Wednesday, December 26, 2007
A rickshaw driver gave me a lift the last half of the way and I arrived at the train station to find hundreds of people camped out on the floors. The departure board didn't show my 05:20 train, so I made an enquiry at the desk. Your train is 10 hours late, I was told. While I was standing there trying to digest that, he motioned for me to come around back and took me to the station master to see if I could change my ticket for the express train that was arriving in the next 30 minutes. Unfortunately, e-tickets are non-changeable and non-refundable.
Fortunately, 10 hours gave me enough time to visit Vaishali. So I went out front and found a taxi and off we went. By the time we crossed the Ganges (on what is one of the world's longer bridges, taking us 8 minutes to cross), the fog descended and turned the drive to Vaishali into a spooky, creepy crawl across a landscape that was only a couple of meters deep on any side.
It was still quite foggy when we reached the historical sites, which hung in the mist, bereft of their surroundings, like stupas in a dream. The fog was so thick it collected on trees and you could hear the pitter patter of water hitting the ground.
The fog finally lifted once we were about halfway back to Patna, and it was quite amazing to see so much life and landscape that we had driven through nearly blind.
On reaching Patna station I found my train further delayed until 18:00, giving me plenty of time to check out Patna museum. Besides housing some great statuary, the museum has a small sample of what are claimed to be ashes from the Buddha's cremation, taken from one of the stupas at Vaishali. To see only the relics the museum asks an additional US$12.50 on top of the US$6.00 general admission, an outrageous amount in India, where tickets to state-funded archaeological museums costs US$0.10. I chose not to pay for the relics, which are housed behind double pad-locked doors.
While the state authorities proved unwelcoming in their pricing, the people of the state were much friendlier. I was stopped several times in the museum by young people asking where I was from and what I was doing in Patna. I must be quite a rarity. In fact, in my two days here I haven't seen another foreigner on the streets. The welcome continued outside the museum, where a local press photographer was happy to find an exotic subject for his assignment and who obliged for a couple of personal photos.
And here I am now writing about it, after which I'll be off to the train station to see if my train has been delayed any further.
The trick to seeing India seems to be to travel loose, keep smiling, and ride the wave wherever it wants to go.
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Back at the hotel I ordered some hot tea to be delivered to my room. The waiter arrived and just walked right into the room without even knocking. What he delivered was a pot of tea with a film of oil on top. When I mentioned this when he came to collect the bill, he tried to explain it by saying the milk has oil. I drank it black. He lingered for a tip. I didn't give him one.
It was only when I got ready to leave the church that I found out that the auto-rickshaw drivers are on strike for the next three days. The guys who picked me up in the morning must have been getting in a few last-minute fares before retiring for the day. That left rickshaw the only option for getting back to town, a slow one-hour ride through a still slightly foggy Patna. Along the way, we passed a funeral procession.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
The 10 day retreat was arduous but enlightening, one of the best 10 days I've spent in recent memory. I haven't become an enlightened being, but I feel I'm not the same person who left Kathmandu in November. It is not easy to describe and since I don't have a lot of time to write, it will have to wait for later to me to say what happened and how I feel. For those that might be interested in reading more about what I was involved with, have a look here: http://www.dhamma.org If you ever thought about joining a course, but had reservations about the effectiveness of the technique, put those doubts aside.
This morning I'm running around doing a little shopping for necessities. I'll be taking another 10 day vow of silence beginning this afternoon, this time to study Tibetan Buddhism.
All my very best wishes for a happy holiday season. See you again in 10 days.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
One of my dreams for the past 10 years or so has been to spend a year traveling across India.
As of the end of November, I will have spent 5 months of 2007 in Nepal, the limit for someone on a tourist visa. Once the calendar turns to 01 January 2008, I am welcome back for another five months. And so to pass the time and to have a small taste of my dream, I'll be spending December in India, specifically the poorest parts, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
As my plan stands now, I'll be in Bodhgaya for a good part of the month. From 01-11 December I'm scheduled for a meditation retreat. If I survive that one and am up for more, I've signed up for a second to follow immediately on the first. The rules of the retreats require participants to maintain silence for the duration. I will be unable, except in case of emergencies, to communicate with anyone but the instructors. That means I won't be posting here or sending email for at least 10 days, perhaps 20. In this instance, no news will in fact be good news.
Because of the uncertainty over whether I'll be doing the second retreat, I have no post-retreat itinerary except to visit the following cities, all in the states of Bihar or Utttar Pradesh:
I plan to enter Nepal overland by bus and to visit the towns of Lumbini and Kapilivatu before returning to Kathmandu in the first week in January.As time and facilities permit, I'll be posting photos and updates, though I expect they will be sporadic. In any case, most of you will be busy with the year-end holidays and will likely not even notice that I've been away.
Wherever you go, whatever you're doing, I hope you enjoy the rest of 2007. Thank you for being a part of mine.
I look forward to seeing you again in 2008.
Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!
Saturday, November 24, 2007
As presented in broad strokes by first time Bhutanese director Neten Chokling, the story of one of Tibet's greatest saints is reduced to its bare outlines - the evil relatives who usurp Milarepa's inheritance and leave his family in poverty, his mother's dream of revenge, Milarepa's training in the dark arts, his revenge on his relatives, and his eventual turn to Buddhism to alleviate his guilt.
Very little of the story is fleshed out. We don't understand how Milarepa's uncle is able with impunity to confiscate his brother's wealth, nor why his wife continues to live in her brother-in-law's home, even though her family has been reduced to near beggary. Are there no other family members or villagers to speak on their behalf? Why is the uncle is so villainous to his sister-in-law and her children? How is he able to silence an entire village?
Milarepa's mother seems like the typical self-effacing Asian woman and the actress who plays her brings such quiet reserve to the part it's hard to believe her turn into the spiteful harpy who drives her son to learn sorcery and threatens to kill herself unless he makes the uncle suffer.
We never learn what Milarepa thinks about all this. He moves around as directed by the other players. For a character with so little self-motivation, the actor who plays him turns in a surprisingly appropriate performance. From beginning to end he maintains the same confused and slightly open-mouthed expression.
While the story has great mythical qualities, the film is shot in a fairly straightforward manner. Director Chokling and his director of photography Paul J Warren have in the mountain scenery of India's Himmachal Pradesh a magnificent setting, one that in it's soaring peaks and vast empty landscapes suggests a world rich in the supernatural. Very little else does. There are some fairly simple special effects - levitating rocks, running at high speeds, the conjuring of a storm - but no great panning shots, no off-centered camera angles, no filters, fuzzy edges, or high contrast.
Besides being a fairly pedestrian take on the legend of Milarepa, the film is also at times something of a disappointment for missed opportunities. Director Chokling is a Buddhist lama, a person of some scriptural and spiritual authority, who should be using what opportunities he has to again remind the world of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. With a little finesses and sensitivity, the thieving uncle ruining Milarepa's fatherless family could have been written as the Chinese taking advantage of the leaderless Tibetans.
If you know absolutely nothing about Milarepa, this might be an interesting place to start learning something about him. It's certainly a better film version than the 2006 Taiwanese production from director Sonam Rinpoche. Still, you'd likely learn more from some of the more interesting written accounts, plus you'd get the full story. The film takes the viewer up only until Milarepa's decision to seek a Buddhist master. The second part of the story is scheduled for a 2009 sequel.
The production quality is low-budget television. The camera never moves, shots are mostly straight on the main actor's face, the lighting is uniformly bright, and the transitions between scenes are home computer video effects. All the major action takes place off stage and is conveyed in what has to be an unintended homage to the silent movie era, screen shots of white text on black background. The editors couldn't bear to leave out all the expensive location shots and so we are treated to unnecessarily long sequences of Tibetans riding horses across the mountains. The actors are wooden amateurs who stumble through their stage directions and deliver their lines in pained recitations. The English subtitles are a horrible mess, with Milarepa's sister, for example, "wondering" far from home, instead of straying. And someone forgot to mention to the director that in the 11th century rifles didn't yet exist.
Leaving aside the inept production, the story delivers little spiritual punch. The only thing we learn about Buddhism is that it is based on "loving kindness and compassion," which is pretty hard to understand when Milarepa's teacher Marpa makes his student singlehandedly build, tear down and rebuild a stone house nine times. He does this to test Milarepa's sincerity and to help his student burn away his murderous guilt, but he comes across as just plain crazy, instead of a crazy sage. We never really understand what it is that Marpa has to teach, nor why Milarepa so eagerly and earnestly seeks the teachings.
Basically, the filmmaker is depending on the viewer to be familiar with the story and to fill in the details for himself. And that's what makes this such a disappointing film, that it does not appear to have been a labor of love, but simply a labor.
(There are at present two films titled Milarepa. The film reviewed here is the 2006 version from Taiwan's Kun Sang Film and PBC Music, directed by Sonom Rinpoche. But the first to be released is a 2005 Bhutanese production from director Neten Chokling, released in Europe and North America as Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint.)
The school rented out the grounds of a “resort” in an area called Dakshin Kali, just outside the Kathmandu Valley proper. As you can see, the hotel has a pool, which along with the semi-remote location seems to qualify the use of the word “resort.”
There is for some reason a large number of Buddhist monasteries in the area, one of which you can see in the photos here. A few of us walked down there to admire the amazing collection of wall paintings, all finished within the past two years.
The rest spent the day as you see here – playing various kinds of games, swimming, and eating.
There was a very large amount of food, including a small 10:00 breakfast of curried beans and chappatis, a 13:00 lunch (pictured) of fried chicken, a stew of dried buffalo, tofu, curried veggies, rice, and fruit yogurt, followed by a dinner at around 18:00 of mostly leftovers.
At Tsering our education begins by learning to draw freehand, the idea being that if you can learn to draw freehand, drawing within a system of grids should be easier than working in the other direction, which may produce and overdependence on the grids. Personally, I think either direction will work, depending on your learning style.
In any case, this past week the first year students had their yearly measurement classes. It was quite a fun week for me. Typically we work individually on our own drawings and school policy is to maintain silence in the classroom, but this past week we all worked together on the same project, our teacher Kelsang (shown here) gave us a bit of lecture, and we had a chance to joke and fool around a little more than usual. Be we also had to work hard and I found this week's drawing more intense for having to complete the work to keep up with my classmates. I spent more time hunched over my desk, as it were, and as a result suffered some terrible back pain. This is in spite of doing yoga every morning for the last three months, plus doing special stretching exercises for the back.
As you can see from the photos, we covered only the Buddha's face, head, and body. I think that's all we cover for the first year. So you can see that rather than ripping through a half dozen or more deities, the emphasis is on completely mastery.
We finished the week with a school outing, about which I'll be posting more later this weekend.
Friday, November 16, 2007
16:45 read, write, shower
The Himalayas on a clear autumn morning.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
The trick with the sky and ground is to work from a darker shade to a lighter shade, preferably without being able to notice any lines where the color changes shade. I'm working now on a second piece that is proving more difficult.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Afterwards I visited my Nepali family for tikas from my sisters Laxmi and Yamuna. You might notice that one of the girls is named after the goddess who figures in the holiday mythology. As the Basnets are of a different caste than the Vaidyas, the ceremony was slightly different, most noticeably in the multicolored tika and in brother reciprocating tika to sister.
I came home with bags of fruits and sweets and a neck-full of garlands. I washed up as best I could, but this morning one of my classmates noted that my head is red, leftover color from the holiday blessings from my lovely Nepali sisters.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
We took a taxi to the town of Thali, just west of the Manohara river, hiked through some potato fields and up the hill to Changu Narayan, a temple first constructed about 1600 years ago to the Hindu god Vishnu. The temple is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and much to our surprise is surrounded by a quaint artist's village specializing in thangka, wood carving, and knitted wool garments.
From the temple we headed up and across a ridge that descends from Nagarkot, enjoying a small picnic lunch along the way. Heavy rain clouds began to blow across the mountains, the wind picked up and the temperature became cooler. Rain started falling and we made it to within an hour's climb of the summit before deciding to turn back for the road and a bus back to Bhaktapur.
Giving up was disappointing. Especially so after waking up this morning to a crystal clear sky, the air sparkling clean after yesterday's washing. On the other hand, if we hadn't come back I wouldn't have had a chance to have enjoyed the cultural program that was performed here at the Dragon Guest House.
Shortly after dark a group of around 20 teenagers in ethnic attire arrived with their own PA system and right there in the driveway put on a 40 minute show of Nepali and Himalayan folk music and dance. The kids are students at a local boarding school for orphaned children, a school for which the owner of our guest house served as a director for the past 15 years. The occasion, the reason they showed up last night, and not last week, is Tihar, the festival of lights, known more widely perhaps by it's Hindi name, Diwali, which is being celebrated this weekend across most of South Asia.
Much like Christmas caroling in the west, during Tihar groups of young people get together and roam the neighborhoods singing in front of private residences. The families who are serenaded return the favor with refreshments and token rewards of money. Unfortunately, the high-spirited take things to extremes and last night the guest house was woken at 3am by a group of kids who just didn't know when to quit.
Consequently I woke up late this morning. By the time I had washed up and dressed it was already 7:00.
Monday, November 5, 2007
I think the last time for me was during my 1998 visit to Nepal. Two of my fellow teachers took me out for an all-day trek through the Kali Gandaki gorge. As I recall I was sick in bed the following day.
I think my daily yoga practice helped me avoid that same fate this morning. I was tired, for sure, and my knees and upper thighs a bit tight, but I was otherwise able to function fairly normally today.
Pictured below are two of my classmates – the monks – and our new friend Don at the top of Nargarjuna Mountain, a scared Buddhist site 2017m above sea level. Imagine a set of stairs that took you 2 hours to climb and you've got a good idea of what we did Sunday morning.
We had planned to go just the three of us, but when we got to the main gate we ran into a snag. The mountain is part of a larger forest preserve that also houses a royal lodge and so is fenced-in and managed by the army. To get in the soldiers required that one of us leave an official form of identification, such as a passport, citizenship card, or driver's license. Between us we had nothing. Except for the cab driver.
He offered, for the sum of 1000RPs (about US$16.00) to get us into the park. But rather than wait for us, he offered to walk with us. And so we had a new friend and companion for the day, our driver from Bhaktapur, Don.
I think perhaps he didn't realize how much of his day he'd be spending with us.
It was an overcast morning so there was little to see. Apparently a good stretch of the Himalaya can be seen from here, but we were lucky to see down into the valley immediately below.
There is a dirt road suitable for cars and we followed this down, not realizing that it would take us a while to get back. Four hours, in fact. But it was all downhill and not terribly strenuous or difficult walking. Here we are about 2/3 of the way down, with Kathmandu in the background.
As soon as we got back to Boudha I headed home for a shower, dinner, and a beer. I went straight to bed and slept 10 hours. Tenzin this morning told me that he played basketball with his buddies! Which is what you can do when you're still in your 20's.
Friday, November 2, 2007
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Below is a composite of the same pond a few moments apart. When I first walked by there was lots of movement, small frogs that noticed me and dove underwater. I sat down and took the first shot and quietly waited for them to resurface for the second shot.