Path to Nepal

Swayambhu Stupa

Swayambhu Stupa

I am currently in Nepal – even as I type this, the words are quite surreal. I am here for one month of Buddhist study and cultivation at the Swayambhu stupa in Kathmandu. This blog is named after the Dragonfish Path, the name I gave to one of the three directions I envisioned taking during a personal odyssey exercise. One of the other three paths I envisioned was a Buddhist path of travel and retreat, and part of that is now becoming a reality. My paths are becoming intertwined.

I have often imagined what it would be like to visit a place like Tibet, India, or Nepal – a place of sweeping mountains, fluttering prayer flags, and fragrant incense. I’ve thought about stepping outside the normal bounds of daily life into a time and place dedicated to trying to understand the inner workings of my own mind. Once I started my job after graduate school, it seemed like my window of opportunity to take such a journey might have closed – and in fact I turned down opportunities to make this trip two years in a row because of work commitments. But when the chance came around again this year, I felt I had to jump at it.

Prayer flags over Kathmandu

Prayer flags over Kathmandu

For the past eight years, I’ve studied Buddhism with a Vajrayana Buddhist lineage holder, Namnang Mingjo Dorje Rinpoche. Buddhism has had a very profound influence on my life – maybe one day I’ll be able to write about it here. One of the primary practices on this retreat with my Buddhist group is reciting mantras while circumambulating the Swayambhu stupa. My teacher considers this stupa an incredibly holy place  because of its special connection with the Buddha Manjushri, and reciting mantras while walking around it can have great benefit for the practitioners and the people close to us.

Mantra recitation or chanting is one of the core practices of my Buddhist group. I used to struggle with this practice, saying unfamiliar syllables that I couldn’t fully understand. Then I read in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that mantras are another form of meditation, and my whole outlook changed. The definition of mantra is “that which protects the mind.” Reciting the syllables helps the mind to focus and stabilize.

Swayambhu Stupa

I know that when I take the time to focus intently on my practice for an hour, an evening, a day, my mind feels lighter and more stable. I can only imagine what benefit I will derive from an entire month dedicated to practice. It’s difficult to still your mind and maintain focus, difficult to stop the soundtrack of wonderings and worries and wanderings. It’s also hard to just sit with yourself. After a while, I find myself filled with the desire to to check my email, read, cook, garden, watch a movie, anything to keep myself busy, my mind busy. It is so foreign to contemplate mostly putting all of that aside for a whole month.

Although I was a little nervous telling others about my trip – my family, friends, boss, coworkers – everyone’s reactions were largely positive and supportive. People are excited for me. And I’m excited too, to be here – when the reality of it hits me, I am very humbled and grateful. I had about a month to prepare, and it was quite a whirlwind, including two weeks in Asia for work meetings and trying to get my work for the month done in advance in anticipation of being gone.

Walking around the stupa

Walking around the stupa

Almost two weeks into my trip, it has been a real gift to dedicate so much time to contemplating and practicing in this place, and talking with other students in my group about their experiences studying the dharma. There are signs of Buddhism everywhere, from the names of the primary schools to the paintings on the buses and water trucks, to all of the shops selling prayer beads and incense. We spend two days walking around the stupa and take one day off, all the while steadily increasing the number of times we circumambulate each day. I am now up to 87, the most will be 108. Yesterday, my first time circumambulating 87 times, the practice reached a new level of contemplation for me as I tried to connect to my guru’s wish to help all sentient beings, trying to use this practice to help relieve the suffering of all beings.

The benefit I derive from Buddhism is that it gives me a whole new frame of reference for understanding the world. There are tools and methods for overcoming afflictive emotions, self-attachment, fear, doubt. My ability to actually use these methods is far from perfect. But I’m hoping that my time in Nepal will help merge the practice with my heart, taking it beyond the realm of just another hobby. I try to remind myself each day how fortunate I am to have this chance.

Moon over the stupa

Moon over the stupa

Each day, we contemplate the Four Immeasurable Thoughts:

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes;
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes;
May all sentient beings never be separated from happiness that is beyond all sorrow;
May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free of attachment and aversion that hold some close and others distant.

Advertisements

Over the Bridge and Through the Mud

DSC00085

Just two hours after my plane touched down in Laos on Wednesday, I was in a van on the road to one of our project sites. I had been able to time my trip with a visit from a representative of our project donor, who wanted to assess the project in the field. With barely time to repack my things, and definitely no time for a shower, I ate a quick lunch of fried tilapia, sticky rice, and papaya salad with my Lao colleagues at the office, and then we were off. The weather was cloudy and cool, like I was right at home in Santa Cruz. Just minutes into our three-hour drive, it began to rain – hard. I worried that tomorrow’s rainy forecast didn’t bode well for our field trip.

Mist and rain over the Mekong River

The paved road turned to bumpy dirt as we got closer to our project site. We were traveling east of Vientiane. On the other side of the river was Thailand, with hills shrouded in rainy mist. I saw rocky islands and green plants in the Mekong River for the first time – I had seen photos of these from my colleagues who had visited the project site, but had never seen them for myself. I had only seen the river as wide and flat and brown. When we reached the town of Sanakham, the head of Sanakham District in Vientiane Province, the rain had stopped, leaving puddles in the reddish brown mud of the roads. I was bundled up in all the layers I had brought, thinking it strange to feel so cold in Laos. While I think I prefer the cold to the heat, I was thinking about what my grandma had said about the cold in Hanoi, Vietnam – a damp cold that cuts to your bones. It feels impossible to get warm in such conditions, but I asked for any extra blanket at our guest house, and slept in several layers, which helped a lot.

The next morning we ate noodle soup at a streetside restaurant. The smell of the wood burning fires and the coolness of the morning reminded me of camping. As we left, one of my colleagues approached a black mynah bird in a cage with striking yellow feathers around its eyes. He said “Sabaidee,” or “Hello,” in Lao. The bird answered “Sabaidee,” in a deep, eerily human voice. It could also say “Do you want to buy some beer?” in Lao. It’s pretty common to see beautiful birds in cramped cages in Southeast Asia. I was amazed at the bird’s mimicry, but also sad to see it reduced to a party trick.

Our first stop the district governor’s office for a meeting about the Fish Conservation Zone, or FCZ, our project helped establish in the area. The district deputy said they had tried to create Fish Conservation Zones with local communities in the past, but these efforts didn’t really succeed because of a lack of training and outreach for the communities to understand and enforce the rules of the no-fishing zone. He hoped that our project, for which we held many meetings and trainings, could become a model for other villages.

By this point, the rain had stopped, but as we headed toward one of our four project villages that shared management of the FCZ, we realized it wouldn’t be a smooth ride. A new bridge was under construction, with piles of rocks blocking the entrance on either side. A dirt side road skirted around the bridge, but a truck had gotten stuck in the mud at the lowest point, blocking the way. Trucks were backed up on either side, and a small crowd of spectators stood on the bridge, watching and commenting on the effort to get the truck unstuck from the mud. A steam shovel arrived and began clearing the rocks to open up the bridge. The local fisheries office offered the use of their truck, since our van had to wait for the bridge to be cleared. I was worried that our project plans would be foiled, but after an hour, we were on our way. It was a good reminder to me that when working in countries like Laos, just getting to the project location is a small victory in itself!