Tom Childers

chöd

 Buddhism, Reflection, Travel  Comments Off on chöd
Jul 112017
 
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A short section of the trail to Machik Labdrön’s cave

The very first teaching of Buddhism is that misery is caused by attachment. No wonder that so much of the dharma and practices look at attachment, and no attachment is stronger than the one to our body.

To really feel this, let me explain the somewhat-confusing picture you are seeing. This is a rock about a foot wide, several feet in front of me. The trees and houses to the left of the rock are about a half-kilometer away, 800 feet below. For scale, you can see the tip of my boot at the bottom of the photo. I am on a trail in the Haa Valley of Bhutan, on the side of a cliff. My right shoulder is against the cliff, my hand in a crevice. The trail goes over the rock, and continues past tiny herbs and a small bush in the upper right about six feet away.

If you can sink in to the sensation of standing against this sheer rock face on a trail about a foot wide, then you are probably experiencing attachment to your body. I was, quite frankly, terrified as I carefully placed my feet and hands, yet not paralyzed. I was able feel both the fear and my body, yet move calmly on the wet, muddy trail. This is Meditation Boot Camp, no hemming-and-hawing, no choice; one must bring body and mind smoothly together to traverse nearly a kilometer of cliff.

Hold that feeling. Death inches away, calm, trusting.

Chöd is a profound Tibetan Buddhist practice, where one offers up one’s own body (and all other demons and ‘neuroses’) joyously. A Google search will turn up plenty of information, starting with this Wikipedia article. A few days ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in a Chöd ceremony here in Bhutan. If you have a Facebook account, you can see a video of part of it here, and get a sense of the beautiful ritual that brings the experience to life.

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The practice of Chöd was transmitted to an enlightened and revered 11th-century woman named Machik Labdrön, and so my story comes home. The trail I’m on leads from Juney Druk, a cave she stayed in, to Katsho Goemba, a nearby monastery. Having experienced Chöd practice before, imagining I know something about attachment to my body, I am shocked into new awareness on this trail Machik must have traversed many times.

Our 11-year-old guide, a monk from the monastery, apparently runs this trail frequently, nimble and carefree as a mountain goat. He laughs and smiles, points out sections that are especially dangerous and delicious little orange berries we can pluck as we go, and patiently sits and waits as we carefully make our way. I believe he is the most advanced Chöd practitioner I have ever met, knowing something in his young body that I can scarcely remember. What would it feel like to be as unattached as he? Was I really once like that? I have so much to unlearn, to unattach from.

bhutan present

 Buddhism, Reflection, Travel  Comments Off on bhutan present
Jun 292017
 

Punaka Dzong, and the Punaka Valley

Yesterday in Bhutan was quite a shock. After 13 years, I was expecting change, but was completely unprepared for what I’ve found. The heart is the same, the people are the same, the beauty and spiritual depth are all still here, but everything else is different.

By that, I mean that the modern world has arrived in some big ways. Cars. Electricity. Paved and widened roads. Cell phones. Glass windows. Road signs. Modern hotels. Spices and fruit and organic produce. Cows. Can you believe it, even the animals are more modern? There were few cattle in the country when I was last here, mostly yak, now I see cows everywhere, wandering the parks and hillsides of Punaka, the roads between Paro and Thimphu. The traffic on the roads was nearly all buses and construction trucks, now there are more than a dozen cars for each bus, and even some taxis. Where once many houses had no glass in the windows (only shutters against the fierce winters), most are now glassed in, and there is plenty of new construction.

Because there are more people. The towns all seem to have grown 40 or 50 percent, at least the larger towns of Paro and Thimphu. This does not seem to be due to immigration, although there must be some, it seems to be a side effect of better health care and a general improvement of living conditions. There are more kids and schools, and indeed people seem to be better-educated overall than when I was last here.

Last night, I realized I was apparently more resistant to change than they are. One of my fellow travelers told an illuminating story at breakfast that helped me see even deeper into my expectations: how dare they change from what I remembered? My ego wants to reconnect with something remembered and treasured, rather than simply receive what is. (Sounds painfully similar to what many Americans seem to want, in electing Donald Trump. Ech, that hurts. Sometimes I wish I was less good at noticing connections).

So I am pretty much slammed by how non-present I was arriving here, but fortunately, with awareness comes a rapid shift (along with much internal laughter!) and today unfolded into an incredible day. I am here, now, gratefully absorbing every moment.

For the truth is, this country and everything about it are even more beautiful than before. The summer green and the lush rice fields far exceed the springtime of my first visit, I see less abject poverty (though it still exists) and more restaurants and shops, new houses with clean white walls and extravagant traditional trim paint, good roads everywhere and humorous road signs warning about drinking and driving. Plus we’ve had nothing but great meals, with interesting seasoning and fresh vegetables. I have not tasted a single yak product yet, while my memory is that a day didn’t go by on my last visit without yak butter, cheese or milk in something.

In fact, everything tastes better when I’m fully present. That is the great gift of Bhutan to me so far, a deep Buddhist reflection of my better self.

Jun 242017
 

My Bhutan journey begins and ends in Bangkok. The last time I was here, I totally enjoyed the bustle, the street food, temples and water tours. This time, I feel like I’m plunged into a distopian Chicago on a sweltering day. The noise, humidity, crowds, overhead expressways, beggars missing limbs, food vendors with stacks of raw fish and chicken, and clots of roaring motorbikes feel oppressive. When I had to take a bath in lukewarm water, I hit my limit. It took less than eight hours.

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Motorcycles, crowds and expressways in Bangkok

Seldom have I appreciated money and internet as much as Friday morning, when I nailed a round-trip flight to Chiang Mai and a beautiful small hotel for $150 and $50/night, respectively. I must also thank my body, which gave me very clear direction to get the fuck out of there. Decision creates opportunity and change, and I can only laugh at myself remembering how I used to over-think everything. Now I am seldom stuck in my head; years of meditation make it easy to notice when I am thinking, and life is far too short for thought, which I once believed was faster than intuition. My body made a decision in milliseconds, and I knew in my heart it was the right one. Within a few hours, I was landing in the Chiang Mai valley, surrounded by lush green mountains. The relaxed taxi driver was full of information and amusing political commentary, and although 5 million people live here, the pace is easy and everyone seems even more polite and friendly. I hardly thought that possible.

Thai people are very kind and sweet. This really encourages me to slow down and relax, to meet people’s eyes, and see who each individual is, to soften and open my face so they can see me too. This meeting, however momentary, is so essentially human – it’s immediate feedback and acknowledgement, I see you, namasté, we share a world together and this is good. In the place of such a meeting, I immediately feel how any judgment or opinion that comes up is just about me, not about the other person. So delicious. There is a lot of space here to just be ourselves, and I can see why several people I know have moved here permanently.

Walking through the streets for hours, I encounter many characteristic aspects of this place and time. The buildings are a radical blend of old and new, clean design and tropical decay, chaos and order. I wonder what this was built for, and what its purpose is now?

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Spirit houses are everywhere, and one of the special pleasures of early morning is encountering one with fresh incense burning. The house next to my hotel has chickens, and a rooster is proudly displayed in their’s. I found this beautiful garden and spirit house on an elegant property with an open gate, surrounded by flowering trees. The contrast with the apartment building is striking.

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Spirit house in Chiang Mai

And walking into the old center of the city, I encounter temple after temple after temple. The well-known ones are filled with Chinese tourists; others are being restored, largely quiet. I find one under reconstruction, completely open and empty, allowing me to enter alone barefoot, contemplate the murals on the walls, connect with the enormous central Buddha, do prostrations, and leave a donation. Just as it should be.

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Central Buddha in a Wat (temple) under repair

Jun 212017
 
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Packing for a four week trip

Once upon a time during a difficult transition in my life, I went to Bhutan. The two-week journey was strange and magical, through a land of deep heart, Buddhist teaching and belief everywhere you look. It gave me a chance to feel what I was truly reaching for, to understand that the time had come to break some old patterns and take some risks. I also came back with a new-found respect for Buddhism and what it brings to our lives and culture. I was 46 years old, and the years since that journey have been rich, productive, sorrowful and delightful.

About six months, ago, for reasons hardly known to me, I decided to go back. As I hurtle through the air, 7 miles up with 36 lbs of belongings and gifts, I am feeling confusion, trust, fear and anticipation. My home has vanished into the mists for four weeks.

The last time I traveled by myself for this long, I was off to college to create a new life, and indeed I did. Now I am semi-retired, working on a start-up on my own terms, living in an amazing house with an amazing woman, secure in most things, happier and more content than I can ever remember feeling. Why am I doing this?

I’ve made big changes in the last year. I quit working, Jen moved in with me, and what was a great relationship has become so deeply satisfying that I no longer have any questions about what partnership is for me. Something else is happening, something subtle and intensely personal and deep. Perhaps it’s my second “Saturn return”, a major astrological event that shakes everything up. My second wife became terminally ill during her second Saturn return, one article says, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger“. Another website says this about mine:

Cross-cultural relationships will be your learning grounds…If you haven’t traveled extensively, your Saturn Return would be an ideal time to live abroad…you’re an eternal student of life. Your Saturn Return could be a great time to go back to school for that graduate degree or special certification. Your career could involve traveling, teaching, or publishing.

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A view of western Alaska from 38,000 feet

Travel is definitely happening, the surprising landscape below the plane is like none I’ve ever seen, it must be Alaska. I don’t know where I am, just that I will land in Hong King in eight hours. Looking at the Petri dish below of lakes and tundra and rivers and clouds, it’s like looking at my life so far. I have overview, can describe what I see, but perhaps have little real knowledge of what it is.

This journey also brings something about telling stories. We learn almost everything through stories, and several of my friends are urging me to tell more of them. A good story takes us out into the unknown, finds challenge and resource, and brings wisdom and meaning back for all to share. One thing I know is that the photos and stories I bring back from this journey will enrichen my life. Beyond that, I don’t know. The next four weeks are about to unfold, and I am determined to sink into the experience with all the feeling and vulnerability I can find. And bring back some good stories.