Saturday, December 12, 2009

Letters from Nepal 4

The Tragedy of the Commons

The final day of the winter Teachings was Sunday, Nov 29, in the newly inaugurated Drikung Kagyu Rinchen Ling Monastery Gompa. Holiness gave pit instructions and empowerment on Powa, the Art of Dying. The event was announced all over Kathmandu, especially around Boudhana, the Buddhist Tibetan community by flyers and posters; and the crowd came--around seven thousand people. The function took place outside on the grand courtyard surrounded by the residence buildings and the tremendous Gompa or Temple. Once again, Holiness throne was set up on top of the stairs, with teachers and tulkus (found reincarnations of great Masters and Mahasiddhas), surrounding him on the sides. This time, westerners were allowed on this space and inside the open tall wooden doors of the Temple.

On the road to the Temple, in Nayapati, I met a huge traffic jam . The great skills of the drivers were more than never called for. It took hours to get there and many people just walked through the dust and traffic mess. I seriously considered asking a ride on a motorcycle, the vehicle of choice of the people, men or women, even while dressed on beautiful saris. After many mantras we made it there, where the access street was blocked to cars and we had to walk to the gates of the Temple. When I climbed the stairs leading to the courtyard I was surprised by the view of the enormous crowd. I quickly reached for my camera and another day as a photographer started.

I wasn’t late at all, Holiness wasn’t there yet. So I decided to go upstairs to the main residence building and take pictures from the top. As I reached the second floor, Garchen Rinpoche’s sister was at the door of a front room. She greeted me effusively (just like him) with this lovely caring and large smile and a hug, characteristic of the family, and invited me in. There was her daughter, her husband, and other family members, and friends. The room was very privileged regarding the view. After being served the traditional Tibetan butter tea and biscuits I started to take pictures until Holiness made his entrance with prostrations towards the Gompa.

Not knowing yet how things were organized and not being aware that today was going to be so grand with the same rules as the inauguration day, I have forgotten my pass and was stopped by guards on my way. Remembering my old journalistic days, I tried the back stairs to get inside the Temple. There were all Westerners and Holiness Secretary, who told me, quick, the function already started, go get your pictures. Together we got to the front top stairs just in front of Holiness. Downstairs the guards looked puzzled, but left me alone.

I was quite surprised throughout these teachings and inauguration how few American Buddhists have come. Drupon Thinley and Kenpho Tsultrim from TMC, Lama Gursan and me, were the monastics who came. The other few lay practitioners were related to Garchen Rinpoche and the Arizona Center. Germans, Australians, Spaniards, Swiss, and Taiwanese; Malaysians and Bhutanese, and other Asians came in large numbers not counting the so many Tibetans.  It was hard to gather a small number of us for a mandala offering, with not so many offerings. Comparing with the generosity of others we were at the bottom of the line. Most of the donations for the construction also came from the poorer countries in Asia, but obviously from the pockets of great donors. It is said the Monastery cost millions of US dollars.

During the function Tulkus and Rinpoches took care of my bags so I could have free hands to take pictures and try to concentrated on the teachings and empowerments. Holiness teachings are always profound not only for his insight, but also for his knowledge of its origins and the long stories he loves, which come with them.

I went back to the opposite building, going up to the terrace and the view of the crowd was amazing. I was reminded of the Vatican. The afternoon was dedicated to secret empowerments from Holiness, for a limited group of Teachers and Rinpoches.

Later, in Bouddhana,  I was invited by a friend to join a group for dinner with Garchen’s sister and family, whom I joined at a private room in the Kitchen Garden restaurant for several courses, both Nepalese and Tibetan mixed dinner. Holiness secretary, Kinley, his translator and a few other Rinpoches were there, and also my friend Huan, who was the host, and Popo, a Chinese actress. It was a lively evening with translations going through, back and forth in three languages.

Yesterday, Monday, there was a final long life Mandala offering to His Holiness. A much smaller crowd gathered at the Gompa, which came alive with tons of yellow flowers and rice thrown towards his throne.  Then, every one had a chance to offer him a khata face to face.  Afterwards, I went upstairs to his room to say goodbye. He had a great sweet smile and told me he is coming to America next year, for the inauguration of the Vajra Yoguinini Nunnery. I know he will have a very busy travel schedule including New Zealand and South America in Peru, where he is inaugurating a stupa in Machu Pitchu.

After saying goodbye to so many new friends, Khenpo Tsultrim and Rayan from TMC, and I decided to go to Lumbini, the birth place of the Buddha. We got bus tickets and should be there in 6 hours, for the 300 km distance. It was a beautiful day, and the country side, mountains and forests were refreshing. However, you cannot escape being overwhelmed by the view of the “Tragedy of the Commons”, that jumps at you. The sidewalks along the Siddharta Highway, a two lane cement paved road, are covered with trash and all things plastic. You see piles of trash at each village, some burning, others waiting to be set a fire, carefully prepared for the clean up. Nepalese people, wearing their  simple cotton masks have no clue on how they are poisoning themselves and their children by burning the plastic bags, bottles and cups, day after day. In most villages, like in Kathmandu there is an effort to manage the trash, they sweep and pile the trash for the burning, not realizing the self inflicting damage caused by their own diligence. There is a complete lack of understanding of the correlation and the government and the scientists do nothing to educate the people dealing with the most basic needs of life.

Showing a complete ignorance of these correlations, no business, restaurant, hotel or rich people care for their entrance, or street leading to their place, they only care for protecting themselves behind iron gates. What goes on outside is not of their concern. Everything goes into the streets. In Bouddhana however, a place of worship and business of religious artifacts, the people clean the way several times a day.

We left for Lumbini at six in the morning, hoping to get there by mid afternoon. The bus was so small, that I, who am a short person had no space to fit my legs, Khenpo and Ryan were really compressed. The bus stopped at every village to let in local people going to the next, probably to make a few extra rupees.  It stopped for all meals in places really poor and unsanitary. After lunch, I generated amazement among local people by using a knife to peel and cut an apple. Everybody was using their hands to eat, and the woman serving the food had kindly handed me a spoon, which she cleaned on her sari. The boy waiting on our table stopped and stared at my hands while I used my knife to cut the apple. Everybody was looking.

The view of the rivers, the Royal Park and the Mountains was really beautiful when you could ignore the trash surrounding it all. At a certain point we got to a bad traffic jam and had to get around a detour to another detour from the road. No information was given to passengers. The night came much before we arrived at the last stop, Bhairahawa,  where we found out we still had to get a local bus to arrive at our destination.

At 7.30 pm we arrived at the one street Lumbini Village with few hostels, where we found a hotel which looked good inside. Next day we went to The Sacred Garden, where Maya Devi gave birth to Buddha and died seven days later. The place was much bigger than we expected and there was a lot of walking. It was very especial to be at the place where the Buddha was born. Nepal oldest monument, the Ashoka Pilar still stands on this site. Inscribed on its walls are the region earliest written source of history of Nepal. It was built in 250 BC. The most significant site for Buddhists is Pushkarni, the pool where Maya Devi supposedly bathed before giving birth, and where the infant had his first bath. Early 20th century excavations revealed a fountain confirming the legend.

There are ruins of monasteries of the 2nd century BC and more recent ones. On the northern side of the garden is the eternal flame, established as a symbol of peace by the royal family in 1986. The many monasteries and stupas around are also worth seeing. I end up taking a rick shaw to help me to get around. Here, like in all of Nepal, the business of the divine is everywhere, malas (rosaries), images of the Buddha and deities, necklaces and local hand made artifacts are offered all around the sacred places.

I decided to go back to Kathmandu next day and found a tour bus that seemed to be comfortable for a better trip. Khenpo decided to go back with me while Ryan was going back to India, where he is studying Tibetan.

Next morning, at 6 am, we took a taxi to Bhairahawa to get the bus. I guess that bus stations are poor anywhere in the world, and in Nepal it is not different. When the bus came we were quite relieved, both for getting out of there and because it was a regular tour bus, with large and comfortable marked seats. We left on time and were quite hopeful that this was going to be a much better journey, maybe with the bus stopping on better places to eat. It didn’t take many hours for us to realize that a gigantic traffic gem was ahead of us. Hundreds of buses and trucks were stranded on the only road to Kathmandu, because a bus had hit a bridge 3 days before, the day we came in, and the bridge was not yet repaired. The bus company knew the situation but did not allow the driver take a detour on time, taking a chance that the situation would be resolved.

All drivers were doing what Nepalese drivers do best, trying to pass each other as fast as they could, creating an even more complex mess. Nobody could tell what was going on while all the people were very patiently waiting without food or bathroom.  The children had the best behavior I ever seen anywhere in the world, you didn’t hear a sound from them throughout the whole ordeal. But everyone seemed lost, not knowing what to do, despite the fact that everyone had a cell phone, which could be used for instructions and setting up help for the thousands of people stranded on the road. No food or drinks was available throughout the whole ordeal. A lack of practical sense and engineering resources is obvious, but patience is the greatest virtue of the culture.

Finally, late in the afternoon, some police cars arrived and worked for hours trying to streamline the two lines. We also learned that they were working hard for the last two days trying to fill the water stream with dirt so we all could pass. The line was moving inch by inch. I spent my time take pictures of rural life whenever we were around villages and small properties. We all used the natural bathroom whenever we could hide enough from the road, and me and Khenpo shared the fruits and bread we have had the good idea of bringing in our bags. I had to be very careful to manage my diabetes not knowing how long this was going to take. We were still hopeful of getting back by the end of the day. Few hours later we learned that the detour was ready, but without an engineer to guide the effort, the first truck that got into it sank down and had to be pulled out, and the work start again. The night was coming and we were getting ready to spend the night in our seats when Khenpo heard from his friend on the telephone that next day Nepal was going to stop, a general strike called by the Maoists in protest for the killing of five of the poor people camping inside the National Park. We had to get into Kathmandu before day brake or we would have to walk miles to get to Boudhana.

By midnight we finally got going, crossed the bridge, and the bus headed to a nice restaurant. At 4.30 AM we got at the bus station in Kathmandu, found a taxi, and arrived at the hotel just before the strike started, stopping the country.

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