In a mountain monastery there was a young novice monk, faithful and ernest, yet undeveloped and prone to mishap. One day, despite his reputation for clumsiness, he was given the honor of cleaning the cell of the master. He took to his task with resolve and determination. He was happy to be allowed to tend to the master’s quarters where there was stored some of the few precious items that the monastery possessed, including an exquisite vase handed down to the master from generations of his predecessors. It’s origin was lost to everyone’s memory, but it was something cherished by the monks as sacred and dear.
The novice waited until he had finished with the other areas of the room before he turned his attention to the shelf with the vase. Up until that point all had gone well so it must have been that the novice’s guard was down as he began to dust. Unfortunately, but predictably, the vase was knocked to the floor and shattered into a thousand pieces.
The novice was stricken with feelings of grief and shame, soon followed by dread at the thought of telling the master what he had done.
The young monk, expecting the worst, summoned his courage and went to the monastery’s garden to find the master and confess. He followed a narrow stone path along a stream and approached the master as he sat quietly beneath the willow trees on the bank. The boy bowed deeply, his voice quivering as he managed to tell the elder his story.
After receiving the news of what had happened to his precious vase, the Buddhist master remained serene. His countenance betrayed not anger nor disappointment, only calm and equanimity. He looked down at the youth, who thought that his days of being a monk would soon be over.
The master told the novice to stand up as he spoke to him tenderly, saying, “To me, that vase was already broken.”
If you want to have a lesson in the Buddhist concept of impermanence then you should go to a country that is so old that many of the buildings are made of clay bricks held together by mud; a country that is visited, as if on a regular schedule, by earthquakes.
I hope that the Nepalis, like the master in the parable, accept that nothing lasts forever and that all things will eventually come to ruin, but it’s got to be a hard to see destruction on the scale that occurred here. Many families lost their homes in the quake and everyone feels the loss of many of their country’s historical landmarks that are a part of their national identity. Imagine how it would be for us to witness the Lincoln Memorial, Statue of Liberty, and Mount Rushmore reduced to rubble all on the same day. I recall visiting sites in and around Kathmandu where once there stood ancient temples with intricate carvings and one-of-a-kind architectural features. Many of them now are reduced to a large pile of stone and dust. It must be demoralizing at a time when what is needed most is determination to recover and rebuild.
Nepal’s history emerges from the fog of antiquity around 700 BCE and some of the most famous buildings are a thousand years old. Several years ago, many of them were surveyed in great detail and their every feature documented and digitally recorded in anticipation of just such a disaster as the recent earthquake. The thinking is that it is possible to put them back together again. Possible, I suppose, but that seems like something that will take a very long time and a lot of work. I hope they do it and wish them success in the daunting task of reassembling their lost treasures.
Buddhists say it this way, ” the wheel inevitably turns.” Everything changes and when we try to cling to things that won’t last it only leads to dissatisfaction and suffering. It sounds depressing, at first, to admit that, despite our grasping and clinging, we never have all that we want and everything we have we will lose. But if we are paying attention, we are confronted with that basic truth every day. I don’t have to go to a county with earthquakes to know that things change, I just have to look in the mirror. I can see a picture of me from college days and wonder what happened to all that hair? These days, the only thing I need to comb my hair is a towel.
Things change because causes and conditions change- continually. Nothing remains static for two consecutive moments. Before you entered the room where you are now you were different physically and emotionally.
But, it’s not impermanence that leads to suffering. Suffering comes from thinking things are permanent when they are not. Impermanence is not a bad thing. It is something that gives meaning to our existence and richness to our experience. After all, without impermanence you would not see your daughter grow into a lovely young lady. If you are in good health and aware of impermanence, you will take better care of yourself. When we know that the person we love is impermanent, we will cherish them that much more. Impermanence teaches us to respect and appreciate every moment and all the precious things inside us and around us.
Like the wise master monk in the parable, it is better to embrace the law of impermanence than to try to repeal it.
Located south of the Bagmati River, Patan was once an independent city-state in the Kathmandu Valley. Our hotel is a small inn that sits only a few steps from the central Durbar (Royal) Square at the far end of a narrow alley that is inaccessible to vehicles. It’s a great location and the first place in Kathmandu I have ever slept without being woken up by the incessant night noise. This time of year we keep the windows open all night so I was expecting the usual drone of street sounds that I have become accustomed to an previous trips. The murmuring of people on the sidewalks, the honking of cars, the clanging of bells, the chattering of bells, the almost constant barking of dogs. Usually, the noises drift up to my room and through the windows to climb into bed with me as I try to sleep. This time, as I dozed in and out of first-night, jet-lagged semiconsciousness, I suddenly realized that outside it was as quiet as a prayer. It was a welcome change that didn’t last. It seems that every day at about 04:30 the quiet ends abruptly with a single loud dong from a huge bell in the square, as if to make sure we know that, although it is a calm, dark night, perfect for sleeping, the sun will be along anytime now.
The inn itself is so quant that it is in danger of being precious. I am not sure how she does it but Carol has a knack for finding hotels and restaurants that are as obscure as they are charming. This one could have come right out of a Hollywood set design except for the fact that it was built long before there were movies. The only problem is that everything is in miniature; too small for grown ups, at least this one. The doors would function better as windows and the ceilings are so low that I really should have brought along a crash helmet. For sure, it is charming, but built for a different time or species. Maybe Hobbits.
Each time I renter Nepal and again allow myself to be swept into the chaotic street scene, I think how strange it is that all of this is happening while I am away and preoccupied with life as I know it. I ask myself if all of this just continued on without me? How could that be? Did they even miss me while I was gone?
I don’t think so, nor did they notice my absence. I am of no consequence to them and there is no reason I should be. It is the nature of things that I am just a small subtext in an unfathomably grand and complex drama. That is how it is for all of us. To know that reminds me that back home, as in Nepal, it all goes on just fine without me. That is what should hopefully happen when one piece of any system drops out, the other pieces close ranks, fill in the empty spaces and everything keeps rolling along. It makes me feel small but in a good way. It is humbling, but I am OK with it- to not really matter all that much. The joy is in being a part of it at all. In the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild” the little girl, Hush Puppy, says “I see that I am just a little piece of a big, big universe.” She is right and in her mind that isn’t a bad thing.
So it is as I sit on the stone ledge of a half-lit pagoda in predawn Durbar Square, watching the last of the butterlamps flicker out and listening to the pigeons start to stir, another day beginning for all of us here on earth.
” If you are planning for one year, sow grain;
ten years, plant trees;
one hundred years, grow men (and women).”
“With guns you can kill terrorists. With education, you can kill terrorism.”
We are tying to contact all 27 children in the Ripple scholarship program. The best way to do that is to visit them in their home so, on Thursday, we divided into four groups, each accompanied by someone from Aashish Church, and set out with the letters, pictures and gifts that were sent over with us by their sponsors.
Travel by road in Nepal is not measured by distance but in time spent driving. Between the traffic and road conditions, all bets are off when it comes to predicting how long it will take to get anywhere. Drivers here deal with the conditions with a combination creativity and audacity. I am alway amazed at how we can drive 60 mph down a busy city street one moment and be at a dead stop the next. I can’t imagine how they find their way though the warren of cross streets, some of them are so narrow it is like trying to thread a needle with a Subaru. Pastor Mahendra once remarked that the streets are narrow because they were built 600 years ago. I replied that I guess there weren’t as many cars 600 years ago. Mahendra agreed and said, “No, not even bicycles.”
Carol and Amy traveled the farthest of any of the teams, to the old city of Sankhu, once a popular place for tourists to view typical Nepali architecture but now essentially leveled by the earthquake. The family who lives there lost their home and they are now being put up by relatives. The road to Sankhu didn’t fare much better from the tremor than the town itself. I traveled their last January and experienced it myself. It was so beat up I thought the ride seemed more suited to a county fair than a public thoroughfare.
We have two children living in Sankhu and Carol said they lit up when she and Amy McCaslin arrived. Roshon KC is always smiling and his older sister Rogina is a budding you lady who wants only to stay in school rather than enter into an unwanted arranged marriage. She has her dreams, as all young girls do. She said that she likes to travel but, in actuality, she has never been outside the Kathmandu Valley. Maybe someday.
Everyone returned from their visits with warm hearts, eager to tell their stories to the rest of the group. Rob Erickson and Nan McCaslin came up with the idea of using their phones to record the children as they answered questions about themselves so that the sponsors will be able to hear it firsthand. Some of those videos are priceless. When I talk to a child I often ask them to write down their name in English and also in Nepali, which is an intricate and beautiful script. Rob and Nan thought to have them do the same for their names. In their journals they had one of the kids write down “Robert” and “Nancy” in the local script and Rob liked his so much that he suggested we all get tattoos of our Nepali names. That idea came from our senior pastor, mind you, and I think he was only half kidding when he said it. I guess that once you get into the flow of things in Nepal it is easy for anyone to get carried away.
Jackie Henry has had a lifelong dream of visiting Nepal. She would be the best one to explain why, but she has told me that for years so I have enjoyed watching her soak it up now that she finally got here. Unfortunately, Jackie has some bad knees. One knee was recently replaced and the other one needs to be; not good for traversing uneven cobblestone streets and rain soaked steps, too numerous to count. She never asked for us to go easy on her, though, and we haven’t other than putting her in a rickshaw one time in Thamel while the rest of us walked. It was a few days into it and after I had already made her walk halfway around Kathmandu before she told me she had brought with her a walking stick. I suggested maybe she should use it. Jackie works harder than the rest of us to walk these rugged streets but she is a trooper and never complains.
Jackie and I were one of the teams and we first visited a little boy who Carol and I help sponsor, U.L. Rana. Both his mother and father are out of the picture so he lives with his grandparents on the grounds of a small Presbyterian church in Bhaktapur, a city east of Kathmandu. He likes science in school and his favorite color is yellow. What makes him happy is to fly kites and and to sing. What makes him sad is to be worried about his mother. We also visited the home of Shebheskya and Sushant Moktan, ages 8 and 13, sister and brother who live together with their single mother in a small, one-room apartment. Their father died seven years ago and their mother works as a day laborer on construction projects. Mahendra told us that he is very impressed with Gita, the mother. “She works hard and is always joyful. I just love her.”
Shebhesksya’s favorite subject in school is English and favorite color is “golden.” She likes to read and wants to be a doctor when she grows up. The arrangement in their home is similar to all of the places where our children live. We sit on the bed because that is the only place there is to sit. There is only one window for illumination. A small propane cookstove sits in one corner along with some rice and cooking oil. As guests, it is always necessary for us to be served something to eat or drink. Usually that involves tea but this day it was cookies and Mountain Dew.
One of the standard questions we as the children is who do you admire, or who is your hero? Shebheskya was quick with her answer and said her “mommy.” We thought that was sweet but it was later on the drive back, when Jackie read the letter Shebheskya had written to her and Dave (Jackie’s husband) that we were moved nearly to tears. More than “nearly” for Jackie, who began to weep every time she reread the letter. Shebheskya wrote that she knew how important it was to have an education and thanked Jackie and Dave for providing it to her. She went on to write that her mother worked but still was not able to pay for school. She wrote that her mother “struggles very much to give us good person in future. so, I have to be a great person in future to fulfill my mother’s wish…..Thank you from the bottom of my heart . By your help I can fulfill my mother’s aims and I can make my mother proud.”
I need to leave it there. The blogging is not going very well. I don’t think it is all me. There are so many quirks to living in Nepal and I think internet access is one of them. Sometimes wifi works. Then, for no discernible reason, it doesn’t. Then, it does. Even when connected, things go on that are very odd to me. The posts might not always be pretty until I get somewhere else to work on them but what matters is that the message gets through.
God bless all.
Be kind to each other.