My First Puja! – Pema Choling Monastery, Everest Region, Nepal

Pema Choling Monastery, Nepal
Pema Choling Monastery – Everest Region, Nepal

Filling in the gaps; the posts that weren’t posted…

Tuesday June 3rd 2014 

“Meditation is bringing the mind back home, and this is first achieved through mindfulness…Once an old woman came to the Buddha and asked him how to meditate. He told her to remain aware of every movement of her hands as she drew water from the well, knowing that if she did, she would soon find herself in that state of alert and spacious calm that is meditation.” -Sogyal Rinpoche from “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”.

On a bright sunny day, the new volunteer and I spent 2 ½ hours climbing the steep hill to the monastery. When we arrived, we found the place in a state of busy commotion. Sherpa women had taken over the kitchen while Cook and many of the other monks were busy working around the grounds. The monastery had begun to prepare for their visit from the high lama, which marks the beginning of the Dumje Festival. The High Lama Dagri Rinpoche, travels to all the monasteries in the region during the summer; the Dumje Festival follows him and takes place wherever he is.

Tired from our climb, we headed to the kitchen and set our things down. Almost immediately, there was in front of us, the bottomless cup of milk tea we’d come to love. In this region, it’s everywhere, and it is not uncommon to have drunk 6 cups before lunch. It was midday and the drums, chanting, and bells of puja (prayer) could be heard on the mountaintop. Normally, puja only takes place in the early morning and in the evening, but today, practice has started in preparation of the festival.

Curious, we hung in the doorway trying to see what was happening in the sacred prayer room, when the Sherpa woman in charge invited us in. What a huge honor! We were now right in the middle of a very special puja session with all the senior monks, a few nuns from a nearby monastery, and a select few young monks. We were ecstatic to be allowed to participate. As we joined the monks, we took up the lotus position on the long low benches that ran the perimeter of the room. The air was thick with incense and the very low monotone chanting of the monks. Bright colored cloths covered the walls and ceiling, and were accompanied by many pictures of lamas wrapped in prayer scarves called katas. On the back wall sat a huge gold statue of the Buddha in lotus position. He took up the majority of the wall from floor to ceiling and was surrounded by incense, flowers, milk tea, pictures of high lamas, katas, and offerings of food and drink. As the monks chanted mantras, the Sherpa women would come in, get on their knees, slide their hands forward on the ground until they were lying down, rise, and repeat. Then they would come and pour steaming milk tea in everyone’s cup.

I was told when it comes to monastic life, some monks put all their effort into becoming enlightened beings, while others spend the majority of their time doing chores and helping around the grounds. I knew immediately which of my young monks were following the path of the Buddha, and it was an absolute honor to be allowed to participate in the rituals of those actively seeking enlightenment. As we sat cross-legged I remembered that this was the chosen position because it is considered rude to point your feet at people, and especially at the Buddha or the pictures of the Dalai Lama and other lamas. Despite the pain in my hips, I was able to center myself and do some meditation. What an incredible experience to get control of the mind and thoughts, and meditate in the midst of these Holy Beings in their best form, chanting mantras that have existed for thousands of years! Every hit of the gong and drums shook the thin air to vibration, and the rays of sunlight seemed to beam brighter as they made their way through the old dusty windows, the lingering smoke of incense, and the steam of the ever-present milk tea. Even an outsider stifled by ignorance could feel the sacred abundance of life and ritual here.

Hike to Pema Choling Monastery, Everest Region, Nepal
Prayer flags and stones on the hike to Pema Choling Monastery, Everest Region, Nepal

Reflection – Ghat, Nepal

Prayer Stones and Flags Ghat, Nepal
Tibetan Prayer Stones and Flags  – Ghat, Nepal

Filling in the gaps; the posts that were not posted…

Sunday June 1st 2014 

I am still sick and sitting very still in the sunny yard, watching the wind push the clouds above while it moves my hair, my clothes, the grass, and everything around me. Suddenly, the other female volunteer comes running into the yard, rushes up the steps, then pauses for a moment and asks what I’m reading. After I reply, she says, “That’s great! Wish I had time to read!” then runs up the rest of the steps and disappears in a hurry. I think to myself ‘Yes, but I am here to be still and reflect, what are you here for?’ I have begun reading “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche. It talks about something he calls “active laziness” which manifests in very different ways depending on the culture. In the West, we keep ourselves so busy and bustling around, that we never have time to reflect, thereby avoiding our fears. The tragic side effect of this habit, is that we also rush through all the beauty around us, the wonderful moments as well. Most often we miss them completely, thinking we’ve arrested our minds and bodies long enough to participate, but because we’ve not actually trained ourselves to slow down, we are not actually able to do so. That is why the Tibetan masters refer to Westerners as “beautiful living corpses”.

In 2008 I read a series of ‘based on real story’ books that were part of the “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior” saga, written by Dan Millman. The series was accompanied by self-help books. At the time, I had no idea that the thoughts and practices were born of the Buddhist philosophy and tradition. I followed exactly the suggestions, and it was one of the most peaceful times in my life. It is said that once the concept is grasped, it is not uncommon for one to lose hold of it, and that I did. Not knowing where the ideas had come from, I had no way of pursuing further knowledge, but there were some meditation apps on my phone and I started using them. Over the years, I slowly started becoming aware of traditions that included masters and enlightened beings. Then, in a required Comparative Religions class that turned out to be absolutely amazing, I was introduced to some of the religions to which these philosophies belonged. Long story short, I wound up in Nepal studying Eastern Philosophy and some of the religions and cultures it lives in.

Excerpts and ideas about the mind and the nature of mind, from the “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche:

“The mind is the universal basis of experience, the thing that creates both happiness and suffering.”

According to Tibetan Buddhism, there are two fundamental parts of the mind. The Ordinary Mind (Sem in Tibetan), and The Nature of Mind (Rigpa in Tibetan).

The Ordinary Mind is the part of our mind that looks outwards, reacts to outside influence. It is the troublemaker, the thing that is constantly judging, comparing, wanting, scheming, and bringing us suffering. As Sogyal Rinpoche writes “Sem can only function in relation to an external reference point. Sem is the mind that thinks, plots, desires, manipulates, flares up in anger, that creates and indulges in waves of asserting, validating, and confirming it’s ‘existence’ by fragmenting, conceptualizing, and solidifying experience. The Ordinary Mind is the ceaselessly shifting and shiftless prey of external influences, habitual tendencies and conditioning: the masters liken sem to a candle flame in an open doorway, vulnerable to all the winds of circumstance.”

The other fundamental part, The Nature of Mind (Rigpa), is a little more difficult to understand. It is the part of the mind that looks inward. Sogyal Rinpoche says Rigpa is “Simply your flawless, present awareness, cognizant and empty, naked and awake.” I understand it as the moments of clarity, the epiphanies that come through when all the mental noise stops, and the feeling and wisdom you experience when you are truly one with what you are doing, but I am a novice.



Wild Rhinos, Indigenous Tharu People, and Dysentery!

Thursday June 19th 2014 Chitwan National Park (Sauraha, Nepal)

Lookin' Rough
Lookin’ Rough

Better known as the day I got Amoebic Dysentery, heat stroke, and was relieved of my phone and all communication with the outside world. Don’t worry, I’m on the mend – up and walking around with a good bit of energy restored. I got very lucky and had the most wonderful, amazing doctor!

Short nose croc
Short nose croc

5am: I’m not feeling my normal self, but drag out of bed to the jungle walk anyway. 2 guides, 2 Americans, and 3 Chinese go lurking through the jungle in Nepal early in the morning. The ungodly heat has not yet enveloped the day and we are bright eyed with the prospect of real wild life. A crocodile sits on the opposite bank of the river. There are long and short nose indigenous crocs in the region, the latter being rather fond of human flesh. As we go creeping along a well-worn path we are entertained with whispered stories about the demise of guides. Just last week, a wild elephant bull killed a guide. A week before that, a guide had a group who was interested in water buffalo herds. Water buffalo are rather tame and in many parts of Nepal, are kept as domesticated pets who provide milk and cheese. Behind the water buffalo herd was a mother one-horned black rhinoceros with her baby. The guide failed to notice her, was speaking in a very animated manner, and ended up paying with his life. We hear some rattling and something drops from a tree: monkeys. Through the Tarzan worthy vines and tropical trees we see the very still bodies of spotted dear. As we move clumsily along the trail, the heat starts to press down through the shade of our thick green canopy. Suddenly, we are stopped and silenced. A few yards from the trail on which we stand, there is a swampy looking pond covered in lily pads. Staring at us from the edge of the pond is a huge black one-horned rhinoceros and her baby. Is this the one? In the middle of the pond there is another, mostly submerged rhino trying desperately to escape the heat, which is just beginning.

Black Rhino
Black Rhino

7am: The seven of us jump in a long wooden canoe with a driver and head down the river. One of the sides has somehow lost a few inches and makes me a bit nervous as I watch the tainted water ride a few centimeters from the top. There are definitely some landlubbers in this boat and it starts to rock as they make jerking movements from side to side! Aaaahhhh! With cameras poised, they lean against one side or another throwing our balance off. The water comes pouring over the short edge! As it is, we are sitting really low and have literally a few centimeters of wood keeping us from going down. The guides speak firmly and say not to make such an easy meal for the crocs. Egrets and cranes fish in the tall swampy grass next to shore and we see plenty of kingfishers emerge from holes drilled in the sides of the banks. We go through some rapids, but make it to shore without too much incident.

Jungle Canoe
Jungle Canoe
Tharu Life on the River
Tharu Life on the River

11am: I take a stroll around town and end up making friends with a bunch of old ladies. The Tharu are an indigenous people here. They migrated here some 350 years ago from India, but like the Sherpas, nobody knows why. They inhabit the entire terai region of Nepal, which spreads from east to west in the southern part of the country that runs alongside India. This area was wrought with Malaria until 1951, and the Tharu were the only residents, as their entire culture is unaffected by the disease. It’s now harvesting season and many people are in the streets preparing their crops. The older women all wear traditional tattoos from their hands to their elbows, and from their feet to their knees. This is how I make friends. We have very little way to communicate, but we are smiling, laughing, and inspecting each other’s artwork. They are more than pleased to take pictures with me, and they are beautiful. Compared to most Nepalese, the women are very dark with big bright smiles. They are adorned with lots of jewelry and the most gorgeous clothes. It does not matter whether they are going to work in the field or in the kitchen; they dress to the nines in their traditional clothing everyday. I can’t explain how beautiful, warm and welcoming they are.

Tharu Woman
Tharu Woman
Tharu Traditional Tattoo
Tharu Traditional Tattoo

12pm: I am ecstatic over discovering this indigenous people and the new friends I’ve made, but I am beginning to feel extremely weak so I rest.

3pm: Elephant safari time. A very fast ride in the back of a pickup over fields renders me unmovable. The gas fumes are overwhelming. I can’t ride the elephant much less stand. After returning very ill to the hotel, I tell the owner and manger that my phone came out of my pocket in the truck and could he please get it. I’m going to rest; I don’t feel well.

Then come the longest 15 hours of my life: I cannot stand, it is 120 degrees and I have a terrible fever and chills. I’m sure my temp is at least 104. There is no circulation in my hands or feet, they are white, my face is green. My entire body is racked with pain. My joints feel as if they are all broken. I have no water, and I have not shown up for 3 meals. Nobody comes. I have no phone and no way to communicate. I literally think this is the end. I’m hallucinating mildly, but come up with a plan. If I can just get the notebook out of my backpack on the other bed, write a note “HELP! I need a doctor…and water”, and put it outside. It took me 3 hours to prepare to do this, and when I did it, it was like climbing Everest; I’ve never done anything so difficult. Then I wait…

Escape from Lukla!

When you’re maneuvering the Top of the World, weather plays a large part in what you can and can’t do. The airstrip is shorter than an aircraft carrier and the planes must make an immediate ascent to miss the mountain at the end of the strip. At the same time, they have to fly between two mountains that are not much wider than their wingspan. So, any kind of cloud cover, fog, rain, or anything else is cause for flight cancellation. Well, flights were cancelled and Trekkers were piling up in Lukla, waiting for a flight schedule that was many days from starting, so we decided to explore our options. The result? The most amazing four day trip down the mountain by way of trekking, horse back, a crazy tractor ride, and an even crazier jeep ride! Local trails through small villages only, no tourist traffic. Story coming…

Living in a Fog

June 7, Lukla, Nepal

As the sun rose this morning it was visible and so were the mountains, then minutes later, a thick fog rolled in. But, it’s not thick enough to drown out the chanting and horns from the monastery many blocks away. At 11,500 feet, these are actually clouds. When it rains here, it gets very cold, and last night I had on every piece of clothing I had brought for below freezing temps. Fortunately this morning, it’s back to two base layers and my alpaca sweatshirt.

At Pema Choling Monastery, there were three boys with spreading infections that worried us. With one lifeguard, one pre-med students, and of course I’m certified in blood-borne pathogens in 5 states, we decided it was probably staf. There were no appropriate antibiotics in the monastery’s first aid kit, so we talked to the head monk and explained that a hospital visit was necessary. So when I saw the three boys come trotting down the path yesterday, I was very pleased. They had made the 4 hour walk to Lukla and were on their way to the hospital. Several hours later, I collected them and brought them to the lodge for tea. Monks are very respected here in Nepal and it was fun to see the reactions they get from people out in public. Even the Sherpa who runs the restaurant was very excited to join us. Afterwards, I sent Lakpa, Lodon, and Jingme on their way with some Smarties chocolates and some money for soap and bandages. They were all very happy and took off running. So cute! I will miss them!

The other notable thing yesterday was a Starbucks! Right here in the Himalayas! It was super clean, which is something of a rarity here, AND they offer a shot of liquor in your coffee if you want it! Funny! I teated myself to a mocha which was wonderful and the first cup of coffee I’ve had since arriving in Nepal! I also got a slice of cheesecake which looked good, but had no sugar in it and just tasted weird. At the lodge I got the first hot shower I’ve had since arriving in Nepal. It only lasted a few minutes, but was absolutely wonderful! I figured I’ll be here several days, why not splurge and get a room with a bathroom attached. It’s costing me $21 a night and comes with anything I want for breakfast. This morning my stomach does not want to be adventurous so I’m going with the foreigner’s breakfast: milk tea, cornflakes served with hot milk, a fried egg, and toast with yak butter and jelly. Then on to the monastery for the festival!

Living Among the Clouds

Friday June 6th 2014 Lukla, Nepal

4:45am: the birds start chirping and light begins to move into the sky, comfortable like an old friend. The 1st recognizable image I see is the very top of a Himalaya covered in snow. I turn, and two minutes later, it’s gone. It’s huge magnificence totally hidden in a cloud as if it just disappeared, never existed. Then, in the distance a giant mass of white moves into the valley. I mistake it’s eery presence for smoke from a chimney, until I’m shocked into realization by the sheer size of this thick white mass. As my attention moves across my plane of perception, I’m almost startled and delighted at the same time, by the bright pink geraniums just feet infront of me. During the day, they are almost unnoticeable, but now, against this massive white and grey canvas, they jump out, almost scream out as if the whole picture was being seen through a lens with a color filter.

Now time for my Sherpa breakfast! A cup of better tea, chhampa porridge (kind of like cream of wheat with rice), Sherpa bread and jam, and two slices of yak cheese. Then shaky legs please carry me, to the morning puja (prayer) that will kick off today’s leg of the festival at the Lukla monastery.

note: there are several blogs prior to this that I need to type and post.

Solidarity…the beginning:

Monday June 2nd 2014

We are thick with volunteers now. Two women and one man at the monastery and a woman at the orphanage and school. We women are all staying at the lodge. I’ve been so cooped up with being sick I had not had the opportunity to do much talking or meeting for that matter, but today I woke up wonderfully rested with half a course of antibiotics in me and ready to go. Our new addition is from the US, but was born in Kathmandu, so to her benefit and disadvantage, there is no language barrier. The long and short of it is, we have all come across the same hurdle with being detained at the orphanage and school. The poor kind woman who is actually assigned to the orphanage and school has been working 14 hours a day and has now caught something from the kids as well. She was told, as I was, to eat some soup and come back to work. We girls had a little shoulder to shoulder and explained that one must really put their foot down around here. Our new addition was having a conversation with her mother, explaining that I was sick and she was unsure as to whether she would make it to the monastery because the solution offered was to stay here and work the guess what. Fortunately, her mother caught on right away, and asked to be put on the phone with the people in charge. In Nepali, her mother explained to our host, that she had paid for the monastery and that is what her daughter was going to experience. We seem to be straightening things out around here! But wait till I tell you about the marriage talk!

Fortunately for me, I’m wearing a ring and am out of the question…thought that might come in handy. Well, I had a warning. I read the blog of a girl who spent 3 or 4 months here and said towards the end, they insisted she wear the traditional clothing. Well, once she had that on, she was paraded around and offered as available! She said simply that it was very awkward. Well, our poor kind young woman with the school and orphanage assignment was given traditional clothing her 3rd day! It is now being insisted she wear it every day, so we hipped her to the meaning behind that. The girl who speaks Nepali was told in no uncertain terms that she was to take a Nepali husband and take him back to the US. Now mind you, we’re in a very isolated part of the country. Anyway, we were talking with the male volunteer at the monastery today, and he said they were fixing him up with a specific girl, but when he told them he’d want to stay here in this beautiful place and live, they became uninterested. Very funny considering the one girl who actually did run away with a Nepalese…monk, is the reason us girls can’t stay at the monastery anymore!

If you want to come here, I certainly wouldn’t let it stop you, but for me, it did help to have a warning of the things I might encounter. Now to bed as I’m not fully recovered yet. Oh, and they apparently turned the internet off for the rest of the year! So, I can only post simple things through the cell network. All pictures will be through Instagram and writings will be here…when they will go through!

A blog about the cultural nooks & crannies of the world: cultures, sub-cultures, underground scenes and beyond!