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Flowers at 11,000 feet

“In the beginning, nothing comes. In the middle, nothing stays. In the end, nothing goes.”

– Jetsün Milarepa


So how do a Tibetan lama, a Singaporean fortune-teller, a Nepali princess and a young American end up together in a helicopter headed for the snowy peaks at the Nepal-Tibet border?

By a bureaucratic mistake, of course.

Here’s the story:

In late February, I loaned my passport to my friend Dawa Tenzin, a bodhisattva disguised as a trekking guide, so he could apply for a trekking permit for someone else. That someone else turned out to be Joe, a former automobile exporter-turned-fortune teller and feng xue consultant in Singapore. Joe, also known as Singtsum, wished to travel to Tsum Valley for twelve days with his guru, Lama Tenzin Phuntsok.

Since trekking permits to restricted areas of Nepal must have at least two people traveling together to be valid, I was that rando who was going – on paper – with Joe. Lama Phuntsok didn’t need a permit because he’s a Tsumpa.

It was just a bureaucratic thang. I wouldn’t actually have to go.

Until I did!

“Eat your livers, boys!” shouts Captain Black in Catch-22

On March 23, I got a call from Dawa saying I did in fact have to go, if only to helicopter there and back. If I didn’t join, Joe couldn’t go either and the whole thing would fall through.

“We’re leaving the day after tomorrow. So sorry for the inconvenience. If you want to stay on there, you’re welcome to.”


Let’s see… a 12-day, all-expenses-paid trip to a sacred and remote area of the Himalayas … via helicopter…

The fella next to me was our fearless pilot.

Sign me up, Captain!

Well the helicopter ride – like the entire trip, I’d say in hindsight – was a mix of exciting, boring, inspiring and terrifying. What else would a levitating glass bubble amidst vertical Himalayan air currents be like?

Once out of the chopper, the wind was blowing so hard across the massive, barren terrain, it felt like being on the Moon… or Mars?

Not that I’d know…

And happily so!

We stayed in the home of the village leader, a 29-yr old Tsumpa rajkumaar named Sherab. Sherab is the elder brother of Yangchen, the one whom I referred to earlier as a Nepali princess. They and their family were extremely gracious hosts. Like most people in Tsum, they work the land, graze their yaks and horses, guide trekkers up the mountains and consume TikTok videos at all hours in between.

Turns out that everyone under thirty is addicted to their phones up there! Alas, my expectations…

Prior to this trip, the pre-industrial and the post-industrial were separated in my mind by an iron curtain of linear thinking.

But it turns out that a field can be plowed by a yak and the whole thing can be put on TikTok.

Eye contact, smiles and what’syournamewhereareyougoing‘s are ubiquitous in Tsum.

Everyone’s family.

All the cats are black and belong to no one, yet people let them sleep in their homes and nibble at this and that.

The hen clucks, the dog sleeps, the cat prowls and growls and the cow looks on without a scowl.

I wrote in my journal that it felt as if the people, yaks and horses were in samādhi.

Imperturbably at ease.

The culture has been so steeped in Buddhadharma that this isn’t so surprising, but I have to say I felt disappointed to see the flip side: Dharma as mere cultural convention.

But so it is in all Dharma lands. People are people, and misunderstanding is the common denominator for all of us unenlightened beings!

So here we are, to quote Ram Dass, “just walking each other home.”

But it is harsh in Tsum. People work hard. The sun scorches quietly because of the altitude but you start shivering the second you’re in the shade. The wind was also a force to be reckoned with. They grow potatoes, barley, onion, garlic, radish and maybe a few other things. All other products are brought up from Kathmandu and are thus quite expensive.

And despite it being too cold for me, it’s already too hot for the yaks! Soon they’ll be led to higher elevation for the three months of summer, I was told.

Lama said I was looking like a Tsumpa: red cheek’d from wind exposure, so I covered up proper like.

So anyway, why were we there, you ask.

This trip was a pilgrimage for Joe and Lama Phuntsok, as well as a humanitarian aid effort for the people of Tsum on behalf of Joe’s spiritual community in Singapore. He brought many premium goods and cash offerings for the villagers and monastics there. In my mind I was calling him Singapore Santa, but his later moniker, Singtsum, hits nicer.

Tsum is a pilgrimage place because of a cave there that is said to have been the retreat place of the 11th-century Tibetan yogi/saint named Milarepa.

We climbed up to the cave on the second day to hang prayer flags and make offerings. Initially I thought I’d be going there every day to meditate and so on, but that didn’t happen.


Beloved by Tibetans, Milarepa is famous for three main reasons:

1. He became the first Tibetan to achieve complete enlightenment when Buddhism was still relatively new to Tibet. The wisdom-holders of the Sutra and Tantra traditions at that time were Indians, so Milarepa’s success demonstrated to Tibetans that mastery was within their reach as well.

2. He attained to highest awakening after having been first renowned as a murderer! Using black magic, Milarepa killed a number of people out of revenge and was despised by many. Even murderers can become Buddhas in “one” lifetime.

3. He’s inspired countless numbers of people to spiritual practice and has remained to teach humans via his ecstatic songs and the story of his life, written by one of his disciples.

In the intervening centuries since the time of Milarepa, many yogis and sadhakas have used the cave in Tsum for their own contemplative practice. Currently it is the retreat place of one Geshe (think PhD-holder for Tibetan monastics) who has been there for one year already.

Lama Phuntsok is the uncle of Sherab and Yangchen, and he left the village at the age of 12 to become a monk under Lama Zopa Rinpoche in Kathmandu. In his boyhood he lead yaks up the cliffs to graze and he learned the Tibetan alphabet from an accomplished yogi who resided near the Milarepa cave. This ngag-pa (སྔགས་པ་, an ordained, non-monastic practitioner of Dzogchen and Tantra), would be called upon by villagers to stop the rain in the event of flooding and summon the rain in the event of drought, Lama Phuntsok told me.

There are still ngag-pas all around who are called upon to serve society in its endless transitions.

I fell sick early on what with the dramatic shift in temperature and diet, so I took it real easy for a number of days. Singtsum and Lama Phuntsok went to a remote monastery 1,000 ft higher to stay for six days, so I was left alone, happily, to hawk feverish loogies and hurl out the window into the field (following Sherab’s advice). It was also quite difficult to move about initially because of the shortness of breath caused by the altitude. 3350 meters / 11,000 ft.

Breathing difficulty and weakness had me thoroughly curmudge-ified. The land, I felt, possessed all the silence and awe of a cemetery, its Jurassic enormity demanding a strength (or ease?) that I could not muster. Not in this lifetime, I grumbled.

I longed for a ride home, but helicopters came infrequently and were usually fully booked.

On the fifth night I dreamt of a helicopter sitting in the valley mist, but no one was clamoring to get on. I wanted to get on, but felt like it was a bad idea.

The following morning Yangchen informed me excitedly that a helicopter would be arriving that morning. She needed to return to KTM as her boss had suddenly called her back to work. I asked if I could go too.

Unlikely.

In the end, neither could she.

After I recovered enough, I spent my time reading, beholding the rivers, flowers and sky, listening to music, writing, studying Tibetan and Nepali, watching more news on TV than I have in the last three years, and drinking hot water and sometimes rakshi with Sherab’s father. My limited Tibetan was understood by everyone, so I often chatted with the people I met on my meanderings.

On one such meandering, I met a young man named Tashi Phuntsok. He invited me to teach English in the village school (pictured above). I declined and he requested I find someone else.

If anyone reading this – or anyone you know – would like to stay 1-3 months in this village, teaching very basic English to ~30 children, please contact me and I’ll arrange it. You’d have free accommodation and food in the home of Tashi Phuntsok and the workload would be very light. No credentials required.

The sun breached the mountaintops by about 8:30am and then succumbed to clouds every day at around 3pm. It snowed lightly in the middle of the night once.


Once after breakfast I went with Sherab and his father, Tsong Phurbu, to the grist mill to make sure it’s ready when the season arrives. The mill is a simple stone hut underneath which sits a wooden waterwheel. Water is diverted above so the stream passes inside, turning the wheel.

We – they, really – jiggled things around this way and that way, and diverted the stream to see how the grindstone turns. In no time it was deemed ready for the millet!

Also called Himalayan Griffons, apparently!

As I was recovering from illness and coughing up the last of my misery mucus by the river one day, I observed scores of enormous vultures descend from unfathomable reaches of the sky in slow, calculating circles. They were like condors with fur and they were landing just down the river from me.

Watching them all arrive in their silent, exacting way I asked myself in awe: “What is that intelligence?”

Evidently a horse had died and was tossed off the cliff to the dry, stony riverbed below. I returned the next day and all that remained were the ribs, skull and the thick part of the mane.

The hugeness of the land challenges one to be humble, as does the humility of the people and the animals. I could feel at the start how disjointed my vibe was compared to the Tsumpas’, and I noticed how the animals reacted to me. It eased up as I eased up.

Wearing the traditional khö or chupa also helped.

One day I was invited for butter tea in the home of a man who accosted me as I walked along the path that connects the villages. Inside was an elderly gentleman with a yogin’s white beard. Probably the man’s father or grandfather.

I asked him his age and he replied “81.”

I felt quite moved by his strong posture and quickness of wit and asked to take a photo.


The two books I was reading (and rereading) were Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh, and Jesus The Son of Man by Khalil Gibran. I find both to be incredibly inspiring.

Prose one degree away from poetry.

Poetry one degree away from silence.


From the Gibran book, Jesus says to Andrew:

Remember this: a thief is a man in need; a liar is a man in fear; the hunter who is hunted by the watchman of your night is also hunted by the watchman of his own darkness.

Should they seek your house, see that you open your door and bid them sit at your board. If you do not accept them you shall not be free from whatever they have committed.

Watching the news from Ukraine on television, I felt that I might sooner transform into Rambo than Jesus should I be dropped into a war zone. I wish it to be otherwise. And perhaps it would be. After all, I can only guess what I would do if I were 26 in Ukraine rather than 26 in Nepal. How fortunate I am in this life…

I’m back in Kathmandu now. A short but terrifying helicopter ride delivered me, Singtsum, Lama Phuntsok, Yangchen and one nun, as well as a bag of potatoes and a large plastic jar of rakshi to Tribhuvan Airport a few days ago.

Thich Nhat Hanh left me thinking that the measure of peace on this earth and elsewhere is dependent on the vastness and inclusivity of beings’ love. And the vastness and inclusivity of beings’ love is dependent on the depth of beings’ understanding. Seek to always always understand. Putin, too.

So from my heart to yours I wish you all deepest understanding, love and peace.

-Zak

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Stories from Lumbini

Sentient beings are themselves buddhas,
Save for being obscured by temporary stains.
When these are cleared away, they are buddhas.
– Hevajra Tantra

There’s no pilgrimage without hardship. – GY

6:00pm, Sunday 3/7/21
Kathmandu

“Hello where are you.”

It was the bus driver’s assistant on the line. They were at the meeting point, he said, but couldn’t find me. Funny, I thought, I’m also at the meeting point but can’t find the bus.

Busses don’t exactly stop in Nepal/India and there were several busses moseying through the packed intersection. Then I noticed a large one, a non-commuter, rolling away from me on the other side of the street.

That was her.

I waded through the traffic and a man standing in the road says “come with me” without identifying himself, then starts jogging after the bus. I assumed this was the bus assistant, so together we ran to catch up. I laughed to myself: starting this trip by running for a bus! As it should be … but how nice that there was someone waiting in the street to bring me onboard.

Just after sunset we stopped at the edge of Kathmandu amidst the dense grey smog of the Ring Road, and after an hour the assistant passed me into the hands of Ram, the assistant of the next bus that would go all the way to Lumbini. It was a 12-hour journey overnight, so my expectations weren’t exactly Everest-high. Nevertheless this second bus was remarkable: plush seats almost love seat-sized, air-conditioning, blankets, no screaming babies and not crowded. This was a good start.

As it would happen, the entire pilgrimage to Lumbini, the site of the Buddha’s birth, would be filled with blessings, the first of which was this seamless departure from Kathmandu. (Seamless until 4:30am, that is). Blessed though I was on the way down, I would be cursed on the trip back – and I mean literally cursed. But that bit comes later.

4:30am, Monday 3/8/21
Closer to Lumbini

Gey kakn ofn yam. Go shit in the sea.

The bus pulled over near some dilapidated buildings along the road for a chai/smoke/piss break. I took care of #1 and then hung out, stretching and breathing in the sweet morning air before getting back on the bus. Over the year I’ve lived in Nepal, I’ve left Kathmandu only three times on day trips and the clean(er) air outside the capital really struck me. So this is what clean air smells like…

After about 15 minutes #2 was knocking at the southern gate. I was a little worried that the bus would be hitting the road soon, but what to do – no john on the bus! I waited for a squatter to free up, looking back at my bus to see if the smokers and chai-drinkers were getting back in. The rickety aluminum door to the squatter opened and a Nepali guy stepped out. Turns out the fellow hadn’t made any effort to flush his deposit.

Ecologically efficient, some would say.

I turned on the tap to fill the bucket that would be used to clean both sender and receiver, and to prevent my phone from falling down I took it out of my pants pocket and put in my breast pocket. Much to my surprise, however, the phone tipped out of my kurta pocket as I squatted down! Falling between my legs, it clattered swiftly down the shitter and with a sound like a frog jumping into a pond, it disappeared into the floating kakn, swallowed completely by the previous gentleman’s fetid down payment.

Oh f**k.

I looked for a moment, wide-eyed, mouth agape, in denial, then went cufflink-deep to extract it. I got a hold and pulled it out, the phone, my hand and kurta cuff (no links) covered in we know what. The tap was still going, so with trembling hand I washed the phone carefully, making sure the water ran downwards and not inside (maybe a dumb idea!) and set it upright to let the remainder run off. There was no damage apparent for the first 10 minutes.

I shat quickly then re-emerged from this roadside kaka hole just in time to see — you guessed it — my bus driving off! 🚌 💩 🚌 💩 🚌

Oh f**k.

I yelled and waved my hands at the bus as it was passing more or less in front of me, but picking up speed. Nope! She wasn’t stopping! I could almost laugh then at the predicament of it all, so, giving up the bus I went to wash my hands … and sleeve … shaking a little with shpilkes. Fortunately at the dinner stop beforehand, Ram had written his number on a business card for me. What good luck that he’d done that because by now the screen on my phone was giving it up and I wouldn’t have been able to retrieve his number had he put it in my phone directly. Another bus was idling there and the driver noticed me and interpreted my miming correctly to mean “my f*cking bus just left without me!” and waved me onto his bus. I plopped down in the cab beside the driver and two other homies who manage the tickets and whatever else homies do, and we wheeled out into the night.

They were apparently going to the same place my bus was. Crisis averted. The driver called Ram and at about 5:00am we pulled up behind my bus and I hopped back on. Everyone onboard was fast asleep while I was now quite awake and in high spirits, thinking Ok, so that just happened!

The phone, it turned out, would survive its first swim test with a screen transplant and some time drying in the sun, according to Ramu, the phone guy I happened upon after arriving in Lumbini a few hours later. Phew.

No pilgrimage is without hardship and no South Asian adventure is without at least one disastrous fecal interlude, so everything was going according to schedule on my visit to the birthplace of Shakyamuni Buddha. What’s more, I realized, if the squatter had been flushed before me, my phone would’ve swam in 70% H2O instead of 70% solid-ish waste matter, so I think the kaka actually saved it!

I had already told friends and family that I’d probably be off the grid, so there was nothing left to do but enjoy. Not too shabby…

Purifying negative karmas often means enduring hardship, but as the (occasionally brown) stains of karma are cleared away, the infinite expanse of blessing is revealed, like clouds dissolving into a bright open sky.

Where there’s an obstacle there’s a gift. Where there’s kakn there’s a yam.

The Mayadevi temple and the (replica) pond where Queen Mayadevi is said to have bathed after giving birth to Siddhartha.

8:00am, Monday 3/8/21
Lumbini

I walked the long, straight road that cuts through the low jungle into the Sacred Garden of Lumbini with coat, backpack and handbag in tow. I would be staying at a Tibetan monastery inside, but I had no idea where it was and had no way of contacting the lama there. I was alone on the road, and the few Nepalis who passed by didn’t look like the types who could understand anglezé bhasa.

I felt the same way as I did when, almost exactly a year ago, my flight out of Nepal was cancelled as the covid curtain fell over the globe: uncertain about how things would turn out, but really damn good inside.

It was a long walk in and the hot sun was coming up in earnest now.

The sun saying ciao at 5:55pm

Around the Mayadevi temple is a walking path about 2km in length for devotees to make circumambulations, known in Tibetan as kora. There didn’t seem to be hardly anyone around, but as I joined this path from the entrance road a group of Himalayan-looking aunties were about to pass me on their morning kora, rosaries ablaze.

Tashi delek” I said. They responded tashi delek and chuckled a little.

“Karma Samten ling gompa ga par yö ré? Where is Karma Samten Ling Monastery?” I asked.

They responded in a Tibetan I didn’t fully understand but gestured vigorously for me to join them. As we circled around from the back of the temple to the front, one of the aunties was assigned to walk me the 2km to the monastery while the rest of them finished their rounds. How kind of her to walk so far out of her way for me.

But it turned out that all six of them were staying at the very same place!

This struck me as quite remarkable considering the circumstances. With no phone, no map and seemingly alone in the park, the first people I talked to were staying in the rooms just next to mine and personally escorted me there. Just as I’d been delivered seamlessly from Kathmandu to Lumbini – fecal interlude notwithstanding – here I was being led, by the hand almost, to my destination. Doors opening.

There’s no pilgrimage without hardship and there’s no pilgrimage without blessing.

Do you see how they’re the same thing?

Kudan. See caption two pictures down.

4:00pm, Tuesday 3/9/21
Kapilavastu and Kudan (40km from Lumbini)

I’d gone with Shivraj, a friend and tour guide, on his motorbike to visit the sites of and around ancient Kapilavastu, the city where Prince Siddhartha grew up. It was quiet, open and filled with large trees, giving it the feeling of any American child’s beloved park and playground, save for the absence of monkey bars, water fountains and the smell of wood chips. An ancient capital once stood here, and the young Prince Siddhartha studied here, grew up here, and then renounced it all to seek the Truth.

Ancient Kapilavastu, named after the Vedic sage Kapila.

Wishing to enter the forest, that finest king
thus instructed in his duty that finest horse,
as if he were a friend;
and that handsome prince, who was blazing like a fire,
mounted the white horse, like the sun
an autumn cloud.

Then, the good horse went without making any sound
that would cause alarm in the night
or awaken the attendants;
his jaws made no noise and his neighing
was suppressed;
he walked with unwavering steps.

Yakśas, then, bending their bodies low, supported
the horse s hooves with the tips of their
trembling hands,
hands that resembled lotus buds,
forearms adorned with golden bands,
so that it seemed they were scattering lotuses.

As the prince made his way, the city’s gates
opened noiselessly on their own,
gates that were closed with heavy iron bars,
gates not easily burst open
even by elephants.                       

Then he, with long eyes like white lotuses,
caught sight of the city
and roared this lion-roar:

“I will not enter this city called Kapila,
Before I’ve seen the farther shore of birth and death.”

Hearing these words of his, the retinue 
of the court of the Lord of Wealth rejoiced,
and hosts of deities, their minds filled with joy,
announced to him the success of his vow.

Other fiery-bodied denizens of heaven,
knowing his vow was exceedingly hard to keep,
shined a light on his frosty path,
like moonbeams coming down through
an opening in a cloud.

As that steed sped along like the steed of the sun,
its mind as if spurred on, he traveled many leagues,
before the stars became faint in the sky
at the coming of the dawn.

Thus ends the fifth canto named “The Departure”
of the great poem “Life of the Buddha” by Aśvaghośa.

Kudan, the site where the Buddha’s father, King Shuddhodana, received him and his retinue of 500 monks upon his first return visit home seven years after leaving the palace and attaining the deathless state. The Buddha would’ve been 38 years old.

Shivraj and I tried to enter the Thai monastery adjacent to the ruins of Kapilavastu, but they wouldn’t open the gate. Nearby at Kudan (see caption above), where there’s another Thai monastery, the boy raking leaves let us in. There were only two monks there and the one I spoke with turned out to be from the very same province that I call home in Thailand: Nakhon Si Thammarat! This is very unusual because even in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand one rarely meets monastics from Nakhon, yet here I was strolling beneath the low canopy of the Kudan grove in rural Nepal with Ajahn Megh, a Nakhon native. It turns out he doesn’t stay at the Kudan monastery normally, but at the main Thai monastery in Lumbini. He’d only come for a casual visit that day.

A coincidence? Methinks not.

I asked him about his life and he told me he decided to enter the Sangha at age 13 because his grandfather had been a monk. None of his other siblings had any such inclination. It was in his native district of Nakhon, a rubber tree-rich area called Cha-uat, where I’d met a forest monk and palm reader eight years ago.

The things the palm reader told me about my 20’s have so far all come true – “after you graduate college you’ll live outside America for three years due to some problem. You won’t pursue another degree. The first one you get will be your last.” I didn’t believe him then, having made plans at the age of 17 to get a PhD (duh), but that’s exactly where I stand now: not interested in another degree for its own sake and living abroad now for 1.5 years, partially due to the problem called living-in-the-US-at-this-moment.

Ajahn Megh and I at the small but beautiful Thai monastery at Kudan called Wat Nyigrodharama.

That evening I sat in the Mayadevi garden for two hours, meditating and making aspirations for the awakening of all beings, in particular my family members, while also trying to wrap my mind around the immensity of a mother’s kindness and love. To me, this site is as much in honor of the Buddha as it is his mother, Queen Mayadevi. She died seven days after childbirth but received Dharma teachings from her son seven years after his awakening while she dwelt temporarily in the Heaven of the 33. Her sister, Prajapati, was Siddhartha’s foster mother.

Maya Devi-MA 1779-IMG 8431-gradient.jpg
A Nepalese statue of Mayadevi. Standing and holding the branch of a Sal tree, the Queen gave birth painlessly. Her prince then stepped seven steps in each direction and announced his task in that life.

They say the kindness of the mother is impossible to repay because her gift is so great, but what one can do instead is to view all beings as a mother views her only child and to share with them from the ego-less position of genuine compassion the teachings that will help establish them in true happiness and enduring satisfaction. After all, these are the two main things a mother wants for her child, usually.

If you want to imagine how a Buddha views another being, imagine how a mother views her only child.

I walked back in the dark to Karma Samten Ling, sweaty, mosquito-bitten and filled with great motivation to strive on the path. Aspiration bodhicitta. From this mind state bubbled up a blissful dream later that night of my family and I on a flat hilltop with floating Burmese pagodas, all golden. Everyone’s face was filled with a joy like one sees on the faces of family members at a graduation or wedding.

Shwedagon Pagoda: The Best Pagoda in Myanmar - TripAnthropologist
Shwedagon Pagoda in Burma

8pm, Tuesday 3/9/21
Karma Samten Ling

When I walked through the gates of the monastery the Himalayan aunties were sitting in a circle outside their rooms, chanting and singing Tibetan prayers in lovely harmony. What a wonderful thing that I’m living in a land where people still do this. They took ten days to come to Lumbini together, spending their time enjoying each other’s company in laughter, gossip, milk tea, prayer and song.

As I was appreciating this gift, a spot in my back began to throb intensely. Having been leaning forward on the motorbike to chat with Shivraj as we cruised easily through the hot, green farmlands of southern Nepal a vertebra must’ve slipped out of alignment and it only began talking to me then. Very quickly the pain grew in intensity, so much so that I couldn’t even stand up. This is a first. I didn’t even have the strength to set up the mosquito net so I just went to bed and proceeded to run my second blood drive for the mosquitos of Karma Samten Ling.

At another time not so long ago, I might’ve killed as many as I could, but last summer while batting at a very hungry mosquito, I heard it make a noise like a mosquito scream. I’d be screaming too if I were being swatted at by a giant! I thought. It’s also forbidden to kill inside Lumbini and inside monasteries as that’s a transgression of the first precept, not to mention an awful thing to do in any case. So nowadays when a mosquito is very persistent as I’m falling asleep I try to practice offering my blood as food, wishing also that they take higher rebirth. After I’m asleep they can do what they want. And so they did. I woke up Wednesday morning with a very tight back and another fifteen bites on my face, matching the first fifteen from the previous night. As the other monks at the monastery would say, “many mosquitos were benefitted this week.”

Still feeling terrific, though.

From the so-called Buddhist view, such an episode of spontaneous back pain is quite positive, actually. It’s purification. Holy places are known to activate good karma in the form of serendipity, comfort etc. (“you’ve just been upgraded to first class, mister!”) while also activating negative karma in the form of pain, misfortune, and so on. The latter is positive because purification of negativity while in human form spares one the much greater suffering of those karmas ripening in a non-human realm of existence. The view goes that a violent mind that enacts violence through speech and action will, after death, evolve into the form of a hell being who then suffers great violence; an uncultivated, fearful and sense-obsessed mind will evolve into an animal form, harried by the fear of being eaten and distracted by the senses; and a greedy mind will evolve into the form of a hungry ghost who experiences great hunger and thirst with no chance of satiation. Positive qualities such as generosity and patience evolve into well-endowed and attractive forms, usually human. When these respective categories of suffering – pain, fear and deprivation – arise for humans we have the chance to purify them through endurance and transformation.

Understanding the source to be one’s own previous actions, one tries to endure suffering calmly. Compassionate toward others who suffer the same and worse, one transforms their distress into the wish that no other being experiences the same. And just as a dusty light bulb shines with increasing brightness as it’s cleaned off, when karmas are cleared away completely, one shines forth as a Buddha, a Christ, the Word made Flesh. This is so because Buddha nature/the Christ lies in all beings and being-ness just beneath the stains of temporary karma.

You, me and the mosquitos are equal in Buddha nature.

So back pain and a buffet for hungry insects is not bad in the slightest. Hardship and blessing are the same thing, the pilgrimage merely being a catalyst for this unfoldment. “Good is good and bad is also good.”

And perception is everything. A pilgrimage to Lumbini could be remembered as a shit-smeared, back-aching, mosquito-ridden mess and a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago could be remembered as a blister-filled and sunburnt slog. Or they could be viewed differently. All views ultimately end in emptiness, but an enthusiastic outlook will take one much farther. And you’ll have more fun.

Geshe Dorji Damdul having fun.

I heard a story of a Buddhist practitioner, a Westerner, who went to Bodhgaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, and stayed some months doing purification practice under the instruction of Lama Zopa Rinpoche. In the first month she was in a car accident and, unrelated to that incident, contracted hepatitis. Contrary to what one may expect, Lama Zopa Rinpoche was extremely delighted to learn of her “misfortune” because it showed that her practice was paying off. Dust was being cleaned from the light bulb. Here’s Lama Zopa’s advice to a student who’d received a cancer diagnosis:

Every time you think, “I am experiencing cancer on behalf of all sentient beings,” it purifies many eons of past negative karma—wow! It’s like an atomic bomb, the heaviest and most powerful weapon in the world, exploding your negative karma—many eons of negative karma get purified; many eons! Think, “I am experiencing this for all sentient beings to free them from all samsaric suffering and its cause.”

I had also been somewhat mysteriously ill the Friday and Saturday before boarding the bus in Kathmandu. I suffered from such nausea that I couldn’t eat for 36 hours, this together with a short-lived fever and then a mild but lingering headache. Since this befell me just before the pilgrimage I took it to mean one must wash their feet before entering the shrine.

(No it wasn’t COVID – had that back in October and that was far easier, thankfully, than the ‘Delhi belly’ problems just prior to Lumbini).

Daskalos (1912-1995), a Christian mystic, healer and saint from Cyprus, describes two times in his life when he developed gangrene in the process of purifying the karma of loved ones, karma he’d voluntarily taken on himself. Both times, as he was about to have the gangrene amputated, the doctors would come into his room to find that the blackened tissue had disappeared, purified through the power of his meditation on the One. This and many other wonderful stories can be found in The Magus of Strovolos, an account of the life and teachings of Daskalos, collected by a close disciple and former sociology professor at the University of Maine, Kyriacos Markides. Dig it.

“Jugaad” n. 1. A flexible approach to problem-solving that uses limited resources in an innovative way. Mosquito nets are a must in southern Nepal.

4:50pm, Wednesday 3/10/21
Lumbini

I presented my ticket to the guards at the Mayadevi temple and they told me I could enter for free from then on. Doors opening. Perhaps for people who come regularly enough they make exceptions, but in the low season it surprised me that they’d pass up a daily 500-rupee purchase. When do foreigners get an entry fee break in Asia??

10:30am, Thursday 3/11/21
Lumbini

I received a standing offer from Ajahn Megh of food and accommodation at the Royal Thai Monastery in Lumbini despite their being closed to guests due to the pandemic. Doors opening. It’s beautiful there, quiet, with a lotus pond and lush vegetation.

Royal Thai Monastery, Lumbini [Accrylic on Canvas] : Nepal
Royal Thai Monastery, Lumbini [Accrylic on Canvas]

That evening, while circumambulating the Mayadevi shrine, thinking what I should think – mantra? silence? aspiration? – the thought bubbled up in me that I owe my deepest gratitude to the Buddha and all such teachers for saving my life. I hadn’t ever thought this before, but it was an intense and wonderful feeling of connection, inspiration and devotion. This is the feeling one tries to generate in the practice of “going for refuge,” the rationale being that the only refuge from birth, old age, sickness and death is one’s spiritual practice under a master who shows the way (Buddha) using the teachings that illuminate (Dharma) and with the support of a likeminded community (Sangha). All three of these, the Three Jewels, I felt then and feel now have saved my life insofar as they have given me the ultimate purpose in this and all future lives. No more career fairs and no retirement! Alhamdulillah

10:00am, Friday 3/12/21
Lumbini

Say, ain’t we walking down the same street together
On the very same day
.

The last ‘uncanny’ connection I made while at Lumbini took place when I visited the Thai temple on my last day with three Tibetan monks about my age who were also staying at Karma Samten Ling. As we entered the monastery, I overheard a man asking if they had accommodations for meditators. He was politely declined. I mentioned that he could ask the lama at Karma Samten Ling about accommodations and I asked him where he’s from. One of the only foreigners I’d seen at Lumbini the whole week, it turned out he’s Palestinian.

Highly unusual or highly synchronistic? (For those of you who don’t know, I get down with Palestine in a big way).

Have you ever noticed how, even out of context, bookish people happen upon other bookish people, oboists happen upon other oboists, smugglers happen upon other smugglers and so on? Observing vibrational accord turns uncanny coincidence into almost formulaic synchronicity.

And I said, hey Senorita, that’s astute
I said, why don’t we get together
And call ourselves an institute

The residence for members of the royal family at the Royal Thai Monastery at Lumbini. It was like being in Thailand – all the signs were in Thai and all the workers, including those just sweeping leaves, spoke Thai (or at least a little bit). Very cool to see Nepalis all speaking Thai haha.

7:00pm, Friday 3/12/21
Bhairahawa

Cursed on the way back to Kathmandu…

Two trans women got on the bus and immediately everyone took out their wallets and forked over the smallest bills they had. Confused, I wondered what’s going on here? One held her hand out to me, but I didn’t want to give her anything as I knew they’d make a pile from the others on the bus, so she said “I’m a call-girl. Give me money.” For a second I thought that the guy next to me who’d paid up already was going to have a quick favor done or something, so I replied “Well sorry, I’m not calling you.” She very quickly became angry and said loudly “I’m gay, give me money! Are you poor?” The Nepali man beside me who’d handed over a 5 rupee note already nudged me and said “she’s gay, give money.” I was quite confused now, but was pretty sure I wasn’t gonna give these women anything. They moved about the bus and on the way out gave me another chance. They harassed me quite a bit, one pulling my cheek even, as the rest of the bus looked on apprehensively.

Then she said she was going to curse me. Waving her hand dramatically, she pointed at me and said something I didn’t understand, then got off the bus in a huff. Ok, so that just happened!

These were hijras I learned later, and they’re believed to possess shamanic powers. This relates to their patron (?) goddess, Bahuchara Mata, who, in one story, was born in the avatar of a princess who castrated her husband because “he would run in the woods and act like a woman rather than have sex with her.” The second story tells of Bahuchara Mata cursing a man with impotence after he attempted to assault her.

So I’m guessing my teacher on the bus tried to curse me with impotence. I take curses and blessings seriously but as she waved her hand about I got the sense that she didn’t know what she was doing. She was powerful, but probably not a great curser.

So far it seems I’m not impotent, but that wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen. In fact, impotence would be a tremendous help to me on the path I’m walking.

Regardless, next time I’m gonna fork over the lil rupee notes lickety-split.

Gallery

9:00am, Sunday 3/14/21
Kathmandu

One day after arriving back home in Kathmandu, I stepped into the Gelug monastery in my neighborhood. It was here, two weeks prior, that I’d made up my mind to visit Lumbini while taking in the beautiful depiction of the Buddha’s life story painted on the northern wall. Looking up at the name of the monastery for the first time, I saw that it was called Samten Ling.

So it was that Samten Ling, sanctuary of samadhi, helped send me to Lumbini and then received me there. Full circle.

May be an illustration of flower
by Somesh Badami

May you also make pilgrimages to the sacred sites of any and all wisdom traditions, and may your mind be uplifted in the winds of joy, devotion and insight that, without a doubt, blow stronger in such holy places.

May we see every place as a holy place and may we all be free.

Peace and love,
Zak

A Cremation Under Monsoon Skies

“No matter how things appear, if you look deeply, you will see there are always reasons and there is always justice.” These were the words Chitra had read in a book of quotes belonging to Ananda Maharaj-ji , a seer and teacher from the South.

That was years ago. Now Chitra sat with his family at the ghat, under monsoon skies, feeling empty. The fire was burning quietly. He had lost track of time since the pyre had been anointed and lit, and now the sturdy arrangement of wood, atop which was laid the finely dressed body of Baba Jayant, had been reduced to a shapeless, black, smoldering heap. Only a few white bones remained to remind him that his beloved old baba – grandpa – had lain there. We sat on the steps nearby, watching and praying, mesmerized by the fire and its power to destroy.

The dom dispassionately pushed clumps of dry grass into the fire, and prodded unfinished body parts closer to the flames. This was his seventh cremation of the day and his body showed exhaustion as he methodically pushed his bamboo stick about the fire like Charon with his ferry pole in the waters of the Rivers Styx and Acheron.

Pretty incredible, Chitra thought … we came here with the body of grandpa and we will leave without it. We will have watched our Baba transformed into the most basic substance on earth: ash. All that substantial-ness, thought Chitra, all the blood, sinews, the cloth of the shroud, the flowers we adorned it with, the person, all of it slowly transformed before our eyes. Soon the ashes and bones would be swept somewhat ceremoniously into the river below.

It was hard not to feel attached to the body, even though he knew it no longer bore the life force that was Baba Jayant. It’s hard to sit here and watch it disintegrating slowly. A lingering thought disturbed Chitra: Baba Jayant would be cruelly reduced to nothing.

Reading his mind, auntie Gayatri spoke up.

“There’s never a nothing, beta. Body and wood into fire. Fire into heat, light, smoke and ash. Into water. Back to earth. And then once again into body.” She went back to murmuring her prayers, as if she hadn’t spoken at all, and the elements shifted within and amongst each other on the pyre.

Chitra understood the truth of auntie Gayatri’s words and even saw it with his own two eyes in front of him, but still he felt it was an annihilation. Still it was a theft, a somethingness into nothingness. So unfair to feel such deprivation, drawn out by the cruelly discerning flames. So unfair to leave the ghat without Babaji.

But that was not the last time Chitra would see Babaji. Two weeks passed and it felt like the monsoon skies would never let the sun through, the injustice of loss a wound that wouldn’t heal. Sighing, Chitra turned the light off, closed his eyes and went to sleep.

A soft, fragrant breeze blew in through open window.

There was Baba Jayant, wearing his same old beige kurta and walking with his sandalwood cane which was more of a companion than a crutch. He placed his hand on Chitra’s head and spoke:

“No matter how things appear, if you look deeply, you will see there are always reasons and there is always justice. Nothing can go to nothing.” Babaji stepped back, smiling, and said “now you see past the ash and bone – we are all just walking each other home.”

The dream dissolved into purple-pinkish light and the sunlit white curtains of the bedroom manifested where babaji had been standing. They rustled in the morning breeze as an angel slipped through the open window.

This story was partially inspired by Ellen Tadd, an American clairvoyant counselor and teacher, whose mother spoke to her in a vision two years after her death.

Two Talking Boots and Two Painters

It was a story of two talking boots. They were walking down the dusty street when a cobbler in a faded blue t-shirt said “hey, c’mon man, let me sew those up for you!”

Speaking on behalf of the talking boots, I said “Yup! You got me there! Let’s do it up.” So I sat down on the low stool, slipped my feet into the pair of sandals he had for the shoeless customer, and got to talking with Vijay as he went to work on the boots.

“Tough leather” he said as he made perforations for the needle and thread to go through. “Yes, they’ve been walking for a very long time,” I said “so now they’ve started talking to me.” Ah, but not for much longer. With some maple syrupy-looking goo and many more hard-won stitches, the boots were all patched up!

Vijay’s nephew, Vishal, had dropped by and the three of us got talking about the world, Lord ‘Rona, and Kathmandu. The talking boots were their first customer since the lockdown began on March 22. Vijay and Vishal, it turns out, are not cobblers by trade but mandala painters. Mandalas are intricately designed geometric depictions of the cosmos or some particular aspect thereof, and Vijay and Vishal are student painters at an art school that specializes in producing mandalas for wholesale. It takes 10 years to graduate from the level of “student,” but there’s no limit to the time it takes to become a master; all the masters are constantly improving on their craft for as long as they can hold the yak hair paintbrush.

Vishal with a mandala he made depicting the unbreakable knot, surrounded by the syllables of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. To make a mandala, Vishal explained, the artist starts by sewing a sheet of cotton, then covering both sides in a thin layer of white clay. While that dries, they make their paints using crushed stones and minerals of various colors. Then they pencil on the design and paint over it. At the end, using a single-hair paintbrush, they make the mantra shine with liquid gold leaf paint.
A mandala with the syllables Om Mani Padme Hum at the center and radiating out from the center. Om Mani Padme Hum is the favorite mantra of the Tibetan people as it’s the mantra of the Buddha of Compassion, Chenrezig/Avalokitesvara.

Unable to sell his work, Vijay turned to cobbling. He asked if I could pay him in cash but also bring some dry foods, like rice, because he had four kids to feed and just about nothing to eat at home. So I came back later with more cash, 2 kg of channa dal and a 5 kg bag of rice. 5 kg of rice lasts me six to eight weeks, but in a family of six, that bag will be empty in a week.

I’ve since gone grocery shopping with Vijay and his wife, Rupa, and been over to their one-room home for chai and dinner a number of times. They’ve treated me like a king and if only I was a real king without visa dues and the prospect of expensive plane tickets for when I make my way back to Thailand I would help them leave Nepal too. They’re from Punjab, India, and they’ve been trying to leave because the 3-month lockdown in Nepal has made life just about impossible. So now they need just enough to get bus tickets back to Punjab. The total cost is $120 and once they can cover that, they’ll pack up and head home.

So if you’re able to throw in $5 or a little more, please consider doing so at this link. The funds go to me, then I’ll take it out in rupees from the ATM to give to Vijay. Vishal’s immediate family already has enough to buy the bus tickets.

Thanks in advance, and if you have a pair of talking boots or shoes, consider getting them fixed up instead of buying a new pair. You’ll reduce your carbon footprint and will have spunky shoes with a story to tell.

Wishing you all well.

Zak

gf.me/u/x9kxbf

“What I Have Learned So Far”

I hope everyone’s doing well and still able to laugh frequently. I sure am. “The most revolutionary act one can commit in our world is to be happy” according to Patch Adams. Even as they walked him to the cross they couldn’t defeat Jesus for this very reason.

I’ve been meeting some really cool characters here in Kathmandu, people, mainly passed-middle-aged men, who have defected from their (western) countries of birth. One guy, Tenzin, is a Brooklyn-born wanderer and activist who hitchhiked around America for 35 years, and claims to have learned far more in the passenger seats of cars than in all his years of schooling. He’s even died at least once and lived to tell about it. This is a blog post of his that I really appreciated. Hope you do too. Wishing you well.


Zak

December 19, 2019

|www.fearlesspuppy.info

   WHAT I HAVE LEARNED SO FAR


        This trip has, so far, brought me almost exactly half way around the world from where I started. It has been great fun, adventure, experience, and offered wonderful insights into different cultures. But it hasn’t taught me much about humanity that I didn’t already know. It has confirmed a lot that I already suspected.
       People everywhere and anywhere are a lot more similar than different. Most are trying to be decent and happy, but all have different definitions of what “decent” and “happy” mean. There are a small number of seriously self-centered assholes, but even they are also just hunting happiness in their own warped fashion.
        The nice people can be awfully cruel at times. Cruel people are occasionally nice.
        No one gets out alive but most folks act as if death only happens to other people. There is very little real consciousness of mortality going on.
         Actually, there is precious little consciousness going on at all. Folks seem to do a lot of life habitually and without any deep awareness of their thoughts or actions. Very few realize how many choices they have. Many folks seem busier strangling life’s opportunities with irrelevant and often inaccurate historical misinformation than are actually taking advantage of those opportunities. They don’t realize that a lot of what is called tradition turns out to be no more than peer pressure from dead people, and that it lacks any valuable or even real substance. They seem swept away by the current of life, like a body trapped in the current of a wide river. They don’t realize that there are banks on both sides of any river that we can swim to, climb ashore, and find golden new possibilities waiting for us.
          Most people have been hypnotized by the commercial and political nuances of their culture into believing that their remedy is somewhere outside of themselves. Those misleading nuances, like the people themselves, are more similar than different no matter what culture they travel through.
          Many folks get trapped for a lifetime in these external pursuits of well-being. Few realize that all solutions are within. Many are aware that there is something wrong but just can’t figure out what that something is.
          The historical Buddha is often misquoted as having said that “Life is suffering.” But the word “dukkha” that he used is more accurately translated as “dislocated” or “out of joint,” in the manner of a dislocated shoulder or collarbone. Many folks give lip service to the well-known fact that love is the answer. They mouth it often. They feel it a little more on Sundays and at Christmas, but have trouble putting it into consistent application during the rest of their week—and the rest of their living. They know where the best stuff is but are disjointed, dislocated from it.
          Pain will happen in life but suffering is often optional, or at least adjustable. Reconnecting with The Bigger Thing eliminates the dislocation from it. That re-established connection often supersedes and modifies the previous connection to suffering. It doesn’t matter whether one tags the “Bigger Thing” as Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Xenon the Invader, The Field, The Force, or Self. Drive any car you want that will get you to the destination. Regardless of which teacher or system is used, the quality of attention paid by the student is a good deal more important than who the teacher is. Consciousness needs to be intentionally tuned in to and is therefore, on several levels, self-consciousness.
        More people every day are starting to realize we are at a crucial point in history. They can figure out later that those tag systems were almost all symbolic and very little was literal. They can wait just a bit to come to grips with the fact that they have to do the internal work in order to enjoy more humane qualities, not wait for someone or something supernatural to do it for them. But Earth is very near immediate crisis mode. Even paying serious attention to a truly positive “belief” can do nicely as a vehicle on the road to improving life right now, saving the environment as soon as possible, and an objectively sound wisdom in the future.
       That wisdom in the future will include the courage to simply say, “I don’t know.” Admitting that we don’t know a lot of things will eliminate the need for blindly believing in unfounded, unrealistic stories that dead people just flat-out made up a long time ago. Believing in fairytales can give us a false sense of an actually nonexistent security. It disfigures objective reality.
        Many of these stories were control devices designed to tame and civilize, or intimidate and rule, unruly populations. Others may well have been meant symbolically and are still brilliant metaphorical lessons. But history shows that over a period of centuries, a lot of material that was meant to be metaphorical got concretized, bent to individual purposes, and sloppily translated. Look what happens in three minutes to a message running through a chain of ten kids playing Telephone! Give that process a couple of dozen centuries, or even months, and what fragments of the original message remain may no longer have any resemblance to the actual original message.
        The good part is that everybody wants to get love and life right, even if they are not consciously aware of it. That desire may see very little practical application in the modern world at times, but an increasing number of folks are realizing that they do want to be improved, happier, nicer versions of themselves. Many are searching. There is hope.
         Every day, I see more people waking up. But also every day, another poor jackass is born and hypnotized from birth to think his life is so important that yours doesn’t matter at all. These are the guys who manufacture the separations that keep humanity from becoming itself. Things like sexual, religious, national, and ethnic differences are given such great importance in the physical/material world! There is nothing, in mundane existence, wrong with the pleasures that these differences afford. There is not much wrong with the limited feeling of inclusion that these little clubs we belong to can give us—as long as they’re not at the expense and degradation of any other little club. But these likes, dislikes, preferences, accidents of birth, and so on have no place in the world of consciousness, and it is insane to let them overpower the total inclusiveness that pure consciousness entails.
         I have seen a lot of human inconsistency everywhere while traveling around the world. There doesn’t seem any sense in being an optimist or a pessimist. I’m a realist. It appears that we can go either way. Everything can work out just fine or humanity can become extinct in short order. Most folks are nice. Everything depends on whether those nice folks can muster the inspiration, power, and intelligence to make the few nastier people see reason. That’s going to take some doing because in order to help anyone else do that job efficiently, the nice folks will first have to do a version of it on themselves. The mechanics of The Bigger Thing dictate that things work the way Gandhi did. A mother came to The Mahatma and asked him to get her sugar-addicted child off the sugar. Gandhi told her to come back in two weeks with the boy. She did. Mahatma talked to the boy and the child stopped eating sugar from that day on. The mother asked, “Why did you have me wait two weeks?” Gandhi answered, “Two weeks ago, I was on sugar!”
          The nice folks will also have to be careful to not become just like those nasty people. It happens sometimes. People have often killed tyrants and then become tyrants. Revolution, by dictionary definition, means you end up back where you started from. Evolution, on the other hand, puts your way of living somewhere else.”Somewhere else” would, in almost every nonphysical sense, be a good place for all of humanity to move to—especially that nastier fraction of humanity.
         We are a unit. Whether you are basically nice or nasty, like man or woman ass, are born black or white, or are from the Eastern or Western hemisphere, we now have no functional choice but to realize the depth of what the American patriot Patrick Henry said in the 1770s. Regarding the revolution against England, he advised his compatriots that “we must hang together or we will surely hang separately.” Now that we are facing the extinction of the human species on so many fronts—environmental, warrior/political/nuclear, a potentially fatal overpopulation and draining of resources, and more, Patrick Henry’s words are more important to live by than ever.


***If you missed the Intro to this third book (that the above piece is from) and would like to see it, go to the Puppy website blog section, or WordPress, or send an email request to jahbuddha13@hotmail.com This is a book in progress. You are seeing it here as I write it! And as it says in the Intro, it is a totally true story and may be the only book ever written by a corpse!***The books Fearless Puppy On

American Road and Reincarnation Through Common Sense by this same author, as well as sample chapters by, very entertaining tv/radio interviews with, and newspaper articles about him are available at www.fearlesspuppy.info

Finding alignment in trying times

A plane filled  with many empty seats
Carried travelers from Bangkok to Kathmandu.
Some tattoos, some dharma eyes, one Nepali woman returning home from a Sustainable Development conference
Many traveled alone
Almost all wore hiking boots.
The Asians wore masks
The non-Asians didn’t.
Most had masks for Lord Corona,
One had his for the air pollution.
First day, fresh off the plane, temperature checked, no corona, spinning down the dusty lanes among monks on holiday and laypeople skipping work and
~~Whoosh~~
A jaw-dropping stupa, the Great Stupa of Boudhanath,
A force field 
An epicenter
A power spot
A healing earth, a granter of wishes
A buoy in the karmic sea of fortunate and unfortunate happenstance
A lighthouse on the far shore 
A reminder and an appointment 
A place for pilgrims and saints, high lamas and low lamas,
Some beggars, some hikers
Some well-fed stray dogs,
Some slender, long-haired western men with piercings  who were probably in this Cat Stevens tune.
The Stupa is a lamp
And a manifestation of 
The teacher
And the student’s highest potential.
And then
On a hilltop where an astrologer
in the royal court
used to study the stars
Sits a monastery.
A pleasant 8am hike
Up the muddy but promising road
And ah ha “there’s a course in compassion
starting this Tuesday,” they say.
Lord Corona cancelled the other ones for this month.
There, just above the smog line
and most of the worldly noise,
and above the transmission of Lord WeKnowWho
Us seekers, yoga teachers, retirees and devotees
Sat and discussed suffering 
and compassion.
We sat before Chenrezig/Avalokitesvara 
Buddha of Compassion 
With a thousand hands, inside each of which
look out a thousand eyes.
Inseparable is the eye that sees
And the hand that helps.
No phone for the week 
Super Tuesday somewhere in there,
Lofty expectations 
Making the acquaintance of nerve endings
on my scalp that’ve never known daylight.
Sorta.
Praying for a thousand more hands and eyes
to vote for our man.
Hard pill to swallow, but it went down
Because maybe we just need to go down
Deeper into chaos and paradox.
Some say it’s the coming of the End of Days
the explosive part of the Kali Yuga,
And it sure seems like it.
The world constricts and turns inward, like a stomach 36-hours into a fast.
A bus trip to the verdant hills was cancelled 
Twice. 
A bus trip to India too. No worries.
Still in alignment.
White khatas (ceremonial scarves for blessing)
Fell from a high lama’s happy hands
Over our outstretched, humble necks.
Refuge was taken, along with bodhisattva vows. 
Prostrations became regular, and happily so.
Reiki was even given by my fantastic dorm-mate
Michael
And the Medicine Buddha
made Itself at home in the dorm.
“I’m leaving tomorrow” became a joke.
And the sweet-sounding kirtans (devotional chant)
From the Hindu temple down the hill
Offered a little forbidden fruit 
To the Buddhists above. So sweet.
Silent laypeople in 3-month purification retreat
Were put to the test.
”There’s a pandemic sweeping the globe
You might not be able to get back home.”
Well good
Because this feels perfectly homey, thank you.
This is high ground from the tsunami.
The lama I mentioned
is none other than
Lama Zopa Rinpoche,
A highly realized being
Whose prayers vibrate out from
the top floor where he’s staying.
One day he pointed around the monastery
that he and Lama Yeshe founded
and said “this will all fall down eventually. A tree grows and then it falls. Same with this monastery you see here. Same with our bodies.”
At high ground still, away from  We-know-what,
There is vegetarian food 
that calls for seconds (and thirds sometimes)
And a library that made me drool, almost,
“Stuck” up there because of circumstance and Lord Corona
Was like a dream come true.
The dutiful flight back to Thailand was cancelled, we found out at the airport.
”The airline was losing money”
said the office.
”There’s more to learn here”
said the Universe. 
Then the second dutiful flight back to Thailand 
Was cancelled.
“Planes all grounded,”
said the helpful travel agent
“Mother Nature has us all grounded”
Said the wise ones.
Such a blessing for the ozone
And those fortunate enough to realize their own rare blessings
Healthcare, food, child care, savings, good company.
Such a curse for all the rest.
There are 40 ICU beds in Gaza,
a population of 1.8 million.
90% of the water is contaminated, few hours of electricity a day
Trauma from decades of siege and bombardment, trauma from exile
One-legged twenty-year-olds,
half a family, a quarter of enough food.
Should Lord Corona get in there, by mistake or by evil intent...
A thousand hands wouldn’t be enough.
Donate to UNRWA if you’re able.
Pneumonia will look like Spring Break
to all those in the decade to come 
who lost their jobs and savings
And didn’t have health insurance 
Lost their homes and apartments
Sold their car.
The present is frightening
But the fallout will be unimaginable.
Quarantine for an ascetic 
couldn’t be better,
But quarantines are making ascetics
out of millions who had no choice.
May the wealthy share with the poor.
Prayer flags and Guru Medicine Buddha
Adorn a quiet little apartment which
”I’m leaving tomorrow.”
From Vermont, a fighter stokes his wood stove and fights all the harder
With a thousand and one hands
While the would-be victor yawns
And squints at a teleprompter.
Is this a dream?
Frightened souls far from home
spend thousands on emergency flights
Headed right into the eye of the storm.
Others remain close to the power
of the Great Stupa.
They share their knowledge 
of healing stones and mantras.
More tea is poured and
WhatsApp numbers are exchanged.
One used to be this, another used to be that.
One lives on a boat part of the year in the UK,
another in a camper in Canada.
Some have enlightened teachers.
None of us wanted to leave, so
we’re all here.
Prayer flags flap in the wind
Birds have the skies to themselves now
Prime Ministers from Israel to Thailand 
Capitalize on widespread fear
and commit quiet crimes
Democrats and Republicans sell their stocks
Just in time.
Hunger kills thousands more every day. 
And the vaccine exists: food.
Yet hunger doesn’t kill the rich and powerful.
But Manhattan got hit by Hurricane Katrina this time
So the gov. actually called FEMA. Sorta.
Thai PM Prayut. And he’s not joking. “Media censorship” is part of the month-long state of emergency he declared.
More incense is offered to the deities
These degenerate times
call for it.
But us humans are learning our lessons
The hard way, just as we always insist.
A 2020 forecast says
Air is the element to master.
Must be flexible, able to adapt
and redefine
To the rapidly changing winds of karma
Or hello you’ll get blown over. 
Many already have
and their lungs are just fine.
There’s still time to learn the lessons. Still time to feel a-ok.
There was never more time,
as a matter of fact.
If you ask me, the lesson is about
living and leading with goodness
and others’ wellbeing in mind. 
Narcissism is a cause and a side effect of this corona craziness,
and it’s only making matters worse. 
So there’s still plenty of time 
to find your spark of love and
generosity, patience and wisdom and
expand it up and outward to address both the causes
and the outcomes of this difficult moment.
There’s also still time
before Earth Day
to get back to the Earth 
to clean it up and worship it.
What do we have that hasn’t come
from other people and the earth?
Time to refocus on them.
Vegetarianism isn’t a bad idea.
Even just weekday vegetarianism.
I’ll send you recipes. Consider it.
Fewer animals will be slaughtered
and pooping becomes easier too.
Gastrointestinal alignment.
If you’re feeling sad or afraid
Consider what you can do for others 
who feel exactly the same.
Giving makes us feel good
And makes others feel good too.
We are powerless to the circumstances around us
But we can control how we react.
We can’t sweep the whole earth of sharp stones and thorns
But we can sole our feet with sturdy shoes.
There’s never been a better time
for inner development.
And if you’re looking for
book recommendations 
A Bodhisattva’s Way Of Life 
by Shantideva, translated by Stephen Batchelor.
That’s where the “sweep the whole earth” line comes from.
Breathe long, live long. I like that one.
Enjoy yourself and your company
Donate to groups that could use it
Write with pen and paper 
Maybe talk on the phone instead of over text 
Cuz you have the time now, probably. 
Gotta get closer to the heart of things.
Cut the distractions, Facebook can wait (I remind myself)
Close the laptop and open a book
Look inside
Get those sturdy shoes on
There’re A LOT of sharp stones ahead.
Remember death - not so far away now.
Consider what dying will be like 
and how you’ll handle it. 
What can we take with us?
Not even our bodies, let alone our cars, homes and companions.
Thinking like this has helped me and many others
to align with our best, truest selves 
And to practice giving our lives to others
Before it’s taken away from us.
Always room to improve.
And never a better time to lighten up
loosen up 
Call ‘em up
Dance it up
Let it go
Give it up 
Stir it up
Pour it up
Say thanks!
Toast!
To your health! And yours and yours and yours!
Wishing you well! Peace! Salaam!
Zak
P.S: Once, an epidemic was spreading from one person to another at the glorious Sakya Monastery. Whatever the mantric masters tried, had no effect and the monastery was in danger of annihilation. At that time, the great lord Mahasiddha (Thyangtong Gyalpo) proclaimed this prayer, after which the entire epidemic immediately ceased in dependence upon its performance.
Recite these verses as many times as you are able;
May all the diseases that sadden the minds of sentient beings,
That result from karma and temporary conditions,
Such as the harms of spirits, illnesses and the bhutas (4 elements),
Not occur in the realms of the world.
May whatever suffering there are from life threatening diseases that,
Like a butcher leading an animal to be slaughtered,
Separate the body from the mind in a mere instant,
Not occur in the realms of the world.
May all the embodied beings be unharmed,
By acute chronic and other epidemic diseases,
The mere sounds of whose names terrify beings,
As though they had been placed inside the mouth of Yama, the lord of death.
May all embodied beings be unharmed,
By the 80,000 classes of interferers,
The 360 evil spirits that harm suddenly,
The 424 diseases, and so forth.
May whatever sufferings there are due to disturbances of the four elements,
Depriving the body and mind of happiness, be totally pacified
And may the body and mind have radiance and power,
And be endowed with long life, good health and well-being.
By the compassion of the gurus and the Three Jewels,
By the power of the dakini’s (female embodiment of the enlightenment), Dharma protectors, and guardians,
And by the power of the truth of the infallibility of karma and it’s results, may all these dedications and prayers be fulfilled.

Some coincidence

It was late September and I was moving along Banner Road toward my home which is just a half mile or so up the road and on the right. I wasn’t moving in a car, but in a consciousness. Probably 15 miles an hour, no rush.

At the bend just above Mr. Teneyck’s house, a voice began narrating to me about the venerable nun Jetsunma Palmo, a highly adept British-born yogini whom I’d been thinking about lately. The voice said “she believes you should always bring a gift when you visit someone.” Jetsunma is best known for her efforts in establishing equal opportunities for nuns in the Tibetan Buddhist orders and for having lived 12 years in a cave in intense spiritual practice. A close friend of mine recently got to have a short audience with her and said she’d never seen eyes so deep. Moving along Banner Rd. I looked up and saw a blue dove flying in the same direction I was going, then two more appeared behind it like an omen. The narrator continued “Jetsunma never comes empty-handed, and she always brings something that the recipient wants.” The recipients, I inferred, were other yogis secluded in retreat in the hills of Northern India. “She sits in full-lotus before the person she’s come to visit and after a little while they tell her her fortune.” I was now at the end of Banner Rd., and was going to take the right turn toward my house when this dream dissolved.

Later on toward the last hours of the night, Eckhart Tolle was giving a talk and he brought up a roller coaster called “The Comet,” somewhere in the Midwest I thought. He said it’s great fun and he loves it. I observed The Comet, a towering red roller coaster that had all the usual ups and downs but also a long, elevated straightaway that seemed to extend out over the bright green summer landscape a few miles. The imagery of the flat, verdant expanse was reminiscent of the view I had from atop the Superman roller coaster in Springfield Massachusetts, also a red roller coaster, when I visited Six Flags New England at the age of 14 or 15. Eckhart had a friend, he said, who was afraid of riding this roller coaster because he had a fear of dying, and the lecture proceeded from there but I missed the rest of it.

Image result for Superman rollercoaster six flags
The Superman

After getting home from school that day and writing these experiences down in my dream journal, I decided to look up “the Comet.” Was it a real thing? It turns out The Comet is one of the oldest roller coasters in the US and it’s still operating at The Great Escape in Lake George, NY. I’d forgotten that this was the second major roller coaster I’d ever been on in my life. That was back in the days when we’d straighten our posture as much as we could to pass the height requirement for the ride. A few inches over, whew, you’re good. But a few inches too deep was where this memory was buried, too deep for my waking consciousness to access at least. On a subtler layer of consciousness, the substrate, on which all our experiences are imprinted and never forgotten, that’s where the Comet was. And the reason it was Eckhart Tolle talking about it was because that week I’d watched a YouTube video of him giving a talk, and he chuckled in his odd elfin way recalling having no fear of death as a boy; he’d in fact been borderline suicidal at that age, so he embraced death for all the wrong reasons. And he has a good laugh about it these days, I suppose, because his reality is no longer limited to the sense-based reality that produces ego and all the baggage that is associated as belonging to that ego, objects, memories, people, identities, reputation etc. Now that’s the dream!

So that was a dream journal entry from Feb. 3, one of the more beautiful and uplifting ones in recent memory. Were you certain of what was “real”? What if I told you that three days ago my school computer – that blackhole pictured above – was showing this screensaver for the first time, just as I made up my mind to spend the summer holiday in Nepal and Northern India? Coincidence? A friend (and poet) defines this word best: coincidence is the Universe being encouraging.

The roughly two-month long summer break starts March 1, so I’ve just booked the two-hour flight next Saturday from Bangkok to Kathmandu. I have few plans, but I think it’ll be as much meditation as tourism for the week or two in Nepal then a 16-hour bus ride to Bodhgaya in India, the sacred site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, to see what becomes of the rest of March and most of April. I have been so blessed in my life to travel as freely as this, it’s been a dream come true.

Wishing for springtime renewal for all of you and all others, whatever the season.

May you be well,

Zak

Initiation into The Tao

P’Bang is probably the hardest worker at Kanlayanee Si Thammarat school. She’s one of the janitors, and her hours, as far as I can figure, are 7am to 6pm. 11 hours. A. Day. And unlike me, who gets to sit comfortably in an air conditioned office or stand uncomfortably in an air conditioned classroom, almost all of her work is outdoors and physically demanding. In the Thai heat and humidity, no less.

Nevertheless, P’Bang (“P” is an honorific for someone older than you) completes her work with truly admirable focus and grace, and when she bows hello, “Sawasdee,” she always stops what she’s doing, turns to face you and bows deeper and slower than most. Almost more outstanding than all of that – though not more than her work hours – is the fact that she’s a kind of Thai renunciate: she doesn’t eat meat, onions, garlic or anything produced from an animal. THAT is outstanding in Thailand. She’s , a Chinese variety of vegan.

Naturally, when she asked me what I was eating and I described the green/brown melange over rice as bai liang with black beans and string beans, stir-fried with cumin and turmeric – hold the sirloin tips – she was ecstatic. The new teacher is vegetarian.

Of all reactions, why ecstatic, you might ask? In Thailand vegetarianism is synonymous with observance of the first of the 5 Buddhist Precepts, i.e. refraining from taking life. The other Four are 2. refraining from taking that which isn’t given freely 3. refraining from sexual misconduct 4. refraining from wrong speech (lying, idle speech, slander, etc.) and 5. refraining from intoxicants that cloud the mind. So vegetarians are considered very serious and ambitious Buddhist practitioners, people intent on sowing little to no unwholesome karmic seeds. Traditionally these are the Precepts that laypeople take, and there are many more for monks and nuns, but it basically implies that you’re living like a monk/nun in The World. And it turns out there’s a gathering of these such people one km from the school.

P’Bang told me she joins this gathering every week and invited me to come. I couldn’t understand everything she said, but caught the parts about “reaching Nirvana … all the way up … reborn again and again … come and practice” and was certainly intrigued.

“Is there a monk who comes and gives a dharma talk?”

“No, not exactly. Come tonight and find out. Meet me back here at 6pm, bring 200 baht and wear white.”

So that’s what I did, having no idea that I was on my way to a Daoist women’s group. We met at 6pm, the sun had already set, and I drove behind her as she, on a motorbike, easily navigated the twists and turns of a very narrow alley. As for me, I had to pull every trick I had just to keep up, dodging the potholes, swerving around dogs, cats, motorbikes and cars which somehow all fit on this 2.5 meters-wide road. I arrived at the shrine of dharma just about breathless.

It was the first floor of a person’s home, and there was a heavy scent of incense coming through the open doors where some people were greeting each other and entering. I was given a sanitized towel with which to wipe my hands before entering; cleanliness of the shrine is paramount. Inside there was a desk off to one side and women in navy blue full-length robes were mingling under the oppressive fluorescent lights typical of Thai homes. I was told to sit down, write my full name out and pass over my offering (the 200 baht). I was somewhat surprised to see so much Chinese written about, red decorations and laughing Buddhas, but bear in mind that I didn’t know what it was I was signing up for, literally. I didn’t see any Tai-Chi symbols, the yin-yang wheel, and I only discovered this was a Taoist group when I was handed a manual that said “Orientation and Suggestion for Receiving Tao.” My name was written in English and then in Chinese on a slip of paper that was a little thicker than average paper.

The Master (Dian Chuan Shi) then came in to greet me and asked about what I was doing in Thailand. She was calm, pleasant and dignified and apparently she’d come from Phuket, a five-hour drive away, to lead this chapter’s services for the week.

In the next room we sat down, men on the right and women on the left, on plastic chairs some distance away from the large, decorated altar in the front, on which sat a large laughing Buddha, wreaths of flowers and a bowl for holding candles and incense. Offerings of oranges and apples were made and I was intrigued that the whole ceremony was in Chinese. There was Marine-like precision and order about the whole thing, but truthfully I didn’t have a clear idea what the whole thing was. I was then told to come kneel before the altar on the padded bench, right knee down, left leg off the bench, and make three prostrations. What happened after was very intriguing largely because it was dawning on me that I wasn’t just coming to listen to a dharma talk but was being initiated into this order.

A nun stood on my left and ordered me sharply to bow – 3 prostrations – as the Master invoked my name to the deity and burned the slip of paper with my name on the altar. “Zachary Steiner Aldridge” is now logged on the list of initiated beings. A fire ritual came next in which a long flame-holder with a thick oily flame atop (the kind they use in churches – is there a name for that?) was circled before the deity – more prostrations – then brought from the deity’s face to mine, and back again, then on either side of my head. More prostrations. The Master touched my forehead, about where the third eye is, all the while reciting the invocation. I was then told to recite the words spoken to me by the Master, who was standing on my right now. It was all in Chinese so I had absolutely no idea what I was saying, but it was probably something like taking refuge in the Three Jewels in Buddhism. Five single-syllable words would be spoken to me and I’d repeat them aloud, still kneeling of course. I closed my eyes because it was easier to focus on the sounds and tones of the words and the invocation was quite long. The nuns in the audience were very impressed when it was finished because I mispronounced very few words, a sign to them that there was strong affinity between me and the Tao. I was ordered to make many more prostrations and then backed away from the altar, always facing the deity, and took my seat. The whole thing took probably 7 minutes.

After this, another layperson, a woman, was initiated. It was harder for her to repeat back the invocation and the Master became a little impatient because each word had to be pronounced clearly and correctly otherwise her initiation wouldn’t be entirely legitimate. The nuns congratulated us afterward, pleased to share in the considerable merit of two beings receiving initiation at their shrine. We were brought to another room where, on a chalkboard, four main attributes of the Tao were drilled into us. These are 1. their worldview, the cycle of rebirth and its end (samsara/nirvana); 2. the central figures, the Buddha and bodhisattvas Chi Gong and Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy); 3. the importance of the Third Eye and 4. a mantra which I am forbidden to share with anyone not initiated. And if you’re already initiated you should know it.

If anyone reading this has corrections to what I’ve shared or would just like to offer more information about the Tao please comment at the end, you’d be enlightening all of us.

P’Bang has since invited me back to various events and things, but I don’t feel like Tao is the vehicle for me. I am most inclined toward Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, the Mahayana and Vajrayana, but I did read over the information they provided me and can’t say I disagree with anything. One book they gave to me after the initiation was a little cartoon with 40 pages or so of this-then-that scenarios of karmic significance (see earlier pictures). Scold your parents in one life then you’ll be born with a cleft lip in the next, etc. etc., and even though that’s just a rough sketch of what karma is, it certainly is a reminder to think, speak and act from a place of virtue and goodness always.

I especially appreciated the comparison in one of the pamphlets between Inner Spirit and Physical Body (shown in the last picture just above). It’s something I think about all the time, how these physical bodies are subject to smelling funky, subject to cancers, subject to flabbiness and so on. Even if they look good for a moment and we get the best #angles, our bodies merely take form for a moment, arising from the elements and then dispersing again. The spirit, on the other hand, is the deathless, energetic continuum that carries the imprints of an individual’s karma while remaining a drop in the ocean of something inexplicably infinite, present and primordial. The Atman, to Hindus and other names to other people. In the eye of the infinite, this physical realm is a dream, a fluctuating manifestation and emanation. And in the eye of all of our past lives (millions, by the estimates of those who See and Know), this one life is very much dreamlike. Like our own nightly dreams which we quickly forget upon waking, we’ll forget our last life when we take a new karma body, elemental and mortal, unless you’re lucky and happen to remember it, like some people.

So was the whole initiation into the Tao a dream?

I’ll leave you to think about that.

And I’ll also leave off with a wish that we each recognize for ourselves reality as it truly is, beginning-less and endless, experienced in physical bodies that die and are reborn – nothing to fear there – as well as with our inner spirits which flow with karma until the karma is spent and we’re left with just reality itself.

Wishing you well, too.

Zak

the dream journal and cushion
treated myself to a one-night stay at this stunning resort – not missing America or winter too much

The Upside Down Well

There’s a hospital down the road from where I’m living called Nakharin Hospital. I had an ophthalmology appointment there, but couldn’t find the right place to go. I went in one door, and that didn’t look like it, so I went back out and tried a different door farther up. There were some Cuban and Dominican guys hanging out just inside, leaning on the walls, one guy a bit taller than me was even smoking a cigarette. “Hmm, this is interesting.” As I walked past the entry area into the waiting room, I noticed the TV on the wall was playing some news and two older Latino guys were sitting in front of it listening. But I couldn’t hear the news because there was music playing from somewhere … an Afro-Cuban beat. Two older women in long skirts began dancing, not making a show, just moving with the rhythm. Then it picked up and they moved into the middle of the waiting area, getting into the orisha more seriously now. I thought “oh this is awesome! I’ve been wanting to dance like this since that Afro-Cuban class in college and nobody dances here in Thailand.” So as other people began dancing, I got into it too, and was dancing to the trip-step beat of the drums with the first two women. Then I remembered I had an ophthalmology appointment and reluctantly left this live waiting room in Nakharin Hospital.

I woke up from this dream a few minutes after the dancing scene, just as the anesthesiologist was putting me out for an eye surgery. Thankfully not putting my eye out, but hey who knows when you go under. Starting this blog “Trips to the Wishing Well” with a scene from my dreams made sense because … besides the fact that it’s just awesome to imagine an Afro-Cuban dance party in a hospital … the stories from my dream journal are just as real as those from my waking experience, not to mention just as fun, frightening, boring, etc. The dream state is a mirror of all of our experiences, from yesterday to ten years ago, and even to past lives, and it’s also a mirror of our deepest longings, hopes, fears, etc. The shadow world (for better or worse). Prime blog material, but we’ll see how public some of it goes. I almost forgot to add that the dream state can show you glimpses of the future and that actually happened to me a few weeks ago. So yeah. Prime blog material.

I’m still trying to decide if the title is dumb – feel free to air your thoughts in the comment section – but I chose it because “Trips to the Wishing Well” just rang of storytelling to me and because I’d like to make a wish at the end of each post and make this an airport for aspirations to wing off into the ether. This thought came yesterday as I sat totally alone in the mist of a massive, majestic waterfall 3 km into the jungle – didn’t take my phone so you’ll have to use your imagination – where I spent a good 5 minutes imagining/hoping/praying that Bernie Sanders wins in Iowa on Monday. No joke, this moment in US caucuses has consumed me for the last week. And a waterfall is kinda like a well, just upside down.

There’s lots to tell about what I’ve been up to, but I haven’t started a blog until now because I worried that I’d let my ego be lured into the opportunity to tell shit about me me me … not a healthy exercise. On the other side of the coin, it’s possible to make this blog into the perfect practice of telling stories and sharing aspirations from the shadow world and elsewhere while consciously monitoring the ego and making sure everyone stays in their seats. Inshallah. But, seriously, writing a blog will allow anyone who’s interested, including the Israeli spies, to follow along with my second Thai adventure and for me it’ll be the right opportunity to get back into writing. Can’t forget to exercise that muscle.

And how cool would it be if all my friends wrote blogs I could subscribe to so I could stay abreast of whatever fun or boring s*** they’re up to too!

I don’t want to write very much, but just to keep you all on the edge of your seats I’ll rattle off some of the highlights so far, and later on I’ll make separate entries of some of these: moved to Thailand; spent 4 days in a forest monastery meditating and doing chores; switched up my diet to an almost purely sattvic diet; cut out all caffeine and added sugar and have more energy than ever; all but stopped listening to music, among other pleasures I’m fasting from (more or less); began teaching English basics to middle and high schoolers at a large school; became a ‘morning person’; wasn’t strict enough in the first week and have students (30 in a class) hardly focusing on anything I ask them to (payback for my behavior in middle school); relearned how to drive a car because Thai drivers are on some other s***; learned how to jump-start a car; then learned how to change a car battery; learned how to hack open a coconut and just this morning how to make a mango lassi. Several months of driving later, I’m hopefully going to get a Thai drivers license this week in addition to completing the sacred space I’ve been assembling in my bedroom. And how could I forget the time when I was invited to a Tao women’s group (maybe men too? but only sweet, vegetarian women running the show) and was initiated into the Tao that night, complete with vow-taking in Chinese and a fire puja during which my name, written on a sheet of paper in Chinese, was burned on an altar before the deity so that ‘Zachary Steiner Aldridge’ would be recorded on that etheric list of initiated beings. That one deserves an individual post.

Enjoy some of the pictures below, subscribe if you’re a benevolent spy, get at me in the comment thread and perhaps you’ll join me in wishing that Bernie Sanders takes Iowa and the democratic nomination and that the millions of Americans under the heel of a system that doesn’t work for them finally get some justice and relief.

And I wish you well too.

Zak

The forest temple, Wat Bah Nanachat
Just so you can see how jungley the jungle is
Going coconutz