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India and Nepal, October 2006

most of this from an email sent home along the way... see also [more photos]

direct to delhi...

a direct flight out of chicago sunday night put us on the ground in delhi on monday night. our hotel taxi guy met us easily enough in the crowd of taxi guys with signs. it’s an hour-loug ride through streets still choked with pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, and everything else up to big trucks, all beeping and squeezing and dodging and flowing through the dust and darkness of central delhi. surprising, and heartening, all the rickshaws are now CNG (natural gas) and many of the buses, too. dusty as it was, it did seem a little cleaner.

after passing lots of places we would not have wanted to stay, we got to our hotel and really felt like we were in the right place. the tibetan mala (equivalent of a catholic rosary for counting prayers) has 108 beads. the peninsula hotel, where we had dinner before I proposed, was at 108 superior street, which i took as a good sign at the time. we took it the same way when that first night in delhi, they put us in room 108. the place was clean and comfy and offered some good (indian) food upstairs on a rooftop terrace overlooking nothing but cellular towers atop the abandoned building across the street. as it turns out, this was how the whole trip went -- lots of little coincidences and easy connections.

the next day, the big adventure was trying to buy bus tickets. we walked a couple of miles through the busy, dusty, sea of people and litter and beeping traffic... all the while being targets for offers of all kinds of assistance and friendship. welcome to delhi. [grin] after all kinds of bum steers and wrong turns, we went back to the hotel and had our guys there take care of everything. while they were doing that, our jet lag kicked in pretty strongly and the gave us a free room where we could get an afternoon nap.

as we rolled out on the all-night semi-sleeper bus later that evening, a 'krishna' superhero movie played on the TV in the front of the bus and the soundtrack (in hindi, of course) blaring through speakers over every seat. think hindi superman. no translation really required. after the movie, the bus was quiet and the ride was long. 12 hours long, and the middle 10 hours without a pitstop! never really did know where we were, when we'd arrive, or when we’d pitstop. we got to mandi at 7:30ish the next morning, then a 45-minute taxi into tso pema.

tso pema (lotus lake), in northern india, himachal pradesh...

by complete chance, we met the (older) woman who i have been sponsoring for 6 years now. she walked by us on the street, just two hours after we got to tso pema. i stopped her and asked if she was nyima tsering. she recognized her name but understood nothing else. she motioned to follow her. a young guy translated and explained the sponsorship. she smiled brightly and motioned us to follow further, to her home. she found another translator and we had tea. then lunch. then breakfast the next day. and breakfast and lunch. sometimes with translator, sometimes not. translator gave us tour of two monasteries and his small school. we made funny things with tie-able balloons for her grandson. on the last morning we traded gifts, my quarterly payment in cash and some chocolate to her, some dried fruits and a shawl for jill to us. a little sad parting, but glad for the warmth of the welcome.

on that morning that we first found her, we were on our way to the bus up to the caves, where many monks, nuns and other meditators live and practice intensively. we were going to see lama wangdor rimpoche, one of julie's teachers, special because he has "achieved enlightenment" or "woken up" in this lifetime -- after carrying his teacher out of tibet through the mountains and then meditating in the guru rinpoche's cave for something like 17 years. guru rinpoche is the guy who first brought buddhist theory and practice to tibet.

tso pema is where guru rinpoche, also known as padmasambhava, came to practice. the king's daughter got interested in the teaching and started hanging around too much. the king ordered guru rinpoche burned, which was done. but from the fire arose a fountain that became a lake, from which he arose on a lotus... hence the name tso pema, lotus lake, pema is lotus. king then changed his tune, thought guru rinpoche was pretty cool and let his daughter out of the dungeon. so this has been place of practice for long long time. the air in the place has texture of cathedral or monastery. as many would normally circumambulate a temple or stupa, they walk around the lake, about 2km for the whole loop, doing their mantra and prayers. (nyima, in her 70's, having escaped tibet over the mountains at age 23, does usually 5 laps of the lake each day, doing her prayers.)

anyway, we were on our way to lama wangdor's when we met her. so we tried again the next day for his place, with more success. lots of success, really. we got up, had a look around, and then asked about seeing him, with no appt or anythnig. i told one monk that i was a student of his, but wasn’t sure my english was understood. we were asked to wait, given tea, and after maybe more than one hour and several false alarms, we were guided up the hill and into his room/cave/home.

these days, lama wangdor normally practices 23 hours a day, taking one hour for lunch only. we brought some fruit juices for him, which were then poured out for us first. we were given tea. then dried fruit. then yogurt and milk. he speaks almost no english, but asked about our practice. where we were from. how julie is. we asked if he was coming back. we had some really big laughs about some of the stories he tells in his teaching. the laughs just sort of bubble out of him like minor eruptions out of a small volcano. he's just a mountain of a guy. strong, solid, and short and quick to smile and bubble over into this laughing. really a sweet time. and along the way he gave quite a nice little teaching, a nutshell version of an advanced sort of tibetan buddhist teaching, so jill got a very good, and quite deep view into his practice.

after three or four nights in tso pema, we took a bus to a town called Bir. three hours through winding mountain road. spectacular views of green forested and terraced hillsides. steep steep. narrow roads. beeping two way traffic, stopping all the time to pick up and drop off people, like it was CTA in chicago... but almost never with anything but a shack or two anywhere around. where did these folks come from??? and the three hours was for only about 36 miles travel. one night in bir, in our friend roisin's room at a guest house. she was house manager in london, at jamyang center, when i was there and was, this night in bir, actually already down the road in mcleod ganj, a town just above dharamsala. so we used her room, took a look around, and then taxi'd up another 2 hours to mcleod ganj, where we met up with roisin and her partner michael.

mcleod ganj (just up from dharamsala)...

they gave us a good deal of local info, set up a guest house reservation for us, made us some great food, took us walking in the hills, and are now back down in Bir for more teachings. our last day with them, before hiking up in the hills, we had lunch in the brilliant hot sunshine on the rooftop next to our guesthouse. as we were finishing, sabine neuman, one of julie's students from germany and someone i met in nepal at 2003 retreat, came up to the roof for lunch. we’d had no idea she was even in the country. we had a quick hello and then met up yesterday at the temporary camp of the karmapa, one of tibet's highest lamas.

sabine helped us get into the right places for the karmapa's weekly public audience session, a quick walkthrough where 100-150 people are all queued up and then walk quickly through a room to receive blessings. then all gather round to catch a glimpse when he walks out of the small room where this happens (all under tight indian security as there are significant political implications of him having escaped tibet to india without permission of anyone in china, india or tibetan gov't, and also that the chinese have named a different guy as his current incarnation... so guys around with automatic weapons and all passports and visas checked by indian gov't security). afterward, sabine helped us arrange for a possible private audience with him tomorrow. we have been told to show up and they'll try to squeeze us in. we'll ask him to bless our rings and union, among other things, if we get the chance. then we'll leave mcleod ganj tomorrow night, 12 hour bus ride back to delhi.

mostly just hanging out today, getting ready for the possibility of that private audience tomorrow. on an afternoon walk around this town, we stumbled onto the monastery and storefront that is the address i had from a friend for an old monk named "palden gyatso". you can google his name (in quotes like i've written here) and see who he is. probably the most famous of the monks imprisoned by the chinese. 33 years of imprisonment and torture. we asked around and quickly were ushered into an upstairs room where he popped in, then out and then back with a sweater to put on over his t-shirt. through a shaky translator, who'd only learned english through trying to read books on his own, we traded greetings, good wishes from our friend valerie, and learned a bit about his health and his work. oh yes, and of course, had some milk tea and biscuits. he inscribed an english copy of his book, now translated into 35 languages, we think.

we're off now to see an hour-long film about the disappearing of the panchen lama, tibet's second most important lama, by the chinese. meanwhile, diwali hindu festival starts today or tomorrow so the hills are alive with fireworks explosions. big ones! a little dinner after the movie, an attempt at the private audience tomorrow and then the bus. more from delhi, or probably from nepal, after we get settled there.

well, the lights went out (again) in the middle of the film last night, so dinner came early. then the rain started pouring, wind blowing, and rolling rolling rolling thunder and lightning showed up. raining and blowing like crazy this morning. quick breakfast and then taxi down to attempt private audience with the karmapa. (google karmapa, or look him up in wikipedia) traffic snarled in the rain and mud. the main road here is hardly more than an urban alley crossed with a mountain path, but the taxi and other drivers are accomplished dancers, artists of a strange sort.

so we got down to the karmapa's place right on time. our friend sabine was already there and waved us right into the right place. passports please, wait here, now wait there, now wait upstairs, perhaps 60 or more of us, including a couple of larger groups from taiwan. eventually an almost private audience, jill and i and one other guy ushered in to 'take refuge' ...essentially taking his holiness the karmapa as teacher, asking for his support of our practice, inviting and allowing our minds to be informed and influenced by his, in the direction of waking up. a big zap.

and then it was over. a quick word with his executive secretary about blessing adn support for julie henderson (our teacher) and her father who is dying (right now), even as julie is on her way to lead our retreat in nepal. a quick goodbye to sabine and back to mcleod ganj in the taxi, still raining and mudding and beeping and bumping. (another) round of veggie lasagne and lemon honey ginger tea at jimmy's italian kitchen, and we've retreated here to the computer room... perhaps our only good chance to be warm and dry in this muddy little town. we're back to delhi, all night tonight, on the big volvo bus. how it will navigate these muddy mountains, we haven't a clue... and not much worry either. looking forward to the luxury of that ride... if not the length. we'll be back at the godwin hotel for breakfast, with 24 hours to see some delhi sites, or just hang out on the roof and rest.

jill added this in another email…

last night a wild storm blew through. big winds knocked the power out for a bit (which is actually very common) while we were watching the documentary about the panchen lama. the local movie theatre is really something... not quite what you would envision as a movie theatre. but then nothing here is like you can imagine really. anyway, the power goes out and we have our handy torches (aka "flashlights") with us because it's a good idea to carry those at night. We hang around to see if the power comes back, but when it does finally we decide to to go for chocolote mousse at Jimmy's Italian Kitchen (crazy no?!). the high winds and rain went all night. The winds have gone, but the rain continues, and it is so cold here now.

this morning we woke early to pack, check out, and find a taxi down to the Karmapa's place to find out if we managed to get a private audience with him. when we arrived, Sabine was waiting for us to make sure we got in. There were so many people! too many for all to have private audiences, so instead they were arranging for large groups to see him, mostly for taking refuge. As i understand it, refuge is allowing your mind to be influenced or mixed with the guru.

So we gathered with this large group. filed in up many flights of stairs and through the corridors of this temple, up to the top and then waited while groups were lined up to see him. when it was our turn, we went in with only 2 others. We took refuge which was a moment of him reminding us that there is nothing outside of ourselves to take refuge in really. Then we repeated a mantra 3 times with him. my insides got all warm and gooey. then he blessed us with our kataks (white blessing scarves) and gave us blessed red strings (like the one you've seen on michael's neck) and some lama dust (pills for things like cleansing and immortality). :-)

so then a taxi back here to McLeod? Ganj while we search for a way to stay dry and warm while we wait for our bus which now comes in about 3 hours. We went back for more chocolate mousse. thought about another movie but the selection was bad enough we passed.

from northern india to kathmandu...

we caught an evening bus out of mcleod. the big volvo a/c bus turned out to be more expensive and less comfortable than the bus to tso pema. the ride itself was largely uneventful, which can be a very good thing in such matters.

they passed out bottles of water and “hill sickness” bags at the outset, as the big volvo bus turned hairpins and slalom turns with vigor. with most of the side curtains drawn, the landscape reeled back and forth in the windshield view. the effect was not unlike a carnival ride, except this one went on and on and on. but the steepest winding roads, one-and-one-half lanes of dodging on-coming traffic, and blasting bus horns slowly gave way -- to absolutely flat, dusty, hazy highway – and blasting bus horns.

then, quite suddenly, about 6:30am, we find ourselves dumped at the edge of an eight-lane highway, pushing our way through a throng of dozens (hundreds?) of autorickshaw drivers, all of them sure (and assuring us) that they are our very best friends in the whole world. fat chance. we pushed past and walked a block or two into the open-air interstate bus terminal, perhaps the dirtiest public place i’ve ever been. and yet many people seemed to be living right here on the benches.

i told jill i needed a bathroom stop. she looked at me bravely and said, “okay, but just go fast, because as soon as you leave i’m going to be assaulted…” by people, mostly ghostly brown women, crying and pawing for a spare rupee or ten. i looked at her, looked over toward a nasty looking restroom, and led the way silently back out to the thronging drivers. the price negotiated and bags stuffed inside a little autorickshaw (think tiny covered golf cart), we climbed in and putt-putt-putted into those eight lanes of traffic.

thirty minutes later, we were back at the Godwin Hotel, our delhi home away from home, glad to spend 24 hours with books, television, bathing, rooftop meals – and each other – as diwali, the biggest hindu festival of the year, literally exploded all around us. think christmas, new years, fourth of july and maybe mother’s day or halloween all rolled into one. we went out for a short walk, but quickly retreated as home-rolled fireworks were exploding everywhere.

the next morning, we flew out for kathmandu -- and 9 days of retreat at bairoling monastery and guest house, punctuated by daily shopping adventures around the stupa in boudha. practicing a pulsation between meditation and marketplace, learning to let the two run together, if you will. we did a better job of taking [pictures] in this, the second two weeks of the trip, with views of the monastery, an afternoon walking trip into the country to a gorgeous new monastery nearby, and the stupa at boudhanath. one evening, we ventured into downtown kathmandu for a nice dinner with fr. john locke, an old jesuit classmate of my dad’s and a font of insight after 40 years in india and nepal. and at the very end of our time at bairoling, we were lucky enough to have two meetings with bairo tulku rinpoche, the founder of this monastery and a very special teacher, after much uncertainty about whether or not he would arrive before we left.

we also led one-day open space technology training day hosted by imagine nepal, my fourth event with them in as many years. i've included the notes from this day in [the last two of our photos]. it was great to see so many old friends and new ones at this day, and to be able to talk about the possibilities for a creating a peaceful future, after positive political developments earlier this year. our theme for the day in open space was 'issues and opportunities for peaceful development in post-conflict nepal' and it finished with much talk about our coming back for a longer training program.

on the way home, we had long layovers that allowed some fascinating political conversation with friends, over dinner, in delhi, and some fresh air on a brisk london morning where we made exhausted visits to our old neighborhood and the national gallery.

summing up...

with the exception of our short stop at the national gallery, this trip was about going around and seeing friends -- colleagues and teachers -- rather than any sort of sightseeing. and it was about rethinking the shape of who we are and how we work and rest and teach in the world, together. teaching as practice made visible, partnership as practice. along the way, we noticed that i've been teaching open space backwards for these last some years. or what i would now call backwards -- or at least western -- with the big picture theory first, the method and tools second, and the personal somatic practice only later on, in the context of some experience with the method.

what i learned this trip from talking with others and watching so many teachers, is that it works better the other way. practice first, rest first, as a body. we can do this every day, in any place. then let what happens when we do that, the learning that comes, inform the practice of method and use of tools, like open space. only then can the vision of inviting organization really make sense, as the ripple effect of ongoing practice in meetings. jill noticed this early on, but it took me most of the trip to figure out how to actually do this in a three-day training and practice program!

on so many buses and planes, meditation cushions, and long walks these last four weeks, i've re-organized the whole of my design for the practice workshop/retreat program, how i think about teaching open space -- and how i understand, emphasize, and implement my own personal somatic work, professional open space facilitation and training, and my engagement in community work on the ground in the bigger body that is Chicago.

more than any of the places or people we saw, the best part of the trip has been the chance to leave all of the ordinary distractions behind and spend four weeks time immersed in partnership, creating practice and process together. everything else, all the actual places and pictures, have been gravy. though as jill has been quick to note... that's a LOT of gravy!

next time…

on our last afternoon, sitting around the terrace of the stupa view restaurant, we decided that next time we’d like to have more time for… amitabha statue site visit, lunches with buddhi and chandi and other imagine nepal friends, 3-day ost training, statue shopping (see the 1000-arm chenrezig one we photo’d), thangka shopping, teachings with chokyi nyima rinpoche, pokhara and trekking, clothes and (more) jewelry for jill, another visit with john, baktipur, jawalakhel carpet factory, back up to the jamyang kontrul monastery, thamel (oscar’s) and durbar square.

we’d bring more superballs, soccer balls, calculators and other balls and gizmos for the young monks at bairoling. bring again... gse, acidopholous, tea tree, tumeric, torches, candle lantern, and a smallish bottle of hand cleaner... for ourselves. for offerings… “is there anything you want me to know” …money, little red envelopes, incense, kataks, dried fruits, nuts…

contact info, for the record…

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Last edited January 9, 2007 8:46 pm CentralTimeUSA by MichaelHerman
© 1998-2020 Michael Herman and, unless signed by another author or organization. Please do not reprint or distribute for commercial purposes without permission and full attribution, including web address and this copyright notice. Permission has always been granted gladly to those who contact me and say something about themselves, their work, and their use of these materials. Thank you and good luck! - Michael