Being thus unmindful of what occurs is delusion;
the very state of unawareness and the cause of going astray…
From this delusive state comes a sudden fainting away
and then a subtle consciousness of wavering fear.
—-from The Prayer of Kuntuzangpo (The Primordial Buddha Samantabhadra)
We dance in the company of stones
Dogs emerge from the shadows
Birds on the mountain
Pick our bones
Sunrise, Kathmandu. A gentle, sleepy, dull glow appears in the east as the sky pearls and glistens anew. Birds shake loose in the trees, whispering in small voices, leaves trembling. The sun comes up, a red ball over the skyline, clears the roof tops, chases the shadows. Soon nothing will be left to hide in the light of day. The trees wake up, the shopkeepers come into the streets with brooms to sweep away the dirt that by nightfall will return. Yet they sweep, smiling, hopeful, pleasant, eager even. As much as I want to ignore it in my conflicted self, I’m comforted by the way we humans find each other, our own inability to hide; even as we rail and fume and separate, we count inevitably on the whole, we rely on each other to still be there in the morning, to still hold each other in place so we don’t fly off the planet.
We leave Kathmandu– anchor, home base–behind to travel to Tibet. How quickly one anchors to strangeness, how smoothly one adheres to the familiar, even the so recently and completely unfamiliar. The combination of coming down from high elevation (only to go still higher and soon) sleep deprivation and travelling in constant close quarters with 7 people I’ve known for a mere matter of weeks is a cosmic set up of sorts. Karma. Since the sixties, we’ve come to bandy the word about in the west, but here in the land of its origin, karma is very, very real. As the smooth veneer of our surface personalities–how happy we are! how easy to get along with! How much we enjoy each others’ company!–peels away, sandblasted by the wind and dirt of Mustang, our “stuff” is showing up.
So here we are, band of thieves, ship of fools, artists with a mission, human beings seemingly thrown together at random and cast adrift with our cameras and notebooks, insisting on our various visions and ideas, personal needs and artistic necessities. Yet there is nothing random. Nothing without cause and effect. Little comfort, this. We’re at odds with each other. We’re at odds a lot. Given the lack of emotional distance I feel from my own murderous knee-jerk reactions, I can only imagine the legendary oxygen deprived depravity of mountaineers climbing at heights twice the distance as our “mere” 3-4000 meters.
As the days pass, I dig deeper into the translated teachings of the great Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava–enlightened being, Buddha, lover, teacher, demon destroyer– in search of clues to what’s happening to me. Sure, I can write it off to altitude, diet, sleep disruption, travel. I can write about the teachings intellectually, comment in an altruistic way. But really?? My worst habits are surfacing. Judgement, anger, hostility, self loathing. The teachings say that this is good, this is cleansing, this is Dharma. But why now? I feel exposed. Delusion and division appear unavoidable.
We visit many of the ancient Himalayan caves revered for having housed the great yogis and yoginis of Tibetan Buddhist lore. I want my own cave. I’m my own solution and my own problem and I know it but can’t find the thread to pull that will unravel the snarl. I want to hide or bale out. It’s hard to trust this process. It’s hard to believe it even is a process. It’s hard to believe much of anything will come of the mess we’re in.
But here we are and the teachings are clear. Trust. Over and over, this message is repeated. Find courage. Obstacles are necessary on the path to enlightenment and should be welcomed. Generate bodhichitta, the heart of compassion. Finding this for myself is hardest. Nothing revs the ego up quite like looking in the mirror at the face other people see.
I consider Kathmandu with all her faults, all her troubles and excellencies and weirdly comforting familiarity and find myself to be remarkably similar: chaotic, smelly, lively, sad, colorful, dangerous, daring, demanding and ever-changing. So too, the film crew that’s become my surrogate family. This is the new normal. As a crew, we’re forced to adapt to ourselves and to one another the same way we’ve adapted to our home base. We have to surrender, open up, get ever realer and rawer if we’re ever going to be vulnerable. Not fragile, not easily broken or subdued but vulnerable. Vulnerability. Ah, now there’s a subject.
Headed for Tibet, we’ re wavering in our mission; functioning out of necessity. At times barely functioning, barely speaking, barely thinking (speaking for myself) except to summon up petty bullshit thoughts. But we’re still breathing, still laughing. I’m torn as to my role in this project. I’m not a journalist, I’m a poet and writer. It’s not for me to write a travelogue, it’s mine to register the body, mind and soul of this place in my own, to inhabit rock, blood, soil and to find artistic expression for that experience, to translate it into words. If I’m to do this honestly, I have to explore obstacles–disappointment, delusion, frustration, and most notably, fear–the question is, do I have to do it publicly?
When I look at this experience with the intention of being of benefit to others, I keep coming back to the inevitability of karma, of the intersecting of these particular lives at this particular time. Uncertainty, confusion, resentment–these are great teachers. If I see the people I’m travelling with as my teachers, can I accept and explore the ways in which I’m their teacher as well? Can I do all of this in writing? What about the film? What is its purpose? Surely Padmasambhava doesn’t lack documentation…what about practical application of the deep Dharma teachings…is that what threw us onto this path together? I keep reminding myself that I can fall further into delusion and become paralyzed by lack of confidence, or I can breathe, study and practice and see if I can decipher what’s really brought me, metaphorically and for real, to the other side of the world.
It sounds so good when I say I aspire to practice the Dharma in everyday life. I sound, even to myself, like such a devoted practitioner. Such a worthy student. I feel like a phony. Not that I ever assumed this journey would be easy, but I didn’t anticipate that the cliffs I’d be hanging from would be in my head. That the real courage I would need would be to battle demons of my own making. That my knees would go weak confronting fellow travelers a lot faster than while trekking on death defying mountain trails.
So here I am, pissed off and hungry. I had a hard boiled egg and a cup of instant coffee with some sort of white powder stirred in it for breakfast. Irritated as hell by off-the-chart levels of intense human interaction. I also need to pee. This simple and needful act requires utter abandon; here, we squat on the side of the road while cars, trucks, motorbikes and buses lumber or whiz by, tires at eye level.
I feel woefully inadequate. I feel the vertigo of failure so acutely if I had to keep my balance now I’d pitch over the edge. As it is I’m just a dirty pilgrim rumbling along the winding road in a dusty van. Buddhist, indeed. Dharma practitioner–phftt.
This morning we cast our lot with another set of drivers, another vehicle, and headed for the Nepal-Tibetan border, 5 hours away. How readily we jumped in–bald tires, duct taped window cracks–the proverbial lemmings to the sea. We left the city early and now we climb, climb, climb for hours; the road winds through jungle villages, terraced rice paddies, higher and higher and higher, the cliff to the left of the van drops to the Bhote-Kosi River far below. To our right the mountain wall, hung with thick vines, dense trees.
When we reach the border, we walk, as is the law, to the other side. The bridge that crosses the Bhote-Kosi is heavily guarded and crammed with people coming and going, carrying all manner of gigantic heavy loads on their backs in lieu of vehicles to transport. Piles of rugs, blankets, pots and pans, boxes appear to have legs, the person carrying them barely visible. Nobody smiles, nobody makes eye contact.
The mountains lean in, the clouds above them drop down and a heavy mist blows up from the river below. The sun is still with us, but hides her face, peeking out here and there and ducking back in for cover. The land is watching. The air is witness. This I can feel in my bones; heaviness, sadness, veiled certainty, firm resolve. The heavily guarded bridge is known as the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge. I feel a fist close around my heart even as I rejoice in the miracle of actually making it to this holiest of holy places in this lifetime. Tibet.
What is there to say? We follow much the same route as many Westerners who visit this part of China. The tour books can outline the path and show you the pictures…yet what about karma? Is life in all its forms interdependent to the point that absolutely nothing happens anywhere, anytime that isn’t a manifestation of what Buddhism calls ‘dependent arising’? Cause and effect. If it’s cause that’s led me here, then just as surely effect has drawn us–as artists, at once individual and as a group–to this most sacred land, the highest place in the world and certainly one of the most beautiful yet difficult places to be. What stories will Tibet fill my dreams with each night? What secrets, in the light of day, will she ask me to tell?