What is it with my visitors to Mongolia? Within 12 hours of landing, Doc was into his second latté and hearing tales of Mongolia’s 1990 transition to democracy from two of its architects. And now Palzang, one of my monastic brethren from Arizona, jets in and within 12 hours he’s sipping espresso and noshing on croissant with the British and American ambassadors!
Fortunately, this was not a la-di-da, point-your-pinky-when-you-sip kind of summit. In what is apparently something of an annual tradition, a man named Sheldon Severinghaus organized a fascinating group for an outing to the gravel ponds near Ulaan Baatar’s airport to engage in my favorite activity. Can you guess? No, not that, though it used to be. No, not that either. Hey! Come on! I’m a monk, for crying out loud. Yes, of course, birding.
Now, this was not exactly hardcore birding. It was 11-ish as we drifted into Le Bistro Français for brunch. In addition to the British ambassador, Richard Austin, and his American counterpart, Pamela Slutz (pronounced Slootz – please don’t start an international incident, my residency permit is still pending), we were joined by three staff members from The Nature Conservancy, and a couple of very funny British development consultants.
I was so glad for this opportunity because I’d been dying to share with the ambassador my views on current American foreign policy...will someone please pick Doc up off the floor? Of course I did no such thing. In fact, I found the ambassador to be a totally cool, down-to-earth person and we had a lot of fun chatting about all sorts of things. At one point, by her request, I was even able to provide her with the Reader’s Digest version of the difference between the “red” and “yellow” traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. And later, to discuss the fine points of distinguishing between Red-footed and Amur falcons.
It was a hip crowd, very into the amazing birds we were seeing, and with the Brits in tow, the clever wordplay never let up, to my utter delight. Palzang had the high score for the day by making a joke somehow linking the Common Tern, which was wheeling about everywhere, with Comintern.
South toward the airport there is in fact a gravel quarry that has in fact left a broad swath of pits and other gouges into which leaches water from the Tuul River flowing nearby. One drives on a network of dikes stopping to peep at the birdies at one’s leisure. Once in this habitat, it required all my self-possession to submit to the pace and habits of the group. It’s most peculiar, but when I get to a place where I sense deep and complex layers of birdlife, especially if they may be new birds to me, I really can lapse into a kind of trance of concentration oblivious to the passage of time, intake of nourishment, nearby warfare, whatever. This was normal behavior among my more fanatic birding friends. One of them even, I swear, got hit by a train (as the folks in the picture seem poised to do) while in such a state and lived to tell the tale.
There was supposed to be another photo of me, but the ding dang thing refuses to download. In it, I appear unnaturally excited because after years of searching I’m finally seeing a Eurasian Wigeon. And also realizing that I’m gazing across the very same ponds that I had visited six weeks before from the other direction. Yes, not only the Tuul feeds these ponds but also the steadily ripening UB sewage outflow.
Besides the wigeon and Amur Falcon (stunning male in flight), the trip produced two other lifers: the hilarious Common Redshank and one of the most gorgeous avian sights I’ve ever seen, being the careening aerobatics of flocks of White-winged Terns. New birds for the country included Horned Lark, Northern Shoveler and the sweet courtship behavior of a pair of Great Crested Grebes, punctuated by two other highlights: Demoiselle Cranes in dainty repose on ground nests and a kettle of 53 Black-eared Kites.
Now for our spiritual life – there is one, honest. Wednesday night is the 25th day of the lunar calendar, Dakini Day (no, it’s not like Casual Friday, very funny), when it’s traditional to conduct a tsog food offering ceremony. I have some training as what the Tibetans call an umzet, or chant leader. Finally Palzang is here, who has training as a chöpon, the one who conducts all the physical elements of the ritual. So Jan is letting us perform one of our temple’s main practices called Shower of Blessings at his Tilopa Center and inviting various Mongols and expats.
Then next Monday I will begin a four-part series of classes simply called The Buddhist Way of Life. The first class will be The Nature of the Buddha, followed by The Faults of Cyclic Existence, The Way of Compassion, and Pure View and Perfect Freedom. The idea is to help folks shift from thinking of Buddhism as mere customary beliefs and habits to a path that enriches every element of one’s life in progressively deeper ways. It will also survey the main points of the Three Yanas.
The title of this post, by the way, is how we often greet Palzang. It should be said with gusto, reminiscent of a pinball ricocheting off its target.