A Moment of Magic

Once in a great while, life offers up moments of unforgettable magic. Facebook gave me this image today and in doing so gave me back a moment of magic from 2010.

The photo looks down from the slopes of Gangri Thökar, on a path leading up to Shugseb Ani Gompa in central Tibet. I was on a pilgrimage with Dechen Yeshe Wangmo and we’d arrived later than we planned at the base of the mountain. A number of our group opted to engage in brief prayers and then head back into Lhasa for a hot supper and welcome rest. The rest of us headed up the mountainside.

This was one of the pilgrimage sites that had strong personal significance for me. My teacher in Nepal, Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche, had been a student of an important abbess at Shugseb, the yogini Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo (1852–1953).

It was late in the day as I made my way up the mountainside, and I soon lagged behind the younger and fitter members of our group, whose destination was a cave near the mountain’s summit associated with one of Tibet’s most revered scholars, Longchen Rabjam. We’d been told that the cave was currently occupied by Dudjom Yangsi, recognized as the reincarnation of another important figure in my teacher’s lineage.

Breathless as the mountain air thinned, I eventually gave up trying to keep my group in view. I stopped to rest and when I looked over my shoulder, the luminous valley took my breath away. I snapped a photo.

I finally reached the nunnery and began wandering among its buildings, unsure what to do next. The rest of my group were long gone, and I knew that this was as far up the mountain as I would go. I found a small structure that housed a huge prayer wheel and I went inside, circling the wheel as I turned it, chanting the guru mantra.

Soon I realized I was not alone. An elderly nun had entered. I greeted her in Tibetan and she smiled warmly and gestured for me to sit with her on one of the benches alongside the prayer wheel. Communicating in a patchwork of simple Tibetan and simple English augmented by a lot of gestures, I think I finally succeeded in telling her that my teacher had once studied here under the Shugseb Jetsunma (whose full name I didn’t even know at the time). She told me that she was called Ani Dawa. “Dawa” is Tibetan for “moon.” She offered me tea and tsampa, which I gladly accepted. We sat together for a while longer.

I had no idea when my friends from the mountaintop would be coming down, nor where I might encounter them. Maybe they’d already passed back through! I decided to take my leave and go back down the mountain alone.

It was dark by this time and I had no flashlight. But there was a full moon. So I was accompanied down the mountain by my friend dawa as I continued chanting the guru mantra.

When Facebook offered me this memory today, I felt the need to experience the magic again, to let myself remember this special moment in my life’s journey. As a scientist, I often shy away from magic, unwilling let it just be what it is without asking all the hard questions. I’m trying to tell myself to stop being that way. Sometimes it’s okay to let the circumstantial confluence of symbols and circumstance move me. Sometimes it’s okay to call it magic.

I also did a little more research online and discovered a new biography of Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo, whose early associations with Nepal surprised me. I learned that her birth name was Chonga Lhamo (co lnga lha mo), which translates as “Goddess of the Fifteenth.” The biographer speculated that her name had something to do with the fifteenth day of the Tibetan calendar. It’s a lunar calendar, and the fifteenth is the full moon day.

Let’s Get Together

Boudha Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal

As I walked through Boudhanath, Kathmandu, one evening in September of 2013, under a light rain, I was enveloped in the crowd. Everyone was headed in the same direction, toward the Great Stupa. I was reminded of Barcelona, where I had been the week before. But here, instead of heading to the plaza to sip wine and share food with family and friends, we were headed to a sacred place to walk in brisk clockwise circles murmuring prayers.. or chatting with family and friends. I love both customs and the way they bring people together in a shared space at the same time.

 

Art and Memory

Things Remembered, 20 x 16, $450

Things Remembered, 20 x 16, $450

My protagonist in WAY OF THE SERPENT falls in love with an artist – Luis-Martín Zenobia – who was educated as an anthropologist. Here is what he wrote about art and memory:

Time was when memory existed solely in the minds of men and women, and the elders of the society were its treasury. As humankind evolved, art became the handmaiden of memory, encoding in images – and in stories that were recited or sung or danced – the episodes and values that defined a people. Writing was the next revolution of memory. The printing press was another. Digital electronic storage took memory to the next level but also put it at risk as never before. In every age, people believed their encoded memories to be somehow infallible, unassailable, invulnerable. They were always wrong, but the notion was pervasive and reassuring. It still is.

READ MORE – Available on Amazon or at Bookwoman in Austin, Texas.

A Sequence of Days

webIMG_0872

We are all time travelers. It’s just that most of the time, the limit of 24 hours per day, 365 (and ¼) days per year in strict linear succession is pretty rigorously enforced. Once in a while, though, we get to transcend those limits. I had such an opportunity this past week, reminiscing in the company of old friends. I had a visit on Monday from someone who was a very important part of my life back in the early 1970s. On Tuesday I traveled to Dallas and spent time with a few of my favorite people from my graduate school years in the last half of the 1970s. Then Thursday night I met up with some dear friends from my undergraduate years in the late 1960s. Time has treated all of us differently. Our experiences apart from each other occupy far more days and years than the ones during which we were interacting on a daily basis. And yet… the reasons why we became friends remain apparent. Sure, we evoke the past by sharing stories, but we also listen with interest to stories about things we were not a part of, and by sharing those stories we catch up the threads that continue to bring us together, year after year. See you again soon, guys!

(IMAGE: The timeless stairway of Dallas Hall at SMU.)