I know at least our American readership is probably
baking on the beach, grilling up burgers, or getting ready to accidentally set
the roof on fire with an errant bottle rocket, but today seemed as good a day
as any to issue the following announcement: this will be the last post on
Dreaming of Danzan Ravjaa.
When I began this blog back in February of 2005, it was
meant as a personal adjunct to my deployment in Mongolia to serve Kunzang
Palyul Choling’s Mongolian Buddhism Revival Project. It was not an official
organ of KPC, but rather a way of sharing my impressions, discoveries, and
images from a fascinating land that many will probably never visit in their
lifetimes.While I feel that under
different conditions much more could have been accomplished in our partnership
with the Mongolian Buddhists, still I have a sense of satisfaction that
true benefit was generated in a number of ways: sponsoring many young
Mongolians to travel to India for deeper Buddhist training; printing and
offering the only complete set of the Nyingma scriptures that exists in
Mongolia; translating and offering instruction on basic chanting, meditation
and visualization practices within our tradition; offering teachings to lay
Mongolian Buddhists from Patrul Rinpoche’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher and
then underwriting the printing of the very first translation of this classic
text into modern Mongolian; building a teaching throne to offer for the new
temple being built at Danzan Ravjaa’s Khamar Monastery in the East Gobi Desert;
facilitating the first Mongolian translation of Longchenpa’s chod text, “The
Bellowing Laughter of the Dakinis”; rendering timely assistance to several individuals
in need; rescuing a handful street dogs and cats, two of whom now enjoy a very posh
life in America; and many other minor efforts along the way.
But now the institutional relationship which made this
work in Mongolia possible has dissolved and I find I must seek a somewhat different
way as a monk within the broader universe of my Palyul lineage. On July 10 I
will join Palyul’s annual 30-day summer retreat in New York State, at which
time I will clarify the next phase of my dharma life. I hope one day it includes
a return to Mongolia; I really did love my time there and feel strongly there
is much more beneficial work that can be done. More than that, though, I really
hope that pure lamas upholding any dharma lineage will turn their minds to
Mongolia and travel there to bring to life latent practice traditions, and
enhance the Buddhist education of the Mongolian laity.
I will leave DODR’s comments open until the morning of
July 9, after which they’ll be closed for good. Because Typepad’s annual fee
was recently paid, the blog and all its archived posts will remain live until
May, 2010. At that time, as with all compounded phenomena, Dreaming of Danzan
Ravjaa will dissolve into the primordial space from which it arose. This is,
after all, what dreams do, do they not?
I want to offer the gratitude of my heart to all of you
who unstintingly offered your support, whether it was material, personal or
prayerful; those who amused, provoked, and educated us with your comments; the
lurkers who simply enjoyed what was offered here; and, most of all, the love
and hospitality of my Mongolian brothers and sisters. May all our minds be
liberated within the one pristine mandala of wisdom and compassion!
Update: Well, look at that. I can't even resign without getting upstaged by that half-term governor from Alaska. Nonetheless, as I close the comments this morning and head off to gaze at my navel for a month, please let me thank all of you who left such lovely messages here and privately (Gail, the very last one, you nearly made me cry). I have found again and again that when we try to do good, no matter how artlessly, our efforts positively impact others in ways we could not have anticipated and sometimes may never know. The obvious lesson? Do good always, no matter what.
All of you have been a great comfort in my time of transition, and I've enjoyed so much sharing this improbable journey with you. And who knows? We may meet again in the future in ways we could not have anticipated. I certainly hope so. Until then, stay well, be kind to critters (even the creepy ones), love others (even the creepy ones), and let's work together in the gorgeous task of true, inner liberation.
...and as one friend put it, my Ma and I really chose the
right days to be on retreat, avoiding yet another outsized American media orgy.
It was weirdly satisfying spending five days meditating
in the sanctum sanctorum of the former Monastery of Mary Immaculate, now the
stately Garrison Institute, high upon the eastern bank of the upper Hudson. The
retreat was quite well-run, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche proved an unusually
excellent and entertaining young teacher with very cool support staff, the veggie
cuisine was eye-openingly scrumptious, and really the only jarring note was the
sound of automatic gunfire and artillery that occasionally drifted across the
river from West Point. Pretty sure they were aiming the other way, but it added
a little urgency to our practice.
Between sessions (and in place of a couple, I confess) I
devoured a large portion of The Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech, the English
translation of Khenpo Kunpel’s exquisitely detailed commentary on Shantideva’s
nonpareil volume, The Way of the Bodhisattva. His many stories drawn from the sutras about
negative karma and its effects is enough to really scare the pants off you.
Fortunately I don’t wear pants, but still. It’s helping me with a cold-eyed
assessment of the state of my path. Let’s just say there’s ample room for
OK, two mighty, mighty links:
So many of the greatest Tibetan Buddhist lamas of the 20th
century cite one lama as the most significant inspiration in their spiritual
lives: Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro. The folks at Remembering the Masters (h/t
Blazing Splendor) have put together a fantastic memorial video. One of the most
personally satisfying aspects of it, as far as sharing it, is the presence of
Alak Zenkar Rinpoche, so you can finally get a glimpse of why he made such a
huge impression on me during his visit to Mongolia.
Well. That’s weird. I thought for sure the previous post
would summon a couple of “Hey! Neat-o!” comments. It’s not every day that
someone goes to the trouble and expense to arrange a live webcast from the Gobi
Desert of the unearthing of some of the greatest trove of Mongolian Buddhist
treasures that were concealed with death-defying courage nearly 70 years ago.
But I suppose my version of neat-o isn’t everyone’s. Or perhaps you felt it, but
didn’t feel like expressing it. That I definitely get, this blog
notwithstanding. Ah well, once again I must declare the human heart and mind a
nearly impenetrable mystery.
Off in a few hours with me mater to spend five days in “The
Heart of Meditation” with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. You’re most welcome to chat
amongst yourselves, but I’m not packing the laptop and won’t pop back up until
five days from now, hopefully a wee bit kinder in my outlook.
Well, there, did you feel that? The weirdness just
lifted, like mist off the bay. And no, Mr. Comedian in the previous post's comments, the
promised announcement was not about Jon and Kate. How do you even know about
Jon and Kate in Outer Mongolia? Why do I even (vaguely) know about Jon and
Kate? It is so time for an off-the grid retreat, man. My re-introduction to
American media ‘culture’ has been shocking, and not in a good way.
At any rate, some friends of ours over the pond in
Europistan seem to have it much more together. What I have to tell you about is
bittersweet – sweet that it’s happening, a little bit bitter that I won’t be
present to witness it.
In late 2004, I read a two-part article in the Tibet Foundation’s
Newsletter about an extraordinary Buddhist lama who had made his seat in
Mongolia’s eastern Gobi Desert in the 19th century. His name was
Danzan Ravjaa, and the article went on to detail the curious, parallel
hereditary lineage of takhilch, the
caretakers of Danzan Ravjaa’s spiritual legacy. Apparently, one takhilch in the
early 20th c., Tudev, possessed unusual foresight and courage. In
the face of an advancing Red Army intent on demolishing any sign of Mongolia’s
Buddhist culture, he had singlehandedly spirited away 64 crates of Danzan
Ravjaa’s writings, texts, sacred objects, and other treasures. Painstakingly
preparing the crates in traditional ways to withstand damage from the elements
or critters (horse fat was somehow involved), he buried these crates in remote
areas of the desert and committed their locations to memory, fearing any written
list that would lead to their discovery and destruction. Then he went about his
ordinary life, keeping his secret for decades.
The article then introduced me to Altangerel (Mongolian
for “Golden Light”), Tudev’s grandson and the living takhilch. He had been
rigorously trained from childhood to memorize not only the crates’ locations, but also the
history and meaning of every single item contained within them. Tudev passed
away just as religious freedom was dawning again in Mongolia in 1990 and never
got to see the first crates of treasures Altangerel unearthed. But the
Mongolian public and foreign travelers did. With some of the treasures from 32
of the crates, Altangerel re-established a version of the museum Danzan Ravjaa
himself had maintained during his lifetime. Due to the lack of secure storage
space, however, the rest of the crates were left in their sandy crypts.
It was this tale that fired my imagination like nothing
had in ages, and inspired the title of this blog. A few months later, I would
be on a plane to Mongolia and soon to travel many times to the East Gobi and develop
a real love and respect for Altangerel, who I consider the finest person I met
Now there is a new, expanded Danzan Ravjaa Museum, and
Altangerel is slowly, year by year, bringing the rest of the crates out of
their desert hiding spots. This year, however, is unusually special, because if
you have a computer anywhere in the world you can be virtually present for this
I’ve been bursting to share this information for months,
and now I can: On August 1, my friend Michael Eisenriegler and his team will be
present in the Gobi with Altangerel to provide a free, live webcast of the unearthing of
three of Danzan Ravjaa’s treasure crates and the disclosure of their contents. No one except the takhilch has seen these for more than 70 years. Brother Michael is Austrian, and
has created this amazing event to coincide with the city of Linz, Austria being
2009’s “European Capital of Culture.” Michael made me swear to shut up about
this until all the t’s were crossed and he had his website up. Well, now it’s
up, so I urge you to go visit Gobi Treasure Hunt 2009, bookmark it, and circle
August 1 in red to tune in for the webcast.
Now, are you more ambitious than that? Good! Michael is
encouraging folks to organize live viewing events like those happening in Linz
and Vienna (Ariel? DC Friends of Mongolia?), which will also give people the
opportunity to contribute to the Danzan Ravjaa Museum and Khamariin Khiid
Monastery. Please note you can also do that from the website, and I really
encourage it. Michael’s a straight shooter and the funds will be delivered as
promised and used as intended, I can assure you.
Michael’s also still seeking corporate and individual
sponsors to help underwrite the costs of this event. The details are here. Please
consider supporting this very worthy effort.
And as an added bonus, Altangerel has agreed to allow my Brazilian
friend and accomplished photojournalist Haroldo Castro to be present, taking
stills and notes for an article he’ll generate afterward.
Me? Sigh. I
have had a standing invitation to attend these excavations for a couple of
years now. But I will be deep into it at Palyul Retreat Center on August 1.
However, if I’m reading the timing right, I think the broadcast begins at 6am
US Eastern Time, so I’m going to do my best to join y’all online.
The event I was going to announce today has encountered a
bit of weirdness. I know Hunter S. Thompson said, “When the going gets weird,
the weird turn pro,” but the truth is I’m a rank amateur. If things sort
themselves out, we’ll have the announcement later this week.
Before anything else, I should mention that Sister Tana
dialed in with the news that a more professional video of the ceremonies for HH
Penor Rinpoche’s mahaparinirvana and the attendant miraculous phenomena has just
been posted in four parts on YouTube. There’s some astounding footage of more
private devotions. Here’s Part I and you can find your way from there.
After a 12-hour car journey, I have arrived in Vermont for
my mother’s birthday today – verboten to say which one, but I can safely report we’re
still just in double digits. If you like, you can skim through my previous paeans
here and here. My sister Laura’s arriving later and there are rumors of dinner
out and cake.
The trip took so long first of all because I stopped by
at my friends Chris and Crystal’s wooded home in North East, MD to check in on
how Nita and The Mooj were faring at Mongolian Kitty Summer Camp. I’m happy to
report that their conditions are marvelous – a spacious split-level home on a
tidal inlet near where the North East River empties into the Chesapeake Bay;
two adorable bright-blond children who think Mongolian kitties are just the
koolest; a grizzled 16-year old salt of a tolerant tomcat to show them the
ropes as far as tracking squirrels, skritching oak trunks, and teasing the
neighbor’s dawg; and copious amounts of attention, love, and snax from the
humans. In short, they’re in heaven.
The seemingly endless traffic afterward between the George
Washington Bridge and Bridgeport, CT was made bearable only by the greatest
radio station in the universe, WFMU, and its generous servings of American free
jazz (Pharaoh Sanders, Marion Brown) and Euro free improvised music (classic
FMP recording of Manfred Schoof and his all-star orchestra), all engaged in
what the DJ eloquently described as “ecstatic skronk.”
I eventually rolled into Worcester, MA, on a mercy
mission to deliver a comfy desk chair and homemade cookies to my nephew George,
in between semesters there at Clark. I dug his new digs and met his roommates –
apparently it was built into the lease that only those with full facial hair
and standing 6’5” or taller were allowed residency. He regaled me over iced
coffee with tales of his rockin’ summer internship with the wonderful Seven Hills
Foundation (kid has the biggest heart – he’s truly happy when helping others)
and later showed me how he was trying to make friends with the snarling,
slavering, thankfully fenced-in Chow that lives across the street from him.
Needless to say, scant friendliness was in evidence. Just before I left, the
dog’s owner emerged from the house.
“That’s quite a dog you’ve got there,” I remarked.
“Who, Cracker?” he replied with a snort and a flat Mass
accent. “That dog’s dumb as a pickle.”
Yes, well, that's why some of us have cats. I’m still laughing about that phrase this morning. Gonna
steal it in the future at just the right moment.
I see that Brother Don is reporting on Lama Erdenebat’s
release event for the book we cooperatively produced – the first Mongolian
translation of Patrul Rinpoche’s classic, The Words of My Perfect Teacher –
with pix. Makes me wistful that I couldn’t have been there, but so pleased that
we accomplished this. I was tipped to the event by another friend, one of
Mongolia’s best dharma translators, who took time to contact me, praising both
the quality of the translation itself and the print job. As to the latter, we
must again thank the generosity of the Khyentse Foundation, a grant from which
allowed us to opt for a high-end hardcover edition that can retail at a very
affordable price, as well as the ability to give many copies away for free. My hope is that this will
merely be the first of many such translations we can publish for the benefit of
the Mongolian people and their re-emergent Buddhist culture.
Well, after all that official fuss about Moojie and Nita on the
Mongolian side, US Customs didn’t even ask to see their papers, just waved me
through. I thought to say, “Hey, come on, I glued the photos in their kitty
passports myself!” but summoned my habitual distrust of authority, nodded, and
schlepped the beasts over the border into their new homeland. Not that they
showed any appreciation. Nita may have set some new world record by meowing in outraged
protest for 27 continuous hours (thanks for the headphones and wide movie
selection, Korean Air Lines!). At Dulles, The Mooj looked like he’d just stared
into the chasm of hell itself and wasn’t speaking to, or perhaps even
But they’re troopers, and recovered quickly with some overnight TLC at my sister’s, only to be stuffed back in their cages this morning
for another long ride. I felt like I was delivering illicit contraband as I met
their new foster mommy Crystal in the parking lot of The Mall at Columbia (MD)
for the big transfer. I assured my little babies that they were going to the
coolest summer camp, a house in 11 acres of woodland on a Chesapeake Bay inlet.
Shoot, I wanted to stay there! They
appeared unconvinced, but they’ll thank me some day, or some life. I’ll look in
on their situation Thursday morning on my way to New England.
Now, on to much more serious matters. Many of you
generously responded to my pleas earlier this year for help in getting my
Mongolian friend to America and I’m sure have been wondering what happened. As
it turned out, with our trip getting turned upside down with the passing of
Penor Rinpoche, and other factors beyond my understanding, she was unable to
meet my teacher. But this may not have been the most beneficial route for her.
When I returned to Mongolia, she stayed (legally, having been given a six-month
stamp at the border). Her internal situation had always been disturbed, but
about 10 days ago, I learned she had a real breakdown and was admitted to a
psychiatric facility where she remains. In one way, this sounds like bad news,
and of course she is suffering. On the other hand, if this had happened in
Mongolia, there really would have been no adequate care for her. As it is, she
is in many ways in the best possible situation to receive the care she needs. I’m
working with friends and Mongolian Embassy officials to help as I’m able, but
there may be little I can actually do at this point. To preserve her privacy,
that’s probably the last I’ll say about this.
OK, seriously jet-lagged so I must stagger off in search
of nourishment. More later.
Oh! Just quickly, the Mongolian edition of The Words of My Perfect Teacher turned out fantastic; the printer did an excellent job. As soon as I can get to a working camera, I'll show pix.
Well, the timing’s good for getting out of town, anyway.
Yesterday began everyone’s favorite annual event – when the hot water gets cut
off for two weeks while they service the pipes, and what does issue from the
hot water tap attains a hue somewhat akin to weak, day-old coffee.
Lots to do today before the midnight flight since
yesterday was dominated by cat drama, generated by the usually serene and
accommodating Korean Airlines. Onon (no biblical jokes, please) at KAL’s Ulaanbaatar
office was seeking permission/confirmation from Seoul for my feline baggage. I
had gotten one largish cage to put both of them in, thinking they’d be a
comfort to one another on the long, scary ride. It’s big ol’ Moojie, actually,
who tends to be the cowering baby in these situations. Nita just hunkers down
and you can almost see the thought bubble: “If I can survive being abandoned on
the street in Mongolian winter, I can weather this, too.”
My phone rings. “Mr. Thomas?”
“Um, sort of, yes?”
“Korean Air says your cats can’t be in one cage.”
“The rules say only cats between 6 weeks and 18 months
can be in a cage together.”
“Why? They’ve lived together for years. They really love
each other. I mean, you know, in a brother sister kind of way.”
“That’s the rule.”
The Rule. OK, I agreed to exchange the large cage for two
smaller ones once she got confirmation from Seoul of this plan. That was
Thursday. Yesterday at lunch my phone rings.
“Korean Air says you can only take one cat.”
Aroo? “But, hang on, yesterday two cats were OK. They
need to be with each other and there’s nowhere here for them. My plans are all
set. I leave tomorrow for heaven’s sake.”
“That’s what they say.”
I can hear that Onon is abashed and kind of sympathetic.
“Um, Onon? Please, there must be some way to do this."
Onon ponders a moment. “Is one cat small? Less than five
small. Practically fits in your shirt pocket.”
“Less than five kilograms?” Onon was all business.
“I’m sure, yes. We weighed her at the animal doctor last
week. In fact, she seems to be shrinking.”
call you back.”
I’m in frantic Plan B generation with my friend Dolgor,
who’s been my indispensable translator/helper this week, when the phone rings.
“Mr. Thomas, can you bring your cats in?”
“Can you bring your cats to the office so we can see
“No. Is it possible?”
Pinching my eyes. “Of course, Onon. Be happy too.”
So off we trooped to stuff Moojie and Nita in their
carrying case and haul their carcasses over to the 2nd floor of the
Chingghis Khan Hotel. On the way I whispered, “Hey, Nita. Contract yourself
some, OK? Look waifish and tiny. And Mooj? Just try not to barf on the office
carpet, buddy.” I summoned whatever persuasive charm I could manage, and in we
First I brought Nita out for inspection. The issue at
hand was whether I could bring her into the cabin and stow her under the seat.
This had become, apparently, a whole office project and they all came to look
Nita over, one even taking her from me, hefting her a bit and, I swear, setting
her on a desk and measuring her with a plastic ruler. Nita struggled only a
little and was mostly stoic, and I had enough Mongolian to get that they were
remarking, “Say, she is kinda
petite.” I sensed victory and assured them I could get a smaller cage for The
Mooj and a canvas animal tote bag from the pet shop for Nita in Economy. I
didn’t show it, but I wasn’t at all happy about this, thinking about Moojie all
alone and frightened for the very long flight in the baggage section when there
seemed no good reason that we couldn’t have executed Plan A. Nonetheless, there
we were. Onon punched the phone buttons for the Seoul office and did an
admirable job of laying out a positive case for two beasts on the plane. Seoul
put us on hold and Dolgor and I held our breath.
After Seoul clicked back on I could tell they’d relented. Moojie and Nita were on for their Big American Adventure. My elation was to
be short-lived, however, when I asked through a fading smile, “Now, how much is
this going to cost, exactly?”
Onon nodded thoughtfully. “Well...” said she, and
proceeded to outline all sorts of Korean Airlines baggage regulation minutiae
while earnestly poking at her calculator. It boiled down to this: beyond two
pieces of luggage, other bags are extra and animals are double. $400. When we had
talked the very first time about both cats in one cage, it was $200.
“So,” I inquired, “two hundred extra dollars to bring a
tiny cat into the cabin?”
Onon nodded sadly. “Yes.”
All out of options and not wishing to push my luck, I
nodded sadly in return. “So be it.”
With the final vaccinations and de-worming, production of
all the necessary letters and documents for the Mongolian government, and the
issuance of government health certificates, earning the right to schlep my
little babies to America set me back more than five bills and required a solid
two weeks of fairly constant bureaucratic negotiation. But I love them, and
feel confident their lives will improve dramatically stateside. And I do look
forward to their elaborate service in some future lifetime.
Many, many thanks to Chris in Maryland and Todd in
Massachusetts for happily agreeing to be American foster daddies. I’m hoping
that by September my life will stabilize some and the three of us can finally
download Peaches ‘N’ Herb: “Reunited, and it feel so good...”