The self-arising Great Expanse, beyond expression, has neither the name ‘samsara’ nor ‘nirvana’. Realizing just this, you are a Buddha. Not realizing this, you are a being wandering in samsara.
—The Prayer of Kuntuzangpo
Butter lamps for Guru Rinpoche
Please to light a candle for offering
or please to not be entering caves
Beggars, women, warm-eyed temple dogs
look to us for comfort wondering
tenuous toe hold
on karmic ladder maintaining place
Kathmandu: Still on Mongolia time, I’m up early searching for tea, coffee…even hot water will do and I manage to finally get some, spoon the instant coffee and powdered milk we bought in Ulaanbaatar into the cup and savor the strange taste that a short ten days ago would have turned my stomach.
10 am we’re looking like tourists–cameras, bags, bottled water–we move as a herd, fold ourselves into the van and head out of town. The shops of Kathmandu roar by, pedestrians, street urchins, doorways, rickshaws, all a brush stroke blur, stinky smear of color, noise, no defined lines, all too fast to comprehend by peering through dirty plexiglass duct taped van window. Rocking, stopping, going, rocking, swerving; the way we move on foot, in vehicles and planes is an ever increasing metaphor for the rhythm of this journey. Each mile that passes–under wing, foot, bald tires–carries us further from what is known and deeper into what is not.
Claustrophobic I finally push the flimsy window open, cover face, stick head out like a dog and take in the city; breathe exquisite blend of incense, shit, diesel, curry, death, life and breath of millions. By tomorrow this smell will permeate my clothes, books, bedding and hair and somehow file itself in my brain as comforting and familiar.
I’m interested in the way I find familiarity in these strange landscapes and cultures. I see in the recognition of our shared humanity a deeper recognition of shared yearning toward enlightenment, awakening, realization. The garish display of street spirituality underscores the power of hope and comfort human beings are able to derive from despair and monotony. Is it really a placebo?
I grow quickly more used to careening along in buses, vans, taxis. Mongolia warmed my bones and muscles up for this like some weird yoga; stretch, lunge, shift weight, rest. Senses overwhelmed, body pushed. Yet this is where the people and animals around me were born and live.
Om mani. Om mani, mani, om.
We pass further from the crush of the city, rolling through fields, over hills, pedestrians, bicycles, incessant traffic give way to less of same; steep mountain winding road takes us to sacred Pharping, to the caves of Padmasambhava. Our roles in this project much like our clothes, are already somewhat altered in smell, wrinkled and clammy; this is only our second day in Nepal, leaving us to wonder what will become of us further on.
Still, dutiful artists, seekers and pilgrims that we are, we climb out of the van, lug the film equipment and all of our myriad doubts and expectations up the road and up the long flight of ancient stairs. Each of us has yet to use chlorine drops or Steri-pen, relying on dubiously safe plastic bottles of drinking water. This will be my last.
Worn brass candle holders on rock shrine smoke and flicker in the thick humid air. Dogs, ducks, huge gold and purple fish swim in the pond; a young black goat chews a soggy matchbox, smiles, twists and leaps away. I climb the last turn in the stone stairs and am greeted by a woman as worn as the footpath who bows and sets two brass candle holders in my hands; a man lights the candles, smears vermillion on my forehead. My fingers sink into warm dripping wax, fingerprints cast in wax, melt into warm brass and mingle with the hands and prayers of thousands before me. We are not separated by time or culture as I kneel and set my offering on the shrine, bow and touch my forehead to the stone.
It’s a moment held in the space of thousands of years, ten thousand bows, the rock under my knees indented by the reverent masses. I’m completely in it, every sense alive, every nerve raw. I rise to my feet ready to enter the cave in awe, to sit quietly, to pray and meditate in this ancient, sacred place.
I’m utterly unprepared for the tall man in the striped polo shirt who blocks the entrance to the cave, insists that to enter I pay for the butter lamps so graciously offered by the stooped woman in the worn sari who turns away, avoiding my eyes as she tidies the lamps that await the next visitor.
A dusty dog lays on the stone courtyard floor watching the scene without moving. He could be dead but for the light in his eye, and only his eye follows our exchange, his breath light and soft. Between the dog, the goat and the silent women tending the lamps and sweeping the stairs, I find myself once again able to access what I’ve come to think of as “working compassion”; it’s a tool, not an idea. A skill I’m working to develop.
I turn toward the polo shirt man and see, rather than a huckster, a young man without the skill to nuance a situation–with him, it’s win or lose. Another set up for human suffering. Samsara–the illusion that we can control our lives by scrabbling, competing, posturing. I can’t change his position in life, but I can speak to his heart and hope he listens. I tell him he’s not getting any money from me without a promise to allow others who can afford nothing–not even the nominal pittance of 100 rupees–to step inside the holy cave.
He looks suddenly young, confused. He promises. Will he keep his promise? Unlikely, but at the moment he makes it our hearts are open. Our hands meet and his eyes soften.
The next cave has a gate, and at the gate beggars sit in the shadows, hands extended, pleading, rocking back and forth. The path to the cave winds through a narrow space between walls of stone and plaster, opening out into a courtyard tended by women, and again the temple dogs rest and wander.
Again, the women are shadows who sweep and tend, the dogs seem to have it easier. Both dogs and woman survive due to the kindness of strangers and monks. One of the women draws me by the hand to a seat she’s prepared and we sit together while an interview with the temple lama is filmed.
I look in her eyes and we recognize one another instantly–mother, friend, sister. Is it her acceptance of her lot in life that allows this vulnerability? The dogs are like this; quietly accepting whatever comes their way. The woman reaches for my hand and we sit that way for a long time, hand in hand, silent. Occasionally, we look at each other and smile. This is communication. We exchange what understanding we can–she is ill, legs crippled by arthritis from endless climbing up and down the steep temple stairs, hands gnarled by repetitive filling of the butter lamps. Most of her teeth are missing.
The burning lamps affect her breathing, she coughs and wheezes, explaining with her hands, she pulls medicine from her sari and shows it to me.
When I get up to leave, I slip the woman some money, discreetly, knowing that if the action is seen by one of the men selling prayer flags she might have to give it up. She tucks it away quickly. Reaches again for my hand and holds tight, tries to explain something with words and gestures. Whatever it is, I can tell that the money I’ve given her is a very big deal.
Later on that day, I see her again. She looks so ancient, I’m shocked to learn that the beautiful young woman sitting with her is her daughter, and in that moment everything is clear. The woman is a widow, her servitude the only hope she can offer her child.
This, I’m reminded, is karma. This, I hear my teacher say, is the result of previous lifetimes and is the path toward recognition and enlightenment. I struggle, practice, pray. On the way out of the temple, I stoop down and place my hand on the foreheads, one by one, of the temple dogs.