Sunday, April 25, 2010

Genla was just finishing his oatmeal this morning. His spoon struck the edge of his bowl. It made a ringing sound. I looked up.

He beamed back at me. Holding the bowl in his left palm, he began to rap on the inside of it with his big silver spoon.


Genla and I have used the same two bowls every morning for over a year now. "I never knew it made a sound like that," I said.

Genla replied, "Sakya Pandita says,

'mkhas pa brtsad cing ma dris pa
de yi bar du gting mi dpogs
rnga la dbyu gus ma bsnun pa
de srid gzhan dang khyad ci yod"

Then he translated for me,

"'If you don't seek out and question wise people,
their depths remain unfathomed.
Until you beat a drum with a stick,
how will you know
what difference it has from others?'"

and smiled.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

my friends Caithlin and Seb put out a record. CHECK IT OUT!

Photos from Our Trip to India #3 - Genla puts on his scarf, preparing to leave the Gelug Temple in Sarnath

Friday, February 19, 2010

Photos from Our Trip to India #2

small Buddha from altar at the Mahabodhi Society temple in Sarnath

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Photos from Our Trip to India #1

small engraving of a Buddha, near Dhamekh stupa, Sarnath

Lately, Genla has been relaxing with some Winter Olympics time at the end of the evening. Last night, he was most interested in the men's figure skating short program.

We sat down in front of the TV with a bowl of chopped fruit and homemade yogurt as the garishly clad young athletes hit the ice.

I must be getting a little self-serious lately.

"Enjoy your life," Genla said, "watch this!"

Friday, February 05, 2010

When you believe in cause and effect, there can be no accidents.

At my Wednesday night Dharma class, we'd been studying meditation according to instruction given by Pabongka Rinpoche in his superlative Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, a book which I must recommend to absolutely everyone.

Then in December, at Genla's Dharma class at the tiny chinese Tibetan Buddhist Temple in Chinatown, we started the same passages we'd been reviewing on Wednesdays for a few weeks. The first of these includes instruction on the benefits of developing single-pointed concentration. One way to develop this is to try to hold a specific visualized image very clearly in your mind, as if seeing it in a mirror.

Here for instance is Genla's favorite sculpted image of Buddha Shakyamuni, from the museum in Sarnath.

The image you try to hold is supposed to be given to you by your precious Teacher. Very often, it is an image of the Buddha--perhaps one they give to you or show to you. Sometimes--as in mahamudra meditation--you are instructed to pay particular attention to your own stream of consciousness, as if watching it from outside.

In my own meditation, I often vacillate wildly in my visualization, something Pabongka Rinpoche specifically warns against. So on the subway on the way home, I got up the courage to ask Genla for specific instruction:

"Genla, what should I meditate on, while I'm working to develop single-pointed concentration?"

His single-pointed answer: "Garbage!"

I laughed out loud, but inwardly I was shocked. After a long silence, I screwed up my courage again and asked: "As a visualization? I should visualize garbage?"

"Have to visualize garbage. Have to pick up garbage. Every piece of garbage you pick up, you clear an obscuration. You pick up two pieces, even better. No more garbage, no more obscurations. This is called nirvana."

In his Himalayan accent, it sounds even better. Nirvana becomes "neer-wanna."

The subway door ping!-ed open at 14th Street, where we had to walk through the underground tunnel from 6th to 7th Avenue to make our transfer. I followed Genla out of the car and up the stairs to the passageway, pondering what a trash Buddha would look like.

And there, at the top of the stairs, sitting cross-legged on the floor, accepting offerings from passersby, was a homeless man dressed--entirely--in garbage. Literally wearing shreds of newspaper all over his body and on his head, with a billowing skirt of black plastic garbage bags.

What seemed like a thousand Angels paraded by him, disguised as businessmen, handing him, one after another, what seemed like an endless supply of dollar bills.

We walked fifty yards up the passageway before I recovered my composure. I managed to ask Genla, "Did you see him?"

"Who?" he said.

"That man," I replied.

"What did you see?"

"There was a man sitting there, wearing garbage."

"I did not see him," Genla said, not needing to look at me. "I saw a deity."

Thursday, February 04, 2010

A year and a half ago, I was walking out of Naomi Jaffe's matchless yoga class in Brooklyn with my friend Caithlin. Cait said, "Have you heard what's happening in the Congo?" My heart was all opened up, coming from this wonderful yoga class, and when she told me about the devastating large-scale sexual violence that has been going on against women there, I cried.

On that afternoon, I could clearly connect the dots, and intuit how cause and effect hold true in all things. And as Caithlin spoke, I knew, instantly, the ways in which my own internalized misogyny had grown, from even small thoughts of anger and careless acts of desire, and was now contributing to the oppression of women everywhere. In the ugliest of ways.

Later that afternoon I read this article in the New York Times about the situation of women in the Congo. Be forewarned it is explicit.

(Don't think that only women suffer in this kind of epidemic. A later article, equally explicit, explained how the weapon of sexual violence was also being used against men there.)

Some months prior, I'd begun to aspire to change the way I related to all the women I knew--my mother, my sister, my friends, my girlfriend--and moreover to every woman I saw, be it on the street, in yoga class, on the subway, it didn't matter where or in what context. I have hardly always succeeded. But even frequently failing, I've tried my best to be intentional in every interaction. And what I've found is that those actions, loaded with intention, also took root, and then grew and grew.

And then just this afternoon, tucked away at the bottom of the Op Ed page, I saw this totally inspiring piece about Lisa Shannon, a woman about my age who had heard the same stories from the Congo, and similarly resolved to change her life. She has dedicated her entire existence to benefit these people.

Cause and effect are real. So if it's true my previous non-virtuous intentions towards women in some way participated in the oppression of those in the Congo, then it must likewise be true that my resolve to help participates in every effort to help them.


[images from the NYT web site]

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ending War in Our Lifetime

Saturday, December 05, 2009


Bodhisattvas are not attached to their own happiness,
neither are they trampled by their own sufferings.
Instead, they suffer through others' sufferings,
and come to joy through others' happiness.

-from The Tantra Called 'The Inquiry of Subhahu'

Have I mentioned Genla sewed his own watchband from a piece of ribbon? Click on the pictures to enlarge.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tibetan dbu med chart

Since I just spent some time on the Web looking for this, I'm going to re-post it here, to make it more accessible for others.

My source was this blog. They aren't sure where it came from originally.

I hope it helps you students out there who want to learn to read or write Tibetan dbu med script. By the merit of our deeds, may we all pass together into the matchless bliss of perfect Buddhahood.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Check out Fred and Daily's new Halloween song at

Whatsmore, listen to their album, and get it, if you haven't

The Times reviewed my professor Paul Knitter's just-published memoir, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian - a very interesting and highly recommended book. Just how interesting I'll let you know when I've read it.

You can order it from Amazon, of course. Or wherever quality books are sold.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I skipped out on Izzi's birthday party yesterday so I could see Genla teach in Chinatown and then come home to do my own studies for school. These kinds of decisions are really hard for me. Who wouldn't rather be hanging out with their good friends? But I have this idea that by studying well, I can help a lot of people, including all those same friends. So I have been curtailing my extracurricular activities and hitting the books as much as I can.

I won't lie - it's hard!

As my friend Jeremy said, "I don't actually like reading. It's just I like ideas, and they happen to be in books." He's a PhD student.

Actually, I do like reading. All of the Tibetan scriptures we get to read are amazing. And FWIW I love love loved reading Roger Haight's Dynamics of Theology over the summer.

Roger Haight is scholar-in-residence at my school. He used to be a professor there, but the Vatican banned him from teaching. How exciting! (not for him). You can read a bit about it at this Union alum's blog.

After the teaching, I overhead Genla speaking to one of the students.

"When I started studying, I did not think I could learn Sanskrit. At that time I did not even have the thought of English," he said. "I thought, 'If I can just learn enough Hindi to read the newspaper, that will be something.'" Now he is a scholar of the classical Tibetan language, fluent in his native Ladakhi dialect as well as cenrtal Tibetan, Hindi, Sanskrit, and highly proficient in English and Pali.

We tend to think of scholars of his caliber as sort of springing up out of the muck fully formed. But he is fond of quoting Sakya Pandita: "Drop by drop you fill an ocean."

Friday, September 25, 2009

We counted. Genla has received 100 mail solicitations this week.

He gives to an unthinkable - sometimes even apparently contradictory - variety of causes: [list]

Different organizations call on the phone. Yesterday is was the National Parks. They asked for $70. Genla said he would send ten, if they put a letter in the mail.

"So may letters," he said, pointing at the stack. "I think all are good. Who is not good?"

"I think if you give to Dharma, you make more people like you. Then more people will give."

He shook his head.

"Who's Dharma?" he said.

I saw the Burmese monks of the Saffron Revolution speak at Columbia last semester. They were totally inspiring. They're standing up for human rights in the face of unbelievable oppression. At the end of their talk they chanted in Pali, a prayer of loving-kindness for the whole world. What kind of beings can have such compassion for others--including their opponents--after being horribly beaten, abused, jailed and run out of their own country? Believe it or not, human beings.

Of course I have to include a Times link . . . above photo by photo Chang W. Lee/NY Times

support their cause any way can

Sunday, September 13, 2009

If you're like me, and sometimes take your extraordinary educational opportunities for granted, read this wonderful article from the Times magazine about the education of Afgan girls. The most inspiring back-to-school article ever.

Monday, September 07, 2009

more flowers, different altar

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Flower for the Altar

Sunday, August 23, 2009

caught in the rain

taking refuge under a tree

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Great article in the Times today about young Sikhs in the U.S. and the general cultural shift towards smaller, laity-driven religious groups in different traditions. I like where we're headed. Reminds me of our Wednesday night Dharma class at the Three Jewels Center.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Pearl the Mime

On the subway, a young boy and girl were staring at an Angel, mouths agape. Their mothers stood nearby. I figured them for tourists.

At the Angel's feet was an offering bowl. They didn't know the drill. I pulled an offering out of my wallet and gestured toward the offering bowl with it, then handed it to the boy. Without looking up at me he took it and walked forward to drop the offering into the bowl. He then spun on his heel, quickly nestling in again under his mother's arm, and waited for something to happen.

Sure enough--the Angel's right hand came subtly alive. Her four fingers waved like marine plants in soft sea currents, gesturing for the boy's return. His mother nudged him forward. He didn't walk to her so much as stumble, turning bright red. The Angel leaned down and seemed to whisper something in his ear. I wished it was me.

I hadn't noticed the tiny coin purse the Angel held in one hand. She opened it now, reaching inside. She handed something him something too small to see from where I was. I thought maybe it was only a gesture, and up to him to decide what it contained.

But the boy looked down into his hand, and then up at me. Then the boy ran back to show his treasure to the others. They all looked at it, then back to the Angel. She was gesturing to the girl now, with the same slow isolated movement.

I turned for the stairs. I did, after all, have a train to catch.

The little boy spoke from behind me. "Mister!" he said, "Mister!" I turned around.

"This is for you," he said, and lifted his palm to my eyes. In it was the tiniest little red paper heart, cut out by hand. I held it lightly between my thumb and forefinger, and the boy disappeared. A wave of joy crested over me, and a bright question rose out of it, pernicious as a gull: Why do I always imagine Angels live someplace far, far away?

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009


David: What is renunciation?
Genla: When you go to the movies, go to the movies.

Nancy: Genla, how do you meditate?
Genla: I don't meditate. I don't want to disturb my mind.

Kyle: What is lama practice?
Genla: Picking up trash in the street for the sake of others.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Great Times article on happiness and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Thanks to my friend Jennifer for sending this link to me.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

flowers as food

thanks Megan!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Loving Someone Well

Benaras: A Mystic Love Story was a Hindi film Genla and I watched together. It was his copy, a VHS tape with a fluorescent sticker on the spine, practically an artifact. Every time the tracking got way off, Genla’s TV made the screen go blue. I could only get the picture back by using the remote to first clicking over to “TV”, then back to “AV input.” The movie, nevertheless, was great.

A few days ago, in the afternoon, we went for a walk as we always do.

“Genla,” I said, “you know my father used to be a minster . . . ?”


“When I was home he told me a story. One woman from his church--she was older--she had lung cancer.”

“And then?”

“She was dying. She had oxygen by her hospital bed.” I made a gesture with my hand as if holding a mask over my mouth and nose. “And she wanted to have a cigarette.”

“And then?”

“Dad turned off the oxygen for her so she could smoke.” Short pause.

“And then?” Genla asked.

“Is this compassion?” I wanted to know.

Genla continued walking. “Your father is smoking?” He meant, does your father smoke.

“He smokes now, yes.”

“Is your father happy you don’t smoke?”

“I think he would say it’s good. I don’t know. Maybe if I smoked he would be happy to have that in common.” I realized I had not yet asked what was really on my mind.

“You know my father had heart surgery,” I said, “but he’s still smoking every day. The doctors say it’s very bad for him.”

“Bad for the lungs.”

“Bad for the heart too. And I want to tell him to stop. But when he doesn’t smoke he is very unhappy. Smoking makes him very happy. So which is compassion, to ask him to stop--?”

I wasn’t sure how to finish the sentence. I wanted to say, “--or to turn off the oxygen?”

“Have to look at the consequences,” Genla said.

That’s right, I thought--illness, and eventually, death. But what Genla said next confused me. “You remember Banaras?”

“Of course,” I replied. But I wasn’t sure what it had to do with getting dad to quit smoking.

“In that movie, the mother wants to stop the girl from marrying that boy. The girl run away,” Genla said, misconjugating a verb. “You cannot know for sure the consequence of your father’s action. But like the mother of Benaras, you will see the consequence of your own action.”

On some level I had wanted Genla’s stamp of approval on my righteous ire. I want my dad to live forever for my sake. I don’t know what I would do without him. But ironically, as Genla was pointing out, my distress was in between me and loving him as he is, not holding out for what I wish he would be. It was, of course, a very Buddhist instruction--respond to the situation in front of you, not the one in your head--but by no means exclusively Buddhist. By loving people as they are, you open up new possbilities. You begin loving them well.

photo of Medicine Buddha and Tara

Sunday, June 28, 2009

I was telling Genla about Ken Pagano, a minister in Louisville who organized a bring-your-guns to church event. I read about it in the New York Times: "Pastor Invites Flock to Bring Guns to Church." Sounds like an Onion headline! The idea was totally lost in translation. Genla just looked at me dumbfounded and said, "Why? To confess?"

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Today as I picked up trash on the subway platform, my eyes fell on a stream of sunlight. It was just before noon. The mid-day sun was pouring through the grates above and pooling near the platform edge.

I stood and walked forward until it covered my body, as far as I could. For a little while, I wasn't waiting for something.

Looking up through the grates, the street level seemed like paradise. A few minutes ago it was just a thoroughfare.

"That's where I want to be," I thought. "If only I can collect a big enough pile of trash to climb out of here."

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