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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Tuesday, June 09, 2009


. . . on the release of his album The Wheel, on End Up Records, recorded by yours truly and mixed by the inimitable Dave Schiffman (Johnny Cash, Mars Volta, RHCP, a million others).

Go ahead, have a listen. Then buy one.

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Of all the things I thought might happen once I moved in with Genla, joining Netflix was not one of them. But that's the thing about saints--they're never up to the things you think they ought to be up to. It's one way they keep you on your toes.

It was about a month into living here that I noticed Genla reading an old pulp novel called Lost Horizon.

The book tells the story of an American named Conway (and a few travel companions) who gets hijacked and winds up in "Shangri-la," a mythic city in a remote mountain range where perfect peace reigns, there is no illness and everyone ages slowly, happily and joyously, living to be hundreds of years old. Conway - on account of his incredible virtue - is chosen to succeed Shangri-La's current spiritual and temporal leader, now wizened. And he even meets this intriguing love interest in the process. But for flimsily-explained reason he becomes dissatisfied, and tries to escape to the West, getting quite far before realizing his foolishness, and then spending the rest of his life trying to get back to Shangri-La. Does he make it--or not? Hwaaaannnnnnnng!!! (That's the "suspense" sound effect).

Gesturing at the yellowing little paperback, Genla said, "They made movie. I want to see this movie. Can you find?"

So it was that I joined Netflix with their smallest membership, two rentals a month at one low price. So we started watching movies, very occasionally, often just a half-hour at a time, during dinner.

When I joined, I had put lots of Tibetan films in the "queue," which is the automated list of movies that Netflix sends you in the order you specify each time you send a movie back to them. After Shangri-La, I thought, we'll watch Wheel of Time--Werner Herzog's documentary on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Kalachakra intiation--followed by some choice bio-flicks on His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, maybe that three-part lecture series by Robert Thurman. I was really excited to continue my education via the magic of cinema!

Lost Horizon the film, directed by Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It's a Wonderful Life), was excellent. I can honestly recommend it to anyone. As the closing credits rolled, Genla turned to me. "You like it?"

I confessed I did.

"Next I want to see," he paused, a bit grandly, and said, "The BAZAAR OF ARTS!!!"

"The Bazaar of Arts?" I repeated.

"The BI-ZAR OF ARTS!" Genla enunciated.

"The Bizarre of Arts?" I tried to repeat in vain.


He couldn't possibly be asking to see . . . "The Wizard of Oz?" I asked, eyebrows arching.

"Yes. I want to see--how do you say?"

"The Wizard of Oz."

TO BE CONTINUED. Hwannnnng!!!

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Monday, June 08, 2009

So You Want to Be a Translator?

Genla told me a story about Cudapanthaka ("Lam Phran Bstan" in Tibetan), a monk who was so bereft of intellectual ability he could not even memorize his own name. He asked the Buddha for help, and Buddha told him to sweep the temple. Cudapanthaka wanted to follow the Buddha's instruction, but every time he went to sweep on the left, the winds blew the garbage to the right, and vice-versa. So Cudapanthaka returned to the Buddha with a heavy heart and asked again for help.

"Every time you sweep," the Buddha said, "chant, 'Rdul dag dri ma dag!" (which means "purify the dust, purify the stain"). Cudapanthaka did as he was told, and found he was now able to begin to clean. As he chanted, he also purified his own ignorance, attachment and craving. This freed his mind, and Cudapanthaka began to be able to memorize even long texts. He continued his studies, eventually becoming an Arhat, an enlightened being.

So as we pick up the trash, I recite: "Rdul dag dri ma dag," just like Cudapanthaka. I think of the trash as a "head fake"--did you all see that Randy Pausch Last Lecture? It's become quite famous. I borrowed that term from Randy. It looks like it's about litter but in fact it teaches you many other things. Attention to detail. Dilligence. Not to be squeamish (I saw Genla pick up a dried bluejay head today). And above all, that you're not too good for anything, my friend. All useful skills for a translator to have.

And I have to say, I think the Buddha's right - picking up trash seems to improve one's memory.

Here's a Japanese variant of the Cudapanthaka story if you're interested.
Does a good job of explaining the "head fake" involved in various types of cleaning.

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

The new morning ritual is that Genla reads the New York Times ("A" section only, the others line a birdcage--but that's another entry), underlining all the words he doesn't recognize. Then he asks me to explain them and gives me Tibetan equivalents.

I take these back to my room and recopy them into a notebook, then in the afternoon sometime I work them into sentences, preferably telling a little story with them and trying to use some different articles of grammar. Then I recopy what I've done to double-check my work.

In the evening after dinner, I ask Genla to quickly look it over and he makes corrections. I recopy the corrected homework on another page in Tibetan, wait a while, then see if I can then translate it back into English without peeking. Whew!

I heard someone say once, "Use a word three times and it's yours." I think that's probably true in your native language, but in Tibetan I think it takes me about 10 . . .

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Fascinating French news report about Tibetan and Indian oracles predicting Tibetan autonomy. Watched this today with Genla after Milarepa reading class, so inspiring.
Interesting section about the 100-year plan to translate the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon into English. I want on board!

Thanks to Michael and Mukta for sending it along.

Photo of the Nechung Oracle nicked from

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Today several of us traveled out to Do Ngak Kunphen Ling in Redding CT, a Buddhist temple dedicated to universal peace. It looks like a great big beautiful house. Last weekend there was a giant Tibetan prayer flag ceremony there, with something like a thousand people, so the whole place was covered in prayer flags. Right now is Saga Dawa, a traditional Buddhist holiday.

This seems like maybe a lot of flags, but this is only the view from ONE direction on the lawn, and maybe not the most heavily covered area at that. Incredible.

We were there in attendance of the Thousand Buddhas Offering ceremony, a long-form chanted prayer in Tibetan, quite amazing to hear . . . I was captivated by a huge reproduction they have there of a Ladakhi statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha. His expression is absolutely rapturous and simultaneously inscrutable. "What would it be like to feel like that?" I thought, shifting uncomfortably on my floor pillow and losing my place in the prayer book.

Continuing this week's culinary theme: when we came home this evening, Genla announced we would be having tug-pa, which is a traditional Ladakhi soup. The broth is made with fresh ginger and onion boiled with a handful of dried cow and yak cheese--it's quite delicious. To that you add tomato and a leafy vegetable, in this case spinach, and strips of a simple homemade wheat dough that cook in the broth. That's the dough you see in the picture, not chicken! Mmmmmmmmmm very nice!

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

An American student of Genla's just returned from the Amdo region of Tibet with a fresh bag of local tsampa. Genla did a little variation in the preparation--he's a wonderful and often whimsical cook--adding some bananas and honey, possibly in deference to the American (myself) eating it for the first time. It was quite delicious. A totally unique foodstuff - halfway between bland cookie dough and delicious sand.

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