Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Escape to India

One of my dreams for the past 10 years or so has been to spend a year traveling across India.

For now, one month will have to do.

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.

Merry Christmas!

Happy Hanukkah!

Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!


Saturday, November 24, 2007

Movie Review: Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint; Neten Chokling, dir; 2005

With enough elements for a first rate secular fantasy - a family squabble over inheritance, thievery, murder, revenge, and sorcery - the story of Buddhist saint Milarepa could have been a great movie. Unfortunately, it's not. Not even close. It is instead a plodding film that suggests little of magic and even less of the spiritual.

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.


Movie Review: Milarepa; Sonom Rimpoche, dir; 2006

Milarepa is one of Tibet's greatest spiritual heroes, a man who began life as a murderer and went on to become a saint. Director Sonom Rimpoche, a reincarnated Buddhist monk who took up movie making, began his film project with with a saintly myth - and committed murder. His 2006 version the life of Milarepa, produced by Taiwain's Kun Sang Film, is a cadaverous film, an amateur movie production that suggests a film school project. About the best you can mange in reviewing it is a pat on the back to the cast and crew for making the effort.

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.)


School picnic at Dakshin Kali

The occasion of the first year students completing their measurement classes (see below) coincided with Tsering Art School's annual picnic. I associate picnics more with summer than fall, but the cooler weather makes for a less sticky experience. But perhaps not less wet.

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.

It was a very long day, with a 06:30 gathering and a return to Boudha at about 19:30. The chance to interact with my classmates in a different setting was a wonderful experience, and I think we all got to know something new about each other.

Measurement classes

Thangka are drawn before they're painted, and as you might expect of a traditional art painters follow certain conventions and standards. One of these is an exacting system of measurement, intended to ensure that figures are drawn in proper proportion.

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

Mornings on the rooftop

I live at a guest house. There are a couple of other long-term residents, students of the Buddhist Studies program at Rangjung Yeshe Shedra, but aside from us most of the others are tourists in for a few days or a week or two. They're running around, seeing this and doing that and when you meet up with them in the lobby or at breakfast the conversation inevitably turns to recent activity.

I have to tell them that my days are rather routine. My schedule, in fact, looks like this:

04:30 wake up
04:50 meditate
05:30 yoga
06:45 meditate
07:30 breakfast
08:15 school
11:15 lunch
12:30 internet
13:30 school
16:45 read, write, shower
21:00 bed

I started out doing yoga at a nearby studio, but I got tired of walking out there to do the same routine that I could do just as easily on my own. And so for the last month I've been doing my morning yoga on the guest house roof. This is what it looks like.

The Himalayas on a clear autumn morning.

The White Gompa (color enhanced)

The mornings are getting a bit colder, so I may have to start doing my yoga indoors soon. Which with such lovely sights is a real shame.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Water shading

Last week we started practicing water shading, a technique using a little more water than usual to spread color over a wide area, most often the sky and ground. My first try is pretty rough, but the experience was a confidence booster. Not only did I get a "good" mark, but the instructor was kind enough to note that I did a better job of it my first time than he did on his first try.

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

Bhai tika: My Nepali sisters

Sunday I received Bhai tika from my three Nepali sisters. A ceremonial blessing from sister to brother, the practice derives from a legend in which a sister saved her brother from Yama, the god of death, by performing a special ritual. Bhaitika now takes place on the last day of the 5-day Tihar (or Dewali) holidays. For a description of the ceremony, see "Tihar Day Fifth."

Back in March I met sitar player Bijaya Vaidya, who now has some of his cds available for sale at our online shop, CDJam. This fall I had the pleasure to visit his home and meet his lovely wife Merina, who was so very kind to invite me as her brother to attend their family's Bhaitika. If you have a careful look at the photos, you might notice the elaborate preparations, which took many hours of shopping and arranging. The ceremony itself took perhaps 15 or 20 minutes for all three of us – Bijaya and Merina's son, me, and a student of Bijaya's.

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

Changu Narayan

My classmate Sonam and I had planned yesterday to hike up to Nagarkot, the highest mountain on the east side of the Kathmandu valley. We were to stay over night and enjoy sunrise over the city before hiking down an alternate route.

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.

Changu Narayan on the hill left

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

Nagarjun Forest

When was the last time you walked 20km?

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.

At the summit: Phuntsok, Don, Tenzin, and me.

Following our 2-hour ascent we had a picnic breakfast at the summit – fresh baked bread from the guest house, boiled eggs, fresh cow cheese produced here in Boudha, bananas, apples, cookies, and chocolate. Such simple fare is delicious at 2000m. There is a small stupa at the summit at which we paid our respects and thanks for a safe ascent. Phuntsok lit some candles, one of which, he said, was for his idol, Britney Spears. He heard she was suffering quite a lot recently, and so lit a lamp in prayer for her health and good fortune.

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

Two weeks of art

Last week we had holidays for Dashain. This week for Lhabab Düchen (see below), so what you see here is the product of 2 weeks work.

In drawing class we've been working on the full Buddha (sans robes), while in painting I've been working on offerings and auspicious symbols.


Lhabab Duechen

Yesterday was tough. Shortly after 08:00 I went to Thamel to drop off a copy of my Indian visa so that the ticket agent could confirm my flight to Varanasi. Looked at a couple of backpacks for my trip to India and visited the bookstore before heading to immigration. There I stood in line for 2 hours, then went to a clinic for a Japanese encephalitis vaccine (prevalent in North India and south Nepal). After a short rest chatting with the staff there, it was back to Thamel for lunch, picked up my ticket, more looking at bags, and visited a second bookshop before going back to immigration to pick up my passport.

By the time I got back to Boudha I was pooped. Looked at a couple more bags in Boudha, chatted with the guy from Tushita thangka, found the New Orleans cafe has closed or moved, then watched the preparations for a special puja celebrating Lhabab Duechen, Buddha's descent from Tushita. It is one of the major holidays on the Tibetan calendar. I wanted to stay and watch the ceremony, but by then I was too beat, tired of the noise, the jostling, and the dust to want to do anything but find a shower and some place quiet.

I did, though, take a few photos before going home.