A Bodhisattva-in-Training Contemplates Kathmandu’s Rude Motorcyclists – By Michael G. Smith

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Pic by Jari Kinnunen

 

At the end of the row of Tibetan Buddhist monks, the cantor chants a prayer. Clashing Sil Nyan cymbals together, another monk adds an exclamation point. Two Gyalings, short double-reed horns, shriek. Moments later a pair of haunting Dungchens, or long horns, and a Choe-Nga, the ritual drum hung vertically and struck with a sickle-shaped wood drumstick, reverberate. Others strike conch shells, called Dungkar, and shake Drillbu, silver handbells. Another crash of the Sil Nyan abruptly ends the music. Prayer beads moving rapidly through their nimble fingers, many of the pooja’s worshippers return to meditation. I imagine them exploring their minds – its joys, sorrows, desires, aversions, interests, fears – an endless list of consequential thoughts.

Unleashed, the music felt as if the monks were urgently engaging and encouraging something. I turn to a Nepali sitting beside me and ask about its significance. He says it helps a believer invite a favorite deity to be present. Dissonant, it would wake any slumbering deity answer the summons to foster paths to insights.

My mind wanders to the phrase abandon clinging attachment is the Bodhisattva’s practice, Practice #23 of The Thirty-Seven Bodhisattva Practices by Ngulchu Thogme Zangpo, a 13th century Tibetan monk. Hooked to thoughts of enjoyable things as any other person, I close my eyes and begin to examine my attachments.

*

I am in Kathmandu volunteering at a hostel for disadvantaged children and the school they attend. My fourth trip, tourist glaze worn off, I struggle with noise and pollution. Growth unplanned, concrete, brick and stone four-story homes and higher rise across the congested valley. Family gardens and open space are disappearing quickly. Many streets are dirt or in disrepair. Construction work mostly manual, road projects take years to complete. Leaves of the few trees are coated by brown dust.

With few stop signs or traffic lights smoothing bumper-bumber traffic, the main driving rules are grab the open space and first one to the intersection gets to turn first. Pedestrian-you in the way? Blaring horns, drivers suggest get out of my way. Before cutting in front of a pedestrian, motorcyclists nudge front tire inches away from their body. Annoyed, I reflexively jump aside.

Dawa, the Nepali friend I stay with, confirms my impressions Kathmandu’s environment and civility have degraded. Yet, I love walking its streets and alleys. Lives lived at ground level, people barter, hang laundry, cookover fires fueled by rubbish. Children play fùtbol with deflated balls. Girls wash each other’s hair. Mothers and naked babies bask in the sun. Life’s essentials – grocery markets, pharmacies, produce vendors, clothing stores, doctors, dentists – can be found in most neighborhood.Shrines to the Hindu deity elephant-headed Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles, appear everywhere.

Pic by Jari Kinnunen

*

Lama Khando Rinpoche, a young woman reincarnation of Tashi Tseringma, the Earth Goddess of Protection, also rooms at Dawa’s house. Her detached demeanor belies deep powers. Dawa said it is highly unusual for a woman to be a reincarnation. Some monks do not accept her as an equal. Unsurprised at their gender bias, I wonder what they cling to. Power? Prestige? Financial support and comfort? But Khando Rinpoche was identified as a reincarnation by a male lama who dreamt of her appearance. Furthermore, Buddhist deities manifest in male or female forms. Why shouldn’t a Rinpoche?

A Zen practitioner, I come to Buddhism as a framework to cultivate an ethical and compassionate life. Having identical intents, Tibetan Buddhists vow to become Bodhisattvas – one who delays enlightenment until all beings are enlightened – as I have[1]. Like all practitioners, I fail to uphold my vows. Self-absorbed in my desires, I get selfish. I forget the vow of practicing right speech and say manipulative things or speak harshly. Need I say more?

Slippages remind me I need teachers. Thus, I attend Rinpoche’s rooftop dharma talk one sunny afternoon. Several hundred people are there, a testament to her ability to teach and attend to spiritual needs. At the talk’s end many will wait in line holding gifts of fruit, crackers, juice boxes or a few rupees to receive her blessings. Their simple generosity will not escape me.

I try to hide in the crowd. Dawa sees me and ushers me to a reserved seat alongside the dais. “Honored westerner” flashes through my mind. He explains the men flanking me will translate Rinpoche’s Tibetan into English. Loudspeakers blaring above us, I hear few of their words. But I feel the gist of her talk – cultivate patience, practice empathy, be generous regardless of the recipient and their needs.

*

Walking Kathmandu’s streets I notice an absence of bookstores. I have to go to Thamel, the tourist enclave, to find one. But I avoid Thamel. Focused on tourists needs and wants, shop after shop sells trinkets, pashmina scarves and trekking gear – backpacks, sleeping bags, down jackets. Thamel does not reflect an average Nepali life.

I choose to live within the different facts of Kathmandu’s neighborhoods. Next door to the butcher butchering a goat in front of his stall is a dusty shop selling used electronics which is next door to a small opening in a wall, selling snacks and soda adjacent to a western-style store framed by large windows selling sneakers. Sandwiched between a restaurant and a liquor store may be a shop selling clothing and ceremonial items used by Buddhist monks and nuns. Many of the businesses are nameless or have charming names – Cafe Taste Good and Full Stomach, Hello Kitty Females’ Shop, Nirvana Liquors and Beers.

Every morning I walk to Boudhanath Stupa to meditatively circumambulate it with hundreds of others. Dawn showing its face, I descend a ragged trail held together by broken bricks and frayed nylon rice bags to the street. At its base children excitedly play within a school’s cement walls. Men practice tai chi on a dirt field. Milk cows munch greens inside a stable.

Further down the street, customers sit outside a family bakery drinking chai. One day I stop to buy two rotis. Frying rings of dough in a wok heated over a propane burner, the father tells me each family member has a role. His ten-year old daughter sweeps the dusty entrance and stacks glistening rotis. Her younger sister fills plastic bags. Their teenage brother loops the bags’ handles over a rickety bicycle’s handlebars and will soon be riding to waiting customers. Their mother smiles as she takes my ten rupees, five cents per roti. She adds a third to the bag while telling me I’m their first American customer in twelve years of business.

I put the rotis in my backpack and resume walking. The clang of rising metal shutters announces the pharmacy is open. Customers enter shops selling toiletries and cosmetics. Vendors stack colorful fruits and vegetables in tattered tarp stalls. Walking towards me, a woman dressed in a bright red sari, gray wool sweater and blue head scarf holds a large bag in one hand and balances a steel container I imagine holding milk minutes fresh from the cow on her head. She smiles every day. Several minutes later a monk from a nearby monastery greets me with his customary good morning.

*

Laundry dries on lines strung between the rusted rebar of concrete pillars on the rooftop. All Nepal roofs are similarly unfinished. Frayed, faded prayer flags tied to the rebar release prayers to the wind. Having glimmers into Khando Rinpoche’s dharma talk, I query Dawa and her about it the morning after.

Sitting in brown plastic chairs at a brown plastic table, Rinpoche tells me her talk identified ways to bring compassion into our daily lives. She says feeling leads to compassion and suggests look inside the five senses to see feeling. Pointedly, she emphasizes negative feelings and reminds me of the kleshas – ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion and jealousy – all multistory speed bumps to the awakened mind. I note each leads to the next one in a circle. Rinpoche smiles.

I swivel to a Buddhist concept perplexing me. Buddhists say practice The Dharma or some human act is The Dharma. I’ve never grasped what comprises this thing called The Dharma, it seemingly being an amorphous guide undetectable by senses or analyzable by mind. I ask, “What is the Dharma?” Rinpoche immediately responds, “Whatever is not the kleshas.” An exclusion that is simultaneously an infinity of inclusiveness, this simple teaching exposes and upends me.

*

On school days I arrive at the hostel around 5 P.M. The children are always immersed in homework. Two years ago I spent most of my time with the teenagers working on math and chemistry. Now in college, they are content to study by themselves. One may ask a question. If so, it is often about life experiences or studying abroad.

I then climb two flights of concrete stairs to the small room the youngsters study in. No furniture, they sprawl on the floor. They stand and say, Hi Brother! when I enter. Two years older and bolder, they pepper me with questions about math and English grammar.

Afterwards, several of us read Nepali folktales collected by Kesar Lall[2]. They vie to see who goes first, second, third and so on. The order always turns out the same – Sajina, Rekha, Rejina, Sunita, Amrita. Chhomu waits, having figured out she can read longer if last. They read. I correct pronunciation and sound out new words, which I also define. We discuss their cultural history as told through mythology and religion.

No school on Saturdays, we play games in the courtyard. We hit a badminton shuttlecock over an imaginary net using racquets with broken handles and snapped nylon strings. I bought new racquets. After a week they were damaged. I imagine the children play a vigorous game when I’m not around. The shuttlecocks fly over a brick wall and disappear in the neighbor’s courtyard. They eventually throw them back.

Out of shuttlecocks, we turn to a form of dodge ball played with a wad of rubber bands. Running around the courtyard one throws the rubber-band ball at another who tries to catch or dodge it. If she catches it the thrower is out. If it hits her she is out. A player returns when the one that knocked them out is eliminated. The game continues until only one player is left. Given the constant return of exiles, it can last twenty minutes or longer until one claims victory. A simple game with a makeshift toy, it is the youngsters favorite. They love knocking me out and welcoming me back.

*

Dodging attachments is unskillful and harmful. Evasion is written all over a suffering practitioner’s face. A teacher, like the Buddha before her, knows the correct medicine to administer.

Dawa appears as I work in the dining room and hands me a small book saying Khando Rinpoche wanted me to have it. A copy of The Thirty-Seven Bodhisattva Practices[3], its cover is bright yellow, the title in Sanskrit, Chinese ideograms and English written in red ink.

I scan its unfamiliar pages. Pour a cup of black tea from the ever-present thermos. Climb the concrete steps to the roof to study the Practices further. In the near distance of the Himalayan foothills, Kopan Monastery spills over a small valley and down the ridge line. Further away the foothills rise through fog and become the Himalaya Mountains. Warmed by the late morning sun, I watch the tea steam dissipate into nothingness.

*

Puspara, the school principal, surprises me with what he’d like taught every time I visit. One lecture he requests is a workshop on math anxiety and “making math fun” to math teachers. I agree, thinking it will be enjoyable. But preparing over the week I realize my task is impossible. Most will never find math fun or interesting.

Teachers from neighborhood schools file into the room on the afternoon of the workshop. We introduce ourselves. One records expectations on a marking board. Curious students poke their heads in the door, then vanish.

Respectfully engaged during my presentation, the teachers ask questions and solve problems I devised to demonstrate multiple paths towards correct solutions. Trying to elucidate curiosity, I show examples from Nature, like sunflowers and coastlines, whose structures are based on mathematical principals. I read poems whose forms have a mathematical basis.

The teachers’ solemn faces broadcast I am unsuccessful in enlightening them with the path to easy and fun math. We review the expectations. Unsurprised but disappointed, I receive a grade of C. I tell them there is no magic food to make math easy except perseverance and practice, habits cultivated if one wants to achieve competency in anything – playing the violin, plumbing a house, writing novels, cooking dal bhat. Or living life with equanimity.

*

Circling suns, we orbit fabrications of our selves. Their number? Perhaps too many to count. Circle, circle, circle. Our pasts, futures, minds stuck in orbits of our own creation. At their center? The gravitational forces of desire and clinging attached like a supernova’s blinding fantasy or the unseen depths of a black hole.

Buddha identified the traps mind slips, slides, trips and falls into on its path to suffering – delusion, aversion and craving. He called the trio the three poisons. What might a source of them be? Chinese poet Pa-Ta-Shan-Jen had a sensitive insight[4]:

A thought of the past instantly becomes a forest.

The forest can be a savaged clear-cut’s stumps oozing sap. It can also be a lush old-growth forest of ancient, tall cedars, clear streams and a simple trail to follow.

And a thought of the future? Might it be a maze whose entry diverges into two paths? One has a flashing neon-lit sign showing a laughing, attractive family of four strolling along a pristine, tropical beach; it is the three poisons in disguise. And going in the opposite direction is another sign with sthira and sukka, Sanskrit words for stability and contentment, written in small letters on a piece of old cardboard by a practiced hand.

*

I obsess about retiring to a quiet village for several days to escape Kathmandu’s grime and rude motorcyclists. One morning as I circumambulate the stupa mindful of Thogme Zangpo’s practice # 24, when encountering disagreeable circumstances, viewing them as illusory is the Bodhisattva’s practice, I have an insight into illusory. Meaning based on illusion, illusory also means deceptive. Deception may result from inaccurate perception. Mind a wilderness of thickets, the Buddha was concerned about the multitude of misperceptions resulting in suffering and taught to ways for it to re-calibrate itself to experience correctly.

My unskilled solution? I ask Dawa to book me flight to Lukla, the gateway to the Everest region of the Himalayas. A small town, Lukla’s short runway at the head of a canyon may be the most dangerous in the world. If I arrive safely my plan is to breathe fresh air and walk peacefully in silence through the woods.

But re-calibration takes unexpected forms. I fall ill with a sinus cold. A headache pounds continually. A cough wakes me at night. December, the coldest time of year in Kathmandu. Few buildings have heat, Dawa’s home no exception. Inside it is 40 degrees Fahrenheit. My body shaking with chills, my desirous Lukla trip vanishes like Himalayan peaks under clouds. Dawa strongly suggests I stay in bed, warm under blankets and comforters. I see his advice is best. Sleeping most of the day, I read and take meals in bed when awake.

Four days later I feel better, and ease into my routine of walking to the stupa early in the morning, then returning to read and write at home before going to the school or children’s hostel. Researching aversion, I learn the primate brain’s insular cortex is wired for anger and disgust[5]. We are tuned to experience aversion! Thus, from an evolutionary perspective, it must serve a purpose. Can we turn the suffering aversion induces to a beneficial advantage? Armed with this foresight and question, I perceive my path to experiencing Kathmandu’s disagreeable aspects and my feelings towards them differently becomes clearer. I might even recognize and acknowledge other attachments I have.

*

I teach a class at the school two afternoons per week. Walking to the stupa afterwards, I purposely take new streets and alleys. The sun beneath the upper stories of buildings, I keep the southwest light to my right knowing I will stumble upon a familiar alley or street, a distinctive building or maroon-robed monks and nuns coming from or going to the stupa. I turn accordingly knowing its gold thirteen steeps, umbrella and pinnacle will appear.

One day I hear, Michael Sir! Michael Sir! Two unrecognizable teenage boys run towards me. Excitedly shaking my hand, they tell me their names and say we are friends on Facebook. Laughing, I say I have more Nepali friends then American. They ask if I was at the school, adding they were in the eighth-grade class I gave a trigonometry lesson to two years ago. They describe calculating a building’s height knowing our distance from it and the angle of inclination to its highest point. I’m pleased they were attentive and learned.

*

Quickly walking home in the evening chill, I realize my irritation with Kathmandu’s rude motorcyclists is premeditated – I know I will be peeved before walking out the door. I notice the locals are unperturbed by what I believe to be selfish and dangerous drivers. Smiling to myself, I think welcome to the Third World where road rules are different. I slow to appreciate the streetlight-less street dimly lit by shops – grocery, butcher, pharmacy, furniture makers, seamstresses, four-table restaurants – and small fires burning sticks and garbage, laughing people gathered around.

Inside a green-framed door a bearded, shoeless man sitting on a stool reads a newspaper beneath a bare light bulb. His Dhaka topi, a traditional Nepali brimless cap, patterned with red, green, yellow and white octagons, black x’s in their center, stares back at me. Dusty black dress shoes are piled on shelves. Recalling the frayed heel strap of my sandal is a step away from severing, I duck under the door frame to inquire if he can fix it.

He ignores me for a few moments, then smiles a three-tooth smile. Pointing to the frayed strap, I hand him the sandal. He shakes his head up and down, and motions for me to sit on the bare concrete. After trimming the material with scissors, he stitches the fabric to the inside of the rubber sole with a long leather needle, pulling it through with pliers. Minutes later he charges me fifty rupees.

Over dinner Dawa says I paid twice as much he would have charged a Nepali. All teachings worth the price we pay, I laugh at my good fortune.

*

I have become a watcher of my attachments and see they can reinforce themselves. Then I cling to them, the list near endless – annoyance of rude motorcyclists, lonely single person’s longings, cravings for hot green tea.

One morning a jean-clad motorcyclist, a woman in a sari riding sidesaddle holding a baby wrapped in a blanket, and a boy in his blue school uniform straddling the fender try to turn left in front of me. I yell, WAIT!!!, and block their path. Brakes squeal. Eyes wide, the driver is stunned. I see the suffering induced in all of us by my obstinance, and in the next instant think maybe they are rushing to a medical clinic because the infant is ill. Everything a wilderness, sidelines are nonexistent. Step back, let them pass.

Having considered another’s perspective, I continue my walk with more ease. Elsewhere, trains arrive late. Orchids bloom. One receives a cancer diagnosis. Mail, mostly junk, finds its way to in- and curbside boxes. Mountains crumple. A caterpillar metamorphizes. Lessons? No hands to hold in the wilderness, do what needs to be done and then let pass.

*

Having no plan for the English class I ask the eighth-grade students what authors they have been studying. Impassive faces all around, no one speaks. I look directly at a humble girl who expressed a desire to be a writer. Silence a challenge, she accepts the bait and says, Sir, how do you begin a story?

I write poems. I don’t write stories, at least not in the sense referred to. But an idea lights up my mind. Flipping through a picture-filled anthology of English literature, I find a photo to begin an instructive exercise. Showing it to the class, I ask a skinny boy what he sees. Beach, waves, footprints. I then turn to a girl wearing round red glasses, what is the most important element in the photo. Footprints. I turn to a shy boy. Who made them? He looks away then says, a man. To a girl with long brown braids, how old is he? Twenty-six.

Grasping the method, the students excitedly compete to answer. Where was he going? He sees a girl and walks towards her. Is it a girl or a woman? A young woman. Why does he walk toward her? He thinks he knows her. How old is she? Twenty. They talk. We discover they have never met. They part. No names are exchanged, no phone numbers. What happens next? They meet again at a wedding ten years later. Are they both on the groom’s or bride’s side? The man is on the groom’s and the woman on the bride’s. I say, Not interesting enough. Let’s switch it.

*

One evening I am given the lesson our biases may need tweaking or a shove off the cliff. Pushing his soup bowl aside, Lama Phuntsok, another monk staying at Dawa’s, volunteers he doesn’t believe in reincarnation. Surprised, I say, How do you account for being a Buddhist lama? For Khando Rinpoche? The Dalai Lama and his thirteen previous lives? He says he has no recollection of past lives, thus no experience of them. As for Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama, he adds, their individual experience is different and is ultimately known only by themselves.

*

Saturday afternoon. The children aren’t playing in the hostel courtyard. Something feels amiss. Taking my sandals off before entering the door, I see a group gathered in the front room. Dawa and the hostel caretakers are among them. I wasn’t expecting Dawa. Waving, they want me to join them.

Dawa introduces me to a young woman, the older sister of Sita, one of the teenagers. Several days earlier she had not returned after school. He explains she decided to live with her sister. The distress in the room drenches everything like thick fog. Sita appears in the doorway. In a last-ditch effort to convince her to stay, Dawa asks her to explain her decision to me. Head down, she turns around and disappears.

The hostel is a large family. Yoga at dawn together. Meals together. Walk to school as a group. Friday evening music class is a small orchestra. Daily and weekly chores. Having familiar relationships akin to brothers and sisters, the joy they feel with one another and sensitively express is contagious. And though I never see evidence, tensions must exist. How could twenty-five people living together avoid them? Furthermore, the children have become or are becoming teenagers. Relationships grow more complex every day.

Everyone gathers outside to see Sita off. Dawa hugs her. Wishing her well, I do too. She picks up a plastic grocery bag holding her few belongings. Walking towards the gate where three young men stand beside a car, Sita never looks back. Jaman, one of the college-age boys, stands apart from the group, tears in his eyes. I put my arm around his shoulder. He can’t say a word.

*

School closed over the New Year’s holiday, I take a bus to Chitwan and Chitwan National Park. A breath shy of the border with India, Chitwan is in the lowland Terai – grasslands, scrub, sal forests and swamp. It is small and sleepy. People ride mules and bicycles. Domesticated elephants lumber down its streets. Rhinos venture into town at night. Police form a vehicle blockade around it and nudge it back to the park.

A perfect place for the Nature seeker to begin New Year, I hire two guides to take me into the park. I meet Manu and Jagat at seven A.M. in the hotel lobby. I recognize them as staff gardeners and laborers. I ask why two guides. Jagat tells me it is Nepal law in case one guide is injured by a rhino or tiger. Sensible. But I wonder if it is meant to increase employment in this impoverished country. If so, it is a strategy I support.

Mist rising off the Rapti River, we climb into a hollowed-out sal tree canoe with other hikers and their guides. The oarsman pushes the canoe into the river with a long pole. After a few moments the music of the canoe gliding with the Rapti’s waters is broken by three young people sitting in the bow. Their accents French, they speak in English about videos of a British rock star. Annoyed, I want to ask them to listen to the morning’s news expressed by Lapwings, Cormorants, Ruddy ducks and Kingfishers. When a Woolly-necked stork ambling along the riverbank catches their eyes they fall silent.

Thirty minutes later fishermen in a canoe wave us over. Manu converses with them, then asks the oarsman to take us to the south bank. As we disembark Jagat asks me to tip the oarsman, as he will have to work the canoe upstream to the launch site. Prepared for such a request, I pull three hundred rupees out of my pocket. About three dollars, the oarsman’s wide smile expresses deep gratitude.

The fishermen saw a tiger hunting along the bank. Skirting the swamp at the forest edge, we look for it. I follow Jagat and Manu, my heart rate increasing. Visibly excited, they split up. Nimble Manu scales a tree to survey the grassy swampland. Jagat motions for me to silently follow. Minutes later we join Manu at a small stream. He points to footprints in the mud – four oval toes circumscribing the oblong heel. The prints are twice the width of Manu’s sneaker. The tiger had crossed the stream on its way to the Rapti a hundred meters away.

*

Tributaries merging into the larger river, the monks gather at Dawa’s house for a nineteen-day pooja to promote world peace. The roof has been transformed into a temple housed in a large white tent. An extensive altar overflowing with flowers, candles, electric lights, food offerings and butter statues of deities dominates the north end. Overlooking all are pictures of Guru Padmasambhava, the 8th century Buddhist master venerated by Tibetans as a “second Buddha”. Buffet tables outside the tent, a kitchen to furnish three meals, tea and snacks for the several hundred devotees each day was erected in the garden three stories below.

To cultivate peace, the devotees’ vow to collectively recite the Vajra Guru Mantra om a hung vajra guru pema sidi hung one-hundred million times. The mantra is supposed to purify body, speech and mind. At each day’s end organizers ask each person how many times they recited the mantra and record it. They also add new donors with the amount donated and their nationality to large sheets of paper taped to the outer stairwell wall for all to see. I am the only foreign donor.

On my last evening in Nepal, the tenth day of the pooja, I ask Chhetan, Dawa’s nephew, how is it progressing towards one-hundred million recitations of the Vajra Guru Mantra. A young computer programmer, one of many Nepalis who has ensured my welfare – Michael Sir, do you need tea? Michael Sir, did you enjoy Rinpoche’s talk? – he points to the Excel file on his screen and enthusiastically says, twenty million. I notice each participant’s total is a number followed by zeroes – thirteen thousand, forty-eight thousand, two thousand. Intention the practitioner’s lynchpin, I stifle my doubts of accuracy. No entry for me, Chhetan asks, Michael Sir, how many times have you recited the all-powerful Vajra Guru Mantra? Assuming Padmasambhava sees into my heart, I say six hundred. Chhetan quickly adds my contribution. Extrapolating to nineteen days and seeing the pooja will not meet its goal, I ask what then. Chhetan says, We’ll continue next year.

*

On a misty April day my yoga teacher Kathy begins class with a haiku by Issa [6]:

Listen,
all creeping things
the bell of transience

Moving through Downward Dog’s release, Warrior’s strength and into Tree Pose’s balance I recall Issa was a lay Buddhist priest. Likely he was familiar with Zen koans– interactions between a teacher and student (usually) distilling one of the Buddha’s teachings and meant to help lead the student towards awakening. Read as a koan, what is Issa encouraging us to discover within ourselves? In addition to the numberless external beings, the creeping things are also internal – senses, thought, feelings, emotions. What brings sadness, what brings joy. What needs attention, what doesn’t. What supports us, what doesn’t. Revealing something about our self, they ask us to unmask and examine their causes, and then let them pass when no longer useful. Thus, in Zangpo’s practice #23 gently swapping abandon clinging attachments with transform clinging attachments for the benefit of all beings is ultimately called for.

And the bell? Internal and external, it can be struck sharply or with a light touch. Loud or soft. Fast or slow. It fades. Goes silent. Waits. Patient waiting, a beneficial attribute, and when called, the bell does what it does without hesitation.

The bell has another important quality. It is elemental metals in the form of a bell. Form is temporary. It is transient and thus vulnerable. Aren’t we all vulnerable? Lonely orphans, impatient motorcyclists, curious students, invisible tigers. And yet, vulnerability unites us into one. Issa’s bell pings us to intimately feel this while expressing our individual true nature, which unfortunately, we bury beneath our attachments. Haiku and koans help expose attachments. Skillful practice enables us to transcend them and realize reality, both individual and collective.

My sense is we each have a haiku-koan-practice guiding and working on and through us. Mine, I feel, is intimately connected with wandering, returning, staying put. My mind, my feet. Wander, return, stay put. Repeat.When I reflect on joyful and not-so-joyful experiences during such a cycle, my life journey becomes more easeful and graceful. Mindful of these thoughts during Shavasana (Corpse Pose), the class’ final pose, I vow to patiently practice releasing attachments knowing suffering waits around the next corner. Transformation does not happen easily nor always instantaneously.

References and Notes

  1. Though there appear to be an infinite number of beings to lead towards enlightenment and, thus, the bodhisattva’s task is impossible, Buddhism teaches there are no beings to be saved. When the practitioner understands this he is on his way to becoming a bodhisattva. Illumination of these points requires a discussion of Buddha’s teachings on the self, of which many very readable and accessible texts are available to those interested.
  1. The Seven Sisters and Other Nepalese Tales (Khatmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar, 2015) and Tales of the Yeti (Khatmandu: R. N. Tiwari Pilgrims House Book, 1988) by Kesar Lall.
  1. Versions of Ngulchu Thogme Zangpo’s The Thirty-Seven Bodhisattva Practices can be found on the internet. The book given to me does not list a publisher and was, perhaps, printed for monastic use.
  1. Bright Light and Cloud Shadows by Pa-Ta-Shan-Jen, in The Silk Dragon copyright 2001 by Arthur Sze, p. 64. Used by permission of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.com.
  1. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insular_cortex. After returning home I read Mama’s Last Hug by Frans de Waal (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019). He writes activation of the insular cortex creates a strong disgust for anything in one’s mouth (p. 155). In other words, aversion is an evolutionary response to protect animals from poisoning. Aversion to auto exhaust, drivers cutting one off one as they walk, is protective. Unfortunately it is a short leap to be disturbed by unharmful things such as another’s skin color, clothing, religion, music choices, body piercings or sexual orientation. In such situations, an insightful question for the practitioner to ask might be, is my opinion or bias causing me to suffer unnecessarily?

6. Kobayashi Issa in The Duckweed Way: Haiku of Issa, Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto,      (Derry, PA: Rook Press), 1977

Pic by Jari Kinnunen

 

About the Author

Michael G. Smith is a chemist. His poetry has been published in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Cider Press ReviewCrannógNimrod, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Sin FronterasSuperstition Review and other journals. No Small Things was published by Tres Chicas Books. The Dippers Do Their Part, a collaboration with visual artist Laura Young of haibun and katagami from their Spring Creek Project/Shotpouch Cabin residency, was published by Miriam’s Well. Flip Flop, a collection of haiku co-created with Miriam Sagan, was published by Miriam’s Well. The Oregon Poetry Association awarded second place to his poem Assemblage. The Anthropocene in their Spring 2019 contest in the Theme: Climate category.