Monday, July 05, 2010

Mandala Beyond Origination

THU JUNE 10, 2010:

Through the mysteries of interdependence, we had been called last fall at the request of the Lamas to come to Padma Samye Ling, their New York monastery, to help work on the temple. We made two trips three weeks apart and anticipating future projects, had promised to return in the spring. Due to dharma-centre politics, I had been steering clear of gatherings for a few years. Changes in the mandala and the time spent in New York last fall renewed the connection. The experience was so valuable I encouraged the rest of the sangha to make the effort to spend some time there. Zhibde was ready in May and offered to drive her van and pay gas but only Gyatso was able to go with her. After nearly a week working in the monastery kitchen and tiny garden, they too came back very inspired. Members of my family would have joined them but had other obligations. In the second week of June master carpenter Silas Rigdzin was ready to fulfill our promise to return. His wife Tsering, recently unemployed and would accompany him. As it happened, Dechen didn't have any work at that point, so at the 11th hour, we decided to join them. An open circle in the living room that morning allowed us to sort some of the samsaric confusion which had rocked the house over the past few days, and after a big loving goodbye, we left the hollow at 4:30, descending from our highland camp into the green bottoms of Maury County, soon crossing the Duck and Harpeth Rivers. We made one short stop to meet Mark and load up many boxes of Pema Mandala, PSL's community magazine, published in Nashville. These will be postmarked and sent out from PSL in New York. It sounds incredibly inefficient, and since the usual cost of shipping them would be unnecessary if they could be mailed from Music City, I assume someone has already checked out the options.

Ascending out of the Nashville basin, we ramp up onto the Cumberland Plateau where I-40 makes three crossings of Caney Fork before we stop at a fourth and walk down through the woods to the river. A twilight fog about three feet thick covers the water. We said some prayers and burned some offerings for a safe excursion before continuing into the night. East of Knoxville, we leave I-40 for I-81 and the hills of southwest Virginia. Tsering cues up James Asher's Tigers of the Raj. I nod off. Two thirds of our travel time will be spent on I-81 which slithers across valley & ridge topography, long parallel thrusts and folds of Paleozoic sedimentary rocks covered in deciduous forest. We stop after midnight to sleep in a motel room that smells of cigarette smoke. Wytheville VA was the site of a raid by Union forces in the summer of 1863. An attack intended to destroy rails, bridges, salt and lead mines was repulsed by a small, hastily assembled confederate force. The Yanks had better luck in December 1864 with similar targets in Marion, 25 miles south.

Caney Fork, Putnam County, Tennessee


Over incredibly expensive morning coffee, Rigdzin and I agree that Tsering's new purse resembles an elephant's scrotum or rather, what we imagine one might look like. The day is beautiful. We stop to throw a frisbee at a grassy rest area and say some prayers on Roanoke Creek before continuing north, crossing two junctions with the Appalachian Trail & talking American history. Over the headwaters of the James (named after the English King) or Powhatan River (named for a Native American confederacy), past exits for Appomattox courthouse, Virginia Military Institute, the farm of Cyrus McCormick who did not fear the reaper, Jefferson and Washington National Forests, Monticello, Woodrow Wilson's birthplace, and James Madison's home. I-81 passes over the Shenandoah River before paralleling it into the valley, Blue Ridge rising dark blue to the east, Appalachians rise green to our immediate left. Signs for Massanutten Mountain recall Stonewall Jackson's military genius, valley campaign (1862) excellent maps and finally, how a late night recon ended with 'friendly fire' from a nervous pickett, his amputated arm and subsequent death. Fields covered in crops today reflect abundance and no sign of social breakdown but it was said a crow flying across the valley would have to pack a lunch during General Sheridan's 1864 campaign. His troops employed the same harsh tactics favored by Sherman in his march from Atlanta. We roll by exits for Manassas, Harper's Ferry, Antietam, & Gettysburg. Beyond the Potomac and Mason-Dixon line (1767) Pennsylvania and the ghosts of James Buchanan, Molly Pitcher, and the Tuscarora (lit. hemp-gatherers), a North Carolinian tribe with ties to the Iroquois. Long abused by British colonials, they asked the Five Nations in New York if they could move back near them. The Tuscarora were embraced as a sixth nation settling in both Pennsylvania and New York.

Afternoon we exit the machine for a second break at a picnic table in sunny Cumberland County before zipping along the base of Silurian-era Blue Mountain, the easternmost ridge of the Appalachians, a great wall running for 150 miles, separating the populous southeastern corner of the state, the Cumberland Valley, from the mountains. A mile long bridge spans the gap where the Susquehanna has penetrated the ridge on its way to Chesapeake Bay. Commercial traffic is prohibited on this longest river draining into the Atlantic. I-81 passes north of Harrisburg, the state capitol. I think of my mysterious ancestors who settled here in a Jewish enclave after leaving Kiev late in the 19th century. Second Mountain is the name given to that section of Blue which lies between the river and Fort Indiantown Gap, after which Blue Mountain continues northeast into the Kittatinny Mountains of New York. I-81 leaves the valley and climbs north through Swatara Gap. The AT descends again to cross the road at this point before regaining the ridge. Well-forested slopes, stunted white birch trees, ancient beds of rock dramatically exposed in roadcuts, darker seams reminding us we are in coal country and cueing the fiddles of In the Blue Diamond Mine. Passing between Mahantango (mid-Devonian) and Sharp Mountains, followed by Nescopeck, and anntenae-studded Penobscot Knob, all outliers of the Appalachians cresting below treeline, some ridges lined with dozens of tall white wind towers.

Out of a relatively green samadhi, patches of white and brown urban chaos appear in the valleys below as we negotiate the Scranton corridor to the music of King Crimson. The Susquehanna parallels the interstate here for ten miles although it is on the far side of town, invisible from the road. Upstream, we cross a tamer Susquenhana for a second time before a final stop at dusk to burn in the bushes outside the police station at the first rest stop in New York. A third and final crossing over a on Rte 17 precedes entry into the Delaware River watershed. Upon learning Rigdzin has never heard the Stone's Gimme Shelter, Dechen cues it up. Now on two lane blacktop we climb past the darkened Cannonsville Reservoir and roll up through the woods to the Buddha Highway and Padma Samye Ling. After turning off the lights and engine, we stumble out into the silent night and carry our bags inside where we soon find Peter sweeping on the third floor of the Bodhicitta Inn. Excited to be here, there is no one around so we settle into a room on the first floor and sleep in yacht-like bunks after noting the position of Polaris.

Buddha Highway, Padma Samye Ling,
Delaware County, New York

SAT JUNE 12: NEW MOON, MIPHAM (1846-1912)

At breakfast in the Sangha House we meet Michelle who is a doctor in New York. As we set up for the day's work, Laya, recently ordained as lama, gives the ladies a tour of the temple and grounds. Rigdzin and I unload magazines, lumber and tools. Our efforts will focus on the western entrance to the temple known as the 'moon gate' which we helped build on our second trip here last autumn. This has become the primary entrance for practitioners. On the farside of the gonpa, the eastern or 'sun entrance' now has a handicap ramp covered with a tough composite like they are using at rest areas and national parks. The temple has no rain gutters. Come winter, icicles four foot long form on the balconies and drop off without warning. Since we have been here, the eight stupas carved in Indonesia had been delivered, installed around the temple and painted. Five life-size dhyani Buddhas from the same igneous quarry had arrived on a previous ship and patiently waited in their crates outside the Khenpos' house for a season. Now they were all seated against the outer walls of the temple giving darshan to beings in the four directions. We met with Ani Lorraine to discuss a design for coat racks, a sign-in table and benches with cubby holes below for shoes. With funds from Turtle Hill Sangha, Rigdzin had ordered planed cedar which we carried from Tennessee. This first morning, we tongue & groove the boards to assemble a double rack for short coats. Lama Laya passes through and asks us to save the cedar shavings for smoke offerings. Khenpo Tsewang also soon comes by and tells us his older brother, Khenchen, is on retreat. This is their mandala as well as their home. We do not expect to see much of Khenchen, if at all, on this trip. He has given us all so much, traveling and teaching relentlessly over the last twenty years, he naturally needs to rest and recharge his batteries once in awhile. We have come to work and be of service. Invariably, we receive more than we could have imagined.

Everyone who passes by comments about the smell of the cedar. Michelle says a fistful of sanded cubes in a little bag would sell for ten dollars in Manhattan. We have plenty of them. Anyone want to hit the streets and hawk them in the city? Other comments ranged from 'just like my grandma's cedar chest' to 'smells like a gerbil cage'. In setting up a work table, we make use of a box labelled 'Nirman plywood and blackboard Co.' Is that ironic? I had to ask. The skies are sprinkling rain. Sergei, resident Russian artist responsible for almost all of the beautiful images on the gonpa walls tells us about the elaborate paintings he once saw in a Nepalese Buddhist temple. By the quality of the work and attention to detail he figured it must have taken years. When told it was all completed in six months, he could not believe this until learning the project was due to the devotion of three talented, young Nepali acidheads. Closer to home, a young man who was not on acid but responsible for lunch got a late start in the kitchen resulting in hard beans and rice that was fairly terrible. The ladies took inventory and Tsering rode with Michelle to town for supplies. We worked late and came down to eat while everyone was attending evening practice in the temple. Dinner was excellent as the beans were re-cooked into a chili sauce served over potatoes with tofu sour-cream. After dinner, we talked with Sergei & his wife Kelly. At 1:08 we were still stargazing on the front steps of the Bodhicitta Inn.

Buddha Vairocana, Padma Samye Ling


Another late start today, overcast skies, and it is very muggy. Some of the small crew on hand are heeding Khenpo Tsewang's recent admonition to take Sundays off. Rigdzin and I take a moment to rethink the original design for racks and benches, and the suggested changes are soon approved by Ani. We begin work on a rack for longer coats. More tongue and grooving. Sanders begin to buzz removing any roughness in the grain or sharp edges. Sergei stops by to comment on our talk the previous evening. I had introduced Herbert Guenther's ideas about the now dessicated Aral Sea being the legendary Lake Danakhosha and Urgyen being Old Urgench near the once-upon-a-delta of the Amu Darya River. Sergei tells me one of the men who helped build Samye, Tibet's first monastery, hailed from that area and was actually sent for by Padmasambhava. And among the 25 heart disciples in Tibet, one hailed from Sogdiana, one of the few place names that sounds anything like Oddiyana.

Khenpo Tsewang Rinpoche, approaching with upward palms takes your hands, his bronzed forehead leans forth to touch your own. We exchange good mornings before he put palms together to regard someone behind me - the black Amitabha statue seated near the moon gate, here on the western side of the temple. This gesture was so natural to Khenpo, for a moment I felt like I was ignoring a living person. He smiled and repeatedly thanked us for coming, sincerely praising our efforts in a way that almost made us blush. Marveling at the pattern and color of the wood, he says, sandalwood trees are considered sacred but do not grow in Tibet, so Himalayan Cedar is used instead. The wood we are working with, commonly known as cedar or eastern red cedar is actually a native specie of juniper (Juniperus virginiana), but hey.... In discussing work to be done with Sergei, Khenpo Tsewang suggests that the buddhas remain black with some selective gold trimming on the lotus seat and robes, perhaps the ushnisha bump atop the head. He also says something about, 'opening the eyes.' Sergei indicates that traditionally, each Buddha should have a small canopy shielding them from the elements. There is no end to the detail, no finality to the building of this mandala. If there were a thousand people here, they could all stay busy with projects contributing to Khenchen's vision.

Having discovered our love of Pecan Sandies, Ani makes sure we have a whole bag to go with our coffee breaks. Tsering advises stretching like Vajrayogini to loosen up a sore hip, likely acquired by a long sit in the truck. Laya has asked her to paint one of the 'Nirman' boxes red. It will bv used to carry offerings in outdoor pujas. Ngakpa Drakpa and I talk in the Sangha House whereI learn of two new books coming out based on Khenchen's teachings, a large one on the Guhyagarbha Tantra and another which will include the zhi-khro revealed by Karma Lingpa, which is the basis for the Bardo Thodrol, better known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. We both marvel at the unique Nyingma perspective offered by Khenchen Palden on the Rangtong & Shentong debate.

An amazing spinach-garbanzo-potato soup and cornbread was served for dinner after which I copied the Samye declaration from a large slab of wood carved in Tibetan on display in the main room of the Sangha House. After the sun sets, an orange salamander on a dark road gets attention. We run into Sergei, who is in a rare mood, somewhat excited about a set of thangkas he was commissioned to paint. Over the course of our exchange, he shares some of his unique experiences and perspectives as trained thangka painter in Asia and America. Dechen and I lost track of Rigdzin & Tsering later that evening and in looking for them, re-ascended the large stone steps leading up to the temple, silky new prayers flags waving in the breeze. On the return trip we stopped in the Sangha House for toast and hot soymilk before retiring.

Tripod for fire pujas,
Khenpos residence in background


Woke to rain, coffee and oatmeal for breakfast before shuffling up the hill to begin setup. Turn on compressor, unroll cords, assemble router, table and chop saws to fashion wood for benches, putty over nail holes, fill nail gun, mucho sanding, always have a tape and sharp pencil ready and general gofering for Rigdzin. His ability to visualize what he wants to build is admirable. I have told him many times that he would likely excel at visualizing the yidam, should that ever become a primary practice. For now, Rigdzin's main contribution is in practical service as a master carpenter in support of the Guru and his community. Khenchen Palden is travelling to Oneonta with Ani to see the doctor today. We might have hoped to see him pass along the road but this did not happen. The ladies are highly praised for the Tibetan Noodle Soup - tukpa, served for lunch. A continuity of good food coming from the kitchen is apparently one of the weaker points in this small, ever-changing gathering of practitioners. As cooks, farmers and carpenters with a strong background in community, our earthiness and hands on experience with the material plane is obviously one of the stronger points we are able to offer.

Come afternoon, the ladies bring coffee to the work site before we take a short walk n the woods behind the temple to top of Dharmapala Hill, the peak above the Khenpos residence. An old road winds past a rotting little hunting cabin, an artifact of the previous owner. We continue up through a thick understory of ferns in an oak and maple forest. Sky is gray and the tang of fungus hangs in the air. Many dead trees standing in these woods. In Tennessee, theywould have been harvested for firewood but the crew here is especially small in winter and all of the buildings run on oil. Exposed Devonian boulders exfoliate horizontally in slate-thick sections. Someone has collected enough slabs to build a small stupa off to one side of the clearing. The grassy crown of the hill is broken up by trees both living and dead between which old prayer flags are strung in great numbers gradually returning their substance to the elements.

Upon return, Ani says KPSR is not improving, that he is actually worse than last year. This was a little disturbing to hear, as she is very close to him. One of the young retreatants asks why we don't come sit with everyone in the temple at morning or evening prayers which happen every day. Dechen explains that because we have prior obligations and can only stay for four days, we have decided to put all our efforts into seva.

The Stupa of Complete Victory
commemorates Buddha successfully prolonging his life by three months
marking victory over all misadventures


Whatever it is we are able to do here, we have to finish it up today. Lots more puttying nail holes and seams, sanding, vacuuming. Everyone has been enriched, re-energized in relation to the Three Jewels on the basis of sheer proximity to the physical presence of the Guru. Some of the newer people have spent months working and retreating on the land but very little time with Khenchen. We are gaining a better appreciation of how generous and familial both of the Khenpos have been with us over the last twenty years. Everyone feels it and this is exactly why we wanted to bring the ladies who are both enthused and already talking about returning in autumn. Khenpo Tsewang stops by with Ani and after telling us Khenchen is not doing so well, suggests, 'so maybe say some prayers for him.' Knowing we are leaving in the morning, Ani invites us all to come over to the Khenpos residence at 8 pm. Rigdzin and I stand with hands folded at heart-level as they slowly progress along the path circling the gonpa. Khenpo Tsewang turns to acknowledge us from a distance, smiling under a faded red ballcap. Now Ani turns and with a gaze that is so full of love it can be hard to fathom until you understand what she does, she too raises her palms, bows her head slightly. Before they are out of sight around the corner, Khenpo and Ani turn our way once again; we are honored, blown away by their warm regard.

As the hour approaches, the phrase, 'You might be late for your own funeral but you'd better be on time for the lama' runs through my head. Dechen and Tsering have been helping us today and we manage to wrap it up but are still fairly covered in fragrant cedar dust when we arrive for a short goodbye meeting with the Khenpos. We all sit on the back porch to remove shoes before entering. Ani leads us into the main room where, to our amazement, both of my beloved teachers were sitting, facing west, enough light still pouring through the southern windows that we needed no more. Khenpo Tsewang occupying the closer chair, lovingly motions me to greet Khenchen first. Khenchen is quietly but audibly saying mantra. Rigdzin and I sit to their left, the ladies to the right. Khenchen looks a bit frail. He is in robes but has on socks and longjohns. His features are sharp like he has lost weight, but he does not look like he is in any pain. He is very present, surprisingly youthful and seems almost enthused as if he is about to start on a journey. "How is it in Tennessee?" he asks. Rigdzin replies that it is very hot and that its been nice to work up here in some cooler weather. Khenchen came back with, "you should move up here" all in English. "Maybe we will," I said. Khenchen does not usually speak in English. He looks my way to see if I have anything more to say. I imagine we will be able to talk about more philosophical and scholarly things sometime in the future when he is feeling better. I said, "We want you to get healthy. We still need you. Please do everything you can to get better soon." Dechen having heard about a reluctance to take medicine and his insistence that practice would be sufficient, pleaded, "Please take your medicine, we want you around for a long time." Khenchen held his hand out and made a gradually upward motion from left to right, as if to say, 'I am slowly improving'. "Please..." we implored again. They both thanked us profusely for coming and working, then showered us with gifts, including bells & dorjes, pictures of Padmasambhava blessed by Dudjom Rinpoche's wife, practice texts, a CD of chants from the nuns of Sravasti, jewelry for the ladies and a large thangka for the sangha. Again, one by one, each of us took both their hands in our own, closed eyes and touched foreheads together to receive their blessings before making our way back outside. Dechen said she could feel the energy surging between herself and Ani when they bumped heads, "As we were leaving I felt that Ani wanted to share something with me but then decided not to."

Heated leftovers were more than adequate for dinner. I was exhausted from the day's labor but Rigdzin soon headed back uphill to build a rack for two copper prayer wheels to be installed by the door leading into the temple from the moon gate. Relaxing together that evening, concerned about Khenchen Palden's health, talk turned toward the literal meaning of Khenchen's long life prayer. Upon returning to the Bodhicitta Inn, Sergei gave us some high-quality postcard-sized reprints of his work. I chose an image of the powerful Black Yang-Phur Vajrakilaya and one of Garab Dorje. Sergei encouraged us to make and sell puja tables over a cup of red wine in their little apartment. Kelly showed us their fossil collection. We soon learn the sangha will be holding special services and a general assembly this weekend to pray for the long life of Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche.

In the Medicine Buddha Temple


We pack the truck which is now parked in front of the Bodhicitta Inn. Sergei hands me a hardcover book entitled The Silk Road, A History as we say goodbye. The ladies have requested a tour of the Medicine Buddha temple and Drakpa obliges. The only full-time resident here is the wonderful art collection and a hot tub which has never been used. Over in one corner of the main shrine room, amidst all the Buddhas and thankgkas, sits a simple bedroll, a felt hat and a walking stick, a touching reminder of Bill, the Chicago devotee and maha-patron who bought the land PSL now occupies, the luminous red tile that covers the floors and wainscot, and so much more. Bill died of a heart attack the day after the temple was consecrated.

At the Cannonsville Reservoir we say a few more prayers for Khenchen Palden and protection on the road ahead. Too soon stuck in traffic for too long south of Wilkes-Barre; all kinds of rock and roll. At one point, we were parked in the left lane, two cars behind an 18-wheeler. In front of him the lane was clear as far as anyone could see, but jammed just around the bend. No one in the right lane paid it any mind as we inched forward. A small pickup tried to pass to our left, rolling over the grass in the central divide. The big truck driver sees him coming and quickly whips his cab to the left shoulder, over onto the grass so that the little guy is forced into the steeper part of the drainage ditch and must accelerate to get around the big guy. Traffic is barely moving again when another driver, this one a woman in a small sedan, attempts to pass around the right side of the truck but he will not let her get by easily either. She drops back as traffic comes to a halt. She wants her place back in the left lane behind the semi. The man in the car ahead closes the gap behind the big truck, shutting her out. Rigdzin slows to a halt and leaves her plenty of space to get in between us, but she doesn't want it, insisting that the guy ahead of us let her in front. She is screaming at him when he thrusts a hand out the window implying WTF! and then decides to let her occupy the space between himself and the psycho in the big truck. DBT sings stories for us as the sun sets, the diesel taking us back across the Susquehanna at Harrisburg. After a promotional build-up inflating expectations, we learn that it was all for naught because the Mexican dude who ran the little restaurant in Woodstock VA went out of business over the winter. We settle for China Wok, where one lovely Chinese girl, an overworked young waitress, inspired possibilities for offbeat fiction. Spent the night under the stars without a tent at Wolf's Gap. After everyone fell asleep, a police car made the rounds illuminating license plates of those camped here before heading back down the hill to Virginia. Wind blows strong all night long.


We took an early morning walk on the trail that leads to Tibbet's Knob and chanted prayers at a beautiful overlook before speeding south through the Shenandoah Valley, beside rolling fields of knee-high corn, barns covered in bright red or rusting tin, silos capped by shiney domes, others topless, abandoned to ivy and creepers. Narrow, tall colonial farmstead homes of brick or stone, dark green patches of garden potatoes out back, waving fields of alfalfa, the color of wildflowers blooming in the divide, past Elliot's Knob (4458 ft) on the ridge known as Great North Mountain. Black bear and Bobcat still thrive here. We pass the monadnock Sugarloaf (3626), musing on the dark history of Brush Mountain, site of the crash that killed Audey Murphy in 1971 and the kind of violence on the AT that one hesitates to repeat. Blue Ridge runs to our east for over 300 miles until the highway curves sharply west, passing between Walker and the Iron Mountains as we approach the TN-VA border. On the far side of Walker Mountain the hills contain the largest deposits of the best quality coal in Virginia. A bridge south of Kingsport Tennessee spans the dark rocks of a steep-walled gorge over the Holston. We have crossed the point where water drains to the Atlantic and are now in the watershed of the Tennessee River and greater Mississippi basin. In the 18th century, this was the west. The Dead Weather fills the cab as we roll by Sycamore Shoals where a group of Cherokee sold most of Kentucky to Richard Henderson, a real estate speculator, in 1775. The Henderson purchase was illegal and provocative, but in the meanwhile, Daniel Boone was hired to spearhead settlement in the 'dark, bloody ground.' Exits for President Andrew Johnson and Davy Crockett. Soon, the road is suspended above the earth as it bows through north Knoxville. Tall white towers of the Clinch River plant bring to mind the coal ash pond that ruptured and sent a billion gallons of toxic sludge across 300 acres of surrounding land in December 2008. TVA is being fined for that so naturally, our rates have gone up. Climbing the eastern slope of Walden's Ridge, along the base of the Crab Orchard Mountains onto the Cumberland Plateau, past the exit to Padma Gochen Ling, the retreat center built after the Khenpos first came to Tennessee in the late '80's. We originally met them in an old log cabin which occupies the same hollow. Last autumn we met with the Khenpos and the greater sangha for a Vajrakilaya empowerment, the third time they opened this mandala in Tennessee. I was fortunate to have been there all three times. We stop again at the rest area on Caney Fork, leaving the cars and descending through the woods to watch the twilight fade on the cliffs and mist creep over the water, grateful for a safe and productive journey.


Rigdzin & Tsering, Caney Fork, Tennessee

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