Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Week 3: On my own

As last week was Losar, the Tibetan New Year, school was on holiday for a week. That didn't stop me from sharpening my pencil and wetting my brush. I produced some really awful stuff during that week, but below you'll find one of the better examples, created on one of those days when nearly everything goes just right.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

Happy Losar!

Tuesday was the last day of the three day New Year holidays, known as Losar by the Tibetans. Whereas the first two days are rather quiet, with families visiting temples and accepting visitors at home, the last day is more public, with families out circling the stupa and showing off their new year finery. In the afternoon there was a Losar party at the nearby Hyatt hotel grounds, featuring live music, dance, and lots of food and beer.

Below are some photos taken around the stupa, fol owed by a few shots from the party at the Hyatt. In the first band photo the singer is my art teacher at Shechen.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A million ways . . .

. . . to find the face of beauty. - Vargo

I found this one outside my window yesterday afternoon.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Lama dance

As in many parts of Asia, the Tibetans follow a lunar calendar and so tomorrow marks the beginning of Losar, the three day Tibetan New Year. Among the many events are the lama dances performed at many of the monasteries. Here are a few photos from yesterday's performance at the White Gompa.


Today in Nepal smoking marijuana at the Pashupatinath Temple was open and legal. It's one of the traditions associated with the sadhus, the nomadic Hindu mystics who live on alms, and open season on this Hindu holiday celebrating the birth of Lord Shiva, one of the most revered of the Hindu pantheon here in Nepal. For more, have a look here or here.

Below are a few photos from today's visit to Pashupatinath, a huge sensory overload induced by the crush of thousands of people; incense, fires, and marijuana burning everywhere; cremations on the river; and always beggars underfoot.

These fellows were rolling themselves across the temple grounds, rolling for Shiva.

Lots of these guys around smoking ganja. Many come from India for the holiday.

This was a real cremation taking place on the Bagmati River. The children of the deceased have their heads shaved in a mourning ritual.

The temple and the Bagmati river.

And in case you were wondering, I didn't smoke a thing today. ;-)


Thursday, February 15, 2007

Visit to a thangka workshop

Last Sunday, 11 February, I had the chance to visit a thangka workshop located just a couple of blocks from my guest house down a typical narrow alley with an unpaved road. Housed in the 4-story building are the offices and studios of the Dharmadhatu Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the condition of painters and the socially and economically disadvantaged.

I learned about DD at one of Boudha's thangka shops, places I visit from time to time to chat with the sales people, owners and painters. At one small shop the sales person was telling me about an organization he belonged to that was attempting to assist poor thangka painters to get more money for their work through the formation of a cooperative studio and retail outlet.

The retail shop hasn't yet materialized, but you can have a look at some photos of the workshop below, as well as learn more about the organization here, and have a look at some of the art being produced here.

In these first two photos you'll see a young man tracing what are some very intricate designs. As thangka are for many people a means of survival, it is more important to be able to produce something that you can sell, rather than mastering a skill before producing your first bit of work. You'll see another set of photos below of another artist tracing an image onto canvas. In this case, the artist is working with paint. As I study at what you might think of as a more traditional "school," there is no theoretical or economic necessity to practice tracing.

Below are two young artists, both still in their teens, if I remember correctly, applying shading to the four corners of mandalas. The technique requires applying dark layers of colors in the far corners and making the color increasing lighter as it moves to the center, producing the appearance of fading. This is some of the simplest painting work and it is often what new apprentices learn first, as once they master the technique they can begin earning their keep. Below you'll see some more photos of a room full of women, all beginners and all practicing shading.

Here is the backside of a large canvas. Notice the paper attached to the canvas and the light directed at it. The artist is on the other side copying the image to the canvas.

Below is the master artist of the workshop doing some of the more delicate finishing work, such as adding gold. Notice the shading and most of the content is finished.

Following are several photos of the learner's room, a group of young ladies practicing shading. If you look closely, you'll see that they are shading blue skies and green hills, fairly typical background features in most thangka. Most of these women, I was told, are unskilled and without opportunities to lerarn a skill or craft. The DD Foundation provides this training for free.

And finally the founder and organizer of the Dharmadhatu Foundation, Buddha Moktang Lama, and his wife (whose name I don't have with me just now).


Can you use a computer?

I've been going to the local police office daily for the past week trying to recover the report on my stolen walkman that was promised to me on the 11th, the day after filing on the 10th. See my previous post on that particular experience.

The first day I went back the inspector wasn't in and no one knew anything about my report. The next day still no inspector, but the young man who talked with me asked if I needed this report in English. I explained I needed it for my insurance company and that I didn't think anyone at that institution could read Nepali. This office doesn't do English, he said. I looked disappointed. He looked contemplative. Finally he said he would get it done in English for me. Please come back tomorrow.

The next day the inspector was in, but my report wasn't yet ready. Someone had an English theft/loss report form, but it had a fat black streak down the right side from a malfunctioning printer. The inspector asked if I could wait a moment for them to print out a clean one. I said yes, but then the power went out. The inspector ordered tea and we waited to see if the power would come back. It didn't. The inspector asked me to fill out the form in pencil and they would type it up for me to collect today.

When I arrived today, the form wasn't ready. The scribe wasn't in. The inspector asked, what can I do for you? Well, I need the report, I said. If you like, I can type it for you. You can use the computer, the inspector asked. Of course. Ok, come here.

And so I not only typed up my own report, but also typed up a template for them for future use with unlucky foreign tourists.

So, now I've got my report. Plus a picture with inspector.


Week 2: First look

A few people have noted that I have not yet posted any of my own artwork. That is for a very good reason - it isn't worth presenting.

But here today is a first glimpse, my latest bit of drawing work completed just this morning. You'll see the teacher's version top left. The rest are mine.

Tomorrow we start Losar, the New Year holiday, so myself and a few other students will be practicing on our own for most of next week.



For the woman in the neighboring room at my guest house, it was a wonderful day. She decided to stay home and enjoyed the rain and snow from the comfort of her room.

Me, I was out in it starting at 7:30am. The landlady let me borrow an umbrella, so getting to school wasn't much of a problem, but by the time we let out for lunch the rain had gotten harder and the roads were small creeks of mud. I went out to eat with our newest student, a young American woman, an art teacher by profession who arrived in Kathmandu only a few days ago from meditation retreat in Burma. Lizzie and I celebrated Valentine's Day with chocolate cake, brownies, and coffee and at the New Orleans Cafe.

Most homes and businesses don't have heating and our school is no different, so it was rather chilly afternoon after we got back with wet feet and pant bottoms. There wasn't much hot water left at the guest house, so I had to settle for a sponge bath, hot tea and extra blankets to get warm.

Life here helps you appreciate very small pleasures.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

A few grains at a time

You've probably seen this before on television or in a film about Tibetans or Himalayan culture, the tradition of sand mandalas. These are iconic religious images made entirely out of colored sand, laid on an outline a few grains at a time.

There is at present a week long ceremony going on at the temple where I'm studying, a ceremony I don't completely understand but that was explained to me as an annual event closing out the academic and calendar year. The Tibetans use a lunar calendar and the new year will be celebrated next week.

My classmates in the art school were charged with making this mandala and I spent a good part of the day going back and forth between school and the temple to photograph their progression. Here you see the outline of the mandala, as painted on a plywood making a box that can be folded and stored (you can see the crease in the center of the image).

This little bit of colored sand was used simply for a consecration ceremony. More colors and a greater volume will be used that what is pictured here.

The colored sand goes into a small metal tube that has a narrow band of ridges up the spine. The artist holds this in one hand and in the other a metal stick which he rubs up and down the ridges of the sand holder, the vibrations causing the sand to fall out the end of the tube.

The pictures here were taken over a period of about 7 hours. Unfortunately, I never got back to the temple to get a shot of the completed mandala before they wrapped the stand in banners and flags and then put a statue and a bunch of other stuff on top of it.



The Buddha taught that life is suffering, that all beings suffer, that it is impossible to escape from suffering.

You see it here quite vividly nearly everyday. As this is a tourist area, there are quite a large number of beggars in the area (many from India, strange as it may seem) but the fellow below, if there were such honors, would place near the top for creative begging. When it isn't raining, you can find him on the same corner with his shirt hiked up showing the tube entering his belly and connected at the other end to his colostomy bag.

No idea if it's real or not, but it looks real enough to shock.


Nepal isn't easy 2

This past week the political problem in the south was settled, at least enough so for the demonstrators to open their blockades and thereby ending Kathmandu's week-long petrol shortage. Electricity is still in short supply, and a water shortage is still looming.

This week's problem is garbage piling up in the streets as a result of a blockade by nearby residents of the city's landfill. Apparently these people have been pressing the government for some years to properly manage the area, but their patience seems to have come to an end.

Garbage disposal here seems very rudimentary and consists of people throwing their bagged and sometimes unbagged refuse into the street. I came home late one night which happened to be garbage night and there seemed to be a larger number of stray dogs than usual prowling the area, no doubt enjoying the feast set before them on the streets. It was in fact a bit frightening seeing so many stray dogs and being one of only a few humans on the street.


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Bring your own paper

I went to the local police office to report the lost/theft of my minidisc player, not because I believe the police will ever find it, but simply to get a copy of the report so that I can recover the loss through my traveler's insurance.

The building is rather nondescript and decrepit, like a lot of buildings here, with some fully-loaded soldiers standing outside. The guy with the automatic rifle seemed kind of amused that I was asking for the police, but pointed the way inside with his gun. Once in the compound there is no sign of where to turn or which office to enter, but another soldier asked me what I needed. I explained that I wanted to file a loss/theft report and he says I'll need to write it up and submit to the investigators. Great. Where is the form I need to fill out? They guy looked a me a bit exasperated, like he's explaining this to a kid, and says I have to bring a report. Write it up on a piece of paper and bring it us. In other words, there was no form.

Just then someone from the second floor looks down and asks what's going on. The soldier explains, the uniformed guy upstairs replies, and then the soldier tells me to see the guy upstairs, who it turns out is a real police officer and not a soldier. He tells me what the soldier told me, so I ask him for a piece of paper. Can I write it now? The officer asks the office girl to give him some paper. Fortunately, I had a pen and proceeded to write out a description of my complaint.

After I finished he says the police will conduct an investigation and that I can come back at a later date for a copy of their report. When can I come back to pick that up, I ask. When you would like, he replies. Tomorrow? Ok. What time? Anytime after 9:00am, he says.

So if he was sincere about the police conducting an investigation, that means they have less than a day to do so.


Friday, February 9, 2007

But you don't sound like an American

I have to pass through the courtyard of the monastery's compound on the way to school and this morning I ran into Phuntsok, a 27-year old pictured in a previous entry, Preparing the Drawing Surface. He's become my informant on things happening around the monastery as well as all things Bhutanese. He is such a gracious and charming young man, always fetching my tea at break time, answering my questions, and showing me around.

This morning there was a big bustle about the monastery that Phuntsok informed me was preparation for a ceremony to welcome a Rinpoche to Boudhna, a Rinpoche being a master of Tibetan Buddhism, and Boudha being the large stupa around which the exile Tibetan community has settled and where I am living and studying. Phunsook said they had to be there at 8:00, so I thought I'd hang around to see what was happening and miss the first hour or so of school to take a few photos.

I should have known better.

I hung around with some of my classmates in front of the monastery while they got themselves ready and had the opportunity then to meet the only foreign monk in residence, who let me know that the ceremony in question was in fact a funeral procession welcoming back the body of the Rinpoche after it had been around to several temples. The French monk also said after we had talked for a while and got around to my having been born in the US that I didn't sound like an American. Not more than an hour later I ran into another foreign monk, this one an American, who said exactly the same thing.

After all was ready, we all trooped out to the main street just outside the front gate of Boudha and the monks stood shoulder to shoulder lining the street. More monks began to show up from other monasteries and soon the line of monks stretched for at least a kilometer. This was all in place by 9:00 or 9:30. And then everyone waited two hours for the body to show up.

Once it did and the procession made its way to the main gate, there was a mad crush to get into the very narrow street that surrounds the stupa and in the melee I not only got more familiar with a few Nepalis than I really cared to, I also lost my minidisc player.

Not only that, I missed an entire morning of school just hanging around on the streets. I did get quite a few good pictures, but getting them uploaded here is such a time-consuming hassle that I'm only going to upload these two. You'll have to wait until I get back to Japan to uplaod the rest.

I saw some of my classmates after I'd had a bit of lunch and they informed me that school was cancelled for the afternoon session. Perhaps my Buddhism class is as well. I need to go find out just now.


Book Review: Way of Tibetan Buddhism; Lama Jampa Thaye (Dr David Stott), 2001

This short book offers a concise introduction to the tenets of Buddhism in general and to Tibetan Buddhism in particular. Beginning with a brief outline of the life of the historical Buddha, English scholar and Tibetan mediatation practitioner Dr David Stott (writing here under his Buddhist name, Lama Jampa Thaye) leads the reader through the historical and philosophical development of Tibetan Buddhism.

Written in unpretentious, everyday English, Stott stays on topic and, except for a lengthy middle section readers already familiar with Buddhism might like to skip, presents in less than 150 pages a succinct outline of what makes Tibetan Buddhism unique as well as to what separates Tibetans in matters of Buddhist philosophy.

Tibetan terms are not overused and are explained as they are introduced. A glossary is provided but unfortunately a guide to pronunciation is not. Also available for your edification are the author's opinions on theism (you cannot practice Buddhism and be a Christian, Jew, Muslim or any other kind of theist), reincarnation (which he claims is the cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy and without which the entire system would collapse), and orthodoxy (anyone wishing to be a Buddhist must accept it whole, the complete 2500 year accretion of study, practice and tradition).


Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Nepal isn't easy

There’s a lot to like about Nepal, but there’s also quite a lot that’s just a muddle. I have mentioned in a previous post the power shortage and the daily blackouts. Partly the lack of electricity is a result of the lack of rain, which normally fills the rivers that turn the turbines. Ironically, the lack of electricity is now threatening an even greater water shortage. In the absence of rain, the local water authority relies on ground water, but without electricity it can’t be pumped. As if that weren’t problem enough, there have been daily political demonstrations in the south and as part of their campaign against the government, the protesters have blockaded the roads from India and the capital is now short of petrol, with massive lines of cars nightly at city gas stations. The government yesterday began armed escorts of tanker trucks through the blockades and the armed forces themselves will be distributing oil to prevent price gouging and civil disturbances at petrol stands.

That’s how Nepal works – or doesn’t work. Like the manager of the internet café said this afternoon when I asked if was willing to pay for my pants. I was in the same place last week and sat at a desk just high enough to squeeze your legs under. A nail protruding just a couple of millimeters snagged my pants, not enough to rip them, but still enough to warrant letting the manager know. I sat at the same desk today and snagged another pair of pants. The manager said he actually tried fixing the nail but just smiled when I asked if her was willing to replace my torn pants. “These things happen sometimes. This is Nepal,” he said.


Saturday, February 3, 2007

Knowing your audience

Saturday we have a half-day of school, and after class I was invited for a teaching at the nearby White Monastery, another Tibetan institution just around the corner from where I'm studying. The Rinpoche, the head of the monastery, apparently gives semi-regular lectures in English on Saturday mornings.

There were perhaps 30-40 people in attendance, most Caucasian, and after entering with a hearty "good morning" and seating himself in front of the audience, he began:

Bullshit practice, bullshit patience, bullshit results.

Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche had our immediate attention and in charming idosyncratic English proceeded to discourse on learning to practice compassion. He asked for feedback from us to help find the right words, and sitting cross-legged on his raised chair, bent slightly forward, he would punctuate his statements with "hmm" and occasionally let loose with a cackling laugh, a living Yoda-like figure teaching here in Kathmandu.

After the talk there was an announcement of a short course beginning Monday and running for one month on a classic Buddhist text to be taught by a recent graduate of the monastery's school of philosophy. As the timing fits in perfectly with my art classes, I'm planning on showing up Monday for the first class and if all looks well signing on for the full course. For anyone that might be interested, the text we'll be studying is The Thirty Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva.