Thursday, September 25, 2008

Back to Thanguan

Once I got checked into my room here in Boudhanath, I went off to the market to do a bit of shopping and along the way ran into my old friend and classmate Phuntsok, a monk from Bhutan. He told me Jiwan had been asking about when I was arriving, that Jiwan was going to Kavre to start painting work on the temple where all three of us, plus another monk, had done sketching work in February.

While waiting for my dinner to be served, I called Jiwan and found to my regret that he was leaving the next day. Having just unpacked and being worn out from the long trip to Kathmandu, I wished him well. I didn't want to have to repack and make the less than relaxing trip out to the village of Thanguan. But as I ate my dinner I began to reconsider. Here was an excellent opportunity to spend a week doing intensive painting practice under the personal guidance of a skilled painter, an opportunity that is perhaps not granted often or to many. I would, I thought, be very foolish to pass it up. And so after dinner I called and told Jiwan that if he wouldn't mind having me along, I would very much like to go with him. We agreed to put off our departure for one day and left the following afternoon after lunch at Jiwan's home in Bhaktapur.

Assuming Jiwan would have finished the painting during the six months since I had left Nepal, I never imagined I'd see Thanguan again. Returning felt like something of a homecoming, seeing again the place where I established some small confidence in my drawing abilities. I will always remember that week of work, that small country temple, and my colleagues very fondly.

The Himalayas from Thanguan

Everything was much the same as I had left it, except that at the end of summer life was evident in the plants, flowers, and abundant insect population. There was much more color than in February, and much more sound, from the buzzing of bees, the humming of flies and dragonflies, the chirping of cicadas and crickets, and the clicking and clacking of geckos. Heavy showers and cold winds blew in on short notice, and the precipitation left more than one rainbow and some incredible sunsets.

In the temple, Jiwan had finished most of the sketching and was now ready to start painting. In fact he had already started and our first task was completing the banner of protective deities that circled the uppermost part of the three walls that we were to work on. We began by finishing the clouds at the very top of the banner. Using a stencil and black chalk, we outlined the clouds, penciled on top of and then wiped off the chalk, and afterwards painted on top of the pencil in a shade lighter than the background. This was then outlined in white. We next went around all three walls and added a shiny gold paint to the deities, filled in their eyes, and completed a few other finishing touches before covering the whole thing in varnish, which would seal the paint and provide a cleanable finish. This occupied two days.

Jiwan painting clouds (note deities' eyes not yet painted)

On the third we set out to paint the sky wrapping around all three walls, the background to the large deities and mandalas. This is, as Jiwan said, one of the most difficult jobs of the entire project. It requires not only that the painter be able to skillfully blend shades, but also to do so quickly, as the blending process takes place while the paint is still wet through short bursts of rapid arm movement. The work has to be completed in segments, which adds the additional difficulty of matching each segment to the previous. I've done a little bit of this on paper, but the scale involved is a completely different experience. Jiwan allowed me to do the first coat, after which he applied a much more refined finish.

Wetting the wall

Finished second coat (completed guardian deity visible above)

This was finished by lunch, after which we started working on individual deities. I began by painting the landscape, a process similar to the sky but much simpler as it requires only two colors, light green and white. I got this far before I was overtaken by a fit of sneezing. My throat became raw and I could no longer breath through my nose. Jiwan had throughout the past three days been sneezing now and then, was also having trouble breathing and had a scratchy throat. This was, he said, a reaction to the paint, one he previously experienced. It finally caught up with me on this third day. I sat outside for a while to relax and recuperate and during that time a couple of other painters from the village stopped by to lend a hand. Both were, Jiwan said, thangka painters with little experience painting temples, explaining perhaps why they didn't stay long. Once they left I went back in and started working on shading rocks and lining leaves in the trees, but was again overcome by sneezing and so left off work for the rest of the afternoon.

Village painters (with landscape visible)

That night I slept poorly. I couldn't breathe except through my mouth, my throat was raw, and I developed a hacking cough. Most mornings I am up before sunrise, but this morning I wanted nothing more than to sleep. There also something of a dilemma about what to do. It seems my reaction was caused by the paint. I couldn't be 100% sure of that. Thanguan, like most of Nepal, is a dusty place and that could just as easily have set me off. But usually sneezing caused by dust is intermittent, passes quickly and doesn't cause a sore throat. As Jiwan was experiencing much the same and has had similar experiences he attributes to paint, the best guess is that it was in fact the paint. And if that was so, I didn't see how I could go back to painting without some serious protective gear. It would be like roulette, waiting for the same thing to happen again, with possibly worse results than the first episode. But calling off the work so soon after we had arrived seemed so disappointing, especially as Jiwan had rearranged his schedule and as it is not so easy getting to Thanguan.

I explained all this to Jiwan and without a second thought he offered to take me back to Kathmandu that very morning. But as I was so tired and worn out from a restless night, I really didn't feel much like the 90 minute hike down the mountain and the crowded, bouncing three-hour bus ride. We agreed that we would stay the day. Jiwan could do a little more work and I could rest up for the journey back. I spent the day sleeping, reading, and listening to music, and the next morning after tea we started off down the mountain.

My sinuses have been fine since. No more sneezing, sore throat or cough. But I have been greatly disappointed in having to give up the work so soon and to have put Jiwan to such inconvenience. It seems that if I ever want to such work again I'm going to have to invest in some protective gear, including a mask, goggles, and gloves. If there are any painters reading this with suggestions for particular types or brand of gear, I'd be very happy to hear from you.

From tomorrow, it's back to the classroom. Though perhaps not for long. On the way to the internet cafe where I am posting this, I ran into a classmate who told me all of next week is a school holiday! When I looked incredulous, he insisted I ask at the office, as if I couldn't believe him. I can. I just don't want to.


New prices and periods for Nepal tourist visas-on-arrival

For those planning trips to Nepal, you might like to know that there are new tourist visa categories and prices, which are as follows (in US dollars, payable on arrival):

  • 1 day transit $5.00
  • 15 days $25.00
  • 30 days $40.00
  • 90 days $100.00

All but the transit visa are multiple reentry visas. The maximum stay is as before, 150 days per calendar year (January – December).


A new neighbor

The journey from Fukuoka to Kathmandu was long and tiresome, but went without major incident or complication. I flew Fukuoka to Bangkok via Bangkok Air, then spent six hours waiting for a flight to Dhaka, where I overnighted and flew on to Kathmandu around noon the following day. The staff of Biman Airlines in Bangladesh were exceedingly kind and professional, though their system for getting transit passengers out of the airport and to their hotel could stand a bit of stream lining. They could also perhaps think of upgrading their choice of hotel. The Black Rose wasn't a total dump, but I seriously doubt it would rank above 2-star.

I arrived at my home in Boudhanath, the Dragon Guest House, to find the neighborhood has changed just a bit, with new construction work on two adjacent buildings. It seems we also have a new resident, a monkey that has wandered into the city. The animals are quite common in Nepal and within the Kathmandu valley there are large colonies at the stupa at Swayambunath and the Hindu temple complex of Pashupatinath. But this was the first time I'd seen a monkey around Boudhanath. A man in the neighboring building, whom I spoke to from the veranda, said the monkey has been hanging around here for a while now and hasn't yet caused any problems. Still, I'll now have to be extra vigilant not to leave open windows or doors.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Book Review: Ambedkar and Buddhism (1986), Sangharakshita

Everyone has heard of Gandhi, almost no one of Ambedkar. If that's true for you, then you might like to pick up this slim volume by one of Europe's most prolific Buddhist writers. In under 175 pages you will be introduced to perhaps the most remarkable man of the 20th century.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born at the end of the 19th century as the last child of 14 into a family of untouchables. The lowest caste in Indian Hindu society, untouchables were not allowed to drink the same water as other castes, could not walk the same streets, in fact had to be careful of the sun so as not to cast a shadow over higher caste persons. They were denied education or any but the most menial employment. They were forbidden even to hear, sing or read the Vedas, the very scriptures underpinning the moral order enslaving them. The penalty for defiance could be death.

Despite having been born with few advantages, Ambekar would go on to become not only one of India's first university educated untouchables, but also one of the first of his caste to do post-graduate work overseas, earning degrees at both New York's Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Returning home he took up the cause of emancipation of the lower caste, tussling with Gandhi, whom he found patronizing, and after independence serving the Nehru government as chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. He is remembered in India today as the father of the constitution. After establishing a college for untouchables and an unsuccessful run for political office, he retired to writing about Buddhism and in his final days led a mass ceremony of conversion to Buddhism for nearly half a million untouchables before passing away in 1956.

The author of this book, Sangharakshita, has an equally compelling story that is only briefly reviewed within its pages. An Englishman stationed to India during WWII, he stayed on after the war to become a Buddhist monk, spending 14 years in India during which he met Ambedkar on three occasions, participating in campaigns to empower untouchables through Buddhism. After returning to the UK, Sangharakshit founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order and became a prolific speaker and writer on Buddhist topics, including this biography, in which he attempts to trace the origin and development of Ambedkar's interest in and later adoption of Buddhism, as well as to summarize Ambekar's major writings. Beginning with the time he was presented as a child with a biography of the Buddha, the reader is given a thorough overview of Ambekar's life, as well as his major ideas, including the origin of caste and untouchability, and his conception of a stripped down, socially engaged Buddhism for a new age. Unfortunately in such a survey not everything can be described in great detail and so some particulars are glossed, but nothing so much that it leaves the story incomplete.

Despite having been written by a Buddhist, Ambedkar and Buddhism is pitched to the general reader, does not proselytize, and requires only a passing familiarity with Buddhism and 20th century Indian history. This book is also a worthy companion to the 2000 film, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, helping to fill in some of the detail in Ambedkar's thinking.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008


I find these days I have begun to appreciate small towns, places with more space, fewer people, less rushing about, and more time for strolling and lingering. Mutsumi and I have over the years enjoyed visiting Tsuwano for a day or two of quiet, but yesterday decided to try some place new. With a population of just under 200,000, Yamaguchi is a bit larger than Tsuwano and lacks its isolated mountain charm, but we found its quaintness quotient high enough to perhaps warrant a return visit.

Among the sites are the St Francis Xavier Memorial Church, which features a museum chronicling the life of Xavier, who once visited the area, and Japan's communities of secret Christians.

The church is located in a large park criss-crossed by a few roads and also containing prefectural, history, and art museums.

Just north of the park area is perhaps Yamaguchi's landmark attraction, Rurikoji, a Soto Zen temple featuring a 600 year old pagoda, lovingly displayed in a manicured garden surrounding a large pond.

Giant juzu (rosary)

An altar for mizuko

Just beyond that is Joeiji, a Rinzai temple with a sculpted garden, where Mutsumi and I took our picnic lunch.

The town is loaded with shrines, including the prefectural shrine of the war dead, Gokoku Jinja.

Rental bicycles are available at Yamaguchi station and make a comfortable and convenient way to see the city. Some of you know that Mutsumi is not too comfortable on two wheels, but she did a marvelous job yesterday (except for scraping her elbow on a tunnel wall) and seems ready to start riding in Fukuoka.

We finished the day with a soak at one of the hot springs of the neighboring town of Yuda, before returning to Fukuoka for a touch of Thai at one of our neighborhood eateries.

Altogether a lovely day, a tasty sample of Japan before heading off to Nepal next Tuesday.


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mutsumi's Mosaic

After she saw mine, Mutsumi wanted to do one of her own. She said I should share it here, which I'm happy to do.

Same questions. Can you guess the answers?



Browsing through the blogs of Fukuoka bloggers, I ran across this interesting-looking Mosaic project. Following some simple rules, you create a collage of publicly accessible photos by cutting and pasting url's to an easy-to-use program that then makes a composite that can be saved to your computer. Like this:

The version I ran across is based on personal questions, but I suppose the game could be modified by developing questions on a theme.

Here are the questions I used:
  1. What is your first name?
  2. What is your favorite food?
  3. What high school did you go to?
  4. What is your favorite color?
  5. Who is your celebrity crush?
  6. Favorite drink?
  7. Dream vacation?
  8. Favorite dessert?
  9. What you want to be when you grow up?
  10. What do you love most in life?
  11. One word to describe you?
  12. Your flickr name?

Apart from the obvious, like my name, can you imagine what the other answers might be?

The rules:

- Type your answer to each of the questions above into Flickr Search.
- Using only the first page, pick an image.
- Copy and paste each of the URLs for the images into fd’s mosaic maker.