Monday, August 20, 2012

So Close To Heaven

The Wrong Road

“Hey mister can you help me I’m looking for the wrong road, I know it used to be around here before the development come” Zeke

Greetings Earthlings,

After class I went roaming to the temple. But instead of the beauty I was absorbed by the new road plowing through my heart home. My wagon trail that resembled the yellow brick road with glimmering pyrite stones and grass has turned into a dirt swath. All my clover and grassy knolls have been hacked away. Where the trail and forest seamlessly blended is now an embankment that drops off into the disrupted forest. One used to walk from the “golf cart” path to the yellow brick road to an endless array of trails. Now at Tsangma’s a logging style road connects the gate and travelers wall up the emerald diamond hillock to Zongdopelri. Upon my arrival from the temple one hopped a small path to my bonpo meadow. Now a fence stops the traveler and protects the temple of technology known as the Tashi cell tower. The simple trail remains but a monstrous dirt road burrows down from the deciduous woodland above the second temple. These roads defy necessity and I almost cried at the alteration in my paradise. The heavenly views remain but it is different now.  At my temple the carved wooden phallic, chest high orange marigolds and towering sunflowers, enclosed in a nifty woven bamboo palisade renewed my spirit.  From the attic a mild breeze blew in the portal from the east. For an instant I saw the image of a smiling Guru Rimpoche floating out in the valley over the Dawang Chu. On the way home the villagers told me that there will be a small Tsechu or religious celebration for the next three days. Tsechu’s are multiday celebrations that honor the Guru Rimpoche. The larger ones at Dzong’s and temples include masked dance.  

Backwards Down the Number Line

“Every time a birthday comes
Call your friend and sing a song
Or whisper it in to his ears
Or write it down just don´t miss a year” Trey
Out in Phongmay our heroine Rebecca celebrates her 35th b-day which makes it an auspicious day for me. She stumbled into an omen as she trudged up a mountain with some students and was caught in a torrential super cell. A mitzvah or blessing in the form of sacred rain. A great big happy birthday from the maker, a force that existed before humans could conceive their gods. Happy birthday Becky I can’t believe it took 34.5 years to find my twin in the remotest corner of our earth. Meeting a true blue pal is one of the boons of this adventure. I cherish commiserating with you on the phone or at the K.C, or when you inquire “How are things on your side of the mountain?” I can always count on you for a laugh out loud when I am so often stuck in my brain. I could go on and on but I will just say thank you for being my BFF (Bhutan friend forever) the first time we met was in the Bangkok airport when we all nervously weighed our baggage. You were in your cadet cap and orange long sleeve t-shirt and a bit aloof about the whole airport movie. We started slow as we all crashed through the thunder gates of the kingdom. The friendship solidified in the conference room of the Dragon Roots when you remarked that my “Steal your face” ski hat was a nice addition to my gho. Much like a tribesman flashing the secret symbol I instantly knew I had stumbled into a kindred spirit. We roamed around Thimphu talking about Ratdog, Phish, and SCI, and we found a common history that would be the foundation for our alliance, even if we never found the “Big Cypress.” In addition to our separate circus endeavors, arriving in Bhutan solidifies many fast friendships. But ours goes beyond a companionship of circumstance, if I was a religious man I would say providence sent you into my life at this paramount juncture. I only hope that my presence in your domain returns a fraction of the substance you give me.  Just a few of the highlights so far include Autsho, Drametse and the ancient monk (with the dancing skeletons) circumambulating Chorten Kora, slipping into the bowels of the Trashigang Dzong, the star lightning and the magic bird. Oh and of course when the drunken soothsayer in the capital sentenced us to “The terror of life” or was “The Land of Terror?”   
While I am sending out b-day salutations, happy b-day Julie and Geeska if your tuned in.

Episode 1: Peaking

“I don’t know what called to me but I know that I had to go, I left that Vermont town with a lift to Mexico” Yankee lady

Today was a spectacular sunny day. Tsenkharla is at its pinnacle of beauty. I went to the temple circumambulated three times then descended into the pine and cypress grove. I followed a new trail that followed huge rocks, ferns, and fragrant shrubs. A mild breeze caressed the canopy as the Dawang Chu snaked impossibly through the pristinely rugged valley. A Raven surfed on a pine bow riding the wind.  The grove is a secret world of thick duff and moist sweet air. There is a palpable peace as I nestled between my favorite two cypress trees on a bed of pine needles snuggled by wispy ferns. The birds and crickets and other evening creatures come to play a melancholy piece as the light inched its way east through Arunachal. The mountains unfold narrowing until a ridgeline at the horizon finally stops the verdant valley. Or does it? A Butterfly leads me to an outcropping of rock above the deciduous zone until I am enveloped in sticky cobwebs. Bhutan is endlessly diverse a thought that conjured when a lone dandelion rested in the shade of a tall cypress. We have a dry and high niche in the broader ecosystem of the Far East. No leaches, less rain, and surprisingly fertile soil.  But the grove seems a luxury on the dry side of the mountain, towards Yangtse waterfalls rush and monkeys leap. While in Phongmay the humid forests lavish cascading terraces. But Tsenkharla is my place which has exploded with plants and animals. On campus I revel in the row of thick cypress with trunks like redwoods and feathery needles surrounded by a plethora of flowers in bloom. A garden of Roses, dahlias, geraniums, sunflowers, bells, stars, trumpets etcetera. The wind rustles the maize crop which towers twelve feet high, and a colony of insects rules the land. When walking, the forest exudes animistic qualities as I find myself talking to the ferns or listening to the wind’s ancient tale. It can flip to another dimension where demons, deities, and pixies romp, switching roles before embedding themselves into trunks and rocks. It’s all fluid like the liquid serpent masquerading as the river below. The design of the universe is more comprehensive and complex than linguistics can categorize or mystics can imagine, A FORCE so NATURAL that the gods can only marvel from their cushy cloud thrones scratching their white beards and asking “Who created us?” Meanwhile the two avatars Guru Rimpoche and Jesus exchange insights while crossing the borderline, Jesus on his way out and the Guru checking in. It’s all one chip off the old techno colored sugar cube constantly melting and reforming into steamy jambalaya.   

Time plays tricks stretching and expanding into the ether while ultraviolet rays zip through the ozone to warm a body. Each night I look forward to sleep on my hard cot where I lay and dream of the mountains and each morning I resist getting up. In class we are reading an essay called “Reconnecting with the Earth.” All my students help their parents in the fields and couldn’t believe American kids have never farmed. The savvy students can work the fields, sing and dance, and speak several languages. They are miraculously adept at life and enjoy a rich sense of humor.
The author wonders how his comrades are fairing around the Kingdom. He got a text from Sarah who hasn’t had electricity since a massive flood consumed Gasa. Perhaps her Antarctic stint has prepared her for such occurrences. Everyone is challenged in Bhutan and the author would like to pause to congratulate the hardworking group. His mind wanders back to his first afternoon in the kingdom, walking down the old valley road in Paro, laughing with Sheal. They got separated from the group and were lost looking for the lodge stopping a lone Drivers Ed car with the instructor dribbling bloody dolma juice down his chin. He directed them back up the hill past the twig arrow Iman had constructed to show the way…

“Cows is giving kerosene, kid can’t read he’s seventeen, the words he knows are all obscene, but it’s alright” Touch of Grey

On my constitutional I was accompanied by a dozen class 3 and 4 students on their way to Shakshang which is an hour straight up a precipice from Zongdopelri. In the forest two old and drunken meme’s crept towards the temple spinning handheld prayer wheels and fondling rosary beads. They mumbled their mantras in faded ghos and gnarled bare feet. They spoke no English and one was nearly blind and carried a big walking stick. Their shriveled amber faces wrinkled in hearty laughter as they surveyed me and my troop of day scholars. It was a scene only found in the distant reaches of East Bhutan. We had another perfect day with puffy clouds layered over streaks of dragon smoke, a sapphire sky, and rainbow fragments. I am caught in a specific loop from Tsangma to Zongdopelri, to the grove and back to Tsangma. Along the way I stop at numerous outcroppings of rock, the lair of slumbering demons. Ravens croak along with the warbling of afternoon birds. While standing in any grove anywhere the energy swirls and eventually the eye lands upon the Queen or King. This grove is a mix of cypress and pine. The trees are tall if not thick but lush and comfortable with shrubs and ferns in the tangled undergrowth. The cypress needles resemble feathers that gently hang from branches like Spanish moss. Erect purple flowers dot the trail which is overgrown with thick summer grass. The pathway threads along a minor ridge overlooking the eastern valley with views of Tsenkharla and hidden heart shaped amulets tucked into the high slopes of the adjacent mountains. Once in a while one stumbles across an overgrown chorten with ancient artifacts sealed inside.  It is quiet with only the birdsong and whisper of the river three thousand feet below. From a distance the brass bell of Tsenkharla chimes to announce evening study for the boarders. As darkness falls I returned from my three hour sojourn refreshed and hypnotized but not before I plopped in the meadow by the gate to serenade a calf with “Touch of Grey.” It occurred to me that as much as I try I can never convey the beauty of my placement and my words are merely a weir against the flow of purity. There is an indefinable current here on the periphery of language and worship. While walking a fellow has all he needs in the simplicity of nature, including air to breathe and water to drink. Roaming through the final stretch of the forest I passed a traveling puja with a caravan of monks blowing whining horns and pounding drums as thick incense smoke filled the air.     
On the phone Becky and I enjoy coining one liners or catch phrases such as “The Big La” or “The Land of Terror AKA The Terror of Life” etcetera. Tonight I quipped “Peace, Love, and Curry” and she rebutted, “Peace, Love, and Emadatsi.” (You probably know by now that emadatsi is the staple containing chilies and cheese.)  And this is how the friendship rolls even after our faithful split on the street in Mongor. It should be noted that we made amends scampering barefoot up the ladders into the secret chambers of Trashigang Dzong breathing resplendent air thick with history, making it onto the deck above the inner courtyard before being discovered by the robes. Of course we would never have made it that far if not for Norrin in her tight blue shirt enthralling the entire monk body downstairs. Ah the power of a comely woman’s bosoms that not even a holy man can resist. Ahem I digress into a warm twilight in the heart of the East. Much like the kingdom the hamlet of Trashigang escapes effective description with it s traditional atmosphere and architecture with boganvia lined paths. Kids run carefree in the street offering enthusiastic “Hello’s” as the whistle of pressure cookers announce supper. As Barbara Crossette says in “So Close to Heaven” Sooner or later everyone must take the road to Trashigang.
Honey from the Bee

“Rainbow said forever she would glow, I ain’t seen that rainbow ten years or more”    
At morning assembly in between hymns the students rapidly recite mantras that culminate into a humming sound like a hive of bees. Not a bad analogy considering the group mentality of the collective Buddhist mind. I could use the Borg comparison for Trekies; “We are Borg and YOU must assimilate” Fridays are tough as I struggle through four grammar lessons but at interval I saw an interesting article in Kunsel (the Bhutanese rag) about the profitable dairymen of Sakteng and Merak. Right now Bhutan is suffering from a “Rupee crunch” The Naltrum is supposedly equal to the Indian Rupee but that is not the case currently. I know as much about economics as astrophysics so I couldn’t elaborate even if I wanted to. The savvy cow and yak profiteers are crossing the high passes into Tawang and selling to the Indians there. The natives of Arrunachal Pradesh are more akin to Sharshop’s then Hindus in Delhi. The Brokpa cross the border to trade then pick up their groceries in Trashigang and Phongmay. This indigenous community is thriving when the rest of Bhutanese citizens are struggling economically. I would love to help them tote their yak butter to Tawang which is just over the horizon from Tsenkharla. The Brokpa, who are Tibetan refugees, are an amazing community who work hard to maintain a simple and prosperous life in a harsh landscape. Although all citizens live under the Dragon Banner the country is remarkably diverse. The Druk people of the West descend from a Tibetan Buddhist lineage and are the most powerful group. Then you have the Sharshop of the East who probably migrated from Burma through Arrunachal.  The Southerners are primarily Nepali Hindus and in between are various ethnic groups, like Lepcha, Brokpa etcetera. There are underlying tensions between East- West and North- South but for the most part peace prevails. The Bhutanese government makes this a desirable homeland providing free healthcare and education to all of its citizens. When you think that parents can send away their children to be educated, boarded, and fed for free it is remarkable. Although healthcare is sketchy in rural areas and the Thimphu hospital was filthy it still makes the American healthcare institution seem barbaric. We spent over a thousand dollars treating my broken arm and I once spent four hundred dollars to cure a serious earache with antibiotics when I was uninsured. And my father who paid taxes and contributed to society his whole adult life was forced to pay all the expenses after having a stroke. America can be a cruel place. As for life in the present I try to keep up, planning lessons, assessing 120 students, marking, washing clothes, staying healthy, and figuring out how to fix my I Tunes. Keeping the house and clothes clean without running water proves a daunting task. Most of my free time is exhausted by these activities and I feel fortunate when I can roam. For whatever reason life seems harder these days and my thoughts occasionally drift towards the Bay. There are moments I feel out of place and isolated. As my consort recently wrote me, solitude can be a blessing or a curse. But what to do La, Bhutan isn’t for sissies.

Exactly one year ago I saw the guitar monk at Squaw Valley. I had recently been accepted into BCF but still had to pass my last board exam to solidify my credential and position in Bhutan. Kimock was particularly kind that afternoon STANDING and playing to the crowd with his crooked smile, the peak of KT 22 loomed above the stage. After the show I took the trolley back to Cedar Flat and watched T.V with my parents. “Do you really want to go to Bhutan?” they asked. The following week in a sterile laboratory in Oakland I was issued a repeat of the dreaded RICA exam and before starting, said a prayer to Great Spirit asking for guidance on behalf of my future students in Bhutan. I wanted to come here and help them and after the test I was weeping in the city streets sure that I had failed. But I passed and the rest is history…Now I owe a debt of gratitude to the students and must find the grace to be the best teacher I can be.

Walk Through the Fire

“Gonna have to walk through the fire, put your feet down on the coals, freedoms in the fire, throw resistance on the pyre and free your soul” MK   

Another beautiful Saturday as the high pressure keeps the rain away until dark. After class there was a lengthy dance program. The students somehow appeared in colorful gho and kira to perform traditional dance routines. As an American with no indigenous culture of my own, it is boggling to see such reverence for culture. It is an essential part of daily life and it is precisely passed on to the children. This is why boarding schools incorporate song and dance into the curriculum. After the program I had some class 8 boys over to look at pictures and hang out. I need to open my home more to the students and not be so greedy with my personal time. Tonight I am going to dinner at school in honor of Karlos’s promotion. Unfortunately that means I cannot go to Rangjoon to celebrate Becky’s birthday. I cleaned my house thoroughly and did a laundry as god gave us a whole hour of running water today. Hand washing clothes is the worst after being spoiled my whole life with a washing machine. Kneeling on the concrete floor frantically scrubbing all the items I can muster before the tap runs dry. I am not very good at it and my clothes never feel fresh. After cleaning I took an hour to finish “So Close to Heaven” which is a brilliant book written in reporter’s fashion. But Barbara Crossette has a distinct voice and love for Bhutan to enlighten the reader. When I get pouty I just remember how fortunate I am to have a rare opportunity to live here. Many pilgrims, artist, and tourists from around the globe pay the $200+ tariff just for a taste of life here. In Bhutan as everywhere ones reality is dictated by ones attitude. It’s a shame my mother’s positivity didn’t rub off on me more. Instead I am a grumpy Grossman like my father and brother. (Sorry guys you know it is true) Having a PMA (positive mental attitude) is the most important thing in life. I am only preaching this since it’s my biggest challenge.  But I hope to saddle up and be more proactive in my existence. One only has to look around to see the astounding beauty and that in itself is everything. Those of my readers in Northern California also are fortunate to live in a paradise. I imagine people scrapping by in the slums of India or Bangladesh and remember how lucky I am. Blah, Blah, Blah...
A breeze blows on our mountain top keeping things refreshed compared to steamy T-Gang, Rangjoon, or Doksom. One cool thing about this location is having towering peaks above and a gorgeous valley below. We just hover in space on the deity superhighway. Living at a boarding school is intriguing with kids roaming on campus, or having peeping Dorji’s 24/7. When I go to the forest the girls are lined up along the concrete ledge outside the hostel, encased in barbed wire like prisoners. The boarders sleep 40 to a room and never complain or freak out. Conversely many “Day Scholars” walk four hours a day roundtrip on fierce terrain to reach school. It’s like the grumpy old man skit, you know the one, it goes something like “When I was a boy, I used to walk an hour to school in the snow, and that’s the way it was and WE LIKED IT!  It is a different life than the privileged kids of Marin County that’s for sure.  

My resistance to anything here only causes suffering as I struggle to realize the true nature of my mission. This is my time to serve the universe and learn to be happy. Buddha stresses the middle path in one’s own life. I have my work cut out for me to detangle my extreme soul. For those who are skeptical about reincarnation and for those believers, this moment holds absolute significance. Our mere existence from god or stardust is marvelous and precious. So give your loved ones a hug today as I wish I could. Especially Reed and Paige! With names as such they better be bookworms.

It’s funny how the rainbow always forms on the borderline bridging Tawang to Trashiyangtse. I had company on my rock from Dorji a class ten boy whose village is near the Indian border high on the mountain across the river. We ate from a cucumber the size of a baseball bat and he gave me the best account thus far on the lay of the land. He can reach his village in seven hours and the border an hour beyond that. That means twelve hours for me. He pointed out a blurry road barely in my visual range that is in Arrunachal and mentioned they spoke a different dialect than Yangtse which also has its own language. I also got some vague directions to a temple on the valley floor along my beloved and seemingly unreachable river. This is another auspicious haunt of The Guru Rinpoche who raged the Himalaya from Pakistan to East Bhutan. If I can hitch to Kinney I might be able to reach the temple and return in a day. A vehicle to and from Kinney would shave four hours off the trip and this is why I need a tent to overnight in the bush. I set out long ago for this purpose and got marooned down the wrong road less than an hour after disembarking. Soon I will try again…
 This Is Where It Ends

“..Not even the trees recognize me anymore” Morgan A. Neiman  

On Sunday I embarked on a bold adventure. My goal was to visit a riverside temple where Guru Rinpoche meditated on the Dagme Chu River. This is my favorite river in the world and I have been misinformed referring to it in this blog as the Dawang Chu. What’s in a name anyway? The river appears in Bhutan flowing from Tawang. I look at the river every day and felt it was time to explore the lower regions of my heartland. I commandeered a taxi to Kinney half way down the mountain where my journey commenced. I had no real directions as the driver dropped me at the edge of the village at a trailhead. The dirt and scree path dropped down a steep precipice past oaks, cannabis, and succulents. Before long I was lost which would be the theme of my day. Soon I descended past a barking dog, a white chorten, and a farm boy, to a lone white vertical prayer flag. The gruff landscape consisted of grasses and shrubs with no trees. The sun beat down on me and I wished I had a hat. After an hour I reached a solitary abandoned hut on the valley floor where the trail petered out into endless boggy rice paddies. Instead of the Dagme Chu I had reached a tributary in a vast rock bed stretching towards the main river which had disappeared from view. Here the bush-whacking began. I crawled through the marshy rice to the rushing stream where I tore my clothes off for a bath. I probably should have turned back but I wanted to finally touch the sacred waters of my beloved. This meant scampering over huge boulders and sloshing through the water in my decayed hiking boots. I crossed the tributary no less than 108 times on my approach the Dagme Chu. It was brutal hiking and on a few occasions I almost was denied. I persevered wading to my waist or bouldering on the outskirts of the bed through thorny brush. The tributary was my only guide with its huge rocks, sand, and scattered ferns, but finally I reached the raging Dagme Chu. Above the river where the disciple rejoined its master was a clear pool under a waterfall where I soaked my nude body in ecstasy before baptizing myself in the rivers olive-grey waters. I had to stay very near the beech to avoid the silver rapids that threatened to carry me to Doksom. The river is set in a gorge between massive cliffs that tower overhead. Scruffy pines cling to the vertical slopes to the disbelief of the observer’s eye. It is a harsh and unforgiving landscape at the end of all things. Here the Inner Himalayas reduce to rocky rubble with only a few scattered hapless trees. All that is left is the river and rocks and a wanderer’s soul exposed in the blazing sun. This place is not India or Bhutan rather a no man’s land abandoned by the gods, left to the toothless deity of nowhere. The boundary of the universe is not a lush oasis rather a bleached skull or broken spoke, a beauty recognized by only the most wayward and forsaken. At this point the real suffering commenced as I had to back track the riverbed and climb two thousand feet back to Kinney. I retraced my steps passed the abandoned hut, the lone prayer flag, and white chorten before getting lost again. I stumbled into a remarkable stone village that resembled the dwelling of Hansel and Gretel. Some Kinney kids hanging out by a mammoth chorten showed me the way and after much laboring I crested the ridge into Kinney village at 5 PM.  I was fortunate to get a lift to Kumdang by some friendly teachers who dropped me at the junction. The dirt road from Kinney is only two years old and has changed life significantly in the village allowing access to Trashigang or Yangtse by vehicle. In Bhutan having a road improves the availability of healthcare and supplies. I dropped by Manu’s earthen abode but she wasn’t home so I began to trudge up the 6 KM to Tsenkharla. Along the way I saw Samten my 8B student picking chilies in her family’s field. She gave me some ema before I continued on in the rain. Luckily I got another ride from a teacher and reached home before the downpour and darkness only to see another dead doggy by my door. It was one of the most difficult day hikes I have ever done due to the sheer vertical descent and ascent. If I had a telescope I could have tracked myself from the safety and comfort of my rock. From that position the valley floor seems gentle and green but upon exploration proved a daunting expedition. The day was a metaphor for my life in Bhutan, extremely challenging and rewarding.  I paid the price for my effort with sunburn and dehydration which led to a fitful sleep. I reckon that I won’t go there again even though I never did find the temple.
Tim Rinpoche     

Dagme Chu

New grass waves
To crude wind
At insanities jagged line
Beyond salvation
Where sorrow and joy
Dissipate in a parched
Cracked riverbed
Carried by recycled water
Flowing through a heart broken  
In ten thousand odd stones
Back to the bardo
The aquatic source
Found in you and me!
Cuts jade canyon  
Into crystal cavern
With the hood of the serpent
That devoured Guru Rinpoche

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