Escape to Tibet, Part 8: Thoughtful wanderings

Gesar and I lay in the semi darkness, and dissolved in the cold morning air. Around us the little monastery city went about its daily business of prayers and rebuilding. We had nothing scheduled for the first half of that day, and we took advantage of the break to catch up on some well earned sleep.

For once, time itself seemed to stop. Here we were, thousands of miles away from modern civilization as we knew it, living in a simple, window pane-less monastery shrine room, with prayers, barking dogs and singing workers busily engaged in rebuilding the only regular sounds to fill our ears.
We were exhausted from the ceremony of the day before, where the crowds and requests for this and that had kept us busy from dawn until well after dusk. Due to our language limitations, the constant strain of communication was taking its toll on us, and we were tired without any hope of real respite. Luckily, they left us pretty much alone that morning and we just became one with the darkness.

I dozed in and out of sleep. waking up occasionally to listen to some worker’s lilting voice as he toiled on the new building nearby. Occasionally, the voices of villagers down below drifted up through the window as they chatted about this or that or just passed time on their way to some business or other.

Life as mirror: In life, so often the definition of who we are and how we behave depends on where we are and who we are with. Sounds simple enough…To complicate matters further, we change over time, so that that which once was can be forgotten, lost, or erased, with personalities and memories becoming as indistinguishable as long lost friends. I had watched Gesar transform from a raging ball of incredible energy to a calm enigmatic person capable of showing incredible depth of feeling and care to others, without break for days on end. I, on the other hand, was generally the grumpy one, kicking out the attending monks when things got too crowded, or discipline was lost on the crowd when we moved about, which was always with great difficulty as we soon attracted a large crowd of followers immediately on standing up or making motions to move.
A photo that was taken of me at the time (unfortunately long since lost) shows a young man with long dark and unkempt black hair, pulled back off my forehead Japanese bushi style, a full beard and gaunt, exhausted expression. What struck me about the photo was the fierce look in my eyes, probably from being overly exhausted and struggling to keep things together as time took its toll on us. I had become some kind of western protecting spirit to this young tibetan treasure.

Gesar was transformed. He spent most of the days with a bemused expression on his face as request after request poured in, as it does for any Tibetan lama taking care of their people; please bless these prayer sheets, say some prayers for a sick child, come and bless our house, goats, child. He would just smile and carry out the task, regardless of whether it was repetitive or just the precursor to other tasks immediately following, which was usually the case.
My own sense of generosity was relative to my state of energy, and I personally struggled to deal with the constant requests to do something or be somewhere. Whenever I felt that people started asking too much of Gesar, I would find the highest ranking person in the room and beg for a break.

And it was thanks to one such request that we found ourselves free for half a day.

G- reflections, and projections.

In amongst this maelstrom of activity that had engulfed this remote Tibetan monastery over the last few days, sat Gesar. As an eighteen year old, more accustomed to fast food, cars, movies and a western lifestyle, I cannot begin to imagine what must he have felt. Without projecting too much hearsay into the story, I will try to picture, from my standpoint, what might have been going on within his mind. Excuse me for my discursiveness.

Being the son of a great man, recently deceased, and living in the shadow of both that man’s deeds and his western students’ expectations, the black sheep known as Gesar wandered. Many of these people around him more often than not talked at him rather than to him, this boy who had lost his father and needed a strong father figure to guide him; this boy,who manifested pure, uncontrollable energy.

Yet, here he was in this impossibly high forgotten valley, a prince; refined, gentle, loving, smiling, transformed in this land of snows and devotion. Life had truly become a mirror.

In the west, wildness abounded from him, a raw, sheer energy for life. This young Genghis Khan of the dharma was seen as an unpredictable force of nature by the mindful adult world, yet their children of those very same people flocked to him in droves, like the children to the Pied Piper, accepting him in his entirety.
In a sea of tranquility, he embodied the storm; not at all refined like the community had trained itself to be, but raw. Nor was this boy afraid to show his emotions, at any point in time, like liquid fuel, burning in his heart and vividly expressed like lightening. When happy, he was like the brightest of suns. When sad, he could rip out every heart nearby in empathy and sadness, for he radiated emotion, magnified them to marshall stack like volume. That is, was, and always shall be, his gift. His presence was way too much for many who had just lost their precious teacher, and many shunned him, fearing his spontaneous combustive qualities. It was just…too painful.The fact was that, whether many liked it or not, both physically and as a personality, G reminded them way too much of his father, the great Chogyam Trungpa. And no one knew what to do with him.

When we had first met two years earlier, G had just recently returned from a study trip to Nepal to see His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a mountain of a man who embodied a veritable well of compassion that flowed out of him through liquid eyes, huge smiles and hands. His Holiness had helped start this young boy on his way to spiritual study, but with the untimely loss of his father, the container was broken, and the contents ran free. Soon His Holiness followed after Trungpa, and those that cared for Gesar struggled to find a replacement mentor for him.

That replacement came in the form of my teacher, whose piercing inscrutability and irascible sense of humour powered right through to G’s soul. He was cool; not generations apart like so many of the elders, and Rinpoche could relate to G on a fresh and cutting level. Because of that auspicious link, perfect timing and a trust that bound us all together, here G was in Tibet.

Peaceful wanderings and the Shedrak. In the afternoon, after another meal of rice, meats and limited vegetables, we headed down the steep steps for a tour of the land and the old destroyed library and school across the little stream that cut the valley in two. Somehow, the number of attendants with us stayed to a bare minimum- with us was the Abbot, his trainee and about six or seven monks all buzzing around Gesar trying to hold an arm or to guide him over the sometimes rocky hillside down into the valley proper. Walking was laborious, each breath taxing, but we made steady progress and found ourselves below the little monastic city and stepping onto the beautiful rich spongy grass of the valley.

The Shedrak was a short distance away from Shechen proper, I am gong to estimate approximately a quarter of a mile away; perhaps put there as a way to encourage concentration in the young students who would study the higher forms and sutras and master themselves. But what we came to at that time was only the empty and shattered remains of what had once been a proud center of learning. It had been destroyed by the Chinese where they had first come to the monastery, burning or using the texts as toilet paper, destroying the classrooms and in general forcing all public forms of education underground. It was a mess; broken desks and tables, doors un-hung and classrooms open to the elements, yet another testament to Chinese intolerance at that time. Doors hung off frames, holes in the road gaped forlornly, and weeds grew through the floor. Having seen so much destruction evident right across the Tibetan landscape, I looked around at some of the faces of the monks as we stood there, their sad, silent faces, some with faint smiles as if to accept that for now, this was all that they could expect.

Without a word, we ventured on further up the valley, the stream beside us a transparent aqua blue that burbled in the background. Yaks wandered here and there, looking at our passing nonchalantly, chewing their curd and then quickly re-focusing their attention on some tasty clump of grass in front of them. What an idyllic life…

We wandered on down the valley and one of the shoes that I was wearing suddenly decided to give up the ghost, the sole ripping away from the upper leather, flapping wildly with each step. Laughing, and without having a choice, I took off the offending shoe, prepared to limp my way back to the main buildings some distance away, but I pleasantly discovered that the soft spongy grass underfoot was like the ultimate putting green, soft and gentle with every foot-fall. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering about without a care in the world as the land that was Sechen embraced me.

Revealing the man. Stopping a little later for a break, we sat and sucked in air as the sounds of the quiet valley were pierced only by a bird of prey high above, gliding in the deepest of deepest blue. Everyone had started to relax- the Tibetans with us and we with them, for the busiest moments were already past us all. There was that wonderful silence that exists between humans when everyone is just resting in the moment, rather than quickly seeking to fill it with some activity or other. Gesar and I were just enjoying being there, Tibet, this land of dreams, or incredible suffering and tribulation, hard land and hard peoples existing together in harmony with one another.

Some time later, one of the monks got up, and proceeded to ceremoniously unwrap a large piece of silk cloth, only to reveal head shaving clippers as its contents. A hushed silence suddenly descended on the group in expectation, and then nine sets of eyes set upon Gesar. It suddenly dawned on me- they wanted to cut Gesar’s hair. Another ironic smile crossed big G’s face and a nod of acquiescence, and he was set upon by other helping hands as other sets of clippers appeared mysteriously from folded arms and garments.

G and I just laughed and laughed. The more holy this crew acted, the more it had me and him in hysterics trying to deal with it. Loving hands to every opportunity to touch him, and he sat there calmly while this busy work calmly proceeded around him.

Sitting some short moment later, bald of pate, I and everyone else suddenly saw the resemblance in full to the previous Sechen Kongtrul; here, before us again as a young man, reborn. Compared against an old photo of the previous teacher, pulled out from the folds of a robe, the likeness was uncanny. It was enough for everyone to line up and ask for blessings again, such was the effect that a shaved bald head and a huge smile could have.

We spend the rest of the next hour or so making our way back to the main temple, the shadows that had already started their steady crawl across the valley guiding us forwards, as the chill winds of coming night made their presence felt once again.


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Escape to Tibet, Part Seven: Devotion.

Two mornings later, G and I awoke to the freezing chill of a Tibetan early spring morning with the sun having not yet risen in the sky, with the soft thrumming of voices that could be heard wafting through the unglazed window. I struggled to escape the layers of blankets that had kept me warm throughout the night, even though fully clothed, and peered with curiosity down to the courtyard below. My eyes were greeted with the sight of hundreds of Tibetans, some sporting huge chunks of turquoise bound tightly in their long hair, patiently waiting for their Rinpoche to appear. It was barely sunrise, yet there they were, quietly praying or nattering excitedly to a neighbor, some prostrating on the bare earth, caking their bodies in dust and sweat, pointed in devotion towards our place of rest.

Since it was still early, I got back into bed and put in about another hour or so of sleep while G did the same.

All is nectar..or not.
There is a concept of pure vision in Tibet whereby a devotee can show devotion to their teacher by drinking a small amount of their urine, since, it is believed, everything that these reincarnate lamas touch or emanate, is pure. Its a very old custom and one that at that time defied my understanding, yet it is probably still practiced today by some as a very direct link to the past.

I woke up the for the second time that day to the sound of liquid pouring from one container to another. At first thought, I imagined that tea was being prepared and breakfast well underway. On rolling over to the other side where I could see the inside of the room, I gazed upon, with half asleep disbelief, a monk draining off the contents of our night pot and portioning it out into smaller containers, some of which were being eagerly quaffed by smiling monks, one after another, who were filing quietly up the narrow stairs. At first, I thought to shout out warning that the contents were not as they expected- that the pee of another not quite as holy as their returned master ( ie , me) was mixed in with the contents. I turned to look at G, who also having just woke up, was watching with mouth wide open. It ended as abruptly as it had started, and the monks were gone…

Hot buckets of water were brought up to the room for Gesar and I to bathe with, and the monks besotted with interest wanting to stand and stare at everything that Gesar did. I kicked them all out, and G and I enjoyed a few brief moments of privacy in what was to be a very long day. We cleaned up as best we could, and stuffed down the bowls of rice and sweet milk that were sitting waiting for us. The pure, pure air of that early Spring morning danced with the dust that was caught in the sharp light streaming in from the window, and for a few brief moments I let my mind dance too as I watched the minute particles swirl in the gentle breeze.

The monks appeared again, this time led by the smiling young Khenpo, bearing ceremonial robes that were to be Gesar’s for this ceremonial occasion. These clothes consisted of yellow flowing shirts and under robes, and an elaborate brocade jacket that would be the finishing touch to the multi-layered outfit. The monks handled each piece of clothing reverently, covering their escaping breath with a piece of paper held in their mouths, gently easing each garment one layer at a time onto Gesar’s imposing frame. I dressed as best I could, the monks giving me a clean white undershirt for my black tibetan Chuba.
At one point before the official ceremony began I went alone down the steep stairs that led outside of our lodgings, only to be confronted with an absolute sea of faces and people, who, taking one look at me, bowed their heads in reverence, and parted in much the same way that the Red Sea must have parted for Moses did to let me through.
At that point, I felt more like Darth Vader than Moses- my long hair, greasy and tied at the back of my head samurai style, a week old Fu Manchu beard and moustache, and my long black tibetan dress. I must have looked terrifying to the little children who visibly shook at the sight of me. It was a stunning experience for all involved; I smiled and tried to be as inconspicuous and friendly as possible, but as I could see by the looks on some of the people and little children’s faces that this was, for many, their first contact with a foreigner. How strange and exotic I must have seemed to them, a stranger in their Himalayan land!

One of the monks showed me where we would walk into the temple and start the ceremony, and pointed to where Gesar would be seated and I would stand in attendance behind him. The temple, little more than just bare earth days before, had been tricked out in their fines brocades and cloths and tankhas (religious paintings), with monks already seated in long rows, chanting their opening prayers, some of them looking up at me and smiling broadly as their elders tried to keep them focused on the task at hand. Somehow, with my horrific tibetan, I was able to understand what the order of the day would be, and I left to go back up to the room with G.
We were excited to say the least- this was the reason why we had come, to see Gesar enthroned at his own monastery, and with His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rimpoche having died earlier in the year it left a huge vacuum in the organisation of the local Tibetan buddhist community. Having Gesar establish links with his own heritage and legacy would give solace and comfort to many of those missing the loss of their great Guru and dharmic grandfather.
The music below us in the main temple started to play, with the deep booming drone of the long horns signalling us.

The ceremony. With a surge of about eight overly willing monks, Gesar stood up from his bed and proceeded to make his way towards the overly steep stairs and down outside to waiting crowds. I got in front of him, and tried to fit in between the monk musicians, armed with long tibetan trumpets, giving that all familiar call of an event about to happen. You have to imagine this tiny little stairwell with suicide-like tibetan stairs gradient, about twelve monks, the young abbot, me, and Gesar wearing these voluminous religious garments, all trying to get down the stairs at the same time and be of assistance to their long lost son. It was hilarious, with Gesar and I visibly laughing at the danger and frantic scrabbling hands of monks trying not to tumble down the stairs on top of one another, yet often doing so. I did my best to keep those near me upright, suddenly I was at the bottom of the stairs and the crowd below started to surge forwards towards the doorway-so much for Moses!

It was absolute mayhem; masses of hands, many grubby with dirt, thrusting forwards with babies, silk welcoming scarves, tongues stuck out of mouths in signs of respect, constantly chanted prayers, scrabbling feet, falling bodies, some trying to prostate, laughing, jostling for position, and monks and priests trying to keep order. Somehow the crowd pushed us away from the door and literally crowd surfed us towards the temple door, where we escaped inside, the monks keeping the many tibetans outside for the time being and at bay. Everyone was laughing, and G and I made our way to the throne that had been set up for him as the monks inside kept up the steady rhythmic chant of their opening prayers. His throne was covered in holy objects- texts, bells, books, a damaru (ritual drum) and other symbols necessary for the enthronement.

Finally the ceremony began- the numbers of people outside being too many to fit into the still under construction main shrine hall, they peered in through the open doorway and waited for the general blessing that would follow the ceremony. The crowd chanted patiently, prayer wheels whirring, malas clacking between hands, young and old staring inward trying to follow the procedures inside. There was an overwhelming energy that pervaded the temple that day, with smiles everywhere as the obviously proud young monks, older nuns and priests sat and prayed their welcome and recognition of Gesar.G sat through it all, beaming at everybody, graciously accepting the lead from monks that showed him through the ceremony, instructing him when to make certain movements, and being the most patient I have ever seen him be.

A parade of faces -The crowd was eventually let inside, and the general blessing began- this entailed the entire crowd being led through the shrine room to the front of Gesar’s throne, where they would receive a blessing on the head by Gesar placing his hand or sacred objects on them, and the tibetan khatag scarves that they held reverently being placed back around their necks. Many of them bore gifts- statues, animal pelts, books, malas, bells and religious practice objects, some very old and obviously treasures. I cannot explain or attempt to describe the emotions that flowed in that half-constructed temple those next few hours- crying, weeping, wailing, laughing, the sheer awe in the face of many of the children, the whispered prayers, or the breakdown of some of the older folk who had seen one of their great aspirations come true- a high lama’s return.

Through it all Gesar just smiled and smiled, the love between the crowd and him palpable and cogent. For those of us near him, for me and the other monks that were attending him that day, it ultimately grew to become too much, and we all ended up weeping as well, laughing at times when we saw some overly devout person cut back into the line to try and get another blessing, only to be intercepted by one of the wily older monks who would shoo them away. We watched this comic dance time and time again, sometimes allowing it to happen, and then seeing and older monk lose his temper and try to keep the crowd constantly moving ahead.
I still marvel today at the clarity of devotion in those simple khampa folk- as we all know, the eyes do not lie, and theirs shone with a brightness that I will never forget. Like diamonds.

It took the best part of the morning to finish this seemingly endless processing as prayers and horns and rituals were performed until late in the day. By the end of it Gesar and I were exhausted in the thin air as the energy and emotions overwhelmed us. With another fanfare, we struggled back out the front of the temple and towards our refuge above, to be met with the same enormous crowd and the same mad scramble to get near their returned teacher. This time dozens of hands stretched forwards to help Gesar walk, the smiling faces and laughing eyes giddy with joy as we were pushed back up the stairs to our lodgings and quiet.


On being cured of a wandering mind, hands and eye.

19517606_rudolphvalentinoAs a twenty something year old new entry into the dharma, all those years ago, I considered myself somewhat of a playboy. The sangha had a different moral compass than my catholic guilt-ridden upbringing, and as an ex wanna-be rock star, I reveled in the new freedoms that this expansive community offered me. One of those freedoms was women, which came in all types and personalities.

Although I later married, I was in an open relationship, which I exploited to the hilt. Speaking of agendas, I had a big one- women. Connecting with my vajra master and teacher, Rinpoche, I am sure that he watched me with more than detached interested and waited till the moment was right to make his opinion felt.

That day came soon enough.

I was asked to attend the parinirvana of His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in Bhutan in 1991, a great honor indeed that would probably not have been conferred upon me, had it not been for my ability to take care of a certain tulku, the dharmic linebacker, Kongtrul Rinpoche.

My teacher invited all of his core students to come to Bhutan and witness the ceremonies as his guests, the collection of which spanned the known world. People came from all over to attend this remarkable opportunity, for alone many had not been to the hidden kingdom before, and that chance in itself was an incredible treasure.

We stayed with him in his house in Bhutan, guests within his compound and crammed into every nook and cranny that his property there held. Upon arrival, I surveyed the landscape carefully; it included a collection of the most beautiful women that ever graced this earth, and I, like a hungry ghost, salivated in earnest at the thought of many a possible tasty encounter.

That salivation did not last for long. Upon arrival at the house, and with people settling in on the first day, I heard a loud voice booming across the precincts calling my name. Rinpoche.

As I walked hurriedly through the garden towards the house, I couldn’t not help but think to myself (again)what a collection of gorgeous women my Buddhist teacher had around him. Some were daughters of wealthy Chinese sponsors, others students of his from across Asia and Europe. As for me, although bound in a green card American marriage, I felt no restrictions morally not to be able to hunt on Rinpoche’s turf. I have always been attracted to Asian women, and in general the feeling was reciprocal.
As I was busily assessing the field, lost in lascivious thought, I entered his house and made my way towards the sound of Rinpoche’s voice. Upon entering his room, I could see him ensconced leisurely on a chair, surrounded by a bevy of students sitting on the floor around him, arrayed as if in a human mandala. My, I thought to myself, more gorgeous women in here as well…

Rinpoche spotted me as I entered the room, and without a moment’s hesitation, asks me with a smiling face, “ So….. cheated on your wife recently?”

Stunned, I am sure in retrospect that I turned various shades of red and that the only sound I made was that of my jaw hitting the ground and my ego shattering into a million pieces. Meekly I smiled, for once lost for words, wishing that I was absolutely invisible and proceeded to find the nearest dark corner and hide.

He had nailed me so brilliantly, caught me so perfectly, that from that day onward I started to pay attention more to my own agendas and grasping nature. It was in retrospect a long time coming, and I deserved it.

And that, my friends, is the sign of a genuine spiritual teacher….

Escape to Tibet, Part Five: Shechen.

Shechen_tibet_1   The Beijing jeep’s engine whirred gently as we rolled over the road next to a the flat, grassy plateau landscape, with G and myself feeling blissed out having gotten this far and the intestinal cramps we had suffered for best part of the last 24 hours starting to recede. As we continued down the gently undulating road through Kham closer and closer to Shechen, Gesar and I were struck by the sheer amount of destroyed monasteries that we could see littering the hillsides. On our own experience through only this one part of the country, hundreds. Their remains were everywhere. Some of the ruins were massive, spanning most of a hillside, and what once must have been vibrant city/communities was now reduced to mere dust, rocks and echoes.
Such is impermanence, I thought quietly to myself, and so potent must have been the fear of the communist Chinese that when they first looked upon these enormous colleges, they planned their complete and utter destruction. We were told that some 10,000 monasteries or communities had been destroyed after the Chinese takeover. The stories we heard from survivors were vivid enough though, and still held real terror for many of the victims and survivors.
But more of them later….for now we just gazed at the ruins and wondered at the waste. Other than that, was saw evidence of a huge army camp, its enclosing fence following the path of the road for some time before we veered off towards another range of mountains. The driver told us through our interpreter and easily understood body language that we would be wise to keep clear of this area as the Chinese army often held maneuvers near there as a way to keep the rowdy and fiercely independent Khampas in line. Gesar and I silently nodded in agreement, and tucked ourselves down into the jeep as small as possible. We were nearly there…
More than four days into the journey with the driver and interpreter, we had had plenty opportunity to study them both in detail, sometimes acting out elaborate pantomimes, connecting our own experiences to theirs through laughter, facial expressions and listening. Gesar has an incredible personality, similar to a bright glorious sun on a beautiful spring day that radiates warmth and friendliness. A consummate actor and entertainer, he had our two companions in hysterics on many occasion.
The policeman, chain smoking yet relaxed individual, seemed little fazed by what we saw as signs of ever present stress, and was able to take enormous physical punishment each day, rebounding each morning after few hours sleep, without barely a sign to show for it. The interpreter, an ex-monk who as the multi lingual member of the party, was the oil that made the whole thing possible, chatted away with the driver for many long hours while G and I struggled with the discomforts of the road and sitting on flattened asses for more than 17 hours a day.
We came to a small town called M&’&%$#, and pulled into a small house and compound on the outskirts of town. The old dilapidated chortens nearby were a welcome sign that we were indeed on sacred ground, and the Tibetan family that welcomed us gave us welcome hot tea and a meal. Food sealed the transaction, and with eyes barely able to stay open, G and I fell immediately asleep.
The next morning, when I awoke I realized that we were in fact on some kind of farm, with an assortment of animal sounds permeating the silence around us. And speaking of the pigs, they lived in a little sty directly above the farms toilet, and made their presence felt whenever a guest above decided to make a contribution by applauding with their snorts of happiness below. Needless to say that I forwent the urge to use the premises in the way that they were designed…
Words are not enough– As usual, we were off and running early in the morning, with a beautiful clear sky above and a brilliant green landscape surrounding us. At some point, I asked the driver to pull over to the side of the road so that I could enjoy my first natural movement since the egg eating disaster. As I walked gingerly off to squat behind this small bush a distance off, I was struck by just how incredibly beautiful the surroundings were: the sky so blue, the grass so green, water in a nearby babbling brook translucent in quality. We were somewhere around 4000 meters up, high in the heart of Kham. The sound was crisp and I felt the air move around me and within me with a presence that I had not been aware of before.
It is therefore possible, quite quite possible, that within that mundane activity that we partake in each and every day and that we so often take for granted, in that high alpine valley far far away, with my pants around my ankles, that I may have experienced some small amount of enlightenment.
About lunchtime, we came to a fork in the dirt road. Our translator told us that 30km straight ahead lead to Dzogchen Monastery, another famous Nyingma buddhist center, while the turn up the hill and down into a roadless grassy valley to the right would take us to Shechen. The car rolled off the main dirt road to what was then something akin to a goat track. We were not far now, and the anticipation, despite our still very weak physical condition, was causing my pulse to race. The jeep rolled effortlessly down a verdant green valley, the road disappearing into pure lush grass, the surrounding hills crested with tall pines. I will never forget the sky; brilliant, azure, highlighted in parts by a brief white cloud or two. It was beautiful, soft and welcoming to us. We had entered a magical kingdom.
We drove closer and closer, and suddenly, far off into the distance…there it was, a group of buildings clustered on the western slope of the valley, with a small meandering stream on the valley floor. Gesar asked for the car to stop- we would walk in from here; it seemed the most appropriate way to announce our arrival. We got out, and the Tibetan translator and I helped G put on his chuba, the traditional Tibetan dress. I cannot imagine nor capture how Gesar must have felt at that time, and what thoughts might have been racing around his mind, but we just smiled at each other and laughed, two filthy dirty, gaunt faced  westerners in this glorious blue day with air that was so clean it was like liquid as it absorbed into our eager lungs.
We stumbled slowly towards the group of buildings, perhaps two or three kilometers off, our feet feeling like lead as we tried to adjust to the extremely high altitude, our breath coming in hard fought gulps and wheezes. The walk was really just a stagger. The sudden shock of the altitude hit us. It was the first time we had done any serious exercise in days, compounded by the fact we were utterly physically and psychologically  exhausted, having hardly slept or eaten in four days.
Those few kilometers long walk took forever- we literally crawled towards the temple at a snail’s pace on this spongy soft grass that carpeted the valley floor. Yaks wandered everywhere, gazing placidly at our progress, ultimately ignoring our presence.
About halfway to the complex, a khampa on his horse approached us, curious as to who the hell this was walking down this valley. The Tibetan translator said a few brief words which had him off his horse and asking for a blessing in a second, arms in prayer position, tongue out and head down, body bowed in supplication, eyes shining like fire. We were all just smiling and smiling and smiling- it felt truly like a dream. He was back on his little pony in a second, and went racing back down the valley towards the monastery at top speed shouting at the top of his lungs his news , singing and laughing, whooping and hollering.
As we started the last gradual climb up the hillside a group of monks approached us, as we could see that the monastery once far off and distance  had burst into a hive of activity up close. Many buildings at that time were destroyed, many in the process of being rebuilt, uch as the main temple, which had a makeshift scaffolding around it.
People were emerging, like ants,  from buildings, other monks stared at us from the roof of the half rebuilt main building. Most held back as a smaller party approached us. The resident tulku and khenpo (abbot) made their way forwards solemnly, greeting us, recognizing Gesar’s face and bulk, but still not sure of who they had with them. Gesar produced his letter of introduction from Dzongsar Rimpoche which they read fervently, examined the seal, and looked us up and down, then back to the letter. The young abbot and tulku, with sudden realization that the man they had been expecting for the last few weeks was right before them, suddenly smiled and wished us welcome.  The chinese driver and interpreter looked on with bemused faces. As they bent to receive blessings and offer the first of what were to be many prostrations, the near vicinity burst into pandemonium, as the entire monastic body and every farmer and khampa present in the complex rushed forwards in one body to greet us and receive a blessing. Some stopped themselves and ran back to collect khata, Tibetan welcoming scarves, obviously caught in mid-thought and dilemma.
Release-It was absolute chaos- people were running everywhere, old, young, the crippled limping forwards as best they could, (we hadn’t even made it to sit down yet) running towards us, throwing themselves on the ground in prostration, crying, laughing, babbling, praying, shouting, screaming. Suddenly we were the center of a massive dharmic rugby scrum. It was a total free for all, and suddenly the Khenpo and tulku were like our bodyguards trying to stem the rushing horde. Gesar was just smiling and smiling, so patient, so loving, and I felt my own tears suddenly flowing like rivers from the final release from stress and the combined effect of so much obvious love and devotion. We had done it. We had done it. I had done it- and that moment was way too much for me. Like a bolt of lightening, I felt a massive migraine hit me like a sledgehammer from all the endorphins being released.
Devotion- Guiding and loving hands came from everywhere: it was as if Gesar was a thousand year old man, fragile as if made of glass, a precious jewel or revered long lost emperor, and all reached out and  searched for ways to help him stumble to the main building. Some even reached out to support me- the first time I had felt the friendly touch of another human in weeks. I was no-one, but to them I was a precious jewel. Gesar’s eyes filled with tears and huge rivers coursed down his cheeks, matched only by those of the crowd around him.
An old crying man limped towards us doing prostrations at each step, shouting out that this was his teacher and his teacher had come back for him, and told us the story of how he had suffered all these years and been beaten by the chinese time and time again; how he had lost his wife and was all alone, but so happy that his teacher had come back for him. He fell to the ground, latching on to Gesar’s feet and cried his eyes out, howling, snot and tears going all over G’s shoes. Many were crying uncontrollably with him, the thin Tibetan alpine air perhaps goading everyone’s long lost emotions as we all gasped for breath. Smiles and tears, prayers and scarves, we were gradually jostled towards the half complete main temple, being reconstructed yet again after been demolished by the Chinese.
Gesar and I finally made it inside to a seat and safety from the over eager crowd, and as I looked back briefly to the crowd outside, I could see riders galloping in every direction up and down the valley, shouting their message. The stern voice of the khenpo dispelled the crowd, telling them to leave us for now, posting two monks as guards on the door. We went up a steep steep flight of impossible Tibetan steps to the half completed shrine room above the main shrine hall, where monks raced about setting up a place for me and Gesar to rest.
It was about that time, with Gesar firmly in the grasp of loving hands, that I literally passed out, struck by a blinding migraine headache that rendered me utterly incapacitated. The focus was all on Gesar now anyway- and I could relax for the first time in weeks. I can’t even start to describe how I felt- all I could think about was closing my eyes and sleep. It was all too much. Despite seemingly impossible odds, we had done it.

I had done it.


My mind went blank.

The pilgrim

It was midnight, and the only sounds around me in the Burmese Temple as I awoke were the rhythmic sounds of breath and snoring of various backpackers, tourists and typical collection of characters that the path of dharma generates. Being December and Winter in Bihar, the midnight air had a coolish tinge to it that required you to bundle up temporarily until your body became accustomed to the ambient temperature, but such garments would be totally unnecessary once the golden sun arose six hours later. I dressed quickly, putting on my monk robes as quietly as I could (I had taken monk vows with the Hinayana tradition, now long since given back), and made my way out of the Burmese temple and into the walled garden, where due to the locked gates for security I made a quick hitch over the fence and into the silent, dimly lit street, starting the hour-long walk from the Burmese temple into Bodghaya.
The year was 1997 and Monlam prayer festival, and the days around the great stupa were active and  full of throngs of people participating in the buddhist prayers for world peace, with all hoping to catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama. Many Tibetans were there on pilgrimage, their prayer beads and prayer wheels whirring continuously as they circumnambulated the wondrous site. I was there to do prostrations, 30,000 of them in fact, over a month-long period, and as any experienced prostrator would tell you, that is not something one wants to do in the heat of the Indian sun. So what I did was to come firstly in Winter, get up in the middle of the night, and make my way down to the deserted stupa and do my 1000 prostrations per day when the sun’s effect was stymied.
As I walked along the deserted streets, I kept myself in the best lit part of the road, where I could spot any potential obstacle, be it human, car, dog or snake, giving myself enough time to hopefully remove myself as a target. Dogs pretty much kept to themselves, too busy with sleep or the realities of a very harsh lifestyle and the hunt for food. Of cars, there were few, and I kept up a steady beat of mantra as I walked silently along the road, beads clacking between my fingers, eating up the several miles in what seemed as nothing more than pregnant moments. Every human I chanced to see was busily engaged in sleep, sprawled in various positions over road side shop counters, chairs, and hard wooden platforms that doubled as beds. The world, brightly lit in parts by an overhead light, faded back into darkness around me as I walked along.
Getting closer into town each early morning, more and more signs of life would begin to appear. A rickshaw driver, if chanced upon the city’s outskirts. was usually sprawled across the back seat of his vehicle and easily woken for a few rupees and a drive back into town. As incredibly busy and noisy as India is, in the still of the night not a sound can be heard, barring the howl of some distant dog or hoot from some  far off bird. Most nights I just walked the entire distance, surrounded by profound and absolute silence, the steady beat of flip-flops and the mala racing between my fingers my only companions as I chanted my mantras.
India at night is magical when it finally stops; and is merely a snapshot of where it left off, with many participants immediately resuming pre- sleep tasks on waking. As I walked along I was reminded so many times of the story of the Buddha and the night prince Siddhartha left his own palace confines for good, the dancers and attendees sprawled akimbo as he silently made his escape. The chaos, the beautiful chaos that is India is one of its chief attractions (at least to me), and I often found myself mesmerized by where the life clock had suddenly stopped for a few brief hours before recommencing later at its usual hurdy gurdy speed.
By the time I reached the MahaBodhi Temple grounds and the site of the great stupa each night, the surroundings were as yet silent and unmoving, with only the occasional cough of a guard to be heard as he stared out into the night sky. The holy grounds had suffered much from pilfering over the years, and now lay locked up during the early morning hours to ward off looters, a sad testament in itself. I stood at the gate for  a few minutes, hoping to attract the attention of a guard inside who might graciously let me in, with me mime-ing the prostration movement, and then ending with my hands in supplication. Sometimes succeeded, sometimes I was ignored, sometimes no guard would appear from the darkened grounds within the gates, probably fast asleep somewhere out of sight. In those cases, I would walk around the perimeter fence to a suitably quiet and low spot, then after a quick glance around, would hurl myself over the wall and into the silent darkness of the hallowed stupa grounds within. For the sake of dharma practice, I admit to committing such an offense.
Quietly, and mindful of my feet and movements, I would make my way to one of the hundreds of prostration boards that littered the temple grounds that I had picked out to perform my prostrations on, under the sweeping and generous limbs of another not so famous bodhi tree on the grounds, about 50 metres away from the great stupa which towered above. There, after making my opening supplications to gurus current and long since gone, I would soon be steadily slapping the board with my full length body, as small insects whispered quietly nearby.
The stupa in front of me, like some alien monolith towering into the darkness above, and the absolute, profound silence surrounding me the only witness, the minutes turned to hours each night as I waged a constant battle with myself. Sweat would soon start to flow, running in rivers down my body, and my mind (of course) to wander, each time drawn back (at times belatedly) by me, as I remembered my vows and motivation. I was soon soaked, and the chill air surrounding me no longer an obstacle but a welcome relief.
I brought no food, only water, which I would drink in copious amounts, at times aware of the bats that whirred around above me in the night sky in impossible balletic display.
Occasionally a once sleeping guard would discover me on his rounds, but each was utterly respectful and would leave me to my practice, perhaps inspired by my doggedness of pursuit.  Another crazy foreigner..
As the sky above started to lighten towards dawn, the gates would be drawn open for another day, and slowly, in ones and twos others would appear, to take up a prayer position or join me in the steady slap slap of prostrations offered on behalf of all sentient beings. Many Tibetans would arrive to light lamps around the stupa, and their endless circumnambulations would begin, The number would swell over time, until it was in the thousands and was as if a constant roar engulfed the divine structure, brightly lit by thousands of lamps and churning with life at its base.
As the day grew stronger, more and more pilgrims joined me in devotional activities, some joining me on vacant boards and soon ofering their bodies in supplication, others sitting and chanting out prayers and mantras. By 900 am the grounds would be failry packed and the days prayer activities well underway.
It was a social occasion. People swapped stories, old friends reunited after years of being apart, monks and nuns and priests and believers of all races and kinds, joining together as equals in the prayers for peace.
By the time the morning prayer sessions were scheduled to be underway and the sun was again high in the sky, I would be wrapping up my daily session and  ravenous for food, sated each morning with banana pancakes at a nearby hippy cafe, a welcome oasis and respite from the soon thronging crowds outside as the day began.
Sometimes I would sit under my tree, for an hour or two before I headed back to the temple and sleep, and await a falling leaf from the sacred bodhi tree, cherished by all and exceedingly rare.
Each day I repeated the same, inspired by the sheer devotion of thousands who braved the still strong sun each day and joined the prayers for world peace.
It was an experience I shall never forget.

Practice- a love hate relationship

 As a reasonably long time buddhist, I can say that for the most part, I have been more hare than tortoise with my practice. Bursts of energy with focus to complete a particular commitment, then lulls when I seemed       to just space out and lose focus, getting caught up in real life concerns. The passage of time brings all things into focus.
 I remember when I first became connected to the dharma, the very first time I read the buddhas teachings and learned about the four noble truths. At the time I had been practicing under a different spiritual discipline, and literally as I read the words regarding the origin of suffering, I felt as if my mind just disintegrated into space. I felt as if a fire had been lit in my heart that had been but an ember for the 23 years of life preceding that very moment.
This connection to the 4 noble truths drove me to walk away from a music career that had been fraught with the realities of big business USA: the LA lifestyle, the constant maneuvering for position, the struggle to stay in the jealous god realm that fame really is. That fire of motivation propelled me to a buddhist summer camp where I lived and work amongst other like minded individuals, meditating every day and learning about the buddhas teachings, the dharma, soaking it all in. I met my teacher who made a brief visit there that year and then I proceeded to chase him half way round the world for a teacher/disciple reationship, which I was eventually and very fortunately granted.
I jumped into practice headlong, taking on all the external trappings of the new life I had chosen for myself. From there followed travels to India, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, receiving teachings and empowerment, and living a very full buddhist life. Or so I thought.The blazing fire that burned within me at through sitting meditation retreats, preliminary practices, deities practices. All the time I was looking for something to make me feel whole.
Somewhere along the way, without realizing that it had already happened, I started to take on a superficial and shallow essence of the teachings, deluding myself that what I was living was “first thought, best thought” wisdom in action. I started believing “that something was happening” or was about to happen. In the process, I lost my way. The fire that burned inside me started to fade.
I became, over time, a Buddhist only in name. Practice became inconsistent, the dharma a justification system rather than a living practice that I embodied, regardless of all the blessings, practices and teachings I had received. It was as if I was outside of myself, looking in. Buddhism became bla bla bla. A stint in Darjeeling for a year and a half living as a monk provided many questions and not so many answers.
Life went on, I went back to school in Australia, moved to Japan for work, and life took its toll. 23 years went by in a blink of an eye.  Several times I tried to get myself back on the buddhist practice wagon, each time I fell off, most probably because yet again, my view of what it means to be a buddhist and my understanding of the core teachings was superficial. All this time my teacher was patient with me. Meetings or phone calls were always met with a smiling face and voice, a patient nod, encouragement and much love, often words just telling me to trust myself.
The fire never went out completely. At times, it was merely a spark, as I searched for something outside myself to fill the void that I was feeling. But looking outside of myself I was, and in doing so I cleanly missed the point of practice.
Last year, in the beginning of March, an earthquake here in Japan shook up my life. From those massive rumblings and waves that washed away so many lives and hopes and fears, my life too was splashed with cold water. My teacher was there again, right away when I needed him, concerned for my safety and offering prayers and encouragement. But the fragility of this constructed world that we live in struck me deeply. My fast paced life suddenly screeched back down to moment by moment. I was not comfortable in that space.
Practice was the only time where I really had a chance to confront myself, and when I did, I didnt like what I saw. Restlessness, nervousness, lack of satisfaction, the wanting for something else other than this, the neediness of my existence.
But slowly slowly, inch by inch, moment by moment, I reclaimed my life and developed the habit of consistency in practice, and have started the long and arduous process of stripping away the mental trappings that were once real obstacles to me living a more full life.
We human beings waste an incredible portion of our daily lives just not being here, in the now, the present moment. With an aspiration to never forget that core truth, I vow live my life.