I recently started working through The Artists Way by Julia Cameron with my next-door neighbor. We get together periodically to discuss a chapter and how our “homework” is going. The main homework I’ve taken on, as part of my morning practice, is “Morning Pages” – three pages written longhand every morning. I started off committing to doing it 3-4 days a week, but now I’m doing it nearly every day. It has been lovely, helpful both for sorting out things I’m thinking about, and for remembering dreams, and for my new creative writing project about time (more on that soon).
Another part of Cameron’s practice is the weekly “Artists’ Date.” This is any activity you do alone that is designed to nurture your inner artist/child/creative self. It can be visiting an art gallery or an old junk store, going to a movie, going for a mindful walk in the park, etc. Anything that is playful and provides inspiration, that “fills the well.” I did not initially feel that drawn to this practice, and haven’t committed to doing it weekly, partly because I figured my trip to Nepal was going to be one giant artists’ date. And, in many ways it was.
Any kind of travel, for me, opens me up to newness. And I’d never spent any time anywhere in Asia before. As I said in my last post, even with my eyes closed, the sounds alone were incredibly rich and varied compared to my everyday soundscape of bird twitters and cars on pavement here at home. And, one deliberate “artists’ date” I arranged was on the way back to Kathmandu from Namo Buddha, we stopped in Bhaktapur, one of the historic centers of ceramic production in Nepal.
This was fun and fascinating. The area surrounding Bhaktapur is full of large piles of bricks – not the rubble of broken bricks from earthquake damage, but new bricks, neatly stacked, from production! (This ceramic production is a significant contributor to the poor air quality in the valley). And in Bhaktapur’s “Potters Square” you can watch people loading and unloading kilns, and see the wares arrayed in the sun for drying.
I’d heard this wasn’t a place to buy finished ceramic works and had planned an additional stop at Thimi Ceramics, but our guide found us a booth where the nephew of the owner of Thimi Ceramics was selling a lot of finished work from there and also of his own making. When he heard I was a ceramicist he invited me to throw a pot on his wheel. Despite still feeling sick, I eventually agreed. The clay was weaker and more variegated than I’m used to, being home-dug (it had small and occasionally not-so-small stones embedded in it), so I needed a lot of help from our host to manage shaping a small bowl, but it was fun! We bought a few items and he gifted us a couple more items. He showed us the ceramics school he is building behind his booth. Definitely a place I’d return to someday if I can! I was grateful not to make the extra stop in Thimi, because by the time we left Bhaktapur I was ready to be lying down again!
I had a whole day of down time at our new locale before Yongyey Mingyur Rinpoche’s teachings. Don and I, along with a number of other attendees, were staying at Lekshey Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery half-way up the hill to the Tergar monastery. Lekshey Ling included a small guest house which was mostly only used during events like this, but its primary work was a school for boys. It was fun to hear the boys playing, laughing, chanting, and praying, and to watch them running around in their red robes. While the monastic tradition is ancient and provides many boys (and some girls) with a better education than they would have otherwise, it is apparently also quite problematic in some places, with a fair amount of neglect. These kids seemed happy and well to me.
After that day of rest (the day I wrote my last post), I did feel well enough to attend the teachings. Feeling well enough included being able to hike the rest of the way up the hill. The first day of the teachings, Don was down with what thankfully turned out to be a brief bout of traveler’s diarrhea, so I was on my own. I’d heard there was a short-cut (that I later dubbed the “mountain-goat” way), but I didn’t know it yet, so that first day I used the slower, longer way, following the road. This was still somewhat steep, and dusty, and jam-packed with tiny taxis delivering hundreds of people to the teachings. (Since the road was only wide enough for one of the little cars in some places, huge traffic jams developed!) Wearing my dust mask, I trudged along, and kept thinking I’d arrived since there were a couple of entrances to another spiritual center along the way!
I finally reached the top of the hill. Since Tergar International’s monastery, Osel Ling, suffered very significant damage during the 2015 earthquake, the training was in a huge tent erected for the week. This tent itself was beautiful. Instead of plain white as it would likely have been in the States, it was royal blue, adorned with bright yellow and a dozen or more colorful Thangka paintings, and festooned with flowers!
The teachings were a bit esoteric and I won’t try to relay them here, except to say that this branch of Buddhism focuses a lot on learning to be aware of the “nature of mind,” the timeless awareness that is always present, whatever else the “monkey mind” is also doing. The seating was assigned through random lottery, and I got to sit next to two friends from Madison! One of these was a neighbor of mine, who is also far less engaged in the Tibetan spiritual tradition than her husband, like me, due at least in part to her attachment to Judaism. This helped me find a sense of belonging, despite the many attendees from China and other parts of the world who performed elaborate devotions including full prostrations towards the altar every time they arrived.
After five days there, I parted from Don, which was somewhat challenging, both emotionally, since it brought up fears and memories about traveling alone, and logistically, since our belongings were a bit intertwined. I shared a cab with two other friends from Madison, who were headed very near to my destination in another part of Kathmandu Valley: Yet another Tibetan Buddhist Monastery called Shechen. This is the home monastery for Matthieu Ricard, a well-known French scientist and scholar, and it has a guest house with a lovely restaurant that friends had told us about. The possibility of staying there was actually what made me decide to go along to Nepal, because it sounded like the perfect place for me to do the self-guided writing retreat that I’d been fantasizing about.
While not actually “perfect” due to the terrible air quality, Shechen was indeed a good place for my retreat. It has a lovely enclosed garden / café area where I could sit and eat and write for hours (with wifi!). It is also within an easy walk of the famous Boudanath Stupa, a major focus of Tibetan Buddhist spirituality. Since circumambulating a stupa (a Buddhist shrine) is a major form of spiritual practice, there are people doing so all day every day at Boudha. No vehicular traffic is allowed around the Stupa, but the buildings on the outer ring around it included cafes and restaurants with great views of it, and many, many small shops selling crafts, religious items, and souvenirs. While a bit touristy, the area also included a lot of authentic, traditional, and contemporary artists and craftspeople.
So, I would generally write in the mornings, then go out to the stupa and walk around and around, checking out whatever seemed interesting. This, indeed, was a massive, daily “artists date.” Beads, wood carvings, silk Thangka painting schools, and shops sewing the silk settings for them; other shops sewing prayer flags, metal-working, weaving, singing bowls, clothing…. I almost never do systematic present-shopping (not even for Hanukkah), but with 7 days in one location like this, with a very favorable exchange rate due to the steep economic imbalance between the US and Nepal, I had plenty of time and money to make purchases for myself and others!
I had mixed feelings about my purchasing – it seemed like flaunting my economic privilege, and the selling of spiritual and cultural objects to people from another culture who may use them completely out of context can contribute to cultural misappropriation. On the other hand, they were offering their artifacts for sale and clearly wanted me to buy them, so it also would have felt rude not to buy anything… I decided to not worry too much about it all, and just enjoy, following the “artists date” framework of not being too serious. And arraying my purchases at home and gradually giving them away has helped me savor the trip.
I kept returning to some places around the Stupa, and the repeated interactions with the same vendors and artists were my favorite part of the experience. I actually made friends with the owners of one gallery of contemporary Nepali painting that was on my daily route, Gallery L.A., which I think stands for the names of the owners, Laxman and Anisa. Laxman spoke extremely good English, and he and I got into some super-deep conversations. Here is a story-snippet I wrote while I was still there about the experience:
That night as exhaustion overtook her, she realized she was homesick. It was a sense of loneliness, and of being disconnected from the threads of meaning that normally tethered her to her motivation and sense of direction in life. Yet, as she reflected on her day, she realized she’d had a real connection with a Nepali, perhaps her first one. He was a contemporary painter and proprietor of a small art gallery near the spectacular Boudanath Stupa. He was so friendly, unassuming and gentle that she relaxed, and bought two of his small Buddha paintings.
The next morning she resolved to go see him again. His English was excellent, and he’d seemed to enjoy the connection with her as well. Maybe she could find out more about him, and his perspective on time. As she ducked into his store that second day, she felt a bit self-conscious. It took him a moment to recognize her, and when he did he commented, “You look different today!”
“Yes, I changed clothes,” she agreed. She told him she’d enjoyed their conversation, and he was eager to talk more. He explained the political commentary behind a couple of his larger pieces (one about the suicide rate and parliament’s inaction; another about the yin/yang life/death of abortion. She was impressed.
He said, “these pieces are not for people to buy and put in their houses. These other pieces” — he gestured at the prettier ones — “make you happy to look at. These” — the political ones — “help you see the truth. The make-you-happy ones help you avoid seeing the truth!”
They both laughed. She said, “But some can do both.” At that, he asked if she was an artist. She told him she was a writer and was writing about time.
“Ah, Time,” he said. “I think in the West, people are working all the time, aren’t they?” He pointed to two older men sitting in the store across the narrow lane from his. “You see them? They are happy. They aren’t working hard. They have plenty of time to talk. In the West, time is money. Is it true?”
“Yes, and for some people, time is even more scarce than money!” she replied ruefully. “I think that’s why so many of us want to come here to study Buddhism.”
“Yes, you see what we have and want it, and we see what you have and want that. It is starting to change here. Some people get jobs, build factories, where they work all the time. It’s like this”— he grabbed a small painting of a Himalayan peak. “Westerners have been to the peak” — he ran his finger up the left side of the mountain — “to the peak of civilization, and are coming back down, having realized the limits of that approach. Easterners are on the other side, still on their way up. We see you coming down.”
“Yes, but will you stop before you get to the top?” she asked. He shrugged. “We will have to see. It’s like with racism for you, and caste for us,” he went on. “We have many problems here due to caste. And it used to be okay, and now it isn’t, because we have learned from you about protest.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” she wanted to know.
“Good, bad, I don’t know,” he said. “It depends how it’s done. If it is done too quickly, it won’t be good. Some things take time to grow. A tree takes many years to grow, but can be quickly turned to ash.”
“Like trust,” she said. “Trust takes a long time to build, but can be lost with one moment of betrayal.”
“Yes!” He said. “A woman I know told me that betrayal is like a plant, being uprooted from the earth and transplanted into a pot. It takes time to adjust to its new environment, and the hole it left behind takes time to fill in. But time heals all wounds.”
“If there is enough nourishment in the new environment,” she cautioned.
Then he said, “Let me tell you a story. It is a Buddhist teaching story.” She agreed.
“A lazy man didn’t want to work. One day he saw a starving jackal, that was too weak to move. A lion came with its prey in its mouth, and gave some to the jackal, who ate it and revived. The man prayed to God to take care of him, to send him food like he had to the jackal, so he wouldn’t have to work.
It didn’t work out, and he fell ill from malnutrition, and died. In the afterlife, he asked God, why didn’t you help me the way you did others, like the jackal? God said, you misunderstood that lesson I sent you. You were supposed to be the lion, not the jackal! From this we are supposed to learn to be the strongest we can be,” he concluded.
All in all, I’d say the trip was a very inspiring “Artist’s Date.”