Tuesday, January 30, 2007

13 minutes

That's how long it's taken me to sign on to Google mail, on to Blogspot and then to navigate to the page where I can compose new messages. Obviously, I'm on a dial-up account, which is all they've got here in Nepal. Fortunately I've found an internet cafe that has it's own generator, otherwise I wouldn't be able to use the computer at all.

Soon as I arrived and checked in to the guest house, I ordered a bite and settled down to lunch with the local newspaper, where I learned form a front page story that Nepal is expected to experience a severe power shortage this year. The government expects 6 hour power blackouts daily beginning in mid-February. I later found out that the blackouts have in fact already started, daily for 3 hours from 5-8pm. The guest house has solar generators to handle its water heaters, so I was able to have a shower last night. I think it was perhaps the first time I've ever had one by candlelight. I suppose we'll all adjust by getting up early to take advantage of as much sunlight as possible.

My first day of school was rather unremarkable, I suppose, except for having the chance to meet Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche, the 14-year reincarnation of the master who founded the monastery where I'm studying. He was in town today and holding audience, so the woman who has been my contact at the school arranged for some of the foreigners to meet him and receive his blessing.

The morning is spent drawing. They do things the old fashioned way here, drawing on slate boards covered with yak butter. The butter is dusted with powdered limestone to keep the surface dry and you draw in the butter with a stylus, either made from plastic or in my case whittled from bamboo. If you make a mistake, you just pat the butter, dab it with a little dust, and redraw.

In the afternoon we work with colors. Some of the more advanced students are working on full-size paintings on canvas, while the rest of the beginners work on paper.

I spent the day drawing and painting leaves, and not doing such a great job of it. But after doing it for most of the day there was one small break through moment, where without thinking about it my hand was able to reproduce in the minimum number of strokes possible a leaf that looked fairly close to the model. The excitement of that accomplishment, though, ruined successful endeavors as I was from then on conscious of my hand movements.

I haven't yet taken any photos at school. It was just the first day and I didn't want to start snapping away before I have a chance to meet most people and let them feel comfortable around me. Displaying photos here my be problematic given the slow internet connection, but I'll see what I can manage.

Until next time . . .


Sunday, January 28, 2007

On Nepal Time

I haven't yet left Japan but I'm already living on Nepal time.

My flight from Osaka to Kathmandu has been delayed by 12 hours, so the staff at ANA (which handles Royal Nepal's ground services) herded all of us onto a bus and shuttled us to the nearby Washington Hotel. Imagine two bus loads of tourists arriving at the hotel just as guests are also arriving for a wedding.

If all goes according to schedule, we will arrive early morning, perhaps around 7:00am, which is in many ways preferable to arriving after dark. If we arrive early enough, I may even be able to get to the school for my first day of class.

Surprisingly, I'm not at all put out. I've got two months, so what's a few hours. Our delay has given me the chance to meet and have lunch with a Japanese Buddhist monk and a freelance Alpine photographer off to the Himalaya's to shoot film for a television documentary. Good fortune often comes in packages of inconvenience.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Artist never intended to be a Buddhist painter

By Katsuhiko Shimizu, Asahi Shimbun, January 24, 2007

Tokyo, Japan -- Like many students, as a senior at Tokyo-based Keio University in the 1970s, Kenji Babasaki didn't know what to do with his life.

But during a trip to Nepal and India, Babasaki caught his first glimpse of the exquisitely detailed Tibetan Buddhist art form known as "Thangka." He was smitten.

Continued here . . .



Only about 12 hours left until I head out the door. Everything is packed and I’m all ready to go, perhaps a little nervous now that the time has arrived, but still looking forward to the experience. I’m a little too tired right now, though, to get worked up about more than a shower and a little sleep. Last night was bit restless, was up early for radio, and didn’t have time to take a nap as there was so much to get done before leaving.

Thanks so much to everyone who has taken time to write and call to wish me well. Your messages are as valuable as anything I will experience in Nepal.

I leave tomorrow having learned only today that this year is being celebrated as the 2550 since the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian prince who became the one we know as the Buddha. Perhaps, as Mutsumi suggests, there is some destiny or fate involved. I tend to think it’s just happy coincidence. Whichever it is, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Talk to you again from Kathmandu.


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

From the beginning...

Some of you may be wondering what's going on, why I'm writing this blog, and what I'm doing going to Nepal. You may be sorry you wondered.

A couple of months ago I posted the following to the first version of A Full Thangka, a forum for family and a few close friends to discuss my interest in pursuing a new interest. That blog has now been retired, hence the titular II here, but I thought it might help new comers to share the following.

(15 December 06) The one question I’ve been asking myself again and again the last couple of years is this: What would I do if I had free choice to do anything I wanted, unencumbered by any other consideration?

It seems like a simple question, but how often do we seriously consider it, let alone act on it?

So often when it comes to deciding on where to live and what kind of work to do, it seems our choices are based on financial considerations – how to pay the bills? How to save for the future?

But what if we didn’t have to worry about that at all? What if we could do whatever we wanted?

At first I felt indulgent and foolish for even thinking about it. But the more I considered it, the more rational the question seemed. Why should our decisions be based on finance? Why not do what we want to do? Of course if we lack the necessities, then we really don’t have much choice but to worry about how to pay the rent and buy food. But Mutsumi and I are beyond that, so where is the need to keep worrying about money and the future? When is the time we start living in the now, and stop worrying about what might be?

So I began to think about it more seriously, about my heart’s desire, about the thing I would really like to spend some time on.

Surprisingly, I couldn’t answer the question.

There is nothing that I longed terribly to do, unlike my friend who if given the chance would be happy to spend the rest of his life playing music. I realized sadly that I have become impoverished, that I no longer have any dreams, no desire for some free time just so I can pursue my interest.

Sure, I’d be happy to spend a few years traveling. I’d also be happy to spend a good chunk of time reading books, watching films, and listening to music. But those activities are mostly passive, activities in which you experience things that others have created. There is nothing that I really wanted to engage.

So, I gave some thought to that. What is it that I would like to spend time doing? Not something that I would like to make money with. Not some skill that will help me at some time in the future, but something I’d like to do now, something to wrap my mind around, something to be engaged with, something that I do for that thing’s sake.

Cooking. And thangka. Those are the two answers I came up with.

Those that know how Mutsumi and I live might find laughable the idea that I’m interested in culinary arts. I hardly do any of the cooking these days, the kitchen being mostly Mutsumi’s province. But I do love to eat, especially very fine food, a bad habit I picked up a couple of years ago from our German friend Chris, who so thoroughly enjoyed eating a meal it was a pleasure simply to sit at the same table and bask in his gusto.

So what could be better, I thought, than learning how to prepare fine food? It’s creative, it provides sustenance, it comes in a number of cultural varieties, and if nothing else gives you the means to live healthily for the remainder or your life.

I looked into schools and programs and even had a brief correspondence with a chef that is a graduate of one of the schools I was looking at. What I discovered is that cooks spend most of their lives on their feet, that they work long hours, that the kitchen is a high-pressure environment, and that good training costs a great deal of money.

Bringing up money as a reason not to pursue cooking sounds a bit contradictory, I know, but this isn’t about throwing away everything I have. It’s not about trying to undo all the work of the last 20 years. It’s not about becoming an ascetic. It’s about finding something about which I can be passionate, finding a new me. A me that with any luck will live a few more years and will need some of the funds that have been accumulated. And a new me who most definitely doesn’t want to work long hours under excessive pressure.

Painting, though perhaps not as financially rewarding, is a slower, more relaxed activity that doesn’t have to be done to the clock.

Perhaps most of you have never heard of thangka. It’s an ancient form of Buddhist painting that originated in the Himalayas, mostly among the Tibetans, a form of art that I remember first coming into contact with during my two month volunteer service in Nepal nearly 10 years ago. I was so impressed with the style that I brought home a very large example, which hangs on our living room wall. And that was the beginning of our Buddhist art collection. You’ll also find in our home paintings from Korea and Sri Lanka; banners and brocades from Nepal; and statuary from Thailand, Laos, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Japan.

While an interest in Buddhist art has been ongoing for almost a decade, something that goes back even further is an interest in drawing.

I grew up infatuated with comic books and spent no small amount of time as a teenager and again as a young adult sketching. When I was considering going back to college for my Bachelor’s degree, one option I investigated was attending the Art Institute of Atlanta, going so far as to have an interview with one of the admissions officers. I gave that up for history at Georgia State University. Now I’m not sure why, but perhaps I lacked confidence in my ability and thought there was little chance of ever becoming a professional artist.

I didn’t, though, give up all interest in art. In 1984, back at university and working at Kinko's, I fell in love with my first Apple Macintosh. (Remember the 128? No hard drive and the entire operating system and applications on one floppy disc!). In spare hours at the school computer lab and at Kinko’s I learned the basic of computers as well as graphic layout and design.

Following graduation I stayed on with Kinko’s running a desktop publishing desk, where my days were occupied designing and producing documents, everything from simple resumes to magazine-like publications. At the same time, I was in my off hours indulging my interest in comics and drawing with a series of self-published comic books (which are too embarrassing to even think of now!).

And then I was off to Japan in 1988. Shortly after I arrived I studied calligraphy for about a year, but since haven’t drawn much of anything except perhaps a few lame sketches on a blackboard to help explain a story or illustrate a bit of grammar.

Apparently, though, the interest is still there – and waiting to be rediscovered.


Giving it all away

I know it might seem a bit strange that I'm going off to Nepal to study art from a culture so different from my own or to do something so different from anything I've done so far. So I thought I'd share this with you, a very interesting story about a man who gave up his life in London to study opera on a continent half a world away. Have a look, and a listen, here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6696442

Thanks to Rebeca for bringing this story to our attention.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Book Review: What Makes You Not a Buddhist; Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, 2006

This is a wonderful little book, 130 pages of distilled wisdom from a man who is known most widely as a film maker, the director of The Cup, but who is otherwise a well-respected teacher from the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. Besides being deeply familiar with Buddhist scholarship, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse has traveled and worked widely in Europe and North America, knows the cultures of the countries, and is able to explicate Buddhist principles with examples that resonate for Star Wars fans and suburban American Republicans.

The purpose of the book, the author notes, is not to make the reader a Buddhist, but to explain what it means to be a Buddhist. It's not a book about how to be, but a book about the implications of being. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse does this through the Four Seals, truths about the physical, phenomenal, and psychological world that the Buddha himself invited his students to examine and investigate. They are:

  1. All compounded things are impermanent.
  2. All emotions are pain.
  3. All things have no inherent existence.
  4. Nirvana is beyond concepts.

Each seal is discussed in separate chapters and illustrated with examples from contemporary life, as well as from the life of Siddhartha, the prince who gave up his pampered court life to seek greater truth and who later became known as The Buddha, the Enlightened One.

Full of sharp humor directed at everyone from spiritual seekers to corporate suits, from tree huggers to neoconservatives occupying the White House, this witty volume is a pithy introduction to Buddhism and would make a great gift for any one interested in the philosophy. I've already purchased one volume for a friend and suspect I'll be buying a few more in the coming year.


Monday, January 22, 2007

Transcendental Money

Welcome to A Full Thangka v.2, just in time for my 2 month residence in Kathmandu. Here's a thoughtful piece to start with, written by a software developer, apparently well known, though not by me. It begins likes this:

How much money do you need to feel secure?

Read the rest here.


Sunday, January 21, 2007


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Monday, January 1, 2007

Book Review: The Best Buddhist Writing 2005; Melvin Mcleod, ed; 2006

"Waking Up At Work" caught my eye while I was flipping through the pages of The Best Buddhist Writing 2005. I was at the time feeling out of sorts about my relationship with my job and while standing in a quiet corner of the bookstore devoured half of Michael Carroll's article before deciding this might be a volume worth taking home.

That was a good decision. It's been one of the more enlightening books I've had the pleasure to read this year. Not because it lead me to a great spiritual awakening, but simply because it features nuanced writing on a variety of interesting topics, everything from reimagining the work place to the pleasures of spending time with children, from the history of Japanese haiku to teachings on mediation from some of the world's great Buddhist masters, from stories of personal redemption from violence and addiction to contemplations on the mysteries of nature.

32 non-fiction articles are collected here under the guidance of Melvin McLeod, Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian bi-monthly Buddhist magazine Shambala Sun. For anyone interested in Buddhism, this volume is a wonderful introduction to how the philosophy is expressed in daily life, from sitting mediation to sitting in the office. And as many of the writers here are North American, it can also serve well those looking for an introduction to trends in North American Buddhism, quite clearly expressed here as the quest to make life meaningful when the rewards of life in a culture of material abundance are not enough.

There are several pages worth of quotable passages from this collection, but as it will probably have resonance with the greatest number of readers, allow me to end with one from "Waking Up At Work." Michael Carroll writes:

"The sober reality we face is this: resisting work's difficulties and hoping for smooth sailing is pointless. Work, indeed all life, is often disappointing and uncertain, and it is futile to expect otherwise. Being hostile toward any of life's difficulties only amplifies our discomfort, and we end up at war with ourselves, arguing with our lives rather than living them."