Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tibetan Art and High Technology

This is the Philadelphia Museum of Art's top scientist, Beth Price: a pioneer in the examination of artwork by means of forensic technology. In 2006, Dr. Price began creating a database for the dating and authentication of Tibetan painted artifacts, using tools such as Fourier transform infrared micro-spectroscopy, gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, x-ray diffraction, scanning electron microscopy using secondary and back-scattered electron imaging, and energy and wave dispersive spectroscopy. She is also exploring a timeline of the introduction of non-native pigments into Tibet.

Her first project was the conservation of a painted Tibetan altar, acquired in 2004. The process is well documented on the museum's web site, and worth close study by everyone with an interest.

Since Dr. Price's Tibetan database has now grown to be the largest of its kind in the world, the Philadelphia Museum has become the "go to" laboratory for Tibetan art, and furniture. In the latter case, there is an enormous amount of fakery, with supposedly "antique Tibetan" pieces selling for high sums on world markets. Among other discoveries, the museum has determined that Chinese forgers are applying charcoal and resin to the surface of modern polyvinyl acetate paint to artificially create the appearance of age.

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Principles of Tibetan Art

For those of us in the United States, this long-awaited reprint of Gega Lama's incomparable Principles of Tibetan Art will not come cheap: 150 Euros, or USD $197.39 at last reckoning. But, if you have any interest at all in Tibetan sacred art, it will be the best money you ever spent. 

This is widely regarded as the finest work of its kind ever written. Long unavailable, it has now been done in a new edition by the late Gega Lama's son, Tharpen Lingtsang -- an extremely gifted artist in his own right.

Over 460 pages of illustrations and explanations of Tibetan Buddhist iconography from the late master of the Karma Gardri School.

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

As It Is

"This original state is not of our making. Acknowledging this is the perfect view. I am not saying that this view is good while the views of the lower vehicles are bad; but there is a difference in the extent to which the view is mixed with concept. One could convince oneself that, 'This is the meditation state! This is probably emptiness.' That is superimposing emptiness upon one's experience. In other words, it is not the natural state as it is. Similarly, to remind oneself 'This is all a magical illusion,' during the activities of daily life is still a concept.

"To cling to a particular concept is like a bird that flaps its wings and tries to fly but cannot, because it's bound by a chain. The training in the true view is not a training in holding concepts, even the subtle types. It is a matter of recognizing what already is, by itself. Our nature of mind is naturally empty and cognizant; it is not of our making. There is no need to hold a concept about it. In other words, when you remember to recognize, you see immediately that there is no thing to see. That's it. At other times one has forgotten, and it is lost."

--Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche,
As It Is: Volume II

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

The White Lama

We have published notice of Theos Bernard in the past (here and here). His story is quite remarkable, and deserves to be better known -- even celebrated -- because, if not for him, the devastation wrought by Red China upon Tibet would be even more irrecoverable.

This past year saw the publication of an important new book entitled White Lama: The Life of Tantric Yogi Theos Bernard, Tibet's Lost Emissary to the New World, by Douglas Veenhof (New York: Harmony Books, 2011). Mr. Veenhof is a Buddhist practitioner, who states he was inspired to take up the work by Geshe Michael Roach. This coming May, we will see Paul G. Hackett's similarly titled work, White Lama: Theos Bernard, Tibet and Yoga in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

What occasions this interest is the discovery, in 1998, of 119 boxes and 18 large trunks, and packing crates, in four self-storage units in Upland, California. Described by Veenhof as a "time capsule of Tibetan culture at its zenith," these containers proved to be Theos Bernard's lost legacy -- thousands of photographs, and miles of 16mm motion picture film exposed during his visit to Tibet, along with letters, manuscripts, journals, and Bernard's personal library of 3,000 books on Tibet, Buddhism, and Yoga, all dating prior to 1947. The trunks housed Bernard's artifacts collection:
"Those included 22 bronze images of Buddhist deities, 40 thangka paintings, 23 Tibetan rugs, 25 large painted mandalas, more than 100 large cloth wood-block prints of historical figures and deities, 79 volumes of Tibetan texts, and a large number of Tibetan textiles, religious robes, hats, ritual implements, and household items."
The University of California at Berkeley became the repository of this material in April 2000, where it is now the Theos C. Bernard - G. Eleanore Murray Collection and Archive, generally administered by the Bancroft Library. You can consult their online entry by clicking here, and download the finding aid by clicking here.

Veenhof writes:
"The fifty mule loads of Buddhist scriptures and art objects that Tibetans sent home in 1937 with Theos Bernard, their emissary to the West, are artifacts of Tibet's medieval culture in full bloom and in one of its final summers before Mao's revolution flooded across the border."
The books acquired by Bancroft Library in 2000, were in fact not the first of the books Bernard brought back to be housed in Berkeley. I have previously mentioned the first books, and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche's generous 2006 gift. These first books -- I found them in a large, unopened trunk in a broom closet in the Durant Library in 1968 -- were evidence of Bernard's dream -- his Tibetan Text Society -- an effort to translate the Tengyur, which is still ongoing to the present day. This screen shot from the California Secretary of State shows the date of incorporation:

To accomplish his goal, Bernard acquired a lovely estate in Montecito, California, and named it "Tibetland." His idea was to house his Tibetan Text Society at the estate, which would also accommodate visiting Tibetan lamas he hoped to bring to the United States. Control of the property passed to his wife at the time, who renamed it Lotusland, and if you are ever in the vicinity of Santa Barbara, you can visit this beautiful place. The few Tibetan books that did manage to find their way to the property are, to the best of my understanding, the books that I found in the broom closet at Berkeley.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Nyingma Monlam Chenmo 2012

The Twenty-Third Annual Nyingma Monlam Chenmo, 24 January 2012 through 2 February 2012 is well underway at the Maha Bodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya. Photograph above depicts a small fraction of today's crowd. Over the span of the past twenty-two years, Kyabje Tarthang Rinpoche -- the creator of the event -- has given away over three million books, three million sacred art prints of the highest quality, and over 140,000 prayer wheels: a monumental achievement by any measure. Among the books to be given out in 2012 will be complete sets of the works of Dudjom Rinpoche, Jigme Lingpa, and Patrul Rinpoche, grammar books, lexicons, and dictionaries. Click here to find out how you can become a direct participant in this important work.

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Your Own Mind Is the Teacher

"Listen! Your state of pure and total presence,
And all sentient beings of the three realms,
Are clearly shown to be the teacher.
Because you have not seen your mind as the teacher,
Even after a hundred thousand aeons,
When I, the majestic creativity of the universe,
Manifest as the teacher, your own mind,
You should listen to this message: your own mind is the teacher."
-- Longchenpa

Jigme Lingpa (1730 - 1798), pictured above, rather "proves" the verity of Longchenpa's statement, doesn't he? By taking his own, timeless mind as the teacher, he was able to receive scriptures that established the Dzogchen Longchen Nyingtig: translated by some as "The Heart Sphere of the Great Expanse."

In the coming year, we will begin to investigate the powerful preliminary practices of this lineage, the Dzogpachenpo Longchen Nyingtig Ngondro

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Year of the Water Dragon Arrives

Happy New Year to our beloved readers and friends.
Year of the Water Dragon

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Buddhist Talismans and Amulets

When I am in Shenzhen, I often spend free time wandering around "Antique City," which is like a combination Portobello Road, outdoor flea market, Antiques Road Show, and yard sale, surrounded by dozens and dozens of small curio shops; these, built in a surrounding multistory building, not unlike a Pentagon of curiosity. This is in the 5000 block of Shen Nan Dong Lu, in Luo Hu District -- sort of off the intersection of Hongling Middle Road and Shen Nan East. 

The same sort of thing is found in most other Chinese cities, if not all of them, with the granddaddy in Beijing. The street bourses are all alike: a cloth laid on the ground, a shill "negotiating" with the "owner," and eventually winning an obvious treasure at a ridiculously low price -- all the delightful, illusory flotsam of Samsara's ocean laid there to hook the unwary by any means possible.

Similarly, when I am in Bangkok, I always visit the Amulet Markets -- of which there are actually several -- with the biggest one near the Chao Phraya River -- the Ta Prachan Market, with quite literally hundreds of thousands of amulets on display. It is difficult to describe the intensity of this place. There are sidewalk sellers, stall sellers, shops, and all out bourses. During the terrible floods in Thailand last year, water was knee deep in the market, but business continued as usual. People were searching for amulets to protect them from the waters (and the crocodiles, who came out of the river to swim the streets, and not all of them were wearing makeup).

Invariably, whether in China or Thailand or anywhere else, you will find Buddhist talismans -- which are objects believed to have magic powers and to bring good luck -- amulets -- thought to confer protection -- and the boxes in which to carry said talismans and amulets, among which we find the ubiquitous ga'u, of Tibet.

Depending upon your level of fluency in such matters, it will either surprise or not surprise you to learn that the overwhelming majority of "antique" Buddhist amulets and talismans -- to include the "Tibetan" ones you see all over Asia -- are manufactured in China, where the manufacturing of antiques is itself an antique occupation. How could it be otherwise? In China, there are "fake" antiques hundreds of years old in their own right, and these can occasionally be seen as holding value better than the original they purport to duplicate.

Some people like to collect these, which is iffy as far as I am concerned. Once you learn to distinguish between the "real" ones and the "fake" ones, which is itself a dubious practice -- the "real" ones are generally Nepali, the "fake" ones are frequently Chinese  --  you confront the issue of provenance. Presumably, the "real" ones came from dead Tibetans. Who knows how these came into other hands? I don't want any part of such transactions, do you?

Ga'u are usually distinguished by their contents: one or more pills, nectar, rolled pages from books, small painted images, small clay images, printed talismans sewn into cloth pouches, bits of prayer flags, and protection cords are all typical. In some ways, given the prevalence of Tibetan pills one finds, you could argue that these are not unlike the Native North American's medicine bag. Incidentally, this is just one of the non-medical uses for Tibetan traditional pills. One also finds them in bowls or reliquaries on the altar as offerings, and used to fill statues and stupas.

Nowadays, it is common to find the large traveling shrine boxes, of which the above is a typical example. These are being offered with all sorts of legends attached (they are the property of a saintly lama who is forced to sell them to restore his destroyed monastery) and range in price from around $20.00 to $2,000.00 or more depending upon credulity. More often than not, the large ones contain rather crude clay images painted with pigments that seem surprisingly modern. The cloth protective covers are always dirty, but the cloth itself and the machine stitching are suspicious.

Above is what one normally sees. These purport to be done by the Newari craftsmen who worked in an enclave in Lhasa until the Tibetan Holocaust. In actuality, they are not hammered repousse, but are made by molds in Chengdu, and actually have been for some considerable time now.

The above traveling shrine box begs the question -- who cares where it was made and how old it is? Above is in fact a nicely crafted specimen of relatively recent manufacture. Again, this is not repousse. These are made from molds.

In Nepal, the small traveling shrines are making a comeback. These are beautifully done, and you can get them at reasonable prices even in the United States. Consult Zambala in Southern California for availability, since the firm is the largest distributor of these in the world. Below is a photograph of Dungse Riksin Dorje Rinpoche, son of the late Terton Kunzang Dechen Lingpa, blessing one of these new ga'u for my daughter. (We like this photo because of the "orb.")

The small -- and some not so small -- silver ga'u traditionally worn by both ladies and gentlemen are extremely popular. You used to be able to get nice, solid silver ones from Nepal and Tibet, but these are gradually being replaced by plated ones. These typically contain a pill, a printed talisman, and/or nectar, and almost never contain clay images. Below is what one could expect to find at a street stall in Lhasa.

The larger, turquoise and coral encrusted silver ga'u are also readily available, although the "coral" is more often than not resin, and the "turquoise" is shamelessly dyed. Below is an example of current offerings.

There are a few books about that give learned notice of such matters. Robert Beers gives appropriate discussion in his Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. In 1978, Nik Douglas persuaded Dover to publish his Tibetan Tantric Charms and Amulets. Then, there is a book in a class all by itself: an anthropological study by Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, The Buddhist saints of the forest and the cult of amulets, published by Cambridge. Tibetan Amulets by Tadeusz Skorupski is also back in print.

Only fair to mention that not all "antique" ga'u you encounter are phony baloney. Above is an example of a wealth ga'u found offered on the Web that is certainly genuine.

The best amulets you can readily obtain today -- no matter where you live -- are those from Dodrupchen Rinpoche's American support operation, Tshog Dag Foundation. Click this link, and you will be taken to an amulet wearer's heaven.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Yoga for Beauty

You can spend gazillion dollars on books, magazine, yoga clothes, shoes, mats, things to carry the mats, memberships in studios, and the whole she-bang. Hatha yoga being what it is, you will certainly get some near-term benefit.

But, unless you approach yoga in the way yoga was meant to be approached, there are absolutely no long-term guarantees.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Year of the Dragon Approaches

The Year of the Iron Rabbit is transitioning into the Year of the Water Dragon. Above, our sticky rabbit friend seems reluctant to let go, so he is imitating a fire-breathing dragon.

We never know what any year will bring. Trying to find out is what keeps diviners in business. For a long time now, I have entertained a doubt about Asian astrology in general, to the effect that it is one year "off." What I mean by this is last year, Year of the Iron Rabbit, was in many respects more like Year of the Iron Tiger in its characteristics. So, if you believe that, this Year of the Dragon will in fact be more like a Year of the Rabbit.

I have never found anyone who agrees with my suspicion, save a JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena, California) scientist I met online once.  He uses JPL's computing power to pin down lunar dates, and he claimed that this was, in fact, correct: all Asian lunar calendars are one year off.

The ubiquitous Wan Ni'en Li, found in almost every Chinese household, is no longer current -- the last entry for this book published annually since 1912 is January 22, 2012. Doubtless, there will be new editions.

By all conventional calculations, Monday, January 23, 2012, marks the first day of the lunar year Water Dragon. We have already published our Tibetan astrological assessment of the year, so consult that if you are interested.

In the meantime, enjoy the holidays. Asia is more or less closed for the next month so cares will be difficult to find. This is a good time for family, meetings with friends, earnest practice, and... give that sticky rabbit a rest before he gets into any more mischief!

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Uncompromising Mirror

"In the scriptures, a crazy-wisdom person is described as 'He who subdues whatever needs to be subdued and destroys whatever needs to be destroyed.' Whatever your neurosis demands, when you relate with a crazy-wisdom person, you get hit with that. Crazy-wisdom presents you with a mirror reflection. A mirror will not compromise with you. If you don’t like what you see, there’s no point in blaming the mirror."
                                       ---Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Little Moon Shrines

Tashi Palden is a personable Tibetan fellow, married to an American woman, now living and raising a family in Albany, New York. To make ends meet, he started a Tibetan gift shop, named Little Moon. The shop is at 467 Madison, corner of Willet, if you're ever in Albany.

Tashi has taken to producing hand painted shrines. Above, you see a standard cabinet and hutch re-purposed for average home use. In a smaller range, Tashi is also constructing and painting the shrine you see below, suitable for most apartments. For more information, contact Tashi directly.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Change Together

"The supreme self-arisen blessings will
Mature your being and engage in the 
benefit of others to pacify suffering.
As your perceptions change, so will the perception of others;
Change together, and then accomplish the Buddha activity
And all precious qualities will be perfected within yourself."

--as written by the sublime
Kunzang Dechen Lingpa

"I wish all of you would try your best to have a clearer understanding of the dharma. Listen to the teachings, contemplate the teachings, and then internalize them by practicing meditation. You should do this to the point that your inner qualities, which are already indwelling, can begin to blossom and allow your inner wisdom to blaze like a bright light that burns continuously, rather than your conspicuous, blazing pride or your blazing delusion or your blazing anger. Haven't you had enough of them? Beneath them are the inconceivable, real qualities of enlightened body, speech, mind, noble qualities and miraculous activities, which we need to bring forth. Please try."

--Gyatrul Rinpoche

[Dakini Day 18 January 2012: May It Be Auspicious]

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About Forgiveness

Do you forgive the sun for your sunburn?
Or do you get into the shade, and thank it for shining?

Lately, there has been quite a bit of talk about the medical benefits of forgiveness. Even the prestigious Mayo Clinic -- if you ever get a bill from them you will know just how prestigious -- has chimed in with definite findings. According to Big Medicine, forgiving others will:
Lower your blood pressure;
Diminish stress;
Diminish anger and hostility;
Reduce symptoms of depression.
This is admirable, though certainly nothing new. Tibetan medicine explains lymphatic cancer as originating in "retained anger or grudge." While "medical" forgiveness ought to be encouraged, today I am interested in forgiveness as a natural extension of one's own spontaneous appreciation of that which arises. Or, to put it another way: forgiveness without expected benefits. Forgiveness without selfish reasons.

Effortless forgiveness.

It is all well and good to convince one's self to forgive others, but the very premise of this -- "self" and "others" -- is the cause of all human misery. As Buddhists, our principal task is to get past that sort of thinking just as quickly as possible. As Buddhists, we think of ourselves as travelers on a path -- a journey without a goal -- and much of the imagery that surrounds our belief is seen in just such terms. We see life's challenges as a continuous opportunity to express our faith: to put "compassion into action" if you like such phrases. 

In this light then, exercising forgiveness is one of the pivotal moments in one's journey as a human being. Yet, some of us turn this marvelous opportunity for clarity into yet another excuse for letting ego off the leash. 
  • We become regal: "I forgive thee in my munificence, for I am Holy."
  • We become self-satisfied: "I am wondrous because I forgive."
  • We even start counting scalps: "I have forgiven fifteen more villains in my munificent wondrousness today, for a total of thirty-two forgiven villains this week."
  • We reinforce excuses: "My [insert scapegoat here] was a no good, skirt chasing, whiskey guzzling gambler who ruined my life, but I have forgiven him."

Forgiveness turns into an industry: all sorts of carpetbaggers (well, yoga mat baggers maybe) pop up to help us explain our feelings to ourselves. You see advice like, "Move away from your role as victim and release the control and power the offending person and situation have had on your life." Sounds great doesn't it? Maybe so, but it is what I call "bargain basement" forgiveness. It is completely transactional, and fundamentally wrong: a selfish act in disguise, predicated on material notions of "victims," "perpetrators," "power," and so forth.

That plays on Oprah, but Oprah is off the air, and your mortal clock is ticking in a realm way, way beyond victim culture and televised schmaltz.

Only when forgiveness ceases to be transactional does it become genuine. Forgiveness ceases to be transactional when you are able to proceed from a fundamentally sane view:
"All the outer and inner characteristics of the world of form and content in their entirety,
Although appearing, are simply to be left in a state devoid of grasping at a self.
Purification of the grasping subject and grasped at object is the divine form, manifest yet empty.... "
  --"The Prayer Requested by Namkha'i Nyingpo," Le'u bDun Ma
So, what we are talking about is eliminating the concept of forgiver and forgiven, and instead relaxing into what might be called the ultimate forgiveness: the forgiveness that comes from understanding the nature of things. We don't need anybody to mediate this. We don't need anybody to explain this. We don't need anybody to interpret this. 

People have been reading some of the posts I published following my sojourn in the hoosegow, and they have written to ask, "How could you ever forgive that bunch?" I've been asked that question so many times lately, I actually sat down and thought about how to answer.

I suppose my answer is the idea of forgiveness never came up because I never felt the necessity. Even ostensibly unpleasant episodes have their purpose. If you look at things equally, this idea of pleasant and unpleasant starts to blur and fade. You live long enough, you come to understand that people will hurt you out of blind ignorance. You can understand it for whatever benefit understanding brings, and then let it go for whatever benefit that might bring. This is samsara. The bus is crowded. Somebody is going to step on your foot, and not say, "Excuse me." Somebody is going to fart in the elevator.

You can just let these things go without much effort at all. Now, people with a guilty conscience, or people with a sorely limited view, tend to judge the actions of others by comparison with their own smallness. They will say, "Yeah... forgive me... so what? Your forgiveness is just a feint in some evil plan." Maybe they will repeatedly smack you, just to test if your forgiveness is real. If the concept of forgiveness is a dialectical exercise for you, then such things will occupy your attention and disturb your mind. There are a whole lot of skunks stinking up the woods, and the thing is to roll up the window until you get a little farther down the road. Forgiving a skunk for being a skunk is a mighty neurotic waste of time.

Really, the best forgiveness is to experience no wrong.

Really, the best forgiveness is to accept the divine form, manifest yet empty.

If that just isn't in the cards for you, sit down out back of the house, visualize everything and everybody that ever pissed you off right in front of you, take a big drink of whatever you use to cure snakebite, and say, "Oh, what the Hell. None of us is getting any younger."

For that suggestion, may I be forgiven.


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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Happiness of Pencils

"Art for me is a way of resting and replenishing my mind. As the person who holds the name of Karmapa, I hold so many responsibilities that need to be completed, to be accomplished, but not everything goes according to plan. It can be exhausting sometimes. What I like about painting a picture is that when I sit down to paint, I complete it. Even when I am drawing, there is something about the process of painting that brings peace and relaxation to my mind." -- 17th Karmapa

Among beginning practitioners, there are many who harbor guilt for enjoying life's gentle idle. Diversions such as poetry, art, music, and the like are seen as somehow counterproductive: seductions that take one away from practice.

Not so. 

Art is necessary.

Since Buddhism as practiced in Tibet began to make its way to the West, there have been numerous examples of highly realized beings who managed to combine lively artistic endeavor with the interests of all sentient beings. Trungpa Rinpoche comes immediately to mind. He was a multi-talented artist with considerable skill at calligraphy, painting, photography, flower arranging, and of course, drama and poetry.

I find everything by Tashi Mannox to be inspiring.
People who express Nirmanakaya by means of
artistic works are what,
do you know?

The Seventeenth Karmapa gives us another example. As a child, he came to know the celebrated artist Tashi Mannnox. Tashi's father was a brilliant craftsman patronized by the Sixteenth Karmapa, so it seems there is a strong connection between the Mannox clan and the Karmapas. Tashi showed the young Seventeenth the fundamentals of sketching, and composition, with early collaboration on an embroidered patch design. Other instructors followed, and the Karmapa eventually developed into a gifted watercolorist. That is his painting of a tiger, above, done in the Chinese style.

While not in the same league as those mentioned -- not in any way, shape, or form -- I have nevertheless always enjoyed sketching, pen and ink, photography, thinking with a pencil, and lately -- a new wrinkle on an old medium known as "colored pencil painting."

This technique involves the use of ordinary, wax-based colored pencils, together with odorless mineral spirits. You get a smooth lay-down, and you can then work over it. How this differs from the watercolor pencils I do not know, because I've never used them. Most of the people working in this medium are doing hyper-realism, and the results are astonishing. You can get the flavor of it from Alyona Nickelsen's work. She is a Russian-born artist working down in Orange County, California, and author of the Colored Pencil Painting Bible, which is what I am using to teach myself the methods. I usually don't get very much from "how to" books, but I learned quite a bit from this one.

About the first question everyone has is, "What pencil should I use?" That is a deep subject. Like everything else, pencils are not what they used to be in terms of quality.

Pencils were invented by an Austrian fellow named Hardtmuth, who in 1790 went to Czechoslovakia and started a company named Koh-I-Noor. In 1802, he patented the first pencil lead, made of graphite and clay. You can still buy the "Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth" pencils to this very day. In around 1848, the firm located some manufacturing operations in Bohemia, and back in Austria, and the lineal descendant of the Austrian facilities is the firm Cretacolor. They have a nice line called Karmina, which is amusing for some reason. Their fine art graphite line is the best you will find anywhere.

Good quality colored pencils today are those of the Swiss firm Caran d'Ache. As an aside, you should know that "caran d'ache" is the French adaptation of the Russian word "karandach," meaning pencil. These pencils are not cheap: the set of 120 pictured below costs around $411. on eBay -- the lowest price you are likely to see anywhere. Their best quality pencils -- the Luminance series -- are even more expensive. 

Because I do not have much money, I make do with Prismacolor pencils. These are made in Mexico, and are of inconsistent quality and "feel." They do have a nice palette though, particularly for desert landscapes, which is what I like to draw.

I have been collecting pencils for use since 1958, which is when my father gave me a small artist's studio complete with paints, drawing board, easel, pencils, pens, etc. For graphite work, I have vintage Staedtler pencils from the 1930s that I bought from an old stationer's basement in the 1960s. I also have some of the original Staedtler pencils my father gave me.

It does not take much to be happy. You can collect a few pencils, erasers, and blending sticks, and get a pad of drawing paper. You can go sit in the park and sketch the trees. It becomes a meditation on emptiness. Try this and see if you enjoy the exercise. It beats sitting around by yourself in some dim room, feeling forlorn, worrying about "being a Buddhist."

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Monday, January 16, 2012

What Was It Like?

In view of the ten month (ahem) "vacation," there is a backlog of email waiting to be answered (4,798, to be exact), and, since we returned from the (ahem) "vacation," there is also a steady peal of joyous outcry to consider. Then, there are of course letters from our regular readers, who want the "insider's lowdown."

In the latter category, perhaps the most consistently asked question is, "What was it like?" Since this seems of interest to so many people, I propose to deal with it once -- and once only -- before I depart from the entire subject, and take up joyous pealing instead.

Well, it wasn't the worst situation, and it wasn't the best situation. 

It was just a situation.

Shortly after seven o'clock in the morning, whilst writing an item for Digital Tibetan Buddhist Altar, I observed what appeared to be a large contingent of variously attired individuals armed with light automatic weapons surrounding the ranch house. I reckoned it was the cartels moving north. 

I went to my attendant's room and roused her. She had just driven in from San Francisco the night before, so she was exhausted, and when she is exhausted she is short-tempered. Accordingly, she jumped up, put on her robe, and before I could advise otherwise, burst right out the door. This is a dangerous thing to do, but she is originally from Detroit.

At least a squad's worth of submachine guns were pointed at her, shotgun slides were heard, and a large fellow with a steady carbine threw down on her, commanding her not to move. She kept walking toward them, saying, "Go ahead and shoot a woman in a bathrobe. Be a hero." They grabbed her, cuffed her, and led her to a waiting car.

I walked out at this point and asked, "Is this a training exercise, or did you boys misplace Bin Laden?"

They called me by my full name, inclusive of middle names -- by which I immediately deduced they were federal officers -- and stated they had a warrant for my arrest. 

I was relieved to find it was the FBI: the locals are trigger happy, and the cartels are worse. Turns out they also had a search warrant, which they began executing immediately, showing what I thought at the time to be remarkable courtesy, restraint, and respect.

I asked them what the arrest warrant was about, and they said, "Somebody in Baltimore has it in for you. Don't really know too much else about it. We're just serving it."

My attendant was uncuffed, allowed to dress, and sat at the dining room table, talking to one of the officers. I was chained hand and foot, and led to a waiting car by two F.B.I. agents.  I was transported to Riverside, California, to a federal courthouse, and booked by the U.S. Marshal. I have worked quite a bit with the Marshals -- out of custody and otherwise -- so I am always glad to see them. 

The U.S. Magistrate thought it best that the matter of detention be argued back East, and I agreed.

I was taken then to the federal block of the San Bernardino County Jail. This is an over-stretched facility much like what one sees in the cinema: thirteen, tiny, single man cells with open bars, facing a wall. You are let out for thirty minutes each day to use the telephone. Your food is served through a slot in the door.

So, there I was, sitting in the cell, trying to stay positive, when somebody on the block flushed a toilet, and every toilet in every cell exploded like a fountain, with water rising about three feet into the air. The fountains subsided, and the entire block was flooded about a foot deep. Yes, there were "floaters." I began laughing, thinking to myself, "School is most definitely in session."

After a few days in San Bernardino, I was chained up, taken to a bus, and driven to Southern California Logistics Airport, "Home of the Drones," in Victorville, California. An unmarked, white, passenger jet was there, together with over a dozen buses. After a considerable wait, the passengers deplaned, were searched, chained anew, and sent to their respective buses, which were bound for prisons and lockups around California.

So, this was "Con Air," or properly, JPATS: the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System. It is nothing like the motion picture. It is just a dowdy, old commercial airliner, with no cages inside.

Restraints are the ubiquitous "black boxes," or three-point restraints. One wears them all the time when in movement. If you go to Court, you wear them. If you go to a hospital appointment, you wear them. They consist of leg irons, handcuffs, and a "black box" made of metal that separates the hands, holding them rigid, through which a chain is threaded. The chain is cinched around your waist, and locked with a padlock. The handcuffs and leg irons are both double-locked. So, you waddle along, your left hand over your right hand, palms facing each other, chained roughly waist high.

The plane took off from Victorville in the late morning, and after a time, it flew over the stupa. I could clearly see the stupa's mandala from the air.

We flew to Arizona, to pick up and drop off inmates in Arizona prisons. From Arizona, we flew to Oklahoma City -- straight to the heart of the American Gulag -- to a place I will not soon forget. When the plane arrives, you walk down the jetway straight into the prison itself. The "airport" is a prison! You stand in two long lines down a hall, and step up on a platform where your leg irons and chains are removed. You have a quick visit with a Public Health Officer, get an issue of clothes, and fill out a few forms. All of your clothes, shoes, and so forth are taken and mailed to your last known residential address.

The next time you are bumped from a flight and have to camp out in the airport, stop and think it could be worse: you could be in Oklahoma City, chained up next to a cannibal.

Very similar to this

Detainees are then shepherded into a large quad, very clean, very quiet, with two man cells. The cells have regular doors. You are locked in for "count," and at night, but the rest of the time you can open or close them as you wish. You can enjoy a constant supply of books, several television rooms, and a basketball court. You can send and receive emails (for a fee), and make telephone calls home.  The place is run quite efficiently, and if you have particular concerns, they are dealt with almost immediately.

The day after Losar, I again boarded the ancient airliner and flew to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. From Harrisburg, I was driven to downtown Baltimore -- to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, MCAC or "Supermax" (Super Maximum Security) as it is known -- the old Maryland Death Row; but, since the month prior to my arrival, operating as a Federal Metropolitan Detention Center, under contract with the U.S. Marshal's Service. 

At first encounter, Supermax seems like something out of a Dickens novel: one hesitates, for example, to ask for more gruel. It is a relatively small facility (around 500 inmates or less), built to house the worst of the worst. Its size contributes to its overall efficiency. A few hours after my arrival, I was amazed to find the entire staff seemed to know my name. The unspoken rule seemed to be, "If you're cordial with us, we're cordial with you," but troublemakers were firmly removed just as quickly as they were identified. 

Like most prisons in America, it was built with juiced contractors, so some systems barely function and are in constant need of repair. At Supermax, the malfunctioning system is climate control: you are either freezing cold or blazing hot, with no in-betweens. There is a consequently brisk demand for personal fans (USD $23.00, from a catalog), watch caps, and long underwear (various prices, also from a catalog). The fiscal year 2012 appropriation for this facility is $24 million, so I hope they fix the air conditioning.

Well, it wasn't the best place I've ever been, nor was it the worst. 

Not by a long shot.

Similar to this, except retrofitted for two man use;
has a shelf and a desk-like arrangement

Each pod consists of twelve cells, six up, six down. The upper tier is fenced in, so nobody can get thrown over the railing. There is but a single shower, so people must take turns. There is a microwave, four telephones, and a television. There is a caged-in "outdoor" recreation yard, and if you have the proper shoes and so forth, you can go out and shoot baskets.

The day begins around 5:00 a.m., when some sorry excuse for a breakfast is served. This is also when you mail your letters, and put in any sick call slips you may have. The electric doors slide open just long enough to pick up a breakfast tray, and then they slide shut behind you. Around 8:00 a.m., there is security shakedown and morning recreation. Corrections Officers search your cells, and frisk you for weapons. 

"Recreation" consists of demanding, whining, screaming, shouting, and cursing, and the common area television being turned on, full blast, to non-stop episodes of Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, and Judge This-Or-That: a blaring revel of negativity, interrupted only by sporting events in the afternoons and evenings. Morning medications are administered anywhere from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. -- never, in my experience, the same time two days in a row

Around eleven or twelve, you are served an awful "lunch," which is either baloney and cheese, or cheese and baloney. Afternoon "recreation" consists of listening to more Jerry, playing Dominos, or Spades, screaming, shouting, whining, and cursing -- and occasionally threatening -- until lock-down for the count at 2:00 p.m.. Afternoon medications are given between 2:00 and 2:30.

Near 4:00 p.m., the doors open again. Mail is distributed. Critiques are held concerning Jerry, Maury, Judge So-and-So, and whatever sporting contest seems uppermost in everyone's attention at the time. Whining, screaming, shouting, cursing, and threatening are supplemented by howling, rule-breaking for the hell of it, jostling, and smoking. 

Around 6:00 p.m., a horrible "dinner" is served on trays -- better it should be served in skulls: cuisine is nouvelle Calcutta sewage -- and I can promise you, this is absolutely the worst maggot-infested mess I have ever encountered anywhere. There are only so many things you can do with maggot. You can boil them, fry them, and simmer them in soups. If you're a vegetarian like me, you'll have to make do without maggot and opt for the rotten vegetables, served as "coleslaw," but known as "cold-slain."

This is probably one of the safest prisons in America, and the staff are truly professional. I never saw any violence of any kind while I was there, no did I encounter any of the horrors one is led to expect from movies and television. I did have some serious health problems when I first got there, and the officers and staff went above and beyond to help me out.

I was rather ill when I was arrested, having been hospitalized not long before. I discharged, against medical advice, only to determine an astrologically opportune day for surgery. My conditioned worsened with the stress of travel, incarceration, and trouble at home. On March 8th, upon returning to MCAC from Court, I collapsed while in chains. Fortunately, the prison doctor was on duty. He examined me and called 911.

Baltimore Fire Department Paramedics arrived and ran an EKG, which demonstrated an infarction. I was taken straightaway to Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, and admitted. Two days later I had surgery, and after a brief convalescence (a few hours I recall), I was taken to the prison hospital at the Metropolitan Transition Center (MTC).

Now, this is a very special place, seeing as it is the oldest continuously operating penal institution in the Western world. It was authorized in 1804 and opened in 1811. It houses Maryland's execution chamber -- first a gallows, then a gas chamber, and now a lethal injection chamber. In 1956, a portion of the original 1811 building was retrofitted as a sixty bed general hospital, so that is where I wound up.

This was not a nice place. I was in terrible pain, and confused by all the unfamiliar drugs. I was also bleeding quite a bit. I remember lying in the bed at night, watching rats make their way around a ledge on the wall. They would stop and look at me, decide I wasn't ripe enough, and keep moving. I stayed there for around ten days, and then I went back to Mercy Hospital for a second surgery.

At Mercy, I was always chained hand and foot to the bed, and attended by two armed guards. I was even chained in the operating room, where one of the guards was also present. It does not matter who you are. That is just the way they do things.

After the second visit to Mercy, I went back to MTC for a brief stay, and then, thankfully, I returned to MCAC.  

Upon arrival, I almost immediately went into withdrawals from a month's worth of narcotic pain relievers. The officers helped me every way they could, and I have a lasting sense of gratitude for the way I was treated. 

Somewhere in mid-April, I went back to Court, where the U.S. Magistrate ruled that I could be released. My release was contingent on staying in Maryland. Friends of mine offered to fly in, rent an apartment for me, and help with necessities, but this seemed like a waste. I decided to stay where I was. You can get detrimentally attached to the idea of "freedom," to the point where it just destroys you. You can get unreasonably attached to this place or that place. Fortunately, at my age, one place is more or less like any other place. Of course I have preferences, but it is likewise a good idea not to become attached to those preferences.

Better learn how to be comfortable wherever you are.

They served us Dole fruit cups, and these made nice offering bowls. I saved them up. I was able to get some uncooked rice for the bowls, and the rest of the offerings I drew with colored pencils on paper. I made a serkyem out of a fruit cup and a medicine cup, and managed to keep it filled with daily tea. After considerable negotiation, I managed to get a mala delivered, and from then out it was smooth sailing. I just stayed in the cell and practiced all day. In the evenings, I would write letters and do some sketching, and then to sleep at around ten o'clock.

At one point, I had some sort of a stroke, or transient ischemic event (TIE), and was taken out to Bon Secours Hospital. I stayed for a couple of days, and was brought back via MTC. This was nothing particularly remarkable. As time went on, I had a few more surgical procedures, but these were also unremarkable.

If you know a Buddhist who is locked up, the most useful things are a mala, some postcard-sized images, practice texts, and if required, books and commentaries. Unless you have the sadhanas memorized, the main thing is the practice texts. If you don't have a mala you can count on your fingers, and if you don't have images, you can work on visualization with special vigor. All things considered, I think the best book for prisoners is Dzongsar Khyentse's What Makes You Not A Buddhist. As to which practice might be best, that is an individual matter, and I would not care to speculate.

Every door that closes behind you will one day open before you. Either you will walk out or they will carry you out. 

Sure enough, one day the door opened, and I walked out.

So, that is what it was like...

...sort of.


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