Monday, August 30, 2010

Meditations at Pangong Lake

With rock as my seat,
tucked in shawl to protect from high winds.

I sit on the edge,
of intense shades of indigo blue, aqua navy.
Sounds crash into changing shorelines,
sending ripples of timeless peace.
Above us only snow.

The 'Roof of the World'
sits across the shore.
A dip in her cool blue waters,
is to step foot
in the 'Land of the Snow.'

'60% of its surface lies in China,'
the Guidebook says.

A small yellow bird squawks,
flying over head.
A symbol of timeless freedom,
naturally rings in song.

Is it Ladakhi or Tibetan?
Indian or Chinese?
There are no boundaries in the sky,
it is boundless like the original Mind.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Universe as a Mandala

During our first week's stay at Thiksey Monastery, the monks were engaged in a lengthy 7-day Mandala Puja Ceremony. They would start at 6:30am and chant all day long until about 6pm in the evening, with little breaks in between. The mandala is an intricate traditional Tibetan model, hand-crafted with painstaking detail using colored sand. In the center of the mandala lies Mt. Meru, the axis mundi, surrounded by the 4 Cardinal Directions. The model represents the entire universe within Buddhist cosmology. Once the puja ceremony is completed, which includes LONG recitations of Tibetan prayers, the sand mandala is then ritually destroyed and made as an offering. This is performed traditionally to demonstrate the Buddhist Law of Impermanence.

At the end of the week, there was a big fire ceremony in the courtyard, in which the monks made offerings to the mandala deity. Afterwards we entered back into the main gompa and ritually destroyed the sand mandala. Finally, we carried the sand remains in an urn, marching down the long monastery steps, to an outlet of the Indus river, where we offered the universe as a mandala. The monks at Thiksey perform three big pujas like this a year.

"Of all practices, the offering of the mandala is the most profound and skillful way to accumulate the essential provisions of merit and wisdom, without which we cannot travel swiftly along the path."
- Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, The Excellent Path to Enlightenment

"We practice the mandala offering so that we are able to give without clinging."
- Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, The Excellent Path to Enlightenment

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Puja at a Funeral

Aug 9

Death has arrived here in the village of Thiksey. The Mandala Ceremony has been temporarily put on hold, for more pressing engagements are required of the monks. For the next five days they will be performing special pujas, for the dead.

Walking alongside the ancient Indus River, we join a procession of red-robed monks and about fifty village people. All men, Charlotte quickly notices as she chooses to stay behind. With prayer beads in hand, I joined the other men to the cremation ground. Behind the monks, four men carry the body over their shoulders, in a colorfully adorned Tibetan-Ladakhi coffin.

As we arrive at the pre-arranged charnel ground, where the monks have set up for the puja ceremony, the body is placed on top a stone fixture, with an open center to receive the ashes. The villagers gather around, as the men walk up one by one and place burning incense offerings on top the coffin. The monks are seated in a crescent line around the body. Next to them is an array of offerings and puja accessories: grains, seeds, barley, beans, plant stocks, butter, and water are recognizable.

Ominous ochre-red mountains surround the desert funeral. Crisp blue skies and a harsh sun lurk overhead. A white cloud passes above blocking the fiery burning star in the sky, to provide a moment of cool. A sullen darkness falls. The head lama stands up, ringing the bell in his left hand, as he begins reciting the Tibetan prayers. The other monks hum along in their chanting echo mumbles. Money is given between the men in exchange for traditional white kata scarves. A small man approaches the center, standing near the lama with small wood animal sculptures in hand, apparently burnt by flame. Still chanting, the lama obtains a medium sized wooden stick with a white flag attached.

After a few minutes, the head lama conclusively shakes his bell, signaling the end of the prayer. Immediately, the small man runs off, the lama following close behind, almost chasing him, into the distance. I watch intently as the man throws the wooden animals into the desert. The lama tosses his stick, white flag flapping in the wind. Together the two slowly walk back to the group. The family members stand out from the crowd and begin the ritual kora, three clockwise circumnabulations around the body. One by one they each offer their white kata scarves and prostrate toward the deceased. And then, just like that, everyone began walking away…

I asked a young man why we were leaving so soon? He replied, ‘Only for the monks.’ The ritual burning was only for the monks, we were not to see.
I asked him, ‘Did you know the deceased?’
‘Yes. My Auntie,’ he replied.
‘What is her name?’
‘Auntie Tashi.’

Aftershock in Leh

Aug 8

Housed in the peaceful confines of Thiksey Monastery for the past five days, we really had no idea. I mean, we had an idea, but it was only an idea – rumored facts and tid-bits of information passed on like a children’s game of Telephone in jumbled Ladakhi-English. But this was no child’s game. 150 dead. 300 in Leh and Changlamsar. 500… It was impossible to imagine, we had to see the reality for ourselves. Were our friends in Leh okay? Our guest house? And Amalie, our sweet surrogate Ladakhi mother, and her son Anchuk? And what about our own families? Had news spread internationally??? We needed to find a phone.

We packed up in a hurry, checked out with the monks, and hit the road again – with our rucksacks on our backs and our thumbs out for Leh. After a short walk, we hopped on the back of a tractor with fifteen or so Ladakhi’s and cruised through town along wet muddy roads. We could see and feel the aftermath of the storm. Trees uprooted. Home sunk in. Roads and streams flowing together as one. We jumped off and continued walking. Soon a black SUV stopped alongside the road. We jumped in and got a very fortunate ride all the way to Leh, with a kind group of men who were driving to the hospital to pick up the recently deceased body of a relative. Needless to say, there was room in the car.

On our way we passed by a large military settlement. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Indian, Pakistani, and Nepalese families lined the streets. With bags packed, they sat waiting in the roasting sun like it was a Delhi train station. We were told that all the migrant workers in Ladakh were being sent home – back to Kashmir, Kathmandu, and Bihar, respectively. The government was boarding plane after plane to get everyone out of Leh as quickly as possible. Driving by the sea of people, the thought occurred to me that Indians must be the most patient people on the planet.

It is interesting though, that all these people are being sent home. Each year they come here in the summer months, during the High season, to earn money off the flood of tourists that pour in from June til September. But now, disaster has struck. The rest of the season will be spent cleaning up the storm, rebuilding houses and repairing peoples’ lives. Not quite lucrative work.


The city of Leh is in ruin. Walking through the streets, it looks and feels as if a bomb has gone off. The air is thick, hot and sticky. With rucksacks on our backs, we wear scarves over our faces to prevent the dust from swallowing us whole. Businesses and buildings are nothing but piles of rubble. Entire houses are destroyed. A family gathers around, staring hopelessly at what was once their life. A western toilet, dirty white porcelain sticks out of the debris. Cars are smashed like metal pancakes in a scrapyard. Only a machine could so completely flatten and destroy such an advent on modern technology. But this damage was not performed by the hands of men. This was the unadulterated work of shakti – the pure, raw power of mother nature. Good ol’ Prakrti huffed and puffed and blew the house down.

It is our first time in Ladakh, and the greatest storm in it’s ancient history has sent the people into hysteria. Strange karma. Now over 1,000 people dead, they say. Many more still, injured or missing, but information is scarce and filtered with fear. For the Ladakhi people the flood is not just a natural disaster, but a spiritual one – inflicted by evil spirits. The Leh locals were absolutely spooked. No one would give us a ride anywhere out of pure fear. 1,000 rps? 2,000… 3,000??? It was no use. We found our friends and of course they were okay though. Amelie tells us in Ladakhi, waving her hands, how she was so worried about us. We give her and the family a big hug and embrace.

Emily told us her story. Sleeping in her guesthouse, she was awoken in the middle of the night, not only to the monstrous storm, but worse to the local Ladakhi women screaming, running through the streets. She ran out of bed with a sprained ankle. Everyone was heading for the hills, literally. Hundreds of people set up camps high along the Japanese Peace Stupa, and across the other side of town, above the main bazaar at the old Leh Palace. The whole town was moving, bustling through the night – like ants trying to avoid the wetness, scurrying to the top of the hill.

Cultural Karma or Climate Change? Probably both. No one in Ladakh had seen anything like this before. We walk past the bus stand where had arrived in this desert mountain land only a few weeks before. It is unrecognizable, absolute ruin. We see a big government bus, just like the one we rode in on, smashed up on it’s side like early retirement. The place looks like a war zone. A wall of Mani prayer wheels have been ripped from their humble stands. Small strips of paper prayers in black Tibetan ink splay everywhere, blowing their final blessings into thin air.

The locals despairingly informed us that it was likely that the annual September Ladakhi Festival would not be celebrated this year (another big hit to the local economy). The energy and hysteria in Leh was just too much. The spook had been further stirred by Vedic Astrology. According to the stars, the worst had yet to come. We immediately turned back around for the peaceful gompa gates of Thiksey. Walking through the local villages we can hear the familiar sounds of the monks’ puja. Only now they are being held for the souls of the deceased.

Shelter From the Storm

Aug 6

A quiet sombre mood permeates the monastery grounds. Last night, the second night of a fierce storm (the worst in history), struck the high desert lands of Ladakh. All through the night, the rains poured buckets from the sky, the winds howled, while thunderous lightening shook the valley. Big flashes of white lit up the dark mountain sky. With no power, we watched and listened to the raw power of nature, until the candle burned to completion.
In a place that averages only 3.5 inches of rain annually, no one was prepared. However, upon his arrival in the Nubra Valley, HH the Dalai Lama had confided that the Oracle had prophesied that a great big storm was brewing. The local people said their prayers, made the appropriate offerings to their protector gods, and went on with their lives. For there was work to be done in the kitchen and in the fields. Besides, what else could they do†?
During the middle of the night, the village of Thiksey was abruptly awaken by a torrent flood of high waters, rushing through the streets and into their homes. With no hesitation, the people picked up their essentials, food and blankets, and headed up the hill to the village monastery. All day they have poured in, hundreds of people, men, women and children. It is admirable to witness the level of community and resource the monastery offers the village and its people, as it has functioned traditionally for thousands of years. As we watch the procession of families and possessions pour in, filling all dry empty space, I am reminded of a somewhat similar scene I had witnessed a few years ago in the States…


While living in San Diego, during the Spring of 2008, the county burst into California wildfire. Thousands of buildings and homes were destroyed. I recall the government issuing an air health-safety warning, we wore masks through the streets. Not because of the fire per say, but because of the toxic chemicals, the paint from houses, which was being spewed with smoke into the neighboring air. And as we are quickly learning, there are no borders in the sky.

Over one million people were evacuated from their homes with no place to go. A few shelters were set up for the new American refugees, but most were sent to Qualcomm Stadium, home to the San Diego Chargers NFL football team. Like Thiksey monastery, the football stadium opened its doors during the time of crisis to shelter its people. A few friends and I took the local bus over to lend hands. The scene was mad. Thousands and thousands of people, pouring in from all directions. Truckloads of tents, food, and supplies were arriving. Big mountain piles of donated food and clothing were being sorted through in the parking lots by volunteers. We helped young families set up tents to try and get some needed sleep for the night.

California’s Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, helicoptered onto the scene to make his routine press appearance. Cameras and people flocked towards to hear his holy words. I recall being surprised by his unproportionally large Ken-doll face, but I don’t remember what he said. I do remember the new which came the following day. The next day at Qualcomm Stadium was a Sunday, a ‘holy’ day for NFL fans, and a scheduled home game for the Chargers. It was decided and announced that the game would not be cancelled. The game would be played. And the thousands of homeless San Diego citizens, many of whom no doubt were die-hard Chargers fans – who had been following their beloved team since they were born, into a family of die-hard Charger fans, who had attended tailgate parties and gone to every game they could afford, every Sunday like it was Church, and who would have no doubt loved to be at this Sunday’s game, were it not for the fact that their house burnt down in flames the night before – yes, these people, along with everyone else, were forced to leave the Stadium, exiled into oblivion, so that their beloved Chargers could maintain dreary hopes of making the playoffs.


All of this I am reminded of, as I watch these poor Ladakhis, Indians, and Pakistani’s, endlessly trickle into the gompa courtyard. But here I am struck by an altogether different scene. Not just the obvious dichotomy in locality of a Buddhist monastery versus an NFL football stadium, but the social function of the ‘Church.’ Here in Ladakh, the first born son of every family is sent to monkship at the local monastery, where he will learn to read and receive a proper education. It is supported by the community, and in turn, the monastery nourishes the community, as the center of learning and religious activity. It is a mutual and reciprocal functioning relationship. The kind healthy ecology is made of. And when disaster strikes the village, there is no question or hesitation of where to go, or what to do – like a public school fire-drill, everyone heads for the gompa, safely perched high on top the hill. The monastery opens it’s big Dharma gates to embrace all. Shelter is provided. The school closes, to open its rooms for everyone. Tea is served. Food is fed. A natural sense of oneness and camaraderie is felt throughout the community.
The puja carries on by a few elders, because tradition must. But most of the monks become workers, leaders, and community organizers. Passing by a stream of new arrivals, one monk says to us, ‘We take this very seriously.’ He smiled, ‘But these buildings are very old, and we must be careful with all these people.’

Not only do the local people have an extended home, but we too have a place to stay, a shelter to take refuge. Because we arrived a few days prior, we had secured a clean comfortable room†; with big white walls, high wooden ceiling, big white bed, and large mountain view windows. Just outside our door, families are lined up laying on the hallway grounds. The villagers lay on blankets and mats under gompa awnings and dining room floors. They gather for shelter. circled around big Mani prayer wheels. My heart perturbed by the commotion outside our bedroom, I open the door to offer a small bag of nuts and barley to the women. I cannot help but feel guiltily, but do my best to cultivate compassion. More than anything, I feel gratitude. Grateful to be healthy, safe, and alive - with my beloved in my arms. We received word that many others were not so fortunate. Less than 12 miles away, in Ladakh’s capitol city Leh (where we were staying only two days before), over one-hundred people were announced dead this morning. Many more are injured or missing. Bodies continue to be dug up from the storm ruin. The roads are all closed – the buses destroyed. The water supply has run dry (truly an anomaly after last night’s downpour…), and the power comes and goes in waves.

I hear screams from outside the hallway. But they are only of children playing. Despite the somber mood, there is a sense of festivity in the air. The family is together. The community is strong. The monks’ mothers, brothers, and sisters are here. All generations under one gompa. The toothless grandmothers smile at us as we greet them, ‘Juley!’ The old men waddle around, fingering their rosary beads as they breathe heavily, ‘OM MANI PEMME HUNG’ faster than is Englishly possible. As the late afternoon fades to early evening winds, I look up to the ominous dark grey sky. Thunder begins it’s familiar tumultuous rumble. I feel a few drops of rain splash upon my head.

Thiksey Monastery Puja

Aug 5

Day 3 of the Mandala Puja at Thiksey Monastery . OM AH HUM.
The chanting begins at 6:30am and goes on and on. About fifty monks are in attendance, along with twenty or so Westerners – the tourists, who walk around with their big black lenses, pointing and shooting, click-click, snap-snap, shoving their cameras in the monks’ faces like animals at the zoo. Flash-click-snap. The sign out front reads†: Please no flash photography. The Thiksey puja has become another tourist attraction on the Trail, even our guide book says so. And no surprise really. Its absolutely beautiful. So sacred. A unique experience to be welcomed so openly into the strange and mystical world of Tibetan Buddhism. The gompa walls which surround us are filled with colorful murals of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, fierce protector deities, and the erotic yab-yum images of consort yoga. It’s enough to make any middle-aged Protestant American scream, running for the doors of the confessional.

The influence of Tibet’s primitive Bon religion speaks through the darkened worn images and symbols; it’s evil spirits, animism, ritual, and sacrifice Evident – soaked up by Padmasambhava and the Buddhadharma and transformed into the highly Evolved Vajrayana. The quick path to liberation, starts early. The young monks, seven or eight years of age, pour butter tea and serve big buckets of barley flour to their seniors, who have been chanting these sutras since they were pouring tea themselves. Within these same gompa walls. On these same old cushions. Prostrating, bald heads gracing these same wooden floors, who knows how many times before. These old monks waddle, lama-walking to their seats, are the last of a generation. The last lamas to live and practice the Dharma with little or no contact with the West, or the greater outside world for that matter. No flash photography. No gift shop. No commercials, world-wide-web, or television. Now, when the pretty young Israeli girls step out of the jeeps and into the puja, in their halter tops and spandex, the young monks can’t help but stare. At age twelve or thirteen, the monastic life cannot protect them from their biological inheritance. The fire of their youth, turns the spinning wheels of the lower chakras.

Thiksey monastery is hundreds of years old, these practices, thousands. There so much beauty to be felt in its presence, a transmission of ancient sound passed down through the deep, grunting vibrations of a chanting monks’ melody. Like a timeless river stream, flowing from the Buddha Shakyamuni himself. To listen is to hear the Dharma. To sit together, is to be the Sangha. In this body, in this breath.

But conventional wisdom reveals, I am still human – same too, these monks. They are not so different. Sometimes they are ‘here,’ while I am all the way over ‘there.’ But right now we are both Here. Sitting together, swaying to the melodious rhythm, sipping tea, stirring flour into Tsampa balls with our fingers. They too are tired. Bald heads drop one by one like flies, for a little puja snooze. The young monks appear uninterested, busy chatting and playing, throwing rice grain offerings at each other across the room when the elders aren’t looking. There is a genuine realness about the whole scene. However, this is their life, while I am just visiting. But I guess we’re all just passing through…

The horns blaze, Tibetan clarinets roar, bronze cymbals clash like lightning, the little lamas breathe deep into conch shells, while the deep bass drums pound – the ancient Buddha heart-beat. Deep mountain earth, sounds from another time. Someone must have hit the reset button – the mind clears, empties into silence. Snoozing monks wake. Only three more hours to go.