Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The hills behind Pullahari


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.

This last photo was taken Monday morning. The guest house is located on the back of a small rise on the road leading down the hill. When I came over that rise, I found this painfully beautiful scene, of which this photo is but a shallow echo.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Weekend at Pullahari

I spent the last weekend of October in the hills behind Boudha, hiking, reading and meditating. It was a glorious fall weekend, with clear skies, mild temperatures, and gentle winds. The forests in the area are mostly pine and so the principal color was green.

I hiked up to Pullahari Monastery, which to my eye has the most beautiful temple in Nepal, made possible by a one million dollar donation from an American Buddhist nun. Apparently, that sum was enough to cover basic construction costs. I heard no cost estimate on the interiors and finishing work, but it must have been near one million itself. I have some photos of the interiors and the paintings and I'll share them this week, as time permits.

For now, here are a few shots of the exterior. This first was taken from the road leading up to the monastery. I hiked up from my guest house, a little over an hour of not terribly strenuous walking.

From a hill on the opposite side, you can in the bottom left quadrant see the guest houses.

From my room in one of those buildings, I had this view of the valley.

And after dark, the courtyard and softly lit temple form one half of an amazing landscape featuring the Kathmandu skyline. The monks here were practicing debate for a tournament taking place next week in Varanasi, India.


Saturday, October 27, 2007

Movie Review: The Yogis of Tibet (2003); Phil and Jo Borack, prod.

The producers of this film claim to reveal for the first time on film secrets of Tibetan mind masters, the titular "yogis" that spend years in solitary retreat practicing meditation and physical exercises. Unfortunately, there is very little revelatory in this film for anyone but a complete beginner to Tibetan Buddhism.

Nearly every introduction to the topic contains at least passing mention of yogis able to levitate, to communicate psychically, to see past lives, to peer into the future, or to control the death process. No such abilities have ever been documented by standards of modern science and there are no such feats documented in this film.

There are the usual uncorroborated second and third person reports (none from disinterested, non-Buddhist, non-partisan sources) of yogis exhibiting some of the powers mentioned above. One segment pretends to document the ability to generate extreme body heat, a power practiced by one of Tibetan mythology's great yogis, a man who was said to be able generate enough heat to cause steam to rise off his clothing after it and the yogi had been dipped into nearly freezing water. What the director shows us is a 5-second shot of a thermal scan of a mediator. There is no explanation of what is being shown. No wet clothing. No steam.

Perhaps the most interesting segment is a young monk practicing an acrobatic breathing exercise, one that he says took him two years to master and that he practices two hours daily. From a seated full-lotus position, the young practitioner extends his legs and launches himself into the air, rising about a meter off the ground. He quickly refolds in mid-air to the full-lotus, landing as he started. There's nothing at all paranormal or supernormal about his practice as captured on film, but as you watch him you can image where claims of levitation might have once - ahem - arisen.

A question addressed in the film is to what degree these yogis are following the Buddha's "middle way." Having nearly starved himself to death in the search for enlightenment, the Buddha denounced as pernicious the practice of austerities, in which he saw the counterpart to the pursuit of sensual pleasure. It was shortly after again consuming food and returning to a "normal" state of health that the Buddha attained enlightenment and promulgated the "middle way" as the ideal method for living and for attaining enlightenment. In what way are the yogis discussed in the film - men who for three years live in caves, sit in boxes to keep them upright, deprive themselves of sleep and eat only a subsistence diet - in what way are they practicing a "middle" way? If their way is not extreme, what is? Perhaps the answer is in how you define your terms. Unfortunately, the topic is not discussed, nor the question raised in interviews with the yogis.

If you know nothing or very little about Tibetan Buddhism, The Yogis of Tibet might serve as a useful introduction. You get a 20 minute recap of Tibetan history and its brand of Buddhism, you get some great shots of the Himalayas, you meet some of the great living religious leaders from the Tibetan tradition, and you learn that not all their claims are verifiable to outsiders. Not surprisingly, the American producers of the film (Phil and Jo Borack) are Buddhists practicing in the Tibetan tradition.


Thursday, October 25, 2007


This past Saturday evening Sandip and I had the pleasure - or perhaps I should say I had the pleasure; I'm not so sure about Sandip - of meeting a Baul, who performed for a small group of tourists at the Vajra Hotel.

The Bauls are the Hindu equivalent of the Sufis, itinerant mystics who sing and dance in praise to the mystery of life. As I had never heard of them, let alone heard one sing, it was quite an informative evening. The woman accompanying him on percussion is the Baul's disciple, a Swedish national who has been studying the form for 10 years, and who has created a small web site with more information about the Baul's and Binod Das Baul, including video performances.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Happy Dashain

Durga victorious!

Click the image for an animated version.


The Basnets

Here are a few more photos of my weekend with the Basnets.

L to R: Son-in-law Bhupesh (married to daughter Laxmi, who was away from Kathmandu) ,
Mr and Mrs Basnet, Yamuna, Sandip

Devi and housekeeper Pinky

The lovely Yamuna

Biker mom

... and Tommy.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007


The Nepali holiday of Dashain [pron: duh-sign] commemorates the victory in Hindu mythology of the Goddess Durga over the the buffalo demon Mahisasura. Fittingly, one of the ceremonies that takes place over this 15-day celebration is the sacrificial slaughter of buffalo – as well as many other animals, principally goats, ducks and chickens. It seems it is the one time of year when Nepalis consume large amounts of meat. I had my share during my weekend at the Basnet's, where I was invited to observe and enjoy my first Nepali Dashain. As some of you may recall, I did a homestay on my first visit to Kathmandu 10 years ago and since then have kept in regular contact with my Nepali family, who seem always happy to have me for dinner and offer me a bed for the night.

Besides consuming large amounts of curried mutton with them, I was also the recipient of blessings and tika from Mr and Mrs Basnet, as well as from many of their relatives, whom we visited this past Sunday afternoon. Here you can see the village priest from Chobar, Mr Basnet's hometown, giving his blessings to Mr and Mrs Basnet, who in turn gave blessings and tikas to their children and to me.

Where I think North Americans, Europeans, and Japanese can be described as rich in material comforts, Nepali's might be described as rich in time – Dashain lasts a full 15 days. It is Nepal's Christmas, or Oshogatsu, the one time of year when work stops and everyone goes home to be with family. Lots of food; lots of drink; lots of laying about and enjoying the company of friends and family.

Two traditional activities are pictured here: the village swing, constructed of rope and bamboo and erected in the park right in front of the Basnet's house; and cards, pictured here with my nephew Sandip and his lovely cousin, whose name I don't now recall.

Dashain runs through the rest of the week, finishing on the day of the full moon. If you have any Nepalese friends or acquaintances, please be sure to wish them a “Happy Dashain.”


Monday, October 15, 2007

The Dalai Lama gets a medal - we get a holiday

I asked if there were any special ceremonies or events planned for Wednesday, but so far no one knows anything. The holiday came at a convenient time as I need to go to the Indian embassy to apply for a visa, but I'd like to hang around if something special is planned. This being Nepal, many such things happen at the last moment.

Dalai Lama to receive US honor amid China tensions


Sunday morning at Gokarna Temple

Sunday was bright and beautiful, perfect for spending time outdoors after a rainy Saturday. I walked the 5km to the nearby Newari village of Gokarna, where I shot lots of photos of the temple on the Bagmati river.

This last photo was taken in one of the villages on the road to Gokarna where paper is made.


Friday, October 12, 2007

My First Buddha

It's not perfect. It never is. But it is the first. I'd say altogether this took 25 hours. And in fact it's not really finished. But it's good enough for now.


The Last Resort

One of the best things about my bungy/rafting weekend was having such a beautiful location at which to unwind and spend the night. The Last Resort is located in a rural area, completely undeveloped except for the highway that leads to the Tibetan border about 10 kilometers north.
What you see here are the steps leading down to my room.

And this is my room, a very comfortable tent on a concrete foundation and covered by a thatch roof. I had what was probably the best location, because beyond my tent was nothing but forest.

In fact, beyond my tent looked just like this. Imagine as you look the sound of the river lulling you to sleep, and whisepring good morning as you open your eyes and try to figure out just where you are today.

Sunset in the gorge was gourgeous, as you can see in the photo of the clouds. While I was out there on the bridge shooting the sky, this boy came out to fly his kite.

I wish I could show you the night sky. With no neon or car lights polluting the sky and not a cloud to hide them, the stars were twinkly bright. I even saw a shooting star.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

A little water won't hurt you

Compared to throwing your body off a 160 meter bridge, rafting was rather tame. I wasn't the only one who thought so. Many in our group had been bungy jumping the day before and were waiting for something a little more thrilling to happen on the river.

We had to settle instead for views of lush green mountains, many terraced for rice planting, punctuated by regular runs through rapids that sent the raft jumping up and down and waves of water in our faces and across our bodies. None of our four rafts flipped, but several individuals were thrown into the river. On ours only one took the plunge – and it wasn't me.

We had 7 people on board, including one guide and his assistant. So, basically two people who knew what they were doing. The two Scandinavians up front had done a rafting trip years ago, while the German across from me in the middle, and the Italian and Swiss girls in the rear were beginners. We did a short training on land, then on a calm stretch of the river, coordinating our paddling and responding to an assortment of commands. And then we were off. We traveled perhaps 90 minutes, stopped for a picnic lunch that was brought in by bus along a road running next to the river, and then we did another 90 minutes before packing everything up into the bus and heading back to Kathmandu.

It was great fun and I'd love to do it again. There are rafting tours across Nepal that last anywhere from 3 to 18 days, some including treks of several days across the mountains to get to the river head. I don't really have 2 or 3 weeks to give up, but perhaps a well-placed holiday will give me a few days to get away and once again get wet.


Tuesday, October 9, 2007

More than you may want to know about my bungy jump

It seems the photos of my weekend stimulated the interest of at least a few readers, so if you'd care to know more of the details, follow me.

The first thing you're probably wondering is why this old man, as I was referred to by a Scandinavian lad on our rafting trip, threw himself off a 160 meter bridge. Good question. But really, why not? Of all the things I did this weekend, the most dangerous was not bungy jumping, was not white water rafting, but was rather something we all do quite regularly, get in a car or bus and ride the highways. In some ways driving is even more dangerous in Nepal where motorized vehicles share very narrow roads with bicycles, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, pedestrians, cows, goats, dogs, and anything else that can walk or move. Jumping off a bridge certainly feels frightening, but is comparatively safe.

But “why not” may not be a sufficient answer, so here are some other ideas. I like high places. I like the view, but I also like the tingly sensation in the fingers, the way the body feels suddenly very sensitive and the mind on high alert. I always thought bungy jumping was cool and that given the chance I'd like to try it. And also because I'm the kind of person who'll try most things once.

But what led me to jumping was not the idea of jumping. I was simply looking for a weekend getaway, maybe just a short hike up into the mountains around Kathmandu. I was getting a bit tired of my daily routine of sitting on the floor and drawing and painting. I needed to do something a little more active. And while perusing the “Around Kathmandu” section of a guidebook I happened upon The Last Resort, a small hotel up in the mountains only a few kilometers from Tibet offering a range of outdoor activities, including bungy jumping and white water rafting, and only a 3 hour bus ride from Kathmandu. I checked out TLR on the web and the prices were ridiculously appealing, so I called to enquire about booking, after which there was only the little matter of visiting their office to make payment, then to show up at 05:45 on Saturday morning for the bus.

As is typical in Nepal, we left 45 minutes late and were delayed further by a flat tire along the way. Fortunately, the puncture happened in the city and not on the winding mountain roads and it took the driver was well practiced. It took only 15 minutes to swap tires.

We arrived around 11:00, a bus load of white people hobbled over and aching to stretch after being crammed into seats made for much smaller Nepalis. Over coffee we had a short briefing from the jump master about how the jump would be run and what we were expected to do. We were weighed in (size matters when your life depends on a rubber band), divided into two groups, and off we went to the bridge.

I was in the first group but fortunately was not the first called to jump. I was glad to have 20 minutes on the bridge watching, sharing nervous laughter and reassurance with the other jumpers. Because even though we had paid to be there, even though we wanted to go through with it, almost all of us were frightened. You can't help but be when you're 160 meters up swaying in the breeze and thinking that you're supposed to willingly throw your body into the gorge.

It's absolutely the last thing your brain would would want you to do. And it doesn't get any better once you're strapped into the harness and standing on the platform with your toes dangling in space. My primative lizard-brain was saying “no no no no no no no no no.” My fingers were all tingly and my stomach felt hollow. But in my rational mind I knew it was safe. I knew all the people here the day before had done it. Those the week before had done it. Those coming after me would do it. That it was completely safe. That it was what I had come here to do. That I would after it was over be elated with the experience and so might as well open up and enjoy it.

And so with confidence in my rational mind and not in my feeling mind, I did as I had been instructed, to spread my arms, look out at the horizon, bend at the knees and launch myself off the platform. If you have a look at the photos below you'll see the jump master holding me at the waist, but I assume that's for assurance and so that should your legs suddenly give out he can help hold you up. He didn't push, just talked us through the steps, from getting positioned to then counting down: 3 – 2 – 1 - Jump!

I don't really remember that first second. I think my mind blanked out for an instant. The next thing I remember is the sound of wind whistling in my ears and the sense of my body accelerating through space, the ground rushing up to meet me, and then I felt the tug of the cord. The body is still falling but its now pulling on the giant rubber band tethered at your ankles. Then 2 to 3 seconds later the bungy cord reaches its limit and you're being pulled up. My mind came unstuck at that point. Where the initial fall is tightly focused fear, the rebound is joy and relief and astonishment that you did it and you haven't died.

And perhaps there is the thrill, of being thrown to within a second or two of fatal impact with the ground and being saved at the last moment, the thrill of defying death.

After bouncing up and down a few times and finally settling to an even hang, the crew on the bridge lowers you to a crew at the bottom of the gorge, who maneuver your head to a pillow and then lower your body onto a table. The harness is removed, the guys upstairs pull the rope up and prepare for the next jumper, and you're left with the most difficult part of the jump – climbing up the canyon back to the bridge. It's not quite scaling a sheer face. There's a lovely forest with a path wandering across two small waterfalls. But its a fairly steep climb and quite a nice workout on the legs, lungs and heart. For that reason alone most of the enthusiastic didn't do more than two jumps, except for this wildly energetic English fellow who did four (and seemed perfectly fine the next morning).

I fairly raced up the gorge after my initial jump, a wild burst of energy from having challenged fear, from having been rescued from death at the last possible moment.

And then I did it again. But this time I did the swing.

This is not a swing that you sit in and rock to and fro. This is more like the rope tied to a tree branch that you use to swing out over the water. Except in this case the rope is about 120 meters long and is tied to a cable that runs parallel to the bridge about 100 meters out. Your body is strapped into a harness, only this time there's support on your buttocks, which is where most of the weight is going to land. Whereas with bungy you jump out head first, on the swing you hold the rope in your hands (tethered to your harness, of course), and jump out feet first. And where on the bungy you feel the pull of the cord after about 3 seconds of free fall, with the swing free fall is about 6 seconds and “the end,” as it were, a bit more abrupt as the rope doesn't have as much give as the bungy. While you're catching your breath, you finish with a few high swings through the canyon.

In providing a longer free fall, the swing was by far the more intense. But it was also more physically demanding. It wasn't painful and nothing was strained, torn or broken, but it was obvious the swing put greater stress on the body.

I took my time on the second hike up the canyon and stopped to join Mutsumi, Yoshimi and Mr S for zazen. It was a synchronized event, a way to do something with my friends, even across such great distances. While they were in the zendo in Fukuoka, I was sitting on a large rock next to a waterfall. It was a great moment and a great place to meditate and in fact much of the weekend was one long meditation. I came back feeling energized and reawakened to life. It is not a frenetic energy, but an energy of calm potential, an energy of stable unfolding. It feels great. As it says on the back of my t-shirt, Life is Good.

And I haven't said a thing yet about rafting.


Monday, October 8, 2007

Learning to Fly

How I spent my weekend.


The bridge. 160 meters above the Bhote Koshi river. About the same height as this.

The gorge.




== SUNDAY ==

Wet ride back to Kathmandu in Grade 3 and 4 rapids. (Stock photo only. Far too wet - and too much to do - to take my own photos.)

For more, visit The Last Resort.