Saturday, February 28, 2009

Adjust again after initial failure

I have forgotten how the world works. The rest of the world outside Nepal and India.

For some reason when I checked in at the Kathmandu airport the Biman agent gave me a boarding pass for only the Kathmandu-Dhaka flight. By the time I realized I didn't have a pass for the Dhaka-Bangkok flight I was already through immigration, so I let the issue go until I arrived in Bangladesh. The layover there left me plenty of time.

When I stepped up to the transit desk in Dhaka and explained my problem, the agent asked for me by name. My boarding pass was ready and had been waiting for me. I was left momentarily speechless, but when my faculties returned I expressed as sincerely as I could my thanks for the attentive service I have received both times I have flown Biman.

In Nepal or India I suppose I might have had to spend a good part of my layover sorting out this kind of problem, but now here I found myself with two hours until my boarding call. I sauntered through the Dhaka airport, which both times I have visited has seemed exceptionally quiet and uninhabited. There was one customer in the restaurant, a few watching television, and no one in the shops. The local telecom agent has provided computer stands and free internet access, but no one was using them. Except me, of course. I had thought of doing the same in the Kathmandu airport, but didn't feel like paying the $2.00 fee just to write a couple of emails.

To Biman's credit, both flights departed and arrived on schedule. The only cock-up was in not having enough vegetarian meals on the Dhaka-Bangkok leg. There was the most minimal of queuing at the Bangkok immigration counter, the bags arrived within 10 minutes of getting through immigration, and as always customs in Bangkok was a breeze – no forms to fill out, no interviews, no spot checks. Just pick up your bags and go.

As I was walking through the airport to my hotel pick-up spot, I noticed a counter selling mobile phone SIMs and stopped to inquire. Only 199bht, about US$5.00, for a SIM and 100 minutes of local calls. I took out my phone and asked the girl at the counter if the SIM would work in my phone. By the time she answered “yes” she already had the SIM card in and activated. I was again left dumbfounded. I told her that in India it had taken me half a day to do what she just did in a less than a minute. She looked like she thought I might be pulling her leg.

The guy driving the hotel shuttle van was probably not in a hurry to do anything. He just liked to drive fast and the open roads at midnight gave him the opportunity, the fastest I have traveled over land in the last six months. It is simply impossible to move at such speeds over the potted streets and dirt roads of Nepal and India.

When I got to my room, I didn't have to ask if hot water was available. I didn't have to ask for a candle or inquire about when the electricity might go out. But when I finally got down to breakfast I did have to ask someone to help me sort out my mobile phone, which was not allowing me to make any calls, even to the provider's call center. I discovered in the booklet that came with my SIM that the provider did not include a contact number that can be reached from outside its network. My most immediate need, though, wasn't the SIM itself as it was contacting my friend Krit, who was going to come by and pick me up on the way to the airport to pick up Mutsumi as she arrives from Japan. The hotel had a land line for incoming calls, but not outgoing. So to call Krit to let him know I arrived safely and was waiting for his pick-up, I had to buy a phone card for one of the public phones installed in the lobby. Except that the hotel had sold out of domestic phone cards.

Now that's more like it, I thought. This is the kind of craziness I've gotten used to. Fortunately the girl at the front desk was kind enough to let me use her mobile to call Krit and I sorted out the problem with the SIM when we went back to the airport to pick-up Mutsumi.

The blog post comes from a dictionary entry, the photos from Wat Lat Krabang, located just across the canal from the hotel where I spent my first night outside Nepal/India.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Coming to the end of days in Kathmandu, packing, throwing away, saying goodbye, I found experience reflected in this selection of a 3rd century sutra.

All things conditioned are unstable, impermanent,
Fragile in essence, as an unbaked pot,
Like something borrowed, or a city founded on sand,
They last a short while only.

They are inevitably destroyed,
Like plaster washed off in the rains,
Like the sandy bank of a river -
They are conditioned, and their true nature is frail.

They are like the flame of a lamp,
Which rises suddenly and as soon goes out.
They have no power of endurance, like the wind
Or like foam, unsubstantial, essentially feeble.

The sage knows the beginning and end
Of consciousness, its production and passing away -
The sage knows that it came from nowhere and returns to nowhere,
And is empty of reality, like a conjuring trick,

The sage knows what is true reality,
And sees all conditioned things as empty and powerless.

Lalitavistara Sutra
trans AL Basham


Farewell to old friends . . .

. . . and old shoes. The guy downtown on Sunday insisted he could fix these for me. I know better than to argue with the touts but I was perhaps in a good mood. “I don't need them fixed because day after tomorrow I'm going to throw them away.” But I can fix them for you. “No you can't. Besides a torn heel there are wholes in the sole” I can fix that.

I realized then he wasn't interested in conversation.

So, here they are today, my last look after 11 years of service. I bought them when I first came to Nepal in 1998. They walked thousands of kilometers across this country and several others. Their last great journey was my walk around Shikoku last summer. Since then they've just been hanging on.

Back in December when the Iraqi reporter threw his shoes at George Bush, I thought about sending one each to George and Dick to congratulate them on their retirement, but that gesture has in only a few months become passe.

I feel like I should offer them to a ceremonial fire, but I suppose instead I'll just drop them in a garbage bag.


Learning more than painting

While I was cutting my painting out of the canvas, the teacher said to me that I had made a good first thangka, that it was particularly clean.

By this I don't think he meant to compliment me on the uncluttered nature of the composition or the sharpness of my lines. I think he used the word “clean” as we most commonly use it, as an antonym of “dirty.”

It might seem a strange thing to say. But I learned over the course of doing my first painting that a good painter develops and deploys in addition to fine skills of eye-hand coordination, habits of practiced carefulness and patience.

Look at the work area around a skilled painter and what you will most often see are brushes, paints and other tools thoughtfully organized. He has internalized his workspace and knows how to move around in it with little thought and little incident. Inexperienced painters tend to have more clutter. They haven't yet worked out an organizational system and tend to have more accidents, like spilling water or paint, or brushing up against their painting while reaching or reacting.

A skilled painter knows the value of properly maintaining his tools. Paint is kept in sealed jars or pots and used in amounts appropriate to the task. Palettes are washed at the end of a task or at the end of the day. Brushes are kept in such a way that there is no pressure on the hairs. A towel or tissue paper is kept nearby for wiping off brushes, palettes, or hands. Inexperienced painters tend to take their tools for granted. Not always being able to judge what might be required, they put excess paint in the palette, which is not always washed at the end of the day. This dried paint is then reused at a later date by adding water. In the interval, dust has collected on top of the dried paint and this is mixed in and added to the painting. Brushes may often be stored in such a way that the hair end becomes bent or collects dust or dirt. When they need to wipe off excess water or paint, many inexperienced painters use the cushions on which they sit. Dirt and dust are then transferred to the brush.

A skilled painter knows that the image must be allowed the time to reveal itself. There must be time to sit and watch, to see how fine lines and strokes, thin coatings of color, affect the composition. A drawing can be done in a day, but the more time there is time reflect on it, the more satisfying it can be made, just like the manuscript that benefits from not being read for several days. The finest colors and shading come not from a splash, but from the careful application of layers so thin that it may take five or ten of them to see a difference. Between those layers, one must wait; one must have the patience to let the color reveal itself. Inexperienced painters tend to be less patient; they haven't yet experienced for themselves this process of revelation and begin to believe that this time of waiting is time wasted. They are satisfied with a drawing they might otherwise like to correct if they gave their mind time to see it with fresh eyes; they add color in thick washes, looking for an immediate effect.

Taken together over the course of the two to three months it may take to complete a thangka, these traits and habits accumulate in the painting. The new painter tends to produce a work that is by comparison clearly dirty, marked by spots that had to be corrected because of spills, the careless pass of a brush, muddied colors, or by excess application of paint.

That my own painting was praised as “clean” is therefore something of a small accomplishment, especially as no one taught me any of this. I had to learn it as I went, by observation of those around me, and by making my own mistakes, some of which are more or less noticeable in the completed painting.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Meeting of the artists

When I arrived back at my guest house after the wedding last Friday, I found a few friends in the dining room. I went in to show them my kurta, over which they oohed and ahhed, before they introduced me to a man in the dining room I hadn't yet met, someone who had that day just arrived from India. “This is Jeff,” they said to him. To me, “He's interested in thangka.”

Bart is a primary school teacher from Belgium on sabbatical and traveling across India and Nepal. He plays music and paints and has created his own thangka with a theme designed for his students. If you have a close look you'll see at the center of the painting the baby St Nickolas, who Bart described as perhaps the most important and powerful god of children. He is surrounded by toys, which he delivers to children at Christmas, and is protected by his guardian dogs and two black dragons.

Saturday we had a chance to take a photo together with our respective thangkas. Bart's leaving soon again for India to continue his travels through June. You can keep up with his adventures at Spiritual Eastern Journey.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

First Thangka: Day 46 - finished

When interacting with others, much of our visual attention is directed towards the face. So, too, when we look at thangka. We tend to pick out the face, not so much because it can tell us about the deity, but from the habit of directing attention there and because the face is usually the center piece of the composition. It's one spot in the painting that requires symmetrical precision and a steady hand, a spot where so much is conveyed – about the subject as well as the painter – in a few simple lines.

There are, I have heard, thangka artists who specialize in faces, guys who command a premium wage for being able to draw the finely balanced lines required for a compelling, life-like face. I won't be one of them soon.

I was nervous about doing the face. As you may have noticed I left it to last. I didn't want to do the face early, do it poorly, and then have to look at every day. That might have been too discouraging. I was hoping, too, that as I completed the painting my hand would become more facile and I would in turn develop more confidence to undertake its painting.

Unfortunately, I took ill this past week, first with hay fever, then with a head cold, and I lost a bit of the physical and mental momentum I had built up over the preceding weeks. When it came time to do the face, I wasn't feeling very confident.

I thought about asking someone else to do it for me. It's not uncommon at art school for students to ask their classmates to help them out in areas where they are weak. Sometimes this can be helpful, but I think overall it's better that students practice themselves. They won't always be able to depend on a classmate and they can't become genuine painters until they can do everything themselves.

So I told myself it was up to me, not someone else, and after a good night's rest I went in to school on Friday and finished the face during the morning session. It wasn't the best face I ever painted, but neither was it the worst. At first I cringed, but from a distance it actually didn't look too bad. The only part I hadn't finished were the eye balls. This is generally one of the last tasks of the painting, opening the eyes of the deity. It's perhaps the most difficult part of the the face. At least it has been for me.

As I had grown used to my not-quite-perfect face, I thought it might be best to ask my teacher to open the eyes. I thought perhaps it was best to leave bad enough alone, and I also thought it might be a nice gesture toward my teacher.

He came and sat down in front of my painting. He looked but didn't say anything. Then he asked my classmate Tsering, sitting next to me, for something. She left and came back with some white paint. The teacher meanwhile had left and came back with a saucer, which he proceeded to use as a palette to mix the acrylic white with a bit of yellow. He still hadn't said anything, but I understood he was going to make some corrections. We normally paint in water-based colors; acrylic is easier to paint over and can be used as a masking paint for making touch-ups.

I wish I had taken a photo.

The teacher began applying the acrylic to the edges of the face and I thought he was going to cover up the shading. But he was simply defining the outer edges, and once he had he started pulling down in broad strokes to paint over the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the ears. His intention, still unannounced, was to repaint the entire face.

I'm not sure why he did this. Perhaps he thought the work was too bad to let pass, though I've seen worse from other students, so perhaps he believed he was doing me a kindness by improving my painting. I thought about asking him, but didn't want to insult or make him feel I was unhappy or upset. I was at first a bit surprised, particularly that he hadn't first consulted me. But once done, it was done and there was no use being angry or upset. It was a good lesson for next time, to just go ahead and do the work myself.

So, now I've got a thangka with a beautifully formed face - and a story to tell about it.

As the teacher began the Buddha's facial make-over late Friday afternoon, he didn't get around to finishing until Saturday morning. Once the face was done, he then added the mantra on the back, the five syllables in Tibetan, each written in a particular location.

Forehead – om
Throat – ah
Chest – hum
Navel – so
Genitals – ha

All that was left was then to cut the painting from out of the larger canvas, trim the edges with a straight edge – and then try to summarize the experience to those of my classmates who came out to offer congratulations and inquire about my future intentions for painting.

Feeling like a grade-schooler


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rinpoche came to visit

Life at art school was thrown into a manageable tizzy this week when the Rinpoche decided to pay a visit. The management was given a couple of days notice and so everything was mostly ready when he arrived this morning at around 09:00.

Rabjam Rinpoche is the abbot of the monastery where I study, the guy in charge, and the spiritual heir and grandson of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, one of Tibet's great Buddhist masters and one of the Dalai Lama's teachers.

Most of the female students wore their chupas, the traditional Tibetan dress, and when we received word that he was coming we all lined up out front of the art school to welcome the Rinpoche with katas.

The purpose of his visit was to confer refuge on new students, a ceremony in which one announces the intent to be practice Buddhism by taking refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha - the teacher, the teaching, and the community of practicioners. By taking refuge, students may more efficaciously study and and practice sacred art.

The visit lasted little more than an hour and ended with a round of tea and biscuits accompanied by a few stories from Rinpoche's travels.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Audio Postcard: Morning wedding procession, Kathmandu - 13 February 09

The groom's family got off the bus a few hundred meters from the wedding hall and followed the marching band in noisy procession. I had my microphone clipped on the shoulder strap of my camera bag and as you may notice the sound of the horns is at first distant, then much closer, as I moved from the back of the line towards the front.

For a description and photos of the wedding, see the post Kathmandu Wedding.

Click here to download the MP3 file to your computer.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Kathmandu Wedding

Since discovering Bollywood movies a decade ago, one enduring interest has been to attend one of those elaborate weddings so often depicted therein. They usually take place in palatial mansions with expansive grounds dotted with single-family-home-size tents erected to shade the hundreds, even thousands, of guests attired in finely embroidered silk saris and kurta. The wedding is an all day affair taken up with carefully staged and often mysterious religious rites, punctuated with helpings from lavish buffets, and ending with a choreographed dance party across much of the mansion and its manicured lawns and gardens. The Nepali Brahmin wedding I attended this past Friday wasn't quite up to these film standards, but from the real-life proceedings you could see the raw material out of which the filmmakers create their fantasies. It was more Monsoon Wedding than Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham.

As a guest of a guest of the groom's family, the morning began at the groom's home, where his friends and relatives assembled just before 08:30 to take tea to the straining, banging and blaring of the marching wedding band.

The official event probably began inside the home at the family altar. What most of us saw first was a procession of family members carrying sacred objects around an outdoor altar, a short visit to the temple next door to offer abbreviated prayers to the gods, and then circling the wedding car before the groom got in and the rest of us formed up in front.

With the band in the lead, we danced and strutted and walked through the immediate neighborhood, much like a New Orleans funeral procession, before climbing into a bus and being shuttled to a location a few hundred kilometers from the rented wedding hall, where we clambered out of our conveyance and resumed the noisy procession.

The bride's family was waiting for us at the wedding hall. There were so far as I could see no formal introductions. Over in one corner the bride and her family's priest were carrying out some of the required rites around a sacred fire, but most everyone seemed to be congregating around the tea and coffee bar.

Without announcement, the first of the day's ceremonies began on the stage set up at the end of the main hall. With the arrival of the bride and groom there was a mad rush for the stage, where everyone stood around craning, their sight blocked by the three to four photographers who throughout the day staked out the best vantage points.

After the ritual exchange of rings, garlands, and tikas, there were a number of mini-ceremonies within the larger ceremony, rituals done to insure a happy and healthy union, rituals that most of the guests and participants are as part of their cultural inheritance familiar with but rituals that most of them don't understand and can't explain. I was fortunate to be the guest of a young man whose father is a scholar of such things and who seemed happy to share his knowledge with a curious outsider.

I remarked to a fellow guest that if this were a Japanese wedding we would have started drinking nearly as soon as the event began. I was told that as these were Brahmin families alcohol was stickily prohibited and would not be permitted anywhere near the event. This turned out to be the policy for public consumption. Around noon I was approached and asked if I'd like a beer. I was led upstairs to a small room that was supplied with cases of alcoholic beverages and which was shortly visited by nearly every male guest. After a couple of glasses of beer I went down for lunch, and then a short nap on a sofa, and the next time I went upstairs I found the room cloudy with cigarette smoke and many of the same men still there playing cards.

They missed most of the afternoon's ceremonies, which took place around the ritual fire and concluded sometime around 16:00, about the time many people who had skipped out after lunch returned to see off the bride and groom. This was a more sober affair ending with tears as the bride's family watched their daughter get into the car with the groom's family and drive away. The band was again out in front as we paraded back down the street to the bus and the short drive home. This time we got off a few hundred meters from house and made an exceptionally slow procession home in order that someone might have time to sort out the problem with the generator, which had to be used as this area of Kathmandu was under black-out. It was imperative the bride not be welcomed into a dark home.

After being ceremonially welcomed, she and her husband were formally introduced to each member of the groom's family, who at this time presented the bride with a gift. Most of what I saw looked like jewelery boxes, most probably gold. The bride responded by presenting a token gift of money.

And then it was dinner time. By now it was close to 20:00 and I was offered a ride home by a family member in whose neighborhood I reside and who wasn't the least interested in an evening repast. Since public transport is fairly rare after dark, and taxis get harder to find as the hour gets later, I was happy to accept his offer, which probably turned out for the best and helped me avoid waking up in the middle of the night with indigestion. (I woke up instead from clogged sinuses caused by the spring pollen.)

w/ those who invited me: Reetu, Sagar, Sagar's father, and in front Neemish

This was no Bollywood wedding but was perhaps the most interesting cultural event I've attended in Nepal. It was certainly the longest and most elaborate and expensive. And for this I am indebted to my good friends, Sagar and Reetu. Thank you so much for making my last days here such memorable ones.

From today only 6 days left.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

First Thangka: Day 37

Today was a holiday at the monastery and so a holiday as well at the art school. The only ones to show up to paint beside myself were the sixth year students, who are working on their final exam, a complete thangka that must be finished within 45 days. Like me, they're on a deadline and so don't take much time off.

Since it was a holiday, all the normal rules were not enforced, including the rule of working in silence. Three students were playing music through their mobile phones, and not with earphones, but over the crappy little mobile phone speaker. Three. At the same time.

I packed up and went to my room and painted. And here's where I was at the end of the day. You may note, if you download the photo and enlarge it, that the robes have been shaded, the shadow behind the body and head added (though not yet finished), some fire on top of the norboo (the collection of round things at the bottom, a mythological jewel, here functioning as offering to the Buddha), and the beginning of shading on the lake. Still to do is filling in the face and shading the body. Hopefully, this will all be completed by next weekend; that's about all the time I will have.

Tomorrow I'll be spending the entire day at a wedding, the cousin of a Nepali friend I first met in Japan when he was a grad student at the university where I was teaching. Maybe there will be a few good photos to post this weekend.

From Saturday then, only 11 days remaining.


Movie Review: Zen Noir; Marc Rosenbush, dir; 2006

If you have no interest in Zen or Buddhism, its unlikely you'll find anything exceptional in Zen Noir, except perhaps for Debra Miller's boobs. While these were remarkably firm, the film is unbearably flat.

Dressing his project out in 1940's hard-boiled detective genre, first-time American director Marc Rosenbush attempts with minimal set and plot to play both high camp and high philosophy. Neither really work. Ostensibly a murder mystery, the film is not so much about murder as it is life, not about who did it, but what it all means. To get to the big scene, though, you'll have to sit through an hour of trite jokes, a string of non-sequiturs to test the patience of even seasoned practitioners. “Where were you at the time of the murder?” the detective asks. “What do you mean by time?” the monk rejoins. To the wizened master the detective pleads, “Help me still my mind.” Zen students know what line comes next - “Ok, give me your mind.”

The acting isn't bad, and the music seems fairly interesting, though nothing you'd seek out on CD. But even if you're interested in Zen or Buddhism, about the only reason to watch Zen Noir is much the same reason I had. I was too tired to read a book, too tired to meditate, not yet ready for bed, and had nothing else to watch.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Book Review: How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings; Richard Gombrich, 1997

This book is not an easy read. The four essays cover obscure scholarly topics, the arguments based on Pali and the Brahmanical cultural milieu of the Buddha's age.

Nonetheless, I found it quite compelling and refreshing.

Compelling because of the author's careful detective work; refreshing for it's approach to the Buddha and early Buddhism. This is no work of religious devotion, but a sober reflection on how the behavior of scholastics and practitioners influenced the creation and evolution of Buddhist thought.

How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings collects a series of four papers and one public lecture presented at the 1994 Jordan Lectures by Richard Gombrich, Pali and Sanskrit scholar and current Academic Director of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. He lays out his interests in the lecture as “how the Buddha's teachings emerged through debate with other religious teachers of his day,” and “how his early followers, in attempting to preserve the Buddha's teachings, subtly and unintentionally may have changed them.” His arguments proceed from the assumption that even though our oldest existing copies of the Pali texts are no more than 500 years old, by comparing recensions and the later commentaries, it may sometimes be possible to trace the development of ideas and, through the tracing, identify their earliest expression, as well as points along the way at which they were altered.

Over a 40 year career in which he taught extemporaneously to people from a wide variety of backgrounds and learning, Gombrich notes that the Buddha's “skill in means did not stop at conversion, or did not die out when the Buddha died, but must have gone on influencing formulations of the teachings.” Debate within the sangha led to processes that over the years subtly altered the meaning of the texts, including banalization, or simplifying difficult ideas; literalism, creating unnecessary and unjustifiable distinctions based on synonymous terms or phrases; and systemization, the process of developing a unified theory. That such processes alter texts and ideas in modern life seems a rather commonplace observation, but one that seems to have been overlooked in Buddhist studies. At least what little I have read.

Many of Gombrich's findings are tentative, but that seems besides the point. He appears more interested in setting out a research agenda, a call to colleagues for more nuanced reading of the Pali texts, reading informed by a thorough history of the Buddha's age, reading responsive to competing interests within the Buddhist community, reading sensitive to satire and humor, metaphor and allegory.

For more details on the topics and specific arguments, see John Holder's 2000 review; for a critical reading of the book, see Bhikkhu Bodhi's 1997 review.


Sunday, February 8, 2009

First Thangka: Day 32

I finished 95% of the lining on Friday. Still a few little bits to do, most noticeably the face, but for the moment I'm working on shading, another long and tedious chore, not so physically demanding as lining, but like doing the sky requiring repeated applications of light color and the patience to wait for the color to emerge, rather than splashing it on.

After our half-day Saturday class, I had the great fortune to have lunch with three lovely ladies – Miki, Michiko, and Tsering. Michiko is a long-time resident of Kathmandu whose occupation is still something of a mystery. Miki and Tsering are my classmates.

Only 17 days remain before I leave for Bangkok.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

On suffering and chicken turds

Really, someone who suffers when living alone is foolish. Someone who suffers when living with others is foolish. It's like chicken turds: if you carry them around by yourself, they stink. If you keep them when you're among others, they stink. You carry the rotten things with you.

Ajahn Chah

First Thangka: Day 29

As I noted in my previous post, I've started the process of lining and so that you can see what I'm doing I've created a composite. The top version is from Sunday, after I had completed the coloring. The bottom is from this afternoon, after 2 days with a fine brush trying (though often unsuccessfully) to draw very precise lines.

Five hours of this is hard on the shoulders and the eyes. One of my classmates, without prompting, walked up behind me today and gave me a shoulder massage, which felt sooooooo good. He's the one getting his head shaved. Don't know why today and particularly why at school, but this is the scene I found when I came back form lunch.

Also today, one student finished his painting of Manjushri. Perhaps someday I can do as well!