At some point I might write something explaining what’s going on in these photos, but for now I’ll just share the photos themselves. The full set of nearly 300 photos is in an album on on Google Plus.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
06 January 2013
When I checked in at the Delta desk in Minneapolis airport yesterday morning, the woman at the counter pointed out that I’ve made a foolish mistake. I neglected to remember that, though Nepal allows you to purchase a tourist visa in the airport, India requires to to apply for one weeks in advance. In order to make the most of my 10 hour layover in Mumbai, I had reserved a room at a nearby hotel so I could shower & sleep. Alas, leaving the airport would require at least a Transit Visa. Instead of getting some sleep, I find myself with 10 hours to kill in the International Terminal of Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport (BOM).
I’ve heard horror stories of visa-less travelers being forced to spend hours sitting in stark waiting rooms until their connecting flight is ready to depart, but my experience transiting through the then-new airport in Delhi in 2010 was quite nice. The terminal there is spacious and relatively quiet despite the bustle and has large open spaces whose ceilings soar some four stories above the main floor. If memory serves, they even have a hotel attached to the terminal. Mumbai’s airport is older, so I steeled myself for the worst but held out a little hope that it would be at least moderately comfortable.
The International Terminal at BOM is like an upscale American strip mall built in the 1990s, with two primary differences : terrible air quality and squatting toilets. Its basically a single long, curved hallway 6 meters wide with 5 meter ceilings. Shops and cafes line both sides of the hall, and each end opens up into a sort of loop of shops & gates. A periodic stream of travelers gushes into the middle of the terminal at regular intervals, freshly arrived off incoming flights. Though the process of getting into the terminal from my arrival gate was both confused and confusing, the officials and security agents were, as a whole, friendly and willing to help when I greeted them with a smile and looked them in the eye.
I’ve ensconced myself in a vinyl armchair in the sitting area of “The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf” cafe opposite the security checkpoint. A latte here costs as much as they do at Starbucks and tastes like the lattes you get at strip malls in the US. I’ve got my eye on midnight lunch of Dhosa & Idli from “Idli.com”, right next to the much more popular “Pizza Hut Delivers” and KFC. I wonder if the KFC chickens are factory farmed here in India. They must be, no?
There’s a refreshing flow of travelers here. Most of them are in good spirits. Occasionally people stop and strike up a conversation. So far I’ve spoken with a guy from Sri Lanka, a guy from Sacramento, a middle-aged couple from the UK, and a young German guy wondering whether I had gotten wifi here (answer: you can get free wifi if you are able to send an SMS from your phone to the wifi operator — useful for domestic travelers, but stupid in an international air hub).
I have just survived one of the stupidest acts I have ever committed in a foreign country. This is precisely the sort of thing that my mother is trying to avoid ever hearing about when she says “With Matt, no news is good news.”
Dinner ran late. I was in Rome in the Travestere neighborhood. I could have rushed back across the river and over to the Colosseum Metro stop, but worried that I’d miss the last train. Having spent the day walking around the city, I had a pretty good sense of my map’s scale and it looked like walking back to the hotel wouldn’t be too far. I just had to take this big, wide, main road that happens to have park land on both sides. Possibly a sparsely populated, but there would be lots of cars and it would surely be well lit. No problem. Off I went. The early parts of those parks turned out to be pretty cool. I saw a couple lesser monuments and a big fountain.
I hit a snag when I reached the main stretch of that big, wide main road. You see, it sorta dropped into a groove in the ground with 20 foot walls on either side, with no shoulder on the road. At first, I thought it would only last through the next curve, so I barreled along. After 50 meters, I thought twice and doubled back to ask the opinion of two Carabinieri standing guard in front of some gates. They were charming and friendly. We fumbled through their limited English and my wacky Italio-spanish. They looked at my maps, I looked at my maps. One of them put on his glasses to read my map, which makes one think twice about the fact that he was wielding a loaded machine gun without his glasses on.
After some discussion, the Carabinieri concluded that the path I had chosen was my only way. I still had my doubts, but when two handsome guys with machine guns tell you ‘go for it’, it’s hard to turn back.
Let me tell you, there was no shoulder. At all. The road was really curvy too, so I was constantly on the invisible side of a bend in the road. Had this been a Saturday night, I certainly would be dead by now, splattered on the road by some drunken dude in a Fiat.
Worse, not only was there no shoulder, there was nothing along that road for hundreds of meters. Talk about a walking target. Over a hundred cars must have passed me. After thinking “what kind of idiot walks on this road? At night no less?”, any one of them could have then thought “huh, he’s got nothing but 20 foot walls on either side of him for hundreds of meters, and I’ve got a car/vespa. I could easily take advantage of him.” Well, actually, they probably thought something like “Ho potuto facilmente approfittare di lui.” (thanks google translate).
Eventually, I emerged on the other side of the Italian Road of Pedestrian Death Hazard. If you still don’t see why I have dubbed this one of the stupidest things I have ever done in a foreign country, let’s add a couple of facts to the list:
- It was drizzling. I failed to think about the road implications of that.
- I was wearing a dark sweater, dark shirt, and dark jeans (though I did consider taking my shirts off for sake of visibility.)
- I had just arrived in Rome for the first time ever merely 24 hours prior
- Did I mention that I was walking alone down a dimly lit, unpopulated roadway in Rome at midnight?
On the other hand, there was an old Roman aqueduct running along one side of the road. That was pretty cool.
07 March 2009
Catania, Sicily, Italy
Grand Hotel Baia Verde
Day two of traveling alone in Italy. Mainly I only notice that I’m alone at mealtime. Today I went to the Hotel’s centro benessere (Wellness Center) for a massage and a facial. I felt alone there too, soaking in the sea salt therapeutic pool and exploring the row of “emotional showers” that take turns changing colors, intensities, temperature, and scent according to a programmed succession. (Think of a cross between night clubbing, Twister, and musical chairs, add water and aromatherapy.) I wanted someone to giggle in amusement with.
Has it been only two days? I’ve been traveling solo since November. At every stop I’ve had some mix of old friends to visit, new friends to dig into, and family to catch up with. I didn’t think of myself as being alone all those weeks. Roughly 100 nights and I rarely dined alone. I would be challenged to list all of the wonderful companions with whom I’ve shared bread in these travels. None of it has served to dispel the solitude.
In Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chogyam Trungpa describes the Bodhisattva path as being deeply lonely. I feel as if I have achieved the loneliness while completely neglecting the spiritual point.
I’ve been avoiding restaurants in order to dodge that moment when I tell the host tavolo per uno (table for one), and he inevitably says “solo.” (alone.) in a declarative yet questioning way, as if he hopes I’ve spoken wrong.
Paradoxically, a powerful part of me seeks even more solitude. There’s so much writing, reading, contemplation, and མ་སེམས་ (ma sem, non-thought) that I yearn to immerse myself in. I would love to go on a month-long silent retreat right now. Nothing sounds more appealing than slow yoga under a tree somewhere – rain, sunshine, or otherwise – and a plain mat to sleep on.
Yet here I am in Sicily in a four-star hotel. Tomorrow I will move on to Rome, a capital of civilization for thousands of years. I’ve been flung here by circumstance over which I have little control, though I do choose to engage and I did dictate the terms of engagement.
I could have passed this one by. Could have skipped the conference, or simply flown home after the conference ended. Round trip to Sicily for three days of networking and then straight home .. it just sounds too stupid. My whole life, I’ve intended to come here but never found the right time. Thus, here I am. I eat the tasty food, I drink the vino della casa (house wine). I stumble through the national tongue, learn the local mass transit, and wander their streets gradually constructing that visceral mental map of each city – the one I absorb through my feet, bound to my eyes and annotated by my other senses.
>Besides a quiet dinner with friends on Tuesday evening and a morning flight from Minneapolis to DC, I spent a straight 48 hours in bed. Fever, delirium, chills, the works … all because of a sore throat.
This morning I managed to get out of my hotel and wander around Dupont Circle. It’s interesting to see how people present themselves on the street here. The best way I can make sense of it is to remember that this city is all about power. Money is a form of power, as are influence, affiliations, titles and such. Creativity, on the other hand, is a power that this city seems to see as a secondary. People’s clothes aren’t very colorful here, and their hairstyles are relatively tame. This is not to say that people here don’t flaunt what they’ve got. It’s just that what they choose to flaunt is somewhat different.
>For some reason, I always expect Tea Shops to be either snobby like Kuan Yin in Seattle or quiet and formal like La Societe du The in Minneapolis. I certainly assume that they don’t serve food beyond the occasional scone. Gladly, when I walked past Teaism near Dupont Circle in DC, I was just looking for plain, cold, unsweetened iced tea to soothe my throat. I ordered the iced French Vervene Tisane (Lemon Verbena) but also noted that they had some yummy looking lunch foods on the menu.
I sat down to catch up on my emails. (I don’t know if they have wifi, I was using my phone.) About an hour passed and the lunch rush had started to arrive. The food they ordered smelled delicious, so I gave the menu another glance. My eye immediately honed in on Ochazuke “Japanese Rice & Tea soup”, available with either Salmon or Plum. I ordered the plum version. What arrived on the counter was even cooler than I had imagined. A bowl of rice, covered with shredded veggies, cilantro, and some dried flavorful stuff like seaweed and toasted rice. Perched atop this were two ume plums. Beside it on the tray were a teapot and a tea cup. I was perplexed for a moment until I put 2 and 2 together, pouring the tea over the bowl of rice and veggies. The soup was incredibly flavorful and surprisingly filling. I did discover, however, that I don’t like fresh ume plums. They’re the only thing I left in the bowl.
The greatest delight was filling that teacup with the spare green tea and sipping at it. The flavor was unnervingly familiar. I’m tempted to claim that it tasted like comfort in tea form. It reminded me of salt water, toasted grains, and soup broth.
After finishing my meal I grabbed a free refill of my iced tea, this time iced assam, and went back out into the DC heat.
Next stop: Mr Yogata frozen yogurt with a friend.