Tag Archives: buddhism

Bhutan, without the jetlag: An authentic Buddhist lhakhang completes El Paso’s Himalayan connection

Looks like Bhutan, but it's Texas

The Bhutanese ambassador to the United Nations stands in front of the new lhakhang with the 18 Bhutanese students who attend UTEP

El Paso is the new Bhutan–more than ever.  In April, I had the absolute joy of attending the opening of the Bhutanese lhakhang, or temple, installed on the campus of the University of Texas El Paso. It’s the centerpiece of a campus transformation and it was an incredible experience to be there for the first time people were allowed to step inside this gorgeous structure–something you’d never see outside of the Kingdom of Bhutan.

The temple isn't intended to serve a religious purpose, but rather stands as a cultural artifact.

The temple isn’t intended to serve a religious purpose, but rather stands as a cultural artifact.

That completes the pleasure of having seen it built in the first place on the National Mall in Washington, DC back in the summer of 2008, which I’ve written about in this story.

If you’re asking, ‘what the heck does El Paso have to do with Bhutan,’ then you’re new to this blog–welcome!–and these stories I filed on this momentous occasion will give it some context: One for PRI’s The World and the other for Smithsonian.

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“Being a small part of something big”

FullSizeRenderTeresa Belton’s book Happier People Healthier Planet: How putting wellbeing first would sustain life on Earth has proven an inspired read to ease into the new year, helping me to re-commit to priorities I’ve personally set (and sometimes struggled with) over the last 8 years, since I first started studying Buddhism and learning about the concept of “gross national happiness.”

This scholarly text is filled with intriguing stories of people who have made choices to live more simply,; to quit jobs they hate and step off the treadmill of consumption; to steer instead onto paths that honor who they are, instead of being who society expects them to be.

As Belton lays out artfully in her text, these choices aren’t just good for the individual; they’re helpful to the planet, overall.  Having control over one’s life, she writes, rather than achieving success in the eyes of others, is what matters for genuine well-being.

One remark from an interviewee hit my recovering Type-A self hard: “The realization and the acceptance that I wasn’t ambitious in the slightest enabled me to pursue work which wasn’t about getting somewhere and more about enabling me to live a more authentic lifestyle.”

“More isn’t better,” concludes an interviewee named Mark, “…I hate waste and greed…nature is free, generous, delightful, uplifting.  Because consuming only what I find I need reduces my carbon footprint and allows me to feel good about myself and my place in this environment.”

You may not finish this book inspired to make radical shifts in your life, like eschewing air travel or bathing, as one woman does to preserved natural resources, using a bucket and soap rather than in the shower.  You may be like one interview subject, who despairs over the use of the word “happiness” when there is intractable suffering and degradation of our natural resources. (Others point out the tremendous good even one person can make in shifting the state of the world.) But if you’re even mildly intrigued by the ideas that recognizing we are “a small part of something big” trumps any house you can buy or promotion you can get at work, and that solitude and silence and nature are more nourishing than pricey handbags, you’ll find this a satisfying read.  It’s good to know there are people out there who are driven by such strong, positive beliefs that take into account their fellow humans, not simply by the grab of cash most of us are instructed to pursue.

Be true to yourself in this year 2015.

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Bhutan, Tex-Mex style: Himalayas cast a wide net in El Paso

Prayer wheel behind UTEP's Centennial Museum

Prayer wheel behind UTEP’s Centennial Museum

This morning around dawn, on Veteran’s Day, which also happens to be the birth anniversary of the fourth King of Bhutan, I turned an authentic Bhutanese prayer wheel in an unlikely place: on the campus of the University of Texas El Paso.

The palm tree is the dead giveaway: This is El Paso, not Bhutan

The palm tree is the dead giveaway: This is El Paso, not the Himalayas.

The entire school is built in the distinctive style of the Kingdom’s architecture.   If that wasn’t strange enough, the connection dates back to 1914, long before anyone from Texas could have imagined stepping foot in Bhutan (since the tiny country wasn’t officially open to outsiders until the 1970s.)

Campus library: A giant thangkha of the Four Friends hangs over a 100-foot altar in the lobby.  At the espresso stand on the left, the barista told me the architecture is even starting to seep into other places around El Paso

Campus library: A giant thangkha of the Four Friends hangs over a 100-foot altar in the lobby. At the espresso stand on the left, the barista told me the architecture is even starting to seep into other places around town.

I’ve written about this surreal connection in my book, Radio Shangri-la, and before on this blog, so I won’t detail the interesting history here, but my fascination with this bizarre and wonderful bit of pre-globalization globalization never ends.  This week, I’m on the campus of UTEP to speak to a number of classes and to deliver a talk at the museum tomorrow night at 5pm.

Here are some photos (and if you’d like to see some videos, please click here.)  The first one below is of an authentic Bhutanese temple that was constructed on the National Mall in DC for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2008, and was recently “re-incarnated” here on the campus in El Paso.  Surrounded by dozens of examples of the Tex-Mex interpretation of Bhutan’s architecture.

This lakhang (temple) once sat on the National Mall in DC.  It's being readied for public view in UTEP's plaza.

This lakhang (temple) once sat on the National Mall in DC. It’s being readied for public view in UTEP’s plaza, which as you can see is under renovation.

No where else on earth, not even in Bhutan, is there a parking garage that looks like this

No where else on earth, not even in Bhutan, is there a parking garage that looks like this

Nor would you ever see a stupa fronted by an animated billboard, like this one in front of the Centennial museum

Nor would you ever see a stupa fronted by an animated billboard, like this one in front of the Centennial museum

IMG_4239And if you share my fascination with all of this and would like to know more, there’s also this short story available on Amazon.

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The 100 year-old magazine article that changed the face of an American university

View of bridge outside Punakha, where the 5th King of Bhutan married several years ago.

View of bridge outside Punakha, where the 5th King of Bhutan married several years ago.

One of the most exciting parts of learning about Bhutan has been an odd, wonderful gem I learned from some people, ironically, here in Los Angeles.

The late architect Kurt Meyer and his intrepid wife Pamela Deuel Meyer kindly clued me in to the fact that the University of Texas El Paso is built entirely in the style of Bhutanese architecture.

It’s all because the wife of the provost of the school at the time, then named the Texas School of Mines, was reading this article in the National Geographic 100 years ago, poetically titled Castles in the Air.

The first king of Bhutan was crowned during a visit by John Claude White, who worked for the Brits "next door" in India.

The first king of Bhutan was crowned during a visit by John Claude White, who worked for the Brits “next door” in India.

John Claude White, who built a bridge between Bhutan and El Paso, Texas--without realizing it

John Claude White, who built a bridge between Bhutan and El Paso, Texas–without realizing it

The British explorer John Claude White offered a peak inside the Kingdom that the world, certainly not the west, had ever seen before.  88 pages of photographs made on plate glass, that somehow managed to make it out of Bhutan on horseback.

Tantalized by the architecture and this mysterious Kingdom in the clouds, Kathleen Worrell pushed her husband to model the school he ran after this unique place—long before any tourists could ever imagine visiting it.

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You have to look awfully close, at the center of this photograph, to see the hermit house

Used to be, if you wanted to see that article, you had to plunk down a pretty penny for a back issue, or find it at a library, or in someone’s dusty old collection.  Not as of today.  The good folks at National Geographic have published it online, photographs and all.

The dzong in Thimphu looks much like this photograph from 100 years ago.

The dzong in Thimphu looks much like this photograph from 100 years ago.

If you are at all interested in Bhutan, its history, or UTEP, or the impact of a magazine article to inspire someone half a world away, you must read it: here.

And here’s my piece about the unique connection in the LA Times.

UTEP calls itself "Bhutan on the Border" (of Mexico, of course.)

UTEP calls itself “Bhutan on the Border” (of Mexico, of course.)

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A sacred thangkha, commissioned by the 8th Dalai Lama, on rare display

-1On Friday, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena will open an exhibit called In the Land of Snow: Buddhist Art of the Himalayas.  The centerpiece of this show is a majestic thangkha, 300 years old, 22 feet tall and 16 feet wide, that was commissioned by the 8th Dalai Lama for his tutor.  You must see it in person to believe it.

Click here to read and hear the story I did for KCRW about the history of this rare piece, which has only been shown twice in the last 40 years (and not much before that.)  The curator, Melody Rod-Ari, does a beautiful job of explaining how the thangkha was made, and why it’s relevant–and powerful for your karma.

There are other Buddhist artifacts on display, too, but they are dwarfed, literally and figuratively by the scroll and its unusual display.

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Upcoming talk about female Buddhist spiritual leaders with the author of Dakini Power

On Saturday, June 22nd at Insight LA in Santa Monica, writer Michaela Haas and I are going to have a conversation about her new book, Dakini Power, which is all about women spiritual leaders in Buddhism.  Join us?Image

As I’ve written here before, this book is a fascinating read and Michaela’s personal story is intriguing, too.  (She was on a fast-track journalism career when she had a spiritual awakening in Bhutan, and changed course.)

Come hear us and see some pictures of these important spiritual leaders, too.

Details:

http://www.insightla.org/1242/michaela-haas-and-lisa-napoli-discuss-dakini-power

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Finding peace in the noise: Urban Dharma in Science of Mind

It was when my swimming pool went out of commission for repairs for a few months, 5 years ago, that I realized my daily exercise was meditative as well as good for my physical body.  

Suddenly, I felt addled, and I went online in search of meditation podcasts.  I found Urban Dharma–a series of talks and meditations by Rev. Kusala Bhikshu at the International Buddhist Meditation Center.

Which happened to be located in Koreatown, just a few miles from where I live.  So, after devouring a dozen or so of the podcasts, I went to pay my respects.  

ImageAnd I’ve been going back ever since to talk to and study with Rev. Kusala.  He’s become a good friend, and I’ve seen him speak in a number of venues–often in churches, where he’s asked to explain Buddhism.  Often he punctuates his talks with his harmonica or ukulele.

So when Science of Mind magazine asked me to write about him, I was delighted to share a bit of this monk’s story.

The only trouble is…it’s not published online.  Email me if you’d like to see the article.

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The zen, true secret of writing: Just do it

ImageBack when I was a young aspiring writer with nothing to write about, someone who loved and believed in me gave me a book about writing called Writing Down the Bones.

I can’t remember why, exactly, but I remember that it moved me.  Gave me confidence.  Planted the seed of a commitment:  Don’t be someone who talks about writing.  Or someone who makes excuses about not writing.  Write.

Now, 25 years later and the author has a follow-up, The True Secret of Writing, based on the writing retreats she’s lead ever since.

The theme continues: Don’t talk about writing.  Don’t talk about anything.  The secret is, simply: “Shut up, and write.”

It may seem an odd mantra for a Zen-infused woman to chant, but, as I retreat into my world for the evening to heed the call, I can say it works.

Oh irony: you can hear Natalie speak about this philosophy in this brief conversation I had with her for KCRW this week in advance of her appearance tomorrow night at Insight LA.

 

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Women, power, and Buddhism

ImageThere’s a new book out from Snow Lion/Shambhala called Dakini Power: Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.  The author is Michaela Haas, a journalist who earned a phD in Buddhist studies after a transformative trip to Bhutan; she lives in both Malibu and her native Germany.

The book offers biographical sketches of influential women in Buddhism, from nuns immersed in service work, to women who are wives of spiritual masters, to show that it is not a man’s world only.

It’s a riveting read.  People who dedicate their lives to any religion fascinate me, and there’s something otherworldly about westerners who immerse themselves in Buddhism, particularly the storied and sometimes fantastic traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

ImageTo some of the stories in the book, I found myself wondering: Is it feminist (and/or religious) to marry your spiritual master, and then, as he ages, bring another man into the home?  Is a solitary retreat a solitary retreat when one interrupts to tend to their family?

The whole “spiritual master” thing, as I’ve written here before, makes me uncomfortable, but Haas introduces these stories with an even hand that made me think, more than I usually do, about it–as well as the nature of devotion and spirituality and feminism.

The book also made me wonder: Is there something to this idea of a person being an “emanation’ or “reincarnation” or able to transmit or receive teachings–versus simply practicing the basic precepts of Buddhism and living kindly and peacefully, mindful of your impact on the earth?  Can one person be more holy than another, really?

If you’re reading this un-review (I’d rather talk about it with you in person than try to play book reviewer, which I am not!) all I’m saying is: Dakini Power might make you ask some questions, too.  At the very least it’ll introduce you to some interesting and indeed powerful women who have made some very interesting life choices in the name of their spiritual path.

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HIV on the rise among Buddhist monks in Bhutan

It’s sad to read the news that HIV and other STDs are on the rise among young monks in Bhutan.  

But given that many of these monks haven’t chosen the religious path, but rather, have been sent down that road by parents or guardians, it’s not surprising.  

Poor families often send a child to the monastery to relieve the burden on the household of raising another kid; orphaned kids are sent when there’s no one to take them in.

In this story from Religion News Service, stress and lack of recreational facilities are blamed, too.  

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