Fear 2: Tangible shaking, tangible fears

Living in Nepal for several years, you sort of get used to the little tremors… you get jolted awake in the middle of the night, or your desk does a quick shake.

My first earthquake was in the monastery kitchen at Tengboche when the tea ladles hanging on the wall began to sway.  It was confusing – just a mild sense of motion – but the two Buddhist lamas sat calmly. 

The first sense of the 2015 earthquake might have been ten days before when we were planning a work field trip to the mountains in Manang. We knew that the road was bad with ice and snow left over from the winter… but I had this ominous feeling.

I was able to change the field schedule to do a shorter trip first and arrive back in Kathmandu on the Thursday before… but having no idea of what would happen on Saturday. Otherwise, on the originally planned date we would have been driving on a road across several cliffs at the time of the earthquake only 50 kms from the epicentre.

It was a muggy but chilled out late morning waiting for a friend to have coffee.

The main earthquake started as several little quakes that kept building in intensity over five minutes that felt like fifty.

That afternoon as I knelt under a table and the shakes grew and grew, it was as if there was no past and no future. It was as if I was totally in the ‘now, the present moment.’

That moment of being alive but connected to all those experiencing the horrendous destruction and death happening with each shake.

The power of the quakes… 7.9, 6.9, 7.3 brought huge devastation to some districts of central Nepal. Old style houses made of rocks and mortar collapsed killing about 9,000 people.

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Over the next 48 hours especially, the ground kept on moving. We later counted on the government seismic website that there had been 108 aftershocks in 48 hours that were over 4 in magnitude, earthquakes in their own right if it had not been for the big one.

The weeks and months that followed were filled with the immediacy of connecting people and places and groups… always in the moment.

The frequent aftershocks drove a very tangible fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong moment. 

It was a very moving to see people come together, to see how young people organised to help those in need. Helped me to sense our common humanity and the importance of helping others. A very tangible response to the tangible fear. 

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Fear 1: Moments of danger, times of fear

As fear engulfs the world right now I think of the moments of fear I’ve experienced in my lifetime – usually tangible fears felt or seen, unlike this almost intangible virus bringing the world to a stop. I think of people with whom I’ve shared those moments and of another being with whom I shared fear of each other.

I was just a bold twenty-something backpacking when I carelessly stepped into a very dangerous and fear provoking experience.

The mother bear and her cubs had left footprints in all the muddy patches along the trail. From the size, we knew that she was a grizzly bear – large, solitary, and as a mother, defensive of her cubs. We knew that she was in the valley bottom so when the trail went up onto the mountainside to skirt a gorge, we assumed that we had left the bears behind. Precautions fell away and I let my longer legs take me ahead of my friend.

On the trail traversing the mountainside, I stepped into a clearing in the forest. A loud grunt shattered the stillness and down the slope, I saw a large brown animal. At first, I spread my arms not sure what it was… moose, bear. Then, two little bear cubs ran off into the forest. The mother stood on her hind legs. More snorting as she dropped to all fours and ran uphill towards me. She was about 30 feet away.

It was like a switch clicking on in the back of my mind with all the precautions that I’d ever learned first from my parents, hiking partners, and more experienced friends and official warnings.

Stand still.

Those moments as she came up leaping over the fallen log her paws slashing out sideways. Her gaze pierced me. I closed my eyes to break the glower between us, not knowing what would happen. As I opened my eyes, she was sideways having turned within 2 feet of me. Off she rushed after her cubs.

I realized that we had shared a moment of intense mutual fear, that she was perhaps more afraid of me than I was of her.

My feet shook so hard they bruised from hitting the sides of my boots. My thoughts raced to the friend behind me on the trail. She soon arrived and immediately asked what happened from the look on my face.

Those moments of fear replayed through the night as I tried to sleep. By dawn I came back to the realisation of the shared fear with the mother bear. She was defending her cubs and I have had intruded have on their peaceful feeding in the forest meadow.

My intangible fear of ‘what if’ had materialised as a tangible danger of sights and sounds and presence. The fear returned as ‘what ifs’ but in the moment of most danger my inner brain had taken control of my reactions. My mind was blank, still, my inner mind knew what to do.

Grizzly mother and cubs Colleen

Grizzly mother with young cubs of the year.  Courtesy of and (c) Colleen Campbell 2001

Images courtesy of Colleen Campbell and Noel Rogers https://www.facebook.com/noelrogersphotography/

What do we really want from International Women's Day?

A few lines from International Women’s Day in Nepal.

I’m seeing several images posted on social media with classic looking women pumping their biceps and lots of raving.

But, I am asking myself, is this what Women’s Day is really all about?

Is Women’s Day about using brute strength like some men (certainly not all)? Do we women really want to imitate men and how they do things?

Or is it really to celebrate the perseverance, equanimity, subtle strength, and love with which women go about their daily lives?  

Do we really want to celebrate our masculine sides or strengthen our divine feminine? Bring that feminine power and way of doing things to a chaotic world?

Do we try to fight force with more force or try to return to more harmonious ways of being?

How do we create the conditions for women to be ensured of their rights to dignity and freedom from fear and servitude? Conditions so that women can voice their concerns and aspirations and have the agency to conduct their lives and livelihoods in a dignified and happy manner?

How do we ensure that some women never have to return to bonded labour (basically slaves) or en denture their children?

I hope that International Women’s Day also reminds women to follow their dreams and aspirations – whether to be a professional, climb a mountain, or raise happy and thoughtful children.

Samayak: Walking with the Buddhas among us

Again after four years, it is time for the Samayak when all the households with special Buddhist statues in Patan bring them to the big squares in the middle of the old city. The last Samayak was in 2016, just months after the earthquake. A couple of the temples damaged then have since been rebuilt.

First each household brings their ‘deity’ out to the front of their home on the street, where they offer prayers for the journey and gathering. The statues might be any size from six inches tall to huge heads over four feet tall that are worn by a man carrying them. Needless to say, many other family members help guide him on the journey through the streets.

Then, the Buddhas assemble in Patan Durbar Square before moving over to the Nag Bahal Square where tens of thousands of people come the next day to offer their prayers and devotion. The queues to enter the the courtyard stretch for blocks along the nearby road.

Come twilight on the second day, after a procession by the elders of the community, the Buddhas head home with crowds lining the lanes and reaching out to touch the statues as they pass. After a brief rest outside the home or temple, the statues are returned to their secluded homes. Portions of the offerings are shared with community members sitting and waiting in rows

Sacred Spaces, Sacred Places

Revering by walking, prostrating, chanting, offering…

Offerings – of objects or one’s presence –  affirms the Tibetan’s reverence of sacred places and objects.

 

jokhang threshold

Thresholds can be the shift into a physical structure or rituals for new events in a lifetime. Thresholds are the crossing into another existence whether physical, emotional, or spiritual… or as in these sacred places, the combination of all three.

Jokhang – the heart of Tibetan pilgrimage

Tibetans think of the Jokhang as the “spiritual heart of Lhasa” and it does sit in the middle of the Barkhor, the market square of old Lhasa. More importantly, it is the most sacred and important temple in Tibet.

King Songtsen Gampo (traditionally the 33rd king of Tibet) began to build the temple in 652 AD to house the many Buddhist statues brought as dowry by his two brides: Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal, who both helped him establish Buddhism in Tibet. The most important statue is the Jowo, an image of the twelve-year-old Buddha. The Jokhang was enlarged many times and the scene of many important events in the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet.

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In the morning there were thousands of Tibetans in a long queue to visit the inside of the Jokhang while others did prostrations and circled this most important temple.

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Spiritual and social… taking a break from prostrations

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Starting young… her mom showed her how to do the prostrations

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The police managing entry to the Jokhang let tourists in by another door without the long queue. Most of the other tourists were Chinese… everywhere we went.

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The queue was long but people were patient.  Many people carried large thermoses full of melted butter to add to the huge butterlamps by the main Jowo statue.

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The murals on the walls were fantastic, but no photos were allowed past this doorway.

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This old carving on a stone block seemed old. Some of the temple is about 1,300 years old and some has been refurbished, like on the roof.

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We could not see signs of the fire on Feb 17, the day after Losar this year. But, barriers and security guards limited how far we could wander on the rooftop.

 

 

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Most tourists were Chinese. An elderly Tibetan man I knew from past visits said that recently published statistics on visitors to the Potala in the previous month were 34 Tibetans, 5,000 Chinese, and 17 foreigners.  We did not visit the Potala on this trip. While I waited for the group, a young Chinese woman started talking to me here on the Jokhang roof. I asked her what attracted her to visit here… “pure, clean land and very faithful people”  It seemed that she had not heard much else about what has happened in Tibet.

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Shigatse and Tashilunpo

Tashilunpo is a relatively newer monastery in Shigastse to the west of Lhasa. It was founded in 1447 and sacked by the Gorkha Kingdom of Nepal in 1791.  The Nepalis were eventually driven back almost to Kathmandu. The monastery once had over 4,000 monks but we could not find our how many are there now.

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The worn flagstones… what history has passed over them.

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The monks gathering for evening prayers

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The threshold into the main prayer hall.

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Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig in Tibetan embodies the infinite compassion of all the Buddhas and completely devoted to helping others until all being achieve liberation.

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There are four main gompas (temples) in the monastery.

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The representation of the spiritual character of a previous lama.

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We were visiting in Saka Dawa, the sacred month commemorating the Buddha’s birth and enlightenment. Local people filled the area around the three stupas at Tashilungpo as they walked the kora, rested, ate, and visited.

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The kora path was like a river of devotion.

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Toddler sleeping on a bench.

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Many of the entry ways just before the thresholds at Tashlungpo had diagrams of inset turpqoise and other stones perhaps as extra symbols of one’s entry into sacred spaces.

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This is an ancient symbol represents continuity and good fortune. Unfortunately, its reverse was stolen for use by the Nazis in the 1930s.

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Photos on the roof of the Jokhang 1990s

Arriving in ultra modern Lhasa

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Arriving in Lhasa, May 2018, I’ve not been here since 1998 … new airport, three security counters, meet our guide, out into the parking lot, and a glimpse of the reality here.

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The old road meant a three hour trip, but one of the highlights was this beautiful Buddha seen along the way.  This photo is from my last trip in 1998.

 

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There is now a long, long tunnel that takes about two hours off the trip from the airport to the western edge of Lhasa. The tourist van is equipped with a camera (purple ball to right of centre) to record all that goes on inside and the speed of the van is monitored remotely. If a driver is going too fast, he is likely to get a phone call to say to slow down. The speed limit is 80 km/hr.

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The first glimpse of Lhasa is now of high rise buildings at the west end of the city. Next is a security check stop then driving past more mostly empty high rise apartment buildings where Tibetans working in remote areas buy flats as an investment and for their retirement. If they are working and living in a remote area, as our guide said, “everyone wants to live in Lhasa”  (this is just like all Nepalis wanting to live in Kathmandu and 50% of all Georgians now living in Tbilisi) Eventually we got to our hotel in an area of … wide streets, new modern buildings. This photo is actually in Shigastse as I was too flabbergasted to take photos of the journey into Lhasa.

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From the hotel, we walked along the wide sidewalks of the main street and then into the narrow lanes in the old city around the Barkor and Jokhang (main temple). Many of the buildings have been rebuilt but this area seemed to have mostly Tibetans going about their daily lives.

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As we approached the Barkor, the wide walking street to circumambulate the Jokhang, we were blocked by a booth with an electronic reader for all Chinese ID cards and an x-ray machine. Everyone had to put our bags through the x-ray to continue on to the Barkor.

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In late May it was Saka Dawa, the sacred month commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana (death) of the Buddha. Thousands of Tibetans were circumambulating the Jokhang and hundreds were doing so by prostrating, measuring the length of their body with each prostration.

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Most prostraters began their circuit with prostrations to the four directions in the large square in front of the Jokhang.

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There were dozens of Tibetans doing prostrations in place at the front entrance to the Jokhang on the new looking squared flagstones.

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This was a change from the 1990s, when it was still the patchwork of uncut stones. As well, we were not allowed up onto this part of the roof of the Jokhang.

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Gone were the women from Kham wearing Khampa jewelry with tables to sell souvenirs in the 1990s. Affectionately called the “lookie lookie ladies” as they chanted ‘lookie, lookie’ at the tourists. The souvenirs were all for sale in shops.

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The devotees walking the sacred route or doing prostrations were still there but the street life has changed. Gone are the street vendors selling snacks or trinkets.

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The juxtaposition continues. (1990s photo)

To Perfect Our Minds

“The purpose of our religion is to perfect our minds,” says Tengboche Rinpoche. His point of view is the Buddhism of the Himalaya, the heart and soul of the Sherpa culture.

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“I was born in Nauche and as a small child talked about wanting to go home to Tengboche,” says Rinpoche. He sits cross-legged on a wide bench in his dark kitchen lined with shelves of copper pots. In his lap he holds the small text from which he reads prayers every day.

“My mother carried me to Rongbuk Monastery in Tibet. Upon seeing a monk, I ran to hug him as if I had known him before. He was the nephew of the founder of Tengboche. The Abbot of Rongbuk recognized me as a tulku [reincarnate of a spiritually advanced person], the reincarnate of Tengboche’s founder, Lama Gulu.

“Back in Nauche, I identified Lama Gulu’s belongings. Everyone was satisfied after this proof, so I was brought to Tengboche at the age of five to be raised as the reincarnate lama and eventually become the Abbot of the monastery.”

Rinpoche spent decades studying at Tengboche and Buddhist universities in Tibet and Darjeeling until he was ready to assume the leadership of the monastery. As a spiritual leader of the Sherpa people, he is equally adept on matters as varied as health, education, politics, the building of bridges, and naming children.

Rinpoche’s life had been devoted to study of the Buddhist faith, which he describes by saying, “Our religion protects our character, which is why religion is so important in our culture. Happiness and unhappiness are caused by one’s state of mind.”

Merging the metaphysical with everyday life, the Sherpas’ prayers and rituals aim to generate positive spiritual energy for the benefit of all beings. Whether layman or cleric, religion is the way of life, unifying all aspects of existence. The practice of religion is not confined to a day of the week, it is an everyday affair.

The Sherpas’ religion is the oldest sect of Mahayana Buddhism, the Nyingma, which was established by Guru Rinpoche, an Indian mystic who was invited to establish Buddhism in Tibet about 730 AD.

Tengboche Rinpoche introduces me to the principles and practices of Buddhism through my work to complete the Sherpa museum. He often uses examples from daily life to illustrate the complexity of Buddhism. For example, one day talking about the Buddhist concept of emptiness:

“Think about this knife on the table,” says Rinpoche. “It’s real when you are sitting here in Tengboche. Will this knife be real to you in Canada? If you think about Canada right now, which is real — Canada or Tengboche, where your body happens to be?

“This is illusion, the unreal objects. The real objects and events happen in your mind. There are two ‘rivers’ to follow in our minds. The first, Sunya, emptiness, is about the knife. It deals with the perception or non-reality of all things. The second, Karuna, is compassion. After one attains perfect understanding of emptiness and compassion, one attains Buddhahood.”

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Meditation, the main practice of Buddhism

 

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Tengboche’s monks read the scriptures of the old sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingmapa.

“This is why it is important to remember that the purpose of our religion is to improve our minds. This is why it is important to study the Buddhist teachings, think about them, meditate — and then think some more.”

I wonder how to reconcile the purpose of “perfecting our minds” with the many rituals, offerings, deities, and religious objects of everyday life.

“There are many kinds of offerings,” says Rinpoche. Pointing at the urn of smouldering incense hanging outside his window, he continues:

“This is an offering through the sense of smell. There are physical offerings such as torma [dough figurines], visual offerings like pictures and sand mandalas, sound offerings like the ritual instruments and chants or prayers. Our good intentions are the most important offering.”

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Bells (tilbu) create sound offerings.

Sherpa life is also full of ritual objects. Everywhere in Sherpa country are stones carved with prayers, water-driven prayer wheels, and prayer flags. The carved prayer stones usually contain a single chant, a complete prayer, or a Buddhist image, while prayer wheels contain scrolls of printed prayers, often thousands of them.

Prayer flags, attached to tall poles or on strings, flutter on rooftops and mountain passes, or are strung across rivers and paths. They carry printed prayers and often show the wind horse, the swift bearer of prayers. Their five colours signify the elements — earth, wood, water, fire, and metal.

Stupas, called chorten in Sherpa and Tibetan, are the numerous monuments found across the Buddhist countryside by paths, streams, homes, and gondas. Chorten represent the body, mind, and spiritual development of the Buddha.

Pic05During the historical Buddha’s lifetime, stupas were a memorial for the deceased. As the Buddha lay dying, his followers asked what should be done with his remains. He requested that his body be placed in a simple stupa. Since then, the stupa symbolizes the Buddha, and often offerings or the relics of the deceased, especially lamas, are sealed inside various sizes and shapes of stupas.

While discussing displays for the museum, Rinpoche explains the importance of Buddhist prayers on rocks, flags, and other objects:

“We see them everywhere in the land of Buddhist people. These religious objects are part of our daily lives. They help focus people’s thoughts on the Buddhist teachings and bring about a positive state of mind in people, to the benefit of all.

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“The religious objects help create harmony between our actions, body, and mind. The Buddhist teachings will come easily to us when we gain merit first with our actions and body and then through our minds. So that everyone may understand them, religious objects have many explanations at these different levels.”

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These objects allow anyone to gain spiritual merit through good intentions and each flutter of the prayer flag or turn of the prayer wheel.

The Buddhas walking among us

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The drums beating, cymbals clashing, devotional singing, and a tall golden-faced figure arrives – a Dipankar Buddha. These ‘walking statues’ belong to groups of families, who keep the statues in their neighborhood shrines. Every five years, all the owners of the statues bring them together in a massive festival. There are usually about 100 large and small statues brought about on display.

The ‘walking statues’ are actually worn by a man inside, who has just a small hole in the statue’s garments to see. There are several people helping to guide and celebrate the procession of the statues, first into the Patan Durbar Square and then to the Nag Bahal courtyard.

The Durbar Square was affected by the April 2015 earthquakes but while some of the temples have timbers supporting them, only one temple was destroyed. Certainly the spirit of the Patan people is intact as they celebrated the occasion.

One family with a small wooden statue, only about two feet high, said that it is perhaps 1,200 years old.

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