Postcard 32 from Robina: North Carolina-Toronto, Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dec 2, 2012

I hadn’t organized my schedule well, so I ended up having to fly across country again, from New York, to spend a week in Canada with Colleen and her crew in a little town 350 miles north of Vancouver called Williams Lake. From the time I left home at 5 in the morning east coast time (Lana’s place on Second Avenue and 19th Street) till I got to Gendun Drubpa at 5pm west coast time, I had spent 15 hours on the road – practically the time it takes to get to Europe and back! You can’t avoid going via the airlines hubs, even when they’re in the opposite direction of your destination, in this case Dallas-Fort Worth, where American is based.

I was scheduled to fly back to New York from San Juan on October 28, but that was in the middle of Hurricane Sandy. Clearly that wasn’t possible so changed direction and went straight to Raleigh in North Carolina, where I was to spend the month of November at Kadampa Center. It didn’t hit that far south, so I was fortunate.

After four days of teachings at Yangsi Rinpoche’s center in San Juan, Puerto Rico I flew to FPMT’s Kadampa Center in Raleigh, NC for the month of November; and after that to Toronto for a week of teachings at our center there, Lama Yeshe Ling.

New York City just before Hurricane Sandy, the deadly 2012 hurricane that struck the Eastern United States in late October. Photo bravoandy.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche had recommended various practices to avert the dangers. There are explanations in Buddhism that show that such events can be caused by interference from heavy-duty spirits.

There are also practices done by qualified yogis that can influence the weather. I heard about Lama Yeshe doing practices at Chenrezig Institute in the early days to avert rain. This is very common, it seems. Geshe Lama Konchog, Lama’s dear friend from Sera Je who spent 20 years in caves in the far reaches of the mountains of Nepal, was renowned for his extraordinary feats, including changing the weather. It seems that these great yogis, having learned to utterly control their own subtler mental and physical energies, have therefore no problem in controlling the external energies. In the explanations of karma and how beings and worlds manifest, there are detailed description of the intimate relationship between the internal and external energies, namely the mind and the four elements. Buddhism – just like Galileo and the other 14th century Western scientists – still uses that model for describing the external world. So, after a couple of years in the harsh environment of the snowy Himalayas, Geshe-la’s meager robes had worn out completely and he was left basically naked, but because of the power of his meditation he no longer needed clothes – or food or sleep, for that matter. He was able to generate his own inner warmth and lived for years on the energy of the elements, specifically the wind element. Lama Zopa Rinpoche said about Geshe-la that he “lived in Vajra Yogini’s Pure Land.”  It’s good to remember that we can all accomplish this! We all possess the same buddha nature.

Geshe Lama Konchog, Lama’s dear friend from Sera Je who spent 20 years in caves in the far reaches of the mountains of Nepal (below), was renowned for his extraordinary feats, including changing the weather… because of the power of his meditation he no longer needed clothes – or food or sleep, for that matter. He was able to generate his own inner warmth and lived for years on the energy of the elements. Photo

Back to Raleigh. The highlight of the month was a cocktail party auction that the Bodhichitta Trust (which I established years ago as a vehicle for bringing in funds for Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s project, including the prison project when I ran it) organized. Half the $20,000+ funds raised were offered to San Francisco’s Tse Chen Ling and the rest used to repay kind supporters of the prison project when I ran it, loans that the trust had underwritten.

What a party! We’d run four of these in Australia in 2009 and raised $75,000 or $80,000 dollars, maybe more. A perfect way to raise money: give people a beautiful party and things to buy! So much easier and more effective than begging, which is the usual mode.

We had 50 gorgeous items for auction: statues and tangkas from Kathamandu, huge pieces of art by Australian Aboriginals, Middle Eastern carpets.

The old prison project team from San Francisco all came and helped. We had the party in Sarah Brooks’s house; she moved here from SF several years ago. Carina made the canapes, Vikrant mixed the cocktails, and Kate oversaw the entire event. Michelle, Katy, Alison, and Rashel also helped. Jaime was the auctioneer and Lana helped him. I invited my dear friend Igor Sarmientos to play his cello; I talked about him and his amazing composer father Jorge in Postcard 10 from DC. He’s an accomplished orchestra conductor from Guatemala who lives in DC these days. I first met him when he ran the FPMT center in Guatemala 10 years ago and he invited me there for two weeks. Jorge passed away last year.

Kadampa Center’s director Robbie Watkins and Sarah herself both played Sarah’s baby grand piano.

The cocktail party-auction our Bodhichitta Trust held in Raleigh, NC in November was a hit, raising $20,000+. My dear friend Jaime Silberman came from New York to be our auctioneer. Photo David Strevel.

Carina Rumrill, who worked with me for years at the prison project in San Francisco, and now continues to work for FPMT in Portland, OR where she also runs her own food cart, was our chef for the event, creating a menu of gorgeous bite-size canapes. Photo Sarah Gould Wright.


Kadampa Center’s director, Robbie Watkins, left, and Sarah Brooks, their spiritual program coordinator, both classically trained pianists, played Sarah’s baby grand for our guests. Photos Kadampa Center/David Strevel.

Guests mingle before the auction begins. We transformed Sarah Brooks’s house (Sarah also worked with me for years at the prison project) into a gallery and auction house, with carpets, artwork and holy objects adorning the walls. Photo David Strevel.

The old San Francisco prison project team, minus a few faces, came from around the country to help with the event. From left: Ven. Katy Cole, Sarah Brooks, Carina Rumrill, me, Alison Harr, Kate Macdonald, Rashel Adragna, and Michelle Stewart, who used to run Tse Chen Ling, the FPMT center we ran the prison project’s San Francisco office out of for nearly a decade. Photo Alison Harr.

We also had an amazing team of local volunteers help put on the event, all Sarah’s friends from Kadampa Center. Here Sandy Carlson, left, and Lisa James, offer our guests Carina’s canapes and our very own champagne-cocktail. Photo David Strevel.

My dear friend Igor Sarmientos, the Guatemalan conductor, who is based in DC these days, came and played his cello, including at the end of the evening, a five-minute cello piece written by his father, the late Jorge Sarmientos, for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Jorge was considered a national treasure in Guatemala. Prolific, music pouring out of him for 40-plus years. He passed away last year. Photo Alison Harr.

Then to Toronto for a week, to Lama Yeshe Ling. The last time I was there must have been in the mid-1970s. An uncle, Lennie Courtin, lived there with his family, moving from London in the UK as boys when my grandparents split up, with my father opting for Australia. This time it was just the center: a nice group of people, including an old friend Dekyi-Lee.

With students of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s center in Toronto, Lama Yeshe Ling at the end of 2012. Photo Lama Yeshe Ling.

Offering some words of encouragement to a homeless friend in Toronto. Photo James Hinds.
My flights for this leg of teachings at Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s centers.

The last time I was at the center, three years ago, it was at Marilyn and Barrie Dickson’s lovely place in the country, where they had built a little gompa. There’s a stupa there, built on the instructions of Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Now, however, the center is based in town, in a house that Colleen’s sister owns. We all had lunch one afternoon near the stupa by the lake. I stayed for nearly a week at the center in town.

From New York I traveled back to the western coast of North America to teach at FPMT’s Gendun Drupba Centre in Williams Lake, in Central British Columbia.

Marilyn and Barrie Dickson used to run the Williams Lake center. Photo Gendun Drubpa Centre.

Gendun Drupba’s Enlightenment Stupa, built according to the instructions of Lama Zopa Rinpoche. The stupa is about 40 minutes southeast of the city of Williams Lake on the shores of Spokin Lake. The center is working to bring in the funds this year so that they can finish the decorations. Photo Gendun Drubpa Centre.

Four students took Buddhist Refuge, and another four renewed their vows, when I was in Williams Lake. Colleen, the center director, organized for each who took Refuge for the first time to receive a tsa-tsa, or small plaster image of a buddha. Photo Gendun Drubpa Centre.

From there I flew to Mexico City, back the same route to New York, then on to Miami and Mexico.

My flights within Mexico.

It’d been years since I’d been in Mexico; can’t remember when. This time I did quite a little tour of the country, mainly visiting places I hadn’t been before. Alejandro García picked me up at Mexico City airport and went everywhere with me, translating and organizing things. He’s involved with FPMT Mexico.

Alejandro García translates my words into Spanish for students at Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s center in Guadalajara, Khamlungpa Center. Photo Khamlungpa Center.

Our flrst flight was to Aquascalientes, 500 km northeast, where I had been before. But they have a new center now, run by Victor Efren, where we stayed.

One of the men there, Rogelio, is very devoted to teaching at a couple of local prisons, one for juveniles. We went. I was so impressed! In each place, the director and the staff were such sincere people, truly showing interest in helping the inmates get educated and be involved in personal development programs. And they were proud of what they had achieved; one of the prisons Centro de Readaptación Social Varonil El Llano had been reviewed as one of the best institutions in the country in 2010 and 2012 by the National Human Rights Commission, Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos.

My first stop in Mexico was at Bengungyal Center in Aguascalientes. Photo Bengungyal Center.

In Aguascalientes we visited two prisons. Here we are outside the juvenile prison Centro Estatal para el Desarrollo del Adolescente. And me with the director of the prison below. Photos Bengungyal Center.

The director of the Aguascalientes juvenile facility again (left), me, and Roger Pallares (also below), a Bengungyal Center student who teaches regularly at this juvenile facility and another prison in Aguascalientes. I was so touched by Rogelio’s dedication to bringing Lord Buddha’s teachings into the prisons.  Photo Bengungyal Center.

Then another 500km northwest to Torreon. This place is famous for being one of the most violent cities on earth – poor Torreon, being famous for that! I didn’t witness anything when I was there, just like the times I’ve been in Israel and you hear about the violence: it just seems like a normal place. But when you read the numbers, it’s horrific.

In an article online in October last year, I read that there’s been a 16-fold increase in murders since the coming of one of the cartels in 2007. Apparently there were around 1,000 killings in 2011, up from 62 in 2006. But these days, a police chief said, nearly 90 percent of the cartel have been murdered or arrested, “and they’re nearly finished,” he predicts.

I read another article online about how the cartels, among others, are devoted to the “skeleton saint” known as La Santa Muerte . The author of the article, Russell Contrersas says, “The origins of La Santa Muerte are unclear. Some followers say she is an incarnation of an Aztec goddess of death who ruled the underworld. Some scholars say she originated in medieval Spain through the image of La Parca, a female Grim Reaper, who was used by friars for the later evangelization of indigenous populations in the Americas.

The different aspects of La Santa Muerte, “the skeleton saint.” Photo Time Magazine.

“For decades, though, La Santa Muerte remained an underground figure in isolated regions of Mexico and served largely as an unofficial Catholic saint that women called upon to help with cheating spouses.

“It wasn’t until 2001 when a devotee unveiled a public La Santa Muerte shrine in Mexico City that followers in greater numbers began to display their devotion for helping them with relationships and loved ones in prison. Economic uncertainty and a violent drug war against cartels that has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives also are credited for La Santa Muerte’s growth.”

Clad in a black nun’s robe and holding a scythe in one hand, Santa Muerte has different manifestations: A red La Santa Muerte, her bestselling image, helps in matters of love. Gold ones aid with employment and white ones give protection. Meanwhile, a black Santa Muerte can provide vengeance.

Meanwhile, I had a very nice time in Torreon. Carmen the director, and Grace and Raquel, whom we stayed with, and the other center members, all were very kind. We had several teachings, and a public talk given in a mall downtown was packed. People were moved. A local paper did a story about the visit, and we were interviewed on a local radio station. There was much energy everywhere for the Dharma.

After the public teaching at the mall in downtown Torreon several people came up and asked me to bless their malas. So much enthusiasm for the Dharma in Mexico. Photos Rinchen Zangpo Center.

Next was Guadalajara, 700km south of Torreon. There seems to be enthusiasm among the students here to reinvigorate their work in the prisons. And then to the beach: Cozumel, a little island on the Gulf of Mexico, just south of Cancun. It’s run by my English friend, Moya Mendez, who runs a business there with her husband Sergio. I stayed with Paula. If you like the beach, which I do, it’s a perfect place! They have a resident monk there Ven. Losang Nyingje; there don’t seem to be many sangha in Mexico.

I love Cozumel’s white sand, Carribean beaches. Photo Ken Thomas.

With the students of Cozumel’s Yeshe Gyaltsen Center (above and below). Photo Yeshe Gyaltsen Center.

Finally the Big City: Mexico City itself, México, D. F., our final stop. Depending on what boundaries you use, there are 8 million or 22 milllion people living there – the latter is the population of Australia!

There was just an evening talk there, so the rest of the time was spent with Alejandro walking around downtown. Inevitably it felt to me like a big European city: you can’t escape the huge Spanish influence. And I liked it a lot: the streets, the architecture, still plenty of the 16th century. We visited the Palacio de Bellas Artes: just beautiful. And afterwards we had a piece of cake called “Lolita Ayala” after the most famous TV newscaster in the country! And I must say I had the best shoeshine ever, from a traditional bolero. And the subway wasn’t bad at all.

Enjoying an extra hot latte and a piece of “Lolita Ayala,” the Mexican chocolate cake named after the country’s famous TV newscaster, in Mexico City. Photo Alejandro García.

Walking around Mexico City you see 16th century architecture everywhere. Photos Alejandro García.

Traditional Día de Muertos ofrendas in Mexico City, or Day of the Dead offerings: offerings of food, drink, incense, candles, flowers and other gifts for ancestors and the recently deceased. According to Wikipedia: “The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them.” Photo Alejandro García.

After three weeks, I flew out of the country and on to Puerto Rico for a week, about 2,000 miles east as the crow flies but, of course, I had to go via Miami. This center was started years ago by students of Geshe Sopa, one of Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe’s main lamas from Sera Je. Now it’s overseen by Yangsi Rinpoche, who also runs Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s center Maitripa in Portland. I’ve been here a few times also. Stayed with Veronica and her partner. They seem to like Buddhism in San Juan: a strong center, very devoted students.

Looking out across the Atlantic from one of the Spanish forts, in Old San Juan.

Looking west across Fort San Felipe del Morro.

Teaching at Yangsi Rinpoche’s center in San Juan. Photo Ganden Shedrup Ling.

I did a nine-week editing retreat in Puerto Rico at least 10 years ago. Veronica found me an apartment in a resort on the south side of the island. it was December and pretty cold at Land of Medicine Buddha in northern California. I really wanted a warm place. It was heavenly: a three-minute walk to the beach from my house. I decided I’d be ingognito during my stay, so got myself a piece of dark pink cloth, the stuff they make bathing suits out of, and wore that as a sarong. I sat in the sun in my sarong, edited in my sarong, went for walks in my sarong, even swam in my sarong. But I couldn’t escape: people seemed to know I was a Buddhist nun: I’d regularly get the prayer mudra.

I also, foolishly, would swim with my glasses on. I don’t like putting my face in the water, so I’d do backstroke, or just float. My glasses were swept away by the waves one day. I can’t see a thing without them so had to take a taxi to a faraway Walmart and buy three pairs of +3 reading glasses – I am very farsighted: the lower part of my triple lenses is something like +10 – and wear those for at least a week until my new ones came from San Francisco.

I like to remember that time as my ideal scenario for a retreat – a perfect environment, perfect weather, perfect ocean. But I conveniently forget to remember that when dusk fell so did miniature silent flying creatures who would feast on my body, which would itch for weeks.

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