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.


Brace for a deluge of posts

After nearly a month, I’ve finally sorted out predictable internet access here at Pullahari.  I’m still mostly ignoring my email, but now I’m able to put up all the blog posts I’ve been writing.  I’m also digging through my notebooks & posting the backlog of things that I wrote over the past few years but never published.  Barring further internet outages, there will be something new each day (almost) for the next few weeks.

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.

Musings & Adventures, Random

Parenting Done Right

From NPR News

DefCon Camp for Kids

If Alaetheia can pick the digital lock her father built, she will have earned the right to decide for herself how much time she spends online.

“Right now what we say to kids is, your privacy is as precious as your virginity, and once you give it away you can never get it back,” says Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer and blogger.


Who went down on who?

AS: Where are you gonna be during the Superbowl next weekend?

MZ: I’ll be in Seattle.  Flying out for a conference and to see friends.  I forgot about the Superbowl.

AS:  Aw.  You’re gonna miss it.  Madonna’s playing the halftime show.  I’m having a Madonna Superbowl dance party.

MZ:  Woah. Madonna is playing the Superbowl halftime show?  That’s fucking awesome.

AS:  I know!  I’m putting the game on the big TV upstairs and playing the complete anthology of Madonna’s videos downstairs.  We’re clearing all of the furniture out of the way so people can dance.  It will be amazing.

MZ:  How will you know when it’s halftime?

AS:   I’ll put the food upstairs so people will circulate.  Plus, I made sure to invite at least one straight man who actually wants to watch the game.

MZ:  Yeah.  Someone who can read football.

AS:   Exactly.

MZ:  “Like, what are all of those numbers at the bottom of the screen?”

AS:  “Who went down on who?  How many times?”

MZ:  Yeah, and how did I miss it?


Fruity Oaty Bar Commercial from Serenity

Found it!

Whenever I watch Serenity, I resolve to find a copy of the commercial that makes River go crazy in a bar and beat up a bunch of people. Clearly somebody made a complete commercial for use in the movie, so it must be floating around somewhere on the web. Right? Right.

The search proved more challenging than I expected. Wasn’t until I noticed one of the characters refer to “the oaty bar” that I managed to find it.

[reviewing security footage of the bar]
Mal: Go back further.
Mr Universe: No… [typing]
Mal: Uh…please?
Mr. Universe: Oh Mal. You’re very smart. Someone is talking to her. [focuses in on the commercial]
Wash: The Oaty Bar?
Mal: Subliminal… It’s a subliminal message broadwaved to trigger her.
A quick search for “oaty bar serentity” turned it up. I love it even more than I expected. Gotta get this in my iTunes.

Cymothoa exigua on my mind

Photo by Matthew R. Gilligan

Today I’ve been particularly fascinated with Cymothoa exigua, the tongue-eating parasite. I first heard about it in an episode of This American Life a couple weeks back where scientist Carl Zimmer mentions an isopod that eats and then takes the place of a fish’s tongue. A fleeting moment of googling turned up many images of giant deep sea isopods, which gave me the heebie jeebies. I didn’t think of them again until this morning when I my uncle, who works for the Texas Marine Fisheries as a marine biologist, sent this photo of a giant isopod that had hopped a ride on an oil rig’s deep sea ROV.

When I passed the image on to a friend who I was chatting with on skype, I mentioned the tongue eating isopods. He ran a quick search for “tongue eating isopod” and all intelligible conversation ended for a good five minutes. He just couldn’t get over the idea. Some of the lolcats photos are pretty funny too [1][2].

Eventually I succumbed to reading the wikipedia page and found a link to a video of a live Cymothoa exigua. Watch through to the final minute. It gets creepier, with a complete dearth of explanation.

The humor and curiosity hit a brick wall, however, when in my louse-inspired meanderings I stumbled across this crushing image labeled simply “fighting dog”. Fun’s over, stop in your tracks. It’s amazing how perspective can come crashing down in unexpected ways. Given where I found it, this photo has probably circled the web a few thousand times. It should keep circling until people start doing more to prevent such cruelty.

Apologies for the odd tangent at the end here.