Meditatation, Random

Noisy pujas across the way

Here at Pullahari the buildings that house the Three-Year Retreat participants are just uphill from the buildings where westerners stay while studying in the Rigpe Dorje Programme.  The three-year retreat is a noisy operation, with pujas starting around 4:30am and often running late into the night.  Each puja has its own melodies, instruments, drum sequences and often a dedicated time of day, so someone who’s familiar with the practices can tell what’s going on in there just by deciphering the ritual noises that echo out their windows.

The other night heavy clouds of strange-smelling smoke wafted out of the vicinity of the retreat buildings.  I assume they were doing some sort of puja that involves dumping so much stuff on a bonfire that it simply smolders for hours.

At the moment, all of the retreatants are alone in their rooms doing chöd practice.  Imagine the sound of 34 men each proceeding – with no synchronicity whatsoever – through cycles of chanting, ringing bells and rattling two-sided hand drums the size of inside-out melons.  Periodically the air is pierced by the slow, shrill howl of a kangling (tib. ཀང་རླིང་), which is a horn made from human thigh bone.

This feels like home.  Some people feel relief at the sound of urban flow.  Some sigh at the sound of song birds.  Others drop their guard when they smell manure wafting across grassy fields.  Likewise, I feel profoundly at ease when I hear serious meditators doing noisy pujas across the way.

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Meditatation, Random

Pullahari: On the mountain above Kathmandu

Stupa at Boudhanath

Stupa at Boudhanath

For the next three months I’m living in Kathmandu, Nepal at a Tibetan Monastery called Pullahari.  In the weeks leading up to my departure from the US, when people asked me where I was going I would answer “About an hour walk uphill from the big famous stupa with the Buddha eyes.”  It felt right to place myself in human-scale relation to a near-mythical Buddhist landmark rather than to simply rattle off the names of a city & country on a subcontinent that most of my friends have never visited.  In terms of my decision to come here and the activities that I’ll be immersed in while here, it’s the social, intellectual and metaphorical contexts of this place that relevant.  The geography of nation-states is mainly an afterthought.

In both Tibetan and Indian religions, there are traditions that view the Indian subcontinent itself as a holy entity.  For centuries, people have done pilgrimage to 24 spots spread across the continent that correspond to chakras on a body (metaphorically — it’s not like the feet are in the south and the head is in the north.).  Some Hindus view these as corresponding to the body of Shiva while Tibetans associate them with the body of Chakrasamvara — a yidam (tib. ཡི་དམ་), or representation of mind’s enlightened nature and its capacity to act skillfully for the benefit of beings.  Whether Shiva, Chakrasamvara, or something else, the main thing to know is that the physical place is seen as being spiritually alive in ways that are almost completely foreign to anyone living in the modern post-industrial world.  I point this out because, while the political geography of this place seems almost irrelevant to my current sabbatical, the physical place itself naturally plays a prominent role.

Boudhanath area in a haze

Boudhanath area in a haze

The city of Kathmandu sprawls through the northern two thirds of Kathmandu Valley.  The lowest point in the valley is roughly 1500m (4,000 ft) above sea level and is surrounded by peaks that are about 2000m-2600m (6,500-8,000 ft).  Beyond those peaks are the actual snow-covered mountains, ranging from 3.500-6.000m+ (10,000-18,000ft+).  The part of the city that was once the ancient kingdom of Kathmandu occupies the northern half of the valley.  It’s flanked by two prominent hills, each with an ancient giant stupa on it.  In the west is Swayambunath, which is sometimes called the “wrathful” stupa.  In the east is Boudhanath, which is the stupa you’ve probably seen on postcards, in storybooks, and in ads for trekking adventures.

There’s a photo of Boudhanath in the early 1970s that gives you a sense of how much has changed in the past 40 years.  It shows the stupa and a few buildings surrounding it.  Beyond that, there are only fields and the occasional monastery.  Now, there’s barely a field to be found between Boudha and the mountains that ring the valley.  What fields remain stand out as emerald terraces, worked using agricultural methods that have been stable for generations.

Green Fields on Edge of Kathmandu Valley north of Kopan District

Edge of Kathmandu Valley north of Kopan District

If you face northeast at Boudhanath with the stupa at your back and walk uphill for roughly half an hour, you’ll find yourself on a hillside below Kopan Monastery, main seat of Lama Zopa Rinpoche and the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition.  Continue around the bend and up the hillside and you will arrive at Pullahari, seat of His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and the location of Rigpe Dorje Institute.

For the past 15 years or so, Pullahari has hosted a 3-month long study program for westerners, often referred to as “the winter programme”.  It was initially started by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche as a way to train his students to be skillful translators of the meaning contained in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.  Khenpo Tsultrim is famous for many things and I would love to write about all of them.  For now, suffice it to say that he is one of the greatest living masters of the Kagyu Lineage, a true wandering yogi, and also one of the top scholars of the Kagyu Lineage.  He’s particularly famous for his presentation of madhyamika prasangika (Middle Way Consequence School) according to the Shentong view.  The best place to find more information on Tibetan Buddhist philosophy as presented by Khenpo Tsultrim is in his book Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, which was arranged and edited by Shenpen Hookam.

Students settling into class at Rigpe Dorje Institute

Students settling into class at Rigpe Dorje Institute

Every year, the structure of the Rigpe Dorje winter programme at Pullahari is the same – two months of intensive study focused on Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language, followed by a week-long break and then a two-week meditation retreat focused on that year’s philosophical content.  In the past, they structured the curriculum to work through one chapter of Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara each year, culminating with the 9th chapter on precise knowledge (tib. ཤེས་པ་ shepa).  Recently they’ve switched to a 5-year cycle that instead works more explicitly through the various historical Buddhist philosophical schools, but still climaxes in year 4 (that’s this year) with Shantideva’s presentation of (rangtong) madhyamika prasangika in chapter 9 of bodhicharyavatara and then concludes in year 5 with a presentation of Mahamudra and the shentong view.

Pullahari is a beautiful place full of flowers, spectacular traditional Buddhist art, wonderful architecture, monks chanting pujas, and scholars scrutinizing the patterns of mind.  Situated on a mountain top above Boudhanath and Kathmandu, it has expansive views on three sides.  It’s the ideal environment for combining meditation with scholarly discipline.  Hopefully I will have the opportunity to write more about this magical place and share more of the photos I’ve taken.

Monks sweeping Pullahari Shrine Hall at sunrise

Monks sweeping Pullahari Shrine Hall at sunrise

5th floor Hallway of shrine hall at Pullahari

5th floor Hallway of shrine hall at Pullahari

In 1999, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche composed a song about Pullahari.  We sing an english rendition of it every morning at the opening of the first class.

In Pullahari, with its good clean earth,
Its water so sparkling clean and its clean fresh air,
Here in the solitude of this secluded place,
With its spacious scenery and relaxing view,
To listen and reflect on the Teachings here,
In Pullahari, what a lucky star!

View to the west from roof of Pullahari shrine hall.

View to the west from roof of Pullahari shrine hall.

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Meditatation

Daybreak of the Mind – Netflix on hold, thinking about Mud and Happiness

I cancelled my Netflix subscription yesterday. It was possibly one of the best favors I’ve done for myself all year. Don’t get me wrong; I love Netflix and I definitely love films, but I’m an addict and I needed to learn to say no. We live in a spectacularly diverse and engaging information-rich world. I couldn’t justify spending any more time or energy on passive consumption.

In recent months I’ve been pondering a definite pattern in my life — that I just don’t pay attention to the news. This is not to say that I am ignorant of current events; rather, I simply seek my information elsewhere and I relate to it in a peculiar way. If I want to know more about the debate on health care reform, I seek out something like the recent episode of EconTalk: Brady on Health Care Reform, Public Opinion, and Party Politics. I don’t read the latest articles about the current state of the machinations around it. If anything, I consistently ignore them.

I feel particular familiarity with this quote from Pico Iyer:

… and when I return to the United States every three months or so and pick up a newspaper, I find I haven’t missed much at all.

This quote, which comes from a wonderful, refreshing post about The Joy of Less on the NY Times Happy Days blog, was tacked onto the tail end of an unrelated post by Garrick Van Buren. To my delight, Garrick has been boldly predicting that the Dow will hit 10k by Labor Day, but my favorite one of his current projects is Kernest, a repository of free and commercial web-embeddable font faces. He writes about that development effort on the Kernest blog.

Pico Iyer’s post led me to the poignant Living with Less project on the NY Times website, which in turn proffered a tweet about a Cob House Built For Less Than $3,000 which was featured on treehugger. Ah, mud.

Once, while on pilgrimage in Bodhgaya, India, I was pulled aside by one of the local kids who wanted to show me his home. It was clear that he was working; his intention was to evoke pity and walk away with a couple Rupies. Instead of pity I felt a twinge of admiration upon seeing his family’s simple mud hut, whose air was cool despite a hot day outside. The interior looked extremely similar to the cob house in the treehugger article, even down to the fire pit that also functions as a bench. I was fully aware of the fact that this kid had a really tough life — intermittent access to clean water, his mother stretching to feed her four children, and I’m sure a mud hut is no fun during a monsoon. Despite this, for a moment the aesthete in me managed to fix its tunnel vision on the minutiae of organic forms, functional design, and perceived simplicity. I was jealous. The self-cherishing mind is a quizzical and depressingly short-sighted thing.

Witnessing the begging industry in India taught me new things about economics. After showing me his house, the boy asked me to buy some schoolbooks for himself and some of his friends. I did so, happily. The boys seemed genuinely glad to have the books. Later that day, a fellow traveller told me that the kids will sell the books back to the bookshops for a tenth of what I paid. It’s like Trickle Down Economics somehow applies itself irregardless of the starting point, as if wealth had a magnetic quality that sucks money and resources out of the hands of the poor and into the hands of the affluent. Some might point an accusatory finger at the institution of capitalism; I point the finger at selfish existence in general, which in turn implicates my own self-cherishing materialism.

As I understand it, there are three primary components to news — the facts, the interpretation, and (possibly most important) the emotional human element. At Thubten Choling, the Buddhist monastery and retreat center where I lived for 3 years, I experienced the human element of news from a perspective that fundamentally altered my outlook.

Every Saturday morning at Thubten Choling is dominated by the weekly tong chö (tibetan: སྟོང་ཆུ), which most of the monastery residents participate in along with a chorus of visitors from the near and far. After filling 1,000 bowls with saffron water, lighting 1,000 butterlamps, and setting up 300 bowls of rice, flowers and incense, everyone gathers in the shrine room to chant a beautiful set of prayers which they call the Monlam Choga (tibetan: སྨོན་ལམ་ཆོ་ག). Before beginning the 2 hours of chanting, which includes a traditional tea service, the chant leader reads aloud all of the prayers of everyone who has sponsored butterlamps. Now you have to understand that a lot of people sponsor the tong chö and the monastery takes this very seriously. It easily takes 15 or 20 minutes, sometimes longer to get through all of the prayers. For much of my time at the monastery, these prayers were my main conduit for news about the world.

People pray for all sorts of things — Please pray that my house will sell; Please pray that my Father’s pain will subside so he can die in peace; Please pray that my patients’ ailments and suffering will be decreased; Please pray that my horse will win the Kentucky Derby — and you get used to taking it all in, meeting each wish with love, compassion, and openness. After a few weeks I found myself waiting for updates while I sat there in the shrine room — Did her surgery go well?; Is his father still in pain? — compassion is a contagious thing. It’s in this mindset that we would be hit by things like pray for the victims of the SARS virus and their families; pray for everyone affected by Hurricane Katrina; pray for XXX celebrity who died this week; pray for everyone affected by XXX divorce. I can attest to the fact that this information hits the brain in a completely different way when your mind is settled into a mode of compassion and loving kindness. It’s irresistible – your heart goes out without qualifications or stipulations.

After growing accustomed to this way of encountering world events, I saw conventional news in a different light. Tabloids in the grocery store became tragic, almost painful, because of the alienation they invoke in all directions, but even the best news sources often fell short. I wandered further and further away from the traditional channels. After returning to the regular world, I found new ways of plugging in and slurping information from the world around me. I never fully went back, and to this day I’m especially perplexed by the sense of urgency that our culture has about news. Even in the technology industry, things actually happen pretty slowly but we choose to be frantic. When there is news, we scamper as if afraid to actually let it sink in, and when there isn’t news, we create it.

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Meditatation

>Mind the Beauty (Standard): A Gay Man’s Contemplation on Mindfulness and Beauty

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I’ve found that the actual experience of beauty in my life has only minimal coincidence with the explicit beauty standards that I’ve got floating around in my psyche. This truth is often clouded by the fact that I tend to confuse moments of beauty with moments of pride, desire or jealousy.
I think it’s good to be mindful of the times when you actually feel beautiful. You don’t even have to ask “Why do I feel beautiful right now?”,”Where is this feeling coming from?”, “What is this feeling?”, or even “Do I really feel beautiful?”. Instead, simply acknowledge it, and observe it. This way it ends up being a form of mindfulness practice.
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