Wednesday, July 09, 2014

On War and Mask Dancing

“O Lord our God,
help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells;
help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain;
help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief;
help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst,
blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!
We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts.
 ~ Mark Twain, "The War Prayer" (
shortened) An anti-war protest, published posthumously, rejected by Harper's Bazaar as "too disturbing."

"Most of the Gazans killed so far have died in their homes."
 ~ Washington Post, "New Hamas rockets reach deep into Israel"

Yesterday was the annual Hemis Festival that everyone-must-see. I'd already been warned by two people that it was worth a miss, but I went anyway. It turned out that there were more tourists in the audience than locals, which isn't a good sign. But it also looked to be an authentic festival, as if I would know the difference. Anyway, photos await.

The highlight of my day was figuring out how to get back to Leh from Hemis. I'd shared a taxi there with a nice group of Israelis and thought I'd hike down the hill and hitch a ride back for the 40km (25 miles) back to Leh. The Israelis passed me standing up in the back of a truck. Other friends drove past in a bus, yelling "what are you doing?" At the main road the first person to pick me up was a young local guy on a motorcycle. He said, "Don't worry. I'm in the military, and this is my place, so don't worry." Then he said it again. Then he kept saying it. By the time he'd said it about 10 times I really started to worry. I thought I smelled a bit of alcohol on his breath, but it wasn't strong as I leaned forward to hear him when he spoke. When we stopped and he insisted that I drive, I got the full breathy dose, I realized he may have been pretty drunk. So I'm driving without my glasses, the sun in my dust-filled, wind-dried eyes, on a new-to-me motorcycle in India on the wrong side of the road with my partially drunk friend and guide on the back. I loved it.

I realized that travel stories like this happen when you leave room for them to happen. If you always book things in advance, or take the easiest way out, you may have a more predictable time, but magic happens when you say, like I did yesterday, "something will work out." And it did! It was a great day.


I've seen this kind of ceremonial dancing before, and I didn't understand it then, either.

Definitely look like Mongolian costumes. Definitely don't know.

These cute young monks were collecting donations as we came in. I've never seen monk hats like these.

The monastery is set in a beautiful, rugged landscape.

Some of the masks are pretty elaborate.

These guys are freaking me out a little. Are they staring at me?

These photos with the intense colors are HDR pics - high dynamic range. It's a setting I can choose.

The two locals who came to watch. OK, there were more than two.

I like this photo.

The monastery itself is pretty impressive.

Come on everybody, give a big hand for the band. Weren't they great?!

I wandered into this kitchen, and like the light coming through the roof.

This black and white version is quite different than the color one above.

This massive pot is about 6 feet across (two meters.)

Monks watching the dance. I love the colors, the fabrics, and their poses.

Ya got me.

I walked the 10km (six miles) down to the main road that goes north to Leh. These prayer flags were between posts.

This bridge crosses the Indus River. More prayer flags.

I'm happy here because I don't yet realize that my new friend Sawang is inebriated. And maybe driving with his eyes closed. I took this as we're driving.

Sawang took me to Thikse Monastery. Beautiful.

Inside one of the prayer rooms.

Impressive architecture.

This is just the top part of a massive two-story Buddha statue.

The view from the monastery. You can see another monastery in the distance on the small mound. There are endless amazing monsteries in Ladakh.

Shey Monastery, with ruins on the very top of the hill.

A panoramic view of the Leh valley from yet another monastery that Sawang took me to.

(The End)

Thursday, July 03, 2014

A painful, mysterious, love-filled gift

"The more we love another person, the more we can sense a potential devastation that could follow from this. We know that we must eventually lose this person, if only at the moment of death. What to do? Protect ourselves by not loving so much? Leave and live in isolation? Adopt a stoic philosophy? Our mind spins. None of these are genuine or satisfying answers. They only distract us from this razor's edge where we feel so sharply pierced by our love and by our vulnerability about where it may lead. Yet we need to feel pierced in this way. It brings us more fully awake and alive."
 ~ John Welwood, "Journey of the Heart"

Six years ago today, July 3, 2008, my Mother died. Here's an excerpt from the blog that I was keeping, written three days before her death, at a time when she was was coming in and out of consciousness.

 "There are many gifts in this process. Hearts open, and people get to places they can't normally access. We dread the thought of death, and most of us refuse to think about it, or worse, unconsciously think that it won't happen to us. But we have a choice - don't wait until it's too late to contemplate the changing nature of life, including your own death. Today's a good day to begin, while you have the luxury of ability and time.

 Lastly, I want to add that when I declared that my "suffering has ended" the other day, I was premature. Because Mom is still so with it, she can communicate when she's in pain or restless or wants to get up, and it pushes all my I-don't-want-Mom-to-suffer buttons. I mean, it REALLY pushes those buttons. Mike and I spent a long time today talking with Mom, and at one point, she said, "I feel really good." We talked about our favorite meals she used to make us growing up, and how caring she was, always worried about us. It was so far beyond anything we could have dreamed about a few days ago that we were both feeling so blessed. Towards the end, though, Mom started getting fidgety and anxious, and then complaining clearly about intense pain in her back, and I just about lost it. It's the one thing that I've always wanted for my mother - that she be happy and not suffer. I've been so motivated by that these last six months, but that's really just been the obvious expression of a lifelong desire for her. Between the supreme exhaustion and sleep deprivation, I was totally overwhelmed and cried, but not like a baby - I cried like an adult who really loves his mother, and is starting to understand that love in a whole new way. That, too, is a gift. A huge, painful, beautiful, mysterious, love-filled gift.

More than ever, I love you Mom.


(The End)

Monday, June 30, 2014

In the mountains of Ladakh

"Valuing love and approval as a means to feel complete and pain-free will produce a lot of pain. Making efforts to get love and approval to be happy within yourself, will ensure many unhappy experiences. By the way, knowing all this is not going to make us cease wanting love and approval."
 ~ Bede Clifford

Greetings, abandoned ones! If I could get on the internet as I'm writing this I'd confirm my suspicion that I haven't written a newsletter since February. (January?) Wow, I must really be busy. I can't account for myself, as usual, but I can say that my life, such as it is, takes all of my time. I was reading an article about productivity by a guy who's written six books in the last six years, has a Big Job, travels extensively and gives many talks, and is married with two young children. He raved about how having an iPhone has allowed him to recapture the lost time of pooping on the toilet. I am SO not that guy.

On to my present, non-pooping moment: I'm sitting in a friendly restaurant in Leh, Ladakh, at 11,500 feet elevation, in the far north of India. It's fireplace-cold at night, blazing hot in the midday sun, barren and snow-capped mountainous except for the intermittent brilliantly green well-irrigated valleys. You'll see in the photos below, if they come through. Internet is so slow and unreliable I'm unable to confirm that this is all working. I flew here from Delhi, where it was 113 "real" degrees, (also called Fahrenheit; 45 Celsius), just after spending three nights in Kathmandu, Nepal to refresh my Indian visa, after spending a month in Dharamsala, India, (home of the Dalai Lama) after two weeks of trekking in the Himalayas (Uttaranchal state,) after a month near Varanasi and two months volunteering at the Anandwan leprosy community, which you may know all about. I might have some photos worth posting from the last six months. Hold not your breath.

Ladakh is a largely Buddhist region with centuries of ties to Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. Unfortunately and inexplicably, it's part of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, famous for wars between India and Pakistan, Muslims and Indian occupation. Because of its geographical location, pinched between Pakistan and China, there's a massive Indian military presence. But it's not oppressive like it is in Kashmir, since Ladakhis seem happy enough to be considered Indian, though when asked, they'll say they're Ladakhi.

I met an energetic Scottish fireball named Fred, a tiny 65 year old full-of-life boat builder. Some might call him eccentric. My favorite story: he was on a bus a few weeks back in south India, and one of his front teeth was loose and really painful. He'd intended to go to a dentist but hadn't made it, and now it seemed too late. He tried yanking it out with his fingers, but couldn't get a good grip on it. Luckily(!) he had Leatherman pliers in his backpack, took them out, got a good grip on his tooth... and realized that the whole bus was looking at him. Whatever, the tooth hurt, and out it came. A little rinse with Listerine, spit out the window, and he was good to go and pain free. I knew him for two weeks before he told that story, like it was no biggie. I went hiking with Fred and a young American woman named Erika - photos below.

Love, even delayed, is still love,

There are 61 photos below. That's too many. Sorry-but-not-very. The first are from Leh, the capital, before the trekking. I love this photo of a Buddhist monastery high on a ridge above the center of town.

A different angle of the monastery to the left, and the former Royal Palace to the right.

The pizza in the rooftop restaurant where I took this is yummy!

A view of one of the big valleys of Leh.

This is called Shanti Stupa, and was built by Japanese as a gift.

I love these old houses that dot the landscape. Typically there's a stone foundation, and the walls are made of mud bricks.

A panoramic view of the valley.

I love these two.

Real or stuffed? I thought stuffed when I first saw him, but he's real. He's got some status to not be shorn or have his nails clipped.

This little beauty is the daughter of Stanzin, who works at my guest house.

Downtown Leh, with the Royal Palace in the distance, along with a Muslim mosque in the center.

I'm happy to say that I didn't.

This kid tried to not be photographed, but I was too quick for him!

Tin cans wrap these young trees to protect them from cows, goats, donkeys and yaks/cow crossbreeds.

This statue of Buddha is in the monastery above the Royal Palace.

White-washing the monastery.

This old couple were carrying heavy rocks on wooden backpacks through the narrow lanes of town.

The trek begins! This is the Likir Monastery, where the Dalai Lama will be giving teachings in a few days.

Inside one of the rooms of the Likir Monastery.

Fred and Erika are ahead of me as we head up into the valley towards upper Likir.

Likir Monastery as we head back to our guest house.

I have this same photo from when I stayed in this guest house in 2006.

It's common here for kids to hang out with their parents as the parents are doing manual labor. The air is bone dry, and the sun is intense at this elevation, which accounts for his skin.

I love this kid. They're playing in the big shovel of the backhoe, as kids do. You know how they are.

The underlying message is "don't climb over this wall."

Our short walk, four days and three nights, was from Likir in the lower right, to Temisgam in the center left. It's called the Sham Trek, otherwise known as the Baby Trek. Not kidding.

Threatening weather and dramatically barren conditions.

This is a typical Ladakhi kitchen, with the big stove in the center, all the plates on display, and ringing the other walls are low tables where people sit on carpets on the ground to gossip and eat.


There was a special festival in the village of Yangthang, and this extended family let us stay in their guest house after first saying they had no room.

These two were relatively enthusiastic for me to take a photo, but also insisted that I send them printed photos.

Action Jackson and his crime-fighting tool belt.

The festival was a Buddhist ceremony led by a famous Tibetan lama. These sculpted butter offerings were part of the scene.

One of the ladies from our house, carefully picking some unidentified plant.

These two were carefully rinsing the barley, then laying it out in the sun, to make the local alcoholic beverage called chang.

More vegetable picking.

Making do with the sparse toys available in the high Himalayas.

After arriving in Yangthang at mid-day, I went for a hike high above the village.

This lengthy water trough might have been part of an electricity generation scheme, or perhaps just a way to get water distributed. They start high up at a stream them follow hillside, going slightly downhill. I walked along the edge of this for quite a ways, until dusk threatened.

I love the old ladies and their vegetable picking ways.

Just behind and downhill from our guest house in Yangthang.

This nun was chanting on and on. We were told that she's unable to read or write and learned the chants by hearing them over a 20 year period of going to the nunnery that's nearby.

The "great lama" approaches the festival grounds! That's how they referred to him, and I'm afraid I didn't catch his name.

Many older women were in the crowd as the monks chanted.

I like both Grams and Baby. Beautiful.

People came from all over for this event, and everyone (except us) sat unmoving in the hot sun for hours.

This is a beautiful example of traditional Ladakhi architecture, and it looks quite a lot like Tibetan architecture.

We came across a water-powered flour mill. The large cone holds the grain, while the stick on the left jiggles it just enough to dribble grains slowly into the center of the spinning millstone. The fine flour spills out underneath the stone.

This beauty was working the mill with her nephew.

Fred and Erika walking down into the valley. We'll be coming up the next pass that you can just see in the center left.

Fred was here once before and points out the way.

Beautiful colors in the rocks and sand. There's a small rainstorm in the distance, center top.

Coming up the pass that we'd seen in the other photo. It's hard to get a sense of scale as you hike, since there are no trees to give it perspective. It wasn't as hard as it looked, although it is at 12,500 feet.

The only photo I took of Hemis-Shoukpachan, where we spent one night.

From the impressive Temisgam Monastery you can see the valley that we walked down.

The ornate prayer room of Temisgam Monastery.

A long green valley on the other side of the monastery.

A statue of Padmasambhava in Temisgam. He brought Buddhism to Tibet in something like the 8th century.

Our taxi driver had a surprise for us: this narrow and apparently ancient passage led down underground...

... to this fresh water spring. It was steep and cold inside here, and we've yet to find anyone who knows anything about it. It's at the base of the hill below Temisgam Monastery. Amazing!

On the road back to Leh, following the Indus River.

(The End)