Saturday, January 31, 2009

Letting go

Let things be in their own way
and there will be neither coming nor going

Obey the nature of things
and you will walk freely and undisturbed

When thought is in bondage the truth is hidden
for everything is murky and unclear

And the burdensome practice of judging
brings annoyance and weariness

Verses on the Faith Mind
Seng Tsan


First Thangka: Day 25

You know how your body feels when you've had a bit too much to drink, a feeling of warm, embracing numbness? I was feeling that way last night as I lay in bed waiting for sleep. But then something quite unusual occurred, flashes of more intense bodily sensations, the kind I normally get while meditating. It seems that meditative state, as a result of regular practice, is beginning to leak out, or to spill over, into more and more of my life.

Last night I had a farewell dinner with a couple of English ladies who've been hanging around here for the past six weeks and who over the course of that time I've come to know a little better. I brought along a bag full of goodies, cashews and apples, Iranian pistachios, yak cheese and biscuits, Swiss chocolate and two bottles of Australian wine. Other residents of the guest house stopped by to say hello, to share a drink and perhaps a laugh. It was a wonderful evening, though a not so terribly wonderful morning. I wasn't hungover, but neither was I feeling like my normal self, either. My first day of painting under such conditions, too.

As you can see in the photo, taken this morning, the colors are slowly starting to fill out the canvas so that now there is little white space left. Up till now this has been for me one of the more relaxing steps in the process. Like coloring with crayons, all you need to do is stay inside the lines and distribute the color evenly.

I've found over the past week that I've been mentally absorbed in the process. Where I used to be sensitive to the passing of time while practicing drawing, now it seems on my thangka that time passes far too quickly. The process has also been demanding physically. As I'm not yet proficient or confident with the brush, I tend to tense up as I apply it to the canvas. The eyes strain, shoulder muscles tense, and I often find after completing a stroke that I've been holding my breath to keep the rest of the body absolutely still. Being completely absorbed in the work, I sit in the same position for an hour or more (on the floor), and by the time I come out of this my body feels like a piece of wire that has been bent into a shape that takes a little effort to unbend. Even so, I'm very much enjoying the experience.

Perhaps by Monday or Tuesday I'll be moving on to what are for me the most difficult parts in the painting, the lining and shading, which require an even steadier hand and which will likely be even more physically demanding.

From tomorrow, only 25 days remaining.


I haven't yet tried either

I noticed this restaurant for the first time last week while waiting to use the ATM. Not only does it have something of an unusual name, but if you look closely you'll notice that it's located directly beneath a college of Chinese medicine.

I wouldn't be surprised if they have the same owner.


Friday, January 30, 2009

Thangka Painters in Nepal is an online retailer of thangka paintings. Nevertheless, the site features an interesting essay on the life of an average Nepali thangka painter, a fairly grim portrait of a life of subsistence.

For myself, I know few such painters. You may recall the bit of temple painting I did in the hills outside Kathmandu. This was a Tamang community, among which were a number of painters, including my good friend Jiwan. His father runs a studio in Bhaktapur and seems to have done a little better than the average Tamang depicted in the essay.

You can read the full article here.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

First Thangka: Day 23

After spending a week holed up in my room finishing the landscape, I went back to school this morning to check in with the teacher and to start the next step in the process, the addition of color. Not that color hasn't already been added, but the application technique is a bit different. Whereas the sky and ground are built up out of layers of light wash, what I'm putting on now is fairly solid color with only a little water added to make the paint more spreadable. What you see in the photo is what I finished after one day's work.

Life has been rather quiet and routine, mostly painting, helping a classmate with his English each evening, and writing a web site to be launched on my return to Japan. I watched a lovely movie over the weekend, one that reminded me of a John Irving novel (though it's not) , a story about an orphan, about wounded souls, impermanence, the interconnectedness (and often seeming arbitrariness) of life, a story populated by eccentric characters in exotic locations, a story told with a sense of wonder and love of life. It made me smile and laugh and cry. I don't think I saw anything better from 2008.

I've also bought a kurta for next month's wedding in Bangkok, but I'm not posting photos until after the wedding so as to give away too much to the bride and groom – or to Mutsumi.


Monday, January 26, 2009


Sarnath, December 09

... in order to understand ourselves we need a great deal of humility. If you start by saying, `I know myself', you have already stopped learning about yourself; or if you say, 'There is nothing much to learn about myself because I am just a bundle of memories, ideas, experiences and traditions', then you have also stopped learning about yourself. The moment you have achieved anything you cease to have that quality of innocence and humility; the moment you have a conclusion or start examining from knowledge, you are finished, for then you are translating every living thing in terms of the old. Whereas if you have no foothold, if there is no certainty, no achievement, there is freedom to look, to achieve. And when you look with freedom it is always new. A confident man is a dead human being.

Freedom From the Known


Sunday, January 25, 2009


Last Sunday morning as I was walking around the Stupa, I found this boy sweeping. I don't know if he was being paid to do this, or if he was doing it simply for something to do.

In either case, he was incredibly cute.


First Thangka: Days 12 - 18

Since my last post I've had seven days of mostly solid painting with only Friday afternoon off to visit the American Embassy (to have additional pages inserted, thanks to all the Nepali and Indian visas that take up one complete passport page each).

The sky in the end took 7 days to finish, and it didn't feel so much like I had finished as I had simply run out of ways to improve. I showed it to the teacher, who said “that may be enough.” And so I started work on the ground on Day 16. The green in the photos is darker than usually painted in our school's tradition, but I needed it that dark to cover up pencil marks I was unable to completely erase.

The photos were taken yesterday in my room at the Dragon Guest House, where I spent most the day painting, and where I'll spend most of today doing the same.

After today only 30 days remaining.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Audio Postcard: Dhammacakkappavattana – Mahabodhi Temple, Sarnath - 29 December 08

After finishing the meditation retreat, I wasn't yet ready to face the noise and bustle of Varanasi and so stayed one night in the town of Sarnath. I had stayed here the previous year for a number of days, enjoying the slow, quiet pace of life while exploring the archaeological sites and the numerous temples.

On the evening of the 29th I visited the Mahabodhi Temple for their evening puja, or devotional service, which on this occasion consisted of five Theravada monks in yellow robes chanting in Pali the Dhammacakkappavattana, the sutta of the Buddha's first discourse, given in the deer park of Sarnath.

Presented here is a 5-minute clip of the entire 40-minute recitation. Anyone interested in a copy of the complete puja, please contact me directly. Due to restricted bandwidth in Nepal, I will not be able to upload until I return to Japan sometime in March.

Click here to download the MP3 to your computer.



Further to this week's episode involving the fly and the hair, this morning while meditating I heard a faint pop. Every 15 to 20 seconds – pop – the sound of a water bubble. On the nightstand next to the bed is a thermos, an old fashioned thermos with a cork stopper. I used a bit of the water shortly after waking and now the trapped air was leaking out. Pop – pop – pop. A tiny sound, but magnified by the early silence at 05:30. My initial reaction was one of irritation; get up and fix this. But I waited. It was a small thing over which to move. Learn to sit with it. What if, I thought, this pop were the sound of a rain drop outside my window? Pop – pop – pop. Ah, that feels better. Same sound, different conception, different reaction. And as I sat further, my mind becoming more concentrated and no longer preoccupied with the pop, I began to feel the sound of the escaping air, tiny ripples of sound waves moving across the body.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lecture Review: A Systematic Study of the Majjhima Nikāya; Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2003-2007

In 2500 hundred years, quite a lot has been written about Buddhism. It's not always easy to find a convenient place to start studying, particularly should you wish to examine the most ancient texts, the teachings of the historical Buddha. Unlike the revealed religions of the Near East, Buddhism has no Torah, no Bible, no Koran. What there is instead is a very large collection of sermons, monastic rules, and philosophy first compiled and committed to writing nearly 300 years after the Buddha's death.

The average lay student will be most interested in the sermons, the suttas, but even these in modern printings consist of several volumes and thousands of pages. What's more, the sermons are usually printed in the ancient order in which they were first compiled, an order based on such things as the length of the texts or the names of the sermons. Reading through the suttas in the order they have been preserved conveys no sense of meaningful progression through a systematized body of religious and philosophical thought.

Thank goodness, then, for scholars such as the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi.

Not only has the American Theravada monk provided a revised translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, but for five years beginning in January 2003 taught a weekly course on this text that was recorded and is available for free download thorough the website of the Bodhi Monastery, New Jersey, USA.

In his first lecture, Bodhi explains that of the five compilations of suttas, he finds the Majjhima Nikaya, the Middle Length Discourses, the most suitable for those new to Buddhism because of the breadth and extent of the the topics covered, and because the teachings are most often presented as conversations of the Buddha with the people around him - monks, practitioners of rival faiths, royalty, and the common people of India.

His approach to the text is what the Buddha once referred to as the gradual exposition of the Dhamma. Bodhi begins with suttas describing the Buddha's enlightenment experience, and follows in succession over the course of the series with scriptures explaining the qualities a person should develop to begin learning Dhamma, the gradual development of the practitioner as he traverses the path of Dhamma, the explication of the qualities of a Buddha, and finally life in the sangha, the Buddhist community.

Having listened to only the first 20 lectures, I am not able to comment on the series in its entirety. Assuming later lectures follow the same style and format, what you'll find first of all is that its not really necessary to do the reading to enjoy the lectures. Most of the MN suttas are quite short and don't present such a large burden on the reader's time, but because of their brevity and because Bodhi's approach is to cover each in detail, I found that in most cases I was able to get as much out of the lecture just from listening as I did from reading and then listening.

Bodhi is thorough in covering the main points of each sutta, in explaining relevant background information that may be unfamiliar to listeners with little knowledge of Indian society of 2500 years ago, and in drawing the listener's attention to textual inconsistencies. When expounding on philosophy he illustrates with contemporary issues or examples, often asking his recorded audience to think through principles and offer up their own examples.

While he seems at times flexible in his interpretations, suggesting for example that the Buddha may not have intended in MN21:6 to promote an extreme form of passivism, at other times he comes down quite hard on those taking liberties with the fundamentals. He insists, for example, that rebirth is not just a psychological state, but is in fact manifested in the material realm. And he takes to task modern teachers and aspirants for picking and choosing from among traditions to fashion their own form of Buddhism.

But these are small issues about which to quibble in a series this extensive. Perhaps more of a challenge for the listener will be Bodhi's rather flat, undramatic speaking style. Unlike an Alan Watts or a Sangarakshita, who mesmerize with cadence and sensitivity to an unfolding story, Bodhi's flat tone and plodding pace will make you work to keep your attention focused.

If you're up for that challenge, you'll find this series an invaluable resource for acquainting yourself with some of the earliest teachings of Buddhism. So far as I know, there is no comparable series out there covering one of the Nikayas in such detail – and especially not one made freely available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Movie Review: Escape from Tibet; Nick Gray, dir; 1997

In Escape from Tibet, a 50-minute documentary for English television, director Nick Gray follows a dozen young Tibetans as they walk across the Himalayas into exile. With no special clothing or camping gear, carrying nothing but a few meager provisions and their life savings, the refugees hike across some of the world's most rugged landscape at altitudes of up to 6000 meters in -33° temperatures. Once in Nepal, they must walk at night to avoid police, and even after arriving at a refugee center in Kathmandu face deportation if they cannot convince the authorities of their legitimate status as refugees.

Crossing the border into Nepal

Sleeping rough in Nepal

This proves difficult for Tenzin, a boy of twelve whose unusual dialect has raised suspicions that he may be a Mongolian posing as Tibetan. The UN issues papers to the film's entire group, including Tenzin's older brother, Pasang – but not to Tenzin. On the night of the group's departure for India and the seat of Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala, Pasang bundles his brother Tenzin onto the bus and the pair ride undocumented into India.

The lack of papers is again an issue in Dharamsala and it appears possible Tenzin may be deported. But at the ritual audience of new refugees with the Dalai Lama, Pasang presses his brother's case and there before the cameras the Dalai Lama orders that Tenzin be allowed to stay.

Escape from Tibet is a touching film that is unfortunately today not in wide circulation. So far as I know it has not been released on DVD. Though now 11 years old, the issues it raises, and the difficulties of the individuals it chronicles, for the most part remain unchanged. Hundreds of Tibetans make this same trek every year, facing hardship and death to escape persecution in their own country. Their stories should be more widely known.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

So easy to fool

Each day after class all the students gather for prayers. Sometimes I chant along, but this morning I chose to sit with my eyes closed, listen to the voices around me, and focus on my breath.

There was a tickle on one of the fingers of my right hand. A fly. I wiggled my finger and it flew away. A minute later it was back. Wiggled again. Flew away. The third time I was irritated, opened my eyes, and found it wasn't a fly after all. The young girl sitting in front of me was rocking back and just a strand or two of her long hair was touching my finger. I closed my eyes. Her hair touched my finger and my initial reaction was - ahh, that's nice.

How foolish the mind. The feeling was irritating when I thought it was a fly, pleasant when connected with a pretty girl.

So easy to fool.


First Thangka: Days 6-11

Last entry I had just started drawing the Buddha's body in outline form. As the mornings are cold and the classrooms not heated, I was sitting outside in the sun, which was great for staying warm, but not so great for getting work done. Everytime one of my classmates took a break from the classroom, they'd wander outside to see what I was doing and spend a few minutes chatting. Once or twice was not an inconvenience, but I soon found I was spending most of my morning chatting instead of drawing. So I took my canvas and went back to my room at the Dragon Guesst House where I worked for three days, producing this:

I went back to school on day 8 and showed this to the teacher, who made a few small corrections and suggested I make just one set of offerings, instead of two. The result was this revised version:

The following day, number 9, I started painting the sky, which is a long and tedious task of applying blue color with lots of water, layering, layering, layering, until you've got a deep blue at the top that fades away as it descends. This is how it looked at the end of the first day (day 9):

By the end of day 10, it looked like this:

And after this morning's session, day 11, it looked like this:

Unfortunately, the camera doesn't capture, even in closeup, the grain of the canvas or the spottiness, or unevenness, of the paint. Perhaps you can't see much difference between day 10 and 11. Frankly, I was at a bit of a loss when I sat down this morning in front of the canvas. I could see the color was uneven, but wasn't sure how to get it smoothed out. So I picked some small parts and started working and soon enough I was all over the canvas, or at least the blue parts of it.

Other students have told me the sky takes anywhere from a couple of days to a week, depending on how fine you care to work the detail. I think for myself to get it looking as smooth as an experienced painter might take a couple of weeks, and even then it wouldn't look as good. So, I imagine at some point early next week I'll have to put aside perfection and move on to the next part of the painting.

Let's see how it goes.


Learning to say, "I don't know."

I don't quote or post links to newspaper editorials, but this one was rather exceptional in observing "how little of our political behavior reflects conscious thought, judgment, or deliberation."

Do opinion pieces ever change your opinion?
Jonathan Zimmerman
13 January 2009
Christian Science Monitor


Trouble connecting

The lack of electricity in Nepal has resulted in a number of unusual repercussions. Among them a weakening of the mobile phone network. As reported in the Himalaya Times this week:

Power Outage Causing Mobile Network Failure
Kathmandu, January 15

If your mobile phone is behaving erratically, this time don't blame Nepal Telecom (NT) only. Prolonged power cuts have created additional hazards in the mobile networks as BTS towers, the network providers, are not getting sufficient amount of charge. Of the 350 BTS towers in Kathmandu valley, some 22 BTS towers have stopped working due to the 16-hour load-shedding each day.

Complete article here.

And it's not just the mobile network, either. Mutsumi today sent me this translation of a notice appearing on the website of the Japanese embassy in Kathmandu. Apparently they've been having trouble with their landline.

Regarding the disconnection of the phone/fax lines

Our telephone and fax have been out of order. It looks like the intermediate distribution frame, which includes our line, was damaged when someone made a bonfire from a pile of rubbish to warm themselves.

Since it will take about a week to rebuild the destroyed system, please call the number below in case of emergency.

Bonfires in the winter are a common sight, even in the city, but I wonder if the fire that damaged the embassy's phone line wasn't meant to clear up some of the garbage that's been accumulating on city streets this week. The neighborhood that hosts Kathmandu's landfill has been protesting again and blocking the dumping of trash.

Villagers bar KMC from landfill site
Kathmandu, January 14

Kathmandu Municipal Corporation has not been able to collect garbage for the last few days due to a dispute between locals of two villages of Nuwakot and Dhading, on whose border the landfill site is located.

The collection was also hit after the locals of Chhatredeurali VDC in Dhading announced to bar trucks carrying garbage from entering the landfill site unless the government meets their 16-point demand.

Complete article here.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Book/Lecture Review: The Noble Eightfold Path; Bhiku Bodhi, 1984; Sangharakshita, 1968

Many English accounts of the Noble Eightfold Path read like the Buddhist 10 Commandments, moral edicts handed down by the prophet of enlightenment. And that's pretty much the treatment offered in American Theravada monk Bhikku Bodhi's slim volume, a concise summary of rules for living. This book would probably be of most use to someone with little to no background in Buddhism, though anyone needing this kind of basic information might be served equally well by reading the Wikipedia entry to the Noble Eightfold Path, or any of the treatments offered at numerous Buddhist websites. Those with a foundation in the basics will find Bodhi's explication lacking in imagination or psychological depth. In fairness to the author, this book appeared quite early in his scholarly career; if he were to come back to the subject today, he might deliver a fuller, richer account.

For a more substantial treatment of the path, you might like to try the lecture series by English monk Sangharakshita. Founder of the Western Buddhist Order, Sangharakshita stayed on in India after WWII to ordain as a Theravadan monk, studied Pali and Sanskrit at Benares Hindu University, and went on to practice with Vajrayana and Chan teachers. He returned in 1966 to teach in the UK, where two years later in London he gave a weekly series of eight hourly lectures on the Noble Eightfold Path that he describes as introductory for new aspirants and a revision for those already practicing. It is perhaps the most insightful explication of the subject that I've had the pleasure to encounter, one in which Buddhism is presented as a Utopian ideal encompassing every facet of human life, not just a technique for experiencing a glimpse of ultimate reality. Generally a critical reader and circumspect in praise, it comes as something of surprise even to myself to say that this series has inspired a reevaluation of my relationship to Buddhism.

Sangharakshita is a witty and linguistically limber speaker, well read and able to include examples from various Buddhist traditions, as well as from English and Christian literature. He is something of a controversial figure for teachings on family and sex relations, as well as somewhat infamous for episodes of sexual impropriety and organizational mismanagement. This lecture series was conducted when Sangharakshita was just getting started in the UK and doesn't touch on any of his later controversial teachings. If you can set aside the scandal and listen with an open mind, you'll find this series intellectually rewarding. Bodhi's book in comparison is like reading a sport's rule book – all detail but no sense of the drama of the game itself.

The Sangharakshita lectures are available for download here.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

American monk

Last spring I had the great pleasure to meet Gensei, a young American zen practitioner who for a number of years had been living in a Portland temple assisting the resident priest.

He's now preparing to become a fully ordained monk and has launched a blog to chronicle his journey along the monastic path. In his most recent blog entry, Home Leaving, he asks,

In our present circumstances, cultural and otherwise, what does it mean to become a Buddhist monk? Not only to me but also to other people who are studying Buddha-dharma but aren’t interested in, willing or able to do it in that way.
The full article can be read here.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Audio Postcard: Naveen Mishra, sitar (New Year's Eve concert, Jolly Music House, Varanasi, 31 December 08)

Located in the old city, Jolly Music House sells instruments, offers music and dance lessons, and three nights a week stages concerts by the school's teachers and other local musicians. For New Year's Eve, the house put on a 5-hour program, the highlight of which was the sitar performance by Naveen Mishra, a musician in a class above all the others that performed that evening. I've tried googling him but aside from a few small press items there doesn't appear to be much available in English.

In the meantime, please enjoy this short excerpt, a 5-minute encore concluding 50-minutes of beautiful improvisation. Anyone interested in a copy of the complete performance, please contact me directly. Due to restricted bandwidth in Nepal, I will not be able to upload until I return to Japan sometime in March.

Click here to download the MP3 to your computer.


Load Shedding Schedule, Nepal, 11 January 2009

Last week the government announced new cut backs in electricity service, reducing hours of electric service from 12 to 8 hours per day. I live in the area represented by the first row in the schedule below (courtesy of Geshan Manandhar), a schedule that in listing the hours when power is not available doesn't quite give you a clear picture of day-to-day life. Assuming you sleep from 22:00 – 06:00 (which seems to be the case for most Nepalis, with an hour more or less on either side), the waking hours per week in which you would have electricity would be 38. Your electric-available times would look like this:

  • Sunday & Monday: 08:00-12:00, 20:00-22:00 (6 hours per day, 12 a week)
  • Tuesday & Wednesday: 12:00-16:00 (4 hours per day 8 a week)
  • Thursday-Saturday: 06:00-08:00, 16:00-20:00 (6 hours per day, 18 a week)

On Monday traffic was shut down in the city by students demonstrating against the new power schedule. The government blamed the lack of rain and the poor management of the previous government. Sales of generators, petrol and inverters are up. Everyone complains. Fortunately, I'm involved in an activity that doesn't require even a single watt of electricity, unless you care to paint after dark.

One positive development from all this: television stations have cut back hours of broadcast.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The road to Shechen . . .

... is being paved! Not with concrete, but still, it's a great improvement over the rubble. Thus far the work is taking place on the small stretch that begins at the fork where the road to the left leads to Shechen, the road to the right to the White Gompa.

These photos were taken while walking from Shechen toward the stupa.

Just before the turn-off, right in front of the tank where the women do their laundry, there is still a large hole from the water work that started and was completed back in November. You may remember it looked like this. Now it looks like this:

That building housing the restaurant was completely demolished to carry out the water work.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Critical appraisals of Goenka's Vipassana

Below are three online resources for those that might be interested in reading critical appraisals of Vipassana meditation as taught at centers run by SN Goenka. I would greatly appreciate referrals to any more you might know of or run across.

Harmanjit Singh has written a thorough examination that should be of interest to any long-time follower of Goenka, particularly his analysis of religious aspects of the methodology. For all the assumptions he claims to uncover, though, he seems to bring a few of his own, most notably materialism (a philosophy in which all phenomenon are reducible to chemical reactions and all knowledge arrived at through the measurement of such), distrust in spiritual techniques for manipulating the mind (manipulation for other purposes, such as writing academic papers, are presumably acceptable), and a general disdain for the spiritual and in particular for spiritual teachers (he refers to the Buddha as Mr Siddharth Gautam, as if he referred to the Christ as Mr Jesus). For those that haven't yet taken a Goenka course but are seriously considering it, I would delay reading this until after you've done the course. It may negatively affect your experience, which you should first evaluate for yourself before letting Singh evaluate it for you. Signh's blog, with html and pdf versions can be found here.

American meditator Jeffrey S. Brooks writes of his experience at a California Goenka center in the early 00's. The behavior of the retreat manager appears a bit odd, as if he were not prepared to deal with the likes of Mr Brooks, a guy who's been around, who can talk the talk, who quotes scripture to best opponents in argument, who uses his knowledge to challenge authority. He raises some valid points about Goenka, particularly that in over 30 years of teaching he has not yet authorized any full disciples, only assistant teachers who work at his centers playing tapes of the master's lectures. His accusations of cult-like behavior seem off the mark, a petty accusation lobbed to repay the lack of respect he felt he should have been accorded for his extensive meditation experience. You can read his account here.

A more recent piece comes from an anonymous meditator in the Goenka tradition for more than 10 years who was expelled from the order for asking too many questions. Among the sensitive topics are Goenka's unproven historical claims to the “purity” of his method and the utter lack of textual and philosophical training for his assistant teachers. Unlike Brooks, who seems more intent on puffing up his own credentials through tearing down Goenka's, or like Singh, who has an allergic reaction to the spiritual, Anonymous inquires compassionately and seems genuinely concerned to reform the tradition to which he has given a large part of his life. His Inquiries can be read here. Clicking the Reply button at the end of each section will take you a bulletin board where you may discuss this particular issue with other meditators and interested parties.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Questions for Goenka-ji

My second 10-day Vipassana retreat in December 2008 was a less intense experience than the first a year previous, though it had more intense moments than the first. Perhaps because I was familiar with the retreat routine and because I had been practicing fairly regularly for the past year, the second retreat was more grounded, more down-to-earth. And as a result I was more attentive to Goenka-ji's nightly video-taped discourses, the same exact ones as delivered during the first retreat, and the same ones delivered at all his centers worldwide. What arose from my attention were a number of questions I would have liked to have put to the assistant teacher. Unfortunately, that is not allowed, on the grounds that meditators should be focused on practice and not on philosophy (in which case it might be better for Goenka-ji to cease philosophizing during his nightly discourses)..I offer up the questions here to Goenka-ji, or any one of his disciples willing to address them.

You make repeated claims that what you teach, your method of meditation and personal investigation, is a means for uncovering the universal law of nature, a law that has nothing to do with any particular religion or philosophy, a law that operates irrespective of rites and rituals. In fact, you seem to express disdain for religious ritual, that it has no place in the search for truth.

And yet we listen to you chant in Pali, the ancient language of the Buddha, for 30 minutes in the morning, all through breakfast and lunch, and following each instance of meditation instruction. No one but perhaps the assistant teacher understands what is being said. To the rest of us it's just melody, and if played excessively loudly, as it is at your Indian centers, an annoying and irritating melody. Is this not ritualistic?

Meditators take only two meals a day, and may not eat after noon. This is a tradition among monks of certain schools of Buddhism, a tradition that began long ago because walking to town to beg food three times a day took too much time and was thus impractical. Granted, full-time meditators need less food than they otherwise might normally need. But the noon prohibition seems to be following tradition for the sake of tradition.

Self aggrandizement
You claim in your lectures that you are entirely uninterested in notoriety. In fact, you teach that the pursuit of fame, honor, and social acclaim is “madness,” a manifestation of ignorance of the law of Dhamma. It seems to me, however, that the erection of a one kilometer high, gold-plated pagoda outside Mumbai by your organization is not only a towering monument securing your reputation as a great Dhamma teacher, it is also a huge waste of money and human labor, and seems as well to have nothing to do with the pursuit or propagation of science.

Scientific method
The claim is repeatedly made in your taped discourses that Dhamma is a universal law of nature, a science of the mind, the science of liberation. Yet you refuse to reveal the method's complete philosophy and operational principles on the very unscientific grounds that by tradition such information is provided to the meditator on a need-to-know basis. Does this not violate the ethical foundation of science, which calls for full disclosure of all operating procedures and data? On what grounds is a scientist justified in withholding such information?

Knowledge through experience
You claim the only way to know something is through direct experience, that intellectual knowledge of impermanence is by itself not enough to lead to liberation, or at least a better quality of life, and that meditators must practice awareness of the body to feel impermanence. If you yourself do not claim to be enlightened, liberated, or otherwise no more than another aspirant walking the path, on what grounds other than an appeal to authority do you claim that your method will lead to complete liberation? Aren't you just passing on second-hand information? In what way is this claim unlike other unverifiable religious claims that certain practices will lead to an eternal afterlife based on the scriptural authority of a supernatural being?

Historical accuracy
You claim that the Buddha taught Vipassana and that he taught the same scanning method you teach at your centers. Yet there seems to be no textual evidence to support this claim. There is also an absence of evidence that thousands of people across northern India once practiced Vipassana. Where is the evidence?

Final liberation
You teach that the idea of “I” is a fiction, that human experience is composed of the fives khandhas – body, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. What is it, then, that needs liberating? If all compounded things are conditioned, such as human beings and human experience, isn't my decision to follow the path (or not), to react (or not), likewise conditioned? If there is no “I,” but also no strict determinism, then where are such decisions made? By what? And for what purpose?


Book Review: Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts; Monica Furlong, 2001

I met Alan Watts about a year ago through a series of recorded lectures. From the first listen I was enthralled by his learning, wit, and eloquence. His talks were magic spells woven from strands of Zen, mystic Christianity, Taoism, and psychology, calling the listener to wake up, to see through the assumptive illusions of life, to put aside the effort of trying to change yourself and simply be yourself. For more than a couple of months I listened rapturously nightly, often going back to some of the more challenging and insightful talks.

Aside from a lecture in which he spoke about his childhood interest in Asian art and his experience of English boarding school, what little I knew about him I picked up from references in his talks: he lived in California, was a former member of the clergy, had experimented with psychoactive drugs, and had met or knew a seemingly large coterie of influential and interesting people.

What I didn't know was what an utter shambles he made of his personal life, which author Monica Furlong chronicles painfully enough in Zen Effects. Watts seemed never to have had any great purpose in life except to enjoy as much of it as possible, but for as much enjoyment as he received he seemed to have caused an equal amount of grief for those around him. He was, Gary Snyder remarked, “one who sowed problems wherever he went.”

His only professional experience as a clergyman ended in shame for his wife, his parents, and his church. For all the wit and charm and understanding he exhibited in public life, his private life was a cold and callous string of marriages punctuated by infidelity and child neglect. And despite a call to his audiences to embrace uncertainty, his fear of loneliness led to an alcohol induced death at the age of 53.

In many of his lectures, Watts referred to himself self-depreciatively as a philosophical entertainer and a genuine fake. I used to think he was simply making fun of himself, a bit of harmless manipulation of the audience. In the context of his personal life, though, the remarks seem almost confessional, a plea for understanding and perhaps forgiveness.

For many who idolized him, the pain of deceit is too great to bridge the gulf between Watts' public teachings and his private life. For myself, I can still appreciate his great intellect, his insight, and his ability to communicate. But I'll never quite think of him the same.


Movie Review: The Saltmen of Tibet; Ulrike Koch, dir; 1997

You'd think a 110 minute film about the nomadic salt collectors of Tibet might get a tad tedious. How much can there be to tell, after all, about scraping up salt from a lake, bagging it, and carrying it back to the village?

Not much, actually. So it was to the audience's benefit, and to the director's credit, that he let the camera do the talking. In simple documentary style, with no narration and unobtrusive background music, the film crew follow four men who make the annual trek from their summer camping grounds to Lake Tsentso to collect salt. We watch them as they plan the expedition, collecting yaks from members of the community that will carry back the salt, initiating a new member into their fold, and making the ritual offerings to propitiate the gods and ask their favor in making a successful journey. The group sets out with over 160 yaks on a month-long trek across rugged and beautiful landscape, the struggle of the journey made all the more touching by buses, cars, and lorries whizzing past on a nearby road. These men will be perhaps the last generation to collect salt in the traditional manner. They seem to be aware of this, which makes their journey all the poignant, The Saltmen of Tibet all that more precious for documenting a culture in its dying days.
  • 1997
  • Director Ulrike Koch
  • Tibetan w/ English subtitles
  • At Amazon


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Audio Postcard: Varanasi Train Station

During my recent visit to Varanasi, India, I stopped by the train station to have a look around and to capture some audio. Here's a small sample of the results.

Click here to download the MP3 to your computer.


First Thangka: Day 5

Didn't do a bit of work on the thangka Friday as the second year students had a measurement class. We were learning the proper proportions for drawing the head of Dorma, otherwise known as Green Tara.

We did, though, have a small tea party, offered by me to all of my classmates and teachers to mark the beginning of my first thangka. Normally we work straight through the morning sesssion from about 08:30 to 11:15 without a break, but we took 30 minutes off for some hot tea and biscuits, a nice respite on a cold morning.

The event was kindly organized by one of our monks, so that all I had to do was pay the bill and show up. I didn't even have to make a speech. The party was announced at the end of morning prayers (during which time the teacher also announced - for the benefit of the many students who don't have much money - that such offerings are not mandatory).

Thursday, January 8, 2009

First Thangka: Days 3 & 4

Day 3 was spent polishing the canvas, working out the rough spots and filling in the holes. When the cloth is stretched tightly tiny pin holes may appear, and by moistening the canvas with a damp cloth, the holes can be filled by pushing some of the wet binding into the holes. You can see Thakpa here checking the canvas for any remaining holes. Together we would work the canvas on one side, then let it dry in the sun before working the other side, back and forth six to eight times.

Today, Day 4, Sonam showed me how to find and mark the canvas' center point, then draw in the center line and the outside frame. After that, it was time to start drawing. The teacher roughed out a figure to give me a handle on proportion, and off I went.

According to tradition, when students start and finish their first thangka, they are to make small offerings to their classmates, so tomorrow I'm springing for a small tea party. Tune in tomorrow for photos.


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Review: Goenka Vipassana course, Sarnath, India

On the sixth night I went to the teacher.

I have a problem, I explained, and I need your advice.

The old man nodded for me to continue.

I find myself entering a state where I can feel sustained subtle sensations on the body, but almost as soon as I do there's a loud noise behind me and I loose that state and have to start again. It's like walking along a path from which I get knocked off every few minutes. I get back on the path, get knocked off, get back on, get knocked off. It's tiring and I'm beginning to develop aversion . . .

You musn't develop aversion, he interrupted.

I'd very much like not to . . .

You have to develop equanimity.

Do you understand I'm talking about the man behind me? The man who won't stop coughing?

Let him cough. What you have to understand is that his coughing will end. It is anicca, he said using the Pali word for impermanence.

Theoretically, he had a point, that it was my job to develop the ability to ignore distractions. On the other hand, the cougher - the barker, as I came to think of him - was more than just a minor annoyance.

But, sir, there is a reason why we are asked to sit absolutely still for one hour. There is a reason why this facility is built in the village and not in the city. There is a reason we've taken a vow of silence for 10 days . . .

Your job, he interrupted, is just to observe.

I appeared there was no reasoning with the Guru-ji, so I thanked him for his time before leaving.

But it seems to me, and other participants I've since spoken to, that it is the teacher's job not just to advise students on how to meditate or on what qualities they should be striving to develop, but perhaps more importantly to manage the conditions under which they practice. And by most standards, this Guru-ji stumbled, both in his duties, and quite literally.

One morning as he shuffled from the meditation hall through the back room, his weight of age supported in his right hand by a walking cane, we heard him tumble and thump to the ground. For the remainder of the day and all of the next he was accompanied into the hall by one of the young volunteers, who opened and closed doors and made sure his path was clear. If only someone had been there to so conscientiously clear ours.

Behind me sat a young Indian man, probably in his mid-20's, who from the second day developed a rather serious hacking cough. There was no effort made to suppress or otherwise control these pulmonary convulsions; they erupted at full velocity every few minutes, a low barking rumble that for those of us seated in his immediate proximity reverberated through our by now very sensitive bodies.

Along with intermittent fits of sniffling and sucking snot down the back of his throat, it seemed reasonable to assume he had developed a cold. It also seems reasonable for the person managing the course to understand that his coughing was not a typical throat-clearing cough, but something more serious, and to understand his responsibilities: to protect the health of the other participants, to help relieve the suffering of the cougher, and to protect the carefully constructed meditation environment. So far as I know, nothing was done to provide the cougher with medication or medical consultation. Neither was he isolated to prevent possible infection of other students. Even the most stable meditators afterwards remarked on the continued disturbance caused by the cougher.

It was only on the ninth day, when our vow of silence ended and we could speak with the female meditators that we found how far the negligence extended. According to the two European female participants, there were language and cultural misunderstandings with the female Indian volunteer workers. The Europeans didn't speak Hindi, the Indians didn't speak English. The Europeans couldn't understand why they couldn't refuse not to take certain foods they didn't wish to or couldn't eat. They didn't understand why when fetching hot water from the communal cauldron they weren't allowed to help themselves, but had the water ladled out to them ration-like. More disturbingly, they couldn't understand how Vipassana meditators, particularly experienced ones, could erupt in displays of anger for small, unintended breaches of the rules, or what could lead them to petty acts of revenge, such as sprinkling water over someones's bedding. It wasn't just the Europeans, though, that were disturbed by this. Two Indian women, both experienced meditators, quit the course on the seventh day, along with one of the Europeans.

I don't hold any of this against the Guru-ji. Like all of the other teachers in the Vipassana tradition established by SN Goenka, he works free of charge, as a service to the human community. He has himself spent long years practicing and I'm confident of his pure intentions. But perhaps he has come to the point where he can no longer see the experience from the perspective of a new meditator, the person easily distracted, easy to rise to irritation and anger. Perhaps he has put too much faith in the method, and forgotten that the method is only as good as person using it.

For myself, I came away frustrated and rewarded. The former I've written about enough already. The reward came from doing exactly what the Guru-ji suggested, observing my irritation, and in spite of it experiencing moments of perfect stillness. This stillness, or absorption, I have heard best described as akin to being a smooth metal sphere resting on a smooth metal horizontal surface. Able to move in any direction, the sphere has no need or impetus to do anything but rest perfectly poised. I was sitting in just such a manner one day when the hour session was dismissed for a 5-minute break, but was so perfectly balanced I found myself unable to move, sitting through the break and into the next session.

Perhaps that level of concentration was possible only because the cougher was pushing me to redouble my efforts. So for that, I owe him and the Guru-ji my respect.


Review: Sarnath Vipassana Centre

I suppose I was expecting something different. I remember being surprised to find the Sarnath Vipassana Center almost identical in construction style to the Bodhgaya center - unremarkable institutional buildings separated by gardens and surrounded by barbed-wire topped walls (to keep out the unwanted, not to prevent meditators from escaping). The only difference is that instead of a pagoda with individual mediation cells, the Sarnath facility had instead a large vegetable garden.

Last year at this time I attended my first course in Vipassana meditation as taught by Burmese-Indian guru S.N. Goenka. Like then, I was in India principally because I had to leave Nepal for a few weeks between visas. Having benefited from last year's 10-day, I decided to do another in Sarnath, sight of the Buddha's first teaching.

Overall the center is adequate to the needs of meditators, who sitting for 10 of their waking hours require only the most basic necessities. The two male dormitories are square concrete buildings with rooms lining a central courtyard. One courtyard was planted with a small flower garden, the other was concrete and used principally for hanging laundry. Rooms are sparse - concrete floors, iron-legged beds supporting comfortably stuffed mattresses, a mosquito net and one iron shelf (slightly rusted) for personal items. Bedding includes a mattress, pillow, sheet, pillow case, and in winter wool blanket. Additional blankets are available on request. Windows are screened to keep out India's teeming population of mosquitoes. A few rooms have attached bathrooms that include toilets and a bathing space (and seem to be the areas throughout the facility most in need of thorough cleansing). Hot water is provided in the winter season through a communal cauldron (over a fire pit) from which meditators may fill their bathing buckets. Laundry is done by hand in the same buckets.

The dining hall is similarly functional, outfitted with plastic stools on which meditators sit facing the walls, eating meals from their stainless steel trays, bowls, plates and cutlery, which they wash afterwards in a long sink just next to the dining area.

The Dhamma Hall, where meditators spend most their waking hours, is a circular concrete structure with plenty of windows to take in natural light, a thin carpet, two sets of two seats for teachers, and two televisions for presentation of taped discourses on meditation techniques and philosophy.

A smaller Dhamma Hall similar in appointment but square in construction was used during my retreat by the non-Indian participants for viewing English versions of the evening video discourses. I made private use of this room for meditation when the main Dhamma Hall or the residence became too distracting, about which you can read more here.

A large vegetable garden, from which we were fed during our stay, makes up the central courtyard of the center, which also includes a lovely rose garden in front of the Dhamma Hall. Many meditators spent free hours circumambulating the paved walkway circling the vegetable garden and linking the male residences with the dining hall and Dhamma hall.

The first couple of days didn't impress, but the quality of the meals seemed to improve during the length of the course (or I simply started getting used to the cooking). Food was typical Indian fare and most often consisted at lunches of dahl, curried vegetables, slices of raw vegetable (mostly carrot and radish), white rice and rotti. On occasion curd was available. Breakfasts were usually porridge of some type plus a curried vegetable; masala chai and hot milk were served on alternate days. Evening snacks for new students was a bowl of puffed, curried rice and masala tea; older students were served hot lemon water.

The center is located several kilometers from Sarnath proper in an agricultural village. The nearest home seems to be some hundred meters distant. Still, Indians like things loud, and so it was possible on more than one occasion to hear televisions, stereos, and parties, though hardly at the level where they disturbed sleep. There were no foul odors or air pollutants.

Apart from issues related to the teacher's handling of the students, I had no problems with the staff. Most of them seemed to have only rudimentary English skills and so to avoid confusion meditators were asked to write requests on a pad kept outside the dining hall. I later learned that things were not as comfortable on the female side. For more about both these issues, see here.

Overall, the Sarnath facility meets the basic requirements for meditators; except for its gardens it doesn't go out of its way to make visitors comfortable. Should you believe in energy emanations of sacred sites, the location may be an added incentive to attend a course here. Otherwise, you might like to look to more well appointed centers where you share a language and cultural assumptions with the volunteer workers.