
I was talking to a friend (a friend? more than a friend? there’s always hope!) tonight about how weird it is to be back in the United States. Everything is more or less the same. The gods dogs are the same, the garden is the same as it always is this time of year, the paintings and rugs and tables and chairs and dishes in my house are the same, the streets are the same, my neighbors are doing the same things, the pile of mail is the same pile of catalogs and come-ons, but I am different. My body and mind have changed. I was only there for two months but it transformed me tangibly in a way that I cannot yet describe. I feel heavier, more rooted to the earth, as though the magnets in my soles had a stronger pull. If I’m liable to floating off at a momentous breath, then I’m as likely to come come crashing back to the ground again, upright and on my feet.
I like being in my house by myself. I love it here. The wisteria and the grape vines are still alive, if parched. The Echinacea is blooming into the heat. The rosemary, symbol of the woman’s reign in the household, had held on, a small, scrubby branch.
Today I reclaimed my yoga/meditation room. I set up an altar with the male and female manifestations of compassionate action—Avalokitseshvara and Green Tara.
For me, Green Tara is the most important deity/symbol in the Buddhist pantheon. “ The Sanskrit root târ-means “to traverse” or “cross over” as in using a bridge to ford a stream.” Green Tara is pictured rising from her Lotus couch, one foot in the world, ready to help, actively involved in the alleviation of misery in the world. Her name means what the modern Greek word metaphor means: a vehicle for carrying over, like a dolly that you use to move furniture from one place to another. Similarly, linguistic metaphors don’t name the things they denote, they only transport meaning and by transporting make those things, those concepts, accessible.
Tara moves from one place to another, transports compassion from its abstract realm to the material realm, putting it into action. A metaphor reaches out, spans a gap and, by connecting things together, makes the immaterial concrete, graspable.
I have been crying.
Crying releases stress and consoles the heart, they say. For sure, you can’t pretend you’re not suffering or that you don’t need to be loved when you’re weeping. But you don’t necessarily feel better afterwards. You feel wrung out, over-infused with intensity, exhausted. It is good if you can keep laughing. I often laugh after or while crying. Joy and sorrow aren’t exactly opposed emotions. When you cry you feel vulnerable, and if you’re at all kind to yourself you will give yourself some slack. Embrace your suffering with all the love that you would bestow on anyone else you love.
Having taken this advice seriously, I can now announce:
Hey! I just realized that I am HOME.
I’m in my house. Today is my father’s birthday. I have a gorgeous, large sepia-toned photograph of him in his prime, when he was still handsome. I’m at home in my father. My father has come to rest at home in me.
I ADORED my father, and also had a lot of trouble getting along with him. Many regrets. Still, I’m hereby honoring, toasting, him, thanking him for all that he gave me, for the skiing lessons, the encouragement, for never saying that I couldn’t do anything I wanted to because I was a girl.
Awesome job, Dad. And I’m not talking about the money, even though you thought that was all anyone cared about. I cared about you.
Switching away to JOY!! I have everything I need right here. My son is spending the night at his girlfriend’s house and
I am alone in my own private space for the first time in 2 months.
The bathroom is clean, the toilet flushes without running all over the floor, the shower runs hot and cold, no one is watching me come and go, and I have air conditioning. I can eat all the salad and fruit I want without getting diarrhea and I am taking food out of my own refrigerator in my kitchen with its ancient linoleum floors. I can dance around naked if I please. It is a delightful freedom. I want to call up my friend J not to gloat but to share with her a delicious independence that she will best understand.
If you cannot find a companion who is better than or like yourself
You should make your way steadily, alone.
In the childish there is no companionship.
From the 5th chapter of the Dhammapada
The Dhammapada, or “Verses on the Way,” is a redaction of the Buddha’s teachings. By “childish” the speaker, allegedly the Buddha, means something more expansive that the behavior and mentality that we expect from children. He means people who, for whatever set of reasons, have not yet grown to maturity in their thought or feelings, who have not yet become “skillful.”
Later on the Dhammapada reads,
If one cannot find a mature friend,
a companion who is wise, living productively,
let him go alone,
like a king abandoning conquered land,
like an Elephant in the forest.
A life of solitude is better–
There is no companionship with a childish person.
Let one go alone and do no damage,
Like an elephant in the forest.
It is better to restrain the mind alone than to be restrained by someone else, better to conquer one’s own passions than to live tamed by someone else. Like an elephant, the wise wayfarer governs her or his own passions, endures the insults and arrows inflicted by others. The wise practitioner does not go mad with rage because she or he keeps watch over thoughts and emotions. She or he finds comfort in friends and in “contentment with whatever is.”
If you are reading Buddhist scriptures you are probably trying to wake up, to see more clearly, to understand the world better than you have so far. You are trying to find your way out of the trance of reactivity, of emotional distress that leads to behaviors you later regret. You know that dukkha, pain, is inevitable. You know that don’t need to make it worse by beating yourself up about it. And yet you do fall back into the trance, all the time, and you do occasionally wake up to yourself beating yourself up. So you keep to the path, watch over your mind, and look for people who are more or as skillful at this practice of discipline.
Have you ever been on a trek or a long hike with a really childish person? Not a really young person. Young people can be very old, very mature, very good company. But I mean someone who is continuously grasping for attention, for reassurance, someone who boasts and struts or whines and manipulates or has to fill every bit of quiet with incessant jabber? After a short while you begin to feel enervated, tired, impatient. You grit your teeth, you endure. You are not looking about you. Your attention becomes very small, very focused on the source of irritation. The Buddha says, “be compassionate to and with this person but do not expect much from them. Walk steadily on.”
These are not the Buddha’s words. I’m paraphrasing the lines above, which differ a lot from the classic masculine stiff-upper-lip mantras that Tupac Shakur parodies in his “Hold On.”
Hold On, Be Strong,
When it’s on, it’s on.
The same speaker who claims that he screwed up by smoking pot but now knows what’s “going on out there” and that “god don’t like ugly,” and that “you got to stand strong,” is getting high at the beginning of the song. Thus everything he says has a double meaning. He plays on the meaning of the word “strong” by identifying it with the aggressively self-defensive stance of the “black male” and the “thug for life.” Tupac is not endorsing this thuggish identity, he’s putting it down. He’s also saying that it’s not enough to “hold on” and “be strong,” to stoically endure without admitting to pain. He’s also not campaigning against weed. He’s observing that we are all vulnerable, we are all suffering, and we might want to think twice about the directive to suck it up and bear it. We might want to show a little compassion to our own suffering, which will help us to acknowledge others’ suffering, and jolt us out of the fatal trance of the ego.
So when it comes round, Tupac’s refrain, “Hold on, Be strong” means exactly the opposite of what the stoned speaker says it means. Tupac challenges the whole “black-man-as victim-of-the white-system” and asserts, “be strong” and “hold on” as a message that is far more complicated that its overt explication. He urges his auditors to have faith in themselves as agents of positive change. The Buddha says, “hang in there, endure your suffering, but do not discount it; acknowledge your reality, your dukkha” Tupac says something similar. Be strong, but not in the rigid, hyper-masculine manner.
To compare dukkha, human suffering, to a simplistic victim/oppressor mode of thought is to get stuck in rigid black/white ways of understanding reality. You can’t simply deny it or refuse to talk about it. And there is no point in going around blaming your ex for having hurt you, attacking defensively, lashing out in retribution. It solves nothing and it’s childish.
No one is coming to save you except yourself. It’s not a matter of belief, of abstract faith, but rather of action, of wise movement, of practice, of allowing Tara/Avalokitesvara to step off the virtual lotus of heavenly bliss into the world of suffering. Step off your high horse of militant self-denial into your suffering heart, and find contentment in the movement, in the metaphor. Acknowledge your pain and be with yourself, alone, like an elephant in the forest. Thus you can
If I had known how difficult the journey was going to be, I never would have attempted it. Getting up here to this enormous mountaintop shrine to the Buddha took all my energy. I started out in the heat of mid-morning, with plenty of water and a good breakfast in my stomach, on a walk that the guidebook said would take two to three hours. I followed the water’s edge from the center of the tourist strip past the rental boats and scrubby jewelry vendors, past the fancy lakeside restaurants, across a grassy area and over a brick wall where I pointed out a beautiful blue butterfly to a little boy whose parents were bathing below. I followed a footpath through weeds, across a parking lot for an expensive hotel that you had to take a ferry to, and through a gate to an abandoned park with a brick wall around it. I headed towards some peaked red roofs atop crumbling brick buildings, which turned out to be ancient temple grounds, four or five smaller shrines set around a larger mandir dedicated to Shiva.
There I met a young priest, who invited me into the sacred area where non-Hindus almost never get to go. He also opened up the doors to a smaller temple to Durga, the great mother goddess, whom among the thousands of Hindu deities I have adopted as my personal protectress. The priest told me it was too far to walk to the Buddhist Stupa that I had set out to visit, and that it would be best to take a boat across the lake to the beginning of the path through the forest. I turned around and looked for a boat. When I found out how much it was going to cost to cross, and also that the boatman had elected himself my personal tour guide, whether I wanted him or not, I reversed course and headed through the temple grounds again.
I decided to believe the guidebook, not the priest, since like all Nepali men he assumed that western women are unable to discern what is best for them, and this attitude pissed me off. But before heading out, I asked him for tika, which he happily gave me, apologizing for not having offered it before. This red mark on my forehead brought me good luck and guidance, as you shall hear.
I crossed a trash-filled stream on a metal suspension bridge. Boys stood knee-deep, fishing, in the filthy water. The path took me around the lake behind a plump, short woman who shielded herself from the burning sun with a purple umbrella. I had been walking slowly to conserve energy and to stay cool. Even so, I caught up with the woman pretty quickly, and greeted her as I passed: “Namaste.”
Namaste means, “the divine beauty in me greets the divine beauty in you.” This is the common greeting, which all Nepalis use to say hello and, sometimes, goodbye. Strangers on the street do not routinely exchange it the way Californians say, “Hello, how are you,” as they pass one another without waiting for a reply. But whenever one meets eyes it is polite to say hello and common to hold up one’s hands in prayer as one does so. If someone greets you with hands in prayer and you do not return the gesture, it is considered very bad manners and bad luck. I love this greeting! Namaste: The divine in me salutes the divine in you! It feels like the most natural and honest expression of my heart, as well as the most appropriate way for human beings to greet one another. Every one of us inherently good and capable of remembering and cultivating the goodness in ourselves.
In this spirit, then, I saluted the woman with the purple umbrella, who returned my salute and then quickened her pace to keep up with me. She was inquisitive. “Where are you from?” She asked. “Do you like Nepal?” “How long have you been here?” “How long will you stay?” “Where are your friends?” she demanded, along with a number of other questions that I didn’t understand. I did my best to converse but lapsed, with apologies, again and again into frustrated silence. I showed her the tika on my forehead, which she found so astonishing and wonderful that she insisted that she photograph me immediately. She managed to hail another woman, sitting in the shade in a walled garden behind a gateway that proclaimed, “No unauthorized persons may enter.” The woman with the umbrella, now my fast friend, convinced the other woman to allow us into the shade and to take a photograph of us together. As soon as she handed her phone to the woman, my new friend threw her arms around me. I obligingly put my arm around her, and smiled. I was happy to have pleased her so much, if also somewhat bowled over by her enthusiastic affection.
After the photo, my admirer walked along in the same direction, still gabbing away at me, even though it was clear that I understood very little. I asked her where she was going, and she said that she was heading somewhere off to the left, to her home in the New Road. My path took me to the right, and I expected her to leave me at any moment. She chattered away at me in Nepali using that lovely up lilting “enah!” at the end of her sentences, which is both a question and command. I had no idea what she meant but she sounded friendly and content. I kept expecting her to break away, but she seemed determined to direct me. Finally I stammered out something like, “I am strong and okay. You are going with me? I can go alone.” She just grabbed my arm firmly and pushed me further down the road. The one word I recognized again and again in her lectures to me was “Saathi,” or “friend.” I asked her if she thought it was dangerous to go to the Stupa alone. The guidebook had warned travelers not to go through the rain forest without a group, because robbers were known to prey upon tourists there. I had deliberately left my wallet at home, bringing only enough cash to get a little food and a boat back, and this I had hidden well in my backpack. I also happen to be as tall if not taller than most Nepali men, and relatively brave or foolhardy, and thought I would be fine. She explained that she was taking me on an alternate route, one that would be safer although longer. We passed a sign at the trailhead of a path leading straight up through the forest. It said in large, bold letters: IT IS BEST TO TRAVEL IN GROUPS.
I began to worry about her health. It was indeed very hot and although she was sturdily built, she did not have the most appropriate walking shoes on. Then again, the Nepalis never do and they go great distances in flip-flops that tear my feet to shreds. Still, I felt anxious about the debt that I was building up to her as well as the danger she seemed to determined to protect me from. A couple of 10- or 12-year old boys approached us from behind, and I stepped aside to let them pass, wondering if these were the sorts of robbers I should look out for. To my surprise, they very cheerfully and sympathetically began to fire questions at me in English. This was a relief after the past 45 minutes of language breakdown, and I asked them to please tell the wonderful woman with the purple umbrella that I appreciated her help very much, but did not expect her to take me all the way to the Stupa. They spoke a few words to one another and she agreed to leave me there, with the boys. Once again she threw her arms around me, this time kissing me on both cheeks, in the French fashion. Then she waddled home as the boys announced that they would take me through the forest.
They said that they were 12 years old and cousins, who lived in a nearby village. They pointed to their mothers working in the rice fields as we passed. They also said that they were in school, but did not know for how many more years they would attend since their parents were poor farmers. To make extra money, they said, they guided tourists through the forest on the way to the Stupa. They walked very quickly without any effort and I kept up with them until the path got and stayed very steep. One of them was very sweet and honest, while the other, taller one had already learned to manipulate and take advantage of others. After a while they seemed to be two angels, or demons, into whose hands I had unwittingly delivered myself. The nicer one wanted to know exactly how much money I would give them for guiding them. I refused to answer this question until we had reached the summit, partly because I was afraid that they would abandon me for a wrong answer in what seemed increasingly like a jungle. Footpaths led off in every direction, and there were no signs indicating the way to the stupa. The mosquitoes swarmed and bit mercilessly, and other, tinier, black bugs attached themselves to my legs and arms. To make things worse, the cheap sandals I had bought to replace the Chakos that someone stole from me fell apart. The bottom sole sheared away and one of the straps broke, so I had to walk carefully.
We climbed for an hour or two. My heart began to thud heavily against my chest, partly because I had tried to keep up with the boys, who climbed like mountain goats, instead of pacing myself for the journey. That would have been hard to do, actually, since I had no idea for how long we would be walking, or how steep the path would be. Still, because I had gotten winded early on, I had to stop often. I couldn’t sit down to rest, because leeches lurked under the leaves on jungle-forest floor and I didn’t want to invite any more insects to crawl up my legs.
I began to flag. I had rationed my water sensibly but had not brought any candy or nuts for energy. Just before we reached the summit, I had to force myself to lift each heavy foot, one after another, and also had to keep reminding myself not to rest my hands on my hips. Finally we reached a little shop at a crest of the mountain, from which we could see all of Pokhara as well as the stupa, still a half-hour’s walk up another steep hill. I threw myself into a chair and drank most of the liter of the water I bought before the shopkeeper could return my change to me. I also bought the kids, who had complained that they were hungry, some coke and chips. I also had a coke myself, just to get some sugar into my bloodstream. I would not have made the final trek without it.
I gave the boys 110 rupees each, all I could afford while keeping just enough to get back by boat at the bottom of the hill. I didn’t know where that path was, but the boys said that someone could show me as they said goodbye. All seemed well until the taller, ruder boy called after me and demanded more money. “I gave you all that I could,” I said and shrugged off his parting curse.
I limped up to the Stupa under a sweltering sun. The plaque at its base, where you are asked to remove your shoes, stated that it had been built by a Japanese Buddhist sect whose mission was to spread Buddhism and peace by erecting 100 peace pagodas in as many countries around the world. There were very few visitors, just a few Nepali couples and another pair who looked Dutch. One of the Nepali couples, who had unusually delicate features, asked me to take so many photos of them with their phone that I worked up the courage to ask them if I could photograph them with my camera. I liked the gentleness of their movements and the way that they looked at each other, obviously very much in love.
There were also a few groundskeepers. Typically, the man lounged in the shade while the woman labored under the sun, which sweltered above. All the clouds had gathered around the edge of the lake, obscuring the Himalayas, as they usually do at that time of day in the summer time. I hadn’t come for the view, but rather to see the pagoda and to have a bit of a walk. I hadn’t expected it to be a trek or an adventure. The pain and uncertainty I suffered getting up here was worth it. The four great golden statues and murals, which look off in the four directions, preach peace, enlightenment, love, and universal harmony.
I am now sitting at the doorway of a Japanese Buddhist temple, which is set on the steep hill just below the Peace Pagoda. The doors are locked but I can see through the screens. The interior is very different, quite a bit more subdued, than the Nepali and Tibetan temples I have seen. There are no chairs or benches outside here, just as at the stupa, so I am sitting on the steps. There are ants and mosquitoes but none of the biting bugs that attacked me in the forest. This friendly dog passing by probably has fleas, so I will not pet him.
I would like very much to write a letter to Tim, who has been on my mind for so much of this trip to Pokhara. I can’t resolve the conflicting and violent emotions that beset me, It is always this way with a breakup. One belabors the end on and on without reaching any satisfactory understanding. Usually the party who makes the break is more eager to stop talking about it, while the party caught off guard cannot discuss the problem enough. The only solution, which comes sooner or later, is to drop it.
I would like to be friends with him. Certainly what is most terrible and devastating about this breakup is that I seem to have lost my best friend. I feel very vulnerable and lost without his friendship, his support, his affection. I cannot deny that I was unhappy in our relationship, too, and that I felt we were not as suited to one another as I would have liked. Many of my needs were unmet.
Things changed. They do that. I gravitated to women friends who spoke freely and openly about their fears and anxieties and weaknesses. There were times when I felt slighted by him, and there were times when he felt slighted by me.
Still I believed in our bond, in our importance to one another. I loved the easy way we lived together. He comforted me.
My brain will not compute this reality. What seemed an oasis was a mirage.
Still, I sit here at the peace pagoda and wish to make peace with him in my heart. I do not know how to do it. How do I acknowledge my suffering, my wounds, and yet forgive? Why am I holding a grudge against him? What am I afraid of if I let give up this war? Isn’t the emotion at the bottom of my anger fear? What do I fear most of all?
That I am weak.
How do I now open conversation with him without attacking him? By sharing my own insecurities and vulnerabilities with him. Here is the letter I am sending:
Dearest Timothy, Namaste:
My last email was pretty angry, an outburst of the tumultuous emotions that I’ve been struggling to manage since we broke up. I act like I’m crazy when I am afraid and wanted to tell you about my fears as a way to open conversation between us again.
I am afraid that I will never again meet a man whom I love who also loves me.
I am afraid that no one will see the beauty and goodness that you saw in me, and that I will be alone for the rest of my life.
I am afraid that I will never have a family again, other than the wonderful family that I have with Brendan.
I am afraid that I will never again be included and accepted and desired and protected.
I fear I’ll have to find all strength, all courage, all support from within myself.
I fear I’ll get weak and dizzy and make mistakes and lose my way.
I fear again wandering in the terrible desert of loneliness.
I know that these are fears, not truths, and also that they come and go like waves on the sea. I know that these anxieties cloud my mind and make me say and do things that I regret. I also know that these fears are not my fault. That is, they well up in me because of my experiences and culture and inheritance. I meditate to survive them.
I am sorry for every hurtful word and gesture between us, for every breakdown of communication, every dissipation of the love we have for one another. Above all, I want to hold you in my life as the cherished and trusted friend that you have always been to me. When my feelings of loss, fear, and self-criticism drive me to lash out at you or to despair I forget that what I want most of all is peace and harmony within and between us. I want to face the crossroads we have come to squarely with compassion for both of us. I wish now to be strong, serene, and levelheaded, to know my own Buddha nature and to be a good and kind friend to you.
Most of all, I wish to let go of my attachment to you and hold onto my love for you. You have been a good friend to me, after all. You are taking care of my house, our dogs, my cat, and my yard. You are collecting my mail and scanning and sending important documents to me by email. You let me know how the animals are doing and actually treat the cat better than I ever did. You words since our breakup have always been kind and soft. All of these gestures show your love for me, and I feel incredibly lucky to have you in my life as a friend, still my best friend. Thank you.
I’ve been pretty sick for the past few days with a cold, an affliction that has beset many people in Pepsi-Cola. The Nepalis blame the rain. I blame the pollution, but who cares? I haven’t had much energy and my spirits have flagged. Lying around in bed, trying in vain to sleep while serenaded by carpenters cutting wood on electric saws, blacksmiths pounding metal rods, construction workers banging hammers, and, today, a brass band that struck up a cacophonous beat every 20 minutes or so, depressed me. I’ve had too much time to think about the breakup with Tim and have dwelled unhealthily on my weaknesses, failures, shortcomings, and losses. I started to get hold of myself when I realized that I was pre-menstrual and exhausted. What I needed was a a good, solid rest.
I took a nap and then meditated for about 30 minutes. What a relief it was to drop into stillness, into the what-is-ness of my life right now, right here and to stop fighting, stop resisting, stop expecting, and, best of all, stop finding fault with myself. It struck me that I was wasting time. There is no running away from the grief that I feel for what I have lost. I am riding that wave. But I can’t let it overwhelm me. I am so incredibly lucky, after all. Not only have I the opportunity to get to know truly unusual and generous human beings such as Kat and her best friend, Maria, I am also here with my son, my only child. I came here to Nepal in order to do something extraordinary with him. I have spent much of the past ten years mourning my distance from him, and here he is now, a young, intelligent, and engaging adult. We are bonding with one another but also with some of the same people during our travels. We will only be here for another four weeks. Every moment with this man, this man whom I love more than any man in the world, is a gift.
I took a harrowing cab-ride with Kat and a driver who seemed to delight in roaring directly toward pedestrians and stopping half an inch from their legs. He veered into oncoming traffic two-thirds of the way into town. Kat and I have both adopted the same strategy for managing our fear during these journeys. We talk briskly to one another and keep our eyes off the road ahead. We were meeting the group at a restaurant in Thamel, but Brendan and the crew had not yet arrived. My heart ached for him and swelled when he came swinging into view. I often worry about how I’ll do when he goes back to the States.
We all go to Pokhara tomorrow morning. The gang—Brendan, Joost, Peter, Angela, Maria, and maybe also Sophia–will meet at 6 am downstairs before heading together into Kathmandu for the “tourist bus,” a lot more expensive and allegedly more comfortable vehicle than the notoriously overcrowded and filthy regular busses. No farmer is likely to hop on board and deposit ten to fifteen half-dead chickens on my feet. Still the road itself is terrifyingly narrow, busy, and likely to be rained out in places. I am not looking forward to it. But I am happy to be going with good friends, my friends who are also Brendan’s friends. It will be heaven to escape Pepsi-Cola and the Kathmandu Valley for a few days. We all need the break.
Yesterday I visited an important Buddhist shrine, Namo or Naya Buddha, with two other volunteers, Shannon and Darima, and a group of Hindu women from the Women’s Center. I teach these Nepali women English, and they taught me more about Nepali spirituality than any book or article I’ve read. They don’t think of the Buddha as a god–he is “very different,” they said, from Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Saraswati, Durga, and the rest of the Hindu pantheon. They think of him as a “wise man.” He is buddamani, sage. So why do they venerate him with all the same emotional intensity as they bring to Ganesha and others? Because they are Nepali. The following are notes from my journal during the day. Headings have been added.
2 July 2011
I’m on a bus with Menuka, Devi, Susshila, Dilu, Ambica. They are taking Darina, the other teacher at the Women’s Center, and me somewhere towards Banepur to place called Namo Buddha. Shannon is coming along for the ride because tomorrow is her last day in Nepal and she and Darina have become very close. It is raining, of course. This bus looked suspicious decrepit when we boarded it. It did not seem to bother Dilu, who tends to take charge, that the driver’s head was halfway into the engine. The last bus ride that started out this way was supposed to take only one hour but actually took 6 because the bus kept breaking down.
I’m very pleased to be going anyway, since this is my first outing with my new Nepali friends. I love women but would not say, as I was about to say, that I like women better than men. Sometimes I trust them more, but not always and not finally.
As I get older, I find comfort in the similar experiences and challenges that women have and suffer because we are women: menstruation, childbirth, menopause, hormonal shifts, surges, stress, discrimination, catcalls on the streets, harassment, come-ons, rape, stares, the policing of the body, its clothing, gestures, and locations. Not all women will admit or talk about it. Some women are ashamed to be women; some deny and some repress.
Not all women become mothers, of course, or get to keep and take care of their children. But we all as women share the common lot of women. We all live in cultures that, to various extents and in different manners, insist that we dress, behave, and move through the world as women. Those who resist these codes are brave. If they survive and thrive, we celebrate them, but not generally during their lifetimes. What do we call the ones who defy their cultures’ policing of the body and mind and who then fall into poverty, isolation, and depression? weird, insane, unnatural, or evil.
We’re climbing through endless terraces of rice fields doted with brick houses. Many of the houses are habitable only on the ground floors. These send up aspiring columns of brick or concrete that bristle with steel reinforcing rods. Many roofs in the city are flat, which is useful for hanging laundry or creating gardens with potted plants. In the country, where there is room, roofs are peaked. Susshila touches her palms together as we pass a giant stature of Shiva, who holds his trident and looks benevolently over the valley. She says this place is called Sagar, or something like that. The bus strains up the mountain and we go through a small village where a butcher displays flayed carcasses of unidentifiable animals on stone counters and rocks.
The sun breaks out and I want to mention it, but have to look up the word, surya, for sun. Suriya the sun-god is one of the oldest Indo-European deities, along with Chandra, the moon, Indra (war, storms and rain), and Agni (fire). My book is wrong about the word for sunny. Gamlagyeko is the correct term. It is not yet gamlageko but the surya has come out.
I see women bent under loads of bricks carried with a forehead strap, dark-skinned children standing in dirt lanes between fields, corn in patches everwhere. Women wearing red headcloths and ragged red saris are planting rice in the rain. A butcher shaves the hair and hooves off of a headless goat. A shirtless man washes himself by a concrete cylinder. Now we are arriving in a larger town, driving down a broad street bordered by 4 and 5 story buildings. Dogs forage in spread-out mounds of garbage lining the road. This is Banepa.
We have boarded a crowded bus. The Nepalis sit three to two seats and push towards the back, where all the spots are claimed. Darina and Shannon are complaining that the trip is taking too long. We have gotten on our third bus. The women told them that we were going to someplace far away. Menuka said that it will cost 1500 rupees to get into Namo Buddha, and this has really set Shannon and Darina off. They say, “I’m not paying that,” and want to go home. Darina is sick with a bad case of gastrointestinal dis-ease. Shannon has been traveling too long and longs to get back to the States and her boyfriend. Darina understands that the women have high hopes for this journey and doesn’t want to disappoint them, but she looks miserable.
At least she has a seat. Ambica is sitting on Susshila’s lap. The rest of us are standing and have been standing for almost an hour. Once we get going we will travel for yet another hour, so we will be weary when we arrive. I don’t know where the bus driver is. Few of the Nepalis appear to be distressed or impatient. Ah, here is the driver. He has started the engine, but still we sit. At last we are leaving the filthy city of Banepur.
We climb through a village where I see a tall, thin, grey-haired woman in Tibetan dress, which is much plainer than the Hindu style. Tibetan women wear long dark skirts and vests over along-sleeved blouses, and tie horizontally striped aprons around their waists.
The family next to me has brought cucumber from a vendor outside. It looks and smells delicious. I dare not touch it.
We have been climbing a winding, steep dirt road and seem to have come up 2 or 3 thousand feet. But bus rolls into a deep pothole and everyone hears tearing metal. The driver cuts the engine and the ticket-takers jump out to inspect. No damage is found, and we crawl forward. I have finally found a seat, which I am sharing with Menuka. It is quite uncomfortable but better than standing.
We get off the bus at an inauspicious crossroads—a muddy track bordered by brick shacks. We head down a dirt trail and I am worried that Shannon and Darina are going to be very angry because there seems to be nothing here. Signs of civilization ahead include an outdoor restaurant where the chickens are pecking around the frying pans on top of the stove. A battered sign reads, in English: “We serve hygienic, fresh food here.” There is a somewhat clean squat toilet with a door. After we use it a ragged boy with a Dalai Lama medallion appears from nowhere and shouts at us to pay the fee. Devi gives him 30 rupees. He still complains, so she throws some coins into his palm. We head down the hill and pass under prayer flags that lead us to a medium-sized stupa. This is Namobuddha, then. This is looking better.
Lunch: Amazing food: channa (round, red beans), roti, tharkari (curried vegetables), roti (fried bread) and chura (beaten rice), ladu (Nepali sweet cakes), and coffee-chocolate candy which we wash down with Mountain dew and sweet Nepali tea. We westerners cannot believe that they brought so much to eat, and are even more surprised and grateful when we find out that they have gotten up at 4:30 in the morning to cook it all. Menuka pays for the tea. Shannon says that she feels better and that she always gets cranky when she is hungry. Darina has a serious stomach ache and cannot eat much, but she soldiers on.
After we eat we visit the small stupa. I make an offering and light a butter candle, then round the shrine, spinning prayer wheels as I go. I join the Hindu women at the inner temple of the stupa, and offer prayers. Menuka pour a handful of rice into my hand and give me some marigolds and a white, silken scarf. I throw the rice around the Buddha inside and give the flowers and the scarf to the old man who tends the shrine. He tucks the blossoms into the statue’s knees, drapes the fabric around the Buddha’s neck, and then blesses me with a tika, a smear of red powder that he mixes in his hand, combines with some of the sacred orange smear on the Buddha, and then rubs into the crown of my head. He also pours holy water and flower petals into my hands, which Susshila shows me to throw over my forehead and hair.
We go to another shrine nearby, removing our shoes as we enter. Inside there are three relatively large Buddha statues and a frightening looking demon who looks like Bhairab, the angry manifestation of Shiva. I have no idea which bodhisattva this is, but I make an offering here, on impulse, and hope for strength to manage the stormy changes that seem to be coming my way.
End of journal. Continuation of the Story
We walk up a very steep hill bedecked with thousands of prayer flags. Many of the women fall behind and finally it is only Shannon and I puffing towards the summit, where we find expansive views of the valley in all directions and a line of Buddhist shrines. The red, yellow, blue and white flags festoon the top and lead down the hillside on a path that I am eager to follow. We wait for our companions. They, however, refuse to take another step, so I content myself with what purports to be the holiest spot at Namobuddha, the site where a young prince—who may have been the Buddha himself—encountered a starving tigress and her five cubs. She was about to devour a small child, but the prince offered his own flesh instead. His sacrifice transformed him into a boddhisattva. After he died, legend says, he was reincarnated into Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha himself. The Tibetans call this place Takmo Lujin (Tiger Body Gift). Namo Buddha means Hail to the Buddha.
I feel especially moved by this place, because tigers have always been my favorite animal. When I was little I had a giant Steiff tiger named Suzann who guarded me while I slept. She had glowing green eyes and was nearly as big as I was. I made up the story that she protected me so that I would not feel afraid of her. I say a sincere prayer to the tiger spirits of the mountain and move on with my friends, who have gone ahead.
From here we follow a narrow path up the spine of the mountain to another sacred spot, where we again give rice, flowers, silk, and money. Menuka seemed to have an endless supply of scarves. Susshila, the holdest and most overtly religious of the group, brings out her chrome offering bowl, her waxed wicks, and incense, as she does at every holy spot. She circulates the burning flame and smoke three times over the sanctuary while murmuring a prayer. Menuka waves the heat and light from the butter lamps over her head. All the women pay their respects by raising their hands to their foreheads, setting money, and pouring rice into the center of the shrine. Before we enter, we walk clockwise around it turning prayer wheels. I join their venerations out of curiosity as well as spiritual need. Shannon and Darina stand apart and watch.
We still have not reached the highlight of our journey. a spectacularly beautiful, enormous, and seemingly brand-new monastery, the Thrangu-Tashi Yangste Gonpa, which at first glance looks like an expensive resort hotel.
The Tibetans have thrived in Nepal and they like to spend their wealth on monasteries. Inside we find a large and elaborately painted rectangular passageway with columns decorated with tiger heads and lotus flowers.
We remove our shoes and follow a young monk up to golden doors, and then wait with him for an older monk, who opens the great doors to the great hall, drawing a gasp from all of us. Inside we see a huge, vaulted temple with six huge, golden Buddhas serenely staring down over rows and rows of prayer benches, silken banners, drums, and exploded thangka-like wall paintings, some of which are still in process. There is the customary large photograph of the Dalai lama on the central dais, where we leave more rice, scarves, bills, and prayers. We linger for a long time but not long enough for me. As we leave monks begin to arrive and to sound cymbals, drums, and chants.
Back downstairs in the open passageway that runs beneath the temple, I copy out the following text from a newspaper entitled “The Voice of the Young Monks” and dated July 2011:
Today we collectively are facing so many environmental crises such as global warning, natural disasters, extinction of animals, population growth…
Now we cannot simply rely on current economical and political systems to solve the problem, because to a large extent they themselves are the problem. The critical element of our problem is lack of awareness, which brings us to Buddhism.
Buddhism offers a precise solution to the environmental crisis by showing the method of cutting the self [off] from clinging. The delusions of a separate self, which does not exist and is empty in nature, still because of which we become obsessed with things that we hope will give us control over situations, especially the competition for power, sex, and fame.
The syntax gets a little convoluted there at the end, but the message is clear enough.
I think all of us have been renewed by our visit to Namo Buddha. I feel more at peace with myself than in a long time. It has been a welcome escape from the tensions of the VSN project, which have been particularly taxing lately.
Here the journal ends.
Returning home through the language haze
The journey back to Pepsi-Cola was so arduous, the buses so crowded and steamy, that we decided to walk the last short leg home. This turned out to be more difficult for some of the women than they had expected. Shannon and Darina, anxious to get home, sped ahead and were soon lost in the mud, dust, cows, motorbikes, vendors, bicycles, dogs, and mayhem of the busy road. I also longed to rush towards my room, but remained with my hosts, who had taken us so far to see wonderful sights. I had happily spent most of the day with them anyway, listening to their chattering, picking up words were I could, and building my vocabulary. While Darina and Shannon and spent most of the day talking to each other, I had made the effort to speak to my friends in their own language. They were not very good students of English, after all, and if I was going to get to know them I would have to do it in Nepali. But this long, voluntary language lesson had exhausted me, and I was eager to retreat and recoup.
To my dismay, Ambica lived on the road we were walking along and invited everyone in for cold drinks. It would have been rude to refuse, so I spent yet another hour in a language haze, following the women’s tone and facial expressions more than what they said.
Dogs and Men
Ambica’s son has a beautiful German Shepherd puppy, with whom I fell in love. The son—I never did catch his name—said he was going to get rid of him because the dog does not bark and is too obedient. To my mind, this made the dog perfect, but the son wanted an animal to scare unwanted visitors. He spoke pretty good English and launched a barrage of questions at me, which I was glad to escape. He insisted that I come back again soon and often, to see the new, better dog. I demurred and explained that Americans do not like to drop in on people without warning. Throughout this interchange his mother, Ambica, said nothing. She remained silent not only because her English is weak, but also because in Nepal women have very little say about what their sons do. The husband rules the house and in his absence, the eldest or only son takes over as lord.
Nepali women are strong, like women everywhere, but they use their strength to endure and cooperate with their subordination, instead of resisting it. If they work a full-time job, they come home to cook, clean and cater to the men in their families. A good wife presses her forehead to her husband’s feet. She marries a man from a collection of suitors from her caste whom her parents have selected. Then she moves into her husband’s family and never return to her mother’s house again.
Very slowly, I am learning about how women live within these strictures. One of the women at the center, for example, is divorced. But she tells everyone else that she is married, because even these seeming friends of hers would shun her if they found out the truth.
Finally it was time to go. Susshila split off a few steps down the road, and Dilu and Menuka accompanied me to Sugandha’s house, where I gratefully collapsed, finally alone, onto my bed.
All in all it was a very good day—ramaylo cha—as I learned to say. I made better friends with the women from the center as well as with myself. We had made a pilgrimage together and it was very good. Hail to the Buddha and to Nepali women!
For my birthday I walked to Bouda, where there is an enormous stupa sacred to Buddhist everywhere.
I went over the hill, asking directions along the way, and ended up on a muddy road that took me to the Bagwati river, which flows through Pashupatinath to the Ganges. I got lost temporarily, but found my way, through mud, to the bridge and into the outskirts of Kathmandu on streets that grew steadily less muddy and more congested, until I was on a busy four=laned street jammed with pedestrians, three-wheelers, buses, taxis, and motorcycles. Soon I was threading my way through lanes packed with monasteries, butter lamps, drums, singing bowls, prayer beads, and tourist souvenirs.
The stupa was much more crowded than the time I had been there before—see the photos below—and that made it easier to join in the stream of pilgrims and faithful ones walking around. There were only one or two other Westerners. I intended to go three times.
There was a heavy bell tolling, somewhat irregularly. I saw where it was coming from when I rounded the stupa. There was a string of people waiting in line to make an offering and ring the bell, whose vibration registers the collective Buddhist hope that everyone will soon become enlightened and all war will cease forever. I was the only westerner in line, and worried that they’d throw me out of it, as usually happens at Hindu temples. Buddhists are far more welcoming, however, and I was allowed to approach and pull the rope. From watching others in front of me I learned to touch my hands and forehead to the vibrating bell, bow, sign Namaste, and send my sound into the universe. It was an intensely beautiful and emotional experience.
The walk to and from was arduous because of the mud, the filth along the way, and the blisters on my feet.
Later that night I went to an Internations expats-living-in-Kathmandu party, but found it pretty dull.